Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

One aspect of being a strange person is having strange experiences. Experiences that are strange merely because it’s you involved.

A strange sort of coincidence happened to me yesterday evening. Only weird because I’m weird.

I’m a man of routine. Part of my regular agenda is to go to the gym on Wednesday evenings, and then have Sweet & Sour Chicken at Lee Ann Chin’s (a local Chinese chain) afterward. This I did last night.

I was sitting at a table, eating and reading a book on my Kindle. The table was at the back wall, and I was sitting on a long bench that stretches along that wall and serves three different tables. At the time I was the only one using any of those tables.

I was reading another Logan McRae novel – that series whose quality I admire, but which I just don’t like much. But I bought this book by accident, and I wasn’t about to dump it. Continue reading Social awkwardness in a Chinese restaurant

A Literary History of Sci-Fi

Jules Verne speaking of H.G. Wells: “I go to the moon in a cannonball discharged from a cannon. Here there is no invention. He goes to Mars [sic] in an airship which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli…. But show me this metal. Let him produce it.”

“In this put-down of one of the ‘Fathers of Science Fiction’ by another,” writes Alexi Sargeant, “we see the future of the field.”

Long before anyone coined the terms “hard sci-fi” and “soft sci-fi” or used them as badges of pride or disparaging slurs, long before the “holy war” between old school pulp and the ’60s era New Wave, we have this demand from the cranky old school to the squishy new school: “Show me this metal.” Wells, whose social activism permeated his fiction, would no doubt claim that Verne was rather missing the point. But what becomes clear from a survey of science fiction’s history is that, if there’s one thing these authors love more than cosmic wonder and terror, it’s petty fights about what constitutes “real” science fiction.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw,’ by Ian Crockatt

Crimsoning the Eagle's Claw

Complicated stuff, but interesting for Viking buffs. I bought Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw: The Viking Poems of Ragnvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney, by Ian Crockatt, on the recommendation of Grim over at the Grim’s Hall blog. He reviewed it here, and makes some insightful comments (he understands the subject, frankly, better than I do):

Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.

Kali Kolsson (ca. 1103-1158) adopted the first name Ragnvald in honor of a famous predecessor as earl (jarl) of Orkney. Technically he wasn’t a Viking, having been born after 1066, but it’s hard to deny him the title. He went on a great raid, fighting in Spain and off North Africa (and then doing a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and proceeding to Constantinople). And he was a master of the old Norse poetic form; if his poems aren’t Viking poetry, I don’t know what they are.

Ian Crockatt succeeds in producing vigorous poems in the spirit of the originals. Some of his word choices seem strange to me – especially substituting “Eve” for the names of Norse goddesses. But in a project like this you’re going to end up making a lot of subjective choices. I can’t fault him. Oddly, in discussing previous translations, he does not mention Lee Hollander’s efforts along the same lines, which seems to me a strange omission.

Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw is fascinating reading for anyone interested in its esoteric subject. And it’s not long.

Post-Moorhead 2018

Viking Festival Camp 2018
My side of the camp. There was a lot more to it.

I got things a bit out of order yesterday. First day after a Viking expedition, I’m supposed to tell you about that. Book reviews after. But I forgot. How soon I forget. Anyway, fear not. I shall now satisfy your burning curiosity about the Midwest Viking Festival 2018, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minnesota.

This was the first long trip I’ve taken with the new Viking tent strapped to the top of Miss Ingebretsen, my semi-faithful PT Cruiser. I’m happy to report that it traveled well. I’ve developed a philosophy of tie-down straps, and they stayed tight. OK, I had to tighten them a little on the way, but that was because of a miscalculation I made with my anchoring; I learned a lesson from it to guide me in future.

So I got there (this was Thursday), and a couple fellows helped me put my tent up (it’s not something you can do alone). Then I went and checked into the motel. I will not name the place, because I can’t really speak well of it. After I’d gotten settled, I noticed a smear of black grease on my hand. Eventually I figured out it came from a spot on the room door – an area around the latch. In time I worked up the nerve to complain at the desk. The manager told me he could change me to another room, or give me a cloth to clean it up. He didn’t have any staff on at that hour. So I took a cloth and a bottle of degreaser from him, and cleaned the door. Later I found a similar slick on the bathroom door, but by then I was defeated. I just avoided touching that area.

The festival itself was great. The weather was warm, but it could have been worse, and possible rain on Saturday (the second day) did not arrive. We had about 80 reenactors there, demonstrating crafts from cooking to woodcarving to blacksmithing. Plus a group called Telge Glima from Sweden, who do an amusing Viking games show, and the regular cast of fighters (I did not participate in that). Continue reading Post-Moorhead 2018

Min Jin Lee: Writing as Vocation, Not Career

Min Jin Lee, a New Yorker who came to America from South Korea at age 7, has written a couple strong novels and many columns and essays. She spoke with World Magazine’s Marvin Olasky about growing up, overworking herself as a lawyer, being a mother, and writing. She said she thinks “of God as a writer and a publisher,” because of the importance of His Word.

Writing is really hard. Fiction students or earnest fiction writers come to my readings and go, “What do I do? How do I get published?” I say, “Forget that it’s a career. It’s a vocation. It’s really, really difficult. Earn a living somewhere else.” I know very successful writers, and they don’t make money from selling their books. You do it because you love it, but don’t do it because you think it will deliver something in your life. Your book is not redemption. It will not redeem all the pain and suffering in your life. It’s something you feel called to write. If you don’t feel called to write that story, don’t write it. Do something else. Take up golf.

‘In the Cold Dark Ground,’ by Stuart MacBride

In the Cold Dark Ground

“Officer, I swear I didn’t mean to read another Logan McRae novel. I soured on Stuart MacBride’s black comedy cop series a while back. But I confused The Blood Road with part of another series of Scottish police procedurals (I must be following about ten), and I bought one. Then I noticed that I hadn’t read the previous book, so I bought that too. Then I realized I didn’t like the books. But I paid good money for them, so I went ahead and read them. I’m not proud of it.”

That’s my personal rationalization for reading In the Cold Dark Ground. Stuart MacBride is a very good author. He knows how to ramp up a story, and he can get off marvelous ironic lines, like, “When he smiled, it was like small children screaming.” But the darkness of the story and the ugliness of most of the characters wore me down. It’s probably an accurate picture of police work; it just leaves me feeling grim. And I started out grim enough.

Anyway, in this book Sergeant Logan McRae of Banff, Scotland, who’s been an inspector but didn’t like it, is faced with doctors’ recommendations that he turn off respiratory support for someone very dear to him. He also discovers that his mother has lied to him all his life about a pretty important matter. Meanwhile, a local businessman is found brutally murdered, and there is evidence of a secret life and deep debts to organized crime. Speaking of organized crime, a local crime lord is dying. He has taken, for some reason, a liking to Logan, and is threatening to leave him his money and whole organization. This would not look good to the Professional Standards department, but it looks even worse to one of that boss’s underlings, a psychopath who has personal plans for Logan involving slow carving and pig feed. Meanwhile that same Professional Standards department is pressuring Logan to find evidence against his superior, Inspector Steel, a blousy lesbian with a remarkably unpleasant personality, but a friend nonetheless.

So Logan has quite a lot on his plate. Things will get very tense before he finds a way out.

In the Cold Dark Ground is compelling, fast-paced, and well-written. I just don’t enjoy the overall experience of entering that world. Your mileage may vary. Cautions for very crude humor.

And I’ve got one more to read.

Amis: Poetry Stops the Clock

LARB: The authors you write about in your book are mostly novelists. Do you read much poetry, contemporary or otherwise?

Martin Amis: “Yeah, I do. It’s much harder to read poetry when you’re living in a city, in the accelerated atmosphere of history moving at a new rate. Which we all experience up to a point. What poetry does is stop the clock, and examine certain epiphanies, certain revelations — and life might be moving too swiftly for that.

“But I still do read, not so much contemporaries, as the canon. I was reading Milton yesterday, and last week Shakespeare — it’s the basic greats that I read.”

From “The Age of Acceleration: An Interview with Martin Amis” by Scott Timberg for the LA Review of Books

American Poet Donald Hall, 89, Has Died

Poet Donald Hall, 89, has passed away. David Kirby has this in the New York Times obit:

“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Mr. Hall himself was given the post.  . . . He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Mr. Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”

Back in 2001, Hall called for a death to the death of poetry. Here’s how that essay begins.

Some days, when you read the newspaper, it seems clear that the United States is a country devoted to poetry. You can delude yourself reading the sports pages. After finding two references to “poetry in motion,” apropos of figure skating and the Kentucky Derby, you read that a shortstop is the poet of his position and that sailboats raced under blue skies that were sheer poetry. On the funny pages, Zippy praises Zerbina’s outfit: “You’re a poem in polyester.” A funeral director, in an advertisement, muses on the necessity for poetry in our daily lives. It’s hard to figure out just what he’s talking about, but it becomes clear that this poetry has nothing to do with poems. It sounds more like taking naps.

Poetry, then, appears to be:

  1. a vacuous synonym for excellence or unconsciousness. What else is common to the public perception of poetry?

  2. It is universally agreed that no one reads it.

Found in Anthologies

John Wilson writes about a couple story anthologies rescued from a library trash heap:  Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing (1959), edited by Herbert Gold; and Stories from the Sixties (1971), edited by Stanley Elkin. He points out some differences and quotes from their introductory essays, but one thing unites them. “Both of these volumes are haunted by an absence. They are, with a few exceptions, radically secular.” But Wilson recommends one stand out story, which I see is the title of an anthology of its own.

What’s a Movie Critic to Do?

The stars of the new heist release Ocean’s 8 (are the estates of Frank, Dean, and the boys still making money on this?) aren’t wild about critical reaction to their film.

Cate Blanchett said, “A studio can support a film and it’s the invisible faces on the internet, and often male reviewers, who can view it through a prism of misunderstanding.” I gather that means they don’t like it because they don’t get it because they’re men. Sandra Bullock followed up, “It would be nice if reviewers reflected who the film is for, like children should review children’s films, not a 60-year-old man. I guess his opinion would be kind of skewed.”

And if children were the driving forces behind children’s movies, it wouldn’t be long before all we’d have is Axe Cop. May I remind our studio audience that Milne first wrote Winnie the Pooh when he was 44 years old?

But the stars are talking about critics, not producers or directors, on which point Alissa Wilkinson replies to say critics aren’t being paid to support films. They are paid to write essays (sometimes works of art in themselves) about the movies they watch. With many reviews of one movie, you’ll want a diversity of perspectives, because that makes for better reading and understanding in general.

In short, a good critic develops a large capacity for imagination. They can’t know what it would be like to see the movie as someone other than themselves. But the good critic tries very hard to put themselves in those shoes anyhow, especially when they detect that the movies’ target audience will be someone other than themselves.

That’s very different than saying a movie wasn’t meant for you, so we don’t want your professional review possibly prevent our target audience from watching what we made. As Wilkinson points out, most studios want to attract a wide audience in order to make money on a single film. Discounting someone’s opinion because he’s not the right type of person doesn’t help.

Go Read, Young Man

Barnabas Piper recommends reading stories more than guidebooks, saying, “If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it.” He offers six reasons for this, one of them is on expressing emotions.

Men are often (not always) inhibited in our expressions of emotion. We can struggle to know when and how to give voice to our passions, both positive and negative. Stories give both example and lessons in how to do this. They show the benefit to being open and the harm that comes from locking feelings and passions away. But they do so in a palatable way by showing it in the lives of others.

Many of us define productivity in a way that rules out stories. We think reviewing a line of argument or series of purported facts accomplishes more than simply entertaining ourselves with a story, but as Piper says, we change, we influence ourselves, by the environment in which we live. Stories are part of that environment just as dinners with friends, serving our community, and riding horses may be.

If life is about learning, what do we learn from our environment? Who loves us and how do we know? Is it because they’ve said so or because we’ve understood their love from being around them, their actions, tones, and expressions? We know all manner of things without direct expression, not necessarily in the absence of such expression but more through living in the light of them. The Lord tells us repeatedly of his faithfulness, but how do we really know he is faithful? It’s when we see it in our lives–in our own story.

Reading fiction and non-fiction stories from others helps us understand ourselves and how other people think. If we ever ask, “How could anyone think that way?” stories will help answer that question. I remember a friend saying he thought a character in Lewis’s Great Divorce was unrealistic because he’d never known someone like him. The man didn’t want to know the truth; he only wanted to talk about issues and offer his opinion. Settling on an established truth meant the conversation and his contribution to it would be over. My friend thought this was ridiculous until he met someone who actually thought this way. His understanding of human nature was stretched before he knew it was possible.

But life isn’t about learning, is it? That’s only a part of it. Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, though it would be better to write a story about it.

‘The Excoms,’ by Brett Battles

The Excoms

I’ve grown fond of Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn novels, but I resisted trying his spin-off series, which begins with The Excoms. I noticed in the descriptions that it involves a special operations team made up mostly of women, and I feared it would be a “you go, girl” fest.

Sadly, I was right.

“Excoms” is short for “Excommunicated.” The members of the team are experts in various covert activities (legal and illegal) such as assassination, hacking, and driving. Each of them has suffered some bad luck, and is now in danger of death or imprisonment. A mysterious group called The Committee rescues each of them, brings them together, and offers them well-paying work doing what they do best for good causes.

Their first job is the rescue of a group of children from a gang of kidnappers. The story is tightly plotted, the action and dialogue are crisp, and the story is compelling.

I just didn’t like the basic concept.

I don’t know if author Battles is doing penance for some misogynist transgression, but he has produced a very stereotyped story – stereotyped in the contemporary manner. There are five members on the team – three women and two men. Each of the women is smart, competent, deadly, and efficient. Of the men, one is a good driver, but shows no particular flair. The other is a narcissistic womanizer who can’t follow instructions and messes up repeatedly.

This “girls rule; boys drool” approach annoyed me a lot. So although the book was well-crafted, I won’t be following the series. I’ll probably continue with the Jonathan Quinn books, though.

Cautions for mature stuff, but not too bad. It might be noted that there’s a possible homage to Chesterton here, as the members of The Committee are designated, not by name, but by a day of the week.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture