August 31, 2003

Ex Libris Reviews

I've just posted the September Issue of my book review page, Ex Libris Reviews. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's a monthly book review column; most of the reviews are posted first on this weblog, but there's always something new as well.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:04 PM | Comments(0)

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

I picked this book up in a used bookstore in Washburn, WI, a very small town on the shore of Lake Superior just south of Bayfield. The year-round population can't be more than 500 but when we drove by and I spotted it, the store looked so interesting we had to stop. And it was nearly the best used bookstore I have been in for ages. They had everything from lit crit to Roman history to regional stuff to a dynamite sci-fi section that my son mined with glee. And they had a coffee shop attached so I could sip an iced French roast coffee while browsing. What more could a girl ask for?

Anyway, I read the entire Lord Peter Wimsey series some years ago before the kids went to school and I had two hours of naptime every single afternoon to do with as I pleased. This one stuck with me as the best of the lot and, as I recall, seemed to me more a feminist tract than a serious murder mystery. When I saw it on the shelf I wondered whether my perception of it had changed with the passing of time and my ever changing taste in books.

Essentially, it still strikes me as feminist in tone, though having recently read Sayers' essay on education and having read more about her classical studies and work, I can see the emphasis on education and serious scholarly work for women that she puts into the book. Originally I thought it just a vehicle for her ideas about women and work. Now I see the emphasis on higher education for women and allowing women the same respect for academic achievement that is afforded to men. All of this is very dated, of course. She was writing preWWII when college and work for women was a choice of the upper class only and not taken more seriously than a way to bag a well educated husband. It's the same argument that Virginia Woolf makes in A Room of One's Own, another book I read about the same time.

The plot is quite simple on the surface. Harriet Vane has gone down to Oxford for a reunion of graduates called a "Gaudy Night." She has just returned from a tour of the continent designed to give her some breathing space from Wimsey's attentions and allow her to come to some decisions. There she meets old classmates, some who have married and given up intellectual life and some who have gone on in their studies and missed marriage and kids. On her way out, she finds a piece of hate mail tucked into her gown sleeve and, thinking it the work of some belligerent undergrad, burns it and travels back to London--only to be called back to Oxford when the notes continue with other members of the college along with obscene graffiti on the bathroom walls and burning gowns in the commons. The head of the college wants it stopped with a minimum of fuss and, more importantly, publicity so she calls on Harriet as a detective fiction writer to help them out. She comes to Oxford under the pretense of doing research on Sheridan Le Fanu and quietly tries to figure out who is doing it.

To a point, I really enjoyed the book. The mystery aspects of it were well done. Although half way thru the book, I suddenly remembered the ending, I still could follow the laying out of clues and the setting up of the plot with enjoyment. The Oxford setting was interesting also since I now have a dear friend who attended Oxford in the 50's and has told me stories about women in the academic setting there. What bugged me this time is that having set the book up as feminist in tone, she cops out at the end and brings Wimsey in to save the day. Ok, he IS the detective in the series and I have to admit, I found him a compelling suitor for Harriet. I kept wanting to tell her to quit thinking so much and just give him a kiss, you twit. On the other hand, to be consistent, Wimsey shouldn’t have come into it until Harriet had the whole thing figured out. After I finished it and thought about it a bit, I was disappointed in Sayers for doing that.

However, I wasn't disappointed enough to bypass the bookstore on the way home rather than stopping and picking up some more in the series. I have to find out if she marries him or not.

Posted by Deb English at 07:51 PM | Comments(2)

August 30, 2003

Eclecticism Defined

Last week I got my little boys a little CD player, and made them CDs of some of the music they really like. Their first three requests?

  • The Fury of the Aquabats, by the Aquabats. Silly ska music--I'm especially fond of the songs "Attacked by Snakes" and "Cat with Two Heads".
  • The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, by the Weavers. Classic folk revival stuff--an outstanding album, if you've never heard it. I grew up listening to the Limeliters and Harry Belafonte, but we never had any Weavers albums in the house; I figure my parents didn't like their politics. (Mr. Belafonte's politics must have been either less strident or less visible in those days.)
  • The Yellow Submarine Soundtrack Album, by the Beatles. Not the original Yellow Submarine, but the re-release of a few years ago, with all the tunes from the movie.

Clearly we're doing something right.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:38 AM | Comments(0)

Through Darkest Zymurgia!

Chapter 30 and Chapter 31 of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia! are now available for your delectation at Once-Told Tales.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:31 AM | Comments(0)

August 29, 2003

Looking for Lit in All The Wrong Places

Courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily, I found this review of a mainstream novel I'd never heard of by an author I've never heard of. The review begins,

Man goes to 30th college reunion. Remembers girl who got away. Feels sad. The end.
You just got five hours of your life back.

She then goes on to lament that in this book, nothing much happens--in short, there's no story:

Pretty sentences, all dressed up with nowhere to go. That's what I think is ailing fiction, has been ailing fiction for some time. I get no points for noticing. Better minds than mine have complained.

She mentions some other egregious examples (I didn't recognize them, either), and then says:

Here's what I do want points for: These are not novels. They are essays, maybe even newspaper columns, sometimes glorified diary entries, stretched out to unconscionable length and price.
How about a novel dressed up in novel form, huh? With characters who face conflicts (you remember those from ninth grade: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, etc.), who act, suffer and grow. I could really sink my teeth into one of those right about now.

Fascinating. I read books like this all the time. Granted, you don't generally find them on the Literary Fiction shelves....

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:33 PM | Comments(0)

August 28, 2003

God is Good

So yesterday, Jane was driving up the street from Trader Joe's when the left-side cargo door of her minivan slid open. That's the door that little Anne's car seat is by. Jane stopped the car, closed the door (wondering why on earth it had popped open) and drove slowly home.

When she opened the cargo door to take Anne out, she discovered that the top of the door had come out of its track; once opened, the door hung drunkenly off of the side the van in the most remarkable way. So she called me, and I came home (picking up our two boys along the way), forced the door closed again (I was completely unable to get the little wheel back in its track), and we all went off (in two vehicles) to drop the van off at the dealership to get fixed.

While I was talking to Joe the service guy about the door (I don't think he'd ever seen such a thing), I asked him to look into something else--the front of the van had sometimes begun to shake a little bit when I put on the brakes.

It turns out that the brake pads were not just worn; they were gone altogether.
The rotors were getting thrashed. And so we need a really expensive brake job.

And we found out about it before the brakes failed completely because the left-side cargo door popped mysteriously out of its track and we had to take it to the dealer.

God is good.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:38 PM | Comments(0)

James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

Sigh.

I finished reading this aloud to David the other night. While it wasn't precisely a favorite of mine as a kid, I happily checked it out of the library on any number of occasions, and so several months ago I bought in eager anticipation of a magical, joyful romp.

Sigh.

I remembered James as brave, inventive, persevering. I remembered Old Green Grasshopper as kindly and wise. I have all kinds of memories of this book which, alas, don't seem to match the reality.

In a book of essays I'll be reviewing some time in the next few days, C.S. Lewis talks about reading more in a book than is really there--about filling in the gaps with one's imagination and bringing an otherwise dull book to life, generally without noticing that you're doing it. That seems an apt description of what I must have done as a child.

To be fair, a good reader of fiction will always do this; it's his job, after all. But some books lend themselves to it more than others, and some in their richness bring forth a corresponding richness from the reader's mind--a richness that sometimes goes on and on long after one has finished the book. (I saw a web site the other day that describes the various fonts available for typesetting Tolkien's Elvish languages.)

But sometimes a young and enthusiastic and imaginative reader can bring forth wonders from a book that's really rather ordinary and prosaic. And while James and the Giant Peach isn't that bad, it certainly lacks the charm I remember. For example, James certainly manages to come up with a solution for every problem the Peach and its passengers encounter, but he hasn't much personality. Old Green Grasshopper plays a mean fiddle, and he's certainly a nice enough giant bug, but he fails to do anything that strikes me as wise or particularly kindly. I think I must have endowed him with my grandfather's virtues simply because he was old.

In fact, the only bit that still worked for me was near the very beginning, when the strange little man gives James the brown bag of magic thingies.

Having just turned forty, I have to ask myself, "Is it my fault? Have I turned into an old fuddy-duddy? Have I become incapable of appreciating good children's books?" And I don't think that's the case, given that I've really enjoyed most of the books I've read to David over the last couple of years. And while David listened attentively each night, he wasn't particularly excited by the book either.

An interesting sidelight--Jane asked David today which of the many chapter books I've read him over the last year did he like best. I was surprised (and pleased) to find that it was the very first one-- The Hobbit.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:26 PM | Comments(4)

August 27, 2003

Greenmantle, by John Buchan

I read this while spending the week in a cabin in the northern woods of Wisconsin. Just before leaving I finished the first book in the series (The Thirty Nine Steps) and, luckily, had the foresight to buzz over to the bookstore to pick this one up. It was all they had by Buchan so I consider myself lucky, I guess.

This is a spy thriller published in 1916. Richard Hannay is recovering from wounds he received in action on the front when he gets a telegram from a high placed person in the Foreign Office. A spy sent into the Mid East has returned bullet-ridden and on the verge of death. Three mysterious words are scribbled on a sheet of paper he holds and are thought to hold the key to the German plan to dominate the area. A revival of Islam in its fundamentalist form is also brewing in the area and could possibly unite the area against the Allied forces. Richard Hannay is asked to go into the area and find out what the words mean. He's given a couple of fellow spies to work with as well. Blenkiron is an American with an uncanny ability to toady up to anyone and, being American and officially neutral at this point in the war, can get into the Germans good graces. Sandy, a young aristocrat who had spent time before the war wandering the area and learning all the languages, making friends and generally gaining a pile of useful contacts will help with the locals. They meet and decide to split up until they can meet on the appointed day in Constantinople. And that's when all the real action begins.

From the perspective of 2003 the book has some problems. The unqualified racism is a little appalling. Normally, I can shunt aside my modern sensibilities and get on with the story but it was just a tad more than I am comfortable with, even when reading a story written nearly 100 years ago. And then, it was written so long ago so when compared to the modern thriller with its over-dependence on guns and gizmos it moved just a little slowly at times.

However, with that said, I enjoyed it. There were a couple scenes that had me mentally on the edge of my seat and the end was pretty dramatic in the telling. The bad guys were really, really bad and the Hannay just escapes by his wits and a little luck. I enjoyed it enough to hunt for the rest of the books in the series Buchan wrote about Hannay.

Posted by Deb English at 02:13 PM | Comments(3)

August 26, 2003

New Link Colors

I've just changed the link colors for this blog; the old colors were hard to read. The new ones are much easier to read, but they seem a tad strident. Hmmm.

Leave a comment if you've got an opinion....

Update: Things evolve rapidly--see the comments, if you're interested in the changes I've made.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:08 PM | Comments(9)

C.S Lewis: Force For Evil?

There's a neat group blog called The Thinklings which concerns itself mostly with Christian theology. And just today I found there a post defending C.S. Lewis against charges of being a Force For Evil (the Thinklings acquit Lewis of all charges, by the way, most usually in his own words).

Now, long-time readers of my site might think that this is yet another attack on Lewis by the likes of author Phillip Pullman, angry because Lewis' books are chock full of--wait for it--Christianity. But no! Apparently certain extreme Christian fundamentalists have decided that Lewis has been leading Christians astray for over half-a-century: that he is, in fact, a Servant of Satan.

I won't detail the charges they bring against Lewis; if you're interested, you can go look at the Thinklings post I link to above, and then on to the page making the charges. And I won't repeat the defense, either; the Thinklings demolish each accusation quite handily.

What really annoys me is the principle of the thing. Lewis' accusers are taking the position that anyone who diverges in the slightest jot from their brand of theology is a heretic, not to be trusted in any way. Such a person is a Tool of Satan. (Actually, yes, they do use those words.) And it is this that I really want to speak to.

I am an orthodox Christian. By that I mean that I hold fast to the traditional teachings of the Church from ages past, as expressed in the Nicene Creed. That is, the Triune God, the Son of God's birth, death, and resurrection, and all the rest of it. I believe these things to be absolutely true. I believe that because of Christ's sacrifice that my sins are forgiven, and that because of his resurrection I shall join him in Heaven when I die. I believe quite a few other things as well that I won't go into now.

But please note--my salvation is not dependent on being 100% correct about these things. My salvation is the gift of a person--Christ my savior--not the result of being really, really sharp about theology. And this is a good thing, because it's not possible for me to be 100% correct--"now we see through a glass, darkly." If theological exactitude were the requirement, none of us would make it.

And this is the mistake that Lewis' accusers are making. They are judging Lewis not by the fruit of his life and work, but by a standard which they can never themselves meet. That they are doing so on the shoddiest of evidence is the least of it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:44 PM | Comments(2)

August 25, 2003

Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?


An interesting article by Robert Nozick. Excerpt:

The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

Via 2 Blowhards.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:30 PM | Comments(0)

Spirited Away

Even Steven den Beste thinks that Hayao Miyazaki is pretty darned cool. If you've not seen Spirited Away, yet, go thou and buy.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:23 AM | Comments(2)

August 24, 2003

Death at the Bar
Colour Scheme
Death of a Fool
Black as He's Painted
by Ngaio Marsh

My husband, kids, and I recently returned from a week up near Hayward, WI. We rent a log cabin on a lake, stock the fridge with easily prepared food and relax without phone, TV, computers or local/state/national news. We spend the evenings playing cards and eating popcorn, the mornings and late afternoons either fishing or napping and generally ignore the rest of the world for a week. It is heavenly, especially now that the kids are old enough to take care of themselves without supervision.

I pack a bag of books that would stock a small library and spend my time either on the couch or in the deck chair reading myself half blind. Series books are great because you can chew them up at a fantastic rate. Light murder mysteries have been my book of choice the last few years when up north, so when I discovered Ngaio Marsh I tossed an armful of hers into my book bag. I had packed a half dozen or so of Wodehouse also but we went to town and I found another series I hadn't seen before. But that's a different review.

What's so fun about Ngaio Marsh is that she takes her general formula and varies the locale so completely that each book is both familiar and unique. Death at the Bar takes place in a small fishing village where a famous lawyer has been poisoned when playing darts. The pub owner pleads with Inspector Alleyn to come down and solve the mystery when his pub's honor is besmirched by the unsolved murder.

Colour Scheme takes place in New Zealand at a hot springs spa similar to Rotorua though not quite so popular. The War is in progress and a ship has been torpedoed just off the coast from the spa. Strange lights and signals have been seen. And one of the spa's residents has found his way in the dark into a hot mud pool under suspicious circumstances. Marsh throws a twist into this one that amused me no end though it was fairly apparent at the outset what she was doing.

Death of a Fool takes place back in England. In a small village the Winter Solstice is celebrated with a local variation of the Morris Dances using real swords and ancient stones. The local aristocracy has always hosted the village event and the local blacksmith's family has always performed the dance. Publicity is avoided at all cost so when a folklore specialist, who happens to be a Nazi refugee and completely annoying to boot, discovers it, everyone is put out. And then, in the middle of the dance, the blacksmith is discovered decapitated behind the stone alter, in full view of the village. And no one knows how it was done.

Black as He's Painted is the most recent of the four in this review. The dictator of an emerging African nation, former colony, is insisting on coming to London. He's had several assassination attempts on his life before and the police are nervous. Fortunately, he's a school chum of Detective Alleyn's. And he commissions Troy, the detective's wife to do a state portrait of him. When his Ambassador to London is discovered pinned to the floor by the ceremonial spear his body guard is carrying during a gala celebration, Alleyn just naturally has to investigate.

Of the four, I disliked the last one. Marsh is much better with the local village or the New Zealand setting than emerging African nations. This one bordered on silly, something her books to date haven't done. However, on the whole, I am again amazed at how well she takes her basic plot and uses settings and characters flesh it out and make it unique. They haven't gotten repetitive at all, so far. I plan on reading the rest of her stuff, so we'll see.

Posted by Deb English at 07:32 PM | Comments(0)

August 23, 2003

Through Darkest Zymurgia!

Chapter 28 and Chapter 29 of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia! are now available for your delectation at Once-Told Tales.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:30 AM | Comments(0)

August 21, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

So I went out and got a copy of the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen--not the novelization, but the book that collects the six comic book episodes into a single graphic novel. Ian Hamet will no doubt pleased (even as he's no doubt wondering when I'm going to get to the Nevil Shute novel he gave me. Soon, Ian! Soon!

Now, I don't read comics much. Back when I was in grad school I picked up most of the episodes of Cerebus the Aardvark, which was mostly good fun; I still have them around somewhere, though the paper was lousy and they are probably ready to fall apart. A few years ago (as long time readers will remember) I picked up the full set of Neil Gaiman's "Sandman", which I enjoyed thoroughly though it had what seemed like quite a ridiculous amount of sex and violence (especially violence). Cerebus was quite remarkably tame by comparison. Sex and violence-wise, the Gentlemen are pretty much on a par with the Sandman.

The plot is straightforward. At the behest of a rather unctuous fellow named Campion Bond, Mina Harker gathers together Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Invisible Man to carry out a mission for Bond's boss, the mysterious Mr. M. Things are not as they seem, of course, and a rollicking tale ensues.

Did I like it? Well, it was OK. It wasn't the Sandman. Frankly, the Extraordinary Gentleman seemed insufficiently extraordinary; and although the premise is good fun, I came away thinking that Mr. M could have accomplished his ends much more simply with a few stout young men and a few months of training.

The artwork was pretty darned cool, though, especially the pictures of the Nautilus.

The book ends with a novella (really, a genuine words on a page story) about Allan Quatermain, in which (through the medium of a prose so purple it was almost opaque) Alan Moore has the audacity to bring together Allan Quatermain, John Carter of Mars, Randolph Carter, and H.G. Wells' time traveller in one big H.P. Lovecraft pastiche. I nearly choked when I read that Randolph Carter was John Carter's great nephew.

So, all in all, a pleasant afternoon's entertainment...but nothing life-changing.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:42 PM | Comments(7)

August 20, 2003

On Responsibility

Bill Whittle has produced yet another excellent essay, this time on the topic of personal Responsibility. It's a good essay; you should go read it. Pardon me if I don't wait, as it's looooooong. Then read the comments. If you don't read both the essay and the comments, you might as well skip the rest of this post.

One significant thread involved whether being Pro-Choice or Pro-Life were "responsible positions". Lost of the related comments seemed to me to be somewhat beside the point, being mostly thoughtful restatements of the individuals' positions on abortion, rather than saying much about personal responsibility per se. I think it's because the writers were so supportive of personal responsibility being a Good Thing (as it is) that they forgot that there are other values. A responsible act need not necessarily be a good act.

For example: consider four women who find that they are pregnant. All are single, and none can really afford to take care of a child. One immediately chooses to have an abortion, and does so. The second dithers for four or five months, and then has an abortion at the last minute. The third is opposed to abortion, and so has the child; but she gets no pre-natal care, and when the baby arrives she neglects it. The fourth is also opposed to abortion, but gets pre-natal care, has the baby, and finds some way to take care of it (or puts it up for adoption).

Responsibility involves accepting the consequences of your actions, and dealing with them. Clearly, the first and the fourth women acted responsibly; the second and third do not. So one can act responsibly or irresponsibly whether one chooses to have an abortion or not.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:09 PM | Comments(4)

August 19, 2003

Forward the Mage, by Eric Flint and Richard Roach

This is the second book in Flint's "Joe's World" saga; it's a fun ride, though it intersects oddly with The Philosophical Strangler, the first book in the series, and though very little seems to actually be resolved at the end of it.

In fact, "odd" describes the whole book remarkably well. For example, the bulk of it is narrated by a family that witnessed the whole thing: a tribe of body lice that live on one of the main characters. Then there's the section that consists entirely of very long chapter headings. And the world in which the action takes place resembles your typical fantasy world, but only slightly. In fact, the whole place seems to have been created, long ago, by this guy named Joe, though it seems to have gotten away from him. I have a vision of a Dungeons and Dragons world, worked out in great detail by some teenaged gaming nerd, that has been steadily developing on its own since he got to college and discovered girls.

One of the blurbs compares Flint with Terry Pratchett, and while that's wishful thinking on somebody's part the book is genuinely funny, if a bit purple and crude by turns.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:15 PM | Comments(0)

August 18, 2003

Dead Angler
Dead Creek
Dead Water
by Victoria Houston

Except for the annoying titles, these books are actually a lot of fun. They take place in Loon Lake, Wisconsin--somewhere up there north of Wausau and in the vicinity of a bunch of tourist towns catering to fishing and hunting each in its own season. After spending a week a summer for nearly all of my 45 years in the northern part of either Wisconsin or Minnesota, I have come to the conclusion that folks who name lakes have a limited vocabulary. The list goes like this: Sand Lake, Stone Lake, Loon Lake, Deer Lake, Moose Lake, Wolf Lake, Timber Lake, Pine Lake, Goose Lake etc etc etc. Sometimes, they got fancy and tossed a Native American name in there which you have to be a local to pronounce. Try Chequamaghon on the tongue. It's pronounced, stay with me here, sha-KWA-ma-gun. Actually, I cheated. That's a National Forest. Sissibagama is the lake we stay on when we go. We call it Big Siss so as not to confuse it with it's neighbor, Little Sissibagama, known as Little Siss.

Anyway, the books were lots of fun, especially when read on a lake with loons calling on the water. The local retired dentist, Paul Osborne, meets the Chief of Police, Lew Ferris when the local bait shop owner sets up fly fishing lessons for him. Lew is a healthy, attractive and very opinionated woman who can outfish him in a heartbeat and who uses fishing as relaxation from the rigors and stresses of running a police department on a short budget amidst a well-entrenched good-ole-boys network. Osborne's wife died a couple years back and he's looking for a hobby. Fly fishing fits the bill. So when he discovers a body during their first lesson, she instantly deputizes him to do a forensic dental exam on the victim. Thankfully, he did forensic dental work in Korea. And apparently, nothing grosses him out since he's digging his ungloved hands into a mouth that's been dead and in the water for a couple days. Plus, he's a marvel because he recognizes the teeth even though all the gold has been drilled out after death. That happened a couple times thru the series and I kept wondering if MY dentist would know my teeth just by looking at them without the chart and face to match.

The whole series goes from there. Osborne has a neighbor who is apparently good looking, intelligent, full of heart and who refuses to work at legal occupations but is a dynamite poacher and tracker/field guide. Oh, and he leaves messes of panfish at the local convent in return for excellent fried chicken and potato salad so he's gotta be ok if the nuns like him. He wears a trademark hat with a stuffed trout sitting crosswise on it. And we find out more and more about what a crummy marriage Osborne had with his dead wife as he starts falling in love with the Chief of Police who is a good ten years younger than he is and causes him no end of angst about whether he is worthy.

The series is totally entertaining in a mindless way, especially if you enjoy the silly stuff she writes about. I especially enjoyed it since she fills it full of local Wisconsin color that is instantly recognizable if you live in the state. Somehow, the light hearted tone and the small town eccentrics reminded me a little of Mitford. She even tosses in a Dooley-like character in the third book. There is a fourth out that I googled for after coming back home to the computer and that I plan on having my local bookstore owner order for me when I go to town today for groceries.

Posted by Deb English at 07:18 PM | Comments(0)

August 17, 2003

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis

This is a difficult book for me to review. I've read it at least a dozen times, and as it's a short book I've internalized almost all of it. It's also a classic of Christian literature, and one that I've found both educational and inspirational over the years, which means that it's difficult for me to talk about it in any detail without talking non-trivially about my Christian faith as well. I usually avoid that, as I figure people come here to read about books, not about religion.

That said, I love this book. Lewis has long been one of my favorite writers; there are few I know of who can discuss complicated matters so simply and clearly. I've found, recently, that this is true not only of his fiction and his Christian apologetics, but also of his scholarly work, which was in the field of literary criticism. It's true, Lewis' brand of criticism is completely out of style, driven out by the postmoderns and the deconstructionists--but the one thing I understand about deconstructionism is that deconstructionist writings are by definition impossible to understand. I have faith that some day clear speaking will once again be valued in academia, and perhaps then Lewis will once more be highly regarded.

But all that is to the side. The Great Divorce is a book about Heaven and Hell. The narrator (Lewis himself) finds himself in a dreary town. The only place he sees any sign of life is at a bus stop, and for lack of any better idea, he attaches himself to the queue--a queue filled with argumentative, obnoxious people. On the bus, he discovers that the dreary town is Hell; the bus is taking damned souls on a holiday to Heaven, where they can stay if they choose. Each of the damned souls is met by someone they knew (or knew of) in life, whose job is to persuade them to stay in Heaven. Some do; by far the most do not.

If this review were printed on paper, I'd suggest that you underline that word "choose", for choice is the essence of this book. Lewis-the-narrator meets the soul of George MacDonald, a writer whose book Phantastes initiated Lewis' own journey of faith. I will quote two of the things Lewis-the-author has MacDonald say:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

and also,

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they prefer to joy....

The question in every case is, what is it that the soul prefers not to give up? And how does this effect the choices they made in life? That should be emphasized as well--this book is by no means intended to present any kind of factual picture of Heaven or Hell. It's about the choices we make in life, and how they tend to lead us to reign in Hell or to serve in Heaven. And it's done through a series of character sketches that are appallingly similar to people I've known--and, most likely, people I've been.

One more thing, and I'm done.

Somebody out there is sure to ask themselves, "Does he really believe this? Does he really believe that some people go to Heaven, and some to Hell?" And the answer is, "Yes, I do." And given that, some might accuse me of damning people to hell simply because they do not agree with me. This is a point of view I find puzzling. It doesn't matter whether people agree with me or not; I don't set the standards. I'm sure I find those standards as irritating and inconvenient as anyone else, and if God were to reveal to me that he was only kidding I'd be more than pleased.

But morality is, to some extent, beside the point. God isn't Santa Claus, bringing the nice people to Heaven and sending the naughty ones to Hell. None of us are nice people by God's standards. But through Christ's sacrifice on the cross he's enabled all of us to reach Heaven--if, and only if, we will accept Christ's help and lordship. It's all about who I will have as my master--Christ, or myself.

It's as though I'm on the roof of a house in a flood, and Christ is overhead in a helicopter, dangling a rope ladder in front of me. I am free to take hold of it, or not. But I am not free to both take hold of it and remain on the rooftop. And once I take hold of it, I must hold on tightly.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:59 PM | Comments(2)

August 16, 2003

Through Darkest Zymurgia!

Now available for your reading pleasure: Chapter 26 and Chapter 27 of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia!

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:14 PM | Comments(0)

On the purity of English

From Redwood Dragon:
We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
Courtesy Lynn Sislo.
Posted by Will Duquette at 10:53 AM | Comments(1)

Desperation, by Stephen King

This is another book I picked up at Detroit Metro Airport so as to be sure I wouldn't run out of reading material on the flight home. I did in fact start it on the plane, but finished it at home...not surprising, as it's huge.

I used to read King's books in hardcover, as soon as they came out; more than once I bought the latest at the airport while picking up a friend, simply because that's where I first saw it. But then Insomnia came out, and the plot was so remarkably asinine that I quit. I've picked up all (I think) of his short story collections since then, and I've got a copy of Bag of Bones that someone gave me, and that's been it. But there I was at the airport, in need of a book, and I saw this one, and I said, "What the heck."

Being a horror novel, it was, of course, gory, profane, and obscene by turns. But it was also a masterful piece of storytelling. I recently read something that described King as the 20th Century Charles Dickens, and while that's a bit of stretch, it's only a bit. King is damn good at creating multi-dimensioned, believable characters and settings, and he's always in firm control of his plots. I don't care for his pure fantasy work (e.g., "The Dark Tower" series) as much, because he's at his best when rooted in the everyday.

Anyway, this one's about a small Nevada town, on desolate and sparsely travelled Highway 50. It's a mining town, and the miners have dug too deeply, awakening a terribly evil thing. Mass bloodshed ensues--and then the thing starts waylaying travellers.

Anyway, I liked it. It's billed as being a companion novel to King's The Regulators, which was published at the same time under the name "Richard Bachman"; I've just picked up a copy. More on that later.

What can I say? Sometimes I have low tastes. It's good to see that King is back in his old form.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:42 AM | Comments(1)

August 14, 2003

Meanwhile Back On The Ranch, by Kinky Friedman

Every so often I'll be at a bookstore, and I'll see something by Kinky Friedman. (In this case, I was at an airport with only about ten pages left to read in the only book I had with me.) And I'll take it home, and read it, and then I'll remember why I only read Kinky Friedman every so often.

Supposedly, these are mysteries--and, yes, I suppose they can be categorized in that way. But although Kinky's supposed to be a private eye pursuing an investigation, that's not really the way it works. Really what happens is Kinky wanders about, talking to various old chums, and himself, more or less interchangeably, and eventually, amid piles of bad jokes and peculiar circumlocutions and weird slang, the case gets solved. And it's kind of fun, in an outrageous, profane, sophomoric kind of way.

But it's not for every day.

Posted by Will Duquette at 04:44 PM | Comments(0)

August 12, 2003

The Isle of Battle, by Sean Russell

This is the second volume of "The Swans' War", and a sequel to Russell's The One Kingdom which I reviewed last week. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it as much as its predecessor, but I didn't. It was extremely slow-paced, and the big climax was so long in arriving that I was rather indifferent to it when it finally straggled in.

However, in the interests of fairness, I should point out that I read most of this while sitting and waiting for my flight, and then waiting for my flight to be cancelled, and then waiting for my hotel voucher and rebooked flight. And all this while not having had a good nights sleep in almost a week.

So, all things considered, I'm going to give Russell the benefit of the doubt, and buy the next volume when it comes out in paperback. The Isle of Battle is quite possibly better than it seemed, and then again it might simply be suffering from middle-book-syndrome. We'll see when the time comes.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:12 PM | Comments(0)

August 09, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Ian Hamet went to see this dog of a film, and surprisingly was mildly entertained--proof positive of the power of low expectations, because as Ian carefully outlines they eviscerated the story, dumbed it down, and made a number of ridiculous additions.

The book, on the other hand, sounds somewhat interesting, especially to a fan of Allan Quatermain like me. Ian, was that the novelization of the movie you were talking about, or the comic book series on which the movie was based?

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:43 PM | Comments(3)

The Power of Inconvenience

I've just discovered a nifty technique hotels can use to make sure their guests do not wander off with all of the unused toiletries--little soaps, small bottles of shampoo, and so on--while at the same time maintaining an upscale, welcoming atmosphere. It's simple. Just make the articles in question both fancy and unpleasant to use.

Take the shampoo I used this morning. It's a conditioning shampoo in an elegant little tube--the kind that's designed to stand on its cap. But the shampoo itself is so runny that if you put the tube down on its side with the cap removed, the shampoo runs out. Consequently, you must unscrew the cap, squeeze (pour) some shampoo on your hand, and somehow recap the tube with a handful of shampoo.

The soap is an even better example. It's not just soap--it's an "Essence of Vanilla Bar". (I wasn't planning on eating it.) The package says "Soothing Vanilla fragranced exfoliating soap enriched with Poppy Seeds provides an invigorating cleansing experience." What this really means is that it doesn't lather very well, and it has little prickly things in it that scratch your skin. Oh, and it smells funny.

There are bathrobes in the closet; there's a little sign that you'll be charged $90 for taking one home. I think they can do better than that. If they wanted to be consistent, they'd provide "Elegant bathrobes, lovingly hand-made out of the finest Eqyptian cotton, and delicately scented with lavender," that are cut like hospital robes. I can guarantee that no one would walk off with those....

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:28 AM | Comments(1)

Through Darkest Zymurgia!

I've just posted Chapter 24 and Chapter25 of my novel, Through Darkest Zymurgia! Our heroes are beginning their investigation of Zymurgia and its people.
Posted by Will Duquette at 09:14 AM | Comments(0)

August 08, 2003

The One Kingdom, by Sean Russell

This is the first book in Russell's series "The Swans' War"; I first read and reviewed it last year, and liked it very much. It's an epic fantasy, but it has a more intimate feel than the other epic fantasies I've been reading recently.

Three young men from the remote Vale of Lakes travel south along the River Wynnd. They want to see a little of the world, and perhaps find a little fortune, before settling down again at home. Their plans take an abrupt left turn when they share their fire with another wanderer and are attacked by a force of men-at-arms in compensation for their generousity. At first, the attack seems to be part of an generations-old conflict between the once great Wills and Renne families--but as the story proceeds, we and they learn that their troubles have their roots much longer ago than that.

There's very little humor in this book, but beyond that I like it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 05:23 PM | Comments(0)

August 07, 2003

1633, by Eric Flint and David Weber

This is the immediate sequel to 1632, and picks up, unsurprisingly, the next year. It has a rather different feel. 1632 had a wild energy and an outrageousness that kept me turning pages far into the night. This one lacks some of that energy, and consequently wasn't so compelling--but in many ways it's a deeper, more involved story.

1632 focussed strongly on the town of Grantville and the obstacles its people had to overcome to survive their sudden transposition to an earlier more violent time. In 1633, by contrast, the rulers of Europe have begun to adjust to the presence of the Americans; further, many have acquired copies of portions of the history books brought back from the 21st century, and have altered their policies and plans accordingly. Charles I of England, for example, arranges to have Thomas Cromwell imprisoned. This, of course, completely demolishes the value of those history books for short term planning. Thus, this book has less of the gonzo battle scenes and more politics and intrigue.

I found it to move somewhat ponderously; I wasn't turning pages compulsively until nearly the end. Fair disclosure, though--I read this while attending a conference, and thanks to social activities, an extremely hard bed, and a room that overlooked the hotel's lobby and main desk I didn't get much sleep. I was consequently both exhausted and easily distracted, and as my room lacked a comfortable reading chair, I'd have had trouble falling deeply into any book of any description.

Posted by Will Duquette at 03:46 PM | Comments(0)

August 06, 2003

1632, by Eric Flint

I first read this last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it. My previous review explains the book tolerably well, so I won't go into all that here. The short version is this: for a thoroughly and comprehensively and artistically absurd reason, the town of Grantville and its environs are transported from modern day West Virginia to the Germany of 1632. The 30 Years War, a truly nasty conflict, has been on-going for about fifteen years; mercenary troops loot, pillage, and rape freely. The citizens of Grantville conclude almost unanimously that This Has Got To Stop, and proceed to open the biggest can of whup-ass that Thuringia has ever seen.

The whole thing is unlikely, of course; still, it's a delight to read a book that celebrates American values and recognizes that there are ideals worth laying down our lives for.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:21 PM | Comments(0)

August 05, 2003

Ricky Ricotta and his Mighty Robot, by Dav Pilkey

This is the first book in another series by Pilkey, who's also the author of the "Captain Underpants" series. While that series undeniably exploits underpants, diapers, and related matters for cheap laughs, it's also undeniably clever. The books aren't deep, but I didn't mind reading them to David.

This book is something else again. All it shares with the "Captain Underpants" is the cheap paper on which it's printed and the ridiculous Flip-O-Rama action pages. Each Flip-O-Rama chapter consists of four or five pairs of pages; each pair is supposed to be a cheesy kind of flipbook. That's right--a flip book which contains just two pages.

Here's the complete plot: Ricky Ricotta gets picked on by bullies. A mad scientist creates a giant robot, and sends it to destroy Mouseville. The robot balks, and runs away. Ricky meets the robot, which follows him home. His parents agree that the robot can stay, after the robot does some chores around the house. The next morning, the robot goes to school with Ricky, and scares the bullies into subservience. The mad scientist tries again to destroy the robot, but the robot wins. The end.

No doubt I'll be asked to read the further adventures of Ricky Ricotta, but I'm not looking forward to it. This book lacks the humor and cleverness I've come to expect from Pilkey, and the book seems to be written for a much lower reading level than the "Captain Underpants" books.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:57 PM | Comments(0)

August 04, 2003

So what's a Bright like you doing with a quote like this?

I find it fascinating that Craig Ceely of The Anger of Compassion, a self-proclaimed Bright, not only uses the word uncharitable in its original sense, much as C.S. Lewis would have used it, (and laudably so, in an article about preventable errors in English usage), but also quotes Dame Julian of Norwich's "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

I have to conclude that either he's remarkably well-read in obscure Christian classics, or that he's a Pete Townshend fan--which (full disclosure) is actually where I first heard the phrase. Or he's read a lot of C.S. Lewis in an attempt to understand how Christians think; that's where I first heard of Dame Julian myself.

Posted by Will Duquette at 09:16 PM | Comments(2)

Back Home

Just for the record, I got back home last night on schedule, and my three kids greeted me at the entrance to the baggage claim at LAX:

"There he is! Daddy!"

"Daddy!"

"Daddy! Daddy!"

It's good to be Dad.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:07 PM | Comments(1)

Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh

Over the last few months I've been reading Marsh's books in order of publication. In our last outing, the excellent Vintage Murder, we found Inspector Alleyn on vacation in New Zealand. The current book finds him on shipboard on his way home to England, where he makes the acquaintance of rising artist Agatha Troy, his future wife. There first meeting is somewhat fraught, and though Alleyn agrees to sit for a portrait before the voyage is done, he comes away from it persuaded that Troy dislikes him.

At journey's end, Alleyn toddles off to spend a couple of weeks with his old mother before returning to Scotland Yard, while Troy returns to her home, where a number of artists are paying to study with her. They do not encounter each other again until one of the students is murdered, and Alleyn is called in to investigate.

What follows is both an interesting mystery and a most unconventional romance. Professionalism dictates that Alleyn must treat Troy no differently than any of the other suspects, and this, while clear to both of them, adds a certain regrettable constraint to their interactions. In addition, neither of them really understands each other at first. Alleyn is naturally reserved, both personally and professionally, while Troy, angry with herself for how she behaved at their first meeting, is by turns cold, prickly, and defensive.

Ultimately, of course, Alleyn can no longer deny his feelings, and tells Troy how he feels...but there are no wedding bells at the end of this book, and no mad, passionate embrace. A person has just been murdered; it has been a week of horror and pain; it's no time for falling joyously in love. And yet the passion is there, just below the surface, and at the end Alleyn is given, if not encouragement, then hope for the future.

It's a remarkable accomplishment: although writing genre fiction, Marsh seems determined to avoid all but the most necessary bits of formula. Very, very nice.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:58 PM | Comments(0)

August 03, 2003

Why I'm Not At My Children's Birthday Party

I'm writing these words from an Internet Cafe at Detroit Metro airport. It's almost 1 PM, Eastern Daylight Time, and I'm supposed to be home. Actually, I was supposed to be home about twelve hours ago. Thus begins the saga.

Friday night we had thunderstorms. Serious thunderstorms. Detroit Metro was closed, and I heard one of the TSA security people say that eight flights were cancelled. There are two completely separate terminals, and I wouldn't be surprised if the total was higher than that. Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, when I arrived at the airport in preparation for a 5 PM flight. There were still masses of people in the check-in lines for American Airlines and other carriers; the America West line was mercifully (ha!) empty. As I was travelling America West, I got through easily.

At 4:30, they were supposed to start boarding. They didn't.

At 5:10, they announced that there would be a delay.

At 5:30, they told us that the plane's lavatories were out, and that there would be a lengthy delay; our connecting flights would be rebooked automatically.

At 6:00, they told us they'd have more news at 6:30.

Between 7:30 and 8:00 (!) they finally told us that the flight was cancelled. As I had checked baggage I was out of luck; I had to hang around.

At 8:00 or a little after, they announced that they'd be finding us hotels for the night. I got in line.

Around 10:30 or 10:45 (!) I finally got to the head of line, rebooked my flight, and got a hotel voucher. I went downstairs, got my suitcase, and called the hotel for a shuttle.

At 11:30PM I stepped into my room at the airport Quality Inn. Thank the Good Lord! It was, surprisingly, a nicer room than I'd spent the past week in. I ordered a pizza (I'd not really eaten since lunchtime), called Jane, ate the pizza, read for a few minutes, went to sleep. I got the best night's sleep I'd had all week.

And now I'm waiting for a 5:30 PM flight on North West airlines from Detroit to Los Angeles, arriving at 7:12 PM (PDT) at LAX, instead of at Burbank, where I'd originally been scheduled to arrive.

James and Anne will be celebrating their 4th and 2nd birthdays with their friends this afternoon. I will not be there.

Damn it.

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:05 AM | Comments(1)

August 02, 2003

Through Darkest Zymurgia!

I've just posted Chapter 22 and Chapter 23 of my novel Through Darkest Zymurgia! over at Once Told Tales. At last, we begin to explore the fabled land of Zymurgia!
Posted by Will Duquette at 06:11 AM | Comments(0)

August 01, 2003

Technical Sessions

Yesterday was the first day of the conference proper, and while parts of it were interesting, some of the presentations were less than stellar. We had a keynote speaker by the president of BitMover, who told us at great length that it's painful to create really beautiful (i.e., MS Windows-like) GUIs in Tcl/Tk. Which is true, and there are apparently plans already afoot to do something about it, and it wasn't necessary that the topic dominate the rest of the day. But the company was good, and of course that's the real point of going to a conference like this--getting to chat with all kinds of people. And Tcl people are generally very nice people.

This morning has been more interesting. My favorite presentation so far was by a guy from a satellite radio company. There are apparently dozens of satellite radio receivers on the market and they need to test all of them. And they test all of them by putting them in a car (or, in one case, a BMW motorcycle) and driving for eight hours a day. They've circumnavigated the United States twice, they say. Testing the audio signal requires a fair amount of computer hardware, and they are using Tcl to glue everything together.

And of course I did my presentation as well. I won't talk about it here, as the topic is really only of interest to Tcl coders, but it went well, and people seemed to like it.

More papers will be presented this afternoon, followed by a roundtable discussion on the future of Tcl, and then, later on, something called the "Wine BOF". A BOF is a "Birds Of a Feather" session, in which people with shared interests get together and argue about them; the Wine BOF seems to involve tasting fine wines and arguing about anything in the world. (I'll have more about that later.)

Posted by Will Duquette at 10:43 AM | Comments(0)