Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Few Words on Little, Big

A few days ago I finished listening to the audiobook (read by the author) of John Crowley's Little, Big — my second time through the audiobook specifically and third time through the text of the novel as a whole.*  I come away once again overwhelmed by what an amazing, marvelous book it is.

I want to recommend it to everyone.  Virginia Woolf famously said that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English books written for grown-up people", a remark that strikes me as about 15% insightful and 85% silly.  But in the same way one could say that Little, Big was one of the few English books about faeries written for grown-up people.**  Middlemarch contains a village, at a fairly brief moment in time; Little, Big contains a family (it is family chronicle, a rather old-fashioned but marvelous form), stretched out over time and space (or, if not space, then location, the locations being the country house and the City).  It's breathtaking and heartbreaking and wonderful.  Its prose is not as pyrotechnic in a way that Nabokov's or Updike's can (at times excessively) be; but it is as good as theirs are, which is to say, as good as English prose gets.  Gene Wolfe (one of the few living writers in his class) said that Little, Big was "an education in modern fantasy all by itself"; Ursula Le Guin said it is "a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy".  Harold Bloom's canonized it.  Seriously, people, this is an amazing book.

I want to recommend it to everyone: but with a word of warning.  It's not an easy book to get into.  Several very fine readers whom I have pushed it upon have begun it, seen its merits, but not finished it.  I myself began it several times before finishing it.  After I did so, I went online and searched for information about it, and found person after person saying some variation of, "it took me several tries to get into it but now it's one of my favorite books".  Well, me too.  It reminds me of what Umberto Eco said in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose:
After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are alike a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.  Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.
Just so: the same is true of the life of a family that lives in the country and waits for a Tale to unfold.

It is not a book that you "can't put down": it is that much deeper and more wonderful thing, a book that you must continually put down to catch your breath, to marvel at the view, to hold a phrase tightly in your mind in sheer delight.  But it is a journey worth taking.  Some reviewers have complained that "nothing happens" in the book: which is not at all true, though I grant that there is no punching or shooting (well, except for the person who ends up getting shot, I mean.  But not that sort of shooting).  But it is not a novel paced to the attention spans of the digital age.  It's the richer for it: but it has become for us, I think, a harder read than it was when it first came out.  But it will repay you richly if you make the effort.  Sometimes long journeys need to be taken on foot, to be the more marvelous when you finally, dusty and tired, arrive.

Two notes on two ancillary works of art that spring from the novel.

First, as I mentioned, I listened to the audiobook, read by Crowley himself.  It's marvelous.  Crowley is not a professional audiobook narrator, and does not have the characteristic style they do (with, for instance, their multiple voices for multiple characters); but the text is his, and his voice makes it (if possible) even better.  If you've gotten stuck in the book, try the audiobook.  (Local Ithaca folks might note it's in the TCPL system, though housed at a different library.)

Second, my friend Ron Drummond has been working for some years on a special limited edition of Little, Big, one with an author's corrected text*** and illustrations by Peter Milton — pictures not created for the book, but used to illustrate it.  That last — the entwining of a text with pictures made separately from it — sounds as implausible as, well, a novel about faeries for (in a Wolfian sense) grown-up people.  But, implausibly, miraculously, it works.  The other day Ron was kind enough to show me several chapters as laid out for the in-process edition.  What was remarkable to me about it is not only how well they graced the text, but the way in which Ron, taking details from various pictures, sometimes reversing or reusing them in creative and counterintuitive ways, has made out of Milton's art and Crowley's masterpiece something yet other, a third work of art, with its own aesthetic surprises and joys and marvels.  It is, perhaps, the art of curating (a underappreciated art in any event); but it is a first-rate example of it.  Ron has hit some speedbumps, and the edition as yet has no publication date,  but keep an eye out for it, and catch it when you can.

In the meantime, don't let that hold you up: get any old edition of the novel and read it — or get the audiobook and listen.  If you get stuck, keep going.  Don't let the amazing transition that occurs in the first sentence of part three throw you (it threw me, when I first hit it).  It's worth it.  If you finish it once, you'll want to read it again.


* The first time I used the admittedly old-fashioned medium of trees, pulped & smashed flat, and systematically dirtied in specific patterns.  Weird, I know.

** Don't let the word ''faeries" turn you off; these are neither Peter Pan's cute comrades nor Tolkien's wise warriors.  They are marvelous and terrifying and convincing in a way that I might have said, before reading the book, was impossible.

*** Used as the text for the audiobook edition, incidentally.

Dylan, Nobel Laureate

I am genuinely quite, quite thrilled by this news.

There has been no better writer than Dylan in the years Dylan has been writing. The Nobel for Literature has never gone to anyone more worthy than he.

There are, to be sure, other writers equally worthy: I would love to see someone from the SF field win it (Le Guin is most frequently named, and would be a fitting winner, as would Wolfe, Delany, Crowley, and others). I'd plug Alan Moore. The various sneers at Philip Roth are misplaced; he, too, would be a great winner. All that said: there is no better choice. Dylan is entirely and fully deserving.

A splendid, perfect choice.

Two further points:

First, I would like to thank the Nobel committee for taking my mind off this genuinely stomach-turning election (due, I should add, entirely to one candidate: I mean no false equivalence here), and giving me something to be genuinely happy about this morning.

Second, note to self: really, really gotta resist getting into it with the people who are, in various fashions, sneering. Shouting doesn't help people be less tone deaf.

PS: Ted Gioia totally called it some years ago (fun list all around, incidentally).

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Poem of the Day: Archaic Torso of Apollo

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell
(A neat page with both the original German and several different English translations is here.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Thoughts on the State of the Democratic Nomination Race, Especially Where Sanders Is & Should Go

A lot of people are frustrated that Sanders hasn't dropped out yet. As a Sanders voter, I agree he needs to withdraw, but I think far more important then when he drops out is how he drops out. He has raised a large number of issues, pushed the political conversation (and Clinton) to the left and above all energized young voters powerfully & importantly. He needs to drop out in a way that does several things:

1. Gives them a sense of all they accomplished. Because they accomplished a lot.

2. Imparts to them the absolute moral imperative of voting for Clinton over Trump.

3. Keeps the activists he has inspired engaged in politics, ideally spinning off organized movements and not just individual activists.
Those movements could be a lot of things; two important areas, in my view, are A) downballot organizing (nothing will happen without multiple victories at every level; Sanders's organization could and should be a powerful force pushing the democrats both left & into power), and B) issue organizing (holding all democrats' feet to the fire on issues of inequality, money-dominated politics, and the other issues that Sanders focused on). Ideally they'd do A through November and B thereafter, but any combination would be good.

Conceding last night wouldn't have down much for any of those three goals. So I don't think he should have done so. But he needs to be laying the groundwork. Will he/is he? The signs are mixed: a lot of (not entirely credible) reporting is portraying him as very personally bitter; at the same time, there are reasons to be hopeful (he requested & is having a meeting with Obama on Thursday). It could go either way. I hope he does the right thing. Taking his time & doing it carefully is not only consistent with that, it's necessary for it.

Electing Clinton is necessary to progress in every area Sanders supporters care about; it is sufficient for progress in none. If Sanders, and we, can bear that in mind, we'll do well. So keep hope alive, as another Democratic candidate who didn't receive his party's nomination used to put it.

Cross-posted from Facebook.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Boodle to Quoodle, Buffy to Puffy

Then there is my Lord Boodle, of considerable reputation with his party, who… perceives with astonishment that supposing the present government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle—supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can't offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can't put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows?…

On the other hand, the Right Honourable William Buffy, M.P., contends across the table with some one else that the shipwreck of the country—about which there is no doubt; it is only the manner of it that is in question—is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him from going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy, you would have had with you the weight attaching as a smart debater to Guffy, you would have brought to bear upon the elections the wealth of Huffy, you would have got in for three counties Juffy, Kuffy, and Luffy, and you would have strengthened your administration by the official knowledge and the business habits of Muffy. All this, instead of being as you now are, dependent on the mere caprice of Puffy!

— Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 12

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Kay Ryan Week: A Sequel

Four-plus years ago I went on a binge of posting Kay Ryan poems.  The other day I saw her latest book — Erratic Things (2015)* — on the new book shelf in the library.  I'm still reading it, but partway in it's fabulous.  Here's my favorite so far:
On the Nature of Understanding

Say you hoped to
tame something
wild and stayed
calm and inched up
day by day. Or even
not tame it but
meet it half way.
Things went along.
You made progress,
it would be a
lengthy process,
sensing changes
in your hair and
nails. So it's
strange when it
attacks: you thought
you had a deal.

— Kay Ryan

* The title is enriched by an epigraph, a definition of "erratic": (n) Geol. A boulder or the like carried by glacial ice and deposited some distance from its place of origin.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Four Questions For the Second Seder

Why is this night exactly the same as last night?
Last night, we had a seder. Tonight, we're having exactly the same seder.
Last night, I asked you four questions. Tonight, I'm going to ask you the same four questions all over again.
Last night, you made a big deal out of the Torah verse "on that day". Now, you'll do that today too?
Last night you told me the story of the coming out of Exodus. Good yarn. But you're repeating it. Didn't we cover this already?

(Chag kasher v'sameach to those celebrating this week.) 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Century Past

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

— W. B. Yeats

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Musical Cultural Query, With Lots of Backstory & A Few Asides

(Cross-posted from Facebook.)

So people regularly use (in casual conversation, in fiction, etc) music as markers of personality and character — the sort of music that sort of person would listen to, listening to that sort of music carries *these* connotations. Music, basically, as cultural signifiers, as cultural coloring.

ASIDE: Personally, I happen to think a lot of this is bullshit (which is perhaps affected by the somewhat separate fact that I think it would be a better world if everyone recognized it as bullshit); I happen to think that a lot of what degree it isn't bullshit is actually about tribe/class/etc rather than personality (and sometimes rather damagingly conflates the latter with the former).

But set those personal beliefs aside: the fact is people do it, and do it a lot. My problem is that I simply don't know these associations. I was just listening to a podcast where someone said "I couldn't put U2 on that playlist" and another person said "thank you", and they clearly had the same association with U2 and I don't have the slightest fucking clue what it is. (My only association with U2, beyond knowing a few of their songs, is that when I was in Ireland several decades ago there was a huge amount of basically nationalistic love for them. That wasn't what these podcast people meant, though.) What did U2 mean in that sentence (aside from the specific band, which is only a fraction of what it really meant)? I genuinely don't know; I can guess a bit from context, but not very specifically, not very richly, not very accurately. (I know a tiny bit of it for classical and jazz. But only a bit. And that's not what gets most used, by a very long shot.)

ASIDE: Actually, these things are so vague that I rather suspect that people themselves have very different understandings of them: that one person will say, "U2, damn" and another will reply "I know" and that they'll never work out that they are actually meaning almost entirely different things.

It seems to me, however, that this is precisely the sort of thing that the web ought to help with. To tell us not only who U2 is (members names, song names, release dates) but what they mean — or, more accurately, what they are taken to mean, including any big disagreements in that. I'm thinking of something vaguely like "urban dictionary", except for bands/singers/songs. Except I don't know of anything like that. It's certainly not on wikipedia (probably too opinionated, although it's the sort of thing I wish wikipedia had more of, frankly).

So: does this exist? And if not, can someone build it? (And please don't say 'you do it!'; obviously, I am the *last* person who should try this, or I wouldn't be asking.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

David Hartwell

(This is a combination of two things I posted on Facebook today.)

As anyone with anyone in the SF field in their social media feed knows by now, the extraordinary editor, David G. Hartwell, is dying. (Contrary to various reports, it seems he is not actually dead; but his wife has reported that he "is not expected to recover", and that he is being tested for brain death.) As best as I can tell, a fall down a flight of stairs triggered brain bleeding which has become fatal to his self if not actually his heartbeat.

There will be a lot more to say, mostly by people better qualified to say it than I. But, like so many in (or on the fringes of) the SF field, I knew him. I was his student in a summer class in 1988. It was a good class; and only years later, having myself been a teacher, can I recognize how extraordinarily above & beyond he went in teaching that class, meeting with us for hours before and after nearly every time. After that I saw him from time to time at SF conventions, once or twice elsewhere. He was a kind and generous man, and it is a shock to imagine him gone from the world.

A shock: it was so sudden, so unexpected. That a man who yesterday was (I believe) seeming in full health can today be on the brink of death is terrifying, and magnifies what is already an incalculable loss.

A note to anyone not acquainted with the SF field (should anyone in that position have read this far): I strongly suspect that David affected your life, too: simply because his affect on the SF field was *so* vast (he was the most influential SF editor in my lifetime), and because SF has had such a prominent role in the culture beyond the field proper (movies, TV, etc), it seems inescapable. I am not myself capable of articulating what that influence is, but it's there, and I hope others will do a better job of tracing it than I.

Finally, I can help noting that David and his wife Kathryn had children who are — I believe — teenagers. As overwhelming a loss as this is to so many in his field, as utterly overwhelming as it must be for Kathryn and his two kids from his first marriage, I can't help but think of them in particular. I know a bit of what it's like to have a parent die suddenly around that age; my heart goes out to them.

Not yet gone, you are already missed, David.


Can't stop thinking about David Hartwell. Most people (rightly) will be talking about his impact on SF, so here are a few links on another subject: his clothes.

Lee Whiteside's photo of David showing his ties at a SF convention (below, with another of his photos further down):

David as Fashion Theorist: his three laws, with corollaries (scroll down a bit).

Mary Robinette Kowal on some of the thinking behind his outfits.

And more ties.

And still more ties.

And yet more:

Seeing all this made me quite nostalgic for David all over again. Which is the point, I guess.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Quote of the Day: Erev Yom Kippur, 5776

She wept and wept, and the gods drank up her tears, as they have always drunk up our tears, yours and mine and everyone’s, and by their sweetness were sustained for another day.

—John Crowley, Daemonomania (2000)

To those observing Yom Kippur, g'mar chatimah tova.