Monday, January 16, 2017

Baltasar Gracian: Luck

No. 139

"KNOW YOUR UNLUCKY days:  for such there arewhen nothing goes right, and even though the game change, the bad luck does not:  you know them after two throws of the dice, and you retire, or play on, depending upon whether this is such a day, or not.  Even the mind has its periods, for no man is wise at all hours, since it takes luck to think straight,  just as it takes good luck to write a good letter, for all good things have their season, beauty not always being in style, judgment itself turning traitor, now making us too soft, now too harsh: thus anything to come off well, must be of its day.  Just so does everything go wrong with some, and everything go right with others, and with less effort.  All they touch stands ready, the spirit is well-disposed, the mind is alert, and their star is in the ascendant.  Then is the hour to strike, and not to squander the least advantage.  But the man of judgment will not let just one throw augur the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident."

-- Baltasar Gracian --
from The Art of Worldly Wisdom

I know it's unfashionable to talk about luck nowadays.  We have other explanations for it, I suppose, but do they really explain  those long sequences of fortuitous or unhappy  events that strike us all at times?  Or explain why some people are blessed more often than can be expected, or conversely, cursed more often than others.  Do those explanations really answer why or do they just provide another more sophisticated way of hiding our ignorance from ourselves, a scientific way of disguising our real answer of "I don't know."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn 
Pawn's Gambit and Other Stratagems
short stories

Pawn's Gambit  is a collection of  fifteen short stories, many of which made their first appearance in SF magazines and anthologies, ranging from 1981 to 2014.  

"Pawn's Gambit"

This is the title story and also the last story in the book.  It's an alien abduction tale.  Kelly McClain awakens in a strange place, not knowing how he got there.  He has heard recent stories from around the globe about abductions and that all agreed that they had to play some unfamiliar games and were then returned to Earth.  After his initial panic, he settles down to wait.  Eventually he is contacted by one of the Stryfkar who explains what will happen to him.  The games, the alien explains, are their ways of studying other races.

The alien doesn't tell McClain is that the games have a deadly purpose.  The Stryfkar were nearly defeated by another race, the Chanis.   The games are designed to identify those races that possess characteristics similar to those of the Chanis, and they will be destroyed before they pose a threat to the Stryfkar.

Normally, the winners of the games were returned safely home while the losers would remain until they finally won.  After losing several games they would have more experience with the games than newcomers, so they had an advantage, regardless of how poor a game player they were. Eventually they also would be returned. After having played several games, McCain is shocked to find the Stryfkar have changed the rules.  Now, he and his opponent would play three games and the winner would be returned home while the loser would die.

Inserted into the narrative are communications among the Sryfkar which give the reader more insight into them and their actions and which  allow the reader to see the growing threat to Earth which McCain is unaware of.

Several other SF works involving game playing for high stakes are Philip K. Dick's The Game Players of Titan, and The Player of Games by Iain Banks.  There are many others, no doubt.

I found the most interesting part to be the relationship that developed between McCain and his opponent, Achranae, as they struggle to overcome the cultural barriers so as to be able to work together against their common foe.  I can only wish this story be expanded to develop this more thoroughly.

"The President's Doll"

This tale points out something I should have noticed myself long ago, but never did.  I actually don't feel that bad because I know of nobody else who saw it either.    That something is a needle.  This is why I think the story should have been titled "Voodoo Acupuncture."

In the voodoo tradition, a person is cursed by creating a small doll with some bodily parts of  the victim, such as fingernails or hair clippings.  Once constructed and the proper formula recited, needles inserted into the doll result in a corresponding damage to the victim.  In contrast,  in acupuncture, the practitioner inserts needles into the patient at certain specific nerve junctions to block pain or to solve some physical problem.

Two men got a brilliant idea.  Dr. Sam Pak, expert in acupuncture, and Dr. Pierre Christophe, from Haiti, very knowledgeable about voodoo, decided to combine their skills and create, essentially, acupuncture at a distance.  Once Christophe had created the doll, Pak wok insert the needles into the appropriate pain centers when necessary.

Detective Harland  of the Washington DC police becomes involved when he is assigned to work with the Secret Service on a case, the Case of the President's Missing Doll.  The President is a believer in the efficacy of acupuncture, but it wasn't as widely accepted in 1987 (when the story was first published) as it may be today, in some circles.  It would be politically embarrassing if the President were to be seen visiting an acupuncturist or one being seen to enter the White House.  So, acupuncture at a distance seemed the perfect solution, until someone broke into the Pak/Christophe Clinic and stole only one item, the President's doll.

Harland and Maxwell, the Secret Service agent, have one task:  find the doll and get it back before it is used.

It's a clever tale, and probably one that Zahn wisely decided to leave as a short story.  I don't think there's enough here to expand into a novella, much less a novel.

These are just two of  the fifteen short stories in this collection.  There's a post-holocaust love story, a drug sniffing dog tale, aliens who pose a threat to the solar system on their way elsewhere, a strange telephone book, a troll who works at a toll-booth, a wizard who, for fifteen years, has always showed up too late to use his powers to solve a problem,  and an old-boys insider trading network that employs telepaths, among other strange and entertaining tales.  Some are demonstrably SF while others are fantasy, and some are somewhere in-between.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Minute Meditation

We exist in the element of language.  Someone  has said that to think is to talk to oneself.  The implications of this equation are critical.  Language is necessary to thought, and thought (as it is manifested in language) distinguishes us from all other creatures.

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from the Preface of The Man Made of Words

Is it true then that we can think only about something for which we have a word?  The appendix to George Orwell's 1984 contains a thoughtful essay on this. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Resolutions for the New Year

Well, this is that time of the year again, so I thought I would post my few resolutions.  Making them public might encourage me to work more diligently in keeping them.

I will avoid bringing in politics as much as possible. In the past it's been difficult, but I think I succeeded.  However, this year I may find it harder.  I doubt that keeping politics out of my posts will deprive anybody for I'm sure that it will be almost impossible to escape political discussions, reports, haranguings, and tirades.  So, I hope to provide an oasis here.  For those curious about my position, check out my post BALANCE at

My second resolution is to reduce Mount TBR to a molehill, or at least start on it.  That means reducing book purchases and relying more on the library.  I hope this doesn't cause a recession in the publishing industry, but it must be done.  I also need to redouble my efforts in encouraging the various discussion groups I'm a member of to select more books that I have at home.  This, of course, will reduce the number of books to purchase and help reduce Mount TBR.

Last year was the Year of Austen in which I read everything I had by Jane Austen, which includes all of her novels, her juvenalia, and uncompleted works.  It was one of the high points of the 2016 reading year.  I also saw an excellent film adaption of her short work "Lady Susan."  For some obscure reason the powers-that-be called it Love and Friendship.   I thought it one of the best adaptations of her works that I've seen and highly recommend it. 

 Since that worked out so well, I have decided that 2017 will be the Year of Lawrence Durrell, during which I will reread everything I have by him, which is close to his complete output--novels, travelogues, and poetry (that will be THE problem).  In addition,  I have just learned that an unfinished novel of his has been published, so I will have the pleasure of not only rereading him, but of reading something by him for the first time (even if it is unfinished).

I will begin with what has to be the obligatory starting point, The Alexandria Quartet.   After that, I may then revert to reading them in their publishing order,  or perhaps continue on to The Avignon Quintet or The Quincunx.

You are all welcome to join me.   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXIV

Would God punish us for tasting certain of the pleasures that He created? 

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIV

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke! 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXVIII

What!  out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the yoke
   Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

After adding this quatrain to the second edition, FitzGerald left it as it was, unchanged through the next three editions.

His point seems fairly straight forward, at least to me anyway. God creates us from nothing and then  provokes us by forbidding certain pleasures that He Himself placed in our path.  The penalty seems cruel and unjust in that it will be everlasting.  The tone, actually, strikes me as indignation, more than anything else:  the unfairness of it all.

Is this why God created us, brought us out of nothingness in order to punish us eternally for violating some arbitrary rules?   If this is an accurate translation and not slanted by FitzGerald's own religious beliefs, then I can see why Omar Khayyam was a controversial figure in his time and afterwards.  Part of the problem is that scholars suspect that a number of the quatrains in The Rubaiyat attributed to him were actually written later by others.

In any case, whoever is responsible for this quatrain has asked an interesting question, and  one that will be answered solely based on one's own beliefs. 


Friday, December 30, 2016

Ryokan: time and memory

This poem by Ryokan seems very appropriate for this time of year.

Time passes,
There is no way
We can hold it back---
Why, then, do thoughts linger on,
Long after everything else is gone? 

 from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf
trans. John Stevens

Another view, perhaps?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Vietnamese Poem: The Cherished Daughter

There's a suggestion of a story here in a poetic form.  It took me several readings to pick up several hints.  Part of my problem is my ignorance of Vietnamese culture, so I'm still not certain that I have correctly or fully grasped it. 

The Cherished Daughter

Mother, I am eighteen this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than five full quan,
five thousand areca nuts,
five fat pigs,
and five suits of clothes.

Mother, I am twenty-three this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, dear, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than three full quan,
three thousand areca nuts,
three fat pigs,
and three suits of clothes.

Mother, I am thirty-two this year
and still without a husband.
What, Mother, darling, is your plan?
The magpie brought two matchmakers
and you threw them the challenge:
not less than one full quan,
one thousand areca nuts,
one fat dog this time,
and one suit of clothes.

Mother, I am forty-three this year.
Still without a husband.
Mother, look, Mother,
will you please just give me away?

-- Anonymous  (c. 1700 AD)--
trans.  Nguyen Ngoc Bich
from World Poetry:  An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time

I had to smile the first reading at the exasperation in the daughter's voice at the end.  On the second reading, I began detect perhaps a hint of desperation at the end, or perhaps more than a hint?   It wasn't until this point that I seriously considered the title.  Did the mother, perhaps, cherish the daughter a bit too much?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Minute Meditation

I found this on Pat Cadigan's blog Ceci N'est Pas Une

One night, Confucius had a dream about chopsticks.

In the dream, he was transported to Hell where he saw multitudes of people sitting at enormous tables set out with wonderful foods of all kinds.  There was so much food that the tables groaned under the weight and the various aromas were mouth-watering, promising incredibly delectable flavours.  But the people sitting at the tables had not touched any of it--they had been told they could eat as much as they liked but only if they ate with chopsticks that were five feet long.  None of them could figure out how to eat with five-foot-long chopsticks, so all they could do was stare hopelessly at this amazing feast and cry in hunger and misery.  

Then Confucius was taken to heaven where he again saw multitudes of people sitting around enormous tables laden with glorious foods.  They had also been told they were allowed to eat only if they used the five-foot-long chopsticks.  But, these people were not crying with hunger and frustration--they were eating their fill, talking, laughing, and enjoying themselves.

Because in heaven, they were feeding each other.

Simplistic, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

N. Scott Momaday and Emily Dickinson

The following excerpt comes from N. Scott Momaday's The Man Made of Words: Essays, Stories, Passages.   The chapter title is "A Divine Blindness:  The Place of Words in a State of Grace."   I have often found Dickinson's poetry to be puzzling and enigmatic, but this poem confounds me completely.

I am publishing this excerpt because of Momaday's first comment on the poem:  "This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature."  I know what that means, but I can't relate it to Dickinson's poem.  Perhaps you will do better.

The excerpt--poem and commentary:

     "When the subtitle "The Place of Words in a State of Grace" occurred to me, in the back of my mind was this poem by Emily Dickinson.

                            Further in Summer than the Birds
                            Pathetic from the Grass
                            A minor Nation celebrates
                            Its unobtrusive Mass.

                             No Ordinance be seen
                             So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness.

                             Antiquest felt at Noon
                             When August burning low
                             Arise this spectral Canticle
                             Repose to typify

                             Remit as yet no Grace
                             No Furrow on the Glow
                             Yet a Druidic Difference  
                             Enhances Nature now   

    This poem, written about 1866 by a then obscure woman poet in the Connecticut Valley of western Massachusetts, is one of the great moments in American literature.  The statement of the poem is profound;  it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.   The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception.  But that, we reason, is enough.  This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

                              So gradual the Grace  
                             A pensive Custom it becomes
                             Enlarging Loneliness. .

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others.  The poem bespeaks a state of grace.  In its precision, perception, and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of the human being."

As I wrote above, I recognize that Momaday considers Dickinson's poem to be of supreme significance, but I cannot relate his words to the poem.

Any thoughts?

Poem 1068
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Elizabeth Jennings: "The Diamond Cutter"

Here's another one by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) , a recent discovery, for me anyway.  She was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, and moved to Oxford at age six and lived there for the rest of her life. 

The Diamond Cutter

Not what the light will do but how he shapes it
What particular colours it will bear.

And something of the climber's concentration
Seeing the white peak, setting the right foot there.

Not how the sun was plausible at morning
Not how it was distributed at noon,

And not how much the single stone could show
But rather how much brilliance it would shun;

Simply a paring down, a cleaving to
One object, as the star-gazer who sees

One single comet polished by its fall
Rather than countless, untouched galaxies.

-- Elizabeth Jennings --

I think the point is that one must not be distracted by external glories or brilliance to get to its heart.  But, isn't something lost when one does that?   Or, is she suggesting that there are some things that are too grand, too glorious, too magnificent for us to truly appreciate, that we need to focus on a more limited scale to gain at least some idea of just what it really is.

Your thoughts?  

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jane Austen's Fanny Price: A Taoist Sage at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen
Mansfield Park

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775 and died on July 18, 1817. 

Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park, (MP)  is probably the most maligned of Austen's heroines.  Just why is not clear to me, but I suspect it's a classic example of imposing 21st century standards on 19th century characters and a misreading of Austen in general.  Too many readers fall in love with Liz  Bennet's lively, outgoing, and cheeky behavior and therefore insist that all of Austen's heroines be the same.  In fact, three of Austen's heroines do fit this category:  Liz, of course,  Emma (Emma), and to a considerable extent Catherine (Northanger Abbey) , the youngest of  the heroines.

But, Austen also has three quiet, more reserved heroines:  Elinor (Sense and Sensibility), Anne (Persuasion), and Fanny (MP).  What I find interesting, is that, though the heroine is the quiet reserved type, there is another woman who exemplifies the more outgoing lively woman, the "Liz" type if I may so call her.  Paired off with Elinor is her sister Marianne, who exemplifies the romantic enthusiastic outgoing follower of sensibility; with Anne is again her sister Elizabeth (interesting choice for her name) who is certainly more outgoing and demonstrative than Anne; and with Fanny, of course, is Mary Crawford, whom some readers want to be the heroine of MP in spite of her selfish, egotistic, insensitive, amoral, and manipulative behavior.

Mary Crawford is Austen's point that being bright, lively, and vivacious does not necessarily make one a good person (notice how many male villains in Austen are the same type),  for those are external attributes.  Liz is a good person because of what's inside her, not because of  how she appears to others.   The same is true of Fanny, for it is what is inside her that makes her a good person. What makes Mary a bad person is what's inside of her and those who admire her  are those who see the surface only.  Telling this sort of critic that you can't tell a book by its cover is a waste of time, for they are enthralled, fooled, duped by external glamour and never get beyond that.

Many commentators have insisted that Fanny shouldn't be the heroine, nor does she deserve to be happily married at the end.  She has done nothing to deserve her fate.  Mary should be the real heroine and gain Edmund as her reward.  Of course, these are the same people who deride Edmund as being dull, uninteresting, and priggish.  I can only wonder how they could see Edmund and Mary together.   I wonder how long Mary would be a faithful wife to Edmund, a country minister, and also how long her brother Henry, who is the male version of a lively, outgoing, charming suitor,  would remain satisfied with the dull, priggish Fanny, as they see her.

One theme in MP that has surprised me is the number of characters in the story who have improved, inexplicably over the length of the novel.  In Austen's novels, it's usually the heroine and the hero who have learned something about themselves and have managed to more or less overcome their failings (Emma, I must admit, is a question mark here), but in this novel, a number of other characters, especially in the Bertram family, have developed, more or less, a sense of responsibility and concern for others, which was lacking in the beginning.

It is this that started me thinking.  I could find no particular or obvious reason for these changes in the characters.  No one lectures them and seldom are they called upon to recognize their shortcomings.  The changes seem to happen in a vacuum--mysteriously.

It was about this time, the third or fourth reading of MP,  that, from the depths of my sub- or unconscious that there is something Taoist about Fannie's behavior.  I wondered how a Taoist might view this novel.  I am not an expert in Taoism, but I have read a little ("a little learning is a dangerous thing"), just enough to get me in trouble here.  So, I dug out my copy of Laotse's (aka Lao Tzu) Tao Te Ching and found some intriguing characteristics of the Taoist Sage.

I am not saying that Jane Austen deliberately created Fanny as a Taoist Sage or even that she was aware of Taoism.  This is simply a view of MP as it might be seen by a Taoist. 


Just what is a Taoist sage and how does one recognize one?

Chapter 2
The Sage:one who manages affairs without action, preaches without words, acts, but does not appropriate claim or ownership, and accomplishes but claims no credit.

This clearly could be Fanny as many of her detractors point out that she is far too quiescent for their tastes.

Chapter 9
The Sage retires when the work is done:

Fanny seldom if ever claims credit for what she accomplishes.  She does what she is expected to do and says little about it.

chapter 17
But of the best sages,  when their task is accomplished and their work is done,
the people will all remark, "We have done it ourselves."

Fanny seldom gets credit for what she does, even though near the end of the novel, Lady Bertram declares she can't get along without Fanny.  This is the reason  Susan will move to Mansfield Park to take Fanny's place. 

Chapter 22
The Sage does not:reveal himself, justify himself, boast of himself, or act proudly.

He acts in accordance with the situation and does not force himself or his ideas on others.  He acts as an example for others, so his influence is subtle and non-assertive.

This is  true of Fanny.  She listens and observes and only expresses an opinion when asked.  And, few ask her besides Edmund.

All of the above observations come from the  Wisdom of LaoTse, translated and edited by Lin Yutang, 


I mentioned above that many of the characters had undergone significant changes by the end of the novel.  Here is a brief description of the major characters at the beginning of the novel and the changes they undergo to reach the place where they are at the end.     .

The Prices  (Fanny's family)

Fanny's brother in the navy who gets necessary sponsorship for promotion  from Sir Thomas.  Sir Thomas would never have met William if if weren't for Fannie and the impression she made on Sir Thomas.

her marriage, far above her class status to Edmund

Fanny's sister, ends up replacing Fanny at Mansfield Park. 

THE BERTRAMS  (at Mansfield Park)

Sir Thomas
In the beginning of the novel, he is an absent father and head of the household, and this is true whether he is off in the West Indies or at home.  He does not  take his proper place as father and lord of the manor.  He also knows that his wife is unable or unwilling to play her part, so he allows Aunt Norris to become a dictator and rule his household.  Later, though, he suddenly realizes the problems that his family is having are at least partially due to his abdication of responsibility, and he now begins to assert himself as head of household.

Lady Bertram
She seems totally detached from the family.  Her main concerns seem to be herself and her dog.  Again, near the end, when Tom becomes deathly ill, she rouses herself and spends most of her time at his bedside nursing him.  This is a considerable change from her earlier behavior when the reader isn't sure whether she really is aware of anyone, aside from her pet dog,  around her.

The eldest son plays to perfection the role of The Wastrel.  He shows no interest in his studies at college, and demonstrates little concern nor for his duties and responsibilities as heir to Mansfield Park.  It's party time is his philosophy.   Shortly after his illness, he also changes his behavior and settles down at the university and begins to show an interest in his role as heir to Mansfield Park.  There is also a hint of marriage, which is a major concern of every well-established family--the heir must marry and produce an heir of his own.

While he is  a serious and dedicated student, determined to be a good minister to his parish when he takes over, he also is infatuated by Mary Crawford, who would make a most inappropriate wife for the clergyman he wants to be.  Again, at the end, he recognizes the folly of his infatuation and gradually comes to realize that Fanny is the woman most suited for him and his role in life.

The oldest daughter, selfish and self-absorbed, thinks only of herself.  She makes a bad choice in her marriage, selecting a suitor who could never be a suitable partner but has a large house and a considerable fortune.  For her follies she ends up in exile, supported by Sir Thomas, but banned, at least for now, from Mansfield Park.

She is strongly influenced by her older sister.   Austen seems to suggest she would be a different person if she had a different older sister to model.

Aunt Norris
Sister to Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price (Fanny's mother)
She is the real power in the house.  Unfortunately she is also evil, greedy, and malicious.  She is the one who most deliberately torments Fanny, reminding regularly of her low position at Mansfield Park, barely one step above the servants.    At the end, she realizes that Sir Thomas has recognized his error and has finally become the head of household he should have been long ago, and she elects to go into voluntary exile with Maria. 

Mary and Henry Crawford
brother and sister, relatives to the minister at MP.  They are bright, outgoing, attractive, as well as shallow,  selfish, and self-absorbed.  They are classic examples of the cliche that one can't tell a book by its cover.  They are very popular at first, but by the end, they have revealed themselves take themselves off to London, perhaps to wonder for the rest of their lives just what they had missed out on.

Mansfield Park is the longest and most complex novel that Austen wrote.  It is. in my estimation, the most misunderstood and misread novel as well.  Austen's basic tenet, in all her works, is that one must look beneath the surface to determine the true nature of the other, and that true nature may be in opposition to what appears on the surface.  I believe that too many readers have taken the surface appearances of many of the characters and stopped there, and therefore missing their true nature.

In any case, read and enjoy.  I rank it a close second to Persuasion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant

In a review, Neil Gaiman calls this novel one "that's easy to admire, to respect and to enjoy, but difficult to love."   That 's a strange comment, but one that I have to agree with.

The Buried Giant is a mix of legend, myth, fantasy, and some history.  It is set in medieval England shortly after the death of King Arthur.  One of the main secondary characters is the aged Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, who has a very dubious mission to fulfill.  Along the way, we encounter some enigmatic boatmen. And, here there bee dragons, also --well, only one dragon, Querig, who is also a bit beyond her prime years, and an ogre or two or three and apparently hundreds of pixies..  Oh yes, and several Saxons decide two elderly Britons might need protection on the road.

At this time, there has been a hiatus in the civil war between the native Britons and the invading Saxons, who seemingly have come to say, even though Arthur, who had managed to keep the peace, has gone on to the Westerly Isles.  However, a strange plague, the mist, has struck the British Isles--resulting in forgetfulness.  Peoples' memories are failing, both for recent and past events.  Only occasionally do some past memories emerge.  Moreover, not all are afflicted to the same degree and the degree of forgetfulness seems to fluctuate.  For example, Axl's memory seems to be improve as he proceeds on his quest.

Ishiguro has created a quest novel, one containing several quests actually.  One is that of the elderly couple, Alx and Beatrice, who set off on a search for their son.  They no longer remember why he left, but they do believe that they will be able to find him and that he will welcome them.  As it happens on all good quests, others join the elderly Britons--Wistan, a Saxon warrior, on a mission for his king; Edwin, a Saxon youth who has been injured; and Sir Gawain, who decides to aid the Britons and also to keep an eye on Wistan, whom he suspects is on a mission that may be opposed to his own mission, given him long ago by King Arthur.

Some of the episodes bring up echoes of other works.  One incident involving Wistan seems reminiscent of the Epic of Beowulf, while a second also involving Wistan, along with Edwin and a goat, seems Biblical in tone, specifically that of Abraham and Isaac.  But, again, I've often been accused of over-reading, so I'll leave it up to you to decide, if you read it.

If there is a downside, for me it would be Ishiguro's precise measured prose and the dialogue.  I had read his Remains of the Day and thought that style fit in perfectly with the setting of the novel--a mansion set in rural England, complete with numerous servants and landed gentry.  However, I felt it didn't fit in medieval rural England, most of whose inhabitants were peasants and country folk, and most of whom were illiterate.  However, the problem, to me anyway, was not distracting enough to cause me to stop reading and enjoying the novel.

Overall, I consider The Buried Giant a very interesting book with an unusual theme, well worth reading and thinking about.  I also plan on reading other works by Kazuo Ishiguro. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Minute Meditation

Ten Thousand Flowers in Spring, The Moon in Autumn

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If  your mind  isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

 -- Wu-men --
Chinese  1183-1260
from Art and Nature

All seasons have their own beauty and attractions, in addition to or perhaps separate from the moods or psychological states attributed to them.  

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Basho: autumn haiku translations

Once before I had posted a number of different translations of a haiku by Basho.  Well, inspired by a discussion on at least one other blog that I follow, I decided to do it again, this time of an autumn haiku by Basho.

No. 38

on a withered branch                  from The Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho
a crow has settled                       trans.  David Landis Barnhill
autumn evening

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

On dead branches                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
crows remain                              trans. Hiroaki Sato
perched at autumn's end

on a barren branch                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
a raven had perched ---                trans.  William J. Higginson
autumn dusk

On a leafless bough                       from The Classic Tradition of Haiku
A crow is sitting: -- autumn,          trans.  Harold Gould Henderson
Darkening now --

No. 120
on a bare branch                           from Basho:  The Complete Haiku
a crow settled down                      trans.:  Jane Reichhold
autumn evening

A black crow                                 from Matsuo Basho:  The Narrow Road
Has settled himself                        to the Deep North
On a leafless tree,                          trans:  Nobuyuki Yuasa
Fall of an autumn day.

I like the subtle differences found in these translations.  For example, that branch is described as "withered," "bare," "dead," "barren," and "leafless."  They are not identical, or so it seems to me.  Each suggests a different feeling.  "Withered" gives the impression of something dying, long past its youth, soon to be dead.  "Dead" has a finality about it: all life is gone.  "Barren" says to me that it may be alive,  but it is sterile; nothing can come from it.  "Bare" and "leafless," however, are factual statements: this is the way that branch is.  As we know the sequence of the seasons, we realize this is only a temporary state, and therefore it contains a element of hope.  They will be bare and leafless for a time, but then there's spring.

My favorite is the second one, the translation by Sam Hamill

A solitary                                    from The Sound of Water
crow on a bare branch--              trans. Sam Hamill
autumn evening

Which one do you favor?  

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXX

Quatrain  LXXX is linked closely to the previous quatrain, LXXIX.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvast sow'd the seed:
     And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

As you can see, the previous quatrain leads directly to today's quatrain. 

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXX

Yesterday, This Day's Madness did prepare:
To-morrow's Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
    Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink!  for you know not why you go, nor where.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIV

Yesterday This Day's Madness did prepare;
To-morrow's Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
    Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why:
Drink!  for you know not why you go, nor where.

Aside from two punctuation changes, a dropped comma after "Yesterday," and the substitution of a semi-colon for a colon after "prepare" (which may have simply been a typesetter's errors), the two versions are the same.

The first two lines bring out a theme that has appeared before this--that of causality.  Today's events or happenings are the result of what happened in the past and will inevitably lead to future consequences.   This suggests predestination or a deterministic universe.   The first two lines still leave the past free if you want to see it that way.  Others may argue for an unbroken chain of events going back to . . .?   On  the other hand, to complicate the issue, we can always bring in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory which many now see as refuting any theory of a deterministic universe.

The last two lines restate a very familiar theme:  we don't know where we came from and we don't know where we are going, and we don't know why we are here.  This, of course, strikes directly into the heart of most religions whose basis for their existence is that THEY know all the answers.  The Poet/Narrator clearly has some doubts about this, which he has stated many times throughout the poem.  

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Kevin J. Anderson and Gregory Benford: Mammoth Dawn

Kevin J. Anderson
Gregory Benford
Mammoth Dawn

This is a rather unusual book.  The core is the novella, "Mammoth Dawn," a collaboration by Gregory Benford and Keven J. Anderson.

Husband and wife geneticists, Alex and Helen Pierce, have developed a method of extracting DNA from the preserved remains of now extinct animals.  On their ranch in Montana, they have brought a number of extinct species back to life:  dodos, moas, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers.  Others are at the development stage.

Of course, there is opposition.  One group, the Evos, argue that it was God's plan that these species went extinct and that the Pierces are violating that plan, usurping God's prerogative to decide what species live and which ones die.  In addition, it becomes a political, as well as a scientific and religious issue, and Congress becomes involved.   Some proposed legislation would stop such research.  The Pierces have to defend themselves on two fronts, a dangerous situation to be in.

Unfortunately, the Pierces make a mistake and underestimate the protestors camped outside the ranch's boundaries.  One night they pay for this when the Evos mount an armed attack, with disastrous results for the Pierces and their dreams. 

The novella, though, is just one of six parts of this book, as can be seen by the "Contents" page.

A.  "Introduction:  Cloning Mammoths"

The genesis of the novella, "Mammoth Dawn," was a conversation between Keven J. Anderson and Gregory Benford, inspired by the film Jurassic Park, about the possibilities of cloning dinosaurs. 

B.  "Mammoth Dawn: The Original Novella"

The novella as published in Analog in 2002. 

C. "Mammoth Dawn:  Full Treatment and Proposal
Benford and Anderson had decided that the short story wouldn't do justice to their thinking on the topic, so they planned  to expand the work to novel length.  What follows is their development of the ideas about cloning extinct species and a proposal for a full-length novel.

 D. "Overview"
    "Scientific Basis--Why Mammoths? Why Now?
      Self-explanatory-- four pages

What follows is an explication of the proposed novel.
E.  "Prologue--The Hunt"
     "Part I--Mammoth Ranch"
     "Part II--The Resurrection Preserve"
     "Part III--Survival of the Fittest"
     "Part IV--Pleistocene Rules"

Part I is an expansion of the novella while the following three parts relate the aftermath of the attack on the ranch and its consequences.

The last section of  Mammoth Dawn:  a discussion of the status of cloning research.
F. "Bringing Back the Mammoths"

Unfortunately the novel has yet to be written, and sadly, may never be written, for Anderson says in the "Introduction,"

     "The novel of Mammoth Dawn would be a huge project, even for a pair of seasoned writers, entailing a great deal of travel, research, and likely years of writing.  We loved the idea.
      We didn't have time for it, but we meant to."

It's an excellent action-packed short story, but I do wish that, in the near future, they do find the time to write the novel

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Minute Meditation

The white blossoms of pear trees and the slashes of red earth in the grasses, the brown rivers high and roiling.  The sky is the very blue of serenity, and the horizons are so far away as to exceed the reach of vision.  But here, just here, is a small bird hopping.

-- N. Scott Momaday --
from Again the Far Morning:  New and Selected Poems

This quotation is from the section of the book titled "Notebook."   There are a number of entries in the section, some of which I recognize as related to poems in this book, but I don't recognize this one.  However, it is one of those statements that cause me to read and pause and reread and reread again, but I am never sure why. 

Is the bird simply a distraction or is Momaday making a point here,  one which I'm missing?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

John Muir: life in the mountains

The following is an excerpt from John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.

"These beautiful days must enrich all my  life.  They do not exist as mere pictures--maps hung upon the walls of memory to  brighten at times when touched by association or will, only to sink again like a landscape in the dark;  but they saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always."

-- John Muir --
from John Muir: In His Own Words

It's the same when I listen to my favorite musical works, the ones that I don't just hear,  but I can feel in my bones

Monday, November 21, 2016

P. D. James: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories

P. D. James
The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
Intro by Val McDermid
Preface by P. D. James

P. D. James is my favorite mystery writer.   The only works of hers that I haven't read are a true-crime work in collaboration with T. A. Critchley and her autobiography.   Consequently I was overjoyed to discover that there was now a collection of several of her short stories in print.  I hadn't even been aware that she had written any shorter works, so I immediately searched the public library for a copy.  I'm now thinking about getting my own

The first two stories are flashback tales, the third is a cold case mystery, and the fourth is a contemporary crime.  The third and fourth are a joy to read because I thought that there would be no more Adam Dalgliesh stories. 

"The Mistletoe Murder"

The anonymous 1st person narrator is a "bestselling crime novelist" who explains her part in a murder that happen many years ago.  The others are dead now, so it's safe to finally tell what happened.

It happened during WWII.  Her husband was an RAF  pilot who was killed two weeks after they were married.   That Christmas she received an invitation from her grandmother to spend the holidays with her.  There would be only one person there besides them, a first cousin, Paul, whom she had never met because of a family feud.

When she arrived, she found that her grandmother had misled her:  there was another person there.  He was Rowland Maybrick, a distant family relation and an antique dealer who specialized in old coins.  Her grandmother had invited him to evaluate a coin collection and possibly locate buyers.  The narrator found him obnoxious.

On the evening of  Christmas Day, Maybrick decides to evaluate the coins, for he has to leave the following morning.  The next day, Maybrick does not appear for breakfast, and he hasn't slept in his bed.  A search begins, and his body is found in the library (where else in a stately isolated mansion?), his head bashed in.  The local constabulary is called in, and he decides he must have been killed by an intruder.

So the matter rests until the narrator, the young woman who will become a "bestselling crime novelist" begins her own investigation.

"A Very Commonplace Murder"

Many years ago, a married woman was found stabbed to death in an apartment.  She had left a note for her friend, who had given her the key,  in which she explains that she was going to end the affair for her husband was getting suspicious.   Various witnesses placed him in the vicinity of the apartment on the evening she was murdered.  In spite of the circumstantial evidence against him, the young lover insisted he was innocent.  He had been there, but she never let him in.   It's all very ordinary, commonplace as the title suggests.  However, it is not quite so commonplace as believed..

She gave the old man the key to the apartment, but she'd been in real estate long enough to know he wasn't a serious inquirer.  Why he wanted to look around, she didn't know, but it wasn't any of her business.  She was  right, though; Ernest Gabriel did have his reasons. 

Gabriel had evidence in support of the young lover's story.  There was, however, a slight problem.  First, he would have to explain what he was doing in a place that he had no right to be in at that time.   Secondly, he would have had to explain why he was there, and that would have been even more embarrassing.   To sum up his problem: if he told the police what he know, he would most likely lose his job and be blacklisted by his former employer.  In addition, he would become an object of ridicule, such that the few people who knew him would laugh and sneer at him.  On the one hand, his job and reputation would be at risk; on the other hand, an innocent man's life was at risk.

The young lover is arrested, and Gabriel decides to wait, for the police may find more evidence and free the young man.  Then, Gabriel's sacrifice would have been in vain.  Best to wait until the lover is actually charged.  Then he would speak.  The young man is charged with the crime . . .

This is less of a mystery and more of a psychological study of a man caught in a trap of his own devising.  It wouldn't have occurred if he hadn't been where he shouldn't have been and doing what he knew he shouldn't be doing.

"The Boxdale Inheritance"

This, in a sense,  is a cold case mystery, one of my favorite types.  It's a bit unusual for, as best as I can remember, it's the only cold case that the Met's  Adam Dalgliesh has been involved in.  In addition, it's not a formal investigation, for Dalgliesh is doing this on his own time for his godfather, Canon Hubert Boxdale.

Great Aunt Allie had just left Canon Boxdale the tidy sum of fifty thousand pounds. His wife has serious medical problems, and the unexpected inheritance seems almost miraculous.  This, however, posed a problem for the Canon, and he wished Inspector Dalgliesh would look into it.   Ir was a matter of conscience.  Some sixty-seven years ago Great Aunt Allie, as a very young woman, married a rich older man.  The man's family was upset, for she was a few months younger than the old man's granddaughter, and he had made a new will that left her everything. You may decide for yourself which was the most distressing.

Several months later he died, and an autopsy revealed that he had been poisoned.  Great Aunt Allie was charged, tried, and found Not Guilty.  Now, some sixty-seven years later she dies and leaves Canon Boxdale fifty thousand pounds.  The Canon is worried that the money may be tainted in that she murdered her husband to get it.  He asks Dalgliesh to investigate and decide whether he can honestly and without any doubt accept the verdict of Not Guilty.

Chief Inspector Dalgliesh investigates with his usual thoroughness and does come to a conclusion, but not without undergoing a matter of conscience of his own.

"The Twelve Clues of Christmas"

The title, of course, is a play on the song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  And, there are twelve clues.  Unfortunately I didn't take the title seriously, so I wasn't really counting the clues as they appeared.  I did pick up a few though.

Sgt. Adam Dalgliesh is on his way to spend Christmas with his Aunt Jane, when occurs that cliched opening to an adventure.  He is driving down a lonely road, not far from his Aunt Jane's place, when a man "leaps from the side of the road in the darkness of a winter afternoon, frantically waving down the approaching motorist . . ."

Dalgliesh stops and Helmut Harkerville excitedly asks Dalgliesh to take him to a telephone.  He must call the police for his uncle has just committed suicide.  That task accomplished, Dalgliesh then takes him back to Harkerville Hall.  (These isolated mansions in the countryside keep popping up everywhere).   Dalgliesh unofficially looks around and then turns it over to the local constabulary.

Unfortunately, he's still involved.  He has just begun to relax at Aunt Jane's when Inspector Peck arrives.  Peck has called the Met and discovered that Dalgliesh is a bit of a fair-haired boy there and requests his help.  Dalgliesh sighs;  there goes that quiet evening in conversation with Aunt Jane in front of a fireplace with a drink in hand. (In an interview, James had said that her favorite author was Jane Austen.  The aunt's name is a coincidence, I'm sure),

He returns with Inspector Peck, and they conduct a thorough search of the place.  Afterwords, Inspector Peck asks, "So what stuck you particularly about this little charade?"

Sgt. Dalgliesh responds, "A number of oddities, Sir.  If this were a detective story, you could call it 'The Twelve Clues of Christmas.'"

(James is having some fun with us--doing a little post-modern stuff here.)

Dalgliesh continues:  "'It's taken a little mental agility to get the number to twelve, but I thought it appropriate.'

"'Cut out the cleverness, laddie, and get to the facts.'"

And, so Sgt.  Dalgliesh gets to the facts, the twelve clues.

As for the type of a story this is, Sgt Dalgliesh says it best in the last words of the tale: "My dear Aunt Jane, I don't think I'll ever have another case like it.  It was pure Agatha Christie."

These are four enjoyable tales, and they are pure P. D. James.  The only problem is that there are only four.  Now that I know that P. D., James has written some short stories, I will conduct a little investigation of my own: are there more?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Colin Dexter: The Last Bus to Woodstock

Colin Dexter
The Last Bus to Woodstock
Police Procedural
Oxford, UK
Detective:  Inspector Morse

This is the first in the highly acclaimed series featuring Inspector Morse.  I first encountered Morse in the BBC/WGBH TV adaptations on Mystery Theatre.  I think they produced most of the novels and then went on to televise another 20 or more shows based on the characters created by Colin Dexter.  The TV shows introduced me to Inspector Morse and Sgt. Lewis just as they introduced me to a several other mystery series, including P. D. James' Commander Adam Dalgleish.

In this novel, Morse and Lewis work together for the first time and establish their professional and personal relationships that will extend through another twelve novels.  In addition, the basic themes that permeate the series appear here.  Most prominent are, of course, his drinking and his irascibility.  In addition, he falls in love with one of the suspects,  a very questionable act in a murder investigation.  He also has a great love for classical music and is usually shown listening to some work while at home. 

Moreover, he works his way through several theories about the identity of the murderer, each of which he is absolutely convinced is the only possible solution.  This results in  the ongoing conflict between Morse and Sgt. Lewis, who is far more cautious and reluctant to settle on one theory when he sees other possibilities.  And, as usual, Sgt. Lewis does most of the tedious and tiresome research which ultimately produces the clues Morse jumps on to solve the case.

My major problem with this novel is the character of the killer.  I don't find it believable.  At the end of the novel, I was reminded of another mystery I had read in which I also found the identity of the killer hard to accept.  Something was wrong.

It so happened that I read that book for a mystery group, and the author attended the meeting.  Hoping to get some sort of discussion on the issue started, I asked the author if she plans out her novels in advance or begins with an incident or character and goes on from there. She said she had planned this one out, but when she got near the end, she felt it wasn't going to work with that character as the killer, so she changed and made another character the killer.  I think that was the problem, that there was inadequate preparation that tied the new character to the crime.

I wonder if something similar happened in Dexter's novel.  He had set it up so that one character would be the killer, but near the end, he changed his mind.

In any case, it was an enjoyable read.  He went on to write another 12 novels and short stories about the cases of Inspector Morse and Sgt. Lewis.