Site Maintenance

When I bought the name and space for the BrandywineBooks.net, I thought the host’s behind the scenes traffic monitor would be enough for me to keep up with who is reading and browsing the site, but it hasn’t been. It’s hard to get to and difficult to understand. So I added the site meter we used on the blogspot blog. You can see it at the foot of the sidebar. The number, presently 64,188, reflects all the visitors from the old site, but none from the new site until today.

I should probably take that number for what it is and avoid reading encouragement or discouragement into it. No reason to wonder why more people don’t drop by. I’ve given them reasons to look elsewhere with my inconsistent, uninspiring blogging. But is blogging really about readership? If someone posts on a blog no one reads, isn’t it still blogging?

I’m not serious. Don’t worry about me, but feel free to send your cards and gifts all the same.

Brandywine Books has been online since May 2003. We are an Adorable Little Rodent in the blogospheric ecosystem. We rank 28,111 at Technorati. And better than any of that, you are here now. Thank you for stopping by. Now, go read a good book.

Lincoln in context

Finally got my first call for my Room To Rent today. Unfortunately, the guy who left the message on my machine spoke low and was kind of mush-mouthed. The call-back number he left (as far as I can figure it out) isn’t in service.

Probably just as well. Don’t want no inarticulate folks in this house.

(You’ll note that my stress level in regard to renting the room has diminished. I got a check back from my insurance company the other day, with a note telling me I’d double-paid. Haven’t worked out how that happened, but it’s a relief).

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I should post things like this the day before, I know, since a lot of you don’t read my posts till the following day, but I’ll be boiled if I’ll post on a Sunday. So, O Reader of the Future, I apologize if this is the first you heard about it. Write it down in your calendar, and you’ll know next year.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but I don’t think Americans today appreciate what a significant figure Lincoln used to be, not only in America but in the world. We’re so used to his story—the birth in a dirt-floored cabin, the sums written in charcoal on the wooden shovel, the miles he walked in winter to return a couple cents overcharged in his store—that they’ve become rote pieces to us. We lose the impact of the story in its time and place.

(By the way, do kids today learn about these things? Or do the teachers just throw in a couple of lines about Lincoln being a racist white, male president and a closeted homosexual, before moving on to cover Notable Crossdressers of the Civil War?)

But the Old Order was very much in the saddle in Europe in Lincoln’s time. Kings and Emperors still ruled, some of them by Divine Right. The idea that royalty and nobility enjoyed their power and privilege because of an inborn, natural superiority was still in play.

And here was this tall, ugly American, born in poverty, who became leader of one of the world’s emerging powers, who wrote brilliant oratory and who managed to keep a fractious country together through the greatest crisis in its history without the brutality one expected in young republics. His very existence was a rebuke to Old Europe.

And Americans didn’t let them forget it. The hagiographical books and pictures, the pious eulogies and songs about Lincoln, they were partly an expression of real respect, but they were also the cock-a-doodle-doo of a brash young country that had found a better way and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Lincoln was not pretty. He was not elegant. He did not sound like Gregory Peck when he gave a speech—he sounded more like Festus Hagin. But he was successful and progressive and smarter than the whole House of Lords put together.

We valued that in America. Once upon a time.

That hideous Hannibal

I took a little vacation time this afternoon. I spent this narrow slice of heaven sitting around the house, waiting for a technician to come and do the periodic inspection on my furnace. As it turned out, he arrived after the four-hour window had closed. I nearly could have worked my usual time and met him when I got back.

Michael Medved was on the radio as I waited, and this was one of those rare Medved shows where the arguing level was low enough so that I could listen in relative comfort.

Medved panned the new movie, “Hannibal Rising,” the prequel telling about Dr. Lector’s early years. After all, aren’t we all yearning to get a good close look at the dynamics that combine to produce cannibalistic psychopaths, especially when we can make it a Valentine’s date?

I used to be a big fan of Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lector. His books were harrowing, but he treated his characters with compassion and understanding. The villain in Red Dragon, for instance (not Hannibal; he was a secondary character in that one) was horrible and despicable, and you wanted him dead, but you also pitied him. This was (in my opinion) as it should be.

But then came the movie of The Silence of the Lambs, and Anthony Hopkins’ disturbing performance, and suddenly Hannibal became the star.

Then I read the book Harris called Hannibal, and suddenly everything was wrong.

Harris had (it seemed to me) succumbed to the magnetism of Hannibal as incarnated in Hopkins. He may not even realize it, but Harris seems to have started rooting for the cannibal.

So I gave up on him.

Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t yet.

The best portrayal of evil I’ve ever seen in fiction remains (for me) C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. It’s certainly one of Lewis’ least popular works, and I have no doubt that many readers have plunged into it, intoxicated with Perelandra, only to find themselves bogged down in the tedium of Edgestow and the Orwellian bureaucracy of N.I.C.E.

But it’s my view that if you slog through those parts, you’ll not only be rewarded, but you’ll finally understand (as in real life) that the hard parts were useful lessons.

Lewis took on the challenge of presenting evil characters without romanticizing them—and any author will tell you that’s one of the great challenges. Villains tend to grow in the telling, and to become lots of fun. Heroes have a way of getting dull and predictable. I think that’s because most of us know a lot more about evil than we do about good, and we tend to equate virtue with passivity.

But Lewis’ villains in T.H.S. are like scoundrels in the real world. They’re not brilliant and charming. They’re not lively and funny. They’re self-absorbed, humorless and devoid of empathy. The reader who works his way through the tough parts of the book will (or at least may) realize that he has spent time in an annex of Hell, and it’s no party down there.

But the community at St. Anne’s—ah, that’s another matter. There we find Lewis’ vision of a Christian fellowship operating as God intended. There we find relationships and laughter and compassion. There we have a glimpse of Heaven, bright as Narnia.

I consider it a tremendous artistic achievement. One that’s never been properly recognized.

The software won’t post without a title, so this is it

Anna Nicole Smith is dead, according to the news. Bloggers all over the country are pausing at their keyboards, pondering whether to meditate on the tragedy/waste-of-life angle or just go with the cheap joke. And having decided, they’re trying to keep the option they chose from bleeding over into the alternative.

I know what to say. I knew a woman once, a relative, who was caring and giving in every way. She hated herself utterly and used various kinds of chemicals to kill the pain. She didn’t die young, but she died long before she had to, as a result of a life-long effort to get this torturous business of living over with, without actually committing the sin of suicide.

I don’t know much about Anna Nicole, but I suspect some of the same dynamics were at work here. So I say rest in peace, and pray she found it in the only place where it’s available.

I feel like I have a cold in my brain. Not in my head, except insofar as my head contains my brain. I’m not physically stuffed up, but my brain feels like it’s congested in a couple layers of cotton batting. I don’t have a headache but my thoughts hurt. I’m not coughing or sneezing, but that little guy with Tourette’s who lives in my skull is doing his Bobcat Goldthwaite imitation a couple clicks louder than usual.

And yet I persevere, because that’s the kind of mug I am.

Here’s a suggestion, for those of you who share my skepticism about Global Warming. Next time you get in a fight with a True Believer, ask them why they’re afraid of change.

“For years you liberals have been telling us that Change Is Good,” you can say. “The only reason anybody could possible resist any kind of change is because they’re bigoted and cowardly. So how come change became a bad thing all of a sudden?”

I offer you this gambit free of charge. Use it as you will, with my blessing.

Not that it will help. The argument will end with your opponent calling you a Nazi, because that’s how these arguments always end.

But at least you’ll have added a little variety to the script.

Unless you thought of this before me, of course.

Tonight you’ll get leftovers, and like it

Because I’m in that kind of mood.

I have to go back in to work for a meeting tonight, and on top of that I’m 56 years old, and a single guy can’t expect to live much longer than that, but that’s probably just as well because I’m likely to lose my home anyway, because my ad for a roommate has been out for two whole days and I haven’t gotten a single bite yet.

So I’m not capable of much more than rudimentary thinking. Therefore I’ll just share something I think I posted before, but that was long ago on the old site. I think it was one of the better quotations I’ve ever heard (or read).

It comes from Newton Minnow, who I’m pretty sure is no longer living. He was famous for having a very silly name, and also for being the chairman of the FCC long before you were born, back when Kennedy was president (but I was already old). He famously called television “a vast wasteland,” back then, and was remembered for it ever after. But this quotation is better. It’s a description of Europe back when it was Europe. Which it isn’t anymore.

I quote from memory.

In England, everything is permitted except for that which is forbidden.

In Germany, everything is forbidden except for that which is permitted.

In Russia, everything is forbidden, including that which is permitted.

And in Italy, everything is permitted, especially that which is forbidden.

That’s all I got, folks. Go read Lileks.

A Review of the Plight of Modern Bookstores

When sliding sales forced Cody’s to close its store next to the UC Berkeley campus, the poet Ron Silliman wrote on his blog that it was once the anchor of “the best book-buying block in North America.” But in the discussion that followed, the attitude was one of resignation if not indifference.

“Why would anyone want to perpetuate small independents by paying higher prices?” wondered Curtis Faville, a poet who sells rare books on the Internet. “Most of these proud little independents were poorly run anyway.”

Less harshly, Silliman suggested in an e-mail that “we’re simultaneously caught in the wonder of the new and true mourning for the losses of the old.”

It’s an unsettling if inevitable process. Half a century ago, Silliman said, he would play chess and checkers with his grandfather as they listened to the radio. “That stopped once the TV arrived, because now we all had to face the same direction,” he wrote.

Those for whom “browsing” has much more of an online connotation than a physical one barely register the shift.

“Bookstores, small or large, don’t carry what I’m looking for,” said Logan Ryan Smith, a 29-year-old accountant who publishes a literary magazine and poetry pamphlets. “I’m not going to find an Effing Press or Ugly Duckling Presse book even at City Lights or Cody’s.”

The L.A. Times has a good story on the problems of independent booksellers in our changing culture. The point Silliman makes on isolating ourselves through entertainment has impact the world over. It touches on one of reason people don’t read. We seek the tantalizing over the fulfilling. We fail to taste the richness of interaction because consumption is more immediate and comfortable.

Low-grade cabin fever raving

Had a disturbing message on my answering machine when I got home tonight. I heard the voice of an older woman, very muffled, saying something incomprehensible about snow, and being late for work, ending with “Help me out, here.”

I think.

I don’t know who she is, and I don’t know who she was calling when she accidentally dialed my number. Whatever help she wanted she didn’t get, and it’s all over by now.

But I still feel guilty.

It was almost as cold today as yesterday, but it didn’t feel as bad. That’s one of the great things about cold weather. Even a small improvement registers palpably. I remember a year when we spent several days around 20 and 30 below, and when we got back up to zero it felt positively spring-like.

It also snowed a couple inches, which pleases me because it protects the roots of my sick tree. (Yes, hard as it may be for southerners to believe, snow does actually protect the ground from hard freezing. It has an insulating effect).

I’m in low spirits tonight, and I have a dentist appointment coming up, so that’s about all I’ve got.

I’ll share this link for adult footy pajamas, shared with me by an online friend.

I could go off on a rant about the infantilization of our culture, but…

They look kind of neat, really. Especially on a night like this.

Ha! We don’t call this cold in Spitzbergen!

You want to talk about cold? It clawed its way up to 1° F. today. That was even colder than yesterday, when I had trouble starting my car after it had sat for about three hours in bright sunlight while I was in church.

And yes, I did go all France on the Viking Age Society on Saturday. I hope the guys are still alive.

I even lowered my sartorial standards today. Instead of a hat I wore a stocking cap, along with my faithful Air Force surplus arctic snorkel parka (the undisputed finest winter coat ever designed, imho). Instead of a coat and tie I wore a sweater and tie (a Norwegian sweater, of course). The sweater has a nice collar with a zipper. It converts into a turtleneck, and I made use of that option.

Man alive, it’s cold.

The air sucks the moisture right out of your skin, freeze-dries it, jets it into the stratosphere, and blows it to Greenland, where it falls to earth with a gentle tinkle.

And yet the days are getting longer. The sun shone cheerfully as I drove home from work.

They try to make us believe that this isn’t suspicious—this counterintuitive annual pattern where the sun shines more but the air gets colder anyway.

I know the truth. Haliburton conspired with the oil companies and the international bankers to artificially import cheap Canadian air, in order to raise oil and natural gas prices, swelling their obscene profits.

You can’t pull the wool over my eyes.

Actually, you can.

In fact I’d be grateful. Wool is nice and warm.

Worldwide Group Writing Project

“Crowdsourcing” may be a good word for it, but it’s probably a bad idea. Penguin has launched a novel writing project in the style of Wikipedia, allowing anyone–anyone–to contribute and edit the novel.

“Day by day, night by night, fantasies and tales emerge. Collaboration is about to unveil and sparkle, witness the amazing power of a WikiNovel.”

Did the guys who came up with this idea ever spend time with writing stories as a group? It can be fun, but it can’t be serious unless everyone in the group is committed to serious writing. A million writers the world over won’t be serious. “Big Bababoobey Ooby flexed his pinky . . . “? Give it up.

In this post on their blog, the administrators describe their difficulties with vandalism.

Coffee Taste Testing

(I’m blogging too much tonight, but nevermind that. Please read this.) What do you think of Consumer Reports? Great source for unbiased product testing? Uneven results in some things? I like the CR goals, but I don’t view them as a bible on products like I used to–a strong recommendation for everyone, but their choice may not be the best for me.

Now CR has turned it’s trained reporters on the common man’s cup of joe, and the result? The Boston Herald reports:

McDonald’s latest caffeinated endeavor, Newman’s Own Organics Blend coffee, is better than both Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, says Consumer Reports magazine.

“We compared the rivals with Starbucks, all in basic black – no flavors, milk or sugar – and you know what? McDonald’s beat the rest,” the magazine said in its March issue.

The CR tasters visited only two stores in each company for the report, which may be too small a sample for a subjective survey like this. Bloomberg.com reports the tasters comments:

McDonald’s coffee was “decent and moderately strong,” while Starbucks was “strong, but burnt and bitter enough to make your eyes water.” . . . Dunkin’ Donuts brew was “weak, watery, and pricier than Starbucks. It was inoffensive, but it had no oomph.” Burger King, meanwhile, served a beverage that “looked like coffee but tasted more like hot water.”

I’ve had some pretty bitter coffee at Starbucks, which I assumed came from an overbrewed pot, not the company beans. Generally, Starbucks is good, but I don’t care to buy my coffee there. They irritate me.

Have you tried McDonald’s coffee in the past year? Was it better than you expected? If I ever buy coffee there, I expect to get the dark hot water variety. Maybe I should try it. I have drunk Chick-fil-a’s dark roast several times over the last several months. If MacDonald’s was just as good, I’d be impressed. (by way of The Boars Head Tavern)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture