Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1386), Introduction by Nevill Coghill (1951)

If you were to do a simple search for “great books,” or “most famous books,” or “best books” online, each individual category would yield all manner of material. “One Hundred Best Novels,” “Fifty Books You Should Read Before You Die,” and so on, is subject to the whims of those who compile them. Yet I’ve never spotted a list based exclusively on the celebration of a superb prose style. Guess I’ll have to put together that list myself one of these days.  

Over the course of my own reading career, I’ve discovered that the best books are comparable to good medicine – perhaps difficult for some to get through but beneficial to the mind or the soul. Others are literary cheap thrills, not particularly great but guaranteed to amuse, what Bertie Wooster’s valet Jeeves would term “light but attractive reading.” (I was recently informed that employing the parlance of today would render this sort of book ‘a beach read.’)

Everyone is partial. I’m no exception. As a starting point, as I’ve said elsewhere, even tons of mediocre paperbacks beat some of the best television and film. Of course, my love affair with words in general influences my views on the matter. I’m more likely to read garbage if only for the purposes of learning what not to do when I write. I’m also drawn to the forbidden stuff, books that were once banned or are still regarded as either taboo or perverse or both. This is partly due to what books can achieve – challenging our assumptions, exposing us to issues or ideas none of us would consider otherwise, or, as Sol Stein wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, dealing with subjects we’d never see entertained in any other media, important things, controversial things, things that require more exploration than a mere sound bite can do justice.

Curiously, I’ll read nearly all manner of material, in any genre. Yet when it comes to film, because I don’t fancy gore, I avoid horror. I don’t mind reading horror, but I wouldn’t watch the stuff if you paid me. You’ll never find me watching a romantic comedy, either. Yet I read romance. I’ve avoided most films in the fantasy and science fiction genre as well, primarily because such subject matter is treated so poorly. Yet I read more than my fair share of same.

I say all that to prepare you for this. Some books rub me the wrong way. I immediately dismiss any list that includes Hemingway, for example. His writing has always bored me. Not the subject matter but rather the unfolding of it. Those who hail William Faulkner’s travesty of a novel The Sound and the Fury might as well sell snake oil as far as I’m concerned. I hated that novel. An absolute mess. The same could be said for Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. That story nauseated me. And while I finished it (you can read my review of it here), I couldn’t get past ten pages of Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the writing style reminded me of grade school. See Spot run. See Jill swing. See Jack drown himself in the sea. I couldn’t stomach Plaith’s The Bell Jar for the same reason. Call me a jerk, a snob, an ass, I don’t care. Though I’ll usually read and finish it, I prefer prose a bit more sophisticated. 

In short, I’m not easily fooled by book lists. I know what I like and why. That said, I still depend on book lists as a guide. One reason is that such lists, for all their faults and bias, have exposed me to certain authors I never would’ve discovered otherwise, subject matter and genres to which I might not have been introduced.

Suppose you’re a fan of film. Further suppose you’re a film critic who watches anything and everything because it’s your job. Now consider how this might make you, over time, more discriminate, more particular about what qualifies as quality filmmaking. Isn’t it safe to say you’d become a bit more analytical, slightly harsher in your criticism, more demanding?

The same holds true for avid readers. Expose yourself to enough high-quality prose, storytelling chops, and skillful wordsmiths and it’ll take more than mere mediocrity to impress you. (There are exceptions. One particular film critic who shall remain nameless evidently loves film so much that once he has pointed out all the film’s flaws and I’m ready to give it an F based on his own critique, I’m bewildered when he concludes by giving the film in question a B- or a C.)

With that in mind, when I saw The Canterbury Tales on a few of these lists, I decided to set aside my high school memories (portions of the book were required reading) and give the book an honest try. I’m glad I did. Not only is The Canterbury Tales the best book of verse I’ve read; it’s one of the best books of both verse and prose.

Chaucer is a master. His knowledge of meter, subject matter, varying diction based on the specific narrator (each character offers a tale), lyricism, not to mention his staggering versatility in approach and mood, is stellar. Setting aside the mechanics, the themes, plots, events, and characters comprising his poems (which are varied and at times hypnotic), the author’s accomplishment in delivery is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Here you’ll find content ranging from the reverential and glorious to the scatological and perverse. The stories are told with both unflinching and engrossing mastery.

Yes. It’s that good. Five out of five stars. Rated R.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lies We Tell Ourselves, Sir Mosy Prank

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching, I’ve been particularly busy at work, and the additional hours have cut into my writing time. I reached out to a friend and fellow avid reader who teaches psychology at a local university. He and his wife follow my blog and, with the downtime afforded professors during this season, he agreed to submit a review of his own, a wonderful review, I might add, of a tragic memoir he recently discovered. His reviews tend to be more thorough than mine. I post it unabridged with his permission and for your entertainment.

Loafing on Laundry Day

It’s a familiar phrase with me now: “rummaging through my local used bookstore’s bargain bin …” I’ll refrain from my tendency to invoke the overblown similes I'm prone to employ, in this case comparing bins and books to aquariums and fish or baskets or barrels of apples and instead provide the essentials. High dollar moccasins insulating me from the bookstore’s dusty linoleum, under the cold illume of fluorescent lights, peering into a crate full of paperbacks like a dumpster diver, or, better yet, like a husband peering over a jeweler’s glass display searching for the perfect accessory with crested diamonds for his wife as a surprise, I tucked my tie into my button down, rolled up my long sleeves, and ravaged stacks of obscure orphans abandoned, each with a corner of its cover clipped like a pup’s ears, hoping to relive one of those exquisite moments when a musician in a pawnshop finds a vintage instrument worth a fistful of Franklins selling for a few measly Hamiltons.  

This memoir called to me, Mark. Perhaps the honorific preceding the author’s name, like that of Dr. Wilberforce or Prof. Found or Sirs Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle or Lords Dunsany and Byron, added a certain nobility, a charm appealing albeit somewhat antiquated, which lured me much like when my wife selects an Italian operatic aria from Spotify and prances about the house wearing a yellow ribbon in her hair and nothing else save a welcoming smile. (I apologize if this image torments you, Mark. I realize you’re practically celibate. My condolences.)

The memoir, Lies We Tell Ourselves, by one Sir Mosy Prank (admittedly a dubious, though playful, patronym), is a grave confessional rife with what I must assume is sheer hyperbole, by which I mean that by the third draft the minnow takes on the weight of a whale.     

Because the title hinted at the very things I dealt with as a clinical psychologist, and because Mr. Prank’s patronym (either a non de plume or, as my wife insists, an anagram), and the fact that his memoir was published in 1965, the year I was born, I was impelled to spend the requisite nickel and bring the book home.

“My mother was still a teen when she tried to commit suicide. She drove her Impala off a bridge. She would sport a horseshoe shaped scar on the underside of her wrist the size of a baby’s heel print for the rest of her life as a testament to the attempt. This was years before I was conceived. Years later, at the age of eight, I ate this up. She followed up the story by telling me that my brother and I were the only reasons she hadn’t tried to kill herself again. This puts a strain on a child to make whatever obstacles one’s mother faced in life more bearable. Only I hadn’t a clue about how to achieve that. This was my first lesson in impotence.”

Thus begins an author’s tragic life beset by insecurities and doubt. Prank was the victim of feuding parents who appeared to hate each other. This strife trickled down to him and his younger brother “like that ancient Chinese torture technique of tying down the victim and setting the faucet on drip over his forehead every second until the drops take on the intensity of a hammer.”  

Unlike his brother who bottled up his emotional frustrations, Prank constantly got into fights with the boys in his elementary school, often “beating up a boy for cutting in line at the cafeteria or taking my seat in class.” Before the fall season of his fourth year had ended, he’d been sent to the principal’s office so many times that “the index card the office kept on me resembled a miniature blueprint of Dante’s nine circles of hell,” and the school was forced to call in his parents for a conference.

He describes the frumpy secretary with her perennial scowl, which, he says, reminded him of his mother, the forlorn principal with the plaque sporting his engraved name he proudly situated along the ledge of his desk, and so on, all done in a style harkening to those dime store thrillers in which the protagonist’s psychosis blurs the first person narrative.

His parents were nonplussed as to how this could’ve happened. To their credit, so was Mosy. But this behavior continued until the school sent in a psychologist who managed to draw out enough answers from him to diagnose his mental anguish.

“At the close of the third session, she told me I knew I couldn’t stop my parents from screaming at each other, and I saw no other way to deal with the frustration this generated apart from taking it out on my classmates. The revelation triggered something deep within me, and against my better judgement, in front of this professional stranger, my hard exterior fractured and my palms and cheeks were wet from weeping.”

Alliteration aside, Mosy’s mother, one Mrs. Noisy Park, Park, I initially assumed, being her maiden name (though my wife by way of a shuffling of letters demonstrated Mrs. Noisy Park was an anagram of our author Sir Mosy Prank), claimed her own mother hated her, treated her cruelly, and on one occasion, when Mrs. Park had attempted to explain the benefits of church for their children’s religious instruction to her indifferent husband, Mosy’s father got on the phone to her mother and told her he’d had enough.

Mosy’s grandmother, a hardened woman of the south, growing up picking cotton from dawn till dusk, living on a diet of beans and cornbread throughout her impoverished childhood, told his father he needed to “knock some sense into her.” Mosy’s mother, given her circumstances and thus prone to paranoia, had listened in on the conversation on a hardline in another part of the house.

The revelation, rather than inspiring bitter thoughts and a sense of hopelessness, instead served to reinforce Mrs. Park's belief that the Devil was thwarting her efforts. This view further encouraged her to press her directive even harder. As a result, Mosy and his younger brother were required to memorize various chapters in the Bible weekly. Anything in life not germane to religious faith was forbidden, right down to the toys they played with. Ignorant of the value of childhood escapism, oblivious to the symbolic associations of fairy tale magic, and instead regarding these imaginative exercises as idolatry and moral turpitude, his mother purged their household forthwith. Comic books and super hero action figures were consequently confiscated and thrown away. According to the mother, such powers weren’t of our Lord and were thus demonic in origin.

The boys subsequently were forced to pretend pious lives comparable to that of practicing priests. They were tugged by the ear to every church service and tent revival, often getting home at one in the morning on school days, sitting in classrooms half-asleep, and all round miserable.

This effort on Mrs. Park’s part, which went on for years, had the opposite effect on Mosy and his brother, who grew to resent religion and religious people. Had this instruction been carried out by a more rational parent, Mosy would later speculate, he might’ve taken to it. But throughout his teens, every Sunday, running late, his mother would speed to church, resting her hand on the dashboard, pleading the blood of Jesus over the car, noticing the gas tank registering empty, gritting her teeth and telling the devil, “Satan! I rebuke you in the name of Jesus. Release my car! You will not prevent us from getting to church.”

Imagine! Even as a thirteen-year old, Mosy knew his mother’s behavior was unhealthy and woefully irresponsible. But she was the matriarch of the family and by extension roleplayed the god of the Old Testament, prone to anger, sometimes brutal, and always beyond reproach. Her catchphrase was “Doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong; I’m the parent!”

One event I found particularly malevolent. Mrs. Park accused Mosy of something he hadn’t done. He denied the charge. His brother, usually silent or absent during such confrontations, insisted Mosy was telling the truth. Mrs. Park then accused Mosy of having manipulated his brother to side with him. Mosy, as surprised by his brother’s alliance as his mother had been, told his mother she was unaware of her cruelty. Whereby Mosy’s mother told him to pack his things and get out of their house.

Horrified, Mosy asked, “You’re kicking me out?”

Mosy’s mother took the opportunity to quote from the film The Odd Couple, in which Walter Matthau’s character tells Jack Lemmon’s character, “Not in other words; those are the perfect ones,” after which she offered a wicked smile. This pronouncement was all the more devastating to Mosy because only weeks before, his mother had introduced him to the film on television. Watching that film had been one of the few treasured memories he had of his mother. Here she’d demonstrated a facetious flair, mocking him, amused by his bewilderment, and indifferent to his subsequent fate.

After a week of sleeping on the floor of a recording studio friends had provided, Mosy’s parents found out about his living arrangements and told him he could return home. Shortly thereafter, when Mosy, miserable about his own circumstances, contemplated suicide, his mother found out and sat him down to tell him his life belonged to God and that therefore he had no right to end it. He reminded her of her own suicide attempt. Whereby she denied it, told him he was mistaken, that the scar along her wrist was the result of a freak auto accident rather than a premeditated event.

Mosy no longer knew which tale to believe. “This is probably where my negative view of women began,” he writes. “They couldn’t be trusted. Their stories were calibrated to suit their audience.”

This distrust informed his subsequent failed relationships and strained romances. Mosy refers to that less popular song by the 80s band The Police and the lyric, “Why does every girl I go out with become my mother in the end?”  

One fetish he shares with the reader, though he doesn’t attribute it to his mother, has to do, I suspect, with his mother’s habit of caking her face with makeup “to the point at which she resembled a carnival clown, sans the foam nose. Lipstick as red as arterial blood, rouge insinuating the rigors of sex, and hair coiffed to qualify as museum art put me off my feed even as a teen with raging hormones.” His fetish made him particularly vulnerable to the wiles of women “who either wore no makeup or wore so little as to appear honest.” He attributes this preference, wrongly I suspect, to “finding an unassuming woman whose passions and pursuits left no room for pretense.”

Mosy insists that while he assumes responsibility for his life, he can’t help but wonder whether the example his mother set, that early role model representing all things feminine, was the reason he and his brother remained bachelors up to the publishing of this memoir and (I presume) beyond.

According to Mosy, his brother was much like his father – aloof and cowardly. Whereas Mosy was, to his chagrin, much like his mom – overly sensitive and scatterbrained. Discovering this early on propelled him to change:

“Because my mother routinely, daily, misplaced her keys, her driver’s license, her checkbook and her credit cards, and with the introduction of the cell phone, that too, she’d send her sons on treasure hunts that to this day I’m convinced is the reason I always place my own keys and cards and phone in the same spot after coming home from work every day so as to never mislay them and have to interrupt my life to retrace my steps.”

While his father made good money as a licensed pipefitter for a major auto plant, Mosy’s mother spent at least half those earnings on jewelry, dresses, and her ever increasing shoe collection, meanwhile writing hot checks to cover the hot checks she wrote the day before and shopping for her two growing boys at hand-me-downs shops and Goodwill stores. As a result, Mosy and his brother always wore clothes too small for their growing size. Invoking the principle of big lakes producing big fish, Mosy insists this led to his development of a “penis the size of a wine cork.”

I can only sympathize with such men whose manhood fails to impress, myself endowed with what my wife China ironically refers to as both her “Scylla and Charybdis.” I’ve never dared to ask her, but I suspect this allusion stems from the irreverent twig and berries euphemism, since it’s China’s long-standing practice to supplement supernatural occurrences (ancient tales of monsters) with natural explanations (undertows, riptides, deadly whirlpools), something she insists Ulysses and his crew most likely experienced, should the classic tome bear any authentic fruit.

“I don’t blame my mother any more than I blame a bird for eating worms. Sure. We’re responsible for our behavior. But when my mother pressed her palm to my forehead and yelled, ‘Satan! Release my son!’ I’ve no doubt she meant well. In her world, spiritual warfare, the battle between angels and demons contending for our souls, were the powers and principalities influencing our fate. Prayer, not planning, religion, not reason, would lead to a good life. Only if this defined the good life, I was shaping into a villain. That was one path she hadn’t anticipated. Yet in keeping with children following by example it shouldn’t have surprised her.”

Understandably, considering Mosy’s experiences, I, too, would have grown suspicious of religion and those who represented it.

“While I’d like to say once I left the nest, I never looked back, instead I made the mistake, again and again, of returning to that environment. Whether I considered myself capable of curing my mother’s mental illness or merely found solace in the familiar, albeit dysfunctional, familial unit, I don’t know to this day.”

Grim reflections, to be sure.

“I suppose I still wanted to believe these anecdotes were merely a series of isolated events in an otherwise normal family. Perhaps, I often told myself, we forget the euphoria of unwrapping the gifts on Christmas morning and remember only the drudgery of cleaning up afterwards. But these weren’t isolated events or sparse tragedies peppering an otherwise average childhood. They were variations on a recurring theme, a life of unpredictable, frightening scenes shaping boys into jaded, self-conscious neurotics.” 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to employ my many years of experience as a clinical psychologist. Given such an upbringing, Mosy probably didn’t realize the best method for dealing with such a history is to first forgive and then to never look back.

As you know, we psychologists unanimously advise patients who suffer these relationships to weigh their options. The options are always the same: first recognize that you can’t change anyone, no matter how hard you try, particularly if those people neither want nor see the value in changing. Hence, you must either accept such people as they are or you must avoid them.

Second, associating with such people benefits no one. In fact, such associations tend to arrest the progress of those who wish to become something more. And no matter how you word it, explaining this to those who’ve wronged you does nothing to resolve the issue.  

I can only sympathize with Mosy, having led a perfect childhood with adoring parents. I’m sure my folks disagreed on occasion, but the pervading harmony would’ve made many of the Austrian composers of the classical era fawn. My healthy relationships with my doting parents fostered an outlook conducive to social interaction with peers and ultimately marriage to a woman whose inner and outer beauty inspires envy among her book club friends and lusts among mine.  

Mosy goes on to chronicle the divorce between his parents, his father moving to a distant state, his mother remarrying a man who’d cheated on his previous two wives and whose unchecked philandering led to the dissolution of his marriage to Mosy’s mother as well, the step-siblings who, while amusing in their youth, would disregard Mosy’s earlier efforts to act as mediator on their behalf to lessen the brutality of his mother’s parenting during their formative years and later treat Mosy as a pariah, their “low brow trailer trash” mentality, Mosy’s words, “both rudderless and promiscuous,” invoking the voodoo of failed marriages and financial foundering.   

Again, unlike Mosy and his fate, my own father was a role model who taught me the value of honesty, who gave me a leash long enough with which to entangle myself but encouraged me throughout my growing pains until I could see the value of independence. My mother, who shaped the course of my more tender side, instilled the notions associated with class, etiquette, propriety, and discernment. By way of her example as a lady, I would adopt the tenets by which she lived – wisdom, compassion, charity.

As we’ve discussed on numerous occasions over scotch and cigars, Mark, my own parents practiced these virtues and insisted I do the same until I eventually recognized and appreciated these same virtues for the balm they would prove in more difficult times. It pains me to know philistines such as those comprising Mosy’s family, with their reckless disregard for responsibility as parents beyond providing diapers and shelter, molds their progeny into the kinds of people the parents themselves no longer like and, in some cases, resent. Telling parenting to be sure. For all I know, Mosy resides in a psych ward and diligently takes his prescribed meds.

Now if you’ll excuse me, China ascends the staircase as I write this, providing me with the allusion of what I can best describe as a swaying cello, her hips taking on the swing of a hypnotist’s pocket watch, scattering laurels along the carpeted tiers in her wake. Oh! Now she insists I join her for a bit of bedroom roleplay in which she dons the garb of Penelope and I Ulysses after a decade long deployment overseas. I’ve just assured her I haven’t slain her suitors this time but have only redirected them to the banquet out back. I’ll give her a few minutes to refresh herself. If it’s anything like our last exertions, I’ll find my love reclining across the comforter as if posing for a sketch artist, draped in a chlamys she bought at a costume boutique, smelling of bath oils, and batting her lashes. Scylla and Charybdis indeed.   

Friday, November 30, 2018

The Aeneid and The Search for a Literary Agent

I’ve been a fan of myths and legends and ancient folktales for longer than I can recall. I even tried my hand at the genre. Spent a few years drafting and redrafting a fantasy fiction manuscript until I was satisfied. Then I sent it off to a few friends and acquaintances.

Although I was mining for the kind of feedback which would allow me to make improvements, only one reader, a published author and dear friend who I refer to here as The Wunderfool, offered up some suggestions, suggestions which improved the story immeasurably. Though, shout out to Mr. Conner for catching several typos both my author friend The Wunderfool and I missed.   

Th Wunderfool, a great writer whose opinion I hold in the highest regard, assured me he enjoyed my manuscript. Of course, his approval was a validation of sorts since he’s demanding to a fault. Discriminating tastes, hard to please, especially when it comes to writing.

However, beyond writing the thing, my only real concern was to write the sequel and hope that by the time I finished the third and final installment, I could take comfort in the knowledge that I’d not only written something I could be proud of and enjoy reading for my own pleasure, but that, dare I say, I would have written something comparable to the best stuff in the genre. I know that’s presumptuous. I pride myself on being my harshest critic. Took me over three years to finish, and I wasn’t about to subject anyone to it until I thought it was worth their time.

When The Wunderfool recently quizzed me about my publishing plans, I had only a vague notion of my options. Would I either self-publish, as so many writers were doing these days, or would I seek out a literary agent who would take on my manuscript and shop it around to prospective publishing houses?

Knowing next to nothing about the process, I explained that I wanted to go the legacy route by nabbing a literary agent, but not before I completed the sequel I’m working on and had outlined the third installment.

The Wunderfool suggested I recognize the process of finding an agent was a long and arduous one and that I not procrastinate, rather that I submit my query letters asap and continue writing my sequel while I wait for the rejection letters to pour in.

Sage advice, as always. I agreed and immediately educated myself on the best method for doing this. After reading various articles online and watching YouTube videos posted by literary agents, as well as published authors interviewing literary agents (including a couple panel presentations with Qs & As), I learned the following:

First, if you enjoy a novel in the genre you’re writing for and deem it comparable to your taste and technique, go to the  Acknowledgements or Special Thanks pages and locate (if the author is prone to expressing gratitude) the agent the author mentions. Include this acknowledgement in your query letter. “I noticed you represented Stephen R. Donaldson’s novella The King’s Justice. His Covenant Chronicles made me want to become a writer. My manuscript is inspired by his imaginative world and the psychological turmoil his protagonist endures in that decology.” Or words to that effect.

Second, recognize that literary agents, like most people, are a temperamental lot. Even if you’ve isolated a dozen agents searching for a story like yours, that query letter may decide whether he or she gives your manuscript a chance. Agents are pressed for time. Generally, a literary agent receives an average of one hundred query letters a week. He or she hasn’t time to read them all, much less the manuscripts or first three chapters attached. So be brief and to the point. Tell him or her what your story is about and how it ends. Don’t force them to speculate. They’ll only cast your query letter aside and reach for the next one.

Third, never say things like “This manuscript is the next Harry Potter” or “If you enjoyed Game of Thrones, you’ll love this” or “Prepare to strike it rich.” You’ll only expose your naivete and ignorance of the business. Agents treat such query letters with disdain.

Instead, show you’ve done a modicum of research by appealing to the agent’s knowledge of other works similar with your own. For example, I write, “Imagine Donaldson’s Covenant Chronicles and Scott’s Ivanhoe producing a love child – a modern narrative set in a world mirroring our own Middle-ages about a cursed warrior having to reconcile his desire for renown with his need to embrace his identity but with character dialogue comparable to that of the novels Ben-Hur or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (the latter case skirting Jacobean prose).” Don’t forget to provide a one-line synopsis of your story: “Before a warrior can defeat an evil in his world, he must first conquer his own demons.”

I won’t know how rare my niche is until I start receiving the rejection slips, but I suspect that because my inspiration is derived from works published decades ago, in some cases centuries ago, this niche works against me. Most of the literary agents who represented works I’ve most enjoyed are either retired or interred. Worse, most of the modern drivel published in the genre today doesn’t appeal to me. So much of it appears to have been composed by pure materialists who have no sense of the transcendent. As a result, most modern fantasy fiction novels which involve magic treat its wielders as superheroes. With few exceptions, the source of such powers is never explained or questioned. Few of these authors provide a convincing mythology. Fewer still fashion their stories after the tried and true models of Truby’s Anatomy of Story or Vogler’s breakdown of the Hero Cycle in his phenomenal book The Writer’s Journey.

For these reasons I suspect my own literary ambitions no longer match today’s approach to the genre. I could be mistaken, however. My current project is to read fantasy fiction exclusively published within the last five years for the next few months, a genre I’ve avoided, despite my fondness for it, simply because so much of the modern material I find fails to impress me. Once I’ve accumulated the names of half a dozen literary agents who represent works that don’t inspire my aversion, I’ll begin sending my query letters, all the while continuing to craft my sequel.

I hope to find an agent who’s a fellow fan of the traditional fantasy fiction best represented by the sweeping grandeur of the classics of Donaldson, E. R. Eddison, Tolkien, and, yes, Virgil and Homer, an agent who recognizes what I’m trying to achieve and that The Wunderfool was mistaken when he once commented on my manuscript, “This may not receive the recognition it deserves,” even though that praise made my year.

To provide a taste of what I’m trying to achieve, I include this excerpt from Virgil’s The Aeneid. The book begins with the fall of Troy, after the nine long years of war between the Trojans and the Greeks, chronicled in The Iliad. With the city overrun and the Trojans facing annihilation, Aeneis, a Trojan, flees Troy during the mayhem, eventually reaches Italy, and establishes what ultimately will become Rome. However, throughout his many travails, he reaches the city of Carthage, where he regales Dido, the queen, with tales leading up to his appearance in her courts. After which, Dido has a private conversation with her sibling:

“Anna, my sister, such dreams of terror thrill me through! What guest unknown is this who hath entered our dwelling? How high his mien! how brave in heart as in arms! I believe it well, with no vain assurance, his blood is divine. Fear proves the vulgar spirit. Alas, by what destinies is he driven! what wars outgone he chronicled! Were my mind not planted, fixed and immoveable, to ally myself to none in wedlock since my love of old was false to me in the treachery of death; were I not sick to the heart of bridal torch and chamber, to this temptation alone I might haply yield. Anna, I will confess it; since Sychaeus mine husband met his piteous doom, and our household was shattered by a brother's murder, he only hath touched mine heart and stirred the balance of my soul. I know the prints of the ancient flame. But rather, I pray, may earth first yawn deep for me, or the Lord omnipotent hurl me with his thunderbolt into gloom, the pallid gloom and profound night of Erebus, ere I soil thee, mine honour, or unloose thy laws. He took my love away who made me one with him long ago; he shall keep it with him, and guard it in the tomb.' She spoke, and welling tears filled the bosom of her gown.”

Notice I offer only dialogue here, apart from that closing sentence. My policy is that narrative should remain modern, conversational, casual. But dialogue set in a world that mirrors our own Medieval period, a period most fantasy fiction uses as its setting, (though, granted, Virgil wrote The Aeneid around 30 B.C.), should be marked with this highbrow, dare I say, lofty, diction or mode of speech, particularly among royalty. It’s what Sol Stein refers to as pseudo-authenticity, namely, what we as an audience expect from a certain class of people within a certain period of history or pseudo history.

With few exceptions, this approach is sorely lacking in modern fantasy fiction. Instead, despite its adherence to everything else – architecture, costumes, customs, modes of war and travel – dialogue in these novels tends to remain drab. Its characters still use the parlance of today. You’ll find this in even the works of Martin and his beloved Game of Thrones drivel. Contractions and clichés abound.

Instead, I want the reader to know the majesty of that elevated speech found in, say, Ben-Hur, or in the soaring monologues found in The Iliad, the semi formal speech of the hero, the courtier, or the king. Consider Macbeth. After committing murder and struggling with a guilty conscience, imagine his dialogue in the hands of a modern fantasy fiction writer: “It’s like, you know, I’m going crazy, babe!” Instead, Shakespeare, in just a few choice words, treats us to lyrical, intoxicating imagery of what that guilty conscience entails: “O full of scorpions is my mind …”

Here’s an excerpt from a scene in my own work. Sir Hileborn, a knight and member of a royal guard in the service of the magi, approaches his ward High Mage Orbella in the courtyard of their kingdom as she and her company prepare for a journey toward their world’s mortal enemy. Hileborn wants to accompany them, but the high mage opposes the idea now that he’s recently married.

“… Kenric arrived and touched her shoulder. Frowning, the general said, “My daedal, as you instructed, I assayed to thwart him. Yet he is most obdurate and insists that he might plead his case to you.”
       Orbella nodded, turned to Sir Hileborn, and then narrowed her brows. “Very well, good knight. Speak your piece.”
       The knight bowed low. “Well you know what I would say.”
       “Should that be so, why have you come but to bid farewell?”
       Hileborn sighed. “My daedal, I am a knight withal. To remain within the confines of these high walls while my brothers in arms journey into peril –” 
       “To remain is to serve in another capacity. Forget not your most recent vows pledged in love.”
       “Yet that, my daedal, is the crux of my case. Should I pledge to preserve my wife, better my service shall be rendered at your side, whereby I might aid in the defeat of the evil which impinges upon it.”
       “Not so. Those who remain are charged with tasks no less great than he who would raise his lance afield, those whose songs are never sung – the squire who dresses and arms him, the smithy who fashions his weapons, his destrier who flees not – are they and these less deserving of praise?”
       “Nay, my daedal. Yet these are not the rightful duties of a knight.”
       Orbella held up her hand. “What honor might be gained in abandoning thy heart-mate? Wherefore does she not attend you? Does she give you leave? Has she bestowed her blessing in this enterprise?” After a pause she shook her head. “Is dissent betwixt lovers so readily awakened after scant nights in a bedchamber? Say not that the love of man is so fickle that he would lief shed his blood on behalf of his knightly devoir when that blood is now bound in sacred union with another. Nay, I say. Sir Hileborn, hear me. Should you wish to best serve the Gods, serve by Their example. All goodness follows thereafter. Your bride deserves naught less. Return you to her bedchamber. Know bliss while it may last.”
       Sir Hileborn looked embarrassed. “My daedal, I have ready prevailed against her desire that I should remain. She will henceforth regard me as capricious. A man must remain steadfast in his decisions. And my decision to accompany you she now well knows.”   
       “You err, good knight. A woman begrudges not a man whose mind is changed should his mind change to her liking. Should all else fail, tis better to die at her side than in a faraway land as she yearns and pines for her love in vexation and apprehension. Now turn and depart. Yet depart not embittered. Your vows to your bride are more precious than that of the errant-knight. For the errant-knight answers to none but himself alone. Yet the felicity and preservation of your heart-mate depends upon your devotion to her. Rather know you have my blessing. And let it suffice.”
       Taking a deep breath as if resolved to this pronouncement, Sir Hileborn nodded and thanked Orbella, then turned and said his farewells to the assembled knights.”

Lastly, I’m reluctant to confess what discourages me most. Should you snag a literary agent’s attention, and should that agent get you a deal, a publisher will devote little to no time or money to promote your work, especially if you’re a first-time author. Instead, getting your work noticed is entirely up to you. I love to write, but I don’t fancy promoting myself. The way of the writer suits my temperament, closeting myself away and focusing on my vision. Unfortunately, being a writer and being an author are two different professions. The author must utilize social media, seeking ways to reach an audience who might be interested in reading his or her work but doesn’t yet know it exists and having to cajole via advertisements.

This latter prospect is the most daunting of the lot, reminiscent of my days as a musician. Writing music and performing onstage was exhilarating. Trying to snag a record deal, dealing with branding, creating an image, and packaging the product always struck me as soulless. Call me naïve but I never dreamed the literary world was prone to these same demands. Did you know a publisher may require alterations to your manuscript, decide what the cover of your book will look like, may even change the title of your novel?

Beginning this most recent project forced me to do some soul searching. Writing is my love, my passion. Yet if I want to woo the girl, I must make myself presentable and treat her to a nice meal. It’s the effort that most often impresses, even if one has little to discuss over dinner. Which, at the risk of seeming cynical, is why I suspect so much of the drivel today gets published. This was true for the music business as well. Many authors appear to offset their lack of writing finesse with persistence, networking, and shrewd marketing skills. Not that artistry and business sense are mutually exclusive necessarily, but we must remember at least a few abusive husbands manage to marry their high school sweethearts. I can only hope applying for a marriage license and planning the wedding doesn’t detract from my passion for my bride.    

Thursday, September 20, 2018

At the Earth’s Core, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Burroughs is best known for his creation of the popular Tarzan stories. This character would later appear in a number of media, including radio and film, and Burroughs found fame and fortune in his lifetime as a result. But Burroughs wrote a great deal more. His Mars series, for example, the first of which Disney made into an impressive but commercially unsuccessful film in 2012 called John Carter (based on Burroughs’ first book in that series), was originally serialized in the magazine All-Story Weekly in 1912 and eventually novelized in 1917.

Oddly enough, apart from Disney’s John Carter film and whatever Tarzan rendition played throughout my boyhood periphery, At the Earth’s Core is my first foray into Burroughs’ stuff. It’s from a long running science fiction series known as the Pellucidar stories. Being a late bloomer, I didn’t start reading seriously before the age of 20. When I finally got round to reading, my interests centered on serious subjects such as philosophy, psychology, and science. So I didn’t get to Burroughs’ stuff for another 30 plus years.

Along with Doyle, H.G Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Burroughs’ stuff could best be described as Young Adult fiction long before the subcategory of YA fiction was officially established. This isn’t to take away from the importance of these writers or their contributions. However, these authors tend to write shorter novels with less emphasis on substance and more focus on the fantastical.

Arguably, since their works were introduced as serials in magazines where brevity and action were paramount, the science was often soft and the action was nearly non-stop. As a result, these installments rarely conformed to the laws of physics as we know them. Nor were these stories given time to breath. Nor was much time devoted to development. Again, not a slight against them, but the focus was different from, say, the works of Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Kafka, Joyce, or Salinger. 

While I enjoyed this short novel, it could be said that things happen a bit too quickly. For example, rather than providing a scene or summary earlier in the story that establishes a character’s proficiency at, say, archery, we are first introduced to his prowess only as he confronts an oncoming foe.

Prior to this, Burroughs summarizes the protagonist’s flight from several foes yet fails to mention the degree to which he escapes their deadly jaws or bests them. Now, confronted with several assailants rushing him in a narrow ravine, he draws a bow we’ve never seen him wield, sets an arrow to his bowstring, and only then informs us that he’d used the weapon repeatedly to forage and defend himself against several adversaries.

Because of this, the protagonist’s deadly aim seems more like one of those deus ex machina contrivances, whereas providing a brief scene some time before this moment (known in the writing trade as either an anchor or a foreshadowing) would lend more credence to said proficiency and would render his spectacular aim far more credible.

Still. A fun literary romp, with more than ample action to keep the reader turning the pages. Recommended to those who enjoy YA fiction or lean prose from a practiced wordsmith. Four out of five stars. Rated PG

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Black Beauty, Anna Sewell (1877)

I love horses, but my experience with the animal is sorely lacking. As a teen, I once sat on a grey mare belonging to a friend of the family and was led in a circle or two within a small corral. My feet barely reached the stirrups. I remember the sway of the saddle against my hams and thighs and unaccountably contrasting it with my bike seat and the backseat of my parent’s Monte Carlo. Later as an adult in the NAVY, some sailor friends of mine and I drove down to Baha, Mexico and one morning after a punishing night of binge drinking, one friend and I rented a pair of temperamental horses, his a chestnut stallion, mine a dappled mare. We cantered along an overcast beach until things became dangerous when my friend’s mount tried to mount my own.  

Having spent most of my life in an urban environment, opportunity to ride rarely presented itself. So I know next to nothing firsthand about the species. Most of what I know about their habits and habitat, diet and history, I learned from books. Which is unfortunate, considering how beautiful and majestic horses are. Many of them are quite graceful and statuesque, and though I’ve never had the privilege to ride one at a gallop, I imagine it would be exhilarating.

Since my current writing project, book two of a trilogy, is set in a period mirroring our own Middle-ages, knowledge of all things horse would benefit my work. Not to slight knowledge accrued from books, far from it, but I suspect personal experience would go a long way toward projecting authority and authenticity in my narrative.

Needless to say I’ve settled for the next best thing. In addition to the research I’m doing online, I recently downloaded this Public Domain ebook from Amazon for free, partly because it’s considered a classic, partly because I thought I’d learn a few more useful things about horses.

My impressions of the book are mixed. While I feel the contents herein taught me a good deal of useful stuff that’ll lend itself to my manuscript, I haven’t much else to say positively about the novel. The writing isn’t bad. However, there’s no real story here. Certainly no plot.

Our eponymous protagonist Black Beauty narrates first person, or first horse. So the dialogue is limited to what people say to and near the horse and what Black Beauty and the other equine community communicates to one another while enjoying a respite.

Since the protagonist has no goal or ambition apart from making his masters happy and avoiding needless pain at the hands of the indifferent, the ignorant, the drunkard, or the malevolent, events simply occur, and Black Beauty offers his commentary and impressions accordingly. But the horse has no underlying need or desire or objective. As a result, we readers have neither anyone nor anything to root for as our protagonist is subjected to all varieties of tasks and abuse.

Apart from championing the virtues of hard work and compassion for the lesser animals, the supporting cast of characters has little to offer in the way of insight into human nature. I suppose this is tolerable when reading a high-octane thriller, but in a book casually chronicling the life of a horse, characters can’t afford to be bland. Nevertheless, the cast shuffles in and out of Black Beauty’s life with little mention beyond its buying or selling the animal and treating it well or poorly.

Notwithstanding their puritanism, these people reveal next to nothing about themselves, though, in fairness, they do reveal a good deal about the period. Black Beauty reveals little more, noting only whether those he is introduced to appear kind or cruel, young or old. And unless someone drank or neglected his duties in the service of the horse, no conflict appears. Most of the dialogue is limited to Christian adages and abstention to such a degree that it grew somewhat annoying. (The author’s aversion to drink is evident throughout, and her depiction of anyone indulging is always negative.)

The only thing Sewell was liberal about was in her point to chastise (via her protagonist Black Beauty) those who ill-used horses or engaged in unhealthy practices, as well as what sort of punishment Black Beauty, and by extension the author, felt commiserate to their crimes.

As to learning anything useful from this book, I did indeed. The author demonstrated an impressive knowledge of all things horse. I suspect she wrote from personal experience. I took notes about what not to do or feed a horse after a hard run, how to properly maintain a stable, etc. We must remember the horse was the main mode of transportation throughout much of human history, certainly during the nineteenth century in merry ole England, when people utilized coaches and cabs and gigs as incessantly as New Yorkers utilize cabs today. Not only did Sewell appear to thoroughly understand the habits of riding and its variegated rider or cab driver – whether sympathetic or indifferent to his horse – she knew a great deal about riding gear, its purpose, and its (often deleterious) effects on the animal.

Though she barely alludes to the subject, it would appear human population had begun to render horse and buggy overtly strained. Without the eventual invention (and intervention), of the automobile during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – since prior to this advent many cab drivers were renting out their services seven days a week, sometimes sixteen hours a day (overtaxing their horses) – our inhumane treatment of horses might’ve produced a far less palatable relationship with our equine friends. In fact, given Sewell’s focus on the individual suffering of horses in the story, I’m surprised she didn’t devote attention to this widespread problem apart from two brief conversations that only indirectly hint at the issue.

Sewell exercises strong opinions about the value and efficacy of the riding tools in fashion at the time. From check-reins, blinkers (or blinders), ring snaffles, and other particulars – whether it be a saddled horse, horses attached to a coach, a brougham, a phaeton, or any number of conditions a horse is subjected to in the service of its master, such as the effects various terrain have on hoofs and shoes and a horse's legs, how a rider utilizes the reins, the whip, etc. She is harsh in her critique of the cruel or derelict owner or rider, frustrated by the subsequent sickness a horse can incur due to ignorance and indifference, and so on.

I won’t deny the narrative was moving in spots. While I’m typically not sentimental, some of what these innocent creatures endure can be heart-wrenching. Viewing this practice from a horse’s perspective can’t be otherwise. For a host of reasons, some understandable, others not, many horses were overworked until either sickness and decease set in and they died prematurely. Some would struggle until their knees gave out, their spirits sagged, their eyes went dull, and they were either set out to pasture in the hopes that they would improve and return to work, or they’d die and be sold for glue or some such.

I’m glad I read the book, but with regards to the story or lack thereof, the book suffers from an excess of moralizing and treads perilously close to a sermon or glorified religious tract. Overall not awful but not great. Three out of five stars. Rated G

Thursday, August 16, 2018

12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan B. Peterson (2018)

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that my book reviews are subverted by my ego. By that I mean I tend to inject my own impressions at the cost of the book. Rarely do I break down the plot of a novel under review or explore characters or theme. That’s because, for those interested, one can find an array of book reviews about any given book on Amazon alone. What matters to me, and hopefully to my readers, is not what a book means to someone else. What matters most is whether a book impresses or challenges or facilitates a change in me. Both fiction and non-fiction do this sometimes. The only time I care what someone else thinks about a given book is when a friend of mine has either read that same book or has a book recommendation of his own.

Books are a great vehicle for growth because they lend themselves to both self-discovery and self-improvement. At least potentially. This might explain why I became an autodidact decades ago – to learn all I could learn about what interested me most. Be it literature in general, writing, philosophy, psychology, history – interest in this stuff leads me back to my love for reading. I strive to learn new things, not only about myself but about the world around me.

I don’t mean merely increasing my vocabulary or boasting rights about classics I’ve read or becoming better at trivia. What I’m referring to is far more substantive. I won’t go into the many benefits to reading. I’ve discussed that in previous posts. Besides, fellow avid readers know. The less fortunate are left to guess.

As a result (a disquieting result), I don’t have many friends. I just don’t invest the time required to establish and maintain friendships. Why hang out with a friend who wants to watch television or talk about her dog or go play darts at a bar if I’m not into darts or when I can stay at home instead and read a book while listening to my favorite music or work on a new writing project?

Does this make me a snob? Probably. Does this make me a misanthrope? A hermit? Antisocial? Perhaps in a sense. Am I proud of this? No. These labels are mere derivatives of an isolated lifestyle, not titles to which I aspire. Still, I admit the result is the same.

Which is why, after years of this subdued regimen, I decided to change course somewhat. I wouldn’t abandon my joy of reading or the satisfaction I derived from writing. But I’d seek to strike a balance. 

Following my blog you’ll know this began a couple years ago when I decided to pursue a spiritual path. Something that would better my heart, my soul. I explored faith. Catholicism to be exact. I began reading the Bible again. I added the Catechism of the Catholic Church to my reading regimen. I began praying the rosary. I did this for a host of reasons, one being because I thought it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t expecting the significant changes in my life this practice would produce. Miracles, you might say. I certainly call them that.

By doing this I discovered a great deal about myself. Shortly thereafter I talked with my doctor and received some startling news about my health. I decided to change my diet, lose weight, exercise.

So when I began reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The groundwork for change had already been laid. Consequently, my personal journey took on an intensified strain. Without knowing it, I’d embarked on a quest far more challenging than I’d anticipated. A complete transformation was on its way.

Open to instruction, I found myself changing so rapidly that I experienced moments of bewilderment. I lost track of my identity. My old self morphed so quickly that, metaphorically speaking (and due to the exercise and diet too) my new reflection in the mirror struck me as a distant relative. Who was this thinner, happier, younger looking clone standing before me, smiling? 

Each chapter of Peterson’s book convicted me in unexpected ways. As a clinical psychologist, Peterson devotes much of his book to explaining how applying these rules leads to a good life and how failing to live these truths destroys the lives of those who would later come to him for help. While I can’t overstress the initial difficulty in applying these rules, I can’t overstress the life changing power or liberating qualities these maxims conferred either. 

For example, Rule Two is “Treat Yourself Like Someone You’re Responsible for Helping.” This forced me to address myself as if I needed help. Turns out I did. I’d already quit smoking and playing video games. Now I dumped additional vices and minimized others. I began practicing difficult virtues such as forgiveness, charity, temperance, patience. In short, I became a better version of myself, kinder, more giving, more sympathetic.

Rule Four is “Compare Yourself to Who You Were Yesterday, Not to Who Someone Else is Today.” This follows from Rule Two as a means by which to gauge your progress. I could track how much weight I’d lost, how much kinder I was to my fellow man, how much more productive I became both on and off work, etc. compared to the day or the week before. The rate at which I became a better me was chartable and consequently self-evident.

Rule Six is “Set Your Own House in Order Before You Criticize the World.” Put another way, look inward, not at what others have done to you, but at what you have done to others and, by extension, to yourself. A wise man once said, “The problems of this world begin here,” pointing to his heart. I’m reminded of the great wisdom of Socrates regarding the “unexamined life.” As a result, I engaged in some serious soul searching, an examination of my own life choices and behavior and, more importantly, how to stop doing (or at least minimize) what I knew to be wrong and do more of what I knew to be right. This prompted me to reach out to those I’d offended in the past. I apologized for my wrongdoing. A few forgave me and accepted me back into their fellowship. Others refused to respond. 

Rule Eight is “Tell the Truth, or, at Least, Don’t Lie.” This might’ve been the most difficult of all the rules to adopt, primarily because it forced me to abandon the person I presented to others and to instead offer up the real me for either their praise or their scorn. Much to my surprise, incorporating Rule Eight set me free. The yolk of guilt fell from my shoulders. My deception dissolved. I dropped the false façade I’d maintained for years and became my true self. Finally, I could look others I’d deceived in the past in the eye, others I’d withheld my thoughts and feelings from. While this made me more vulnerable, the rewards were more pronounced, more palpable. Perhaps because they stemmed from honesty and sincerity and were thus genuine.  

Ironically, this taught me two crucial things Peterson never mentioned. One, I have no right to decide what knowledge others are entitled to. Rather, I owe it those I know, especially to friends, to tell them exactly what I think and how I feel, not only about things in general but about them, too. It’s up to those friends to decide how to treat this knowledge. Whether they love or hate me as a result, embrace or reject me, is their call at that point, not mine. My only duty, my only obligation, is to be honest. Of course, true friendship includes other responsibilities, such as discernment and an effort to spare your friends’ feelings, but with regards to who you are, remember: truthfulness begets trust; honesty will set you, and potentially others, free.

Most of those I confessed my deep dark secrets to took it surprisingly well. In some cases, they were relieved. Others suspected the very things I’d thought I’d successfully concealed. My sense of guilt, remorse, and shame evaporated. The darkness cleared. The sun came out and shined brilliantly on this new path I tread.

Side bar: only one person took my confession about her poorly. She subsequently spun a tangled web of half-truths and falsehoods. Meanwhile, she shared my confession with at least one other, later denied it and accused the other of fabricating the whole thing, etc. It wasn’t pleasant. Gratefully, mutual others knew more about the situation, and about her, than I did. They verified that, yes, this is her nature, her character, her pattern. We’re no longer friends. But this is a good thing. Once I finally presented her with how I truly felt about her, I discovered something vital: exposing your true self to someone exposes them too. Pretense is often shared, and when one reveals one’s hand, the other’s tell or bluff is exposed.

As a result, my own feelings for this person dissolved. Sure. The initial pain smarted, but clarity is always best. I certainly don’t regret it. Presenting your true self and discovering whether that’s the sort of person the other person dislikes is a kind of emancipation. Both are spared the rigors of maintaining a deception, and that too is a good thing.

Which leads me to an earlier rule I skipped. Rule Three is “Make Friends with Those Who Want the Best for You.” Liars don’t want what’s best for you. Manipulators, gas-lighters, deceivers, are thinking first and foremost about themselves. Don’t waste your time with such people. Don’t resent them either. But detach yourself from their lives if possible. They will only use you otherwise. I should know; I used to be that person, too.

The second thing I learned by being honest, something Peterson never mentioned, something I lament somewhat, is that I can now often spot when others aren’t honest with me. The mannerisms – the shift in eye contact, the lilt or dive in pitch of voice – give them away. It’s like I’m wearing lie-detector lenses or magic ear pieces. I don’t begrudge them, of course. I used to do it too. But it keeps me on my toes. Call it discernment if you want, but I can’t help but grieve ever so slightly over this one byproduct. To be honest, and I can’t lie, sometimes I wonder whether I’d rather not know.

All in all, a great book. Read it. I think you’ll be glad you did. In fact, I’d say you owe it to yourself to become a better you. Applying these rules will set you well on your way toward that goal. Highly recommended. Five out of five stars. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Why We’re Catholic, Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love, by Trent Horn (2017)

Trent Horn regularly appears as a guest on Catholic Answers, a radio program I frequently enjoy, fielding questions from callers and impressing me with his intimate knowledge of both the Bible and the Catechism. Granted, they’re bush league questions, most of which could be answered using Google. Still. His voice is pleasant enough, his knowledge evidently vast, and, given his tone, it’s clear he has a big heart and wishes to help.

When, over the course of the radio program, the host advertised Mr. Horn’s book, Why We’re Catholic, I immediately ordered a copy, anticipating a more thorough examination of the faith than a radio format could provide. You see, while Mr. Horn’s radio responses were neither exhaustive nor sufficient, I’d assumed this had to do with external factors – the host’s intermittent announcements, quarterly fund drives, callers taking forever to ask their questions, and other interruptions. Plus, much of my time spent listening was complicated by additional tasks – dressing for work, driving to work, cooking dinner, etc. 

As anyone knows who follows my blog, I consider the printed word superior to radio, television, and film. Books tend to convey knowledge more successfully than any other medium. They potentially tell stories better, increase vocabulary, evoke thought and emotion, stimulate mental activity and imagination, encourage reflection, nurture patience, improve memory, and cultivate tastes and discernment. For these reasons, I considered it only fair to read what Mr. Horn had to say on the subject of Catholicism before rendering my judgment about what precisely the Church teaches. (A few points of contention have since appeared. Perhaps I’ll expound on those points in a future post.)  

I don’t want to disparage the author Mr. Horn, but my first issue with this book is with the title. If you were to pick up a book called Why I’m a Capitalist, would you expect the first few chapters to deal with why the author isn’t an anarchist? Notice anarchy is the absence of government whereas capitalism isn’t a form of government at all but rather an economic system. I combine unrelated ideas here only to illustrate my point. Why We’re Catholic lacks focus, and, as a result, the book short changes each and every element of faith it haphazardly tackles.

For example, in one short chapter Horn devotes only a few pages to epistemology, the study of how we know what we know, while serious philosophers have penned volumes to develop their theses. Another brief chapter reduces an argument as old and as eminent as Aristotle himself, the cosmological argument, to little more than bumper sticker slogans.

Neither of these chapters, by the way, makes an effort to differentiate Catholicism from any other faith. In fact, the first five chapters do nothing more than establish theism, and not well, I might add. Not until chapter six “Why We Believe in Jesus,” do we begin to distinguish one faith, viz Christianity, from another. However, Horn has very little to say about Catholicism specifically until chapter ten, “Why We Aren’t Bible-Only Christians,” and even then what he has to say isn’t always clear.

Indeed, at a mere 240 pages (including the Endnotes, which, incidentally, proved more authoritative and readable than the book itself), Why We’re Catholic reads more like a glorified tract than a book.

I’m not arguing for verbosity. I don’t require a book twice the length of this one before taking it seriously. Nor do I demand a scholarly tome by an academician writing exclusively to his peers. Not at all. I’ve enjoyed reading numerous notable, classic works of philosophy written specifically for laymen by some of the greatest minds ever to print their thoughts. But these great minds were also adept at communicating their ideas. They understood their audiences. In most cases, they also anticipated their intellectual opponents’ objections and provided answers for those dissenters.  

Mr. Horn is a poor imitator. The writing itself is first draft quality. Trains of thought venture nowhere. Visualize the surface features of a landscape rich in ascending peaks and deep valleys. This is the beauty, variety, and mystery of religious faith. Now watch as Mr. Horn zooms over this varied topography with his sonic jet style writing so that said landscape is but a blur. This is presumably done in an effort to prevent the average reader from becoming bored by the subject matter. Here’s a thought: don’t write for such people. Make a series of videos instead. An audiobook. A PowerPoint presentation at select churches and colleges.

Of course, I can’t speak for all readers, but ages ago, when I was an atheist, this approach only reaffirmed my disbelief. I submit that treating these serious subjects so casually does more harm than good. In short, dumbing down the material in an effort to appeal to a wider audience risks turning away the more sophisticated readers who seek meaningful answers.

I don’t want to be unkind (it may be too late), but Mr. Horn has access to nearly 2,000 years of Church history, with some of the greatest minds ever to put quill to parchment to draw from. He also has volumes of sophisticated philosophical input by the likes of everyone from Aquinas to Kreeft at his disposal, and yet this Cliff Notes summary, this Reader’s Digest version, is the work he submits to his publisher. Needless to say, I was embarrassed for both him and the faith. I have only myself to blame, though. I tend to forget walking encyclopedias aren’t necessarily logicians or even decent writers.

I understand the print medium lacks the benefit of a personal conversation, the back and forth interaction that allows two people of differing views to articulate precisely what they think and to clarify their position as necessary. For that reason, knowing how to address a reader’s unease and satisfy his concerns in print can be difficult.

But solutions abound. For one, Mr. Horn could’ve taken a page from the great essayists and approached the book entirely differently by quoting liberally from the great authors of the faith as it pertains to each chapter – “Why We Believe in Purgatory,” “Why We Honor Mary,” and so forth – rather than confining these quotes to the back of the book in the Endnotes. After all, Mr. Horn isn’t promoting an original idea here. Instead, he’s essentially summarizing Church doctrine in a nonchalant (I’d argue frivolous), superficial, way. Such a tone would significantly benefit from quoting the greats throughout.

Failing that, Mr. Horn could’ve simply asked a discerning friend or beta reader to read his manuscript before sending it off to a publisher. That reader could’ve spared everyone involved a good deal of hassle and embarrassment by asking Mr. Horn, “Are you kidding me with this!?”

Two out of five stars.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Praying the Catholic Rosary Like You Mean It

If you’re familiar with my blog, you already know I was raised Protestant, lost my faith in my late teens, and became a self-professed atheist by my mid-twenties. You'd know that as an avid reader, I continued to explore the subject of God via the philosophical works of nearly everyone I could get my hands on. You’d likewise know that by my mid-thirties, I’d abandoned my atheism, concluding that faith in God, comparatively speaking, is far more rational than either no faith at all or faith to the contrary.

What you may not know is that, years later, after a series of extraordinary events (some tragic, a few miraculous), I decided to quit merely admiring the principles and virtues espoused by the great thinkers, leaders, saints, and writers of the ages and instead live such values as fully and as sincerely as I could. I continue to fall short, of course. I’m a sinner, after all, as this post will no doubt confirm.

I recently mentioned my discovery of Bishop Barron's wonderful Youtube videos about Christianity and the Catholic faith, and, eager to learn more about Catholicism in particular, I attended a Catholic service and later bought a few books on the subject. I have no Catholic friends, so in order to further prep for the R.C.I.A. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), a class provided to those who wish to learn Catholic doctrine, I read from various Catholic sites and gleaned what I could from a local affiliate of a Catholic radio station. In addition to buying a couple copies of The Catechism, (more to follow about those tomes in the coming months), I also bought a couple of rosaries and two e-booklets which focus on the rosary prayers and the mysteries.

Now that we’re up to speed, let’s briefly review the awful booklet first. The Mysteries of the Holy Rosary Illustrated by Andrea Maglio-Macullar is an embarrassment to the faith. It’s composed by a watercolor painter slash writer slash rosary maker whose ignorance of basic English composition and painting wasn’t going to dissuade her from producing an illustrated booklet. I don’t mean to be a jerk here, but raised within a religious environment, I saw plenty of ingénues and dilettantes who wanted to share the Gospel despite their lack of talent. Think American Idol and those whose embarrassing auditions ended up on the reject reel.

Lest you brand me a curmudgeon, let me be clear. I salute those who wish to spread the good news. It requires courage, self-sacrifice. My only suggestion is that if you want to sing for the ministry, make sure you’re not tone deaf. Granted, your performance might break a listener’s heart and move him to convert, and that’s admittedly the essential purpose of the ministry. And yet, for what it’s worth, I’d respect you more if your ministry relates to your skill set and isn’t merely an excuse to force more mediocrity on the world, regardless your religious zeal.

Although Maglio-Macullar’s primary job was to reprint the traditional prayers found in a host of sources and a number of devotionals, she still managed to both omit and misspell words, as well as misplace punctuation, throughout. The illustrations, courtesy of the author, are of the caliber you’d find fashioned by children in day care centers in poorly lit … sorry. I’m trying to be a better person. Let’s move on to the good one.

Praying the Rosary Step-by-Step, by Rita Anna Bogna (with beautiful illustrations reproduced from the 1866 black and white woodcut engravings of Gustave Doré), is so much better in both quality and content that Maglio-Macullar’s e-booklet appears as a spoof in contrast. (Told you I was a sinner.) Anyway, this one is well worth the mere four bucks it cost. Well resourced, too, and thorough, with an Introduction about the history of the rosary, its associative prayers, as well as links to additional sources. Highly recommended. Five out of five stars.

It took me a week to complete this booklet because I went over it, you guessed it, step by step. As with the first booklet, each chapter is devoted to a set of five specific mysteries in keeping with Catholic tradition. By that I mean the booklet lays out the official prayers and practices – on which bead one recites this or that prayer, in which order – as well as the origins of a given prayer, and so on.

Exceptions aside, daily mysteries are fairly straight forward. Mondays, Saturdays, and Sundays (after Epiphany but before Lent) celebrate the Joyful Mysteries – five events in the New Testament dealing with our savior Jesus Christ and our Blessed Virgin Mary. Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays (during Lent) are devoted to another set of five mysteries, known as the Sorrowful Mysteries. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays (from Easter to Advent) the Glorious, Thursdays, the Luminous.

The mysteries, staggered throughout, act as an interlude of remembrance, snapshots in the life of Christ, mini daily sermons of what Jesus promised, performed, and endured. They’re intended to invoke wonder and gratitude. We’re reminded of Christ’s ministry, His love for us, His charity, His sacrifices on our behalf. And we meditate upon these gifts. It’s truly edifying.

These mysteries are sources of inspiration for personal prayers and thanksgiving as well. In this state, whether kneeling or sitting, I’ve found myself pausing in my progression with my fingers along the beads, straying from the script, if you will, and praying whatever enters my head. It’s the ideal state of mind, as well as disposition, for communion with God.  

The revelation, for me anyway, was what effect praying the rosary would have on me. I’ve discovered a number of things not only about prayer in general that I, as a languishing Protestant, misunderstood, but about my relationship with God as well.

For example, as a Protestant, I used to pray much like a teen might address a parent, generally only when that teen either needed something, wanted something, or felt grateful and wanted to say thanks. This isn’t to say I prayed only when life proved difficult or when in a grateful mood. Still, the summary is fair. Periodically I’d recall God’s grace, sporadically thank Him for His blessings, intermittently ask for help, and so on. This made for shoddy devotion. Days would elapse in which the exercise of prayer wouldn’t even occur to me.

In addition, these prayers rarely lasted for more than two or three minutes. Granted, we’re taught that God is less concerned with the length of our prayers and more concerned with our sincerity. Still, in retrospect, I can’t help but note that my prayers as a Protestant tended to be often brief, sometimes contractual in tone, and influenced by mood – grateful when predisposed, earnest when in need, flippant when distracted.  

With the rosary, though, I find that not only do I pray more – nearly every day and certainly for longer periods – but that I pray more deliberately and more sincerely. While it’s true much of the rosary, particularly the decades (pronounced DEH-kids), might strike many as redundant, repetitious, archaic, perhaps cultish, I don’t find these canticles or chants the least bit off putting. On the contrary, going over these beads unhurriedly, meditatively, draws me deeper into the exercise of prayer.

Truly, I can’t help but notice its parallel with everything we do in life. Regardless the exercise – whether cooking from a recipe, practicing or performing on a musical instrument, even the culturally accepted practices of social interaction – all of it follows patterns that, after years of doing, we do unthinkingly and ultimately take for granted.

Take musicianship as one example. The parallels are staggering. For me, each session on the guitar would begin with finger exercises, warmups, drills, occasionally accompanied by a technical booklet filled with musical notation. Then, after a few minutes had elapsed, I’d fall into the groove. I was making music.

Again, same with writing today. I sit down and face the computer monitor sometimes with no idea what I want to say. I often begin by typing random words and sentence fragments, prepositional phrases, verse. Just going through the motions, one might say. Then sentences begin to form. Ideas connect. Eventually fingers fly and I’m telling a story or reviewing a book.

Yet again, the same holds true for praying with the rosary. Reciting the conventional Our Father, Glory Be, Fatima, and other prayers draws me into a state of quietude and calm. A sublime beauty accompanies this process. Uttering words of invocation. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. By the time I’ve reached the first decade, the beads are entwined round my fingers. My breathing is slow and rhythmic. I’m focused. Everything falls into place. Soon I’m praying independently of the rosary. Dear God. In my own words.

I remember after only a few days thinking, “It took praying this way to see, but I get it now!” Dare I say it’s all connected? One could liken the repetition of the Hail Mary to that of a child’s grateful cries of “Thank you, thank you!” or its innocent pleadings “Please, please!” to its parent.

The fretboard, the computer keyboard, the rosary – all instruments, devices, that serve a process or facilitate an exercise, whether it's a song, a story, or communion with God. Eventually this template, this mechanism, recedes into the background and the process itself, the steps, becomes the dance.

Progressing along the beads, my daily cares evaporate, after which I generally feel spiritually restored, refreshed, as if my soul has been nourished. I’m not kidding. Nor am I trying to convince or convert anyone here. I merely want to document my experience candidly, before too much time elapses and these impressions become too faint to chronicle.

In short, I want to share what I expect will eventually lead to my confirmation and practice of the Catholic faith. So far, I’m enjoying the journey and look forward to the destination, namely enrolling in the R.C.I.A., becoming part of the Catholic Church, and ultimately drawing closer to God.

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

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