December 30, 2005

Pneumonia

Jane saw the doctor yesterday; turns out her cold has developed into pneumonia. The doctor prescribed antibiotics, Robitussin, and plenty of rest; it's the latter that's going to be difficult.

Prayers requested. Thanks.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:10 AM | Comments(0)

December 29, 2005

Life Happens When You've Made Other Plans

I've been working pretty hard over the last year, and so I planned to take some time off this week. I get the Monday and the Friday as paid holidays anyway, and so I scheduled to take three days of vacation. We were going to visit friends and family, go to the park, play games, and all sorts of things. Instead, just after dinner on Christmas Eve I came down with a nasty chest cold, which I still have this morning. Jane's no better; she's had the same cold for at least a week and a half, and she's been pushing to do all of the seasonal Mommy things as well. So we've been doing the bare minimum.

In my case, that has meant doing some desultory reading and playing endless hours of video games. "What!" you say, "You've been playing video games and leaving your sick wife to look after the kids?" Well, no. The three older kids like to watch me play, which by happy coincidence means that they leave Jane alone. Mary, our youngest, has been making up for that, though. She's not been feeling well either, and she's going through a stage where only Mommy can make her feel better.

There are really only two upsides to all of this: first, I didn't come down with this monster until after the Christmas Eve service, so our music director wasn't short a singer; and second, I'd already planned to be off work this week so it isn't going to affect my project's schedule.

Well, OK, three--I'm spending a lot of time with my kids. But I planned to do that anyway, and it would have been much more fun if we all felt better.

Update: Make that four upsides. Over the last five or six years we've had guests come to stay with us between Christmas and New Years more often than not; this year, we didn't. God is good.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:39 AM | Comments(0)

King, Koontz, and a Bag of Bones

Ian has posted a review of Stephen King's Bag of Bones, with some interesting reflections on the writing styles and proclivities of both King and fellow-author Dean Koontz. I always pay attention when Ian analyzes a work of fiction, because he understands the technical details of how plots and such-like work much better than I do.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:25 AM | Comments(0)

December 27, 2005

Last Call, by Tim Powers

There are not many authors who can steep themselves in the myths of the Grail and the Fisher-King and put that together with mobster Bugsy Siegel and a sleepy little town called Las Vegas and come up with anything at all. Add in the tarot, poker superstitions, and a generous helping of the truly odd, and you've got Last Call, a long-time favorite of mine. Powers has a talent for making the strangest things plausible for just long enough. For example, how do camouflage an SUV against bad guys searching for it magically? Tape face cards to the hub caps.....

I really don't know what else to say about this book; it rather defies description. It's not a novel of the occult, though, despite the mention of the tarot. Good triumphs over evil, and a case can be made that underneath the symbolism it's a deeply Catholic novel (Powers is Roman Catholic, I recently discovered; who knew?).

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:10 PM | Comments(0)

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

I took my two boys to see the Narnia movie last week, and enjoyed it extremely, and rather more than Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though I'm also very much a Tolkien fan. I also found it surprisingly moving; I really should have brought some kleenex. The kids liked it, too.

I've got a few observations; if you've not seen it you'll want to skip what follows. If you do read it, bear in mind that these are nits I'm picking.

First, "Morgrim". What's up with this? Why pass over a delightful name like Fenris Ulf, with all of its mythological overtones, for the bad fantasy name "Morgrim"? This is the only change I noticed that I really do not understand the purpose of. The name has no effect on the plot; it used only a few times; why change it?

(Update: I've just been apprised by the proprietor of the Tanneroth blog that the name is "Maugrim" (which is undeniably better than "Morgrim"--and that the name "Maugrim" has always appeared in British editions of the book. OK, so what's up with "Fenris Ulf", then?)

Next, it's clear to me that expectations of children have changed since Lewis wrote the book. In Lewis' book, the housekeeper occasionally gives tours of Professor Kirke's stately old house; the children are under orders to remain out of sight and sound at such times. The four kids hide in the Wardrobe, and so all travel to Narnia, because they are trying not to be seen. In the movie, by contrast, the children are playing cricket and Edmund sends the cricket ball through a stained glass window and knocks over a suit of armor. It's not deliberate naughtiness; it was a pure accident.

I understand why the writer and director chose not to go into the house-tour thing. That's a reasonable simplification; it was just a contrivance anyway, and one contrivance will do as well as another in this case. What I find fascinating is the contrivance they chose. The four Pevensey kids are all clearly good kids--Edmund's a stinker, but he's not an out-and-out black sheep. I'd have expected them to take responsibility instead of running and hiding.

Did the director put this scene in to underscore their immaturity so as to emphasize their growth in the rest of the movie? Or did he simply need a contrivance to get them into the wardrobe? I suspect the latter, and that's troubling. We need to expect better of our kids than that.

Similarly, I have trouble with Peter and Susan's attitude towards the prophecy and towards fighting for Narnia against the White Witch. Why is it that in Hollywood movies, the hero always has to be tempted to virtue? Peter can't display resolution, fortitude, courage, or altruism right out of the box; evidently that just isn't the way kids his age are. If he took up his sword bravely, that simply wouldn't be believable.

That may well be true these days; I fear it is, though I also think it reflects the prevailing Hollywood attitude that while there might be just wars you have to go off to them with "long faces", to use Lewis' own phrase. But if it is true now, it wasn't true when the book was written.

If Peter Pevensey was a real person, he'd have been just about the age of my father, or maybe a few years younger. When my dad was fourteen or fifteen we were at war in Europe and in the Pacific, the same war in which the bombs were dropping in England. He and his brother and a number of their friends all knew that they'd be going into the service as soon as they were old enough--and they devoted themselves to daily calisthenics, weight training, gymnastics, and (of all things) boxing so as to be physically fit and ready to go to war. Part of this was undoubtedly self-interest, in that they figured they'd have a better chance of surviving if they were fit. But they knew they were going to have a job to do, and they approached it seriously, with resolution, courage, and fortitude. And it served them well. My uncle commanded a tank destroyer and was among the liberators of one of the Nazi death camps; my father served on a destroyer in the Pacific. Both of them came back alive and well, and are still with us today. Even the boxing came in handy for my dad, though that's another story.

If The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe could be shown to cinema audiences just after WWII, I expect most of the moviegoers would have been disgusted at Peter and Susan's attitude. The Witch was clearly evil; Aslan was clearly opposed to her; it would have been their duty to do what they could. Today that attitude would be seen as unrealistic at best and jingoistic warmongering at worst. That's a problem.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:29 AM | Comments(0)

December 24, 2005

Casting the Canon

Some while back I made some comments about the value of genre over literary fiction (it's all about the story) in response to some post or other; and this led to posts by a number of folks, including Lynn Sislo; and Lynn's post led to a comment I disagreed with. And I wrote a post about that comment last Sunday morning, in which I linked to everybody involved and made a most cogent argument as to why the commenter was mistaken.

About twenty minutes later I went back and looked at that post, and Yea, Verily, It Was Lame. So I deleted it.

Now I discover that Jaquandor's got it covered--and good for him, I say!

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:35 AM | Comments(0)

December 15, 2005

Dream of Darkness, by Reginald Hill

Usually I like Hill's stuff a whole lot. Usually I finish books I start. Neither is true in this case.

Dream of Darkness, which was originally published under a pen name, is something of a schizophrenic thriller. The main plot concerns a young woman named Sairey Ellis, who is tormented by nightmares involving her mother's death in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin, and the therapy she receives at the hands of a psychiatrist who is also an old family friend. She was just a small girl when her mother died; now, save for her dreams her memories of those days have vanished.

Sairey's story is interlarded with brief memories of Idi Amin and his reign of terror. Some are cast as letters, reminiscences, and journal entries from some kind of government intelligence archive; others are excerpts from a book being written by Ellis' father, a British agent who was instrumental in bringing Amin to power and now regrets it.

The point of the book seems to be that Idi Amin was a very bad man, and that Britain did wrong to covertly assist him--assuming, of course, that they actually did. OK, fine. Amin was a monster; I buy that. I've met men who narrowly escaped being killed by him. But the piecemeal nature of the Ugandan side of the narrative isn't compelling, and young Sairey Ellis and her problems are frankly dull. There's some evidence, up to the point that I've read, that the events of yesteryear are going to intrude into Sairey's quiet if troubled life, but unfortunately I can't bring myself to care.

Possibly Hill was trying to awaken a national sense of guilt by exposing Britain's complicity with Amin's rise. I dunno. But the book sure fell flat for me.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:38 AM | Comments(0)

I've Always Thought So

Ian links to a blog post which quotes a professional book reviewer who says he finds so-called literary fiction to be "so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it." Instead, he says, "I find myself turning more and more to what is commonly dismissed by the literati as 'popular' or 'genre' fiction…" The reviewer's name is Jonathan Yardley; he writes for the Washington Post, and he's won the Pulitzer Prize. The blogger who quotes Yardley, novelist Richard Wheeler, agrees at some length.

Of course, I've been touting the virtues of genre over "literary" fiction for years. Unlike me, though, these two guys have done their time in the trenches--they've made a serious effort to read the latest literary fiction, and so their opinions have some weight behind them. Decent of them to jump on the hand grenade for us like that.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:20 AM | Comments(0)

December 09, 2005

The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers

I've been fond of Tim Powers' books for many years, ever since he wrote The Anubis Gates. He's not extremely prolific, though, and although I've read everything he's written, and I review everything I read, I've not reviewed many of his books since I started writing reviews eight years ago. It was clearly time to renew my acquaintance, and so I grabbed a couple of his books when I went on a business trip last September. This is one of them.

The Drawing of the Dark is one of Power's earliest books, and the first to reveal his interest in "secret history", the stories that might lurk behind the stories in the history books. In this case, the setting is the Seige of Vienna, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

The Siege of Vienna of 1529, as distinct from the Battle of Vienna in 1683, represented the farthest Westward advance into Central Europe of the Ottoman Empire, and of all the clashes between the armies of Christianity and Islam might be signaled as the battle that finally stemmed the previously-unstoppable Turkish forces (though they continued their conquest of the Austrian-controlled parts of Hungary afterwards).

The Islamic advance began with Mohammed and rolled, seemingly inexorably, through the formerly Christian lands of Asia Minor and North Africa, striking into Europe as far as Southern Spain in the West...and as far as Vienna in the East. There the tide was stemmed; had it not been, the Western World would look rather different today. It was truly a clash of civilizations. But what really happened?

Enter Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary down-on-his-luck in Venice some years after being injured at the disastrous Battle of Mohács. He's hired by an odd old man named Aurelianus Ambrosius to travel to Vienna and there take up a position as bouncer at the Zimmerman Inn, until recently a monastery, and age-old home of the Herzwesten Brewery. It's a vital position, for the future of the West depends on the safety of the, yes, the Dark.....beer. The Herzwesten Dark is nearly ready to be drawn, for the succor of....

But that would be telling.

It's an absurd premise, that the fate of the Western World depends on a cask of beer, and ought to produce a novel that's at best a low farce, but somehow it's better than that. Powers takes the idea and has far too much fun with it, as Jane would say, but somehow by refusing to play it for laughs he escapes being sophomoric and pulls it all together so that it somehow, miraculously, it works. It's a lot of fun, and I always enjoy coming back to it.

Watch out for the dried snakes, though, they're addictive.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:52 PM | Comments(0)

December 07, 2005

The Words We Pray, by Amy Welborn

Jane and I have been reading Amy Welborn's weblog for some time now, so when I ran across this book at the Border's in Newport Beach I grabbed. It's an interesting book, and I'm glad we got it.

First, some context. When I was a kid, my mom taught me to pray. Prayer usually involved the Our Father, and "God bless"'s: you know, "God bless Grandma, God bless Grandpa," and so on. In catechism class (I was raised Roman Catholic) I learned a number of other prayers, especially the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. And except for those "God bless"'s, pretty much all the praying I did took the form of one or more of these traditional prayers.

During high school my faith lapsed for a time; and though I remained Roman Catholic when it came back I also got involved with Protestants. (Mostly Episcopalians, but still, Protestants.) And in some Protestant circles, traditional prayers have a bad name. How can you pray sincerely when you're using somebody else's words? You should always, or at least mostly, pray in your own words. Have a conversation with God, I was told. And that's how I mostly prayed all through college, during which I was still Catholic but mostly hanging out with Protestants, and it's how I mostly prayed after I got married and joined the Episcopal Church, and it's how I've mostly prayed until now. I've prayed the Lord's Prayer fairly often during all of that time, but other traditional prayers very seldom, except as part of the normal Sunday liturgy. The Hail Mary I prayed very seldom; if Protestants are down on traditional prayers, they are especially down on Mary.

In the last few years, though, thanks largely to the efforts of certain lunatics in my denomination who shall remain nameless, I've been re-examining my faith, and especially the roots of my faith. One of those roots is liturgy--I'm simply not comfortable attending a non-liturgical church. And really, in light of this, it's surprising that I absorbed so much of the Protestant attitude toward traditional prayers, because that's really what the liturgy is. And the joy and delight of the liturgy is very simple--it's always there, it covers all of the bases, and it makes sure you don't miss anything. The liturgy isn't there for those days when it's a joy to go to church; it's there for those days when you'd rather be anywhere else, and when trying to focus on the service is nearly impossible. It's there, it's an anchor, and because it's always the same it helps you to stay focussed.

Standard prayers are really the same thing--but for every day, rather than just on Sunday mornings.

So this book came into my hands at just the time when I'd find it the most useful.

The Words We Pray is a survey of nineteen traditional Catholic prayers, many of which I learned as a child, and many of which were new to me. Only a few are specifically Catholic; most are used by Christians of all traditions. Each chapter begins with the text of one of the prayers, followed by Welborn's commentary. She discusses the origin of the prayer, how it evolved over time, and how and when it is usually prayed; and the purely factual material is leavened with her own personal reminiscences about occasions of prayer. (As fellow parents, Jane and I felt right in tune with many of them.)

The old familiar prayers include the Sign of the Cross (about which there is more to be said than you might think), the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Creed, the Act of Contrition, and the Prayer of St. Francis; I was also already familiar with the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner), and St. Patrick's Breastplate, though I learned both of those as adults--that one's particularly stirring, and I need to spend more time with it. Of those that were new to me my favorite is the Anima Christi, which somehow I never learned as a kid.

Anyway, it's a quietly joyful book; and if reading it has turned my prayer life upside down, that's rather a good thing.

Posted by Will Duquette at 06:45 PM | Comments(0)

December 06, 2005

Thomas Hardy in Shanghai

Ian's got a delightful take on author Thomas Hardy; it's exactly the sort of thing I expect I'd write if I seriously attempted to read Hardy, though I doubt I'd have said it so well. As it is, now I don't have to. (Does this make me a Philistine? Possibly so.) I can't comment on Ian's opinion of David Copperfield (the character, not the book), because I haven't read the book, but I suspect I'd feel the same way. (Am I the only one who can't stand Romeo and Juliet because the young lovers are such idiots?)

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:18 AM | Comments(0)

December 05, 2005

The Complete Peanuts 1955 to 1956,
The Complete Peanuts 1957 to 1958, by Charles M. Schulz

These are the third and fourth volumes of The Complete Peanuts, and they are surely a treat.

I had a pretty sizeable collection of Peanuts paperbacks once upon a time, one or two which were bought just for me (the one I remember in particular was a green book with an angry kite chasing Charlie Brown on the cover--I don't remember the title) and a whole bunch I inherited from my siblings. As near as I can tell the set spanned the period from maybe 1952 or 1953 until probably 1960 or so. Friends of the family had a book or two that covered the earliest strips.

Thus, I was on familiar ground in these two books, and was delighted to renew my acquaintance with many an old favorite.

One of my joys in reading old comic strips is watching the strip and the characters as they develop. At the beginning of this pair of books, the classic cast is pretty well complete: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Pigpen, Shermie, and Violet are all here, all recognizeably themselves, all drawn just as you'd expect them to be drawn. Sally hasn't been born yet.

But Snoopy--these are the books where Snoopy really begins to come together. In these books, Snoopy first dances, first tries to sleep on top of his dog house (with mixed results), first kisses Lucy on the nose, first begins to exercise his imagination. At the end of 1958, he's still not drawn quite like the iconic Snoopy of today, but he's getting closer.

I can't wait for the next volume.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:55 PM | Comments(0)

December 03, 2005

Ex Libris Reviews

The December Issue of Ex Libris Reviews is now on-line.
Posted by Will Duquette at 08:40 PM | Comments(0)

December 02, 2005

Death of a Dormouse, by Reginald Hill

I like Hill's mystery novels, but only his Dalziel/Pascoe books are generally available here in the States. As a result of cleaning up my study, I've consolidated my to-be-read pile onto a couple of shelves. Here's a book I got on my last trip to Australia (several years ago) that I only got around to reading this week.

Trudi Adamson has had a quiet life in the twenty-five years since she got married. Her husband has taken jobs in Switzerland and in Vienna and such-like romantic locales, and she, being shy and agoraphobic, has spent most of them quietly at home ignoring the world while her husband travels on business. Now her husband is dead in a car accident, leaving her almost nothing, and she somehow has to learn to live by herself and for herself. She crashes for some time, surviving only with the help of an old friend from her school days, but eventually scrapes some gumption together and gets a job.

And then, of course, peculiar things begin to happen. Her husband's death didn't occur quite the way she'd been told. In fact, she begins to come across evidence that her husband's life away from home was rather different than she'd thought. And that, of course, is just the beginning.

What we have here, really, is Charade artfully redone as a thriller rather than as a screwball comedy with moments of violence. And without Cary Grant, of course. As I was reading it, it all seemed a little too farfetched, and Trudi's metamorphosis from shy agoraphobia to self-reliant assertiveness doesn't quite work. Still, I wanted to find out what happened, and the final twist was both unexpected and rather touching.

Posted by Will Duquette at 07:18 PM | Comments(0)

December 01, 2005

For Your Advent Enjoyment

A little something from last year's Advent Season: The Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. I especially like the geese.

Posted by Will Duquette at 08:52 PM | Comments(0)