Don Quixote was a steel-drivin’ man

I’m afraid I’m not going to make it through Don Quixote. It started out pretty well, except for the dedicatory poems, which probably lost most of their funniness in the last four centuries and lost the rest when translated into English doggerel. The Don’s initial sally has a certain demented dignity: the publican and prostitutes whom he takes for a castellan and noble ladies find that accommodating his fantasies is amusing enough without needing to humiliate him (the innkeeper even gives him the excellent advice to bring some money along the next time he goes erranting).

The Don himself shows some courtesy, though he also shows the first signs of his arrogance and his tendency to treat everyone he encounters as an enemy. The first time he challenges some random passer-by in his stilted, pompous manner, and then gets his ass kicked, is mildly entertaining, the windmill thing has a kind of grandeur, and nobody gets hurt except the Don himself.

There is also the mock Inquisition in which DQ’s friends and niece burn his books. The modern reader is likely to be creeped out by the knowledge that these were the people, more or less, who gave us the real Spanish Inquisition, making the scene a rather dark farce.

But so far as I can tell, Cervantes ran out of ideas about a hundred pages in. DQ heads out on a second journey, equipped with money which he ends up refusing to use, and encounters some very civil goatherds and then a bunch of aristocrats pretending to be shepherds, like the characters in one of those dreadful pastoral poems (the English ones often feature Colin Clout blowing his oaten reed, lamenting the cruelty of the fair shepherdess, etc.). Cervantes deserves credit for giving the fair shepherdess the chance to tell the shepherds where they can stick their oaten reeds, but otherwise this episode is a snore-fest.

Then we begin to get repeats of Quixote’s previous adventures, only instead of humor, this time there’s nothing but brutality, stupidity,, ugliness, and lots of puking.


DQ and Sancho get beaten up (this time Rocinante gets beaten up too), then they come to an inn, where they bed down in filth and are further beaten up by one of the guests and a spectacularly ugly member of the staff. DQ prepares a healing balsam consisting mostly of rosemary, which sounds harmless enough; anyway, it makes him throw up and then sweat, but later he feels better (it’s very hard to tell Renaissance medicine from a lampoon of Renaissance medicine). After a while Sancho drinks some too, but at first he goes into a sort of seizure instead of vomiting. Then…

By this time the beverage began to work to some purpose, and the poor squire discharged so swiftly and copiously at both ends that neight the rush mat on which he had thrown himself nor the blanket with which he covered himself were of the slightest use to him.

Nice. Sancho gets beaten up some more before they finally head out in search of adventure, which they find when DQ mistakes some sheep for embattled armies. He rides in and kills a bunch of the sheep, until the shepherds (real ones this time) start pelting him with rocks:

At that instant a smooth pebble hit him in the side and buried two ribs in his entrails. Finding himself in such a bad way, he thought for certain that he was killed or sorely wounded, and remembering his balsam, he took out his cruse and raised it to his lips. But before he could swallow what he wanted, another pebble struck him full on the hand, broke the cruse to pieces, carried away with it three or four teeth and grinders out of his mouth, and badly crushed two fingers of his hand.

Well, if that doesn’t have you in stitches, then I don’t know what can be done for you. (Btw, I am not sure about the spelling of cruse, or what the proper ENglish word for it is—it’s some sort of little pot.)

Sancho runs up to see how his master is doing, and the Don asks him to look into his mouth and tell him if he has any teeth left:

Sancho went so close that he almost thrust his eyes into his mouth. And it was precisely at the fatal moment when the balsam that had been fretting in Don Quixote’s stomach came up to the surface, and with the same violence that a bullet is fired out of a gun, all that he had in his stomach discharged itself upon the beard of the compassionate squire.

Sancho for a moment thinks that DQ is vomiting blood, but quickly recognizes the odor of the balsam:

…and so great was the loathing that he felt, that his own stomach turned, and he emptied its full cargo upon his master, and both were in a precious pickle.

Yes, I too thought the balsam had been shot out of his hand before he had time to drink it. But that is by the way.

Can someone tell me it gets better than this, a lot better? Does Don Quixote get more like a real novel, with plot and interesting characters and comedy that might entertain a reader who has successfully completed toilet training, instead of the what appears to be the novelization of Itchy & Scratchy?


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Instead of synopses of poetry books, here are some links to poems I’ve been reading and which I think you might like:


Jude Nutter, “The Shipping Forecast.”

Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Extinction.”

Leslie Shipman, “This Great Sadness.”

Jill McDonough, “Heirloom.”

Jamal May, “There Are Birds Here.”

John Donne, “The Canonization.”


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Book Reports

Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last two months (except for the poetry), from the ones I liked to the ones I didn’t:


Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Adorable portrait of the ultimate nerd, both describing and enacting his childhood obsession with chemistry. Young Oliver used to spend hours ogling the wares at his local chemical supply store before spending his allowance on a bit of mercury or cyanide or whatever. His parents indulged him in every scientific enterprise, but also shipped their kids off to hellish boarding schools and never noticed that they were being starved and brutalized. When an aunt asked why his brother’s back was covered in livid scars and welts, they had no idea, they thought he was enjoying school. Ah, the English upper middle class.


Svante Paabo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Fascinating memoir by the researcher who pioneered the study of the DNA of extinct animals, most notably Neanderthal people. The first step was trying to analyze the DNA of some liver he bought at the grocery store. Paabo is good at explaining the difficulties of assembling a genome from the tiny fragments that remain after milennia (in fact, any large sequences are automatically discarded because they are sure to be modern contaminations). Also digs into his freewheeling sex life with both guys and dolls.


Tim Powers, Three Days to Never.

A heart-warming father-daughter story with time travel, Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, the Harmonic Convergence, and lunatic fringes of Mossad and a cult claiming to derive from Albigensian heretics. Also lots of quotes from The Tempest. Not perfect, but very engaging.


William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

A steampunk classic, maybe the steampunk classic. In alternative Victorian London, the government collects data and processes them with analog computing machines full of tiny gears, based of course on designs by Babbage and Lady Ada Byron, the Prime Minister’s daughter. But someone has designed a virus that criplles these analytical engines, and apparently it’s been stolen…very nicely done, only the invocation of chaos theory seems really dated.


David Lindley, Boltzmann’s Atom.

It is surprising how much resistance the idea of atoms (and molecules) encountered, long after they had shown their usefulness. In 1900, Ernst Mach was still declaring that he did not believe in atoms, though the younger generation had quietly moved on. The objection was that atoms could not be seen or felt directly, and science should only deal with the observable facts.

On the other side was, for example, the kinetic theory of gases. There had always been two separate fields, dynamics, which used concepts like velocity and kinetic energy, and a separate field that attributed to fluids and gases such properties as pressure and temperature. The kinetic theory said that these latter were not separate at all: temperature is just the average kinetic energy of the molecules, pressure just the force exerted by molecules bouncing off a surface. Boltzmann showed that the atomic theory could also explain the mysterious concept of entropy in an exact and elegant way, but his theory was even more controversial because he used statistics, then an unfamiliar subject to physicists.

From a modern perspective, it seems bizarre that so many scientists spurned the power and simplicity of the atomic theory because they couldn’t see the atoms directly. Direct evidence finally arrived in 1905, in Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion (this was his third most important paper of 1905, the other two being special relativity and his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which proved that light comes in quanta).

The book also describes Boltzmann’s life, which is mildly interesting; he appears to have been a rather annoying ditherer.


Tim Powers, Last Call.

Not as good as the other one. This one has Tarot cards, poker, and The Waste Land, with some cross-dressing that must have been a lot more shocking in 1990 than it is now.


Sean Carroll, The Particle at the End of the Universe.

About the Higgs boson. I was happy to learn more about ;its discovery, though at a certain point I still get lost. Emphasizes the large number of people who contributed significantly, making it hard to give anyone the Nobel Prize.


Eric Bergerod, Fire in the Sky The Aire War in the South Pacific.

Churchill it ain’t, but there is some interesting stuff. The Japanese planes were very light and maneuverable, and Allied pilots had to learn that you never wanted to be in a dogfight with a Zero. The Americans gradually developed planes that could dive at high speed and were tremendously durable.

One Japanese strategy was to fly a single Betty bomber over, say, Guadalcanal at night, doing little damage but putting the fear of god into the Allies and keeping them awake. They would desynchronize the propellers, producing an alarming chugging sound that earned them the nickname Washing Machine Charlie.

Also memorable is the fact that we continued fighting on New Guinea long after the front had passed it by, wasting many thousands of lives to no strategic purpose.


M.T. Anderson, Agent Q, or, The Smell of Danger.

Part of a YA series. There are some funny bits, mostly involving the setting in a Delaware whose physical and political geography is more reminiscent of Albania, or maybe North Korea. Anderson can do better, though, and I’d recommend his Feed instead, or maybe the Octavian Nothing books.


Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I like to have a go at a proper literary novel from time to time, though I usually get bored and give up after an hour or so (more for Anne Tyler, less for Richard Ford). I managed to get all the way through this story of musical losers in search of redemption, but it wasn’t exactly fun. The characters are reminiscent of those in a Nick Hornby novel, former hipsters, washed-up rockers, and generally lost souls, but they’re not funny like Hornby people, and are generally too repellant for me to care whether they find redemption. The most appealing are the ones who commit suicide.

Part of my impatience is probably due to the ennui of yet another book about Manhattanites and their status anxieties.


Daryl Gregory, Harrison Squared.

A prequel to his We’re All Completely Fine, this book lacks the weird neuroscience that is one of his trademarks. A very creepy high school swimming pool is not enough to cover the loss. Read Pandemonium or After Party instead.


Ingrid Hill, Ursula Under.

Hill is addicted to the “Little did he know…” trope, which I think is seldom used by real writers. She also seems to have a bit of a fetish about procreation; the author bio says she has 12 children, which seems rather self-indulgent. I didn’t get very far before punting.


Joe Haldeman, Forever Free.

The Forever X franchise definitively jumps the shark. I like Haldeman, but something very bad happened here, leaving his characters adrift in a sea of mannerisms and attitudes, and leaving me unable to finish the book.

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You can’t go home again if you’ve never been there

The other day I ran across a charming example of how very hard it is for people to read what is in front of them. It was in something called the New American Bible, produced by the Catholic Biblical Association of America. The editors have supplied brief introductions to each book, and these seem pretty respectable, acknowledging that the gospels were written by different people with different perspectives, in different contexts, each using various sources.

They also supply little headings within the books, and it was one of these that caught my attention. In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre. The next section is headed, “The Return to Nazareth.”

Do you see the problem? I don’t expect you to, because you haven’t just been reading Matthew, but it’s pretty surprising that the editors of the gospel don’t. The problem is that in Matthew, Joseph and Mary are not from Nazareth, have probably never been there. Matt introduces us to Joseph and Mary without saying anything about where they live, and tells the story of the virgin birth. Then the three guys visit Herod and mention that the new king is being born in Bethlehem. That’s wehre they find the baby Jesus, in a house (nothing about a manger, nothing about a census, no vacancy at the inn, etc.). Any normal reader would assume J and M are from Bethlehem.

But it’s made quite unambiguous when they return from Egypt. If they were from Nazareth, there would be no need for an explanation of why they went from Egypt to Nazareth; if any were offered, it would be that they went there because that’s where they came from. Instead, Matthew gives us an elaborate rationale for why they didn’t just return to Bethlehem, which for him is the obvious choice.   You see, Herod is dead now, but the new rule in Judea, Archilaus, doesn’t seem very nice either, and J & M are afraid that Judea is still not safe. Thus they resort to Galilee, and specifically a town called Nazareth. (In his obsession with prophecy, Matt seems to think that they chose the town so that their child could fulfill a prediction about being called a Nazarean.)

The “return to Nazareth” heading represents an intrusion from a different story in a different book, namely Luke. Matthew and Luke, who knew nothing about each other, faced the same dilemma, that they wanted Jesus to be from Bethlehem, the city of King David and the ideal birthplace for a Messiah, but on the other hand, the one thing everybody knew about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, which was nowhere near Bethlehem. They knew Mark’s gospel, but he has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth, so each evangelist came up with his won clever solution to the problem: Matthew simply had the Holy Fam move to Nazareth after the massacre and exile stories (which allowed him to connect Jesus with Moses), while Luke had them leave home for the census and then return (he gets to include the appealing manger bit and the shepherds). They’re both good stories, but to see just how contradictory they are, consider that Luke’s Holy Family goes from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, showing off their baby at the Temple in Herod’s capital city. Not really what you’d do if you were on the run from Herod.

The editors of the NAB, like the rest of us, grew up with a Nativity narrative that is a rather bizarre gemisch of the two stories, with Matthew’s three guys showing up at Luke’s manger. At some point, probably in grad school, they learned the grownup version, but sometimes the prejudices of a lifetime can jump up and bite you.

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The blog equivalent of a clip show.

Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been reading but haven’t gotten around to blogging on.


A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin.

It’s awkward learning that Dad is a Chinese spy. Well, the Chinese part you already knew, the spy part was a shock. Now that her father has died, the narrator comes to grips with his legacy, including part of the family still in China. Explores aspects of modern China that will be familiar if you read the Economist, and the ethical questions that spy novels always raise, at least the good ones. The American characters seem just a bit off, but then so do some real Americans.


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark.

The title characters attempt to restore magic in early-1800s England to the glorious state it enjoyed during the long reign of the Raven King. Clark has a good feel for the weirdnesses and debilities of the truly nerdy, and her language is fairly convincing. The story takes about 200 pages to get rolling, but eventually comes to life and grows rather alarming.


The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian.

Also set in the Napoleonic era, this is an Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure from fairly late in the series. O’Brian’s period style is superb, really an achievement, but there’s not much else here, Padded out with lots of botanical and zoological research by Dr. Maturin, which must be more fascinating to O’Brian than it is to me.


The War That Came Early series by Harry Turtledove.

Alternative history of World War II; this is a fascinating topic if the author has done his homework at all, so I found myself keeping on with the books even though they are really pretty awful. I did start to fast-forward more and more, trying to get past the endlessly repetitive guy-to-guy conversations about cigarettes and whores and which army has nicer helmets and find out what is going to happen in this universe. There is so much copy-and-paste redundancy even within each volume that I think Turtledove must be writing for people with early-stage dementia. The characters are so unappealing that, when one or two main figures die at the end of each book, I find myself rather relieved that we won’t have to listen to them any more.


On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

JK’s musings can be endearingly ingenuous, though he do go on. The problem is that his buddy Dean Moriarty is one of the flamingest assholes in literature, and I was only able to get through the first chapters because he disappears for a while. JK’s infatuation with Dean is just embarrassing, or rather both embarrassing and annoying.


The Stairkarm Handshake by Nancy Price.

Time-travel story, slightly futuristic evil corporation wants to exploit early-modern folk on the Scottish-English border. Two pluses are a fairly serious attempt to deal with the language issue and our heroine’s experience as an overweight young woman transported from a culture where she is invisible to one where she is a beauty. It doesn’t hurt that the locals think she’s an elf. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be very bright, and when she falls for a beautiful but rascally youth, she starts to act truly stupid. Lots of girls and boys have done the same, but it ain’t pretty.


Darkness Take My Hand and others by Dennis Lehane.

Gritty crime novels set in the Boston area. A pleasing atmosphere of pervasive corruption, though the tough ethnic lore is laid on a bit thick. The above-named and Gone, Baby, Gone are pretty good, then the series kinda jumps the shark, growing sentimental and excessively obsessed with the astonishing sexual magnetism of the narrator’s gf. One mesmerized buff young shop assistant per novel should really suffice.


Headlong, by Michael Frayn.

As usual with Frayn, we see the world through the distorting glass of the protagonist’s hobby-horses and delusions, in this case his obsession with a painting he is shown by ignorant acquaintances and which he thinks is a Breugel. Fun and stylish, but not as much fun as Spies or A Landing on the Sun.


John Wayne’s America and Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills.

It is a real tribute to Wills that I enjoyed and got lots of good stories from his book about a figure for whom I care nothing at all. The book about leaders is also engaging, despite the cheesy title. Wills appears to know everything that should be known about an impressive variety of people and things, from John Ford to John XXIII, from Socrates to Madonna, from transubstantiation to McCarthyism.


The Magicians’ Land by Lev Grossman.

A series that seemed so promising goes out with a fizzle. In the final (I hope) volume, our hero and his snobby friends confirm that no, nothing in this world is worth caring about or trying to improve. The rest of us are just crap compared to their solipsistic fantasies. Grossman is pretty smart, I suppose, but I came away from this book not only fed up with his work but convinced that he is an extremely distasteful person.


Living the Dream by Hakeem Olajuwon.

Much more interesting than most athlete memoirs, since Olajuwon tells us about growing up in Nigeria and the adjustment to life in Houston, as well as his changing attitude toward Islam. Gets rather preachy in the last chapters, but that’s par for the course.


The Secret Place by Tana French.

Police procedural set in Dublin. It is refreshing to have a story about Ireland in which the characters are not all virtuoso trad musicians in their spare time, or constantly debating the IRA, or whatever. One can believe in these cops and in these rather scary teen girls.


Wooden A Coach’s Life by Seth Davis.

There are not that many old white Republicans who would have won the respect of Kareem and Bill Walton. Despite his sanctimoniousness, his sloganeering, and his bad taste in poetry, John Wooden was probably the most admirable as well as the most brilliant basketball coach around.


Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido.

Helen Vendler says these poems are dazzling. Me, I found them like lobster: you saw and wrench and get butter all over the place and finally you are rewarded with a little scrap of something that tastes like chicken. Meh.


Clariel, the Lost Abhorson by Garth Nix.

Cute Shakespeare ref in the title, otherwise fairly standard YA fantasy, teen girl stifled by society, must learn to control her supernatural powers. A bit unusual in that she’s a berserker, so her powers involve kicking a lot of ass and then having berserker’s remorse.


E=mc^2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis.

There is some interesting historical stuff about each of the terms in the equation—did you know that Voltaire’s longtime partner, Mme. du Chatelet, was a distinguished scientist and accomplished fencer? Not a berserker, though. Sadly, the parts that involve explaining physics are rather sketchy and disappointing. It’s a common pattern in popular science books.


Dangerous Goods by Sean Hill.

Poems about growing up black in rural Georgia, winter in northern Minnesota, and everything in between. Hill is something of a wit, and is not afraid to be intelligible. His emotional control allows the reader to let her guard down a bit.


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Strange But Not a Stranger

My essay “Strange But Not a Stranger” appears in the current issue of _Neutrons/Protons_:

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Always One Foot on the Ground

I like the way Nick Hornby writes. I even read a whole novel of his that was narrated by a teenager who has heart-to-hearts with his Tony Hawke poster. Whether speaking through a character or as an impersonal narrative voice, his tone is vernacular, chatty, most at home in the tone of a rueful smartass. His people tend to be losers, more or less, washed-up rock musicians or aging hipsters who have realized that they are starting to blend in with the backwater town they live in instead of standing out in splendid camp irony, or teens whose self-destructive impulses have succeeded beyond their intentions.

So I was happy to see a new Hornby novel on the BGL, even if it wasn’t really new: High Fidelity dates from the mid-‘90s, and having read it, I think his work has improved substantially in the intervening years, not so much in his command of comedy as in his ability to tell a compelling human story.

Our narrator, Rob, is a popular-music nerd (like his creator) who owns a wee record store in London. In one sense, he is proud enough to look down on all those who own Pink Floyd and Kate Bush records instead of Bruce Springsteen and Solomon Burke (no, it doesn’t make sense to me either); in another, he worries that he hasn’t accomplished anything, and at age 35 isn’t a young hipster any more.

And now Laura has dumped him. So we get a capsule history of Rob’s romantic life, beginning with his first gropings with a fellow 12-year-old, followed by his first dumping:


Where had I gone wrong? First night: park, fag, snog. Second night: ditto. Third night: ditto. Fourth night: chucked.

OK, OK, maybe I should have seen the signs—maybe I was asking for it. Round about that second ditto I should have spotted that we were in a rut…

Just to be clear, they’re cigarettes, not gay people he’s referring to. Anyway, it’s a cute reductio ad absurdum of relationship analysis cliches.


Back in real time, Rob goes to a gig to see an American alt-country songstress:

She’s got a couple of records out on an independent label, and once had one of her songs covered by Nanci Griffith. Dick says Marie lives here now; he read somewhere that she finds England more open to the kind of music she makes. Which means presumably that we’re cheerfully indifferent rather than actively hostile.

There are a lot of single men here. Not single as in unmarried, but single as in no friends.


I enjoy this kind of snark, enlivening what could otherwise be dreary exposition…the musical nerdery here seems spot-on too.

Sadly, pop music and even witty banter only get you so far, and Rob has noticed that there is an unfortunate gulf between life on vinyl and life in this world:

Well, I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song, just once. I know I’m not born to run, I know that the Seven Sisters Road is nothing like Thunder Road, but feelings can’t be so different, can they? I’d like to phone all those people up and say good luck and good-bye,, and then they’d feel good and I’d feel good. We’d all feel good. That would be good.


Rueful smartass, yes. Grownup human, not so much. People tell him (more than once) that he is kind, but the evidence is thin on the ground. He can’t accept the loss of Laura and starts calling her all the time and basically stalking her, which is so not cool. Then her father dies, and he she calls, surprisingly, and asks him to come to the funeral. Which he should be chuffed about, but then there’s this death thing:

Everything that’s ever gone wrong for me could have been rescued by the wave of a bank manager’s wand. Or Or by a girlfriend’s sudden change of mind, or or by some quality—determination, self-awareness, resilience—that I might have found within myself if I’d looked hard enough.

I don’t want to have to cope with the sort of unhappiness Laura’s feeling. Not ever. If people have to die, I don’t want them dying near me. My Mum and Dad won’t die near me, I’ve made bloody sure of that; when they go, I’ll hardly feel a thing.


OK, Rob is an unusually self-aware creep, but definitely in creep territory. Having spent so much time with him, we are happy to see that he has at least started to recognize the thingsthat are making his life so unpleasant. But he has a long way to go, and the novel only shows him going about one-tenth of the distance. Still, one-tenth is frequently enough to win the girl, in fiction and, I suspect, in real life.

Rob’s fear of commitment, his desire to keep one foot on the ground, is certainly not an implausible issue for a guy to have, perhaps especially for a guy with his knack for getting attractive women to have sex with him. But it does get a bit tiresome, and his griping about having a girlfriend who makes more money than he does is tiresome right from the start, and rather embarrassing in an urban dude of the ‘90s.

So I enjoyed HF but I’d recommend Juliet, Naked as my favorite, along with a collection of his columns from the Believer called More Baths, Less Talking.



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