my reading list and how it gets that way

Right now I’m reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’ve borrowed the Norton Critical Edition from the North Vancouver District Public Library (the only edition that was on the shelves when I went looking), and I’ve made it to page 60. So far, I must say, I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying it: an overtly didactic work published in 1952—how good could it be? Rather good!

But if I didn’t expect to enjoy it, how did I end up reading it? you might ask. Well, it was on my reading list. But how did it get there? Now things get foggy. I had long been aware of it and knew it was a classic novel, and something in particular must have prompted me to add it to my list a couple of years ago. It will have been in 2017, for I added it not long after I added A Man Called Ove, which was in June 2017, since I remember the occasion on which I added that. Most likely I read a reference to it somewhere that jogged my memory, or, just as possibly, it was an answer on Jeopardy! that prompted me to think, “Oh yeah—I’ve always wanted to read that.” Out with the iPhone, and I typed the title and author in a Note labeled, simply, “Books.” Looking at the list now, there I see it, sandwiched between The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione and a book called Description by one Monica Wood, which I have yet to acquire or read.

I got my iPhone 5S in November 2014: my first smartphone and indeed my first cellphone. Noticing the Notes app that came preinstalled, I got the idea of creating a reading list for myself—something I had never created in the world of paper and ink. My very first entry says simply “Penelope Fitzgerald”: no title attached. I recall too how this entry got there. I had read an article about Penelope Fitzgerald, possibly in The Times Literary Supplement, and was interested in her because of her late-starting career and the seeming literary depth of her writing. I no longer had the Supplement and could not remember any of her books’ titles, but I remembered Penelope Fitzgerald, and so, casting around my mind for something to start my official reading list with, I picked her name and typed it in. List started!

Reading List displayed on iPhone 5S

An iPhone making itself useful

(I did go on to read a couple of books by Penelope Fitzgerald, and enjoyed them quite well—but that’s another subject.)

The next entry was Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy, a highly readable and prolific author of ancient history. This book I still don’t have. I will have been encouraged to add it because of how much I enjoyed Goldsworthy’s Caesar, which I acquired in 2008; but as for what specifically prompted me to add this one, I don’t recall. Possibly it was referenced in another book, and I typed it in.

There are different paths to my reading list: reviews, references in other books, the results of Amazon searches, even the odd personal recommendation, as in the case of A Man Called Ove. I thought it might be fun to look at some more recent additions whose provenance I do remember.

Let’s start at the end: the most recent addition:

The Stages of Higher Knowledge by Rudolf Steiner

This one I added this morning while typing notes from last night’s reading period. I had just started Steiner’s book How to Know Higher Worlds, first published in 1909, and in his preface he mentions a succeeding work that would be a continuation of his discourse. I highlighted the title while I was reading, then, this morning, as I was typing the highlights into a Word document, I paused to add this work to my iPhone reading list. So this was a reference from a book I’m currently reading.

The item that precedes it is:

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

This too is an entry I made this morning. It’s unusual for me to make 2 entries on the same day, although not unprecedented. Usually days or weeks go by without my adding to the list. But if something grabs my attention, I add it. This book came from an answer on Quora. The question was “Why do some people believe that Dune is the greatest sci-fi novel ever written?” and it showed up in the Quora Digest e-mail that I get each day. The top answer was by one Eric Van, someone who plans sci-fi conferences. He takes a good stab at surmising why some people regard Dune as the greatest, but he notes in a postscript that his own pick for greatest sci-fi novel—something which he distinguishes from best sci-fi novel—is the above-named work. Intrigued by this knowledgeable recommendation, I hastened to add it to my reading list.

Maybe one more. It’s an entry I made 2 or 3 days ago:

Plot vs. Character by Jeff Gerke

This was another reference from a book, specifically Creating Character Arcs by K. M. Weiland. Lately I’ve been putting intense (for me) effort into sorting out the plot of my epic, The Age of Pisces, and in the course of doing this I have been reviewing the various texts in my library on the art of structuring stories. Weiland’s is one of these—a very good one—and her quoting Gerke’s work in a couple of places made me curious to see more of his book. On the list it went.

So there you have it: a snapshot of my reading list. I’ll never read them all, but neither are they consigned to oblivion. If ever I want to decide what to read next, the answer is right at my hip.

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novel vs. novel 2: men with attitude

Back in August I wrote a post in which I compared two random novels that I happened to have read back to back. Well, that was so much fun I’m going to do it again.

How do I happen to choose the fiction I read? The works come to my reading list (a document I keep on my phone) from various sources, which I then read in the order in which they were added, because that’s the kind of person I am. Today’s brace of novels are A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, published in 2012, and Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, published in 1795–96. The former was recommended to me by an old classmate of mine when I met him at a high-school reunion in 2017; the latter came I remember not how, but probably from some book or article that was talking about Goethe’s views on art. Anyway, Goethe is one of the Great Books authors, and so I have a predisposition to reading his works.

2 book covers: A Man Called Ove and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

Guy stuff

So: another random juxtaposition, which perhaps might not seem fair to either author. But I think it is fair, just because I did read them back to back, and because I think any work of poetry, of creative writing, of storytelling, can be compared with any other.

Despite their seemingly great differences, there are commonalities between these books. They are both works in translation, for one thing—Ove from the Swedish and Wilhelm from the German. And they are both about men: title characters with strong outlooks on life. Ove is a grumpy 59-year-old widower who is set in his ways; Wilhelm Meister is a young man with a romantic, philosophical nature and a passion for theater. And the two books, in very different ways, are comedies, at least in the most basic sense of having (mostly) happy endings. There are ironies in there, but I don’t want to be a spoiler so I won’t go into that further.

Unlike last time, I finished both these books, which meant that I considered them both to be good enough to be worth reading, and I wound up giving them both 4 stars out of 5 on Goodreads. So I’ve had some pretty happy reading lately.

To give a flavor of these books, I will again present their openings. Let’s look at A Man Called Ove first. Chapter 1 is entitled “A Man Called Ove Buys a Computer That Is Not a Computer”:

Ove is fifty-nine.

He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s torch. He stands at the counter of a shop where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium-sized white box at him.

“So this is one of those O-Pads, is it?” he demands.

The assistant, a young man with a single-digit Body Mass Index, looks ill at ease. He visibly struggles to control his urge to snatch the box out of Ove’s hands.

“Yes, exactly. An iPad. Do you think you could stop shaking it like that . . . ?”

Ove gives the box a skeptical glance, as if it’s a highly dubious sort of box, a box that rides a scooter and wears tracksuit trousers and just called Ove “my friend” before offering to sell him a watch.

Here we have comic writing that is quite effective. By the end of the third sentence we already have a strong impression of the character; indeed we may feel that we already know him as much as we want to. In most stories he would be a minor character whose grumpiness raises a few chuckles as we pass by, following other characters who are more engaging and likable, but here he has the starring role. What gives?

Ove’s grumpiness is offset by the comic detachment of the narrator. The author shows himself to creative in coming up with unexpected and illuminating figures of speech, such as the simile about the policeman’s torch, or “the owners of Japanese cars,” which is the figure known as antonomasia, the use of an epithet instead of a proper name. This points back to the second sentence, contrasting these people with the Saab-driving, and thus patriotic, Ove. The sales assistant is described as having “a single-digit Body Mass Index,” an instance of hyperbole, as well as, perhaps, prosopographia, the lively description of a person. All of these make the book’s opening vivid and suffused with the main character’s attitude.

Now let’s look at the opening of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship:

The play lasted for a very long time. Old Barbara went to the window several times to see if the coaches had already started leaving the theater. She was waiting for Mariane, her pretty mistress who was that night delighting the audience as a young officer in the epilogue—waiting for her with more impatience than usual, when she merely had a simple supper ready. For this time a surprise package had come in the mail from a wealthy young merchant named Norberg, to show that even when he was away, he was still thinking of his beloved. A trusty servant, companion, adviser, go-between and housekeeper, Barbara had every right to open the package. And this evening she could not resist, for the favors of this generous lover meant even more to her than they did to Mariane. To her great delight she found in the package not only fine muslin and elegant ribbons for Mariane, but for herself a length of cotton material, scarves and a roll of coins. She thought of the absent Norberg with great affection and gratitude, and eagerly resolved to praise him to Mariane, to remind her of what she owed him, and of his hopes and expectations that she would be faithful to him.

Interestingly, this story about a young man opens on a scene featuring women, specifically the servant of an actress. The narration is much less immediate than that of the modern A Man Called Ove; where Ove’s narrator steeps us in the hero’s view of the world, even if it is at a comic remove, here the narrator is disinterestedly telling us about the action. There may be a touch of irony—when the narrator says “Barbara had every right to open the package,” he is certainly expressing Barbara’s point of view, but it’s not quite clear whether he is expressing his own as well—but overall there is a feeling of calm detachment.

These books are comedies, and one of the hallmarks of comedy, as I learned by reading Edith Hamilton’s excellent book The Roman Way, is that the story portrays typical situations, for people only laugh at what they recognize. This is what makes comedy especially useful for historians, including ancient historians such as herself. Here we have the modern grumpy Swede Ove at a loss in a computer store, a situation typical of our current tech-obsessed society. But in 1795 Germany, the typical situation portrayed is that of an attractive actress, her sugar-daddy admirer, and her go-between personal maid who has her own stake in the relationship. In Goethe’s day this situation would have been familiar to readers and would have set up a number of expectations based on that familiarity.

But despite certain similarities, these two stories are as different in their respective missions as they are in their narrative styles. A Man Called Ove is a character study, the story of a man who is pulled from a living death back to engagement with life by the caring people around him. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, though also concerned with its hero’s character, is much more a novel of ideas. It addresses the issues of education and vocation in the widest sense, and often depicts thoughtful, educated characters discussing and disputing points in these subjects. Based in part on these interactions, Wilhelm switches vocations a couple of times in the course of the story, wavering between his passion for art and his sense of responsibility to the bourgeois world that produced him. His path is shaped too by his overwhelming attraction to certain women. His “apprenticeship” is long and has many twists and turns.

These books are both comedies, but in most respects are as different as can be. To be honest, I had some credibility problems with them both. In Ove‘s case, I found many of the characters to be too cartoonish and unbelievable. Too many people seem to warm up to Ove, who really is a prickly customer. The developments are also rather predictable.

In Wilhelm‘s case, there are too many strange coincidences and mysteries. While Goethe is a master of creating believable surprises, truly unexpected and lifelike twists, he also brings in far-fetched and incredible developments. The story as a whole cannot really be called believable, even extending the author all the credit you can. But Goethe can be funny, although in a completely different manner than Backman. I laughed out loud at some of Wilhelm’s passionately delivered criticisms of actors and their lifestyle. I’m sure his observations would apply just as much today as they did then.

Bottom line: I liked these books quite well. What’s next on my reading list? Watch this space.

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appointment at Dendera

I continue to work on the climax of The Age of Pisces. I think I have the main climax pretty much roughed in, and I’m focusing on a subplot climax for the same character. In the process of working on this, I discover how much I don’t know about my story or its characters, which shocks me, considering how long I’ve been working on this thing. But that’s reality, and the only cure for ignorance is to seek truth—or at least to seek information.

Her biographies were written by the victors

This search takes twists and turns as I reach for materials from which to build my story. Years ago I realized that Cleopatra—yes, that Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII Philopator, final monarch of the Ptolemaic empire of Egypt—was a character in my story. I thought that she was a minor character for me, though, so I didn’t spend much effort on learning about her. When I visited Chapters bookstore at Park Royal in November 2008, and saw Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend by Joann Fletcher on a shelf there, I felt that the relatively steep new-book price (the Canadian equivalent of the preprinted cover price of £12.99) was too high to justify the expense, and left the book behind. But when I got home I had qualms about my decision, and when my wife asked me a few days later whether there was anything she could pick up for me while she visited Park Royal, I said yes, and that day I took possession of a copy of Joann Fletcher’s book.

I read about two thirds of it at the time—as far in Cleopatra’s life as I saw my story taking me. I enjoyed reading it, appreciating the author’s well-informed and passionate style and her wish to push back against the negativity associated with Cleopatra from a long line of more or less hostile histories. The book is filled with many interesting details and asides, and Fletcher makes bold to fill in gaps in the record with plausible conjectures and shrewd inferences, all of which I really liked. But as other, more pressing research questions came to occupy me I shelved the book in the ancient-history section of my office bookcase, where it rested until about 2 weeks ago, when I discovered that Cleopatra was becoming a bigger deal in my story.

Now I’ve pressed on almost to the end; indeed, I’m all the way to the epilogue, with only 20 pages left to read—but the book is again being pushed aside by other more urgent reading! Thus my reading life. Nonetheless, I intend to finish it this time, for even though Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC is well after the end of what I’m calling Season 1 of The Age of Pisces, the events surrounding that end are key in forming my own theory of Cleopatra’s motives and actions in life.

Is it too much of a spoiler to say that in my story Cleopatra forms the intention of becoming the queen of the world, originally with Julius Caesar as her coruler and later, after Caesar’s death in 44 BC, with Mark Antony? There are grounds for believing, as Joann Fletcher suggests, that Cleopatra saw herself as a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, the first and only emperor to rule over both West and East (as far as was then known), and that her ambition was to restore his domain with the help of Roman power.

I believe further that Cleopatra saw the birth of this new world empire as coinciding with the imminent astrological Age of Pisces, which was to dawn in the latter half of the first century BC. Cleopatra and her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, are prominent in the artwork at the temple of Hathor at Dendera, 60 km north of Luxor, which is famous for the zodiac carved there on the ceiling of the Osiris chapel. After the Alexandrian War of 47 BC, in which Julius Caesar defeated the forces of Cleopatra’s little brother Ptolemy XIII and installed her on the throne of Egypt, Caesar famously took a prolonged voyage up the Nile with his new mistress the young queen—a leisurely trip that puzzled his countrymen, since he was still embroiled in a civil war for control of the Roman Empire. It’s not recorded exactly where they went or what they did, but I believe they traveled to Dendera, and there conceived their world empire for the new Age of Pisces (their son Caesarion had already been conceived, and would be born about 3 months later).

When Caesar was assassinated, his will made the unusual provision of posthumously adopting Octavian as his son. But Caesar already had a son: Caesarion in Egypt, thought to be a descendant of Alexander the Great on his mother’s side and of Venus on his father’s, for the Julii regarded themselves as the offspring of that goddess. When the forces of Octavian finally defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, he had to make sure that the line of Caesar was clear and single—and passed only through himself. Caesarion, aged 17, was accordingly executed. (In this he was unlike his mother, whom Octavian wanted preserved alive to be displayed in his triumph in Rome. To prevent this humiliation, Cleopatra killed herself, as did her personal maids, but not, Fletcher surmises, with an asp, as ancient writers supposed, but probably with poisoned hairpins.)

This was the real birth of the emperor who would come to be called Caesar Augustus, and of the Roman Empire itself, properly so called. In a certain sense Cleopatra could be called its mother, who died in childbirth. Her vision of a cosmic, world-spanning empire that embraced a divine mission would happen in an unexpected way: by the flowering in Rome of a strange new religion from the East.

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climaxology

I’ve been working on the climax of my epic-in-progress, The Age of Pisces, and I’ve been at it for some months now. There’s a lot to think about.

For one thing, The Age of Pisces is to be a multivolume work. At this point, I don’t know exactly how many volumes I’m looking at, but I would say at least 5, but more likely 7, and that’s just to take it through the first leg of the journey—what I’m calling Season 1. So the climax has a lot of story to tie up.

It is also conceived as a multi-character work: that is, I plan to have several protagonists or point-of-view characters. Their stories interweave, creating complex interactions and echo effects in the overall narrative. How is all that to resolve?

Then there is the idea content of the work: my story is about things. What is my story saying at its most fundamental level? Whatever it’s saying must be expressed most strongly and decisively in the climax—indeed, that is what the climax is: the revelation of the true meaning of the work. How clear am I on what that is?

Another factor affecting climax creation is the amount of story I have already created or established. You need to know enough about your story to be able to craft its climax, which means you need to have developed it quite far already, I would say. Where is it going to take place? Who exactly is going to be there, and why? What are the issues at stake? Are there to be any key props involved? These things will come to light in the course of working on the story from the front end: from the beginning.

I have written climaxes before, even some quite effective ones, in the course of my writing career, but I have never known as much about storytelling as I do now, so I find myself taking the process even more seriously, and also learning a lot more from it. Learning what? you might ask. One thing is patience.

I’m already a patient writer. I work slowly and my projects take much time to bring to fruition. I think carefully about things and never rush. So how am I learning patience from climax-crafting? In a couple of ways. One is not to give in to the desire to be the first audience for my story and thus eager to discover “what happens, how it turns out.” The desire to see the story resolved could lead to taking shortcuts: not doing all my research, for example, on the time and place of my story climax, to become expert in its qualities and its layout. Ignorance about my story world means having a smaller toolkit with which to build my story.

A rollercoaster ride approaching its final climax

Heading for the top—wherever that is . . .

Another test of my patience is not to call a premature end to my story just because I have found what seems to be an exciting and fitting resolution. The writer needs to keep asking: Can I push this further? Have I taken this to the end of the line? Just as stories can have false starts, they can also have false ends: moments that feel pretty resolved, but which do not actually express the full meaning of the story in the strongest possible way. If you rack your brain, you can find ways to push the conflict higher, take the action further. If you can do that, it means that the peak you found was not the final summit—and your story is not done until you find that final summit.

 

Interestingly, the word climax itself comes from the Greek klimax, which means “ladder.” Originally this was used metaphorically for a figure of speech in which a series of statements is arranged in order of increasing force. This is in keeping with Robert McKee‘s idea of the cardinal rule of all temporal arts:

Thou shalt save the best for last.

According to John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins, in the late 18th century climax came to refer to the endpoint of the process—where the ladder was taking you—rather than to the process itself. I think it’s good to remember the original meaning when one is crafting the endpoint of one’s story. Here too there is a process involved, and it is appropriate to take meticulous care with it.

In plotting my story’s climax I have gone through a number of false ends, and have been astonished a few times to find new life in the story when I thought I had it wrapped up. I kept thinking: “How can I take this further?” and an answer would come to me. At times it was frightening, for the story was taking on a life of its own and dragging in elements that I was not prepared for. The world of my story was becoming expanded beyond the boundaries I had imagined.

But when you do find that final peak, everything becomes stark and clear, like a landscape illuminated by a lightning flash. You might look on it with a certain wonder and think, “So this is what I’m really talking about!”

If you’re honest with yourself, I think you know when you’ve reached this moment. You know that you have found the final statement and meaning of your story; there is nowhere further to take it. The false peaks before it felt final because each one was the highest yet, and to go further might take your idea into strange and frightening places—outside the box you had imagined you were playing in. To press on means to let go and lose control. Climaxlike, no?

When you finally have it, you also have the key characters, ideas, props, and images that need to appear throughout the story. When you go back to the beginning again, you can start seeding them in and trimming away other less central things.

I’d like to say more about the specifics of the climax I’m working on, but I’m afraid that would be a massive spoiler. What I can say is that just as the story climax provides revelations to the reader, the fashioning of it provides revelations to the writer: both about the story and about craft of writing.


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novel vs. novel

I’m a fiction writer, so I pay close attention to the fiction I read. I’m always looking to learn how other practitioners have done things. What worked for them—and what didn’t?

The two novels I’ve read most recently are Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (translated from the German by Basil Creighton, with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo) and Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman. While I was happy to finish reading Grand Hotel, while I found that I couldn’t get into Falls the Shadow and wound up abandoning it after chapter 1, at page 29. Why did I finish one but not the other?

Weimar Germany vs. medieval Wales–who wins?

Grand Hotel is considerably shorter—maybe only 40% as long as Falls the Shadow—but that was no part of the reason, for I am happy to read long books if I’m enjoying them. Grand Hotel is also more of a “literary” novel, one that is more self-consciously inventive in its idea and design and not so easily placed in a familiar genre. Falls the Shadow is a work of historical fiction, and even, as I learned belatedly, the second in a series of novels that Goodreads identifies as Welsh Princes (this designation does not appear in the book itself). Here again, though, this does not place Grand Hotel at a special advantage in my eyes, since I hold storytelling in high regard and “genre” works are typically more interested in this than are “literary” works.

No, if I had to summarize what I think the decisive difference is between these books, I would say that it lies in the author’s view of the world and how that view is expressed. Let’s look at a couple actual passages. I’ve tried to select the first significant block of description in each work. Grand Hotel begins with an exchange of dialogue, and the first significant descriptive passage begins at the bottom of the first page. We are inside the Grand Hotel in Berlin in the early 1920s. Here it is:

The music from the Tearoom in the new building beat in syncopation from mirror to mirror along the walls. It was dinnertime and a smell of cooking was in the air, but behind the closed doors the large dining room was still silent and empty. The Chef, Mattoni, was setting out his cold buffet in the small white room. The porter felt a strange weakness in his knees and he stopped a moment in the doorway, arrested by the bright gleam of the colored lights behind the blocks of ice. In the corridor an electrician was kneeling on the floor, busy over some repair to the wires. Ever since they’d installed those powerful lights to illuminate the front of the hotel there was always something wrong with the overworked electrical system. The porter pulled himself together and went back to his post. Little Georgi meanwhile had taken charge. Georgi was the son of the proprietor of a large hotel business who wanted to see his son work his way up through the ranks. Senf, feeling somewhat oppressed, made his way straight across the Lounge, where there was now a good deal of movement. There the music of the jazz band from the Tearoom encountered that of the violins from the Winter Garden, and mingled with the thin murmur of the illuminated fountain as it fell into its imitation Venetian basin, the ring of glasses on tables, the creaking of wicker chairs and, lastly, the soft rustle of the furs and silks in which women were moving to and fro. The cool March air came in gusts through the revolving doors whenever the pageboy passed guests in or out.

There. Not fabulous, but interesting and well observed. The writing itself is prosaic, with no figurative language—metaphors, similes, metonyms, and the like—to make it vivid, but it is precise and presents unusual and telling details. The opening image of music reverberating along mirrors is unexpected and something we might not notice without this narrator’s help. She is cool and detached, but very observant and interested in this world.

Now let’s look at the opening two paragraphs of Falls the Shadow. We’re in northern France in February 1231:

They crossed the border into Brittany at noon, soon afterward they found themselves in an eerily silent landscape, shrouded in dense, spectral fog. Simon showed neither unease nor surprise, merely commented that they must be nearing the sea. But his squire was not so sanguine. Geoffrey fumbled within his mantle, seeking his crucifix. Bretagne, he whispered, as if the ancient name of this ominous realm might prove a talisman, protecting him and his young lord. It was a land steeped in dark legend, a land in which the people spun firelit tales of Merlin and the Celtic King, Arthur, a land with its own myths, its own arcane tongue, not a land to welcome strangers—Bretagne.

Geoffrey did not fear Breton bandits, for he’d never seen a better swordsman than Simon. But he wondered how they’d fare against shadows, against the demon spirits that were said to haunt these dark, foreboding forests. Once he broached the subject; Simon only laughed. Geoffrey was very much in awe of his lord, but understanding so far eluded him. How was it that Simon seemed so blessedly free of the fears that plagued other men? How could he believe this mad quest of his might succeed?

It seems reasonable enough, but I found that this prose was putting me off. Why?

To start with, I ran into a miscue in the first sentence:

They crossed the border into Brittany at noon, soon afterward they found themselves in an eerily silent landscape. . . .

At first it’s not easy to tell what grammatical relationship the words soon afterward have to the preceding clause. By the time I hit they found themselves I realized I was in a new clause, and that they had been stitched together with only a comma. The author has made use of a figure called asyndeton, the omission of a conjunction. This can be powerful when wielded skillfully, as by Julius Caesar when he said:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

In Ms. Penman’s case, though, it’s a habitual technique that amounts to being a verbal tic. Because it is habitual it does not add power or variety; it only slows the reader down—this reader, anyway—without compensation. If it’s just a device to reduce word count, there are better ways. I found I’d hit a speed bump in the very first sentence.

Reading on, I found the description to be long without being informative. The phrase “eerily silent landscape, shrouded in dense, spectral fog” for all that it contains 4 adjectives (including the past participle shrouded) and an adverb, is less vivid than it should be. The generic word landscape does not bring any image to mind; we won’t learn until the next paragraph that the travelers are in “forests.” To me it would be more vivid simply to say:

They crossed into Brittany at noon and entered a forest shrouded in fog.

Not excellent, but serviceable and easy to read. It has compressed 22 words down to 13, with no loss of conjunction between clauses and no real loss of meaning, indeed it rather gains in vividness. What might happen if this kind of compression could be done to the whole novel, which runs about 575 dense pages? Forest is still a generic word, and shrouded is a dead metaphor. The writer keen to make a stronger first impression might rethink these. Such rethinking might involve research, though: what kinds of forests are there in Brittany, or were there in 1231? What do they actually look like and feel like? How much work does the writer want to do? On the other hand, it is a first sentence and thus a first impression.

I just did a quick online search and came up with this interesting material from a travel site about visiting France:

The Breton forest distinguishes itself from other forests by the presence of beech and oak groves of holly and yew trees in areas where the atmosphere is very humid. It is composed of both indigenous species, beech trees (in the centre of Brittany), sessile oak trees (in deep soil), pedunculated oaks (in damp soil) and strange species like the Scotch pine tree (introduced during the Renaissance) and Maritime pines (introduced during the Enlightenment) or chestnut trees (whose introduction dates back to the Celtic period).

Interesting! This could turn a generic forest into a forest of, say, holly and yew trees—trees that begin to bring more specific images to the reader’s mind. The mention of holly trees swathed in fog will bring the reader into the story more quickly than any number of adjectives in front of the word landscape.

The rest of the paragraph tries to show a contrast between the two characters presented, and conjure a sense of mystery around Brittany. Here again, saying less would mean more. Let’s take the second sentence:

Simon showed neither unease nor surprise, merely commented that they must be nearing the sea.

The sentence tells us about Simon’s response, and then lets us know what that response was. It would be stronger if it did only the latter. To show contrast with the attitude of his servant, Geoffrey’s response could be combined with it in the same sentence:

Simon merely commented that they must be near the sea, but Geoffrey fumbled for his crucifix.

With the deletion of the intervening sentence, this cuts 30 words down to 16. More liposuction. The reader is being asked to draw some inferences from the text, rather than being told everything, and this too makes a work more involving to read.

I’m sorry if I appear to be picking on this book or its author; I don’t mean to! The book itself may be fairly decent and indeed better than average. Heck, it’s a St. Martin’s Griffin book, and my library copy is from its eighth printing. But I found that I didn’t want to go on reading it, and I am trying to give a sense of why.

On Goodreads I gave Grand Hotel four stars, but found that I could give Falls the Shadow only three on the basis of what I had read. With this reader, these two unlikely authors went head to head with their respective works, and this was the result.

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Theosophy by Rudolf Steiner: a field guide to reality

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos (Cw 9)

Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos by Rudolf Steiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book speaks with vigor and authority about things that most of us spend our lives studiously trying to ignore.

Sometime in late adolescence I became aware that my life had a spiritual dimension and even a spiritual purpose. I might not have put it that way at the time, but I had developed a seasick feeling that all of my notions of about life and its aims were inadequate and wrong. I had no idea what to replace them with, so I embarked on a search that in time got me looking at the great religions of the world. While I did hear of a thing called the perennial philosophy, which taught that all the spiritual traditions share fundamental beliefs, I couldn’t help noticing that the religions were also very different from each other and made conflicting claims about many things.

In my late 20s I joined a Vajrayana Buddhist congregation and felt that I had found my spiritual home. But a thought that also occurred to me was that all these various issues addressed by religions, things such as what happens when we die, what are the fundamental aspects of reality, is there an unseen world, and are there sentient beings beyond what we can cognize with our senses, are fundamentally questions of fact, just as questions about the natural world are questions of fact. The world religions have different things to say about these various questions, but my thought was that these things shouldn’t be articles of faith, but matters that could, in principle, be decided objectively one way or the other, somehow or another. I thought that it should be possible to bring a scientific attitude to matters of the spirit.

I didn’t realize it, but I had reinvented the impulse behind theosophy, the spiritual movement that took shape in the 19th century, popularized by Helena Blavatsky. Knowing nothing about it, I’d always assumed it was just flaky New Age mumbo jumbo. Having arrived at the Buddhist path, my need to look into other things died down, so I gave it no more thought for the next couple of decades.

In recent years, though, my interest has flared up again. Not that I’m dissatisfied with the Buddhist teachings—I just find myself interested to hear what other traditions have to say. I’m a Western Buddhist, which means that I am practicing these teachings in a melting pot of other spiritual ideas, some of which may be quite valuable. And then there is still the question of what are the facts.

I searched for books on theosophy, and this one by Rudolf Steiner appeared to be a promising introduction. And I was not disappointed. In this primer, first published in English in 1910, Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and Goethe scholar, lays out the fundamental principles of theosophy, the science of the spirit. Both Steiner himself and Michael Holdrege, the author of the foreword to this edition, warn that the material is difficult and cannot simply be absorbed in a casual reading. An active intellectual effort is required of the reader to reach out and take hold of what Steiner is presenting. And here I must agree, for, even though I’m used to reading challenging texts, I found that this one made unaccustomed demands on my attention and my imagination.

This is largely because the subject matter is the unseen realms of reality, and these are being discussed with language that was invented to help us communicate about the sensory world. But there is also the issue of the inherent subtlety of the ideas themselves, and even their surprising complexity at times. One of the most mind-stretching teachings in the book is that the human being has 7 different “bodies” or components, of which our physical body is but one. For now I can only say that I’ve been introduced to that idea; it will take time for me to reflect on what it means.

However, for most purposes, it’s convenient to look at the human being as composed of 3 more familiar elements: body, soul, and spirit. Steiner clearly explains what these things mean, and how we need to orient ourselves to them in order to live full, worthwhile, human lives. In brief, body is the realm of sensations; soul is the realm of urges and feelings; spirit is the realm of thought. In these 3 realms, which we all occupy simultaneously, we seek to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth, respectively.

There are things here which conflict with the Buddhist teachings as I understand them. Steiner talks about our immortal or eternal aspects, including the “I,” while Buddhism denies the existence of any lasting soul. But I’m at a stage of life where I don’t feel I need to go either/or with these ideas; I feel that they can be in dialogue with each other, and that the truth can be found this way. Certainly I do feel, deep down, a desire to move toward beauty, goodness, and truth.

Why are we here? What are we doing with our human lives? These are important questions, and this book is a portal to the road of discovering the answers for ourselves.

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back home in the Million Club

Good gravy, it’s been a long time since I have posted to my beloved blog. Apologies to my long-suffering readers! Why the long silence?

Rightly or wrongly, mostly the latter, my blog tends to get folded in with my activities on “social media,” and for the past months my energies have been aimed elsewhere. The places I have been posting to lately have been my Facebook author page and my page on Quora, where I have been not only answering questions but now, increasingly, posting them. They have invited me to be a Quora Partner, which means that I can earn a share of the ad revenue that is generated by visits to my questions. This revenue, howsoever small, is most welcome, and so I have been devoting an increasing share of my social-media time budget to posting there.

Back Home in the Million Club - Will Smith as The Fresh Prince

Watchable Will

Posting questions is all right, but I still much prefer posting answers. And 3 days ago I passed a milestone on Quora: my answers had reached 1 million views. I admit that I enjoy being in the “million club,” a feeling that I got while writing The Odyssey back in 1993. When the show was being broadcast, Michael Chechik, the executive producer, would receive ratings reports from the CBC, and Warren Easton, my cowriter, and I would look at them when we emerged from our cave (my house) to visit his office for one reason or another. One week, that of the broadcast of episode 7, “A Place Called Nowhere,” the viewership cracked 1 million. In Canada, for a Canadian-made show, that was an excellent number. I remember telling my father, who was a longtime CBC producer, and he was amazed.

It was all the more gratifying because the audience delivered by the “lead-in” to our show–a CBC production called Road Movies that consisted of student-made videos of traveling in Canada–was only about 220,000 people. That meant that our show brought in about 800,000 new viewers that night. Mind you, our own show was itself a lead-in to an even bigger hit, which registered over 3 million viewers here in Canada. But that show was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a Hollywood production starring Will Smith, and a massive hit in the U.S. and Canada. That night we delivered them 1 million pairs of eyes, and they only had to earn 2 million more of their own.

So. All these years later I’m back in the Million Club, in a new and different venue, and to be honest I feel right at home here. For although I don’t regard myself as a mass-market artist or creator, I do believe that work of quality and integrity will find its audience, and that audience will always be a large one in the long run.

Thank you for being part of mine. I intend to post here much more often now!


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The Fatherhood Principle by Myles Munroe: making God your role model

The Fatherhood Principle: God's Design and Destiny for Every ManThe Fatherhood Principle: God’s Design and Destiny for Every Man by Munroe Myles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a Christian, or are willing to become one, this book lays out a strong and principled approach to being a man and a father in the contemporary world. For this author, man and father are synonymous terms, regardless of whether one has had actual biological offspring, since a man’s role and purpose in the world is to act as a “father” to others who need dependable and unselfish guidance and support.

Munroe’s views are based on the Bible, which he takes seriously and literally. And if you’re willing to accept all Bible stories, especially that of Adam and Eve, as literally true, then his arguments are strong and well formed. You can even say the same about his views on homosexuality, for which he became notorious in his native Bahamas (he died in a plane crash in 2014), for in the Bible God’s position on homosexuality is as clear as can be.

The big question is whether one who is not a Christian, or not a Christian who takes every Bible story literally, can still benefit from Dr. Munroe’s vision of fatherhood. I like to think yes. My own experience is that genuinely spiritual people, of whatever stripe, are a positive force in the world. Here Dr. Munroe tells men, especially young men who may feel confused and aimless, how to gain a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and thereby become the rock that others can lean on or stand on for support. Feminists would no doubt howl with execration at his ideas about men being the heads of their households, but I suspect that many women would be happy to marry a man who was principled, ethical, and dedicated to the welfare of his family. Munroe’s vision of man as the head of the household is that he leads by example and does his best to help everyone in his care to realize their potential.

But for such a man to be entirely credible he does need to have a strong spiritual grounding, and in Munroe’s view this means being thoroughly versed in the teachings of the Bible. For the real question is what one does when the going gets tough. The godly man has the Bible and his church as his supports; what does the secular man or the non-Christian man lean on? I think that men from other spiritual traditions, such as, say, Buddhism (where I’ve had my own spiritual training, such as it is), can probably take valuable advice from Munroe’s book, even though Munroe himself is dismissive of other spiritual traditions. If you believe there is such a thing as masculinity and masculine virtues, then it makes sense to apply these notions to that most defining of male functions: fatherhood. If you can ground those virtues in spirituality, then you’re on your way.

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Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Harrison: what those myths are really about

Prolegomena to the Study of Greek ReligionProlegomena to the Study of Greek Religion by Jane Ellen Harrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, originally published in 1903, is the best thing I’ve found on Greek mythology or Greek attitudes to things of the spirit generally.

I forget exactly what prompted me to get it, probably favorable mention of it in some other book, but in July 2010 I got myself a used copy of the stout Meridian Books paperback published in 1955. An imposing tome of 682 pages, it sat on my shelves until just 5 months ago. At that time I had hit, as I occasionally do, a gap in my reading, and I came down to the “library” (a carpeted storeroom housing our freezer and 3 Ikea Billy bookcases) to prowl for something of interest. I finally decided to give the Prolegomena a chance.

I was immediately impressed with the author’s perceptiveness, authority, and approach. The book’s 12 chapters take one on a journey from “chthonic rituals” of “ghosts and sprites” to an extended discussion of Orphism, which occupies the last 4 chapters. And what a journey it is: I felt that all kinds of puzzles and mysteries and seeming inconsistencies of Greek mythology resolved and fell into place. The fascinating thing about this book is that it has very little to do with what I had always thought of as Greek religion, which was a religion centered on the familiar gods of Olympus. Jane Harrison occasionally mentions these gods in passing, but her interest is in all the religious phenomena that lay in the penumbra of the spotlight pointed on Olympus by Homer and other classical authors. Her interest is in tracing the development of Greek religion from its most primitive manifestations up to its most sophisticated ones. The Olympian gods formed part of that story, but only a part, and seemingly, as this author tells it, by no means the largest part.

I was already aware that ancient Greek religion had been formed by a collision between the prehistoric matriarchal system of the ancient inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula and Crete and the patriarchal invaders who swept down from the north and east. But Harrison shows how the deepest layers of Greek religion need to be sought in the beliefs and behaviors of primitive people who fear, above all, ghosts. Much of what develops into what we call religion begins with the riddance and placation of the souls of the dead, who, when angry, vengeful, or envious, can bring terrible misfortune to those still living. Long before there is anything so definite and well characterized as a personal god, there are countless invisible sprites–the Keres of ancient Greece–who affect the human world for good and ill, and many of Greece’s famous festivals and rituals had their origins in repelling, expelling, and appeasing these ghostly figures.

Harrison shows how goddesses and gods eventually emerged from these primitive spirits, and how these gods eventually became clearly distinguished and named–even if with a number of different names. And she shows how these two eventually gave way to a higher, more mystical kind of religious experience and practice that gained the name Orphism. Some investigators have believed that Orpheus was a god, but Harrison dismisses this view. To her it’s clear that Orpheus was a man, a revealer and reformer who created a mystical new religion inspired by the worship of Dionysos and injecting new esoteric meaning into primitive rites.

Much of the author’s argument is based on the interpretation of ancient Greek art: vases, bowls, funerary monuments. The book is richly illustrated with black-and-white reproductions of these, and Harrison’s depth of knowledge of these artifacts is most impressive. She knows what she’s talking about.

The prose itself is very readable. Harrison writes with passion and admiration, even as she does not hesitate to criticize and pass judgment on ancient practices and authors when they reveal signs of savagery or confusion. She is quick and punctilious to acknowledge the work of other scholars, but unafraid of noting when she disagrees with them or rejects their ideas. She is also well versed in the ancient authors and treats them in much the same way; she relies on them, but is aware of their personal shortcomings. There are a couple of interesting footnotes too in which she admits that some theory of her own, already appearing earlier in the book, is in error! Read carefully.

In all, a thoroughly excellent book. If you’re new to ancient Greek mythology and religion, then you probably should not start here. Acquaint yourself with the Greek myths and festivals, and then reach for this book. You start to see how all those various strange myths start to make sense; they are expressions of a few guiding principles that underlie their formation.

For us in the West, Greek mythology is the mythology; when we talk about “myths,” often we mean Greek myths. Our culture is shot through with them; our modern stories are based on them and are filled with allusions to their events. For example, I’m currently reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, published in 1995, and I suddenly realized that some of the action was based on the Oedipus myth. But those myths are the tip of an iceberg, and to appreciate them fully one should have a sense of the shape and depth of the berg that lies below the waterline. Jane Harrison’s book examines the underwater part of that iceberg, and it’s illuminating indeed.

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Aristotle, meet Paul. . . .

On Thursday, March 7, 2019, I reached a personal milestone: I finished reading the works of Aristotle.

I read them mostly from the 2 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World that contain his works: volumes 8 and 9. Together they contain 29 books on 1,425 densely printed pages. It’s been quite a journey, one that has taken me at least 10 years.

Now I’m not sure which of his books I read first. I think it was the Poetics, a short work about poetry; I bought the Penguin Classics paperback in June 2007 and probably started reading it right away. The reason was that this book is mostly about dramaturgy, for the kind of poetry that Aristotle discusses in the most depth is tragedy: drama. He regards this as the highest form of poetry, and this book explores why that is. As a screenwriter and storyteller, I was eager to learn what this ancient thinker had to say on one of my favorite topics. And I was electrified: Aristotle’s work, short as it is—62 pages including end notes—remains the single best textbook for the dramatist and storyteller, in my opinion.

So let’s say that’s where it started. Where it ended, on March 7, was with the closing words of Book V of On the Generation of Animals, one of 5 “biological treatises” with which volume 9 of the Great Books opens. Aristotle was a significant naturalist who made a great many detailed observations of a wide array of animals. From these he tries to draw conclusions and principles–scientific theories–based on these observations.

Over the 12 years that passed between reading these 2 books, I read all the others, not continuously, but off and on. They’re not all equally good or equally well organized, but the best of Aristotle represents the best thinking ever done in the history of Western thought. And although he is an astute observer of the world and its myriad phenomena, he is at his best when he is managing the most abstract ideas. This is where he really comes into his own.

The most difficult book? For me, and I think for any normal person, it was the Prior Analytics, the work in which he sets out his theory of deductive logic. It is a detailed analysis of the structure, classification, and valid operation of syllogisms. Take it from me, it makes for some mighty dense reading.

You can be a perpetual student and never leave the Prior Analytics

Indeed I didn’t make it through the book; I searched for a guidebook to help me, and found an excellent one: Aristotle: Prior Analytics by Robin Smith, published in 1989. Smith (and I don’t know Smith’s gender–there’s no clue to it in the book!) provides a detailed guide to the content. I set up a binder and worked my way through the book by making detailed notes and diagrams; the notes run to 53 longhand pages.

The Prior Analytics is actually the third of 6 books in the set called the Organon or “instrument,” which set out Aristotle’s formal method of thinking and arguing. The intent is to provide the “instrument” that allows a citizen to order his thoughts and succeed at debating with his fellow citizens–a central activity of political life in a democracy. The Organon forms the core curriculum of a liberal education, that is, an education in the 3 liberal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. Inspired by the vision of liberal education, I was eager to acquire one for myself–or anyway the nearest thing I could get to it–and so I was highly motivated to read these books carefully.

And so I did, filling a 3-ring binder with notes along the way. To be sure, only about a third of the binder is devoted to notes on Aristotle’s Organon; the rest is devoted to notes on Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward P. J. Corbett, a textbook for college students published in 1965; and to The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph, an even deeper textbook, published in 1937. Indeed, I have come to regard this latter work as the best overall text on liberal education; I see even Aristotle’s books as supplements to it.

Having now read all of Aristotle, I can say that I hold him in high regard. In this respect I’m like Mortimer J. Adler, the American philosopher who was editor of the Britannica Great Books series. He was emphatic that many of the thorny problems of philosophy were in fact solved by Aristotle; it’s just that subsequent philosophers, especially modern ones, never bothered to familiarize themselves with his work.

I can’t say that I’ve familiarized myself with Aristotle. I feel that I have been introduced to him. But, like any people who have been introduced, we are now free to get to know each other better. It’s too late for Aristotle to get to know me, but I can get to know him by referring back to his works, which I fully intend to do. Having read them, I now have a rough idea what’s in them, and can pull out the relevant volume when I want to refresh my memory.

What is the most striking, interesting, or provocative idea that I have taken away from reading Aristotle? There are several candidates, but I find that the one that keeps haunting me is his observation that the concept of equality is applicable only to quantities, and not to anything else. I think he’s right, and this thought has big implications for modern ideas about equality as it applies to people and their political and economic conditions. I have done some thinking about this and will share my thoughts in due course.

For now I want to bask in a sense of achievement, as I did after finishing reading the Greek dramatists and the works of Shakespeare. In this case, I think you’ll agree that the achievement is bigger. He exercises the mind in a way that few other writers do. But we all know that exercise is good for us.


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