The Siren Song of Nostalgia

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)
Odysseus and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse

I’ve been reading a beautifully written book by Adam Nicolson called Why Homer Matters. I highly recommend the book. The book is mostly the memoir of Nicholson discovering that “Homerity is Humanity,” that Homer is ultimately a guide to understanding life. Nicolson was inspired to write the book after reading the story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. For Nicholson, the story of the Sirens is the main thread, the central metaphor, that connects the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a very memorable passage from his book, Nicholson describes what the story of the Sirens means:

The Sirens sing the song of the heroic past. . . . They want to draw Odysseus in with tempting stories of what he once was. . . . The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him, and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world [of the Iliad], because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.

World Book Day Reading List

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday was World Book Day. A friend of mine graciously reminded me on Facebook. So being a book lover, let me take this opportunity to catch up. 

Just as there’s been people in my life who’ve influenced and shaped my thinking, there’s also been books and writers who’ve been spiritual mentors that have, in some way, shaped who I am—as I’m sure they have many others. So here’s a short list of books that I recommend for reading when you have time. These are all books that, as Thoreau said, should “be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” Each book presents a unique perspective that has the potential to change how you see the world. This list is a very small representation of so many great books, but it’s a start for those interested in a good, perspective changing book.

  1. Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate. This book won all three of the nation’s highest literary awards: The National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Here is the life of a man who had so many personal challenges and yet through sheer force of mind rose to become one of the most quoted and admired writers in history.
  2. William James: In a Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson. James has been called the father of American psychology. He is also America’s greatest philosopher. This well written and engaging biography is the intellectual story of a towering figure in the life of the mind. 
  3. Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway. This unique book is Hemingway’s treatise on bullfighting and writing.
  4. The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. A history of philosophy told through the lives of great philosophers. Durant is one of America’s greatest gifts to storytelling. The book is a real gem of wisdom and Durant is a writer you’ll constantly be underlining for the insightful quotes.
  5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. Dr Haidt is a social psychologist who’s done research in moral psychology for decades. This book is, in part, a summing up of what he’s learn from his research over those years. You learn so much about human beings and why it’s so difficult for us to change our mind or to think outside the accepted beliefs of our political or religious tribe. A truly fascinating book that’s sure to alter your perspective.
  6. Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. The one novel on my list is a story about the 300 Spartans who perished at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. This book is far better than the movie 300, which was mostly just fantasy. Pressfield’s book is true to life and history and is told with mastery and a psychological depth that matches any of the greatest literary masters of the past. A real page turner and well worth your time.
  7. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. If you haven’t already read this spiritual classic then you may be one of the mass of people who leads a life “of quiet desperation.” This is a truly beautiful book full of poetry and truth about life and living.

Happy reading!

Matters of Style

Anyone who likes to write usually struggles with matters of style. Serious writers want to develop a particular voice in their writing. And while they may settle on a style of writing that comes “natural” to them, they’re always looking, consciously or not, for ways to personalize their prose. The searching question is always: How do I create a particular sound on the page?

Most writers learn to write from doing a lot of reading. I for one am a slow reader. I read slow because I not only want to take in what the author has to say about the topic, I also want to absorb—at least from the good writers—their particular style: the syntax, rhythm, and word play. The question for me as I read along is: How does this writer do what they do?   

I have a whole book shelf of books about style and writing. It’s standard practice for me to buy any new books on style by well known authors once I’m aware of them. For example, recently Steven Pinker released a new book on style called The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Well, of course, I pre-ordered it before its release. My new copy now sits on a stack of other books I hope to eventually read. The stack keeps growing. Eventually, I’ll get around to reading Pinker’s new style book and posting my thoughts about it on this blog.

So my thoughts on writing and style will be topics I’ll post about on this blog. I’ll talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a writer’s style in a book review or essay. And then there are a number of great essays on style and writing by famous authors that I’d like to write about on this blog. I think style is the essential element of all writers. It reflects a certain quality of mind in the writer, so it’s something I pay close attention to in writing. 

One never masters the craft of writing, I know I certainly haven’t, but one works diligently as an admiring student of the craft. I’m rarely satisfied completely with what I write, though I’m starting to be less critical of my writing since I’ve come to accept Voltaire’s adage that we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. I generally have two thoughts after reading through something I’ve written on a blog, at work, or in some other medium over the years, and that’s the thought of either “Hey, not too bad. I actually come across as a somewhat intelligent and skillful writer,” or “This is complete drivel.” The later thought tends to predominant with me.

Of course my problem is more than just perfectionism and disappointment. It’s also partly a lack of focus and the sometimes horrible fear that I’m just never going to be really any good at this craft. The fear of failure has kept me from writing for long periods of time. But I have a passion for writing so I always return to the craft, even if I’m not as good as I’d like to be. The best thing I can do, the best that any of us can do, is do the best we can. And that should be good enough.  

I recently posted this comment on another blog about my struggle with writing:

For the most part I go back and read things I’ve written and think ‘I could have done a lot better.’ That feeling of failure has at various times kept me from writing or blogging for long periods. Most successful writers struggle with their writing because they’re usually perfectionists. And most of them, if they want to continue to write, eventually learn that perfection is an illusion. You write and craft sentences and tell stories because you want to, because it’s a passion you have, it’s an aesthetic experience you enjoy. At some point writing is an act of faith. We do it believing that what we do, while not perfect, is an act of reverence for the power of words and the belief that what we do matters in some way to someone.

Well those thoughts basically sum up why I continue to write and why I continue to be so passionate about the craft.

A Visit to Charleston

Charleston
(Photo by Jeff Wills)

Like so many of you, I suspect, my bucket list is getting pretty long. I think I added Charleston, South Carolina, many years ago after listening to a Kempsville High School history teacher talk dramatically about the opening battle of the civil war, which was the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The southerners in 1861 had had enough of the tyrant Lincoln, so they started hurling cannon balls at the federal outpost sitting atop an island in the harbor. And so the war was on. Well, being a southerner and a student of history and culture and seeing a good opportunity to travel, I decided last weekend was a good time to explore the city of Charleston with my family. 

We visited Charleston over the President’s Day holiday weekend. That was last weekend. So the semitropical heat wasn’t an issue for us. February isn’t typically very cold in Charleston, but during our trip we were accompanied by a massive polar vortex that was sweeping through the south, pushing temperatures below norms for this time of year. While we were there, the temperature ranged from the low 30s (in the morning) to about the mid 50s in the afternoon, to as high as 60 during the peak of the day.     

“Lowcountry.” You read this term in brochures, see it on menus and hear people banter it about while talking about various cultural things, especially food in the Charleston area. Well, the term is very fitting and in a lot more than just a culinary or cultural way. The first thing you notice about Charleston, especially from a hotel balcony, is just how low Charleston and the surrounding area really is. It’s marsh land.

My first thought, as I stepped out onto my hotel balcony and began looking out over the Charleston area, was “floods.” My inner geographer couldn’t avoid the obvious. To the naked eye the sea and the land seem to be at the exact same level. Charleston is a city that rests on marsh land, that’s just above sea level — at least for now in geological time — to allow the Holy City to exist. Roughly 40% of the current city sits on landfill that has been used to expand the city’s land mass over its history.

As anthropogenic global warming continues at an unchecked rapid pace, it’s likely the God of the sea has already submitted his plans for reclaiming this marsh land. But sinking is for tomorrow, or decades from now, and there are some people with southern accents who’ll deny that Neptune has such nefarious plans for the holy city. They’re well meaning people with good intentions and good hearts, but by all scientific measure are sadly and mathematically wrong. But bless their heart. I’m sure Neptune will consider the wishes of these polite southerners before he sweeps the city out to sea. It would be the only right thing for him to do. It’s the God of Math I’m worried about. I don’t get the impression he really cares about their feelings.

Why is Charleston called “the holy city”? Well, if you’re up high enough and you’re looking out across the cityscape you’ll notice a lot of church steeples and spires. The city was established, according to our tour guide, on two principles: business freedom and religious freedom. (After hearing some of Charleston’s history you can see these two principles were approached in this order too. Business is always before pleasure or religion.) The city has a large number of beautiful churches. As we toured the holy city’s old town area it seemed at just about every turn there was another church in view. 

Besides churches, we were constantly finding graveyards during our walk around the holy city. There seemed to be little graveyards everywhere. And they’re not always part of a churchyard either. Many times while walking down one of the old streets, we’d come across a small graveyard, maybe 5 or 6 tombstones, tucked tightly between two old homes. In old town Charleston, like most old cities, the homes are built very close together. Space is a premium. And because of this, throughout Charleston’s history, fires have ravaged the city. The fire of 1861, which had nothing to do with the War of Northern Aggression, destroyed much of the city. The fire was so intense from being fueled by so many buildings ablaze, that confederate troops 14 miles away could see the flames. And because of these purging fires and restless growth in general, the city has been rebuilt, reorganized and shifted many times. The graveyards were collateral damage in this process.

Our guide informed us that Charleston’s history includes many stories of mass graves, I don’t recall all the reasons, probably war and disease, but many of these mass graves now have structures built over top of them. One of the reasons, our ghost tour guide informed us one evening, that Charleston is so haunted. There is a historical debate as to whether Memorial Day may have begun with the discovery of a mass grave in Charleston at the end of the civil war. The confederate army had a prison in Charleston. When the war ended a mass grave of union troops was found. The local population, mostly freed black slaves by then, put together a tribute and parade to honor the sacrifice of these union troops.

Downtown Charleston is very charming. Beautiful old hotels, old southern homes, churches, old cobblestone streets in some areas, and a well developed business and restaurant section. The homes have a distinctive look to them. Typically the homes sit with the side of the house abutting the road. There is what most of us would call “a porch” along the lower and upper levels of the house that extends the entire length of the house, and faces the back of the house directly next to them. These side porches are actually called a “piazza” by Charlestonians. An official “porch,” as I was informed, is on the front of the house only. A piazza extends outside along the side of the home. And a veranda is a porch that wraps around the house. 

Of course if you visit Charleston you must go to the city market on market street. There you’ll find a unique shopping market or bazaar. The market is housed inside a long building stretching up market street. Its filled with vendors, who must set up their entire little store counter and displays every morning before the market opens. I would suggest taking your time shopping at the city market and the stores along market street and then I recommend you have lunch at Tbonz Gill & Grill where you can taste the best Old Fashioned in the city, if not the entire south. After this, you can head for King Street where you’ll find a lot of upscale shopping. And when dinner time arrives, a lot of great dining choices too.

As a southern port city the food, at least at the restaurants in the old town area, have a lot of seafood on the menus. And of course being southern just about everything, it seems, is fried. At one place, I’m not joking, they had “fried mac-and-cheese” on the menu. I can report that while there’s a lot of seafood and fried food on the menus there is usually enough variety for the non-seafood eater like my wife and I. We’re basically vegetarians and we had no problem finding something we liked. Which brings me to mine and my wife’s favorite culinary experience in Charleston, and that’s at Magnolias.

For a date night my wife and I decided we’d have dinner at the famous Magnolias restaurant on East Bay Street in old town Charleston. The restaurant is polite southern charm and cuisine at its very best. The staff, the food, and environment, and the wine of course, were first class. And if you go you must try the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. They are served with a spicy sauce on a bed of garlic mash potatoes. Absolute southern deliciousness.

As for the people of Charleston, we experienced nothing but friendliness and southern hospitality. The southern accent of some of the natives had a melodious drawl that made me want to keep asking them questions just to hear them speak.

I really liked Charleston, it’s a great place to visit for so many reasons. We definitely plan on going back one day. There is so much more to see and do.    

American Sniper

American-Sniper-2015-Watch-HD-Full-Movie-720p
Warner Bros. Pictures

I hadn’t originally planned on seeing the movie American Sniper, but the brewing controversy around the film piqued my interest. For those who don’t know, American Sniper is a film based on the book by the same name written by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. 

Kyle served 4 tours in Iraq and ended the war as the most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history. The controversy over the movie, as I take it, centers around whether the film actually represents Chris Kyle as the man he actually was, according to his own memoir, or did Clint Eastwood, the film’s director, engage in creative license as many have claimed.

I read Kyle’s book—every word of it—before I went to the movie. I also watched a large number of Youtube videos of Kyle, where he discusses his book, his life, and his views.

So did the movie portray Kyle as he portrayed himself in his own book? My answer is, well, no and yes.

First, why do I say no? The movie portrayed a Chris Kyle that appeared more sensitive and emotionally affected by the war and the killing than the book portrays. The Chris Kyle of his memoir makes it clear he enjoyed war and had no problem with anyone he killed — men, women, or in some cases, young boys whom he judged a threat to American soldiers. At times Kyle does come across a little raw in his book, which I think we can mark down as part warrior mindset, part bravado. The Chris Kyle of his book, for example, can say things like “I don’t shoot people with Korans—I’d like to, but I don’t.” That scene, those words, aren’t in the movie. 

Kyle is credited with killing somewhere around 160 Iraqi insurgents. At least, as he would tell you, that’s the “official number.” The impression he likes to leave in the book, and I believe he admits somewhere else, is that he killed a lot more Iraqis than the official number he’s credited with. No one knows exactly how many people Kyle killed unofficially, or under what circumstances, since only the official kills had, as he reminds us multiple times, a “witness” to each of them.

In the book, Kyle has the habit of reminding us there is “the official” side of the story and then there’s — wink and a nod — the unofficial side of the story. Of course we all know there’s an unofficial side in war. But most of us probably wouldn’t highlight or hint at that in regards to the number of people we killed without witnesses around. In fact, Kyle says he wished he could have “killed more.”

I will also add the movie took a number of liberties with events. For example, there is one paragraph in Kyle’s memoir about an Iraqi sniper by the name of Mustafa. Kyle said he never saw Mustafa and he “believed” Mustafa was killed by some other U.S. soldiers. However, one of the movie’s main themes is the hunt for Mustafa. At the end of the movie, in typical heroic Hollywood style, Kyle kills Mustafa with an incredible 2000 yard sniper shot. This is pure fiction. The movie has a number of other scenes and events that aren’t in the book and appear to have been added to the movie for the sake of dramatic tension. 

On the yes side of the movie—that it did portray Chris Kyle’s life. Well, I think the movie did a good job of showing the strained relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife, Taya. The movie was faithful in following the struggles they personally went through as a military family and as husband and wife. 

Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the movie, also did a good job of playing Kyle. I thought Cooper did a good job with Kyle’s mannerisms, speech, and Texas twang. The movie did show some scenes right from the book, such as when Chris and Taya first met at a bar in California. I thought Bradley Cooper, while not giving an entirely accurate portrayal, which is not possible anyway, did give us a version of Chris Kyle. A version we should expect when Hollywood writers and movie making are involved. I wasn’t surprised, in fact, I rather expected it.

I think the controversy over the movie is partially driven by the fact that the war in Iraq was (and is) controversial. I think it’s fair to say now the war in Iraq was an epic mistake. I don’t think an honest person can disagree. But it’s also important to remember that soldiers have no vote in the wars they fight. They sign up to serve their country and are tasked with fighting the wars the nation’s commander-in-chief directs them to fight, regardless of whether any of us agrees with the decision. That’s a soldier’s duty and it’s important point to keep in mind.

When people began seeing the movie and the media began referring to Chris Kyle as “a hero” the critics jumped. In their mind, an illegitimate war doesn’t have legitimate heroes. It has legitimate victims: Iraqis and American soldiers. Secondly, the critics felt the portrayal of a more humane and sensitive Chris Kyle in the movie was nothing but Hollywood sugar coating, not an honest portrayal of a man who actually enjoyed killing “savages.”

Critics are correct in saying the movie doesn’t give us an accurate portrayal of the Chris Kyle of his memoir. So, again, they do have a legitimate point there. Kyle was, according to his own words, unmoved by the large numbers of people—basically a small village—he killed personally while in Iraq. In his mind these killings, each and every one of them, were justified. None of us, I remind critics, have any evidence at this time that Kyle killed anyone unlawfully or without justification while serving in Iraq. As far as we know “officially” (Kyle is grinning…believe me), everyone Kyle killed deserved it.

I have mixed feelings about Kyle the man of his memoirs. But I can say without hesitation, if I’m going to war I’d want Chris Kyle on my team. Regardless of whether we agree with the war, our mission must be to win it once we’re in it. Chris Kyle was a warrior to the core. Some of us may not like his manner or his bloodthirsty spirit, but when the shooting starts and you’re fighting for your lives Chris Kyle is the man you want there fighting beside you. It’s because of warriors like Kyle, sitting at his position of overwatch, that many American families were spared the loss or maiming of a loved one in Iraq. For that he certainly is a hero.       

To conclude, as a movie I recommend seeing American Sniper. While the movie does take license in its portrayal of the protagonist, and does have some factual flaws, it isn’t such a break from the Chris Kyle of the book that we can’t get a slightly blurred picture, or modified version, of the real Chris Kyle and the struggles our military men and women and their families go through in war. And the plain truth is, it’s a good war movie. It does give an accurate portrayal of the harsh realities of war—the life and death decisions, the struggles, the costs, the sacrifices and even, while some of us may not always feel comfortable with it, the type of people it takes to win.

Note: Chris Kyle was tragically killed at a Texas firearms range in February of 2013 by an Iraqi war veteran he was attempting to help. As of this writing the accused killer, Eddie Ray Routh, is about to go to trial for capital murder. 

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