The International Support for American Independence

“Americans today,” Ferreiro says, “celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretences.” Yes, the colonial-wide support of Boston in the wake of the Coercive Acts (1774) was a factor in pushing British Americans toward independence. So was the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. So were the ideas of the founding fathers and the activism of ordinary colonists who destroyed the homes of tax collectors, tarred and feathered loyalists, and burned tea. Yet, as Ferreiro shows us, the men sitting at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress also realized that a declaration of independence was their only real chance of securing the foreign aid necessary to defeat the mighty British army and navy. As Virginian Richard Henry Lee put it in June 1776, “It’s not by choice then, but necessity that calls for independence, as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.”

John Fea draws these ideas from Larrie D. Ferreiro’s Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. He says French and Spanish diplomats wanted to push back Great Britain’s power (particularly the French after their defeat in the French and Indian War) and exploited ways to encourage our War for Independence. (via Prufrock News)

Harry Potter Gets Native Tongue Translation

J. K. Rowling set her school of student wizards and snake-devoted fiends in Scotland, somewhere north of Edinburgh, but her books have been published only in English and 79 other languages, not in Scots. For the 80th translation, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone will read like this:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, o nummer fower, Privet Loan, were prood tae say that they were gey normal, thank ye awfie muckle. They were the lest fowk ye wid jalouse wid be taigled up wi onythin unco or ferlie, because they jist widnae hae onythin tae dae wi joukery packery like yon.

 

‘The Silent Corner,’ by Dean Koontz

The Silent Corner

There had been corruption in every civilization since time immemorial. If the corruption was of the heart, the culture could think its way to health with great effort. If the corruption was of the mind, it was more difficult to feel a way toward recovery, for the heart was a deceiver. If both mind and heart were riddled with malignancies—what then?

One of my few gripes with Dean Koontz is that he has bought 100% into the “butt-kicking female heroine” meme, in which tiny little women who look like models serve as action characters. The Silent Corner is premised on a character of this kind, but I must say Koontz makes it work here.

Jane Hawk, the heroine, is an FBI agent on leave following the suicide of her beloved husband. He was a happy, successful military officer, bound for a political career, when she found him dead in his bathtub one day, having left behind a note that made no sense.

Partly to relieve her pain, Jane started doing research on suicide. She discovered that suicide rates have been rising steadily for the past few years, and that a surprising number of promising, idealistic, and apparently happy people have stunned their families by killing themselves. One day she got a visit from a strange man – she thinks of it as a “courtesy call” – who told her that if she didn’t lay off, “they” would kill her and do worse than killing to her young son.

Jane doesn’t have it in her to quit. She hides her son with people she trusts, who have no traceable link to her, and embarks on a dangerous investigation. She doesn’t have much hope of success as she gradually learns the wealth and power she’s going up against, as well as the horrific plans these people have for all of humanity. But better to die trying than do nothing. These people will eventually kill her and her boy, she calculates, even if she leaves them alone.

One generally expects a supernatural element in a Dean Koontz novel, but The Silent Corner is pure dystopian science fiction. It’s fast and sharp and scary and touching, written with grace. It’s the first book in a series, and I look forward to the next one, The Whispering Room.

Recommended, with mild cautions.

Is a Golden Age of Short Stories Around the Corner?

According to Chris Power, a golden age of short stories has always been shrouded in a misty past and was on the verge of reemerging.

H.G. Wells thought the short story thrived in the 1890s. H. E. Bates said it was the 1920-30s. William Boyd said 1981 was a great year for the story form everyone secretly loved and read quietly in corner booths with their third beer.

While bitter experience has shown poetry exactly where it stands in the marketplace, and the novel has shrugged off multiple reports of its death and maintained pre-eminence, the short story is continually characterised as the neglected form that will be great again. The funny thing is, when you explore its history you find the perception of a distant golden age, an undistinguished present and a return to glory has always been around: the short story has a problem with reality.

(via Prufrock News)

‘Bandersnatch,’ by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Bandersnatch

Lewis’s writing process was quite different from Tolkien’s. While Tolkien wrote things out in order to discover what he wanted to say, Lewis tended to mull things over before committing anything to paper.

According to a well-known anecdote, C. S. Lewis never read newspapers. “If anything really important happens,” he said, “someone is bound to tell you about it.”

I have a similar attitude to books about C. S. Lewis and the Inklings. I’ve read several, but far from all of them, and I feel no obligation to. If someone writes a new book with fresh information, somebody is pretty likely to tell me about it, in a discussion group or in a review in the Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society.

So I didn’t learn a lot of new things from Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. But this book wasn’t really intended to convey biographical information (though it’s as good an introduction as any for the curious). Its purpose is to analyze the ways in which the Inklings group, which lasted 17 years (quite an achievement for any writers’ group) served as a catalyst for its members’ creativity. She follows the Inklings’ history from its beginning when Tolkien – very shyly and with trepidation – showed a poem to his new friend Jack, taking a chance that he’d be the kind of person who’d appreciate it. Jack Lewis did – with great enthusiasm – and gradually they gathered about them a small community of fellow writers of like mind. They read their work to each other and boldly critiqued it, in a cloud of tobacco smoke in Lewis’ shabby rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford (the famous Tuesday meetings at the Eagle and Child pub were purely social, and guests were permitted, which was not true of the Thursday nights at Magdalen. I was amused to read that Tolkien made the mistake of bringing along the historian Gwyn Jones [a famous name to Viking buffs] one evening, and it got a little awkward, though Jones proved acceptable).

Author Glyer has done a tremendous job going carefully through old manuscripts and notes in various collections, looking for evidences of revision, and correlating them with reports of the Inklings meetings. It was a gargantuan task, and the result is a book that will be valuable to everyone interested in artistic mutual support groups – not just to writers, but to anyone who creates art. I recommend Bandersnatch.

‘The Vikings and Their Enemies,’ by Philip Line

The Vikings and Their Enemies

Some books are a chore to read, even if the subject interests you, but a necessary chore. Like textbooks when you’re in school. For me, Philip Line’s The Vikings and Their Enemies: Warfare in Northern Europe, 750-1100 was that kind of book. It contained information I needed and from which I profited, but I thought it would never end.

Casual readers will probably find it long and daunting, as the Amazon reviews indicate. First of all, though “Vikings” is in the title, that word here indicates the time period, not the main subject. Most of the material does not focus on the Vikings themselves. The main reason for this is that the author, like so many historians, is skeptical about the Icelandic sagas as sources, and so uses them only lightly. That leaves him with limited source materials about Scandinavians. Most of the ink is devoted to the Vikings’ enemies, the British, the Irish, the French, the Germans, and a few others. For them we have a certain amount of documentary evidence (though Line handles that evidence with caution too).

The practical upshot is that he spends a lot of time telling us that popular histories are wrong about many, many things that have entered the general information pool. Which is the mark of a rigorous historian. But it does not make for an exciting narrative.

However, the book contained, in particular, some information on Viking naval tactics that I needed for the book I am writing. So the work I put in reading The Vikings and Their Enemies was well worth it to me.

The normal reader will probably find other books on the period more interesting and easier to consume. I recommend this one only for its appropriate audience.

Redshirts by John Scalzi

via GIPHY Warning posted: “Watch for Exploding Rocks.”

It’s a common sci-fi truism that the guy wearing a red shirt on a new away team mission will be killed. Of the original Star Trek series, Wikipedia reports, “59 crew members killed in the series,” of which “43 (73%) were wearing red shirts.” John Scalzi asks, what if those were actual lives in a galaxy far, far away?

In his comic novel, Redshirts, Scalzi spins the tale of several minor crewmen on the Universal Union flagship Intrepid who start to ask why their teammates act strangely when senior officers are looking for away team members. One guy who has hidden himself in the bowels of the ship has a crazy theory, but when none of the sane theories pan out, you go with the crazy one.

It’s a funny book, but I didn’t start laughing until at least halfway through it, and the ending parts stretched my patience almost to the point of putting it down unfinished. There’s a point when that weird joke has been explained enough and going over it again will just kill it. Unfortunately, this joke gets run over a dozen times. But there are sweet moments in those ending parts that may be worth reading, if you’re into that sort of thing. Heh.

Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Viking film 2016

(I did a preliminary review of this movie yesterday. I’ve watched it a second time now, and am prepared to pontificate.)

Viking, a Russian film directed by Andrei Kravchuk and much anticipated by Viking buffs, arrived last winter with all the acclaim of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime. Critical response was mixed, and the film got almost no US distribution. The DVD is available, though, now, and you can own it. It’s worth viewing, but I expect you’ll agree that it’s a movie in search of an audience.

The film is based on the career of the historical Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev, the man who converted the Russians to Christianity and is revered as a saint. He did not come by his sainthood gently, though, as the film makes clear (the history here isn’t bad, considered in very broad strokes).

Vladimir (Danila Kozlovsky) is the youngest of three brothers, descendants of Vikings, and each the prince of a different Russian town, in the 10th Century. Vladimir is the least of them, not only in age but in status. He’s the son of a slave woman, and touchy on the subject. The eldest brother’s men murder the middle brother, after which Vladimir arranges the killing of the eldest. Now he’s the sole prince of all the Russ, but he has to prove himself worthy. He takes a high-born wife (Aleksandra Bortich) by force, and digs up and restores what they call “Father’s God,” a bloodthirsty idol worshiped by his late father, who was revered for his strength. Vladimir hopes to acquire that same strength, at the price of human sacrifice. Continue reading Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Pre-review: ‘Viking’

Viking film

(I’m calling this a “pre-review,” because I think this movie, for good or ill, requires another viewing before I pass final judgment on it.)

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noted over time my anticipation of a Viking movie coming out of Russia. The film, simply titled “Viking,” arrived last winter, not with a bang but a whimper. It got very little distribution in the US. The other day I checked to see if it was available on DVD, and behold it was, on Amazon. So I have it at last.

And I’m bemused. It’s certainly an epic, and I think it succeeds on that level to an extent, with big battle scenes and special effects that worked for me (at least). The problematic part seems to be the (highly fictionalized) dramatization of the career of the hero, Prince Vladimir (the Great) of Kiev (Danila Kozlovsky). The real Vladimir was a pretty bloodthirsty character, who murdered his own brother in his pursuit of the throne. In this version, Vladimir is basically a nice guy, who sort of stumbles into his crimes (including raping the woman who becomes his wife, played here by the gorgeous Aleksandra Bortich), and he feels really bad after each atrocity. Eventually he finds peace for his soul when he converts to Orthodox Christianity, in what I consider a pretty successful evangelism scene in a cathedral.

And that points up the weirdness of the movie, a weirdness that may have doomed it with distributors. It’s a very Christian “message” film, one whose final scene is reminiscent of a Billy Graham production. Yet it also involves lots of gore and violence (heathenism is treated non-romantically, which I appreciated), and a couple of vigorous sex scenes with unabashed female nudity.

How do you categorize a movie like that? It deserves its R rating, and you probably won’t want to rent it for family movie night. (Wikipedia says there’s a family-friendly version, but it’s not offered on Amazon.)

In terms of authenticity – so-so. Better than the History Channel series, I’d say, but very much in that tradition, as well as the tradition of Game of Thrones, which may have been an inspiration for the whole project. As in the TV series, all the costumes involve too much leather and tend to be either brown or gray, contrary to the true Vikings’ love of bright colors. The armor tends to be leather rather than mail, even on chieftains. I’ll probably find many other mistakes on closer viewing, but that’ll do for now.

My overall (tentative) judgment is… let me watch it again. There may be qualities here I haven’t appreciated yet. I didn’t hate it, and it was actually better than I expected, after what I’d read of critical responses.

Netflix video review: ‘The Ranch’

The Ranch

Somebody recommended the Netflix comedy series, “The Ranch.” After all, it stars Sam Elliott, and he plays an unapologetic conservative.

Sam Elliott is always a draw, but he isn’t enough to sell me this spread.

Elliot plays Beau Bennett, patriarch of a ranch in Colorado. He’s acerbic and obsessive, working day and night to keep the failing operation going. He’s angry at everybody, and globally critical.

In the first episode his second son, Colt (Ashton Kutcher), returns home for a brief stopover. He’s a local hero because he was a football star and actually had a pro career, though it’s sliding downhill now. Realizing his father is in danger of losing the ranch, he decides to stay on, for which he gets no appreciation at all. He has many bad habits, and needs to grow up.

Danny Masterson plays the older son, Rooster, who stayed home like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He tries to be a peacemaker, but is generally ineffectual. He also seems to have a drinking problem.

Debra Winger plays Maggie, the mother, who divorced Beau but lives in town where she runs a bar.

Sound like fun to you? Maybe this set-up is comedy gold for normal folks, but for someone like me who grew up in a genuine dysfunctional home, it’s like a half hour of dipping sheep. I understand we’re supposed to be laughing, but I never even came close to smiling. There seems to be an idea abroad in the land that if you throw enough f-bombs into the mix, hilarity must inexorably ensue. This idea is wrong.

I didn’t even like Sam Elliott here. His character is – how shall I put it? – pretty much a donkey. I assume that through the course of the series we’ll be treated to moments suggesting that he actually cares for his family, somewhere deep inside. I gave it two episodes, but I’m not willing to put up with more of this abuse for the sake of such moments.

So I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary.

‘The Aggrieved,’ by Brett Battles

The Aggrieved

I’ve been following Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn series for some time now. I’m not generally a reader of espionage fiction, but these books deal with a different kind of character, a guy whose job tends to be a throw-away in other books – the Cleaner. The cleaner comes in after a hit has been carried out, and removes the bodies and all the evidence. Jonathan Quinn is the best at his job, and his skills make him more than equal to various challenges he meets that take him outside the limits of his job description.

In The Aggrieved, Jonathan and his team face a new kind of challenge. In earlier outings they generally ended up trying to rescue somebody. This time, due an incident at the end of the last book (I’ll write carefully, so as not to drop spoilers), they’re out for vengeance. An important member of the team has been killed, and Quinn and company are singlemindedly pursuing revenge. Meanwhile their own relationships are strained, as guilt generates resentment among friends and even family.

This was not my favorite installment in the Jonathan Quinn saga. I think that was largely due to the revenge motivation, although the author makes it clear that the killer they’re pursuing deserves no mercy. The book seemed to me essentially a sequence of planned operations, some more successful than others, without a lot of human interaction – and most of what there was, was unpleasant.

I did enjoy a fairly new character named Jar, a female Asian computer geek somewhere on the autism spectrum. She was kind of fun.

If you’ve been following the books you’ll want to read The Aggrieved, but don’t start with this one. Cautions for the usual.

The Only Right Feeling Is Guilt

Writing from the British Isles, Brendan O’Neill describes an old man he remembers from his childhood neighborhood, one he says he in every neighborhood. One who is friendly and racist. What reminded him of this man is Lena Dunham’s support of an argument against sushi being prepared and served by white college kids. Because Asian food should not be made, served, or, I guess, eaten by non-Asian people due to the sin of cultural appropriation.

‘Barbecue is a form of cultural power’, says a writer for the Guardian (where else). It’s a tradition of ‘enslaved Africans’ and you insult those people when you peel the pork off a pig belly in some Hackney hangout. Eating, like everything else, is racism. Even tea is under attack. It’s a ‘boring, beige relic of our colonial past’, says Joel Golby, a writer for Vice, the bible of Shoreditch bores. You can’t even have a cuppa without being induced to feel colonial guilt.

(I wonder if Joel Golby is being honest there. He may just be griping over his own cup of tea.)

I was thinking that might leave us with a simple dietary rule: if your grandmother wouldn’t have made it, you can’t eat it. But even that doesn’t work. The sins of the past, if they cling to our food stuffs today, will never leave us.

There’s no logical end to this rationale. I saw Christophe Gans’s marvelous version of Beauty and the Beast this week. It’s a movie in the vein of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, though a step more edgy. If we apply to it this cultural appropriation logic, Gans was right to make his movie, because he’s and his actors are French and the original fairy tale was French, whereas Disney is a bunch of cultural thieves for making what may be the best animated movie ever and their new live-action edition is like a sushi taco.

I have a volume of the works of Chekhov behind me. It was printed in the US in 1929 by Black’s Readers Service Company. If I enjoy reading this book, am I guilty of taking from Chekhov’s culture? Is the publisher? Is the translator?

O’Neill’s point is that the old racist in his neighborhood is now the new racist in the college commons, both telling him not to eat that junk from another culture and stick with the meals his mama makes. And the old racist may being living by his creed, but the new one doesn’t have the time to think about it.  (via Prufrock News)

Don’t Talk About Your Book While Writing It

Nick Ripatrazone has released a book that he’s happy to talk about, but he won’t talk about whatever book he may be writing presently. He was advised not to many years ago and has experienced the life-sucking force of talking about his work since.

“Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, ‘to entertain a toothache.'”

I’m sure this is a truism, but I think it’s one I need to follow. Talking about my barely formed ideas lets the air out of them before they have a chance to float, and I’m full of momentarily promising ideas that haven’t taken flight.

But I’m sure some writers are able to talk about some stories or ideas they are working on without killing them. What’s been your experience? (via Prufrock News)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture