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Archive for December, 2013

Something about the last day of a year makes people make lists and wallow in nostalgia, so here goes my contribution. Today, I’m thinking about what I regard as the quintessential rock song: Won’t Get Fooled Again.

This song, written by Peter Townsend and performed by The Who, is well-known, especially these days when even Jim Carrey is impersonating C.S.I.: Miami:

The music is a technical masterpiece, and Roger Daltrey belts out the words and that unforgettable scream. But for me, the lyrics are the heart of the song. I’m a writer, though I bang around on the drums when I have the chance. Let’s consider the words:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet,
And the morals that they worship will be gone,
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song.

Rock and roll is about rebellion, having grown up in a time when radical social change boiled up in the United States and inspired the youth of Britain. There’s a natural connection between rock and revolution. And as the first verse says, an uprising often ends up throwing out much that forms a society’s foundation. Of course, we’re reminded that revolutions are just as frequently spurred by people in the shadows who have motives not aligned with the wishes of the mass movement.

But as Eric Hoffer told us in The True Believer, revolutions all look alike. The song says the same thing:

Change it had to come,
We knew it all along,
We were liberated from the fall that’s all.
But the world looks just the same,
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war.

People rise up in search of rights and justice, and that is one of the constants of human nature, but too often, those movements devolve into the chaos of permissiveness and private interest. The Occupy Movement is a good illustration of this, a bunch of people who demanded this and demanded that without any leaders or direction. The result of all the change is often more of the same:

There’s nothing in the street
Looks any different to me,
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye.
And the parting on the left
Is now the parting on the right,
And the beards have all grown longer overnight.

But it’s even worse than that. Look at the French Revolution. That society under Louis XVI was bad, but the Reign of Terror was no better, and Napoleon’s restoration of order brought about a deeper disaster for France. The same pattern held in Russia in 1917 and following.

I’ll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive.
I’ll get all my papers and smile at the sky
For I know that the hypnotized never lie.

Tyranny is too often the result of revolution, and people go from poverty to terror without any resource. The chorus of the song captures the feeling of being in the middle of the action:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution,
Take a bow for the new revolution,
Smile and grin at the change all around,
Pick up my guitar and play,
Just like yesterday,
And I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again.

And it gives a warning. In the movement, we’re at risk of being swept along toward an end not of our choosing. Such movements are hard to control once they get going, leaving prayer often the only thing available to those in the flow. But the gods of revolution are rarely forgiving or merciful.

The closing words sum up the point of this song:

Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss.

This is true about revolutions and about many changes of all kinds. We went from Bush to Obama, and the change was in many ways to go deeper into government spying on citizens and other violations of rights. In jobs that I have worked over the years, a change in management most often results in a lot of busy work to end up right back where we started.

Rock and roll can rise to the same heights as any other form of music, and while Rush is my favorite band, “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is for me the definitive rock anthem. It is in the spirit of the genre, but it also acts as a caution about where that spirit will lead in excess.

Enough discussion. It’s time for the music:

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If you hang out at left-leaning blogs or discussion boards and make comments that aren’t from the approved hymnal, you stand in good chance of being labelled a hillbilly–among many other things. That’s usually meant as an insult, often made by the same people who would get offended at many other ethnic slurs being used, and in fact, such comments miss their intended mark.

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This picture is of the famous Hatfield clan. The label, hillbilly, is of obscure origins, first appearing in print around 1900, as in this quotation from the New York Journal:

A Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.

The Hatfields live on the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, and I’m from the hills of western North Carolina, but otherwise, that definition about sums us up.

The people of the Appalachians and the Ozarks in the United States in large part come from Scotland originally. In other words, they were already a strong-willed and dour lot. The rulers of Britain wanted to change the demographics of Ireland by shipping in a group of Protestants to Ulster. The Irish being as stubborn and rebellious as the Scots, that plan didn’t work out too well, so many of those people moved on to America, where the land was wide open and the government far away.

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That picture is from the Blue Ridge Parkway, a handful of miles from my childhood home. It’s typical of the kind of land hillbillies occupy: rough, not all that productive in the agricultural sense, and therefore of little interest to those in power.

Given that kind of land, it’s no wonder that we have a reputation for insularity in thought and genes. But living in that territory requires a toughness that doesn’t come from buying food wrapped in plastic at a store. It also makes necessary a strong loyalty to family and a sense of self-reliance.

And it gave these people a distrust of outsiders coming in with citified ideas. One story I recall hearing a while ago is about social workers who decided to introduce the flour biscuit in preference to cornbread, thinking that what got served on the tables of the rich folk was a superior food. The problem is that with regard to calories and nutrients, cornbread is better. And it tastes better, too.

That’s the flaw that many people have when they construct pedestals for themselves. Just because something works for you doesn’t mean that it’s best for everyone. And it’s wrong to say that we hillbillies never open up to the outside world. For example, I’ve been to graduate school and teach school (English composition and literature) and I’ve done a bit of book writing of my own.

For a good overview of this group of people, have a look at the History Channel’s Hillbilly: The Real Story:

You’re welcome to come around for a plate of beans and cornbread–and maybe something a mite stronger, if you don’t tell the revenuers–but if you take a mind to telling us how to live, you’d best be able to run back to town faster than 850 ft/sec.

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Thanks to Netflix and this useful site, I recently watched my way through Breaking Bad. This was a thoroughly pleasing series, both for its relentless logic and its humor. There is also a point of interest for those of us who study literature.

First, consider the character of Everyman.

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He is the subject of the mediaeval morality play by the same name about a man who must account for his life before moving on to either heaven or hell. The term has moved over the years into a name for an ordinary person who gets caught up in difficult times.

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Alfred Hitchcock made most of his films on this character type.

Also recall the last discussion about tragedy. In the ancient days, a tragedy required a hero–someone with a divine parent in the ancestry–who also has a character flaw, typically hubris. Again, these days, tragedy gets applied to just about anyone whose life goes from good to bad due to some personal failing. (It gets applied to a lot more, but that’s often in error.)

These things bring me to Walter White.

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He starts out as a high school chemistry teacher with a disabled son and a baby on the way, a man who founded a company using his skills as a chemist and got cheated out by his partner, and then finds himself with lung cancer.

(Heere there be spoilers.)

By the end of the series, everything in his life has come crashing down. The fact that he tears down his enemies with him doesn’t change the nature of the story as a tragedy.

The point here is the nature of tragedy in the modern world. Walter White gets screwed over by corporations, by his health insurance company, and ultimately by his life. Breaking Bad is a well done show, but it reveals the tragedy of our days. The real flaw is our willingness to accept the power of the few abusing the many.

This is not a flaw that is beyond cure.

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This being the season of peace, love, joy, and all that rot, I feel the need for a corrective. Or better yet, a purging. That is what catharsis means. And for that, we need a tragedy.

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Yes, I’m talking about A Christmas Carol, the finest version on film starring George C. Scott in 1984. Let’s recall that a tragedy is the story of a hero who starts out in a high place and falls low through some flaw in his character. For the purposes of this article, I’m considering Ebenezer Scrooge to be just such a tragic hero.

At the beginning of the tale, Scrooge is a successful man of business who contributes to the economic life of the British Empire and supports himself and his profligately breeding employee, Bob Cratchit. He possesses a logical mind and a keen wit. But thanks to the interference of spirits and one wretched night, by Christmas Day, he has fallen to an addled spendthrift making promises that he won’t be able to keep, the victim of base sentimentality.

But you probably knew the story. (Though perhaps not the way that I characterized it.) The question here is regarding Scrooge’s flaw. This will take some consideration.

The reflexive answer is greed, but he is not greedy. He recognizes at the start that money has to be earned, that giving money away only results in the wealth being spent to no good end. What we don’t work for, we don’t value.

We could say that Scrooge has fallen into senility, but that can’t qualify as a tragic flaw, at least not in the proper sense, for the flaw has to be a moral failing or error in judgement. The fate that we’re all born to is sad, but hardly distinctive or instructive in this context.

The fact that a tragic flaw can be an error in thinking helps here. Over the course of the night, Scrooge is subjected to emotion in the absence of reason. The spirits will not engage with him on a rational level. Instead, they remind him of the circumstances in his life that cause him regret, a feeling that is fatal to getting work done. They present to him scenes of suffering, without permitting any consideration of how the desperate people got into their stations in life or what social policy would be best to ameliorate that pain.

Thus we find the answer. Like an alcoholic who cannot take one drink in safety, Scrooge is susceptible to sentiment. He comes to believe in the false promises of a workers’ paradise in which ambition will be lost and achievement scorned. Like Oedipus walking blindly off the stage into exile, Scrooge faces an end of penury and wallowing in emotion.

There, do you feel better now? If so, I’ll expect your payment in the mail. Or you could just buy my book.

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The news today (15 December 2013) reports the death of Peter O’Toole, one of the finest actors of our day.

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I first became aware of him while watching the movie of the week, probably on a Sunday after raking leaves or some other yard chore. Lawrence of Arabia is one of those definitive films that you must watch. It’s grand sweeping scenes and fine acting out of a story that we still don’t know to be a tragedy or a comedy will stand as one of the best through the ages.

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But we mustn’t forget him in The Lion in Winter, playing Henry II opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Acquitaine. “I could have conquered Europe, all of it, but I had women in my life”

But on this day, only one thing feels appropriate:

Thank you, Peter O’Toole, for having dreamed for us.

Crossposted at Greg Camp’s Weblog and Oghma Creative Media.

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Recently, I was asked to explain how to write a good review of a book for sites such as Amazon and Goodreads. This is because Oghma Creative Media is developing a beta reader program. The idea there is to have a group of readers who will receive e-copies of books that we’re promoting, with the requirement that the people write reviews.

So what makes a good review? No, it doesn’t mean that you have to say the book is the best thing you’ve read. I’m talking about an honest and well-crafted piece on the book you’ve read. Here’s what I mean:

1. Read

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You have to read the book. That doesn’t mean skim, and it doesn’t mean the first chapter only. It means the whole book. You can’t say what the author was trying to do or what the story is about until you’ve seen the totality of it. If something was so bad that you couldn’t get past page fifteen (I’m talking to you, Ayn Rand), say that, and have done with the review.

2. Essence

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Once you’ve read the book, write out in one sentence what you believe it to be about. What is the overall impression the book has left with you? This isn’t a summary of the plot. You’re not talking about what happened. You’re saying what is the meaning of the book. For example, Romeo and Juliet is the story of how love makes us defy others to be with our beloveds. Watership Down tells of the determination to survive and live well despite what fate and chance do to us. Those are two quick examples. I could refine them from there, but that shows how to get started.

3. Examples

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Now you have to illustrate the main theme that you found. Tell me about the main characters, a few important scenes, and so forth that show how you figured out the essence of the book. If I’m reviewing The Lord of the Rings and claim that friendship is a key theme, I’ll show you passages where Frodo and Sam are talking to each other and supporting each other, or I’ll give you the meeting between Aragorn and Eomir at the battle for Gondor. The point is to give your readers a taste of the book that shows you’ve grasped the essence of it.

4. Spoilers

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Give away as little as possible of the plot. One of the pleasures of reading or watching is surprise. If you must reveal something, tell your readers in advance

5. Conclusion

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Why is this book worth reading? If it isn’t, why not? The conclusion of an essay is where you make the sale to your reader. It’s just like a car dealership. If you tell the customer all the facts about the car and take the customer out for a drive, but don’t ask the person to buy, you haven’t sold a car. In a review, you want to sum up. Tell me, your reader, what I need to do and what I’ll get out of the book in question.

To see examples of a reviews that I wrote, look here or here or here.

But as always, keep reading, keep writing, keep submitting, and keep reviewing.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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I’m an author. To quote the Irish writer, Brendan Behan, I’m a drinker with a writing problem. I do love that quotation. It sums up a lot of the feeling of this profession. The Muses are real, and they visit affliction upon writers, but we praise them for it.

But inside every author–even the ones who say otherwise–there’s a yearning for the world to read and enjoy our work. Some people say they write only for their own amusement, but I have my doubts. Writing is bloody hard work. As Samuel Johnson said, no one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. If you’re not a writer, try it sometime. Then try it again. And again. And again. Keep trying it, and you’ll be a writer one of these days. The Muses work that way.

Now and then comes the reward for the work: the book for sale. Is it like giving birth or coming home from a hard journey or getting out of prison? I don’t know. The end of the journey idea sounds right, since once the book is published, that moment is a destination. There are new journeys to go on next, and as Robert Frost told us, way leads on to way, and we don’t get to go back and walk the old paths over.

The written word becomes the possession of the reader. How you see the character or the scene, what you’re feeling and learning and experiencing is yours.

And thus, I submit for your approval, The Willing Spirit.

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It was a lot of fun (and work!) to write. I hope it’s a pure pleasure for you to read.

But I’m writing the next book in the Dowland series now. It’s set on Catalina Island and the mainland in 1871. There’s Spanish treasure, a gambling lady, and even grunion fish.

You’ll have to wait for me to finish it.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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