Archive for December, 2014

It’s Funny About Fiction

a2212a1cde3b1ecc62e55108e45664aeWhen I was gainfully employed I promised myself over and over again that when I retired, I would read all the popular fiction I could get my hands on.  There were reasons for this.

When I was in school I read tons of works that were considered “serious” literature–from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, as the English major’s in-joke went.  There were semesters when I had to read every waking moment.  One summer I made the mistake of taking a Victorian and a Modern Novels class at the same time.  On a harrowing Saturday night trip to a kegger held somewhere in the woods outside of town, I read chapters of Bleak House by flashlight in the back seat while my buddies stoked their party spirit.  On a sun-baked Saturday, perched on a limestone outcrop, I read Keats aloud to my fellow students while they dug for fossils to satisfy a geology class requirement.  Luckily, a guy in the class was interested in me (or maybe in Keats), so he found a few bits of ancient mussel for me to show the instructor as proof of my fascination with invertebrate paleontology.

Then I became a professor and the necessary reading multiplied exponentially.  And so did its difficulty.  Aristotle, Aspasia, Augustine;  Campbell, Blair, Whately;  Burke, Perelman, Toulmin;  Derrida, Mouffe, Zizek, amen.  The history of rhetoric is not for sissies.  Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of any of these authors except Aristotle–nobody else has, either, outside of the couple of hundred rhetoricians who prowl the world’s libraries.  This stuff is hard going, even for those of us who devoted years to its study.  It’s rewarding, certainly, but a slog nonetheless.

So when retirement rolled around, I very much looked forward to reading the popular authors recommended by Amazon and the New York Times Review of Books.  Every week I cruise the shelves of my local public library, reveling in the fact that I can pick up any of these books, read a page or two, and return them if they don’t do anything for me.  Ah, bliss.

I’ve been reading popular fiction for about five years now, and I’ve learned that there are levels and levels of quality.  Some writers who are difficult reads (the sci-fi writers Octavia Butler or David Brin, fer instance) are worth the trouble.  But others are not.  I’ve tried to read Donna Tartt’s much-prized Goldfinch twice, and I can’t get past a few pages.  (This from a woman who made her way through James Joyce’s Ulysses–twice).

OTOH, the work of highly touted writers is sometimes simply awful:  the characters are flat and/0r the plots are hackneyed.  I once heard a talk by the western writer Louie L’Amour in which he said that he had seven basic plots.  At that point in his career he had hung 53 novels on those seven frames.  And L’Amour is a cut above some of today’s bestselling writers:  Robert Ludlum, Nora Roberts, Stephanie Meyer, Michael Crichton.  I’m not a reading snob, I hope, given that on occasion I enjoy the work of Tom Clancy or Terry Brooks.  But with some writers, it’s difficult even to negotiate the prose–I find Meyer all but unreadable, for example.  And as someone who taught writing for forty years, I know bad prose when I see it.

Between the extremes of the too-dense and the simply-awful are good to excellent works of popular fiction that appeal to certain moods or outlooks on life.  Sometimes I want a novel that pushes me along in a rush of events so that I forget all about the world around me–thrillers and mysteries work for this, of course.  Other times I want to savor an author’s skill–as in historical fiction for example, where the pleasure comes from savoring what a writer’s imagination has conjured out of the available facts.  Hilary Mantel’s novels about Cromwell are striking in this regard.  And while I like science fiction, I don’t want it to be too techie (William Gibson) or too smarmy (Neil Gamann).  And while I admire the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, his focus on future ecological disaster hits too close to home for pleasure-reading.

A list of writers I like runs the gamut of genres and high to low-brow-ness–I like Stephen King as well as Stephen Dobyns;  Gillian Flynn as well as Diana Gabaldon;  Larry McMurtry and Colleen McCullough, James Ellroy and Jean Auel, Don DeLillo and Nelson DeMille, Norman Mailer and James Michener, Margaret George and Phillipa Gregory, Sharon Kay Penman and Thomas Pynchon.

And at long last, given time to savor it, I’m even enjoying Bleak House.


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Towering Fun

This is Adam showing off back in October.  I don’t think the photo’s sharp enough to be selected by the Page-a-Day Cat Calendar people, but I may submit it if I get around to it.DSC00638


Here’s Ted displaying his excellent feather attack form on the cat tower I brought home last week.




And then there’s this towering fun from a…uh…few holidays back.  That’s King’s Quest on a Tandy dual floppy drive computer.  Note the appropriate sustenance and fluids close at hand.  Such pioneers we were!

Scan 48

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Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Polly wolly cracker ‘n’ too-da-loo!
Donkey Bonny brays a carol,
Antelope Cantaloupe, ‘lope with you!

Hunky Dory’s pop is lolly,
Gaggin’ on the wagon, Willy, folly go through!
Chollie’s collie barks at Barrow,
Harum scarum five alarm bung-a-loo!

Dunk us all in bowls of barley,
Hinky dinky dink an’ polly voo!
Chilly Filly’s name is Chollie,
Chollie Filly’s jolly chilly view halloo!

Bark us all bow-wows of folly,
Double-bubble, toyland trouble! Woof, woof, woof!
Tizzy seas on melon collie!
Dibble-dabble, scribble-scrabble! Goof, goof, goof!

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Por Fin!

κουβαToday President Obama normalized relations with Cuba!  And brought home an American prisoner!  Hooray!

It’s about goddam time.  JFK wanted to do this way back in 1963 (some conspiracy theorists think this may be why he was killed).  Jimmy Carter tried to do it and was shouted down by anti-Communists–yeah there were still some of those around America in the 1970s.  (For a few details about this history, see my post from February 27, entitled “Oh, Get Over It.”)

Today, of course, Rethugs remembered that they are anti-communist, or used to be when that made any sense.  So they threw yet another hissy fit.  Marco Rubio declared Obama to be an incompetent negotiator, while Lindsay Graham’s feelings were hurt once again.

Today our president has achieved something that the United Nations has been begging the US to do for sixty years.  The Pope participated in the negotiations.  And the White House kept this an absolute secret until the deal was done.

Incompetent, my ass.

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“They Were Way Taller Than Me”

2025226711My title cribs a remark reportedly uttered by a Seattle barrista after he served the Nebraska volleyball team on Friday.  The same are pictured above (on the left) as they knocked off the Washington Huskies, the number four team in the nation last night.  Hoohah!

For the first time ever, ESPN televised a first-round NCAA tournament match between womens’ volleyball teams, and they did so because of the history between the Huskers and the Huskies (the similarity of the team mascots confused the extraordinarily inept announcers ESPN grubbed up for the occasion).  Each team has met the other on their way to past national championships.  Each has won five times.

That history may have accounted for the large crowd in the Seattle venue.  I worried that the Huskers would be freaked out by the sea of purple masks and “I love my daWgs” t-shirts, but they did just fine, thanks.

The volleyball was as exciting as expected.  Nebraska lost the first set, primarily because of Washington’s Krista Vansant, who is the reigning national player of the year.  Vansant got kill after kill, and her serve was deadly.  But the Huskers roared back, taking the next two sets easily.  The fourth set was tight–neither team ever led by more than three points, but Nebraska managed to win it after a nail-biting series of four set points.

That victory puts Nebraska in the Elite Eight.  Tonight they meet BYU for a chance to get into the final four.

Sorry I sound like a sportscaster–I’ve just been reading accounts in the Seattle papers.  Nobody, including me, expected this Nebraska team to get so far.  They are very young (only one senior on the team) and their win record is the worst in recent Husker history.  But they pulled it out last night.



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The Horror

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsThe so-called “torture report” is more horrible than anything Stephen King has imagined.  The report does suggest where writers like King get their inspiration:  from study of human venality.

Desert and I discussed our country’s use of torture repeatedly and with increasing dismay when it was happening.  Anyone who was paying attention between 2001 and 2005 could glean the basics of the CIA’s program.  There was the spectacular example of Abu Graibh, where the military engaged in vile acts of torture and managed to punish only a few low-ranking soldiers for carrying out what was clearly a policy sanctioned from on high.  So it is very very discouraging to hear the surprise and (faux?) outrage of contemporary commentators now that this report has finally been released.  The angry defenses put up by former CIA directors are as disgusting as they are unconvincing.

We ought to burn the CIA to the ground and start over.   Same goes for the Pentagon.  Anyone who has read any post-war American history has to agree that, on balance, the mayhem wrecked on the people of the earth by these institutions far outweighs the protection they offer to whoever it is they represent.  And they sure as hell don’t represent the interests of the American people.

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