Standing In for Thomas Pynchon

Comedian Irwin Corey, who regularly lampooned the educated classes, died this week at age 102. The NY Times tells a story of how he impersonated author Thomas Pynchon to receive the National Book Award for fiction in 1974.

No one in the crowd had any idea what the reclusive Mr. Pynchon looked like, and when Mr. Corey arrived to accept the award for him (the novelist had approved the stunt), many people thought they were getting their first look at Mr. Pynchon.

They soon learned otherwise. Beginning his remarks, as he often did, “However,” Mr. Corey referred to the author as “Richard Python” and said, “Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure.” He continued: “Marx, Groucho Marx, once said that religion is the opiate of the people. I say that when religion outlives its usefulness, then opium will be the opiate. Ah, that’s not a bad idea.”

The Times reported the next morning that Mr. Corey’s “series of bad jokes and mangled syntax” left “some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.”

See Corey and hear his acceptance speech from the National Book Awards here.

In memory yet Green

Roger Lancelyn Green
Roger Lancelyn Green

My friend Dale Nelson recently sent me a couple old articles on Tolkien he thought might be of interest. One of them was from Amon Hen, the journal of the Tolkien Society, #44, May 1980. It was a piece by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he reminisced on his friendship with the professor. Green has sometimes been identified as a member of the Inklings, but he does not claim that honor (or honour). His article includes the following delightful paragraph:

I never saw The Lord of the Rings before it was published, but heard a good deal about it from Lewis, who kept saying that if only Tolkien would finish it, it would be one of the great books of the century – “But Tollers just won’t finish it! Every time he gives himself a month’s holiday to do so, he begins by reading over what he has already written, and sees how he can better that, and spends most of his month on revising!”

‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

An online friend urged me to read Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. He wanted to know how I’d react to it.

Well, having read it, I’d say it’s a geek fest – a video gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story…

But it’s an excellent gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story.

Wade Watts is a teenager living in a mid-21st Century American dystopia, in Oklahoma City. The world’s fossil fuels have run out, and the alternative technologies haven’t kept pace. So multitudes of Americans, like Wade, live in “the Stacks,” mobile home parks where the trailers are stacked high on steel racks. He shares a trailer with his aunt and several renters, but most of his time is spent in a hiding place, where he lives a virtual life in OASIS. OASIS is a sort of virtual-reality Facebook, where you can live an entire, ultra-realistic digital life, except for taking care of the most basic physical needs.

Most of his time is spent studying the life and work of James Halliday, the genius who developed OASIS. Halliday died several years earlier, and instead of a will he left a game. Clues, he said on a final video, are hidden in the world of OASIS. They lead to three keys, and the keys in turn lead to an “Easter Egg.” Whoever finds the Easter Egg first will inherit Halliday’s entire fortune and control of his company. Continue reading ‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

Learning to Love the Bomb

Cheryl Magness says she’s been an editor all of her life, but she’s given up her Grammar Nazi ways. Style guides disagree and change over time. English words and usage change, at least in a limited sense. Really what we all want is clarity and internal harmony.

One of the rules that has rubbed me the wrong way is how to indicate possessives for names ending in s. I’m still most comfortable with the old style, like you would use for a common noun, such as the hounds’ kennel, but the current rule is to use an apostrophe s for all names. It’s Jesus’s robe. It’s Theseus’s spear and Xerxes’s dog biscuit. It would be Roberts’s rules, if Robert had an s at the end of his name, which he doesn’t, so that one is still Robert’s rules.

If I were to edit your manuscript, I’d reflectively correct towards to toward and forbid your using whilst. In fact, I would snicker behind your back if you used whilst anywhere but in the mouth of a stuffy English statesman.

Cheryl offers a good example in the acceptability of sentence adverbs and whether we should allow statements such as “Hopefully, it will rain.” How many that’s should be allowed on a page is another good one. For the unpolished writer, these are somewhat critical choices. They approach the territory of an editor’s real work: verb agreement, word choice particularly in the troublesome word area, and readability. You want an editor to help you put our language its best use, one who knows what the rules are and when to push them aside to make a better story. Grammar Nazi’s usually aren’t too good at that part of it.

‘Cold Granite,’ by Stuart MacBride

Cold Granite

Behind the approaching van the North Sea raged, grey and huge, the frigid wind making its first landfall since the Norwegian fjords.

I like to tell you right off when I think a book is well done. Cold Granite, by Stuart MacBride, is an extremely well done mystery/thriller, a book that handles a troubling subject about as well as any writer could.

Detective Sergeant Logan McRae has been nicknamed “Lazarus” by his fellow officers. It’s his first day back on the job, after a long convalescence from knife wounds received from a serial killer. He’s hoping to take it easy for the first few weeks, as he still feels some pain.

No hope of that. The first day a three-year-old boy is found murdered and mutilated in a flooded ditch. Soon other children go missing – or are discovered dead. Long hours will be required, in the extremely unpleasant weather of Aberdeen, Scotland in December (the rotten weather is a major character in t this book). Logan will have to deal with sniping associates, demanding (or lazy) superiors, maddening defense attorneys, and persistent news reporters (one of whom attaches himself to Logan as his special project). Apparent connections between murders prove illusory, while apparently separate murders turn out to be linked. It’s one step forward, two steps back all the way to a pretty cinematic climax.

The writing is top-notch, vivid and epigrammatic. The characters of Logan, his fellow officers, and a variety of scaly suspects are well drawn. What particularly impressed me about the story is the way author MacBride conveys the frustrations of the work of policing – I began to wonder why anyone puts up with it. There is no attempt to soften the horrific suffering and deep grief involved in the crimes, but he makes it endurable through a kind of slapstick – Logan’s many frustrations, disappointments, and injuries are not laughable, but they’re presented in a way that lightens the mood and keeps the whole effort from being too much for the reader to bear.

I very much enjoyed Cold Granite, and look forward to reading further Logan McRae mysteries. Many cautions are in order – language, sexual themes, and very disturbing crimes against children.

Close to Realizing a Brave New World

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, says everyone’s reading 1984 to see the parallels with current events, but Trump is not Big Brother and America is not Oceania. He’s not trying to control everyone or tap everything down so it all looks orderly on the surface. But there are dangers to watch for.

One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.

In the Washington Post yesterday, Nichols says the constant media outrage over every little bit of news coming from the White House is only deadening our ears to honest critique or curiosity over actual policies.

This continual panic is short-circuiting any reasonable debate about the president’s policies by indulging Trump’s fiercest opponents in the belief that something could destroy his presidency before it has a chance to govern. Still furious over the outcome of the election, Trump’s critics seize on every move as if there is a Watergate moment to be found if only they look hard enough.

Roots of Black History Month

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of what has become Black History Month, wanted to spotlight the many social and academic achievements of African Americans.

“For serious, solution-oriented black conservatives today,” Chidike Okeem writes, “Woodson provided a model of how one can be enthusiastically pro-market, doggedly anti-Marxist economics, and do so while being unapologetically African. He demonstrated that endorsement of free market economics does not have to coincide with self-hatred and anti-blackness.”

“Black Americans have African ancestors who were marvelously accomplished, built civilizations, and were intrepid innovators. African Americans, despite a history of oppression, have demonstrated that same entrepreneurial spirit throughout American history.”

Where dragons walked

Siegfried and the dragon
Siegried slays the dragon, in an illustration by Arthur Rackham. This is one of the set of illustrations for Wagner’s Ring operas that fascinated C.S. Lewis as a boy.

An article at Wonders and Marvels suggests that the legends of medieval dragons in Germany, most particularly that of Siegfried the Dragonslayer, may arise from fossil tracks still visible in that country.

Notably, conspicuous fossil trackways of two types of massive dinosaurs are found in Germany. In 1941, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated that observations of Triassic dinosaur tracks in sandstone near Siegfriedsburg in the Rhine Valley of western Germany might have been the inspiration for the legend about the dragon Fafnir’s footprints.

I share this, of course, purely for your amusement. All sensible people know that dragons survived in Europe well into the early medieval period, when they were slain by Christian saints.

Hat tip: Mirabilis.

Read Langston Hughes’ Stories

Justin Taylor recommends we read the short stories of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

“If racism and race-based slavery was America’s original sin,” Taylor says, “Hughes demonstrates that racism and the legacy of slavery were alive and killing us in the middle of the last century.”

But for a winter of heartache, we can still see a spring of hope.

For Hughes, humanity—sheer cussed humanness—is always breaking out and defying the lies of the racialist.”

Writing report, 2/1/17

Today was an unusual day, but not a bad one (which was fairly surprising. To me, it’s an axiom that Change is Bad).

I had to take a half vacation day, because it was the seasonal feast of the Sacred HVAC Inspection. The spirit of Natural Gas must be appeased, lest he smite the firstborn (that’s me) with carbon monoxide poisoning. Because this solemnity requires carving out a whole afternoon for the sake of about a half an hour of actual service, I figured I could do some writing. Somewhat to my surprise, I did.

My latest book is a challenge. I don’t know if I just got out of the habit of novel writing during my 2 ½ year detour Through the Looking Glass (i.e., in academia), or if I’m just getting old, my eye dimmed and my natural force abated.

But this week has been good. I’m facing one of those plot intervals that I hate. You’ve got a Big Event coming up (in this case an actual historical event that I can’t move around), and a space of time to fill leading up to it. Various plot threads need to be developed in that space, but it’s like building a bridge across a broad canyon – there’s a big space to fill and not a whole lot of attachment points.

But I’ve been working manfully on bridging that space this week, and – not easily, but steadily – I’ve been making progress. “Having once got my method by the end,” as John Bunyan said, “then ever as I pulled, it came.” The pulling can be hard, but the story is coming. And I think some of the stuff isn’t bad.

I’ve got a long way to go, though.

Reading Wiesel as Protesters March Outside

I’m glad we’re talking about refugees, immigration, and what loving our neighbors means in practical terms. I hope all of this becomes perpetual opportunities for the gospel, the life-transforming gospel, not just some shell of good wishes.

On Sunday in New York, a large group met at the Jewish Heritage Museum to read from Elie Wiesel’s Night to remember the Holocaust at the same time other New Yorkers were protesting the US administration’s policies on immigrants from terror-watch countries.

“By the end of the [Rwandan] genocide I lost my entire immediate family, my parents, my siblings, most of my family members,” Jacqueline Murekatete told the audience. “As any child of that time, I witnessed a lot of horrors, people being killed around me and losing my family…but I was fortunate that I had an uncle that lived here [America].

She said Wiesel inspired her as a teenager. Night “became a catalyst for the genocide prevention work that I do now.”

There cannot be a 1:1 comparison between Holocaust or Rwandan genocide and what is happening in Syria and other countries. We live in a different world now. I could understand if President Trump were to say, “We are working very hard to provide safe passage to select Syrian communities who are being targeted and have nowhere to run, because frankly, people, we went over there and made a huge mess, a gigantic, stupid mess.” But that’s not his stance today for reasons that should be completely understandable to everyone. There are enemies among us.

But perhaps Wiesel would not agree. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said,

Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.

New ‘Viking’ trailer

I’m weary of the world tonight. Can’t think of anything to write that I wouldn’t regret tomorrow.

So here’s the latest trailer for the new Russian Viking movie. My reenactor friends complain that the costumes aren’t accurate, but in my view they look punctilious compared to the costumes on the History Channel.

The latest news I’ve seen says international rights have been sold, but there’s been no announcement of a US release date.

‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

I am manifestly on record as mistrusting a) books by women (in my experience they tend to do male characters badly), and b) modern Christian fantasy books (because by and large they are amateurish).

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter is both. And I loved it.

So sue me.

A kind of cross between Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (with just a tincture of Jane Austin), The Unexpected Enlightenment takes us to a world where, familiarly, a school of sorcery exists out of sight of the ordinary (here called Unwise) world. But there are differences – one being that, although the culture is recognizably like ours, nobody has ever heard of monotheism.

Rachel Griffin is the daughter of an English duke who is an important official in the Magical World. She is sent to Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, which exists invisibly on an island in the Hudson River in New York. Rachel is a gifted child, younger than the other freshmen. She has never had serious friends, and dreams of acquiring real ones, like in the books she reads. She also hungers for knowledge – any and all knowledge. One of her gifts is a photographic memory.

At Roanoke she does make friends – and some Mean Girl enemies. Her friends include an Australian (!) princess, a boy who slew a dragon and sleeps on a bed of gold, and an aspiring reporter. Rachel’s memory gives her an advantage most magicians lack – when she reviews her memories, she can see invisible things that she missed the first time through. By means of this power, she is able to identify sinister, magical activities, and manages to save a friend from an assassination attempt. Trying to figure out the reason for this crime sets her on an investigation of mysterious currents moving beneath the surface of the school’s day by day activities. Eventually she realizes that something very big and very bad is being planned by someone… even as she falls for a handsome upperclassman… who may be evil. Continue reading ‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian

Is it possible to be a great writer without being a good writer? I guess it depends on what you mean by great and good.

I consider Robert E. Howard one of the great fantasy writers, on a level lower than Tolkien but higher than most of the others. And yet his writing has many, many weaknesses. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of the parts.

Like most Baby Boomer Howard fans, I first discovered Conan – warrior, thief, pirate, mercenary, and king – through the old Lancer series of paperbacks, most of them with amazing Frazetta covers. That series printed all the Conan stories in what the editors considered proper biographical order. What purists don’t like about them is that the publishers, sensing a cash cow, padded the series out. Unfinished Conan stories were “completed.” Non-Conan Howard stories that could be wedged into the timeline were rewritten to make them Conan stories. And they added pure pastiches done by the editors.

This present collection, Conan the Barbarian, takes a bibliographical approach. All the Conan stories published in Howard’s lifetime are here, in the order published. That means that we begin with two stories of Conan at his pinnacle, as king of Aquilonia, then turn aside to a number of stories about his earlier adventures, and finally conclude with the novel The Hour of the Dragon, a last tale of King Conan (and in my opinion the best Conan story). The collection concludes with Howard’s essay, “The Hyborian Age,” in which he explains the rise and fall of the imaginary prehistoric world in which Conan lived, loved, and slew. Continue reading ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

Book Reviews, Creative Culture