Tag Archives: literature

Scientists and preachers

Friday before last I mentioned in my Twitter feed that I was looking for recommendations for novels about clergy and/or scientists. (Thanks to those of you who sent in recommendations!)

This particular interest got started when I happened to read Jane Smiley’s Private Life and Ian McEwan’s Solar back-to-back. I hadn’t decided to start off on a jag of reading about scientists, but I like both authors enormously, and there they were on the new book shelf at the Cambridge Public Library. Both books, set a century apart, tell the stories of scientific men, one whose intellectual obsessions pull him further and further out of the orbit of normal life, and one who lets the pleasures of that life slowly and grossly suffocate his intellect and conscience.

Which, after that, re-reading Elmer Gantry seemed an obvious choice. It had been years since I’ve read it, and it’s as engaging as I’ve ever remembered, and surprisingly prescient its portrayal of the use of new media (radio, at the time) by emerging evangelical ministers. There is also a scene at the end of truly gut-churning violence, which I hadn’t remembered. Sinclair Lewis could cut broad, but also deep when he chose to.

Reading these, and thinking to how much I enjoyed discovering “Breaking Bad” this summer, made me realize that the pettiness and wickedness of men (and it is usually men) who have given their lives to science or religion makes for particularly compelling tales. Science and religion are the two great ways humanity has devised to grapple with reality outside itself, the ongoing, hopeless, noble effort of reconciling ultimate reality with flawed human perception. The grandeur of the calling is a cruel background for human folly.

For another, more upbeat perspective, I’m currently rereading Dracula. Okay, that sounded weird, but stay with me: what I wanted to read it for especially was the way the scientist and clergyman worked together to defeat evil. Often, science posited as our savior from the dark superstition of religion; somewhat less often, religion set up as the antidote to the inhuman severity of science. But in Dracula, both science and religion are necessary, and the men who represent both respect and complement each other.

So — with a little more background on why this theme intrigues me, do you have other suggestions?

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A much-needed intervention

Have you seen Second City’s “Sassy Gay Friend” series, in which a sassy gay friend talks some sense into famously self-destructive female characters from literature? They’re hilarious — I mean, yada yada yada gay stereotypes and all that, but it’s very funny, very pointed, and most of my gay friends laugh hysterically at them and then go back to working for important things like marriage equality.

In this episode, Sassy Gay Friend takes on one of the most horrifying tales of all time: Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”:


Seriously, how awesome is that? And how much do I hate “The Giving Tree”? The Tree gives, and gives, eventually allowing herself to be mutilated into a stump, by a boy/man who abandons her and returns only when he has exhausted her resources and his own. It’s like a kids’ primer on domestic violence; it should have been titled “He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss, Charlie Brown!”

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Last week, on my usual appearance on WCAP (980 FM, every Tuesday from 1:15-2pm!), Dean Johnson e-mailed me a link to this advice column for a discussion topic. Baby-touching (and pregnant-belly-touching) is a topic I’ve addressed before, but I really liked the columnist “Advice Mama,” particularly this quote:

Decide what’s right for you and your baby, and put your parenting instincts before your desire for approval. Not everyone will agree with you, but that’s pretty much par for the course along the parenting road.

So true. As I put it in my book, “You get to act, they get to judge.” And judge they will.

Advice Mama’s take also made me think of one of Aesop’s fables — the one about the old man, his son, and the donkey. Remember that one? It’s a good one to keep in mind.

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Quote of the week

Forsooth! Three thousand years of history,
Traditions beauteous from Moses on:
Thou speakest damnèd truth, and speakest well,
I am a man to live in bygone past!

–Sir Walter of Poland, “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski,” by Adam Bertocci.

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And just for fun …

What might it look like if Petruchio actually did have the good sense to write to Miss Conduct for advice? Maybe something like this:

Dear Miss Conduct,

I am a returning war veteran. Although every other donkey in Padua has a “Support the Troops” sticker pasted on its butt, the fact is, my benefits are running out and I’m going to be on the street soon. Also, there’s a long waiting line at the Padua VA for counseling, so my post-traumatic stress disorder has gone untreated for far too long.

Here’s my problem: I did meet a beautiful, rich woman whom I like a lot (she kind of reminds me of my old drill sergeant). But, as I said, I have pretty bad PTSD, and I’m afraid I used some inappropriate … let’s call them “enhanced wooing techniques” on her. Can this relationship be saved?

Signed, Love is a Battlefield.

What might it sound like if other famous literary characters wrote letters to an advice columnist? Leave yours in comments. (More fun if you don’t mention names, so we can guess!)

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Sammy stopped running today

Writer Budd Schulberg died yesterday at the age of 95, a bit of news that gave me the one-two punch of “I didn’t realize he was still alive/So sorry he’s dead.” Mr. Schulberg was perhaps best known as the screenwriter for “On the Waterfront,” but the work of his that I will most cherish is his 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? From the Globe obituary:

“What Makes Sammy Run?’” was published in 1941 and follows the shameless adventures of Sammy Glick as he steals, schmoozes, and backstabs his way from a New York newspaper office boy to production chief at a major Hollywood studio.

Unlike Nathaniel [sic] West’s “The Day of the Locust,’” which immortalized the desperation of show business outsiders, Mr. Schulberg’s book was an insider’s account. Hollywood was fascinated, and betrayed. Many were convinced they knew the real-life model for Glick. Mr. Schulberg later said he based the character on hustlers he had encountered.

“What I had, when I read through my notebook, was not a single person but a pattern of behavior,” he later wrote.

What Makes Sammy Run? is one of those books that everyone has heard of, but few folks have read–a classic in its day, perhaps, but not for long thereafter. For whatever reason, I often like these books more than the ones that do make it into the official canon–I wrote about a couple of similar ones, also from the 1940s, here. This is one you want to read, you really do. Unlike Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust … it’s fun to read: sharp and quick and lethal as Mack the Knife. You think you’re laughing until you realize that grin is actually your own slashed throat. (I know, I know, Miss Lonelyhearts and all that–sorry. I can’t stand Nathanael West, though I will do him the courtesy of spelling his name right.)

It’s also a fascinating examination into the different ways that people respond to oppression. Sammy Glick didn’t come out of nowhere. He came out of a background of poverty, and bullying, and anti-Semitism, and the lesson he took from that was to trust no one, use everyone, and at all costs–never stop running. Schulberg himself was accused of painting an anti-Semitic portrait of the echt venal Jew–even Shylock loved his late wife, and had a genuine friendship with Tubal. But it does not slander a people to acknowledge that oppression, often, does not ennoble. And the book portrays Jewish characters who have more honorable ways of coping with discrimination–and with their own ambitions.

Everyone knows a Sammy Glick–that’s what they say. It’s easy to point out the Glickiness of others. But we are all running from, or to, something. There’s a little Sammy Glick in all of us. So pick up the book, get your best 1940s slang on, and introduce yourself to Sammy.

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Summer reading: fiction

The first half of July was so action-packed I’m going to be spooling out the adventures until mid-August, I’m afraid. One thing I did was pick myself up a couple of quality-paperback treats at the Logan bookstore before I left: Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife and Tana French’s The Likeness.

American Wife was quite good–if you somehow don’t know, it’s a novel based on the life of Laura Bush. Political novels are always so risky; will anyone still give a damn once the characters they’re based on are out of history’s spotlight? I won’t speculate as to whether Ms. Sittenfeld has written a book that will last or not. But at this moment in history, it’s an entertaining, thought-provoking, page-turning read. I suspect if you don’t like Laura Bush, reading about “Alice Blackwell” may make you more sympathetic, and that if you are a fan of the former First Lady, it will make you a little less so.

But The Likeness is the one that really had me going. It starts off a bit slow, so be patient–it takes a while for the characters to get established. But the opening situation is such a grabber that I was willing to plod for a bit, and once the plot really took off, well, that was that.

We start off meeting Cassie Maddox, an Irish detective in the domestic-violence squad. Cassie’s got a past in undercover that didn’t end too well. One morning, her boyfriend Sam, himself a homicide detective, calls her out to a crime scene. Was it a spousal killing? No. The victim is Cassie’s body double … and the contents of her wallet identify her as “Lexie Madison,” the same name Cassie used as an undercover agent.

Granted, the entire thing is built on a coincidence of Dickensian clunkiness, but once you get through that, it’s a brilliant read, a detective story that is also a deep examination of identity, friendship, family, and loyalty. The plot is nicely twisty and turny and the language literary without causing eye-rolls (and these here eyes do roll at the whiff of anything resembling a precious “prose style”).

What good novels have you read this summer, or hope to read? (We’ll do nonfiction later, so let’s stick to fiction for now.)

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The Clerihew Winner!

And the winner is …

BobP for

Bette Davis
Intrigued us with that look she gave us
Angelically pledged to speak “good” of the dead
So when Joan Crawford died, “Good!” she said.

Congratulations, BobP! If you’ll e-mail me your address, I’ll send you your signed copy of Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners.

Thanks to all who entered and voted!

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Voting hours extended!

The voting hours for the clerihew contest have been extended to midnight tonight. Right now it’s a neck-and-neck race between Bette Davis and John Wayne? Who will win? Hang tight and find out!

In the meantime, some amusing press coverage of my reading in Kansas City.

And if you still haven’t had enough clerihews–for today itself is clerihew day, you know–check out this batch of Sarah Palin clerihews, and enter your own if you’re so inclined.

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Readercon: Because it’s not enough that I look like Spock

Guess where I’ll be this weekend? Readercon!

You either know what that is and are thinking that I am even cooler than you had suspected, or you don’t know what it is and that vague feeling of pity you’ve been having for me lately is growing.

No worries. Readercon is a science fiction convention here in the greater Boston area–Burlington, to be exact. From the website:

Readercon is, depending on your point of view, either an annual literary conference (except it’s infinitely more fun than that) or an annual science fiction convention (except we’ve stripped away virtually everything except talking about and buying books).

I think this sounds absolutely terrific, and not just because 1) I look like Spock and 2) SF fans are unlikely to judge the Golden Rod Rainbow Stripe Shawl Sweater Shrug Cardigan. (Of course I’ll need it. The convention’s at the Burlington Marriott. Have you ever been to a summertime convention at a Marriott that wasn’t freezing?) But also because the program sounds fascinating. Check out this talk, for example:

Minds differ, and nothing reflects those differences more directly than the use of language. When a story’s first-person narrator has a mind significantly outside the norm, their altered diction provides a (sometimes purposefully cloudy) window into their altered thought processes. What are the protocols and challenges of reading a text where the narrator is autistic (Peter Watts’s Blindsight or Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark), insane (Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit”), mentally slow (Flowers for Algernon), impossibly brilliant (Camp Concentration), or unclassifiably damaged (Liz Hand’s Winterlong)? How do we infer the mental states from the altered and often unfamiliar diction? And what does that tell us about the relationship of mind to language?

Or this one:

Is Darwinism Too Good For SF? This year marks the sesquicentennial of the publication of The Origin of Species and the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth. Considering the importance of the scientific idea, there has been surprisingly little great sf inspired by it. We wonder whether, in fact, if the theory has been too good, too unassailable and too full of explanatory power, to leave the wiggle room where speculative minds can play in. After all, physics not only has FTL and time travel, but mechanisms like wormholes that might conceivably make them possible. What are their equivalents in evolutionary theory, if any?

This is exactly the kind of thing my friends and I like to talk about!

And, well (blush), I’m doing panels too! One on my PhD research, which was on the psychology of storytelling:

Narrative Psychology and Science Fiction If a character gets shot, it’s a mystery story. If a character gets shot with a phaser, it’s science fiction. But are there elements to science fiction that go deeper than the surface tropes? Psychologist and writer Robin Abrahams discusses what cognitive psychology and her own research say about mental models of literary genres — including science fiction, fantasy, and horror — and what personality factors correlate with a liking of different kinds of stories.

… and one based on Mind Over Manners:

IDIC for the Pre-Federation World: Coping with Diversity (Robin Abrahams). The Vulcans allegedly had a slogan “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” which is pretty big talk for an entire race of people who all have the same haircut. In the 21st century, however, diversity is increasing — and increasingly hard to deal with. Robin Abrahams, writer of the Globe’s “Miss Conduct” social advice column and the new book Miss Conduct’s Mind Over Manners, discusses diversity of values, priorities, and experiences. Can we really say that nothing human is alien to us? How do we cope with the “other”? And how can we use science fiction to help us address contemporary social dilemmas?

If you like to read science fiction too, I hope to see you there!

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Clerihew voting

You people OUTDID YOURSELVES! Our selection committee found it very difficult to stick to only five clerihews, and had to nominate six finalists instead. Here they are, for your voting acumen.

Voting will be open until noon (Eastern time) on Friday, July 10.

Bette Davis
Intrigued us with that look she gave us
Angelically pledged to speak “good” of the dead
So when Joan Crawford died, “Good!” she said.
by BobP

When it comes to chortling loudly at the boss’s jokes, nobody can
like Ed McMahon
He knew his earthly race was run
when he got an envelope that said, YOU MAY ALREADY BE DONE
by DMajor

John Wayne
Got shot in movies and barely felt pain
In Iraq I am miserable just from being hot
Those movie soldiers are a tougher lot.
by Neil Gussman

Steven Jobs
Charon stow thy oar, keep cast thy anchor, not yet are we given over to sobs
A few months off, a brand new liver, our man Steve is getting well
And thankfully so, as unlike you, he keeps us away from the “Gates” of Hell
by VickiB

Ogden Nash
Got some measure of fame and some measure of cash
By proving that there was a market for poetry that contained absurdity,
And that people didn’t even mind if you invented the occasional wordity.
by Seth

Marilyn Manson
Will someday headline a theater in Branson.
Every show will be a shocker
As he mumbles the lyrics and struts with his walker.
by Billiamo

[poll id="4"]
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UPDATE: This post will float at the top until Monday. New content is below.

Hey everyone!

It’s time for the Second Annual Clerihew Contest! Last year‘s was just so much fun I decided to make it an annual event. This year’s winner will receive a signed copy of Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners.

July 10 is Clerihew Day, celebrating the poetic invention of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. These are the rules for a Clerihew poem:

1. They are about a person, and the first line is (usually) the name of that person.
2. There are four lines.
3. The rhyme scheme is AABB; the first two lines and the second two lines rhyme.
4. There is no meter; that is, the lines can be as long or short as you want.

Here is the winning entry from last year:

Tim Berners-Lee
Invented HTTP
Thus the World Wide Web was born
For Nigerian Diplomats and porn.

And the four runners-up:

Bill Gates
Has left the giant software company everyone hates.
“Hey, Mistah?
Are *you* gonna use Vista?”

William S. Burroughs
Had a brow filled with wrinkles and furrows
(Which were probably exacerbated, of course,
By his addiction to horse).

Thomas Edison
Invented a type of electricity that we have mostly had to jettison.
The clear advantages of direct over alternating current

Edmund C. Bentley
Wrote intently,
But would now be anonymous
Were it not for the verse form for which his middle name is eponymous.

Get the idea?

The rules of the Second Annual Miss Conduct Clerihew contest:

1. Leave your clerihews in comments (on this blog or the other one, it doesn’t matter).
2. Follow the proper clerihew form.
3. No clerihews about me, Mr. Improbable, or Milo (if you want to post or e-mail me some, we’d be delighted, but clerihews about the judge, her spouse, or beloved dog can’t be considered for the contest for reasons of objectivity).
4. Clerihews containing sexual or political material will be disallowed.
5. You can enter as many clerihews as you like.
6. Clerihews will be judged on wit, accuracy, psychological perspecuity, and linguistic ingenuity.

Entries will be accepted until midnight on Sunday. On Monday, July 6, I will post the top 5 clerihews. Then you can vote on the winners, right here on this blog. Voting will be open until noon on Friday, July 10–CLERIHEW DAY!–at which point the winner will be posted, and may begin a wild weekend of celebration.

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