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The Long Fall of Silent Sam

It's amazing how proximity can affect one's vision. There are things that are simply too close to bear careful examination, or perhaps so close that the viewer assumes careful examination has already occurred. But the ugly fact is that one sometimes needs a little distance, in either time or space, or perhaps both, in order to get a clearer view of something.

My own position had a profound effect on my understanding of a hometown feature, a statue on a pedestal in a prominent spot on the oldest quad of the University of North Carolina, and I became familiar with it soon after my father joined the staff of the UNC admissions office in 1964. I was only a year old when he took the job, and I don't remember if the office was in Vance Hall or Pettigrew Hall next door, but the statue was easily the most memorable thing near Dad's workplace: a life-size bronze figure of an old-fashioned soldier wearing a slouch hat and carrying a rifle. I literally don't recall the first time I saw him; as far as I knew, the soldier had always been there.

Over the years I learned a few other things about this statue. The first was his name: Silent Sam. A while later I heard the naughty story about Sam, one that I long assumed was unique to UNC, that if a virgin were to walk by him, he would fire his gun. And of course I did eventually learn that he was a memorial to UNC students who had died at war. For many years, those were the only things I knew about Sam, and I didn't really see any reason to examine him more closely.

But I should have.

I don't recall when I noticed the letters on Sam's pouch: CSA. I had studied enough to know what they stood for--Confederate States of America--but I hadn't really studied enough to understand what they meant. And by the time I began to more fully understand the Civil War, Dad's office had moved to another part of campus; confronting Sam was not something I did all that regularly, even after I entered UNC in the fall of 1981. He was just another feature of the campus, like the Old Well or the Davie Poplar or the Pit. A relic, in other words. And for a long time, I didn't have to think of him any other way.

When we moved to Virginia in 1995, Kelly noted that all the Civil War iconography made it feel as though we'd moved south. The place where I worked, Woodberry Forest School, had been founded by a CSA veteran, and the Confederate battle flag could be seen everywhere from student t-shirts to dormitory walls. But like many Americans, I was increasingly uncomfortable with it. The flag's adoption by right-wing political groups and white supremacists had made it more than a mere relic; it was something that had meaning, here and today, and that meaning was toxic. 

My surroundings and my profession pushed me into a deeper study of the Civil War and the issues surrounding it, and as I began teaching works like Huckleberry Finn and Frederick Douglass's Narrative, I delved into those issues directly. I started teaching my students about the battle flag and those who opposed its display. I had them read excerpts from the Declaration of Secession issued by South Carolina--and those issued by Georgia and Texas as well. And I told them, pointedly, that displaying the battle flag didn't make one a racist, but it did make you a person who didn't mind being considered a racist, which was its own problem. Before long, our headmaster, who would later go on to be president of the Citadel, ordered the school to stop any official display of the battle flag. He considered it an insult to the memory of the black men who had served alongside him in Vietnam. It wasn't banned, but a good many of the students removed the flags from their dorm room walls.

And then, a long while later, I went back to Chapel Hill with a colleague from Woodberry, and as I showed him the campus of my alma mater, we came upon Silent Sam--and my companion, a native Midwesterner, was just astonished that such a thing could be standing there:

Until that point, I hadn't really confronted the fact that this familiar childhood spot was dedicated to the defense of white supremacy. The soldiers whom it memorialized, whatever their individual motivations for fighting, had died in defense of a nation founded on the principle that black human beings deserved to be enslaved. That was, to put it mildly, unnerving.

Soon I found references to the statue's erection in 1913, and to the speech that local businessman, UNC graduate, and Confederate veteran Julian Carr had made at its dedication. That day he praised those who had resisted Reconstruction in order to keep the white race pure:

The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South - When "the bottom rail was on top" all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States - Praise God.

From there, Carr went on to a more personal boast:

One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.

In short, the statue, donated by the Daughters of the Confederacy some fifty years after the war's end, was not intended to memorialize the war dead so much as it was intended to proclaim that the war was still being fought. Whites still held power over blacks, and Silent Sam stood as a reminder that lynch law and Jim Crow were firmly in control wherever his shadow fell; there would be no Yankee army returning to save them.

When Carr's speech was rediscovered by a UNC graduate student in 2009, the long-simmering opposition to the statue's presence began to boil. It was opposition I had never noticed--I had never needed to notice--but it soon became impossible to ignore. When white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered nine people in a Charleston, SC, church in 2015, national outrage over the official display of Confederate icons swelled. As the South Carolina legislature debated the removal of the battle flag that flew over the state capital, activist Bree Newsome took matters into her own hands; ten days after the massacre, she climbed the pole and brought the flag down herself. She was arrested, but within two weeks, the flag was removed by vote of the state house and senate.

In North Carolina, however, the carefully gerrymandered Republican majority passed a different law, one that forbade the alteration, removal, or moving of a Confederate memorial. Even if UNC wanted to put Silent Sam in a museum, the state wouldn't allow it. Opposition to the statue's presence continued to grow, but UNC did not act, even after Democratic governor Roy Cooper assured the university that it could remove the statue with impunity. But in the wake of the deadly right-wing march in Charlottesville, VA, the protests against Silent Sam became increasingly loud. In April of 2018, Maya Little covered the statue in red paint that she had mixed with her own blood, live on Facebook as police looked on.

So it should not have been a surprise that when students returned to campus for the fall semester, Silent Sam was again the focus of a protest. What did come as a bit of a surprise to me, and to a lot of others, was that the protesters did more than protest last night: after surrounding the monument with huge banners to obscure what they were up to, they looped ropes around the statue and pulled it down.

And me? I'm left with a variety of feelings. There's a part of me that sighs anytime something I remember from my childhood vanishes, whether it's the beloved confines of the Intimate Bookshop on Franklin Street or just an old dirt parking lot across from La Residence, but that part is drowned out by the other parts. There's the part that wishes my alma mater could have taken the steps to remove the statue in an official manner, to confront the evils that the Confederacy represented and explicitly reject them. There's the part that wants to simply give a fuck-you gesture to the Republican majority in my home state. And there's the part that looks to the protesters as the 21st-century heirs to the tradition of the Boston Tea Party, people who couldn't get their government to redress their grievances and chose to act extralegally.

I can wish for those innocent days when I didn't know what the statue stood for, sure. But I know now. And I can't allow such a thing to stand for my university, for my hometown, for me. As I've come to realize, Silent Sam has been falling, slowly, throughout my life. Last night he finally hit the ground.


2:44 PM

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?


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

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

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."


1:23 PM

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

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

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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