Quod erat prophetandum

Some like to pretend the Bible doesn’t have any relevance to the modern world. As if people haven’t been much the same for thousands or perhaps millions of years. So let’s dip into the book to prove them wrong.
We’ll do this on hard mode (spoiler: it turns out to be easy mode) by paying a visit to the part of the Bible that modern Christians probably pay the least attention to, the prophets. (Please come along. At least visit the minor prophets with me. Just for a minute or two. It’s a lonely existence when nobody pays you attention except to borrow a Messiah reference during Advent.)
All quotes from the NASB. To start us off, here’s Ezekiel:
Continue reading Quod erat prophetandum

MST3k Season 13 thus far

So KJ and I are 7 episodes into the new season and all caught up on the shorts.

Emily brings some fun “newbie” energy to the room. She cringes out of the way sometimes when the bots get a little crazy, but she’s game and she’s starting to stick up for herself. I’m still adjusting to her Crow’s voice.

The episodes have all been pretty decent to good. Munchie is probably the closest to an instant classic so far, but it kinda overlaps with Cry Wilderness and Mac and Me (both instant classics) in my headspace, so it’ll be interesting whether it gets overshadowed by those two when fans talk about favorite episodes in the future. It’s so bizarre listening to an iconic Bluth voice coming out of, uh, that thing.

The shorts have been mediocre to good, mostly. The 20-minute meal was my favorite until the most recent one, the fish reproduction one, dropped. Now that one’s gonna be considered a classic. The tennis ball factory short is my one big disappointment in the new show so far. Watching the filmstrip was kinda interesting, but I suspect the riffing gameplan started and ended with “have Emily yell BALLS at the screen a few times”.

Tom used to be my favorite bot. Crow kinda overtook him for the duration of the Netflix years, but Tom made up the ground this season and then shot ahead with his beautifully executed E.L. Konigsburg reference during the Doctor Strange knockoff movie.

Speaking of — the writers are back to pulling references from any old decade, now that they aren’t on Netflix and trying to draw in the young crowd by focusing on 2010s internet references. I like it this way.

They’re having some fun with the “Synthia’s Selects” premise for the vault picks. They could have just released old episodes on a monthly basis and us non-completionist fans would have been happy, but they do opening and closing bits with Synthia talking to one of the other cast and a new host segment in the middle. (Plus a host segment to advertise one of the “founding” sponsor businesses. Those tend to be a bit eh.)

I’m pretty dubious about how much the character of Pearl has mellowed out for this season (well, when Synthia isn’t irritating her), but it’s just a show and I should really just relax. She’s about to take Kinga on a vacation anyway, maybe something will cause her to snap and become the old Pearl again.

I, uh, actually thought the Demon Squad movie was pretty well done for what it was. Granted, there was nothing one could call an actual demon-fighting squad, but you can tell effort went into giving it a plot and some dialogue and acting, and I’ve seen far worse effects in professional movies. If the cinematography were a little better and the rest of it was polished another notch . . . . It may be the Final Sacrifice of nuMST3k.

All in all I’m pretty happy so far.

Easter 2022

Well, it’s certainly been a good year for me personally, despite the whole pandemic thing still going on. I got a nice raise at work, my brother got a less stressful job, the boys are growing up strong and healthy, MST3k is coming back again (and the first episode and short were both pretty good), and the Blues have actual hope to go deep in the playoffs again. I feel like I’ve taken real steps forward in my faith and I’m better prepared to go on with my life as I near one of the big decade milestones.

Playing with the boys has left little free time for my creative projects, and this past year I’ve been mainly focusing on little one-off things in that regard, rather than this blog. I kinda published almost nothing last year, if you didn’t notice. Moving forward I might try to publish two or three Doctor Who episodes right after each other, rather than push them out the moment they’re done. The publishing schedule might feel a little less scattershot that way, and I doubt I’d be publishing them any less often. I should also talk about the puzzle games I’ve been playing lately. They’ve been fun!

So anyway, I hope everyone reading this is doing well and has a good year!

2021 reading log

Well, 2021 was a busy year for me in the literary dimension. I finished the standard Apocrypha, read a few classics, read some classic authors, read a few classic detectives, survived The Sword of Shannara, and got back to the Tuesday Next series.

Ecclesiasticus – KJV

This is attributed to one Jesus, son of Sirach, son of Jesus. The content is also much more what I expected from the Wisdom of Solomon: short proverbs and instructions on various topics. A lot of praise of wisdom, righteousness, and fearing the Lord. Humility, forgiveness, justice, and other virtues are praised in detail. Beware of sinners and don’t gossip. Also toward the end comes a review of the deeds of kings and prophets. It’s very insightful, aside from a random slam on women from out of nowhere, and well-said, even if the subjects covered are pretty standard. Fifty-one chapters of this makes for heavy reading, especially without a lot of paragraph divisions, but I found myself making more use of the highlighter function here than in all the previous Apocrypha combined. Another one I expect to return to in the future.

1 Baruch – KJV

Attributed to one Baruch, presumably Jeremiah’s secretary, as the author who then read it to the Jews a few years after Babylon came and took them all away from the Holy Land. Whether Baruch or Jeremiah came up with the contents is unclear to me. It starts out very thick with review of the awful sins the Israelites committed under the Mosaic Law, the horrors that the Babylonians visited upon them in war, and God’s holiness. Just when it looks like all five chapters are going to be like that, the subject changes to (surprise!) the value of wisdom. Then there follows a promise of hope for the future, if the Israelites will endure their exile and wait for God to deliver them. Not much of anything for a modern reader that hasn’t already been said by the prophets or Solomon.

Letter of Jeremiah — KJV

This is tacked on as a sixth chapter of Baruch in my edition. Jeremiah tells the Jews they will spend seven generations in exile, then spends the rest of the letter going on about how powerless and less than useless the idols they will encounter are. He’s very thorough about it, but that’s pretty much all there is here.

The next three “books” are pieces of the book of Daniel that Protestants excised.

The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children — KJV

Supposedly the prayer that one of Daniel’s acquaintances prayed when he and his two friends were thrown into the furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar. It’s a thorough, model prayer, giving glory, confessing sin, and asking deliverance. So the angel saves them, and then they all three speak in chorus as they call upon every single bit of Creation to praise the Lord, again very prettily. One feels strongly that, if any of the men’s original words were ever in this, they’ve been brocaded and embroidered beyond recognition. I just wanted to say “brocaded”.

Susanna — KJV

A couple of old geezers want to have sex with one Susanna. She says no, so they accuse her of adultery. Daniel gets them to contradict each other’s testimony, so they’re put to death instead of Susanna. Huzzah.

Bel and the Dragon — KJV

Cyrus is king now. He thinks an idol called Bel is eating the food sacrificed to it, but Daniel proves that the priests are sneaking in at night with their families to eat everything. Then Cyrus worships a dragon, but Daniel demonstrates its fallibility by feeding it junk to make it explode. The Babylonians get mad at Cyrus for losing their favorite gods, so Cyrus throws Daniel in a lion den. God whisks Habukkuk all the way over from Judah to keep Daniel fed. Cyrus opens the den, finds Daniel unharmed, and throws in his persecutors in his place.

Prayer of Manasseh – KJV

It is, in fact, a prayer, and a good one, attributed to a king of Judah. It’s a classic structure, starting out with glorifying God, specifically His power and mercy; confessing sin and recognizing its consequences; asking forgiveness; and expressing faith that the prayer will be answered and the supplicant will praise God the rest of his life. I’d be willing to reread this one.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Before this year, I had read about two pages’ worth of Hemingway. That changes now. This, evidently his first novel, is about an American named Jake living in Paris in the 1920s. In the first part of the book, he and his acquaintances spend most of their time drinking and being drunk. There are several men and one woman, Brett, a.k.a. Lady Ashley until the impending divorce, who is a social butterfly weighed down with a bit of a conscience over all the men she attracts, drinks with, sleeps with, and leaves behind. Second part is about going to Spain for a fishing trip, during which people are occasionally sober, and a bullfight, where one of Brett’s conquests gets annoying enough to invite mildly anti-Semitic sentiments in his direction.

Of course, Hemingway is famous for his prose. A lot of this book is taken up by dialogue, often long, untagged, emotionally ambiguous exchanges that aren’t particularly interested in helping the reader figure out the missing details. There are also a few very nice descriptive passages, devoid of emotion and simple in words that nonetheless effectively paint picturesque scenery. The book itself is a first-person narrative, told by Jake. He rarely feels the need to make his own feelings explicit. It’s the kind of first-person that feels less like it’s being told by a character with quirks, and more like the author just decided to write from Jake’s point of view. It’s interesting to me that, without feeling like this is being told by a live human being sitting across from you, the prose nevertheless commits the sin of informally drifting from subject to subject within a paragraph, without any proper transition phrases, and yet I don’t mind. At one point, Jake even stops to say “That has nothing to do with the story.”

So I guess what I’m trying to get at is that in this book, literary devices are either muted or absent, and there’s no grand idea underlying anything, and yet it works well. Simple, direct, and unaffected.

Evered – Ben Ames Williams

Another 1920s book with a bull in it. This one, set in rural Maine, is about drama in a small family led by a hard man. It’s written in good old-fashioned steak-and-potatoes prose, the kind you can curl up with on a rainy afternoon just to experience Good Writing. The setting is picturesquely described, the characters simple but enlivened by seeing their private thoughts as the story unfolds. It’s a good yarn, nothing spectacular, but worth Gutenberg’s resources to make it available.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

My early impression was that Mr. Darcy is an introvert, and therefore happy not talking to people at parties if they aren’t really worth his while, but now I think the pride is what mainly makes him not talk to people below his station and there might just be some introversion in there to make him comfortable with that decision. He’s definitely not a “life of the party” type regardless.

If you haven’t read this book, you may have seen it adapted as You’ve Got Mail or probably any number of other, awful modern rom-coms.

I find it notable that this book and Jane Eyre both threaten to pair the heroine off with a cold-fish preacher man, though obviously in very different ways.

All in all, I am glad not to be a person of that time who had to go courting as delicately as these hoity-toity Brits did. It all seems very exhausting.

I Maccabees – KJV

So in the upheaval after Alexander the Great dies, wicked Jews started making alliances with other nations and behaving unJewishly. Also Antiochus started attacking, looting, and occupying Israel, in particular building a tower in Jerusalem to sort of serve as a focal point of foreign wickedness. But Mattathias the priest and his family, particularly Judas Maccabeus, rebel and flee to the hills. Judas takes control of the faithful and starts winning battle after battle despite overwhelming odds and treachery. A lot of people attack them and each other and a lot of people die, until Judas decides to ally with Rome, at which point he dies and his brother Jonathan takes over. War continues, but also people start wanting to make nice with Israel and Israel starts getting very agreeable treaties. But Jonathan is captured, so his brother Simon takes over. Life is pretty good if still warlike, until Ptolemy treacherously kills Simon. The book ends with Simon’s son John taking over.

That tower keeps having to be scoured out, you’d think they would just raze it after a while.

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – John Joseph Adams (ed.)

A collection of 28 Sherlock Holmes stories by 28 authors including Neil Gaiman, Anthony Burgess, Barbra Hambly, and Vonda McIntyre. (The cover claims 29, but one’s just a sort of appetizer essay.) They are all rewarding to read, covering a fairly broad range of ideas but all adhering to the idea that achieving effect is more important than strict plausibility. Several are Lovecraftian, several have Holmes meet Doyle or some other historical figure, several build on some case that Watson only mentions in passing, one pairs Holmes with a contemporary fictional detective, and another sets Holmes down in the author’s fictional Louisiana port of scum and villainy. I could comment on each in turn, but I’ll just call out a few in particular.

Stephen King probably delivers the most traditional Holmes story, and it almost looks like he won’t pull it off until the very end. He does not mention Maine or clowns.

I endorse the motivation behind Bradley Sinor’s “fix fic” but it could have stood to be a page or two longer and really explore its ideas more fully.

Burgess brazenly goes out of his way to drop some Clockwork Orange mumbo-jumbo into his story and I respect that.

Special mention to Anne Perry, whose name I only vaguely recognized until I read her bio. I then winced because she’s the one behind Murder on Blackheath or whatever, which you may recall me panning a year or three ago. However, she delivers a good story here with good prose, so credit where credit is due. Maybe she should stick to short stories. I’m also not a big fan of Vonda McIntyre’s prose, based on a whopping sample size of three tie-in novels, but she does well also.

The editor’s preface to each story got to be very annoying because they were all so spoilery. I got into the habit of reading the author bio, then the story, then going back for the preface.

II Maccabees – KJV

Focuses on the time of Judas Maccabeus, and all the troublemakers from within and without the people of Israel. More of a theological viewpoint than I Maccabees, but still contains long letters and a lot of fighting against overwhelming odds.

I expected the events on which Hanukkah is based to show up in one of these books, but they never are mentioned explicitly. Wikipedia tells me the miracle isn’t detailed in writing until the Talmud 600 years afterward. So that’s disappointing for me.

That’s all of the apocrypha I have in my Bible app. It was an edifying experience, but I think the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are the only two books I’m likely to return to for any serious study.

William Again (1923) – Richmal Crompton

Picked this out of Gutenberg’s latest list while taking a breather from slogging through Shannara. It must have been popular, with at least 25 printings over nearly two decades. William, whose last name is actually Brown, is an 11-year-old boy of the Dennis the Menace or Calvin school of characters, but more violent and much more likely to embarrass his family in front of adult society. The author is sympathetic toward William and his flights of fancy, and so is the reader, especially with his family often treating him inhumanly, almost to the point of cruelty. Like, it’s funny to read in fiction, but if a real father said that to his 11-year-old son . . . yikes.

Anyway, in this volume William goes on a series of 14 adventures, putting on a play, playing detective, stealing away to the circus, and assuming the role of a Borneo child whom a missionary has brought home for the villagers’ edification. Sometimes the adventures end well with the help of a sympathetic adult, often they don’t, always they’re light-hearted and entertaining. William naively trying to sell his friend Ginger’s annoying 3-year-old cousins as “slaves” was a little unsettling (he was going to steal them back once he’d spent the proceeds), but so were seeing Ginger and Vivian as men’s names. But then I’ve never seen the name “Richmal” in my life. An internet search reveals Crompton as the top result and also that she was a woman. She wrote quite a lot of books, including a lot of William stories. Wikipedia notes that Good Omens started out as “What if William was the Antichrist?”

The Sword of Shannara – Terry Brooks

I didn’t much like it.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth – Paul Hoffman

A sort-of biography about the brilliant, colorful Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős, written by “the” publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica. Erdős was brilliant at math but also extremely idiosyncratic, as this book illustrates. He had his own vocabulary, possibly encouraged by having grown up in fascist Hungary where there were things you couldn’t say out loud, in which men and women were “slaves” and “bosses”, children were “epsilons”, and God was the SF or “Supreme Fascist” who was always making his life difficult. Erdős had no permanent abode as an adult, simply travelling with a couple of bags from city to city and from continent to continent to crash with whichever mathematician he wanted to discuss math with for nineteen hours a day. This single-minded approach to life worked for him, as he was listed as an author on about 1,500 papers with more than 500 different co-authors. One result was the creation of the “Erdős number”, which is, in fact, a precursor to the Bacon number and works the same way. Erdős was a challenging houseguest in more ways than one, as he was helpless at nearly everything other than math, from washing his hands to driving to identifying what food had been put on his plate.

The title is misleading. For the most part, Erdős paid as little attention as possible to anything other than math, hence his minimal worldly possessions. But he loved his mother, and he was fond of the little epsilons. He was also generous with his money for charitable causes. He also took interest in promising young mathematicians, and spurred other researchers on with little questions designed to get them moving on to the next big breakthrough.

In light of the above, it’s maybe less surprising that so much of the book tells the stories of some of the individuals whose lives were touched by Erdős, including Ronald Graham, who seems to have acted as Erdős’s agent and home base for much of his life. Sometimes these stories or their mathematical achievements seem to wind quite a ways away from the man this book is principally about, but once I got used to it I didn’t mind. These other people have interesting stories of their own that might not have otherwise been told, as most of them are lesser lights in the mathematical firmament.

I’m used to these mathematical biographies and histories going deep into the math with a few theorem proofs, but there’s very little of that in this book. Mainly just results. I guess the techniques would be too obscure for a popular biography. It’s an entertaining read nonetheless.

Feet of Clay – Terry Pratchett

I don’t keep close track of Discworld book order but I’m guessing this is the first book to feature golems, because of the title and the fact that it’s all about golems like they’re a new thing in the series. This is a Night Watch book about golems, murders, heraldry, and has Vetinari been poisoned?!? It also introduces Cheery and contains Angua angst. The themes for this book are workers’ rights, class warfare, racism, sexism, miscarriage of justice, and individual intellectual freedom, and maybe a few others. This is a lot to include in one Discworld book, but Pratchett keeps the plot well in hand and drops a record number of loud, large anvils so none of the themes are missed.

My one complaint is that sick!Vetinari initially doesn’t feel like Vetinari at all. My two complaint is that the basic Kindle has a weird font and is not good at handling footnotes.

I’d rate this a B on the Discworld scale, pretty good and par for the course but not his very best or a favorite.

Maus I – Art Spiegelman

An oral history, told by Spiegelman’s father Vladek, of his life as a Polish Jew from the mid-1930s to 1944. After marrying well and starting a family, his father and all the Jews quickly fall under the shadow of Nazism as Hitler rises to power, the Germans invade and conquer, and the screws are put on the Jews turn by turn. It is, you can imagine, a harrowing story of desperate survival and difficult choices, told concisely through the form of a graphic novel and softened perhaps by the use of animals for people: mice for Jews, cats for Nazi soldiers, pigs for the uncircumcised masses. It’s made clear that anti-Semitism and the Nazi ideology were rising forces in Poland before the Germans ever invaded. Yet, time and again one Jewish character or another expresses the hope that this will all blow over, that things can’t yet be as bad as they seem, even as Vladek the narrator lists off who did and did not make it out alive. In the present day, Spiegelman has a strained relationship with his father, who entered into a remarriage that he and his new wife both regret.

This is considered a classic and rightly so. The illustrations are clean and effective, and Vladek has a strong voice such that you can hear the narration in your head throughout.

The Hitler quotation that heads the copyright page is: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”

Stan Musial: An American Life – George Vecsey

Saw this on the shelf at a Goodwill in Brewers/Twins territory and, well, nobody else was likely to appreciate it, so I picked it up.

This is a biography, written shortly before his recent passing (has it really been eight years?!), about the Polish-American harmonica player who also was the greatest baseball player to be born in Donora, Pennsylvania on November 21st. Growing up in a poor, infamously polluted zinc mining town, Musial excelled in sports before entering baseball’s minor leagues and working his way up to the big time with the St. Louis Cardinals. Musial proceeded to win multiple MVPs and World Series, came within a rained-out home run of winning a Triple Crown, and is quite possibly the last MLB player who will ever hit .400 in a full season. He also found time to be a successful businessman, campaign for John F. Kennedy (whence came a friendship with James Michener), serve in WWII, have a loving relationship with his family, and after retirement travel to Europe to connect with his Polish roots, meeting people such as Lech Walesa and that John Paul guy along the way.

And then there’s the Hall of Fame plaque, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, blah blah. Oh, and he’s the most beloved player for a franchise rich in great players, and one of the most beloved people ever in the state of Missouri, period. I can’t imagine who you’d pick ahead of him, maybe Mark Twain? He was a decent, humble, uncontroversial man who could turn on the charm and warmth for his public, and he took pains to keep his public image just that.

The author also takes as a recurring idea what he calls the “Big Three” of Musial, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams, to contrast their personalities and public images, and to show their interactions as three of the greatest players of their time. Also popping up is the question of why Musial isn’t as widely celebrated as those and other greats of his time. My belief: playing in the Midwest for a franchise already drowning in legends, combined with his less spectacular personality than Joltin’ Joe or the Splendid Splinter or Mantle or any number of other stars, keeps his historical profile low.

The book itself, I hate to say, is something of a letdown. My early impression was that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. I think my final reaction, however, is that it feels like that first big draft you write of a research paper. You’ve got all the info you want and a rough outline, so you get it all down in text form along with a few really good phrases you want to keep around. But you haven’t finalized your arguments, some of the paragraphs are just a few random facts you’re going to have to move elsewhere, the whole thing will need to be rearranged to flow smoothly, and overall it still looks like an initial report of “here’s what I’ve found so far” rather than speaking with authority and style. Also Vecsey, who is incidentally an accomplished writer and a baseball fan, is really bad at ending a chapter.

Part of the problem is Musial’s own reticence about his past. Vecsey mentions that, despite all his interviews with “hundreds” of others who knew The Man, he knew he would never get an interview with Stan himself. Partly because Stan was well gone in Alzheimer’s at the time, but also because Stan was upset about another biography that had been recently published. So between that, Musial’s control of his image, and the fact that most of it happened so darn long ago, there’s a lot of hedging that, in a real research paper, would be a signal to go back to the library and get confirmation this way or that. Or at least pick the most likely truth and assert that with confidence. But if you don’t mind the prose, this is a great, if rosy, biography.

Sailing The Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter — Thomas Cahill

Finally prose I don’t have to complain about. I feel so much less cantankerous now.

Cahill takes the route of largely self-contained chapters that nevertheless build on each other. “How to Fight” considers Greek warfare seen through the Iliad. “How to Feel” looks at Homer’s apparent change of temperament in the Odyssey. The art chapter looks at Greek ideals as reflected in art, and traces the degradation of Athenian society as their fortunes wane, with idealized young-man statues giving way to low, crass sexual imagery. And so on. The politics, philosophy, and Greek/Judeo-Christian crossover chapters are the most central to answering the book’s subtitle, as Cahill suggests in the final pages that the Greeks’ greatest importance lies in their contributions to Christian thought, and in their obsession with asking questions about everything. More books should use lowercase Greek letters for footnotes. Now I’m off to the Internet to see if I can find the Rogers translation of “The Frogs” again.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages And the Beginning of the Modern World – Thomas Cahill

“The Library of Congress has cataloged the Nan A. Talese edition as follows:
Cahill, Thomas.
Mysteries of the Middle Ages : the rise of feminism, science, and art from the cults of Catholic Europe”

I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as the Greek volume, but I was wrong. It feels much more dense of information, and Cahill, as he did with the Greeks, is willing to take all the cultures and individuals examined on their own terms. This volume is organized by focusing each chapter on one or more locations. The story starts in Alexandria, continues through Rome and its overthrow, and visits such cities as Paris, Oxford, and Florence. Along the way we see the organic rise of the church to political power, as local pontiffs do their best to preserve civilization against barbarian invasions following Rome’s fall. The cult of the Virgin Mary is explored. And we get to know people such as Hildegard, Eleanor, Giotto, and Dante.

Cahill wants to repair the Middle Ages’ reputation, circa 1100 – 1300 or so IIRC, showing that there was still lively debate and learning amid the Catholic and Orthodox churches’ dominions. Islam gets a quick look-in too, largely in the context of “let’s all get along shall we”. His final thesis is that Greek, Jewish, and Christian cultures all melded together to create Western Civilization as we know it: the Greeks provided a rational framework to contain the Judeo-Christian interest in morality and earthly experience, and together they led to artistic realism. There’s also a Very Special epilogue where Cahill pleads with the Catholic church to stop covering up child abuse. All in all, I feel much better equipped to understand what’s going on in The Name of the Rose.

The Black Tides of Heaven – J. Y. Yang

This is the “first” of that four-volume set written by an Internet acquaintance I’ve been reading through. I’m not actually sure if we have the fourth book in the house . . . ? Anyway, this one follows the twin offspring of the grand illustrious Protector, Akeha and Mokoya, who are given to a monastery as fulfillment of a debt and who turn out to have special powers of their own. The two grow up as close as twins in a world of psychic abilities can, until political events set them on divergent paths. Along with political intrigue comes action, worldbuilding, love and heartbreak, and a string theory version of the Force with element-bending flavor.

The main plotline follows the close bond between Akeha and Mokoya, which feeds into one of this series’s main strengths of having intense personal stakes. Other strengths are the descriptions, the worldbuilding, the political intrigue, the “silkpunk” if you even like the sound of that aesthetic, and getting to watch the same patch of history play out from three (presumably four) very different, compelling viewpoints. This particular book was a bit more difficult for me. In this world, people start out as indeterminate sex, and then, typically at some point in your teen years, you decide what you want to be and then the Tensors do their thing and wham you’re a guy or gal. With twin children running around doing everything together for much of the book, you can imagine there are a few “they”s where I had to go through an extra step of deciding whether one or the other or both was meant. But the story is compelling and the action keeps going and it’s a good read.

Silent Spring – Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, primarily a marine biologist, is one of the pre-eminent cultural figures of the twentieth century if you measure impact by number of mentions in Peanuts. At the time this book was published (1962), physics and chemistry were king in America, promising Progress and saving us from the Commies. Governments and private citizens routinely doused yards, farms, and millions of acres with toxic chemicals such as DDT on the assurance of magically killing only the insect pests and bringing about a manmade paradise on Earth. Carson explains in layman language how many of these chemicals work and how they fail to distinguish between friend and foe, then methodically collates a staggering collection of reports from birdwatchers, scientists, and farmers to show how those chemicals poison water, impregnate soil, and kill fish, birds, plants, useful insects, and unsuspecting human beings, while often not doing much to the bugs they were supposed to wipe out. Despite failure after failure it never feels boring or repetitive, just horrifying.

Carson cleverly draws parallels between insecticide spraying and the horrors of nuclear fallout that the public was already aware of. She also calls attention to the expenses of the larger failed programs and, when possible, points out the cheaper price tags of successful implementations of her preferred control methods, like importing selective predators to deal with invasive species, setting up pheromone traps, or simply restoring the balance of the local ecology. She also attacks the credibility of government agencies who keep insisting that everything’s just fine while pushing huge, inefficient programs.

The foreword and afterword inform us that this was the book that introduced the American public to the idea of ecology, led to the EPA and Endangered Species Act, saved the eagles, and largely ended the fascination with the new shiny toy of chemical warfare against insects. Nowadays, one hears about deforestation and civilization’s expansion threatening wildlife, but I wonder how much more wildlife we’d still have if the blindly optimistic chemical spraying of a few decades hadn’t wiped out large swaths of populations. It’s upsetting to say the least, and sobering to think that, if not for this book that connected all the dots and aroused the public interest, we might not have an ecosystem at all today.

The Open Boat and Other Stories – Stephen Crane

This is a collection of short stories by the author of The Red Badge of Courage (which I have not read). The first part contains complete stories about men facing life and death at sea or in the American or Mexican Wild West. There’s also a footrace. The second part contains short narratives about drifters, babies out for an explore on their own, a mortifying auction, and a young couple.

The prose is full of detail without turning purple. It sets scenes, describes action, and shows intimate understanding of the human psyche, even as the characters remain fairly simple. Men are men and women are women, but both sets are simply people, nobody iconic in machismo or nobility or villainy, with no particular morals attached to any tale. It’s very readable despite being from the 19th century. The babies, both of which are toddlers from the poor side of town who are out ambling through the streets by themselves, are described so true to life as to cause me anguish for their safety, after I had set myself to not get too wrapped up in whether all those people in the first part lived or died. If I had to pick standouts, they would be “The Open Boat”, “Death and the Child”, and “An Ominous Baby”.

Gutenberg kindly includes the end matter, a series of reviews for Crane’s other works, including the assertion from The Athenaeum that “The Third Violet incidentally contains the best dog that we have come across in modern fiction.”

The Mystery of the Yellow Room – Gaston Leroux

This is one of the detective stories mentioned positively by Agatha Christie via Hercule Poirot in that one where the guy is doing the detecting thing and the gal is doing her thing and meanwhile Poirot is doing the retirement thing again and reading detective stories to pass the time. (Update: It’s The Clocks).

Anyway, this having a distinctive title, and being singled out by Christie-through-Poirot as being a commendable story, led me to eventually look it up on Gutenberg, where I found that it is indeed a spectacularly good example of a “locked room” mystery. It goes out of its way to make it clear that it upstages “The Murder in the Rue Morgue”, whose solution it spoils, incidentally, so read that first if you’re into the genre, that’s the granddaddy of detective fiction if you didn’t know.

The main detective in this one is a teenage journalist known as Joseph “Rouletabille” because of having a red face and a round head. An attempt is made upon the life of the daughter of a visionary scientist in her yellow bedroom, while her father works in his laboratory on the other side of her door. When she screams for help and good people force their way in, she is found near death, but her attacker is gone and there seems no way he could have escaped. This drives everybody nuts, and events eventuate in mysterious fashion until (as promised in the beginning) Rouletabille barges into open court at the end to propose his solution that will save an innocent man from being hanged.

Rouletabille prides himself on clear reasoning and method, rather than on recognizing twenty-five types of cigarette ash, but the story produces its effects much like a Sherlock Holmes story, with the detective making a lot of seemingly inconsequential remarks or unsupportable leaps of logic for shock effect. This is what genre readers know as “fun”. There are also plenty of clues, false trails, things that get explained immediately, things that take a while to get explained, drama, human interests, and a range of smaller points that can be deduced or guessed by the reader without spoiling the final solution. The full solution is fair and worth the wait, although you might have to be a Poirot to get full points. This really should be considered a classic of the genre. I see several sequels by Leroux on Gutenberg, plus a ghost story about an opera, so I guess I have more reading to do in this direction.

Rakkety Tam – Brian Jacques

This is one of the later entries in the Redwall series and I think it suffers a bit for it. But it’s overall pretty good. Rakkety Tam is a squirrel from the north (read: Scottish accent as in Salamandastron) who wanders south with his friend looking for adventure, and they become mercenaries for a puffed-up squirrelking and queen. This professional relationship does not work out, but it’s how they get involved in fighting Gulo the Savage, who has brought his carnivorous-to-the-point-of-cannibalism army over to Mossflower from the far north beyond the seas (see also The Bellmaker) in pursuit of his brother, who has stolen their Artifact What Proves You’re In Charge. Gulo’s search draws the attention of Salamandastron before he slowly finds his attention drawn toward Redwall as a likely hiding place for his brother.

This is really a good entry in the Redwall series overall. There’s some inventiveness with plot points and characterization and much of the story being from Rakkety Tam’s POV. There’s probably a record amount of singing and poetry on top of all the plot’s moving parts, and the overall plot feels like it doesn’t lean on prior novels. The parts that aren’t up to snuff — the attempted mystery as to what species an animal named Gulo is, or the riddle poem — aren’t leaned on or drawn out, but gotten out of the way to spend time on the stronger points. My one and only big criticism is that Jacques underestimates either his audience or his writing abilities, with several incidents of “tell, don’t show” followed by “show” that renders the “tell” redundant and feeling like it’s aimed at smaller children than should really be reading this. Maybe he’d been getting fanmail from people reading to their younger siblings or offspring? Anyway, I also award this a B in the context of its series. One of these days/months/years I will finish the series, reread the ones I haven’t read in a while, and do a ranking of the books.

The Golden Triangle: The Return of Arsène Lupin – Maurice Le Blanc

Another detective novel via our good friends at Gutenberg. The main character in this one is actually a WWI French army captain, with Lupin only showing up over halfway into the story. The story begins with a seemingly senseless attack on a nurse and from there we tumble into a world of love affairs, hatred, revenge, gruesome murder, shocking twists, villainous villains, high-stakes international intrigue, and peonies. The captain treats his black companion very rudely for comic effect, using him as a sounding board while blaming him for all his own weaknesses and mistakes, but it comes across maybe 40% comic and 60% poor taste for a modern reader. Other than that, Le Blanc writes to great effect, and it’s a memorable read with a lot of close calls and sudden turns of plot. Another writer I want to come back to.

A Wolf Called Romeo – Nick Jans

The tale of a huge, black wolf named Romeo who for some years was a regular visitor, even resident, of the area around Mendenhall Lake just outside Juneau. Jans, a hunter/trapper turned photographer and Mendenhall Lake resident, had a front row seat for much of what happened and conducted several interviews with those who saw what he did not. Romeo was a statistical improbability: a solitary wolf living off of a small territory much of the year, who was wild but tolerated humans for the sake of socializing with their dogs. Not mating or forming packs, just socializing, and willing to put up with human and canine aggressions and blunders that would have driven you or me mad in his place. Also probably half of the people living in the area wanted Romeo dead on principle. The other half made him into a local celebrity. Jans, with direct expertise regarding Alaskan wildlife, relates his own experiences, reports others’, tracks state and local politics, and hedges educationally about what the wolf was doing out of human sight. It’s a light read, honest, instructive, and moving, and worth one’s time.

The Aleph and other Stories 1933 – 1969 – Jorge Luis Borges

I had a few minutes before work and dropped by the library, only to be met by a book sale. I got out safely and on time with this as a prize of war.

This is one volume of a series in which Borges worked directly with the translator, one Norman Thomas Di Giovanni, to rewrite his works in English — to make them read naturally, Borges says, as if they had been written in English in the first place. I’d say they succeeded in that. The stories are sometimes about a strange, high-concept idea, like a man who decided he wanted to dream another man into existence. Sometimes they’re about the rough-and-tumble culture of the Northside of Buenos Aires where Borges grew up, kinda like Jim Croce with South American cowboys. Often there is a thought-provoking stinger in the end of the tale.

The only two of these I’ve read before are, surprise, “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in His Labyrinth”. I am prejudiced toward the former as being the best in this collection, but there are several others that could claim the title and I don’t think there’s a worst at all.

Appropriately enough, several phrases for how I feel about this collection, beyond “is it good” (it is), have come and gone as I read through, none quite satisfactory, all but the last gone from memory. But the one with me now is that it feels like Borges thinks of a huge idea or an intense situation he wants to experience, and then he writes it out with us along for the ride. For whatever reason, he has to experience it with someone else as an intermediary, and so the main character in even his briefest short stories always has a history to give him character. And then, having written enough to sate his curiosity or live in the situation, he ties it off and is done, leaving the reader to think about what has been said and left unsaid, and sometimes to choose for oneself how to fill in the blanks.

For example, the full experience of encountering “The Aleph” is so strong that Borges cannot even give it to his narrator: it must be filtered through a poet whom the narrator does not like or sympathize with. The narrator only gets one brief glimpse and is overwhelmed. After reading the autobiographical essay at the end, in which Borges relates his family history, his upbringing and travels, his reading and writing, his friends and brushes with Argentinian politics, “The Aleph” feels very autobiographical itself. (There are also authorial commentaries on each story at the furthest end, evidently written for this volume.) Another example is the man who lives in his unfurnished cellar for years to avoid being drafted into a dictator’s army, while his wife gallantly carries on with life over his head. What must that have been like? Borges asks at the end, offering several phrases but refusing to commit his story to a single answer.

For reference, I’ve also read “The Library of Babel” and “The Garden of Forking Paths” though neither were able to be included in this volume. One of the pleasures of reading through this collection is noticing or sensing other ideas in these stories that undoubtedly influenced Eco as he wrote The Name of the Rose, so many of them that naturally, as Eco said, he gave Borges the honor of being librarian of his abbey. Books speak of other books.

Windy Day at Kabekona – Thomas R. Smith

The back cover assures us that Smith “has become one of the masters of the midwestern prose poem.” The prose poems in this collection are short, only two lasting more than a page.

The book is structured into six sections, but I experienced it as three. The first section covers a fair range of experiences: a killing frost (“Soldiers occupy the village — there are stabbings in windowboxes, sudden death in the leaves”), Strauss (“So many [grapes] not tasted, paintings never seen, cities that waited for us and we did not come”), sails on Lake Michigan (“Our lives are an old ring, still shining where the black is scraped away”), an old photograph. This is where the figures of speech are densest, I think, forcing slow reading for contemplation’s sake, but not becoming tiresome or too full of themselves.

The second part is the collection of poetry concerning one Everland. I seem to have a high bar for considering an experience to be “surreal”, but this was surreal. Page after page of nothing but a title and a short paragraph describing the narrator’s experience at a place called Everland, run by a visionary mad scientist type named Dr. Evermor, who fills the grounds with gigantic animals made from scrap metal. It felt like a dream state crossed with a text adventure that didn’t wait for your verb choices crossed with a Choose Your Own Adventure that forgot to put in the branching choice scenes, with no idea where this might be headed. (The nearness of “Evermor” to “Evenmorn” from MM7 didn’t help.) I had to look up Everland to find out whether it was real or not, and it is real.

After that we are back to more standard matters, with less concentrated metaphor than in the beginning — a car covered in dolls, wasps, a dream of an unreleased Beatles album, an old waitress — but Everland had heightened my appreciation and I read more avidly as a result. A favorite is “A Gull’s Feather”, comparing the soul to a discarded feather. “Feather, did you fly differently as one of that brotherhood, that sisterhood, that union? What amazements did you experience on your travels? At what point did you separate to loft away on your own? Was that what you wanted from the beginning?”

Anyway, I enjoyed this, and I guess he’s a local son because there are plenty of his books at the library. I’d consider returning to Smith next time I get the poetry urge.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

This is the first book in the Tuesday Next series, one installment of which you may remember I read a few years back. Here we meet Thursday Next and her cracked world. She’s a Crimean War veteran (England and Russia are still fighting over there in the 1980s) who works as a Special Operative, Literary Division for the English government. Normally she leads a quiet but busy life of identifying fake manuscripts and such, which is a full-time job with the literary arts being the super-important, lucrative part of culture that they are. In this book, however, she has to deal with her ex-boyfriend’s betrayal, her rogue time-travelling father, her mad inventor uncle, Halloween monsters, shootouts, asteroid fanatics, and more as she seeks to stop the second- and third-most evil men on the planet (one of whom is an actual supervillain) from getting people killed and destroying English literature forever. Oh, and she has to remember to keep her pet dodo fed.

This is all very entertaining and somehow the prose is just my size. Fforde keeps a completely straight face through all this as if he were writing a completely normal novel, no winks at the reader or even “let’s pause for a moment to appreciate how brilliantly absurd this is”. It’s like he’s the other side of the coin from Pratchett. He bends or breaks several rules, letting the reader know exactly what will happen ahead of time, or stopping the action several times to let inconsequential characters debate Thursday about their theories of who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays. And he pulls it off every time. It’s just a very satisfying, entertaining, twisty read and I plan to read the rest of the series before returning to the Invisible Library series next year.

Tom T. Hall’s Top Ten Hits

Back in August I was sad to read of the passing of Tom T. Hall, the starcountry singer whose career peaked during the 1970s. Tom T. Hall doesn’t have the name recognition of, say, Johnny Cash, but he had a very good career indeed, with eight #1 hits and plenty of other songs that charted well.

I am not deep into country music — I just “know what I like” — but for me, the 1990s are a transition period that separates “old” country music and “new”. 21st-century country music, to grossly overgeneralize for a moment, is mostly not my cup of tea. It doesn’t believe in itself. It needs large, useless guitar riffs and lots of beer and pickup trucks to convince itself it’s country. The old masters didn’t need any of that. They didn’t even always need guitars. They knew they were country. And, contrary to the stereotype, their songs didn’t always need to be sad.

Tom T. Hall’s songs are not often sad, even when talking about sad things. They aren’t loud or in-your-face jangly. Sometimes, let’s be honest, they aren’t very musical. But there is a down-to-earth simplicity to them all, buoyed by Hall’s pleasantly down-to-earth voice and easygoing attitude toward life, that makes them easy to relax and listen to.

Often Hall sings stories, such as the comedic “A Week In A County Jail” or the downtrodden “I Hope It Rains At My Funeral”. Sometimes he settles for a character sketch, such as in “Shoeshine Man”. Sometimes he gets what you would call political, and here Hall is much less stereotypically conservative than you expect from country music, with “One Hundred Children” and “I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew” being about as hippy as Three Dog Night’s “Black and White”. And yes, Hall also sings love songs, “hooray for rural living” songs (“Country Is”), and a song simply titled “I Like Beer”. There is often wry, gentle observation of human nature running through his songs, unremarked, as in the stinger to “Ballad of Forty Dollars”. He’s one of my favorites of country, along with Patsy Cline and Ronnie Milsap if that tells you anything.

In honor of Hall’s life and career, here are my top ten favorites from his career. I was going to begin this series with other artists, but now seems as good a time as any to start it off.

10. “Ravishing Ruby”
9. “Sneaky Snake”
8. “Ballad Of Forty Dollars”
7. “I Like Beer”
6. “Shoeshine Man”
5. “Me And Jesus”
4. “Faster Horses (The Cowboy And The Poet)”
3. “Salute To A Switchblade”
2. “A Week In A County Jail”
1. And last, Hall’s signature song, “Old Dogs, Children, And Watermelon Wine”

Honorable Mentions, no particular order:
“I Love”
“I Washed My Face In The Morning Dew”
“One Hundred Children”
“Your Man Loves You Honey”
“That’s How I Got To Memphis”