Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Razing Arizona: A Parable

To what may I compare the politics of the present generation?

How about this map of Arizona. Just look at it. Have you ever seen a more unequal distribution of altitude? The difference between the highest elevation (12,633 feet at Humphreys Peak) and the lowest (70 feet above sea level, on the Colorado River) is horrendous. While a very small percentage of the state's area is at a lofty elevation above 9,000 feet, the Colorado Plateau forms a big, bourgeois, middle class of elevations between 4,000 (the statewide average) and 8,000 feet. A significant part of the state - almost the whole southwest quarter of the state, in fact - is below the average, with the hottest, driest, loneliest parts of the state forming a basin ranging below 3,000, 2,000, or even 1,000 feet above sea level.

Having lived there two and a half years, I can personally bear witness that life in Yuma - one of Arizona's lowest, hottest, and least rainy areas - is completely unbearable from May to September. Forget it. Only scorpions, Gila monsters, saguaro cacti, and the occasional javelina can survive there, without terraforming projects on the order of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The planet Tatooine is literally just across the river, which means California gets all the tax revenue from the Mos Eisley cantina. (It's also the planet from the original "Stargate" movie, but I digress.)

Arizonans Against Altitude Inequality (A3I) recognized the injustice of these disparities. So they got a constitutional amendment on the state's referendum ballot to shave the top 3,633 feet off the state's elevation. What area really needs to be higher than 9,000 feet, anyway? All prominences above that altitude will be converted into gravel and either thrown into the Grand Canyon, or spread around that big basin in the southwest part of the state, depending on which version of the ballot language gets the final nod from the Commission for Elevation Equalization (CEE), which the amendment will establish. Just think how much that gravel will raise the elevation of the low desert!

Just think!

All right, that amount of gravel - or the parts of it that don't end up being sold to road paving companies, with profits to be disbursed at the CEE's discretion - won't raise the elevation of that basin by any measurable amount, but it will close the gap (by up to 3,633 feet!) between the highest and the lowest points in the state. Plus, the CEE will continue to entertain proposals about shaving off even more of the rock from the higher-altitude regions of Arizona, and perhaps moving some of the middling-high peaks more-or-less intact to lower areas.

Sure, the net result will only be that the highest elevation in the state becomes lower, and maybe establishing a few additional high-ish spots (though they'll never be quite as high). And of course, those high altitudes, and whatever benefits or resources depended on them, will be gone for good. But at least the playing field, by which I mean the desert, will be more level on average. Right?

Let him hear who has ears. Let him think who has something between them.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller
by Henry James
Recommended Ages: 13+

This little trifle of a novella, almost a short story, weighs in at 59 pages in the "Dover Thrift Edition" in which I read it - an extra-thrifty purchase at some used-book store, whose price tag lists it at all of 10 cents. A list of other Henry James titles, printed in the back of my copy of The American, lists some full-length novels going for 50 to 75 cents. Somewhere between a clue to how old this book is and the fact that its author, dead now more than 100 years, can no longer control the rights to his work, there is a lesson about something or other - like, "Thus far the fortunes of (in some people's estimate) the finest novelist in the English language." But I don't have that lesson in sharp focus yet, because this isn't exactly a novel, and it's only the first thing I've read by Henry James.

The story, dating from 1878, is touching and sad, told from the point of view of a young American expat studying in Switzerland, named Winterbourne. While visiting his very proper, upper-class, widowed aunt in the lakeside resort town of Vevay, he is fascinated by a beautiful young American named Daisy Miller. Unlike Winterbourne, who was educated in Europe and who doesn't really understand American manners, Daisy is entirely a creature of Schenectady, N.Y. - a gregarious, fashionably dressed, spoiled banker's daughter who doesn't understand the way her every act, whether innocent or defiant, is judged by the exacting mores of the European nobility. She loves being in society, but has no consciousness of its proprieties or improprieties. She loves having gentleman friends, and risks scandal by going all over town with them unchaperoned. Her mother doesn't have the spirit to check her, and neither of them can tell the difference between a real gentleman and a charlatan. So, while Winterbourne watches her - first in Vevay, and later in Rome - he can never quite make up his mind whether to censure her for acting improperly, or excuse her for her innocence. So, while her head is seemingly turned by a handsome Italian adventurer, Winterbourne never succeeds in cutting in and saving her before her lack of good judgment leads her to irrevocable harm.

The word "bittersweet" is not enough. The ending of this brief novella (novelette?) is downright painful. Seventy years earlier, in the hands of a Jane Austen, approximately the same raw materials would have been the making of a comedy of manners. This, instead, is a tragedy of manners, in which the manners themselves are subtly indicted, and in which the difference between the manners of old world and new actually claim an innocent and vivacious life. Class snobbery; traditions - then more prevalent in the aunt's circles than elsewhere - such as single young women needing to be chaperoned in public; the health risks of visiting certain parts of Rome at certain times of day - which would probably give today's doctors a good laugh; and the heart-deadening consequences of a young man, so long separated from his home country, being unable to read the signals a beautiful girl is sending him, all combine to leave the reader sighing at the end.

The next book I plan to read is Henry James' 1877 novel The American. It's the only other one I have by me at the moment. The back-cover blurbs of both books, and the introduction helpfully inserted into this one, suggest there are common themes between them, and perhaps in most of James' better-regarded books. A native New Yorker who, like Winterbourne, was educated abroad and spent the better part of his career in Europe, James wrote such well-known novels as The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl, and famous short stories and novellas including The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, plus lots of less-well-known stuff, long and short. Since I felt the impact of this little work, I think I might be up to exploring some of his bigger ones and deciding for myself whether he is as some say, in spite of Hardy and Eliot, our language's best novelist.

The Naming of the Dead

The Naming of the Dead
by Ian Rankin
Recommended Ages: 14+

In my recent review of The Snowman, I said something about Jo Nesbø moving hardboiled fiction to a climate where it will keep. I guess I shouldn't be surprised to see more hardboiled crime hanging out in Edinburgh, Scotland, which is about 578 miles southwest of Oslo as the plane flies, or about four degrees less in latitude - within about a degree, at each end, of the difference between Juneau and Anchorage. If climate change is driving mystery genres to northerly climes, I should be paying more attention to the writings of Ian Rankin. Based on this book, I probably will.

DI (Detective Inspector) John Rebus is an aging, hard-drinking, maverick detective in the Edinburgh CID (i.e., the plainclothes police). He and his lower-ranking partner, DS (Detective Sergeant) Siobhan Clarke - her first name isn't pronounced the way you think - catch a couple of inconvenient cases just as the July 2005 G8 conference, and the massive demonstrations surrounding it, are about to make their part of Scotland a mad place to be. Things get even madder on July 7, 2005 - the date that made "7/7" mean to the U.K. something like what "9/11" means to the U.S. In the midst of that, nobody wants a couple of insubordinate, boundary-crossing detectives poking into an MP's (member of parliament) plunge from a castle rampart - suicide? accident? murder? - or even chasing a serial killer whose trophies are found just up the road from the conference.

There are some odd things about that serial killer evidence, though that probably goes without saying. For one thing, the victims - three, so far - are all convicts recently let out on parole, chronic offenders with a record of rape or sexual assault. These are big, bad men: not exactly your typical, high-risk victim; but because they had victims of their own, no one has worked very hard to catch their killers, or rather killer, until now. A connection between the three men and a pro-victim website seems too obvious, too on-the-nose. A psychology professor at the local university points out the key may be anomalies in the evidence concerning one of the crimes. A computer nerd (who happens to be Siobhan's ex-boyfriend), a journalist (who collaborated on a book with John's criminal nemesis), and Big Ger Cafferty, the selfsame underworld kingpin John has spent most of his career chasing, all make themselves suspiciously helpful to the crime-solving pair, while a Special Branch operative, a city councilman, and their own chief constable put up every imaginable roadblock to their investigation, including (in the chief constable's case) suspending them from duty. Also, by the way, Siobhan's parents come to town, her mum ends up in the hospital, the whole southeast of Scotland gets snarled up in a series of demonstrations, riots, and traffic jams, and London gets bombed; so yes, there are a lot of distractions. But in spite of all these things, they keep plugging away at their puzzles.

What makes my nose twitch to the scent of something hardboiled is how, while the mystery slowly comes into focus, problems arise in the hero detectives' lives that aren't as easily cleared up. No amount of persistence will make them go away. Chuck in a dash of disillusionment with the state of the world, a specter of mortality with a nice side of nihilistic futility, some heart-tugging struggles with loneliness and (ahem) alcohol, and some of those breathtaking moments when the sleuth is forced to consider whether some of the bodies wouldn't have dropped if it hadn't been for him or her, the occasional surprise where the hero is scrobbled by villains and held prisoner overnight, and the sense that the toughest crimes are best solved by a detective who follows his own ideas about how things are done, rather than sanctioned police procedure... Yes, indeed, the Dashiell does not fall far from the Hammett.

This is the 16th of (so far) 21 "John Rebus" mystery-thrillers by Scottish author Ian Rankin, and though it is not the first of the series I have read (that honor belongs to No. 8, Black & Blue), it is the first I have reviewed. Since I've reviewed every book I have read since at least 2003 and perhaps a bit farther back, that tells you about how long it's been since I've dipped a toe in the waters of Rankin's popular series; Black & Blue's 1997 release date provides the yonder boundary of a relatively narrow time window. One of the things that may have deterred me from going back to Rebus is my recollection of Black & Blue being so full of regional dialect and slang terms, such as "paraffin budgie" (meaning, I believe, "helicopter"), that I found it heavy going. I was surprised to find no such difficulty in reading The Naming of the Dead - no budgies, paraffin or otherwise. This suggests either that my recollection was off, or that my reading since sometime between ages 25 and 31 has vastly improved my language comprehension, or that the U.S. editions of Rankin's more recent books are being more heavily edited (if "translated" is too strong a word) to give American readers more of a fighting chance. Assuming the prize lies behind Door No. 3, please remind me not to complain next time I see a publisher's note to American readers, advising them the book has been expurgated of idioms you'd have to be Scottish (or English, Irish, etc.) to understand. If English-to-English translation has become a thing, there may be a good reason.

John Rebus has been portrayed by actors John Hannah (2001-2004) and Ken Stott (2006-2007) in a series of films for British television. He is also, as I mentioned, the star of 21 novels, plus a volume or two of short stories. Their titles include Knots and Crosses, The Black Book, Set in Darkness, Fleshmarket Close, Exit Music, and Rather Be the Devil. Rankin's career goes back to the 1980s, and also includes two "Malcolm Fox" novels and seven other novels, including three originally published under the pseudonym Jack Harvey.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen
Recommended Ages: 12+

This book's heroine is the sort of person, the narrator tells us, no one would have expected to be a heroine. But from that opening sentence on, that's exactly what we expect - that, and a story that will stand the conventions of sensational, Gothic fiction on their ear.

I opened this book under the influence of a rumor that it is primarily about a silly girl whose habit of reading novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho leads her into an embarrassing misunderstanding while staying in the stately home named in its title. Actually, that is only a minor subplot in a book that, like everything else by Austen that I have read so far, is really about a girl's dramatically fraught struggle to land Mr. Right.

In this case the girl is literally a girl: 17-year-old Catherine Morland, the eldest daughter of a clergyman and his wife who have 10 children. Mr. Right, right enough, turns out to be the first eligible male to whom she is introduced while accompanying a childless local couple to a season in the then-fashionable spa city of Bath. Unfortunately, Catherine has no experience in society, and the flighty Mrs. Allen, her chaperone, isn't a reliable instructor. So, she blunders her way into one fix after another, partly through her ill-judged friendship with the coquettish Isabella Thorpe. Isabella has designs on Catherine's brother James, and Isabella's odious brother John has designs on Catherine, but in spite of their best efforts, they seem unable to sabotage Catherine's growing attachment to the clever Henry Tilney and his lonely sister Eleanor. Things are looking really promising when Catherine is invited to visit the Tilneys' romantic pile for a while, but the Thorpes haven't played their last trick.

In addition to the romantic suspense of the story, this book contains an impassioned defense of the habit of novel reading, some superbly comic passages, and a daring number of authorial intrusions into the narrative, reminding us that Catherine & Co. are, after all, characters in a novel. It's a piece of romanticism with an anti-romantic wink, and sometimes more than just a wink. And it all goes by so quickly that you'll notice the dwindling number of unread pages with a sigh of regret.

Although one of Austen's earliest mature novels - she sold it to a publisher in 1803 - it was not printed until after her death in 1817. She is also the author of Persuasion (originally published with this book), Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. I can personally vouch for them all, except Mansfield Park (which I haven't read yet), as delightful pieces of Regency-era romantic comedies/comedies of manners, written with transparent style, economy of language, gentle irony, and sparkling wit.

On the other hand, I would rather not recommend the edition of this book I read, due to its preface by literary maven Margaret Drabble, who seriously entertains some of the most obnoxious and destructive feminist criticism of this book. I recommend enjoying this book for what it is, and for what generations before us have prized it for: a piece of lightweight, lighthearted entertainment by a self-taught authoress who scarcely lived long enough to be anything but a sheltered young lady, who knew never lived anywhere but under her parents' roof, who knew nothing but the provincial drawing room, the social hothouse of places like Bath, and the "marriage mart" of the late Regency period when, thanks to the Napoleonic wars, eligible English women significantly outnumbered their male counterparts. She wrote what she knew; she wrote it convincingly; she filled it with charm and a touch of good-natured good sense; and somehow, she bequeathed on English literature a small body of prose that remains among the most prized novels of her time. The books enjoyed by this book's characters, and lampooned by its storyline, are now almost forgotten. But we remember Austen. And we forgive her for not being the battle-axe people like Drabble seem to believe she should have been. I wish those people would get over it; but it doesn't matter. Austen triumphs in spite of them.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera
by Gaston Leroux
translated from French by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos

In this book, the Palais Garnier - a truly fabulous structure that was built during the author's lifetime - is only described as The Opera. With a similarly light touch that belies the gruesome, sensational subject matter, author Leroux (or, at least, his translator) refers to his title character, within the book, not as the Phantom of the Opera, but as the Opera Ghost - sometimes O. Ghost, or even O.G. In early chapters, a thread of whimsical humor runs through the Ghost's eerie manifestations. For example, I laughed aloud at the Ghost's letter to a certain diva, warning her not to sing that night - particularly its opening sentence, "You have a bad cold." Only after the narrative destroys the illusion that O.G. is a supernatural entity does he become truly terrifying. A phantom he may not be, but a monster he most certainly is. And yet the narrator and the reader together cannot view that deeply flawed, twisted character with complete loathing. Even after seeing him at his worst, one pities him. I think this is why, of all the writings of a prolific and popular novelist, this one book has left an enduring mark on world culture.

The Opera Ghost has a real name - at least, a first name - which, to today's ears, seems bracingly un-melodramatic for the antihero of a horror tale on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Of course, its setting is closer to us in time, so the light of modern technology shines on it to such an extent that, in spite of the opera house still being lit by gas lamps, the Ghost's torture chamber can make use of electric lights and heating elements. The phantom's history is the stuff of a potboiler all its own, but we learn it only at the end, when he has done his best to seduce a sweet young diva named Christine, who is already in love with a pretty-boy viscount named Raoul. Luckily for the young couple, they have an ally in a mysterious opera-goer known as the Persian, who has known the Ghost (whom he is unembarrassed to address as "Erik") since a chilling period of his career described as "the rosy hours of Mazenderan." (Somebody actually has written a book about this.) Nevertheless, their only path to happily-ever-after leads through a series of secret passages, deadly traps, torture, murder, kidnapping, imprisonment, sexual obsession ("I want to be loved for myself!"), and an attempt to coerce a promise of marriage with a credible terrorist threat that, today, would turn a GIGN leader's hair white.

So, in brief, I laughed. I shuddered. My flesh crawled. My guts knotted with suspense. I entered willingly into the romance of the young couple, the intrigues of the opera house, the stimulating mysteries of how the Ghost pulled all his pranks, and some uneasy encounters with uncanny beings in the bowels of the Opera who, after all the Ghost's ghostliness has dissipated, remain tantalizingly unexplained. The Ghost himself may not be supernatural, but what about the Siren? Who is the man in the black felt hat? And what, in Gounod's name, is the deal with the rat catcher? We may never know. And that's just part of what makes the Opera itself perhaps the most fascinating character in this book.

The Puffin Classics edition of this 1909-10 Gothic horror/mystery classic says "complete and unabridged" on the front cover. However, when I did some online research into who translated it (because the translator is not named in the book), I found out that the original English translation by Teixeira, the only one published before 1990 and (thanks to the copyright laws of the time) the only one likely to be published without a translator's name on it, was a rushed, "slash and burn" job that "removed nearly 100 pages of content from Leroux’s novel" and "introduced numerous mistranslations." The only thing good about it, my informant says, was the "authentic 'vintage' sound" of Teixeira's writing style. So, sad to say, my "complete and unabridged" experience of Leroux's best-known novel is neither quite complete nor even particularly faithful to the original text. But it still, for my money, beats the hell out of listening to Gerard Butler try to sing the part of the Phantom in the film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's musical adaptation. (True story: My stepmom rented this movie and tried showing it to my dad and me. We didn't even get through the first musical number before she turned it off, offended at my tsking and groans of disgust.)

I am really intrigued by Leroux's biography (1868-1927). I get the impression he was something like a turn-of-the-20th-century French mash-up of Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle - audacious journalist (one of his stories was titled "How I failed to interview Joseph Chamberlain"), heir whose wild living burned through a huge fortune, theater critic, eyewitness to a political revolution, author of a series of early detective novels featuring an amateur sleuth named Rouletabille, and prolific novelist across a number of sensational genres, with such titles as Nomads of the Night, The Haunted Chair, The Bride of The Sun, The Man who Came Back from the Dead, The Veiled Prisoner, The Burgled Heart, The Kiss that Killed, The Man of a Hundred Faces, and The Perfume of the Lady in Black. If I ever make it all the way through the Sherlock Holmes canon, perhaps I will take up a bit of Rouletabille.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

223. Interpretation of Scripture Hymn, Mark 2

As I said in my explanation of yesterday's original hymn, I over-planned for a projected "hermeneutics hymn," so I was forced to decide to split it into two hymns. Also, if you're looking for a polemic or a rhyming, metrical compendium of rules to understand Scripture the way I think it should be read, I'm sorry; you won't find it in either of these hymns. Their real goal is to support the (Lutheran) Christian's faithful prayer for those engaged in the task of biblical interpretation, and to fill that prayer with the truths and promises God himself provides in Scripture. I have two tunes in mind for this hymn: UNDE ET MEMORES by William H. Monk (1823-89), and YORKSHIRE (STOCKPORT) by John Wainwright, c. 1749. I'm slightly partial to YORKSHIRE, but variety is the spice of life.
O Father, in prophetic speech made known:
One with Your Word, Your sole-begotten Son:
One with Your Spirit, who moved holy men
To set Your pow'r at work by tongue or pen:
As You are one, unite our mind and heart
To serve Your word, and bear a pupil's part.

As true disciples, may we first believe
All that Your word reveals, and so receive
By faith the very gifts You promise there;
To change one letter, may we never dare.
All things are Yours; Your Yes is surely Yes:
Thereby depends our hope of blessedness.

Help us to reason from Your holy writ,
That we draw comfort, patience, hope from it.
Therein You wound and heal, You kill and raise;
Therein You bid us both repent and praise.
Conform our judgment to its holy light,
And help us handle law and gospel right.

Help us, who search Your word, not search in vain,
As those who sought salvation without gain.
We would see Christ; Lord, teach us how to look
And, looking, find Him filling all the book.
Help us, by daily searching of Your word,
To verify the gospel we have heard.

No private parsing of Your word can bless;
May we with all the saints one faith confess.
As You are one, one word in us abides,
Partial to none, nor moved by winds or tides:
So solid is this rock on which we stand
Our hope of entering the promised land.

Your word is proof against the devil's rage;
So armor us, Lord, with its sacred page.
Gird us with truth, and boot with words of peace,
Until the fiery darts of Satan cease;
Clothe us in righteousness, Your strong cuirass,
That we may stand, though earth and heaven pass.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

222. Interpretation of Scripture Hymn

A cuter title might be "Hermeneutics Hymn," but I'm not as sure as I once was that a systematic list of hermeneutical rules is where it's at (as in, "Any blockhead can correctly interpret the Bible if he reasons from these 16 rules in the order in which they logically flow from first principles," etc.). Nevertheless, I've wanted for a long time to write a hymn that reflects the things the Bible says about itself, and prays those things back to God as an appeal for faith in His word. The evidence of that desire is more than a page of closely handwritten notes, with way too many key points, each followed by at least one Bible reference. The challenge, which has kept me hesitating while other planned hymns have practically written themselves, is to keep the hymn reasonably short and not bludgeon the topic to death with a too-exhaustive treatment. So, here's a hymn that attempts to cover about half of that material, in a prayerful manner that I think, after all, might be more useful to Christians than a doctrinaire treatment. I reserve the remainder of my hermeneutical notes for a later hymn. The only obvious tune for this hymn is ACH, WAS SOLL ICH SÜNDER MACHEN, ad. from J. Flittner’s Hirtenlieder, Altdorf, 1653.

Lord, whose writ cannot be broken:
God, whose voice can never lie:
By Your truth now sanctify
Those who read or hear it spoken.
All its benefits supply,
Changing hearts and minds thereby.

Cause it to be preached in season,
Out of season, just the same;
Nor let it go forth in vain.
Captive take men's sinful reason;
Form their minds, their hearts inflame
By the power of Your name.

Give them eyes for faithful reading,
Ears to hear the word of life;
Let the seed so planted thrive.
From Your folly, far exceeding
All man's wisdom, men derive
Pow'r to make the dead alive.

By its living, mighty function,
Your word called all things to be,
Blessing them abundantly;
Even now, it spreads its unction,
Causing sinful men to be
Justified eternally.

Send Your Spirit, eyes unveiling
To the myst'ries of Your word,
Which the nations call absurd.
Let men see its pow'r prevailing
Where Your promises are heard,
As dead hearts to life are stirred.

Open, Lord, men's understanding,
Though they be of earth and dust;
Break their hearts' dead, stony crust.
Open Scripture to them, branding
On their minds, with searing trust,
Him whose blood bespeaks them just.

With salvation thus enlightened,
Make them daily more adept
In Your promise and precept
Till, of death and hell unfrightened,
For a season having slept,
Into glory they be swept.