2022: Non-Fiction

If I were to discuss the bulk of my reading last year in the depth it deserves, I probably wouldn’t finish this note until sometime next year. Instead, this will be a quick and superficial look at a few of the books that caught my interest.

Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals is a grimly amusing collection of portraits of the thinkers and writers who made western culture the wreck that it is today. By “intellectual” Johnson means someone for whom ideas matter more than individuals, or reality. They want to change the world and reshape humanity, and totalitarianism comes naturally to them. His examples begin with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and end with Noam Chomsky, and include such luminaries as Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell and Lillian Hellman, and others who are not as well-remembered but were influential in their day. Johnson doesn’t deny that his subjects are often great artists: Rousseau was a brilliant writer as well as a loathsome creep, P.B. Shelley a great poet and a perfect sociopath, Ibsen a revolutionary playwright and an obnoxious weirdo, etc. However, their achievements don’t outweigh the lies they told1, their indifference to the lives they blighted, or the damage they did to civilization. Johnson’s book is highly readable, entertaining and appalling.

*****

Theodore Dalrymple’s Our Culture, What’s Left of It is a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics: the continuing relevance of Shakespeare, the British underclass, the benefits of corruption, Virginia Woolf’s asininity, the debasement of the arts, and whatever else is on his mind. Life at the Bottom is an extended view of the British underclass from his perspective as a doctor in a slum hospital and in a prison. Dalrymple, a world traveler who has practiced medicine in the third world as well as England, found that his British patients, despite their material advantages, are far worse off spiritually than the poor in Africa. The harm wrought by “intellectuals” is a constant theme throughout Dalrymple’s writing.

*****

The book that took me longest to finish was the shortest: Hillaire Belloc’s The Servile State. Orwell called the style “tiresome;” I would use a stronger term. Belloc structured his book as a formal proof “that industrial society as we know it will tend towards the re-establishment of slavery.” It’s as easy to read as an advanced calculus text, but not as much fun. It’s plenty prophetic, all right, but I would suggest reading Hayek’s far more readable The Road to Serfdom2 instead.

*****

I read a bunch of books on the reactions to and political consequences of the Chinese virus hysteria.3 At this time the list includes:
The Price of Panic, by Douglas Axe, William M. Briggs and Jay W. Richardson
Pandemia, by Alex Berenson
The Real Anthony Fauci, by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Lies My Government Told Me, by Robert W. Malone
COVID: Why Most of What You Know Is Wrong, by Sebastian Rushworth
The Bodies of Others, by Naomi Wolf
plus several of Berenson’s “Unreported Truths” pamphlets.

They all blur together in my mind. Much of the information presented will be familiar to those who followed William M. Briggs‘ Tuesday briefings. Collectively, the general points made are that the virus is far less dangerous than advertised, the response to the virus is utterly disproportionate to the risks and cruelly destructive, and the real threat is the ever-increasing control by the powerful over the lives of ordinary people.

If I were to recommend just one of these books, it would be Alex Berenson’s Pandemia, which covers the salient aspects of the disaster through late 2021 as well as any, from the initial scary reports to the lockdowns and lies. Berenson declares in his introduction that his attitude toward politics is that it is impossible to be too cynical, which his book amply demonstrates. Incidentally, no matter what you may think of Elon Musk, he deserves praise for insisting that amazon.com carry Berenson’s pamphlets.

It’s disconcerting to find allies in people like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Naomi Wolf, but that’s how insane the world has become. As the title indicates, Kennedy’s book focuses primarily on the career of Anthony Fauci, including a close examination of his activities when AIDS was front-page news. Bill Gates also gets a lot of attention. Surprise, surprise: Tony and Bill are not nice people. If just a tenth of what Kennedy alleges in his book is accurate, Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates should be tried for crimes against humanity.

Wolf focuses less on the technical details of the Chinese virus and more on how “Cruelty became as contagious as any disease.” The later chapters of her book read like footnotes to Bruce Charlton’s discussions of Ahrimanic and Sorathic evil. Wolf’s book is probably the best-written of those on the topic that I’ve read, and the angriest.

*****

William M. Briggs’ Everything You Believe Is Wrong is a handy compendium of logical errors you may encounter every day, particularly in propaganda journalism and polemics. There are a lot of them, all of which Briggs gives names. It’s a useful book, but dense. It’s probably best read a chapter at a time rather than straight through.

Sheep and Peacocks

On the second of February bloggers traditionally post a favorite poem, though apparently I’m the only one who still does that. Here’s one from Thomas Love Peacock’s 1829 novel The Misfortunes of Elphin.

The War-Song of Dinas Vawr

By Thomas Love Peacock

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

On Dyfed’s richest valley,
Where herds of kine were browsing,
We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o’erthrew them:
They struggled hard to beat us;
But we conquered them, and slew them.

As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.

We there, in strife bewild’ring,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with our foemen;
The heroes and the cravens,
The spearmen and the bowmen.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.

As a matter of policy I no longer post or link to YouTube videos, but with a bit of searching you can find Dylan Thomas declaiming Peacock’s poem. I’d be curious to hear this war song set to music by a competent folk metal band.

Those who have read, or have been forced to read, the English romantic poets might enjoy Peacock’s caricatures of Shelley, Coleridge and Byron in Nightmare Abbey.

Update: At least one other blogger is still posting poetry.

Amending the amendments

From A Postmodern Permutation of the Bill of Rights:

6. In all criminal prosecutions for political crimes, the media shall enjoy the right to mount a speedy and public trial of the accused, by a jury of partisan hacks, in newspapers and television programs produced thousands of miles from the district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district said partisan hacks shall mock, ridicule, and defame. Participation of the accused in his own media and judicial trials is forbidden as an impediment to the efficient operation of the justice system.

Today’s quote

Dr. Boli:

What was that famously aspirational Google slogan again? “Let’s be evil”? Something like that.

… there is not yet a browser extension that does exactly what Dr. Boli would like. The one he uses right now stops videos from automatically playing without his permission, which is good as far as it goes. What Dr. Boli would really like, however, is an extension that would allow him to click on any video or animation that started by itself, and with that click simultaneously kill the movement on the page and deliver a harmless but painful electric shock to the Web designer who thought the autoplaying video was a good idea. Dr. Boli is prepared to reward a programmer who can create such an extension with his patronage. Note that, if the “harmless” part of the specifications proves impossible to implement, Dr. Boli is still likely to be generous.

2022: Light Entertainment

And now for last year’s wastes of time.

Japanese animation

Mostly I watched old favorites such as Shingu and Galaxy Angel. There were a few noteworthy recent shows I watched all the way through, but only a few. I’ve mentioned Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department and Super Cub before. There was also Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! Ordinarily I have no interest in anime about making anime, particularly if it involves high school girls, but this one was by Masaaki Yuasa, who makes anime unlike other anime. So I gave it a try.

Midori Asakusa watched Miyazaki’s Future Boy Conan at an early age and has wanted to make anime ever since. She fills sketchbooks with concept art for the shows she wants to make. She’s short, shy and awkward. Tsubame Mizusaki is fascinated by movement and fills her sketchbooks with animation and figure studies. She’s pretty and extroverted, and is incidentally a popular fashion model. When Asakusa and Mizusaki meet and discover their complementary obsessions, they immediately imagine anime together. For implausible reasons they can’t join the anime club already existing at their high school, so they form their own. By themselves they would probably accomplish little together — Asakusa constantly flies off on tangents rather than fully develop her scenarios, and Mizusaki is apt to spend hours perfecting a single arm movement. Fortunately, Asakusa’s mercenary comrade Sayaka Kanamori is the third member of their club. Kanamori is tall and thin and scowls at everyone. She has no artistic talent. However, she’s practical, crafty, understands money and business, and is adept at dealing with bureaucracies such as high school administrations and overly powerful student councils. As producer to Asakusa’s director and Mizusaki’s animator, she keeps the creatives focused on their projects and effectively combats the external forces that interfere with their work.

Yuasa has stated that animation should be fun. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! may not be a pretty show, but it is a lively one. It could hold your interest even with the sound and subtitles off, but then you would miss Kanamori’s sarcasm. There are a bunch of screencaps below the fold.

Worth a mention, though not actually animation1: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou is finally being legally published in English. Until now, translations of this cosiest of catastrophes could only be found through irregular channels. The first twenty-four chapters of the story of the waning of humanity and the rise of likable robots are available now; the next batch should be out in May.2

Occidental animation

While I have absolutely no interest in contemporary Western animation, I do like many old cartoons. I recently rewatched a lot of the old Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. The best of them are as fresh as ever and are among the masterworks of the 20th century. Chuck Jones, Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling3 are legendary, but there are a couple of other names in the credits that deserve attention as well: writer Michael Maltese, and Milt Franklyn, Stalling’s assistant and successor. (It was Franklyn who condensed Wagner’s oeuvre to six minutes for “What’s Opera, Doc?“)

I also sampled a collection of Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons. “Red Hot Riding Hood” is a classic, and some of the others are pretty good, notably those featuring Droopy. However, too many of them are little more than a series of gags strung together, and none of Avery’s MGM characters are as engaging as Bugs and Daffy. Some are downright annoying, such as Screwball Squirrel. Great animation is not enough to redeem pedestrian scripts.

Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show were favorites of mine when I was much shorter than I am today. I recently found a complete collection of the shows and have been meandering though it. The moose and squirrel episodes are as good and silly as I remember, as is “Dudley Do-Right.” The “Fractured Fairy Tales” are less consistent but occasionally inspired; “Peobody’s Improbable History” is hit-and-miss, with misses predominating; and, “Aesop and Son” is always lame. The good outweighs the bad and demonstrates that good scripts can compensate for cheap animation.

There is one serious problem with the collection: the music is wrong. Fred Comstock, who wrote the familiar theme music, copyrighted the tunes independently of Jay Ward Productions. When the complete set was compiled, the producers didn’t have the rights to the tunes and had to substitute different melodies. The new music isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the mock-heroic spirit of the originals.

Fortunately, the music from “Dudley Do-Right” is still there. I particularly like the old-timey piano music featured in the episodes. It was probably composed and performed by Fred Steiner, who wrote music for many television shows and is remembered particularly for the theme to Perry Mason.

Movies and television

Ha.

Continue reading “2022: Light Entertainment”

2022: Music

Most of my recent music purchases fill gaps in my classical library, e.g., more of Rossini’s “Peches de Vieillesse,” Dohnanyi’s “Variations on a Nursery Song,” etc., but I did buy a few non-classical CDs. The latter were all “good, but…” recordings.

Liquid Tension Experiment 3 is similar to the first two, even though it was recorded over twenty years after its immediate predecessor. LTE’s version of “Rhapsody in Blue” works better than I expected and is worth hearing if you’ve ever wondered what a virtuosic progressive rock quartet can do with Gershwin’s approximation of the blues. The rest of the album is very good — Petrucci et al are superb musicians — but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before.

Ozric Tentacles’ Space for the Earth is more neo-psychedelic guitar- and synth-driven space rock. Ed Wynne has been doing this sort of stuff for about forty years now, and this one is much the same as its many predecessors. It’s quite listenable — Wynne belongs high on any list of underrated guitarists — and you don’t need trendy chemical amusement aid to enjoy it, but their earlier recordings are livelier and more of a group effort.

The reconstituted Gryphon’s Get Out of My Father’s Car is much like Reinvention: mostly progressive folk, but expect anything from Renaissance-style dances to moderately-hard rock, with lots of flutes and recorders, bassoons and krumhorns, harpsichords and fiddles and golf umbrellas, all expertly played.1 When the the players keep their mouths shut, it’s very good. Unfortunately, there are vocals on a few of the tunes.

I picked up a bunch of the later P.D.Q. Bach recordings on the Telarc label. Peter Schickele is a second-rate comedian2 but a first-rate musician, and when he shuts up and lets the music make the jokes he’s often clever and ingenious. Overall, these are more polished and better recorded than the old Verve LPs, but less interesting. My favorite of the later works is “The Short-Tempered Clavier: Preludes and Fugues in all the Major and Minor Keys Except for the Really Hard Ones (S. easy as 3.14159265),” in which the themes and fugue subjects are all over-familiar melodies such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Shave and a Haircut.” One of the fugues combines the “B-A-C-H” motif with “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Suggestion for a piano recital: open with a suite of incidental music to Dudley Do-Right, and follow it with “The Short-Tempered Clavier.”

(Gee, it seems that everyone I listen to is getting old and tired. I suppose I should find energetic new artists to follow, but I no longer have the patience to wade through all crap out there to find what’s good. (This is not a call for recommendations, thank you.) There’s also the fact that human nature changed again at the turn of the century,3 and the culture has become not just stupid but alien.)

2022: Fiction

In recent years I’ve largely lost my taste for new fiction, and I’ve probably spent more time perusing essays and polemics than I have reading stories. Nevertheless, I still occasionally read novels and story collections. Here are some that I read last year, with a few from 2021.

I downloaded a number of the titles in the periodic $.99 sales organized by Hans Schantz and read a few pages of each. Usually a few pages is enough. I did finish On Basilisk Station by David Weber, Storm Front by Jim Butcher, Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia and Draw One in the Dark by Sarah Hoyt, all first volumes of lengthy series. They held my attention, but after finishing them I had no interest in reading the next books. (Your taste may differ from mine; if they sound interesting, give them a try. All are competently written, and while they’re not my kinds of story, they might be yours.) I read all five volumes of Fenton Wood’s alternate history Yankee Republic; I would have loved it when I was ten years old, but I’m not that young any more. Frank Fleming’s various novels are amusing, though only the Superego series has any real heft to it. I also read Hoyt’s Deep Pink; the premise is clever, but it feels like a short story inflated to novel length.

The most interesting novel I read was an old one, written over a century ago: William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: it’s stupendous, and it’s nearly unreadable. This tale of a heroic quest in a far distant future is written in a deliberately archaic language. It may have the highest ratio of semicolons to periods in all of literature. And in many passages every sentence begins with “And.” Getting through the first few chapters is work, and even when you’re accustomed to the rhythm of the prose it still takes an effort to read. But it’s worth it for its depiction of an Earth grown strange, hostile and dark.

I’ve been meaning for years to investigate Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. I finally got around to reading their Roadside Picnic, one of the few books that can stand comparison to The Night Land for sheer dread. Aliens briefly visited the Earth, leaving trash behind at a handful of sites around the globe. Some of the garbage is useful to humans. Some is lethal. “Stalkers” brave the hazards of the “Zones” where the aliens were to find items to sell on the black market. It’s dangerous: a step in the wrong direction means crippling injury or instant death, and there are consequences even for those who not venture into the Zones. The novel is narrated by one of stalkers during a few of his trips into the Zone over the course of several years. Roadside Picnic an intense, nightmarish book. I’ll need to read more of the Strugatskys.

Tim Powers is the contemporary writer most like the other Inkling, Charles Williams1. Like Williams, his books are spiritual thrillers. Powers is a Catholic, and it shows. His recent novel, Alternate Routes, introduces Sebastian Vickery, a former Secret Service agent who Saw Too Much and is now wanted dead or alive by the Feds, preferably dead, and Ingrid Castine, from a government department with a suspiciously innocuous name who saves his life. Together they save a haunted Los Angeles from the supernatural schemes of a rogue government agent. They reappear in Forced Perspectives, in which they save Los Angeles and the rest of the world again, this time from people with guilty consciences wielding an ancient Egyptian symbol/artifact. The daughter Vickery never had also figures in both books. The novels are fast-moving, easy to follow and entertaining, but they’re Powers-lite. For full-strength Powers, I recommend his earlier books. Try Declare if you like spy stories, or The Drawing of the Dark if you prefer 16th-century historical fantasy, or beer. English majors might consider The Anubis Gates, set in 19th-century London.

In The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner names Frederic Brown’s Night of the Jabberwock as the outstanding work of fiction inspired by Lewis Carroll. Of course Brown’s book was long out of print when I first saw Gardner’s recommendation, and it wasn’t in the local library. I kept an eye out for it at used book stores but never spotted it. A few months ago I checked the devil’s website, as Robbo calls it, and there it was, and … it’s okay. Brown is deservedly famous among those who remember him as clever craftsman of short-short stories, and I hoping for an intricate Carrollian fantasy. However, Night of the Jabberwock turned out to be a murder mystery in which the narrator is a Carroll enthusiast. Solving the mystery involves ordinary reasoning, not Carrollian logic, and there are no white knights or Cheshire cats, just a small-town newspaper editor and his acquaintances. If you like tidy murder mysteries it’s worth checking out, but I was disappointed.

I also read Brown’s Martians, Go Home, in which the earth is suddenly invaded by obnoxious little green men. They won’t attack you physically, but they are mouthy little jerks, contemptuous of human beings, who pop up everywhere and insult everyone. They have x-ray vision, too, and blab what they read in personal letters and top secret documents. They are invulnerable, and there is no way to evade them or kick them out. Part of the book relates how a blocked writer copes with the alien provocations, and part recounts how the rest of the world deals with the little creeps. It’s never really explained how or why they came or what eventually happens to them. It’s an odd little book that doesn’t fit in any category, not quite science fiction, not quite humor, not quite satire. I can’t give it a strong recommendation, but it is unlike anything else I’ve read recently.

I read a few of Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books a thousand years ago. They have been missing from my library for decades, but recently they have been made available again in English, this time with all the stories included in each collection.2 The books are mainly about Don Camillo, a priest in an Italian village in the years after World War II, and his battles with Peppone, the Communist mayor. The tales are mostly humorous satire. Camillo usually gets the better of Peppone, but he can be a jerk, and Peppone, wrong-headed though he is, is not a monster.

The novel Don Camillo and Don Chichi3 is the last Don Camillo story. It takes place in the mid-1960’s, after the second Vatican Council. The bishop of Camillo’s diocese assigns him “Don Chichi,” a young curate full of the spirit of Vatican II who spouts socialism and wants to “demystify” the Church. He is almost as much a trial to Don Camillo as Camillo’s niece, the willful biker chick Cat. Cat is Camillo’s match for guile and feistiness, but over the course of the novel she gradually becomes more responsible. Don Chichi, on the other hand, remains a fool whose meddling does more harm than good. Don Camillo and Don Chichi is primarily humorous, but there is bitterness. Guareschi was furious with the changes to the Church done with the excuse of Vatican II and his anger shows, particularly in the second chapter, a sarcastic “Open Letter to Don Camillo.”

2022: Gardening

2020 was a rotten year, when I lost what little remaining faith I had in government, journalism, medicine, the Church hierarchy, academia and scientists. 2021 was a transitional year, when I at last escaped the big city. In 2022 I could finally relax and devote my attention to matters beyond immediate emergencies and the end of civilization. Let’s take a look back at 2022, starting with the garden.

I focused on annuals this year, not entirely by choice. I did order some perennials from a couple of online sources, but that did not end well. I asked nursery #1 to ship my plants at the end of March. They didn’t. I sent them emails in April and May and received no replies. Finally, in June, when the weather here was too hot for planting, I heard from them. There had been some sort of catastrophe in their office, but it was finally all sorted out, and should they send my plants now? I told them to cancel the order, and I will shop elsewhere in the future.

I ordered several daylilies from nursery #2. The large, healthy roots arrived on time, and I expected great things from them. I was disappointed. Hemerocallis generally are foolproof. They’ll grow almost anywhere under almost any conditions and bloom profusely. Mine did not thrive, however. One died; the others hung on, but were weaker at the end of summer than when I planted them.

The problem, I think, was that the ground was poisoned. My predecessors here had used the bed where I planted the daylilies as a place to display kitschy little statues. When I moved in, the ground there was covered by lava rock over sheets of black plastic. Apparently they applied a strong, long-lasting herbicide to the ground before laying the plastic, and enough of it lingered deep in the soil to damage plants with large roots. Come spring, if the daylilies are still alive, I’ll transplant them elsewhere, and plant shallow-rooted annuals there for a few years.

On a whim, I picked up a handful of bagged perennials at Walmart. Cheap though they were, they were still overpriced. The plants, or fragments of roots, were small and weak. Nevertheless, enough survived to make the purchases worthwhile. In a few years I should have a nice collection of hostas.

Most of the reliable annuals — poppies, Phacelia, dahlberg daisy, cosmos, etc. — performed well. The exception was Gilia tricolor; normally every seed sprouts, but this year not one germinated. I presume it was a bad batch of seeds. The experiments were partially successful. Mentzelia lindleyi produced brilliant yellow flowers for a month, but the plants were scraggly and unattractive. Nolana paradoxa had fine blue flowers, but they weren’t as profuse as I had hoped. The morning glories took forever to set flower buds, and when they finally did, it was too late.

Some of the bulbs I planted in the fall of 2021 did well, and some didn’t. The lilies put on a good show, as did Allium christophii. About half the Walmart daffodils bloomed, and only two of the 35 species tulips. Fall and early winter last year were freakishly warm, and perhaps with normal cold weather at the proper time they would have done better. (But there is no such thing as normal Kansas weather.)

This year I will focus on perennials. I’ve already ordered too many seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery. Indoors, there may be more orchids when there is room under the lights again. 1

Sort of a Christmas story

Some years back I posted one of Robert Benchley’s Christmas pieces. Here’s another.

Editha’s Christmas Burglar

By Robert Benchley
It was the night before Christmas, and Editha was all agog. It was all so exciting, so exciting! From her little bed up in the nursery she could hear Mumsey and Daddy down-stairs putting the things on the tree and jamming her stocking full of broken candy and oranges.

Continue reading “Sort of a Christmas story”