[Most Recent Entries]
Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in
[ << Previous 20 ]
[ << Previous 20 ]
|Sunday, February 23rd, 2014|
|Project Gutenberg etexts #167 and #168: glimpses of the dawn of photography
It had been known for centuries before the 1800's that some compounds of silver had interesting photosensitive properties, and some people had managed to make fleeting images from life using these properties, but these images could not be made to last. The substances in question were still photosensitive and labile; further exposure to light would blot out the images, and even careful storage in the dark would usually cause the silver compounds to revert to their original state.
In the 1830's, though, the artist Louis Daguerre figured out how to take an image on a treated silver plate, and "fix" it to make the image permanent. That was the real birth of photography.
The two etexts I have just finished reading were written within two decades of the original discovery, and although in some ways they are dry, obsessive, and repetitive, they still shine with enthusiasm and excitement: a new art was being born, and artistic, scientific, and commercial shoulders were pushing it forward, all eager to see where the new techniques would lead.
It's hard for me to remember what was what in these two fairly similar works. Etext #167, S. D. Humphrey's American Hand Book of the Daguerreotype
, was written in the late 1850's, and seems to be a collection of articles from the author's own photography journal; the book trails off into advertisements for journal subscriptions and equipment. The following etext is Henry Hunt Snelling's History and Practice of the Art of Photography
, printed about ten years earlier. At that time there wasn't much history, as the single known practical process was only about a decade old; so this book too is mostly practical advice to photographers.
It is striking how cumbersome and onerous the Daguerrotype process is. The two books agree on a seven-step procedure: 1. polish a silver plate to a flawless mirror-like sheen; 2. sensitize the plate by exposing it briefly to halide vapors (mostly iodine); 3. capture the image by exposing it to light in a camera; 4. develop the invisible image to visibility by exposing the plate to mercury vapor; 5. strip off the sensitive compound to prevent further effects of light; 6. gild the plate to make the image more visible and striking; 7. optionally color the image with paint. Both authors don't like step 7, but many customers were insisting on it, so it had to be discussed.
I haven't actually seen a live Daguerrotype, so I don't know how the image really works. The sensitized silver, when exposed to light, either increases
in its affinity for mercury -- I could never quite tell which. The adhering mercury changes the surface from dark and reflective to a bright but more matte surface; the optical effect is complicated and depends on the light by which the plate is viewed. Apparently the subject is quite clear and unmistakable, but can be seen as either a negative or a positive depending on viewing angle.
Snelling expects exposure times ranging from several minutes to more than an hour. Portrait subjects were positioned, almost always seated, against unobtrusive headrests that helped them hold still for the required time. By the time Humphrey writes, substances called "accelerants" were used to enhance what we would think of as the film speed; these were added as part of the sensitizing process (step 2 above). Using accelerants, one could even occasionally get decent pictures of wiggly children.
The procedures and their descriptions border on alchemy and sometimes outright magic. It is clear that the practitioners had no adequate theory of what was actually happening. It wasn't clearly known which environmental variables influenced the outcome, and the books are full of pious instructions to do things that couldn't possibly have made a difference. Their theory of light was almost
modern, but their ignorance is revealed by advice to filter direct daylight through blue glass before letting it fall on the subject: it was known that the plates were more sensitive to blue light than yellow, but blue glass merely passes the blue light that is already present; it doesn't convert other colors to blue, and therefore cannot enhance the exposure. And the writers knew that other things yet unknown influenced the process; they advise repeating procedures several times because a certain number of exposures would fail for mysterious reasons.
The writers praise Daguerre for not
seeking patent protection for his invention: this allows practitioners to make rapid advances without have to license the basic technique. They criticise other inventors for taking out patents: they can describe patented processes in detail, but must always warn operators to obtain a license before trying them.
I am trying out a new rule: don't start reading the next etext until the last has been blogged. So I haven't yet started etext #159, William Morris's The Well at the World's End
. I'm excited, because I've never read this seminal work of the fantasy genre.
|Saturday, February 8th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #166: Summer
On Thursday last week, I finished reading Summer, a novel by Edith Wharton, published in 1917. It was my introduction to Wharton, whose The House of Mirth I was supposed to read for a class I took in college. I'm sure I should have; all the other authors I read for the first time in that course were definitely worth it. (Another novel I skipped then, and have never yet read, is Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.)
Anyway, Summer is a short novel, and was worth reading, but it was depressing, especially back-to-back with McTeague. Nobody important dies in Summer, though, so it's not like it's Tess of the D'Urbervilles-level depressing, but even so. The picture I'm getting of early 20th century sexual mores is extremely grim.
You just know that things are not going to end well for Charity Royall from the first few chapters. I found it slightly unbelievable that the cynical Charity should be so vulnerable to Lucius Harney's blandishments. With the object lesson of Julia Hawes before her, Charity knows with prophetic clarity what is going to happen to her, and she lets it happen anyway.
I think we are supposed to read the ending with a certain relief: Lawyer Royall gives Charity a graceful way out and a life of safety and comfort. But I couldn't find it anything but creepy. I think our views of age-disparate marriages have gotten less tolerant since 1917, and I suspect I am not reading the ending as the author intended.
Now I have started etext #167, an 1858 technical handbook for daguerrotypists. At first I was sure I was going to skip it, but I decided to give it a try and I'm actually kind of digging it.
|Monday, February 3rd, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #165: McTeague
I guessed correctly. Frank Norris's 1899 novel, McTeague, is fairly sordid and unpleasant from one end to another. I have a feeling that around this period, writers were rebelling against what they perceived as a sort of saccharine approach to fiction; they felt that they should paint life the way it is, and the way it is is pretty terrible.
In McTeague, all the main characters wind up dead, but since you didn't actually like any of them, it doesn't matter. I wound up wondering why Norris expected anybody to go along on the trip.
The "romance" between McTeague and Trina, even though it's the sunniest part of a very grim story, is itself hard to take. Boys, "no" really does mean "no", even though this novel seems to teach you that "no" means "force me to kiss you, to show me that you love me so much that you can't help yourself." Or something.
The only endearing thing about McTeague is that he knows six tunes to play on the concertina, which he does as part of his relaxation ritual. I can sort of play the concertina, and that touch was nice.
I don't think we ever find out McTeague's first name.
A sort of side plot of the book is McTeague's profession. He's extremely limited mentally, but he makes his living for the first two thirds of the book as an unlicensed dentist.
Etext #166 is Edith Wharton's Summer, a short novel published in 1917. I was supposed to read House of Mirth in college, but I never did, and this is my introduction to Wharton.
|Sunday, January 19th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #164: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1870, about five years after From the Earth to the Moon, and three years before Around the World in Eighty Days.
Etext #164 is probably not the right place to read this novel. I think that this edition is taken from the notoriously poor 1873 translation by Rev. Mercier; the telltale diagnostic is the mistranslation of scaphandre ("diving jacket") as the incomprehensible "cork-jacket". Mercier cut a quarter of the text and butchered a lot of the rest. People who actually want to read a good edition of the story, as opposed to those who are obsessively reading through Project Gutenberg in numerical order, are directed to etext #2488, taken (one hopes with permission) from Frederick Paul Walter's 1993 translation.
I read this book as a child, probably in the same execrable translation. Even then I remember spotting some scientific blunders, the worst of which is Verne's conjectures about the geography of the Antarctic. On this pass I noted absurd over-estimates of the depths of the sea, and a naive vagueness about the source of the Nautilus's power. Ordinary vessels must carry enormous quantities of fuel; the Nautilus manages without it because, you perceive, it works by electricity. Electric power was new enough at the time that Verne could wave his hands and regard it as magic; he never really explains how the electricity is generated, though at one point in the year-long voyage the Nautilus must replenish its supply of sodium, presumably slowly exhausted by electrical generation.
Beyond that, the novel is an exciting undersea travelogue, with fascinating incidents throughout. I think we're still not doing enough undersea exploration, pace Jacque Cousteau and James Cameron.
Now I have begun etext #165, McTeague by Frank Norris. I have never heard of either it or him; apparently it takes place in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. So far it's kind of sordid, and I have a suspicion it will stay that way.
Project Gutenberg etext #163: Flower Fables
Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832, and Flower Fables was her first published book; it was written it 1849, when the author was about 17, and was intended as an entertainment for Ralph Waldo Emerson's six-year-old daughter, Ellen. It was published in 1854 and earned the Alcott $54.
The book is a collection of fairy-stories in the trivial sense, that is, stories about fairies. The tales are saccharine and cloyingly moralistic, and are interspersed with amateurish pastoral poems. Alcott could already put together a decent sentence, though, and it's pretty good work for a 17-year-old.
Project Gutenberg etext #162: Take Me for a Ride
I have been a bad Project Project Gutenberg blogger. Since my last post, I have finished three more etexts from Project Gutenberg, and started a fourth; I'm going to try to use the long Martin Luther King weekend to catch up.
Mark Laxer apparently self-published his 1993 memoir, Take Me for a Ride: Coming of Age in a Destructive Cult. The publisher is given as "Outer Rim Press", but the only other work I can find with the same imprint is another book by Mark Laxer. Apparently Laxer, like the authors of a few other recent works that I've discussed here, decided that he would rather have his book be read than cling to his rights.
The book is a confessional that fits right in among many similar tell-alls of the "I was a teenage something-or-other" variety. The author was recruited into Sri Chinmoy's following in the late 1970's by Chinmoy follower Frederick Lenz, who was then calling himself Atmananda. Lenz later split off from Chinmoy and established his own cult, and Laxer was in the inner circle of Lenz's followers.
The book is reasonably well-written, though it hops around in time a little too much. It describes how the author falls for Lenz's line completely, and does everything Lenz asks, almost without question, until 1985 when he finally slaps himself in the face and walks out. It provides some insight into the mechanics of cult life, and how the cult leader exerts influence on his followers, but I found it hard to empathize because of the way Laxer bought into the supernatural premises of the cult. Laxer joined the cult at the age of 17, but even at 17 I would have walked out of the meditation sessions that hooked him. It was hard to believe how credulous he was.
Lenz committed suicide in 1998, five years after this book was published.
|Sunday, January 5th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #161: Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility is the fifth novel by Jane Austen that I have read as part of Project Project Gutenberg. Austen wrote six major novels, and three or four "minor" ones; minor either because they were immature works of her youth, never edited by the author with an eye to publication, or because they were incomplete at the time of her death. It is unsurprising that all of the first five Austen novels chosen for digitization by Project Gutenberg were major ones; it is surprising, though, that the remaining major novel, Pride and Prejudice, was digitized late enough that its etext number is #1342; it entered the Gutenberg archives around two years after Sense and Sensibility. And before it, they digitized the minor works Lady Susan and Love and Freindship (sic).
Sense and Sensibility has a more intricate plot than any of the other major novels. A cloud of speculation by interested onlookers complicates the question of who is actually in love with or engaged to who. Although this was not the first time I read the book, I found myself not recalling a lot of the details.
Sense and Sensibility also has a less amiable cast of characters than the other novels. One can sympathize with Miss Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, and Colonel Brandon, but everyone else is shallow, or venal, or hysterical, or gossipy. One comes to love the gossipy Mrs. Jennings, but she has to prove herself after causing a fair amount of grief. The hysterical Marianne eventually gets herself under control in one of Austen's rare examples of character growth. But everybody else is unsympathetic.
Nonetheless I think the novel is properly a comedy: the foibles of the unsympathetic characters are there to be smiled at, and the intricacies of actual and conjectural romance are classic comedic fare, as is Mrs. Ferrars's ironic comeuppance.
If the novel had been written today, it would have been called Sensibility and Sensitivity. It's interesting how the meaning of the words has changed.
|Wednesday, January 1st, 2014|
I usually don't indulge in the kind of post that was the original motivation for blogs: here's a neat link, looky looky! And I am not a big fan of the Uzbekistan's Got Talent TV format (even if I watched TV). But this audition
to Holland's Got Talent caught me right at the heartstring. I've always been a sucker for situations where an unprepossessing person shows an unexpected talent, and this one is archetypical.
If I haven't convinced you to watch it yet: Amira is nine years old, and she comes out and chats with the judges, who look appropriately skeptical. Then she starts to sing, and it's as if her body has been taken over by something much bigger than she is. The judges' reaction is priceless.
If you like this, you might want to see the next few installments of her story: semifinal
, and then the announcement of the winner in two parts: selecting the final three
and ranking them
. Unfortunately I couldn't find subtitled versions of the last two.
There's a bit more stuff out there about her, interviews and the like.
[More thoughts, next day:] I finally went to the trouble of listening to other renditions of O mio babbino caro
, the aria Amira chose for her initial audition. Amira has a wonderful singing voice, but the actual words she produces merely resemble the actual Italian. She learned the songs from recordings, and she has a rather blurry conception of the phonemes she is supposed to be producing, and she sometimes breaks syllables oddly, from not knowing where the word boundaries are. No Italian speaker who didn't already know the aria would be able to decode the result. I'm nitpicking, of course, since this fault could easily be fixed: the girl is more than smart enough to learn to read and pronounce Italian in a week or two.
|Sunday, December 29th, 2013|
Saving Mr. Banks
On Friday Dr. Wife and I took a friend to see Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about how Walt Disney convinced P. L. Travers to sell the movie rights to Mary Poppins. I have no idea how true-to-life is the movie's titular conceit, that the character of Mr. Banks is a projection of Travers's own father, and that the thing that tipped the balance was Disney's promise that the climax of the movie would be Mr. Banks's redemption. But it was all quite moving, and in some places even a little harrowing, as well as being fairly funny. The cast is great: Tom Hanks was an inspired choice to play Disney, and Emma Thompson does a lot of good work in the character of Travers. Paul Giamatti does his usual wonderful supporting work as a Disney chauffeur assigned to driving Travers around. The scenery and costumes are great, and the sixties ambience is very authentic-feeling.
I was annoyed by a plot point where Disney tries some emotional armtwisting on Travers, claiming that he had promised his daughters to make a movie out of Mary Poppins. If I had been Travers I would have walked out right then: nobody should feel the least bit pressured by the unwarranted promises of others. Travers bites back a little, but not (in my opinion) nearly hard enough. There would have been a million ways to rebut the emotional extortion, and the Travers character portrayed in the movie wouldn't have passed them all up like that.
Stay through the closing credits; there is a fabulous historical bonus at the end.
|Saturday, December 28th, 2013|
Reading aloud: The Difference Engine and Guns, Germs, and Steel
I have been neglecting one of my accustomed topics here, recording books that I read aloud to my wife. Almost a year ago I announced that we were starting The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. We must have finished that just a few months later, and I don't have that much to say about it. It is one of those modern novels whose texture and atmosphere is more important than what actually happens in it. Not all that much actually does happen: a mystical computer program called "The Modus" passes from hand to hand like the Maltese Falcon, never quite transcending its own blatant MacGuffinhood. When it's "revealed", with many veils and puffs of smoke, that what the program actually does is prove the Incompleteness Theorems that in our universe are due to Gödel, anybody who actually knows anything about the theorems will wish the authors kept the program's purpose a mystery. The real point of the novel is the flavor of the alternate "Steampunk" history, and readers would do well to focus on that and not demand much else.
After we finished The Difference Engine, we switched over to non-fiction for the few months that it took us to get through Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond has come in for a fair amount of criticism since the book's publication, but the argument seems fairly cogent, and it wouldn't surprise me if Diamond's theory of the last ten millennia of human history turns out to be true, at least in broad outline. In the process of sketching and defending this theory, Diamond presents a lot of historical anecdotes of various sorts, that conventional history books tend to overlook. One weird example: the sweet potato is native to Central or South America, but long before Western European contact with the Americas, the crop spread across the Pacific, becoming a staple of Polynesian agriculture as far west as New Zealand. The interaction that introduced the sweet potato to Polynesia is, therefore, a proven pre-Columbian contact between the Americas and the rest of the world; it probably took place before AD 1000.
As we were finishing Guns, Germs, and Steel, Dr. Wife was reading Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, and it developed that she had never read Baum's The Wizard of Oz, so we decided to read that next, and we are almost done with it.
|Sunday, December 22nd, 2013|
Project Gutenberg etext #160: The Awakening and Selected Short Stories
I finished this anthology of work by Kate Chopin on Friday. For some reason I neglected to announce it in my previous Project Project Gutenberg post, in which I discussed Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau. I don't know why I didn't say what I was reading next. I will resume the breached custom with this post.
I had never heard of Kate Chopin until my daughter brought home a modern edition of this very same anthology as part of her reading for a college course. I read a few pages of The Awakening from that copy, and thought that it was depressing, so I stopped. Now I've finished it; it was a bit depressing, but I coped.
Chopin lived from 1850 to 1904, but almost all of her important literary output appeared in the 1890's. It was all short stories except for two novels; The Awakening was published in 1899. The stories in this anthology are all intensely local, taking place in the French culture of Louisiana.
From today's point of view Chopin is clearly proto-feminist, but I'm not sure she was seen that way in the 1890's. The Awakening is a beautiful, tragic portrait of a woman suffering from what Friedan called "the problem that has no name", but it didn't have a name in Chopin's time and Chopin doesn't try to name it. She never comes out and says that women are unjustly subjugated by the institutions of society, as Mary Wollstonecroft did say more than a century earlier. A contemporary could read The Awakening as an isolated tragedy: Mrs. Pontellier's experiences and personality eventually make her life intolerable to her, but the women around her go soldiering on in moderate contentment. It takes the modern viewpoint to say that Mrs. Pontellier's perceptions are the correct ones, and that those other women are simply unawakened.
Not all the stories in the collection are tragedies: Beyond the Bayou ends in uplifting triumph for its heroine, for example.
Chopin often returns to a theme of physical liberation, the removal or transcendence of physical barriers: Mrs. Pontellier learns to swim as an adult; La Folle overcomes her self-imposed pale in Beyond the Bayou; and I noticed a few other examples. The theme resonated with me. It reminded me of the emotion I felt when I learned to ride a bicycle, and later when I got into good enough physical shape to run a few miles without stopping. I seek that kind of transcendence myself, and feel its allure, so those passages in Chopin often made me cry a little in empathy.
Now I have started etext #161, Jane Austen's early novel Sense and Sensibility. I find that I don't remember as much of it as I did of the other Austen novels I've read recently, so I'm clearly overdue for a refresher.
|Sunday, December 15th, 2013|
|Project Gutenberg etext #159: The Island of Doctor Moreau
I had never before read H. G. Wells's 1896 novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau
. This is surprising, because there must have been a copy on the science-fiction shelves of the Carl Sandburg Public Library in Livonia, Michigan, which formed my early reading habits. I certainly read The Time Machine
and The War of the Worlds
back then. I'm guessing that I sniffed the scent of horror from the title. Although I loved science fiction and fantasy, I avoided scary things, including classic monster movies that are mostly SF.
This novel is a third link in a chain of literary influence that I have started to sketch in previous posts in this series. Mary Shelley's 1818 Frankenstein
and Edgar Rice Burroughs's 1913 The Monster Men
are the two other links I've noted here. Moreau
is clearly part of the same tradition of handwringing about synthesizing people.
Moreau, like Shelley's Frankenstein (but unlike Burroughs's Maxon), pretty much abandons his creations as soon as they are off the operating table. He doesn't feel Frankenstein's paralyzing disgust, but rather indifference and dissatisfaction. He looks at his creation, decides it doesn't measure up, tosses it out, and picks up the next animal victim to try again.
Wells begins chapter XVI of the first-person narrative with the following apologetic sentence: "My inexperience as a writer betrays me, and I wander from the thread of my story." This is because chapter XV was almost completely devoted to a pure didactic description of the menagerie of beast-people Moreau had created. It's a rough scientific sketch of the fantastical setting of the novel, of the kind that was often handled with great awkwardness by the pulp writers of the following generation. It's much more graceful than Burroughs's similar "travelogue" interludes, and in fact I was startled by the apology that followed it. Science fiction and fantasy, genres with foregrounded unfamiliar settings that need explanation, have wrestled with this problem from the beginning.
Have you ever heard of Slöjd? Our gentleman hero must make a raft to facilitate his escape from the island, and in chapter XXI he peeves, "I found a thousand difficulties. I am an extremely unhandy man (my schooling was over before the days of Slöjd) ..." Slöjd was the practice of incorporating practical skills, like making and fixing things, in the primary and secondary educational curriculum. It was pretty controversial in some places, and Wells's narrator manages to sneer at it even while acknowledging that it would have made things easier for him. I guess not knowing how to cope with the physical world is one of the burdens the aristocracy has to bear.
This novel has the same cavalier attitude toward the problem of human intelligence as the other two classic people-building novels I read earlier. Shelley thinks (to the extent one can tell) that intellect is just an emergent property of soaking vaguely brainlike tissue in the vital principle; Burroughs seems to deny that it's a problem at all -- the creatures that come out of Maxon's vats are smart because he puts in the right chemicals in the right order. Wells at least engages the problem a little more than the other two, but, good socialist that he is, he thinks it's really a matter of education and the anatomical ability to speak. A cursory training program gets the creatures thinking and speaking, but if you stop tending them they lapse into brutes again. It's not until the computer age, as far as I can tell, that any writer really engages with the fact that intellect is a real puzzle.
|Tuesday, December 10th, 2013|
|Project Gutenberg etext #158: Emma
In my post
about Mansfield Park
I gave a hint about how to think about Jane Austen's novels: they divide neatly into two groups, early and late. It's not rewarding to sort the three early novels into any sort of order, but the three later ones were clearly written in workmanlike fashion, one after the other. Emma
is the middle novel of the late group, published in 1815.
Emma is a difficult heroine. We are supposed to like her and to be on her side, but boy, does she make us cringe. Clueless
is a modern movie workup of the same plot, and while almost every detail has been morphed, Alicia Silverstone nails the clever, rich and spoiled character.
I found myself thinking of the similarly cringeworthy character of Catherine Morland in the early Austen novel Northanger Abbey
. Emma is five years older than Catherine, and her conceits and imaginary romantic dramas are more mature (and more capable of causing real harm); this perhaps parallels the intervening maturation of the author. Catherine's imagination runs unchecked until Henry Tilney shakes her out of it near the end. But Emma, in contrast, is constantly
being checked and scolded by Mr. Knightley, but she pigheadedly persists in her schemes and fancies, and has, I think, a 0% success rate by the end (unless you actually credit her with Miss Taylor's match).
I noted a few interesting details on this trip through Emma
It's unclear exactly when the novel is supposed to take place; Chapman acknowledges that is less anchored in real time than most of the other novels. One would expect it to be approximately contemporary (1814 or thereabouts), but a hint in the text indicates that at least one character, Miss Bates, is used to thinking of Ireland as a separate kingdom and has to correct herself. That would put it earlier, probably, since the Acts of Union were in 1801, unless Miss Bates is very
slow to adapt. One careful calendrical analysis
has the main events in 1813 and 1814, but I think (counting on my fingers) that 1802 and 1803 have the same days of the week, and this conforms better to my opinion of Miss Bates's wits. I may have missed something, though.
The end of Chapter XVI of Volume II has one of Dr. Wife's and my favorite Austen moments. Emma tries to get Mrs. Weston to confess herself mistaken about Mr. Knightley's being in love with Jane Fairfax. (This is one of the few things that Emma gets right.) But dear Mrs. Weston goads Emma by stubbornly pretending to cling to her conviction, and the chapter ends with her quote:
"Why, really, dear Emma, I say that he is so very much occupied by the idea of not being in love with her, that I should not wonder if it were to end in his being so at last. Do not beat me."
It takes a little bit of thought to make sense of that last admonition, but when we picture the two ladies sitting side by side on a sofa, in some sitting-room (the exact location is left vague), with plenty of plump, nicely-embroidered cushions ready to hand, it all makes hilarious sense. I would like to find out if any of the movie versions pick up on this implied pillow-fight.
Chapter V of Volume III has a glimpse of a parlor-game that could, I think, be resurrected happily for the milder sort of parties today. Players select piles of letters (cloth cut-outs, one imagines, in the original, but Scrabble tiles would work admirably), form secret words, and then scramble them and pose them as challenges. The game was played without formal turn-taking, with players posing challenges to each other indiscriminately, with several such challenges taking place simultaneously.
I visited family for Thanksgiving, which was great, but one of my sisters brought a cold from Europe, and Dr. Wife came down with it early last week. Apparently I caught it from her rather than directly from my sister, and I got my first symptoms Friday night.
It progressed very fast, and now I just have a cough and runny nose. I hope it continues to improve at the current rate!
|Friday, November 29th, 2013|
|The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
I finished reading The River of No Return
, Bee Ridgway's debut novel, on Thanksgiving. The novel was published just this year, and was brought to my attention because Ridgway is one of my daughter's academic advisors at Bryn Mawr.
The book engaged and interested me from the first chapter. The writing has a kind of slightly ironic sparkle to it that I like. The characters were well-drawn and developed in a way that seemed natural and unforced to me.
I had some trouble with the premise, which I think was largely my fault. The book is balanced between two subgenres: "soft" science-fiction/fantasy about time travel, and historical romance fiction with a time travel "hook". I am way more familiar with the former, and couldn't help reading from an F&SF "angle", but I suspect that the novel embeds more gracefully in the historical romance genre, whose tropes and conventions I don't know. Because of this, I couldn't help subjecting the time travel aspect to a lot more examination and head-scratching than I think it was supposed to elicit. The nature of time and time-travel in this novel are a bit incoherent, but I think it wasn't supposed to bother me as I watched the romance between the two protagonists develop. Probably a reader more used to historical romance would have way less trouble.
Ridgway delicately picks some
of the mysteries the novel introduces to resolve in a satisfying way by the conclusion, while leaving others for the obviously-anticipated sequel. My daughter informs me that a prequel novella is going to be released as part of the promotion for the paperback edition of The River of No Return
. I will be looking for these and reading them as they come out.
The author's website is here
; I recommend her blog. Her debut novel is available from Dutton Adult; its ISBN is 0525953868. Like most modern romance novels, the book has some explicit sexual content.
|Saturday, November 23rd, 2013|
Project Gutenberg etext #157: Daddy-Long-Legs
I finished Daddy-Long-Legs, a novel by Jean Webster, published in 1912, sometime early last week, probably on Tuesday. It's one of those charming, uplifting novels of young people going out into the world, like Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series, and Gene Stratton-Porter's Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. In this one, the heroine is a spunky orphan who catches the attention of one of her orphanage's trustees; the trustee supports the girl through college, in exchange for a promise of periodic letters. But the trustee wants to remain anonymous; the girl directs her letters to the care of her benefactor's private secretary, and she is not to expect any response. The main body of the novel is made up of her letters to the man she calls "Daddy-Long-Legs".
I've said before that I have a weakness for this sort of thing, and I enjoyed this one a lot.
Now I am taking a short break from Project Gutenberg to read a debut novel by one of my daughter's undergraduate advisors at Bryn Mawr (speaking of charming girls at college), a time travel romance called The River of No Return, by Bee Ridgway. And I have finally caught up with my backblog.
|Friday, November 22nd, 2013|
Project Gutenberg etext #155: The Moonstone
After I finished The Rise of Silas Lapham, I read Wilkie Collins's 1868 novel, The Moonstone. The novel was originally serialized in one of Dickens's story magazines.
The Moonstone is lauded as a seminal example of detective fiction, but it is interesting both for its similarities and differences with the genre it supposedly inaugurated. Yes, there is a detective looking into the theft of the eponymous diamond, and yes, he is a quirky character with above-average observational skills. But he's not at the level of Sherlock Holmes (whose career was launched two decades later). Sergeant Cuff gets some crucial things wrong, for one thing. It's also interesting that Cuff is dismissed from the case halfway through the story, and vanishes until some wrapping-up chapters near the end.
But The Moonstone has other interesting aspects, besides whether or not it started a genre. The narrative structure is unusual. The story is told by a series of narrators, each of which are most familiar with their part. Each narrator is an interesting character; the first one, Gabriel Betteridge, the old household retainer, is a frank delight. The narrators have various opinions about each other that they mostly politely withhold, but the reader can still divine them.
The novel certainly has flaws. The diamond comes into the Verinder family through out-and-out theft, and is sought for the whole story by its rightful owners. Yet nobody ever proposes just giving it back to them, even to get out of terrible danger, and the reader is not expected to think they should either. You might argue that its mighty value (20 to 30 thousand pounds, in 1868) was the motivation for keeping it, but in that case they would at least contemplate selling it, and they don't seem to do that either.
I had read the book sometime before, but I must not have been paying attention; I liked it a lot better this time around.
I finished it sometime last week. Then I skipped "etext" #156, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C minor, in the form of four fairly poor MIDI files. (Maybe it's just my player that is poor. A MIDI file is like a score; it has to be interpreted by software, which can do a good or a bad job.) Etext #157 was a 1912 novel by Jean Webster, called Daddy-Long-Legs. I had never heard of her or it, so I began it with great curiosity.
Project Gutenberg etext #154: The Rise of Silas Lapham
I have gotten way behind on my Project Project Gutenberg blogging, which is a shame because I have been reading some interesting stuff.
At this point I have forgotten when I finished The Rise of Silas Lapham; probably around the middle of the November. William Dean Howells published this novel, his third, in 1885.
The story was interesting, describing the conflicting feelings of a self-made rich man in his uncertain relationships with upper-class society. But what really caught my attention was the setting, in post-Civil War Boston. I knew a lot of the places, but the geography of Boston has changed enormously since then.
One focus of the story is Lapham's project of building a new mansion for his family on "the New Land" on "the water side of Beacon", that is, on the land adjacent to the milldam that was built to enclose the water of the Back Bay in the middle of the 19th century. Beacon Street was originally just a couple of blocks long, running westward down Beacon Hill and along the north side of the Boston Common until it ended at the Back Bay, but it was extended along the new milldam and the new fill land on either side became desirable real estate. There are a lot of scenes of pleasure-rides along the dam.
I was amused that Lapham's wife was named Persis; I only know one Persis and I couldn't help imagining her in the role. She fit it pretty well.
Howells's authorial voice reminded me a lot of Mark Twain, though Howells is not nearly as arch. In fact it turns out that Howells and Twain collaborated on a couple of projects, the similarity might not be accidental.
The next etext is Willkie Collins's 1868 classic, The Moonstone.
|Saturday, November 16th, 2013|
|Another weird finger injury
I was just now playing guitar, and I got the same kind of injury as I described here
about four years ago. I think this is the first recurrence since then.
This time it's in my left index
finger, but the relative location is exactly the same: ventral side of the finger, a couple of millimeters lateral to the midline.
If I could figure out how to type without the letters i, k, p, u, x, and y, I'd be fine. (Don't look at your keyboard to try to make sense of that. I use the Dvorak keyboard layout.)
[ETA:] By the following day it was fine. As of four days later I still haven't happened to have a few minutes to play an instrument, but at least it doesn't hurt when I type.
|Saturday, November 2nd, 2013|
Project Gutenberg etext #153: Jude the Obscure
I finished reading Thomas Hardy's 1895 novel Jude the Obscure about a week ago, but somehow I haven't been able to make myself sit down and write about the book until now, and even now I'm overcoming some weird psychological resistance. I don't think this has anything to do with the book itself, which while depressing and downbeat, is less blackly depressing than Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I'm not sure what is making it hard for me to write. Maybe it's that I'm afraid I won't come up with anything interesting to say about it. I put a few bookmarks in, in places that I thought I might turn into talking points; we'll see how that works out.
Coincidentally, while I was reading Jude, I went to a birthday dinner for a dear old friend, whose knowledge of literature I greatly respect. She happened to mention that two novels she just hated were Middlemarch and Jude the Obscure. Then somebody asked me what I was reading at the moment, and I had to confess.
The story tells how Jude Fawley aspires to be a scholar, but he fails to get into university because he comes from a poor background. Instead, he spends his life working as a stonemason, occasionally lurking around the fringes of academia. One episode that I thought was very cute describes how Jude decided that he was going to learn Latin and Greek, but at the age of 11 or so he is completely mistaken about what it's like to learn another language. He imagines that he has to learn a single basic rule, like a secret decryption key, for each language. He's dreadfully disappointed when he finally understands what's involved. But Hardy mentions that this notion is not completely ridiculous, and gives Grimm's Law as an example in which the relationship between languages can be reduced to a translation rule.
Jude becomes the center of a gnarly "love W"; he gets sidetracked into a marriage with Arabella, but she abandons him and emigrates to Australia, where she presents herself as single and marries a Mr. Cartlett. In the meantime, Jude falls in love with his cousin Sue, but can't actually court her because he feels bound by his undissolved marriage to Arabella. Instead, Sue marries the schoolmaster Phillotson, twenty years her senior. Most of the story concerns the tensions caused by this romantic chain.
I was intrigued by a description of Sue's childhood; she was an odd child who adored reciting publically, and an older villager recalls her reciting Poe's The Raven. I had no idea that the American Poe had any currency in 19th-century England; one thinks of England always as the literary producer, and the United States as the consumer.
Jude was considered scandalous and obscene by many contemporaries; remember that this was the height of the Victorian era. Hardy describes Arabella's and Sue's bodies as part of the contrast he creates between them. Arabella is zaftig and Sue slender, and in particular Arabella has big breasts and Sue small ones. The author clearly preferred the latter esthetic, and I think he considered the body types to be correlated with character traits: Arabella is coarse and pleasure-loving, while Sue is refined and ethereal. But I was mostly surprised that Hardy would even go there.
Sue is almost completely asexual by preference; every act of physical affection is for her a sacrifice. She verbalizes her preferences as a generalization: she claims that no woman likes sex, and that they submit only to secure the affections of their husbands. It's easy to call this attitude antiquated and ridiculous, but I think as a sort of shorthand, it retains a lot of currency, more as a pernicious habit of thought than an actual description of psychological reality. It is at the heart of a lot of conventional wisdom about dating and courtship, and was reexpressed in the disturbing dating handbook The Rules.
Now I am reading etext #154, The Rise of Silas Lapham, by William Dean Howells. I had never heard of either novel or author before I started.