Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard

Book review: Holy the Firm, by Annie Dillard.

This little book ranks as probably the best I’ve ever read. In any case, it’s a close tie with Buechner’s Godric. Annie Dillard is a mystic who earnestly searches for answers and gets a mystery instead.

In the first chapter of the book, Newborn and Salted, she establishes critical concepts of gods of days, salt and fire. The gods of days not only represent nature, but also randomness in the world – a randomness that ranges from the whimsical (a god dragged in by the cat) to blind destruction (a punk with a match in a barn). These gods will later be overshadowed by thoughts about the true God when the discourse turns to questions of immanence/emanence, theodicy and finally mystery.

Salt will turn out to be connected to Holy the Firm, and also represent the way in which “we” – especially artists and particularly the author – dissolve ourselves into this world to connect to the Absolute.

And fire – ah, that cruel and unforgettable description of the burning of the moth. The fire theme is strong: some of the gods play with matches, Rimbaud burned his brain out in his poems, the winged godlet’s hair was on fire, even the cat’s tail had to be put out. And later, of course, Julie Norwich gets burned in a plane crash, and will have to spend the rest of her life disfigured. The fate of this little girl, and the mystical union between the author, God and Julie, are main themes in the book.

Altogether, as I have indicated, the five stars in the standard rating system are insufficient for this book. As the cliché goes: You have to read it.

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‘Constantinople’ by Jonathan Harris

I’ve just finished reading Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium.*  The main impression I came away with was: “Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?” Well, I should have known more of the Byzantine empire. And I have know the basic outlines for as long as I’ve studied the Classics, which is around 41 years. I knew that the city of Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire; I knew that it was ruled by powerful emperors that succeeded one another mostly through court intrigues, conspiracy, and murder; I knew it was the center of Eastern Christianity; I knew the Byzantines spoke Greek. 

What I did not realize was that the Byzantines were known as ‘Romans’ to Persians and other civilizations in the region; the extent of the glory and wealth and power of that empire, the might of its emperors, the magnificent architecture in its heyday (apart from the Hagia Sophia), and the fact that it was unconquered for almost a millennium, until the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade sacked the city in 1205 AD.

Harris’ book is not a chronological history of the city and empire. The book recognizes and celebrates the vast corpus of myth that surrounds the story of Byzantium. The writer would gladly refer you to more scholarly and voluminous history books on the subject. But his book is where you get delightful details, such as a description of the way in which a Byzantine emperor would be lowered from heaven, as it were, on his throne, while holding his breath to become purple in the face in order to intimidate his visitors. At the height of its power, Byzantium could make foreign kings grovel before its emperors like common supplicants. 

But it had to end sometime. When the book told how the city was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 I almost put it down. Which is silly, because I knew it happened all along. But I didn’t want the city’s magic to end. The story of Constantinople was too strange and mysterious for that to happen. And the magnificent Hagia Sophia got turned into a mosque. That ain’t right. Ah, well …

If, like myself, you enjoy saying: “Wow, I never knew that!” this is a book you might enjoy.’

* Harris, J. (2007). Constantinople: Capital of Byzantium. London: Hambledon Continuum.  

Don’t take life too seriously; you’ll never get out of it alive.
Elbert Hubbard

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‘The Orion Mystery’ by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert: Back to the Pyramids

I’ve been fascinated by the Two Kingdoms of Egypt for as long as I remember, but a recent TV documentary has piqued my interest anew. The TV show is called “The Pyramid Code,” and it led me to a book titled The Orion Mystery by Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert.

Book cover: The Orion MysteryThere is much cook-ery going on with regard to the ancient Egyptians. The orthodox Egyptologists are being accused of having blinkers on because they seem to refuse to see the mystery surrounding all things Egyptian. This may be understandable; so much unsubstantiated stuff is sprouted by the UFO/magic faction that one can almost understand why the Oxford dons are drawing their wagons in a circle. However …

The Orion Mystery is a welcome addition into this fray. Bauval is an engineer and an eminently rational and intelligent man – he is a leading narrator in the TV documentary. He thinks like an engineer. He also fearlessly follows the leads where they take him. He doesn’t have the academic ties that prohibit him from thinking about possible alternate purposes for the pyramids. He is free to ask: “What if they were power generation plants?” There is nothing to contradict that hypothesis, just as there isn’t that much that proves the Royal Tomb theory. The pyramids could not have been tombs, says Bauval, because no mummy was ever found inside a pyramid! Also, the interiors of most pyramids are businesslike and devoid of hieroglyphs and other ornamentation. One observer said that when you were inside a pyramid, you felt as if you were inside a giant machine – a place you would not want to be if the machine were up and running.

If you are at all interested in Egyptology, and you are willing to follow the reasoning of a very rational mind, you could do worse than read this book. The prose is crystal clear and easy to read, and I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s nice to wonder about things again for a change.

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Finally … Gerhard’s 8 Rules of Writing

Now for the event you probably thought you wouldn’t see in your lifetime: Gerhard’s writing rules! Who is this Gerhard, you ask? Well, never mind. Let’s just say he’s smart enough to summarize all the big writers’ rules for you. However – there is a little concession to my own unique situation in my rules. Here they are:

  1. Write when you can
  2. Don’t write when you can’t
  3. Don’t fret when you can’t write.
  4. All work except writing is a form of procrastination
  5. Work in the present. There is no future or past when you’re writing.
  6. You’ve read and internalized the rules. Now forget about them.
  7. However, keep on reading about writing.
  8. Writing is life. The rest is slow death.

Once a word has been allowed to escape, it cannot be recalled. Horace

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Chekov’s Gun

“If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be fired in the last.”

Russian playwright Anton Chekov understood the art of setting up important scenes early on in his plays. His famous “gun” rule is the perfect encapsulation of the fact that a writer places subtle hints in his work to build up to dramatic events later. A novelist who wants to describe a tragic tire blowout might start off a chapter showing a man checking his bank account to see if he has enough money to fit new tires on his car. This technique is known as ‘foreshadowing.’

If you do want to spring a surprise on your readers, understand that it can never be a complete and utter surprise. When your reader thinks back on it, he or she must think: “You know what, I should have known that Gerry guy was a crook. Didn’t Sally say he was smiling too much and talking too fast?” Sprinkling crumbs, like Hansel and Gretel, is an important part of the writer’s craft.

I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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Ernest Hemingway’s 4 Rules

In my series of blogs about the writing rules of famous writers, we now visit Ernest Hemingway, the big daddy of them all. He didn’t describe; he punched with words. Here are his rules:





“Those were the best rules I ever learned for the business of writing,” Hemingway said in 1940. “I’ve never forgotten them. No man with any talent, who feels and writes truly about the thing he is trying to say, can fail to write well if he abides with them.”

Quote of the Day:
In this world, it is not what we take up, but what we give up, that makes us rich.
–Henry Ward Beecher

John Steinbeck’s Rules

Here are 6 rules I condensed from blogs and posts about his writing rules. You have to love his rule #1. Enjoy!

1.  Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.
Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps.

2.  Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper.
3. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm.

3.  Pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.


4.  If a scene gets the better of you—bypass it and go on.

5.  Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you

6.  If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it.

An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support. John Buchan

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