Category Archives: Literature

Writing A Novel Can Be As Technical As Writing Code

I don’t think any writer starts off with the intention of writing a complex book. In fact, smart authors will do their utmost to write a simple book. Like Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Yesu's Baboon hardcover book
Yesu’s Baboon hardcover book

I didn’t even want to write this book. Initially. I was tinkering with a short story, and it ran away with me. By the time I started organizing things, I discovered that the book was intricate as hell. One does not want that to show. The principle is “write hard, read easy.” A reader must not even think about  technicalities. My slogan is, “the prose  mustn’t be easy to understand. It must be impossible to misunderstand.”

Let me just demonstrate how tricky things can get. Forgive me for mentioning Solzhenitsyn in my humble company, but my book is, time and tense-wise, similar to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The entire story is told by my protagonist, an 18-year-old Maasai boy, to a white toy heron who sits in his small woodcarving workshop, which is part of the prison in which he is not only incarcerated, but also on death row. How did this situation come about? It’s a long story. I’m not kidding.

Now as Koyati tells his story, he uses the past tense (As a small cattle herder I had to go out after the herd at five in the mornings), but also the present (Miss Heron, my secret weapon is Tung oil–it shows up the wood’s beautiful grain.) There are also recent events (Last night the Brute gave me two punches in the stomach). I must keep Koyati’s POV (point of view) in view (haha) every moment.

But then, towards the end of the book, Koyati runs out of true past tense, because the events he tells to Miss Heron, the plastic heron with a voice recorder under her wing, catches up to the present moment. Aha, I thought. Now I can tell the story blow-by-blow in the present tense. Man, will this create immediacy and action and drama!

Not so fast, dumbass. It’s still past tense. Miss Heron (his voice recorder) is still sitting on the top shelf in his tiny woodcarving workshop (which is nothing but a paint storage closet). Isidora (his young but brilliant lawyer) still comes by every Friday to download his narration to her laptop, looking for anything she can use in her hopeless effort to save him from the gallows.

So, even though we’re now dealing with current events, they are still narrated in the past tense, because Koyati has to wait until the next work day before he can tell Miss Heron about them: Yesterday in court Judge Zaidi swore he would rid the United Republic of Tanzania from a scourge like me.

This is how crazy it got sometimes: Koyati is working on a sculpture in his prison workshop (strict present tense: I am sanding the prodigal son) while at the same time telling how he worked on another carving project in the past: (Elder Nuru laughed at the way I attacked the stick with my pocket knife). At the same time he will mention the almost-present-tense of his current circumstances (Sparrow says they might bring back the death penalty), or recent past, (Shomari grabbed me by the shirt this morning and warned me not to try anything.)

Continuity was a nightmare. Koyati loves wood more than he loves people. He can identify tens of species of carving wood by appearance, weight, sound, smell, and taste. If he sits down in a chair he first examines the arm rests to see from what type of wood it is made. For that reason I decided to tell the readers the species of wood he used for every single project he carved. There is no such thing as ‘I carved a fearsome lion.’ There is ‘I took my best bubinga blank and carved a fearsome red lion.’ (Koyati’s constant struggle to find good carving wood is a theme in the book.)

So I needed to remember after  couple of hundred pages which wood Koyati used to carve a tiny lion as part of his Maasai rosary. Eventually I had to create a database for Koyati’s various carvings and sculptures and the wood varieties he used for each.

There is one more modality: the little baboon story. While Koyati carves and chisels and sands in his little workshop, he hums and sings his own made-up story about how the High God created a small, furry baboon right in the beginning, in the garden. Little Baboon’s story is given in a formal font, deeply indented as a block quote. Almost like a Bible story. He follows Yesu Kristo from his birth to that awful moment when Little Baboon falls down in a swoon at the foot of the cross and tries to bury his little head in the bloody mud. The block quoted text is a full story in its own right.

That is how crazy it got, and part of the reason why the book took me eight years to complete. But the final test of this book has nothing to do with how hard it was to write, and everything with how easy it is to read.

I’m The Captain of my Soul

I started writing this post this morning, Pearl Harbor day, December 7, on my 62nd birthday, at 7:00 AM, at pain level 7. This is a victory for me, since before, at this level, I used to whimper and cower under a bush like a dog run over. But now I’m writing. I’m still whimpering a bit, but I’m making sure nobody hears me. But I’m writing. Writing admittedly grim stuff, with lots of typos and weird phrases, but writing. In some places I write those things that you edit out later, thinking: I was going to post THAT to my blog? In the background — OK, foreground — Michael W. Smith is singing “You are holy; holy are you, Lord God Almighty …” Anna doesn’t mind the music; in fact, I suspect that if I suddenly turned off the music she’d sit up and ask: “What was that?” She’s been doing this for forty years.

In my throes, the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), a contemporary of Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, came to my attention. Henley’s leg was amputated due to tuberculosis, and he wrote the poem after he was informed that the other leg would have to go too. He refused to accept this latest blow, and eventually his remaining leg was saved by a competent doctor. But lots of pain, lots of anguish.

While you ponder the poem, I’ll make my way to the kitchen and get some coffee for Anna and myself. She’s the only person I know whom you can wake up in the middle of the night and give a cup of coffee. She’s the only person I really know, period, because the day before yesterday was our fortieth anniversary.

OK, here’s the poem. Read it and think about it. There will be a short quiz.

Out of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

I’m back with coffee. Gave Anna her mug. Got a kiss for my trouble. Hey, Agamemnon started a war for less. [sip] I swear this stuff can not only cure cancer but possibly raise the dead. Cannot do without it. The coffee ain’t bad either. My name is Gerhard and I’ll be here all week.

Before we discuss, let’s just unpack some of the stuff between the lines.

In the first stanza,

But of the night that covers me,Black as the pit from pole to pole,I thank whatever gods may beFor my unconquerable soul

there are some clues to the eternal nature of the horror facing us: the “pit” in the second line refers to hell, “night” and “black” set a pretty dark tone as well. “Whatever gods may be” says the poet is not sure of the aid or even of the existence of a helping God. But in the mist of this picture of hell stands his soul: “unconquerable.” This “unconquerable” anchors the poem to its title; it’s simply the English word for the Latin title: Invictus.

The second stanza details the powers arrayed against him:

In the fell clutch of circumstanceI have not winced nor cried aloud.Under the bludgeoning of chanceMy head is bloody, but unbowed.

The first stanza already placed him in a hellish situation; now he is in the “fell clutch” of this random earth. “Fell” is the favorite word of Tolkien, for instance, to describe the hellish forces of orcs, demons, and evil gods (or “wizards” in Middle Earth). He is “bludgeoned” by this randomness (“chance”), and his head is bloody. But again, just as in the first stanza, his soul defies all these forces of darkness: he has not winced or cried out, and his head is still “unbowed.” Still invictus!

More of the same in third stanza:

Beyond this place of wrath and tearsLooms but the Horror of the shade,And yet the menace of the yearsFinds, and shall find me, unafraid.

This hellish earth is a place of “wrath and tears,” which is self-explanatory. There is also the horror of “the shade.” In antiquity, the souls of the departed were not the immortal rays of spiritual light they are now; the departed were thought of as weak and powerless versions of our vital selves — mere shadows of our human bodies. Shades. The final scene in the Russel Crowe movie “Gladiator,” which paints his return home after his death, although triumphant, is set in shades of gray and in slow motion. Thus “shade” refers to death here. The years “menace” us, because inexorably with the years come old age and, of course, death. “And yet,” he says, death will find him how? “Unafraid!” See the pattern? In each stanza, first the forces of evil, then his unconquered soul, still standing.

It matters not how strait the gate,How charged with punishments the scroll,I am the master of my fate:I am the captain of my soul.

As we’ve come to expect, the last stanza begins with a detailing of the forces arrayed against us. Note how easy it has become by now to substitute “ourselves” for “the poet.” By now, he is speaking for all of humanity. The “strait” gate refers to the fact, in my opinion, that the Christian way of salvation is not necessarily open to him. Matthew 7:13, (*NIV*) reads: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. “Strait” has the meaning of “narrow” in the poem, as in sea straits.

In a similar Biblical vein, the scroll into which his name should have been written is, instead, full of indictments of his past sins. The dice are loaded against him. But by now we know that he will defy all this. And he does. “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Now pay attention, class. He is not saying that he is stronger than God or “whatever god (there) may be,” or resistant to the bludgeoning of fate, or even qualified to get into eternal glory through the narrow gate. No, he is the master and captain of his soul because he, and only he, and not even God, controls how he reacts to his circumstances.

Yes, I said “not even God.” How can I say this? Because God gave each human being free will. He wanted us to have the power to love him; to choose to serve him out of our own accord. There was no claw-back clause. We were stuck with our new, exciting world, the one in which we were master and captain.

I think Tom Petty is saying the same thing when he sings, in I won’t back down:

No, I won’t back downYou can stand me up at the gates of hellBut I won’t back downNo, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned aroundAnd I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me downGonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.

Being invictus means that you, my dear reader, are in full control of how you react to your circumstances, no matter how grim they may be. If you get gangrene in your leg, you cannot control the fact that your leg will have to be amputated. But when your loved one walks in you must decide whether you say: “I love you, thanks for coming” or “Leave me alone, I’m in pain. Go away.” The leg? Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (or God, if you’re so inclined) are responsible for that one. But how you react to its loss and the pain and heartache? Look to the captain of your soul.

How is a devoted Christian to read this poem? Well, the bludgeonings of chance have done a number on me, too, so on some days I can’t even manage to get out of bed without my faith (imperfect as it is) in God. Note very well that I’m not saying that I’m a man of God who has an angel sitting on my shoulder 24×7. I am saying that I’m a poor, broken human being and that I sometimes fall asleep while I’m praying and sometimes don’t say a word to God for a week. And we all worry about having a few entries in that scroll when our final trumpet sounds.

As a Christian I’m not living in a hotel for saints; I’m languishing in a hospital for sinners. And as a Christian I’m not afraid to say: “I’m the captain of my soul.” But I wouldn’t want to steer that sucker without God in wheel house.

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.

[su_divider top=”no”]

My favorite poem of all time: ‘The Kraken’

I’m lucky enough to be so opinionated that I can have a favorite poem of all time. This one blew my mind when I first read it, and still does every time. As for the timeline? Tennyson was born in 1809, he died in 1892. Not slap bang in the middle of Beethoven & co., but respectably close to the tail end of that prodigious period. Read the poem again and weep if you have a heart:
 The Kraken
Alfred Lord Tennyson
  Below the thunders of the upper deep;
  Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
  His antient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
  The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
  About his shadowy sides: above him swell
  Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
  And far away into the sickly light,
  From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
  Unnumber’d and enormous polypi
  Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
  There hath he lain for ages and will lie
  Battening upon huge seaworms in his sleep,
  Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
  Then once by man and angels to be seen,
  In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Working Hölderlin

I’m working a bit on my thesis on unser arme Friedrich today and, as usual, cannot believe the extent of the philosophical quality of his poetry—or is it the poetic quality of his philosophy? But don’t be fooled: it’s not a simple mix of the two. Very little happens by accident in his work—until the very end, of course, where he is completely insane. But it is precisely there, Dieter Henrich says in  his Course of Remembrance[1] that even in his later, certifiable years, unser Friedrich produced gems that are deceptively simple.

Anyway, in accordance with my promise to myself to be okay with short posts, that’s my post for today.

While writing this, I was listening to "Too White to Sing the Blues" by Papa Joe Grappa


I have a postscript. I find that I cite a lot while writing my blog. The main reason is that I have done a lot of papers writing recently; but it also meant to give someone who might be interested a pointer to where I found the information. Even though I could make a few cents off every time one of my readers bought a book from, I haven’t monetized this blog. Purely for my kind of blog, and for me personally, trying to sell books while I discuss stuff would detract from the spontaneity of my blogging. (Okay, I know it’s mostly contrived anyway, but I try!) With this I am not saying that anyone else who has paying links to is not honest in their writing; this is purely how it works for me. If you’re selling books on your blog, I wish you all success and might even buy from you. If I have a million readers I’ll probably monetize

anyway—buy that time I should know what I really want to say on the blog.

[1] Dieter Henrich, The Course of Remembrance and other essays on Hölderlin (ed. Eckart. Förster; Studies in Kant and German idealism; Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997).


God, nature, and Hölderlin

I’ve decided to blog somewhat as I go along in the journey of writing a masters’ thesis on Friedrich Hölderlin. My study leader said a couple of very important things to me the other night over a Sam Adams. First, don’t get too caught up with Der Arme Friedrich’s insanity in analyzing his work. Great advice, I was already falling into that trap. Secondly: play close attention to what Dieter Henrich is saying about him. My goodness, yes, but that is a bit like drinking out of a fire hose: you cannot really really talk about him without slurping in the entire classical German philosophical movement of the late 18th century, the era so eloquently labeled by Oom Hendrik (Dieter Henrich) as “Between Kant and Hegel.” (There’s a book of the same name by Dieter Henrich:)

I feel a need to blog, strangely, so I’ll keep myself informed as I go along. Salvete until next time.

Let’s get serious about Friedrich Hölderlin

Twogging (mix between blogging and Twittering) again: Just returned from a visit to the library—found some great books on der arme Friedrich. See my growing bibliography at

My voyage of discovery of Friedric Hölderlin has just begun!

Check out Friedrich Hölderlin on Wikipedia: hölderlin

While writing this, I was listening to “Rachmaninoff: Vespers 12: Slava V Vyshnikh Bogu – Glory to God ” by Robert Shaw. Very nice, but I think I need ZZ Top to stay awake …

Quote of the day:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts. – Bertrand Russell.

Building the Top 100

Totally Uncientific Subjective Ranking of Books I Have Read Recently

Which book deserves victory? At the moment it is Godric, by Buechner. If you do not agree, please post a comment and I’ll consider updating my rankings to reflect your opinion. If I get a lot of comments, I’ll base these rankings completely on the vox populi.

  <p><em><span style="font-size:100%;">Please note that this ranking is currently out of date, since the basic content of this entire site is still being assembled. These rankings will change over time, but I plan to post a new entry every time it changes. In that way, it will be fun to watch how our taste and opinions change over time.</span></em><br /></p>  <ol>   <li>     <div><span style="font-family:Book Antiqua;font-size:100%;">Godric - Buechner </span></div>   </li>    <li>Holy the Firm - Annie Dillard </li>    <li>Their Eyes were Watching God - Hurston </li>    <li>Under the Glacier - Halldor Laxness </li>    <li>Native Guard - Trethewey </li>    <li>Deep River - Endo </li>    <li>The God of Small Things - Roy </li>    <li>The Summer before the Dark - Lessing </li>    <li>A Prayer for Owen Meany - Irving </li>    <li>Madame Bovary - Flaubert </li>    <li>Evidence of Things Unseen - Wiggins </li> </ol>

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

First of all the slideshow: The God of Small Things

My current ratings:

1. Godric
2. Holy the Firm
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God
4. The God of Small Things
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany
6. Madame Bovary
7. Evidence of Things Unseen 

"The Empire Writes Back," the cover of an issue of Time Magazine proclaimed more than a decade ago. People from Nigeria, South Africa, India and other outposts of the British Empire are writing new and exciting and colorful English. And they’re not writing about a man walking his dog, and what the man thinks as the dog lifts his leg against a white picket fence. They are writing about exotic people and smells and insanity and death and all the stuff we don’t really want to think about.

In that sense we all worship the God of Small Things, because the God of Big Things is too terrible to face.

I’m going to call her Arundhati because I don’t trust myself to call her Roy. It’s too easy. Arundhati lifts the sari of India to show the world her seven stretch marks. It is beautiful and at the same time terrible. And above all, it rings true because it is true. Arundhati Roy has followed the advice of Hemingway, in whose company, if not style, she is now reckoned: "Write the truest sentence you know." The rest is literary history.

Evidence of Things Unseen

First, here’s the slideshow.

I saw much evidence of God’s eternal light in “Evidence of Things Unseen.” But for the most part, the characters do not recognize God or even fate in the events that culminate in the death of Fos and Opal and in the placing of Lightfoot in a “Foster” home. Fos caused Opal’s death with his amateur science, the Oak Ridge facility probabaly caused Fos’ radiation sickness, and Lightfoot was about to be taken away because they didn’t arrange for a birth certificate when he was small.

Never does Fos ball his fist against God or scream his anger. He does not fall to his knees and pray a higher power for the lives of his wife and son. In their moment of crisis, Fos thinks of praying, but he feels that he cannot, and that is incommunicative father is to blame. Even though he cherishes and appreciates it, he accepts their wonderful love not as a gift, but as a given. And even though Fos spent a lifetime studying, pondering, watching luminesences of all kinds, he never saw the light of God behind those phenomena. The highest he could go was the material that the stars were made of, and Opal wouldn’t even buy that.

I was looking forward to find God in the unseen light behind the bioluminesence, but even in the midst of one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, the Unseen Light turned out to be a lump of phosphorus in a fish bowl. The saving grace is that the more spiritually inclined reader will be able to recognize the divine nature of Fos and Opal’s love despite the characters and even the author’s protestations (“Fools, when their roof tree falls, think it’s Doomsday …”)