‘Lost in a Good Book,’ by Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book

“You’re the Cheshire Cat, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I was the Cheshire Cat,” he replied with a slightly aggrieved air. “But they moved the county boundaries, so technically speaking I’m now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it….”

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels were recommended to me by a reader of this blog. I found Lost in a Good Book, the second in the series, amusing. But alas, I didn’t love it.

The world of female Special Operative Thursday Next is an alternate one from ours. In this world England was occupied during World War II (though they beat the Germans at last), and the Crimean War went on for more than a century. The cloning of extinct species is routine, so that many people keep pet dodos, mastodons roam the land, and sad Neanderthals work at menial jobs. The plots and characters of works of fiction are not entirely fixed, so that agents like Thursday keep occupied running down truant literary characters.

When a nobleman discovers a lost play of Shakespeare’s in his ancient library, Thursday helps to authenticate it, but it’s not what it appears. Thursday’s husband vanishes at about the same time she discovers she’s pregnant. The people who abducted him pressure her to enter the world of Poe’s “The Raven” to do a job for them, in spite of known dangers. In need of money, she moonlights as a “JurisFiction” agent, helping fictional characters police their own under the tutelage of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. And, according to Thursday’s father (who doesn’t technically exist), the world is about to end in a couple days.

The closest parallel I can think of is A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The action is non-stop, and so are the jokes. If you like puns, these books will please you.

I think my problem with it was that I’m deficient in a certain kind of imagination. I want to have a sense of the logic of a story, and I was never really sure what the rules were here. Oddly, the parts that really spoke to me best were the brief passages involving Neanderthals, sad strangers in the world who find no place for their distinct way of thinking, and have no hope of posterity because they’ve all been cloned sterile.

Lost In a Good Book is a very clever, very creative book, and you may enjoy it a lot. Cautions for some bad language, and for strange religious concepts.

Parallel worlds

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Tonight, a writing report. I passed a milestone in my Work In Progress the other night, achieving 50,000 words. I also incorporated a passage of dialogue I’d been saving for the right moment. So I enjoyed a small sense of satisfaction as I went to bed.

I’ve written about courage before, I think. Courage and faith are almost identical in my view – the main difference being the object to which the particular virtue is directed. I’ve written about the fact that good stories are about courage – the main character tries, and fails, and tries and fails again, until everything looks hopeless. But at that point he/she chooses to go on, perhaps without rational reason. And he or she either succeeds, or fails in a way that’s significant.

And it occurred to me that writing itself works the same way. In the course of writing almost any story, there come moments (generally toward the middle or two-thirds of the way through for me) when the whole thing appears hopeless, and the writer is strongly tempted to give it up. The successful ones keep on, hoping against hope, and finish the story.

Thus, what is going on on the page correlates directly with what the author is doing in the real world.

How did I never notice this before?

Discovering a Poem by Ezra Pound

Daniel Swift discovered a little poem about bread and flowers by Ezra Pound, written on the back of an envelope. It shows something of his skill but also the inconsistencies of his philosophy. He spent WWII as a propagandist for fascists, condemning equality among nations and races, and was tried and acquitted for treason in 1946.

“And yet the method of his poetry,” Swift says, “insists that ideas can and must be translated across cultures. He mixes African myth with classical Greek epic, ancient Chinese poetry and the American blues.”

This sharply contrasted his poisonous radio diatribes, which Robert Wernick describes:

His scripts for Radio Roma covered political, economic, historical and cultural subjects, interspersed with personal reminiscences, all tumbling over one another in such impulsive and unpredictable order that some Italian officials suspected he was transmitting military secrets to the enemies of Italy in an unbreakable code. He was in fact expressing in his customary percussive prose style his deeply-held beliefs that only a currency reform under a system known as Social Credit would solve the world’s economic problems; that only an authoritarian regime like Mussolini’s could clear out the muck that was stifling modern life; and that something, preferably something violent, should be done to get rid of the Jews, the Bank of England, Franklin Roosevelt (“Stinky Rosenstein”), Winston Churchill, publishers, night-clubs, usury, birth control, muddy painters like Rembrandt, sloppy composers like Beethoven and Puccini (“Spewcini”). Along the way he would drop in gnomic utterances on the order of, “The laws of durable government have been known since the days of King Wen,” or, “The cultural stink betrayed the U. S. in 1863.”

Pound did spend time after the trial in a mental hospital, but I’m inclined to attribute his hateful ideas to simple human hubris more than mental illness. It doesn’t take much to hate other people.

Talk like Charlton Heston

It be “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” ye lubbers, and this here be a stub from what’s to my mind the most squared away and Bristol fashion version of Treasure Island ever filmed, the 1990 TV version starring Charlton Heston as Long John Silver, and a young Christian Bale as Jack Hawkins.

You can’t say fairer than that; ye has me affy-davy on it.

Nabeel Qureshi, 34, Has Died

The author of the brilliant Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi, has passed into glory. He was 34. May 100 more just like him rise up in this generation for the glory of the Lord.

Justin Taylor has a good summary of his life and Ravi Zacharias writes about Nabeel’s enduring faith, boundless energy, and the discovery of the stomach cancer that took his life.

“He was not just an evangelical; he was passionately evangelistic. He desired to cover the globe with that good news: that God’s forgiveness was available to all. When he spoke, he held audiences captive.”

‘Sword of Honor,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Sword of Honor

Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.

For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.

The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.

Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.

Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.

‘The Last Farewell’

You might be surprised to know that Sissel is not the only singer I’ve been obsessed with over the years. Though my obsession for Roger Whittaker was of a different sort. I never fantasized about marrying him, for instance.

“The Last Farewell” came out at a time in my life when I was susceptible to such a song, and it knocked me for a loop. I kept the radio on all the time, waiting for it to be played, until my roommate took me out to a store (Target, I think) to get the album. (The idea of buying music was still unfamiliar to me in those days.)

The song itself is actually about the 10 Years’ War of the 18th Century. The situation is supposed to be that an English sailor has fallen in love with a beautiful Caribbean woman. Now he has to sail off to fight. It was written in response to a sort of competition they held on a TV show Roger Whittaker hosted in England. People would send their original songs in, and if one passed muster Roger would sing it on the show.

Hope you enjoy it. Have a great weekend.

Eddison, Influence on Tolkien, Lewis,

Michael Dirda describes the little-known book he says inspired many great fantasy epics. “Published in 1922, the same year as so many modernist masterpieces, The Worm Ouroboros [by E. R. Eddison] combines elements of Homeric epic, Norse saga, and Jacobean drama, while its opulent style borrows the vocabulary and verve of Elizabethan English.”

Here’s a bit of Eddison’s voice from the book:

Dismal and fearsome to view was this strong place of Carcë, most like to the embodied soul of dreadful night brooding on the waters of that sluggish river: by day a shadow in broad sunshine, the likeness of pitiless violence sitting in the place of power, darkening the desolation of the mournful fen; by night, a blackness more black than night herself.

(via Prufrock News)

Skeleton in armor (not by Longfellow)

A number of people have drawn my attention to an article recently published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. I think I’ve seen it linked at least twenty times of Facebook: A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.

Several people asked my opinion of it. My initial responses were brief. I had a pretty good idea that there was more smoke than fire here, and that the article was going to get some pushback.

And I was right. This article is by none other than Judith Jesch, author of Women in the Viking Age, a standard work on its subject. I’ve never read the book, allergic as I am to feminist historians, but I think I’ll get it now. Because Ms. Jesch has articulated exactly my concerns. (Plus a lot more, because she’s you know, smarter than me.) Continue reading Skeleton in armor (not by Longfellow)

Speaking of Vikings…

Sorry about not posting yesterday. It was a day like no other, remarkable in its occurrences. There was no time, or energy, for blogging.

I don’t think I mentioned it before, because the event was a closed one, but I was invited to speak – twice – at a retreat for the pastors of my church body. They wanted me to first do an afternoon presentation on the Vikings, and then give a sermon to the pastors at the evening banquet.

Even I thought this rash, and probably ill-advised.

But I prepared my talks, and I was on the spot at the appointed hour. First I spoke about the conversion of Norway in the Viking Age, rehashing Fridtjof Birkeli’s revisionist arguments that the whole business was more peaceful than the saga writers suggest, and that Haakon the Good has been unjustly underrated by historians. I wondered whether any of the pastors would care about this, but in fact it turned out to be the first standing room only crowd I’ve ever addressed. The question and answer session afterwards was thoughtful and fun, and it ran overtime.

In the evening I gave a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, where St. Paul describes the church as being like a body, in which every member has a function to carry out. I related this to our church body’s history, and to its emphasis on lay participation back in the days when it was still a debatable question whether a layman would be allowed to lead a prayer in the pastor’s absence. I stressed the risks involved in this way of doing church, and urged them to become risk-takers. (Easy for me to say; I’m not a pastor.) It went over very well, and the response was positive.

Oh yes, the food was delicious, too. We bachelors don’t get that many really good meals that we can afford to overlook them.

Then I drove home (depending on my GPS to get me around a bridge under repair), a shell of my former self, because that was about all the human contact I could handle in one day.

Nestlé Now Majority Owner of Blue Bottle

This is big news in the business world of coffee. Nestlé, the makers of Nescafé and Taster’s Choice instant coffees, has put millions of dollars into buying a majority share of third wave coffee leader Blue Bottle. For many coffee lovers, Blue Bottle offers the kind of flavor they wish they could get everywhere. Now it will be owned by the people whose coffee they left to the seventies.

Naturally, Nestlé won’t nix this new coffee kid; it just wants the money.

And speaking of instant coffee, I just heard of a new company with what is rumored to be wonderful, flavorful, and instant coffee: Sudden Coffee. If you’d like to up your coffee convenience game with something tasty, this is for you.

‘Terminus,’ by Pete Brassett

Terminus

Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro series of police procedurals, set in Scotland, are in some ways hard to tell apart from other similar series I’ve been following, set in other parts of the British Isles. But this series manages to distinguish itself in some ways from the others. That’s partly because Munro is just a bit less curmudgeonly than other aging fictional detectives (he shows genuine concern for his colleagues, and often picks up the check in pubs), and partly because his (almost obligatory) female sidekick is an alcoholic who could crash her career at any moment.

At the beginning of Terminus, we find DI Munro in the hospital (or “in hospital,” as they say over there), after being hit while walking by a hit-and-run driver. He refuses, of course, to obey doctor’s orders, and escapes without being formally released. All indications are that the hit-and-run was intentional, related to a drug case Munro worked on earlier. The drug kingpin (a Norwegian!) has disappeared and is thought dead. But is he?

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated matter, the team learns that a shady lawyer has been falsifying the wills of elderly people, to his own profit. Before they finish kicking over rocks, some very surprising beasties will come scuttling into the light. And the whole thing culminates in a shocking (if slightly improbable) confrontation.

Good fun, and I didn’t notice any unacceptable language. Recommended.

On Not Watching Game of Thrones

Kevin DeYoung wrote a post in early August on how he couldn’t understand why Christians would choose to watch Game of Thrones. No amount of awesome cinematography, great dialogue, or storytelling could outweigh the soul-damage done by the graphic violence and exhibitionist nudity. DeYoung followed this post a couple weeks later with a list of reasons he still wasn’t convinced and how he didn’t need to watch the show to know it was something to avoid.

We’ve talked about the show briefly here and not in an entirely negative way. What little I know of the story does appeal to me. The castles, costumes, landscape, dragons, and walkers look amazing. But DeYoung’s points are largely the reasons I don’t want to see it.

I remember seeing a conversation with a couple actresses about how much the show featured female nudity and why couldn’t they expose more men. They were willing to run with that, even mock-campaign for it. Men should have equal access to being full frontal, they said.

DeYoung wrapped up his thoughts like this.

On occasion I’ve stumbled upon a few minutes of PG-13 movies I used to enjoy as a teenager (like the Naked Gun series). I’m appalled by the things that didn’t tweak my conscience then but do now. We are so awash in sensuality that many Christians have no idea how compromised they’ve become. . . . Only in a hyper-sexual, pornographic-saturated culture like ours could we think that graphic sex scenes are no big deal, or somehow offset by a brilliant screenplay.

‘Full Dark House,’ by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House

When John looked at the posturing actresses angling their best sides to the audience, he saw nothing but mannequins and painted flats. Arthur saw something fleeting and indefinable. He saw the promises of youth made flesh, something beautiful and distant, a spontaneous gaiety forever denied to a man who couldn’t open his mouth without thinking.

The premise is promising – a secretive, small unit within the London police apparatus, devoted to handling cases that fall outside the parameters of science and reason. The Peculiar Crimes Unit exists for cases with hints of witchcraft, the paranormal, and myth. The actual execution of Full Dark House, first in a series by Christopher Fowler, however, was at once delightful and disappointing to this reader.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s primary investigators are two men, very different but complementary. John May is handsome and affable, a man who prefers reason and hard evidence. Arthur Bryant is dumpy and socially awkward, fascinated with the esoteric and the arcane. In spite of their differences, they are devoted friends.

The story is told in “envelope” form. The outside envelope is set in the present day, when John is called to view the smoking ruins of their office, destroyed by a bomb. Arthur’s body is taken away from it. Grieving, John makes up his mind to discover the guilty party, despite the fact that he recently retired (improbably, in his 90s). Arthur (also improbably) had stayed on in the Unit.

John’s inquiries convince him that the bombing is related to their first case together, back when they were very young policemen promoted to detective ahead of schedule due to wartime manpower shortages. A ballerina was discovered murdered in the Palace Theatre – her feet cut off. A string of murders followed in the same building, in the midst of the even greater horror of the London Blitz. Their suspicions came to center on the theater’s owner, a Greek millionaire with a grudge to settle, but some surprises were in store.

What I liked best about Full Dark House was the prose. Author Fowler is an excellent stylist. He can put a sly (and hilarious) slant on seemingly ordinary sentences, making reading his work a delight. His characters and dialogue are also quite good.

But the plot didn’t work for me. I found the final resolution improbable and overly convoluted (and not because of paranormal elements). Also there were some subtle hints of leftist politics. And there’s the eternal problem for the Christian, so common in supernatural stories, of the treatment of witchcraft and the occult as positive (or at least neutral) forces.

So I can’t recommend Full Dark House to our readers, despite some superior qualities.

Tragic anniversary

I feel that I ought to post something about the 9-11 anniversary. But I really don’t want to.

The day makes me sad. And not just (though certainly in part) for the loss of innocent lives on that black day 16 years ago.

I’m sad because, for a short time, we thought we were all united as a nation again. “This,” some of us hoped, “will be the event that will turn America back to its founding faith (secular and sacred).”

But that did not happen. It didn’t happen because of one – essentially racist – conviction held by the Left today. That conviction is that only white people possess moral agency (the ability to choose and decide issues of right and wrong). For leftists, brown people and black people cannot act as moral agents. They are like children, or animals. Their sins are always really the fault of white people.

Because of that belief, we have failed to meet the challenge of 9-11. Our enemies hoped to frighten us into compliance. And, as far as I can see, they have succeeded.

I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture