I have completed or nearly completed several odd books recently and will be posting several reviews in the next few days between wrapping gifts and finishing my shopping and decorating. I read Not Cool about two weeks ago. I only rarely read topical politics books but I picked this one up for a bit of comic relief in the midst of an interminable history of the horrific 14th century. There is certainly comedy here but this book is also not without its share of horror. Parts of it deal with a recent massacres and terrorism.

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Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on YouNot Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You by Greg Gutfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an easy read and pretty entertaining Libertarian rant about some very recent (mostly 2013) politics and cultural events. Greg Gutfeld uses the apt metaphor of high school with its cool cliques and outcasts, bullies and hipsters, as an apt metaphor for U.S. culture. For example as an example of our culture’s acceptance of evil as long it wears the appearance of coolness, one chapter is dedicated to how the media swarmed around the cute Boston Marathon bomber (who even appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone), expressing all kinds of fascinated sympathy for the poor lad while ignoring his shattered victims.

Other chapters address gun control mania despite Chicago, obsessions with sexuality while denigrating virgins and traditional values even though the results of early sex are documented to be damaging to both society and individuals, double standards in the way the media portrays Christianity and Islam, vilifying the military and masculinity in general, rejecting the industries the elite depend upon for their lifestyles – i.e., oil companies, and lots of other fun topics. The unifying thread is that most liberal causes get traction because of people’s desire to be accepted at the cultural cool table. In keeping with the high school framework some of the humor is unapologetically sophomoric, but mostly bearable. I recommended it to my college-age kids because I think reading this book might be a fun and easy way for them to imbibe a little useful cultural awareness.

View all my reviews

1843 illustration by John Leech "The Last of the Spirits" from The Victorian Web: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/carol/7.html

1843 illustration by John Leech “The Last of the Spirits” from The Victorian Web.

I know this is the wrong time of year for a “dark night of the soul” post, but then again, maybe not. Maybe it will set up some sort of Christmas miracle in which the light bursts forth as Christmas Day dawns, as it did for Ebenezer Scrooge after his dark night with the ghosts. In fact all the best Christmas stories are about someone slogging through the dull December days, tortured by the ubiquitous cheer that he or she does not feel and then having some kind of epiphany just in time for the big day. Maybe that will happen and maybe it won’t. If I knew for sure how could I have a genuine dark night of soul?

The term comes from the spiritual classic The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, which is on my reading list but which I have not gotten to yet. However, from my prep reading, the meaning of “dark night” in this book is not exactly the same as our popular use of the term. In our culture it is generally understood to mean a period of doubt, a crisis of faith. In St. John’s book the dark night is some sort of painful transition from the material world to union of the soul with God, a journey through a dark no-man’s land between the realms, in which the soul is leaving the sensual world behind but has not yet fully connected with God. But that’s not the book I am reading at the moment. In fact I have three books actively in progress:

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman. I am three-quarters through this long painful indictment of the human race and every page hurts. Not because of the writing or the scrupulous research, but because of what happened. I am hoping for the tiniest glimmer of light as we approach the turn of the 15th century.
  • The Bible Tells Me So:Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns. I am reading this one for an interesting book club I joined recently and am just pages from the end. It addresses the uncomfortable things in the Bible such as the Canaanite genocide in the Book of Joshua, contradictions, and apparent mythology. Peter Enns is very funny, a Christian, and Bible scholar who was fired from a tenured position at a Bible college for his ideas on how to read the Bible.
  • Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You by Greg Gutfeld. A libertarian rant on the widespread replacement of substance with the appearance of being cool, as manifested by current events that get media attention. I picked it up for some relief from the relentless 14th century. Of course, the 14th century, with its pomp, ceremony, and fake chivalry, is proof that appearance over substance is not exactly a new phenomenon. Still, Not Cool is a funny somewhat refreshing book, at least in comparison to A Distant Mirror. Apparently there was very little to laugh about in the 1300s. If we can still laugh at the foibles of our own century, I take that as evidence we really are living in a better era.




The combination of these three books are, shall we say, a challenge to my Christmas spirit. As soon as I wrap them up I promise to read something uplifting and life-affirming (suggestions welcome – no Nicholas Sparks please….). But today my question is: if scripture is factually unreliable, if human nature is defective enough to plunder, pillage, and murder innocent peasants on a regular basis, if the mind is an inadequate tool to interpret reality, how am I supposed to know a single thing? I mean, both history and Blaise Pascal have established beyond reasonable doubt that reason is invariably skewed by desire. I do feel a tiny dot of light within that feels like it has the weight of truth, but what exactly is that dot? Is it hope? Faith? Or is it only the observation that there is something and not nothing?

Since my mind is so inadequate a tool I can only make lame guesses. I can observe that my flesh and emotions are strong insistent things that refuse all attempts to be suppressed or ignored. The flesh seems to want to continue on living, but not only that, it demands well-defined parameters of comfort: not too cold, not too hot, not to empty, not too full. The flesh is a horrid pest and combined with emotion, the whole package can be a ravenous monster.

So I ask myself, what would make me feel good about the whole existence thing? The answer is a reliable angel: one with perfect verifiable credentials as a messenger of truth. Only God knows how this angel would convince me that he, she, or it is not an impostor, but assuming by some miracle I became convinced, the angel would spend some quality time with me and explain the purpose of my existence. If the truth turned out to be that I have no purpose, this messenger would tell it to me straight, no bullshit, no sugar-coating. Of course, it’s a little difficult to imagine an angel  appearing from the great beyond to tell me life has no purpose. Once we established, hopefully, that life has purpose, the Angel would answer all my questions. Does every human being have a purpose or only some human beings? Do we all have the same high-level purpose or do some people have purposes that are different from others? Are there multiple levels of purpose?

Some people would tell me the answers to all these kinds of questions are in the Bible. But what if I do not have the adequate knowledge or analytical ability to extract all the correct answers from that complex database of truth? Some people would tell me all the answers are “within” and I already know the truth if only I would….what? Recognize it? Accept it? According to this philosophy we are all Dorothies traipsing through the wilds of Oz when all we ever needed to do was click our heels three times and chant “There’s no place like home.” I’ve never actually tested this theory empirically. I suppose I could put on my shiniest shoes and try it, but I hesitate because my strong hypothesis is that it won’t work and yet I dread the disappointment when the experiment fails.

Does this qualify as a dark night of the soul? If so I suppose that means there is a soul and if there is a soul and the soul is eternal like a soul is supposed to be, that means that eventually I will come out on the other side into the light. Would that be the THE light or would it be just another plateau of light in a endless series of light and caves? I don’t know but I’ll take it, just as I will take Christmas 2014. No matter how the frantic these next two weeks get, that day of light will come and on the other side, a brand new year of angst and lamentation interspersed with coffee breaks, hope, and good books.

As Thanksgiving weekend winds down I marvel at how, while the news makes it apparent the world is falling apart at the seams – riots, wars, refugees, terrorism, police brutality, etc., etc., – people all over America, after shaking their head and lamenting for about 30 seconds, turned off the TV and spent this past weekend engaging in traditional celebration as if everything will always be the same and shopping as if there were no tomorrow. I did not participate in Black Friday or even Small Business Saturday. Instead I spent a great weekend in the mountains of southwestern Virginia laughing with family laughing, eating, and watching old movies.

Somewhere in Appalachia - where I was on Black Friday (Photo by Aaron Apple)

Somewhere in Appalachia – where I was on Black Friday (Photo by Aaron Apple)

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37572Meanwhile, no matter what is going on in what you might call my surface life, there is always my book life running like the program in the background, sapping memory and affecting the behavior of the surface applications. This weekend the dominant book on my mind has been A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman, my favorite historian. This book, which would challenge anyone’s faith in the goodness of humanity, tells the relentless tale of woe that was 14th century Europe: 600 pages of plague, crusades, endless war, cut-throat political intrigue, and brigands pillaging so many villages I’m not sure how there was a peasant hut left standing by 1500. Plus 78 additional pages of bibliography and references. Yes there was also the chivalry thing but it turns out the armor was never as shining as legend would suggest.

Fortunately the fabulous Ms. Tuchman herself has something to say that helps us to deal with both the horrors of history and the horrors of the daily news. Her famous quote about the “persistence of the normal” puts things into perspective. It appears in her foreword to A Distant Mirror:

“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times….This has led me to formulate Tuchman’s Law, as follows: ‘The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold’ (or any figure the reader would care to supply).”

Still, by the time I reached the halfway point of the book the disasters of the 14th century seemed pervasive and persistent enough to me that I was ready for a break. So while taking my walk today I located in my audio book library a book I had tried before but had not been able to get into: A Beginner’s Guide to Reality: Exploring Our Everyday Adventures in Wonderland by Jim Baggot. Just the thing, I thought. I had been discussing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with someone earlier in the day so I figured it was one of those signs.

But after listening to the first chapter I remembered why I couldn’t get into it. The author tells us what he is going to discuss: how we perceive reality. Then he states that he is not a dualist (believer that mind and brain are two different thing) but rather a materialist (believer that mind and brain are the same thing: all thought and perception has a physical cause).

Then he goes on to quote Daniel Dennett, who wrote in his book Consciousness Explained:

“There is the lurking suspicion that the most attractive feature of mind stuff is its promise of being so mysterious that it keeps science at bay forever. This fundamentally unscientific stance of dualism is, to my mind, its most disqualifying feature, and is the reason why in this book I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.”

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At this point, I began to get that suffocated feeling that pure materialism always gives me: a tightening in the lungs, a restriction of air. Maybe when I get to a different place in my life and have access to some sort of spiritual oxygen tank I will be able to tackle The Beginner’s Guide to Reality and perhaps even Consciousness Explained. But because both authors state at the outset that they intend to lock the reader tightly into the airless vault of materialism, right now I can’t find a way to hold my breath long enough to read their books.

full moon april 14

A philosophy as airless as the moon (Photo by Aaron Apple)

To me “giving up” means accepting their premise that reality is small enough to fit into the scope of human understanding. That would be giving up infinity, endless possibility, and the hope that there are things that exist beyond our wildest imaginings. For some reason that I cannot fathom these authors seem to think that humans, who by their own philosophy are nothing but organic creatures that have existed on a speck of planet for about a hot minute in the history of the universe, have the ability to explain all that is and are in a position to summarily rule out the very thought that maybe there are things outside of our tiny realm of comprehension.

I mean, go ahead guys, knock yourself out and explain reality and human consciousness to all of us. Sell books, show us how smart you are. Actually I am sincerely happy that science has made progress in understanding the human mind and I applaud every stride, especially the ways this knowledge can help those suffering from Parkinson’s and other diseases. But to honestly entertain the notion that we are ever going to be able to put the lid on truth and prove the material world we know and love is absolutely all there is and then to proclaim it is not necessary to consider any other possibility takes my breath away – literally.

I suppose pure materialism might be quite an attractive philosophy is you are a fat happy college professor with plenty of food and vacation money who can spend your day sipping wine or gourmet coffee while feeling superior to the uneducated masses. But if you are a 14th-century peasant losing two thirds of your babies and living a brutal life of labor under constant threat of death or severe punishment or one of the millions of the 21st-century poor and threatened souls, materialism is not only an unattractive philosophy, but I imagine, a cruelly crushing one. The normal human psyche naturally looks for something to redeem the material world that has produced only a life of suffering. I know, I know: “….the opium of the masses blah blah blah.” But opium is a natural substance, and who is to say that the alternative realities it opens in the mind are not a peek through the looking glass into another level of reality? Show me and the peasants all the brain wave science you like. I am thankful there is no reason we have to close that door, give up all hope, and surrender to the dry dust of materialism.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Oxford Classics edition

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, Oxford Classics edition

The Moonstone* by Wilkie Collins, published in 1868, is famous for being the first English detective story, the precursor of Sherlock Holmes and his many literary descendants. When a diamond with a mysterious past is presented to Rachel Verinder on her 18th birthday there is already the shadow of foul play around it. Rachel has inherited the large and exquisite jewel from an uncle of ill repute who is rumored to have acquired it decades ago by murdering its previous owners during a war in India. Upon the death of the evil uncle, Franklin Blake, a nephew of Lady Verinder, becomes the designated bearer of the diamond from a bank vault London to the girl’s country home. Although Franklin arrives safely, despite being trailed by mysterious foreign strangers, the diamond disappears the night of Rachel’s birthday dinner. All sorts of strange events and emotional upheaval ensue.

Like the gem of its title, this is a novel that shines from many angles. The mystery is related through several first-person narratives, sometimes moving the story forward and sometimes overlapping and shedding new light on previous narratives. With the moonstone as its metaphor, this approach gives the novel a pleasing sense of variety within unity as we slowly see the puzzle pieces coming together.

In Part I the events leading up to the disappearance of the moonstone are related by Gabriel Betteredge, faithful old servant to the Verinder family and one of the most likable characters in all of literature. Mr. Betteredge is a man of both flaws and virtues, but the virtues such as genuine caring and affection outweigh the flaws such as drinking too much. Both sides of his character add up to a warm and lovable character. He is practical, down to earth, and loyal to Lady Julia Verinder and her daughter. He cheerfully accepts the established class structure with respect for longstanding tradition, but clearly sees the flaws of his “betters.”

Gabriel Betteredge has several interesting quirks, the most prominent being his obsession with Robinson Crusoe. He keeps his latest copy of the book reverently in a special place and refers to it constantly for comfort and guidance, and is constantly amazed when the book always seems to open to the exact any answer he needs. In short, Robinson Crusoe is his Bible. The gentle satire can hardly be missed.

More stinging satire appears in the first narrative Part II: The Discovery of the Truth, which provided by the journal of Miss Drusilla Clack, a spinster relative who is heavily involved in pamphlet evangelism and Christian ladies’ charities such as the “Small Clothes Conversion Society”, the purpose of which is to redeem the users of male sinners from pawn shops and remake them in smaller sizes for their innocent progeny. I think every evangelical Christian could benefit from reading this narrative as an example of what not to do. Rachel and her mother have left the country home and relocated to London, where Lady Verinder realizes she is very ill. During this time another of Rachel’s cousins, Godfrey Ablewhite, is courting her and trying for a second time to get her to marry him. Miss Clack, who is secretly in love with the philanthropic romantic Christian hero Mr. Ablewhite, passes out pamphlets and eavesdrops on conversations.

sergeant cuff

In the Verinder family rose garden: Sergeant Cuff with Gabriel Betteredge and the gardener. Illustration from 1875 Chatto & Windus edition.

Other narratives are provided by Mr. Franklin Blake, the man Rachel really loves, Mr. Matthew Bruff, the family lawyer, the strange and tragic medical assistant Ezra Jennings, and the renowned detective Sergeant Cuff, who really wants to retire from the detective business and devote himself to cultivating roses. There are also many letters read aloud upon receipt or kept crumpled in pockets until later in the story. One such puzzle-piece letter is pulled by Franklin Blake out a swamp of quicksand, hidden there by a tragically servant girl named Rosanna Spearman who figures prominently in the story as both a sympathetic character and one of the prime suspects. I don’t want to say more than that for fear of spoiling the story for you.

I found The Moonstone a pleasure from beginning to end. This brilliant novel has everything a great Victorian novel ought to have: intricate plot, suspense, romance, lots of humor, social satire, and most importantly wonderful living characters. Of course it does include all those aspects of the past that are culturally-jarring to our modern sensibilities: rigid social class distinction, suspicion toward anyone a shade or two darker than an English person, condescending attitudes toward women. The Moonstone not only includes all of these things, but all of these things are essential to the story. Much of the dramatic friction is that men, women, upper class, lower classes, English people, Hindus, scientific people, and romantics all have different modes and boundaries of behavior. I mean, what kind of Victorian drama could you have if everyone were equal and spoke the truth honestly as soon as they knew it?

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* Oxford World’s Classics Edition, Oxford University Press, 1999 and Recorded Books Audio, narrated by Patrick Tull and others, pub. 2002.

Five Chinese Brothers by  Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese

Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese

I am working on an essay about the meaning of reading in my life and its relation to my search for truth. Actually reading and my search for truth are pretty much one and same thing. I try to describe what, at this point in my reading life, I can conclude about the nature of truth – as in, if I were about to die and had to sum up what I have learned what could I say? Suddenly out of the murky depths of my mind pops a bright yellow burst of memory: The Five Chinese Brothers.

I remember sitting on a colorful rug riveted to the story as my pretty kindergarten teacher reads the story aloud to the class, but all I can now recall of the story is that someone in it swallows the sea. Swallowing the sea….trying to understand truth….the connection is too obvious to dwell on here. But I am fascinated by how the mind makes these connections and draws these working models that turn into assumptions, beliefs, and sometimes even blog posts.

Naturally I immediately search for the book online and discover that it is so old my mother might have read it in kindergarten. Written by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese, it was first published in 1938. The Five Chinese Brothers is considered a children’s classic but seems to have fallen out of favor of late due to being politically incorrect. I suspect I could write a long list of children’s classics that are now politically incorrect, but that is another post. I don’t have time to go to the library, but seeing that an audio version is available, I download to my magic book machine, technically known as an iPhone 6, once again thanking God for this miraculous device that gives me so much immediate gratification and eradicates grocery line boredom. I pray that Steve Jobs is now living eternal joy among the geekiest ranks of angels.

The audio book is a little more than 10 minutes long and is narrated by Owen Jordan’s gently wry voice accompanied by Chinese sounding music, a wonderful little recording. I find my memory is correct in that the first Chinese brother does indeed swallow the sea. His four identical brothers each possess a super power that protects them from a certain kind of death. Apparently some people object to the book because the brothers look exactly alike; however, the entire story hinges on that central fact. I would think there would be more objection to the inherent theme of violence that holds the plot together. I am amused to hear the gentle narration and tinkling music conveying a story that includes the death of a disobedient child, four attempted executions, and mob anger. In the end, family loyalty and justice win out over injustice and lust for revenge. All is well and the boys and their mother get to live happily in their little house by the sea for many years. Not happily ever after though, I notice. Still the ending is very comforting.

I vaguely remember being fascinated by the story as a child. I do not recall being the slightest bit disturbed. Something about things being limited to pages of a book seems to make it inherently non-threatening, even if the things are violent events and evil monsters. Even now I can read violence in a book easily and with interest but cannot watch it on film. Fairy tales have always include violence. Children are aware on some level that the world includes death and bad things and I can’t imagine a better way to come to terms with this reality than through story books. A theory I have is that films and TV impose images on a child’s mind while reading allows them to shape the information into a form they can handle according to abilities and needs of their own minds. It may be fiction that things always come out okay in the end, but within the limits of this life, that is a fiction I’m afraid we all, children and grown-ups, must all rely on to get along.  Which brings me back to the nature of truth….

I write on several different levels. There is my “literary” writing, there is my “technical writing” – the kind of writing I actually get paid for, and then there are emails…..

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Christina Rossetti never had to worry about signing an email but if she did I'm sure she would have had the perfect Victorian valediction

Christina Rossetti never had to worry about signing an email but if she did I’m sure she would have had the perfect Victorian valediction

I have been living with lurking uncertainty, a shadowy fear long buried in the recesses of my mind and yet it is something I have to deal with virtually every day of my life: how the heck am I supposed to sign an email message? I’m not talking about my name, title, and phone number. That’s the easy part. I’m talking about the word or phrase that comes before that, that touch of formality or term of affection sometimes called the complimentary close or the valediction.

I’ve seen “Regards” used and also “Respectfully.” Although these are perfectly acceptable closings, neither of them quite works for me. I would find it just a little unnatural to sign an email with “Regards.” I like my writing to have at least a tenuous relationship with the way I speak – you know…. somewhere between Masterpiece Theater and Duck Dynasty. As for “Respectfully” – it strikes me as just a little overkill, slightly on the obsequious side. But I respect those who choose to use it. Good old “Sincerely” is my go-to closing but I’ve never felt quite comfortable about that either. Do I really need to reassure the recipient that I am sincere?

I poked around on various business etiquette websites long enough to figure out that not only is there no hard and fast rule for closing an email, there is absolutely zero consensus about what closings are most socially and professionally acceptable. Several experts recommend “Best.” Best what? I guess this approach allows the recipient to mentally fill in “…Wishes” without you actually having to type it out while feeling like you are writing a greeting card. Another closing that comes highly recommended is “Thanks.” I do often trot out this one when my email includes something I can thank the person for. “Thanks for your help” and “Thank you for your consideration” are some variations.

Of course you can simply leave out the polite closing phrase and end the message with only your identifying information. This is a viable option but there is something about it that seems out of sync with correspondence history and tradition and is therefore a cop-out. While I admit I have on occasion resorted to ending an email with a lonely name and phone number it always seems like I am sending my email to the office without proper attire, like attending a formal meeting in flip-flops.

What is comes down to is that your closing should be in accord with the content and tone of the message. Also it should not be false, pretentious, or otherwise inappropriate. Don’t use “Cheers” unless you are either unusually cheerful or speak with a British accent. Don’t use “Yours Truly” unless you are incredibly affectionate with your co-workers or business associates or “With Love” unless you have that kind of relationship with the recipient.

Perhaps it would be a step forward in business communication if we were to close our emails with phrases that honestly express the precise feeling of the message we want to convey. With this approach there would be no limit to the words we could use. Off the top of my head I can imagine several possibilities:

  • In warmest hope of a profitable business relationship
  • With greatest trepidation
  • Hopefully
  • In tense anticipation
  • Yours in fear and trembling
  • With utter disgust (For the occasional letter of complaint or perhaps to your Congressional representative….)
  • Yours within the bounds of propriety
  • Dutifully
  • Resignedly
  • Warmly
  • With sincerest sympathy
  • Dreamily
  • With regret
  • Sharing your hope for a better future


Yours in the spirit of perfect etiquette,


PS: If you have an email closing for two that works for you, please share!

Happy Halloween, or as I like to call it, All Soul’s Day. Calling it All Soul’s Days by no means makes this day any less scary; in fact it makes it more so, by calling to mind that deatcreepy girl soft glowh is no candy-coated fantasy. Catholic Online describes the concept like this:

“All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithful departed. In Western Christianity, this day is observed principally in the Catholic Church, although some churches of the Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches also celebrate it. The Eastern Orthodox churches observe several All Souls’ Days during the year. The Roman Catholic celebration is associated with the doctrine that the souls of the faithful who at death have not been cleansed from the temporal punishment due to venial sins and from attachment to mortal sins cannot immediately attain the beatific vision in heaven, and that they may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass (see Purgatory). In other words, when they died, they had not yet attained full sanctification and moral perfection, a requirement for entrance into Heaven. This sanctification is carried out posthumously in Purgatory.”

So I might as well take this opportunity to tell you about the scariest book I have ever read: Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory by Gerard J.M. vaHungry-Soulsn den Aardweg. As you might guess it features accounts of visits from people who currently reside in Purgatory. It includes pictures of artifacts and evidence left by some of these visitors, artifacts such as the burnt-in impression on cloth of a hand. This book is scarier than 1984,  scarier than any haunted house, so scary that even though I began reading it almost a year ago I have not been able to bring myself to finish it. I think I would be afraid to spend enough time going back to this book long enough to review it, but I do intend to gin up enough courage read it all the way to the end. I only have a couple of chapters to go and I understand from reviews that it is supposed to get to the comforting part, that a happy ending awaits all residents of Purgatory. Eventually.

Apparently there is a tiny century-old museum in Rome called The Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory where you can view cloths, books, and other items bearing singe marks left by such visitors from Purgatory. Superstitious nonsense? Possibly…. but I cannot quite bring myself to write it off so easily. Go ahead and scoff if you like but it would take a braver soul than mine to scoff off such warnings as those brought by these earnest visitors. There is no aura of cheap thrills or money-making schemery about this book. It is simply written with two direct purposes:  to convey the need to pray for the dead (what the souls are hungry for is prayer) and to warn those of us will join them soon enough. I told you it’s scary, real scary not fake scary. It’s also a bit creepy.

Hungry Souls brings to mind the ghost of Marley in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, except old Marley is visiting from Hell, not Purgatory. Purgatory is literally infinitely better than Hell, as you will understand if you have read both Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio. After the journey through Hell, Purgatory, even with its sufferings, is a joyful place, homely, full of hope, and permeated with utter relief that the sufferings are not eternal. If you can’t bring yourself to delve into Hungry Souls, The Divine Comedy would also be appropriate reading for All Soul’s Day.

How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone,
And doesn’t care about Careers
And Exigencies never fears—
Whose Coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on,
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity—

Emily Dickinson

“I got a rock.” Charlie Brown, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

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i got a rock

I am not rich, never have been, never imagined I would be, but every day I thank God for the time and place I was born and being spared the worst of the horrors and sufferings that beset millions of souls on this planet. As a young child I had a certain vision for my life, but it was not of living in a castle even if I did imagine myself a princess in a red fluffy dress. In real life I had seen gravel parking lots and for some reason the gravel made an impact on my mind. In my vision I was given a task by someone – the giver of the task was vague, sometimes an angel, sometimes a witch – that I must pick up the gravel stones from a huge lot. One by one. Around the ages of five and six I remember imagining this scene frequently: starting in one corner and working my way through the lot, always in the red princess dress, and the strange thing is I was not the least bit disturbed by the vision. I was excited and inspired, and felt a sense of mission.

Anyway, I always assumed my chances of eternal life in Heaven after death were greater than my chances of being rich in this life. So one misery I have been largely spared is the misery of disappointed expectation, actually one of the greatest dangers of my particular time and culture: that promise of heaven on earth with which advertisers entice you with images, colors, and music custom-calibrated to the desires of as many people as they can rope in.

I can’t say I have never fallen prey to advertising. At my house the tempter came by post every November disguised as the Sears Christmas Catalog, also known as TheWish Book. It would always have a picture on the cover that evoked pungent Christmas emotions, and like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, my year revolved around Christmas. The heavy white skies of December afternoons filled my heart with a kind of joy that almost hurt. In suburban Washington DC it rarely snowed before Christmas but I could smell the slightly damp smokey aroma of hope in the air.

I used to love making gifts and cards. I’d make piles of these little dolls with Styrofoam heads, pipe cleaner bodies, felt clothing, and yarn hair. One year – I guess I was ten or eleven – I sewed 20 little red felt stockings and filled each one with candy and one of my pipe cleaner dolls and then I had my Mom drive my to St. Ann’s Orphanage in Hyattsville, Maryland, where I handed a the cardboard box of filled stockings to a nun in the lobby. It seemed like kind of an institutional place and actually had a lobby, if my memory is accurate. The nun accepted my gift graciously and said how much the children would enjoy the stockings. Things were so much more simple and direct in the 1970’s – or maybe it was just me that was simple and direct.

But believe m73 wishbook fuzzye when I say that even better than Christmas giving I liked Christmas receiving.  That Sears Christmas Catalog was the object of my lustful little ritual. I would get comfortable of the sofa and slowly, deliciously, turn every single silky page, breathing in the aroma of inky anticipation as my fingers approached the grand finale of the thick toy section at the end of the catalog: the baby toys, the girl toys, the boy toys, and then the big stuff: bicycles, swings, trampolines. But my personal Red Ryder BB gun was the rock tumbler. The way I understood it, you put ordinary rocks into a cylinder, pushed the switch, and the rocks turned into shiny jewels. What kid wouldn’t want such a wonder? I never got one.

I'm pretty sure this is the exact rock tumbler I saw in the Sears Catalog

I’m pretty sure this is the exact rock tumbler I saw in the Sears Catalog

Why Santa should have refused my request for a rock tumbler I will never know. I guess I assumed it was simply too extravagant a request. I was reaching too high, even though I got Barbies, Lite-Brite, an Etch-a-Sketch, and no end of board games. Maybe I did not communicate my need for a rock tumbler emphatically enough. Perhaps I thought that thinking about it really hard and circling it in the catalog was enough. On Christmas Eve my Dad would take our letters to Santa and burn them in the fire-place, explaining that Santa would read the smoke. Decades later I bought one for my kid for Christmas but my kid was into Pokemon and Gameboy and couldn’t care less about the rock tumbler.

In high school one of my two visits to the guidance counselor was to request I be exempted from any dissection project if I signed up for Biology, because I wanted to learn Biology but there was no way in hell I was going to dissect anything. Since the counselor denied this perfectly reasonable request, I ended up taking half a year of Astronomy and half a year of Geology for my science credit. Apparently these were not the science classes the smart kids took but I loved learning about the stars and earth and was oblivious to the fact the class was full of slouchers who weren’t in any of my other classes.

At the end of the year awards ceremony I got the award for the highest grade in Geology and my sister, who ended up becoming a PhD in Microbiology, got the award for Biology. She still laughs about my Geology award and I still don’t get the joke. Apparently as a kid I liked rocks. Maybe it can be chalked up to some hereditary residue from my coal-mining grandfathers, but when Charlie Brown said he got rocks in his Halloween sack I thought he was lucky.

Lately I’ve been running into references to The Brothers Karamazov everywhere I look, usually something said by the middle brother Ivan. My favorite Karamazov brother, Dmitri, hardly ever gets a mention. So I got to thinking about reading it again, and then decided to read another Dostoevsky – Devils, also translated as Demons or The Possessed. I thought it would be appropriate as we approach Halloween and the autumn of the year. But this is no spooky fantasy and it’s certainly not innocent fun. It’s definitely a tragedy – plenty of bad things happen in this novel, some of them violent – but it’s also a comedy just because people in their foolishness can be so funny. The novel is packed full of the usual Dostoevsky buffoons, drunkards, plotters and schemers, and intellectuals tearing their hair out over existential problems. Reading a Dostoevsky novel is no minor decision. It takes some effort and a considerable investment of time, but in the end, I think it’s worth it. Maybe I will try to come up with a list of the top ten benefits of reading Dostoyevsky. In the meantime here’s a review I wrote:

DevilsDevils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found Devils to be puzzling in the beginning, interminable in the middle, and in the end, loved it. This reaction is in keeping with the spirit of Dostoevsky – a spirit that is paradoxical, morally ambiguous, and frequently expressing opposite extremes, often in the personality of a single character and even in one speech. People in a Dostoyevsky novel will go from declaring their undying love to hating each other in the span of a single paragraph or from being an atheist to a believer in one dialogue. His characters may be confusing at times but they are also so believable that you forget they are not real people. Not many authors can show the reality of human ambiguity and shiftiness and our minds so consistently and realistically.

Devils is the third of Dostoyevsky’s five major novels and the third that I have read. I liked this one more than Crime and Punishment and less than The Brothers Karamazov, although halfway through the book I wasn’t sure I liked it at all. But in the end all the threads pull together and the plot comes to a crescendo and denouement and suddenly the first 700 pages take on new meaning. Once I finished the book I went back and read some sections with renewed interest.

Dostoevsky can be challenging reading on several levels but the biggest part of the difficulty is that you are reading a translation. I always get the sense that I am missing something, that something is not quite coming through – some pungency, some joke, some cultural flavor. The translation I read is a newer one (1992) by Michael R. Katz, a scholar and professor of Russian who has translated several other Russian novels in addition to this one. The original Russian title of the book is “Besy” which previous editions translated as “Demons” or “The Possessed”, although “The Possessed” seems now to be widely considered incorrect.

The Katz translation includes a chapter called which other versions either exclude or include in an appendix. Dostoyevsky’s original publisher considered the content of this chapter, “Stavrogin’s Confession”, too shocking for public consumption. In this chapter the charismatic Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, a central character in the book, visits a priest named Tikhon and asks him to read a confession aloud which he has carefully written out on several sheets of paper. It describes how several years previously he had been living in a life of debauchery in Petersburg and had seduced and raped the young daughter of the landlady, a child of about 12, after which the girl committed suicide. Without this chapter Stavrogin would be mysterious and morally ambiguous but not necessarily evil. This chapter removes some doubt about the nature of his character, although he does claim his desire to repent and seek redemption.

To my 21st-century American mind much of this book and most of the characters seem slightly surreal and bizarre, as if I had dropped onto another planet where the inhabitants, though recognizably human, are so different in their modes of behavior, speech patterns, culture and lifestyles, and expectations, that I am a bit disoriented for several hundred pages. It helped to do a little research on 19th century Russian culture and history. This book is in fact loosely based on a specific historical incident in which a member of a radical cell “group of five” was murdered by the other members of the group. Apparently in the 1860s there were many of these groups working in Russia to disrupt the status quo, sow doubt about religion and tradition, and spread new socialist and atheist ideas.

Devils seems to have grown out of Dostoyevsky’s concerns about the dangers of what he considered false philosophy and its effects on the fabric of civilization and cultural identity and faith of the Russian people. The book begins with the passage from Luke about the man possessed by a legion of demons. When the demons see Jesus coming they ask to be allowed to enter a herd of swine. Jesus grants their request and the swine dive off a cliff and drown. The possessed man is restored to his right mind. This is the guiding theme of the novel. The devils are the false ideas and the swine are the radicals (men who have lost their humanity and respect for God). The false ideas cause the radicals to self destruct, leaving Russia restored to her traditions and her faith.
Although this novel is Dostoyevsky’s commentary of the specific political intrigues of his time and philosophical thought behind the politics, this does not mean it is not applicable to the current affairs of our world. On the contrary, I find it fascinating to trace the direct connection from nihilism and socialist philosophy of the 1860s to the events of the early 20th century, especially the Bolshevik Revolution, and then to recognize the eerie repercussions that echo all the way to present.

The story is narrated by a resident of the town named Govorov who is sometimes an eye witness to the events, sometimes a participant, and sometimes reports things he has found out later. Govorov sounds like quite a busybody but the narration mostly comes off as natural and reportorial. The story is that a secret group of nihilist revolutionaries led by the serpent-like trickster Peter Stepanovich Verkhovensky infiltrates a small provincial town. Peter is the son of Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, writer and professor in the past, now a sort of established eccentric minor celebrity in the town. The father, Stepan Trofimovich, represents the liberal ideologies of the 1840s, seemingly harmless secular utopian philosophies that spawned a new generation of radical nihilists capable of doing real harm to real people who are just trying to live their lives.

Peter insinuates himself into the upper echelons of the town’s society by charming people in power such as the governor’s wife, Yulia Mikhailovna von Lembke, a woman who just wants to be the center of a hip social circle and imagines herself to be the understanding patroness of the younger generation. Then, along with his “gang of five” and other hangers on, Peter sets out to wreak havoc on the sacred and reliable traditions of the town, beginning with pranks that some think are funny and progressing to more dangerous activities such as theft, arson, and murder. But before you get to the havoc you have to wade through some lengthy philosophical conversations, ravings of lunatics, and many events and personal interactions that don’t quite make sense until the story rolls all the way out. You begin to think these people are living on the brink of insanity, which as is turns out, is pretty much the case.

Reading Devilswas worth the effort. My method was to listen to the audio book (excellently read by George Guidall, one of my favorite narrators) and also to read sections of the text (Oxford World’s Classics edition, 769 pages). I needed to see the complicated names of the characters and wanted to read some parts more than once. As much as at one point I was anxious to just get through the interminable thing, now that I am finished I find I can’t quite let it go, and keep going back to review certain passages. Dostoevsky and his time and culture is a topic I could camp out in for the rest of my life. I think Russian studies is one of my many missed callings. If you get into Dostoevsky you will find you want to go back and read his novels more than once. In fact I plan to re-read The Brothers Karamazov in the near future.

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The essay is a slippery thing, both as an art form and a writing market. It is difficult to figure out if the essay is the hot commodity or the neglected unjustly ignored stepchild of the literary world. I’ve read both claims recently. My subjective non-scientific instinct is that essays are hot and fashionable right now in the sense that small artsy boutiques are hot and fashionable. Creative non-fiction has its very enthusiastic devotees and the current market seems reasonably niche-friendly.

The form certainly appeals to me as one of those perennially novel things, like newly discovered classics or personalized customer service, ever-retro. As an art the essay goes back several centuries, with the 16th century eccentric Michel de Montaigne widely considered to be the pioneer of the form. But I would have to say essays go back long before the 16th century. What, for example, is this?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.” Genesis 1:1-13

Some say this is fiction, some say non-fiction, some say poetry; my best guess is creative non-fiction.

The Best American Essays 2013

The Best American Essays 2013

As with trendy intellectual pursuits and other things that sound attractive in theory but take effort to actually do, when it comes to reading essays I suspect there may be more talking of the talk than walking of the walk. Essays, when I get around to reading them, are fun and interesting, but maybe I don’t get around to reading them as often as I’d like. So in the interest of walking the walk I recently decided to take a couple of steps:

a) I subscribed to three literary journals: Rattle, New Letters, and The Sun. These subscriptions can be a bit pricey but as my budget allows I plan to increase my collection of literary periodicals and actually read them. I also plan, carefully and in the course of time, to submit my own work. I like the online versions too but I find the tactile object encourages me read them with more pleasure and attention.

b) I purchased The Best American Essays 2013 for Kindle and am in the process of reading every essay in it. So far I have read the first six and have found the writing stunning, even if the stories are often scary, even chilling. The editor, Cheryl Strayed, seems to have favored harrowing personal memoirs for this collection.

Personal memoir can make great reading but I also enjoy other kinds of essays. For example I have liked the spiritual explorations of Philip Yancey and Anne Lamott as well as the works of Philip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Albert Jay Nock, G.K. Chesterton, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, and James Thurber. I haven’t even started on David Sedaris yet; in fact, there are essayists lined up patiently holding their books as far down the road as I can see.

New light on ordinary things. Photo by Aaron Apple, Oct. 2014

A good essay, even when the writer is relating a personal story, needs to go beyond the facts that happened and point you to a place of new perspective and the best essays will point you to a new perspective on a universal theme. So far the essays of Best American Essays 2013 do this masterfully. I look forward to reviewing this collection once I finish all of them in a way that will encourage others to read these and other essays for the maximum benefit. What are the benefits of reading a good literary essay? For me there are several including these:

1. The soul pleasure of reading truly excellent writing.
2. Seeing something true for the first time in a new way. This ploughs the fields of my mind and keeps the seeds of thoughts from falling into ruts.
3. Inspiration and encouragement for my own writing.
4. The satisfaction and community of knowing there are still living people in the world able to write this well.

I am sure there are many other benefits to reading essays. If you think of any I did not list feel free to add them in a comment!