A Critic Is Like a Eunuch…

… in a bakery. Is that how it goes? Whatever.

A.O. Scott would disagree with that metaphor, as he explains in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism. Fangirl Alissa Wilkinson reviews it.

Like a parent reconciling bickering siblings, Scott contends that criticism and art don’t merely need one another. They exist only because of one another: “criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood…”

Doesn’t interpreting art ruin the experience? Can’t we just appreciate it for what it is? “This is an old and powerful—in some ways an unanswerable—argument against criticism, rooted in the idea that creative work should be taken on its own terms and that thought is the enemy of experience,” Scott writes. “And it is indeed precisely the job of the critic to disagree, to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.”

Because there are such things as good and bad metaphors, good and bad headlines, and compelling and lackluster stories. Critics can engage a piece on a different level than we have and challenge us to think about it and our reaction to it, which is close to, if not the same thing as, what artists do.

What Does Your Generosity Cost?


Perhaps you’ve heard of the friend who loves to cook, so he invites people to his apartment or they invite him to their house and he prepares a loving, wonderful meal they couldn’t buy anywhere in town. Often his friends bring the steak or salmon, but they can’t do all of the shopping for him because he knows exactly what he wants and orders some of the spices in bulk. His chief ingredient is himself.

Perhaps you live in a community of volunteers, a place where people help each other regularly. They’re led by a few who seem to have a gift of seeing needs and knowing how to respond. They’re always painting, carrying, cleaning, assisting, or delivering something with others and probably chewing on someone’s ear at the same time. These people generously give their time and spirit.

What does the generosity of these friends cost them? Some of this work can be quantified in dollars, but at least half of it cannot. It’s skill, love, kindness, and optimism. It doesn’t break down easily, if at all, into dollars, but it does cost something. It isn’t free.

If you were one of these people, cooking a meal or helping a neighbor, what would you say your generosity cost? Why do you do it? Why do others do it? What would your life look like if no one ever gave anything like this to you?

These may not be easy questions, because we tend to think kindness doesn’t cost us anything. Skill may be the work of a lifetime, but what does it really cost on a particular project? When we aren’t paying for it, we may not see it.

But nothing is free. Everything costs something to someone.

I’m sure many people do believe some things are actually free, because they refuse to think beyond themselves. But I think many more people understand that things do cost something to someone, and they don’t care what it costs so long as whoever-it-is continues to pay for them.

A Load of Cock and Bull

“If truth can protect us from jaguars, dragons, demons and preachers, why can’t it protect us from presidential candidates whose cock-and-bull stories rank right up there with the Incas’ and the Mundas’?” — Marty Kaplan, “Cock-and-Bull Candidates” Sept. 28, 2015

What’s the origin of the phrase “cock and bull,” meaning “a load of hooey” (Hoowey? How do you spell that)? One story is about a battle of hype betwixt two inns.

The Cock and the Bull were two of the main coaching inns in the town and the banter and rivalry between groups of travellers is said to have resulted in exaggerated and fanciful stories, which became known as ‘cock and bull stories’. The two hostelries did, and still do, exist.

I gather these inns do, in fact, still exist, but whenever you hear stories like this, you should respond, “Oh, really?” or “Is that so?” Whatever you say, don’t believe the story. They’re almost never true.

As The Phrase Finder points out, “What is missing from the Stony Stratford tale, and this is commonplace in folk-etymological sources that attempt to connect language with a particular place (see by hook and by crook, for example), is any link between the supposed origin and the meaning of the phrase. Why should patrons of the Cock and the Bull have been any more likely to make up fanciful tales than anyone else?”

The actual (or at least much more probable) origin of “cock and bull” is the French term “coq-a-l’âne.” I know. You were just about to say that yourself.

‘A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War,’ by Joseph Loconte

I’m not sure C. S. Lewis would have approved of this book. He maintained, on numerous occasions, that an author’s biography should be of no interest to the reader. Studying the lives of Milton or of Spenser, he insisted, would provide no insight into the meanings of their works beyond what an intelligent reader can gather from reading the plain texts.

Still, I think Joseph Loconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War serves a useful purpose. Amidst the tremendous popularity of the works of Tolkien and Lewis all these decades after their deaths, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about their artistic motivations (particularly in Tolkien’s case. I’m pretty sure a lot of fans of the movies think the books are about environmentalism). Loconte follows the two men’s lives, concentrating especially on their experiences in the First World War, and explains how the experience of battle (Lewis remembered thinking, “This is war. This is what Homer wrote about”) impressed itself on their memories and their imaginations. In the midst of the great disillusionment that swept Europe after the armistice, Tolkien kept his bearings, because he’d never fallen for over-optimistic enthusiasms like eugenics but had put his faith in eternal things. And in time he was able to help his friend Jack Lewis to understand as well.

For fans unfamiliar with the lives and the thought behind the books of these two men, A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War may be very illuminating. It’s well written and well researched. I recommend it.

‘Sin Walks into the Desert,’ by Mat Ingwalson

I’m not entirely sure what to say about Sin Walks into the Desert by Matt Ingwalson. The book’s concept was interesting enough to persuade me to download it, and I read it to the end (something I’m less and less willing to do with sub-par books). So this is a well-crafted and interesting novel. Very noir, in a modern vein, which is to say, kind of goth.

Sin (short for Anderson, his first name) is a… well it’s hard to figure what he is. He’s a loner. He looks and dresses and has tattoos like any ordinary punk, and he’s fairly neurotic. But he has special skills. As a boy (not that long ago) he was on the verge of murdering someone when his uncle (an FBI agent) summoned just in time by his worried parents, swept him up, took him home with him, and began training him to turn his natural gift for violence to useful purposes. But Sin never joined the FBI, or even the military. It isn’t made clear how he makes his living, unless I missed it.

Anyway, his uncle, whom he calls el Viejo, has disappeared, and friends fear something bad has happened to him. So Sin sets out to track the captors, employing the formidable skills he learned from the old man. This leads to a pretty shattering revelation, when all is said and done and a few people are dead.

If you like your books dark, you’ll like this one. I found Sin himself hard to like, but the writing and characterization are good, laid down in spare, downbeat prose.

Cautions for the usual. Moderately recommended, only because of my ambivalence about the main character.

Hoo’s sorry gow?

The other day, for reasons I don’t recall, the word “hoosegow” entered my mind. If you’re like me, you know it mostly from Westerns. It’s what crude cowboys called a jail. “Throw him in the hoosegow!”

It occurred to me to wonder about the origins of the word. Off the top of my head, I guessed it was one of those American borrowings from Dutch, like “boss.” The “hoose” element sounds like the Germanic “hus” or “huis,” meaning house.

So I looked it up. Turns out it’s not Dutch but Spanish, from the word “jusgado,” meaning jail. One of those cowboy borrowings from the Mexicans, like high heeled boots and sombreros.

And now you know too. Because I’m generous. Not a master of languages, but generous.


A Spanish-speaking friend tells me jusgado does not mean jail, but a male prisoner in a jail. This means dictionary.com is mistaken. I want my money back.

Women Who Wrote Mysteries

No voracious reader of detective fiction will complain [about Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s: A Library of America Boxed Set], since these were all better-than-average books of their era, which was no mean feat in the days that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler defined the new prose of the hard-boiled American crime novel. It’s just that the uniting theme—declared in the book’s introduction and echoed in its many reviews—is that women authors of those days were unfairly oppressed by mystery publishers and neglected by mystery readers, but those women nonetheless managed to create, unnoticed, the never-seen-before genre of the psychological and domestic crime story.

Joseph Bottum says this theme is nonsense (via Prufrock).

‘The Three Hostages,’ by John Buchan

It was around 1980 that I caught a production of John Buchan’s The Three Hostages on PBS. The dramatization was a one-off; I don’t think that particular actor ever played Richard Hannay again. But it intrigued me enough to motivate me to read The 39 Steps, the first novel in the series. That made me a lifelong Buchan fan, but oddly enough I never read The Three Hostages until just now.

It’s good. I’d say it’s one of the stronger entries in a classic series.

In The Three Hostages, World War I is recently over. Richard Hannay, British intelligence agent extraordinaire, has settled down on a farm in Oxfordshire with his wife Mary (also a retired agent), and their small son. He looks forward (or thinks he does) to living the quiet life of a country squire. But then he receives an appeal for help. Three people, one of them a small boy, have been taken hostage. There is no clue as to the perpetrator. Reluctantly, Hannay agrees to look into it. Gradually he begins to suspect the last person anyone would suspect – a rising young politician who has endeared himself to nearly every influential person in London. A hopeless-seeming but successful investigation (hypnotism features strongly) is capped by a deadly man-to-man showdown in the Scottish highlands.

I was surprised – once again – by what a fine author John Buchan was. Among all the writers of the English “bulldog” school, nobody came near him when it came to writing readable prose. Richard Hannay is a vivid and likeable character, and all his friends are just as believable (his enemies, perhaps, a little less). He especially distinguishes himself in his descriptive passages, which are wonderfully done (this pleased me especially in the short section set in Norway).

Modern readers will be put off by racial and ethnic slurs which were a normal part of English life at the time. For some reason Hannay makes much of the villain having a round head, which he sees as un-English and sinister. On the other hand, those same readers will appreciate the active part Mary Hannay takes in the action.

If you’re open-minded enough to tolerate temporal diversity, The Three Hostages is great fun.

Chad Bird on the novelist as priest

Gene Edward Veith at Cranach links to an article by Chad Bird on how fiction brought him to Christian faith.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, however, something else was happening. The God against whom I had rebelled, and from whom I was fleeing, began to use these very works of fiction to beckon me home. As it turned out, the novels in which I had sought escape, became part of the means whereby the Lord rescued me from my own death.

Publisher Pulls Book of Smiling Slaves

For several months, the publisher Scholastic had plans to release a book this year called A Birthday Cake for George Washington in which slaves in the Washington estate scrambled to make a cake after running out of sugar. School Library Journal said the beautifully illustrated book painted a “dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners.” Particularly troubling was that the slave were shown to be smiling.

Activists on one side are pleased the book has been pulled, but activists on the other side are saying they’re shocked.

The National Coalition Against Censorship and the PEN American Center argued in a official complaint, “Those who value free speech as an essential human right and a necessary precondition for social change should be alarmed whenever books are removed from circulation because they are controversial.”

I have to wonder what Scholastic was thinking when they edited, reviewed, and produced this book.  Were they of the same mind as the NCAC to publish anything of a certain quality? And what of that mindset; is no topic, view, or depiction of history unpublishable? If Scholastic had rejected this book upon its proposal would that have been the same censorship they are decrying now?

Freedom of speech or expression is a great principle within a sound moral framework where truths and recognized authorities can be appealed to. But secularism and its attending ills have pulled the banner of freedom from its pole and dragged it with them wherever they go, saying freedom is meant to be sullied, torn, and battered because it is a virtue on its own. Liberty in law is bound by the privileges of patriarchy, but freedom means whatever the ___ I want or anyone else wants with the enabling of the rest of us. That’s unsustainable.

Nicholas Sparks’ Satisfied Simpletons

Read this review of Nicholas Sparks‘ latest novel and his work at large. Thank you, Heather Havrilesky, for these words (via Prufrock).

Young neurotics are sometimes haunted by the recurring impression that dumb people are much happier than they are. Sparks’s oeuvre seems to suggest that this fabled shadow world of earnest, satisfied simpletons is real. All you need to do to be contented is power down the gears of your useless, overworked brain, the author tells us. Go make some tea and sit on the porch and marvel at the turn of events that brought us to this point, already!

It’s strange how literary and commercial works continue to adhere stubbornly to two opposite poles: poetically expressed skepticism versus clumsy, cliché-driven optimism. If our next great American novelist injected Sparks-style earnestness and stubbornly upbeat resolutions into the next great American novel, would we recognize that novel’s greatness?

Several things

When you’re a wit, you can be humble. When, like me, you’re a half-wit, you have to brag about it.

Today on F*cebook, a female friend who runs a small business announced that she’d just gotten a call from a place she hadn’t heard from before – the Yukon.

I responded, “You got the Call of the Wild.”

[Cue laugh track.]

I don’t know what I’d do for fun if I didn’t amuse myself.

Here’s where I’m at in the Long March toward my Master’s Degree. I’m formulating a theme for my capstone project.

It’s a humbling experience. Everybody seems to have a fairly clear idea what a capstone project is, except me.

Apparently it’s a research project, but a small one. Targeted, constrained. We do the research, we present the short paper, we get our sheepskins if it’s good enough, and they hold a secret ceremony in which they bestow on us the Sacred Rubber Sorter Finger.

At this point I’ve got a general direction, but not a specific topic.

I fear I’m going to have to do some actual research, to clarify my thinking.

Yes, it’s as bad as that.

Oh yes, I’m going to get my last vestigial hip replaced later this month. Expect not to expect me for a while at some point.

Origins of Ghetto Culture

Dr. Carl Ellis describes what he calls “ol’ redneck culture” in the South and how it produced a group of African-American underachievers who celebrate the ghetto. “The values of this culture,” he says, “produced self-sabotaging, self-destructive behavior patterns, including: drunkenness, gang formation, ‘talkin’ trash,’ a scornful attitude toward education and boisterous exhibitionism, to name a few.”

[The achievers] who participated in the great northern migration generally succeeded in spite of racial discrimination in housing and employment. However those who continued to wallow in the ol’ redneck culture became what I call “non-achievers.” Unlike the achievers, they generally did not succeed when they migrated to the urban North. Thus, for many non-achievers, the ol’ redneck culture morphed into what we now recognize as “ghetto culture.” The values that governed their lives included devaluing work as a means of getting ahead, instant gratification with a disregard for the future, and crisis orientation with no planning.

Is Free Shipping Killing Amazon?

Hey, did you hear Amazon may be opening several brick-and-mortar bookstores? Someone said it, but whether it’s true is another thing.

Is the free two-day shipping available to Amazon Prime members hurting the company? When customers buy something small, like a jar of Nutella, and choose their free two-day shipping option as Prime members can, it costs the company a good bit. Amazon is working on multiple schemes for getting their products in your hands quickly, but their current schemes are soaking them. Perhaps if they can only drown all of their competition, they’ll start making money.

‘Last Train Out,’ by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In the wake of my enjoyment of E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Great Impersonation (reviewed a few inches below), I bought another of his vintage thrillers, Last Train Out. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Unlike Impersonation, which came near the beginning of the author’s career and involved the beginnings of World War I, this book was written about 1940 and is set at the start of World War II. I’m happy to report that the author’s eye had not dimmed, nor his natural force abated in the intervening years.

Charles Mildenhall is a young Englishman in the diplomatic service. He’s been found to be valuable in troubleshooting crises, so he flits about and puts his hand in wherever trouble pops up. In that capacity he enters Vienna around 1938. He makes the acquaintance of Leopold Benjamin, an immensely wealthy and much respected Jewish banker. Charles is invited to a dinner party at Benjamin’s palatial home, hoping to get a look at Mr. Benjamin’s fabled art collection. Alas, he is told that it’s not available to view at the moment. Mr. Benjamin’s American secretary, Patricia Grey, explains to him, confidentially, that efforts are being made to get the treasures out of the country before the Nazis march in. He almost meets Marius Blute, a mysterious international dabbler who is assisting Mr. Leopold.

Returning to Vienna a few months later, Charles finds both Patricia and Marius in desperate conditions, penniless, cut off, and with their job unfinished. Charles immediately puts his own funds at their disposal, and happily volunteers (partly because he’s fallen in love with Patricia) to assist them in the desperate enterprise of getting the paintings, packed in coffins, to Switzerland by rail. Both Germans and organized crime figures are hot on their heels.

The realism level isn’t very high, but it never is for this generation of thriller (come to think of it, all thrillers are unrealistic. Different generations just demand different kinds of realism in different subject areas). The final resolution might be seen as a kind of deus ex machina, but it’s been fairly set up by the author, though it’s perhaps a little far-fetched. (But certainly no more far-fetched than Bruce Willis driving a truck into a helicopter in flight.)

It should also be noted, for those who care, that the two main female characters in this book are more active and assertive than the women in his earlier work.

Pretty high quality fun. Nothing objectionable. Recommended.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture