September 20, 2017

An autumn parenting question

OK, this is really random, but I’m looking to y’all for a discussion about an odd parenting issue that has come up. I have also posted this in Another Place, where it’s mostly different people reading, so if you’ve already commented there, feel free to move along, you aren’t missing anything new.

Anyway, I asked the Youngest Member (now ten years old!) what he wanted to dress as for Hallowe’en, and he said he wanted to go as Buck Godot (zap gun for hire). I pointed out to him that there was no possibility anyone would get the reference or recognize who he was supposed to be, and he was perfectly happy with that. So that part’s OK.

But here’s a thing… The Buck Godot series, like a lot of Phil Foglio’s stuff, is not appropriate for ten-year-old kids. Well, and some of his stuff isn’t really appropriate for anybody, in my opinion, but this is just… smutty. Not explicit, but smutty. Nobody actually has sex, but everyone talks about it a lot. The women (the human women, anyway, and some of the female alien as well) are ridiculous balloon-boobed and balloon-butted sexpots, and there are lots of jokes about them wanting to sleep with various other people (and things). There is a continuing character that is a madam at a brothel, and a subplot about an anti-libido bioweapon. That sort of thing.

So. On the one hand, I am some point going to have to sit down and chat with my boy about representations of women in comics and other issues. He’s been around such conversations for years, but it seems as if he hasn’t thought to apply them to his own reading. And on another hand, we probably need to keep a sharper eye on his culture-consumption. As a second child, we have been far more blasé about his reading habits than his older sister’s, and we haven’t had so many conversations about the contents of the books.

But I’m also thinking, on the third and penultimate hand, that the only reason that the other parents in the neighborhood would not look askance at us letting the boy wear a Buck Godot costume is that they have never heard of Buck Godot. I would certainly look askance at anyone else letting their ten-year-old child wear a costume from some similarly smutty bit of media.

On the other other other hand, Buck Godot is a hero who is of fairly similar body-type to my son. There probably aren’t a lot of those around. We haven’t yet discussed that aspect, but I can’t imagine that it’s a coincidence. My boy would look _awesome_ in a Buck Godot costume, and we could totally make all the important bits of it, and it would be absolutely effing hilarious. To me, anyway.

So: reactions? What do y’all think?

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,

May 29, 2017


Dirge for a Soldier

by George Henry Boker

Close his eyes; his work is done!
What to him is friend or foeman?
Rise of moon, or set of sun,
Hand of man, or kiss of woman?
Lay him low, lay him low
In the clover or the snow!
What cares he? He cannot know:
Lay him low!

As man may, he fought his fight,
Proved his truth by his endeavor;
Let him sleep in solemn night,
Sleep forever, and forever.
Lay him low, lay him low
In the clover or the snow!
What cares he? He cannot know:
Lay him low!

Fold him in his Country's stars,
Roll the drum and fire the volley!
What to him are all our wars,
What but death bemocking folly?
Lay him low, lay him low
In the clover or the snow!
What cares he? He cannot know:
Lay him low!

Leave him to God's watching eye,
Trust him to the hand that made him.
Mortal love weeps idly by:
God alone has power to aid him.
Lay him low, lay him low
In the clover or the snow!
What cares he? He cannot know:
Lay him low!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 17, 2016

PinFic, I suppose

We were chatting with My Perfect Non-Reader about the safety-pin the other night, and I showed her the #kidlitsafetypins stuff. She was charmed—and although we did discuss my ambivalence about the whole safety-pin thing, she immediately began drawing her own fan art of her favorite characters with safety pins. Hermione Granger was first, and I agree with My Perfect Non-Reader that Hermione would not only wear a safety pin but aggressively encourage others to wear them. Then she wanted to draw a bunch of other Potterverse characters wearing safety pins, and I thought… hmmm. Not so much. I love Albus Dumbledore and all, but he certainly doesn’t believe in safety. Minerva McGonagall? Really? With a pin? She does very little about the bullying in the school, for one thing, and for another subtle signals aren’t really her thing. Molly Weasley, yes. I can perhaps imagine that Sybill Trelawny would choose to wear one, but surely that is about the problems with the safety-pin worn as a symbol, and not really appropriate. I’d like to think that Mrs. Figg would wear a pin, but I suspect she would ask Dumbledore first, and I suspect that he would discourage it as taking on an unnecessary risk.

Her second drawing was the Paternoster Gang from Doctor Who, mostly because she likes them. And, well, I can more or less accept that Jenny would want to wear a pin and care for those vulnerable people who come to the door. Vastra, much less so, and Strax is after all Strax. It’s entertaining and perhaps moving to think of the gang making a statement of inclusivity—after all, they represent minorities themselves, in a way—but in point of fact, the idea that someone in danger from being attacked because of their race or gender identity or religion should seek succor from the Paternoster Gang is… I think not entirely true to the characters as depicted in canon. Sarah Jane Smith, yes, would wear a pin, I think, at least in her later (spin-off) years.

So. Who from children’s literature or fandom would actually wear a safety-pin? Who, by their actions in the story, deserve to have Your Humble Blogger moved by their depiction wearing a safety-pin? Charlotte, of course, would weave one into her web where no-one would notice it except those who need to. The Tin Woodman was suggested, and I think that’s an excellent choice from the Oz stories—Glinda or Ozma are sufficiently soft-hearted, but the pin must mean more than a soft heart, and besides, I cannot wrap my head around an absolute monarch wearing a subtle signal of inclusiveness, fairy or no. I think that Frog would probably wear one and Toad would probably not, although they are friends, and perhaps I am too hard on Toad. I have to think that Cordelia Naismith would wear a safety-pin, although it is just as likely that she would simply assume that everyone knew she would intervene. Again, subtle signals not really her thing. The Professora Vorthys, maybe, is the person from the Vorkosiverse I most imagine actually using such a thing in the way I think they are intended. Mr. Tumnus would not dare wear a safety-pin, poor soul, but Mrs. Beaver would, I think, and it's possible that Mr. Beaver would under her compulsion. The Giving Tree would of course create safety pins out of its very marrow, and all for naught. Elrond… well, Rivendell is a safe haven of sorts, but as he doesn’t leave it, I’m not sure there would be any point in him wearing one. Bilbo Baggins, during the years of his retirement to the Shire, yes, I could see that. Surely the Brown family of Paddington Bear fame would not wear safety pins; many of the books draw on their own wonder that they are willing to put up with this Bear. On the other hand, Mr. Gruber, yes, he would wear a safety pin.

It is my belief that Mrs. Hudson would wear a safety-pin and that John Watson would not notice and Sherlock Holmes would not care—I admit that I might have a difficult time defending Mrs. Hudson’s generosity toward minorities of various kinds, but she doesn’t close the door on the Irregulars, either. Jo Bhaer (née March)? Speaking out against intolerance and exclusion, yes. Actually being willing to admit to her school some Muslim or transgender kids without pressuring them to, well, convert? It’s not easy to imagine.

Of course, Jo Bhaer is in and of her time; the costs to admitting Muslims would have been much greater than anything a safety-pin wearer would be likely to bear in our world right now (the future being unknowable). Barrayar has no religious minorities, but the cost to protecting a woman from assault or a crippled child from bullying might well be immediate death. Oz has its own issues, of course. What would it mean to wear a safety pin in other worlds, in other times? Perhaps musing about that may make it more likely that I will figure out what it means (to me, at least) to wear a safety-pin in my own world and time.

I’m interested in your takes, Gentle Readers: which of your favorite fictional characters would wear a safety-pin?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2016

Armistice Day

In an Office, in Paris

The news came through over the telephone:
All the terms had been signed: the War was won:
And all the fighting and the agony,
And all the labour of the years were done.
One girl clicked sudden at her typewriter
And whispered, ‘Jerry’s safe’, and sat and stared:
One said, ‘It’s over, over, it’s the end:
The War is over: ended’: and a third,
‘I can’t remember life without the war.’
And one came in and said, ‘Look here, they say
We can all go at five to celebrate.
As long as two stay on, just for today.’

It was quite quiet in the big empty room
Among the typewriters and little piles
Of index cards: one said, ‘We’d better just
Finish the day’s reports and do the files.’
And said, ‘It’s awf’lly like Recessional,
Now when the tumult has all died away.’
The other said, ‘Thank God we saw it through;
I wonder what they’ll do at home today.’

And said, ‘You know it will be quiet tonight
Up at the Front: first time in all these years.
And no one will be killed there any more,’
And stopped, to hide her tears.
She said, ‘I’ve told you; he was killed in June.’
The other said, ‘My dear, I know; I know …
It’s over for me too … My man was killed,
Wounded … and died … at Ypres … three years ago …
And he’s my Man, and I want him,’ she said,
And knew that peace could not give back her Dead.

May Wedderburn Cannan

May 30, 2016


The Song of the Mud

This is the song of the mud.

The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the naked hills like satin,
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys,
The frothing, squirting, spurting liquid mud that gurgles along the road-beds,
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of horses.
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the War Zone.

This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu.
His coat is of mud, his poor great flapping coat that is too big for him and too heavy.
His coat that once was blue, and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes it.
This is the mud that clothes him;
His trousers and boots are of mud;
And his skin is of mud;
And there is mud in his beard.

His head is crowned with a helmet of mud,
He wears it well.
He wears it as a King wears the ermine that bores him;
He has set a new style in clothing,
He has introduced the chic of mud.

This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle,
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome.
The slimy, inveterate nuisance.
That fills the trenches,
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers.
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts.
That spreads itself over the guns,
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy, voluminous lips,
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting of shells,
And slowly, softly, easily,
Soaks up the fire, the noise, soaks up the energy and the courage.
Soaks up the power of armies,
Soaks up the battle;
Just soaks it up and thus stops it.

This is the song of the mud, the obscene, the filthy, the putrid.
The vast liquid grave of our Armies;
It has drowned our men;
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead;
Our men have gone down into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing.
Our fine men, our brave, strong young men,
Our glowing, red, shouting, brawny men,
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it.
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence,
Relentlessly it drew them down, sucking them down,
They have been drowned there in thick, bitter, heaving mud;
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them!
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly.
There is not a trace of them.
There is no mark where they went down.
The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.

This is the song of the mud,
The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin;
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys.
Mud, the disguise of the war zone;
Mud, the mantle of battles;
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers:
This is the song of the mud.

Mary Borden, 1917

November 11, 2015


This song has been an earworm for me over the last month or so, on and off, so instead of my usual practice of posting a war poem for Armistice Day, here are the words of the great Yip Harburg:

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that Yankee-Doodly-dum
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Say, don’t you remember, they called me “Al”
It was “Al” all the time
Why don’t you remember, I’m your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 26, 2014


May 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the wounded trees
Wait with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun, and even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in their hands
Eyes in their eyes
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things
And changing skies.
—Charlotte Mew

November 11, 2013


“Uncle Edward’s Affliction”, by Vernon Scannell

Uncle Edward was colour-blind;
We grew accustomed to the fact.
When he asked some one to hand him
The green book from the window-seat
And we observed its bright red cover
Either apathy or tact
Stifled comment. We passed it over.
Much later, I began to wonder
What curious world he wandered in,
Down streets where pea-green pillar-boxes
Grinned at a fire-engine as green;
How Uncle Edward’s sky at dawn
And sunset flooded marshy green.
Did he ken John Peel with his coat so green
And Robin Hood in Lincoln red?
On country walks avoid being stung
By nettles hot as a witch’s tongue?
What meals he savoured with his eyes:
Green strawberries and fresh red peas,
Green beef and greener burgundy.
All unscientific, so it seems:
His world was not at all like that,
So those who claim to know have said.
Yet, I believe, in war-smashed France
He must have crawled from neutral mud
To lie in pastures dark and red
And seen, appalled, on every blade
The rain of innocent green blood.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 27, 2013


“His Mate”
by Rev. G.A. Studdert Kennedy

There’s a broken battered village
  Somewhere up behind the line,
There’s a dug-out and a bunk there,
  That I used to say were mine.

I remember how I reached them,
  Dripping wet and all forlorn,
In the dim and dreary twilight
  Of a weeping summer dawn.

All that week I’d buried brothers,
  In one bitter battle slain,
In one grave I laid two hundred.
  God! What sorrow and what rain!

And that night I’d been in trenches,
  Seeking out the sodden dead,
And just dropping them in shell holes,
  With a service swiftly said.

For the bullets rattled round me,
  But I couldn’t leave them there,
Water-soaked in flooded shell holes.
  Reft of common Christian prayer.

So I crawled round on my belly.
  And I listened to the roar
Of the guns that hammered Thiepval,
  Like big breakers on the shore.

Then there spoke a dripping sergeant,
  When the time was growing late,
‘Would you please to bury this one,
  ’Cause ’e used to be my mate?’

So we groped our way in darkness
  To a body lying there.
Just a blacker lump of blackness.
  With a red blotch on his hair.

Though we turned him gently over,
  Yet I still can hear the thud.
As the body fell face forward.
  And then settled in the mud.

We went down upon our faces,
  And I said the service through,
From ‘I am the Resurrection’
  To the last, the great ‘adieu.’

We stood up to give the Blessing,
  And commend him to the Lord,
When a sudden light shot soaring
  Silver swift and like a sword.

At a stroke it slew the darkness,
  Flashed its glory on the mud,
And I saw the sergeant staring
  At a crimson clot of blood.

There are many kinds of sorrow
  In this world of Love and Hate,
But there is no sterner sorrow
  Than a soldier’s for his mate.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2012


Glory of Women, by Siegfried Sassoon

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
     O German mother dreaming by the fire,
     While you are knitting socks to send your son
     His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

from Counter-Attack and Other Poems

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 6, 2012

Election Day, November, 2012

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 2, 2012

RIP Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy has died.

I think, perhaps, that Margaret Mahy is one of the children’s book writers who, for whatever reason, don’t get their names associated with their books. It’s not that kids don’t love her stuff, it’s that they don’t think of her stuff as Margaret Mahy books, to be found under M. Is this because she doesn’t illustrate it herself? So The Boy Who Was Followed Home doesn’t look like The Three-Legged Cat which doesn’t look like The Witch in the Cherry Tree which doesn’t look like The Rattlebang Picnic which doesn’t look like The Horrendous Hullaballoo. None of which look like Seventeen Kings and Forty-Two Elephants. They sound similar, in a bunch of ways, but not necessarily in ways that the average picture-book reader (or read-to-er) would recognize. So a kid could love all of those, or The Great White Man-Eating Shark, or Keeping House, or The Queen’s Goat or any of the other marvelous books without thinking about them as Margaret Mahy books. Not the way that people think of Dr. Seuss books or Maurice Sendak books or Eric Carle books.

Or maybe Ms. Mahy really isn’t very popular here. It looks as if many, if not most of her books for older kids are not (easily) available here. And just because Your Humble Blogger loves a thing does not mean that the thing is widely beloved. But that would be crazy in this case—Margaret Mahy’s books are wonderful, wonderful things. That is true, by the way, of the picture books and also of the books for older kids; she was one of very few writers who wrote chapter books, middle-grades and young adult, all extraordinarily well, in addition to the picture books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 28, 2012



by Keith Douglas

The Colonel in a casual voice
spoke into the microphone a joke
which through a hundred earphones broke
into the ears of a doomed race.

Into the ears of the doomed boy, the fool
whose perfectly mannered flesh fell
in opening the door for a shell
as he had leant to do at school.

Conrad luckily survived the winter:
he wrote a letter to welcome
the auspicious spring: only his silken
intentions severed with a single splinter.

Was George fond of little boys?
we always suspected it,
but who will say: since George was hit
we never mention our surmise.

It was a brave thing the Colonel said,
but the whole sky turned too hot
and the three heroes never heard what
it was, gone deaf with steel and lead.

But the bullets cried with laughter,
the shells were overcome with mirth,
plunging their heads in steel and earth—
(the air commented in a whisper).

El Ballah, General Hospital, 1943

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 10, 2012

We Are All in the Dumps

One of the nice things about the online social network stuff is that sometimes, when a piece of news occurs, I can peek into the reactions of my acquaintances (and their acquaintances, and sometimes of perfect strangers) and see how they overlap with mine. A couple of days ago, I was reading posts and status updates reacting to the news that Maurice Sendak has died.

It seems that Where the Wild Things Are is the touchstone book for a generation and a half or so, and it has my favorite book in the whole wide world for a couple of years, now. It’s a wonderful, wonderful work, and people think Maurice Sendak as the man who wrote Wild Things, that’s wonderful. But YHB has written about the book before, so I thought I would mention a few others of his that have touched me.

It doesn’t have quite the heft of Wild Things, but for both visuals and story, I think In the Night Kitchen is a better book—it wasn’t until I had read and reread Wild Things a million times that it took first place in my personal ranking. Back in 2004, when my Perfect Non-Reader was not yet five, I said that Night Kitchen is the best children’s book ever, and it is a remarkable work in every way. Also, the Bakers (who bake ’til the dawn so that we can have cake in the morn) are at the pinnacle of picture book characters. It is sometimes considered as part of a trilogy with Wild Things and Outside Over There; three books that feature the child protagonist on a fantastical journey, in extraordinary danger, and then returned home. Of course, description fits a lot of books, so I have never been satisfied with the idea of the three as a trilogy. They are very different books, with very different themes, both visually and spiritually. Night Kitchen is the most light-hearted, possibly the most light-hearted of all his books (hmm, not true, must go back to that) and the visuals and the rhythm imbue it with a swing that is utterly unlike the other two. Which is to say: I have never cried while reading Night Kitchen.

I didn’t see any mentions of the illustrated nursery rhymes. I know some people who are very fond of Higgledy Piggledy Pop, which has (if I remember correctly) the illustrated rhyme at the end. My favorite of those is We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, a truly remarkable book, very serious and powerful, and I think the most underrated (or perhaps underloved) of his books. I didn’t like Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water as much, nor what I vaguely remember as a book of Mother Goose rhymes. But it seems like not so many people have seen All in the Dumps, and it’s very much worth seeking out.

What did turn up in comments was the Nutshell collection and its adaptation as Really, Rosie; the books/songs are Alligators All Around, Pierre, One Was Johnny, and the book that was YHB’s favorite in 1973, Chicken Soup with Rice. These are wonderful little books, and while they aren’t Great Big Books, they are wonderful little books, and it’s a Good Thing to have some wonderful little books around the house. Also, both Chicken Soup and Alligators are light-hearted books; Maurice Sendak gets (well-deserved) credit for children’s books that don’t necessarily need to be light-hearted, but then sometimes light-hearted is what you looking for.

Another thing that turned up among my friends’ memories that didn’t turn up so much in the articles and obituaries were the illustrations for books that Mr. Sendak didn’t write. The Little Bear series, of course, is a big deal for a lot of people, and the instantly recognizable illustrations are a big part of that. There are dozens of books with Sendak illustrations, and often the illustrations are a big part of the emotional attachment, either from reading as a kid or from reading aloud to kids. No Fighting, No Biting and What Do You Say, Dear fall into this category for me, and although there aren’t as many illustrations, I think that I was predisposed to fall for The Wheel on the School because those illustrations were Mr. Sendak’s.

It’s not wrong for the obituaries to highlight Wild Thing, which is an Important Book and so on and so forth, but it’s really nice for me, as a fan of his work, to see the idiosyncratic loves people had for some of the other stuff. I don’t really get Social Networks, but that’s one cool thing that wouldn’t happen without them. For instance, it took me three days to write up a blog note about it, while I jotted off a status update referencing Night Kitchen in thirty seconds, to have it take its place among the other such lines—it’s the accumulation of them that made me cry.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 2, 2012

Today you are you! That is truer than true!

Appropriate ways to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss include:

  1. Reading a story
  2. Writing a story
  3. Drawing a picture
  4. Making up silly words
  5. Speaking in anapestic tetrameter

However, inappropriate ways to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Seuss include:

  1. Flying a kite in the house
  2. Cutting down trees
  3. Excluding the folks with no stars upon thars
  4. Having a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle
  5. Reading with your eyes shut

And most importantly, beyond any doubt, utterly and completely without exception, and this means you:

You must not HOP on POP!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2011

Armistice Day

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, by Randall Jarrell:

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 8, 2011

Election Day 2011

Tohu Bohu's annual tradition always seems a trifle awkward in the odd-numbered years. I voted for my town council, town clerk and town board of education, which is scarcely the powerfulest scene and show of the Western World. Nor is there a final ballot-shower, where we are counted together as a nation. Still, it's good to celebrate this hemisphere's teeming humanity, the still small voice vibrating, the choosing not the chosen.

Election Day, November, 1884, by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, Book XXXIV: Sands at Seventy.

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara--nor you, ye limitless prairies--nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite--nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones--nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes--nor Mississippi's stream:
--This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name--the still small voice vibrating--America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen--the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous'd--sea-board and inland--
Texas to Maine--the Prairie States--Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West--the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling--(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity--welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
--Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify--while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 11, 2011

September 11th, and every other day

[I feel very strongly that people should take some time today and wrestle with (and celebrate) this thing that Dashiell Hammett wrote, even as we, in this country and elsewhere, are quite rightly focusing on that moment when the beams fell. -V.]

Spade sat down in the armchair beside the table and without any preliminary, without an introductory remark of any sort, began to tell the girl about a thing that had happened some years before in the Northwest. He talked in a steady matter-of-fact voice that was devoid of emphasis or pauses, though now and then he repeated a sentence slightly rearranged, as if it were important that each detail be related exactly as it had happened.

At the beginning Brigid O’Shaughnessy listened with only partial attentiveness, obviously more surprised by his telling the story than interested in it, her curiosity more engaged with his purpose in telling the story than with the story he told; but presently, as the story went on, it caught her more and more fully and she became still and receptive.

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.

Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father, and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible.

“He went like that,” Spade said, “like a fist when you open your hand.”

When he had reached this point in his story the telephone-bell rang.

“Hello,” Spade said into the instrument. “Mr. Cairo? …This is Spade. Can you come up to my place—Post Street—now? … Yes, I think it is.” He looked at the girl, pursed his lips, and then said rapidly: “Miss O’Shaughnessy is here and wants to see you.”

Brigid O’Shaugnessy frowned and stirred in her chair, but did not say anything.

Spade put the telephone down and told her: “He’ll be up in a few minutes. Well, that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles—that was his first name—Pierce. He had a automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season.”

Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade’s room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt that he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now.

“I got it all right,” Spade told Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn’t want any scandal, and, after the trick he had played on her—the way she looked at it—she didn’t want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell all around.

“Here’s what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up—just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn’t touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger—well, affectionately—when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.”

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not in step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

“He went to Seattle that afternoon,” Spade said, “and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn’t look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

[From The Maltese Falcon, of course.]

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 28, 2011

Hermione, Harry and all of us together

There has been a lot of talk about the Harry Potter series lately, because evidently with the release of the last WB film the series is really complete. To me, it was complete when I finished reading the last book, I suppose, and this completion of the first movie adaptation is just, well, something else. But there certainly has been a lot of talk about it, so I thought I should chime in.

Mostly, I am responding to Sady Doyle’s blog note In praise of Joanne Rowling’s Hermione Granger series, which is a comic version of the feminist critique of the series. It seems to me to be a completely standard and obvious critique, other than being quite well-written, pointing out the perfectly obvious fact that the series is seriously retrograde in its portrayal of sex. It’s not just that it isn’t a feminist series, it’s that it participates in a lot of the tropes about women (and girls) that a lot of YASF has, by now, subverted and torn apart.

My reaction, though, was one that Ms. Doyle says explicitly in The Further Adventures of Hermione Granger: “ But I also don’t think that a Hermione Granger series would be anywhere near as ubiquitous, well-beloved, and highly praised as Harry Potter has been.” In other words, there are works of pop culture that are central to our cultural moment, and there are works that subvert the cultural moment, and they generally aren’t going to be the same works. To some extent, I remain grateful that the Potterworld has even the pretension to equality that it does have: individual women and girls who are smart, who have careers and career plans, who have influence in the government, both heroes and villains. While I can’t call the text committed to those ideas, it does acknowledge them. Which, over the last decade or two, has meant something.

In fact, I think it’s probably true that as much as a Hermione Granger series would not have been as widely popular as the Harry Potter was, I can’t imagine the Harry Potter series would not have been as widely popular as it was without Hermione Granger—and without the other female characters, as well. Is it heartening, then, that to include the widest book-buying (and ticket-buying) audience the world must include certain basic ideas about equality? Maybe. I suppose, to answer that question, I would have to read Twilight—and that’s not a sacrifice I am willing to make.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2011

Get Lost, Stories!

Your Humble Blogger is a trifle ambivalent about this news that Dashiell Hammett’s lost works found in Texas. First of all, not so much lost, as they aren’t stories that we knew about but couldn’t find copies of. Nobody was looking for them. Nobody knew they existed. They are (presumably) stories that Mr. Hammett didn’t want to publish, didn’t brag about to his friends in the brag about to his friends in letters (which have been published and researched extensively), didn’t sell for the drink money he needed quite badly by the end.

Now, he may just have forgotten about them. The man wrote a lot of stories; it’s possible that (f’r’ex) he wrote them in the late 20s, decided they weren’t the sort of thing that Black Mask wanted, shoved them in a trunk and forgot about them by the time he was scraping nickels together for the bail fund of the Civil Rights Congress. Or he got stubborn about the whole not-being-a-writer-anymore thing, whilst still writing stories, and just refused to send them out and get payment for them.

Or they stink.

The last time I got hold of a book of Mr. Hammett’s Lost Stories, most of them stunk. Actually, most of them weren’t even properly stories at all. But there were two good stories—actually, one good story and one great story. Of course, neither of those stories were lost in any sense at all, having both been printed in anthologies. Still. It’s possible that these new stories include a gem. For which reason Your Humble Blogger will read them, when they become available.

This means that I am committed to reading fifteen stories (eventually, possibly not all at once) of which I expect to enjoy no more than three. At most. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I enjoy none of them at all.

So, you see. Ambivalent. Which, of course, is the default state for Your Humble Blogger at all times, so there you are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 14, 2011

The Jim Affair

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about the Jim controversy. I want to get it right, though, as I think many if not most Gentle Readers disagree with me about it.

The issue, of course, is that Alan Gribben in The NewSouth Edition of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn takes liberties with the original text, most controversially removing the word nigger from the book entirely. This has been described as the downfall of western civilization.

I am not outraged.

I mostly line up with Colin McEnroe on this one, although I would put my emphasis somewhat differently.

Do you know the story about James Michener, who when a visitor to his house would commiserate that such-and-such a film version had ruined one of his books, would pull a shocked face, leap up and run to the bookshelf and grab a copy of the book in question, flip through it frantically, and then slump in relief that it had not, in fact, been ruined. It was all still there. Huck Finn is all still there.

In wordier, earlier language: If the endeavour to improve the picture or the statue should be unsuccessful, the beauty of the original would be destroyed, and the injury be irreparable. In such a case let the artist refrain from using the chisel or the pencil: but with the works of the poet no such danger occurs, and the critic need not be afraid of employing his pen; for the original will continue unimpaired, although his own labours should immediately be consigned to oblivion. That is from the preface to the Family Shakespeare; Thomas Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare without the naughty bits. My own experience of the Bard was greatly enhanced because of the tradition of Bowdlerising the works for youth; I happily compared my school’s texts with my parents’ copies, looking for the dirty bits to pass along to my classmates. I remember being outraged to discover that one of my high school classes was using a version cut for length, after examining an omitted passage and being unable to put any interpretation on it that was, you know, a bit rude.

I can’t say that my parents encouraged me to find the dick jokes, tho’ now I come to think of it, my mother it was who pointed out the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon. But my parents did have a complete set, without which I would certainly never have enjoyed the televised series as much as I did. And without which I wouldn’t have enjoyed reading the Bowdlerised versions I got in class. So, my first thought is that anyone who is down on the NewSouth Huck should go out and get another version, or at least download one, right away before their kids get hold of the expurgated version, the one without the gannet.

Digression: I had never seen this version, with the brilliant Graham Chapman manning the counter. It’s amazing how much less funny it is to remove the eagle from Olsen’s Standard Book of American Birds. Also, it’s less funny when the customer is a woman, even if it’s Connie Booth. End Digression.

That joke, of course, is funny not because all expurgations are outrageous, but because it’s outrageous to take the gannet out of a birding book. They can’t print a special version of British Birds for gannet-haters. The question is whether it makes sense to print a special version of Huck Finn for people who don’t like that word. I think it does.

There’s a long history of Bowdlerisation. There are, believe it or not, books of Bible Stories that leave the Rape of Dinah entirely out. The editors of those books don’t necessarily want people to remain ignorant of Dinah throughout their lives. I want my children to have the full text available, and I want them to know that there is something that they are missing, but I don’t necessarily want to teach them about Dinah until I know they aren’t going to be fixated on it.

Everything is a trade-off, isn’t it? You balance what you get and what you lose. Mr. Gribben says that “a succession of firsthand experiences” led him to believe that the existence of an Bowdlerised (or Gribbenated) Huck Finn would lead to more people, rather than fewer, reading the original text. Teachers who haven’t been assigning the book may choose to assign it, if they know that the discussion of the book won’t be entirely derailed by discussion of the word nigger. Or Injun, for that matter. And he is the expert. Like most of the people who are commenting on the topic, I haven’t talked to anybody who has assigned, or who has refrained from assigning, the original text to a class. Mr. Gribben has, which doesn’t make him the final word, but does give him some sort of expertise that is worth respect.

I want to add to the James Michener story and the Thomas Bowdler quote a quote specifically about this book. It comes from the introduction, which every single person who reads the NewSouth Edition will have in their hands, and which explains the emendations. And in that introduction, Mr. Gribben points out that “literally dozens of other editions are available for those readers who prefer Twain’s original phrasing”. He even suggests people read the handwritten manuscript. Some people seem to believe that Mr. Gribben doesn’t want anyone to read the word nigger in Huck Finn; that seems to be entirely and completely false, and indeed a slander (or libel) on Mr. Gribben.

The question, it seems to me, is not so much whether the NewSouth edition is right, but whether it is necessary. I wouldn’t buy it for our house—I would get one of the dozens of other editions Mr. Gribben brings up. If my Perfect Non-Reader were assigned the book, I would make sure she had access to our original text. If the local teachers consulted me, I would advise against assigning the NewSouth edition, and possibly against assigning the book at all. But then, I’m not terribly fond of the book, and never was, even when I went through my Mark Twain phase. I think my daughter, and most other kids, would vastly prefer to read about a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, although a highly edited version of that might be even better…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2010


Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Breakfast (1914)

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorpe played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet, and dropt back dead.
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were stretching overhead.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 31, 2010


When You see Millions of the Mouthless Dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Sorley, 1915

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 15, 2010

Also, I plan on pronouncing the long Ss as Fs

I don’t know how many GRs are fans of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I thought I would throw this one out to y’all… We have a performance of R3 on April 23, which is the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth. Relevant, because, you know, William Shakespeare wrote R3, as well as writing all the rest of Shakespeare’s plays (with certain possible exceptions). So we are having a little post-show shindig, with cake and champagne and the reading of some of the sonnets.

YHB has scanned the sonnets in the past, but has never made anything like a study of them. I am fond of 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment), but that one was claimed by someone faster off the mark than I am, in my ear-infected state. 130 (My Mistress’ess’s eyes are nothing like the sun) and 138 (When my love swears that she is made of truth) are also claimed, as is, I think, 27 (Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed). Does anyone have any suggestions? It’s not a Big Deal of any kind; I don’t have to participate at all, and it being more of a lark than a performance, I can just grab one and read it off the cuff, as it were. Still, I think it would be nice to work something up.

Any favorite Shakespearean sonnets, Gentle Readers? I will promise to record and post my interpretation of the one I actually perform, unless I get sicker and die before the 23rd.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 14, 2010

de mortuis

Well, and Dick Francis has died.

I’ve probably spoken enough about him here in this Tohu Bohu, since I’ve been blogging my reading. I have read more than twenty novels in the last six years, most of them being rereads of books I have read half a dozen time already. They are comfort book, bathtub books.

I do believe, for whatever it’s worth, that most of the work on most of the novels was actually done by his wife. That bothers me a little, but not all that much—he has always seemed a bit like a holdover from another era, somehow, which makes that sort of thing seem more like a way for them to work their marriage through the overtly patriarchal restrictions of a byegone era, rather than nasty and misogynous exploitation. I recognize that I am more lenient about that idea because I like the books. I’m OK with that.

I was thinking, the other day, as I passed by a copy of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale on a library shelf, that it was a shame I didn’t like the book, or one of his others, because it would be a useful conversation point in the discussion of liking books while disliking their authors. Alas, I did not. And now, thinking about Dick Francis and the reasons I could in theory have given for disliking him, it occurs to me that perhaps I don’t have any cases, from my experience, of liking books whilst disliking their authors. Oh, I disagree with authors all the time, and Dick Francis and his Conservative views are a good example of that, but dislike?

Maybe it’s just that I can’t think of any. Or perhaps Robert Silverberg is as good an example as is necessary—I definitely have the sense that the man’s an asshole, but then, I have not a small number of acquaintances who are assholes, and I don’t dislike all of them. Fondness for a person, on the whole, does not divide up between pricks and princes that way. At least for me.

Nor does the world really divide up into pricks and princes at all, in my experience. Which is, I think, a trifle different than Dick Francis’s’es’ experience, at least from what I gathered out of a million pages of his stuff. Maybe it was all a fake, just to make the books more enjoyable, more comfortable, more readable. I have no idea. I can’t help but think, though, that the books are lovable, in the way they are, in part because he really did think in those terms. Which may have made him a bit of an asshole of a person, possibly (remember, I didn’t actually know him), but may also have made me like him, too, for the same things I found in his books.

And, you know, thank the Divine for that. Because if the world were divided into pricks and princes, and if nobody could like the pricks, well, then, where would I be?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2009

Putting the spoof before the horse

A copy of Strange Interlude just passed over the counter here, and as always, whenever that play (or indeed any of Eugene O’Neill’s plays) comes to mind, I think of Groucho Marx pointing with his cigar, waggling his eyebrows, and saying Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.

It got me thinking about how often I become familiar with a spoof or parody or even a reference to a thing before I encounter the thing itself, and how that colors my experience of the thing. I mean, I saw Young Frankenstein before I saw Frankenstein; I learned a bunch of opera motifs through Gilligan’s Island. I think I probably saw Prufrock before I read the one that starts “Let us go then, me and you/when the evening has dropped like an old shoe/the first of what must inevitably be two”, but I honestly don’t remember. I saw Murder by Death before watching any of the Charlie Chan movies, and I think before watching any of the Nick and Nora movies, although I had seen (and I think read) both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Can’t remember whether I had seen The Maltese Falcon, by then. I definitely saw The Maltese Falcon before watching The Cheap Detective, but I hadn’t seen To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep, or even Casablanca.

I don’t think my enjoyment of Casablanca or Frankenstein was ruined by that experience. I’m not sure about the Charlie Chan movies; there is so much that makes those a truly guilty pleasure that Peter Sellers being screamed at by the moose head on the wall is probably small potatoes. And if there are a few songs that have been ruined for me by a filk or parody, well, they are just songs, anyway. So maybe it’s just Eugene O’Neill. I was thinking there were more, but now I come to write the note, I can’t think of any.

Are there movies or books or plays that were ruined for you by exposure to the parody first? Tarzan? Michael Jackson? How Doth the Little Busy Bee?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 15, 2009

We are not making this up

I think I'm just going to quote this without further comment, or context of any kind:

Derek Henderson’s beard was at once languid and yet aggressive.

from John Dickson Carr's “The Incautious Burglar”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2009


“The Infantry that Would Not Yield”, by Florence Earle Coates, originally published in The Bellman, 14 December 1918

Ah, yes ; the French surprise us constantly;
A something in their spirit is so fine !…
I was in Paris when the famous Line
Went through after Verdun, and so could see
How a whole people, putting by its cares,
Came crowding to the well-loved thoroughfares
To view the men—not all—not all, alas !—
Who, in a fateful hour of fear and woe,
Stood as a wall defensive ’gainst the foe,
And said :—They shall not pass !

How surely these had saved her Paris knew—
Heroes who fronting Death turned not aside!
Her heart beat faster as they nearer drew,
And swelled with unimagined love and pride.
Artillery and cavalry went by,—
The plaudits of the people reached the sky!
But for the infantry— At sight of these,
A poignant silence fell upon the crowd:
In reverence the people’s heads were bowed,
And they were on their knees.

Ah, yes ; the French surprise us constantly!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 1, 2009

A veritable McGuffey's Reader of Scarlet Letters

Your Humble Blogger was thinking that there should really be something on this Tohu Bohu today, but was utterly without ideas for a post, when—la!—I discover the winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for 2009. I don’t know if these are newly announced, but I hadn’t seen them yet this year.

As with most years, I am mostly disappointed in how obviously facetious the entries are. There are a few chosen for dissemination that are simply set-ups for terrible puns (open-toad sandals, how green was my valet) or similar jokes; there are several who have as their joke the winding simile or other dependent-clause pileup. My preference is for those entries that seem, somehow, like they could really be serious, the effort of an actual writer writing an actual book, only so fundamentally misguided to be, well, worthy of an award.

The serrated butter knife tossed capriciously onto the 38th Street sidewalk amid the detritus of Salem cigarette butts and a Mentos box was devoid of zero trans fat margarine, but glinted invitingly in the sunlight nonetheless, poised for the opportunity to be repurposed to cut up a Snuggie, and Vladimir took it.

That would be the entry of Amy E. Gross, and I think it’s my favorite of the ones on that award page. I can imagine writing that, myself. And not noticing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 18, 2009

Fucked-Up Poetry

So, I suppose the whole point of having a Poet Laureate is to trick people into paying attention to poetry. And it works; Your Humble Blogger, who reads very little poetry, not only read Carol Ann Duffy’s recent Politics, her Official Poem Laureatem Primus, but picked off the shelf an actual book of poetry because it had her name on the spine. Well, most of her name; the sticker with the call number covered up the last letter, so that her name was Duff, but I recognized it anyway, because of the laurel wreath and the barrel of wine or whatever. Anyway, the book is called Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to the Poetry of the Past, and it’s essentially a collection of fifty or so pairs of poems and response-poems. And I still don’t read a lot of poetry, so it’s not like I am going to take it home and actually read a hundred poems. I mean, seriously. But flipping through it at the library? Yes, that I did, and it’s because the Crown gave Ms. Duffy her own crown, so that’s all right, Best Beloved, d’y’see?

Anyway, I hadn’t read the Muriel Rukeyser and Louis Macniece or even the William Carlos Williams or Christina Rosetti poems that were being answered, so there’s that. But what caught my eye, of course, on the page flip was the Philip Larkin poem. You know, the one that starts They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do. I quote that a lot, in my mind and to a fellow parent, to the point where we use Larkin as a verb for the effect we have on our children. The poem is called This Be The Verse, which I always forget, and which makes a difference, actually. Anyway, I stopped and read the response, which is by someone named Carol Rumens, has the same title, and begins

Not everybody’s
     Childhood sucked:
There are some kiddies
     Not up-fucked.

I laughed.

And then, because of who I am, I wound up thinking about the two. I’m not, sadly, going to quote both poems extensively, because they are quite short and you can, I suspect, fairly easily find them (ask your librarian about ILL!) if you are interested. But essentially, Mr. Larkin is writing from a wryly depressed persona (one he often uses, and which may he may in fact have inhabited), and he concludes the poem with the admonition not to have children. Ms. Rumens responds that on the whole, people do OK, and dismisses the earlier poet as a “sad non-begetter”.

Now, I think Mr. Larkin is not, in his verse, arguing that one should share the point of view of his narrator (or himself, to the extent that it is himself). He is evoking a mood, not endorsing it. Well, and endorsing it, too, I suppose, but mostly evoking it. The rhythm of the thing swings too much, it’s too funny, it’s too rhymy to be a real endorsement of the miserable conclusion.

Ms. Rumens, on the other hand, does not appear to be evoking a persona or mindset, so much as responding to the (semi-fictional) Mr. Larkin; to the limited extent I can imagine the speaker of the verse, it’s a smart-ass. And yet, sure, the sympathy lies with the smart-ass rather than the depressive. And don’t we seem to muddle along, generation to generation, somehow, with most kids, most adults, turning out OK, for reasonably large values of OK?

And it’s those values of OK-ness that, in the end, bring me back to the first verse. Do those non-up-fucked kiddies actually escape Larkining? Did you? Your Humble Blogger is a happy sort of a fellow, even tempered and, well, nice. And yet, I got Larkined pretty extensively and inadvertently. I ate a bottle of aspirin when I was fifteen or so, by way of a rather dimwitted teenage suicide attempt; am I a Rumens or a Larkin? My Perfect Non-Reader, a magnificent nerd, socially awkward and self-imprisoned in a fog of her own (rather impressive) imagination: did I not Larkin her, not meaning to? And yet is she not, Rumens-ish, non-Larkined? Is OK-ness the bright line, a spectrum, a label, a myth?

I think, where I am at the present moment, is with Philip Larkin, in the sense that—seriously, if you are that worried about Larkining your kids, don’t have ’em, because it will happen. Or, at least, you will have those moments where you feel, like the narrator of the verse, that you are Larkining them, that you have been Larkined, that there is no escape from it all, misery deepening “like a coastal shelf”… but then, there is this: as you go deeper, you get bigger, which is why objects in Mr. Larkin’s poems are smaller than they appear, and closer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 1, 2009


So, there are people who read this blog who understand business and publishing and the business of publishing much better than I do, but… does this note by Evan Schnittman on Why Ebooks Must Fail really make the claim that print publishing is utterly unsustainable and that therefore electronic publishing will destroy it, and that that would be a bad thing?

I know Mr. Schnittman is the head of Global Business Development for OUP, and so he clearly knows much more about the business of publishing than I do—I know so very little, after all—but his argument makes no sense to me at all. Essentially, he's saying that the combination of uncontrolled author advances and an utterly ludicrous norm for advance sales and returns is sustainable only where there is a source for short-term cash flow, and that Ebooks (vaddevah dat means) do not provide such a source.

Again, if I understand correctly, the short-term cash includes a chunk of money that is going to disappear (because of returns); it exists more than nominally, and isn't quite borrowing, but it does come with an obligation to pay back a large but undetermined chunk of it. So I am perplexed by the idea that there is no way to restructure publishing to do without it. I am also perplexed by his insistence that it is more expensive to make Ebooks than paper books; he asserts that the added cost of editing digital stuff, and the necessity of maintaining and servicing interactive digital books, would be greater than the cost of printing and shipping. On the other hand, I have no idea how to estimate those costs (on either side). And my assertion that the bulk of Ebooks will not require extensive maintenance and interaction but will just be books on bytes is not based on any knowledge whatsoever. So I'm willing to accept that he is correct about his estimation of the comparative costs.

Still. He compares advances on trade publishing to professional sports free agency; this means he either (a) doesn't understand sports business at all, (2) doesn't understand the publishing business at all, or (iii) is deliberately misrepresenting the publishing business. And then, having described a business plan that is crazily unsustainable—that even he describes as a Ponzi scheme—he is worried that Ebooks will destroy it. You know what? Even if (implausibly) your Ponzi scheme is sustainable in the absence of Ebooks (but with rising manufacturing and shipping costs and the consolidation of retailers), I fail to see why Ebooks being the straw that breaks that proverbial should concern either us or the big publishers themselves. I mean, if Ebooks breaks the system and everything goes bust, then we start again with a model that doesn't have either crippling advances or fraudulent pre-shipping. Right?

And further: it could be that given the specific factors in the upcoming discontinuity (and there is always an upcoming discontinuity) it will simply not be possible for trade publishing to make available edited books, either on paper or on bits, at a price point that people will be willing to pay. Things change. It used to be that a household in the second quintile of income in this country could afford a domestic servant but could not afford to eat grapes year-round. That has changed; labor got more expensive (well, domestic labor), and shipping and distribution and refrigeration got much, much cheaper. And it's possible that the rising popularity of Ebooks will set off the chain that ends with books being five grand a whack. If so, I have to tell you that based on this note, Mr. Schnittman will not be one of the people I have a lot of sympathy for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 22, 2009

Mohanraj, Rosenbaum, Bujold

So. Since I had a thing to say about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and (oh dear) the RaceFail conversation, I thought perhaps I’d separate it out from the Book Report I keep meaning to write about the latest book and write it as its own note. This one won’t have spoilers for Book Four, nor will (imao) the plot spoilers for the series really spoil anyone’s enjoyment. On the other hand, while the plot spoilers shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the series, it’s possible that the discussion will. Because the reason why I wanted to write a bit about RaceFail and the Sharing Knife was because to a very limited extent, the RaceFail discussion did ruin my enjoyment of the series. Not ruin, but, let’s say, work to the detriment of…

I don’t know if Gentle Readers read Mary Ann Mohanraj over at John Scalzi’s Whatever on specfic (and other) writers and race and so on; it’s a fascinating document, right-headed if I can call it that, and persuasive, and all kindsa good stuff. And then there’s Benjamin Rosenbaum, who I linked to a day or two ago and who knocked me out again with a note on Identity and Othering in “The Ant King and Other Stories”, in which he took a quantitative look at his own stories and found things that he didn’t know. Just to be clear, because some responses I’ve seen have missed the point and thought he was seeking to impose a sort of quota on other writers, and that didn’t seem to be the point at all. He was showing (I thought effectively) how difficult it is for a writer to escape the water we are all swimming in, even when he is clearly attempting to do so. Anyway, if you haven’t read those two posts, I strongly advise reading or at least skimming them, as they are what ruined my enjoyment of The Sharing Knife. Well, not ruined. As I said.

Editing this note to add that realio trulio, if you are trying to seriously engage with this post without reading and referencing those essays, you are doing both me and yourself a disservice. I have been surprised by how pleasant it has been to be linked by Ms. Bujold and have new Gentle Readers who have all been great, but still: this is a note about how those essays affected my experience of reading The Sharing Knife, not so much about the series of books itself. End later editing (Last day of April, 2009)

See, here’s the thing: the world of The Sharing Knife is a fictionalized fantasy version of frontier America. The characters start in the north and follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and then come back to the North overland. It’s not the Alvin Maker world; the cities and rivers have different names and do not necessarily match up to our world. On the other hand, it’s clearly an American fantasy world, in the economy, the language (with suitable Fantasy modifications), the technology and the social structures. The elves (which are called Lakewalkers) are not only elves but a fantasy version of Native Americans. And there are no Black people. No Mexicans. No Cajuns. No French. No Dutch.

The travelers never run into a community where a different language is spoken. They do find that the food changes a bit from region to region, mostly because of the local game, but they don’t come across ethnic foods, nor is there any real disagreement about what is tasty and what isn’t. That’s generally true of cultures as well: there are regional cultures, which are dictated by natural features, but there aren’t ethnic cultures, dictated by tradition, taboo and taste. Or, rather, there are two cultures: farmer and Lakewalker, or human and elf, or White and Red.

I was reading the new book at around the same time as I was reading those notes I linked to, and when I went back to the Bujold, I couldn’t help noticing that it was, in many ways, utterly what they were talking about. I don’t mean to say that either would hold up the books as racist, necessarily, just that I think they would be willing to hold them up as examples of works that come out of a racist society and perpetuate not only the feeling among racial minorities in America that the specfic community is hostile to them, but to the ongoing actual exclusion of minority viewpoints in the worldview of specfic readers and publishers.

And as I read the book, an African-American in my imagination kept saying what happened to my people? Where’s my history? Ain’t I part of America? And I pointed out to that imaginary fellow that really, the book would not have been improved by a digression into the racial politics of the fantasy world. He wasn’t impressed. I don’t think he agreed with me, or rather, he seemed to think that improved might mean different things for him and me. And he seemed to think that asking him to sacrifice his entire culture, history and family to my idea of improved wasn’t altogether fair. I pointed out to him that my own culture, history and family weren’t really represented; there were no immigrants in the stories, nor religious minorities within the two main cultures. He shrugged, this imaginary fellow. If I were willing to give up the House of David, that was my choice, he implied, but that choice didn’t give me the right to choose for him, or it wouldn’t if he weren’t a figment of my imagination.

Now, let me say straight away that part of the problem of racism in society is people having imaginary conversations with imaginary people of other racial and ethnic groups, rather than having real conversations with real people. I could easily project my resentment against the imaginary unsympathetic fellow onto a real person whose only connection to the imaginary one is skin color. I know that my imaginary conversation is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

And furthermore, I really don’t think that the series would be improved by introducing racial and ethnic diversity. I am a fiend for narrative, as I have often said, and I have enough problems with the leisurely pace of this series; three more pages at every stop detailing the combination of geography and culture that produces the local color would have got so far up my nose I wouldn’t have been able to smell the daffodils that I got for Daffodil day and which are really lovely. Have I mentioned how much I love daffodils? They totally symbolize Spring to me. Particularly the ACS fund-raiser, which has become an important part of my yearly cycle.

Oh, right. Have you noticed how much easier it is to talk about flowers?

Anyway, when I read Ms. Mohanraj’s essay, I thought that it wasn’t just about combating racism in our society through writing and publishing, but also about producing more stories that suited her taste. Among the bits of advice she gives is this: Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. She describes this as helping to make characters vivid as opposed to generic, which is in some sense true, but it’s not as if the terms vivid and generic are objective terms that exist independent of the reader’s taste. To stic with Ms. Bujold’s works, I can see how people might consider Miles Vorkosigan generic white: although there are elements of Russian culture in the Barrayaran ruling caste culture, on the whole there’s nothing very specifically ethnic either in that culture or in his place in it. There is a Greek-speaking minority, and we get a couple of references and representatives, but not much and easily forgotten. And so on. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but I think there’s a real sense in which, given the Vorkosigan universe, there are lots of characters including Miles himself who could come off as generic white. And yet, lots of people (including YHB) find Miles to be vivid. In my case, it’s because I’m a fiend for narrative, and he’s very… active.

What I’m saying is that while I largely agree with Ms. Mohanraj that it’s a good idea to imagine an ethnic identity when inventing a character, I also tend to (from my position of white privilege) like plenty of books just fine in which most characters are either generic white or unmarked. And I think that’s a matter of my own Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, which are my own taste, and (what with people being different one to another, which is what makes the world interesting and fun, after all), I neither expect other people to cater to my taste nor do I want to give up my taste for other people’s expectations.

Which is where Mr. Rosenbaum’s note comes in. Although I found interesting the ways in which cultural stereotypes creep in on an author all unbeknownst like, the thing that really struck me was the way that the accumulation of choices, each of which are individually plausible or even good choices, can be detrimental to the—well, to the author’s vision of the work, to the condition of the field, to society at large, to the feelings of individual humans of a variety of backgrounds. I think that (nearly) each of the stories Mr. Rosenbaum wrote were the result of choices that not only seemed good at the time but actually were good choices viewed in themselves. The result, though, was those pie charts with all that pink.

Now. To go back to YHB and The Sharing Knife. Reading the essays I linked to did ruin the books for me (no, it didn’t ruin them, but you know) in an interesting way. I still maintain that the books would not have been improved by following Ms. Mohanraj’s advice. That is, I think that any attempt to impose the right-minded thinking that Ms. Mohanraj (and Mr. Rosenbaum) explicate would have worked to the disadvantage of the particular work in question. While, at the same time, having the book work in the way that it does, missing the ethnic and cultural diversity or even markers that are missing and that YHB didn’t notice were missing throughout the first three books, well, it adds to the cumulative effect. If it was a lousy series, and nobody read it, then it might not matter. But it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good series (altho’ I have other issues with it as well) and it’s selling just fine, and those things are true in part because it’s so much easier to erase minority viewpoints and just go on without them. In the short term. In fiction.

Anyway. I’d be curious to know the reactions of Gentle Readers to these angles; I am far from a deep thinking about race or fiction, and I suspect I’ve got hold of the wrong end of several different sticks here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 7, 2009

Year in Books 2008

Yes, it’s every Gentle Reader’s favorite time of year, the time when YHB blah blah numbers, blah blah books, blah blah trends, and winds it up with Ten Or Eleven Books I Liked. Can you taste the excitement?

First of all, YHB read 114 books in 2008, a fairly normal number, but the details reveal a few startling things, starting with five-year records: a low of 28 re-reads, and a high of 86 new reads. The high is only one more than 2005, but is significant (I think) because it appears to be a direct result of the decrease in re-reads, five below 2005’s 33. I’ve now tracked five years of books, which allows me to make trendlines and pretty charts and things.


See? Pretty chart. As we can see from the chart here and here, and these points here and here, Your Humble Blogger is a hopeless nerd. Ah,well.

Seriously, it appears as if Your Humble Blogger’s reading of not-marketed-for-kids specfic is decreasing with an alarming rapidity. Well, alarming if it were worth caring about. I mean, it’s not as if it would be morally problematic if I read more non-genre fiction and non-fiction than specfic, it’s just that there’s a chart, you see, with a line going down. And I suppose it could be argued that replacing five to ten books of not-marketed-for-kids specfic with five to ten books of marketed-for-kids specfic is more likely caused by a shift in marketing techniques than by a shift in preferred reading habits. Or by a shift in library shelving, which is as likely as anything, now that I think about it.

Also, in sample spaces that range from 58 to 86, it’s likely that a significant chunk of the difference is due to my placing things in different categories. For instance, I put The Book Thief under YA/SF, despite feeling quite strongly that it ought not to be considered as such (although presumably the marketers know what they are doing for sales purposes). I also put The Arrival under YA/SF rather than Graphic Novels, despite that being clearly wrong and unsupported by any rationality whatsoever. Dropping those two would bring YA/SF down to 26%, making the line more pointy, looking like 2007 was an outlier. I also could just put all the specfic into one big category without worrying about its target audience, although that seems less helpful for me. On the other hand, I have the category of non-genre fiction, which makes no sense at all, not only because it has in the past included westerns which are about as genre as I could imagine, but because this year it includes three Victorian novels and four Georgian novels, making each of those sub-categories as viable a category as (f’r’ex) Graphic Novels or Plays.

Enough. It’s time for the moment y’all have been waiting for, particularly if you are iced in, bored and cranky with nothing to entertain you: Your Humble Blogger’s Annual List of Ten or Eleven Books Enjoyed for the First Time in the Past Year.

  • The Arrival: This is a really remarkable work, stunningly made, lovely and sad and sweet and beautiful. When I hock about how people claim that literary novelists writing specfic are really just using the tropes of science fiction to illuminate the human condition, as if that was something that genre novelists are not doing, I should bring up this example, where the story works because it’s science fiction, and works because it’s told in pictures, and illuminates the human condition as a comic book about invasion of space aliens.
  • The Wednesday Wars: I only read five children’s books that couldn’t be said to be specfic, and four of the five, while fine, reminded me that I really do prefer zap guns and dragons along with my coming-of-age. This one reminded me that if I stick with the stuff I know I like, there are wonderful books I’ll never see.
  • Klezmer: This is the one on the list I am most likely to re-read in a few years and wonder why I liked it so much. But like it I did.
  • King George V: I know I’m giving this extra Harold Nicolson points, and I suspect that it is considered dreadfully inaccurate and sloppy amongst historians, but I liked it.
  • The Crime at Black Dudley: Really, I put this on the list as a representative of the Mystery Genre, although I did certainly enjoy it, and it represents many of the qualities I think I like about mysteries.
  • An Uncommon Reader: This is from the very beginning of the year, and I have been recommending it ever since. I don’t know whether anybody actually read it on my recommendation, but that’s not my fault.
  • People of the Book: YHB has nearly given up on reading short stories, after discovering that I don’t like them much these days, but this is one of those books that is a series of somewhat-connected short stories linked by a framing device. Only where most of those suck, this one is good.
  • The King of the Schnorrers: Like Dickens, but Jewish! And short! The book, I mean, not the author.
  • His Majesty’s Dragon: A fun and formulaic novel of Napoleonic dragons. I actually reread this one before the year was out, and enjoyed both times through.
  • Horns and Wrinkles: Not an earthshaking book, but a very sweet and crazy book, a book that makes me smile remembering it.

So, of the books on that list, I picked up five at the library based entirely on the cover and a glance, not knowing anything at all about the author or the book before seeing it. Three were books by favorite writers, or at least familiar ones. One I had read reviews of but was skeptical before picking it up at a friend’s house, and one was a gift.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2008


The German Ward, by Vera Brittain, 1917 Etaples

When the years of strife are over and my recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising 'mid the War- time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-suspicious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her smile,
And the tale of three years' warfare on her thin expressive face—
The weariness of many a toil-filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotton when the sound of War's alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners lay.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 6, 2008

Education for Leisure, leisure for what?

Just seen in the Guarniad: when the examination board in England had a poem by Carol Ann Duffy removed from the standardized tests because of its violent imagery, Ms. Duffy viciously and with malice aforethought wrote a poem about it.

The poem is called Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE. The GSCE is the General Certificate of Secondary Education. Pat Schofield is an invigilator, which is an awesome word, and is what we might call an external examiner. Or a tester. I prefer invigilator. The Invigilator. Well, never mind. Ms. Schofield was the person whose complaints about the earlier poem caused the ruckus in the first place.

I haven’t read that poem, which is called “Education for Leisure” and is (from analyses available on-line) a first-person narrative of a profoundly disturbed person who, faced with another day of unemployment and general worthlessness, and without any other way to fill up his day, begins by killing the household animals and then takes a knife to go out into the streets. The poem’s main figure shrugs at the first killing (of a fly), connecting it vaguely to King Lear (IV,i Gloucester: As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport) which he had studied in school; one of the points of studying such a poem in school seems to be to bring up the entire concept of education, of why we study Shakespeare at all, or Ms. Duffy for that matter.

Our current poet’s current poem is also about Shakespeare and education. It consists entirely of questions, as it might be an exam. The first seven are short-answer questions, to make sure that the pupil has in fact read the plays, or at least the Cliff Notes. That seventh—To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu?—is followed by an open-ended eigth: and why? The ninth is also open ended, and a bit disturbing, but although one could apply it more widely, it could be taken as narrowly asking about the quote from a Shakespeare play and its meaning. The tenth, then, starting in the tenth line and extending to the thirteenth, the longest question in the poem, ends with a full stop rather than a question mark, and begins with a command: Explain. The line to be explained is not Shakespeare’s, though, but is the poet’s own metaphor for poetry itself. Then, without transition, we are in King Lear; the quote is given and followed by the eleventh and last exam question, to identify who said them.

It is the King who says it to Cordelia, in the very first scene, when he is giving is own and very nonstandard test to his daughters: “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?/That we our largest bounty may extend/Where nature doth with merit challenge.” The first two pupils give pat answers, telling the examiner what is needed to get the certificate. The last, Cordelia, finds she cannot speak. “What can you say,”asks her father, and she says “Nothing.” He repeats the word, and she does as well, and then the invigilator king says the line that Ms. Duffy puts near the end of her poem: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

I generally dislike exams. I was good at them; I was a Goneril rather than a Cordelia. I could tell the invigilator what was necessary for a grade. It seemed pointless, though, other than that grade, and it still seems largely so. I’ve come to accept that of the ways for teachers to determine whether the students have mastery of their subjects, it is moderately efficient in a cost-benefit sort of way; it only somewhat works, but it’s comparatively quick and easy, and the better ways are prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. The test is a tool, and a clumsy one at that, for measuring the thing that’s important, which is the mastery.

Or, perhaps, not. Perhaps the test and the reward and punishment that follow on it are the tools for getting the students to master the subject, not the tools for measuring whether they have. Perhaps when Cordelia was a child and her not-yet-old father held her to his embrace and said I love you, daughter, she should have replied, Is this going to be on the test?

We are, of course, educated for leisure all our lives. We are trained for it, poorly or well, by whatever we do and see, whatever we read and hear. On those occasions when we get leisure, we make of it what we can. That’s the test. When the children are in bed for the evening, or when you have a lunch break. We face a series of Sunday afternoon tests, one a week, for the rest of our lives. There is a pop quiz when the waiter has taken your order and you look at your spouse across the table and silence falls. And there’s the long, dark teatime of the soul, which is self-graded. And the tests prepare you for more tests, too, just like in school. You can develop techniques and study habits for your life. A truly general certificate.

I can’t get too excited about removing “Education for Leisure” from the curriculum, perhaps because I haven’t read the poem. I do get upset about removing education for leisure from the curriculum, because I do have some of that, and I think it’s important.

Oh, and you know where I said up there that “Mrs. Schofield’s GCSE consists entirely of questions”? That’s not technically true. After the eleventh question is a sentence that is, perhaps, permission, or a command, or a ritual utterance, or even a prediction. You may begin. Or, perhaps, it is a question after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 16, 2008

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Gentle Readers will want to be aware that tomorrow, April 17, is Poem In Your Pocket Day. The Academy of American Poets suggests that you “select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends on April 17.”

Your Humble Blogger passes this information along without prejudice, for what it is worth.

Well, and for those who are worried about a long night paging through the Holy Tango for the right title, may I suggest Opine, Pout, Mockery, which I’ll just excerpt here:

It is more blessed to be governed than to govern
When I am Dean of Men
Which, if there were any justice in this world
I should long ago have become
I will make you sorry you were ever born.
Dreary old highbrow?
Hubert, my dear, where DID you get that scarf?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 23, 2008


So, Your Humble Blogger is reading a book set in, oh, 1950 or so, in an alternate universe, English Country House Murder after WWII doesn’t happen, and the following comes up:

Then here he came, tramping in police boots to disturb the hierarchies as they were laid down by bringing in an entirely orthogonal power.

And my immediate reaction was Orthoganal? Who the hell would have described the police and the aristocracy as orthagonal in 1950? My second reaction was How the hell do you spell orthaganal anyway? Then I went to a couple of dictionaries and found out that the use of that word in that manner seems to have come from computer programmer jargon, which, you know, not so much in 1950. Now, it’s possible that a Scotland Yard Inspector who was interested in statistical mathematics and other branches of the higher philosophy would have independently invented the metaphorical use of the term, particularly in an alternate universe. I don’t mean to suggest that the author is flat-out wrong, here. Just that Your Humble Blogger was thrown out of the book by it. Possibly given another chance to look at it the author would defend the word, and possibly they would conclude that it could be more perfect. It isn’t a big deal, either way, except for the delicacy of the window through which we look at the book.

Um, that is, in books such as I take this one to be, where we are supposed to fall in to the story, rather than stand back and look at the window. There are different levels of transparency that writers aim for and readers achieve; it would be silly to discuss Finnegan’s Wake in terms of the author getting in the way of the story. But I don’t think that applies here, and I’m going to continue not telling you the title and author, out of a misguided sense of fairness, so you’ll have to take my word for it, or do your own damn research, Pomeranz.

Where was I? Oh, the clunker in the sentence. I am no writer of prose fiction. I’ve written a bit of dialogue, trying to make voices consistent, individuated, appropriate, interesting and beautiful (or ugly, depending), and I find it very difficult indeed. And I’ve spent five years or so creating the Voice of Vardibidian, the which I’ve managed to throw in a bit of everything, so that I can eschew consistency if I want to. And, you know, it’s a blog. And a Tohu Bohu besides. There’s a lot that I slide into this thing that upon later reading appears to be badly composed. Ah, well.

I imagine it must be very difficult to work the historical novel thing, or in fact any novel thing at all. The writer has to balance the reader’s experience of hearing (or “hearing”) the speech patterns of the type of person in the story with the actual researched type, with the reader’s own expectations of his own context, with the writer’s limitations and talents, and the whole house of cards is built on guesses, trust and instinct. And here I come and pull the whole thing down because I don’t like orthogonol.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 12, 2008

Psmith, Zombie

It occasionally happens that Your Humble Blogger sees some sort of blogging challenge or contest, and thinks I would enjoy doing that, if only I didn’t have to follow the rules. And, of course, I don’t, as long as I don’t, for instance, enter the contest. In the case of Insert a Zombie, Win a Prize, that means I won’t, you know, win the prize, but then I wouldn’t have won a prize, anyway. Fine. I don’t like prizes. Sour old prizes. Who needs them?

Except, of course, for the prize of your Gentle Readership. Anyway, I have, as the contest suggests, inserted a zombie, although I utterly failed to keep to 250 words, or even to 1,000 words. More than 900 of the words, I think, are those of P.G. Wodehouse, which has got to count for something. The rest are mine, and you are welcome to them.

Arrived at the hotel and standing in the lobby, Psmith perceived the existence of further complications. The lobby was in more than its usual state of congestion, it being a recognized meeting-place for those who did not find it convenient to go as far east as that traditional rendezvous of Londoners, the spot under the clock at Charing Cross Station; and “the writer,” while giving instructions as to how Psmith should ornament his exterior, had carelessly omitted to mention how he himself was to be recognized. A rollicking, slap-dash conspirator, was Psmith’s opinion.

It seemed best to take up a position as nearly as possible in the centre of the lobby, some distance from the walking dead, and stand there until “the writer,” lured by the chrysanthemum, should come forward and start something. This he accordingly did, but when at the end of ten minutes nothing had happened beyond a series of collisions with perhaps a dozen visitors fleeing the hotel, he decided on a more active course. A young man of sporting appearance had been standing beside him for the last five minutes, and ever and anon this young man had glanced with some fear at the slavering horde. Psmith tried the formula on him.

“There will be brains,” said Psmith, “in Northumberland to-morrow.”

The young man looked at him, not without interest, certainly, but without the gleam of intelligence in his eye which Psmith had hoped to see.

“What?” he replied.

“There will be brains in Northumberland to-morrow.”

“Thanks, Zadkiel,” said the young man. “Deuced gratifying, I’m sure. I suppose you couldn’t tell us how to still the undead as well?”

He then withdrew rapidly, dragged off by young woman in a large hat who had just come stumbling through the plate-glass window. Psmith was forced to the conclusion that this was not his man. He was sorry on the whole, for he had seemed a pleasant fellow.

As Psmith had taken up a stationary position and the population of the lobby was in a state of flux, what with the barricades and the occasional incursion, he was finding himself next to some one new all the time; and now he decided to accost the individual whom the reshuffle had just brought elbow to elbow with him. This was a jovial-looking soul with a flowered waist-coat, a white hat, and a mottled face. Just the man who might have written that letter.

The effect on this person of Psmith’s neurological remark was instantaneous. A light of the utmost friendliness shone in his beautifully-shaven face as he turned. He seized Psmith’s hand and gripped it with a delightful heartiness. He had the air of a man who has found a friend, and what is more, an old friend. He had a sort of journeys-end-in-lovers’-meeting look.

“My dear old chap!” he cried. “I’ve been waiting for you to speak for the last five minutes. Knew we’d met before somewhere, but couldn’t place you. Face familiar as the dickens, of course. Well, well, well! And how are they all?

“Who? said Psmith courteously.

“Why, the zombies, my dear chap.”

“Oh, the zombies?”

“The disgusting old zombies,” said the other, specifying more exactly. He slapped Psmith on the shoulder. “What times those were, eh?”

“Which?” said Psmith.

“The times we all used to have together, fighting off the zombies.”

“Oh, those?” said Psmith.

Something of discouragement seemed to creep over the other’s exuberance, as a cloud creeps over the summer sky. But he persevered.

“Fancy meeting you still alive like this!”

“It is a small world,” agreed Psmith.

“I’d ask you to come and fend off the damned,” said the jovial one, with the slight increase of tensity which comes to a man who approaches the core of a business deal, “but the fact is my ass of a man sent me out this morning without a weapon. Forgot to give me my axe. Damn’ careless! I’ll have to sack the fellow.”

“Annoying, certainly,” said Psmith.

“I’ll tell you what,” said the jovial one, inspired. “Lend me your sword-stick, my dear old boy. That’s the best way out of the difficulty. I can send it round to your hotel or wherever you are this evening when I get home.”

A sad, sweet smile played over Psmith’s face.

“Leave me, comrade!” he murmured.


“Pass along, old friend, pass along.”

Resignation displaced joviality in the other’s countenance.

“Nothing doing?” he inquired.


“Well, there was no harm in trying,” argued the other.

“None whatever.”

“You see,” said the now far less jovial man confidentially, “you look such a perfect mug with that eyeglass that it tempts a chap.”

“I can quite understand how it must!”

“No offence.”

“Assuredly not.”

The white hat disappeared through the swing doors, and Psmith returned to his quest. He engaged the attention of a well-rotted man in snuff-coloured rags who had just come within hail.

“There will be brains in Northumberland to-morrow,” he said.

The man peered at him inquiringly.

“Uuurrrrrgh?” he said.

Psmith repeated his observation.

“Brains!” said the man.

Psmith was beginning to lose the unruffled calm which made him such an impressive figure to the public eye. He had not taken into consideration that the object of of his search might be dead. It undoubtedly added to the embarrassment of the pursuit. He was moving away, when a hand fell on his sleeve.

Psmith turned. The hand fell to the ground and was stepped on by an elegantly dressed young man of somewhat nervous and feverish appearance. During his vigil, Psmith had noticed this young man standing not far away, surrounded by zombies, who had looked at him with distaste, as if to say, if these were brains, they didn’t want any.

“I say,” said this young man in a tense whisper, “did I hear you say that there would be brains in Northumberland to-morrow?”

“If,” said Psmith, “you were anywhere within the radius of a dozen yards while I was chatting with the recent dead duck, I think it is possible that you did.”

“Good for the damned,” said the young man. “Come over here where we can escape.”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 11, 2007


Repression of War Experience.

Now light the candles; one; two; there’s a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it’s bad to think of war,
When thoughts you’ve gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it’s been proved that soldiers don’t go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees.

Now light your pipe; look, what a steady hand.
Draw a deep breath; stop thinking; count fifteen,
And you’re as right as rain…

                                           Why won’t it rain? …
I wish there’d be a thunder-storm to-night,
With bucketsful of water to sluice the dark,
And make the roses hang their dripping heads.
Books; what a jolly company they are,
Standing so quiet and patient on their shelves,
Dressed in dim brown, and black, and white, and green,
And every kind of colour. Which will you read?
Come on; O do read something; they’re so wise.
I tell you all the wisdom of the world
Is waiting for you on those shelves; and yet
You sit and gnaw your nails, and let your pipe out,
And listen to the silence: on the ceiling
There’s one big, dizzy moth that bumps and flutters;
And in the breathless air outside the house
The garden waits for something that delays.
There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,—
Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,—
But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died
Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls,
Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins.

You’re quiet and peaceful, summering safe at home;
You’d never think there was a bloody war on!…
O yes, you would … why, you can hear the guns.
Hark! Thud, thud, thud,—quite soft ... they never cease—
Those whispering guns—O Christ, I want to go out
And screech at them to stop—I’m going crazy;
I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1918

August 19, 2007

It's pronounced AY-tahz, unless you're from the Midwest, where they pronounce it A-toes.

Just to break up the Book Reports a little, how about an AtoZ? Courtesy of my LibraryThing, which makes it easier.

A is for Alice in Wonderland, which isn’t too surprising.

B is for Beowolf, because it’s becoming culturally hot for no particular reason.

C is for Catch-22, although it’s a tough choice, because The Chosen and Chicken Soup with Rice have each been my Favorite Book, for a time.

D is for Dombey and Son, because I’m halfway through rereading it, and it’s wonderful.

E is for The Essential Calvin and Hobbes.

F is for Fire Watch, because for some reason we own two copies.

G is for Galileo, the Bertolt Brecht play, although I also am very fond of The Garden Party and other plays by Vaclav Havel, both of which maintain a certain political vibrancy.

H is for Hop on Pop, a drastically underrated book, up there with Dr. Seuss’ most magnificent creations.

I is for I Am the Messenger, which I haven’t read yet, but which comes very highly recommended.

J is for James and the Giant Peach. We own two copies of that one, too.

K is for Kind Hearts and Coronets, the screenplay, which actually isn’t as good a screenplay as one might think, but since it’s impossible to read it without recalling the wonderful movie, the experience is up to snuff despite itself.

L is for Leave it to Psmith, a perfect novel in every way.

M is for The Mask of Apollo, which is my oldest friend.

N is for The Norton Anthology of English Literature, because how could it not be?

O is for One for the Morning Glory, which you really should read.

P is for Pirke Avot, which doesn’t so much begin with a P as a pay, but I am not doing an aleph to tav, nor do I have books that start with more than four or five of those letters.

Q is for Queen Zixi of Ix, because the only other Q book I have is Quiddith through the Ages.

R is for Red Harvest, which I once read aloud at story readings, a chapter every other week, was it? Or maybe once a month? No, that couldn’t have been possible.

S is for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, soon to be a Major Motion Picture, with limited release on December 21 and wide release in ... January 2008. Curse them.

T is for The Tale of Two Bad Mice, which is actually an odd and disturbing story of domestic violence, and which resolves itself, if it can be said to resolve itself, in a way that is even more disturbing than the rest.

U is for Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, which (a) is a wonderful thing in itself, and (2) was a Happy College Experience for YHB.

V is for Vita and Harold, of which you have heard me speak.

W is for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, because my Perfect Non-Reader loves the Oz books (although not so much the first one).

X is for Xenocide, because it’s the only book I own that starts with an X.

Y is for Yo! Yes?, an excellent picture book that is easy to read, charming, and instructive.

Z is for Zen Shorts, because I don’t own a copy of The Z was Zapped, and isn’t it good to have Zen Shorts?

I’ll add that these aren’t necessarily the finest books that start with those letters, nor even the finest such books that happen to be in the house, but they are in the house, and they do start with those letters, and that’s enough for one note.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 28, 2007

Fun with numbers. Well, it was fun for me.

More about the Library Thing... What I’m stuck on is that even the most popular books aren’t terribly popular, with the most popular being in the area of fifteen thousand out of two hundred thousand, call it one out of every twelve or fourteen Thingers. Surely half of all book-owning people own Harry Potter or Pride and Prejudice? No, not so. Even assuming that half the libraries are essentially empty, people who signed up for a free thing and never bothered entering the bulk of their books, that’s still a lot less than I’d imagine for the popular books. And once you get down to the less popular books, the spread is immense.

So YHB did a little gadabout, by taking five random books (from the random-books-from-your-collection widget) and looking at who else lists them in their LT library, and what those libraries are like.

  • The Tyrannosaurus Game, by Steven Kroll. Owned by YHB and piseco, who also owns 25 other books to be found in my library. This is clearly a collection of only children’s books. Fairly large, but still, between piseco’s 486 books and my 366 children’s books, we have in common only 26, with eight hundred unshared books between us. Looking at our total, out of 1500 books, 27 are shared, for a total overlap of a little over 1.8%. piseco’s median obscurity: 20.
  • Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1: Charmed Life / The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones. Owned by 455 members. Clicking at random to hoopmanjh, I find that we share 32 other books, including several Oz books, some Asimov, some Bujold, some Card, etc, etc. This is clearly a sign of shared taste, yes? But his library contains 1,684 books, so our total overlap is 33 out of 2,665, or about 1.2%. hoopmanjh’s median obscurity: 64.
  • The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. Owned by 389 members. Again, I clicked at random, and wound up with fictiontheory, who has a collection of 122 books, with lots of specfic. We share 15 books, which is a pretty big chunk of her collection (her LT collection, of course, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all she owns), but a pretty tiny chunk of mine. Overlap: around 1.3%. fictiontheory’s median obscurity: 277.
  • The Fox and the Stork and Other La Fontaine Fables, by Roberta Sewal. This is from a series put out by Grolier in the 1960s, and nobody else anywhere has a copy of it. Total overlap: none. SilverCircle has a different book of Ms. Sewal’s retelling of the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, so counting that library of 1,153 with 17 overlaps, that’s 0.8%. That’s stretching, of course, because that particular work has a 0% overlap. SilverCircle’s median obscurity: 22.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is a hugely popular book in LT, 212th on a list of more than two million. It’s the Nth most popular book in our collection. I clicked on maddiegreene, who has a tidy collection of 486 books. We share 33 of those, mostly specfic. Overlap: 2.2%. maddiegreene’s median book obscurity: 269.

Looking at the list of “users with my books” weighted for book obscurity and library size, we see franny(overlap 2.3% entirely in Dick Francis books, median obscurity 140), redheadread (overlap 7.6%, median obscurity 381), sayyid (overlap 7.7%, median obscurity 441), paperclypse (overlap 6.2%, median obscurity 286) and tuxable (overlap 5.9%, median obscurity 294). In just the raw how-many-books list, we have gwyneira (overlap 3.9%, median obscurity 78), ginaruiz (overlap 2.2%, median obscurity 47), SeriousGrace (overlap 3.1%, median obscurity 74), bookstopshere (overlap 1.8%, median obscurity 30), and jalual (overlap 2.6%, median obscurity 7).

In other words, the most I could possibly expect is to share one out of twelve books in a library that was a real outlier in being close to mine. More likely, among people who share my tastes in books, would be that thirty-nine out of every forty books we own would be different. And it’s not unusual for half a person’s library—a person picked specifically because they share books with me—to be shared with one-tenth of one percent of people with collections on LT.

What I’m saying is that people are different, one to another, even people who are pretty much the same. Although it seems, now and then, like our culture is a homogenous mass of best-sellers and series mysteries, when it comes down to details, it’s more complicated than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 11, 2007

What about Goodnight, Moon?

As I was ruminating on Girls’ Books and Boys’ Books yesterday, I put the question to my Perfect Non-Reader: Are there Girl Books and Boy Books. She answered affirmatively without hesitation. When I asked for details, she thought a bit, but said that Girl Books were about princesses magic, and Boys’ Books were about fighting “and other rough stuff”. Hmm. I asked about a few other topics. Horses? Girl Book. Indians? Boy Book. Rockets? Boy Book. Buildings? Neutral. (I explained that that a book that was neither a Boy Book or a Girl Book could be called neutral, and she responded that “yellow is a neutral color!” which, I then recalled, was a direct quote from a playground mother in regard to the Youngest Member’s cute little ducky hat. But I digress. Sorta.) I asked if girls could enjoy Boy Books, and boys enjoy Girl Books, and she effectively said duh, of course. Then we moved on to individual books and series.

The Oz series are girl books. Charlotte’s Web is neutral. The Droon books are Boy Books, but the Magic Treehouse books are neutral. Alice is neutral. Which Witch is neutral. The Just So Stories are neutral. In fact, when we got down to specific books, it emerged that (a) she considers most books she reads to be neutral, and (2) the sex of the protagonist(s) is weighted very heavily. So when asked generally what makes a book a Girl Book, the sex of the protagonist didn’t come up, but when I asked specifically, it was pretty nearly determinative. Although, there was the weird Alice thing, because Alice seems to me to be very much a Girls’ Book, but evidently not so much. Although I’m not sure she remembers Alice very well, athough for a while it was her favorite book. So was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now that I think about it, but I didn’t ask her whether it was a Boy Book.

Anyway, I note that Mary Ann Mohanraj just this morning wrote about sexism in specfic, and I think she overdelineates the matter. I mean, I’m sure she would acknowledge overlap, but what was interesting to me was the extent to which the criteria we use when we slap gender labels on stories are not the criteria we think we use. At least when we’re five years old, but I think it’s true well beyond that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 15, 2007

A mere butterfly, flitting hither and yon

So, if it’s OK with y’all, Gentle Readers, I’m just going to fling at you a bunch of things I thought were interesting to post about, but which I haven’t actually written a post about:

  • There are some interesting things over at Matthew Yglesias’s’’ses proudly eponymous site about the War Powers Act. I am becoming even more entrenched in my belief that the War Powers Act, for all that it was intended to limit the power of the Executive to engage in undeclared wars, in fact hands the war power to the Executive to use at the whim of whoever happens to be President. We should repeal it and start again, ideally with an incredibly restrictive law that makes it clear that the war power belongs solely to the Legislatures, and that the President must not invade any other sovereign nation without a proper declaration of war. I know, I know, as Commander in Chief, the President has to respond quickly and whatnot. No, he doesn’t. There is no reason why the President should be able to invade without first getting a declaration of war. He can command our military within our borders and within the borders of our allies and generally play defense by himself, great. If we have an invitation from a sovereign government (an officially recognized sovereign government) to bring in peace-keeping troops and military advisors, well, we can work something out in a bill to allow for retroactive permission, but pretty quick. Not three months, or two, or one. Is our national transportation system so bad that we can’t convene a special session to deal with a crisis?
  • Robert Gallucci makes a terrific point in a short interview with Foreign Policy when he says “this theory that Bolton apparently operates on, that we’re in a situation where we have to worry about rewarding people or not rewarding people is not a useful construct for international relations. It’s probably not bad if you’re trying to teach your kids about the playground, but [it doesn’t work] for international politics.” I have a sense that Our Only President and his cabal of incompetents and crooks somehow think of non-westerners and not-quite-grupp, and that they have to be Taught Lessons. I think there is a question of maturity, but I don’t think the point of that question is away from the White House.
  • I’m not all the way through it, but I can already recommend Mary Robinette Kowal’s series of posts about reading aloud. There is a lot of stuff there that is just technical enough to be actually useful.
  • I understand that the point of a recommended reading list is to, you know, recommend books that I have not actually read before, but I was surprised to see how little of Locus magazine’s recommended stuff from 2006 I had read. Or, frankly, am interested in reading. I believe I have only read one of the grupp novels and one of the first novels, and none of the YA books. I have read some good things from 2006, haven’t I? Or have I? It was interesting to see Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and James Morrow on the list—I usually complain about books that are clearly speculative being kept out of talk about specfic, but in the case of The Last Witchfinder I am skeptical about its place on the list at all.
  • From Zadie Smith on Litchrachoor in The Guardian January 13th, an essay called “Fail Better”: “[G]reat writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.” The essay appears to have disappeared from The Guardian’s site, but it has been cached for those who are interested and have mad skillz. Mostly, though, I just liked the description there.
  • There have been a lot of notes in Left Blogovia about the various candidates’ positions on Iran, and whether they should take military strikes off the table. Just to be clear, if Larry King or the buffoon Chris Matthews asks you about military strikes, you say “They would be a mistake.” If he asks if that means that they are off the table, you say “They would be a mistake.” If he persists, and insists that he must know if they are off the table, ask him “what table? I’m talking about foreign policy and the possibility of a tragic and unnecessary war; what are you talking about?” If you become President and circumstances compel you, in your judgement, to order military strikes, you will have the power to do so (with the prior approval of the Legislature, yes?) whether they were on the table or not.
  • Travis Daub mentions a six-year old interview with Lori Wallach, during which she used her line about “two ships passing in the night. One ship is loaded with chopsticks cut from wood in the Pacific Northwest and being shipped to Japan. The other ship is loaded with toothpicks cut from trees in Malaysia and packaged in Japan on their way to California.” Mr. Daub is reminded of this by the news that “Producing and shipping one bottle of Fiji bottled water around the globe consumes nearly 27 liters of water, nearly a kilogram of fossil fuels, and generates more than a pound of carbon dioxide emissions.” Mmmm, water.
  • Remember the Maine!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 1, 2006

My Year in Books 2005

Your Humble Blogger read 118 books in 2005, down from 119 in 2004. Neither number is likely to be accurate within five or so, actually. Still, those numbers are close enough, and the monthly totals I’ve bothered to look at are close enough, that I think it’s reasonable to say I read about two books a week. Or at least that I’ve read two books a week over the last two years, during which time I have not been revenue guy for the house. When I go back to work someday, that will probably go down quite a bit, both because I’ll have less ‘free time’ and because I’ll be more tired during what free time I have. Still, that’s pretty consistent, right?

Except ... evidently other than reading two books a week, my habits appear to have changed somewhat. I re-read fewer books this year (32, down from 44 last year), which means that I read one new book a month more than last year. New, by the way, in all this connection, means new to me, that is, something I hadn’t previously read, rather than something that was newly published. In 2004, I read a lot of essays and nonfiction; this year, I read only 9 non-fiction books, and that includes Overheard at the Museum and At Knit’s End, neither of which have much in the way of content. In 2004, I read 20 new specfic books; this year, I read 32; one a month more. This year I read 14 Young Adult specfic (in addition to the 32 specfic-for-grups mentioned previously), up from 6 last year. In addition, in 2005 I read 3 YA books that I couldn’t (or didn’t) classify as specfic, up from 1 last year. So although I read the same number of books, more or less, I read a lot more easy stuff and a lot less hard stuff. Perhaps, in the New Year, I should make a point of browsing the non-fiction side of the new book shelf in the library.

On the other hand, there were a lot of areas that were more or less the same. 2004, nine mysteries; 2005, eleven. 2004, six graphic novels; 2005, five. 2004, seven nongenre novels; 2005, eight. I think fundamentally the change is simply a change in what comes to hand in the library when, as opposed to a change in what interests me or even in what I feel up for. James Thurber at one point dismissively refers to people who read ‘to get to the end of the book’; that’s Your Humble Blogger. I like reading, and what I read is secondary at best.

Anyway, once again, for those Gentle Readers who made it past all the numbers, here are Ten Or So Books Your Humble Blogger Enjoyed in 2005:

  • Airborn: pirates, zeppelins, etc, etc.
  • Anansi Boys: I am reluctant, for some reason, to include this on a Ten Best list, but also reluctant to leave it off. So there are more than ten on the list, and I am including it, but still reluctantly.
  • The Autobiography of God: A deeply blasphemous book about theodicy, which I read at the right time for me to read it. I don’t know if I would enjoy reading it again at this point in my life, but at the moment it provoked thought and emotion in more or less the right manner and proportion.
  • The Case of the Singing Skirt: This was not only a good read in itself, but a introduction (for me) to the actual writing of Erle Stanley Gardner, and therefore to a whole bunch of books I will likely enjoy.
  • Crux: niftiness in time-travel is still entertaining to me, even though I can’t actually recall what was nifty about it.
  • Dragon Rider: Yes, for the second year in a row, one of my favorite books was one of Cornelia Funke’s tween-aimed fantasies. Wanna make something of it?
  • Fire Sale: A VI Warshawski book, and a good one, too.
  • Futureland: This summer, some months after reading this one, I had the opportunity to buy a copy used and cheap, and passed on it. Now I sort of regret that choice, although I don’t want to read it again now, and don’t think I will soon...
  • The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists: The second book does, in fact, exist now, and I haven’t brought myself to look at it for fear of disappointment.
  • Slaves of the Mastery: looking back, I seem to have liked this book a lot; perhaps I should re-read it, because I can’t recall just why.
  • The Star of Kazan: Neither science fiction nor fantasy, but a nice historical romance for tweens.
  • Thirteenth Night: I should dig this out and reread it; I seem to have only been warm about it on finishing it, but my recollection is that it is quite a good book.

I suppose I will continue logging books in 2006. When I started two years ago, it was a one-year plan, and I am starting on the third year. Habits are hard to break, even (possibly) good ones.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

November 6, 2005

Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.

Your Humble Blogger happened to surf over to a Washington Monthly essay by Christopher Lehmann called Why Americans can't write political fiction. Um ... they can’t? What Mr. Lehmann means, I think, is that there aren’t very many political novels to his taste: naturalistic, modern, dealing specifically with legislative or executive negotiation. I dunno. I think most good political fiction is either specfic or historical. I also think that for all that Mr. Lehmann likes novels, or for that matter for all Your Humble Blogger likes novels, I’m not sure that the novel is the quintessentially American form of fiction. I think the screenplay is. And there are clearly loads of political movies of various kinds. Now, Mr. Lehmann might not like them, but then you have to call the essay “Why I don’t like a bunch of stuff”, and that’s not as catchy.

Anyway, it wasn’t worth blogging the essay (although of course any Gentle Reader that wants to let me know about American political fiction worth reading, please do), but he quoted at length from Walt Whitman’s essay Democratic Vistas, the which YHB had never read. Mr. Whitman is, as Gentle Readers will be aware, something of a guiding inspiration for this Tohu Bohu (do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am a blog.). At the risk of offending Mr. Whitman’s shade, as he explicitly says he wants the whole essay to hang together and not be picked apart, I’ll blockquote a single magniloquent sentence, also quoted in part by Mr. Lehmann:

Our fundamental want to-day in the United States, with closest, amplest reference to present conditions, and to the future, is of a class, and the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses—radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish'd, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.
Oh, um, I forgot to preface that with my usual Whitman warning: Read Aloud. There’s no point in reading Whitman silently. Oop, here I go again:
We believe the ulterior object of political and all other government, (having, of course, provided for the police, the safety of life, property, and for the basic statute and common law, and their administration, always first in order,) to be among the rest, not merely to rule, to repress disorder, &c., but to develop, to open up to cultivation, to encourage the possibilities of all beneficent and manly outcroppage, and of that aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters. (Or, if there be exceptions, we cannot, fixing our eyes on them alone, make theirs the rule for all.)
How many times has Your Humble Blogger attempted, fumblingly, to say that? That the object of civilization is civilization, and that to withdraw from that struggle the might of the government is to fight with one hand tied behind our national back? And that the struggle of civilization is to bring its fruits (sweet and tart) to everybody, to make everybody able to climb up and pick, and to make everybody a botanist to breed new fruits and a cook to make pies and preserves and those things with the crunchy brown-sugar topping? And all the rest of it, too. Yes, it’s coming up to election day again, and the day after tomorrow YHB will, again, post Mr. Whitman’s wonderful reminder that it is not the chosen but the choosing. But now, while you, Gentle Reader, have yet a day to mull over the whole process, let Mr. Whitman remind you that democracy is about today, too, and will be about Wednesday, whoever wins your local. I love elections, as did Mr. Whitman, but it takes Mr. Whitman to remind me (and perhaps me to remind you) that the Great American Experiment was not whether a government could be stable—we will never pass the Romans for stability—but whether we could bring forth onto this continent a people capable of governing ourselves. It is not a people who make democracy, but democracy that can, perhaps, make a people. And at any rate, what counts at the end of the day is the people.
Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs -- in religion, literature, colleges, and schools -- democracy in all public and private life, and in the army and navy.

The essay has a lot in it about literature that I disagree with, and a lot more that is simply out of date. We have, for what it’s worth, a distinctively American literature now, and I suspect Mr. Whitman would have loved it, explosions and all, but it isn’t the one he wanted. But, as the man says, history is long, long, long. The poet, under a president who surrounded himself with a cabal of incompetents and crooks, coming out of a war far more awful than anything I can imagine, and fully aware of the ignorance, brutality and indifference of much of the voting population, hollers out to me, and tells me that the response to an electorate that is ignorant, brutal and indifferent is not the easy misanthropy of clean hands, but the long struggle of democracy against feudalism, totalitarianism, fascism, fanaticism, and whatever the next thousand years bring. He couldn’t have imagined Our Only President, but faced with him, he wouldn’t have given up hope. And neither should I.

And neither should you. Take an hour today, take an hour tomorrow, and prepare your vote, Gentle Reader, for your vote is as good as any man’s. And on Wednesday, prepare your democracy for the long haul, for your soul is as good as any man’s.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 8, 2005

Money and other nonsense

Your Humble Blogger is tempted to discourse about the role of money in the nonsense poems of Edward Lear. Well, and really I just happened to notice that it seems odd how frequently money changes hands. Everybody knows that The Owl and the Pussycat brought plenty of money with them, and bought (for one shilling) a wedding ring.

The Jumblies, however, make no mention of bringing money with them, but the most marvelous part of the poem (in my opinion, and I think that of my Perfect Non-Reader, who for the moment has taken this one as her favorite) is the shopping list:

They sailed to the Western Sea, they did,
To a land all covered with trees,
And they bought an Owl, and a useful Cart,
And a pound of Rice, and a Cranberry Tart,
And a hive of silvery Bees.
And they bought a Pig, and some green Jack-daws,
And a lovely Monkey with lollipop paws,
And forty bottles of Ring-Bo-Ree,
And no end of Stilton Cheese.

There are other transactions, some of them not directly involving money. In The Pelican Chorus, the King of the Cranes wins the heart of the Pelican King’s daughter “with a Crocodile's egg and a large fish-tart.” In The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-B�, there is some odd stuff involving a jug (without a handle) and some Dorking fowls, and one of the little fellow’s enticements is how cheap prawns are in his neck of the woods. The Table and the Chair lost their way on their jaunt, and “paid a Ducky-quack, / And a Beetle, and a Mouse” to guide them home, a service transaction. And it’s not clear to me if The Two Old Bachelors are destitute or not: they have no food, and have to borrow onions.

On the other hand, there are lots of places where money might be expected to come in and doesn’t. Mr. Lear doesn’t detail the cost of The New Vestments, nor is there any mention of the rent for space on The Quangle Wangle's Hat. Persuasion, rather than transaction, is the basis of the relationship between The Duck and the Kangaroo. So, really, the pattern I thought I saw was an illusion caused by my favorites happen to be the ones that have actual purchases.

The interesting thing, then, is that Mr. Lear’s stuff stood out as having money and transactions. I think, on reflection, that very few of the children’s books I have been reading have any reference to money at all. Dr. Seuss appears to avoid it. The Once-ler does charge for his story, and Horton is sold to the circus, which then charges ten cents a peek. Those are the only two I can think of, off the top of my head, which implies to me that there really aren’t very many money references. Let’s see ... Babar’s Old Lady pays for everything (and let’s not get into that relationship). The old stories, of course, often have money or transactions, from magic beans for a cow to the Bremen Town Musicians stealing from robbers. But I think that money shows up in children’s books so rarely these days that it seemed unusually frequent in Mr. Lear’s stuff.

I’m not sure what I think about that. On one hand, there’s isn’t any place for money in, say, Good Night, Moon or The Very Hungry Caterpillar. On the other hand, it wouldn’t have seemed altogether odd in Ten Minutes till Bedtime or, um, I’ll think of another in a minute. Olivia? And I don’t know all of the Little Bear, Frog and Toad or Oliver the Pig series well enough to know if money shows up, but I can’t remember it, if it does. And, you know, I would probably feel awkward if there were a lot of shopping in my Perfect Non-Reader’s books. On the other hand, Kids These Days are, in fact, growing up with a little pelf in their pockets, not to mention the ads all around them and the shopping they do with their parents. And, of course, the fact that a fair amount of books are about buying things, but only in the sense that they are advertisements themselves. And, you know, they play store. They aren’t staying in some sort of blissful ignorance about money, at least not for long.

There are certainly some aspects of adult life that I’d prefer be handled discreetly in kiddie lit. There are limits to how much we should encourage the interest in playing grown-up. On the other hand, since kids do play grown-up, it’s not necessarily a good idea to stick their heads in the sand.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

January 9, 2005

My Year in Books 2004

Your Humble Blogger was not altogether surprised to discover that the total book count for 2004 was over a hundred; that’s only two a week, after all. I was surprised, however, that of that hundred (actually 119) only 44 were re-reads. I think that the ratio is due to keeping this public log of my reading. The observer changes what’s observed, particularly when it comes to this sort of thing.

Anyway, I was also a bit surprised by the breakdown within those 75 new books. The top category was speculative fiction, of course, with 20 entries (plus another 6 Young Adult specfics), but the second was essays. Well, and we could get into a lovely conversation about genre here: of the eleven books I’ve called essays, only The Best American Essays 2003 and Critical Essays on Charles Dickens's Bleak House are clearly books of essays, although Apostrophes & Apocalypses and The Meaning of Swarthmore couldn’t really be anything else. I’ve also counted two book-length essays, Bleak House: A Novel of Connections and Eats, Shoots & Leaves, rather than create a separate category for monographs. I’ve also put the two Studs Terkel books (Hope Dies Last and Coming of Age) as well as the Studs-esque Voices from the Federal Theatre into essays, although I could make a good argument for putting them into memoirs (which consists of A Kentish Lad, West with the Night and, for lack of a better category, The Thurber Letters). The other toughie on that score was Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor, and Himself, but it is mostly essays, or ‘casuals’, which are more like essays than anything else. I also threw in From Narnia to A Space Odyssey, which certainly isn’t a memoir and, despite containing specfic short stories, is mostly a non-fiction book. On the other hand, I put Dating Your Mom into the humor category (which it shares with Holy Tango of Literature) rather than in essays. I also put Pitching My Tent and The Screwtape Letters into religion rather than essays, as they are for the most part essays on religion, and they seemed more comfortable with Does God Have a Big Toe? and Nothing Sacred than with the essays.

I would have expected to find in second place mystery novels, but even tossing in thrillers brings that only up to nine. That’s only just ahead of non-genre novels at seven. Not that those don’t have genres, but on first glance they would all (According to Queenie, Bandbox, Moo, The Charioteer, The Cider House Rules, The Magic Christian, and The Tidewater Tales) be shelved as ‘fiction’. Or so I surmise; I hardly ever go to those shelves in bookstores.

I also read six graphic novels (or whatever they are) over the year, which is likely higher than in most recent years, although I didn’t think it was that high this year. Since I’ve never kept track before, I have no idea how many I’ve read and forgotten. Only two of this year’s stuck in my mind, and one of those was written by an old buddy.

The rest were a scattering of non-fiction on policy, history, and home improvement, and one chapter book, or whatever it’s called when it’s beyond ‘easy reader’ but not ‘young adult’. Altogether, it breaks down to two fiction books for each non-fiction book. I would have expected the non-fiction to be even smaller; I suspect the eyes of my Gentle Readers have something to do with that as well. For which many thanks, as I’ve enjoyed them.

Anyway, if any Gentle Reader has made it past the numbers and categories, I’ll put in as a reward my Favorite Books of 2004. Remember, this is books I read during 2004, not books that came out. I’m also ignoring re-reads, which for the most part I know I like, as it isn’t fair to the new crop. OK, here are ten Books Your Humble Blogger Enjoyed:

  • Inkheart: Probably my favorite book of the year. Good enough that I actually miss the characters (Dustfinger, Meggie, Basta and Fenoglio) and want to go back to them.
  • The Maquisarde: I was surprised to find this on the top of my specfic list. I liked it and all, and it is well-plotted and suspenseful, but I would have thought there was some specfic book I liked better, and there wasn’t. It’s a distopian future, with lots of political stuff, which might turn some people off, but not YHB.
  • The Game: This is another one I wouldn’t have expected to top my list, but it was good fun. Holmes and Kim. Also, it puts something on my list that actually came out in 2004.
  • The Screwtape Letters: I don’t know if I would actually recommend this to Gentle Readers all. I suspect, though, that if you like it, you’ll like it a lot. I did.
  • Hope Dies Last: If you haven’t read any Studs Terkel, start with Working, but if you like him, and haven’t read this one, do yourself a favor.
  • West with the Night: Hunh. I’m pretty sure I read the Beryl Markham short stories in 2004, but they don’t show up in the Tohu Bohu. Did I not finish the book, and decide I hadn’t read enough to include it? Or did I just let it slip? Anyway, this was better.
  • Pitching My Tent: This is a sweet, sweet book. I should really read her novel.
  • Ten and a Kid: I know how unlikely it is that any Gentle Reader will find this book, but it’s worth keeping an eye out.
  • Ombria in Shadow: Actually, I had almost no memory of this book until I looked at it again, and it really is very good. I can’t remember the ending at all, and so don’t remember what I disliked about it. Anyway, it makes the top ten list.
  • Grim Tuesday: Is the next one in the series out yet? Why not?

Well, and that’s ten, I think. Not the most stellar list, when I look at it. Still, that was the year that was.

Thank you,

December 16, 2004

Puff Piece: Operation Homecoming

Well, and when I started this blog thing I told myself that I mustn’t let it degenerate into a constant litany of complaints against the various annoyances of life. As a rule, I said, for every hatchet job I write, I need to write a puff piece. Over the months, this has meant that I don’t write very many hatchet jobs (or at least not as many as I start to). On the other hand, I don’t write very many puff pieces, either. So having given in to the weakness to complain about a New York Times piece, I’ll plant a big kiss on the web site of Operation Homecoming. Operation Homecoming is a NEA/DoD program that runs writing workshops for returning soldiers as part of the debriefing. The program was recently expanded to increase the number of workshops and locations; I’ve seen a variety of numbers but it looks like the total cost is less than a million dollars and most of that is picked up by corporate sponsors.

Now, I don’t want to get too romantic about returning soldiers, and if you are interested, you should probably read opposing articles such as Aleksandar Hemon’s Operation Homeland Therapy in Slate as well as admiring articles such as Dennis Ryan’s note. I happen to have a soft spot for the World War One “war poets”, and I think that it’s breathtaking to suggest that Americans want to invest even a trifle of money in the possibility of a few gems in uniform.

Digression: If you happened to read a new specfic novel set in some world that had as part of the background the fact that the military, for whatever reason, recruited its officers from the universities’ top-ranked historians, poets and mathematicians, and that a really first-class translator of dead languages was pretty much guaranteed a commission, would you dismiss it as implausible or what? And then for the poetry coming out of the war experience to be a separate and highly valued subgenre? End Digression.

I also happen to like the Library of Congress’s Veteran’s History Project. I understand those people who find this all to be a glorification of the military life, but mostly I find it to have a refreshing sense of respect for the individuals who wear the uniforms, as well as for writing itself. I don’t care if anybody ever reads the anthologies, nor do I expect ever to read them myself, or if I do to like anything in them. I just think it’s a great idea.

Thank you,