26 December 2020

Lost Horizon and Shangri-La

Lost Horizon

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book, first published in 1933, is a kind of throwback to the kind of late-Victorian and Edwardian adventure novels exemplified by those of H. Rider Haggard, but also includes, for example, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. It follows the convention of a story within a story, where several gentlemen gather for cigars or port after dinner in a club or restaurant and one of them tells a story of his own adventures, or those of a mutual acquaintance. The story often involves a far-away place with a society cut off, either partly or completely, from the outside world -- in this case a monastery called Shangri-La in a hidden valley in Tibet.

By the time James Hilton wrote this story, most such stories had already moved into the realm of science fiction, and had moved to other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies, or even other dimensions as most of the surface of our planet had been mapped.

This story is one of the better examples of the genre, and probably one of the last of those set on earth, so much so that the name of its hidden place, Shangri-la, has become part of popular culture, and has found its way in to pop songs and the names of holiday resorts and the like.

I've been reading this book in parallel with a couple of others on related topics, notably Orientalism by Edward Said, and Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel. I'll write more about those in their own place, perhaps with some reference to this one, but Lost Horizon is in some ways a very Orientalist book.

In Lost Horizon the protagonist, Conway, finds himself de facto leader of four refugees from a revolution, who are subsequently victims of a hijacking. Conway, we are told, unlike at least one of his companions, "...had no race or colour prejudice, and it was an affectation for him to pretend, as he sometimes did in clubs and first-class railway carriages, that he set any particular store on the 'whiteness' of a lobster-red face under a topee." 

But the youngest member of the party, Mallinson, was very much steeped in Orientalism, colonialism and "whiteness", and almost as soon as they had arrived at Shangri-La was demanding "porters" so they could get back to "civilization". And even the unprejudiced Conway seemed to think that "porters" would be a necessity to enable them to leave. It seems a curious demand, since they had been refugees and subsequently hijackees, and thus had no luggage to carry. 

So while Said's book gives a history of the growth and development of what he calls "Orientalism", Hilton's fictional account probably gives a better idea of how it worked in practice in its heyday. Sangri-La may be a fictional place, but it serves to project the image of the Western world and its attitudes in the 1930s, just before the rise of Hitler.

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19 December 2020

Even Steven (book review)

Even Steven

Even Steven by John Gilstrap
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book for the second time after reading Writing the Thriller by Tricia Macdonald Skillman. It was 18 years after my first reading, so I remembered very little of the plot or the characters, and. since John Gilstrap was mentioned in and contributed to Writing the Thriller as an established thriller writer, I wanted to see how well one of his books fitted into the genre, and how Skillman's advice was applied. My conclusion was that it wasn't applied very well.

Reading Even Steven therefore left me with a somewhat higher opinion of Writing the Thriller (my review here) as I think that if some if the advice in there had been consistently applied, Even Steven would have been a better book.

Spoiler Alert If you haven't read Even Steven, be warned that what follows constains spoilers

Even Steven seems to belong to three of the sub-genres mentioned in Writing the Thriller: Psychological suspense, and Women and Children in Jeopardy suspense. There is also a certain element of Action/Adventure Suspense.

The psychological suspense is seen mainly in the first part of the book, where the characters spend a lot of time worrying about what might happen to them. The danger they are in is largely imagined future danger rather than actual present danger.

The basic plot is quite simple: Bobby and Susan Martin are on a camping trip in a nature reserve trying to work through their grief at the loss of a stillborn child. A child who has escaped from kidnappers comes into their camp[, chased by one of the kidnappers trying to recapture him. Bobby kills the kidnapper in a fight, discovers that he has a police badge on him, and they return home in a panic, taking the child with them. Susan sees him as a heaven-sent substitute for their lost son Steven, and names the kidnapped child after him.

The child had been kidnapped by contractors to gangsters as an incentive for his stepfather to pay his drug and gambling debts and his mother, April Simpson, is unable to pay them. She pleads with the gangsters who don't care how she gets the money, and will allow her son to die in the wilderness if they don't get the money -- the debt, plus interest, plus expenses -- the fee paid to the sub-contractors who carried out the actual kidnapping, one of whom had been killed by Bobby Martin, leaving only his mentally defective brother, Samuel, who has now lost the child and must try to get him back.

There are several info-dumps of the backstories of the characters. The backstory is important in a psychological thriller to explain the motivation of the characters. The problem is that a lot of this psychological build-up is simply glossed over in the end. Throughout the story the reader is impressed with Susan's psychological need which leads her to see the kidnapped child as her own and her fear and refusal to give him up, but the reader is not told how this was resolved.

There are long descriptions of Samuel's mental state, and how he alternates between being more stupid and less stupid than he looks, but in the end we learn nothing of his fate. The daughter of one of the gangster leaders is injured in a scene in which her father is killed by a rival gang leader, but we learn nothing of her fate either.

The problem is that far more information is given about some of the characters than is needed to explain their motivation and behaviour. If we are told about them in that much detail we begin to care about what happens to them, but then the author simply drops them without explanation. The book either needed a couple of extra chapters to tie up the loose ends, or it should have been cut by about a third, sparing the reader the unnecessary psychological details.

I suspect that if I had not read Writing the Thriller I might have been a lot less critical of this book, but it can, as I hoped it might, also make me more critical of my own writing, even if I'm not writing thriller/suspense novels. And perhaps thrillers are just not my kind of reading. Perhaps lovers of thrillers will be less critical than I was. Many of the things that others see as genres (suspense, horror, action, mystery etc) I tend to see as story elements. If one of those elements predominates or is absent the story seems unbalanced to me. 

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17 December 2020

Writing the thriller (book review)

Writing the Thriller

Writing the Thriller by Trish Macdonald Skillman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took this book out of the library and read it because I'm in the final stages of editing a children's book I've been writing, and I wanted a reminder of some of the things I should look out for in editing. I say this as a warning, because if you are setting out to write a thriller from scratch, my review will probably be less helpful to you than those of some other people, because the things I was looking for in the book would be different from yours.

The book begins by defining the genre: the thriller or suspense novel is primarily about danger to characters in the story. It also defines several sub-genres of the thriller: (1) action/adventure; (2) Legal thrillers; (3) Medical Thrillers; (4) Political Thrillers; (5) Romantic relationship suspense; (6) Women or children in Jeopardy; and (6) Techno-thrillers.

The focus is entirely on the USA, so it will be most helpful for people writing stories set in the USA which will be submitted to US publishers and intended for readers in the USA. This doesn't make the book useless for writers in other countries, though there are some things that they will need to be aware of. 

For one thing, publishers and booksellers in different countries have different ideas about the boundaries of genres and though there is probably a large overlap in the case of thriller/suspense novels in different countries, they don't always overlap completely. The same applies to the tastes and expectations of readers in different countries. I find the US categorisation of the various subdivisions of juvenile fiction particularly confusing.

The book also makes the point that thrillers are commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction, and so the primary concern is that it should entertain readers, fulfil their expectations of the genre, and sell well enough to turn a good profit for the publisher and author. These considerations for outweigh the literary quality of the work in question. The advice given on writing, editing and preparation for publication is therefore given with these considerations in mind. Some of the advice will be different, or at least differently weighted for other genres.

My interest was somewhat different from that of the intended readership. I've been writing a children's book, which most publishers regard as belonging to a different genre, though as some parts of the book involve action/adventure and suspense, a lot of the advice in the book can be applied. I found it most useful as a kind of check-list of things to look out for in editing -- things like pacing, tone, characterisation and the like. People looking for advice on how to write a book from scratch might see it somewhat differently.

The second part of the book is devoted to interviews with some successful published authors of thrillers, explaining how they write and what works for them, and recommendations of things to emulate or pitfalls to avoid. The main body of the book also contains examples from the writings of these and other authors. I found these useful because I had read some of the books mentioned, and thus could see how it works out in practice. Among these authors are Clive Cussler, Tess Gerritsen, John Gilstrap and Richard North Patterson.

The book will therefore be most useful to those writing thrillers for the US market, but it is still useful generally and has a lot of good advice, even though it may need some adaptation for other circumstances.

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15 December 2020

Requiem for YahooGroups

YahooGroups, one of the largest public mailing-list servers on the Internet, is closing permanently on 15 December 2020, marking the end of an era in computer communications.

Mailing lists are one of the oldest communications tools on the Internet, allowing easy many-to-many communications. They are a tool for online discussions whose potential has never been fully realised. The concept is simple: instead of sending an e-mail to a bunch of different people, and hoping that copies of their replies will all be seen of all of them, you send your e-mail to the listserver, which distributes it to all members, and replies are also sent to the list server, which also distributes them to all the members.

The snag was that you had to run a server to set up a mailing list, so most were run by universities or business firms that ran their own servers. But then some people started making public mailservers available. One of these was E-groups, which was eventually taken over by Yahoo! and became YahooGroups. Later GoogleGroups offered a similar service, but GoogleGroups has been plagued by spam, and many groups have been totally hijacked by spammers, which Google does little to discourage.

Yahoo! initially made some very useful enhancements to YahooGroups, providing ancillary web services, but unfortunately around 2014 some new techo-whizzkid tried to improve them. ignoring the old adage "If it ain't broke don't fix it" and YahooGroups lost a lot of functionality, but the core mailing list function still worked. Nevertheless many YahooGroups users migrated to a new public listserver, groups.io, which made some improvements to the original YahooGroups concept.

So now Yahoo!, which has a history of buying up new ideas, mangling them into uselessness, and then closing them down, has finally decided to close YahooGroups completely. 

As a result of the closure I have moved several of the groups that I used to run on YahooGroups to the listserver at groups.io, and invite anyone who is interested in any of these topics to join them:

  • Christianity and Society -- for discussing how Christians interact with society around them, including art, literature, philosophy, current affairs, politics, and mission, evangelism and missiology
  • Inklings - specifically for discussions of literature and theology, with special reference to the Oxford Inklings, and members can also discuss their own writing, especially in genres used by the Oxford Inklings
  • Orthodox Missiology -- mission, evangelism and missiology in the Orthodox Church
  • Off Topic -- for anything that might be off-topic in more specialised groups and general chit-chat with friends and friends of friends
  • New Religious Movements -- an academic group for those studying new religious movements (started in the last 200 years). It was started by Prof Irving Hexham and originally hosted by the University of Calgary.
  • Family History and genealogy -- there are groups for discussing families such as the Growdon and Ellwood families and also one for discussing African genealogy and family history in general -- the entire continent.

Click on any of the links above to learn more about that particular group and apply to join if you are interested.

Some History 

Back in the late 1980s some improvements were made to the mailing list format in BBS networks that used Fidonet technology. In BBS "echo conferences" as they were called, the poster's initials were shown, so in long multiway conversations it was easier to see who had said what in reply to whom. Unfortunately dial-up BBS networks transmission was inadequate, and it was replaced by the TCP/IP technology of the Internet, with a consequential reversion to the old mailing list format, where, in order to see who said what you have to count reply quote marks -- > is replying to >> who in turn is replying to >>>

Nevertheless, for longer multiway discussions are vastly superior to web discussion boards, like those on sites like Facebook, or blog comments.

08 December 2020

Will the trains ever run again?

 One of the little-remarked casualties of the Covid-19 epidemic has been passenger train services. And it seems doubtful that they will ever run again. 

Passenger trains stopped running during the lockdown, and the entire network will have to be rebuilt almost from scratch if they are to run again, because much of the infrastructure has been stolen or vandalised.

Hatfield Station 28 Jul 2014. Gautrain on left, |Metrorail on right  

Last time I looked the Gautrain still seemed to be running, but Metrorail trains were not. In the picture above, of Hatfield Station in Pretoria, the Gautrain tracks on the left are 4ft 8.5 inches, while the Transnet tracks on the right, with a Metrorail suburban train passing on its way to Mamelodi is on 3 ft 6 in tracks. On the far right are the Gautrain feeder buses. Will we ever see such a sight again?

Metrorail train in Kilner Park 6 August 2014

The Metrorail suburban train above was one of those that passed our house, just across the street from us, at least twice an hour throughout the day. But no more. Soon after the lockdown began, the overhead wires were stolen. Three or four times a week we heard the sound of gunfire when cops and private security company employees battled it out with cable thieves, and clearly the cops lost. 

Last year we saw mysterious new trains in blue livery, running around empty, apparently being tested. Then they about a year ago they appeared carrying passengers, so these were apparently Metrorail's brand new rolling stock in new livery. But when the lockdown started in February 2020 they stopped running, and now they can't run, because the wires are all gone. 

Brand-new Metrorail suburban train 11 Oct 2019

The new trains can only have been in passenger service for about 6-8 months, and now they have been rendered useless. How much did they cost? Who made them? Have they been paid for, or are we still paying for them?

What appears to have happened is that when the lockdown began at Level 5, all train services were cancelled, and no trains ran at all, so the current in the wires was turned off to save electricity, but that also made it easier to steal the wires, so that when the lockdown eased, the trains service could not be resumed, because the wires were gone. Now the goods trains are running again, drawn by diesel locomotives, but it seems that the "new normal" will be without passenger trains altogether. 

But that is not the whole story, because long before Covid-19 had been heard of or identified, back in 2019, much of the overhead wiring had already been stolen from the main Pretoria-Johannesburg line, at least from Kloofsig to Pretoria central station. But no one seemed to notice, and no one seemed to care. 

There was little mention of it in the media -- the most prominent article I could find about it was this Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng's Rail Network, and it doesn't seem to have caused much of a stir. The trade unions seem to have had little to say, but what has happened to all the Metrorail and Prasa workers whose jobs, apparently, have gone for ever?

30 November 2020

Christianity and Trumpism

I've never before had a guest post on any of my blogs, but today I've made an exception for the following post by David Smith, a retired South African academic and Anglican layman.

The last few years have seen the growth of the Trumpist cult, which some have claimed to be Christian, or at least as something that Christians are not merely justified in supporting, but even obliged to support. But Christian leaders, perhaps fearing the division that might be caused, have said very little about this, and given very little guidance to their flocks. David Smith's plea for such guidance deserves to be heard.

‘What’s on your mind?’ And what disturbs your heart? A concern that has been pursuing me in the past months, but particularly in the last few weeks, is the question of how followers of Christ can be as deeply divided as they are along political lines, without top-level opposition emerging among churches. That at least is my observation, the perspective of a lay-person.

I am not sure how it is connected, but let me start with the rank ‘prosperity gospel’ of various new churches (Bushiri’s can stand for many of them, right down to its ‘enlightened’ self-understanding). There seems to have been from the established churches a decrying of this phenomenon without any strong moves to contain it. Perhaps it would have flourished as it has, whether or not it was effectively anathematised. But the profiles of its leaders – people like Bushiri and T B Joshua, for example, and a host of US-based ‘pastors’ who work chiefly through television and online means – strongly suggest personality cults: not just influence and ‘leadership’, but charisma and grip.

Now, strange as it may seem to extend this rough model to a figure far outside the ‘pastorate’, there appears to be a personality cult among Christians that has taken hold around Donald John Trump that needs to be examined and – if the political lessons of the Book of Revelation are anything to go by – resolutely opposed.

I arrived at this conclusion when I was confronted on social media with the utterances, not of a vociferous right-wing American booster, but of a local young woman, a former student in my university department and someone with whom I had worked in preparation of advanced exams. She seemed at the time like a well-adjusted person and her appointment upon graduation as a school teacher seemed like a natural progression. So I was taken aback, a fortnight ago, to read her mouthing the ‘voting fraud’ agenda that Trump has been promoting, and in very uncompromising terms.

When one of her friends expressed shock at her ‘hurrah’ stance for this unbeatable force, and pointed out that, as the person and Christian she knew, she should surely find ‘reprehensible’ the notions and energies radiating from Trump’s career, she blithely came up with the old line that, while his personal values might be unattractive, the policies he was propounding were fine. In this exchange, she was egged on by her brother, both of them looking to God to vindicate the instrument of his purpose, etc. Only re-election would suffice to fulfil the divine plan. It was no comfort to me to discover soon after that a one-time acquaintance (also a teacher) who has since moved to New Zealand, shared these exact opinions.

I have been assured that there are other South Africans of this persuasion, and that they are not all church-goers. (They are, so far as I know, all white.) But a personality cult maybe cuts across lines like believers vs. agnostics. And it is the Christian support for this man that repulses me. I admit that that goes back a long way, indeed, to the time before he was elected in 2016, so it is nothing new. But it was new to me to realise that it had a foothold in this country, where the president’s policies surely have (at most) tangential relevance. The personality cult diagnosis has become a cliché among the commentators who are critical of Trump, the White House, the GOP, and those Protestant evangelicals and Catholics who have been rallying to his cause. That doesn’t make the diagnosis less ominous, when one thinks of the modern national leaders who historically have been considered to rule by this special power: Stalin and Hitler in Europe, Haile Selassie (the object of a relatively benign messianic cult), Idi Amin and Mobutu Seseseko in Africa, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos (could you call them a couple cult?) in Asia, Che Guevara (a guerrilla leader) and Evita Peron in S America (both divinized by the Left, and by impoverished populations). Narendra Modi appears to have the same degree of hold across India at present. So the list continues...

How are we, members of a politically restrained church, to relate to this? Have the churches that reject this subjugation of believers to personified movements been vocal enough in distancing themselves from this phenomenon? Or is it a temptation to be drawn too deeply into these confrontations, even if it is by way of resisting? When does the time come when the lines of rejection have to be clearly and institutionally drawn? Or is the idea of taking a stand an illusion, the sort of thing that people who feel impotent before this strange darkness try to draw strength from? 

David Smith 

I've shared some of my own thoughts on this in the past -- here, for example Notes from underground: Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020, but I think it is something that Christians should be talking about more.

28 November 2020

15 Years Old

Notes from Underground blog is 15 years old today. 

When it started, this platform was easy to use, and provided a quick and easy way to link to web sites with interesting ideas and to comment on them.  It also had a useful search facility, so that one could find blog posts on interesting topics by searching on tags. As my academic field was missiology, I searched on that, and found that quite a lot of bloggers who wrote about missiology also wrote about "emerging church". I followed that up, and found quite an interesting phenomenon, which seems to have died out now, but was quite strong 15 years ago. You can see some of my blog posts on  the emerging church here.

However the host of these blogs at Blogspot decided to make improvements -- they never could learn the truth of the slogan "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". They made everything harder to use, and broke the beautiful tool for searching for blog posts on a topic, replacing it with the clunky Google+ (which they subsequently abandoned) and eventually it became so hard to use that I moved this blog to Wordpress, a different blogging platform that was then easier to use. So most of the posts between 2010 and 2020 will be found there. 

But then the people at Wordpress, also neglecting the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage, messed up their user interface, making it more difficult to use than the Blogspot one, so, I moved this blog back here. You can still see my blog posts on the WordPress site, only there haven't been any new ones since February 2020, because all I can see when I try to post a new one is "A Script on this Page is Busy".

The current favourite posts, which people have been reading recently are these:

Blogging is not as popular as it used to be. 

The best years for blogging were probably 2007-2012, when the Web was really a web that connected people. There were sites like Tumblr, which aggregated blogs, so you could give people one Tuimblr address and they could see a kind of index of all your blog posts  on various platforms. But Tumblr lost most of its functionality years ago. There was Posterous, where you could post on the fly and on the move to various blogs and blog platforms, but that disappeared as well. There were tools to help you find blog posts, like Technorati, MyBlogLog and BlogCatalog, but these were gradually taken over by big conglomerates like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Amazon, who didn't like the connectivity of the web, and preferred to break the strands and keep you in silos instead. So blogs tend to become isolated -- one blogger, one silo. GoodReads is breaking its link with Twitter, so the web is becoming less of a web as one strand after another is broken. 

But I still keep blogging, and as I say at the top of the page:

The main aim of this blog is to interpret the Christian Order in the light of current affairs, philosophy, literature and the arts -- and vice versa. So it's about ideas. Social, political and religious comment. Links, notes on people, places, events, books, movies etc. And mainly a place where I can post half-baked ideas in the hope that other people, or the passing of time, will help me to bake them.
And for those who would like to say more about such things, and more interactively than is possible in blog comments, please consider joining the Christianity and Society forum

Stoneheart: winners and losers

Stoneheart (The Stoneheart Trilogy, #1)

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago I read Jack Flint and the Redthorn Sword and gave it two stars (my review here), now I read Stoneheart and give it four, yet I see their overall ratings in GoodReads are not dissimilar. What's the difference?

On the face of it there are a lot of similarities: both books have a protagonist about the same age. Jack Flint is 13, George Chapman in Stoneheart is 12, In both the protagonist steps out of the normal world of school and teachers and homework into a strange fantasy world full of danger. And both encounter a rather aggressive girl in the other world. But of the two I enjoyed Stoneheart more. So I'm trying to put my finger on the difference.

George Chapman and Jack Flint are both bullied in the everyday world, but learn to be brave in the fantasy world. There are other similarities. There is a quest, a task that must be accomplished before normality can return. There are allies and enemies, and there are betrayals and suspected betrayals. There is a talisman, or a mcguffin if you prefer, an object that has to be sought that is supposed to solve the main problem.

There are also differences in the setting. Jack Flint's other world is really other, with different geography, different rulers and government, different society and social structure. George Chapman's world is London in the 21st century (though one which still has Routemaster buses with a rear platform), but it is a London in which statues come to life and war among themselves, though the everyday citizens of London are quite unaware of it. The premiss is even more fantastic than Jack Flint's world, but I think the main difference is that it is more consistently handled.

Another similarity is that both books are described as forming part of a trilogy. I'm not sure that that is the best description, though. They are more like The Lord of the Rings, a single book divided into three volumes for convenience. The story continues from the first volume, and I don't think I'll finish either, because I didn't see the second volume in the library I borrowed them from. In the case of the Jack Flint one, that does not bother me much, but I would like to read the sequel to Stoneheart.

Both these books belong to the same general genre of children's fantasy stories, and one reason for my interest in reading such stories at the moment is that I am writing sequels to my own children's fantasy story, Of Wheels and Witches, and I'm busy putting the finishing touches to the second volume, The Enchanted Grove. So I'm reading books in a similar genre to see what I like about them and what I don't, what seems to work and what doesn't. 

One thing that strikes me about the character of George Chapman is that it reminds me of Jordan Peterson's ideal of being the top lobster. George's character development in the story seems to be from Peterson's loser lobster in the beginning to something more resembling the top lobster by the end of the book. And that seems to encapsulate the secular values espoused by Jordan Peterson and personified by Donald Trump, and admired by Trump's admirers and supporters. For such people, winning is not the most important thing, it's the only thing. Winners are to be admired, and losers are to be despised, which is why Donald Trump simply cannot face the fact of losing the 2020 US presidential election.

Such a view has also been sacralised in the new prosperitarian theology that has come to dominate much Western (and African) theology since about 1980 -- the gospel contextualised for Neoliberalism.

So though I think Stoneheart is better written, and "works" as a story better than the Jack Flint one, I do have reservations about the kind of character George Chapman seems to be becoming and the values on which that is based.  

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13 November 2020

Horror as a genre

Horror has long been assumed to be a literary genre. We all know what horror is -- or do we? A couple of years ago I reviewed a book on horror as a genre (see here Horror as a literary genre (review) | Khanya), and the author failed to come up with a satisfactory definition.

My introduction to horror literature came at the age of 9, when I read a book called Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories, which belonged to my cousin. I found most of the stories absolutely horrific. See here Children’s literature: fantasy or moral realism?

Later I developed a taste for horror | Khanya after reading an anthology of short stories called Detection, Mystery, Horror edited by Dorothy Sayers.

Then I read my first full-length "horror" novel, Dracula. I read various books described as "horror", many of them compilations of short stories, some good, some dreck. I also read a few longer novels classified as "horror"; one of the best of them was Stephen King's zombie story, Pet Sematary. But what was the horror genre? I wasn't sure.

I read a few books about the horror genre -- see here for my reviews of some of them Horror as a literary genre (review) | Khanya, which gave no satisfactory definition of horror at all, and Danse Macabre: monsters in literature and life | Khanya by Stephen King, where he did define monsters, but do they define "horror" as a genre? Lots of books have monsters of various kinds, but we don't classify them all as "horror" -- The Hobbit, for example.

Then comes a page on GoodReads celebrating the horror genre. But are all the books listed there really "horror"? 50 Most Popular Horror Novels on Goodreads - Goodreads News & Interviews:

For Horror Week, Goodreads set out to reveal the most popular horror stories. To create our list, we focused on the books that have been added the most to Goodreads members' shelves.

From literal monsters to purely psychological terrors, these are tales of madness and pandemonium, retribution and absolution. Long heralded as the "Master of Horror," Stephen King reigns supreme, with five books on our list, but his son Joe Hill is not far behind, nabbing four spots. And along with classics from Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Kirkman's end-of-the-world comic, The Walking Dead, made the cut as well as an award-winning children's ghost story, The Graveyard Book, from Neil Gaiman.

I've come to the conclusion that horror, as a genre, is confined to short stories, and even there it is often combined with other genres. In longer works, like full-length novels, horror is an element, but does not a genre make. In The Lord of the Rings there are horror elements, at the gates of Moria, when Frodo encounters Shelob and so on. But these do not make it a book in a horror genre.

Among short stories, Stephen King's "The Jaunt" or "The Mist" are horror, but they can also be classed as science fiction. The stories in the Horror section of Dorothy Sayers's anthology were definitely horror, but in most of the longer works that end up being classified as horror the actual horrific episodes are usually no longer within the larger works than a standalone horror short story.

12 November 2020

Why Trump lost Christian voters in 2020

It appears that US President Donald Trump lost a significant amount of support among Christian voters in the 2020 US presidential election. In other aspects of the election, such as that for the Senate and House of Representatives, there was not such a significant loss of support. See here Trump%20lost%20religious%20voters%20%u2014%20and%20it%20cost%20him%20in%20multiple%20states%3A%20analysis%20-%20Alternet.org:
President Donald Trump's overwhelming support from evangelical Christians slipped during the 2020 election as President-elect Joe Biden managed to sway a substantial margin of those voters. Now, Trump's campaign team is searching for someone to blame for its election defeat, according to Politico.

Initially, Trump's campaign advisors and Christian allies dismissed the poll projections that suggested a decline in his support among religious voters, insisting the president delivered for his religious supporters throughout his term.

Political analysts have been seeking the reasons for such loss of support, but for Christians the reasons are simple and not far to seek. 

 Jesus said, "By their fruits you shall know them." In their appearances on TV, which of the two, Donald Trump or Joe Biden, showed more of the fruit of the Spirit, which St Paul lists in Galatians 5:22?

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

  • And which of them, Joe Biden or Donald Trump, showed more of the works of the flesh, which St Paul lists in Galatians 5:19ff?

  • Immorality
  • Impurity
  • Licentiousness
  • Idolatry
  • Sorcery
  • Enmity
  • Strife
  • Jealousy
  • Anger
  • Selfishness
  • Dissension
  • Party Spirit
  • Envy
  • Drunkenness
  • Carousing

  • It has been reported that some of President Trump's supporters ascribed his loss of the election to demonic influence, and they are probably right, because one of the things that demons do is tempt people to behave in ways that display the works of the flesh rather than the fruit of the Spirit. 

    The way that they do this has been documented in C.S. Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters, which politicians who wish to gain the support of Christian voters could profit from reading.

    None of this says anything about the policies of the parties that these two men represent. That is often a factor in the political choices that Christians make, and much of it has to do with exercising one's judgement to balance the good and the bad in the various policies. 

    Some may have voted for Biden because they thought his policies on healthcare were more Christian than those of Trump, while others may have voted for Trump because they thought his policies on abortion were more Christian. But that is a matter of judgement and weighing up the probabilities, and in the end it probably balanced itself out. 

    But in the question of the fruit of the spirit and the works of the flesh, there was no need for such balancing. In previous elections it could be said that voters had to choose between the evil of two lessers. But this time around the issues were more clearcut. You could vote for the works of the flesh, or for the fruit of the Spirit.


    10 November 2020

    Madame Bovary

    Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Looking for something to read during the Covid lock-down, with all the public libraries closed, when I found this in a second-hand bookshop I bought it, mainly because I thought I had seen it on one of those "books to read before you die" lists.

    The blurb, however, did not sound promising -- the fantasies of a bored small-town bourgeois housewife did not sound particularly interesting. Nevertheless I started to read it.

    What hooked me first was the style. Even in translation, Gustave Flaubert's descriptions -- of settings, people, their thoughts and emotions -- were brilliant. So I read it slowly, a chapter at a time, and then went off to read something else. It seemed to be the best way to read it, to savour the prose style.

    It was only about three-quarter5s of the way through that I began to get hooked into the plot, and thought I must finish this book before I read anything else. The book has been around long enough that there must be spoilers everywhere, but it should still be possible to avoid them.

    It reminded me of The Great Gatsby, which I read 60 years ago, and so have largely forgotten, but what stuck with me about it was that fantasy love can be so much more powerful than real love, and that one's fantasies of a person can grow until the real person becomes disappointing. And this is similar in a way to what happened to Emma Bovary in this story. 

    One of the things I've been thinking quite a lot about recently is the advice given to writers of fiction that characters need to have goals -- see here On writing: conflict and goals in fiction | Khanya. Well, Emma Bovary certainly has goals, though she might find them hard to articulate to herself, but the main one is defined in the US Declaration of Independence as "the pursuit of happiness". And one of the questions this novel raises is which is the goal -- happiness, or its pursuit.

     View all my reviews

    04 November 2020

    Paint-by-numbers novel writing

    What should the opening page of a novel look like? If you read many of the recently-published books about how to write fiction, the first page should plunge you into action, and any story that doesn't conform to the template isn't worth publishing. That certainly seems to be the view of this blogger Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the First Page of this Bestseller?:
    Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre or content—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength. This novel was number one on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for October 18, 2020. How strong is the opening page—would it, all on its own, hook an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer?

    The cognitive dissonance here is that this book, which the blogger clearly thinks the agent should have rejected, is a best seller. In other words, the agent picked a winner by not conforming to the stereotype. 

    The blogger invites you to read the first page of the novel and indicate whether you would like to read further. Most readers of the blog voted no, but people still bought the book and gave it 4,6 stars on GoodReads. 

    If I were a literary agent (which I'm not), I would turn the page. I won't say I "couldn't wait" to turn the page, but my reaction to the first page would be that the narrator tells ways in which he has changed and that provokes me to want to know more about what those changes were, and what brought them about, and thus to read at least a few more pages before dismissing the book. 

    The book I finished reading recently, Tristram Shandy, is without doubt the most discursive book I've ever read. I really cannot imagine any literary agent accepting it for publication if it were submitted today. Yet it goes on being reprinted year after year, 250 years after it was first published. 

    A while back I re-read the first Enid Blyton fiction story I owned as a child (see The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton) | Notes from underground), to try to see what factors had made it attractive to children, and whatever it was, action on the first page wasn't one of them. The action only began on page 80. The beginning was Enid Blyton food porn,. and condescending remarks about the funny speech habits of Welsh people. Nevertheless child readers seemed to love it.

    But there seem to be a few incestuous "how to write a novel" memes floating around, and "action on the first page" seems to be one of them. So never mind that the book is a best seller. Readers won't buy it, because the first page is a turn-off. Never mind that it got 4.6 stars on GoodReads. Readers won't like it, because the first page is a turn-off. This fashionable factoid seems to be doing the rounds of the "how to write a novel" blogs and books. And it's incestuous because they all seem to copy from each other. And it's untrue, because if it were as true as the article linked above says, it would have got fewer than 3 stars on GoodReads, and never have been a best seller. 

    Some stories work with tension on the first page, but many of the ones I've enjoyed most have a gradual build-up of tension. Make a list of your ten favourite novels, ones that you've read three times or more, and see how many of them have dramatic action on the first page.

    The other common meme among the "how to write a novel" crowd, which is related to the first, is is the nead for the main character to have goals. I won't say much about that, because I've written about it here On writing: conflict and goals in fiction | Khanya

    But it strikes me that all this incestuous advice, if would-be authors take it seriously, is going to lead to a lot of monochrome and monotonous books, a bit like the "paint-by-numbers" pictures you used to see, where if you filled in the numbered spaces with the paint of the same number, you'd get a picture of sorts, but one you wouldn't want to hang on your wall. 

    If you want to write novels worth reading, read 500 novels written by other people for every "How to write a book" you read. You'll learn far more that way.

    22 October 2020

    Supernatural fiction

    I recently finished reading The Supernatural Omnibus Vol 2, edited by Montague Summers, and wrote the review that follows for GoodReads, but there are also some observations and responses that go beyond a review, and it led me to compare the approach of Montague Summers and Charles Williams.

    The Supernatural Omnibus Being A Collection Of Stories Of Apparitions, Witchcraft, Werewolves, Diabolism, Necromancy, Satanism, Divination, Sorcery, Goety, Voodoo, Possession, Occult, Doom And Destiny

    The Supernatural Omnibus Being A Collection Of Stories Of Apparitions, Witchcraft, Werewolves, Diabolism, Necromancy, Satanism, Divination, Sorcery, Goety, Voodoo, Possession, Occult, Doom And Destiny by Montague Summers
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    Thirteen stories of supernatural fiction edited by Montague Summers. It is the second volume of a two-volume set first published in 1931. Volume 2 is described as stories dealing with diabolism, witchcraft and evil lore.

    The introduction is a long rambling catalogue of literature of the "ghost story" genre, which sometimes overlaps with horror and sometimes doesn't. Many parts of it are little more than lists of authors, titles or publications.

    The stories themselves are a mixed bag. The one I liked best was the werewolf story, "The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains" by Frederick Marryat, told in Joseph Conrad style, of a tale within a tale, though that format is often found in ghost stories by other authors too.

    Another one I liked was the novella Carmilla by J. Sheridan le Fanu, one of the few vampire stories I've enjoyed after reading Dracula, perhaps because it was written before Dracula and therefore not influenced by it.

    Most of these stories are from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it seems to be almost a convention of the genre in that period to write in an obscure and complex style, rather as a lawyer would. This fooled me in one of the stories by Richard Harris Dalton Barham, from the Ingoldsby Legends. The convolutions of style caused me to lose track of the plot altogether. There was a second story by him, with a far simpler plot, and so I was able to appreciate his literary allusions.

    If I ever find Volume 1, I'll buy it and read it, so perhaps that is my overall evaluation.

    View all my reviews

    So  much for the book itself, but the selection of stories seemed to say something about the selector, and his approach to what is commonly called "the occult". Many of the stories featured Roman Catholic priests as either the narrator or the protagonist, and a few featured clergy of other denominations.  I recalled that Montague Summers was a Roman Catholic writer who had written some books on the history of witchcraft and related phenomena. 

    I also recalled that when I was writing a journal article on Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery I had listed several books and articles as possible sources of background information, including some by Montague Summers, but rejected them in favour of ones written by Charles Williams. In following this up someone reminded me of the preface to Williams's book Witchcraft:

    There are two authors who have laid the most casual student of the subject under heavy debt--Dr. Montague Summers and the late Dr. Henry Charles Lea; the first chiefly by his various translations, especially of the Malleus Maleficarum, ... Both Dr. Summers and Dr. Lea express fixed views; those views, it is true, are in absolute opposition. I am not myself convinced either by Dr. Summers's belief or by Dr. Lea's contempt. But they express the views of two sincere and learned men, neither of whom would willingly alter a single fact in order to support his own view.

    For me the important difference was that Montague Summers appeared to endorse the view of witchcraft and witch hunting taken by the Malleus Maleficarum (the "Hammer of Witches"), while Williams did not.

    My article was written 25 years ago at a time when several people were being killed in witch hunts then current in South Africa. It was apparent then that the burning of suspected witches by lynch mobs was a pagan response to witchcraft, and not a Christian one, as my article points out. Yet in Early Modern Europe thousands of people were similarly treated in what was alleged to have been a Christian response, and one which Montague Summers apparently endorsed, while Charles Williams showed that it was an anomalous departure from Christian tradition, based on a conspiracy theory.

    The idea of a satanic conspiracy to destroy the Christian Church was not entirely misplaced, however. It appears that there was such a conspiracy, and it was remarkably successful. It just didn't work in the way that the conspiracy theorists thought. They thought it was a conspiracy of witches who made a pact with the devil to destroy the church. In fact it was a conspiracy of conspiracy theorists to make accusations of witchcraft against people, and to encourage others to do so. It was this that was most truly satanic, because the satan is above all the Great Accuser, and making accusations, and especially false accusations, is the most characteristically satanic activity. Satan must have had a good laugh when he got Christians making accusations against each other left right and centre, and casting suspicion on people who failed to make accusations against their neighbours, or did so with less enthusiasm than was expected of them.

    It was witch hunting, and the accusations that incited it, and not witchcraft, that was the truly satanic activity.

    This doesn't mean that every story chosen by Montague Summers for his anthology made this ideological point, but rather that he would be unlikely to have chosen a story that contradicted it. 

    Charles Williams pointed out that the attitude of earlier generations of Christians was very different. They should not fear the power of witches to harm, but should rather fear the malice that actuated the desire to harm, and should first of all combat such malice within themselves. 

    And Charles Williams himself wrote supernatural fiction which conformed to this premiss: those who suffered spiritual destruction were conquered by their own servile fear or malice, rather than by that of other people.

    18 October 2020

    The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, GentlemanThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    This book has been on our shelves ever since I remember; I think it belonged to my mother, though I don't know if she ever read it. Sixty years ago a friend at university who was doing English II said he was reading it, and remarked on its peculiarities, especially its extreme discursiveness, and the diagrams that appeared at various points in the narrative to illustrate this.

    I tried to read it but lost interest, and so it sat on our shelves unread through several moves from one house to another, until the Covid19 epidemic came along, and with all the public libraries closed I turned to the unread books on our shelves and this was one of them.

    The title tells us that it concerns "the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman", but there is little of his opinions and even less of his life. There are nine Books, each with over 30 chapters, and he only gets born in Book 4. The preceding books recount the lives and labours of the midwife and the obstetrician who attended his birth, and how the latter's use of new-fangled obstetrical forceps flattened his nose.

    We learn a great deal about his Uncle Toby, whose hobby is playing soldiers since he was wounded at the siege of Namur, and about how Uncle Toby fell in love with and wooed the widow Wadman, with plenty of digressions along the way. It is said that Laurence Sterne pioneered the "stream of consciousness" novel which was popular in the early 20th century, and that could be so, as he tells the story the way most people think, jumping from one topic to another for no particular reason.

    Though it was first written and published in the 18th century, it seems surprisingly modern. Much of the usage is still current today, and at several points I was surprised that usages I thought were quite recent seem to have been current 250 years ago.

    I also think of all the books and articles and courses on creative writing, and how to write a novel, and what is acceptable to publishers' editors and what is not. And I think if I had been a publsiher's editor I would have rejected this one for its very discursiveness, it's failure to get to the point. Dammit, the protagonist has no goals! And a protagonist without a goal, we are told, is the biggest no-no in novel writing. Yet 250 years later Tristram Shandy is still in print, and a lot of novels published 10 years ago are not.

    View all my reviews

    14 October 2020

    Apartheid lunacy returns -- or did it never really go away?

    You can't make this stuff up. More than a quarter of a century after the end of Apartheid, a teacher is being disciplined for not sticking with his "official" apartheid-era race classification: 'Coloured' teacher on fraud charge for saying he was 'African':
    A Western Cape teacher has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing on Wednesday for claiming to be “African” in his CV, instead of sticking with his “official” coloured identity. Glen Snyman, a teacher at Grootkraal Primary School in Oudtshoorn, allegedly self-identified as African when applying for a principal's job at another school in October 2017. He ultimately didn't get the job.

    Wasn't the Population Registration Act repealed long ago? Or has the Race Classification Board being re-established? are they going to stick a pencil in his hair to prove a point at the disciplinary hearing, as the old Race Classification Board was rumoured to do? 

    It seems that racism is now growing all around the world, as "race" becomes more and more important in so many people's minds for evaluating people's place in society and one's relationship to them. The demons of apartheid have been around for too long, and it's high time we exorcised them. 


    09 October 2020

    Coraline: To hell and back

    CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    I think it was a child's vision of hell.

    You could sub-title it, "To hell and back".

    C.S. Lewis wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien on 7 December 1929, after reading Tolkien's poem on Beren and Luthien, "The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the
    mythical value: the essence of a myth being that it should have no taint of allegory to the maker and yet should suggest incipient allegories to the reader."

    And I think one could say that about this book too. I think it has no taint of allegory to Neil Gaiman, but it suggested several incipient allegories to me while I was reading it.

    *** Spoilers may follow ***

    Note that these are incipient allegories, not actual allegories. They could become allegories in the hands of a fan-fic writer who wanted to extend them in that direction, but if they became fully-fledged allegories they would cease to be true myth.
    Coraline had moved with her parents into a new house, which is actually a large old house that has been divided into flats. The apartment next to theirs is still empty, and the interleading door has been bricked up. But one day Coraline, feeling bored, opens the interleading door and finds a passage beyond, which leads to a another flat just like hers, with another mother and father, like hers in some ways, but having buttons for eyes. Coraline's other mother cooks a much more interesting meal than her own mother, and begs her to stay, saying that she loves her more. All she needs to do is let the other mother sew button eyes on her.

    Coraline declines the offer, and returns along the passage to her real house but finds her parents gone. Her mother went shopping but did not return. Her father went to see someone on business but did not return. After two days Coraline returns to the other flat with the other mother to find out what has happened to her real parents. She explores the other house, and finds different versions of the neighbours in the other flats; younger versions of two retired actresses, reliving their memories to an audience of dogs. A cat that lived in the real world is there, but has gained the ability to talk. But as Coraline explores the woods and fields away from the house, she finds that the further she gets the less real they are. The trees look like photographs, and then like drawings, and beyond there is just a mist.

    And this is the first incipient allegory, when Coraline realises that the world beyond the door is the creation of the "other mother". She displeases the other mother, and is locked up in a dark closet, where she discovers the shades of children of long ago who had likewise been lured by the other mother, and have lost their souls. Coraline discovers she has a mission, to seek and save the lost, and makes a bargain with the other mother -- if she can find the souls of the lost children, and her lost real parents, she can take them unmolested to the real world. The other mother agrees, but has no intention of keeping her side of the bargain.

    Coraline realises that the world behind the door is not even the creation of the other mother. It is simply an imitation. The other mother, like Satan in the Christian myth, cannot create anything, but can only twist and distort the things already created. And Coraline comes to realise that the task the must accomplish is the harrowing of hell. She doesn't use those words, of course, but that is another of the incipient allegories that it suggested to me.

    The other mother isn't an allegory of Satan, and more than C.S. Lewis's white witch of Narnia is, but her evil works in the same way. And the book suggests incipient allegories to the reader, while containing no taint of allegory to the writer.

    So, if you have read the book (and I hope you have already done so before reading this) I wonder what incipient allegories it suggested to you.

    View all my reviews

    08 October 2020

    A plague of hedgehogs?

    About three weeks ago our dog Pimen caught a hedgehog in our garden.We rescued it from him, and our son Simon took it across the road and released it into the veld alongside the railway line. Every few years a hedgehog does come into the garden, and has to be rescued from the dogs, but it was not frequent occurrence. We have had Pimen for five years now, and this was the first one he had ever encountered. 

    Then a couple of weeks later Pimen caught another hedgehog. It was unusual to see two in the same year.  Then a week later there was a third one. And yet another two nights ago. By this time Pimen knew the routine. When Simon opened the door, Pimen brought the hedgehog to him and released it at his feet. He now knows that Simon collects hedgehogs and takes them over the road to where they belong. Simon put it in an empty plastic ice cream carton and took it across the road.

    Then last night there was yet another one, or perhaps it was the same one. Simon decided to call it Salvador, after Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Time. It is a very persistent hedgehog.  

    This time we took some photos before Simon took it across the road to release it, since it seems to be becoming a regular visitor. 

    Then about an hour later there was another hedgehog. Two in one night. This one was slightly bigger, and rather darker in colour, so not the same one. Perhaps it had come looking for Salvador. 

    Simon took it across the road to the same place where he had left Salvador. 

    There were no more disturbances from hedgehogs last night, just the usual gunfire exchanged between cops and cable thieves who have just about stripped the Gauteng railway network bare. 

    About 30 years ago, the hadedas came to town.

    They are raucous birds of the ibis family, and before 1990 they were a relatively rare sight. One had to go on bird watching expeditions out into the country to see them. And suddenly they became urbanised. 

    I suspected that it was because of the introduction of the pellet-style dog and cat food. Hadedas discovered that in suburban gardens, and thrived on it. There was an interesting ecological spin-off. People in  Johannesburg used to complain about a plague of large crickets called "Parktown prawns". After the hadedas came, one stopped hearing about Parktown prawns. And our lawn used to have lots of bare patches in the grass where ordinary crickets (about a third of the size of the Parktown prawns) were active. When the hadedas came, no more crickets. 

    It was said that some rural folk believe that if a hadeda flew over a house or perched on it, it was a sign of bad luck, and the house would have to be demolished. If that had to be done today, entire cities would have to be demolished. 

    Thirty years ago it was hadedas, now it seems to be hedgehogs.

    If we are going to see swarms (herds? flocks?) of hedgehogs as we did with hadedas 30 years ago, I wonder what the ecological effects of that will be? And I wonder what is attracting them to our garden all of a sudden. 

    Has anyone else been seeing a lot of hedgehogs lately?

    One thing I do know: they are far more welcome than the cable thieves.

    05 October 2020

    Puck of Pook's Hill: Fantasy by Kipling

    Puck of Pook's Hill

    Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    A very strange book.

    We've had a copy on our shelves for years, and I've sometimes tried to read it, but never got beyond the first chapter because it was a hardback copy in poor condition, with the binding coming apart, and I didn't want to damage it further. Then last week I found a cheap paperback copy in a second-hand bookshop and read that.

    On one level it is a kind of Edwardian history lesson. Two children, Dan and Una, perform the play within a play from A Midsummer Nights Dream, and Puck himself appears to them and promises to show them things more real than any dream. They are then introduced to characters from various periods of English history who bring that history to life by giving a personal view of it. Perhaps school history in those days must have seemed to many children just a boring catalogue of dates and battles and kings. The stories show that they involved real people, with sometimes real conflicts of loyalties.

    The stories seem to have a common theme too, and perhaps one that is worth noting in these days of the UK Independence Party and Brexit, and the preaching of a new version of British exceptionalism. Kipling seems concerned to show that the British are not a unique "pure" race. They are a mixture of Saxons and Normans, Romans and Picts, and many of the stories show people crossing these barriers of ethnicity and race.

    Even religion is varied. The book begins with the story of a pagan god Weland, and ends with a Jew. And in between comes the story of the fairies fleeing as refugees to France because they didn't like the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, and the last straw was the iconoclasm of the Puritans.

    But for all its good points, the story wasn't very well told. The children are made to forget each incident and story after they have heard it, by the invocation of "oak, ash and thorn", and so one wonders what the point was. A few years ago I read Kipling's Kim for the fifth time (my review here: Kim revisited: imperialism, Russophobia & asceticism | Notes from underground), but I don't think I'll really want to read this one again. It's a fantasy story, but the fantasy doesn't seem to blend very well with the history, and the Puck of the title does little more than introduce the other characters, like a master of ceremonies at a wedding or a funeral. 

    It does seem, though, that some of the devices and tropes of this book were taken up and used by later writers of children's fantasy. There are faint echoes of it in writers like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner. 

    I can't remember whether Lewis actually cited Kipling as his inspiration, but he did cite George MacDonald, and I read MacDonald's books in the hope of finding more of the kind that I liked, but was disappointed. The fantasy writers of the mid-20th century may have been inspired by earlier writers, but they always seemed to improve on them. And most of the works that followed them seem dull and derivative.

    View all my reviews

    30 September 2020

    Covid in the springtime

    We've reached the end of September, and spring is in full swing. The Covid lockdown has lasted 6 months, and about 10 days ago here in South Africa it went from Level 2 to Level 1, but I wasn't even aware of that for about a week. The syringa trees are in full bloom, and its only when they are in bloom that you realise how many of them there are in our neighbourhood. 

    Syringa tree across the road, seen from our bedroom

    The syringa trees, with their pale blue flowers, are forerunners of the jacarandas, with their deeper blue, which appear about a fortnight later. The one in the picture above is over the road from us, near the railway line. There used to be several syringa trees over there, but most of them were chopped down by a mad axeman a few years ago -- see Mystery tree feller | Notes from underground

    The thorn tree in the corner of our garden is also blooming, and it's only when they bloom with their yellow flowers that you notice how many of them there are in the neighbourhood. 

    Our garden in spring, with blooming thorn tree

    The syringa on the left is in a neighbour's garden across the road. 

    Yesterday was our wedding anniversary, so we went for tea at Cafe 41, where, before the lockdown, we used to hold our literary coffee klatches, and discuss theology and literature. -- see here Genius, shades, ancestors and more | Notes from underground. But since this time last year two of our regular members, Tony McGregor and David Levey, have died, and as we sat there I felt their ghosts haunting the place with fleeting snatches of old conversations. Even if the lockdown ended with Level 0, I doubt that we could recapture those days in their absence. 

    We went on to Rutland Books, a marvelous second-hand book shop where I had previously found a book I had been looking for for 20 years, Orientalism by Edward Said, which is said to be the key to the mystery of postcolonialism. This time I took a list of books I wanted, that I haven't been able to find in other book shops or libraries, but sadly none of them were there.

    We came home to our favourite syringa tree, no longer being stripped bare by the mad axeman. Bit just beyond were the posts that used to hold the catenary wire for the electric trains, stripped bare by cable thieves -- see Stripped bare: Looting till there is nothing left of Gauteng's rail network. About twice a week during the Covid lockdown the dogs would bark, and there would be gun battles between police and security companies and cable thieves. Occasionally one would be arrested, but there were always plenty of others to take their place. In our area most of this looting took place during the lockdown, when passenger trains stopped running, but the main line between Pretoria and Johannesburg (and Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town) was stripped of wires several months before the lockdown began. I don't recall seeing any news items about this before yesterday's Daily Maverick article. But this must also be added to the cost of the lockdown, and what has happened to the jobs of those who were employed by the railways? Where are they all? It is the kind of damage that one expects to be inflicted in war time, only it is far more extensive.  


    09 September 2020

    The end of the road for Facebook?

    It  looks as though it may be the end of the road for Facebook and Twitter, at least for me and some of my friends. And possibly for other social media as well, including this blog. So I'm posting this just in case my friends, if any, would like to keep in touch if the various social media we've used for the last 20 years or so become inoperative.

     If you would like to keep in touch, try one of these

    For close friends, people I've met personally who would like to keep in touch, pass on news and so on, there is the Social Proximity forum, where we can retain social proximity even if we have to keep physical distance because of geography or diseases like Covid. See here: Social Proximity.

    For acquaintances, including online acquaintances, who would like occasionally to chat about anything and everything, there is the Off Topic forum, where nothing (well, almost nothing) is off topic. See here: Off Topic.

    And for those who prefer more focused discussions on particular topics, there are these:

    • Christianity & Society -- Christianity in relation to current affairs, politics, social justice, arts, literature, culture, war & peace, including mission, evangelism and missiology
    • Inklings -- Christianity and literature, especially in relation to the Oxford Inklings (C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams Tolkien et al, and similar authors. Share what you are reading or writing and what you think of it. 
    • Orthodox Mission & Missiology -- Mission, evangelism and mission history of the Orthodox Church any time over the last 20 centuries.

    See here for more contact info if we lose touch via Facebook, or this blog.

    What is happening to Facebook?

    The people at Facebook decided to give ity a "new look, which for many people turned out to be a bad User Experience (UX).

    When Facebook started, they were a big success because of their simple, clean and fast user interface, which was so much better than other clunky social media sites like MySpace and SixDegrees.

    Their new user interface seems to bear a remarkable resemblance to the old MySpace one, which Facebook displaced.

    As a result several of my friends have already left Facebook, or threatened to, and a lot of other people will be using Facebook a lot less than they used to, including my. This morning I wanted to take a quick look at Facebook to see if any friends had any messages for me, and to look at a couple of interesting articles that frioents had shared, and I had shared too to be able to find them again, when I didn't have time to read them than. But Facebook would not let me. First I had to "Get Started" on their new interface, and they would not let me do anything else until I had done that.

    I really didn't have time for that crap, so I closed Facebook and went to Twitter. It showed notifications of "Recent Tweets" -- in other words, nothing to see here, move along, nobody has interacted with anything you tweeted. So move along I did.

    And now the people who run this blogging platform have threatened. like Facebook, to replace the current usable user interface with a slow, awkward dysfunctional one, so any time I post anything here, I'm aware that this blog post may be my last.

    The people who write the software for these things seem to think they can improve things by adding bells and whistles and taking away pistons and cylinders. They go for eye-candy and glitzy layout, relying on the speed of modern hardware to cover for their lack of programming skills.

    The trouble is that those of us who can't afford to buy the latest and greatest hardware have to put up with software that slows to a crawl. and "minimalist" icons that are so mall and faint on the screen that you need a magnifying glass to see them. So eventually we just give up.

    So I'm reminded in many ways of the old Queen song, and that is my message to any of my friends or former friends who may be reading this:

    Do you hear my call, though you're many years away?
    Do you hear me calling you?
    Write your letters in the sand
    for the day I take your hand
    in the land that our grandchildren knew. 


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