Admiral Naismith (admnaismith) wrote in bookish,
Admiral Naismith

Monthly Bookpost, November 2013

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (second half), by Edward Gibbon

I have somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine abbot: 'My vow of poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.' I forget the consequences of his vow of chastity.
Constantine the Fifth, surnamed Copronymus, attacked with less temperate zeal the images or idols of the church. Their votaries have exhausted the bitterness of religious gall, in their portrait of this spotted panther, this antichrist, this flying dragon of the serpent's seed, who surpassed the vices of Elagabalus and Nero. His reign was a long butchery of whatever was most noble, or holy, or innocent, in his empire. In person, the emperor assisted at the execution of his victims, surveyed their agonies, listened to their groans, and indulged, without satiating, his appetite for blood. A plate of noses was accepted as a grateful offering, and his domestics were often scourged or mutilated by the royal hand. His surname was derived from the pollution of his baptismal font. The infant might be excused; but the manly pleasures of Copronymus degraded him below the level of a brute; his lust confounded the eternal distinctions of sex and species, and he seemed to extract some unnatural delight from the objects most offensive to human sense. In his religion, the Iconoclast was a Heretic, a Jew, a Mahometan, a Pagan and an Atheist; and his belief of an invisible power could be discovered only in his magic rites, human victims and nocturnal sacrifices to Venus and the daemons of antiquity. His life was stained with the most opposite vices, and the ulcers which covered his body anticipated before his death the sentiment of hell-tortures.

What an emperor, eh? A plate of noses! Here--pick a nose, any nose....

See my April 2013 Bookpost for quotes and commentary on the first half of Gibbon.

Gibbon is a rock star who made my top 100 books list. He’s accused of being too dry for some, but I don’t mind dry when it includes such jewels of dry wit as the Benedictine abbot above or the carrion-eating birds that enjoy very frequent and delicious feasts all up and down the Appian Way. The Decline and Fall came out right about the time the United States of America was having birth pangs, and everyone from scholars to blathering idiots has been drawing comparisons between Decadent Rome and Decadent America ever since, though they never agree on exactly *why* the American Empire is falling just like Rome.

Gibbon is at his best during the first half of the gigantic history. Of six volumes, the first four concentrate on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, respectively, and have a lot of detail. Once the Western Empire is fully and finally destroyed at the end of Volume 3, and Justinian comes and goes in Volume 4, we’re left with 800 years of Dark Ages history in two volumes, during which the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire gradually dwindles to nothing until (in maybe the most gripping part of the last half) Constantinople gets the works, putting an end to an empire that lasted over 1,000 years—pretty much a record—and that was the token apex of ‘culture and civilization’ in Europe while France, England, Spain, Russia and Germany were still loose collections of Feudal provinces with Popes and “Holy Roman Emperors” asserting dominance over large areas and actual control over very little.

For want of much to say about actual Byzantium during the Dark Ages, Gibbon’s last two volumes expand to include the big cultural wasteland (with some oases) surrounding it. There are chapters on various bands of Barbarians that wander onto various regions and ‘own’ them until more Barbarians displace them; chapters on Mohammed and the birth of Islam, followed by the annihilation of both Persia and over half of Byzantium in under one century; chapters on Charlemagne and the Merovingian and Carolingian Franks who control regions ranging from Central France to France, Germany and Italy all at once; chapters on the Mongols, and the Turks, and the Popes, and how Greek Fire staved off disaster for a time, and how the Crusades first built up Byzantium again and then tore it back down once more. As with most long-range histories, the topics run the full gamut from fascinating to dull.

And after that? Nobody’s business but the Turks.

The Age of Faith, by Will Durant
The life of the mind is a composition of two forces: the necessity to believe in order to live, and the necessity to reason in order to advance. In ages of poverty and chaos, the will to believe is paramount, for courage is the one thing needful; in ages of wealth the intellectual powers come to the fore as offering preferment and progress. Consequently, a civilization passing from poverty to wealth tends to develop a struggle between reason and faith, a "warfare of science with theology". In this conflict, philosophy, dedicated to seeing life whole, usually seeks a reconciliation of opposites, a mediating peace, with the result that it is scorned by science and suspected by theology. In an age of faith, where hardship makes life unbearable without hope, philosophy inclines to religion, uses reason to defend faith, and becomes a disguised theology. Among the three faiths that divided white civilization in the Middle Ages, this was least true of Islam, which had most wealth, truer of Christianity, which had less, truest of Judaism, which had least.

The fourth volume of the Durants’ 11-volume history of Western Civilization covers 1,000 years of the period between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, beginning with Emperor Julian and concluding with Dante. It is divided into five parts encompassing Byzantium through Justinian, the birth and climax of Islam, Judaism, the Dark Ages, and (approximately half of the whole book) the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries.

As with the ancient Asian, Greek and Roman-based tomes that precede it, the history is a survey of the basics, with an emphasis not just on wars, rulers and ‘great men’, but on economic life, art, music, literature and—such as it was in the Christian era—science and thought.

The main lesson I got out of the study of this horrible, horrible era—and from most other works I’ve read this year on the subject—is that we should look back with horror on 1,000 years of church rule over the western world, and vow “never again.” The trappings of civilization in this period were so meager that 1000 years fits into one volume, compared to seven huge volumes that the Durants wrote about a period half as long that immediately followed. Put churches in charge of states, and states and civilizations die.

Old Testament: Job, Ezekiel
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell ME, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth and issued from the womb?
--Job 38:4-8

I will execute great VENGEANCE on them with FURIOUS rebukes, and they shall KNOW that I AM the LORD, when I lay my vengeance UPON them! (commence gunfire)
--Ezekiel 25:17

Once again, the Bible just isn’t doing it for me. Job, the only pure ‘story’ in the Bible, is meant to address the age old conundrum of why an all-powerful God would allow Bad Things to happen to good people. (the actual answer is because, if there was no evil, there would be no Batman, though you also get full credit for the more complex answer that if children were safe and protected and innocent all their lives, they would never grow up and would never have the kind of character that you with your wrinkles and battle scars have today. But I digress, because Job never goes there). Job fails.

There. I said it. I’m one of those uppity, sophomoric, disobedient child-people who dares to second-guess and pan the most sacred and revered classics that have lasted not just centuries but Millennia. Pray for my endangered soul, because I say that Job fails.

It fails because it’s nothing more than the first telling of that unconscionable story, “The Faithful Constance” (see Chaucer, Bocaccio, etc.), where the husband/lord commits repeated and escalating acts of physical and psychological abuse on his blameless wife “to test her loyalty”, up to and including pretending that he’s murdered their children to punish her, and after she meekly replies with deference to his superior judgment to all of it over the course of years, he finally says, “Ha! Just kidding!”, and rewards herewith every kind of luxury there is from then on, which makes everything OK. Of course. Sometimes they even spell it right out for you that this is an allegory for how God rewards your unflagging obedience to all the trials He (and his clergy) put you through. Evil clergy masturbate to this theme.

Satan bets God that if God were to afflict Job, the most pious and wonderful God-lover of them all, then Job will curse God. Imagine if some asshole came and urged that same bet on you concerning your child? What would YOU do? Well, God doesn’t do that. God allows Satan to, among other things, murder Job’s children. It’s ok. God buys him new children at the end. Oops, SPOILER. Job is left with nothing but a mess of pus-oozing boils all over his body, and three “friends” who have watched their Dr. Phil and who therefore attempt to “comfort” him by urging him to think of reasons he must have deserved this, by telling him not to think about itching, by singing off-key psalms to un-tuned banjo and accordion, and by behaving so badly that to this day the term “Job’s comforter” is synonymous with UR DOING IT WRONG. People, if you want to visit your friend who just lost everything, at least show up bearing a fruit basket!

To cap it all, God shows up at the end and chimes in with the ultimate answer to why an all-powerful God allows evil: “Why? Because I’m bigger than you.” Go ahead. Look it up. God’s rant goes from Chapter 38 through 41, beginning with the part I quoted above, and it all boils down to “Why? Because I’m bigger than you.” If you see something else, by all means tell me what you see. Because what I see is the same abusive husband from “The Faithful Constance”.

And then God restores all of Job’s stuff, and they all live happily ever after. Except the first batch of children, who are still dead, but it’s OK because God bought Job some new ones who are maybe even better. What a wonderful, uplifting message to bring to those seeking spiritual guidance!

It’s because of holy fables like this one that I am grateful that such religious leanings that I have are Unitarian Universalist and/or Pagan/Earth-centered. Because if I really believed in a God like that, my sense of ethics would direct me to be His enemy forever, and that’s not a fight I would win.

I know this because of Ezekiel, who calls down vengeance of The Lord on every page. If you drank every time Ezekiel used the word "whoredoms", you'd lose consciousness. If jeremiads are supposed to be the ultimate in fire-and-brimstone sermons, I shudder to think what ezekiads would be.

Bookposts from January, March and July of this year covered my take on the rest of the major and minor prophets who end the Old Testament. I didn't fully understand those, and I don't fully understand Ezekiel either. He begins every chapter by saying that the Word of God came to him at such-and-such a time, making 40 or more separate visions. Most of these visions involve God smiting Jewish people for 'whoredoms', eventually going on to the destruction of Jerusalem and Judea and surrounding nations, but then relenting somewhat and prophesying that, after all the smiting and burning, a small remnant of chosen will remain and will be allowed into a new, purified Jerusalem.

It seems to me that Christianity, and especially Revelations and Calvinism, borrowed heavily from Ezekiel. The destruction of Gog and Magog is in here. So is the ressurection (them bones, them bones, them dry bones; these bones gonna rise again) and views from a mountaintop and a whole lot of individuals being judged by the Almighty at the end.

Maimonides (Bookpost, September 2013) claimed that one passage of Ezekiel involved a super-secret Jewish teaching, the interpretation of which was withheld from all but the most select Rabbinical scholars. If so, I congratulate the successful shrouding of it in obscurity; there were large parts I could not make sense of, and if it's not really my business, that's fine.

The Magician's Death, The Waxman Murders, Nightshade, Haunt of Murder, by PC Dougherty. The Moneylender of Toulouse, by Alan Gordon

Philip looked up in rapture at the carved face of his ancestor. "One day," he whispered, "my grandson will wear the crown of the Confessor, my daughter will be Queen of England and her second son will be Duke of Gascony." Philip could have hugged himself. He had finished what the great saint had begun; he would give France natural boundaries, the great mountain ranges to the south and the wild seas to the north and west. The Low Countries would become his clients and the power of France would be felt as far east as the Rhine.
--from The Magician's Death

"What shall we do with the prisoners?"
"Hang them all!" Castledene shouted. "From stern and poop! Especially this." He kicked Blackstock's corpse.
Stonecrop came forward, hands extended.
"You promised me my life."
"So I did." Castledene, suffused with anger, walked to the side. He turned and gestured at Stonecrop. "I promised this man his life. I keep my promises. Throw him overboard; he can swim to shore."

--from The Waxman Murders

Monks are even easier to follow than self-important merchants. The cowls block their peripheral vision. I could have walked at his side unobserved. While juggling cats. Reluctant cats, ones who are naturally averse to being juggled. But, lacking any such flying felines, I chose to tail him from a distance.
--from The Moneylender of Toulouse

"Do you know what nightshade is, priest?"
"A poisonous plant, deadly in its potion, deadly in its effect. Is that you?"
"I am the other meaning of nightshade. Don't you know it, priest? It is that time of night when the darkness grows a little deeper and the demons lurk,"
"Are you a demon?"
A soft laugh answered the priest's question. "I am God's judgment, priest."
"On whose authority?"
"My own! Blood cries out. Vengeance is to be exacted. Retribution imposed."
"Are you Sagittarius, the Bowman?"
"Are you?" came the mocking reply.

--from Nightshade

Beatrice was frightened. She was aware of a terrible stench like that of a slaughterhouse. Goodman staggered towards her and then suddenly stopped, terrified. A dark shield had appeared beside him. Another to his left. One above his head. The shields clustered into a great dark opening, a yawning cave, and out of this portal armed and mailed men, their armour black, their surcoats trimmed blood red. One of them glared at Beatrice. His helmet was empty, except for eyes which glowed like fiery charcoal. Goodman screamed as these strange apparitions seized him and dragged him into the black opening. Then they were gone. The street was silent and empty except for Goodman Winthrop's corpse lying on the cobbles in an ever-widening pool of blood.
--from A Haunt of Murder

The Hugh Corbett books continue to be what they've been, and I continue to snack on them to supplement my Medieval studies of the year. The Magician's Death contains three interlocking mysteries, none of which is particularly good. The main point of the story is the cipher (that actually existed) around the alchemist Roger Bacon's Book of Secrets, which the French and English cluster around, trying to solve as the usual body count mounts. The Waxman Murders refers to a privateer ship called the Waxman, which is boarded and the crew slaughtered at the start of the book, while Corbett appears three years later to view the consequences and search back to the massacre and earlier to find out who is continuing to kill. Nightshade, is one of the better of the Corbett books, even if it follows the predictable formula, with the clues leaping out like ghosts. It has a manageable cast of well-drawn characters and a plot that doesn't get too convoluted, involving a manor lord hated by everybody, with several past crimes including the massacre of an inoffensive hippie commune (or what passed for one in those days), and who doesn't get around to being killed until about halfway through the book.

A Haunt of Murder is the sixth Canterbury Tale mystery, and so far the only Doherty novel I've encountered that has actual supernatural elements, as opposed to Scooby Doo-style superstitions and pretenses at hauntings and demons. Beatrice is murdered shortly before her wedding to Ralph the Clerk, and her ghost is the protagonist of some chapters, trying to solve her own murder while Ralph, still alive, does the same in parallel chapters without being aware of Beatrice's help from the other world. The Beatrice chapters are the best; she interacts with angels and devils still competing for her immortal soul, and gets to watch enactments of past events, including a battle with viking marauders, the hiding of a valuable old relic that Ralph wants to recover, and the nasty doings of an evil lord who once ruled the castle where the story is set. The unique given circumstances give an opportunity for different types of clues, but Doherty doesn't use them; in fact, the presence of real ghosts makes the intended clue pointing to the real culprit uniquely ambiguous and useless as a clue.

Meanwhile, the next in Alan Gordon's Fool's Guild mysteries is much more straightforward than the previous Lark's Lament and An Antic Disposition. Theophilus, Claudia and their family are made chief jesters of Toulouse, with a mission to get the local bishop to retire so that a more fool-friendly bishop can take his place. The local moneylender, right after pressing said bishop for repayment of debt, is found killed, and the standard whodunnit ensues. Highly recommended, as always, for Gordon's outstanding banter, wordplay, and characterization.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
His assistant was a true dervish of the Order, truer than most of the hypocritical peacocks who wore the blue silks. He had spent years hardening his diminutive body, his only purpose to be a fitter and fitter weapon of God. To Adoulla's mind, it was an unhealthy approach to life for a boy of seven and ten. True, God had granted Raseed more than human powers; armed with the forked sword of his Order, he was nearly invincible. Even without the sword the boy could take on half a dozen men at once. Adoulla had seen him do it. But the fact that he had never so much as kissed a girl lessened Adoullla's respect for him considerably.
Still, it was Raseed's pious discipline that made him such a good battle companion. A man's character was most clearly displayed in the uses he put his gifts to. In his forty years as a ghul hunter, Adoulla had seen a man jump twenty feet in the air and had watched a girl turn water into fire. He had seen a warrior split himself into two warriors, then four. He had watched as an old lady made trees walk.

An elderly Gandalf prototype with a pot belly, who hunts ghuls and makes curmudgeonly remarks. A young warrior cleric who has attained enough spiritual discipline to kick ass for The Lord while seemingly unhandicapped by the barge pole he keeps up his ass at all times. A nomadic were-lioness seeking revenge against the evil ones who slaughtered her tribe. Stick these three together in the equivalent of a bickering-police-partners plot, except that it's in a fantasy arab world complete with dickering merchants, alchemists, a wicked ruler of the city, a master thief, sorcerers, monsters and corrupt palace guards, and just step back and let the fun happen.

This was, in fact, an awesome read, well deserving of its Hugo nomination. better yet, it's apparently the first in a series, with an unusual atmosphere and well-drawn characters. Very high recommendations.

The File on H, by Ismail Kadare
Thereupon, the monk proceeded to explain to the hermit how and why the two foreigners were maleficent, and why the casket--the device, or tape recorder, as it was called--was truly infernal. "It is a sinister instrument," he told him, "more evil than witches who dry up springs or wither grass. For if the witch may lay waste grass and water, this machine walls up the ancient songs, imprisons them within itself, and you know as well as I do what happens to a song when you wall up its voice. It's like when you wall up a man's shadow. He wilts and dies. That's what happens to him. It doesn't matter to me, I'm only a foreigner here myself, my land and my Serbian songs are fare away, in a safe place, but I deplore for your sake what's going on. With this machine these Irishmen will cut limbs from your body. They'll mow down all those old songs which are the joy of life, and without them it will be like being deaf. You'll wake up one fine morning and find yourselves in a desert, and you'll hold your heads in your hands; but meanwhile those devils will have fled far away. They'll have robbed you of everything, and you'll be condemned to deafness for the rest of your lives. Generation upon generation of your descendants will curse you for having been so careless. It is as I say."

The "Strange Messenger" of my caption refers to a song written by a friend of mine, about an actual parrot that was discovered to be the very last speaker of the language of an extinct South American indigenous people. It comes to mind in connection with The File on H because this alternately sad, comic and wicked short novel is centered around an only somewhat different form of cultural extinction.

Two Irish folklorists travel to Albania (Kadare's native country) on a research mission about local rhapsodists and the almost dead art of oral epic poetry. The "H" of the file refers to Homer. They invite the singers and storytellers--elderly, crippled, nomadic people on their last rounds this lifetime--to sing the old poems into a tape recorder, several times if possible so as to detect slight differences in the telling. There have been no new epics since WWI, and few new tellers, and this may be the very last chance to preserve a dying genre and possibly connect Albanian culture to the ancient civilization that produced Homer. Local officials suspect the folklorists of being spies, and peasants suspect them of witchcraft, and you just know something awful is going to happen to destroy their work with no hope of re-creation. But then---well, just read it and find out. I got emotional enough to cry out loud. Highest recommendations.

The Roman de la Rose
The God of Love, who, ever, with bent bow
Had taken care to watch and follow me
Beneath a fig tree lastly took his stand;
And when he saw that I had fixed my choice
Upon the bud that pleased me most of all
He quickly chose an arrow, nocking it,
He pulled the cord back to his ear. The bow
Was marvelously strong, and good his aim,
And when he shot at me, the arrow pierced
My very heart, though entering by my eye.
Then such a chill seized me that since that day
I oft, remembering it, have quaked again
Beneath a doublet warm. Down to the ground
I fell supine; thus struck, my heart stopped dead;
It failed me, and I fainted quite away.

Another Medieval book, this time one of the most popular (at the time) romances of the 13+th Century; nowadays read only by historical academics and book geeks like myself with a strain of CDO or masochism.

William de Lorris wrote the first 1/5 as a gentle satire of love, where the protagonist's dream about falling in love with a flower, and the exaggerated courtship rituals he follows in wooing it, are meant to poke fun at courtship rituals in general and the foolish things smitten people do to communicate their interest. When Lorras was done, another guy, Jean de Meun, came along and stuck on a gigantic Pilgrim's Progress-y continuation of the story, in which anthropomorphic personifications of amusingly specific virtues and vices ("Fair Welcome", "False Seeming", "Forced Abstinence", etc. I kept hoping for an appearance by "No-Alcohol Lager", "Town Crier At Three In the Morn" and "People Who cut You Off In Traffic And Then Drive Too Slow") show up and preach, pontificate, fight with one another and wheedle about such subjects as why a man who confides secrets to his wife is enslaved forever, and under what circumstances a friar may beg for his dinner.

Neither Lorris nor Meun is Dante, or even Bunyan. The main thing Roman de la Rose has going for it is that it stands out as a mostly secular poem in an era where everything I've read other than the Norse sagas has been religion, religion and more religion. On its own merits, as either satire or love poem, it's pretty weak tea. It's amusing to me that Johann Huizinga cited the church's failure to ban Roman de la Rose as evidence that European culture had somehow fallen into gloomy decadence and abandoned the endless fun that had been the Dark Ages. Seems to me, either the church didn't want to bother or figured they couldn't stop something that had spread so widely, and either way, figured it was harmless.

More than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
He was big and bright and very popular. He needed to be very popular and this, like all his other needs, he accomplished with ease. He played the piano with a surprisingly delicate touch and played swift and subtle chess. He learned to lose skillfully and never too often at chess and at tennis and once at the harassing game of being 'first in the class, first in the school.' He always had time--time to talk and read, time to wonder quietly, time to listen to those who valued his listening, time to rephrase pedantries for those who found them arduous in the original. He even had time for ROTC and it was through this that he got his commission.
He found the Air Force a rather different institution from any school he had ever attended and it took him a while to learn that the Colonel could not be softened by humility or won by a witticism like the Dean of Men. It took him even longer to learn that in Service it is the majority, not the minority, who tend to regard physical perfection, conversational brilliance and easy achievement as defects rather than assets. He found himself alone more than he liked and avoided more than he could bear.
It was on the anti-aircraft range that he found an answer, a dream and a disaster...

I read some Theodore Sturgeon short stories in old magazines and found them mostly unimpressive. This one is comparatively brilliant. a bit of classic sci-fi comparable to van vogt's Slan (see last month's bookpost), it also deals with human beings made into outcasts because of their superior abilities (who could have predicted this would be such a popular theme among nerdy science fiction fans?) and the ethics inherent in the relations between our species and one that appears destined to replace us via evolution.

Here, there's an added wrinkle in that the superiors are mostly children (babies, even) or developmentally disabled somehow, so that their telekinesis, teleportation, encyclopedic knowledge, mind-worming abilities, etc., are used playfully or out of childish revenge impulses. The 'novel' is further divided into three distinct large chapters covering the group's origin and formation, a key episode in their development, and the book's climax, each set several years apart.

it's a short book. i was hooked. High recommendations.

Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb
Even American beer might be preferable to spending an evening with someone who thought he was The Black Douglas....after a few experimental strums on the guitar and the adjusting of a string or two, Donnie played the intro to "The Wild Rover."
Obediently the filksingers ground out:

I've been a wild Dorsai for many a year,
And I spent all my money on Saurian beer...

The strumming ceased. "What was that rubbish you came out with?" he demanded. "Have you been monkeying with the words?"
Sheepishly they nodded.

Half side-splittingly funny and glorious, half pain in the ass. The problem with episodic whodunnits is that they naturally seek drama and appeal to cultural stereotypes. If a murder is set in a fancy restaurant, the chef, wine steward and maitre d' will all be fastidious, snobby, gourmet-obsessed divas, the waitstaff will be either excessively insolent or servile, and there will likely be an over-the-top angry customer and the most powerful asshole of a food critic in the industry. if it's in a theater, everyone in the company will be psychologically interesting, actors will have goofy method-acting quirks, directors and producers will shout and tear their hair and tell the investigating police and detectives how much their interruptions are costing the theater. And so on.

Bimbos of the Death Sun (so called because the protagonist is an engineering school prof who wrote a hard science novel that the publisher butchered into a lurid story featuring a female bodybuilder in a fur bikini sprawled in front of a computer terminal, clutching the leg of a white-coated man holding a clipboard and titled it "Bimbos of the Death Sun") is set at a science fiction convention, and so the participants are all sharklike money-obsessed dealers in collectibles, socially awkward ubernerds (of whom the males are either scrawny or fat and the females are just fat), and the writer guest combines every negative stereotype you care to name about the high-ego, high-maintenance loudmouth artiste who has contempt for his fans. The murder victim's last words before being shot are, "That is not a period weapon!"

In the quoted scene above, a famous Scottish folksinger, who is a hotel guest not affiliated with the convention, and who spend most of the novel rolling his eyes at the cosplaying "Martians", stumbles into a filksing where they obliviously ask him if he can play guitar, and he schools them on the old ballads. Filkers are my people. If this happened in real life, I can promise you that at least one person in the room would recognize and squee over the filksinger, and they would also wait for the first verse before joining in, if only to make sure they were both thinking of the same parody (as opposed to the Wild Grover, the Wild Kitty, the Wild Jedi, the Wild Hobbit, the Wild Browncoat, the Wild Doctor, the Wild Tribute, the Wild Pirate or the Wild Brony). And when he later sang part of a Childe ballad and gruffly asked if us pants-wearing poodlewalkers had any Martian words to THAT, well, yeah we would. If not immediately, then within a couple of minutes.

See that? People at conventions aren't really that strange after all!

If you're unfamiliar with nerd conventions, you can have a lot of fun pointing and laughing at the culture shock. If you are a fan and participant like I am, and you have a thick enough skin, you'll laugh right along with it. I found it very funny. The mystery part, it seemed to me, was kinda lame, but mine is a dissenting view. McCrumb, who is apparently better known for girlpower historical romances, tells us in the intro that she wrote this for a lark, mostly as an excuse to use the BotDS title---and it promptly won the Edgar award for best mystery of the year. I'd say it earned it for atmosphere, not for plot, but YMMV.

Puzzled to Death, by Parnell Hall
Cora took a breath, exhaled. "It seems to me we're back where we started, Chief. You brought me out here to show me a crossword puzzle. On the one hand it has nothing to do with the crime, on the other it's already filled in. You can come up with as many theories as you like for how it got there, but most likely it's just like I say. The woman brought it home, did it herself. She was strangled and fell on the puzzle, and there you are, that's all there is to it. In which case, I don't see why you need me.
Chief Harper looked at her for a moment, sighed, reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out another folded piece of paper. Handed it over without a word.
Cora unfolded it. Her mouth fell open.

This is the third in Hall's "Puzzle Lady" series featuring the Murder she Wrote lady hopped up on booze and cigarettes, this time involved in a charity crossword puzzle tournament in which--you guessed it--people start to turn up dead.

As with Bimbos of the Death Sun above, characterization tends to the dramatic. It's a crossword tournament, and so most of the players are effite, snobby word nerds, and there's a murder, and so they're always screaming about little things in an effort to provide possible motives for murder that are laughably over-the-top.

Hall's gimmick is the incorporation of crosswords into the book. Here you get copies of the puzzles used in the tournament. Hall tries to make the content of the puzzles relevant to the mystery, such that paying attention to the puzzle will help you solve the crime. The link is really, really tenuous, and I still didn't buy it after the reveal. However, the crime can be solved by other means. Recommended as a cute bit of brain candy.

Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, by Johannes Kepler
Even if things are very far removed from us and which are without a real exemplification, are difficult to explain, and give rise to quite uncertain judgments, as Ptolemy truly warns; nevertheless if we follow probability and take care not to postulate anything which is contrary to us, it will of necessity be clear that no mind is to be introduced which should turn the planets by direction of reason and so to speak by a nod, and that no soul is to be put in charge of this revolution, in order that it should impress something into the globes by the balanced contest of the forces, as takes place in the revolution around the axis; but that there is only one solar body, which is situated at the centre of the whole universe, and to which this movement of the primary planets around the body of the sun can be ascribed.

As with Ezikiel, there were large parts of Kepler that I just didn't get. Kepler lived way after the medieval era, in the 17th century, but he tied in with Ptolemy (Bookpost, February 2013) and Copernicus (September 2013) to the point where it made sense to read him this year.

The main things I got out of it were a sense of warmth from seeing a scientist at last free to write science without toadying to the church on penalty of being burned (at least somewhat)--he dedicates part of the work to a proof that higher intelligence is not involved in the turning of the planets; and the further astronomical step in showing the planetary paths as ellipses, not perfect circles. As the title suggests, a large part of it is a retelling or explanation of Copernicus's heliocentric model of the universe.

Serious astronomy mavens will like Kepler; others might want to make do with a summary.

My Place, by Sally Morgan
I remember one holiday at Ivanhoe when I was very upset. I was in the kitchen with my mother. She had her usual white apron on and was bustling around, when Alice came in with June. I couldn't take my eyes off June. She had the most beautiful doll in her arms. It had golden hair and blue eyes and was dressed in satin and lace. I was so envious. I wished it was mine. It reminded me of a princess.
June said to me, "You've got a doll too. Mummy's got it. Then, from behind her back, Alice pulled out a black topsy doll dressed like a servant. It had a red checked dress on and a white apron, just like mum's. It had what they used to call a slave cap on its head. It was really just a handkerchief knotted at each corner. My mother always wore one on washing days because the laundry got very damp with all the steam and it stopped some of it trickling down her face.
I stared at this doll for a minute. I was completely stunned. That's me, I thought. I wanted to be a princess, not a servant. I was so upset that when Alice placed the black doll in my arms, I couldn't help flinging it on the floor and screaming, 'I don't want a black doll!" Alice just laughed and said to my mother, "Fancy, her not wanting a black doll." They told the story of this often at Ivanhoe. They thought it was funny. I still can't laugh about it.

Sally Morgan is a mixed-race Australian whose parents hid her aboriginal heritage (in part because the Aussie government had a charming policy of removing part-white offspring from aboriginal families. Racial purity and all that). This is the story about how Morgan discovered the truth about her ethnicity and went exploring to learn the rest of the story of where she came from.

The title, My Place is a bittersweet pun pertaining to both the aboriginal lands with which Morgan feels an affinity, and the place in society that "blackfellas" were expected to stick to. Morgan's mother and grandmother, who live with her and have varying degrees of aboriginal descent, have differing perspactives on place, and on life.

Half way into the autobiography, Morgan breaks off her own story to tell the stories of her aboriginal relatives from their point of view, in the first person (the quoted section about the black doll, above, is from one of these back stories; Morgan herself passed as white for much of her life). The aboriginal stories are the heart of the book, at times haunting, wise, boorish, primitive and--from a white perspective--just different. It was apparently a huge bestseller in Australia, possibly compared and contrasted with Pilkington's Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (Bookpost, February 2008), and has plenty to offer people in other continents as well. Recommended.

The Blind Owl, by Sadegh Hedayat
I was not in full control of myself, and it seemed that I knew her name from before. The evil in her eyes, her color, her scent and her movements were all familiar to me. It was as though my souls, in the life before this, in the world of imagination, had bordered on her soul and that both souls, of the same essence and substance, were destined for union. I must have lived this life very close to her. I had no desire to touch her; the invisible beams that emanated from our bodies and mingled were sufficient for me. Isn't this terrifying experience which seemed so familiar to met quite the same as the feelings of two lovers who feel that they have known each other before and that a mysterious relationship has previously existed between them? Was it possible that someone else could affect me? The dry, repulsive and ominous laughter of the old man, however, tore our bonds asunder.

Something bad seems to have happened to the human soul early in the 20th century, if a subset of world literature is to be our guide. Starting as early as Dostoevsky, and passing to Kafka, Sartre, Hesse, Beckett, many others--we had a succession of angsty books with narrators so unreliable that one can hardly make sense of their stories. The primary effect of their books is to highlight, and induce, emotional pain.

Hedayat's mercifully brief The Blind Owl is Iran's major contribution to the heap. Like the Necronomicon, it's more infamous than read, and people warn others not to read it. I didn't go mad, but I was made uncomfortable and unable to figure what all the fuss was about.

The "blind owl' is the protagonist's shadow, which sort of resembles an owl if the protagonist squints, and which the protagonist ostensibly is talking to as the tale, in two major parts with brief interludes, progresses. The guy has issues. A strange woman comes to his room, has sex with him, and dies. The narrator then gets progressively more incoherent and surreal, has encounters with a crazy old rag-man (who symbolizes death, or the devil, or his own dark side, or something) and a buried old jar that happens to feature a painting of the dead woman. The second part is ostensibly the narrator writing a story about himself right after the events of the first part. I'm pretty sure one or both of the Coen Brothers read this book and was influenced by it when writing the similarly surreal script for Barton Fink.

Hedayat committed suicide. I'm not surprised.

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Look well unto thyself, and beware that you judge not the doings of others. In judging others, a man laboureth in vain; he often erreth, and easily falleth into sin, but in judging and examining himself he always laboureth to good purpose. According as a matter toucheth our fancy, so oftentimes do we judge of it, for easily do we fail of true judgment because of our own personal feeling. If God were always the sole object of our desire, we should be the less easily troubled by the erring judgment of our fancy.
But often some secret thought lurking within us, or even some outward circumstance, turneth us aside. Many are secretly seeking their own ends in what they do, yet know it not. They seem to live in good peace of mind so long as things go well with them, and according to their desires, but if their desires be frustrated and broken, immediately they are shaken and displeased. Diversity of feelings and opinions very often brings about dissensions between friends, between countrymen, between religious and godly men.

After a year of Medieval books, overwhelmingly theological in nature, I finally found a Christian book that moved my soul.

Seems to me, the kernels of truth in the major religions are common to one another, and the differences are much less important details. I'm not interested in what name to call God, or whether so-and-so was really a prophet, or the centuries-old rituals that a particular culture practices. I'm interested in what they consider good ethics and behavior, and whether there's a reason given beyond "Because we say so."

Kempis's take on Christianity, it seems to me, is remarkably like the take on eastern religions given in the Baghvad Gita and the Buddhist writings in the last two months' Bookposts. Kempis urges withdrawal from worldly affairs, charity toward the poor, constant humility, meditation, quiet listening, refraining from presumption, arrogance and vanity. Compare and contrast that with the aggressive assertions of dominance seen in modern American evangelism. The teachings of the Religious Right, and their methods are exactly the opposite of what Kempis says, except perhaps in that the religious right's leaders urge their followers to be blindly, humbly obedient to them. Meanwhile, those Quakers, Methodists and other Christian sects that do approach religion in a way similar to The Imitation of Christ are necessarily quiet and nonjudgmental, and are therefore easily drowned out by the screaming, shouting, firesnorting sects, and may even appear not to exist as they shun excessive publicity. And here the problem lies. God is quiet and ineffable and viewed through a glass darkly; Satan is loud and omnipresent and won't shut up.

The Imitation of Christ is described as one of the first and most popular of all 'devotional' books. It's not hard to see why. It does not condemn all of humanity as irredeemable sinners in the hands of an angry God who really ought to burn every one of you, nor does it excessively scold the reader for minor faults. It simply urges us to do better.

Go forward therefore with simple and undoubting faith, and draw nigh unto the Sacrament with supplicating reverence. And whatever thou art not enabled to understand, that commit without anxiety to Almighty God. God deceiveth thee not; he is deceived who believeth too much in himself. God walketh with the simple, revealeth Himself to the humble, giveth understanding to babes, openeth the sense to pure minds, and hideth grace from the curious and proud. Human reason is weak and may be deceived; but true faith cannot be deceived.

Find all of my previous Bookposts here:
Tags: review list: monthly

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