Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-4

This has been a long time in coming, not for any lack of effort. The installment nearly five times as long as the average installment, but there are big events to cover as Henri goes into the Battle of the Marne.


Near Nanteuil le Hardouin, France. September 8th, 1914. It was dark in the room. Then a dancing light began to play upon the walls, and he caught the slight smell of sulfur in the air. It must have been the pop of a match being struck that had awakened him. Henri sat up in the bed and saw Lieutenant Rejol lighting a pair of stubby candles on the dressing table.

Fishing his watch out of his pocket, Henri looked at the time. 5:40 AM.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.

From the dressing table Rejol picked up a strip of cloth on which gold embroidery glinted in the candle light. He draped the stole over his shoulders, a jarring contrast with his uniform tunic, and lifted each end in turn to kiss the crosses embroidered on it. “You’re religious, aren’t you, Captain? Can you serve mass for me?”

“The bugles aren’t going to blow until six.”

Rejol nodded. “There’s only just time.”

“Why on a Tuesday? Can’t you wait for Sunday?”

The lieutenant shrugged. “Who knows which of us will be alive on Sunday.”

Who indeed. The last twenty-four hours had been devoted so fully to getting them to this place that he had been allowed little time to think of the purpose for which they were here.

“I didn’t grow up religious. I was never an altar boy. I don’t know how.” But Henri was getting out of bed, being careful not to jostle Morel, who was clearly a sound sleeper.

“It’s not difficult.” Rejol opened his missal and laid it flat on the dressing table. “All you have to do is say the responses. When we reach one, I’ll point to it and you just pronounce it as best you can.”

Henri shook his head in disbelief, but knelt down next to his lieutenant, remembering how the altar boys knelt next to the priest at the beginning of mass.

Father Rejol murmured Latin phrases in a voice too low for Henri to hear, even as he knelt right next to him. Several times the priest crossed himself. Then he said in a soft but audible voice, “Kyrie Eleison.”

He pointed to the missal, and Henri repeated the response, “Kyrie Eleison.”

The mass was brief. No organ, no murmured rosary by the congregation, no sermon. When the time came Rejol poured a sip’s worth of wine from a flask into the little gold chalice and put a single, small host onto the patten. He leant over them, as if whispering to the bread and wine the part that they would be asked to play. His hands made the sign of the cross over them three times and then spoke softly to them again.

There some something curiously involving about this short, quiet sacrifice said on a dressing table. Henri had never been so close, seen the details of the priest’s actions and heard his low voice during the many quiet parts of the service. The darkness around the candles’ little pool of light isolated them from the surrounding world, taking them out of time. How many other times and places had these words been said? Perhaps five hundred years ago, knights following Joan of Arc had knelt thus next to a priest to hear mass before putting on their armor and taking up their weapons to drive English invaders off of French soil.

They were done before six o’clock, and Lieutenant Rejol packed away the mass kit in a black leather-bound box which he returned to his pack.

“Thank you, Captain.”

Henri shrugged. The experience was one which seemed violated by discussion or by any outside observer. He was glad that Morel had not awakened. Even Rejol, at this moment disconcertingly filling the roles of both lieutenant and priest simultaneously, seemed an invasion of privacy. A few minutes before he had been playing a part in something that was not his own, something far older than either of them. Now he was a more junior officer who had seen Henri in a moment of prayer.

“I’m going to go down and see if the orderlies have made coffee,” said Henri. “Make sure that Morel is awake before you come down.” He escaped downstairs. When Rejol appeared after having obeyed his instructions, they would simply be fellow officers, the awkwardness of this other connection gone.

In the kitchen, a coffee pot was bubbling on the black enameled stove whose bulk crouched against the wall opposite the back staircase. A kerosene lantern burned on the table, making the room cheery, although the bluish pre-dawn light straggling in through the windows was still weak. The door banged and an orderly came in, carrying a coal scuttle. He wrapped the coffee pot in a towel and carried it over to the kitchen table, then used a lid lifter to pick up the iron burner plate so he could shake a few pieces of coal into the fire below.

“I’m afraid it’s a little primitive here, sir,” he said. “But I found lots of jam in the pantry and there’s fresh bread on the table from the mobile bakery.”

Henri poured himself a cup of coffee and spread jam on a slice of the heavy, brown army bread. Outside the bugles sounded. Six o’clock.

Lieutenants Rejol and Morel came down the stairs with a clatter of steel shod boots on wood, and a moment later they were followed by Lieutenant Dupuis and Sergeant Carpentier, who had spent the night in the attic bedroom.

It was as Henri was pouring a second cup of coffee that the first German shell struck out in the farm yard. The sound was sharper than a thunderclap.The glass in the window panes rattled and cups and silverware on the table vibrated. Henri poured hot coffee over his hand and swore, dropping the cup which chattered on the the floor.

He ran for the kitchen door, the other officers following him, urgent to see what was happening outside. As he was about to reach it another shell landed, closer to the house, and the kitchen window exploded inwards, spraying glass shards into the room along with acrid smoke which burned in his nostrils.

[Continue Reading]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Re-run: The Wonder Game

A busy week for us here, as Darwin writes into the wee hours to finish his novella-length novel segment and the family gears up to go to Gettysburg this weekend. So, a re-post, and specifically, this post. I have been reading Stephen King's book On Writing, in which he exhorts all writers to edit out 10% of their first draft in revision, starting with "puffy" writing, adjectives and adverbs and all the little crutches an author relies on because he doesn't trust his readers to understand what he's getting across. And that reminded me of some of the puffiest writing I've read in the past year: Ann Voskamp's Thanksgiving paean. I've added back in the original bolding and italics. Get yer formatted wonder, right here.

The comments on the original post are well worth reading too.

***

I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and I was surprised to find myself unmoved. Surprised because Gilead is beloved by many friends whose literary tastes are trustworthy. Surprised because Robinson is a good writer and Gilead is well-written. But it did not grab me. I could not surrender to it. It is a book of much spirituality, perhaps not surprising because the main character is a preacher and has fifty years' worth of sermons to draw on when the narration needs a little religious boost. Our narrator, John Ames, is an old man hastening toward death, writing his testament to his seven-year-old son. Impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, we are told, and the book is suffused -- no, drenched -- with wonder. We are, to be sure, as Fanny Price says, a miracle every way, but the wonder of it began to wear on me long before the end of the book. 

There are several possible reasons for this. One is that, in my corner of the Catholic internet, there are many fine writers who are able to find the grace of the everyday, so that Robinson's reflections are not as novel as they might be to a reader who encounters no other medium through which to examine the manifestations of the next world in this one. I am used to reading the fine writing of Elizabeth Duffy, for example, and Robinson's writing reminded me of Elizabeth's, only Elizabeth is rather more hard-hitting than the mild John Ames, casting a clear eye on rinse/lather/repeat efforts to find grace in the mundane and often unflattering details of life.
I remember going to watch my sister at one of the state meets, where the girl who was favored to win, I think her name was Jenny, ran the first two miles well ahead of the pack, then not one hundred feet from the finish line, clenched up. Her jaw went tight, her legs stiffened. You could see her force a few steps before she fell down. People passed her, my sister among them, and the gal finally crossed the finish line on all fours.
It seems like I was just getting into competitive running at about that time, and I never was very competitive, because I was very precious to myself and concerned about the onset of pain. Sometimes, when running, I’d start to get a little tight, and think about Jenny and pull back–because her crawling across the finish line seemed like one of the greatest tragedies that could befall anyone. And of course it’s not, I now know, but back then I only knew one kind of glory–and that was staying comfortable. Also…winning, if the two could be combined.
It wasn’t until I had kids that I received my first hint of what my sister gleaned from her endurance–that there’s a point between fatigue and falling down that’s quite lovely, an out-of-body experience. Close your eyes, keep going, and the body just does what it needs to do with the tacit prompt of mind. I’ve felt it in childbirth during transition, and every so often, when I think I have no energy left for putting kids to bed and whatnot, somehow it just gets done.
This weekend we put in the garden. I’ve abandoned a large garden way out back that’s so far away from the house that I forget about it, so my husband made frames for three raised beds right outside the kitchen. In the course of the weekend, we dug out sod, turned over a lot of dirt, loaded and unloaded long boards. I’ve felt a little beat up, with scratches on my ankles and forearms from hard to handle boards, sore back, and restless leg syndrome at night. And none of this is complaint, but rather exultation. I got tired, but I kept working–like people who have babies, run long distance, write novels, or become saints.
Back in the days when I tried to write poetry, I wrote down a phrase in my little notebook, “I want to give glory to God without fear.” I kept thinking something would occur to me to follow that line, but over the years as I’ve looked at it here and again, I can’t think of anything with which to chase it. It’s still a concern of mine, but it’s more of a singular concern rather than one impression among many. I want to give glory to God without fear.
In so many of my endeavors (having babies, running, writing, trying to become a saint), I still hold myself very dear.

Another reason for my less-than-perfect engagement with Gilead is the grace vs. wonder divide. I didn't find the book so much full of grace as full of wonder,  the gentle wonder of a old man seeing life through the lens of death. So much goodness, so much beauty, if only everyone knew how beautiful they were. All very good things. But I've heard Robinson accused of having universalist tendencies, and I can see that in several instances. There is some ugliness in the book, some bad blood, but none of it manifests in the main character needing to make a moral choice right now, this moment, to rely on grace. In fact, what seemed like a crucial situation, in which John Ames fears that he might be leaving his wife and son to the predations of a malicious character, just melts away into a distant topical problem related to the 1950s setting. Ames does not, in the end, have to confront the necessity of depending on the grace of God to protect his family when he cannot. He has written reams of spiritual guidance and explication over the years, and yet when he appealed to as a preacher for counsel, he repeatedly wiggles out of having to give any concrete testimony to his beliefs. No one's really all that bad, it seems, and the malicious impulses of the heart, sin and evil, go, in my opinion, mostly unexamined, and we settle back into the predictable wonder of every day being the last day.

Robinson is, as I have said, a fine writer, and her wonder-ful images are memorable -- a young couple walking down the street, shaking raindrops off trees; a father and son neatening an abandoned, unloveable graveyard; the image, much dwelt on, of Ames's sooty father giving him a biscuit in the lull of helping to pull down a fire-struck church, an image that seems to resonate more with Robinson that with me because bread of affliction, communion actually has a literal meaning to me.  But again, it's wonder, rather than grace, that jumps out at me. Taking a book's cover blurb as any kind of meaningful analysis is an iffy proposition, yet in retrospect, this sentence sums up the book well:
This is also the tale of another remarkable vision -- not a corporeal vision of God but the vision of life as a wondrously strange creation.
The lack of the corporeal vision of God is a problem because the main wonder of creation is that God became his own creation in a corporeal way. The body becomes a literal, not a metaphorical, conduit of grace. A vision of life as a wondrously strange creation without a corporeal vision of God tends to descend into treacle and nostalgia and soft soap.

Robinson is, of course, a gifted writer, skilled enough to keep her Pulitzer Prize-winning book from straying into the romantic and the purely picturesque. And then, and then, there's the wonder of Ann Voskamp:
Mama can kick leaves in the woods like she’s tearing back the crumpled paper wrapped over the surface of things. 
She walks with a stick. 
She dragged it out from under some maple saplings. And then she pins that trail under her right down. 
Like there’s no loud and flippant way she’s letting anything make her miss the now right under her, no way that that now could just up and slip out from under her. 
You could be a sophisticated cynic and miss your whole life that way. 
You walk a bold, amazed way when you know the destination is right here.
There is, apparently, a variety of wonder-drenched writing which drifts into a precious and almost unintelligible aestheticism, the sort of writing someone described to me as "'the tea-kettle's all dancy on the stove' shit".
What had Mary Oliver defiantly scratched down with an inked stick of her own? 
“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.” 
Everyone’s wild to stop feeling overwhelmed – but nobody ever wants everything to stop and be over. 
Mama walks like that through the woods. Like she knows it’s going to be over someday… all over. That your face will come tight right up to it and there’s no stick you can fine anywhere to fight time off. 
And then there’ll be that stark moment when you turn and see what you were married to. You can live your life as the bride married to Hurry, having affairs with Not Enough, Always Stress, and Easy Cynicism. Yeah, I guess we all get to choose our own bedfellows. 
Mama always said it and she didn’t care what anyone thought of it: God was her husband. And that ain’t just some metaphor to get the Pharisees all in a prudish knot – it’s brazen Scripture. Take it or go ahead and leave it. We all get to choose our own bedfellows – and who we’ll give our soul to, who or what will get our life
Mama’s standing there, already decided. 
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement, vowed to Awe Himself, covenanted to Christand I took the whole of everything He gave in this gloried world into my open arms with thanks. 
Because really? Yeah, I guess soAnybody can be a cynic. Cynicism is laziness in every way. 
The real heroes are the ones who never stop looking for the possibility of joy. 
“Here is good. I think we should do it right here.” Mama taps the ground of the trail with her stick, holding here down. Here always has some good if you look at it long enough. 
“Good light.” Mama looks up. 
So that’s where Levi and I drag the tables to. Haul in stumps to stand in as legs for plank benches. Throw old quilts down as tablcloths and lay out the plates. 
“Are we crazy?” I tug at the end of one of the quilts. Mama raises her one eyebrow — “I mean, not in a general, yes, obviously-we-are-crazy sense — but in a specifically in a trying- to- have- a- Thanksgiving-dinner in- the- woods- sense?” 
Mama grins. Winks. Knowingly. 
Yeah – she doesn’t have to say it. 
Wherever you are – Thanksgiving is always for those crazy enough to see grace for the trees.
Thanksgiving is always for the courageous and Grace is always for the risky
We lay out the table and string up the banners and make up our Thanksgiving Tree  —- 
And it’s all ridiculous enough to be meant to be
This is the sort of lush wonder that never requires one to develop it in a whole paragraph, the kind of cray-cray-crazy abandonment! that's so adorably luminous that to examine it with any kind of critical eye and ask, "What does this even mean?" makes one the laziest of cynics. It's the sort of Pinterest-ready spirituality that makes a brand of turning grace into a species of wonder, a packaged Christianity that makes you feel that maybe your life could achieve the pretty standard set by the author if only you buy her NY Times best-selling gratitude journal and accompanying devotional.

Robinson is better than this. Her wonder actually stands up to cynicism. But for once, for once, I actually yearn for the gritty ugly grace of Flannery O'Connor, because she dares to strip away the coatings and the veneers and the prettiness to show grace in all its raw and destroying beauty. The grace that sanctifies the tedious without stripping it of its penitential reality is a good deal more potent and enduring than the dreamy wonder of a "radically subversive" picture-perfect Thanksgiving table in the woods. The grace that stands in the face of evil and declares that it shall not triumph is more heart-wrenching than the broad and easy path of universalism. Wonder, yes. Enchantment, sure. But only as ancillary to grace, not as its totality.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"I Never Thought I Could Love Something Almost As Much As Myself"

Jumping off of our recent discussion in the combox of philosophically unsound and morally soppy blogs about mothering, here is a link for Anonymous, summing up my reaction when I read one of these "Motherhood is so precious because it has made me so much less selfish" posts: Until I Had Kids, I Never Thought I Could Love Something Almost As Much As Myself.
Having a child can be the most transformative experience of a person’s life. You get so used to living your life a certain way—focused solely on your job, your social life, your personal goals—and then, just like that, it all changes. That’s what happened to me last year when my daughter, Jane, was born. Until that moment, I never in a million years thought I could love anything almost as much as myself.

As soon as the nurse put her in my arms, that beautiful baby girl became the second-most important thing in my life. In an instant, I went from caring only about myself to caring about myself and also one other person. All but one of my priorities went right out the window. And that shift was permanent: My daughter has been an additional consideration in my life ever since, and I know in my heart that’s never going to change.

After me, it’s all about her.

When Jane came into this world, I wanted to do so much for her. I wanted to give her everything I could that wouldn’t require me to sacrifice too much of my free time or compromise any of my personal ambitions. That indescribable sensation of looking into her beautiful brown eyes for the first time made me realize I would do absolutely anything except risk my own life to protect her. That’s how much she means to me.

Every time I notice the way her face lights up when she smiles, or the way her chubby little cheeks puff out when she’s upset, I see some of myself in her. That’s the part I really love.
Can people write well about how parenting changes you and your parameters of selfishness? Sure, and for sheer honesty I recommend Betty Duffy's post on helicopter parents and the "old days".  But mothering, or parenting if we're going to be inclusive, also opens up vast new vistas for realizing selfishness. Let me tell you that I'm writing this while ignoring the baby latched onto my breast, who every now and then looks up at me with sweet blue eyes and then tenderly pinches my neck in the way that hurts most. The 9 year-old and 6 year-old are playing Monument Valley on my phone at 8am on a school morning, and the 4 year-old is rotting her brain by looking over their shoulders, and I hear the bickering and sniping that I know I ought to step over and lovingly correct, but I don't because the phone is buying me mostly quiet time in which to write this very post. I once swore that my kids would never watch TV, and now every afternoon I shunt them off to the computer to watch an episode of Mission: Impossible on Netflix, not so that I can pray or get a shower, but so that I can hunch in the kitchen in front of the newspaper spread out on the counter, but instead of reading the news I scroll down Facebook on my phone. Do you understand: I sit my kids in front of the glowing screen so I can read Facebook in peace. St. Gianna Molla, Bl. Zelie Martin, and Ma Ingalls weep for me.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Arriving at Amen, by Leah Libresco




"Amen" means "So be it". It's a word of consent. And so it's fitting that Leah Libresco, who has written so much about the importance of consent, called her new book Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Instead of molding her conversion into a neatly packaged narrative, she's written about learning to pray, and specifically, learning to consent to the content and implications of seven Catholic styles of prayer in order to arrive at amen.

Leah's refreshingly unsentimental voice and spirit of inquiry is the foundation of Arriving at Amen. She never tries to manipulate the reader with sloppy emotional ploys or soft-focus fables. As a convert from a rigorously deontic atheism, she isn't looking for ways to make the spiritual life easier or more basic. She is looking to make it more intelligible, and to that end she mines all her scientific habits of inquiry and her wide set of interests to find reflections of all seven spiritual practices outside of traditionally religious spheres. She confronts the problem of evil from both rational basis and through an example drawn from Norse mythology, and concludes that a world designed to shield us from every bad consequence, whether natural or man-made, would be an ultimately opaque place, unknowable and unpredictable. "The problem of evil has always seemed to me to be the price we pay for having an intelligible world, one that we can investigate, understand, and love."

Fiction, and with its omniscient, complex approach to characters, leads her to a deeper understanding of praying for other people, which leads her to conclude of other people, "My ignorance of the full depth of their lives is not evidence that they are shallow." She draws on the science of cognitive bias, especially the sunk-cost fallacy and loss aversion, to understand and overcome her reluctance to go to Confession. Ballroom dancing's emphasis on one dancer maintaining basic step rhythms while cooperating with the leading partner helps her to follow the basic rhythm of the Rosary without worrying that she's not doing it well enough to get something out of it. (As someone who has poor habits both in following a lead in dancing and in praying the rosary, I found Leah's analogy so much more helpful and more instantly useful than any spiritual guide to the rosary I've ever read. Perhaps my swing dancing will improve too.) And so on. Chinese knots, unmatched parentheses, Shakespeare, coordinate planes, mellified men, sign language, musical theater, and double-chocolate-chip-espresso cookies: Leah translates the unfamiliar language of prayer through these diverse frames of reference, and in the process finds that she is able to observe patterns of grace in her rational world.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Parents Make Bad Action Heroes

When MrsDarwin took the older kids to see Avengers 2: Age of Ultron I was parked with my laptop trying to keep up with my production schedule on The Great War, a novel, but in bits of free time I couldn't help noticing that a few fans of the Marvel franchise somehow themselves into a discussion of women's roles and mother's roles in SciFi extravaganzas.

A site called Geek Mom has a post that's been going around wondering why action movie women are divided into moms and non-moms and to the extent that women get to star in action movies they're generally locked in one of these boxes, with the non-moms as the adventurous types.

[T]he controversy about Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, started me wondering about the boxes society puts women in. Because in pop culture, it often seems like a women’s primary role is either as a mom or something else—usually something dangerous or time-consuming that moms shouldn’t do because, hey, who else should watch the kids?

What if, like me, you’re two things at the same time?

Let’s take Age of Ultron. I love that Hawkeye’s a dad. I’m also completely cool with Laura Barton doing the stay-at-home mom thing. I’ve done that and I don’t regret it for a second. Women fought for equal rights to have choices. All choices are equally valid, so long as the ability remains to choose.
...
But it started me wondering: There are action heroes who are fathers—the Rock is all over my television screen in his new San Andreas trailer—but very few action heroes in pop culture are mothers. Hawkeye can be a dad and be a superhero, but the women are divided into mom and not-moms.

Then, I started making a list of great mothers in science fiction and fantasy, either books or movies, and realized that most of the ones on my list were known as mothers first. Even Sarah Conner is protecting her son in the Terminator movies and Elasti-Girl/Helen Parr, who is awesome, is best known as part of a family unit.

Where are the mothers who are equally moms and something else?
...
But the list is frustratingly short. Complex women who are something else and mothers were hard to find in science fiction and fantasy.

Why?

I suspect it comes down to that the general feeling is that once women become mothers, their adventures are over. Jack Bauer of 24 can be a super-spy and a father. The Rock can be a rescue pilot and a dad. Their action “jobs” have little to do with their being parents, though sometimes they use their skills to save their kids.

The vast majority of women in action movies who are mothers just need that simple description “wife,” “mother.” Not, “spy” or “police officer” or “soldier” for whom that role means as much as their role as mothers.

It sends the message that while men can go off and do dangerous jobs and define themselves not just as fathers but as something else, a women’s role of mom takes precedence over all. Once motherhood begins, that’s it.
It strikes me that the fact that people are even asking this question underlines both a certain lack of realism about parenthood and also a profound disconnect between the violent action spectaculars that people like to watch and the kind of actions they fictionalize.

I work in an office. It's not a high risk occupation that gives people nightmares. The most it disrupts your life is by occasionally demanding long hours or overnight business travel. And yet even so, the women around the office who are mothers generally complain about the work life balance much more than the fathers do (and the single people mostly enjoy travel and high profile projects with long hours more than married people or parents.) Now think about this a little more if your job involves traveling all over the world at a moment's notice and engaging in extreme violence in risky situations. Work life balance goes out the window. You would think that your number one priority, if you became a parent or even just got into a seriously relationship would be to get out of the action hero business.

Sometimes movie writers become conscious enough of the topics their genre deals with to realize this. In crime movies like Donnie Brasco and Heat, you see the bad effects that the action world has on the ability of characters to maintain family relationships. But in escapist epics like the Marvel movies, you gloss over those kind of things. Goofy enterprises like The Incredibles or Spy Kids play with the conventions further by imagining a sort of work-a-day super hero or super spy world in which people both drive the kids to school and engage in action spectacles, but in a sense these are entertaining as a commentary on the fact that action movies generally ignore this.


There's a strange balance that a fun action movie has to hit: lots of spectacle and yet never letting the audience think about the sort of things that are being portrayed enough to have the jarring experience of thinking about how much misery we're enjoying watching. We enjoy watching a city be destroyed as the good guys and bad guys fight it out, but we can only do so because all the costs are hidden from us. We don't have to think about the lives caught in the crossfire, and we don't have to think about what it would really be like to be these characters. Sometimes a movie does think about this too much, and as a result it ceased to be fun. To my mind, the latest James Bond reboot made this mistake with Casino Royale, where the writers tried to give half a thought to the life experiences which someone would go through on the way to becoming a secret agent with a license to kill. But as we saw Bond learn not to love the women he slept with (because they'd be killed) and saw him be tortured by enemy operatives, the movie ceased to be fun. James Bond movies were fun in previous incarnations because you never thought of the people involved as people. Turn these experiences human and they became dark rather than spectacle.

Which is why the action hero mom idea doesn't seem all that workable. Sure, in a sufficiently goofy movie a la Spy Kids you could have a mother packing her kids off to school and then heading off for a day of giant flying aircraft carriers and rappelling down ropes into impossible action scenes -- but you'd only get away with that in a movie even more fluffy than the standard Marvel epic.

Parenthood is humanizing. Whether we ourselves are parents or not, we all come from families and so seeing a fictional character in family life provides a humanizing sense. And yet, the danger with humanizing your characters too much in a genre which is only fun if you don't take it seriously is that you can throw the whole mood off.

So why do we have action hero fathers?

Well, often we don't. Perhaps part of the reason this conversation is being had is because of the cultural obsession with "have it all" feminism in which women can both be great moms and have great careers without having to sacrifice anything. But Among the Avengers there's a larger sample size of men than women and we've got Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk all without children and only Hawkeye with. I haven't read the comics, but the movie incarnations of Batman, Superman and Spiderman all seem to be childless as well. Nor do the X-Men seem to be settling down to have kids. In Star Wars, the only parent among the main characters is Anakin in the second round of movies, and we know how that ended up. In Star Trek the only male lead with a kid didn't even know he had the kid until his son was grown up.

I'd tend to say that in general the action hero trope is one of the lone wolf, not the family man or woman. If the percent of female action heroes (a small number to start with) who are mothers is lower than the percent of male action heroes who are fathers, it's probably because the cultural image of father as protector fits better with running around blowing things up on a mission than does the cultural image of mother as nurturer. I'm not at all clear that's a bad thing.

In this war memoir Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger says that the ideal assault team is made up of leaders in their mid twenties who have seen enough combat to know what is dangerous, but who belong to that small percentage of men who can enjoy combat, and enlisted men who are twenty or twenty-one and still believe they are immortal. There's something to that, and I think it has to do with why parents don't really fit well in action hero roles. If we're going to have stories about parents, at least parents who we are actually seeing as parents (not just some generic person with a token seen with spouse and kids thrown in) and who we're prepared to feel at good parents who make their children and family life a significant priority, it's going to be a different sort of story.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Briefly Reviewed: To The Last Man by Jeff Shaara


Shaara has made his name writing well researched novels dealing with America's military history, starting with his prequel and sequels to his father's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels. In To the Last Man, Shaara turns his attention to World War One. He has four main characters: American Raoul Lufbery who volunteered to fly planes with the French air service before American came into the war; German pilot Manfred von Richthofen better known as the Red Baron; General John Pershing, who led the American expeditionary force when the US entered the war; and Private Roscoe Temple of the US Marine Corps. All of these are real historical characters on whom Shaara clearly did his research.

The structure of the book can be a little odd. It breaks into two halves, with the first half almost exclusively dealing with the air war and the two flying ace characters. The second half deals with the last year of the land war from a primarily American perspective. As such, this is very much an American view of the war, even though we have some French characters in Lufbery's sections and of course we get a German view in the chapters dealing with the Red Baron.

The writing is competent throughout, but I didn't find myself deeply emotionally invested in the characters. I wanted to find out what happened to them, but somehow I never felt that extra bit of immediacy which makes you shrink away as the character suffers, and hope at ever turn that good things will happen to the character.

However, I didn't dislike any of the characters and this is a good, workmanlike effort bringing a little known period of American history to life. I could wish for a novel that dealt with the war more widely, rather than a strictly American view, but that would simply be a different novel.

If I could do fractions, I'd rate this 3.5 stars, but I'll round up to 4 for the historical effort put forth and the fact that the characters do seem individual and detailed even if I wasn't emotionally invested in them. They are certainly not mere placeholders or ideological pawns (in that sense I'd rate it well above Ken Follet's Fall of Giants, also dealing with WW1, which I couldn't finish.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Avengers: Ages and Ages

(Dangers of the shared computer: it's me, MrsDarwin. Darwin didn't even see the movie; he was at the library pounding out the latest Great War installment.)

First, a little story about Artificial Intelligence.

A few days, lots of people on Facebook were passing around the link to How Old Do I Look?, a site which claims to be able to do what it advertises: tell how old you are based on a selfie or other photo. Out of curiosity, I tried it out on a photo of Diana which I had on my phone.


A pretty little girl, no? The site declared her to be 45.

This fails the Turing Test. Any human on earth would look at this picture and say, "That child is certainly younger than eight, probably younger than 6." As it happens, Diana is rising 5. The site's complex set of algorithms for skin smoothness, contour, hair texture, and whatnot have nothing on the recognition patterns and judgment of a barely-verbal child. (I did ask my own barely-verbal child, William, to tell me if this picture was an old lady or a little girl, and he said, "Julia" ["Du-a"], and then went on to identify all the rest of his sisters as Julia. So I'm not admitting that as evidence.)

And then I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I just couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to buy into the whole AI taking over the world plot thread. The non-suspension of disbelief issue wasn't new to this movie, though; last week I let the big girls watch the first Avengers so they'd be up enough on their Marvel mythology to comprehend the new one (they've also seen both Captain Americas, but I'm not ready to sit through Thor again), and I just couldn't. The bloated battle scenes, the ridiculous odds, the photogenic scratches as the only mementos of battle. Look, even King Leonidas died in the end. And one million guys really did trounce three hundred (really more like a thousand, counting the non-Spartans), because that's actually how crazy odds like that work out. But the three hundred bought time, and there were other men like them to finish the job.

But there are no other men like the Avengers (or women either, because let's acknowledge the fuss about gender issues, and the inherent absurdity of Black Widow wearing a full bodysuit, whereas Hawkeye's arms, which you'd think would be protected as his great asset, are always exposed). The Marvel-verse of heroes is mind-bogglingly big when you think that someone had to sit around and come up with all this back story and costume design, and yet on the grand scale of planetary destruction they cause an outsized share of damage trying to avert Armageddon. South African cities, Seoul, fictional Russian statelets -- it's time for the rest of the world to share New York's pain as the Avengers rumble through the landscape, ripping up glass buildings and barreling trains through city streets in lovingly choreographed action sequences. Every now and then the camera slows the action so we can admire our heroes en tableau, administering an picturesque ass-kicking to robots or aliens so interchangeably other that we need waste no precious drops of pity on them. It's kinda awesome, but it's fake awesome, in the way that things that have no stakes and make no sense are.

In fact, threads of psuedo awesome and profundity run through this, and all its legion of prequels. Nick Fury shows up at a few crucial moments and says some stuff about how if we do not all hang together, we shall assuredly all hang separately, and how you do the best with what you're given, which would totally be significant if he'd not been given an unlimited budget by someone fictional and unlimited CGI by Hollywood. Ultron, a big chiseled sentient robot conceived by the damn-fool team of Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, makes a number of pronouncements about the limits of humanity and our puny abilities and comprehension, and I kept bouncing back to the computer program identifying Diana as being 45. 

MrsDarwin, you say, you are entirely the wrong person to review a superhero movie. Don't be hatin'. Not so! There were sections that I liked, but they had nothing to do with action, battles or Tony Stark's crazy housekeeping and construction expenditure. I liked the moments of human interaction -- two orphans describing the terror of a two-day ordeal of helplessness;  the slight rivalry between Thor and Captain America; the refreshing prospect of an Avenger with a normal homelife; Steve Rogers wondering what place he can call home. And chiefly, the tension between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov, a conflict fueled by internal obstacles and the fascinating, all-too-brief glimpses of Natasha's backstory. When are we going to get a Black Widow movie? (In a twist of supreme irony, Scarlett Johanssen was pregnant during the filming of Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

So yeah, it could be that I should stick to costume epics and kitchen-sink dramas. But it seems to me that if superhero movies are the mythologies of our times, someone needs to be pointing out where fantasy devolves into a collection of wish-fulfillment imagery. And someone needs to remember that the gods of fantasy only matter to the extent that they're human. Because there's only one God, man, and his epic battle is fought on and for the varied terrain of the human soul.


Monday, May 11, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-3

Tonight's installment brings Henri to the Battle of the Marne via one of the most famous incidents in the battle.



Paris. September 6th, 1914. The streets were quiet in the diffuse pre-dawn light as Henri left the requisitioned hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais. It was not just the quiet of an early Sunday morning. The half-emptied city held its breath. The afternoon before, the distant booming of the guns had been heard like summer thunder disturbing the hot, humid afternoon. It had put the officers who gathered in the lobby on edge: a day too early. The battle was supposed to begin on the morning of the 6th, not the afternoon of the 5th.

General Joffre’s draft order of the day had been circulated ahead of time among the officers, the words which would be read on the morning of the 6th to soldiers about to go into battle:

“At this moment, the battle on which the salvation of La Patrie depends is about to begin, and the time for retreat is ended. Every effort is to be poured into the attack, to hurl back the enemy from our soil. Any soldiers who find themselves unable to advance further are to hold their positions at any cost and die on the spot rather than retreat.”

Rumor was not slow to confirm the implication of the final line: The retreat is over. He has ordered that any man or officer who abandons his post without orders is to be shot. My God, about time too. The soldiers will fight if only the orders to retreat will stop coming. They want to fight, not give up ever more French soil.

The talk had all been enthusiastic, and yet there was the lurking fear too: There is no more time. There is no more room. If they take Paris…

There were dual notices posted on the neo-classical columns of the Church of Saint-Pierre du Gros Caillou. Whatever the priests might think of their place of worship serving as a public noticeboard, since the Church-and-State law of 1905 the church buildings belonged to the government and some enterprising poster-bearer with his bucket of paste had decided that the smooth round columns were the perfect place to catch the eye of those hurrying in to pray for the preservation of the Republic. The first of these notices, already three days old, was the announcement that the government was abandoning Paris.

“PEOPLE OF FRANCE!” read the bold heading, with the rippling tricolor displayed above. But each succeeding paragraph shrank with shame into smaller type.

“For several weeks relentless battles have engaged our heroic troops and the army of the enemy. The valour of our soldiers has won victories at several points; but in the north the pressure of the German forces has compelled us to fall back.

“This situation has compelled the President of the Republic and the Government to take a painful decision. In order to watch over the national welfare, it is the duty of the public powers to remove themselves temporarily from the city of Paris.”

It continued on into smaller, denser text, promising that the struggle would continue despite all costs, as if by repetition of words such as “resolve” “tenacity” and “victory” it could erase the blow which its message conveyed. The other notice had been pasted up to partly cover these craven rationalizations and its message had the brevity of confidence.

“ARMY OF PARIS, INHABITANTS OF PARIS,

“The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a fresh impulse to national defence.

“I have been entrusted with the task of defending Paris against the invader.

“That task I will fulfil to the end.

“GALLIENI,

“Commandant of the Army of Paris”

It was not the first time that Henri had seen General Gallieni’s proclamation, but he stopped to read it all the way through. There was a thrill to the short lines which was like the feeling when the whole company stood as a body and practiced the bayonet charge.

“That task I will fulfil to the end,” he repeated, tasting the words. Would the time come for him to stir men’s hearts with such sentiments?

An old woman, her curved back covered with a black knitted shawl despite the already warm morning, scowled at him as she hurried past into the church. The priest had doubtless already started and he was loitering on the steps reading government proclamations which had no right to be posted on a house of worship. And yet, surely this feeling of exultation at the chance to defend France was itself in some sense from God.

[continue reading]

Friday, May 08, 2015

Standing With Mothers Day

Mothers Day is, perhaps, an artificial Hallmark Holiday. Certainly, it's not a Catholic feast of any kind. However, it's an American holiday (however we came to have it) celebrating something which is, from a Catholic point of view, worth celebrating. Motherhood is an important and wonderful vocation. It's certainly not the only vocation for women, but obviously none of us would be here without our mothers, and although religious vocations for both men and women are traditionally seen a higher than the married vocation, that's balanced by the fact that we believe Mary was the most perfect of God's creations and through the incarnation God himself was born of her and had her as a mother.

Thus, it doesn't seem a bad idea for Catholic churches in the US, where Mothers Day is celebrated, to in some way integrate the holiday into Catholic life. One way which this is often done is to have a blessing at the end of mass for all the mothers present. Sometimes all the mothers in the congregation are asked to stand at the time of the blessing.

One can think good or ill of this. If the priest is going to give some group a blessing, it's not unusual to ask that group to come forward or in some other way set themselves apart. For instance, when they have the annual blessing of all the people who will be teaching the parish religion classes, the catechists are all asked to come forward. Of course, with 300+ people in a Sunday mass, and 20-40% of them mothers, you can't have all of them come forward to the altar rail to be blessed, there just isn't room. However, apparently some people feel like asking mothers to stand and receive a blessing is hard on non-mothers:
A few years ago I sat across from a woman who told me she doesn’t go to church on Mother’s Day because it is too hurtful. I’m not a mother, but I had never seen the day as hurtful. She had been married, had numerous miscarriages, divorced and was beyond child bearing years. It was like salt in mostly healed wounds to go to church on that day. This made me sad, but I understood.

Fast forward several years to Mother’s Day. A pastor asked all mothers to stand. On my immediate right, my mother stood and on my immediate left, a dear friend stood. I, a woman in her late 30s, sat. I don’t know how others saw me, but I felt dehumanized, gutted as a woman. Real women stood, empty shells sat. I do not normally feel this way. I do not like feeling this way. I want no woman to ever feel this way in church again.

Last year a friend from the States happened to visit on Mother’s Day and again the pastor (a different one) asked all mothers to stand. As a mother, she stood and I whispered to her, “I can’t take it, I’m standing.” She knows I’m not a mother yet she understood my standing / lie.
It strikes me that the problem here is not with asking mothers' to stand and receive a blessing, it's with someone thinking of herself as an "empty shell" because she isn't a mother. You see pieces that deserve criticism in this quarter. Too often, when writing about how people should just get married already, authors act as if everyone has a good spouse candidate just sitting around waiting, when in fact a lot of people who would very much like to be happily married and having children are not successfully finding someone to marry. Assuming that people are selfish or overly picky because they aren't married is foolish to say the least.

However, simply asking that mothers stand in order to say a prayer over them is not saying that women who are not mothers are not real women, are not mothers, etc. There are good arguments for not incorporating Mothers Day into mass, or for not doing in this particular way, and in the end I'm fairly ambivalent about the practice. I certainly put no great stake in being asked to stand and receive a blessing a month later on Father's day, and I wouldn't mind if that practice were dropped. But this is not one of those good arguments. By this line of thinking, any acknowledgement that some people are mothers (and thus by implication that others are not) is hurtful and should be avoided, and that's frankly silly, not to mention a bit selfish.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

When Something Is Not Right

The other day I glanced through my bedroom door, and almost emitted a yelp at the eerie scene.


It was the balloon blocking the crucifix, and the old cat, and the weird light and... yes.

But then, just yesterday, 16-month-old William was sitting on the kitchen floor playing with something white in his mouth, and when I fished it out I did yell.


Dear God, how did I pull a full grown tooth from the baby's mouth?

Now there is a basic explanation for both these instances. The balloon was from a kid's birthday party, and was attached to a glow stick, and people had left it in my room in rather blatant disobedience to Daddy's rule of no balloons near him, ever. And the cat... okay, he's odd, but he's just the cat, and he's been around forever, so it's usually no surprise to see him lurking on the bed. All these things together were totally bizarre, but each in itself was explainable.

The tooth happened to be one that Isabel had extracted several months ago, and they gave her a little box at the pediatric dentist so she could treasure it as a keepsake, which is kinda odd right there. I've seen that box sitting unmolested on her dresser for a long time, but for whatever reason, someone decided to dump it out in the kitchen, where William found it and put it in his mouth because he puts everything in his mouth. I simply happened to find it at the freakiest possible moment.

That's all pretty basic. After the first shock, one analyzes the situation and realizes that nothing is actually wrong. But then there are things which defy all reason and rightness.


This is no steampunk horror movie prop. This is no mad artist's image of the terrors of childhood. This is a real, historic thing: the Edison talking doll, which is is the running for "things no parent would ever put into a child's bed". To make this doll even more unholy, if that's even possible, it has a tiny phonograph in its metal torso, which recites a shrill, tortured cariacature of the classic childhood prayer about death, "Now I lay me down to sleep".



My friends, most things in life have, at root, some reasonable explanation. But for this abomination, there is no possible defense. Even state-of-the-art technology and the free market fall short when it comes to the creation of this doll. All we can conclude was that someone at Edison's laboratory thought that the pampered children of the 1890s needed their little psyches scarred. And then what happened when those children grew up? World War I, the most steampunk of wars. I rest my case.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Crimson Bound Book Giveaway Winners!

The hat has spoken, and the winners are:

Entropy

Lydia Cubbedge

Please email us at darwincatholic@gmail.com with your addresses and we'll get those books out to you via Amazon Prime! Or if you prefer a Kindle version, let us know and we'll send you that electronically.

This is How it Is

For the last several hours I'd been thinking about a particular container of leftovers -- the ones that I would have taken to work yesterday if they hadn't had meat or it hadn't been Friday. I was going to eat them for lunch. They were mine. But first I was going to get the dishwasher going, because it's a busy day here with MrsDarwin singing at two confirmation masses and then the need to get the family to vigil mass since I'm heading out of town to a conference tomorrow, and I was going to be just that virtuous and efficient after having slept off the effects of writing till 2AM.

Just as I was finishing with the dishwasher, my son and heir strides into the kitchen, inspects the fridge, and takes out the coveted container of leftovers.

"Can I have this for lunch, Dad?"

I pains me. I wanted them. But I tell myself: I'm not going to be the kind of dad who makes his kids eat something else so he can enjoy all the treats. Even if I did finish the ice cream the other night when everyone including MrsDarwin was in bed. That was different. There wasn't enough to share anyway. There's probably something healthier I could eat for lunch anyway, and going to a conference always presents the danger of taking too much at the buffet line.

"Sure, son. I'll heat it up for you."

I felt good as I handed him the bowl, hot from the microwave. I felt like I was doing the right and generous thing. Maybe I'd eat a salad. I was just that virtuous.

The young man goes happily off with his bowl, eats two bites, then marches back into the kitchen and says, "I'm done. Can I have a popsicle now?"

I wasn't angry. The heavens had blessed me. Now I could eat the coveted leftovers even though I'd selflessly given them away. The reward of the just. I hurried off to give two more kids their sandwiches, already tasting those leftovers.

As I returned to the kitchen he had just finished scraping out his bowl into the trash, where it mingled with my morning coffee grounds.

"I cleaned my plate. Can I have the popsicle now?"

Rage.

Rage that I should have just been selfish and eaten the leftovers myself. Rage that I was really being just about as selfish now. And rage that we ever let those damn freezer pops into the house that people have been harassing me about all morning.

Go, son, into the outer darkness! No, you may not have your popsicle now. You may have it when your father has recovered from the urge to strike you and when you have waited out the penance for your own hastiness and waste.



I was making peanut butter sandwiches for the last of the lunch crew.

"Where is Mommy?" demanded our youngest daughter, age four.

"She's upstairs nursing the baby before she has to go sing again."

The young lady collapsed on the floor wailing. "Why does she have to be up there? Why does she have to feed baby? I don't like baby! Why do we keep baby."

"We keep baby for the same reason we keep you, because we love you."

"But all he ever does is cry!!!" she screamed, kicking her heels against the floor.

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 11-2

In which there is a letter, a dinner... and news.


Paris. August 27th, 1914. Paris was proud of its army, could wish it only the very best, and so it was unthinkable than an infantry captain should be forced to live within the canvas walls of a tent. And yet, this abundance of good will did not make rooms any more available in the already crowded city. On first arriving for mobilization Henri had been forced to check into a hotel, which despite the modesty of its rooms and laxness of its service did not stint when it came to rates, at least according to the standard to which he had become used since settling into village life. After several days of calling on friends and buying cigars for the sort of old supply sergeants who had a near miraculous ability to procure any accommodation or supply for those they deigned to exert their knowledge for, he had been assigned a room in a hotel on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais which had been taken over for army use.

Guards now stood at attention in the lobby where before bellhops had stood with brass-railed carts. A non-commissioned officer with logistics service badges on his collar sat behind the hotel desk, managing the comings and goings in place of the desk clerk. The rug which covered the lobby floor, which over many years had settled into a shabby reddish brown like dried wine stains was, under the sudden crush of heavily booted traffic, becoming a churned-up ruin like the turf of some blood soaked battlefield.

Some long accustomed patterns persisted amidst the change. As Henri entered the lobby, his boots dusty and his shirt and tunic grimed with sweat after an afternoon of drilling the company in the fields beyond the city, the noise of the street was replaced with the murmur of conversation and the clink of glasses. The knots of people talking and sipping coffee or liquors were all in uniform, their topics the deployment of divisions and the counting of casualties, but the quiet sounds of a hotel lobby were not greatly different than they would have been at any other time.

“Captain Fournier,” said the corporal behind the desk as Henri passed. “There is a letter for you.”

The man searched for a moment among the pigeon holes and then produced a thick, letter-sized envelope with Henri’s name and unit written on it in what he recognized even while still a few paces away as Philomene’s hand.

[continue reading]

Friday, May 01, 2015

Crimson Bound: Links and a Giveaway



Crimson Bound, the second novel by Darwin's sister Rosamund Hodge, comes out on Tuesday, May 5th. What can be behind that fabulous cover? Amazon sez:
An exhilarating tale of darkness, love, and redemption inspired by the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, from the author of Cruel Beauty.

When Rachelle was fifteen she was good—apprenticed to her aunt and in training to protect her village from dark magic. But she was also reckless—straying from the forest path in search of a way to free her world from the threat of eternal darkness. After an illicit meeting goes dreadfully wrong, Rachelle is forced to make a terrible choice that binds her to the very evil she had hoped to defeat.

Three years later, Rachelle has given her life to serving the realm, fighting deadly creatures in a vain effort to atone. When the king orders her to guard his son Armand—the man she hates most—Rachelle forces Armand to help her hunt for the legendary sword that might save their world. Together, they navigate the opulent world of the courtly elite, where beauty and power reign and no one can be trusted. And as the two become unexpected allies, they discover far-reaching conspiracies, hidden magic . . . and a love that may be their undoing. Within a palace built on unbelievable wealth and dangerous secrets, can Rachelle discover the truth and stop the fall of endless night?
Crimson Bound is inspired not only by Little Red Riding Hood (an older, more sinister version of the story), but by the lesser-known fairy tale The Girl With No Hands. Here's an interview in which Rose discusses these sources and the way the tensions between them shaped the novel.
“The Girl With No Hands” is pretty obscure, so you might not have heard about it. Basically, a poor miller meets the devil, who offers to make him rich if he only promises that in three years he can have “what is standing behind your mill.” The miller, who apparently has never read any myths or fairy tales ever, thinks that this just means the apple tree planted in back of the mill. But actually it’s his daughter.
When the devil turns up to collect, the miller doesn’t try to save his daughter. It’s the devil, so what can you do? But the girl draws a circle of chalk around herself, and the devil can’t cross the line. So he tells the miller to take away all water from the girl, so that she can’t wash her hands, and somehow that will give him power over her. (Cleanliness is next to godliness, I guess.) The miller doesn’t want to offend the devil, so he takes away all water from his daughter. But she weeps on her hands so much they are washed clean, and when the devil turns up the next day, he still can’t take her. So the devil orders the miller to cut off her hands.
It’s the devil. What can you do? So the miller chops off his daughter’s hands.  But when the devil comes back, she’s wept on the stumps until they are clean. And three tries are all the devil gets: he has to go away, and while the miller offers to support his newly-handless daughter with his devil-riches, the girl says  that she will go wandering instead.
There’s a second half to the story, where the girl marries a king and the devil forges letters in attempt to get her killed, but I didn’t use that part in Crimson Bound. Because what captivated me about the story was the beginning: a lone girl, betrayed by her own father, utterly helpless to the point where her own body is not her own.
And yet utterly strong. Because when everything else is taken away from her, the girl doesn’t break. She doesn’t lose herself. It’s like The Grandmother’s Tale–there’s a malevolent supernatural force that wants to make an innocent girl his–but this time the girl wins.
So when I read that story, I thought, “Wow, if Little Red Riding Hood ever met the Girl With No Hands, she would hate her so much.”

Curious to know more? You can read the first 74 pages here.

And to celebrate the book release, we're giving away two copies of Crimson Bound! Leave a comment to enter (if you're anonymous, don't forget to include some kind of name), and we'll draw names from Eleanor's adventure hat and announce the winners in an update to this post at noon tomorrow, Saturday May 2.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Carmen Possum

The homeschoolers had a speech meet on Sunday, and Eleanor gave a particularly fine dramatic recitation of Carmen Possum, a poem by that prolific fellow Anon which we'd dug up in some Best of American Poetry book. It strikes me that our readership is probably the prime audience to appreciate the blend of erudition and cornball humor in this forgotten gem, so for your Wednesday reading pleasure, I present:

CARMEN POSSUM

THE NOX was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.
The corpus of this bonus canis
Was full as long as octo span is,
But brevior legs had canis never
Quam had hic dog; et bonus clever.
Some used to say, in stultum jocum
Quod a field was too small locum
For sic a dog to make a turnus
Circum self from stem to sternus.
Unus canis, duo puer,
Nunquam braver, nunquam truer,
Quam hoc trio nunquam fuit,
If there was I never knew it.
This bonus dog had one bad habit,
Amabat much to tree a rabbit,
Amabat plus to chase a rattus,
Amabat bene tree a cattus.
But on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam treed a starving rattus,
Nunquam chased a starving cattus,
But sucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
Seemed on terra vehit pellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.
Quam venerit, one began
To chop away like quisque man.
Soon the axe went through the truncum
Soon he hit it all kerchunkum;
Combat deepens, on ye braves!
Canis, pueri et staves
As his powers non longius carry,
Possum potest non pugnare.
On the nix his corpus lieth.
Down to Hades spirit flieth,
Joyful pueri, canis bonus,
Think him dead as any stonus.
Now they seek their pater's domo,
Feeling proud as any homo,
Knowing, certe, they will blossom
Into heroes, when with possum
They arrive, narrabunt story,
Plenus blood et plenior glory.
Pompey, David, Samson, Caesar,
Cyrus, Black Hawk, Shalmanezer!
Tell me where est now the gloria,
Where the honors of victoria?
Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus,
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which this is the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Ne relinquit back behind him,
Et the pueri never find him.
Cruel possum! bestia vilest,
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum is a goner!

I am so tickled to find that Carmen Possum has its own Wikipedia entry, with some serious analysis of style and content.

Historical Novel Location Research in the Age of Google

Jasper Kent has a piece up at Writing Historical Novels about the location research he did for his novels, which are set in set in 19th Century Russia. As you can imagine, this is a topic which I can identify with at the moment, so I was fascinated to read about his process.

Some of the most satisfying compliments I’ve received regarding The Danilov Quintet are along the lines of ‘The city becomes a character in its own right’, – the city in question being either Moscow or Saint Petersburg, depending on which of the five novels is being reviewed.

I’ll let you in on a secret: for the first novel, Twelve, my geographical knowledge was almost entirely derived from the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Moscow. Looking at my copy now, a decade on, there are still folded-down corners marking locations that appear in the novel. It was only when I was putting together the final draft, ready for publication, that I actually visited the city and checked that what I had written stood up to reality. For the most part, it did.

Looking back, the approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The main benefit is in saving time. It would be fruitless to wander randomly through a city the size of Moscow and expect to find the best locations for a novel. As with any tourism, it helps to have an itinerary and to know what has to be seen and what does not. Moreover, when writing historical fiction, the present-day location can be deceptive – the buildings of a modern city would make it unrecognizable to an inhabitant of centuries ago, even though the street plan may remain the same. Guidebooks can provide detail on the history of a building which only an archaeologist could determine by looking at the structure itself.

[Read the rest]

It was a month or two ago, as a co-worker was talking about going to Europe with her husband later this year, that it suddenly dawned on me: If I saved up a bit, I could go back to Europe and see some of these places that I'm writing about. The one time I was in Europe was back in 1999 as a college student, but it's conceivable that some time next year the kids would be old enough we could leave them with family for most of a week and go see Verdun, the Marne, and the village that I've modeled Chateau Ducloux on. However, in the meantime, my research has been heavily reliant on books. Lots of books. Here's the "active" shelf of books I've consulted within the last chapter or so. There's another larger one in the other room devoted to books that I've already read (or am planning to read) to research past or future chapters.


Since The Great War is a big story with five sets of characters in different parts of Europe, I've relied heavily on the primary and secondary sources that I've read for ideas on incidents, as well as for all the actual history and geography that underlies that story. However, when it comes to sense of place, one of my biggest helps has been Google. Indeed, so much so that it's almost hard for me to imagine writing this project in the pre-Google age.

Sometimes it's the sort of historical details that you almost wouldn't know to look for if you were having to get all your information by picking out specific books. For instance, while researching the first Natalie chapter I was looking for the train stations which had existed in Warsaw in 1900-1914, and trying to find out which one you would likely arrive in if you were coming from Paris. What I discovered is that you basically had to go through Vienna, and with that I found some fascinating detail about how the rail lines were different in Russia, making Warsaw (that part of Poland being in the Russian Empire at that time) the gateway to Russia.

It was just after noon that the train pulled slowly into the Warsaw/Vienna Railway terminus. Passengers surged across the platform. Porters wheeled carts. Paper boys and food sellers called their wares in a babble of Russian, Polish, and German. The Warsaw/Vienna line was still the only standard gauge rail line in Russia, and the massive railway station on the Aleje Jerozolimskie was thus the gateway between Europe and the Russian east.

For reasons that were of interest only to railroad engineers, the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Europe were spaced four feet, eight and a half inches apart, while those of the Russian Empire were an even five feet, like those in far away America. This difference of three and a half inches meant that trains which traveled the rest of Europe could penetrate no further into Russia than Warsaw. Those intent on going beyond must abandon their European train here and take a tram or taxi to the Wileńska Station, whence they could board a broad gauge railway line for St. Petersburg, Kiev, or Moscow.

Thus it was that the railway platform confronting Natalie was one of the busiest in Russia, with the whole commerce between West and East surging across it. Men in tailored suits and women in silk dresses that could have looked equally at home in Paris brushed past peasants traveling in their best clothes, tunics and dresses made colorful with painstaking embroidery. A uniformed Cossack officer strode down the platform, a more plainly uniformed servant followed him with a cart of luggage. Their progress scattered a group of Jewish men with beards and side curls who had paused in the middle of the platform to talk.

And although the Dworzec Wiedeński Station was destroyed during World War II, I was quickly able to find pictures of it online.

In the next chapter, when I needed a Viennese coffee house for Josef to meet his friend Friedrich in, I consulted a period map of Vienna, considered which theater Friedrich's mistress would have been singing in, and then I used Google Maps to search the area for coffee houses until I found the Cafe Sperl which was the right age and style.


When it came to Walter participating in the opening action of the Battle of the Marne, around the French town of Penchard, I used Google Maps and satellite imagery and cross referenced them with the detailed maps I had in my books about the battle. Then I used Google Street View to see what it looked like to approach the town across the fields, and what the church where the artillery set up looked like now.


A few countries in Europe restrict Google Street View for privacy reasons, but where it is available it's an amazing tool for getting a sense of what a particular area looks like. I've used it to "walk" areas of cities and towns and see the architectural style, see the terrain of a battle field, and get a sense for the types of trees that grow in an area.

Then there's Google Translate, which has allowed me to pull up electronic copies of French and German newspapers and do on-the-fly translations of stories so that I can get a sense of what headlines characters would have seen and what sorts of stories were appearing on specific days. (Most of the headlines and stories in Henri and Philomene's newspapers are drawn from real editions of those papers within a day or two of when they appear in the story.) Primary sources that would have required a research library (and a better knowledge of the languages) I can now pull up and read at my computer at one in the morning as I'm writing a chapter.

The electronic world brings an amazing set of tools to the historical novelist's hand. The age of Google has made levels of research easy and quick that would have been fiendishly hard before. All of which, I hope, adds to the sense of place and authenticity for readers.