Roger Ebert’s Political History and Civics Quiz

This quiz seems a bit petty, but it is mostly interesting. Of course, if one were to use this as part of an argument for liberal intellectual prowess, it fails. Why would it matter for voters to remember how many presidents and first ladies graduated from Harvard? Does graduating from Harvard mean they are intellectually superior to the rest of us and thus must be obeyed? What about Yale graduates? I remember John Kerry being praised for mental acumen, but his grades were not as good as George W. Bush’s at during the Yale years, and Bush went on to Harvard Business School for an MBA.

Beyond that, Ebert ask a few questions that are debatable. His suggestion that we can just search for the answers is unhelpful at best. “Is ‘Obamacare’ allowed by the U. S. Constitution?” My search results lead to this: “A mandate requiring all individuals to purchase health insurance would be an unprecedented form of federal action. The government has never required people to buy any good or service as a condition of lawful residence in the United States.”

I don’t think that’s the answer Ebert’s looking for, but what do I know? He thinks it matters that I remember Vice President Agnew. (Cross-posted on Newsvine; hat tip: Big Hollywood)

Piles of snow, and pyramids of words

Focused Businessman

Last night my neighbor blew the snow out of the driveway, for which I was grateful. Tonight I did it again, because it had to be done again. Consumer report: Tonight’s snow was about the consistency of flour, and pleasantly loose to blow (no jams), although it tended to come back at you when you blew it into the wind.

(On tonight’s menu, sweet rolls baked from Snowblower Flour, with Snowblower Jam filling.)

Today is apparently National Link to Roy Jacobsen Day.
I was amused by the picture Roy posted here, giving a graphic example of what editing is all about. Also what news writing is all about, by the way.

Long ago, the journalism industry settled on an “upside down pyramid” form for news stories, and they use it to this day, because it works extremely well.

The formula is to put the most essential information, and only that, in the first paragraph. The heaviest stuff. The base of the upside-down pyramid. “Who, what, when, where and why?” You may very the order, but Paragraph One will contain all those things.

The next paragraph will include important further information that deepens the reader’s knowledge. (Like “how.”)

The next paragraph will include slightly less important information.

Each paragraph will be less important than the one before.

This accomplishes three things.

1.It starts the story with a bang.

2.It permits the reader who only has time to skim, to get the gist of the story at the top.

3.It permits the mighty editor (and this is far from the least of the reporter’s concerns) to trim the article from the bottom. If he needs to cut two paragraphs, he knows that cutting the last two will remove the two least important parts of the story.

I’m not a journalist, so I feel free to share these trade secrets with the general public.

Now you, too, can start a news blog.

The Fear of Writing Well

Roy Jacobsen has a post on bad writing, quoting Stephen King who said fear is the root of most of it. (via Nerol Notae) I don’t know how much bad writing fear has caused for me, but I know it works me daily to produce no writing. Even now, I don’t know what to say next, which is the reason I link to other posts far more often than work up my own. What do I have to say that’s worth reading?

Now for the bad writing I’ve edited, fear may be the main reason behind it, but I have thought the reasons are lack of skill or time. I worked with one man who wrote frequently, but his style was difficult to read. He strung together several propositions without building an argument for any of them. A couple times, I suggested that the focus on one or two points for the article and illustrate them, but that idea never made into the writing. If he tried to do it, I don’t know. I told a friend that I thought he was writing at the best of his ability and that in order to write better he would have to spend much more time at it.

Perhaps fear was the root of his propositional writing. I don’t see it clearly enough to label it.

Weekend wrap-up

I had two memorable experiences over the weekend.

First of all, I went to a funeral. It was the funeral of a man I’m not sure I ever actually met, but his son was an old friend. The son asked me to read the scripture lesson for the service, and I was happy to do it. In all honesty, if I hadn’t had that request I probably wouldn’t have gone at all, because I have a hard time believing anybody really wants me anywhere, unless they state precisely what particular job they’re looking for me to do. Jobs I understand. The concept that anyone would just want me around to talk to fails the test of willing suspension of disbelief.

It went well, and I saw some old friends.

On Sunday morning, after I’d come home from early church, I logged on to Facebook. I then got a chat message from a friend who’s doing missionary work in Alaska. It seemed awfully early for him to be up.

The first warning bell went off when he told me he’d been mugged while vacationing in London. Vacations in London aren’t the sort of thing this fellow takes a lot of.

So while he was explaining how he’d been robbed at gunpoint, and hit over the head (huh?), and robbed of cash, credit cards and cell phone, I checked his personal page. There another friend had posted a warning in all caps, saying that he’d gotten a similar chat message, and it was a scam.

I then asked my interlocutor a question only somebody who’d worked together with us at our church body headquarters would know. And he disappeared completely.

I’ve said it before—I hate con men. In the great balance of things, I’d prefer the kind of armed robber who didn’t hold up my friend in London, over a con man. Because con men destroy trust. They turn society into a collection of strangers. They make human beings more frightened of one another, and less likely to give help where it’s really needed. They are scum.

Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

It would be pointless and overweening for me to “review” Sense and Sensibility, a book many of you probably read long ago, and one which has been well appreciated by far more discerning readers than me. So let’s just call this a reader’s report.

I read Pride and Prejudice quite a few years back, and promised myself I’d return to Jane Austen again. The delay of more than a decade is probably best explained by the fact that Austen is a fair amount of work. To take one example of words that have changed in meaning since the early 1800s, in Austen the word “address” means the way you present yourself when conversing with other people. The notation on the outside of a letter, telling the postman where to deliver it, is called the “direction.” I have a pretty good vocabulary and can work my way through, but I’ll admit I had to go over a few of the sentences more than once, not only because of word choice, but because the diction could get pretty convoluted.

But the book rewarded the work. There were a number of very funny lines, delivered in a charming dry manner, scattered among the verbiage. I’d share one or two, but I returned the book to the library this afternoon when I’d finished it.

What particularly delighted me in Sense and Sensibility was the sweet reason of the whole thing. In utter contradiction to what a guy expects in a love story written by a woman, the most sympathetic character is the most circumspect one; a woman whose feelings are so well concealed that I wasn’t sure until the end which male character to root for her to marry. The author, apparently, approves of this. Marriages should be well thought out, and entered into with a due consideration of prudential matters like social class, education, good taste and income. And love, of course, but don’t get carried away.

I totally approve.

Gorgeous Life, Hope in Cyndere’s Midnight

Cyndere's Midnight by Jeffrey OverstreetIf a reader wonders why the second in the Auralia’s Colors series is titled “Cyndere’s Midnight,” Overstreet wastes no time answering him. Heiress to the Bel Amican throne, Cyndere, is grieving the loss of her father and brother, thinking she would not throw herself into the sea that day, when she hears of the death of her husband, Deuneroi. In time, she goes to an outpost named Tilianpurth to mourn, but many around her don’t know how to help, and being royalty, she will not take difficult counsel easily.

Elsewhere, a band of four beastmen roam the wilderness, killing children and traders. The beastmen are monsters, men mixed with many other animal forms. They were cursed long ago by wicked strangers with unknown motives. One them, Jordam, has stumbled onto a supernatural, dragon-like monster called The Keeper, and in a way it has shocked him into new life. Jordam was physically and emotionally broken when he ran from The Keeper. Those wounds and Auralia’s artwork began to heal him.

The hope of redemption is a major theme in this adventure. Cyndere and Deuneroi hope to overcome the curse of the beastmen. The ale boy has earned the name Rescue by the people he has given his life to save. Auralia, though only a background character in this story, continues her influence on many people with her infectious love of life and endurance of her artwork.

But it isn’t as if Auralia is the one light of goodness in a dark world. Overstreet’s fantastic setting teems with life as if created by a wild and loving god. Colors found everywhere and the pure water of the deep well depicted on the cover give an enchanted life to those who absorb them. It’s part of the magical fiber threaded throughout. It’s one of many things I love about this series, which I believe deserves a place on your bookself.

New, improved Jesus!

Thursday on the Michael Medved radio show is Disagreement Day. On Thursdays, he sets an hour aside specifically for people to tell him he’s wrong about homosexuality, tax policy, and George Bush’s culpability in blowing up the World Trade Center.

Today, he had a call from a young man who wanted to disagree with him on the legalization of drugs. This caller said he smoked pot every day, and it wasn’t doing him any harm. He mentioned, as an aside, that he was a “born-again Christian.” Medved, who is Jewish but who knows quite a lot about our beliefs, questioned him more closely on that point. It turned out that he did not go to church at all, and had recently moved into his first house “with my girlfriend.”

I suppose there’s an element of Pharisaism in my response to that call. Certainly I fail to live up to the standards of Christianity in many areas of my life, not least in my cowardly flight from almost all personal interaction with other humans. But I think I can claim (at a minimum) that I know I’m doing wrong, and that I acknowledge that I ought to do better. I’ve been given grace to feel some guilt. I’m afraid that Michael Medved’s young caller is representative of many people who claim Christian faith in our country today. He didn’t seem to be aware that a Christian is called to live in any way that’s at all different from his neighbors.

I don’t know for a fact that this is true of the caller, but I think a lot of people claim Christianity purely as a nostrum for their own spiritual aches and pains. “Try Jesus! Now in Extra Strength! He’ll have you feeling better in no time!”

In point of fact, genuine Christianity often makes a person much less comfortable in life. We have been promised persecutions and tribulations, and to be reviled for Jesus’ sake. The joys and consolations of Christian faith have absolutely no necessary connection with comfort.

Lutherans like me have a complicated relationship with the book of James, where it says, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) We don’t interpret that to mean that faith and works are equal partners in the operation of grace. We reject absolutely the idea that any effort of our own can contribute to our salvation.

But, as we read it, works are the sign and byproduct of grace. You can tell a genuine faith from a false faith by looking at its fruits. If someone is living no differently than he did before his “conversion,” it’s probably not a genuine one. Someone has paraphrased Luther as saying, “We are not saved by faith and works, but by faith that works.”

Just dropping by

Not much from me tonight (fortunately, Phil’s served up plenty–and good stuff, too. Well done, Phil!). I got a surprise invitation from a friend to go out to dinner tonight, and afterward he needed me to help him figure out this crazy Facebook thing. So I found myself in the unaccustomed position of cybergeek. In a relative sense, of course, like the one-eyed man in the land of the three-eyed women, or something. (COMING SOON: From Roger Corman–Island of the Three-Eyed Women!)

Somebody at Threedonia, in a comment thread today, mentioned that the skull of Hitler, which the Russians produced to great fanfare a few years back, has now been determined to be a woman’s skull. This led me to speculate that maybe the Soviets took Hitler alive, and tortured him for a while before he died.

One can only hope.

It led me to imagine a short story, where Hitler ends up sharing a gulag cell with Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish philanthropist. It would be an interesting study in contrasting attitudes toward tragedy and despair.

But I won’t write it. Not only would it call for an author with the wisdom of the writer of Job, but I generally avoid writing about Nazis. The subject has the odd distinction of being both done to death and an insuperable challenge, all at once.

Bill Watterson Resurfaces

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has an interview the cartoonist and comic genius Bill Watterson, the first interview since 1989. He says:

“Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist — how I miss the groupies, drugs and trashed hotel rooms! . . .

An artwork can stay frozen in time, but I stumble through the years like everyone else. I think the deeper fans understand that, and are willing to give me some room to go on with my life.”

Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

Raven's Ladder by Jeffrey OverstreetFilm critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet has written three fantasy novels in the last few years, two of which I’ve read. They are fantastic (perhaps that goes without saying). He writes this series, Auralia’s Colors, not to depict any historic people or setting, but “to capture the questions that keep me up at night.” The third one, Raven’s Ladder, is shown on the left and is being released this month.

I have found that wonderfully hopeful, powerfully redemptive, and gorgeous. His new world has an appealing natural magic which is hard to describe, like the difficulty Tolkien’s elves in Lothlórien describing their handiwork to the hobbits. It wasn’t magic to them, but the hobbits it was.

I asked Jeffrey some questions about writing and publishing these books.

1. You’ve been a critical writer for many years now.  Do you think you’ve always had the writing spirit/muse/curse?

I’m hard-wired to tell stories. When I was five years old, I already felt compelled to make books. I’d take fairy-tale storybooks and painstakingly copy the text onto piles of scrap paper. Then I’d illustrate those pages with crayon or watercolors.

Soon after I read The Hobbit – around age seven – I stopped copying stories and started writing my own. And sure, those first stories sounded a lot like The Hobbit. But they became more unusual and distinct as the years went on. My first “series” was a four-story epic set in a world that resembles Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. In fact, when I saw that movie decades later, I laughed at the incredible similarities. (Where Pixar had nasty grasshoppers, I had wicked wasps.) Continue reading Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

How to bamboozle your viewers

Had to blow snow out of the driveway again tonight. My neighbor, who also has a blower and used to do it himself, tells me his is out of commission right now.

I think I made a good investment.

One of our readers sent me a link to the trailer for an animated movie called How to Train Your Dragon, scheduled to come out next month. He asked me what I thought of it. I’m glad he did, because I’d seen it before, and meant to do a rant, but somehow it slipped my mind.

First, the obvious things. It’s supposed to be a movie about Vikings, and they wear horned helmets. If you’ve been reading this blog for any time at all, you surely know that the Vikings didn’t do that. The horned helmets come from Wagnerian opera.

But I can forgive that. It’s a cartoon.

The main character’s name is Hiccup. I’ve been trying to figure that out. Is that supposed to be a play on words? If so, what word? I don’t know of any Viking name that sounds at all like Hiccup.

But here’s my real objection. The movie’s apparently about a kid who discovers that dragons are JUST MISUNDERSTOOD! NOTHING WE KNOW ABOUT THEM IS TRUE!

This is classic contemporary Hollywood. “Let’s do something transgressive! Overturn a long-standing cultural prejudice! Prove that it’s we who are the monsters, not the mythical creatures!”

First of all, this isn’t creative. The sympathetic dragon has been done. And done, and done. It was a fresh idea back when Kenneth Grahame wrote The Reluctant Dragon, but that was in freaking 1898, for pete’s sake.

I haven’t kept count of the sympathetic treatments of dragons I’ve seen in my lifetime, but it’s been enough to make me tired of them.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to write a good sympathetic dragon story. Grahame’s story, as I recall it, is quite good. But it worked because of the surprise element. Nowadays, sympathetic dragons in movies are as surprising as child-molesting priests, hypocritical Christian fundamentalists, and Government Conspiracies at the Highest Level.

Listen—dragons don’t exist in the real world. They’re what scholars call “fabulous creatures”–creatures of fable. They have symbolic meaning, and that meaning is Powerful Evil (Chinese dragons mean something else, but we’re not in China).

Dragons are powerful. They fly; they have big fangs and claws, and they breathe fire. They’re protected by natural armor.

They’re evil.
They eat livestock and human beings, and sometimes they demand human sacrifices as extortion payments. Theologically, they represent the devil—the serpent of Eden after millennia of good meals and regular exercise.

Modern movie makers (and many modern writers) don’t like this. They believe that people who say, “Dragons are evil,” are only really saying “I fear dragons because I don’t understand them.” For them, hatred of dragons is a symbol of all the bigotry they think they see in our society.

That might be true if there weren’t actually things in the world that deserve hatred. There are things that are not only frightening, but worth being frightened of. When a human being faces such an evil, an evil that can kill him, he is, metaphorically, facing a dragon. And traditional dragon stories help him find courage in that useful activity.

So the real issue is whether you think evil exists. This appears to be a movie for people who think it doesn’t.

I’m fairly sure that the people who produced this movie don’t live in Iran. Or North Korea. Or Somalia.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture