Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXIV

First Edition: Quatrain XXIV

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after a To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
"Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!"

Second Edition: Quatrain XXVII

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries,
"Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!"

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXV

Alike for those who for To-day prepare,
And those that after some To-morrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
"Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!"

Only minimal changes appear in this quatrain. In the first edition, some stare after "a To-morrow," while in the second and fifth editions, it's after "some To-morrow" they stare. That "some" makes that "To-morrow" sound dubious at best; there's nothing definite here, whereas the "a" suggests that there is a specific "To-morrow" they have in mind.

The only other change I can find is that disappearing and reappearing comma at the end of line three. It's there in the first edition, disappears in the second edition, and shows up again in the fifth edition. Perhaps the printer left it off in the second edition. I can't see any reason for removing it. Grammatically it's defensible, though the rules for prose aren't always followed by poets.

It's a somewhat confusing quatrain if one reads it too closely. The major problem is that the poet refers to time--those who are focused on today and those who are more interested in tomorrow. Perhaps this dichotomy is between those who live for today and those who take a longer view. But the Muezzin tells that their reward is "neither Here nor There!" This suggests places, not times, and different places at that.

Could the "here" refer to this life on earth and "there" some afterlife? But then, if that's the case, then when is the reward? --for the Muezzin tells us that the reward is not in this life nor in an afterlife. Or, perhaps the Muezzin means there is no reward.

The "Tower of Darkness" is also perplexing. The Muezzin calls the Faithful to prayer five times a day. Since he is at the top of a tower, he frequently is in light when he makes his first and last calls for the sun may still be shining on him whereas most of the city may be in the dark. The three middle calls to prayer are during the day and therefore always in the light. The first stanza suggests this--

"And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light."

The Tower of Darkness might suggest Death and the Muezzin would be, therefore, the Angel of Death. If so, then there may be no reward, either now during this life or in some hoped for afterlife. Moreover, the nature of the reward is not brought out.

Well, perhaps another reading might give me the answer.

Any thoughts?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Robert Frost: (3/26/1874--01/29/1963) For Once, Then, Something

Today is Robert Frost's birthday, so I thought I would take a look at one of his poems. "For Once, Then, Something" is one of several poems that I call his "encounter" poems. In these poems, there is an encounter or brief meeting, that one might question calling an "encounter." But, that's usual for Frost, whose simple poems become much less simple and far more ambiguous, evasive, and inconclusive the closer one looks at them.

For example, below is his poem, "For Once, Then, Something," a short, simple little poem about the narrator who once sees something which appears for a brief moment and then disappears--a poem about the transience of experience or something similar. Or, so I saw it when I first looked at it. By now, though, I've looked at it a number of times, and I'm far less certain about it than I was several decades ago when I first encountered it.

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Now I believe that the poem isn't quite that simple. For example, let's look at the first six lines of the poem.

"Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs."

He just doesn't look into the well, but he looks at it in such a way that he can see only himself against the background of heaven, which makes him appear "godlike." His own reflection prevents him from seeing anything other than himself as the focal point. It is not an occasional accident, for the narrator also tells us that "[o]thers taunt him" for kneeling "[a]lways wrong" so that he can see nothing else but his own reflection. He constitutes the universe, or at least he is the most important component of the universe.

But, something happens that suggests that perhaps there is something else in the universe besides him.

"Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it."

He thinks he sees something "white, uncertain" which may come from the depths rather than the surface, where he customarily never goes beyond. Moreover, it is something that appears to come from beyond his reflection or even through it. This sounds almost Buddhist for a major tenet of Buddhism is that one must go deep, beyond one's ego or conscious self, to reach the True Self that lies beneath.

But, this is only a glimpse for it quickly disappears, strangely disappears if one looks closely.

"Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. . ."

"Water came to rebuke" or reprimand the well water for allowing him this all too brief glimpse of something. And "a ripple" on the surface somehow not only shakes whatever it was he saw, but it "blurred it, blotted it out. . ." He caught a glimpse of something he shouldn't have seen, and action must be taken. What is strangest about this is that the object should have been visible again, once the surface ripples disappeared, but the narrator tells us, or rather asks us what it was, which suggests it never reappeared.

"What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something."

It was white, but what could it have been? Melville also wonders about whiteness, for in Moby Dick, he suggests that the white whale is something more than just a whale. For the Japanese, if I'm not mistaken, white is the color of death. It's been awhile but it seems to me that in the Roman Catholic mass, all white vestments are worn by priests only on Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection.

But, to return to the poem, the narrator suggests two possibilities--truth or a quartz pebble--certainly a strange pairing of a concept and a small physical object. It's as if the narrator equated truth and a small quartz pebble, seeing little or no difference between them. What is it that lies in wait once one gets beyond one's own reflection? Nothing that we can definitely know, the narrator seems to suggest here.

Here is the poem again. I'm curious about what you think of it. Is Frost the simple rural, bucolic regional poet that many see him as?

For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

N. Scott Momaday: The Way To Rainy Mountain

N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain is a slim volume, less than 100 pages in length. It's a very unusual work, and one that has stayed with me for many years now. My first copy, a paperback edition, disintegrated in the Tucson heat, and I was forced to replace it several times, until I discovered a hardbound copy. I guess I can stop buying replacement copies now.


Noon in the intermountain plain:
There is scant telling of the marsh--
A log, hollow and weather-stained,
An insect at the mouth, and moss--
Yet waters rise against the roots,
Stand brimming to the stalks. What moves?
What moves on this archaic force
Was wild and welling at the source.

The book begins with the poem given above. Next is the "Prologue" and the "Introduction." This is followed by three sections: "The Setting Out," "The Going On," and sadly, "The Closing In." A brief epilogue concludes the work. I find it difficult to explain the attraction of the work, so I think I will just let the book talk for itself.

The Prologue begins:

The journey began one day long ago on the edge of the northern Plains. It was carried on over a course of many generations and many hundreds of miles. In the end there were many things to remember, to dwell upon and talk about.

. . .

For the Kiowas the beginning was a struggle for existence in the bleak northern mountains. It was there, they say, that they entered the world through a hollow log. The end, too, was a struggle, and it was lost. The young Plains culture of the Kiowas withered and died like grass that is burned in the prairie wind. . . But these are idle recollections, the mean and ordinary agonies of human history. The interim was a time of great adventure and nobility and fulfillment

Prior to reading the book, I had imagined that the title referred to some sort of Edenic spot, perhaps even a mythic Garden of Eden, but Momaday in the "Introduction" soon corrected me. The first paragraph of the "Introduction" begins--

A single knoll rises out of the plain in Oklahoma, north and west of the Wichita Range. For my people, the Kiowas, it is an old landmark, and they gave it the name Rainy Mountain. The hardest weather in the world is there. Winter brings blizzards, hot tornadic winds arise in the spring, and in summer the prairie is an anvil's edge. The grass turns brittle and brown, and it cracks beneath your feet. . . Loneliness is an aspect of the land. All things in the plain are isolate; there is no confusion or objects in the eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun."

The three middle sections are unique in that each section consists of a number of short chapters which are two pages long, and each chapter is comprised of three passages. Each of the three passages presents a different perspective. The first passage is a myth or a legend or a tale of the Kiowa people. The second passage is a fact or an observation that relates to the myth or legend or story in some way. The third and final passage is a reminiscence by Momaday, either of his own experience or one that relates to his family, and which links up the two previous passages. The three perspectives, then, present a picture, that like a hologram, is three-dimensional and can be viewed from several points.

For example, Chapter II of the first section tells of the time the Kiowas went hunting and killed an antelope. One of the 'big chiefs" came up and claimed the udders (a delicacy) for himself. At this another "big chief" insisted on having the udders for himself. An argument ensued and one of the chiefs "gathered all of his follows together and went away." They were never heard of again.

In the second passage of Chapter II, Momaday tells us that "[t]his is one of the oldest memories of the tribe. There have been reports of a people in the Northwest who speak a language that similar to the Kiowa."

The third passage is a personal memory of Momaday's when he "remembered once having seen a frightened buck on the run, how the white rosette of its rump seemed to hang for the smallest fraction of time at the top of each frantic bound--like a succession of sunbursts against the purple hills."

And again, in Chapter III, in the first passage we learn the story of how the Kiowas first got the dog, long before the horse. In the second passage, we get a stronger sense of the importance of the dog when we learn that the "principal warrior society of the Kiowas was the Ka-itsenko, 'Real Dogs,' and it was made up of ten men only, the ten most brave" in the tribe.

In the third passage, Momaday writes

There were always dogs about my grandmother's house. Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own. They belonged there in a sense that the word "ownership" does not include. The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

But the horse was also extremely important to the Kiowa for it gave them the freedom to move that they had never had before. In one of the last chapters of the book, we read

Once there was a man who owned a fine hunting horse. It was black and fast and afraid of nothing. When it was turned upon an enemy it charged in a straight line and struck at full speed. . .But, you know, that man knew fear. Once during a charge he turned that animal from its course. That was a bad thing. The hunting horse died of shame.

In the second passage, Momaday tells us of Gaapiatan, his grandfather, who sacrificed a fine horse as a offering in hopes that he and his family might escape a smallpox epidemic.

Momaday, in the third passage, then sums up by saying he thinks he knows what was in Gaapiatan mind--that he will give up something he values highly if his family might be spared.

As you can see, it does have a beginning, middle, and end and can be read that way, but I also open it up randomly and enjoy. One more point, interspersed throughout are stark, spare, and striking black-and-white illustrations by Momaday's father, Al Momaday.

In the epilogue, the Kiowa golden age, according to Momaday, lasted little more than 90 years. "The culture would persist for a while in decline, until about 1875, but then it would be gone, and there would be very little material evidence that it had ever been." Momaday writes that there were still a few who remembered, but he wrote this in the late 1960s, over 40 years ago. I doubt if there are any who are now still alive. Perhaps today Momaday himself is a significant resource of information for he has known some who had direct experience of the Kiowa culture in its last days.

The book concludes with the following poem:


Most is your name of this dark stone.
Deranged in death, the mind to be inheres
Forever in the nominal unknown,
The wake of nothing audible he hears
Who listens here and now to hear your name.

The early sun, red as a hunter's moon,
Runs in the plain. The mountain burns and shines;
And silence is the long approach of noon
Upon the shadow that your name defines--
And death this cold, black density of stone.

The Way to Rainy Mountain is a remarkable book, but the only way to experience it is to read it. I hope some will sit down and take it up some time. It's well worth the hour or so.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ursula Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is a difficult novel to write about, for me anyway. It's one of my top ten favorite SF novels and definitely has my vote for being one of the ten best SF novels ever written. The problem is that I get drawn so deeply into the novel that I find it difficult to stand back and take an analytical look at it.

The title comes from the saying in the book: "The left hand of darkness, the right hand of light." The book does come with a Taoist and Zen background, even to the point that Genly Ai, the POV character, refers to the Yin-Yang symbol when speaking of the people of Gethen. However, knowledge of Taoism and Zen is not necessary for appreciation of the novel.

The story is set on the planet Winter, Gethen as it is called by its inhabitants. Winter is an appropriate name since the planet is in the midst of a glacial period. While this does play an important role in the story, the novel is far more than a simple tale of survival under harsh conditions. The real focus of the novel is the people of Gethen and the question Le Guin asks--what is the effect of gender and constant sexual readiness on the individual and the culture. She asks this by positing a people that do not have a permanent, fixed gender and who are not in a state of readiness for sexual activity.

The people of Gethen are almost completely identical to us and would not be noticed if they were walking down any street or road on earth. There are, though, two significant differences between us and the Gethens. The Gethens are effectively sexually neuter for most of their lives. They show no sexual characteristics and have no interest in sex during this period.

The Gethens have roughly a 26 day cycle: for around 22-3 days they are effectively asexual. Sometime around the 22nd day they begin to undergo changes which will result in becoming a sexual being--either male or female--for about 2-3 days. During this period, kemmer, they develop a strong sex drive, and it becomes very uncomfortable for those who do not engage in sexual activity at this time. Therefore, all Gethenian have a two-three day holiday at this time. No one is expected to be able to function effectively and so all are free at that time.

The significant effect of this is that the average Gethenians therefore have no real sense of being male or female as we do. They are just people and treat each other as such. This has repercussions in behavior, possibly even threatening to non-Gethenians.

As one non-Gethenian observer writes in a report:

The First Mobile [first ambassador] , if one is sent, must be warned that unless he is very self-assured, or senile, his pride will suffer. A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her femininity appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.

This limited and strong period of sexual arousal in the Gethenians has resulted in the establishment of kemmer houses in most towns and cities. It is a place where one can go if one is entering kemmer and find others who are also entering kemmer at the same time. Two in kemmer, therefore, meet in a kemmer house and pair off. Usually one is a few hours ahead of the other, so when that person begins to become a male or female, the other person becomes the opposite sex. If the first one starts to become a female, the other will become a male, or a female if the first one becomes a male. If the female becomes pregnant, "she" will remain female until the child is weaned, and she then reverts to being asexual. The "mother," then, during her next kemmer period may just as easily become a male or a female.

The Story:

Genly Ai is the representative of the Ekumen, a loose association of planets, which functions not so much as a galactic government but as sort of a clearing house. His task is to persuade the Gethenians to join the Ekumen. He is sent to live alone on the planet for it is the belief of the Ekumen that total immersion is the best way to develop an understanding of the prevailing culture. Essentially his job is to explain the Ekumen to the Gethenians and eventually the Gethenians to the Ekumen.

Joining the Ekumen opens the planet up to trade with other members, but not trade in the usual sense--but trade in ideas, information, culture, literature, poetry, music. Instantaneous FTL travel is not possible in Le Guin's universe. Einstein still holds true. If Genley Ai returns to the closest Ekumen planet to Gethen he will find that 34 years have passed since he left, in addition to the years has spent on Gethen. Trade is anything, therefore, that can be transmitted by ansible, a "radio" that can transmit messages at FTL speeds.

Gethen has two countries and two quite different cultures. Ai has been set down in Karhide, which has a monarchy that loosely governs the country (one of the Gethenians calls it more of a family quarrel than an effective government), and Orgoreyn, which is becoming a bureaucratic state that is developing a tight control over its population.

Ai's task is to develop an understanding of the Gethenian culture, and this task, difficult as it is, is magnified by the problems he has in dealing with individual Gethenians. Intellectually he knows that these individuals are not male or female, but perhaps neither? both? However, since Estraven, a powerful, influential member of the king's council. appears to be male, Ai treats him as a male and is confused when Estraven acts out of character. This prevents Ai from completely trusting Estraven and this issue is only resolved during the latter part of the novel when the two are thrown together for a long period.

Estraven, on the other hand, fails to completely realize that Ai is an alien and he, therefore, takes for granted that Ai understands his actions. Again, it is only later that Estraven begins to really understand that Ai does not completely grasp the underlying rationale behind his behavior.

Initially, Ai is befriended by and his mission taken up by Estraven. However, power politics are the same, regardless of gender or lack thereof, and Estraven is maneuvered out of power and forced to go into exile in Orgoreyn. Eventually Ai, too, is forced to leave for Orgoreyn, for the king does not see him as an envoy from an extra-planetary organization but as some sort of pervert who is part of a plot to overthrow him.

This is all set against major changes in the cultures of Karhide and Orgoreyn. War is unknown on Gethen. There is individual violence and occasionally raids by small groups, but organized warfare as we know it on earth is unknown, up to this point anyway. Orgoreyn is in the process of developing strong controls over its citizenry. In Karhide, one of the king's council has discovered the concepts of patriotism and nationalism and is busy promulgating them during his weekly radio broadcasts. Both trends can be seen as making it possible to activate large numbers of people, something which eventually could lead to the formation of armies and, therefore, war. And there is and has been a long-running border dispute between the two countries, a situation that is ready-made for a war.

What happens to Ai and Estraven in Orgoreyn then takes up the second part of the novel, which leads to the resolution of Ai's main problem--getting an agreement on a treaty with the Ekumen. And, as always, there is a price to be paid.

Le Guin doesn't give us the story as a typical chronological narrative. Much of it is told from Ai's POV, but interspersed are notes from Estraven's diary giving us his/her (English lacks a pronoun here and "it" just doesn't fit) view of Ai and some information about what is happening and why, at least from Estraven's POV. In addition are various tales, myths, legends, and stories that give the reader bits and pieces of Karhidish society, a far more entertaining method of filling in the background than straight narrative lecturing.

Overall Rating: perhaps the best way is to say that this is the novel I always mention when someone asks me to recommend "a good SF novel for someone who doesn't read SF." Each time I read it, I always end up thinking that this is what SF could be and should be, but too seldom is.

Saint Patrick's Day: Traditional Irish Blessing

May the road rise to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

The sun shine warm upon your face
The rains fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Thought

Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.
-- Vietnamese Buddhist Precept--

This just jumped off the page at me today. I wonder why.

All sorts of headlines kept flashing before my eyes.

If this were the prevailing philosophy instead of being ignored by most, what would the world be like today?

I wonder if this ever could become generally accepted.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Combination Plate 12

Brief commentary on various films and books:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film

This film is apparently based on a "graphic novel," or a comic book for those who don't read them. I don't read them. Friends who do read them, after hearing that I had seen the film, rushed to reassure me that all films based on "graphic novels" aren't this bad.

Having seen others which I did enjoy I assured them that I was aware that there were good films out there, even if they were based on comic books.

I thought the film was a waste of time and money: the motto of the powers-that-be must be something similar to "Millions for Special Effects: Not one cent for plot or story or character development."

It is a shame because the concept has considerable potential: take a group of extraordinary 19th century fictional characters and treat them as if they were superheroes gathered together to fight a monstrous threat to civilization. The cast of characters is fascinating:

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and his evil alter ego, Mr Hyde;
Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, whose portrait aged while he remained young;
H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain, adventurer and Great White Hunter;
Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, inventor and captain of the Nautilus, the world's first submarine;
H. G. Well's the Invisible Man, or actually a thief who stole the formula; and
Bram Stoker's Mina Harker (now a vampire).

Also included in the League is Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, who sort of barges in without an invitation, much as the young would-be samurai tags along with the hired samurai in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Hmmm, there are eight in the League, if one counts Jekyll and Hyde separately

I wondered at times whether the creators had actually read of the literary works from which these characters were drawn, especially when viewing what the special effects types came up with for Mr. Hyde. Now, in the novel, he is described as ugly, but in the film he was bizarre-- resembling someone who didn't just use steroids, but had them for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Captain Nemo's submarine, Nautilus, is equally bizarre, distorted beyond any rational idea of what a submarine might resemble, even for a 19th century submersible. It is so distorted that it looks top-heavy and incredibly narrow, at least to me anyway.

And what is Tom Sawyer doing here? He supposedly is some sort of government agent, whose talent seems to be handling a six-gun. I wondered why they didn't select one of the heroes of the dime westerns that were popular around that time.

Early in the film, I was puzzled as to why one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, and one whose intellectual abilities would have been incredibly useful in dealing with a master criminal, was missing. I mean Sherlock Holmes, who definitely belongs in any League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the 19th century. The answer was obvious once the identity of the master criminal is revealed--Professor Moriarty! Holmes would have identified him immediately, so Holmes couldn't be included, if Moriarty's identity is to be kept secret, for awhile anyway.

The plot is absurd and inane: Moriarty, in disguise as a government agent, gathers the superheroes together to fight a supposed threat to civilization. In reality, he just wanted to get them together so he could take samples from them and create a serum that would turn any group of ordinary people into an invincible army. However, once his plot is revealed, they then became a real League in order to fight him. This makes no sense because it would have been far simpler and safer for Moriarty to collect his samples individually, with no reason for getting them together in the same room.

Overall Rating: a waste of everybody's time and money-- that belonging to the cast and crew and backers of the film and the audience. There is no real attempt to develop the characters-- they were there to display their "talents" in the most simplistic and rudimentary manner. The real stars of the film are the makeup and special effects crews.


Michael Gregorio
A Critique of Criminal Reason
Historical Mystery, set in Konigsburg, Prussia, 1804
Hanno Stiffeniis: A judicial detective

Hanno Stiffeniis left Konigsburg to take a position as procurator, or an investigating magistrate, in a small town. However, he is called back when Konigsburg is terrorized by a series of inexplicable murders. No one can figure out how victims died. Some think the devil is involved while others blame French agents for the crimes, hoping to terrify the populace before Napoleon's army invades. Konigsburg's procurator is stumped, and Stiffeniis is called in to aid him. However, when the procurator becomes ill and incapacitated, Stiffeniis must take over.

The title is a play on a famous and real work by the city's most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason was published a decade or so ago. The aging philosopher has his own ideas about how to solve the murders, and he begins to instruct Stiffeniis accordingly in his system--a combination of criminal psychology and the scientific method. Kant had met Stiffeniis years ago and was impressed by his mental flexibility and willingness to break away from tradition. In fact, it was Kant who persuaded the royal court to bring Stiffeniis back.

Gregorio's depiction of the times and place are among the many strengths of the novel. Since I know little about the real Kant's life, I can't comment on whether this is Kant or Gregorio's invention. In any case, the depiction of the Kant character is fascinating as he faces his own impending death. Hanno Stiffeniis is a complex character in his own right, as he struggles with his devotion to truth among the complexities of his time, especially with an invading army not far off.

If you like stories with a strong development of time and place, such as found in the mysteries with Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder and CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, then this series is for you.

I'm eagerly waiting for the second, Days of Atonement, and the third, A Visible Darkness, in the series to become available.

Overall rating: highly recommended, 5/5 stars.


Robert Holdstock
Mythago Wood
An SF novel

Holdstock's Mythago Wood is a fantasy, and a rather unique fantasy. It doesn't fit in with the typical fantasies that crowd bookshelves today--those that are based on the Arthurian or the Tolkien modes. It is unique.

Mythago Wood is an ancient, mysterious, and mostly unexplored forest somewhere in England. One of its many unique characteristics is that it is larger, far larger, incredibly larger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. One might almost think of Doctor Who's Tardis here.

Another of its stranger characteristics or powers is the generation of imagos. The name of the wood appears to be a combination of "myth" and "imago." One might think about "monsters from the id" here. Mental constructs come alive in the forest and eventually take on a life of their own. A thief who robs the rich (who else has money?) and occasionally shares it with the poor, becomes a legendary character over the centuries and comes alive in Mythago Wood.

Or one may create a dream lover, and if one lives close to the Wood, such as the Huxley family does, an imago of that dream lover comes alive. Mythago Wood is on their land, at least as far as official records show. But, the official records take no note of what can be found in that small primeval wood.

The story has some Freudian overtones to it. The father, George Huxley (George Orwell and Aldous Huxley?), has explored the Wood for decades. Over the years, he, consciously or unconsciously, creates several imagoes. One is a beautiful young woman. After his death, his sons, Christian and Steven, both become obsessed with the young woman (a combination of the Oedipal complex and sibling rivalry?). Along with Freud, one can see Biblical influences in the struggle between the brothers--Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob--to gain the father's approval or at least control the father's heritage.

There are several stories set in Mythago Wood, but from what I gather, each story is unique, similar only in the location.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Fred Vargas
The Chalk Circle Man
A mystery set in contemporary Paris, France
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg--a police procedural

This is the first novel in a series that includes 8 novels, as of 2008. In this work, Commissaire Adamsberg has just arrived in Paris to take over as chief of police in the 7th Arrondissment. He has gained a reputation for solving insolvable crimes out in the provinces, so all are interested to see how well he does in Paris.

It's been quiet since he arrived, except for the chalk circles. Many mornings the citizens of Paris awaken to find that someone has drawn a chalk circle around a discarded object. It could be a dead pigeon, an empty wine bottle, a gum wrapper, or a crumpled-up piece of paper. There's no pattern that anyone can see. It is dismissed as the work of a harmless crackpot by everyone, except Commissaire Adamsberg, who sees something ominous here. And, eventually, he's vindicated, as, one morning, the body of a dead woman is found inside the chalk circle.

Did the drawer of the chalk circles kill her or did drawer just happen to find the body?

One of the most interesting elements in the novel is Vargas' depiction of Commissaire Adamsberg and some of the other characters encountered in the investigation. To be honest, I almost feel sorry for the police in this novel, for they end up playing "straight men" to the very quirky Adamsberg and numerous inhabitants of the 7th.

Overall Rating: highly recommended, 5/5 stars.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXIII

Quatrain XXIII is the third and final quatrain in what I consider to be a linked series that includes Quatrains XXI and XXII.

First Edition: Quatrain XXIII

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend.
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End.

Second Edition: Quatrain XXVI

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXIV

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!

The only changes I can detect involve punctuation. In the First Edition, the period at the end of the second line becomes and remains a semi-colon in the Second and Fifth Editions. The comma at the end of the third line in the First and Second Editions has disappeared by the Fifth Edition. The period at the end of the fourth line in the First Edition changes to an exclamation point in the Second and Fifth Editions. These changes may signal a subtle change in meaning, but, except for the substitution of the exclamation point to denote intensity, I don't really see it.

As I mentioned above, I see this as the final quatrain in a linked series. In Quatrain XXI, the poet points out that even "the loveliest and the best" have gone on before us. In Quatrain XXII, we are told that "Ourselves must we beneath the couch of Earth/ Descend, ourselves to make a Couch. . ." In other words, all must die.

In the final quatrain in the "series," Quatrain XXIII, the poet then urges us to use what little time we have "Before we too into the Dust descend;/Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie. . .", a clear reference to Genesis 3, 19, the King James Version.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

One minor difference, of course, is that the Biblical verse refers to sweat and bread and makes no mention of wine or song or singers.

The last line, Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and -- sans End, is frequently quoted and often paraphrased to suit the authors' point. It, also, is a reference to another Biblical injunction, this one from Ecclesiastes Chapter 8, 15:

Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.

One other point about the last line is that it is frequently paraphrased as "wine, women, and song," presumably the most significant ingredients of a life of pleasure. FitzGerald, though, expands his appeal to all members of his readership by referring to an ambiguous "Singer."

The last phrase--Sans End-- repeats a common theme in FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat, that death is eternal. There is no end to it, and in later quatrains, he will point out that no one returns from death.

This quatrain then echoes earlier quatrains by reminding us to "make the most" of what time remains because once we die, we will be without wine, without song, and without singers. What comes then will be endless.