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Big Dipper


I am a largely self-taught birder, which means I grew up in ignorance of certain terms of art. I did not know, for example, that the word binoculars is usually abbreviated to bins or binos; since the stress in the word is on the second syllable, I always went with binocs, but I understand that not everyone who read The Verb 'To Bird' was with me on that one.

The common term I really missed out on, however, was dip, which didn't come into my awareness until about 2005. As defined by Purbita Saha in "The Audubon Dictionary," it means "to miss out on a high-priority bird." As you might guess from that definition, it usually refers to situations where a birder is pursuing a specific bird and fails to see it. If you've been energized by a Rare Bird Alert to go searching in the pre-dawn darkness and end up at a cheap diner for a late lunch without having logged that rarity, you have dipped. Saha uses it as a transitive verb in her sample sentence ("...he dipped a Say's Phoebe...") but when I've heard it, it's usually unaccompanied by a direct object (which means it's "intransitive," for those of you who aren't excited by grammar), as in "We looked for a Say's Phoebe, but we dipped." I've even heard "dipped on" used idiomatically, as in "We dipped on the Say's Phoebe."

No matter how the word is defined, however, I don't use it often, because I rarely dip. This isn't some huge boast about my birding talent, mind you; it's simply that most of my birding is done without a specific target in mind, so the idea of "high-priority bird" doesn't really enter into my efforts. I see what's there, and I'm often surprised and delighted by it, but I try not to feel bad about what I did not see.

There are exceptions, of course. My ongoing quest to get a lifer in each of the fifty states means that while I may not be looking for a specific bird when I'm in a particular state, I am very likely to be disappointed if I don't get a new bird. That particular type of dipping has occurred in a number of places: Vermont, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Mississippi (three times), Arkansas, and most irritating of all, Georgia. Oh, Georgia. You have defeated me so many times, and in so many exquisitely painful ways... the breeding (but unseen) Bachman's Sparrows in the Okefenokee... the waders and rails unglimpsed at Harris Neck NWR... and of course the trip to Sapelo Island.

Sapelo is an example of the second and more universal type of dipping: when I've gone in search of a particular bird and failed. My trip to Sapelo, famously, resulted in a complete and utter failure to see the bird I sought there, the Plain Chacalaca, which now breeds on the island after being imported from Texas some years back. Usually when I've traveled a great distance to a specific location to find a particular bird, it's worked: I got the Hooded Crane I sought in southeast Tennessee (along with bonus Whooping Cranes); I spotted a Kirtland's Warbler in the jack pine forests of Michigan; and when a storm-tossed Brown Booby appeared at Buggs Island Lake, my buddy Nick and I tracked it down. 

But Sapelo was a big ol' dip. No chacalacas seen, or heard, or even rumored to be near the parts of the island where my tour group traveled. At the same time, I couldn't say it was a bad day of birding; before the ferry even left the dock, I had seen a huge surprise: a Roseate Spoonbill, out of its usual range. The island also gave me great looks at a large collection of Eastern Kingbirds, several brash White-eyed Vireos, and a small knot of Dunlins on the beach. As dips go, it was considerably softer than it had to be.

Today, however, I have achieved something new: a complete and total dip. I got up this morning and traveled with my father to the head of the Profile Trail on Grandfather Mountain. My plan was to bird the first mile or two of the trail and then turn back before reaching the summit. I filled out my hiking permit and put my foot on the path at 8:21, just after the opening of the state park; I returned to Dad's car at 9:52. And what did I see during that ninety-minute birding session?

Nothing.

I'm not speaking figuratively here. I'm being utterly literal. I did not see one single bird on my hike. No common birds, no rare birds. No trash birds, no life birds. Not even a bird whose field marks I couldn't identify. No LBJs. Nothing.

In fact, I didn't see any animal life at all. I glimpsed something alongside the path ahead of me as it ducked into heavy cover, but my entire impression, from nanosecond to nanosecond, went from "Moving!" to "Small!" and then "Dark!" before it disappeared. I don't know if it was a bird, a rodent, or a toad; I don't honestly know if it was a vertebrate. But I saw exactly one animal (an unidentifiable butterfly in the canopy) on the trail, plus one katydid in the parking lot when I returned. It's a pretty trail--lovely morning light, beech trees and birch trees aplenty, streams and rocks and wildflowers, but this morning, it was entirely bird-free.

Well, maybe not entirely. I did hear a few birds. A Cardinal gave a whistled "cue" at one point, and a Blue Jay jeered. Along the stream that ran along Highway 105 I heard a different Cardinal chirping in alarm, but I never saw it. When I reached the top of the first ridge and the traffic noise from 105 died down, I was able to hear both a White-breasted Nuthatch and a Blue-headed Vireo up in the leaves, but neither could be persuaded to come out where I could see it. And on the way back, I heard a loud and invisible Carolina Wren by the stream, and later the peter peter of a Tufted Titmouse. And that was it. Seven birdcalls in ninety minutes, and not one single sighting.

It was, to put it mildly, one of the worst mornings of birding I've ever experienced.

Luckily, it was a darned good hike through the woods.


11:50 AM
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The Book Meme: Day 30


Day 30 - What book are you reading right now?

After a day of travel, I come to this, the final and most basic of questions about books. Best of all, it's not a question that requires a lot of thought to answer, though it is not at all uncommon for me to have several books going at the same time. Often I'll have one that I'm reading at home and another that I'm reading during work breaks, or one to read in the bathroom, or one to read at the table.

Right now, I've kind of got a bathroom book (The Tolkien Reader) and another I've re-skimmed in my study while gaming (Robert A. Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil) and one I've read at the table (Pete Dunne's Birds of Prey), and one I've at least opened and skimmed in bed a time or two (Black Panther and the Crew by Ta-Nehisi Coates), but these are all quite secondary to what I've been powering through over the last week or so: Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey

The thing I keep coming back to in amazement is that this is the first time Homer's epic has been translated into English by a woman. If you responded, "Really?!" to that statement, you did just what I did when I came across it. How we got to the year 2018 without the publication of a single such translation by a female scholar is beyond me, particularly considering the enormous success of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which was published in way back in 1942, but here we are. I wish Wilson's work could be compared to the translations of dozens of women, but alas, that won't happen for a while.

In the meantime, however, I can say that Wilson's version is a page-turner. She has opted to do a translation that keeps the same number of lines Homer had, but she has set herself a challenge by cutting back on syllables. The original Greek used a six-beat line (dactylic hexameter, with eighteen total syllables in each line), but Wilson has opted for the most widespread meter in English, iambic pentameter (five beats and ten total syllables). This gives the epic an appealing similarity to other blank verse masterpieces like Paradise Lost or the soliloquies of Shakespeare, but it also necessitates the use of shorter words. Sometimes they are blunt, sometimes sharp, but they are often much more vivid than they might be if there was more room. Consider this passage from book 9, where Odysseus boasts of how he blinded the Cyclops and gave his name as "Nobody" or "Noman." Here is Robert Fagles' 1996 translation:

They lumbered off, but laughter filled my heart
to think how nobody's name--my great cunning stroke--
had duped them one and all. But the Cyclops there,
still groaning, racked with agony, groped around
for the huge slab, and heaving it from the doorway, 
down he sat in the cave's mouth, his arms spread wide,
hoping to catch a comrade stealing out with sheep--
such a blithering fool he took me for!

Fagles' language is lively, though there's not much in the way of strict meter. But here's how Wilson translates the same section:

Then off they went, and I laughed to myself,
at how my name, the "no man" maneuver, tricked him.
The Cyclops groaned and labored in his pain,
felt with blind hands and took the door-stone out,
and sat there at the entrance, arms outstretched,
to catch whoever went out with the sheep.
Maybe he thought I was a total fool.

Note that she has cut back Fagles' inflated line count from eight to seven, as well as removing some words and phrases that contribute little to the scene--blithering, hoping, there, comrade, one and all--and rendering the narrative in a pleasing, consistent-but-not-singsong iambic pentameter in the process. It's economical, but it's also strong and propulsive. It is perhaps a simpler dish, but it is better prepared with fresher ingredients.

I do have the occasional quibble. One is a minor mechanical note: when a singular name ends in s, it is typically considered permissible to make that name possessive in one of two ways: by adding an apostrophe and another s, or by simply adding an apostrophe: thus, you may see Fagles's translation or Fagles' translation. My Warriner's guide makes the eminently sensible suggestion that you use 's whenever you want the extra s to be voiced by the reader: Fagles' (say "FAY gulls") translation or Fagles's (say "FAY gulls ez") translation.

I suspect, however, that Wilson's style guide was a British one (as she is English, educated at Oxford and Yale), and that Warriner's advice was not included. She consistently uses only the apostrophe: Odysseus' journey, Alcinous' son, Pisistratus' eyes. That wouldn't bother me, except that in some lines, it is clear that she intends for the extra s to be voiced, while in other lines, she clearly does not. Consider how these lines read if the extra s is not voiced:

It is Laertes' son, the Ithacan (Book 4, line 554)
This is ten syllables, strict iambic pentameter. Clearly no final s is supposed to be voiced; Wilson wants it said "lay er tease" and not "lay er teases."

So let him go, if that is Zeus' order (5,139)
Without the extra s, this is only nine syllables, with two consecutive stresses (Zeus, or-). With the extra s, it's "so LET him GO if THAT is ZEUS ez OR der," perfect iambic pentameter.

Odysseus' heart and legs gave way (5,406)
A mess. If the name is said "o DISH us," it's iambic ("o DISH us HEART and LEGS gave WAY") but it's only eight syllables, four of them stressed; if you enunciate "o DIS see us" the iambic meter is thrown off and it's still only four beats over nine syllables. It needs the extra s: "o DIS see US ez HEART and LEGS gave WAY."

Basically, if you want to be sure the s is voiced in some places--and in metered poetry, you will probably need to do just that--it's important to write the possessive as Odysseus's or Zeus's when you do.

My other quibble is probably Homer's fault, not Wilson's. In Book 5, starting in line 270, Odysseus is watching the stars: 

...the Pleiades, late-setting Bootes,
and Bear, which people also call the Plow,
which circles in one place, and marks Orion--
the only star that has no share of Ocean.

What Odysseus is watching here is a series of constellations, which makes the reference to the singular "star" rather odd, particularly if you read "the only star" as a reference to the constellation Orion, which does have a share of ocean (see below). Fagles works around this, claiming the Great Bear (a/k/a the Big Dipper) is what's not getting wet:

..the Pleiades and the Plowman late to set
and the Great Bear that mankind also calls the Wagon:
she wheels on her axis always fixed, watching the Hunter,
and she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean's baths.

Astronomically, it would be entirely appropriate to say that the Big Dipper "has no share of Ocean" or "is denied a plunge in the Ocean" because it spins around the North Pole and never comes near the horizon (not in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway). But the reference to Orion the Hunter is puzzling, because Orion does get wet. His belt is set almost along the Celestial Equator, far from either pole, and he rises and sets throughout the night and throughout the year. Moreover, he's not anywhere near the Big Dipper, so why Homer would mention the the former being "marked" or "watched" by the latter is unclear... but I do wonder if there is an explanation.

I would love to know Greek, or at least enough to know if Wilson's translation of "star" as singular is accurate. If so, the reference to Orion, a constellation including seven prominent and visible stars and numerous smaller ones (including a whole nebula), makes even less sense. But there is a star--singular--that the Big Dipper famously "marks," and it is a star that never touches the ocean: the North Star, Polaris, which can be found on the line described by the two "Pointer Stars" of the Big Dipper. Is that the heavenly body at which Odysseus is actually gazing? I'll just say this: I am fairly confident in Wilson's translation, but I am not so sure about the astronomical insights of a blind poet.

But as I said, these are quibbles. I am enjoying Wilson's translation immensely, and moving through it at a brisk clip; despite my respect for Fagles, I have never yet been able to make it all the way through his version of the poem. I look forward to completing Wilson's soon, and someday I look forward to comparing it to the translations of other female scholars. Whether hers will prove the best I obviously cannot know, but I'm taking some pleasure in knowing that I was able to read the first.


11:29 AM
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The Book Meme: Day 29


Day 29 - Saddest character death OR best/most satisfying character death (or both!)


I don't know that it's exactly the saddest character death, but it is the one I can never forget: the death of Snowden in Joseph Heller's Catch-22
Despite the fact that Catch-22 is high on my list of favorite books, it hasn't gotten much mention in this series of posts so far. That may speak to its highly unusual nature. It's a narrative that effectively has no timeline, an ensemble book filled with characters who are vivid and memorable but often implausible, and a war story that indicts everyone in authority on either side.

It's also one of the funniest books I know, even as its comedy comes with a staggering body count. By the end of the book, nearly every character you or Yossarian cares about is dead, along with a number of the ones you or Yossarian cares about very little. But Snowden's death is unique. He is an unknown, both to Yossarian and the reader, until he is discovered lying in the belly of the bomber, wounded. He has not been in the squadron or in the book long enough for any sympathies to develop. The only reason you or Yossarian might have for caring about Snowden is humanitarian: he's a human being in pain.

Yossarian dutifully tends to him, treating his superficial leg wound and talking to him from time to time, but all Snowden ever says is, "I'm cold." Again, he's not saying or doing anything to connect with Yossarian or us--we learn nothing about his life up till now, nothing about his hopes for the future; we don't even get a physical description of him. He is as abstract and universal a character as he can be: a name, a pronoun, and a uniform.

That's the genius of Heller at work. He recognizes that this death will be meaningful only if it belongs to more than one individual character, so he renders Snowden as iconically as possible, rather than limiting what he means through specifics. All Snowden can say is, "I'm cold," and all Yossarian can comfort him with is "There, there." They are reduced to repetition of the most generic statements in this moment, this fundamentally human moment. As Jim Crace said of Joseph and Celice in Being Dead, Snowden does not have the power not to die, and Yossarian is confronted with that fact even as we are; not a one of us has that power, nor do we have, ultimately, the power to make each other not die. Even the parachute Yossarian opens to spread over Snowden is revealed as useless.

As he comes up against these facts, there amid the gore and the futile folds of silk, Yossarian is changed, and honestly, so are we. We are not given any information we did not already possess, but we are forced to acknowledge what we know, to give up denial or obliviousness, in the face of Snowden's secret: 


It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.


And that's what makes Snowden's death so sad, and so important. He's not the only one dying. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, as he addressed young Margaret, crying about the fallen yellow leaves in autumn, "It is Margaret you mourn for."


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1:23 PM
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The Book Meme: Day 28


Day 28 - First favorite book or series obsession

There are certainly a lot of possibilities here, so to some degree the hardest task is figuring out the chronology. I know I did not get into Lewis or Tolkien until 5th grade at the absolute earliest, and Le Guin came sometime after that. I suspect I was probably 11 when I started reading Doc Savage novels. If I go before that, I'm probably looking at the things I used to order from Scholastic Book Services.

Scholastic was an absolute godsend, giving students the chance to pick books to own--not just read--for a ridiculously low price. I remember paying 35 cents for books, and I think a few shorter ones may have been 25 a pop. As a result, I ordered a book or two or three pretty much every time the teacher handed out the catalog. Titles included The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and Mr. Pudgins and Zilpha Keatly Snyder's Black and Blue Magic and various other delights, including Beverly Cleary's tales of Henry Huggins and the Quimby sisters. But the series that grabbed me the hardest, without question, was a series of mystery tales by Donald K. Sobol, a series which debuted the same year I did, 1963, with the publication of Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective.

If you haven't read them, allow me to introduce you to young Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, ten-year-old son of the town police chief, whose youthful but capacious memory and ability to analyze information allows him to serve as the scourge of the criminal underworld, or the nearest equivalent that the small town of Idaville has to offer. In addition to helping his father solve crimes at the dinner table, Encyclopedia hangs out his shingle to make a little cash as a consulting detective, assisted by the powerful fists of his friend and bodyguard Sally Kimball. In his capacity as the president of the Brown Detective Agency (25 cents, no case too small) he helps the kids of Idaville get back their stolen merchandise from the Tigers, the local gang of juvenile delinquents, led by the Jughead-hatted and improbably named Bugs Meany.

The Encyclopedia Brown books have inspired a number of other books on the same themes, including a terrible rip-off that I wrote and illustrated in 5th grade: Computer Jones, in which a boy detective with a Jackson Five-esque afro solves a dognapping by recognizing that the basenji is a breed that doesn't bark. You'll get much more enjoyment out of Brown Harvest, Jay Russell's noir novel of a boy detective grown up and returned to his hometown, where everyone seems to be a former child detective. If you liked the Hardy Boys or Trixie Belden or Nancy Drew, you'll definitely enjoy this Hammett-style treatment of them.

The genius of Sobol's creation is that it can be compartmentalized very easily. Every chapter is a separate mystery, and every one ends with the central mystery boiled down to a single question, which is essentially a variation on "How did Encyclopedia know?" Then, at the end of the book, Sobol provides the solution for each mystery on its own page, so that you don't have to read about the next case's solution until you're done reading that case.

The appeal to me was extremely straightforward. The books allowed me to see my own bookwormish tendency to absorb facts as not merely acceptable but actually heroic. If knowing something could help you see the flaws in a crook's alibi or recognize a contradiction in a historical account or even just put a bully in his place, then the acquisition of knowledge was worth any amount of teasing from your peers! 

And yeah, I got that, in significant amounts. I still recall the time my friend Bruce and I were making our way back from a neighborhood game of football, usually played in the big front yard of a well-off gentleman named Watts Hill, who had given us blanket permission to use it. Bruce was a talented athlete, and years later he would become the starting quarterback at Chapel Hill High, but even in elementary school, his talent was noteworthy. As his nearest neighbor of the same grade, I was a frequent playmate, and it's fair to say that Bruce was the one who taught me to play basketball--well, Bruce and the Dean Smith Basketball Camp--but he was also a source of torment at times. Not only was he bigger and stronger and more athletic, he was inclined to make me feel bad about my reading habits, which were (particularly compared to his own) voracious. That day, on the way back from Watts Hill's yard, I was analyzing the game we'd played and my own contributions to it, and I took a moment to voice some pride in my abilities as a receiver: "One thing I can say is I've got good hands."

Bruce smirked and shot back, "All your hands can do is turn pages."

He was wrong, though it took me a while to really understand that, and I know now that it may have stemmed from his own lack of success in the classroom, at least compared to mine. But the comment stung, as you might guess from the fact that it has stuck with me for more than forty years.

Luckily, I had a vision, the vision of Encyclopedia Brown saving the day, over and over again, through pure intellect. For me, that was as good as watching Superman or Spider-Man do it--better, even, because working for the Brown Detective Agency seemed more possible. And that's one reason why I've never given up on the idea that there is something valuable, perhaps even noble, in learning. I haven't solved any crimes that I know of, but if the opportunity arises, I am not going to let the old firm down.


11:10 AM
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The Book Meme: Day 27


Day 27 - If a book contains ______, you will always read it (and a book or books that contain it)!

It's rare that I reject a prompt wholesale, but this is one of those instances. There is no way on earth I would commit to reading something just because it contains a certain trope or plot development or type of character. I don't say this because I have no favorite tropes or plot developments or types of character, but because those things can all be handled well or handled poorly. I'm not willing to waste my precious reading time on something that's being done poorly just because I've seen it done well before.

Example: do I love Tolkien? I do! Will I read anything that smacks of Tolkien purely because it DOES smack of Tolkien? Not anymore, because I read The Sword of Shannara and dear god help me even The Elfstones of Shannara before I realized that they were not merely incredibly derivative of Tolkien, but not very good. Heck, I haven't even read most of the History of Middle Earth books, which are basically all just editorial notes and unpublished bits of JRRT presented by his son Christopher.

Another example: I enjoy stories of transformation and have enjoyed a number of Jack L. Chalker's books because that's pretty much the only trope he uses (though a deep-seated dislike for political and religious absolutism also sneaks in regularly.) Does that mean I will read anything that involves transformation? No! In fact, I won't even read some things written by Chalker, including his final few Well World books (despite the fact that I loved the first few, especially Midnight at the Well of Souls) because they weren't very good.

Still another example: I deeply enjoy comic books about superheroes. Does that mean I will read any comic book with superheroes in it? No! Despite a near-lifetime fondness for the Legion of Super-Heroes and a collection containing everything from the X-Men to the Justice League to Invincible, I am acutely aware that many super hero comics suck like leeches mixed with vampire bats by B'wana Beast. (Read about him in DC Comics' Showcase #66, True Believers!) In fact, I was one of the notorious reviewers paid good American dollars to say terrible things about bad comic books by The Comics Journal. During my roughly three years of reviewing for TCJ, I raked any number of comics over the coals, including the X-Men, but I was most infamous for the raking of Wild Dog. This book about a low-budget Punisher-style gun-toting vigilante was dopey on basically every level, and by saying so I managed to get drawn into one of the Journal's not-especially-rare feuds with comics creators, in this case Wild Dog's writer, Max Allan Collins, Wild Dog's artist, Terry Beatty, and even Beatty's girlfriend. I still think the comic was a bad one, and I'm not sorry I criticized it, but looking back at the review that 24-year-old me wrote, I can't say I like much about my own work, either.

In short, there is nothing with which I am willing to fill this prompt's blank. I am a believer in Sturgeon's Law, usually rendered as "Ninety percent of everything is crap." It's true of music, of comics, and yes, of books. When you look for a good book, you must be aware of that ratio, and you must be willing to wade through the nine parts of drek to find the one part of enjoyment. I am willing--but I am also entirely unwilling to pretend something is not drek merely because it resembles something I often enjoyed. I like Tootsie Rolls, but I am aware that there are other things that strongly resemble Tootsie Rolls. I will not always eat them.


10:26 PM
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The Book Meme: Day 26


Day 26 - OMG WTF? OR most irritating/awful/annoying book ending

I'm pretty hard to shock, at least when it comes to fiction. What I sometimes learn in a history or science book has the potential to floor me because it contradicts my experience, but the whole point of fiction is that it's NOT experience. I am therefore happy suspending my disbelief in all kinds of bizarre situations, at least between the covers of a novel. In short, I am pretty much immune to the OMG/WTF effect when I'm reading fiction.

But when a book's ending contradicts the expectations the book itself has set up? Yeah, that can be a problem.

Most of the endings that have disappointed me have done so because of proportion. The final events of the book have not been problematic in and of themselves, but they have felt rushed or incompletely realized in comparison to the rest of the book. I suspect this is often a problem when the books are long and complicated, because at that point the author is thinking, consciously or unconsciously, "Just END the damn thing!" and may rush to do just that. I'm not demanding that every long work end with six chapters of denouement, including a Scouring of the Shire-style examination of how the protagonists have changed and grown. I just want there to be a sense of symmetry, a conclusion that balances what happens early with what happens late.

 I felt unhappy about the finale of Neal Stephenson's outstanding Cryptonomicon, a book the size of a cinderblock (okay, 1168 pages in mass-market paperback), because the pulse-pounding multi-thread narrative runs right up to the final events and just... stops. Frankly, I felt we needed (and had certainly earned) a bit of denouement. I'd still recommend the book for anyone who loves fiction about WWII codebreaking or 1990s data havens, and the fictional islands (and language) of Qwghlm are a delightful addition (especially if you've studied Welsh at all.) Just be aware that it's going to come to a full stop very quickly, though not quite as quickly as Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry did back in 1974.

I was of a similar mind about the end of Magnificat, the final volume of Julian May's Galactic Milieu trilogy--which is itself the end of a nine-volume multi-series sequence that begins with The Many-Colored Land and sprawls across millions of years of history and vast tracts of space. May understands that we'll need some denouement (and provides it at the ends of all three major narratives in the larger sequence), but she seems almost unwilling to delve into the climax of the book itself. The final battle of the Metapsychic Rebellion, which we've been hearing about for over 4000 pages now, simply doesn't get the kind of detailed and extended depiction that earlier events do. Heck, it's given less space than Marc's winter motorcycle race from the first volume, Jack the Bodiless. The battle is also unlike the rest of the book in that it's recounted from a very distant omniscient point of view, not the more limited and interior POVs we've enjoyed up to this point. It doesn't negate the very real love I have for the series or for the initial Saga of Pliocene Exile or for May's work in general, but I love those things in spite of this ending, not because of it.

And I'd have to say that's true of my least favorite ending, too. I have enormous fondness for Anne McCaffrey's Pern, the created world I might well choose to live in if I had to pick one. Her imagination is fascinating, and she won both a Hugo and a Nebula for her first Pern stories, and I've read at least seven of the books about her dragons... but then there's her prose. It's often perfectly serviceable, even stirring at times, but there's no question that it can clunk badly. For one thing, her dialogue suffers from a bad case of tag fever. Understand, I'm not a believer in strict limitations on vocabulary, but I've heard it argued that the only tags a writer should use are said, asked, and replied; the reason, which I think has some validity, is that these words are almost unnoticed by the typical reader, while too much use of other more descriptive words for speech can distract the reader from what the speaker is actually saying. A random page of McCaffrey will show that she's willing to distract, and do so with adverbs to boot: began, said curtly, went on heavily, retorted, replied, shouted at her, added, said finally, all but shrieked... Let's just say it's not snappy.

But endings are often the thorniest issue for McCaffrey, and the finale of her first Pern book, Dragonflight, is particularly weak. The narrative begins with Lessa, seeking revenge on the man who killed her family and stole her birthright. When dragonrider F'lar appears in search of a woman who can control a queen dragon, Lessa leaves her home to prepare the planet for the arrival of the all-consuming Thread. In part two the fiery Lessa rebels against the rule forbidding her from flying on her dragon. In the final third of the book, Lessa makes a heroic and desperate flight to save Pern from the ravages of Thread. Obviously, then, Lessa is the heroine of the book, the one who appears on the cover and the one around whom all the action is centered. So who's there to tie the whole thing up at the end? F'lar. I mean, yeah, he is a major character and all, but Dragonflight is not his book. Lessa doesn't even appear in the final section. And worse, the final sentence is a desperate attempt to gin up some excitement, using interjections, dramatic pauses, appositives, and even that shakiest of final notes, the exclamation point.

Mother of us all, he was glad that now, of all times conceivable, he, F'lar, rider of bronze Mnementh, was a dragonman of Pern!

I love Pern. I love its creator. But man, I do not love that ending. I don't even like it. Not one little bit.


8:56 AM
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The Book Meme: Day 25


Day 25 - Any five books from your "to be read" stack

Every year I make up a list of 40 books I'd like to read. I don't force myself to read any of them, but the act of creating the list makes it easier for me to remember the titles I'd like to look for if I'm wandering a library or a bookstore. I also get a little satisfaction when I finish a book and get to mark it off the list. 

I mention all of this not because I'm going to subject you to all 40 of the books on my current TBR list, but so you'll know I take the list seriously. When I tell you about books that I'm looking forward to reading, I'm really looking forward to reading them. I will note that I've finished only two of 2018's titles so far (Joe Hill's often creepy and always imaginative four-novella volume Strange Weather and T. Kingfisher's delightful and satisfying fantasy The Wonder Engine) and am in the middle of a third (Ta-Nehisi Coates' terrific essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power). With that said, here are five books and a little about why they're on my list.

*Brave Deeds by David Abrams
I've known David for some years now, thanks to our time at the late, lamented Readerville.com, and we've tried to hard to encourage each other's writing careers. We don't get to meet that often, since he lives in Montana, but I did spend the night at his place back in 2013, and he grilled me a terrific steak and cheese-stuffed peppers and we talked, appropriately enough, about the tops of our TBR lists. (The book I wanted to read was Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, while David's was Lolita. Since we'd each read and loved the other's selection, we spent a lot of time encouraging each other to jump on it ASAP.) We also took a birding trip the next morning, visiting the Warm Springs State Wildlife Management Area and logging a mother and two immature Great Horned Owls. In short, even if I hadn't loved his first novel, the tragicomic Fobbit, I'd want to read his second.

*The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
I first encountered Mike Carey's work when he was writing DC Comics' Lucifer. Since it was a spin-off of the highly successful Sandman, I was dubious about the book at first, but before long, I was completely hooked. (Peter Gross's artwork didn't hurt, either.) From there I moved to Carey's series of fantasy/horror books about exorcist Felix Castor, which were enormously entertaining. And when I mentioned on Twitter that I was letting a group of my students read the first, The Devil You Know, Carey volunteered to help them out by sitting for an interview on Skype. (He claimed he did this because he's a former teacher, but I think he's just an incredibly nice guy.) Still, none of this prepared me for The Girl with All the Gifts, which took the somewhat moribund genre of the Zombie Apocalypse and gave it a stunning new spin. TBotB is its sequel, so I'm regulating my expectations, but I figure Carey has already proven me wrong on that score once.

*Next by James Hynes
Speaking of Readerville (and Twitter, for that matter), here's a writer I discovered because of my time there. Hynes is unique in that he's a writer who combines a keen eye for the details of mundane life (particularly the workplace) with a commitment to his flights of fancy. I've already mentioned his first book, The Lecturer's Tale, which has several brilliant scenes that stand alone, but the novel as a whole has something I don't always see: a point of view that the novelist is unashamed of exploring all the way to its conclusion. It's also the first book I can recall that examined the idea of privilege, and did so in a way that was memorable and satisfying. My second Hynes, Kings of Infinite Space, had that same delightful blend of absurdity and realism, as well as something that far too few novels have these days: a punch line. Given all this, I think you can see why I'm looking forward to my third Hynes.

*The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Last summer Kelly and I traveled to Alabama in late July, which was, as a matter of pure timing, a mistake. Luckily, I was prepared to deal with the excess heat that kept us indoors at our Air BnB for much of the week, because I had brought along Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was that most startling of things: a fantasy whose dimensions were not familiar. The empire, the magicians, the gods, the family betrayals, all of these were old tropes, but they were employed in startling new ways. I couldn't be sure where the story was headed, and there was true excitement in that uncertainty. A few days back I called THTK one of the best books I read over the last 12 months, and that's why I'm so eager to read this one.

*The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson
This is the only book on the list that I've already read--kinda. Back in ninth grade, Ms. Zora Rashkis guided me through Homer's epic and helped solidify my love of Greek mythology forever. Then, as a sophomore at UNC, I had it assigned as part of Dr. Ken Reckford's course on the Heroic Journey, but I didn't have time to linger over it. (We also had to read the Aeneid and The Lord of the Rings that semester, after all.) But I haven't gone back to read it since then, and now I suddenly I have a reason: Wilson's highly praised English translation is apparently the first published by a woman. Since I've spent the last two years pushing myself to read more work by people who aren't white guys, this struck me as a chance to remind myself why that matters--to get a perspective on a familiar story that I might not otherwise get. Plus, Wilson has rendered it in iambic pentameter, and I'm a sucker for blank verse.

That's what I'm looking forward to. And with luck, next year's list will have five open slots.


7:24 AM
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The Book Meme: Day 24


Day 24 - Best quote from a novel

Another fine mess. Given the ridiculous number of novels I love, and the fact that I could probably find multiple beloved quotes from many of them, this entry could be longer than all the others combined. I mean, lord, I could start picking Catch-22 quotes on page one and run them pretty much until Yossarian dodges the knife and runs off.

Also, it unfairly assumes that there aren't worthy quotes from nonfiction books, which is just total nonsense. So I'm going to dodge the question entirely by posting my favorite quote from a work of nonfiction. In The Song of the Dodo, which remains the best science book I've ever read, David Quammen's breathtaking recreation of the last hours of the only remaining dodo is a standout, and a passage worthy of inclusion on any list of great writing:

"Imagine a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large on mainland Mauritius at the end of the seventeenth century. Imagine this fugitive as a female. She would have been bulky and flightless and befuddled--but resourceful enough to have escaped and endured when the other birds didn't. Or else she was lucky.

Maybe she had spent all her years in the Bambous Mountains along the southeastern coast, where the various forms of human-brought menace were slow to penetrate. Or she might have lurked in a creek drainage of the Black River Gorges. Time and trouble had finally caught up with her. Imagine that her last hatchling had been snarfed by a feral pig. That her last fertile egg had been eaten by a monkey. That her mate was dead, clubbed by a hungry Dutch sailor, and that she had no hope of finding another. During the past halfdozen years, longer than a bird could remember, she had not even set eyes on a member of her own species.

Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn't know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction." 

That one still gets me.


7:43 AM
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We Interrupt This Meme


Hi. Just wanted to share a strange little moment with you. Let me tell you about the pieces that built this moment.

1) In the course of writing this set of literary entries to my blog, I was reminded of a wonderful little bit where C.S. Lewis describes the way a mirror on a wall can unexpectedly look like a window into some fantastic place--one that seems somehow deeper and richer than the real world, even though it's just the real world reversed. It's not a great alteration in the way the thing looks, but the reversal transforms it purely because it alters our viewpoint slightly. I can't remember what work Lewis wrote it in, but it has certainly stuck with me.

2) I recently watched the trailer of the upcoming movie SHAZAM!, and that got me wandering down the rabbit hole of the comics universe, surfing from site to site and studying up on how a character named Captain Marvel got published by Fawcett Comics, purchased by DC Comics after they won a lawsuit against Fawcett, and replaced with at least three different characters (one alien guy and two terrestrial women) of the same name by Marvel Comics. Moreover, the original Captain Marvel spawned the British rip-off superhero Marvelman, who would later be brought into the modern world by Alan Moore and have his name changed to the legally-more-acceptable Miracleman when his story got published in the U.S. I was a big fan of Miracleman, and I remember well how Moore set up his return after decades of inaction: reporter Michael Moran, who doesn't even remember being MM, is reporting from a nuclear power plant and sees a vaguely familiar-looking word painted on an office's glass door... from the wrong side. The word is "ATOMIC," which Mike reads aloud backwards as "KIMOTA," which just happens to be the magic word that transforms him into a superhuman.

3) This morning, heading to the upstairs bathroom, which is right next to my study, I grabbed something to read from the mass-market paperback SF/fantasy shelf. In this case, the book was The Tolkien Reader, a compendium of short works composed by JRRT, one of which is his masterful essay "On Fairy-Stories." This is a work I have read before, and which I even taught as part of the curriculum on the Woodberry in Oxford program in 1999. When I cracked it open to read Tolkien's thoughts on the different varieties of fairy-story, however, I was surprised to see him mention this kind:
 
[T]here is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside throught a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

That was the moment when all these things clicked together. What Lewis was talking about (and had almost certainly read about in Chesterton) was a form of Mooreeffoc. Michael Moran is transformed, physically and mentally by spotting a literal Mooreeffoc. And the writer who transformed him (and for that matter saw how he might transform Moran's alter ego from a stodgy Captain Marvel ripoff to a postmodern Nietzschean example of the Superman) was named Moore.

It's possible that I read too much.


7:03 PM
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The Book Meme: Day 23


Day 23 - Most annoying character ever

The tricky bit here is taking the reader's view rather than the writer's view. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well wish to create a character whom Watson finds extremely annoying. However, should he succeed in doing so, it's not necessarily the case that the reader will be annoyed. Indeed, the reader might actually enjoy the interaction of Watson and this other character. Thus, we have to be clear that the author should be blamed for such a character, not praised.

That being said, it's somewhat difficult for me to find a case where a character is annoying but the story is otherwise unobjectionable. Usually when I dislike a character, it's part of a general dislike for what's going on, either because the plot isn't working, or the setting is unconvincing, or something else is out of whack. I mean, I don't like Billy Budd, but that's mostly because I don't like Billy Budd

I'm also annoyed by one character not so much because of her character but because of how the author uses her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is bothersome in a number of ways, admittedly, but I'm far more bothered by C.S. Lewis. In the first Narnia book--which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardbrobe, yeah, you heard me--Susan isn't especially interesting, particularly compared to the brother who's selling the family out to the White Witch. She's mostly there for Lucy to talk to as they're watching the sacrifice at the Stone Table. In Prince Caspian, the second book (publication order or GTFO), there's a nice scene where she out-arches the skeptical Trumpkin, but then Lewis does an odd thing: he allows Trumpkin to become a true believer while turning Susan into the group skeptic. Somehow, despite the fact that she's been magically returned to the enchanted kingdom where she ruled as queen for decades, she suddenly has trouble believing Aslan is guiding them on their travels. (This lack of faith is akin to how comics artist George Perez once pointed out the flaw in Glinda's claim that she couldn't tell Dorothy to just click her heels together, because "you wouldn't have believed me." As Perez put it, Dorothy should have told her, "I'M TALKIN' TO A DAMN SCARECROW.")

Susan makes a third appearance in Book 5, The Horse and His Boy, this time in her guise as the adult queen of Narnia. She's there mostly to be pretty and graceful so that the prince of Calormen can attempt to marry her and then get angry when she escapes his clutches--a princess for a rather uncouth Mario. But of course none of that prepares us for what we learn in Book 7, The Last Battle, when it is revealed that Susan has turned away from Narnia altogether; unlike her siblings and mentors, she now denies the very existence of Narnia, claiming it was all a youthful delusion. And what led her down this path of denial?

"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

Yes, there it is, folks. Susan has turned her back on her family and her experiences because of puberty. The ever-virginal Lucy has no such problems, but her sister is lost and quite possibly damned because she's interested in all that stuff that might lead to adulthood and possibly even sex. But I can't really blame Susan for this sudden betrayal of everyone and everything in her life, because it is patently obvious that Lewis is simply using her to make a point; I suspect he's directing that point at Christians who might grow too confident in their salvation, but he's also showing an obvious distaste for conventional femininity, not to mention a rather disturbing (albeit religiously accurate) association of sex with sin. Basically, he orchestrates Susan's fall in order to motivate the reader; in the modern parlance, he fridges her. What Lewis does here is much, much more annoying than what Susan does.

But I happen to know a character who annoys in equal measure with his author: the aptly named John Marcher, protagonist of Henry James's novella "The Beast in the Jungle." Marcher's singular, almost solipsistic belief is that his life will be defined by some enormous event; whether it will be a grand tragedy or triumph is uncertain, but he is nonetheless sure that he has been singled out by fate. His old acquaintance May Bartram is in on his secret, and when she chooses to move to town to be near him, he becomes a tentative social companion to her--but never anything more than that, because, you see, his Special Fate awaits him, and he dare not subject a wife to such a thing. He keeps her at bay for some years, until finally--look, you've already seen how this is going to end, haven't you? I sure did. No, Marcher never considers May's feelings or allows himself to reciprocate them, but instead wastes most of his life awaiting the sudden pounce of the Beast only to discover at the end that he has been in its jaws all along.

Had this tale been the length of the above paragraph, I might have been able to tolerate Marcher, but alas, James was never terse. Instead, he allows us multiple-page glimpses into the self-centered maelstrom that is Marcher's mind, all while letting him plod relentlessly (the name is "Marcher" for a reason) toward the fate we have seen coming since the beginning. I think James wants us to see Marcher as tragic, but the end result is to make him look utterly foolish. There he is! And there's May, right there! She's moved to town! But he ignores that, because it would mean thinking about someone other than himself for a few moments. Even the name "May" is a pretty strong symbol of possibilities, of capability, even, but Marcher doesn't think about that, either. Basically, James has a point to make, and it's an obvious one, but he's going to force us to examine his protagonist in minute and tedious detail until that point has been honed all the way down to a nub that won't even break the skin. Here, at last, is a pairing of annoyance where both character and author poke at the reader in parallel, not as though he had a stone in his shoe, but rather as though he had a stone in each shoe, and a long, long way to walk.


9:40 AM
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