Category Archives: Literature

Ode to Zibaldone

Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.

This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.

Some of my notebooks.

Some of my notebooks.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Wild Things

islanddrmoreauLast year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.

For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.

What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.

2016 in Books

As is my custom on this last post of the year I’ll be revisiting the books that made an especial difference to me in 2016. I record most books I finish on Goodreads, and I welcome friends in that venue. I draw on their recollection for what I’ve read and all of the books I mention here have individual posts on this blog. Use the search function. It’s free!

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The first important book was Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street. If you missed this one, it is well worth your time. Economics has become a religion. If you doubt that, look at 11/9 and tell me so. Philip Gulley’s The Quaker Way was also an early read that’s worth revisiting. November has made many of these books more important than they seemed at the time. Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Super Natural will expand the minds of those who allow for unconventional possibilities. And Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals will remind us we’re not alone on this planet. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was a book I really couldn’t put down, and a nice complement to Bekoff. Marcelo Gleiser touched a chord with The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, a book worthy of anyone who wants to consider how science and humanity might cooperate for everyone’s benefit. While not really a reading-through book, Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is important and worthy of attention.

In the realm of monsters, Elizabeth Baer’s The Golem Redux was a fantastic introduction to a Jewish legend that I revisited in three more books over the year. Several other monster books followed, but especially memorable were Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and Maya Barzilai’s Golem—please be patient with me regarding this one. I haven’t written a post on it yet, since an official review has yet to be published. Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences won her an instant fan. I’ll read anything she writes. I didn’t give Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child the attention it deserves. It’s kind of a personal thing. Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick was utterly fascinating, looking at another person Miller would have found intriguing. Also on the topic of writers, Melville’s Bibles by Ilana Pardes spoke deeply to me.

For fiction, highly recommended are Amy Tomson’s The Color of Distance, Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, and Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. Less profound, but thoroughly enjoyable were Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft, and Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot (reading anything by Jasper Fforde is time well spent). My childhood favorite, Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants retains its magic.

According to Goodreads, I finished 106 this year. Along the way I finished the 2016 Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. Many of the books were excellent, and this shortlist represents those that idiosyncratically stick out in my mind. Please participate in a show of hope for the future: make 2017 a year of reading.