Sunday, March 15, 2015

Review: Lord of the World

Lord of the World
Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of fiction written at the turn of the twentieth century, and this novel, written in 1907, epitomizes what I dislike most about the period: all tell, no show; long descriptive paragraphs that neither set the mood nor add to the story, quaint British expressions that mean nothing to a modern reader, etc.

I read it because Pope Francis has mentioned it a couple of times in recent interviews, and Catholic writers are saying that if we want to understand the pope's interests, we should read this novel. After all, when the leader of the largest Christian religion on Earth starts being concerned with the end of times, followers should listen.

And that is the subject of this plot-driven novel: the rise of the antichrist and the onset of Armageddon.

I have to admit that Monseigneur Benson was quite prophetic in his pronouncements. The glorifying of the cult of individualism, praised and worshipped to the level of a religion, is reflected in today's contemporary society. Picture, if you will, the antichrist as a cross between Damien, from The Omen movies, and Galt, from Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and you'll get a feel for both the tone and subject matter of Lord of the World.

People should definitely read it, but only to find out what all the fuss is about at the Vatican. For those who are neither interested in Armageddon, Pope Francis, or the Catholic Church you can probably spend a week reading something better written and more entertaining.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Power of Words - Part 1

Please enjoy the sequential release of another one of the literary short stories from my Guppy Soup collection. Throughout last summer I posted "Summertime" in four installments. I think "The Power of Words" will be complete in three posts over the next little while.

The Power of Words

We go through life and become educated. Unlike our parents, most of us not only went to, but actually graduated from high school. Many of us have gone on to university. A few maybe even have a Masters degree. Leaving those two insane world wars behind, we've been taught to change the world with words instead of using our fists and bullets. That's also how we alter reality, make some sense of chaos that surrounds us. Create order.
And the logos was made flesh…
But were not God. Mere mortal words are no match against the ultimate chaos.
Death looks us squarely in the eyes and laughs at our impotent incantations. Maybe it laughs. We have no idea what we're dealing with, but once in a while Death lets us peek into its world, where it has decorated its living room walls with decaying flesh and finality.
Fighting this relentless march toward the end of existence, does the correct spelling of a word really make any difference? When it comes right down to it? "Color" instead of "colour"? Oh, Structuralists and Semioticians of the world, what kind of weapon is the alphabet against that unblinking, unforgiving, annihilation?
Magical words. Prayers. Promises. Wishes.
Will to Power.
The willpower behind the words we use. Whose words win out, when two people wish for opposite results? Who decides which person has the best sentence structure to deliver their intentions?
And does it really matter? I mean, really?

* * *

"It's a fairly simple procedure. You've had these arterial grafts done before, Mrs. St. Jean." The vascular surgeon spoke to the elderly woman in a tone normally reserved for five year olds. And not very bright five-year olds at that.
These words were spoken a few winters ago, back at the CHUS in Sherbrooke, Quebec, so the conversation was in French, most of the English who once populated the area having been made to feel unwelcomed enough to seek greener linguistic-friendly pastures out west, to Toronto and beyond. It doesn't matter. Politics don't matter. The words might've been different, but the meaning would have been the same.
Mrs. St. Jean, "Mom" to me, didn't say anything. Her brown eyes shifted to her hands, knotted in her lap, then down to the scuffed floor. She pursed her lips.
I knew she had her doubts, but she'd never questioned any of her doctors—Mom had a bunch of them during her lifetime of chronic aches and pains—and at seventy-three, she wasn't about to start asking if this one had graduated at the top of her class in Med school. As far as Mom was concerned, even though Dr. Genet was young, maybe twenty-eight, thirty tops, she must've known what she was doing. After all, her framed diplomas hung right there on the wall behind her desk, displaying very impressive proofs of her abilities.
Mom nodded through her mounting discomfort, her arthritic fingers twisting themselves further. I'd seen those fingers contort into pretzels over the past three years, whenever the subject of Dad's lung cancer had come up.
She shrugged a bony shoulder, resigned to whatever fate the young surgeon bestowed on her. The medical explanation was all too technical for someone with only a grade six education. She didn't have to know the proper medical term for the deep pain she felt in her legs or to know how they were going to fix her clogged arteries. She just wanted the procedure over and done with.
We'd buried Dad two months before, just in time for Halloween. Trick or treat? We weren't asked, but I guess we'd been tricked that year. Now, Mom was just killing time until she could join him in Paradise, or in the ground, or wherever it is we go after we've suffered enough here on earth. She knew her fate. I knew it, too. She had been putting off this needed surgery for over a year, too busy looking after Dad to look after herself.
All the while Dad wheezed himself closer to death with his own untreated lung cancer. He had been resigned to his fate too, declining any chemotherapy. I wondered if my parents, both cradle Catholics, were supposed to act like such fatalists, why they were such Calvinists at heart. Had they exchanged faith in a Living God for faith in determinism? What did the priest call it in his homily? Providence.
What did I think of Providence? Nothing. I'd never been to Rhode Island.
Without any comments or follow-up questions from Mom the interview seemed over. Dr. Genet closed the thick manila folder and forced a smile at me and Mom. My cue.
"Hey, Mom. Can you wait for me in the waiting room while I ask the doctor a few insurance-related questions?"
Mom knew I was lying, everything was paid for in socialist Québec, but she was too worried and tired to care.
"Okay." She stood up on stiff legs.
The door gave a tiny pneumatic wheeze as it closed behind her.
I smiled. The doctor smiled back. Her eyes darted meaningfully to her watch. Yeah, yeah, I know. Important doctor. Busy, busy, busy. I was almost twice as old as she was. Unlike my parent's generation—people born in the nineteen-twenties—I'm a Baby Boomer and I hadn't been brought up to respect too many people. My teachable moments were la crise d'octobre, Vietnam, and Watergate, with hours of Ollie North thrown in for comic relief. And my respect was never based solely on people's job titles. So I was unwilling to be as generous as Mom was with the wunderkind sitting in front of me.
Me? I teach Sociolinguistics in a small university English department. Basically, my job is to listen to what people say in popular media discourses, things like movies or books or the news, and then to explain either what they really said or what they meant to say, by using a grab bag of language theories derived from current deconstruction, post-structural, and applied psychology fields.
Although I'm by no means that smart, I've been around geniuses my whole life. Guess what? I've learned that even so-called geniuses are human. I've also learned that not everyone finishes first in their class.
"So, what are we looking at, with Mom?"
I'm busy. Doc's busy. I wanted some answers before her beeper went off and she had an excuse to escape.
She cleared her throat and looked away.
Nervous… and engaging her imagination. Interesting.
She glanced at the door and then remembered who the surgeon was in this room. This was her world. I was the civilian interloper—someone to be dealt with as politely as possible and then quickly dispatched so she could resume her important doctor duties. She turned a pair of serious dark eyes on me.
"Well, as I explained already, we're dealing with something called Peripheral Vascular Disease. PVD can result from a condition known as atherosclerosis, where this waxy substance forms inside the arteries. To fix this condition, I'll be cutting into Mrs. St. Jean's groin—"
"I don't care how you're going to do the procedure," I interrupted. "I want to know why my mother is so afraid of going through with it. She's had it done four times already, so why is she suddenly worried about this particular arterial blockage?"
Every couple of years, like clockwork, Mom had to get arteries unblocked. She could barely walk anymore, the pain in her legs becoming so severe. Dr. Genet couldn't believe she didn't have gangrene from the poor blood circulation in both legs. The right leg especially. The doctor could hardly feel a pulse during the pre-surgery examinations. I'd read the report.
Dr. Genet, to her credit, didn't look at me when she lied. Still. A lie's a lie. She sniffed petulantly and stared at her manicured hands, patiently folded on the desk. She probably didn't get cut off in mid sentence too often. Finally, she shook her head.
"I don't know. You could ask your mother."
When I just stared at her in silence, she cleared her throat and tried a new tack. "We've decided to use a peripheral vascular bypass procedure instead of doing a transcatheter intervention… Again," she resumed, "Since her blood pressure is so difficult to control, the risk of an aneurysm occurring is…" Her voice trailed off.
I remained silent, waiting to hear about this so-called risk. These were all by-the-book treatment methods one could find online in ten minutes of Googling. Besides, I heard variations of it every night on the phone during Mom's daily health update. Meanwhile, Baby Doc still wasn't saying anything.
"I simply don't know," she conceded, shrugging beneath her white lab coat. Again, her eyes addressed her folded hands. I deconstructed her pose: was she unconsciously praying? To whom? A delicate gold cross swayed around her neck, moving to the pulse of her artery.
Who was the patron saint of vascular surgeons, I wondered.
We stared at each other in silence. Apparently, she was done talking.
Useless. She wasn't going to commit to anything. I would mentally replay this interview two weeks later.
During Mom's funeral.
End of Part 1

* * *

Thank you for reading the first part of "The Power of Words". I look forward to sharing parts 2 and 3 in the near future.

Guppy Soup can be purchased from itunes (iBooks), Smashwords, B&N, Amazon and all ebook retailers. 

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