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    • I have fallen behind on my magazine reading so I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time getting caught up on New Yorker magazines—they reproduce weekly—and other mags I’ve picked up while on errands. So my book reading has been limited this past week. Why did I fall behind? I was caught up reading the latest book of an author I will be interviewing this weekend. My current night stand reading, in addition to reading last month’s winning caption on the back page of the New Yorker, includes this treatise on the craft of writing.

    • I read On Writing when it first came out and LOVED IT! I have probably recommended it a dozen times.

      Right now I’m reading The Startup Hero by Tim Draper. The Drapers are wonderfully crazy.

    • It takes you through a variety of activities, questions, stories and challenges (even puzzles and poems) working both the right and left side of your brain and all the parts in between. The activities I propose are challenging and sometimes even embarrassing. The questions I ask are probing and provoking. 

      Any interesting activities worth sharing?

      Or poems?

    • Since I am returning to Scotland this fall, I am re-reading Rory Stewart's "The Marches - A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland" because I plan to visit some of the abbeys in the borderland south of Edinburgh and along Hadrian's Wall. Stewart's journal covers a bit of Scottish, and North Umbrian, and Roman History, and an intimate look at the geography of the landscape and its peoples that he describes as he walks about 400 miles in the "middle ground" between Scotland and England. He has an ironic sense of humor that I enjoy as well.

    • I'm reading War Doctor, enjoying it. Quoting from a review from the Guardian:

      "In late 1993, the surgeon David Nott travelled from his home in London to a hospital in war-torn Sarajevo on his first humanitarian mission. Two weeks into the trip, a teenage boy was brought in with a metal fragment in his abdomen, sustained from one of the mortars that had been raining down on the city for days. He was anaesthetised and taken to an operating theatre where Nott set about opening his abdomen to inspect the damage. After making the incision, he heard an enormous crash and the lights went out. The hospital had taken a direct hit, leaving him in the dark trying to stem the bleeding by squeezing the boy’s aorta while pressing down on a swab. When the lights eventually flickered back on, Nott realised he was all alone. The rest of the team – an anaesthetist, a scrub nurse and an assistant – had fled the room and taken cover in the basement. The boy, meanwhile, had died.

      In War Doctor, Nott’s account of 25 years dispensing life-saving treatment in some of the most dangerous places in the world, he describes his fury at having been abandoned, though later he comes to understand his colleagues’ actions. “This experience taught me two things,” he explains. “First, I’d have to toughen up; second, I also had to take care of myself. Not just because there was no one else there who was going to do that for me, but because I wouldn’t be helping anyone if I was dead.”

      We’re hardly short of books by doctors describing difficult work carried out in straitened circumstances – think Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands or Adam Kay’s This Is Going to Hurt – but Nott’s is something else entirely. Where most people strive to avoid trouble, he actively goes in search of it. “It is a kind of addiction,” he says in the prologue, “a pull I find hard to resist.” His stories of courage and compassion in the face of seemingly certain death are breathtaking. There’s the time, for instance, that Syrian jihadis stormed the makeshift hospital in which he was working after spotting him on the roof with a camera. Assuming he was photographing their movements, they were poised to drag him away but were persuaded not to on realising that the camera contained pictures of sunsets. Or there’s the moment he and his head nurse were driven to meet Mullah Omar, the feared Taliban leader, to secure permission to operate on a young Afghan woman who was haemorrhaging after childbirth. “His manner was serene, almost statesman-like,” Nott recalls. “I think just to get rid of us, he agreed to our request.”

      His reflections on why he does what he does are compelling in a different way. Why would he so willingly put himself in the path of danger? Part of it, he says, is altruism – a simple desire to save lives and put his skills in general and vascular surgery to the best possible use. However, his first trip to Sarajevo reveals another reason. There, while travelling with a patient in an ambulance across the city, the vehicle was targeted by a sniper. Nott, the patient and the driver survived but the porter travelling with them died from bullet wounds to the chest, neck and face. Nott describes how his shock at the attack was followed by relief at having escaped death. But then he observes another feeling: “I felt elated, exhilarated, euphoric. I had never felt more alive; it was as if I had been reborn … If I could cope with this, I thought, I could cope with anything.”"

    • I always have a bunch of books on the go (four at present). One of those, apropos of @Pathfinder 's post, is From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 by James E. Fraser, which is a history of Scotland more or less from the earliest record c.61 AD to 795 AD. This book, at least in the first third, covers the Roman hinterland between the walls and also Bernicia, which would become the kingdom of Northumberland. It's not the most accessible book, but quite nice if you've ready widely on the period, and presents things from a new perspective (very post-modern in that way). There are better books for first-timers, though.

      The book I really wanted to talk about, though, is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is considered a classic of SF/Fantasy (it straddles that line).

      We're reading this with my book club, and doing what we call a 'slow read', which means reading about 20-30 pages a week, then pausing to reflect and discuss the section each week. We're nearly a quarter of the way through, and will continue until Christmas. The entire work is actually composed of 4 sequential novels.

      The Book of the New Sun is incredibly rich in a number of ways. For one, it's exceedingly well written. Wolfe was highly admired by his peers, including Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Leguin, who once referred to him and the Herman Melville of SF. It;s also very rich in vocabulary, which many archaic and unusual words - English words - use to lend the setting both an antique feel and an exotic feel. It's very rich in its setting, which is a city called Nessus, located somewhere in the southern hemisphere, in the far distant future under a dying red sun. It's rich in meaning, with several allusions to the story of Christ, and hidden meanings arising from the unusual vocabulary. And the story itself is one of depth, following a man of questionable circumstances (he's a member of the guild of torturers as the story begins) through to eventual self redemption.

      Wolfe died just a few weeks ago and there were a number of good obits. The best piece I've seen it writing, though, is this 2016 bio from The New Yorker by Peter Bebergal, of which an excerpt below:

      For science-fiction readers, “The Book of the New Sun” is roughly what “Ulysses” is to fans of the modern novel: far more people own a copy than have read it all the way through. A surreal bildungsroman, the book centers on a character named Severian. Trained as a torturer on the planet Urth, where torturers are a feared and powerful guild, Severian betrays his order by showing mercy, allowing a prisoner to kill herself rather than be subjected to his terrible ministrations. He then wanders the land encountering giants, anarchists, and members of religious cults. He eventually meets and supplants the ruler of Urth, the Autarch.

      The four books that make up the series are sometimes vexing. A wise reader will keep a dictionary nearby, but it won’t always prove useful. Though Wolfe relies merely on the strangeness of English—rather than creating a new language, like Elven or Klingon—he nonetheless dredges up some truly obscure words: cataphract, fuligin, metamynodon, cacogens. The setting appears medieval, but slowly we tease out that what is ancient to these characters was once our own possible future. A desert’s sands are the glass of a great city, and the creaking steel walls that make up Severian’s cell in the guild dormitory is likely an ancient spaceship. Reading “The Book of the New Sun” is dizzying; at times, you become convinced that you have cracked a riddle, and yet the answer fails to illuminate the rest of the story. Wolfe doesn’t reveal the truth behind any of the central mysteries explicitly, but lets them carry the narrative along. At first, one hopes that they will eventually be resolved. Ultimately, they become less important than Severian’s quest for his own truth.

      Unlike Latro, Severian remembers everything. But this does not make him a more reliable narrator. “The fact that he remembers everything doesn’t mean he won’t color the events through his own preconceptions and preferences,” Wolfe told me. Severian is free to pick and choose what he wants the reader to know—there are times when he loses trust in his own judgment, and at one point he even admits that he might be insane. In the early part of the first novel, “The Shadow of the Torturer,” Severian is given more responsibility in the guild and finds himself in chambers he was once denied access to. In one, he sees a dusty and faded picture he describes as “an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.” Careful readers will realize this as a photograph of the first moon landing, but to Severian it merely evokes a deep nostalgia, as well as a desire to steal the picture and bring it outside, away from the stifling interior of the guild’s Citadel.

      Moments like this have turned many of Wolfe’s fans into something like Biblical exegetes, who dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and the characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it. Many critics have speculated that Severian is a Christ figure: he brings the New Sun and puts an end to the cruelty of torture. But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images. Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.

    • I usually have two books under way at the same time, one on my Kindle, one on the Kindle app on my phone (for when I am away from home).

      On my phone I'm reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. I'm still in the early years, during her transition from attorney to advocacy. So far, a good read.

      On my Kindle I'm reading Pete Buttigieg's Shortest Way Home. I'm about halfway through the book and I'm finding it very interesting.

    • I read this book a few years ago and now feel like it may be time for a re-read! Just pulled it off of my bookshelf...I recall it being quite dense.

    • I began reading the early pages on Amazon, and am quite impressed by the literary quality of Buttigiegs's book. I remember the blizzard of '78 quite well. I had a brand new Scout II in the drive way and it was put to good use going to the grocery store along with all the 4 wheel drive farm tractors in the parking lot there. As a fellow Hoosier, I find Buttigieg's book interesting.

      Shadow and Claw looks interesting as well, again good writing and vocabulary. I had not heard of Gene Wolfe before, but I am a hard sci-fi guy, not really a science fantasy reader.

      I still remember the hard Science fiction of "Astounding Science Fiction" magazine from my childhood, edited by John W Campbell

    • If you do end up cracking the spine on The Book of the New Sun, you might find it interesting to follow along our book club discussion as you go. I also didn't especially get along with this book the first time I read it, but am appreciating it much more in the environment of a communal read, and in the format of a slow read.

    • I would, but the book is all off the place. It starts off on a point then jumps a few hundred years in the future, then jumps back again.

      Though, as an answer, it is an example of an elective monarchy, which lasted till 1806. Most people assume that the first born child (normally a son) inherits the throne. However, the HRE was elective. The emperor/king did not have to be German either, with nobles from England and Spain being Elected to the position. Richard of Cornwall was elected to the ruler of Holy Roman Empire in 1257 

      Henry VIII was also a candidate for the position, but wasn't elected/

    • I'm about halfway through too now. Very interesting book, thanks for the heads up!

      Next on my list is David McCullough's "The Pioneers" - again about the mid west I think, the opening, Chapter One, is titled " The Ohio Country"

    • @apm Did you see that Michelle's book "Becoming" has a companion journal that was released today? It looks great! Here are some of the writing prompts from the "look inside" pages:

      Write about a time when you spoke your truth to others. How did it make you feel? What did you learn?

      Write about a specific experience when someone dislodged a dream of yours by trying to lower your expectations. How did it make you feel? How did you try to overcome that obstacle? List five ways that person was wrong.

      List three people who contribute to your circle of strength. Next to each person's name, describe why he or she is so dependable.

      Describe someone you know who was brave enough to tell their story. How did it change your perception of them? How did it change your perception of yourself?

    • Note: @apm = @StephenL . New name, new avatar. Same dude.


      Write about a specific experience when someone dislodged a dream of yours by trying to lower your expectations. How did it make you feel? How did you try to overcome that obstacle? List five ways that person was wrong.

      I can relate to this question on such a deep level, @Jain . Many people in my journey have set lower expectations for me—I was considered learning disabled in elementary school, for starters. But I’ve always taken it as throwing down the gauntlet and worked twice as hard to prove them wrong: as an adult I qualified for admittance to Mensa, the high IQ society.

      Powerful stuff. I’ll be sure to look for the companion journal when I’m at the bookstore tonight.


    • Having just returned from two weeks in Scotland, wandering about the Highlands, the Isle of Lewis, and the Midlands around Hadrian's wall, I relearned, once again, how tough the local terrain can be to walk on. Makes me even more impressed by Mr Stewart's walk