Friday, September 29, 2006


From Anthony Lane’s “An Englishman Abroad,” in the May 22, 2006 issue of The New Yorker
“My abiding memory of Patrick Leigh Fermor comes from Crete, eight years ago. We had spent time there, and I wanted to know how he would be retuning to the mainland: a flight to Athens, presumably, followed by a taxi to the Mani. On the contrary, he said; he would board the overnight ferry. I offered at least to book him a cabin, since the night could be cold. He smiled and replied that he would prefer a chair on deck, adding, “My dear boy, I have a bottle of red wine and a copy of Persuasion. What more could I possibly need?”

That does sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, though at some point about midway through the bottle, I’d likely realize that I’d been reading the same page for the past fifteen minutes and decide it was time to watch the suddenly blurry waves.

If I had my choice, though—or my beautifully designed Jane Austen omnibus edition—I’d probably choose Pride and Prejudice (1813) instead. Not that Persuasion (1817) isn’t a pleasant, at times lovely book, full of the perceptiveness, humor, and irony that are the reason I read Jane Austen—but in Persuasion, the characters are a little less interesting, the plot a little slower and less intricate, even the narration a bit less lively.

The main reason that Persuasion suffers in the comparison, though, is because it has far less dialogue than Pride and Prejudice. Dialogue is Austen’s greatest strength, because that’s where she can best demonstrate both her understanding of character and her willingness to trust her reader to see past her characters’ statements to the intentions and evasions beyond them. She also mines that disjunction for much of her gentle humor; she works with the ironies of conversation with the same skill that Wodehouse works with its absurdities. Having less dialogue in Persuasion necessarily leaves it less wryly funny than Pride and Prejudice

To be fair to Austen, I should point out that Persuasion was written in the last years of her brief life, when she was ill; doubtless it would be far more polished had she lived longer. Even unpolished, Persuasion contains such gems as this exchange among Ann, the heroine, her superficial sister, and her sister’s kind-hearted but non-intellectual husband:
”I think Lady Russell would like him. I think she would be so much pleased with his mind, that she would very soon see no deficiency in his manner.”

“So do I, Anne,” said Charles. “I am sure Lady Russell would like him. He is just Lady Russell’s sort. Give him a book, and he will read all day long.”

“Yes, that he will!” exclaimed Mary, tauntingly. “He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens. Do you think Lady Russell would like that?”
I suppose that complaining that one Jane Austen novel isn’t as much fun as another is a lot like complaining about having the wrong flavor of ice cream. After all, there is no bad ice cream. I imagine Patrick Leigh Fermor would agree with me.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Talented Mr. Ripley

It’s satisfying to read a book with a great reputation and have it live up to it completely. Over the weekend I read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), and it was a creepy, compelling, and tense as I’d always heard. Earlier this week I complained that Scott Smith’s The Ruins provided only nothing beyond thrills; The Talented Mr. Ripley is the perfect example of a novel that does both. There are scenes as tense as anything in Hitchcock, but the heart of the book, and the reason it’s going to stay with me, is the title character, who by turns is odd, creepy, confused, sad, needy, even sometimes deeply sympathetic. Without diminishing him as a character—and without being obvious about it—Highsmith reveals the complicated mix of emotions that drive Tom Ripley while simultaneously showing us that he doesn’t quite understand them himself. He deludes himself—though always for brief periods—so well that we, too, become deluded, our sympathies engaged. That level of psychological reality is only possible when an author knows a character thoroughly; I get the feeling that, while Tom Ripley could surprise himself, there’s no way he could ever surprise Patricia Highsmith.

In case you’re one of the small number of readers who doesn’t know Ripley as a character, I won’t say more. I do, however, have a question. If you were to come to this book with no knowledge of it or Ripley, how would he strike you in the early pages? How much would you see through? How much would you anticipate? I think of this as the Casblanca problem: if you didn’t already know that Rick doesn’t leave, would you be sure it was coming? I think you probably would, in both cases, get an idea of what lies ahead, but I'll never get to know for myself.

Oh, and a second question: I’ve got the next two Ripley novels in this omnibus volume. Anyone read them? Should I?

And, finally, a warning: October is always my busiest month both at work and at home. I’m finishing up marathon training, and the start of the baseball playoffs means hosting lots of baseball chili parties. I fear that my blog is going to suffer; you should probably expect light posting through October. But never fear: winter is on the way, and there sure ain’t much to do in Chicago in the winter but read.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Don't go into the jungle

Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006) could almost make me a believer in multiple universes. I can clearly imagine two versions of myself, each reacting differently to it.

It’s the story of six young people—four Americans just out of college and a Greek and a German they run into in Mexico—who strike out into the jungle on what they think is a day trip in search of the German’s brother, who has followed a female archaeologist with whom he has fallen in love. But things very quickly begin to go wrong, and the kids find themselves trapped in the jungle, ill-prepared and with, for various reasons that I’ll leave unexplained, little hope of getting back to civilization. Over the course of a few days, the situation deteriorates with astonishing rapidity, and we watch, closely, as the six utterly fall apart, mentally and physically

The me who lives in some other (more critical?) universe would say that Smith’s characters aren’t very well-developed (despite a lot of time and effort), the opening is simultaneously dull and overly portentous, his attempts at interior monologue are occasionally ham-handed, the book’s action is somewhat repetitive, the central threat that holds the characters in the jungle is a borderline joke, and the seemingly inevitable conclusion is far too long in coming.

The me who lives in this universe would, to one degree or another, agree with all those points. But I just don’t care: they’re inconsequential in the face of the alternately terrifying and horrifying thrill ride that Smith sent me on. The Ruins may be the scariest book I’ve ever read—and that’s an achievement even more impressive given that, after the book’s midpoint, there are few surprises. The few that Smith does pull out, though, are classic up-the-ante moves, raising the horror to unexpected new heights. I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t put it down.

Like the characters, I kept hoping that there was a solution to their dilemma. They rest their hopes in a hazy combination of belief in the overall benevolence of the universe and the unspoken plaint, “We’re Americans—this can’t be happening to us!” (The deep pessimist in me, by the way, fears that historians might look back at the twenty-first century and view that as America’s overriding thought.) Meanwhile, I put my faith in the author himself. Surely he’ll help these people? Surely he’s going to flinch? Things just kept getting worse and worse, and the number of pages beneath my right thumb kept diminishing.

Like it did with the multiple mes, The Ruins seems to have split readers and critics, too. People either love it, getting totally wrapped up and terrified, or they hate it to the point of not seeing why anyone would praise it. The negative reviews on Amazon—which for any book are much more informative than the positive ones—are telling. They rehearse the complaints I made above, but a large number also focus their annoyance on the weakness, stupidity, and incompetence of the characters themselves. Why do they fall apart so quickly? Why do they not come up with better plans?

They’re right. The characters do fall apart quickly. They don’t make good plans. But Smith’s point, even if overplayed, is one that I’m in sympathy with: very few of us would cope well with disaster. Throughout, The Ruins has you asking, “How would I deal with this?” If we’re being ruthlessly honest, most of us won’t like the answer. It’s the best thing about the book.

That’s also a sign of the weakness of The Ruins, though, and of why it’s ultimately just a thrill ride. As much as Smith seems to think he’s created well-rounded, interesting characters, there’s never a point in the book where I was worried about them as individuals. Instead, I was worried about them—even at times terrified for them—only as proxies for me. When I finally closed the book, looked up, and remembered that I wasn't in the Mexican jungle, there was nothing left.

But it seems a bit churlish to complain about The Ruins not being full of great characters or deep insights. I opened the book hoping to be scared, and for several hours it kept me that way, so regardless of what the parallel universe me might think, I'm satisfied.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A word of advice for the writers I've not yet read

One way to dramatically decrease the chances that, after I pick up your acclaimed novel in the bookstore, I actually purchase it is to let your publisher's marketing department include the words “Pynchon” or "DeLillo" or “postmodern” in the jacket or cover copy.

One way to dramatically increase the chances that, after I pick up your acclaimed novel in the bookstores, I actually purchase it is to feature an epigraph from Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish a Room.

Claire Messud, you’re now on my stack. David Mitchell, despite the raves of a couple of friends, you’re not. At least for now.

[Sub-note: This advice is only intended for those authors interested primarily in maximizing their potential sales to me. Those authors interested primarily in maximizing their sales to the non-me public should probably ignore this advice, as the non-me public seems to like Pynchon and DeLillo and postmodern fiction. It's simply a matter of setting priorities, authors.]

Monday, September 18, 2006

Empire Falls, part three

Part one is here. Part two is here.

For about three hundred and fifty pages, Empire Falls is composed of scenes that conversation between Miles and his father: a series of back-and-forth dealings within a large cast of well-drawn characters. Some characters are more convincing than others, some more fully imagined, but taken as a whole, they’re believable and interesting. Four-fifths of the way through the book, however, Russo makes a big mistake, as a plot that he’s been slowly building in the background erupts.

I won’t say anything specific about it, because it’s at least somewhat surprising, but it completely derails the book. I’m sure if I talked with Russo about it, he’d say that was his point—the unexpected happens in people’s lives, and he’s trying to show that. But I think he’s made a bad decision in this case: in order to make his point, he sacrifices everything he’s built up to that moment. Interesting characters with their own stories are left by the wayside; open questions about some of the people we’ve come to know are not only left unanswered (which would be fine with me, because in life we don’t always get answers) but are, it seems, forgotten in the rush of events. And after the dust clears, the resolutions of the few stories that are left seem almost perfunctory, as if all Russo’s energy was used up in those few moments that turned the book around.

All that is an even bigger letdown because one of the things that most impressed me about his best novel, Nobody’s Fool (1993) was the sense it communicated of being a true, nearly random slice of its characters’ lives. We were looking at a representative sample of their existences, and the choice of beginning and end points wasn’t being driven by the need to follow events to their conclusion. To tell a story that is captivating, while retaining that sense of ordinariness, is a tremendous achievement—and I can think of very few writers, Penelope Fitzgerald being one, who are capable of it. So to see Empire Falls be essentially crushed by the weight of its plot was extremely disappointing.

The failed ending doesn’t make Empire Falls worthless, though Russo’s characters are too interesting, his writing too perceptive for that. If you’ve enjoyed the two scenes I’ve presented here, you’ll probably enjoy Russo, and Empire Falls. But start with Nobody’s Fool. You won’t be disappointed.

Oh, and before I end this post, I have a question: does anyone have suggestions for me about other people who are currently writing about contemporary American life with Russo’s understanding, intricacy of character, and sympathy? In particular, are there any women writers you’d recommend? In writing this blog, I’ve realized that most of the female writers I read are long dead. I fear that I’ve fallen victim to the marketing of contemporary American women’s writing—but in reverse: I see covers clearly designed to appeal to the two-thirds of the novel-buying public that are women, and I pass right over them, assuming they’re a meld of romance, Oprah-style self-discovery, and soap operas. And that’s silly and unfair; I’m sure there’s some good fiction I’m missing through my knee-jerk response. If anyone has any suggestions of where I should start, I’d love to hear them.

Empire Falls, part two

Part one is here.

The scene between Tick and Mr. Meyer demonstrates several of Russo’s skills at their best. By slowing down fairly ordinary conversations and reminding us of all the thoughts behind each utterance, he renders them complex and interesting, so that even comedic banter comfortably serves a dual purpose in his novels. He’s also good at making use of the physical, but not in a blunt metaphorical way: here, Tick reminds us that high schoolers are attuned, maybe above all else, to physical difference, as her discomfort in Mr. Meyer’s presence leads her to focus on how he swallows his lies. That perceptiveness, too, is a Russo strength—he’s willing to let his characters see one another with the kind of intensity that marks real human relationships; he's also good at portraying their occasional willed blindness. He knows that, in the right circumstances, a teenager can understand as much about human behavior as an adult, but he also knows that much will always go unseen. In Mr. Meyer’s case, it’s only later, when we see him talking to Miles, who was his childhood friend, that we understand that he's essentially a good man, living with his compromises and trying to do a difficult job.

Russo’s understanding of relationships helps him avoid sentimentality: though it's always a threat in any novel so suffused with love and sympathy, Russo almost always manages to avoid it simply by being too clear-eyed about people to succumb. And that blunt, realistic understanding of family and friendship also leads to some of his funniest scenes, which vibrate with a lived familiarity. Take this one, between Miles and his aged, ne’er-do-well father, Max:
“I’ve been lucky lately,” Max said, as if there was no reason he shouldn’t be, given the general tenor of his life to this point. “I tell you I won the lottery down there in Florida?”

This was the kind of question Max loved to ask, one for which the answer was obvious to both parties, and one it was best just to ignore—a trick Miles had never mastered. “No, Dad. We haven’t spoken in six months. You didn’t know where I was. So, how could you have told me?”

“Oh, I knew where you were,” Max assured him. “Just because I’m sempty doesn’t mean I’m senile. Old men got brains too, you know.”

Mile rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “You’re telling me you actually won the lottery?”

“Not the big one,” Max admitted. “Not all six numbers. Five out of six. Pretty good payoff, though. Over thirty thousand.”


“No, paper napkins,” Max said, holding one up. “Of course dollars, dummy.”

“You won thirty thousand dollars.”

“More. Almost thirty-two.”

“You won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

Max nodded.

“You personally won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

Max nodded, and Miles considered whether there might be yet another way to ask the same question. Usually, with Max, phraseology was crucial.

“Me and nine other guys from Captain Tony’s.” Max clarified after a healthy silence.

“You each won thirty-two thousand dollars.”

“No, we each won three thousands. Ten guys go in on a ticket, and you have to divvy up the winnings.”

Now, it was Miles’s turn to nod. Wheedling the truth out of his father was one of the few pleasures of their relationship, and Max took equal pleasure in withholding it. “How much do you have left?”

Max took out his wallet and peered inside, as if genuinely curious himself. “I got enough to buy lunch. I’m not cheap, like some people. I’m not afraid to spend money when I got it.”

Final part tomorrow.

Empire Falls, part one

Richard Russo is an extremely good writer, good enough that I’m not sure there’s any novelist who’s next book I’m more looking forward to. He writes about small, dying New England towns and the people who are stuck there, with a perceptiveness and clear-eyed sympathy that are breathtaking. His main characters tend to be middle-aged men who have, through a combination of bad luck and their own weakness, wound up in a dead-end job, surrounded by one poorly resolved relationship (with, say, an ex-wife) after another (with, say, a brother or father). But these men haven’t been beaten down by circumstance—instead, they and those around them are vibrantly alive, channeling their frustrations into hard work, some drinking, and pointless (but frequently very funny) banter.

Whereas Raymond Carver portrayed the lives of the lower socio-economic classes with an arid, bleak despair that I frequently find falls somewhere between false and condescending, Russo understands what was always apparent to me growing up in a small town: a lot of people in all situations take life as it comes—some of them with biting humor, others by being pricks, some by dreaming impossible dreams, others by constantly reminding themselves to be satisfied with what they’ve got. And self-awareness is found at all levels of education and income, just like self-absorbedness. That variety of character and response, allied to a deep understanding of how people relate to friends, relatives, and rivals, is what makes Russo’s books compelling.

Last week I read his most recent novel, Empire Falls (2001), and to give you an idea of how Russo gets into the heads of his characters—as they, frequently, are attempting to do the same to other characters—I’m going to quote at greater length than usual. In this scene, Tick, the teenage daughter of Miles, the book’s protagonist, is talking with her high school principal. Due to a scheduling problem, she’s for a few months been lunching alone in the cafeteria at an off period, which, because she’s shy and not that popular, has suited her fine.
“I’ve found someone to have lunch with you,” Mr. Meyer reports once the door is safely shut between them. Tick can’t help but stare at him. The fundamental dishonesty of adults never fails to amaze her, their assumption that you’ll believe whatever they say just because they’re grown-ups and you’re a kid. As if the history of adults’ dealings with adolescents were one long, unbroken continuum of truth-telling. As if no kid was ever given a reason to distrust anyone over the age of twenty-five. In this instance Mr. Meyer would apparently have Tick believe that in the two weeks since allowing this solitary lunch privilege, he’s been thinking of nothing except finding her a companion. Whereas Tick doubts that she’s crossed his mind until provoked by the larger problem of what to do with this wretched boy, who by virtue of being friendless, voiceless and graceless has become the target of lunchroom bullies who consider it fine sport to hit him in the back of the head with empty milk containers, broken pencils, thumb-shot rubber bands and any other handy missile, launching these objects from all the way across the cafeteria for maximum impact.

Tick’s strategy for dealing with lying adults is to say nothing and watch the lies swell and constrict in their throats. When this happens, the lie takes on a physical life of its own and must be either expelled or swallowed. Most adults prefer to expel untruths with little burplike coughs behind their hands, while others chuckle or snort or make barking sounds. When Mr. Meyer’s Adam’s apple bob once, Tick sees that he’s a swallower, and that this particular lie has gone south down his esophagus and into his stomach. According to her father, who’s an old friend of Mr. Meyer’s, the man suffers from bleeding ulcers. Tick can see why. She imagines all the lies a man in his position would have to tell, how they must just churn away down there in his intestines like chunks of undigestible food awaiting elimination. By their very nature, Tick suspects, lies seek open air. They don’t like being confined in dark, cramped places. Still, she likes Mr. Meyer better for being a swallower. Her father, who neither lies often nor well, at least by adult standards, is also a swallower, and she approves that his lies go down so painfully. . . .

“John has the same scheduling difficulty you had because of a class,” Mr. Meyer continues, studying her to see how this second lie will play, his Adam’s apple bobbing again. John Voss has no such scheduling difficulty, Tick knows. Except for computer studies, at which the boy is reportedly brilliant, he in all low-track classes, and art fits this program like a glove.

When Tick remains silent, Mr. Meyer breaks into a nervous sweat. What is this—two comatose kids? If coming to the aid of floundering liars weren’t against Tick’s religion, she’d be tempted to toss him a rope. . . .

“Actually, I have a favor to ask you, Christina,” Mr. Meyer continues, his Adam’s apple stationary now, so this part of it must be true. He nods at the door. “John Voss is a very unhappy boy. More unhappy than anyone suspects, I fear.”

He’s lowered his voice another notch, perhaps worried that the unhappy boy might find out about his unhappiness and be unhappier still. “There is an element in our school that finds in this unfortunate young man an excellent candidate for ridicule and even worse forms of cruelty.”

He pauses to study Tick here, hoping maybe that she’ll contradict him by testifying that no such element exists. About this, he would very much like to be wrong. “We have a good school here,” he quickly adds, as if fearful that his criticism has gone too far. “But not everyone . . . ” As his voice trails off, his Adam’s apple starts bobbing again, confirming Tick’s belief that omissions, too, can be lies, perhaps the most dangerous ones.

More tomorrow.

Friday, September 15, 2006

On brotherhood, duty, and death

From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books (1800-06)
When he goes to church and reads his Bible the ordinary man confuses the means with the end. N.B. a very common error.

From Plato’s Socrates’ Defense (Apology)
You, too, gentlemen of the jury, must look forward to death with confidence, and fix your minds on this one belief, which is certain—that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death, and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods. This present experience of mine has not come about mechanically. I am quite clear that the time had come when it was better for me to die and be released from my distractions. That is why my sign never turned me back. For my own part I bear no grudge at all against those who condemned me and accused me, although it was not with this kind intention that they did so, but because they thought that they were hurting me; and that is culpable of them. However, I ask them to grant me one favor. When my sons grow up, gentlemen, if you think that they are putting money or anything else before goodness, take your revenge by plaguing them as I plagued you; and if they fancy themselves for no reason, you must scold them just as I scolded you, for neglecting the important things and thinking that they are good for something when they are good for nothing. If you do this, I shall have had justice at your hands, both I myself and my children.

Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live, but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God.

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
And now, being invulnerable since there was nothing left for them to hurt, he had been quite sure that these men meant nothing to him. What he had forgotten, of course, was that these men were men and, being men, could not help but mean something to him, who was also a man. . . . What he had forgotten entirely was that though he had matched them for his faith in comradeship and understanding and had lost, he still had his faith in men kicking around somewhere, and that this was where they could still reach him. It did not take the hurt long in getting started.

From Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish (1966)
I am forty years old, an ugly age: one is still young enough to have dreams, but already too old to fulfill them. This is the age when the restlessness in everyone subsides so he can become strong by habit and by the certainty he has acquired of the infirmity to come. But I am merely doing what should have been done long ago, during the stormy flowering of my youth, when all the countless paths seemed good, all errors as useful as the truth. What a pity that I am not ten years older, then old age would protect me from rebellion; or ten years younger, since then nothing would matter. For thirty is youth that fears nothing, not even itself. At least that is what I think now that thirty has moved irretrievably into the past.

From James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951)
Here is your Army, America, he sleepily wanted to tell Them, here is your strength, that You have made strong by trying to break, and that You will have to depend on in the times that are coming, whether You like it or not, or want to or not, and no matter how much it may hurt Your pride. . . . Thank your various Gods for your prisons, You America. Pray to Them hard, to not teach you how to get along without them—until They have first taught you how to get along without your wars.

From Halldor Laxness’s Independent People (1946)
They stood with bowed heads, all except Bjartur, who would never dream of bowing his head for an unrhymed prayer. Then they lifted the coffin out. They lifted it on to the horse and tied it across the saddle, then laid a hand on each end to steady it.

“Has the horse been spoken to?” asked the old man; and as it had not yet been done, he took an ear in each hand and whispered to it, according to ancient custom, for horses understand these things:

“You carry a coffin today. You carry a coffin today.”

Then the funeral procession moved off.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Alan Furst's Dark Star

A post about Alan Furst’s The World at Night (1996) was this blog’s first, last November. I mentioned that I had been left a bit cold by a Furst novel I’d read earlier, The Polish Officer (1995) and, while I praised The World at Night, I didn’t rave about it.

Today I come to rave. But for the opening rave I’ll turn to Brad DeLong, whose recommendation made me pick up Dark Star (1991) in the first place:
When I talk to practically any of my undergraduates these days, I have a nearly impossible task to do when I try to convince them that the twentieth century has, after all, ended much better than it might have been. The half-full undergraduates talk of how wonderful and advanced our industrial civilization is, and how human progress to this point was nearly inevitable. The half-empty undergraduates talk about poverty in the developing world, inequality, and injustice, and seem deaf to the idea that the world we live in is much better than the world that we seemed headed for during the second quarter of this century. The Great Depression. Stalin's purges. World War II. Hitler's genocides--they have read about these, but they are not *real*, and the idea that for decades people thought that the forces headed by Stalin or by Hitler were the wave of the future (or the last chance to stop an even greater evil) does not penetrate below the surface.

So the next time I teach a course on the entire politico-economic history of the twentieth century, I think I may assign Alan Furst's novel Dark Star, for it does a better job than anything else I have read to catch the atmosphere of the days when Josef Stalin seemed to be the lesser of two evils--and it is a very fine novel besides.

DeLong continues in this vein, and it’s worth reading his whole post (or watching the videocast). But in those introductory paragraphs, he lays out Furst’s greatest achievement: to put the reader back into the utter uncertainty of mid-century, mid-war Europe, where the only things you know for sure are that danger is ahead, things are definitely going to get worse, and you shouldn’t waste your time on long-term plans. In Dark Star, Szara, a Russian journalist of Polish descent find himself being pulled deeper and deeper into work for Stalin’s intelligence arm, the NKVD, despite his grave misgivings about Stalin’s purges. Every day, it seems, brings a new choice between two evils, a new balancing between what he must do to survive and what he can’t do and still live with himself. And as despairing as Szara is, we know things are about to get worse: when he discovers that German generals and NKVD figures are meeting secretly, we know that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact lurks on the horizon.

DeLong compares reading Dark Star to seeing Casablanca for the first time. I wouldn’t go quite that far—Dark Star isn’t as glamorous and romantically captivating as Casablanca (in fact, the actual romances that feature in it are, like those in all the Furst novels I’ve read, the weakest part). It’s never going to stay in my head and heart the way that movie does. But that’s now really what Furst is after anyway: for all the excitement and adventure of the novel, he’s painting a more serious picture, both broader and deeper, that ranges comfortably all over Europe and the late 1930s, revealing, in big and small ways, how people cope with looming catastrophe.

I do, however, think Dark Star has something fascinating and important in common with Casablanca—but in the negative. Casablanca, despite being made in 1942, when the outcome of World War II was still very much in the air, exudes confidence. It’s pervaded with a sense that the Allies are going to win, and that confidence seems very real. It’s a movie to remember, and treasure, should the world ever happen to fall into similarly dark times.

Dark Star, despite being written forty-five years after the end of the war, manages the opposite. No one knows who’s going to win—if anything, it seems clear that the Nazis have the upper hand—and the Allies may just decide to fold. When Russia and Germany sign the non-aggression pact and begin dividing up Poland, it feels like the world is ending. World War II truly was an existential crisis for Western civilization, and as pundits and politicians invoke that time to justify their short-sighted anti-terror plans, it’s important that we remember that essential difference between then and now. If a novel—a page-turner of an espionage novel—helps us do that, all the better.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Marriage

From Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1651)
Stratocles the Physitian, upon his wedding day, when he was at dinner . . . could not eate his meat for kissing of the bride, &c. First a word, and then a kisse, then some other complement, and then a kisse, then an idle question, then a kisse, and when he hath pumped his wittes dry, can say no more, kissing and colling are never out of season, . . ’tis never at an end, another kisse, and then another, another, & another, &c.

My friends Sandy and Sarah were married yesterday. The ceremony featured
the reading of Genesis 2:18-24:
And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

I know this passage has been used through the years by those whose primary interest in religion is as a justification for placing women under the control of men. But regardless of how the Bible’s authors present the creation of Woman, the moment of recognition, down through the millennia, rings true: none of the others the Lord shows Adam is right, but when he sees Woman, he knows, “This is bone of my bone.”

It doesn’t happen for everyone—and the skeptic in me warns that sometimes when it does happen, it can’t entirely be trusted—but love at first sight can be real and glorious. I don’t know if Sandy and Sarah really knew the moment they met, but yesterday we heard again and again from friends and family who did see it, clear and beautiful, when they first saw the couple together.

Though the historical resonance and familiarity of the King James version of the Bible usually leads me to prefer it to any other, in this case I actually like Robert Alter’s recent translation a bit better, especially once he gets to that moment of recognition:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him.” And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the fields and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name. And the human called names to all the cattle and to the fowl of the heavens and to all the beast s of the field, but for the human no sustainer beside him was found. And the Lord God cast a deep slumber on the human, and he slept, and He took one of his ribs and closed over the flesh where it had been, and the Lord God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman and He brought her to the human. And the human said:

“This one at last, bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh,
This one shall be called Woman,
for from man was this one taken.”

Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh.

This one at last.

Congratulations, Sandy and Sarah. The years are ahead of you; be each the other’s sustainer.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bush and Torture Explained

From Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960)
ALICE MORE: (Exasperated, pointing after RICH) While you talk, he’s gone!

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

I picked up A Man for All Seasons about a month ago when I was thinking about George Bush’s stubborn insistence that he be allowed to authorize torture. His recent admission that the secret CIA torture centers we heard about last year do exist brought it back to the front of my mind. So while I was running along the lakefront today, I tried to lay out what I think are the reasons why torture is so important to George Bush.

I found myself thinking in outline form for clarity’s sake, so that’s how I wrote. I apologize if my organization leaves something to be desired; I also apologize for the extreme length of the post—I’ll certainly understand if you don’t feel like slogging through it all. But for those of you who do, I’d really like to know what you think. Have I missed anything? Misunderstood anything? Mischaracterized anything?

Reasons that George Bush is so adamant that he be allowed to authorize torture
I. He believes that torture works and therefore is necessary

A. Because he’s utterly incurious, so he’s never looked into the matter on his own, and he never seeks out dissenting viewpoints. Therefore, he’s never learned of the conclusion of many who’ve studied the issue—including the British army, which made use of torture throughout its imperial heyday and even as recently as the 1980s in Northern Ireland—that torture is ineffective. The information you gain is less, and of a lesser quality, than what is gained through more nuanced interrogation techniques.

B. Because like a dismaying number of conservatives (and, to be fair, Americans in general), his worldview is largely shaped by action movies and popular culture. In action movies, torture works. And, in action movies, the “ticking time bomb” scenario—that favorite crutch of torture apologists, where a grinning bad guy in custody knows the location of a bomb about to go off—occurs fairly frequently, whereas in real life such a situation is extremely rare.

II. He dislikes being opposed in anything

A. Because his understanding of government is so limited and his sense of entitlement so overdeveloped that he really believes that, as President, he should be able to do what he wants.

B. Because his stubbornness very quickly comes into play, and his first response to opposition of any kind is to want even more what he’s being told he can’t have.

III. He supports torture because it seems like a tough-minded choice, and it thereby makes him feel tough

A. Because while Bush sometimes says that he’ll “do whatever it takes,” use any tool at hand, to make Americans safer, he is of course lying. He’s not going to suspend all air travel or make everyone who boards a commuter train endure a patdown and a scan. Those measures might make America safer, but at too high a cost. The cost of torture being nearly invisible, torture is to him an available tool. Deciding to support torture allows him to think of himself as someone who will do whatever it takes.
1. The fact that there’s opposition only makes him feel more like the clear-eyed, tough-minded straight-shooter that he and so many Republicans like to think he is. And that very sense of tough-mindedness resonates all the more for him because of the dichotomy it allows him to imagine between his approach and what he sees as the squeamish approach of the other side, who he believes aren’t willing to look at the facts and make the hard choices.
2. The more he is opposed, the tougher he feels for having made his decision, and therefore the more squeamish the opposition seems, and therefore the tougher he feels. Like so many other pathological aspects of the Bush administration, it’s self-reinforcing.

B. The position that a tough-minded approach to fighting terrorism must consider torture within bounds is easy to argue in an ill-informed, barstool manner. As we’ve seen from his interviews and press conferences, that’s the level of Bush’s argumentative skills at their best—and such a context is exactly the sort that leads a person to feel that taking unpopular positions makes him tough.

IV. He supports torture because he actually has no qualms about it in practice [I think this is the biggie, actually.]

A. Because he’s given astonishingly little thought (I imagine on the order of about ten minutes, total) to what life for people who aren’t Americans—or, more specifically, for Iraqis and Afghans—is like. Therefore, he has no real sense that some of the people his men pick up could be innocent bystanders.
1. He doesn’t understand the physical dangers and the psychological pressures of living in a war zone. He doesn’t understand why even an Iraqi who is firmly pro-American might not want to tell everything he knows about the activities of his neighbors. He doesn’t even begin to understand that an occupying army, whatever its intentions, breeds resentment, which in turn kills cooperation. Those who fail to cooperate must have something to hide.
2. In fact, I really believe that way down deep in his subconscious, he believes that pretty much anyone over there is a little guilty. After all, if you’re not a bad guy, why would you live in a war zone? In this, I don’t think he’s alone—and I think that subconscious judgment is one of the complex of reasons why Iraqi civilian casualties are largely shrugged off over here. This also jibes with the position of Bush and other right-wingers following Hurricane Katrina: surely anyone who remained in the city was suspect. After all, why ride out a deadly hurricane if you’re not socially suspect in some way?

B. Because he doesn’t actually believe that most people are innocent until proven guilty, and the guilty, by their guilt, have forfeited the right to any real concern.
1. Therefore, if his men—and by extension, in this case, all Marines, CIA officers, G-men, and Army privates are his men—pick someone up, that’s because the person is guilty. This applies both within the United States and without.
2. With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, because he is deeply incurious and ill-informed, he has never thought about the difficulties facing an occupying army that doesn’t speak the language, has an unclear mission, and is on edge because it’s in constant danger. Therefore he has no idea of the sorts of mistakes that such a situation breeds, and he continues to assume that anyone rounded up is, by definition, guilty.

C. Because he doesn’t believe that anyone has inherent human or legislated legal rights.
1. Therefore expedience is all when making decisions about matters of, as he sees it, life and death. It’s not even that expedience trumps human rights—there’s not even a contest.
2. This, I think, is where Bush is most clearly a totalitarian at heart. Rights are given, not inherent, and they can and should be taken away from enemies of the state. And it’s not too hard for me to imagine a nightmare situation where that category grows and grows, as it does in any totalitarian state, and suddenly Bush is calmly ordering people like John Kerry or Bill Clinton or John McCain to be tortured. I’m not saying we’re anywhere near that point—it’s a full-on sci-fi dystopia away—but I can picture it, because it’s at the far end of a continuum on which Bush has demonstrated that he is willing to rest comfortably.
3. He believes that those of us who do believe in inherent human rights and legislated legal rights are either just saying so to score political points, are actively anti-American and oppose his goals, or are so befogged by legalistic book-learning that we’re unable to see the real dangers before us. He has absolutely no understanding of the actual roots of a principled stand on this issue in opposition to him; he doesn’t believe a principled stand on this issue is even possible.

D. Because he is so incurious and ill-informed, he has no idea how horrible the act of torture is.
1. In this, he’s not alone; I imagine that very few members of our government have ever read accounts by torture survivors or former torturers. I think that’s a minuscule but real part of the reason that opposition to Bush’s torture policies has been so tepid. These people simply have no idea how horrid, brutal, and repugnant the physical acts of torture are. Despite the fact that nearly everyone breaks under torture, I would bet that most congressmen, if pressed, would say they think they’d hold up pretty well.
2. This lack of knowledge also helps to fuel points I and III, above. Because he is ill-informed, he can continue to feel tough (thinking that he’d be able to take it) and to believe that the information gained from torture is of great value (because, again, he doesn’t understand that eventually nearly everyone breaks and starts saying whatever they think the torturer wants to hear).

V. He believes his administration’s propaganda.

A. Because he is ill-informed, incurious, and not very smart (and because, as in I:B above, he learns from movies), he believes those who oppose us are evil. As he said the other day, the situation is as simple as “They believe the opposite of what we believe.”
1. Therefore, actual fighting against those who oppose us is really the only solution. To negotiate or compromise with evil is, de facto, to lose.
2. Therefore, any protestations of innocence or claims that the goals you impute to your enemy are not, in fact, their goals, are lies. Torture is a way to get past those lies.

B. Because he is actively hostile to complexity, he believes that we are inherently good.
1. Therefore, our actions should be judged both more leniently than Bush’s political opponents seem to want to judge them and they should be judged based on the intentions that underlie them, not on their actuality.
2. Therefore, not only may we condone torture, we must condone torture. To do less is to take a chance that the cause of the good might lose. In a Manichean battle, moral niceties must be discarded.

VI. He listens to and trusts Cheney

A. Who believes in torture. I think all of the above arguments would apply to Cheney if you replaced “ill-informed” and “incurious” with “calculating and Machiavellian” and “openly hostile to new information.”

B. Who actively reinforces points II and III. He tells Bush that he should be able to do anything he wants, and he tells him he’s a tough son of a bitch for making the hard decisions and sticking to his guns.

The fact that we have spent the past three years debating the ethics of torture is to the great shame of America. The fact that our President stood resolutely on the immoral side of the issue and was reelected is to the even greater shame of America. A hundred years on our hands and knees with the bleach won’t even begin to lessen this stain on our nation’s honor.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Octavia Butler's vampires

Foundation, which I wrote about earlier in the week, was actually my second recent venture into sci-fi. The first, Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005) (which, strictly speaking, isn’t sci-fi, but as it gets shelved with Butler’s other books in sci-fi, that’s how I was thinking about it as I picked it up), opens with an adolescent woman coming to consciousness in a cave, slowly recovering from grievous injuries. She doesn’t know how she was hurt or how she got into the cave—in fact, she doesn’t remember anything at all.

Soon, however, as she heals and begins to move back into the world, she realizes that she is a vampire, and the people who hurt her had done so as part of an assassination attempt that also killed her whole family. Fledgling is the story of how Shori finds and is reintegrated into the secretive vampire community, relearns their ways and their history, and helps bring her attackers to justice.

Really, though, all that is just the scaffolding on which Butler hangs some pretty inventive reworkings of vampire myths. Butler’s vampires, who are called Ina, live in compounds separated by gender, unnoticed by ordinary humans because of a combination of general innocuousness and mind control—they have a surprising amount of power over humans whom they’ve bitten even once. Each vampire feeds regularly on between four and seven humans of either gender, called symbionts, with whom he or she lives in a kind of loosely regulated group marriage. The Ina live for centuries, so their culture is rich with longstanding traditions, laws, and history, much of which comes out in the course of Shori’s re-education (which serves nicely as a convenient method of delivering large chunks of exposition).

Butler is known for the moral complexity of her stories, though, and she introduces some interesting wrinkles into the lives of the Ina. Shori, it turns out, was targeted because she is the first successful product of a genetic engineering experiment that married Ina DNA human DNA from a black woman, making her the first dark-skinned member of a race that previously has been blonde and pale-skinned. She thereby has gained some resistance to the sun, and many Ina view her as a hope for a freer, safer life for their people. But the Ina, who themselves have occasionally been persecuted by humans over the centuries, harbor racists, like many a persecuted sub-group, and their hatred has fueled the attacks on Shori and her family.

More interesting is the role of feeding in the lives of the Ina and their symbionts. The Ina must, of course, feed to live—but in Butler’s world, the symbionts have just as pressing a need to be fed from. After merely a couple of feedings (which are as sensual and sexual as in any vampire literature), a human is, essentially, addicted to his Ina, and to go without being fed from will eventually kill him. The symbionts gain a portion of the longevity that vampires enjoy, and most of them seem to live happy, fulfilled lives as part of a real community, but many of the vampires remain open about the ethical dilemma the relationship can present. Is it moral for the Ina to involve humans, even ones they fully inform after the first bite, in a lifetime of dependency this way? Can any human, even in the earliest stages of the addiction, make a clear-headed judgment about whether to continue? Or, because it is truly a question of survival for the Ina, can ethics even be brought to bear on the question? The issue only gets more complex when we see that, while most Ina treat their symbionts with the tenderness of lovers, others treat theirs like servants, slaves, or pets.

These questions are fascinating, and I have a feeling they’ll stay with me in more abstract form long after I’ve filed the novel away in my bookcase. But somehow, despite them, Fledgling isn’t fully satisfying. The action of the book seems somewhat perfunctory, and the trial of Shori’s attackers is an anti-climax, interesting only for the insights it gives into the Ina legal system. I’ve read people online speculating that Butler had intended Fledgling to be the first volume of a new series, which would help explain both the information-heavy, action-light approach and the introduction of dozens of characters, most of whom get very little time to develop. If the idea is to establish a world and lay the groundwork for exploring it, Fledgling would have to be termed a success.

Sadly, we’ll never know what Butler would have done next, as, soon after the publication of Fledgling, she died from injuries sustained in a fall at her Seattle home, aged 58. She left behind a handful of extremely well-regarded novels and lots of fans.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Isaac Asimov

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little about re-reading and the ways that books can strike you differently each time you open them. That seems particularly true for books you first read as a child. The combination of inexperience and susceptibility to new ideas can make even a mediocre book seem fresh and exciting, and a truly good one can seem world-changing.

Knowing that, I put off for a long time re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. When I read it as a teenager, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read. I pressed it on my friend Ryan, who, if I remember correctly, agreed. It was thoughtful and smart and exciting, the product of a mind so ambitious that he needed to stretch the story over millennia.

But as the years went by, I started to wonder. Was it really that good? Could Asimov possibly have made such a silly concept as “psychohistory”—the prediction of the future from sociological and psychological premises about the behavior of large masses of people—even remotely plausible? Was Asimov actually a good writer? I suspected that I might find Foundation wanting, which is part of why I waited nearly twenty years to read a Foundation book again. And, sad to say, my older self was right. Each question gets answered with a pretty resounding “no.”

The first problem that makes itself evident with Foundation is that it is abruptly episodic, more a set of short stories than a novel, each story concerning a crisis about to strike the Foundation, a think tank engineered by late genius Hari Seldon to replace the failing Galactic Empire. More than a hundred years ago, Seldon through the science of psychohistory foresaw these crises—and in his planning he used each successive crisis, which he predicted would become so acute that only one solution would be possible, to nudge the Foundation closer to the future he imagined for it. Hours after each crisis, a sealed vault reveals a hologram image of Seldon, congratulating the members of the Foundation on making it through the crisis—but offering them no hints of the ones to come, for foreknowledge would ruin the predictions of psychohistory.

As you can see, this is all fairly preposterous. Which would be fine, if Foundation offered other charms. But between the pedestrian prose, the constantly changing cast necessitated by the lengthy timespan of the narrative, and the fact that the smart-mouthed, iconoclastic, and insightful heroes are more or less interchangeable—each, I suspect, bearing a more than passing resemblance to Asimov’s own image of himself—there’s little here to make me willing to put up with the pseudo-science or the idea of a purportedly heroic (but actually creepily god-like) all-knowing super-scientist watching from beyond the grave as his puppets act out his secret plans.

Foundation might have at least been somewhat rewarding if the solutions to any of the crises had been foreseeable, if there’d been any point in trying to guess what the best course of action might be. But instead, the solutions, though obvious (even inescapable) to the heroes, appear to the reader to come out of nowhere—and in the non-Asimovian universe seem unlikely to actually work. Trying to play along with Asimov’s plotting in Foundation is a bit like reading a set of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, but ones with impossible-to-discern solutions and where the generally inoffensive Brown has been replaced by an arrogant, self-absorbed know-it-all who is astonished at your lack of perception. Or like sitting in on a lecture by the least forthcoming scholar ever, one who simultaneously proclaims that he’s the only person to have ever studied this topic and makes fun of you for not knowing the answers already. It’s the heart of Asimov: he’s smarter than you, just like he’s smarter than everyone—deal with it.

When I discussed Foundation with my friend Bob on Sunday, he pointed out that Asimov’s mysteries share that tone, too—and, looking back, I think his Robot stories are probably the same way. Which actually may have brought me back to thinking of a way that I could still enjoy Asimov. I mentioned to my coworker John how disappointed I’d been in this re-reading, and he said he’d felt the same way when he read Conan Doyle as an adult. Now, I’m a Conan Doyle fan, but I do see that some of my complaints about Asimov could be applied to the Holmes stories. Holmes, after all, is exceedingly arrogant, and the mysteries are almost always unsolvable without the benefit of Holmes’s esoteric knowledge—and even then, the solutions aren’t necessarily as clear-cut as Holmes presents them. They’re not, after all, elementary; you can’t really play along at home.

But with Holmes that’s not a problem for me and Stacey, because the solution of the mystery isn’t where the fun lies. For us, the joy of Conan Doyle comes in Holmes’s very arrogance and absurdly overdrawn personality—it’s in knowing that every story will allow Holmes to be himself, in full, unfettered and unapologetic glory, and that we’ll get to ride along, like Watson. We spend the stories marveling simultaneously at Holmes and at the creator willing and able to unleash him. It’s a different joy than what comes from being caught up in the reality of a story, but it can still be a real pleasure.

Asimov has no recurring character anywhere near as much fun as Holmes—but Asimov himself is a far more powerful and inescapable presence in his books than Conan Doyle is in his. So maybe it’s possible for me to enjoy Asimov that way: less for his creations themselves than for the overpowering sense of their creator lurking behind them. That’s the way, after all, that Bob and I have always enjoyed Asimov’s laughter-slaughtering Treasury of Humor, from which we’ve derived far, far more fun by using it as a way of thinking about Asimov, the arrogant and self-regarding, than anyone could ever have gleaned from its truly dreadful jokes.

Maybe I’ll have to go ahead and re-read Second Foundation after all. But not, I suppose, until some crisis forces my hand. Asimov has surely predicted no less.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Labor Day weekend notes

A type of blog post that I tend to really enjoy, but which I don’t make myself very often because it feels lazy, is a notes post. But all week I’ve been accumulating little bits of stuff that really don’t have a place other than in a notes column, so here you go.

1) Thinking back to my post from earlier this week about progressivism and certainty, I keep imagining a slogan built from my thoughts: “Vote Democrat. We’re the party of Job.” Or “Vote Democrat. We won’t pretend to know, but we’ll give it our best shot.”

The Republican ads, of course, would be along the lines of, “The Democrats promise to give you boils and kill your family and your livestock. It happened to Job, and it’ll happen to you.”

2) Speaking of politics, I assume you noticed that about ten days ago, the White House released George W. Bush’s reading list for the summer. His reading of The Stranger, which enormous-headed White House flack Tony Snow discussed with the media, got most of the attention—which isn’t unreasonable, because based on the limited evidence at hand I’m actually willing to believe Bush actually read it.

As for the other books on the list, though? I call bullshit. He’s got some good John D. MacDonald detective novels on there, and I’m willing to believe he’s read, say, two of them. There are a couple of Flashman novels, and I’ll give him one. But has he really read Kai Bird and Martin Sherman’s biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus? (Would he even be able to give a four-sentence explanation of who Oppenheimer is?) Or Ronald White’s very serious book about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural? Could he possibly have read Rory Stewart’s book about walking across Afghanistan? And, if so, did he learn anything about the complexity that underlies his black-and-white statements about peoples and nations?

The main reason I call bullshit, though? He’s got 48 books on his summer reading list. Now, I know that our Derelict in Chief takes a lot of time off. But I, a fast reader who spends my non-work time doing little else, get through, at most, 110 books a year. Yet I’m supposed to believe that the President of the United States—whose lack of dedication to his job is surely counterbalanced in this case by his evident stupidity—can find time to read 48 books in a summer?

These people reflexively lie about every single damn thing. If they tell you you’re alive and well, you probably ought to go ahead and stagger to the morgue.

3) Someone who’s honest about not reading? Cincinnati Reds outfielder Adam Dunn, who claims to have read only two books since high school: Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights and a young adult novel called The Summer of the Monkeys. Give me dumb and honest any day, especially if it comes with prodigious home run power.

4) Thinking about the morgue reminds me that the best thing I read this week was a short story by Will McIntosh called “Followed,” in the most recent issue of a journal called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which is a product of Small Beer Press (best known as Kelly Link’s publisher). “Followed” is a zombie story, and like all good zombie stories, it’s a also a commentary on contemporary society—but it’s the sharpest I’ve ever come across. In the world McIntosh has created, people are followed around by reanimated corpses whose deaths they have caused, directly or indirectly, through their grotesque overconsumption.
She came wandering down the sidewalk like any other corpse, her herky-jerky walk unmistakable among the fluid strides of the living. . . . Strange how most TV shows depicted the world as corpseless. Nary a corpse to be seen on the sitcoms, cop shows, interactives—all those people, walking the streets, working, and not one of the followed by a corpse.

“Followed” is well worth the price of the journal itself. You can order it here.

5) Speaking of reanimation, I know I'm not the first to suggest this, but don’t you think it would be fun to bring Borges back and show him the Wikipedia? As my friend Bob pointed out the other night, the author of “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” would surely thrill to the fact that the entries for Kashyyk and Tattoine outstrip, in length and detail, the entries for, say, Saturn and Neptune.

He would also, surely, appreciate that empty feeling you get at the end of an evening spent in the byways of the Web, wandering, and not necessarily ever finding what you started out looking for:
Unbridled hopefulness was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some bookshelf in some hexagon contained precious books, yet that those precious books were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable.

6) Something else I think Borges would have appreciated is the literary hoax recently perpetrated by an anonymous enemy of English writer A. N. Wilson. Wilson, many of whose books I love, but who seems to be a monstrous prick (His memoir of his friendship with Iris Murdoch and John Bayley is the most mean-spirited and petty book I’ve ever read.) was suckered into including in his recent biography of poet John Betjeman a letter that was a complete forgery.

The forgery came to light when its unknown author (suspected to be the author of another recent Betjeman biography), who had supplied the letter to Wilson under the name of Eve de Harben (an anagram of "Ever been had?") wrote to the Sunday Times of London, revealing that the letter was a forgery . . . and that the initial letters of each of the sentences of the missive, taken in order, spelled out “A. N. Wilson is a shit."

Nearly as much fun, for me, was that the letter refers to Anthony Powell:
Anthony Powell has written to me, and mentions you admiringly. Some of his comments about the Army are v. funny. He's somebody I'd like to know better when the war is over. I find his letters funnier than his books.

7) And, on the topic of things that don’t exist, my friend and former co-worker Erin says:
I tried to post a comment to your blog but it wouldn't let me! I dreamed a few nights ago that I wrote a book called Scurry and that I had to approve the cover design (a b/w photo of a fully dressed woman sitting at the tide line of a Scottish-looking beach) while talking on a cell phone and driving in traffic. What’s with all the book dreams?

All I could tell Erin was that if she’ll actually publish Scurry, I’ll write about it here.

8) Boswell, in his London Journal, records some advice that we bloggers should probably take to heart:
I read [Lord Erskine] a little of [my journal] this evening. To be sure it is very carelessly wrote, which he freely took notice, and said it might become a habit to me to write in that manner, so that I would learn a mere slatternly style. He advised me to take more pains upon it, and to render it useful by being a good method to practice writing: to turn periods and render myself ready at different kinds of expression. He is very right. I shall be more attentive for the future, and rather give a little neatly done than good deal slovenly.

9) And, finally, since my book-laden return from Portland (and Powell’s) in early July, I’ve only bought four books. Well, unless you count the four Hard Case Crime books that came in the mail. Or the couple of New York Review Books that a friend sent me. Or the mystery novel my dad lent me.

Regardless, I’ve made progress. For the first time in several years, I’ve got fewer unread books in the house than I did two months ago.

It’s important, in these late-summer days, to enjoy small victories. Enjoy the holiday.