Sunday, April 23, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: on stories

Another quotation from N. Scott Momaday on storytellers and storytelling.  I think there are some ideas expressed in them that wouldn't be accepted favorably by modern critics, and, perhaps, by some not-so-modern critics and scholars. . 

  Stories are composed of words and of such implications as the storyteller places upon the words.  The choice of words, their arrangement, and their effect are by and large determined by the storyteller.  The storyteller exercises nearly complete control over the storytelling experience.

.  .  .  .  .

   Stories are true to our common experience; they are statements which concern the human condition.  To the extent that the human condition involves moral considerations, stories have moral implications.  Beyond that, stories are true in that they are established squarely upon belief.  In the oral tradition stories are told not merely to entertain or to instruct; they are told to be believed.  Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true. 

-- N. Scott Momaday --
The Man Made of Words

Aside from John Gardner, I wonder how many critics, scholars, and readers will accept Momaday's statement that stories have moral implications.  

I'm not sure exactly what Momaday means by Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true.   I think he suggests the stories somehow are not to be judged by our ordinary commonsense ways of thinking, but exist somehow in another place. 

Any thoughts?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Han Shan: solitude

One reason why I admire Han Shan (Cold Mountain) is his humanity.  He comes across as very human, and this is one that reveals him as being human, and not some mystic saint.

Sitting alone I keep slipping away
far off with the cares of my heart
clouds wander by the mountainside
wind rushes out the valley
gibbons swing from the trees
birds call through the forest
time slips past my temples
yearend finds me old with regrets

-- Han Shan (Cold Mountain) --
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
Red Pine: trans and ed.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 3

Lawrence Durrell

As many have said before and many will repeat in the future, one of the joys and benefits of rereading some works is the discovery of the "new" or actually unnoticed elements in the work.  Sometimes the "new" brings out new themes or motifs in the work.  Sometimes it forces a re-thinking about of the work.  This is rare, but it does occur, and this is what has happened with this rereading. In spite of three? or four? readings, I never noticed this before or never realized the significance of it.

Justine is Darley's attempt to reconstruct the events of his life in Alexandria and make sense of it.  It is flashback, but with a very interrupted and convoluted narrative.  He does not go back and start with his arrival in Alexandria and move forward in a chronological straightforward  way to the present.  Instead, it is almost impossible to construct a chronology without considerable effort, and perhaps considerable guesswork by the reconstructor.  I had always taken this as an example of what many modern writers insist is the way that memories work--not in a chronological fashion, but somewhat randomly and those random memories bring up related memories. This is what it seemed was happening in Justine.   But, then I read this, seemingly for the first time.

(What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place--for that is history--but in the order in which they first became significant for me.)

If this is so, then the events presented us are those which became significant in his reconstruction of his past life in Alexandria, and are not simply the random productions of memory.  I don't have time now, but I shall leave a note for my next rereading of Justine.  I wonder how this will affect my reading.  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Minute Meditation

The storyteller is the one who tells the story.  To say this is to say that the storyteller is preeminently entitled to tell the story.  He is original and creative.  He creates the storytelling experience and himself and his audience in the process.  He exists in the person of the storyteller for the sake of telling the story.  When he is otherwise occupied, he is someone other than the storyteller.  His telling of the story is a unique performance.  The storyteller creates himself in the sense that the mask he wears for the sake of telling the story is of his own making, and it is never the same.   He creates his listener in the sense that he determines the listener's existence within, and in relation to, the story, and it is never the same.  The storyteller says in effect: "On this occasion I am, for I imagine that I am; and on this occasion you are, for I imagine that you are.  And this imagining is the burden of the story, and indeed it is the story."  

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

N. Scott Momaday obviously possesses a different philosophy regarding storytelling than do many of his contemporaries.   Some commentaries I had read a short time ago imply that there is no such thing as a good book or a bad book, that there is no such thing as a good storyteller or a bad storyteller, that there are only good readers and bad readers.

Sheer unadulterated twaddle.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Nikos Kazantzakis: Toda Raba

Nikos Kazantzakis
Toda Raba
Published 1928
English Translation, 1964
Amy Mims,  trans.


The focal point of this tale is the Soviet Union's celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the October Revolution in 1928.  Nikos Kazantzakis received an invitation from the Soviet government to attend a general meeting being held at that time.  Although Kazantzakis never became a member of the Communist Party, he apparently saw them at that time as the best hope to improve the condition of   the mass of humanity and to fight the ever increasing threat of fascism.  Like many others during the 20s, he seemed, to me at least, to be more of an admirer of the Ideal Communism.   He attended the meeting and traveled once again extensively throughout the Soviet Union in 1928. Toda Raba was written and published in 1929.   According to what I have read, he later witnessed the rise of Stalin and became disillusioned by communism as practiced in Russia.

The narrative is split, for it follows the travels of six or seven people who were invited to attend that Tenth Anniversary meeting in Moscow.  The travelers are varied:  there is Rahel, a Polish-Jewish young woman who is a member of the Cheka (Soviet secret police): Azad, a ex-member of the Cheka and a murderer; Geranos, who, like Kazantzakis,  is from Crete; Sou-ki, a Chinese living in California; Amita, a Japanese writer;  Amanda, a monk from India; and Toda Raba, a black African.

The characters are forcefully drawn and come alive.  This is one of Kazantzakis' strengths--his ability to make his characters come off the page, even minor characters who only appear briefly for a page or two, and are never seen again.  For example:

Geranos turned around.  .  .  He saw a man dressed very soberly and elegantly, who moved with short, fiery movements.  His eyes were exalted and cold.  Only his smile, broad and controlled and showing beautiful carnivorous teeth, betrayed the hungry sensuality in this disciplined man. 

Some parts of the novel might be mistaken for a travelogue for Kazantzakis provides us with beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside and the varied cities and towns and the many nationalities along with their native dress and customs as the travelers take different routes to reach Moscow.

But, above all, Kazantzakis gives us the varying political and ideological flavors of the travelers, from idealistic believers to those who see various problems arising within the system to those who see Communism as the wave of the future and wish to be part of it.  Azad, at one point, says:

"But are you blind?  Don't you see?  There's something not right in our Russia!  What it is I don't know . . . . There's a stream of mire . . . . of red mire . . . . Let's get together, we old fighters, we honest men, the ones with fire.  Let's create a different stream, even if we have to make it out of blood.  Let's climb the hill again.  Let's purge the earth once more! Can't this little band sign the death warrant any more . . ."

Azad sees what he considers flaws in the system.  He is not blinded by his faith in this way.  However, he believes that the flaws are the result of those in power and that the solution is to remove them and put in better people.  He doesn't realize that all human created systems are flawed, that there really is no such thing as the perfect system.   

As you can see, Kazantzakis' travelers are anything but a monolithic bloc of true believers as they debate and argue about the state of communism in the Soviet Union.  The flyleaf to the novel suggests that the characters all represent Kazantzakis' own deeply conflicting views of  the Revolution.  If so, it is easy to see why he never have joined the Communist Party.

I have read many of Kazantzakis' works over the years, but I had never heard of this work until last year, and  I was curious about it. I had to find out why it had been so neglected and ignored by the scholars and critics I had read over the years and I wanted, naturally to read it.  I haven't read much actually of the scholarship, to be honest, but I would have thought this one would have mentioned by at least one or two.  Perhaps it is Kazantzakis' communist leanings that scholars wished to ignore, to pretend it never happened.  But, to me anyway, the book shows Kazantzakis to be in no way a true believer, but a one who feels that communism, at least in 1929, is the best hope for humanity, even though very skeptical as to the direction it seemed to be taking.  And history has shown that his skepticism was justified. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain XC

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain  in which the narrator eavesdrops on the Potter's creations as they comment in the Potter's absence.  The Potter, to me, suggests the Creator.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XC

And once again there gathered a scarce heard
Whisper among them; as it were, the stirr'd
    Ashes of some all but extinguished Tongue,
Which mine ear kindled into living Word.   

According to another Rubaiyat collection that I have, the Fifth Edition version of this quatrain is LXXXIII.  However, I don't see the relationship between XC and LXXXIII.  It seems to me, therefore, that this is one of the quatrains that FitzGerald added in the Second Edition but had removed by the time the Fifth Edition was published.  I can see why, for this quatrain really doesn't say much.  Although one might expect the following quatrain to tell us what that living Word might be, the first line of the following quatrain, Said one among them--"Surely not in vain," strikes me as ambiguous or awkwardly expressed.  It really doesn't flow smoothly from the previous quatrain.

Among the Potter's creations, one is speaking so quietly that it sounds as if it were just some ashes being stirred.  The reference here is obvious: ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  Possibly some long deceased human's ashes were gathered up in the clay used to create this pot.  I wonder if this is a vague reference to reincarnation.  That voice, Which mine ear kindled into living Word, was so faint that I wonder if he really heard anything at all

I think this was supposed to be an introductory quatrain, leading to some idea expressed in the following quatrain.  However, this didn't happen, so FitzGerald decided to remove it. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

John Muir: Destruction or Creation?

No. 66

How lavish is Nature, building, pulling down, creating, destroying, chasing every material particle from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.   


.  .  . One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made.  That this is still the morning of creation.  That mountains, long conceived, are now being born, brought to light by the glaciers, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes.  That moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants .  .  . while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening far out to sea, is being stored away in the darkness, and builded, particle on particle, cementing, and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other landscapes, which, like fluent pulsing water, rise and fall, and pass on through the ages in endless rhythm and beauty. 

All quotations are from John Muir: In His Own Words 

It certainly is a different way to view nature, especially when in a mountainous area.

Is there a difference between the acts of nature--earthquakes, landslides, storms, volcano eruptions, mountain building, etc.-- when what was there before is gone and replaced with something else on the one hand and taking down old buildings and fine old neighborhoods whose only sin is that they are old and replacing them with condos, apartment complexes, big box stores, and parking lots?

But, I guess I will be told that that is progress, and that one shouldn't stand in the way of progress,  should  one?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Pt. 2

For some reason, the narrator neglected to introduce us to Balthazar, who will be a very important character, as suggested by his name given to the second book in the Quartet.

Balthazar's importance is considerable.  To be precise, Darley has sent the manuscript to Balthazar.  Balthazar then "corrects" or adds what he knows, from a different perspective,  about the events Darley has portrayed and returns the manuscript and the interlinear to Darley.  The second novel, Balthazar, Darley's attempt to rewrite Justine based on Balthazar's information. 

In Part II, the narrator recognizes this and quickly describes him and their strange meeting.

I see a tall man in a black hat with a narrow brimPombal christened him, "the botanical goat".  He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites.  . . It is a mystery how he can have, suspended from his trunk, hands of such monstrous ugliness.  I would long since have cut them off and thrown them into the sea.  Under his chin he has one dark spur of hair growing, such as one sometimes sees upon the hoof of a sculptured Pan.
                                                  .     .     .      .     .
.  .  .  .  .

I remember meeting him, too , one bleak winter evening, walking along the rain-swept  Corniche, dodging the sudden gushes of salt water from the conduits which lined it.  .  .  . We had met before, it is true, but glancingly:  and would have perhaps passed each other with a nod had not his agitation made him stop me and take my arm.  "Ah! you can help me!" he cried, taking me by the arm.  "Please help me."  His pale face with its gleaming goat-eyes lowered itself toward mine in the approaching dusk.

Balthazar had lost the key to his pocket-watch, which had belonged to his father.  While he could have had another key cut for it, it wouldn't be the same for that key--"It belonged to this watch.  It was part of it. They searched briefly, but it got too dark and they went to a cafe and got acquainted.
The key was found, but the circumstances surrounding it were strange and never fully explained, at least in Justine.  Perhaps we will learn more about the key and the mystery that enveloped it in the next volume, Balthazar.

We do find out later.

Balthazar has his counterpart in Durrell's "The Avignon Quintet,"  in Akkad, the leader of a cult of Gnostics who is also a very talented and convincing speaker/reader at the meetings.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Eagle


 Hokusai:  Eagle in Flight

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson --

While the painting by Hokusai doesn't quite exactly match Tennyson's poem, I think it does portray the spirit of the poem.  

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Favorite SF novels or short works--2016

These are those SF/F works that I read and enjoyed during 2016, and many of which I might read again, sometime down the road.


First Reads:

Kim Stanley Robinson:      Aurora
--my favorite new SF novel read during 2016
--a grim, gritty, and discouraging tale of life aboard a generation ship.
--Robinson's theme seems to be that while travel in the solar system may be possible, travel to another star to set up a colony by humans is impossible with today's technology and what seems potentially possible in the future.  
--perhaps his Red, Green, and Blue Mars trilogy presents the most we can hope for,  but who knows what future research may bring--FTL anyone?
--for my longer commentary, see

Gene Wolfe:      A Borrowed Man
--A very unique concept--writers are cloned after death and the clones are placed in libraries to be used as resource materials where they can be borrowed just like any other material in the library.
--see my longer post on this work at

Sylvain Neuvel:      Sleeping Giants
--this is the first novel I've read by him.
--a young girl falls into a sinkhole and lands in the palm of a huge metallic hand, one obviously not made by humans.
--some decades later, she becomes involved in a research project devoted to answering questions about the giant robot:  who, what, where, why.  .  .  and where's the rest of it?
--the story is told through a series of interviews conducted by an unknown, unnamed, and mysterious questioner.
--the sequel Waking Gods is the second in the series, and I will definitely read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro The Buried Giant
--a fantasy set in England shortly after the death of King Arthur
--an elderly couple set out to find their son who left after a quarrel with the father.
--on their journey, they and the reader encounters dragons, evil monks,  Sir Gawain, and a mysterious disease that affects the memory.
--for a longer commentary, see my post at

Iain M. Banks:    Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games
--two novels set in Banks' "Culture" Universe.
--diverse topics with little if any overlap between these two novels, and from what I've read this holds true for the other novels set in this universe.  Culture is not really an organized government, as such, but a union of like-minded planets and cultures.  It's purpose is to envelope all cultures but not through military means.  

Thea von Harbou:      Metropolis
--the basis for the classic SF film by the same name.
--the problem is the gap between the head (capitalists owners) and the hand (the workers).

Olaf Stapledon:          Odd John
--the life of a mutant superman, who is one of the most unpleasant "superman" I've ever read about.

Stanislaw Lem:         Solaris
--the basis for the two films of the same name
--the best novel I've ever read that portrays aliens as really alien and not humans    
   dressed up in funny suits.

M. John Harrison:     The Pastel City
--a novel set in the far future on Earth, but an Earth that no longer resembles anything we know
--so much time has passed that several alien species are no longer considered aliens
--two rival queens vie for control of Viriconium, the strangest city I've ever visited in print.

Ursula LeGuin:          The Left Hand of Darkness
--this novel is a permanent fixture on that desert island list.
--it's one I always recommend when someone asks for a recommendation
--for more information, see my post at

Wilson Tucker:          The Long Loud Silence

--this may not be the first post-holocaust novel I ever read, but it's the first one I remember.
--probably outdated today, but still it's a nostalgic favorite I go back to every once in a while.

Dan Simmons:          Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
--two of his best works-complex plot and characters.
--it begins as the story of a war between a galactic empire and the barbarians who left the empire and
   have now returned to exact revenge.  It is much more than that, as we read on.
--for more information, see my posts at, and

John Brunner:           Stand on Zanzibar
--rather than struggle with trying give you an idea of what this complex novel is like, go to my post
  for a brief summary at

Roger Zelazny:     The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth
--a favorite short work by Zelazny.  A man earns his living by being hired to act as bait.

Kevin Anderson and Gregory Benford:    Mammoth Dawn
--a husband and wife encounter problems while trying to bring back extinct animals, especially the
--for more information, see my post at


Friday, March 24, 2017

Li Po: "Drinking Alone in Moonlight"

I have already posted this poem, but it was a different translation.  I have heard the saying, "In vino veritas,"when means, I guess, in wine there is truth.  But enlightenment. . .?

Drinking Alone in Moonlight

If Heaven had no love for wine,
There would be no Wine Star in Heaven;
If earth had no love for wine,
There would be no city called Wine Springs..
Since Heaven and Earth love wine,
I can love wine without shaming Heaven.

They say that clear wine is a saint,
Thick wine follows the way of the sage.
I have drunk deep of saint and sage:
What need then to study the spirits and fairies?
With three cups I penetrate the Great Tao,
Take a whole jugful--I and the world are one.
Such things as I have dreamed in wine
Shall never be told to the sober.

-- Li Po --
from A Treasury of Asian Literature
John  B. Yohannan, editor

Sounds very modern to me.  Just substitute LSD or peyote or any other mind altering drug for wine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods--
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently.

--Robert Frost --

Another of Frost's enigmatic poems.  Those summer woods, celebrated by other poets and writers, are portrayed somewhat differently here for they "darken nature."  Even more ominous is Frost's warning to those trees with "their pent-up buds."
"Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only recently."

What is dangerous about that snow that melted only recently"?  Or, is it something other than that melted snow?

As usual, his poem is characterized by a straightforward, almost conversational sentence structure and simple, everyday words, and yet he manages to hint at something behind all this deceptive simplicity.   

Now that I've finished my brief ramblings, go back and read the poem again.  That's what's important--the poem..

Friday, March 17, 2017

Basho's frog

This is probably one of Basho's most famous haiku.   I have a book titled Basho's One Hundred Frogs,  a collection of 100 different translations of this one haiku.  Surely, that must be a record of some sort.

Old pond
a frog jumps into
the sound of water.

This is my favorite translation.  I can picture myself sitting near a pond or river, with a frog nearby.  I can't see the water directly below the frog because of the bank.  The frog jumps and disappears in the sound of water.  I never do see the frog enter the water; he just jumps into the sound.  Oh, I know very well what happened, or think I do anyway.  However, maybe that frog really did jump into the sound of water. Just why this grabs me, I have no idea.  Perhaps you may have some suggestions. 

Basho: The Complete Haiku
Jane Reichhold, ed. and trans.

Following is a much more mundane (to me anyway) translation:

The quiet pond
  A frog jumps in,
    The sound of the water.

The comma provides a pause between the frog jumping in (and not "into")  and the resulting sound of water.
 tran.  Edward G. Seidensticker
from  One Hundred Frogs.
ed.  Hiroaki Sato

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Minute Observation

Nothing very profound here--just an observation by Joseph Wood Krutch on the long northern winters and various ways that some animals have found to handle them. usual it is the cats who are provided with the most perfect mechanism.  They are, to be sure, capable of a kind of short-range impatience--when, for example, food is being prepared.  They seem at time to suffer momentarily from boredom, as a wild animal perhaps never does.  But when the weather is too bad to go out, or when for any reason there is absolutely nothing to do, they can simply curl up and sleep almost endlessly, for days at a time if necessary, with perfect ease.  Even going to sleep seems to be a process entirely under their control, as voluntary as shutting the eyes is for us.  Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many different ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia. 

Cats with insomnia:  sounds self-contradictory or mutually exclusive to me. 

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Eric Hoffer: totalitarianism in free societies

No. 28

There is a large measure of totalitarianism even in the freest of free societies.  But in a free society totalitarianism is not imposed from without but is implanted within the individual.  There is a totalitarian regime inside everyone of us.  We are ruled  by a ruthless politburo which sets our norms and drives us from one five-year plan to another.  The autonomous individual who has to justify his existence by his own efforts is in eternal bondage to himself.  

-- Eric Hoffer --
from  The Passionate State of Mind

If autonomous individuals are in bondage to themselves, then the non-autonomous individuals must be in bondage to outside forces.  Since there is no escape from bondage, according to Hoffer, then I would prefer to be in bondage to myself.

Aside from death, is there another option which could free us from this bondage?  Or, does this bondage really exist?   

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Favorite Fiction--2016

Some favorite works of fiction I read during 2016,


Sarah Orne Jewett:
                  The Country of Pointed Firs
                   --my first reading of her masterpiece.  Why did I take so long to get to it?
                   --this is on my must reread list.

                   A Country Doctor
                   --this one is a bit weaker than the first, but still an excellent read. and better     
                      than 90% of the other works I've read this year.

Joseph Conrad:  Suspense
 --an unfinished novel set in the Napoleonic era.
 --a traveler gets involved with a plot of Napoleon's escape from Elba.

Ray Bradbury:         Farewell Summer
--the sequel to Dandelion Wine.  The tone is different in this one.  The boy resists growing up.

Graham Greene:    The Human Factor
--a spy novel.  The unmasking of a mole in the British secret service, told from the mole's point of view.

Nathaniel Hawthorne:: The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories
--a collection of some of Hawthorne's most well-known short works.
--decided to leave this in the First Reads grouping as there were several short stories that I hadn't read before.

Kazuo Ishiguro:   The Remains of the Day
--a great novel of repression and fear of commitment, set against the backdrop of WWII.   
--his master is a Nazi sympathizer and the butler refuses to go against his master for he  is the master.


Jane Austen:
                   Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon
                   Northanger Abbey
                   Mansfield Park
                   Sense and Sensibility
                   Pride and Prejudice

--as always, great reading.  This was my fifth? sixth? who knows how many readings I've had of her works over the years.  They are just as good, if not better, the fifth? time around as the first.

A. Solzhenitsyn:   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
--the title says it all--one day in a Soviet Union era gulag in Siberia, based loosely on his time there.  I like to pair this one with Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, his experiences in a Siberian prison camp during the reign of the Tsars.  Forced to make a choice, I would choose life there under the Tsars.  The treatment was cruel but  much more humane than under the commissars. 

Dostoyevsky:   "The Gambler"
--Dostoyevsky's great novella depicting the downfall of an gambling addict.
--great character study of numerous Russians traveling abroad. sometimes just for travel and sometimes to avoid debt collectors back home.  Comic figures trapped within a tragic story.

Evelyn Waugh:   Brideshead Revisited
--Flashback:  an English army officer finds his unit stationed  on one of the grand   
   estates and recognizes it as the one that had a great influence on him, beginning with
   his stay at Oxford.

--there's a great BBC TV adaptation of the book.  After watching it, I went out and 
   got the book.

Herman Melville:  “Benito Cereno”
--Melville's great novella regarding the slave trade and a very naive American ship captain.

Nikos Kazantzakis:   Freedom or Death

--his powerful novel set in Greece during the time of the Greek war for independence.
--as usual his characters come off the page at you.

Oscar Wilde:   The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray
--This is the first and censored version of Gray's novel.  To be honest, I can not see anything that
   would be more offensive than anything in the published version.  A classic example of changing
    tastes, I will includ this among the rereads for I have read this several times.

There were a number of enjoyable works that I read during the past year, but these are the ones that stand out.  While there  appears to be a large number of first reads, equal to the rereads, one should note that Bradbury, Greene, Hawthorne, and Conrad are all favorites of mine from way back when.  These are works by them that I've never read before.

Only two of the authors in the First Reads Section are new to me:  Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Orne Jewett and are now on my reread list.  Coincidentally, I read two books by both.  The other book by by Ishiguro will appear on my Favorite SF novels of 2016 list.

Forgot to mention, but if you have questions about any of the authors or books, please ask.  I may not know the answer, but it's worth trying anyway.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXVI

A confusing quatrain:  the syntax is not clear to me.


Nay, but for the terror of his wrathful Face,
I swear I will not call Injustice Grace;
    Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but
Would kick so poor a Coward from this place. 

Perhaps FitzGerald felt there were problems with this quatrain, for it had disappeared by the time the Fifth Edition was published.

I think the meaning is that the  "terror of his wrathful Face," what is what would prevent him from calling  "Injustice Grace."  This refers back to the theme of those pleasures that God set before us and then forbade us from tasting them under pain if eternal punishment. 

I think he refers to himself as so poor a Coward  for being afraid to stand up and say what he thinks.  Those in the Tavern understand his fear and therefore would not reject him. If this is an adequate reading, then the quatrain is a very strange one: one that suggests that it is fear of God that keeps him from speaking the truth.  Perhaps FitzGerald had similar problems with it, for it was removed by the fifth edition, if not earlier.

Any other meanings possible?  Am I missing something?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Minute Meditation

I realized then the truth about all love:  that it is an absolute which takes all or forfeits all.  The other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on, exist only on the periphery and belong to the constructions of society and habit.  But she herself--austere and merciless Aphrodite--is a pagan.  It is not our brains or instincts which she picks--but our very bones.

-- Lawrence Durrell --
from Justine, Part II

I think that there are a number of examples of this in the novel:  Darley, Melissa, Justine, Nessim, Mountolive, Leila, although it is not clear just whom these characters are in love with. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Robert Hayden: Those Winter Sundays

Sometimes while reading a poem, a stanza or even a line may resurrect memories long forgotten or at least not recalled in many years.  This is what happened yesterday when I read Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."   According to the brief bio note with the poem, Hayden was born in Detroit.  I was born and raised in Chicago, so my winter mornings were much like Hayden's in Detroit. 

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

I remember my dad getting up in those cold, dark winter mornings and going down into the basement to remove the cinders and shovel coal into the furnace.  I too never said anything about it for I just took it as a part of living and never considered what it meant, until I read this poem.  Hayden says so little, yet suggests so much in this brief poem.

"No one ever thanked him."

"fearing the chronic angers of that house."

"Speaking indifferently to him,"

And of course, the last two lines:

"What did I know, what did I know
  of love's austere and lonely offices?"

How much regret, how much regret is contained  within those fourteen words?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Ryokan: the ultimate enlightenment?

Is he enlightened or just lazy?

Without a jot of ambition left
I let my nature flow where it will.
There are ten days of rice in my bag
And, by the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
Who prattles of illusion or nirvana?
Forgetting the equal dusts of name and fortune,
Listening to the night rain on the roof of my hut,
I sit at ease, both legs stretched out.  
                           -- Ryokan --
from  Zen Poetry
edited and translated by Takashi Ikemoto and Lucien Stryk

What I find most intriguing is that he rejects both the spiritual world (illusion and nirvana) and the material world (name and fortune).  Is this the ultimate enlightenment? 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A Minute Meditation

No. 65

Reading these grand mountain manuscripts displayed through every vicissitude of heat and cold, calm and storm, upheaving volcanoes and down-grinding glaciers, we see that everything in Nature called destruction must be creation--a change from beauty to beauty.

-- John Muir --

from   John Muir:  In His Own Words

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite Films: 2016

These are the films that I watched and most  enjoyed in 2016 and would like to view again.  The first group are those films I watched for the first time, and probably not for the last time either.  As you can see, there were 20 film which I would like to view again some time, but only four of them were films I had viewed for the first time.  Sixteen of the twenty were films I had already viewed in the past, viewed again in 2016 and would like to watch again some time in the future.

First Viewings:

Symphonies of Beethoven 
a Teaching Company set of 48 lectures on Beethoven's symphonies.  The only downside was that they were too short.  It's on my "must watch again" list.
The Martian   
a very realistic depiction of being marooned on Mars.  

 Love and Friendship  
a marvelous transformation of Jane Austen's novella, _Lady Susan_.  It is the best adaptation of a work by Austen that I have ever seen.  Why they changed the name, I don't know.
Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl  
Ken Burns' usual production, which would be extraordinary for anyone else--a great and moving documentary on a sad period in our history.  

Repeat Viewings:

THX 1138
George Lucas' first film, directed when he paid attention to character and plot and kept the action sequences at the appropriate level--but, as usual, he just had to get a car chase sequence in there.

Museum Hours
a great film, simple plot and two main characters.  The sights and scenes of Vienna are matched by the dialogue and paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This is a link to my post on this film.

Man from Earth
one of my favorite SF films--John Oldman tells his friends that he's over 10,000 years old.  What follows is their attempt to determine if he is lying or deceiving them.  They of course rule out the possibility that he's telling the truth.  This is a link to my post on this film:

The Name of the Rose
a limited but excellent adaptation of Umberto Eco's great novel of the same name--a mystery set in an isolated monastery in Italy?  moody and dark, an interesting mix of religion and politics, and religious politics. 

Witness for the Prosecution
my all-time favorite  courtroom drama film: strangely, I liked the film better than the Christie story it was based on.

The Qatsi Trilogy
all photography, with no dialogue or plot; the  sound track of music composed by Philip Glass is an integral part of the overall effect.  Must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect: -a contrast between wilderness and urban settings--the viewer decides

again, pure graphics, no computer cgi, time lapse photography is the only special effect:  the contrast is between the developing parts of the Southern Hemisphere and the still undeveloped parts

--Life as War is a rough translation of the title.  Released some 14 years after the first two--the technology wasn't available at the time.  This is almost all digitized photography. 

Brideshead Revisited
an excellent adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel.  Seeing this on PBS Masterpiece Theatre got me to go and read the novel.

Wages of Fear
one of the most tense and nerve racking films I've ever watched.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Smiley's People
two great BBC adaptations of the Smiley novels by John le Carre'
Alec Guinness is in top form here

The Big Sleep (Bogart and Bacall)

It's Bogart and Bacall in a film adaptation of a novel by Raymond Chandler.  What else need I say?.

If you're in the mood for a film and don't have anything particular in mind, try one of these, and let me know what you thought.  They are all great films and well worth the time spent.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Jack London: The Scarlet Plague

Jack London:   The Scarlet Plague

Edgar Allan Poe published a short work titled "The Masque of the Red Death" (aka "The Mask of the Red Death) in 1842 about a virulent plague that caused instant bleeding from the pores and immediate death.  In 1912, some 70 years later, Jack London published a novella, The Scarlet Death in which he depicted a plague that caused a bright reddening of the skin and almost instantaneous death.  Did London borrow the idea from Poe?  I don't know as I've never read anything that suggests such a possibility.  Aside from the symptoms and the high mortality rate, the two tales are very different in time and place.  Poe's tale takes place in Renaissance Italy (or so I guess) while London's is set in the San Francisco Bay area in 2013. 

Poe's story focused on a small group of people who fled the city for an isolated "castellated abbey," hoping to escape the plague.  It had a high wall and an iron door.  They sealed the door in an attempt to keep the plague or plague bearers out.  However, as those who have read the tale know, they were unsuccessful  What happened after the plague appeared and apparently killed all in the abbey is not told.

London's tale, however, is a flashback, a reminiscence of one of the few survivors, called Granser by the boys,  told to the next generation, a small group of young males who are the descendants of those few who were immune to the plague.  While the story was written in 1912, London set it in 2013, in the San Francisco Bay area. 

The frame tells us what life is like several decades after the plague.  Granser's  audience consists of teen-aged boys, whose language consists mostly of a very basic vocabulary and they see no reason why there should be more than one word for something.  They deride the old man for referring to something as "scarlet" when "red" is a perfectly good word.  While we never really get a close look at the way the people live then, London does provide sufficient information to suggest that humanity has reverted back to the hunting and gathering stage, a period of savagery, as Granser complains.  But, this is all part of the cycle, for the old man tells the boys:

 "You are true savages.  Already has begun the custom of wearing human teeth.  In another generation you will be perforating your nose and ears and wearing ornaments of bone and shell.  I know.  The human race is doomed to sink back farther and farther into the primitive night ere again it begins its bloody climb upward to civilization.  When we increase and feel the lack of room,  we will proceed to kill one another." 

Most of the tale, though, consists of the horrors experienced during the outbreak of the plague and the breakdown of society, the rioting, looting, and killing that occurred as the terrified population thought only of their own survival at any cost.  What's intriguing is that Granser, a literature professor at the University of California,  and numerous colleagues in the university community attempted to barricade themselves in the Chemistry Building, bringing in supplies and weapons and prepared to do whatever they had to do to keep the plague and plague bearers out, just as the Prince and his friends had done in Poe's tale. And, they were just an unsuccessful.  At the end, the few survivors fled the building.

London doesn't go into any great detail about what had happened during the sixty years that had passed since the outbreak.  He is most concerned with the breakdown of society at the time of the plague and some depiction of life today.

Interwoven though is London's socialist philosophy as the old man tells of society in 2013 as consisting of Masters and Slaves (capitalist owners and workers).  He, in speaking of the events of 2013, tells us  "(t)hat was the year that Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates."

London also makes the point, over a century ago, that he was aware of what we today are only too aware of--the relationship of a large population and the appearance of new diseases and the role of rapid global  transportation in the spread of these diseases.  Improved methods of food production led to an increase in population.  "The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly were they packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases."

We are certainly well aware of the problem today, especially when we consider the onset of AIDS, Ebola, and most recently the Zika virus.  So far we've been lucky as rapid transmission of information has allowed us to stay ahead of the threat, even though several countries were placed under quarantine during the last Ebola outbreak.

London's tale is a disquieting one, even though it is considered science fiction.  It is not an highly improbable invasion by aliens that poses the threat but invaders from Earth itself.  We see examples of it perhaps every decade or so.

At one time I had considered calling this post "The Three Plagues."  I had planned to write about three plague stories--the two mentioned above and George R. Stewart's great novel, The Earth Abides.   However, the length of this commentary on the first two is long enough, so I will post on Stewart's work separately.

 I would recommend, if you have the time, to read all three stories:  first Poe, then London, and then Stewart's novel, for together they provide an thorough exploration of the theme--the plague and its aftermath.  .  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LXXXV

This quatrain is linked to the previous quatrain in which the  Poet/Narrator points out that the Creator has put before us certain pleasures and then denies them to us "under pain/Of Everlasting Penalties..."

Second Edition:  Quatrain LXXXV

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXIX

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay'd--
    Sue for a Debt we never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

Aside from the dash after "dross-allay'd" in the second line of the Fifth Edition, I can see no other differences between the Second Edition and the Fifth (Final) Edition. 

This quatrain develops the theme of the previous quatrain--the injustice of an eternal punishment of Creatures for partaking in pleasures put before them.   We are helpless creatures who are expected to act with perfect obedience, "Pure Gold," when we were given only imperfect and sinful characters to begin with, characters that are "dross-allay'd."  Is it reasonable to expect perfect performance from imperfect creatures?   Moreover, we were not given the opportunity to review this "contract."  It was simply placed upon us without our consent.  Would a human court would enforce such a contract?     

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Down Time

It's time for a mental health and sanity check, as it's been too long since my last one.   I need to reduce my time in front of the little screen. so I'm stopping all blogging and book discussion group activities for the time being. I'll be back when I'm back.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: In Defense of Fanny Price

The following is a quotation from Carrots for Michaelmas, a blog belonging to Haley Stewart.  This link will take you to the complete article.  

I want to thank Di from The Little White Attic  who alerted me to this article, "In Defense of Fanny Price,"from which this quotation was taken.

Mansfield Park is about superficiality versus substance. It’s about charm versus goodness. It’s about mere conventional propriety versus true virtue and it’s hard for an entertainment-obsessed culture that glorifies appearances and laughs at the idea of character to understand. All of the characters struggle and are tried and tested…but some fight the good fight and others reveal that they never had virtue to begin with.

This is the best, the most coherent, the clearest statement of the main point of Mansfield Part I have ever read. In a few words she expressed what I've been trying to say for years. 

Thank you, Haley Stewart.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine, Part I

Lawrence Durrell
Justine:  the first book in the Alexandria Quartet

This is my fourth visit to Alexandria with the aid of Lawrence Durrell, my personal tour guide.  Isn't that what writers are, guides to their worlds?  It has been some time since my last visit, so I had only the vaguest ideas of what was coming.  However, once I started, I began recognize some of what I was reading.

What came first was the memory of the initial confusion I felt when I began to read the novel.  Durrell doesn't believe, at least in Justine, straightforward chronological narrative structure.  Instead, I was faced with short paragraphs and brief references to characters, without any help from Durrell.  Here and there characters were brought up briefly and then off to something else.  It was only I had gotten a way into Part I that I began finding introductions to the characters but in a disjointed fashion, though.

This time though I understood what Durrell was doing.  As the narrator explains very early in the novel, the first page or so, he was going to put down on paper the events of the past year.  If I had decided to do something similar, it would have been difficult to begin as I know that all I would have been able to come up with at first would be fragments, disjointed,  and randomly recalled without any chronological order.  However, the longer I worked at it, the more material I would be able to bring up, and each memory would be accompanied by other memories.  So, as I got deeper into Part 1, I found the fragments were now longer and more complete.  If it had been me, though, I wouldn't have had to courage to include those first brief  fragments in my work, for I would have edited them out and produced a standard commonplace traditional account.  That, no doubt, is why Durrell is a great writer, and I am not.

While Durrell introduces some seven or eight characters, he returns again and again to two of them:  Justine and Melissa.  But, at first I found it difficult to immediately know just which one the narrator was referring to.  It's as if  the narrator mistakenly believes we are as familiar with Justine and Melissa as he is, so he really doesn't have to identify them immediately.   The male characters are introduced without the confusion that surrounded the female characters.  The males are named and their relationship to the narrator is spelled out and occasionally brought back into the narrative. 

As I mentioned earlier, the narrator doesn't provide his reader with a chronological sequence.  When we first meet Justine and Melissa, it quickly becomes clear that he is intimately involved with both of them.  It is only much later in Part I that we are told of their first meeting.  Then comes their first sexual encounter, but not necessarily in that order.

The Quartet, I find, consists of a number of character and plot threads that are intertwined throughout the story. Because of this, at times I simply stop reading, go back to the beginning of the novel, and follow a particular thread, ignoring whatever else is going on at that time.  It is surprising what I find when I do this, even if I limit it just to Part 1.

For example, let's follow the Justine thread and stop when we reach when we reach the part when the narrator tells us how and when they first met.  We first meet, or hear of her actually, on the first page when she is mentioned by the narrator as one of his friends: "Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar.".  Several pages later, the narrator tells us that he has Justine's diary, which he got from her husband, Nessim, who still hoped that Justine would come back to him.  The narrator tells us that he believes he will never see Justine for he and his friends have "taken different paths now."  However, the narrator does have Melissa's child with him and tells us that he "has not named it yet.  Of course it will be Justine--who else?"

Several pages later we read that he catches a glimpse of her from his balcony.  In fact he has seen her many times and knows who she is, even though they haven't met.  He now mentions their many meetings at the cafe, El Bab. Again, pages later, we get a much fuller description of her, and it is obvious they have just been intimate.

Later, the narrator tells us that  he had once agreed to give a lecture on the 'poet of the city,' Cavafy, which was attended by "a dignified semicircle of society ladies."   Justine was in the audience.   He recognizes her, but they do not speak because they have yet to meet.  After the lecture, the narrator, that evening,  stops at a small cafe.  Justine suddenly appears and asks a question about the lecture.  Then she says, "I want to take you to Nessim, my husband.  Will you come?"  She drives them to the house and searched "from room to room, fracturing the silences.  He (Nessim) answered at last from the great studio on the roof and racing to him like a gundog she metaphorically dropped me at his feet and stood back, wagging her tail.  She had achieved me.

Nessim was sitting on the top of the ladder reading, and he came slowly down to us, looking first at one and then at the other. . .for my part, I could offer no explanation of my presence, since I did not know for what purpose I had been brought here."

If I may cheat here, the narrator believes, later, that  he knows why she approached him, gathered him up, and brought him to her husband.  But that's in Justine.  In the second book, Balthazar, he will hear a different explanation, and the reader will find yet one more in Mountolive.   

It is said that a sign of great literature is that one discovers something new in every reading.  That is certainly true of Justine.  Even though this was at least the fourth reading, I was surprised to discover clues,  interspersed in Part 1, to future events, some that will take place in the other volumes of the quartet.   The narrator would make some offhand remark and then go on to something else and would never refer to it again. It meant nothing to the narrator and nothing to me until this the fourth reading.  I should have picked up on them on subsequent readings.

I wonder what I will find on my fifth reading. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: In the Bear's House, an overview

N. Scott Momaday
In the Bear's House

In the Bear's House is a rather unusual work, as will be seen from the Table of Contents I will provide shortly.  To be honest, I have only the briefest glimpse of what Momaday is doing here, but I find that what little I do see absorbing, as well as perplexing.  Rather than stumble about, confusing you and me even more, I will Momaday tell you in his own words what this book is all about.


Let me say at the outset that this is not a book about Bear (he would be spoken of in the singular and masculine, capitalized and without an article), or it is only incidentally about him.  I am less interested in defining the being of Bear than in trying to understand something about the spirit of wilderness, of which Bear is a very particular expression.  Even Urset, who is the original bear and comes directly from the hand of God, is symbolic and transparent, more transparent than real, if you will.  He is an imitation of himself, a mask.  If you look at him very closely and long enough, you will see the mountains on the other side.  Bear is a template of the wilderness.

I am acquainted with Bear,  indeed more than acquainted.  Bear and I are one, in one and the same story.  My Indian name is Tsoai-talee, which in Kiowa means 'Rock-tree boy.'  Tsoai, "Rock tree,' is Devils Tower in Wyoming.  That is where, long ago, a Kiowa boy turned into a bear and where his sisters were borne into the sky and became the stars of the Big Dipper.  Through the power of stories and names, I am the reincarnation of that boy.  From the time the name Tsoai-talee was conferred on me as an infant, I have been possessed of Bear's spirit.  The Kiowas--whose principal religious expression was the Sun Dance and whose most ancient blood memory was of the mythic darkness of a hollow log from which they emerged into the world--believe that the buffalo is the animal representation of the sun.  Bear is the animal representation of the wilderness.

.   .   .   .   .

Something in me hungers for wild mountains and rivers and plains.  I love to be on Bear's ground, to listen for that old guttural music under his breath, to know only that he is near.  And Bear is welcome in my dreams, for in that cave of sleep I am at home to Bear."

N. Scott Momaday

One comment:  Momaday does not mention that the Big Dipper is found in the Ursa Major or Great Bear Constellation.

Below is the table of Contents that follow the Introduction:

The Bear-God Dialogues
There are ten dialogues.  Some of the titles are  "You are, Urset. I am, Yahweh," "Berries," "Prayer,"
"Dreams," and "Baseball." 

The baseball dialogue is especially interesting for Cub fans.  Urset is the Bear and Yahweh is Yahweh.  Urset begins by telling Yahweh that his children want to play baseball.

Baseball. . .Baseball?

Baseball.  You know, played with bats, a ball, gloves. . .

Oh, for heaven's sake!  OF COURSE I know what baseball is.   I was a pretty fair shortstop in my day.  I taught Ernie Banks everything he knew, if I do say so myself.

My children, my little brood of bears, they are forming a team. Their enthusiasm is boundless.  Why, they even have a name for themselves.

Don't tell me.  .  .the "Cubs."

I really don't know why they can't be a football team.  They are bears, after all.  They are thick and furry.  And they are already accomplished at assault and battery.  It is their nature.  It is what they do.  But baseball!  Baseball is a game of swat, catch, and tag--better played by housecats."


This sections contains nineteen poems, and I will post some of them in the future. 

Only two passages are included in this section:  "The Bear Hunt" and "The Transformation."

As you can see from the Introduction, In the Bear's House is a very unique work.  One of the major themes that I've managed to grasp is the relationship Momaday has with wilderness and his thoughts on the significance of wilderness for all of us.   

This is one of those works that I think requires at least another reading, and probably a couple of rereadings.  

The NFL team in Chicago is the Chicago Bears.
The following link will lead you to the Wiki article on Ernie Banks, probably the most popular Cub player of all time..

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Justine

One of my New Year's resolutions was to read as much of Lawrence Durrell's works this year as I could.  Today I begin with Justine, which is only appropriate since my first introduction to his writings was this work.  Several decades ago, I was in grad school and on the reading list for a course in 20th century novels (or perhaps 20th century English novels) was Justine.  I had heard of Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet, but I had never read anything by him before.

I started reading and was confused and bewildered by the first three or four pages as it seemed to be nothing but randomly placed paragraphs with no coherent plan to structure them.  I was a bit dismayed, a complete novel like this!   Then the following jumped out at me.  It wasn't the first sentence of a chapter, or even of a paragraph.  It was buried in a longish paragraph, but I had to stop and read it again, and again.  It told me what Durrell was up to.  I was hooked. I read Justine and then went on to read as much of Durrell as I could find.   Now, it's time to do it again.

The sentence:

"The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this--that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side."

I doubt if it grabs others the way it grabbed me, and I can't explain why.  It just did. 

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.