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A dystopia of lexical loses – I have no words

I bought, and read, The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, on the strength of one word (which was the second word of the title on the inside-dust-jacket blurb – A dystopian novel for the digital age.

My first warning: Although this first novel is well-worth your time, it is not a quick read, nor is it a love story dressed up like the flavor of the moment. The use of dystopian is deliberate and not just an attempt to ride the horse of the moment into the winner’s circle of towering book sales

My second warning: The number of people mentioned in the acknowledgements achieves a size suitable for running a small banana republic. I never can imagine how much time it would take to develop, let alone nurture, so many relationships as so many writers claim and thank. However, among those names Graedon provides are a number of other fine younger writers whom I have read with great satisfaction. This one is really about me, I guess. I do not, by choice, have a lot of friends. Or collaborators.

My third warning: Graedon’s similes will blow you away.

Like a child playing with alphabet blocks, struggling to spell your own name, you will be surprised, and dismayed, by how quickly Graedon turns her pile into amazing and apt clauses.

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Response to climate change – some assembly required

I just happen to serve two of the best churches ever.

One church gathers in a village, Gaines, just north of the Erie Canal, in Orleans County, in western New York. Persons of sometimes differing beliefs on both politics and religion form a small but glowing group that really does earn the often said chestnut — We are just like family.

One church gathers in the afternoon in a cottage on Grand Island, New York, built in 1938, with extensive property including wetlands and forest. And an adobe mudhut out back by the pottery shed.

you say dystopia logoThe village church, which meets on Sunday mornings, has three ministers and a PhD among its 40 members. The level of discourse is gratifying.

The cottage church has ties with Buffalo’s aging yet durable activist community. We also made strong ties with the Occupy Buffalo movement.

It would be the work of a New York minute to figure out which one of these assemblies has been talking about and agitating about global climate change for many years now.

One thing that you would not know if I did not tell you is that the one who has been holding back the village church on the subject of global climate change is its pastor. I have been reluctant to broach the subject. However, I am beginning to hear evidence that my folk in Gaines are every bit as concerned as I would expect them to be. I asked the colleague who teaches the adult Sunday School class to consider using a module from The Thoughtful Christian, our curriculum publisher, on global climate change. He was amenable. Others are beginning to express interest.

Last Sunday afternoon, at the cottage church, which I co-pastor with my spouse, I presented a program on what dystopian literature can tell us about climate change.

Here is the outline.

You Say Dystopia: How Literature Can Help Us Change Ourselves and the Climate

First things first — define the term

This is a quote from a Wikipedia article on the word dystopia ( —


A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.

Famous depictions of dystopian societies include … Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes place in a totalitarian invasive super state; Brave New World, where the human population is placed under a caste of psychological allocation; Fahrenheit 451, where the state burns books out of fear of what they may incite; A Clockwork Orange, where the state undertakes to reform violent youths, but at what cost?; Blade Runner in which genetically engineered replicants infiltrate society and must be hunted down before they injure humans; The Hunger Games, in which the government controls its people by maintaining a constant state of fear through forcing randomly selected children to participate in an annual fight to the death; Logan’s Run, in which both population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by requiring the death of everyone reaching a particular age, and Soylent Green, where society suffers from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green.”

Jack London’s The Iron Heel was described by Erich Fromm as “the earliest of the modern Dystopia.”

The Argument (AKA executive summary)

How literature can help us change ourselves and the climate —

I believe that reading works of dystopian fiction can help us with our inner climate of turmoil and terror concerning global climate change, by giving a gentle focus on the problem and offering calming, pleasing story-telling that spins out the possibilities, including the triumph of human love in the face of mindless destruction and the utter durability of the planet. Reading can help us avoid agitation and prepare us for effective action. Reading helps us stay in the here and now.

A Map of the Territory

I. Define “Dystopia”

          a. Wikipedia definition of the term.

          b. Atwood’s definition – sci fi vs. speculative futures.

          c. “All futures are dystopian”.

II. Define our concerns — inner and outer climate

          a. We seem to be bleeping bleeped by the ever increasing changes in global climate.

                   i. We seem to be poorly informed and largely unable to

                   articulate any firm sense of what the problem is.

                   ii. Left to ourselves, we get stuck in agitation and mistake agitation for action.

III. Responses to our dangling-person stance

          a. Chicken Little (the sky is falling)

          b. Tut, tut, looks like rain (Winnie the Pooh)

          c. You will weep and lament, and the world will rejoice, and you will have sorrow, but your sorrow will be turned into joy (John 16:20).

                   i. The Bible as Dystopian Literature?

          d. At the intersection of Past and Future

IV. What can Dystopian Literature do for us?

          a. Define the problem.

          b. Distract us from the problem.

          c. Serve the State, serve Activists, or find a middle way between instruction and delight?

V. Next steps

          a. Write a study resource.

          b. Suggested reading

          c. URLs

Selected Reading


 Here is Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction (In Other Worlds, p. 6): “What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of … things that could not possibly happen … whereas for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books … — things that really cold happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my books in this second category: no martians.”


Recent works of Dystopian Fiction

Good —

       The Divergent trilogy, by Veronica Roth (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant). Post-war society where the victors decide to group people by their dominant traits. The trouble is, you had better not have more than one of those traits. They are killing folk like you. The first book has been made into an excellent film.

Better —

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. After a war to end all wars, the victors confine the surviving people to provinces based on economic contributions. Each year, each group sends two teen-agers to a battle-to-the-death spectacle. Something was bound to happen. Books one and two have been make into excellent films.

Best —

       The MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood, who lives and writes in Toronto. Atwood, the oldest and most gifted of these three writers, spins a tale about the end of the world as we just might, and could, come to know it. Atwood calls these books speculative fiction, for this reason. These are apocalyptic stories that could be(come) true.

Lit. Crit.

Margaret Atwood’s essay on speculative futures appears in her collection titled In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

Recent works on alternative worlds

       In this category, the books imagine our world as different than it is, but the goals is not at all political or polemical. One of my favorites is a series titled The Wildwood Chronicles, by Colin Meloy (leader of the musical group out of Portland, Oregon, the Decemberists), with deft illustrations by his spouse, Carson Ellis. This is good, clean fun, and the third title in the series is newly out. These are works of imagination rather than speculation.

Recent works on climate change

       I am reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker and has written other books about climate change. Kolbert tells of the excitement and the horror of the times we live in. She describes a scientist who tells his wife that 1) things are gong well in his research and lab work, and 2) his work points to the end to life as we know it.

Recent works from a theological perspective

       I have purchased but not yet read Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, by Larry L. Rasmussen, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of his previous books won the top yearly book prize at the theological seminary I was graduated from.

Recent works – variations on the theme

       Two novels I have been reading lately point to the reality that not all negative futures are strictly communal. I recommend these books in their own right. Before I Burn, by Gaute Heivoll, and The Martian, by Andy Weir. Before I Burn explores a series of arson fires and the young man who set them in a region of Norway. The Martian tells the story of an astronaut left for dead by his fleeing colleagues after a disaster hits their team, on the surface of Mars. These works mute the political in favor of the personal, another contrast to dystopian works.

Selected URLs

* Additional background on this web site, > click on You say dystopia at top of home page.


* I maintain a web site for each of the two churches that I serve. Visit News for the Pews and News from the Woods.


*Hunger Games* is capital but not capitol

I’m reading the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, and I already can see that I will be writing a glowing, flattering review.

But before that, there is one negative thing that I want to discuss.

Once and once only.

The books in the trilogy consistently refer to the story’s capital city as the capitol. The correct word is capital.

Capital refers to a city, such as a city where a legislature meets.

Capitol refers to a building, such as the flagship building where a legislature meets.

It follows that one can tour the capitol in the capital.

Author, editor, and publisher, please make a note of this.

You know who you are, so I won’t say your names.

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Serial of champions – Flavia de Luce series wins again

It does not seem like it, but five years have passed since the first book in the Flavia de Luce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, came out and caught my heart.

Flavia, still 11 years old (almost 12) after all these years, has been an annual delight

  • The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (2009)
  • The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag (2010)
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (2011)
  • I Am Half Sick of Shadows (2011)
  • Speaking From Among the Bones (2013)
  • The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (2014)

Alan Bradley, who was born in Toronto, has hit on a formula that brings this reader back for more – an 11-year-old chemistry whiz living in a crumbling manor in England solves mysteries for the local police, dodges the daggers of disdain and dislike issuing from her two older sisters (one a face in the mirror otherwise found at the piano and the other an obsessive reading fixture in the library), and pines for her mother, Harriet, who went missing while mountain-climbing when Flavia was but a baby. Her father seems to love nothing but his stamp collection, and a dogsbody named Dogger keeps the family largely on course with the help of a hapless housekeeper whose meals resemble nothing so much as stone soup.

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*The Accursed* offers many blessings

I can eat shelled peas with chopsticks. In fact, that is my preference. For lunch, right now, I am eating a bowl of fried rice, with chopsticks. So is it any wonder that I enjoyed reading a 600-page-and-more novel about a medley of interesting themes served up by a deliciously unreliable narrator?

That was a rhetorical question.

The Accursed is the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates that I have read, and I am glad that I did. The story is set in Princeton, New Jersey, in the first decade of the 20th century. The narrator sets out to give a strictly historical account of a time of great and baffling events in Princeton, town and gown.

As a Minister of the Word and Sacrament, ordained by the Presbyterian Church USA, I have a natural affinity for a story set in this place. However, that would not be enough to convince me to part with gold or silver. I would be persuaded, perhaps, but not convinced. It was the promise of a variation on the gothic novel convention delivered by a twittish narrator that tipped the scale for me.

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*The Lady in the Lake* — novel new territory

With this rereading logofourth novel, The Lady in the Lake, one can say that Raymond Chandler has done better and has done worse.

The most notable thing about the Lady is the way that Chandler goes away from Los Angeles, thereby showing a knack for nature descriptions. The change of scene allows for some colorful characters, too – characters befitting the rural scene.

chandler later worksIt is not a matter of Chandler losing ground. He is who he is, and that is a very good thing. I can remember searching for another, and another, Chandler title after I had read just one. Anything by Chandler has an advance placement in my top 100 list of favorites in the detective category.

The writing is as good as ever, and the characters are the usual suspects that we have come to expect. The weakest link is the plot, which is standard and predictable. That said, my notes show a lively interest in the language. I copied out more than twenty examples that I just could not pass up.

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Books in Review: *Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles*

The interplay of truth and fiction, and my enjoyment of such matters, led me to buy Ron Currie Jr.’s novel Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles.

I am glad that I did.

The novel combines life and death, and longing, in a story that took me a month to read. This was my choice. The author’s episodic style, with most of the pieces bite-size, allows for a quick or slow read.

Four main plot strains vie for our attention –

  • A story of obsessive love.
  • How the narrator’s father died.
  • The narrator’s own death and return.
  • Speculation on the Singularity.

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Have a heart — Chandler’s *The High Window*

Continuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond rereading logoChandler, I turn to The High Window, the third novel Chandler wrote (published 1942).

We knew that Philip Marlowe has a heart, and with the coming of this story we can hear its beating. In contrast to the flow of the first and second novels, this one shows Marlowe as a big brother sort of guy in certain well-defined situations.

chandler later worksThere also is an interruption in the tight plotting around rich families. The High Window falls into line by starting with Marlowe meeting with a rich and strange matron who becomes his client, but the story soon takes a new path. The reader keeps expecting a certain character – one Linda Conquest, a torch singer — to be more prominent in the action, based on previous experience with Chandler, but it never happens. A certain gold coin gets more face time than Linda Conquest does, name withstanding. I appreciate the confusion. One plot written over and over would not make Raymond Chandler memorable or laudable.

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Hello again – Raymond Chandler’s *Farewell, My Lovely*

our cat bella logoContinuing my rereading of the books of and about Raymond Chandler, I turn to Farewell, My Lovely, the second novel to be published (1940).

rereading logoThe plot moves on the story of Moose Malloy (and his one-time, some-time girlfriend Little Velma), a smart cop, a dump cop, and enough concussions (all sustained by Philip Marlowe) to make your head spin and your brain stutter. And a few frails of distinctive appearance, and a con man or three.

About Moose, Chandler writes –

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

And Marlowe is as wise a wise guy as he was in the first outing, The Big Sleep

I said nothing. I leaned against the door frame and put a cigarette in my mouth and tried to jerk it up far enough to hit my nose with it. This is harder than it looks.

chandler early worksAfter two novels, the reader begins to understand, and appreciate, that Chandler takes great care to describe all of his characters, great and small, with abundant detail. The same goes for the city and the countryside that Marlowe lives and moves and has his being in.

I seem to recall someone of critical standing saying something like that about the extravagance of Fyodor Dostoevsky in describing even minor characters.

The plot of Farewell, My Lovely is more complex than that of The Big Sleep, in my view, but I do like the first novel better, by the length of the ash on that cigarette of Marlowe’s.

Chandler writes a series of stories about Marlowe that have a sense of growth and the passage of time, but he does not call attention to this fact in the way we do now when writing a series. That may be a good thing to ponder. Why call attention to the series thing? Assured that another book in a series is coming, the reader does not have to hope and wonder whether there will be another Marlowe novel. This hoping and wondering bonds reader to writer in ways that a blurb like second novel in a series called Philip Marlowe, Wise Guy with Hard Head does not.


About this series I call #rereading

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.


Raymond Chandler’s *The Big Sleep* puts me in wide-awake mode

our cat bellaI cannot remember how many times that I have read Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, but I know it has to be at least three.

rereading logoTo borrow a phrase from a fine modern theologian (Marcus Borg), it is like I am meeting this book again for the first time.

raymond chandler picI have been reading, and rereading, Chandler since I was a young man, and suffice it to say that one of the two words in that phrase young man, and one only, continues to describe me.

I figure my first reading was a mass market paperback, and then one or two more in trade paperback formats.

Make it three times.

When I sat down a few days ago to reread The Big Sleep, I recognized some of the plot details, the character Bernie Ohls, and the two crazy-wild Sternwood sisters.

And Philip Marlowe. Him I recall right well.

However, the flourishes of language and the finer points of the story came to me like snow on an outstretched tongue.

You well might ask me why I read a book, and read it again, and again, but isn’t it obvious?

Not really.

I reread books to glean insights into the craft of the writer, and in the case of a writer like Chandler, whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I also reread for the sheer and surpassing joy of seeing and hearing Language at Play like angels with pens.

What I take away like a thief in the night

The woman withdrew her gaze from some distant mountain peak. Her small firm chin turned slowly. Her eyes were the blue of mountain lakes. Overhead the rain still pounded, with a remote sound, as if it was somebody else’s rain.


Well, when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

I swear I don’t know why.

My wife called me and said I got two checks in the mail I got a refund on my union dues.

When I pull my hands out of my pockets, I come up with a fistful of hundred dollar bills.

But when I woke up this morning, I must have had someone else’s blues.

Do you recognize the first quote?

It’s from the big finish of The Big Sleep.

Do you recognize the second quote?

It’s my mangled version of a favorite blues song.

The point?

I can appreciate, and I can copy, and I can mimic great writing, but in the end I am on my own, and reading, rereading, listening, borrowing, and stealing are ways of marking time between seated sessions at the keyboard.

What I have learned over the years from Chandler is that a novel that features a detective is vastly different from a detective novel, just like The Collected Letters of E.B. White is vastly different from Charlotte’s Web. Just like a series of books about a set cast of characters, even a fine series like Christopher Fowler’s titles concerning the Peculiar Crimes Unit, is not anything like the loosely connected novels of Chandler, whose glue is called Marlowe and whose pages stick to your mind like thoughts and feelings from on high.

As Robert Frost says, One can do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Would I remember if Frost had said, instead, that one can do worse than be a poet?


About this series I call #rereading

I’ve always figured that I have a book addiction. I just never intended to do anything about it.

However, the flow of books in and money out has finally brought me to a peaceful truce with my mania.

I have not bought a book for many weeks, and I intend to stay this course.

I have stopped mindlessly buying books, which means that I am free to read the books that I have on hand. For as long as I can remember, I have impulsively dreamed up research plans and purchased the books I imagined that I would need. Such dreaming is the work of a moment, and with the help of Amazon and single-click fulfillment, I have a number of piles ready and waiting for my attention.

Trouble is, I have been far better at the dreaming than the reading, like those who live to sleep.

A note on #rereading: Since my dreaming about these book projects revolves around moving from what I know to what I want to know, it is accurate to stress the re- part of the reading. Also, I like the idea of meeting books again for the first time.

Take your pick.


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