2006 Review: Big Money for Plagiarism

In case you don’t see this in the lists of last year’s news, here’s a reminder of the good ol’ days.

Some writers spend decades trying to break into the biz, and even then, they often can’t make ends meet. For legitimate writers, an unproven teenager landing a $500,000 deal to write two books adds insult to the obvious injury of plagiarism.

This comes from industry news that young writer Kaavya Viswanathan received a $500,000 two-book deal from Little, Brown. Still just as heart-warming now as it was then. The writer asks, “Given how the Internet and digital content have highlighted the limitations of old-school media, stories like this one suggest that the publishing industry should take a long, hard look at where it’s directing its financial resources, and why.”

Maybe we should let illegal immigrants do the work in publishing houses that otherwise decent citizens don’t want to do–fact-checking, editing, maybe marketing.

A Feast For Crows, by George R. R. Martin

One line review of A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin: “I give up.”

I say that with great regret. In my view there’s only one contemporary fantasy author who bears comparison with J.R.R. Tolkien in any meaningful way, and that’s Martin. No other author in the field today comes close to him in combining fully realized worldbuilding with skillful prose and insightful character development. There’s no other contender in that weight category.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is loosely based on (or perhaps “suggested by” would be a better combination) the English Wars of the Roses. But Martin’s wars are bigger affairs. Britain has become Westeros, a full-fledged continent, home to a dozen kingdoms, as culturally diverse as the European Scandinavia-to-the-Mediterranean range. All are under the overlordship of the Iron Throne, but the death of the king in the first volume set off a rash of dynastic wars. The wars are big. The passions are big. The treachery would put the Borgias to shame. The crimes are appalling, the heroism…

Well, no. There isn’t any real heroism in these books, which is a major part of my problem with them. People who aspire to chivalry in these books generally get cut off pretty promptly, and those who survive mostly do so by lies, murder and betrayal. The only fighters Martin seems to admire much are the female ones, of which I counted about four (it’s hard to remember) in this book.

“It’s hard to remember” is something you’ll hear a lot from Martin’s readers. His method is not to put a few sympathetic characters on stage and follow them over time and geography, in Tolkien’s manner. Martin sets out dozens of characters (all of them admirably fleshed out) in hundreds of locations, and leaves it to the reader to keep them straight (with the help of character indexes in back, without which reading these books would be impossible for anyone not blessed with a photographic memory).

And that’s only the half of it. Martin explains in a note at the end of this volume that he’s left out half the characters and action in this section of the plot, and that he’ll provide those in the next volume. Just be patient. And keep your notes at hand.

And that’s the other part of my problem with Martin. He seems to have allowed his grand scheme to run away with him. His desire to populate his books with a cast of thousands is admirable in its way, but it’s taxing for the reader. I could probably hang on to the end (whenever that comes—Martin is coy on the projected length of the series) if I thought the payoff would be one I’d appreciate.

But Martin doesn’t appear to be preparing us for any Tolkienesque “eucatastrophe.” His message, judging from what we’ve seen so far, would seem to be the old, tired (and false) one that goes, “War never solves anything.” To drive that message home, he employs the device of regularly killing off characters we’ve started to root for, and in the most unpleasant ways he can think of.

So sorry, George. I’m not going to invest the effort you demand of me just so I can watch you kill off the rest of your viewpoint characters and hear you sing, “Give peace a chance.”

It’s been a good effort. But I have other things to do with my life.

The old widow in the smoky house

A relative recently sent me a copy of some pages from an old “kalender,” (actually more like what we’d call an annual) published in 1932 by Augsburg Publishing House in Minneapolis. These pages contained an essay by a pastor (identified only by the initials “Th. F.”), concerning his memories of a particular aged widow he’d known when he was a young schoolteacher in Norway. The article was of interest to me because this widow was one of my ancestors. Her name was Sophie, which was also the name of my grandmother, a descendent of hers—also in her own turn a godly widow.

The essay is called “Den gamle enke i røkstuen,” which means, “The old widow in the smoky house.” A røkstue was a kind of cottage once very common among the poorer classes in Norway. It was a single-roomed house with a plastered fireplace in one corner for heating and cooking. Such fireplaces had no chimneys. The smoke filled the room, then escaped through a hole in the roof. They were sooty and unpleasant places, and Sophie’s living in one was evidence of her poverty.

The author remembered Sophie as a simple, quiet, loving soul who devoted her life to prayer. One time she went down to the river to wash some clothes, and felt compelled to spend some time with God. Because she didn’t like to “pray to be seen of men,” she went further along the river to a quiet spot where she wouldn’t be seen. But just as she knelt down, a stone rolled over on her foot and crushed it, pinning her. She had to call for help to get free, and she was crippled for the rest of her life. She often wondered, the pastor recalled, why God would allow such a thing to happen while she was “approaching the throne of grace,” but she finally decided it was for God to understand and for her to accept.

The pastor felt he knew why. He believed that if the accident hadn’t happened, no one would have known about her secret prayers. He felt the sight of her limping (like Jacob’s limp in Genesis) was a constant testimony to God’s presence in her life.

Such thinking seems insane (not to mention heartless) to us today. But I wonder if it’s possible that we, with our love of ease and comfort, have simply grown unable to understand things that were clear to earlier, tougher generations who took daily suffering for granted.

Or maybe not. I’m not drawing conclusions here. I’m just wondering.

I’ll translate a little from a passage near the end:

And she was not one of those who, while listening to God’s Word, sit and (in their thoughts) share the message generously with others; she applied it to herself, and so brought rich blessings home with her. One time, when the pastor at the altar said, “Let us all pray,” she began to think that obviously not everyone there in church was praying along. How could so-and-so pray, being such-and-such, etc.? And just as she sat and thought that way about others, she realized that she, precisely because of such thoughts about others, was herself neglecting to follow along with the prayer. “I was both grieved and ashamed that the devil should deceive me so,” she said. But after that she was always vigilant in guarding against that temptation….”

We think of our forebears as unenlightened compared with our educated selves. I suspect God doesn’t see it that way.

Bookstore Closings

After reading these articles on independent bookstores closing their doors, I’m wondering if small towns are not the best place for small box booksellers.

Via Books, Inq., New York City’s Coliseum Books is closing: Competition is killing independent U.S. bookstores. The owner says, “Chain-store sales and the Internet are far more practical. People will go to places closer to them. Places like Barnes & Noble.”

Can you blame anyone for doing that?

Also in New York City, the landlord raised the rent on Murder Ink, “the oldest mystery-themed bookstore in the world,” and has forced it out. The owner, Jay Pearsall, says, “I was a little outraged that a well-run bookstore couldn’t make it in the best book-buying neighborhood in the world, but there’s no business model that can work.”

I wonder what the blogosphere’s role in small business America is. Do we generally support or undermine high-service, select-quantity booksellers? I know of two new independent bookstores in my area, both downtown though in different towns. Are they fools waiting for a pit to fall into?

Book on Troubled Dog Unwelcome

[first posted on January 30, 2004] A book published in November 2001 has sold close to 400,000 copies. It’s made a few bestseller lists. One copy was placed in a West Salem, Wisconsin elementary school library and checked out by the grandson of a former school board member, according to the Coulee News. Now, the book may make the ALA’s misguided banned books list, because Walter the Farting Dog didn’t go over well with grandpa.

The story is as common as dirt. It’s about a dog who—well—needs digestive therapy. He’s adopted at the pound by two kids who discover the problem too late to save their family from air pollution. Enter family strife until burglars are warded off by Walter’s “condition,” and Dad decides to keep the dog after all. Sickeningly heart-warming, isn’t it?

“[The publisher] said the book’s depiction in words and colorful drawings of a dog farting didn’t strike him as being a problem. ‘I don’t think it’s obscene in any sense, not in today’s world.” In fact, it’s vulgar enough to generate interest. Walter is the second best seller this publisher has ever had.

Perhaps the worst part of this article is the publisher’s statement, “It’s a work of art. And many works of art are of questionable social value.” I’ll grant that the illustrator has skill and that her work on this book has merit; but the book as a whole is ‘art’? Sit down, Mr. Publisher. Let’s not abuse our terms. You’ve got a vulgar novelty book which you’re marketing as a children’s book. Let’s leave it there. In my opinion, vulgarity counteracts art; the more of the one, the less of the other. The more vulgar, the more likely you will drag the artistic merit into the gutter, making it worthless. The more artistic, the more you must focus on praiseworthy things, leaving vulgarity beneath you.

Achievable New Year’s resolutions

As is my custom, once again I fearlessly publish my annual list of achievable New Year’s resolutions. I resolve…

…to keep my weight, whatever the cost to me, above 100 lbs.

…to refuse all offers to appear on “The View.”

…not to vacation in Burundi.

…to purchase no car that costs more than $200,000.

…not to take up Tai Chi, Feng Shui, or Kung Fu.

…not to shave my head.

…not to eat sushi.

…not to run for elective office.

…not to summon the Powers of Darkness to rain down death upon my foes.

…not to have any body part pierced.

…not to try designer drugs (only off-the-rack drugs for me).

…not to buy an iguana.

…not to paint my house purple.

…not to carve a monumental sculpture of Oscar Homolka out of Colby Jack Cheese.

…when drawn, never to look haggard. (One or the other. Not both.)

…not to bear, ‘mid snow and ice, a banner with the strange device, “Excelsior.”

…to go easy on beating the servants.

Thoughts, or a reasonable equivalent

Wouldn’t it have been great if the international attention now focused on Saddam Hussein’s fate had been directed to his victims in time to save some of them?

I like

Weary of Wandering from My God

Weary of wandering from my God,

And now made willing to return

I hear and bow me to the rod

For thee, not without hope, I mourn:

I have an Advocate above

A Friend before the throne of love.

O Jesus, full of truth and grace

More full of grace than I of sin

Yet once again I seek Thy face:

Open Thine arms and take me in

And freely my backslidings heal

And love the faithless sinner still.

Thou know’st the way to bring me back

My fallen spirit to restore

O for Thy truth and mercy’s sake,

Forgive, and bid me sin no more:

The ruins of my soul repair

And make my heart a house of prayer.

Give to mine eyes refreshing tears,

And kindle my relentings now;

Fill my whole soul with filial fears,

To Thy sweet yoke my spirit bow;

Bend by Thy grace, O bend or break,

The iron sinew in my neck!

a hymn by Charles Wesley

In which I insult my second-favorite country

Today I went to work, and I worked. Not a single interesting thought sullied the virgin veneer of my mind.

So I’ll pass on this link, (hat tip to Archaeology in Europe) which won’t interest most of you. It’s about a plan to move the famous Viking ships in Oslo, Norway from their present home to a new one, closer to the center of Oslo.

The present location is a little out of the way. It’s on a peninsula called Bygdøy, across the harbor from the downtown. For generations, tourists have been taking ferryboats to Bygdøy to see the Ships Museum, along with its neighbor, the Folk Museum, where you can see buildings (including one of the country’s most impressive stave churches) which have been relocated from the various districts, reconstructed and preserved.

At first I was surprised to read about it. The current building is probably a little small for the size of modern crowds, but it enjoys an almost religious reverence among Norwegians. It even looks a little like a cathedral (the modern kind).

And frankly, I was surprised the Norwegians would want to spend money to bring their nationalistic heritage to the forefront in the current cultural climate. Aren’t all good Europeans supposed to believe that their heritage is evil, after all? Aren’t they taught that Asia and Africa are superior in every way?

Then I figured it out. The Viking ships are heathen artifacts. No taint of Christianity adheres to them. To affirm pre-Christian culture is almost as noble in European eyes as to affirm non-Christian culture.

Uff-da. I was worried there for a while.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

How was Christmas weekend in Iowa? No snow, but otherwise great. A special plus was the presence of the Oldest Niece’s boyfriend’s little daughter. I haven’t had small kids around for very many Christmases in my life, partly because of not having any of my own, and partly because I was living in the wrong part of the country when my nieces and nephews were growing up.

Anyone who was around during the Watergate era has feelings about the late President Gerald Ford. Even though I was a Democrat in those days, I always felt Pres. Ford got a raw deal. Particularly galling was the running joke, fueled by Chevy Chase and Saturday Night Live, labeling him as a stumblebum. The man was in fact one of the best natural athletes ever to occupy the Oval Office. I think some of my disdain for the mainstream media (both the entertainment and the journalism flavors) rises from that old injustice.

This was the Weekend of Autism for me. The Youngest Niece had rented the movie “Mozart and the Whale,” which is a straight-to-DVD film that deserved a better fate. It’s a comedy (really!) about a couple, played by Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell, who meet in a support group for sufferers from Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism). I found the movie pretty uncomfortable, because a lot of the behaviors I observed were ones I can see in myself (I’m not autistic or Asperger’s, but I test pretty high for autistic traits within the normal scale). Good movie, by the way (for grownups).

Then brother Moloch mentioned that he had a book called The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. So I read that too (Despite the discomfort I was fascinated).

The Curious Incident is an unusual and rewarding novel. The title (as most of our highly intelligent readers, I’m sure, already knew) comes from a bit of dialogue from the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” (“The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes).

The narrator of the novel is Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy (and mathematical genius) who lives in a small town in England. One morning he finds a neighbor’s dog killed, stabbed with a large grilling fork. Like most autistic people, Christopher likes animals better than people, and he cradles the dog in his arms. The neighbor woman finds him like that and accuses him of killing the animal. When the police come they try to calm Christopher by touching him, which he cannot tolerate. He hits one of them and is arrested.

His father finally gets him released, but Christopher (in spite of his father’s forbidding it) decides to play detective (he loves mysteries) and solve the killing.

As he tries to emulate the heroes in books, Christopher gives us a vivid tour through the world of the autistic. Talking to people is very difficult, because he doesn’t understand facial expressions or speech inflections. Strange situations panic him—he needs to be able to draw a map of a house before he can be comfortable in it. Loud noises terrify him so that he has to curl up on the ground and groan loudly to try to drown them out.

Yet he manages to travel all the way to London on his own, and solve the mystery.

That his activities cause tremendous pain to the people who love him is something that doesn’t register with him at all. Because feelings and empathy are not part of Christopher’s world.

And that was one of the things I found most interesting in the book. The narrative includes numerous asides in which Christopher explains complicated mathematical problems or meditates on how “stupid” it is to believe in God or the afterlife. Christopher’s mathematical expertise almost gives his atheist arguments credence, but then the reader (or at least this reader) remembers that Christopher has no conception whatever of love. Numbers and animals are more real to him than people are. And when, at the end of the book, Christopher is able to report total success in his investigation, he is completely unaware of the devastation he has wrought in his father’s and mother’s lives.

I could have read something more cheerful over Christmas, but this book was certainly educational and fascinating. Even if (in autistic fashion) I’m not entirely sure I got from it the meaning the author intended.

Field Mice A-Caroling

At last the Rat succeeded in decoying [the Mole] to the table, and had just got seriously to work with the sardine-opener when sounds were heard from the fore-court without – sounds like the scuffling of small feet in the gravel and a confused murmur of tiny voices, while broken sentences reached them – “Now, all in a line – hold the lantern up a bit, Tommy – clear your throats first – no coughing after I say one, two, three. – Where”s young Bill? – Here, come on, do, we”re all a-waiting – – ”

“What”s up?” inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

“I think it must be the field-mice,” replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. “They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They”re quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over – they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again.”

“Let”s have a look at them!” cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the fore-court, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little field-mice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying oat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Villagers all, this frosty tide,

Let your doors swing open wide,

Though wind may follow, and snow beside,

Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;

Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,

Blowing fingers and stamping feet,

Come from far away you to greet –

You by the fire and we in the street –

Bidding you joy in the morning!

For ere one half of the night was gone,

Sudden a star has led us on,

Raining bliss and benison –

Bliss to-morrow and more anon,

Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow –

Saw the star o”er a stable low;

Mary she might not further go –

Welcome thatch, and litter below!

Joy was hers in the morning!

And then they heard the angels tell

“Who were the first to cry Nowell?

Animals all, as it befell,

In the stable where they did dwell!

Joy shall be theirs in the morning!”

The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded – but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

“Very well sung, boys!” cried the Rat heartily. “And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!”

from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Charlie Brown Rebuffs the Naturalists

My soul is being tried by reading Thomas Paine. A couple of his points are good, but most of his argument against Christianity shows his ignorance of the Bible. He may not have read it through and is relying on his exposure to preaching and Christian associates. I don’t know that, but to follow Paine’s reasoning I could easily believe he has never read through the Bible even once (“for I keep no Bible,” he admits) because he appears to ascribe to the idea that possibility is evidence for reality. If it’s possible none of the Biblical books were written by their authors, then they probably weren’t because doubt is evidence enough.

Doubt coupled with ignorance makes a winning argument.

But that’s just what’s been on my mind lately. This post, for your blog-reading amusement, is about Charlie Brown’s mockery of naturalism. My children are slowly destroying a 1959 paperback called We’re On Your Side, Charlie Brown, comics taken from But We Love You, Charlie Brown Vol 1. It wasn’t in great condition before it began circulating among their books, but I doubt it’s in used-bookstore-acceptable condition now.

I came across this strip last night. Lucy and Linus are staring at the sky. Lucy tells him, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .” (ellipses in the original). Charlie Brown hears this while passing by and states, “Those aren’t clouds. That’s sky-writing!”

Lucy faces him in silence for a few moments. Then watching the sky again, she says, “Clouds are very peculiar, Linus . . . Sometimes they seem to form actual words. . .”

Master Brown confronts Lucy’s assumption that the “actual words” were formed through natural, unthinking processes and to no avail. Lucy will not be persuaded, out of pride no doubt. But for Brown, the common man, persuasion is not the goal. Declaring the truth is enough.

A Child of the Snows

I stopped at the grocery store on my way home tonight. The girl at the cash register asked me how I was, and I said fine, how are you?

“I’m great,” she said with a smile. “Santa’s coming in about three days!”

Then she went on to tell me how she’d watched “Miracle on 34th Street” (the classic version) with a friend last night. The friend had never seen it before. Imagine that, she said.

That was enough to bring a smile even to my face.

On consideration, I suspect she told me all this because of my resemblance to Edmund Gwenn.

This will probably be my last post for a few days. I generally can’t be troubled to post on weekends, and I’ll be spending Monday (and maybe Tuesday too) down in Iowa with Moloch and his family.

So I wish you all a merry, blessed Christmas.

Special thanks to everyone who’s sent me fan mail (I’ve gotten a couple particularly nice e-mails recently). As long as someone, somewhere, is still reading my novels and enjoying them, it’s almost as if I were still alive.

My Christmas card to you is this poem from G. K. Chesterton:

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,

And never before or again,

When the nights are strong with a darkness long,

And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,

The place where the great fires are,

That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth

And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn

Where the child in the frost is furled,

We follow the feet where all souls meet

At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,

For the flame of the sun is flown,

The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,

And a Child comes forth alone.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture