Necessarium & Satis convertuntur

Culling books and stumbled across this quote from John Donne’s Sermon No. 6:

And, as it is true in religious duties, so is it in interpretation of matters of Religion, Necessarum & Satis convertuntur; when you have done that you ought to doe in your calling, you have done enough…

In other words, do what’s needful, avoid excess which may add only incremental value or even detract from it.  Useful principles in other endeavors as well.

The services of a first-rate mind

I was at my in-laws’ recently, looking for some light vacation reading, and my mother-in-law loaned me A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley.  It’s a classic cozy English village mystery crossed with a Nancy Drew young investigator mystery by way of its heroine, the chemistry-obsessed tween Flavia de Luce.

Red Herring is the third Flavia de Luce mystery, so purists will likely want to start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  I didn’t feel at too much of a loss.  Allusions to earlier events and relationships were relatively clear or easy to sort out, a result of Bradley working firmly within two familiar traditions with all the usual tropes–the dead mother, absent but affectionate father, teasing older sisters, exasperated inspector, and the usual crew of village gossips, idiots, and gentle souls.

Red Herring centers around the arrival in the village of a Gypsy woman who is assaulted and nearly killed.  Thefts, antiques, a missing baby, crackpot Dissenters, local geography, the de Luce family history and finances, tragic pasts, and petty village grievances produce a mish-mash of red herrings, false trails, and genuine clues.  Bradley does a nice job of allowing his police to do police work while Flavia sleuths in a way that only a child–nosy, courageous, and yet knowledgeable of the local players–can.

A reader’s enjoyment of the book depends largely on whether or not they enjoy spending time with Flavia.  I found her precocious, engaging, and fun with enough genuinely “tween” characteristics to counterbalance those necessary to make her a good detective.

She is obsessed with chemistry, and the lessons on the history of chemistry and chemical processes get a little pedantic but also feel a bit like any child talking about their obsession (think of talking to an 11-year-old about Minecraft or Pokemon or superheroes).  There is something a bit odd about this girl, that makes her puzzle-solving believable:

I have no fear of the dead.  Indeed, in my own limited experience I have found them to produce in me a feeling that is quite the opposite of fear.  A dead body is much more fascinating than a live one, and I have learned that most corpses tell better stories.

And yet, she’ll slip just as quickly into typical 11-year-old hyperbole, exclaiming that “Compared with my life, Cinderella was a spoiled brat” when victim of her sisters’ taunts and tricks.

Bradley doesn’t take his protagonist too seriously.  Speaking through other characters, we are regularly reminded that she is a child navigating an adult’s world.  One character tells her to “Spare us the pout.  There’s enough lip in the world without you adding to it.”  In another scene, Flavia’s misreading of the exasperated inspector is clearly aimed at the reader:

Although it sounded like a dry chuckle, the sound I heard must really have been a little cry of dismay from the Inspector at having so foolishly lost the services of a first-rate mind.

He peppers the narrative with clever asides that keep it rolling along nicely, such as:

A few more coarse oaths and my pursuer was gone.  I cannot bring myself to record his exact words, but will keep them in mind against the day I can put them to good use.

And my favorite:

I paused for a moment to stare up at the Poseidon fountain.  Old Neptune, as the Romans called him, all muscles and tummy, was gazing unconcernedly off into the distance, like someone who has broken wind at a banquet and is trying to pretend it wasn’t him.

All the while, Bradley delivers a delightful mystery that goes, in a few key scenes, to some surprisingly dark places without ever getting really grim.  Flavia’s youthful point of view allows Bradley to dance lightly across situations that adult readers will understand as far more dark and tragic than young Flavia perceives them to be.

Mysteries are not really a go-to book genre for me, so it is unlikely I’ll read any further in the series.  However, I’m a sucker for a good BBC mystery, having been obsessed with the old PBS Mystery series since my teenage years, and I am delighted to learn that there is a television series in the works (in very safe hands).  I eagerly await its arrival on Netflix.

Fighting the evil of the present with the weapons of the past

When I was growing up, my father had a big book full of early comic book stories.  It had Superman, Batman, Namor, the Flash, a weird and wide assortment.  One that lodged itself firmly in my brain was Hawkman.  Not the space cop Hawkman, this was the original–a reincarnated Egyptian hero who “fights the evil of the present with the weapons of the past.”  The image of the brooding Carter Hall becoming the Hawkman who wings his way across the desert to rescue Ione Craig from a cult of assassins sat side-by-side with the adventures of Indiana Jones in my personal construct of what the 1940s had to have been like.

My brother gave me the Golden Age Hawkman Archives, Volume One for Christmas last year.  The collection contains the first 22 issues of Hawkman, including that story I remembered so well.

Let’s get one thing out of the way:  These stories are dated.  The racial stereotypes are terrible.  Women are typically there to be victims or femme fatales.  Shiera joins Carter on his adventures and investigations, but she mostly just gets into trouble.  When she succeeds, it’s usually because Hawkman is sneaking around in the background lining dominoes up for her.

Accepting all that, the quality of the stories ranges from terrible to great.  Gardener Fox is at his best writing tales of mystery involving relatively mortal villains, where quick wits and quicker fists save the day.  This Hawkman is no superhuman. Sure he can fly, but he’s knocked out by a heavy blow, knocked down by gunshots, and sometimes tricked by two-bit criminals.  A few of the genuinely fantastical tales fail utterly, especially where Foz strays into superhero territory (the one with the giant construct that terrorizes the city is just awful).

A few standout stories include:

  • #5 Ione Craig — The first Hawkman story I ever read–assassins, secret agents, the Sahara desert, everything a growing boy could want
  • #10 Adventures of the Spanish Blunderers — A lost mine, murder, betrayal, a damsel in distress, and Hawkman in the middle of a classic Western tale
  • #15 The Hand — Because, well, a disembodied hand and a surprising twist on the classic super-hero team-up
  • #16 The Graydon Expedition — Echoes of the origin story with it’s lost kingdom and reincarnation plots, easily my second-favorite story and the direction I would have preferred the character to go (as opposed to rebooting him as an alien)
  • #18 The Gold Rush of ’41 — Alaskan gold, man and nature at their worst, and a story in which the most important act of our hero is delivering needed food and supplies (although the portrayal of the one Alaska native is hard to stomach)

A special treat for me was discovering that the story I loved so much in my father’s book was actually the first of a two-parter and getting to read the second part so many years later.

Sheldon Moldoff’s art is beautiful, owing more to Alex Raymond (of Flash Gordon fame) than to other comic book artists of the time. His Hawkman is firmly grounded in reality, a palpable physical presence.

Fierce when geared for battle, suave when in his ordinary identity as Carter Hall, Moldoff’s Hawkman exudes a very human vulnerability, as seen in this sequence where he carries important documents across the Sahara and pauses to cool off and refresh himself.

The final pose is echoed years later by Luke Skywalker watching the sunset on Tatooine, and John Williams could have composed the score to accompany the images.

If I could write one comic book character, this Hawkman would be the one (even more than Batman).  I love the idea of a man burdened by memories and gifts of the past, of a rivalry and love that survives death, of mysteries and matching wits and the heroic more than the super-heroic, of a hero with an edge but not super powers, a world where super science and mysticism walk side-by-side in the shadows of ordinary people.

Looking past the dated portrayals and the occasionally clunky dialogue, that world still lives and breathes in these words and pictures.

(Note: All pictures retain their original copyrights and are shared here for illustrative purposes–no pun intended.)

The perfect world is a journey

With his passing, one could finally write a definitive retrospective on Sir Terry Pratchett.  This isn’t it.  I’ve read many of his books–I can’t say most–and in my opinion, the Tiffany Aching books were the pinnacle of his career, the finest combination of the humor, insight, and storytelling that you saw in all of his work.  I still stand by that.  However, Nation may be his best single book.

It lacks the sweet humor of the Tiffany Aching books (and the presence of Granny Weatherwax, who will always be my favorite of Sir Terry’s characters).  But it makes up for both in raw grappling with ideas.  Pratchett goes head-to-head with notions of faith, reason, God, gods, science, life, death, and civilization and refuses to give easy or facile answers.  If anything, this book is one long acknowledgement that there are no easy answers but that asking the questions important.  Or to put it another way:

He called himself the little blue hermit crab, scuttling across the sand in search of a new shell, but now he looks at the sky and knows that no shell will ever be big enough, ever.

One response to such a revelation, all to common in our world, is fear:

Even our fears make us feel important, because we fear that we might not be.

Finding something in life to fear–whether it is fear of financial ruin, fear of injury, or fear that someone else’s happiness or success will diminish our own–gives us a way to avoid the real fear: Fear of that big blue sky above and of the time it finally goes dark.

Or we can face the world, acknowledge its imperfections and mysteries, and do our part to make it a better place.  As one character says when he’s told the world is far from perfect:

“It’s a little more perfect today.  And there will be more days.”

And he’s told in response:

“Those others I mentioned … They all said the same thing as you did .  They saw that the perfect world is a journey, not a place.”

The best books teach us something or remind us of important truths that we already know.  Nation does both and does it with a blend of adventure, humor, and insight that is peculiarly Sir Terry’s and that remains behind as his gift to our wide open and broken world.

At one point, a character sings “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and includes one of the less commonly sung later verses:

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.
Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark…

Thank you, Sir Terry, for your tiny spark.

Our actions are questions

An epigraph for a chapter in a book I read recently.  The quote is from John le Carre’s A Perfect Spy:

Sometimes, Tom, we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it.  Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.

It reminds me a of a line from the ZBS radio drama, Moon Over Morocco, about “entering into the process” that I’ve used often.  The world is rife with complexity and results are not always predictable.  Sometimes it’s wiser to act, see the results, and then adjust, than to spend too much time planning.

Self-involved, but genuinely out to give you a good time

The latest from legendary writer, Michael Moorcock, is a blend of biography and fantasy akin to Richard Bowes’s Dust Devil on a Quiet Street which I read last year. However, where Bowes’s semi-autobiographical novel is subtle and shot through with haunting darkness, Moorcock’s is broad and direct and more than a little rough-hewn.

The windows into his early life and the nostalgia-gilded memories of post-War Britain were fascinating and at times insightful:

Tourism depends on lots of people everywhere with loads of disposable wealth, which means all kinds of changes go through a place that cultivates it. The real, messy, informative past disappears to be overlaid with bad fiction, with simplified folklore, easy answers. Memory needs to remain complex, debatable. Without those qualities it is mere nostalgic sentimentality. Commodified identity. Souls bought and sold.

The cameos by noted science fiction authors, literary authors, and pop culture figures paint a fascinating picture of Moorcock’s early life and the times.

The first incursion of the mystical and adventurous is fun enough, especially as adolescent Moorcock convinces himself of whatever he needs to believe in order to follow the girl of his dreams.  But later fantastic bits feel clumsily stitched in, and the self-construction felt heavy-handed at times (especially when it comes to sex and romance), even when he tries to balance it with self-deprecation:

Good-natured and generous by inclination, like so many writers, I was probably monstrously insensitive, utterly self-involved, but genuinely out to give her a good time

or

I seemed able to sympathise with her but not understand her.

In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I appreciate the intent behind the novel, but the pacing was a little too slow and the autobiography a little too self-congratulatory. I would have preferred a straight biography or a straight fantasy that spared me trouble of sorting the bits out. I’ve always thought of myself as a completist where Moorcock is concerned, but The Whispering Swarm proved me wrong.

The Teeth of Events

My plan for 2015 is to read more mainstream fiction–although I doubt I’ll completely avoid science fiction and fantasy. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman is a foray into that world. It is a kind of book I don’t normally read, and I grappled early on with my own expectations regarding pace, tone, and plot.

It is a slow, meandering, self-indulgent narrative. The author is occasionally guilty of being “to clever”–not using quotation marks, the constant bouncing around in time, and the excursions into side topics, can sometimes be confusing, off-putting, and self-indulgent. However, Rahman paints a portrait of two interesting men in long, slow, oblique strokes, and the book is littered with gems that allowed me to forgive the off-putting moments:

To say that an unexamined life is not worth living is, in my mind, putting things a tad too strongly. What I know now, however, is that an untested life can lead some people into a kind of moribund discontent that cannot easily be shaken off.

Or the story that cut right to this (relatively) new father’s heart of a man watching his son make a choice that moves him from childhood to adulthood that ends with the line:

But that Saturday morning, as he walked into the children’s library, what I believe I felt was his heart breaking. Watching a door close that can never be opened again is, I am sure, enough to break a heart.

Or this which speaks to mortality

Everyone, he continued, wants his life to stand for something other than what it would, which is about eighty years–in the West, at any rate–eighty years of working, eating, sleeping, shitting, breeding, and dying. Lives of buttoning an unbuttoning…

Or this grim excursion:

I’ve read that in fishing communities throughout the world, the same story is apparently told about dolphins, the benign dolphin is how it’s described, about a fisherman thrown overboard but saved by a playful dolphin that nudges him all the way back to the land. But you have to ask: What if the dolphin is just playing, nudging away for fun but with no regard for the direction it’s moving this bobbing creature, the stricken seaman? Who knows? There may be lost fishermen whom the incoming tide would have returned to safety but for the dolphin who playfully takes them off to the setting sun. The only fishermen we ever hear from are the ones brought back to shore. The rest perish at sea. Which is another way of saying we live in the world we notice and remember. Scientists call it the availability bias.

And finally

Our choices are made, our will flexed, in the teeth of events that overwhelm and devour us.

So it may not be for everyone, but I don’t regret reading it.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

I recently read Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness.  Apparently, he wrote it as an exercise, never intending to publish it.  He was convinced to do so by his editor and Samuel Delaney (hence the dedication).

It is a book, I think, for Zelazny completists.  Too unconventional to appeal to typical readers and certainly not for fans of Amber–despite the war of gods and powers it portrays.  The characters are both complex and barely painted.  The systems at work are only hinted at.  But neither of those are the point.

It is a playground of perspective and language from a master of prose.  It deserves to be preserved if only for such gems as:

The Steel General, who has dismounted, stands before [redacted to prevent spoilers] like an iron statue at ten o’clock on a summer evening with no moon…. and his voice is a thing of such beauty that one could listen to it for years.

and

The focus of the fugue has become this moment of intensity, and they clash with a force that sends widening ripples of change outward through the universe, rising, diminishing, gone by, as Time once more tricks history around events.

and

And [redacted] awaken to a sound of laughter that is like the singing wind.

As with many of his “lesser” books, Creatures of Light and Darkness is a short but rewarding read.

1440 Books

Every few years, something compels me to take another stab at blogging.  With the birth of my second child, I face once again intimations of my own mortality and the intersection of two trains of thought on that mortality:

  • I keep a Goodreads account to track the books I’ve read.  Sometimes I post reviews, sometimes just ratings.  Over the last few years, I’ve averaged around 44 books per year.
  • A few years ago, a morbid impulse sent me to the US Census life expectancy tables to look at the number of years, statistically speaking, that I have left.

These two numbers together birthed the concept of 1600 books–the idea that I have a finite number of books left to read.  That concept helped me to learn to put books down.  If I wasn’t enjoying it within 50 pages, I walked away.  After all, there were only so many left.

This year, I looked at those numbers again.  Based on my advancing age and slowing rate of reading, I came up with the figure of 1440 books–or ten gross of books.  As I contemplated resurrecting this blog, that seemed like a solid basis for blog posts.

I plan to do sporadic, relatively short posts about the books that I’m reading and the thoughts about life that they spark in me.  I can’t promise to be regular or even interesting, but I will be honest.