A Renaissance of Reason

The Abacus and the Cross, by Nancy Marie Brown

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image via booku.com

Nonfiction is still very much in vogue, and this book proves there’s no end in sight to the wealth of research to be done, stories to be told of historical characters.  This book’s subtitle, “The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages,” virtually tells the tale here, but stories are all the better wrapped in a human personality. 

The personality here is a French peasant-monk, who had the good fortune to go to Spain in the mid-900s, where over some 3-4 years he immersed himself in the learning of Arabic Spain. The monk, Gerbert, would eventually become Pope Sylvester II, one half of a spiritual-political duo, along with Otto III, the last of Germany’s Ottonian dynasty. But that high-altitude relationship was almost a postscript to Gerbert’s life. 

Unknownimage via medievalists.net

Following his return to France, Gerbert established a school in Reims, where he taught the long-lost trivium and quadrivium of the classicists to most of the soon-to-be influential young minds of Europe.  This was his legacy to both the church and to Europe in general, but his forays into the politics of the time were almost his undoing. I’ll leave it there – no need for a spoiler alert.

Brown tells us first of Gerbert’s mathematics, his astronomy, his approach to learning that even included music and the creation of some of Europe’s earliest pipe organs. Then her attention in this deeply researched book tells in details I’ve seen nowhere else of his political career. She writes with great emotion in places, sardonically and cynically in others, but there’s no escaping the story she has at her fingertips.  For anyone who thinks the “Dark Ages” were really dark – read Brown’s book.

 

My rating 16 of 20 stars

 

 

As The Digital World Turns

Imagesimage via gadgetbox.msnbc.msn.com

Today, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled, as expected, the new Kindle Fire. But a couple of comments.

I've been an Apple guy for a long time, over twenty years, have always bought Apple productes and operating systems, even when they were problematic. But there's one thing about the iPhone and iPad I just can't get by – – the fact that, once you've purchased the hardware, you still have to pony up a monthly fee to AT&T or Verizon to make the darn thing functional. I do so hate being nickel and dimed like that.

Digital books have been increasingly attractive to me – both as writer and reader – so some months ago I boughts a Kindle DX. I like it. I use it. More than half the books I read are digital now. I tried newspapers on Kindle but didn't like the fast fly-by the digital papers gave the news. There are other traits of the Kindle I haven't liked – no color, changing pages and looking back over multiple pages seems awfully primitive, compared to reading the same texts on my iPod Touch's tiny screen. 

But finally, Amazon seems to have gotten the upper hand – offering a tablet for less than $200 that can handle movies, books, games, i.e., the whole nine yards. And the best thing? It works with WiFi. 

What this is telling me – in loud and clear fashion – is that now (if not previously) the world of digital print is about to catch fire. Think about that, you readers out there – and especially you writers. Your professional world is going to change in ways you've never imagined. 

 

Will Amazon’s Tablet Finally Challenge The iPad? – Technology – The Atlantic Wire

Wait for it…wait….

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Speculation is mounting in advance of Wednesday's Amazon press conference, at which the company is expected to announce a new tablet computing device aimed at competing with Apple's wildly successful iPad. The path of competition with the iPad is well-trod, and it has led, so far, to heartbreak. But tech experts think Amazon – maybe only Amazon – has the ability to compete with Apple, and even to force the inventor of the iPad to drop its prices to compete with a new arrival.

via www.theatlanticwire.com

A Denouement and a Bit of a Summary

Anna Karenina – Section Eight, by Leo Tolstoy

  Imagesimage via pinkofperfection.com

Vronsky has received a note from Anna, written prior to her following him to the train station – begging him to return to her.  With this in hand, and as he learns of Anna’s death, he’s devastated. Since he’s a soldier, he determines to fight with the Serbs against the Ottoman Turks, believing that with Anna gone, he should dies, too, and this is the way it should happen.

But then Tolstoy shift gears; he takes Levin and Kitty and the baby back to the farm and their life there. Still plagued by his religious crisis, a chance aside by one of the serfs crystallizes the moment and Levin’s crisis is resolved.

As both Levin and Anna ask, "Who am I? What is this life to me?” we see Anna’s inability to answer such intimate questions lead to her death, while Levin’s struggles with the same questions lead to a tentative contentment.

Images-2image via aformadeofbooks.blogspot.com

I won’t detail Levin’s epiphany here – it’s worth reading the book to arrive, with him, at this moment – but suffice that this is the reason for this final eighth section – to contrast Anna’s and Levin’s metaphysical experience. But Tolstoy is too grounded in Russian life – and his fiction – to make such an abstraction the meat of his long book. I believe his project here, along with depicting Russian life of mid-nineteenth century, complete with its hypocrisy, its wars, its social and governmental dramas, is to contrast rural life in Russia at that time with that of urban society. In his view, urban life is inherently flawed and living it flies in the face of both nature and the divine, while rural life restores and supports the human soul. And he does this through the lives of his two couples – Anna and Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty.

This has been a recurring them in modern human psychology – that there’s something somehow evil in the urban contrivances of humanity, and Tolstoy is, in this book, its most eloquent proponent.

 

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

 

 

Thinking About Endings

I've just finished editing a novel of mine that's gone out of print (editing in this case is almost like writing the story anew; I've learned more about the craft, and markets and readers have changed). It's something of a mystery, a family seeking justice in the death of a child. There's an underlying concept to the novel – abused power disrupts the rule of law, and justice vanishes. 

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image via flickr.com

A last chapter is the place to sum up, to connect the story's specifics to the grander idea involved. As such, last chapters are difficult to write, and I had to spend several days on this one. You can't be preachy; you can't bludgeon the reader with your case-specific ideas. Still, your story has to make the end result inevitable as it exemplifies the concept you've spent so much time writing about.

Too, there must be a little distance between the story's inevitable end and the narrator's voice. The whole project of literature is to present such cases and their ends, all the while leaving it to the reader to plumb his or her own life experiences and to connect those to the story and its end.

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image via msnbc.com

It may be a coincidence that Troy Davis' case in Georgia, and his execution, have been on my mind as I wrote my story's summation. But it's cases such as his that create stories like mine, as we writers try, through the vehicle of fiction, to affirm life by assaying right and wrong.

I'll have more to say about the novel in a few months, hopefully as I'm able to have on its way to being republished.

Collateral Damage and the Unreliable Narrator

I just (Sept. 19th) had a shout-out on The Indie Spotlight, something I hadn't really expected, for a novella I have out on Kindle, Collateral Damage. I haven't been promoting the book (it's only out as an e-book), because there's a chance a publisher who has read it might be interested in a print publication, bound with yet another novella of mine. So I was curious about the response it'd get from the hundred or so people I notified concerning The Indie Spotlight interview and story sample. 

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Taut prose, they said. Tense. Fast paced.

Hmmm. Not what I intended (my narrator would really be confused at that), but a fairly well put together story will usually elicit responses from readers that the writer couldn't possibly have expected.

The story's told in first person by a mentally decaying writer, and I'd expected some comments or concerns about the narrator's reliability. Not a word, but that's okay. Anyone who reads to the final few pages will have major issues with my narrator and how he's been depicting the drama surrounding him and his family. 

This is one way of writing a mystery: the reader will have to sift through "facts" coming from the narrator's perceptive cloud, hoping to find a few clues to what's really been happening.

Well. I may have said too much already.

Anna’s Crisis – and Lévin’s

Anna Karenina – Section Seven, by Leo Tolstoy

  Imagesimage via hostilework.blogspot.com

There’s been a slowly fructifying issue in the story to date, and I haven’t been giving it its due: that Lévin is slowly creeping toward an existential showdown within himself over religious belief. In this section, having read book after book of philosophy trying to explain life, he must take Kitty to Moscow, ostensibly for her pregnancy – but it’s also to visit friends there.

For a while he’s unsettled  – as usual – in the city, but he quickly acclimates. Eventually, however, his unsettled feeling returns, as he finds nothing there to "feed his soul," as he might term it.

Meanwhile, Anna and Vrónsky’s split-up is slowly coming to pass – Vrónsky wishes more “male” freedom, and as Anna seeks to draw him ever nearer, the more Vrónsky edges away.

Finally, Kitty’s pregnancy comes to term, and in some of the most entertaining writing of this long book, Lévin comes unhinged in classic fatherly fashion. Despite his anxiety, and after a long wait, Kitty delivers – a boy.

Vrónsky has left after a final fight with Anna, promising to return soon. Anna has decided that Vrónsky doesn’t love her and, since Alexéi Alexándrovich won’t agree to a divorce, she follows Vrónsky to the train station in a state of despair. Spoiler Alert!!

She commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.

So Tolstoy has masterfully led Anna to the depths of despair as he’s led Lévin to one of life’s cherished moments. To many, this should end the story, and for Chekov and many modern writers, the story would have ended with these opposing life experiences. But Tolstoy isn’t done yet – there’s one more section to go. More then on Lévin's existential crisis and its resolution.

 

My rating 20 of 20