I mentioned last week that I havenʼt thought in print about what I have been reading lately. So I will do so today. As if anyone is actually interested. I have been indulging in a lot of nonfiction.

First off, I still dabble in the fascinating (and well written) Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal, which I originally picked up at Borders in St. Charles, Illinois, back on March 14 and have mentioned a couple of times on this forum already. I have been reading it not so much because its message is so perfectly apropos in these hysterically Hitlerian paranoid days. (Did everyone hear about how, over the past weekend, Rightist-inspired arsonists attacked, predictably really, the Murpheesboro, TN, new mosque site? And I was supposed to feel abashed at lumping fundamentalist maniacs of every religious stripe together, huh? I hit that bigoted and partisan nail directly on the vacant cabeza.)

I did actually buy Menocalʼs book as research for the Judah-and-Søren story(-ies). I read two more chapters over the weekend, encompassing Sephardic Golden Age Hebrew poets (Samuel ha-Nagid in particular), Ibn Hazm and the origins of the medieval Cult of Love, and Andalusian qiyan (and their “ring-songs”) as the stimulative influence on troubador music and poetry. As a history fan of that period and of courtly love in general (via Arthuriana, Dante, Joseph Campbell — the second and fourth books of The Masks of God [“Amor” versus “Roma”] — and Denis de Rougemontʼs Love in the Western World), I was amused to connect back to familiar things to me (although having read about the Islamic influence on European rhyming verse and Sufi poetry on courtly love, I did vaguely realize the importance of al-Andalus already).

Thanks to her book, however, I may even have finally pinned down the era in which the two swordsmen live — as my sister Margaret had suggested a long time back, the taifa age after the fall of Cordoba. I have deeply enjoyed reading this book when I pick it up, which is very pleasant as I really only purchased it as a reference, to learn about the time and place in which I wanted to set my sword-and-sorcery adventures.

On the other hand, recent mosque nonsense has gotten me interested in information versus propaganda (particularly the insanely paranoid and terrifying ravings of the Fundie haters that permeate the Web). I think I mentioned that I used some Borders bucks to buy a 1934 translation with notes of the Qurʼan, and I have been reading it (along with, more particularly, a reorganized Penguin Books edition I had purchased in 1980). I have been amused and interested to check citations from other books against the Qurʼan (and against “the Koran,” although I mostly have just been reading that book), and to get the translator/annotatorʼs insights on passages and translations into English. It is fun (as my brother Paul learned way back in high school), even when you donʼt know a language (as I do not know Arabic, not even recollecting how to recognize Coca-Cola in Arabic nowadays, which I once learned while we were in Morocco), to compare translatorsʼ versions. For Paul that early scholarship has worked into his theological/Biblical studies becoming a Methodist minister. For me, it is still intriguing.

A few weeks earlier, poking through the cutout/discontinued books displayed at the Dubuque Borders (I really do shop at Barnes & Noble, too, just not so much recently, I guess — no trips to Cedar Rapids or Davenport), I found the large-format, softcover book, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Islam by Raana Bokhari and Dr. Mohammed Seddon (which at the time seemed possible for at least some background on al-Andalus/Sepharad-or-Sefarad and which now provides a reasonable tonic to the web delerium that has so provoked me the past two Fridays). Although only less than a third of the way into it, I have been learning (and clarifying) a lot. Its two-page spread format makes for easy reading now and then when I decide to pick up the book and peruse for a half hour. Every two open pages is one essay on a particular topic (i.e. the childhood of the Prophet, “Marriage to Khadijah” or “Applying Hadith”), with the book organized mostly chronologically but with chapters on beliefs, practices, life in the ummah and other issues/topics. Having covered chapter one, “Muhammad: Man and Prophet,” I am tackling “The History of Islam” next, including one single spread on Islamic al-Andalus (and from what I have read already, I am going to need a lot of supporting research to reach some understanding).

I have also gone to my ancient Time-Life series, picking out the Early Islam volume from the Great Ages of Man. Last Friday and Saturday, I read chapter one and the subsequent photo essay on the Life (and Legends) of Muhammad as verification and further reading on what I gleaned from the Bokhari/Seddon book up to then. Reading it made me check other T-L series, and I have pulled out What Life Was Like in the Lands of the Prophet and Crescent Booksʼ The Moors (probably the most on target for Søren and Judah) to read soon.

Lest the shade of my departed mother think I am now contemplating a recitation of the shahada (“la ilaha illa Allah; Muhammad rasul Allah” — “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet” — or “Messenger” as Bokhari/Seddon would have it; or click the link to see the various Wikipedia translations) instead of the conversion to Judaism she once feared back in the late Seventies/early Eighties, I have also been reading other books (and magazines and websites). I acquired Giles Sparrowʼs The Stargazerʼs Handbook from the cutouts, and I was skimming in that (love the pictures!) on some afternoons, although it hasnʼt been the source for my astrophotos illustrating the various pieces of Stars in Heaven. I also brought out the Norton Annotated edition of The Waste Land on a whim two weekends back to reread the poem and dip into some of the critical essays. The new Smithsonian still has a couple of articles I want to finish, as does Archaeology (which, along with Time, I have to renew now). I also have had The White Goddess out again, having worked through the first two chapters back in March.

Furthermore, I have been reading some fiction. First, having been inspired by the TV series that weʼve been watching Sunday nights, I am on chapter five in I, Claudius by Robert Graves (yeah, he keeps cropping up in this blog). I started Samuel R. Delanyʼs Nova, but then switched to his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, which is about half done, set aside for the spate of Islamic nonfiction briefly/sometimes. Leiberʼs Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are still in the stack by my bedside (I have moved on to Swords Against Wizardry, rereading the very fine “Stardock” so far), and Iʼve still got The Dain Curse to reread out of the complete Hammett. Plus Fred Hoyleʼs Ossianʼs Ride sits in my interior vest pocket for entertainment, if necessary, when I am out and about — just about half reread or a bit more. But maybe I will discuss the fiction some other time.

N.B. All my own scans today, and although begun and mostly written on Monday, I slated it for today to complement the previous Friday rants…

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Good (Old) Book

My politics keep getting me in trouble with some people (or at least infuriating their Fox-News-fed gut reactions). Unfortunately for them, the rabid reductionism and rabble-rousing sloganeering of the right has got me scared. Eerily, even reading a fifty-year-old book can contribute to my dread of the future, as happened when I finished the James Blish tetralogy After Such Knowledge just after the new year. The series is composed of (obviously) four books, which one can consider either in the order that Blish wrote them or in their historical order (meaning the eras when the events of each book are supposed to occur).

The four books are: A Case of Conscience (1958), Dr. Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter (1968) and The Day after Judgment (1972). Some people consider the last two one book (and so they have been published—The Devil’s Day) since the last is a direct sequel to Black Easter with the same characters and mostly related situations. Except for the final two (when listed in order of publication), they are independent novels that share nothing except author and (as Blish declared) themes. Otherwise, they are quite different.

A Case of Conscience is a straightforward science fiction novel (albeit with religious themes and a priest for the major character). The two novels of The Devil’s Day are horror books, in which the practice of black magic causes the end of creation in publication-contemporary times—about 1970 (I guess there’s a religious connection, and like Conscience a major character in holy orders). The historical novel Dr. Mirabilis is a fictional biography of Roger Bacon (so I guess we again have a major character in holy orders, whom popular tradition has associated with black magic). The thematic links may be stronger than I at first led you to believe. However, there is no set order to read them as with a plot-connected series, and if you accept the fantasy of the end of everything set out in The Devil’s Day stories, the future of A Case of Conscience can’t happen because everything ended in about 1970, before the time of the science fiction story, 2050.

As my copy of Dr. Mirabilis was falling apart already many years ago, I ordered the four combined into one volume in 2000 from Allan Williams in Feversham, Great Britain—via, I think. In that edition they are ordered by date of events: Dr. Mirabilis, Black Easter, The Day after Judgment, A Case of Conscience. I just finished reading them all again in that order. And they remain as readable and interesting as I have thought on several previous excursions into Blish’s imagination.

At any rate, perhaps because it is the story most recently finished, I would like to not-quite consider A Case of Conscience today.

Those Awful Aliens

So I was reading this book, you see…

I don’t know when that statement could not be true. However, I have read somewhat less in recent months, partly because I was trying to discipline myself to write (not read!) and partly because I think my current glasses are way off (and the dad-durned coating is smearing with each cleaning: cheap, damned optometrist) so I don’t see things in the closer ranges very well recently. I found myself removing my glasses altogether Sunday morning and just pressing my nose (almost literally) against the page to read Time magazine. Sad.

I have done the same thing at night, pulling a book right to my face (but tipped toward the available light) glassesless to read for a while. Without glasses the print is bigger and within centimeters of my eyes almost sharper.

I finished reading a chapter toward the end of A Case of Conscience by James Blish in this elderly style. Perhaps I was more than usually taken by the events and characters in that story because of my peculiar reading technique, but part two of that novel really smacked me this year.

Blish is best known for another series of books (an actual plot-connected tetralogy), Cities in Flight. That series is clear-cut science fiction, imagining a future when the old-fashioned (the series, which came out of the Fifties and early Sixties, was deeply informed by the Great Depression), hard-driving steeltown cities of the U.S. and the world encapsulate themselves and activate antigravity technology (“spindizzies”) for farflung adventures through the galaxy, wandering like hobos or displaced Depression-era Okie migrants, searching for work. It’s a great series, one of the best in sci-fi, with deeper themes than one might at first glean (or that were apparent to me when I read the four books first in high school). I have all four collected in one volume; maybe I should visit the Okie future again.

On the other hand, the great Blish work is A Case of Conscience [I have chosen all negative reviews for you in those three links], the culmination (chronologically) of his After Such Knowledge tetralogy, which openly and directly deals with moral and religious issues. All four books delve into questions of knowledge, theology, innocence and experience. In A Case of Conscience, the theological question is whether Satan might be tempting humanity to sin through an alien race that (Manichean heresy!) Satan created. The major character, a Jesuit priest, develops this theory of the new planet Lithia, which he and three other scientists are trying to assess. The Lithians, who morph through several life forms in their growth to maturity, thus being “at home” with their environment in a deeply biological sense, have a very highly ethical society but absolutely no sense of religion. How can one be ethical but nonreligious? Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez dreads the answer may be Satanic manipulation.

Part one includes a lot of veiled references to Finnegans Wake, as Father Ramon has been reading Joyce’s book, trying to sort out some of the immensely tangled and theologically related issues in that vast dreamworld. Author Blish is playing with us readers: only at the end of part one does Father Ramon think about the title of the book to himself so that we know what Satanic volume troubled his mind, as the world on which he has landed with the other scientists troubles his soul. Having first read A Case of Conscience in high school, at my sister’s behest, the Wake’s presence there may have ignited my Joyce love…

By the end of part one, Father Ramon believes that Lithia, the alien world, is a deliberate Satanic creation, meant to tempt humanity from religious belief, as the Lithians—giant, intelligent lizards totally without religion—are more ethical and humane than we humans. Lithia is a trap, he feels, just as Joyce’s dreamscape novel is also a devilish snare for cultured minds (oh, how Joyce would have adored that insight). It’s not often you get sophisticated lit crit in science fiction novels (and Finnegans Wake was less than twenty years in final print, so a truly modern novel in Blish’s day). Even with its pulp-fiction trappings and contrived action/suspense, the story presents a fine portrait of a religious man’s mind and doubt.

Because the Wikipedia article on Blish’s book gives you all the plot anyone could want (making the story seem quite a bit less than it is), I’ll skip straight to the wow factor. In part two, Father Ramon has brought to Earth the egg of one of the Lithians he befriended (that must be the ultimate realization of the unnecessary neologism “frenemy”—accepting a living gift from someone you believe to be a Satanic device, yet whom you respect and even admire). In an interesting opening section to part two, the egg hatches and the small Lithian (whose perspective we receive) grows up, damaged by not being able to go through his changes of creature on Lithia or in anything truly like the appropriate environments. Once he matures, the alienated Lithian is granted full Earth citizenship (a mistake) and considerable freedom. This visiting alien with no true home, Egtverchi, abuses the freedom his lack of identity either with his home world or Earth has given him to become a media star, a critic of earthly social life (with good reason in the book). He then uses his fame to stir his enthusiastic but hooligan fans to riot, expressing their disfavor with society. He is a frighteningly populist media agitator.

Reading the book over Christmastime recently, Egtverchi’s behavior scared me. Scared me truly. He was uncomfortably too similar to the vocal buffoons made media stars today by… (oh, just wait for it a bit) of course, Fox News. He is equally nonsensical but appealing. A certain faction of society, moderately disaffected, alienated, feels profoundly stirred by Egtverchi’s rants, identifying with their star and with his “message,” however little his message makes sense. The fans even identify with his obvious paranoia. But Egtverchi claims just to be a clown, an entertainer (sadly, weakly, the same defense offered for the Fox News talking heads—Glenn, Hannity, O’Reilly—when caught lying, distorting and spewing contradictions) until the time Egtverchi tests his fans’ devotion by getting them to bury his broadcaster and sponsor in mail. They do, wildly. Once he knows his power as a media celebrity, he instructs his viewers that it’s time to let the government know how badly they think it has performed by rioting (yes, oh, teabaggers—just like August 2009).

Evil Clown from Satan’s Planet? (click to be sure)

Blish’s imaginary scenario and his wildly uncontrolled character felt too much like the media voices of our neo-Right. I felt chilled and scared. At least for a day or two. Blish, in 1958, was probably basing Egtverchi’s antics at least somewhat on Hitler, perhaps Stalin. But Hitler’s comic role in Twenties Germany seems closer. Of course, closer yet—oh, prescient Blish—is the mad buffoon of Fox News, the one who knows all about arguing with idiots having observed arguments with himself. The one—self-proclaimed clown entertainer—who has hypnotized his dupes/fans with slogans and paranoia into loyal obedience, who supposedly will unveil his plan for America’s future this summer. (Oh, yeah, I want a scary clown telling me how American should be.) Disaffected, alienated from the legally elected government, screaming his (supposedly entertaining) abuse and woes into the media ether to provide fodder for his dupes’ prejudices, placing the vast uncultured of America at his Beck and call.

I just hope Blish got the riots wrong…

Did that get it out of my system? Doubtful. Finishing the book really did make me think again about the wild voices screeching on our Right. These media madmen feel they can say anything—absolutely anything—regardless of contradiction, regardless of sense, regardless of law, Constitution or history—and get believed. That belief is the horrible element. What may such believers do? Those suckers, chumps, stooges who listen and believe—they really frighten me.

The echoes of their agony (how like the fallen angels’) cackle along the airwaves still.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

January is for Janus: Looking Both Forward and Back

This month gets its name, as I hope many of you already know, from the Roman god, Janus, who was generally pictured looking both ways at once—thus the title for this post. In fact, if you use the link associated with his name in the previous sentence, the site pictures a coin featuring the most frequent, two-headed (or is it two-faced?) Janus image. Therefore, as I set out to be more regular in posting to this blog, it seems appropriate to use the notion of Janus in January, since I keep looking both forward and back. I’ve been ransacking my poetry files (old stuff, looking backward into the past) for material to place in this high-tech, (for me) futuristic medium. I’ve also been planning some new developments for future posts. I have also been looking back to quietly edit and refine former posts, removing little errors and infelicities of expression—fixing up the past from the present, yesterday’s tomorrow. And then you get to reflect back in comments. It’s all very Januslike.

Today’s post is even more appropriate to the month, since I am composing it yesterday, looking ahead to today. Yes, I am beginning to take my responsibilities here seriously. This way I can take time to revise and edit tomorrow what I write tonight that you will read a little later tomorrow (or even days later, perhaps weeks or months or years afterward).

Go Hawks?

I suppose I should, since it’s the big Iowa bowl game tonight, make some kind of prognostication about the outcome that I can then revise tomorrow to make sure I am correct. But as those of you who know me realize, I’m just not all that interested in sports, unlike so many Facebook friends who are expressing all kinds of excitement about the game this evening. Although I did actually watch the last five minutes of the North Carolina/Pitt game on December 26, missing the actual field goal that won it for Pitt (it was Pitt that won, wasn’t it?). I mostly found it amusing that they chose to call the thing the Meinecke Car Care Bowl. That has to be a maximum ridiculosity for corporate sponsorship flatulence. However, I won’t really care whether Iowa gets to triumph or not. Right now I do hope that everyone at play practice will want to see the game so badly that we don’t have to rehearse very long. But I can let you know tomorrow how that hope works out tonight.


Janus is the god of doors and beginnings. I am hoping that this blog can be a doorway in many ways. First, it is making me open myself, like a door, an experience with which I am actually quite unfamiliar. It’s a passage from writing in isolation toward appreciating an audience. An opening to paid work? A portal for you into my mind and heart, for me into your reactions, interpretations and criticisms.

And of course, we are at the beginning of all this, at the beginning of the year (beginning of the decade according to the culture-meisters).

I am also looking forward because even when we look at this tomorrow, I am already looking beyond that to my Thursday post, already scheduled to self-publish early tomorrow (and I mean tomorrow as in the day after this post appears, so the day after your today). It ransacks the past again, publishing here an essay/research paper I wrote back in 1991. It is going to seem endless (because it is quite long), but as I will advise you in the opening note (which I have actually already written this afternoon), I really like it, and the first paragraphs are quite worth reading. Besides it got me an A in the class for which I wrote it. But let’s have tomorrow wait on tomorrow (or for me writing this, Thursday on Thursday, the day after tomorrow today).

…and now I recommend…

Have I gotten you completely confused (or bored, I suspect)? That was partially my purpose because the real aim of this post is to make a reading recommendation. A favorite book for me from the late Seventies was Douglas R. Hofstadter’s mind-boggling tome, Gödel, Escher, Bach—that almost psychedelic mixture of math, music, philosophy, psychology and information/computer theory. It takes enormous delight in exploring puzzles and conundra of time, space and mind as my little assay about yesterday, today and tomorrow was meant to suggest. It’s an amazing and genuinely enjoyable book, what nonfiction and scientific writing should truly be. (And quite a few former Andrew speech contestants from the Eighties and Nineties have performed selections from it in readers theatre and choral reading entries. Once we even won the New Speech Event at the University of Iowa Speech Colloquy with a nearly improvised version of Achilles and the Tortoise and their many confusing friends.) If you have never dipped into it, the book is funny and informative, revealing the truths of your mind’s operations and the nature of the world, and well worth the time.

Furthermore, Dr. Hofstadter has a newer book, taking the same themes further, I Am a Strange Loop, written after the sad death of his wife but still as lively and provoking as the now-thirty-years-old original. I haven’t read it yet, having just bought a copy in December. Since it’s January, I think I should begin.

Give Hofstadter a shot, even if it’s just checking him out on the internet, and I will (not) see you tomorrow…

Yes! I knew it. Play practice concluded by a quarter to eight so people could go home and watch the game. By the time you read this, you’ll know, if you care, how it all turned out.

And now we’re supposed to get up to nine inches of snow tonight and tomorrow (that would be Wednesday and Thursday, just to clarify after today’s post). What!? —Happy Epiphany, all.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.