This is Conjecture, You Understand?

Robert Harris is one of my new favorite authors. His genre? Literary fiction in the thriller/suspense vein. Fatherland is his most celebrated work. But I first read The Ghost.

book-coverthe-ghostThe Ghost is written in the first person by a ghostwriter who is commissioned by his publisher to help a former British prime minister draft his memoirs. The project has to be completed within a few weeks to meet the publisher’s deadline. Our man, the ghostwriter, must scramble to repair an initial and very unsatisfactory draft, because the first ghostwriter has died—under mysterious circumstances, of course.

The Ghost reads well from the start. It’s immediately engrossing, for someone who likes this sort of thing. The plot is intricate and plausible. The finale is realistic but unpredictable. The narrator is the hero, and since it’s narrated in the first person, that means Harris has to be careful how the hero defines himself for his reader. It turns out, the protagonist is pretty human. He writes books that others get credit for. He’s intelligent but self-effacing. He makes dangerous mistakes, but works his way through trouble. His life is transformed by the events he narrates, but we’re not entirely sure what that means as the story comes to an end. One thing we do know—he doesn’t get the girl. This doesn’t matter. What matters is that readers will not forget what they’ve read.

Ditto for Fatherland. But the possibilities turned up here are more disturbing.

I classify this novel as a counterfactual historical novel. What does that mean? First, it’s based on historical events and real people. The setting is 1960s Berlin. The counterfactual conceit is that Hitler is still in power and is about to celebrate his 75th birthday. Harris considers what might have been, had Hitler survived the Allied invasion.

book-coverfatherlandOn the scenario he envisions, the Reich encompasses all of Europe, including England and France. Hitler’s military continues to battle the Russians on the eastern front. He’s negotiated a détente with the United States. President Kennedy—that’s Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kenney—is paying the Fürher a personal visit to commemorate his birthday. Hitler’s solution to “the Jewish problem” has been almost completely successful, and yet the details about what has happened to the Jewish population of Europe are known only to a handful of high-level members of the Nazi regime.

The story begins with an apparently routine crime scene investigation. Xavier March, of the kriminalpolizei, is dispatched to head the investigation. A corpse has been discovered on the forested edge of the river Havel. The deceased may have drowned accidentally. It may, somehow, have been suicide. The trail of clues suggests homicide.

Homicide it is. But by whom and for what reason? March is determined to find out. Soon he’s embroiled in a plot to cover up dangerous truths. Each turn in the investigation leads to further complication, confusion, and risk to Sturmbannfürher March himself.

Harris’s carefully researched novel reveals the Führer’s ghastly strategy to eliminate the Jewish race. It describes the practical difficulties that had to be overcome in order to make it work. And it envisions a horrific post-war outcome that may well have been realized if Hitler had had his way.

An American journalist collaborates with March. She believes that a public revelation of the facts would lead, sooner or later, to the collapse of a regime built “on a mass grave.” She’s confident that human beings, possessed with the knowledge of what had really happened, would not let it stand. The protagonist, Herr March, is skeptical. But he does know how, as a homicide investigator, to “turn suspicion into evidence.” And he’s compelled to do his part to sort out the nasty business. Whether the damning evidence he finds could change history is another matter.

At one point, March is explaining his theory about what the evidence means. He says, “This is conjecture, you understand?” Robert Harris has given us a suspenseful novel of counterfactual history that is filled with plausible conjecture. The last page ends with a fitting quote from Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Look in my face; my name is Might-have-been.”

Living too Fast with Books

This post-holiday season I pored over the offerings of a major bookseller advertizing deep discounts on books. I found much to interest me and placed my order. Shipping was FREE, so I even saved on the cost of fuel driving to the nearest big box book store.

swiftmapping-the-worldThe parcel arrived today. Here’s what came in the box:

Mapping the World, by Michael Swift. This is truly a handsome book. It can’t help make an impression at 17 inches wide and a foot tall—the perfect size to support my MacbookPro on my lap (the thing does get hot). This book, by a writer/publisher that specializes in cartography, lavishly features some 200 beautiful maps. The panoramic layout and size are perfect. This was easily the heaviest book in the box, ensuring that the free shipping really counted for something.

Next out of the box, a book of normal physique by Peter Walsh called It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. What could be more timely than a book to shame me for acquiring so many more books in one day? And in the same box! Whether this is a book I can do without for my soon to be “richer life” I’ll know when I read what Peter has to say.

pipherwriting-to-change-worldOh, here’s Author 101, by Rick Frishman—first of the batch related to writing and reading. This batch includes Michael Dirda, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life; Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World (who isn’t tantalized by that prospect?); Karen E. Peterson, Write. 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. (ordered on the basis of Kurt Vonnegut’s ringing endorsement—Wait. Did he ever have the block?); and, Good Fiction Guide, edited by Jane Rogers and boasting an annotated list of “4000 Great Books to Read” (a classified fiction guide from Oxford University Press).

What have we here? Italian language CDs from Berlitz? Indeed. Also in the “CD category,” Peter Kreeft’s lecture series Questions of Faith: The Philosophy of Religion. I know Peter, professor of philosophy at Boston College, and I expect great audio presentations on atheism, the problem of evil, arguments for God’s existence, religion and science, immortality, heaven, hell, religious experience, and an answer to the question . . . “What would Socrates think?” Hmm.

There’s financial guidance to be had from Ben Stein (the Expelled guy) and Phil DeMuth, in their book Yes, You Can Get a Financial Life! The exclamation point at the end of the title is reassuring. But I wonder, “Is it too late.” Have to see about that. Published in 2007, it does pre-date the fine mess that was made in October by our genius Congress.

Two items for the kitchen, so to speak. Kitchens: Design Is in the Details, by Brad Mee, and the Black & Decker Complete Guide to Kitchens, with everything you need to know to “Design, Plan & Install a Dream Kitchen.” (My idea of a dream kitchen is a kitchen that installs itself. But I couldn’t find a book on that.) Have you seen these Black & Decker guides? They’re the best for the do-it-yourselfer. If you DIY, you may already know that.

Getting back to the simpler life theme, there’s an suitably thin book called The Declutter Workbook: 101 Feng Shui Steps to Transform Your Life, by Mary Lambert. Come on, Mary, we both know that my life isn’t going to be “transformed” by applying feng shui to all our stuff. But for a guy who lives with three women, who have plenty of stuff, it’s a start. And maybe I’ll finally figure out what feng shui is.

I’m not done yet.

You know that book You—The Owner’s Manual? Well now I own one.

In the category of “most exotic cover” is Top 10 of Everything 2009, by Russell Ash. I can’t tell you anything about it because it’s shrink wrapped. But I’m sure it’s good. I bought it, right?

The most diminutive, but maybe the most overall helpful, is Raymond Chandler’s book (or “book-ie”) Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life. The pages measure 4 x 6 inches, and there’s a profile sketch of a handgun on the front cover. I’m starting with this book tonight.

Finally, in the “not-books-after-all” category, there are three wall calendars for 2009, “The Ultimate Motorcycle,” “Just Australian Shepherds” (I think that’s my dog on the front cover), and “On Broadway Theater Posters” (a gift for one of my daughters). I don’t aussie-wall-calendar-cover-2009know yet whether Aussies or Triumphs will adorn the wall in my university office. Either way, I’ll be inspired to get less done.

So there you have it. A forecast of my reading activities for some snatches of 2009.

I got a good deal, but probably spent more money more frivolously than Ben Stein and Phil DeMuth would approve. I hogged up books I don’t have room to shelve, compounding the clutter problem. So Peter Walsh and Mary Lambert will be tisking me. There’s a chance our kitchen remodel won’t be started before this time next year, even with the inspiring ideas book and the step-by-step guide. I do now have a beautiful book of maps—almost a piece of furniture in its own right—for the coffee table we don’t have.

You may not make for inspiring reading, but when you’ve owned a human body long enough, a manual for maintenance and repairs is a valuable reference work. I can work on my Italian, not because I plan to go there again, but because it adds some spice when you can sprinkle your conversation with fancy words like ciao and feel like you mean it. Since I spend little time in my car, the eight CDs of Peter Kreeft should last me for a couple years.

marloweguideI can at least pretend to be changing the world with my writing, and get some help with the effort when I’m stuck, or when I forget that world-changing potential is literally at my fingertips. Jane Rogers will save me the trouble of reading hundreds of books I really ought to read, though she probably can’t do much for the guilt I’m going to feel for cheating. One book I know I’ll read, keep, and re-read is Book by Book. Michael Dirda is, as it says on the book’s cover, “a cultural treasure.”

I have to admit, though, I’ve got to watch this binge book-buying and the dangerous speed reading it leads to. As Philip Marlowe once said, “I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast.”

Back in the Saddle

For the past two weeks I’ve been off-blog. Two weeks ago I was in Birmingham, Alabama to debate Michael Shermer on the question, “Does God exist?” Then I travelled to Spokane, Washington for a conference on “Faith, Film and Philosophy,” co-hosted by Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities. The title of my presentation was “Big Ideas on the Big Screen—How Arguments Work in Film.”

When the conference ended, my daughter caught up with me and we flew over to Seattle, then drove to the Olympic Peninsula to do some writing without distraction. I worked on an essay on “Death and Immortality.” She worked on two novels she’s been drafting.

Today was the first day back on my motorcycle, a ritual that comes before blogging. With that out of the way, I’m ready to log on.

With the election past, and the unctuous posturing of the media, I think my blogging in the immediate future will move into other areas. I’ll still find it irresistable to post comments on the media, political happenings, and media coverage of political happenings. But there’s so much more to think about!

Catch ya later!

What Good Writers Do—Best Book in This Category

To be a good writer, you must be able to select the best words, craft sentences, and build paragraphs. This is more than a matter of knowing the rules of punctuation and having a strong vocabulary. Read more of this post

If You Love Writing, Take Care of Your Better Half

I came across a bit of uncommon wisdom embedded in a list of common sense guidelines for making headway in your writing.

(4) If you have a better half living with you, make sure your better half is appeased and happy before starting.

Literature and Latte • “How to Finish Your Book on Time”

Good idea. You may not finish your book on time, but you’ll be a better writer.

So, if you love writing, take care of your better half.

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist

Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.


Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

Reviewer Sought at “Obscure Classics”

Here’s an opportunity to review classic films at a site dedicated to Obscure Classics.

“Have you dreamed of having your reviews and essays featured on our site? Have you fantasized about the enormous fame you’d have if only you could be a member of the Obscure Classics team?

“Well, lucky for you, we’re recruiting! I’m currently looking for one or two people to add to the awesomely awesome team here.”

Go here for details:

How to Write Book Reviews for Your Blog

Book reviews are everywhere now. And more people are writing reviews and posting them online. Journal and magazine editors worry that literary book reviews will become obsolete and that paid reviewers will be out of a job. I hope this doesn’t happen, because so much of the reviewing done online is of a different quality and serves a different purpose. At the same time, I think the proliferation of book reviewing by bloggers is a positive development. Read more of this post

If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It

You want to write but you can get going? Do the next best thing—read about writing. But make sure what you’re reading is written well. This is my list of recommendations for reading that leads to improved writing. This is kind of an annotated bibliography. I include a favorite quote from each item. Read more of this post

Quotations: On Poetry

Emily Dickinson Script

Emily Dickinson Script

“. . . you can’t force a poem.” —Elizabeth Jennings, quoted in The Poetry of Piety, edited by Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage

“It takes a grateful audience to keep a poem alive.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Another note to tack up over your desk: Too much cleverness in poetry can be a real killer.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Poetry, even the poetry of humor and delight, is an agent of the imagination pressing back, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, against the pressure of reality.” —David Lehman, Forward to The Best American Poetry 2006, edited by Billy Collins

Don’t Like Poetry? Start Here

How often have you read a poem and thought, “I don’t get it”? I can relate. How about this one: “I don’t get it; but I wish I could”? That was me, too. And it kept me away from poetry. Then I discovered Robert Pinsky’s little book The Sounds of Poetry: A Brief Guide. Pinsky helped me get it, and made me a believer in poetry.

There are several reasons why I wanted a deeper appreciation of the poetry I didn’t understand. Read more of this post

Doug’s Publications


Book Chapters

Articles in Reference Works

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Electronic Research Tools


This site simplifies the process of organizing citations for bibliographies and footnotes. eTurabian is a citation generator for printed resources and online and electronic resources based on Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writers. To generate the citation format for a particular source, go to eTurabian and select the link for the kind of source to be cited: book, journal article, magazine article, newspaper article, published music score, thesis or dissertation, website, or blog. The link will bring up a page with fields for entering the required bibliographical details. Fill in each field as appropirate and click on the “Submit” button. (There are two style options to choose from before clicking on “Submit”: Bibliography and Footnotes, and Reference List and Parentheticals.) eTurabian generates the correct format for your source, consistent with the standard Turabian style. For some types of sources (e.g., blogs), the click of another link on that page brings up other style options.

eTurabian has basic and advanced functions. Full performance requires an account. Throughout the eTurabian application there are links to information if a researcher has a question about a feature of the application or an aspect of proper citation. eTurabian also has a service called “Book Citation Express.” This service assists in formatting sources when data from an online library information for that source is cut and pasted into the deignated field in Book Citation Express

Quotations: On Writing

“If you don’t feel like writing, you can always read about it.”

—Doug Geivett (title of my post here)

“All the valuable writing I’ve done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I’ve wanted to leave the room.”

—Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson Writes a Story

“The process of writing is an adventure; you never know how things are going to configure themselves. When I begin a book, I know it’s going to transform my life.”

—Charles Johnson, in his interview with Diane Osen for The Book That Changed My Life

“Writers write for two reasons. One is that they have something they want to say. The other, equally compelling motive is that they have something they want to find out. Writing is a mode of exploration.”

—Margaret Lucke, Writing Great Short Stories Read more of this post

Quotes on Fiction

“. . . one discovers that an authentic sermon even within the confines of fiction [as in John Updike’s novel Of the Farm] can have a kerygmatic quality: one feels addressed, in a fairly direct way that collapses in part the illusions of fiction. Updike is able here to fix a receptive mood in which the reader is led to respond to the message as well as to the fictive situation.” —Robert Detweiler, “John Updike’s Sermons,” chapter in Breaking the Fall: Religious Readings of Contemporary Fiction

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