Archive for March, 2017

FF: The Making of Heroes

March 31, 2017

Here’s additional information about Sunday’s book event at the Jean Cocteau (see my website for details).  N. Scott Momaday, whose piece “The Momaday Gun” was one of editor Gerry Hausman’s direct inspirations for the Guns anthology hopes to be there.  I’m rather awed at the idea of doing a book event with a Pulitzer Prize winner…

Kel Gives Us Her Thyme

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Lamb by Christopher Moore.  Mostly focuses on the parts of Jesus’s life not covered in the Bible.  The ending shifts perception on everything thing that goes before about ninety degrees so don’t peek.  Alan said it was a “funny” book, but this is funny like Terry Pratchett is funny – humor harnessed in tandem with a lot of thoughtful moments.

Knight of Shadows.  Audiobook.  Eighteen episodes of The Shadow radio drama.  Moving on to the close…

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.  Audiobook.  I think this may be the story that created the trend that would give rise to Zorro, Superman, the Shadow, and Batman in which a heroic figure hides his real identity behind a relatively helpless public persona.  Like Zorro and Batman, the Scarlet Pimpernel has no superpowers, but relies on his wits and skills.

The Time Garden by Edward Eager.  A favorite from my childhood that still reads, for me at least, well today.

In Progress:

This Ancient Child by N. Scott Momaday.  I read the author’s House Made of Dawn many years ago, and intended to re-read before Sunday’s book event, but  when I saw this, I decided to try something new.

Frogkisser by Garth Nix.  Audiobook.  Just starting.

Also:

Starting a re-read of my own When the Gods Are Silent.  I feel as if I’m having conversations with a long-ago self.

TT: Spoiler Alert

March 30, 2017

JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve come back from Milton Keynes…  Do you remember where we were before that?

ALAN: Ah, tangents. Don’t you love them?  I’m sure I had something important to say before I got sidetracked…

From Last Week’s Tangent!

Oh, yes… Gaiman’s writing pal Terry Pratchett has also dipped his toes into the murky waters of humour about religion and spirituality.

Small Gods tells of the god Om who comes back into the world and, rather to his surprise, finds himself manifested in the body of a tortoise. He has only one disciple, a boy called Brutha (which presumably is pronounced “Brother” and which also suggests “Buddha”). The book is a wonderful satire on the role of religion in politics and the practices of religious institutions.

Books such as this convince me that Pterry is not really a writer of funny books per se. In his later novels in particular, he is really writing about deeply serious subjects. It just so happens that the ways he finds to discuss those subjects are hilarious… In the words of the title of a book about his writing, Terry Pratchett is clearly guilty of literature.

JANE: I adore Small Gods.  It is both broadly humorous and deeply satirical.  What makes Small Gods work as a commentary on religion is that it does not in the least attack those who are either truly religious or truly spiritual – Brutha and some of his associates are both.  What Small Gods takes issue with are those who would use the forms of religion as an excuse for doing things (like torture) that are horrible by any measure.

Terry Pratchett doesn’t restrict his exploration of the relationship of God/gods and humanity to the Omnians.   The Rincewind books (a subset of the Discworld books, for those of you unfamiliar with Pratchett’s work) feature of host of gods who are, literally, playing dice with the universe, most particularly with the residents of the Discworld.  Rincewind is the favored playing piece of one deity in particular, and his hopes for a peaceful and boring life do not benefit from that interest.

Okay, your turn!  I see you bouncing up and down over there.

ALAN: If only in passing, I have to at least mention Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. We’ve discussed it before so I don’t want to spend too much time on it again, but for the sake of completeness I must point out that by using Anansi, the trickster god (a common figure in many mythologies) Gaiman manages to show, humorously, that even the gods need a little anarchy in their lives if those lives are to have any meaning.

JANE: Trickster figures are far more than anarchy – in fact, many people would argue that they are less figures of anarchy than they are emblematic of righting the balance.   Anansi – like Coyote, like Prometheus, and others –  is associated with bringing fire to humanity.

ALAN: This aspect comes out quite clearly in the novel.

Spoiler Alert, since I can’t explain this without talking about plot details.

Following the death of his father Anansi, Charlie Nancy (lovely pun!) finally gets to meet his brother Spider, who has inherited all the godlike powers of their trickster father. They celebrate their meeting with rather too much wine, women and song. The next day, Charlie is far too hungover to go into the office and so Spider, magically disguised as Charlie, substitutes for him. Spider quickly discovers that Charlie’s partner has been embezzling funds from the company. But Spider cannot resist his own nature and he himself steals the affections of Rosie, Charlie’s fiancée…

The Nancy brothers are initially out-maneuvered by Charlie’s partner, which sets in motion a complex chain of events that occupy the rest of the novel. But in the end the balance is properly restored – the embezzler is turned into a stoat, Spider marries Rosie, and Charlie becomes a successful singer. Their dead father Anansi watches his two sons with approval.

JANE: And, it is implied, may have intended this result or something like it all along…

And we can’t really leave Neil Gaiman and this topic without a nod to American Gods.  I don’t want to provide a spoiler – especially since many people are rediscovering the novel because it’s being adapted for television or something – but I will say that by the end the question of what might be the new American Gods is provided with a very provocative answer.

ALAN: Of course, Gaiman and Pratchett et al were building on a well-established comic tradition. In 1907, G. K. Chesterton published The Man Who Was Thursday.

JANE: You mentioned this when we were starting this thread and I just finished reading it.  Wonderful language wrapped around an apparently absurdist plotline that, by the end, has almost too much meaning.  I very much enjoyed the book.

ALAN: Chesterton is perhaps best known for his “Father Brown” detective stories. These are not without humour, and Chesterton also sometimes uses Father Brown as a foil for theological asides which somehow manage to give an insight into the solution of the current case.

These aspects of Chesterton’s writing all come together beautifully in The Man Who Was Thursday and it is his masterpiece. The book tells of a group of anarchists, whose central council maintain their anonymity by naming themselves after the days of the week. Their leader, insofar as anarchists have leaders, is known as Sunday…

Oh, dear, it seems I must issue another spoiler alert…

JANE: Go ahead.  Let me help.  Spoiler Alert, folks!

ALAN: Thank you. It turns out that all the council members are undercover detectives, each of whom has been employed mysteriously, and assigned to defeat the very council of which they are a part! It’s all a devious plot by Sunday, of course. He has set detective against detective, with nary an anarchist in sight. What could his reasons possibly be?

A clue comes on one of the final pages of the novel when Sunday is asked if he has ever suffered. His response is “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”, which was the question that Jesus used to challenge his disciples’ commitment to his teachings.

The novel is a Christian allegory (though rather more subtle than many). Its saving grace is that it is very, very funny and the humour has stood the test of time well.

JANE: I would argue that there are many earlier “clues” – including the fact that the group’s leader is called “Sunday” – to Sunday’s probable identity.

What I thought was even more interesting than who Sunday might be was how the numerous, often hilarious, discussions of the value of anarchy versus law or order can be seen as arguments for and against free will.  All the policemen who ostensibly are upholding order thrive in one way or another by being encouraged to take on the role of anarchists (that is, show a bit more free will), while the one true anarchist is – in a very odd way, because he can only exist with Law to act against – the only real advocate of order.

It’s not that simple, but it does provoke thought.

ALAN: Humour can do that to you. It’s a sneaky technique. For example…

JANE: No!  We must stop here.  We’ve already gone on longer than I intended and I need to get some work done.  Please make notes and save it for next time!

My Thyme Garden

March 29, 2017

News Flash!  This Sunday, April 2nd, at 1:00 pm.  I’ll be joining editor Gerald Hausman and some of the contributing authors to the anthology Guns at the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe.  Plans include a discussion followed by Q&A, culminating in a group signing.  Go here for more details.

You Can See the Sundial’s Shadow

This weekend we went out plant shopping.  In the process I managed to combine two of my great loves: gardening and books – of one book, especially, in particular.

Despite my dire predictions last week, we did not get snow.  However, I feel somewhat justified in my doom and gloom because the temperatures did drop, and snow was even predicted for one night.  It didn’t happen, but it was predicted.  What we did get was the horrible howling winds that distinguish New Mexico springs.

By Saturday, the winds had decided to go bother someone else, and the temperatures were predicted to be moderate.  Jim and I saddled up (figuratively) and went on a quest for an apple tree.  Now, as you may know, most apple trees need a compatible tree for reasons of pollination.  Even “self-fruitful” or “self-pollinating” trees do better if they have a partner.

Since our remaining apple tree is a Gala, we were restricted a relatively limited list.  Eventually, at Alameda Greenhouse we found three options.  We didn’t want a Granny Smith because, while those apples are tasty, they’re tart, better for cooking than eating.  (Unless you like really tart apples.)  That left us with Jonathan and Fuji.  The Jonathan trees looked nice, but they were obviously younger, with more slender trunks.  So we settled – quite happily, actually –on a nice semi-dwarf Fuji.

You’d think putting the new tree in would be easy, because we were using the same spot where we had taken out the previous tree.  Hah!  When I went to dig out the area, I found it was completely infested – there’s really no other word for it – with Bermuda grass roots.  Since water is precious here in the southwest, I didn’t really want the new tree to have competition.  So I started digging out the roots.

Several hours and six gallons later – I know, because I was putting the roots into buckets, and those had a measurable volume – the ground was finally more or less clear of Bermuda grass roots.  I then dug a hole twice as wide as the tree’s base and somewhat deeper.  This was then lined with fresh compost from our own bins.

(Jim had been emptying these while I’d been engaged with the Bermuda grass.)

We then set the tree in place, refilled the hole with a mixture of sand (which is what we have here rather than soil) and various amendments, then soaked with a mixture of water and root stimulant.

We’re debating whether to take off an anomalous, but sturdy, lower limb as the woman at the greenhouse said she would if it were her tree.  On the one hand, she’s right, that would encourage the tree to grow a solid upper crown.  On the other hand, that would leave us with a very silly-looking stick with a ball of leaves on top, sort of like a poodle’s tail minus the poodle.

The jury’s out for now, but I’d welcome advice.

While we were out questing for apple trees, I spotted some lovely thyme plants.  Last summer, we finally lost the plants that had flourished at the edge of our tiny pond for several years.  I was determined to plant more – not only because it’s an attractive, heat-hardy plant, but also because thyme is a key element in one of my favorite self-created recipes: Scarborough Faire Chicken.

If you’ve guessed that the key seasonings are parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, you’re right.  The fact that I grow all of these myself adds savor (pun intended) to the mix.  I also use ample garlic powder (not garlic salt) and fresh onion.  Bake covered, skin-side down at 350 for about 45 minutes, then remove cover if you want the onions to brown.  Cooking time, obviously, will vary according to the size of your pieces of chicken and other such factors.

It’s good, though.  Very.

So I wanted thyme.  Why then did I get not just one thyme plant (which would be ample), but three?  And why didn’t I get all of one variety, specifically, the English thyme that has done well at the past?

Blame it on a book called The Time Garden by Edward Eager.  If you didn’t know it already (and I didn’t when I was a kid) “thyme” is pronounced “time.”  And The Time Garden is about three pre-teens and one teen who spend the summer at a house where the thyme garden proves to be a means of time travel.  When you go depends on the type of thyme you pick.

In the best tradition of E. Nesbit style fantasy novels, the thyme garden also has the Natterjack, a guardian who explains – grumpily and reluctantly – the rules of the magic.  A Natterjack, if you don’t know is, as he himself explains, a very superior sort of toad.  This one is descended from a London toad from Covent Garden who emigrated to the New World.  “Any magic as I ‘ave,” he explains, “I puts right into this ‘ere garding.”  The kids are quick to pick up on the hint.

The first thyme picked – appropriately by impulsive Eliza – is “wild thyme.”  After that, although the children take great care with what sorts they pick, they still manage to have some interesting adventures.

When I saw that in addition to the English thyme I’d intended to get, the store also had lemon thyme and gold lemon time (this last with lovely yellow veins in the leaves) I couldn’t resist.  I planted all three varieties near the pond where – just by chance, of course – we have a sundial, and where, again, just by chance, Jim has built what he calls his “toad temple.”

If they take, I’d like to add more. Wooly thyme is lovely, as is silver thyme.

Of course we won’t have magical adventures…  That doesn’t happen to grown-ups, or so I’ve been told.  But then, as the Natterjack says in The Time Garden, time will tell!

FF: Moonstone and Lamb

March 24, 2017

I’m pretty much healed now, and immersed in work, but I’m still reading!

Persephone is a Little Lamb

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Audiobook.  Proves conclusively that those who think Victorian fiction is all dry and boring have simply read the wrong novels!

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork.  Not an easy book to sum up, but I can say I very much liked it.

In Progress:

Lamb by Christopher Moore.  I’m impressed with the level of research that went into this.

Knight of Shadows.  Audiobook.  Eighteen episodes of The Shadow radio drama.  Moving on to the close…

Also:

Been spending a lot of time re-reading my own Smoke and Mirrors.  The e-book is in the final stages of preparation.  Sign up for my mailing list (a link is available on my website) to be among the first to hear when it’s ready.

TT: The Omens Look Good

March 23, 2017

JANE: We’ve talked about the works of both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at some length in the past, but I would like to note that their collaborative novel Good Omens uses humor to take a look at a very unfunny religiously-charged topic – the end of the world.  One of my favorite bits is the revised Four Horsemen (excuse me, bikers) of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pollution.

Which Reveals the Secret of Milton Keynes

Death and War are fairly recognizable evolutions of the classic trope, but Famine is brilliantly repurposed as a fad diet promoter – an excellent commentary on how (at least in prosperous societies) fear of starvation has changed into fear of becoming fat.  Pollution does not so much replace Plague as expand upon the classic concept in that  humanity is presented not only as suffering from illness, but also as inflicting it upon the natural world.

ALAN: The book is so very British in its tone and in its references that its worldwide popularity never ceases to amaze me. Wikipedia informs me that the American edition (which I’ve never seen) has a plethora of footnotes which, I assume, explain some of these things…

For example, almost every British child born between (roughly) 1920 and 1970 grew up reading Richmal Crompton’s William books. They describe the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy and his gang of friends. Crompton’s books are themselves very funny and remain very readable even today. Adam, the Antichrist in Good Omens, is just a thinly disguised version of Crompton’s William Brown – a delightful homage to a British institution.

JANE: I just took my copy of Good Omens off the shelf.  The American edition does contain a wealth of footnotes but, as far as I can tell from a quick skim, the majority of them are typical of the sort Pratchett used in the Discworld books: side comments, often humorous, but certainly not clarifications.

There are a few clearly put in at the request of some anxious editor, such as this one:

“Note for Americans and other aliens: Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.”

I must say, I didn’t feel the footnote added anything that an intelligent reader could not have gathered from context.  In fact, I feel that it actually obscured the point by not explaining why Britons find this amusing.

ALAN: Believe it or not, this footnote is in the British edition as well. It’s not hard to find the reason why. It allows Pratchett and Gaiman to mention Milton Keynes twice – once in the body of the text and once in a footnote – thus making the joke twice as funny!

Would you like to know why Milton Keynes is funny? It’s a bit of a tangent, but the story is far too good to miss out on…

JANE: Hey, we call these Tangents for a reason.  If I’d wanted to be forced to stay on topic, I’d be using my blog to write literary essays.  Go for it!

ALAN: Milton Keynes was formally designated as a new town in 1967. Most British towns are several thousand years old and they were never properly designed. They just sort of grew hither and yon, when nobody was looking. So the idea of having a whole new town, properly designed from the ground up, was quite a thrilling one. But of course, it was designed by a committee and as a consequence the final result was more than a little dull and stultifying. Milton Keynes is not an architectural classic… It’s a beige town, bland and unimaginative, a byword for boredom. As the footnote remarks, many Britons find this amusing.

JANE: They find boring amusing or that planning leads to a boring place amusing?

ALAN: All the above, with knobs on. The town is widely perceived as a waste of a golden opportunity. Nobody will ever admit that they come from Milton Keynes. It’s too shameful.

Bill Bryson notes in one of his travel books that he once took a train to Milton Keynes, but when he got off there, he was quite unable to find Milton Keynes.

In an effort to give the place some character, the city fathers commissioned a herd of concrete cows to be built on the outskirts of the town. Nobody is quite sure why. The cows are world famous in England. People come from yards around just to see them. Sometimes the cows get vandalised (clearly that’s what they are really there for). They have been painted pink, turned into zebras, had pyjama bottoms added to them and one of the calves was once kidnapped (a ransom note was sent to the local papers). History is silent as to whether or not the ransom was paid…

JANE: Is “pyjama” really how you Brits spell “pajama”?

ALAN: Of course it is. Perhaps we should both compromise on PJ…

JANE: PJ it is.  Of course, that’s also American shorthand for “peanut butter and jelly,” but we shall trust to context.

Remind me to tell you about a similar series of art projects here in the U.S.  I can’t remember what the one with cows was called, but there was another called The Trail of Painted Ponies.  It was exceedingly popular and for good reason.

But that’s a huge Tangent.  Let me go back to Good Omens.  In leafing through my copy, I certainly didn’t find any note about the William books.  However, I don’t think this would be necessary.  Although we don’t have “William” books precisely, we do have hosts of books about groups of children, doing the sort of things that groups of children like to do.  It is not a uniquely British theme.

 ALAN: No, it’s not uniquely British. But the William books are a very British institution with a unique place in popular culture. They are known to, and loved by, almost everybody who was born during the fifty years that Richmal Crompton was writing them. I’m sure that there are American equivalents, but William is very recognisably ours.

JANE: I wonder why they didn’t name Adam “William” then?  Were there other cues that Adam was “William,” not just an Everyboy hero?  Maybe his three pals were very like William’s?

ALAN: Quite unwittingly, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Adam and his gang correspond very closely to William and his gang.

JANE: We’ve taken a detour to Milton Keynes, and it hasn’t been in the least beige.  Still, let’s take a breather and get back to this next week.

Does Spring Seem Ahead of Schedule?

March 22, 2017

Spring is advancing ahead of schedule, or so it seems here in our corner of New Mexico.   Temperatures already have repeatedly hit the 80’s.  We’ve seen the first toad of the year soaking in our pond.  Last year, according to our records (yes, we keep records of such things), we didn’t see the first toad until well into April.

Apple Buds, Ready to Open

All around us we have seen cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, peach blossoms, and even apple blossoms.  Pretty as these are, this is a disturbing development because, if we get a cold snap – and I have recorded snow at my house as late as May – then we’re likely to lose much of our fruit and even some more tender plants.

I’m debating whether or not to plant cold weather crops such as carrots, radishes, and arugula.  Usually I’d wait – mostly because the high winds can bury the tiny seeds if I plant too soon –but I’m wondering if I wait if I’ll miss the best time to get these plants started.  Radishes tend to bolt and go woody if planted when the temperature has already risen.  Carrots don’t do much better.

It’s funny to realize that if I had a chance to gaze in a crystal ball, what I’d want to check would be the temperature trends for the next four weeks.

This winter finally did for an apple tree Jim and I put in over twenty years ago.  That tree had never been strong, but we kept working with it.  Still, this year I could see that the fight was over.  Last weekend, we dug out the base, then loosened up the soil, removing as many Bermuda grass roots as possible.   (No.  I didn’t plant the grass.  It’s the unwelcome heritage of a prior owner.)

We figured that we’d have plenty of time to get a new tree.  Most years, our apple tree doesn’t flower until mid or even late April.  This year, our remaining apple tree is already  budding and looks as if it could burst into flower any moment.  Even if we get a new tree nearly immediately, the chance for the necessarily cross pollination (something that is a good idea even if one has “self-pollinating” varieties of apple) to happen is greatly reduced.

However, when we went out to buy a new tree, we found the garden centers nearest to our house (we checked three) hadn’t yet received their full deliveries of fruit trees.  What they did have were mostly earlier season plants.

Well, I have the arugula seeds.  I can plant those.  Then watch, it’ll snow next week…

Stay tuned!

FF: Medicinal Reading

March 17, 2017

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

Kel Claims Cat’s Cradle

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams.  Audio of the radio drama.  Enjoyable.

The Venetian’s Wife by Nick Bantock.  More text than his best-selling “Griffin and Sabine” trilogy, but still heavily and creatively illustrated.

Sunchaser’s Quest: Unicorns of Balinor, Book Two by Mary Stanton.  Middle grade “missing princess” story featuring many-colored unicorns.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.  Definitely related to Alan and my discussion of SF andreligion.

In Progress:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Audiobook.  Many cite this as the first detective novel in English.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork.  Only a few chapters in, but I already really like Marcelo.  The “real world,” not so much!

Knight of Shadows.  Audiobook.  Eighteen episodes of The Shadow radio drama.  I’m now over the half-way point.  They don’t benefit from too many at once since, like many radio dramas of the time, they rely on set pieces and a lot of repetition.  Still, they made a great amusement amid cold and fever.

Also:

If there’s one good thing about recovering from a cold or flu or whatever it is I’ve had, it’s that I don’t feel like I’m slacking if I curl up and read.  It’s medicinal!

TT: Not That Shaggy!

March 16, 2017

JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that one of the many ways SF has addressed issues of religion and spirituality is through humor. Would you like to start?

ALAN: Well, let’s begin with shaggy god stories…

JANE: That’s a good idea. Err… What’s a shaggy god story?

Shaggy? No, Ziggy!

ALAN: The term was coined by Michael Moorcock when he was the editor of New Worlds. He claimed that his slush pile was always far too full of these kind of stories. After the nuclear holocaust that wiped out humanity, there were only two survivors. One was called Adam and the other was called Eve…

The expression quickly caught on (it’s a very clever one), and these days it’s generally used to describe any story that depends for its effect on a punch line that invokes some kind of biblical scenario.

JANE: Clever, definitely, since it switches the letters d-o-g around into g-o-d, but Moorcock’s definition is a bit misleading, too.  According to what I recall, a shaggy dog story is basically a bad joke that builds up to a punchline that is usually anticlimactic.

Would you consider Arthur C. Clarke’s stories “The Star” and “The Nine Billion Names of God” (which we mentioned before) to fit Moorcock’s definition of a shaggy god stories?

ALAN: Yes I would – though they are definitely not anticlimactic bad jokes. I continue to find their punch lines effective and moving and (the first time I read them) quite shocking. Which is why they were well worth publishing in the first place, of course.

JANE:  Hmm… I just went and read up on shaggy dog stories.  One article did note that meeting the audience’s expectations in an “unexpected manner” also qualifies as a shaggy dog story, so I guess the Clarke stories really would (despite being effective) qualify as shaggy god stories.

If that’s the case, then a shaggy god story is not necessarily a bad story. It’s just that most of them are – especially if you’re an editor reading more and more of them as they appear in the slush pile.

ALAN: That’s exactly right. But even the clichéd shaggy god story that Moorcock hated so much can be made to work if you try hard enough. I have an example in mind. I think it’s by Damon Knight, but I’ve not been able to track it down…

As usual, Adam and Eve are the only two survivors of the nuclear holocaust. But Adam has a problem. Eve does not take kindly to his advances and she runs away from him and hides in a women’s toilet. Since men aren’t allowed in there, clearly there is nothing that Adam can do to save the situation. She won’t come out and he can’t go in. The human race is doomed to oblivion.

JANE: Heh….  Okay.  I’m chuckling.  Maybe one of our readers can identify this one?

Leaving the shaggy god story behind, what other stories have used humor to explore religious and/or spiritual issues?

ALAN: Probably one of the best examples is by Christopher Moore. All his books never cease to make me laugh out loud on buses, much to my embarrassment and to the amusement of all the other passengers. But by far and away his best book, in my opinion, is Lamb which is subtitled: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a subtitle that sums up the plot admirably.

Make no mistake about it, the book is hugely irreverent and potentially offensive. But irreverence is never used as a cheap substitute for wit. This is a very clever book and there are subtleties hiding behind the belly laughs. Which, to my mind, makes the jokes twice as funny!

JANE: You’ve mentioned this book before, and I’ve actually just taken a copy out of my library, because I want to read it, but I haven’t gotten there yet.  Can you give me an example of these subtleties?

ALAN: Yes I can. Biff and his friend Jesus go searching for the three wise men who attended Jesus’ birth. Jesus wants to learn how to be the Messiah, and presumably the Magi can teach him. His mind is set on high ideals, but Biff much prefers the low places of the world.

So, for example, one of the Magi teaches Jesus the way of the Tao. And while he is absorbing these rarified lessons, Biff is learning about the ways in which eight Chinese concubines can enrich his life…

Again and again, in scene after scene, Jesus and Biff contrast the sacred and the profane and slowly they each come to realise that a truly effective life cannot be lived without both of these aspects being part of it. Neither can exist without the other.

Moore clearly respects his characters. Nothing that Jesus does in the book contradicts what we know about him. And Biff is not just a shallow cynic looking for a good time. He is the anchor that holds Jesus’ humanity on to the straight and narrow. Without Biff, Jesus cannot find the words to touch people’s souls.

But mostly, it’s just a hysterically funny book.

JANE: That sounds great…  I look forward to reading the book.

ALAN: I have several other authors in mind who have used humour to further a complex discussion of religion. Shall we talk about them next time?

JANE: Absolutely…  It sound enlightening!

Where to Start?

March 15, 2017

On the heels of last week’s Wednesday Wanderings, I came down with a terrific cold.

Several Steps

This cold really was “terrific,” in all senses of the word.  It came on so suddenly that, in the archaic sense of the word, it elicited a degree of terror.  It was – to borrow just a few synonyms from the more formal definition – prodigious, formidable, and intense.  And, finally, in the most informal sense of the word, the cold was terrific – that is “extremely good” – in that it ebbed almost as quickly as it had initially occurred, making possible my keeping my Sunday engagements, both of which I would have been sorry to cancel.

As I write this, the infirmity lingers, although to a much lesser degree, making me grow tired rather faster than I would like, muddling my thought processes, and, in general, impeding creativity – including coming up with a way to start a story I’m determined to work on this week.

On Monday, I was sitting staring at my computer screen, wishing that I could focus.  In the end, realizing that I was wasting my time, I decided to go and take care of some routine chores.  As is my custom whenever possible, I turned on an audiobook – in this case a novel I have not read for many years: Wilkie Collin’s seminal detective novel, The Moonstone.

Imagine my astonishment, even my amusement, when, within a very few sentences, Gabriel Betteredge, who narrates that section, began to talk about the difficulty of knowing exactly where to begin a tale.  In Gabriel’s case, he goes back to his own youth, when he first took employment with the family of the woman who – these many decades later – he continues to serve, now in the capacity of steward and butler.

Although Gabriel apologizes repeatedly for including so much about himself – rather than focusing more tightly on the events surrounding the disappearance of the titular moonstone (a yellow diamond, by the by, for those of you who haven’t read the novel, not the blue-white semi-precious stone with which most of us are familiar) – his ramblings do an excellent job of sketching several of the primary characters, the setting, and the household dynamic.  As these prove key to understanding the mystery that will unfold, perhaps Gabriel isn’t wasting either his or the reader’s time as much as he thinks.

However, although Gabriel’s ramblings lay the foundation for the story that will follow, Collins did not depend upon them to supply the novel’s narrative hook.  That is given in a short earlier section – one which sets up the history of the diamond and how the cursed gem came into this quiet corner of England.

Side note: As I mentioned last Friday, Josh Gentry’s SnackReads/SnackWrites site has just reprinted my piece on narrative hooks, so I won’t bother to go into my feelings about that particular literary device except to say that I firmly approve of it.

So, what should I do?  Perhaps I should go and verbally sketch some of the characters who are flitting so vividly through my imagination, including the scene that I envisioned?  Perhaps I should write a little history of the immediate setting?  Perhaps I should write a list of some of the events I think may happen?  Perhaps I should consolidate some of the research I have been doing these several months?

Perhaps I should follow Gabriel Betteredge’s example and go consult a copy of Robinson Crusoe.  Well…  Maybe not that.  Defoe’s novel may provide unfailing guidance for Gabriel, but I’m not sure it would prove anything but an appealing distraction for me.

But certainly I could try any of the other ideas.  None of the material may make its way into the final work, but certainly it would be better than staring in frustration into the white light of my computer screen.

Do you have any particular way you get started on a new project?  I don’t mean only writing – I mean anything that involves taking the first step on the path that will lead from inspiration to reality.

FF: More Than Usually Varied

March 10, 2017

News Flash!  This week, SnackReads/SnackWrites is reprinting a piece I wrote about narrative hooks.  Don’t know what a narrative hook is?  Turns out, neither did Roger Zelazny – even though he wrote great ones.  Read more here.

A Tale for Sun and Shadow

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazines.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond.   A children’s story.  This edition has notes and a long introduction.  My recommendation is to read the story first, the ancillary material later.

In Progress:

Knight of Shadows.  Audiobook.  Eighteen episodes of The Shadow radio drama.  I’ve now listened to the first four.  They don’t benefit from too many at once since, like many radio dramas of the time, they rely on set pieces and a lot of repetition.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams.  Audio of the radio drama.

The Venetian’s Wife by Nick Bantock.  More text than his best-selling “Griffin and Sabine” trilogy, but still heavily and creatively illustrated.

Also:

Considering works on the Nebula Ballot.  Anyone have any strong feelings about the offerings this year?