"To my mind, plot is merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains. Plot is a marvelous device. But it's not superior to story, and not even necessary to it. "

- Ursula K. Le Guin
Today Is--Do You Care?

June 16 is National Fudge Day in America. While quacks in Dublin are raising pints to each other for Bloomsday, we right-minded, freedom-loving Americans are baking fudge, pouring it on our ice cream, browsing the varieties at specialty shops, and chucking last year's frost-burned fudge bars at errant congressmen.

But speaking of Bloomsday, Frank Delaney's podcast actually makes Joyce's Ulysses sound interesting. Maybe the key to enjoying Ulysses is listening to someone who's read it talk about it.

Wild Bill's Last Trail, by Ned Buntline



According to an anecdote, E. Z. C. Judson, better known as Ned Buntline, traveled west to Fort McPherson, Nebraska, to meet the famous pistoleer, Wild Bill Hickok, about whom he wished to write dime novels. He found him in his natural environment (a saloon), and rushed up to him, crying, “There's my man! I want you!” Hickok pulled a revolver on him and told him to be out of town in 24 hours.

Perhaps it's the memory of Wild Bill's nickel-plated Colt Navy .36 that accounts for the jaundiced view of the man we find in the deservedly forgotten little novel, Wild Bill's Last Trail.


Ned Buntline

I downloaded it to read on my Kindle because I'm a Wild Bill buff, and although I've read much about Buntline over the years (whatever they tell you in the movies, he never gave Wyatt Earp a long-barreled revolver) but had never savored the quality of his actual prose.

Well, it's quality prose, in the sense that pretentiousness is a quality, and floridity is a quality too.

“...there's a shadow as cold as ice on my soul! I've never felt right since I pulled on that red-haired Texan at Abilene, in Kansas. You remember, for you was there. It was kill or get killed, you know, and when I let him have his ticket for a six-foot lot of ground he gave one shriek—it rings in my years yet. He spoke but one word— 'Sister!' Yet that word has never left my ears, sleeping or waking, from that time to this.”

I must admit that, although I expected the purple prose and the improbable action, one aspect of the book surprised me. I had expected “white hats” and “black hats,” one-dimensional good guys and bad guys. But in fact, this is a Wild West where the deer and the ambivalent play. Wild Bill is arguably the real villain, and everybody who wants to kill him (there are many) seems to have a good reason. One sympathetic character—shades of Dances With Wolves—is not only a professional killer, but has made common cause with the Sioux and plans to join Sitting Bull.

The only explanation I can think of for all this is that Ned must have really held a grudge for the Fort McPherson incident. He also finds numerous opportunities to condemn Wild Bill's drinking (Ned Buntline made a sideline of lecturing on Temperance—utterly hypocritically, as he drank plenty himself),

I might add that the climax manages to be at once melodramatic, historically inaccurate, and confusing. If you can figure it out on the first reading, you're a better reader than I am.

Not a good book, Wild Bill's Last Trail is an interesting historical curiosity.

Literature vs. Trash

Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash," writes Evelyn Waugh, and he backs it up too. This link is particularly relevant to our blog because I posted a G.M.Hopkins poem to the moon earlier this week.

Friedman: Is the Book Dead? Who Cares!

Publishing is still innovating, says Jane Friedman, so even if one type of book becomes permanently out of print, other types will live on. Printed books won't go out of print any time soon, but other types me dominate the future market. Remember the first cell phones? What if today's Kindles and Nooks looked like that in 10-20 years compared to what they will become?

An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill (Col. W. F. Cody)



Another public domain book I downloaded to my Kindle is An Autobiography of Buffalo Bill. I'd call it a pretty good acquisition for anyone interested in the Wild West. It's not too long, and it reads pretty well for a Victorian memoir.

I personally have always viewed Buffalo Bill as a sort of supporting character to his more dangerous friend, Wild Bill Hickok. This is unfair, as Cody's lasting achievement, both in terms of his influence on the opening of the West, and on American culture in general, far outstrips Hickok's. One wouldn't be far off in calling Cody America's first great media celebrity. (Why he states in this book, without explanation, that Wild Bill ended up an “outlaw” is a mystery. But I understand they parted on bad terms.)

There's some dispute as to how much one may trust Cody's own account of his life. Some historians dispute, for instance, whether he ever rode for the Pony Express as he claims here (the documentary evidence is incomplete). But even adjusting for a showman's self-promotion, it's quite a life story. Left fatherless at an early age (his father was murdered by pro-slavery ruffians in Kansas), he provided for his mother and siblings by hunting and taking odd jobs as a wagon driver. Eventually his specialized skills and knowledge of the country made him a famous scout and buffalo hunter. This introduced him to influential men and to the press, opening doors to his ultimate career as a showman.

It's an exciting tale, full of adventures, chases, escapes, and battles. Much is left unsaid (such as his drinking problem and his marital problems), but nobody wrote tell-alls in those days.

He ends the book with a tribute to the American Indians, expressing his respect for them as friends and enemies. He recognizes their legitimate complaints, but sees it as self-evident that the white man could make better use of the land, and so was right to take it.

Young readers should be cautioned about racial depictions common at the time, but unacceptable today. Still, they ought to read it simply as a multicultural exercise.

Everyone Has a Big One

Off topic: The Big But


Moonrise

MoonriseI awoke in the Midsummer not to call night, in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaical fruit, lovely in waning but lustreless,
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow, of dark Maenefa the mountain;

A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him, entangled him, not quite utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me, eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

"Moonrise" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Stages in my decline

Those stitches in my head, installed last weekend in Story City, Iowa, came out today at my usual health provider. I wish it had been my splint coming off, but the splint is God's way of saying, “Have I got your attention yet?” And of course the answer is no, so two more weeks with that.

My regular PA wasn't available, so I saw another one, a very nice looking young woman. It was obvious she found me intensely attractive, but as is my wont I did not take advantage of her innocence.

I was down in Iowa for the weekend, not playing Viking but visiting family. They served steak for Sunday lunch, and my sister-in-law had to cut my meat up for me. Meanwhile, her daughter was cutting up her infant grandson's food as well.

Thus life turns on its slow lazy susan, and what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts.

On the way home I got a call from my realtor. He had been called by a lady in the gift shop at a rest stop in northern Iowa. Someone had found my wallet there (I still haven't figured out how I dropped it), and she found his number on a card in it. He'd called the dean of the Bible school, who'd called my former boss, who gave him my cell phone number. It added better than an hour to my trip, but I got the wallet back, all money intact.

This is the upper midwest. The rules are different here.


An Unusual or Sophisticated Way of Looking at the World

Joseph Epstein reviews a writing book and spends most of his time describing the points raised in another book.

After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.”

...

In its subtlest sense style is a way of looking at the world, and an unusual or sophisticated way of doing so is not generally acquired early in life. This why good writers rarely arrive with the precocity of visual artists or musical composers or performers. Time is required to attain a point of view of sufficient depth to result in true style.
(via Books, Inq)

The Real Gospel Isn't Sexy

Here's one of Jared Wilson's posts from the Wayback Machine: The new legalism is dissatisfied with Jesus. "The Bible is concerned, however, with our finding joy and peace and satisfaction in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is about living being Christ and dying being gain. The new legalism says living is gain and Christ is for after death. The real Gospel just isn't sexy."

Housekeeping: Any Sense of Order


I stopped reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping the other day, and I'm not sure I want to finish it. It's character-driven, but with few characters, and very light on plot. I think I can handle that well enough. I'm beginning to doubt myself on that point.

I'm bringing it up here because I ran across this review of Housekeeping on Good Reads. It's written by someone who claims to enjoy mostly plotless, character-driven literary novels. He writes:

When I say that I have limited access to these characters and this world, and that it ultimately felt untrue, here’s what I mean (this is Ruthie in the final pages of the book): I have never distinguished readily between thinking and dreaming. I know my life would be much different if I could ever say, This I have learned from my senses, while that I have merely imagined. Really? It’s character revelations and discoveries like this that pepper the book, and for each one that I could say ‘Yes, I get this, I’m with you,’ there were two or three like that quote above where I just couldn’t grasp the experience or couldn’t relate to the introspection.
I haven't thought I couldn't relate to the characters, but perhaps that's the reason I don't care about the story anymore. It may also be that the characters make me uncomfortable in a way that repels me. I don't feel a challenge in the book or tension I wish to resolve. I just don't like hanging around it, doing nothing.

Real-life Headlines

More from our humor desk--a collection of actual headlines which read like they came from The Onion, e.g. "Service Rat Licks Woman When It's Time To Take Meds" and "The Caperon, For When You Need An Apron But Also Might Need A Cape."

Of course, the second headline is crazy for multiple reasons.

Mad Libs Creator Has Bit the ____________ (n)



Mad Libs was my favorite thing to buy at my elementary school book fairs, if I had any money. I haven't done much with them since. I remember introducing them to my children, and somehow they didn't take to them well. Kids these days.

Mad Libs creator Leonard B. Stern, 88, has died. He has kicked the bucket, breathed his last, headed to the last round-up. Mr. Stern has resumed room temperature. He has cashed in his chips, dropped his oxygen habit, and is permanently out of print. I didn't know until reading this article that Mr. Stern was one of the men behind Get Smart, Operation Petticoat, and The Honeymooners. In fact, it was while writing for The Honeymooners that he had the idea for Mad Libs.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Stern from 2003, saying, "If we knew the shows were going to become classics we would have written them better."

Pressing Ourselves into a Cross-shaped Mold

Aaron Armstrong has a detailed review of a book I'm currently reading, Cruciform: Living the Cross-shaped Life by Jimmy Davis. I like the way Jimmy writes, and though his subject is essential Christianity, his approach is engaging. It's a good book for study and would make a good study guide for anyone wanting to deepen his faith. Jimmy blogs here.

One Page at a Time

Alan Jacobs on the joy of reading: "Don't turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens."

I Am So Cool. Don't you agree?

Researchers Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell tested thousands of college students with statements like "I insist upon getting the respect that is due me," and "I think I am a special person" to discover a 30% rise in narcissism from 1982 to 2006.

By 2006, 51% of 18- to 25-year-olds reported that "becoming" famous was an important goal to them—nearly five times more than those who said "becoming more spiritual" was important to them.
Some of us are famous for very good reasons, of course. Take myself, for example.

Should Life Be Boring?

Joseph Epstein writes on boredom in Commentary: “Some people claim never to have been bored. They lie. ... 'I have discovered that all evil comes from this,' wrote Pascal, 'man’s being unable to sit still in a room.'” (via Books, Inq.)

Words: playing with magic

Roy Jacobsen, over at Writing, Clear and Simple, posts an interesting short video on “The Power Of Words.” (Click on the link to see it; I'll throw him the traffic rather than embed it here.)

“The power of words” is a subject that intrigues me; I don't have a fully developed philosophy of it. As a writer I know from experience that finding the right words makes a huge difference. I feel (though I wouldn't be dogmatic on it) that there's a mystical power in some words. As I understand it, in Old Testament Hebrew there's no essential difference between a thing and its name. To name a thing gave you a certain power over it (thus Adam's naming of the beasts made him lord over them all). God's essential name, Y*H*W*H, is never to be spoken, in part because He cannot be mastered.

This sounds terribly primitive and superstitious to the modern mind, but is there not some echo of it in the Social Busybodies' incessant campaign to change the names of things? We just get used to one “appropriate” word for people of African descent, or indigenous American tribes, or people with mental or physical problems, and the busybodies suddenly announce a name change. I assume they do this because the magic they hoped to conjure up through their magic words has failed to materialize. So they need to try a new incantation.

Blogging note: I'll be out of town again tomorrow (personal, not Viking-related), so no post from me.

Mr Standfast, by John Buchan



Due to a combination of tight finances and the possession of a Kindle, I've been reading a lot of old books lately, of the kind you can get cheap or free in electronic versions. So I came to read, at last, Mr Standfast, John Buchan's second sequel to The 39 Steps.

Richard Hannay, hero of the series, is now a brigadier general in the British Army, fighting in France in World War I. As Mr Standfast begins, he has been summoned to the War Office for a special assignment. He is ordered to take on the character of a South African political radical, go to a village called Isham, and insinuate himself into a group of radicals he will find there. Further orders will follow.

The story that follows is rather discursive, ranging as far as Scotland and the battlefields of France. Hannay is reunited with several old friends and one very dangerous old enemy.

A point of interest here is that the author finally adds to the narrative the major element all film versions of The 39 Steps that I know of add at that earlier point in the saga—a love interest. Hannay meets, and falls in love with, a charming young woman who is also a spy. It's amusing to the modern reader to see the delicacy with which her part (a rather scandalous one at the time) is portrayed.

Buchan's portrayal of radicals and pacifists is remarkably evenhanded, in my opinion. There are German agents among them, but he makes it clear (perhaps even giving them more credit than they were really due) that most of them are patriotic in their own way—one of them even heroic.

James Bond can be reasonably called Richard Hannay's literary son, but the differences between the generations are telling. We read modern spy stories partly to be shocked, to see what technical wizardry or ruthless killing technique the agent will use to save his life this time. The Hannay books are written with moral purpose, and seem boy-scoutish to us. The title of the book comes from a character in The Pilgrim's Progress, and the whole story is, in a way, a commentary on that Christian classic, except that the subject is courage rather than faith. I enjoyed it.

Cautions for occasional racial and cultural comments which were acceptable then, but are so no more.

Klavan on Steyn

I got through my first day at work with a cast (I guess it's technically a splint) all right. The big nuisance is shifting my car.

Andrew Klavan (you probably weren't aware, but I'm a fan of his) writes a tribute to Mark Steyn today at Pajamas Media:

But perhaps I wasn’t made to be a doomsayer. The dying of things—of art forms and civilizations as well as people—seems to me the inevitable and steady state of the world: a point of view that leaves me prone more to melancholy than to panic. What I really care about now is the immortal parts of mortal enterprise. I want to get at the spirit of human business: the wisdom and vitality of a culture’s Great Moment preserved in the artifacts it leaves behind. The irrelevant—the stuff that doesn’t matter but is simply beautiful—the music, the poetry, the pictures and storytelling—the arts—that’s where all the joy is, and it’s the joy that seems more urgent to me as the years pass.


A Whole Bunch of Writing Tips

Steve Silberman is writing a book on "autism, the variety of human cognitive styles, and the rise of the neurodiversity movement." He's written articles in the past, but with the opportunity to put together 100k on a subject he is passionate about, he began to get nervous. He writes:

I’ve chosen to deal with my anxiety by tapping into the wisdom of the hive mind. I recently sent email to the authors in my social network and asked them, “What do you wish you’d known about the process of writing a book that you didn’t know before you did it?”
Several authors replied. Here's one from Cory Doctorow that I wrestle with: "Write even when the world is chaotic. You don’t need a cigarette, silence, music, a comfortable chair, or inner peace to write. You just need ten minutes and a writing implement." (via Books, Inq.)

X-Men: What's the Cost of Built-in Inequality?

"What will become of treasured notions about equality if we get to the point where genuine differences can be imprinted, demonstrated, even bar-coded? Will equality survive in a brave new world of built-in inequality?" asked James Pinkerton, writing about the new X-Men movie.

The intended message is harmony amidst difference, but the storyline is always discord, even violence, among visibly different factions. What does that tell us about the future of a speciated humanity?

Beyond the special effects, maybe “X-Men” is a already a hit (number 1 box office movie this past weekend) because it probes our deepest Darwinian feelings--and fears. If science succeeds in updating the definition of “fittest,” the survival of our particular species, in its current form, could be at risk. That’s great for future mutants, but not so great for the rest of us, and our current civilization.
Isn't this the sticking point of many sci-fi stories and shows one weakness of the naturalistic worldview the stories come from? We're all equal, humans and nonhumans. Even those bugs over there. Isn't that right, Chewy? Rwaaraaa!

Believe it or not, I was sober



My posts for the next few weeks are likely to be shorter than usual, as I'm handicapped by a hand cast.

And that's just one of my injuries.

It was a memorable weekend.

First there was Story City, IA, and its annual Scandinavian celebration. I didn't take any pictures down there, because they would have been pretty much the same as the previous years'. Good food, nice people, gracious hosts. Sam was there with his Viking boat. Consistency is nice.

It was windy though. As Denny and I were setting up our Viking tent (a rather old one belonging to the club), a gust caught it, and we lost our grip. It fell and sort of exploded. The ridge pole broke, the frames split, and part of it fell on my head. The result was a trip to the local clinic, and three stitches.

(By the way, my brother once found a record that our grandmother, who was born in Story City, had her appendix removed in the hospital there, about a century ago. I'm confident it was a different building, but I felt a bond.)

I left a couple hours early on Saturday, to participate in a distant relative's 100th birthday party, about 20 miles away. I walked in on them in full Viking garb, and managed to get away unscathed.

Sunday was Danish Day in Minneapolis, pictured above. Good weather, good crowd. At the very beginning of my very first fight, I got clouted on the right hand, breaking my index finger. The pain hasn't been too bad, but this one-handed keyboarding is a nuisance.

Interview with a Superagent

The man behind the Wylie Agency speaks to the Wall Street Journal Magazine about his aggressive deals and some of the needs in the publishing industry. "I think most of the best-sellers list is the literary equivalent of daytime television. This is a world in which Danielle Steel is mysteriously more valuable than Shakespeare," Wylie states.

A Sanctity in Shared Struggle

Sebastian Junger, author of the book WAR, has a short essay on the men he met in an Afghan outpost named Restrepo. "Soldiers are very good at giving things meaning," he says.

It's a Chair And a Shelf

And maybe a pushcart too, but it's definitely a conversation starter. You can put about 80 books in the Bookinist, the mobile chair for the ravenous reader. (via SB)

Reading As Often As Possible

“I cannot remember a time when I did not want to read as much as possible. Since my family did not have many books, my main sources were school books, gifts from relatives, and books borrowed from neighbors until I was old enough to check them out of the Butte Public Library, which I did as often and as many as possible.”
Patrick Kurp talks about the love for words, saying we have a master poet walking among us today in Helen Pinkerton. He brings her up in reference to an email he got from D.G. Myers, asking whether he thought printed books were positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead.

Hans Christian Andersen, in person



Tomorrow I head south to Story City, Iowa for their annual Scandinavian festival, and on Sunday I'll be at Danish Day at the Danish American Center in Minneapolis. So I won't be posting tomorrow. I'm sure Phil will have wonderful things to share, which will ease your keen sense of loss.

Speaking of Denmark, I thought it would be nice to share a few excerpts from J. R. Browne's report on his meeting with Hans Christian Andersen (I spelled it wrong last time), in his book The Land of Thor, which I reviewed yesterday.

Presently I heard a rapid step and the door was thrown open. Before me stood a tall, thin, shambling, raw-boned figure of a man a little beyond the prime of life, but not yet old, with a pair of dancing gray eyes and a hatchet-face, all alive with twists, and wrinkles, and muscles; a long, lean face, upon which stood out prominently a great nose, diverted by a freak of nature a little to one side, and flanked by a tremendous pair of cheek-bones, with great hollows underneath. Innumerable ridges and furrows swept semicircularly downward around the corners of a great mouth—a broad, deep, rugged fissure across the face, that might have been mistaken for the dreadful child-trap of an ogre but for the sunny beams of benevolence that lurked around the lips, and the genial humanity that glimmered from every nook and turn... a long, bony pair of arms, with long hands on them, a long, lank body, with a long black coat on it; a long, loose pair of legs, with long boots on the feet, all in motion at the same time—all shining, and wriggling and working with an indescribable vitality, a voice bubbling up from the vast depths below with cheery, spasmodic, and unintelligible words of welcome—this was the wonderful man that stood before me.... I would have picked him out from among a thousand men at first glance as a candidate for Congress, or the proprietor of a tavern, if I had met him any where in the United States....

“Come in! come in!” he said, in a gush of broken English; “come in and sit down. You are very welcome. Thank you—thank you very much. I am very glad to see you. It is a rare thing to meet a traveler all the way from California—quite a surprise. Sit down! Thank you!” Read the rest of this entry . . .

Tips from Twitter

FakeAPStylebook on Twitter hands us words to write by:

  1. Typographers will tell you to eliminate widows and orphans. Typographers are MONSTERS.
  2. "Kill your darlings" refers to editing overwrought copy. Our apologies to the surviving family of Gotham City's Printon "Scoop" Presser.
  3. To avoid being sued for copyright infringement, alter one letter in each word of quotes from literary works: "Carl mi Ishmail."
  4. Misplaced modifiers are always in the last place you look.
Priceless and free. This comes from the brilliant minds behind Write More Good.

Heroic Sacrifices

Nameless (Jet Li)

Here's a meditation on the movie Hero. Jason Morehead loves it,
saying the director appears to have developed "a visually ravishing exploration of the sacrifices that people are willing to make for causes larger than themselves, sometimes foolishly, and the human foibles that plague and hinder our attempts at nobility."

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