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|Sunday, April 20th, 2014|
|First run of 2014
It was nice out yesterday afternoon, and it was Saturday, so I kitted up and went to Paul Bartley track to see if I could put in seven miles. I did, in exactly 84 minutes. That's an average 3-minute lap, which is slow but not pathetic
. If the weather and my sleep schedule cooperate I will try to get out again tomorrow, Marathon Monday, and hope to get back in time to watch the Marathon on TV.
|Project Gutenberg etext #175: The Phantom of the Opera
I finished Gaston Leroux's famous "horror" novel, The Phantom of the Opera
, on Friday morning. The novel was published in French in serial form in 1909, and as a single volume in 1910; the first English translation came out in 1911.
Leroux produced mostly detective fiction, and Phantom
is also a mystery, in which the nature of the Opera Ghost is gradually revealed. I was surprised by how unsympathetic the Ghost character is; the vague impressions that have filtered in from popular culture predisposed me to the think kindly of him, but his behavior throughout the story alienated me. He's a petty-minded extortionate despot. We find him completely embittered by his lot (and by his own life-choices), and his love for the heroine only enables a mockery of redemption.
The novel is "topian fiction" in the sense I talked about here
, and so it flirts on the border of fantasy. The action takes place almost completely within the walls of the Paris Opera, I think probably in the 1880's or 1890's. (The actual date may have been given in the story, but I can't remember it.) The real building is pretty impressive; the version in the novel is huge, sprawling, intricate, labyrinthine, and full of fantastic architectural tricks. It reminded me of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Castle, and perhaps was partly intended as the same kind of metaphor for the universe.
At this point in Project Gutenberg, the curators decided that it was long past time for some Henry James, and the next four etexts are James novel, starting with Roderick Hudson
(1875). I've never read any Henry James before, but I've heard of him, so I'll be glad to actually get to know him a bit.
|Thursday, April 17th, 2014|
|Not quite so OK, Google
My sister and nephew visited us, and we took them to see one of our favorite sights in the area, the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Walter Gropius relocated from Germany to the United States in the late 1930's, and Helen Storrow gave him land and money to allow him to build himself a house.
On the drive there, my sister pulled out her smartphone to get directions. "OK, Google," she said to it, "Gropius House".
Google responded with a page of hits for "grow penis house".
|Thursday, April 10th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #174: The Picture of Dorian Gray
I learned that I don't like Oscar Wilde. At least I don't like him as he appears in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1891. Despite its fame, I had never read it before.
I don't mean that I hated the novel itself, although I did find it unpleasant at times. No, it's the personality of the author that set me on edge. The guy seems just insufferable. The authorial voice is pompous, arrogant, irritable, and convinced that everybody else on the planet is an idiot.
The supernatural premise of the story is that Dorian Gray, at 20, stops aging visibly, while a painting that was made of him at that time ages for him. Given the premise and the general mood of the story, Gray has to die before he gets really old. If he doesn't, the story would have to be about how the world reacts to a blatantly supernatural case of eternal youth. Gray's charmed life lasts only another 18 years, so that his preservation is only unusual, not impossible.
Gray's life and death are, apparently, a moralistic warning against a hedonistic, amoral philosophy of life. Why, then, is this philosophy the only one that Wilde succeeds in enunciating clearly? In fact it is espoused, vigorously and passionately, by two major characters (Gray and his friend Lord Henry Wotton), and no competing view is ever clearly expressed.
My next etext is #174, Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. It seems to be Gothic Month here at Project Project Gutenberg.
|Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #173: The Insidious [or Mystery of] Dr Fu-Manchu
Let's talk about racism first. Yes, Sax Rohmer's 1914 blockbuster The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (published in the US as The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu) is pretty damned racist. But it was not racist in the way I expected it to be.
Its overt message is not "Chinese people are disgusting," or "Chinese people are stupid," or even "Chinese people are all criminals." Some of these messages are simply assumed to be common knowledge, though, but Rohmer (real name Arthur Ward) never actually says any of this. Even "Chinese people are opium addicts" is only tangentially implied.
The real racist message is, "Some Chinese people want to take over the world." I'm not even sure that qualifies as racist.
It still left a bad taste in my mouth. Just the adjective "yellow" and the phrase "Yellow Peril" made me cringe.
Next, let's talk about 1914. If somebody wants a reading project, and is all upset that Project Gutenberg is "taken", I recommend finding archives of the major pulp fiction magazines for 1914 and reading all of them. Maybe start with 1913. Something was happening then, a sort of change in the attitude of writers towards fiction and their audiences. It was an important couple of years for literature, even though it took a while longer for the phase-change to percolate through to more highbrow writers. Rohmer has essentially the same narrative voice as Edgar Rice Burroughs on the other side of the Atlantic in the same year. Where did that voice come from? What did it mean?
The novel itself is narratalogically peculiar. It started as a series of short stories which were apparently published in a magazine, but I can't figure out which magazine. There are about eight to ten of these stories, but they are tied together closely enough by cliffhangers and foreshadowing that it's not always clear where the joints between them lie. Because Rohmer's stories depend on his master criminal, no story can end with the defeat of the bad guy. Instead, the climax of each story is foiling (or failing to foil) Fu-Manchu's latest plot. The novel lacks a certain narrative drive that Burroughs and Doyle are both expert at; I would say it's justly neglected compared to Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan.
Burroughs, in particular, was good at providing attractive male heroes for female readers to swoon over. Rohmer utterly fails at this: it is completely unclear why Karamaneh falls for Dr. Petrie. This male reader hadn't realized how much of this skill is simply characterization: Burroughs's characters are people, while Rohmer's are cardboard cutouts.
Project Gutenberg didn't get around to digitizing any more of Rohmer's oeuvre until the etext numbers got into four digits, and I don't blame them, nor regret not getting any Fu-Manchu sequels as part of this project.
Next, I will (re)read Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
|Saturday, March 29th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #172: The Haunted Bookshop
This was interesting. I had never read anything by Christopher Morley (1890-1957), although my parents had a copy of Where the Blue Begins that I saw on the shelves all throughout my childhood but never got around to pulling down.
The novel is a long (and mostly engaging) love-letter to literature and secondhand bookstores. It's one of those stories where one character is constantly recommending books to people and saying that this or that book is the most important thing written in the last century. Something about it made me think that Heinlein would have loved it, and there is something Heinleinesque about Morley's prose -- or perhaps with better justice I should say that Heinlein's prose is Morleyesque. I was mortified to find that of all the dozens of books listed by Morley's quirky bookseller, I had only read one, Milton's Paradise Lost.
The book is a sequel to the author's earlier novel, Parnassus on Wheels, which I am not likely to read as part of this project unless I happen to live forever.
I kept getting distracted by the looming presence of the First World War in the story. The novel came out in 1919, just after the armistice, and takes place just weeks after the end of hostilities. Everybody seems to be sort of reeling around with mixed shock and relief. It's sad, almost pathetic, the way everyone is convinced that the recently-ended war was so horrible that it makes future war unthinkable.
The story starts out as charmingly plotless, but then in the second half it grows a lame cloak-and-dagger plot with German spies; it reminded me of the plot Mark Twain grafted onto Tom Sawyer.
I learned that a certain genre of joke was already popular among booksellers in 1919: it's where a clueless customer asks for something which the bookseller cannot identify, until they realize that it is some well-known work whose title the customer has completely misconstrued. In the one example I can find quickly, the customer asks for some book about typewriters, and it turns out that they mean Stevenson's poetry collection Underwoods. Oh, here's another: "... He asked me for 'something by that Ring fellow, I forget the name' ... I thought perhaps he meant Wagner ... Then I found he meant Ring Lardner." Apparently this never gets old.
My next reading adventure is Sax Rohmer's pulp classic, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, which it would never occur to me to read were it not for Project Project Gutenberg.
|Wednesday, March 26th, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #171: Charlotte Temple
Susanna Rowson was born in 1765 in Portsmouth, England, and died in 1824 in Boston. Her lifespan completely contains that of Jane Austen, and she produced ten novels, six plays, and several volumes of verse, as well as some children's textbooks in geography, spelling, and Bible studies.
Charlotte Temple is a middle novel of hers, appearing first in 1791. Rowson is a personage of ambiguous nationality; in the next generation one could be either English or American, but Rowson lived early enough to be both.
The novel itself is unapologetically didactic; it belongs to a genre that I call "Maiden's Ruin", but some scholars apparently call the "seduction novel". "Girls, don't do this!" is the entire message. Although I had never heard of it, it was apparently the best-seller in America until it was eclipsed by Uncle Tom's Cabin. I am guessing that its popularity was due to mothers hoping to heaven that its message would have some effect on their daughters, and the daughters reading it entirely for its salacious content. (By modern standards it is pretty tame.)
I had never read a whole novel in the Maiden's Ruin vein, and I wouldn't have thought it possible for it to sustain a whole novel; my experience with the plot is derived from innumerable English, Scottish, and Irish folk-songs. The plot barely does manage to sustain the short text, but the book has a lot more historical and social interest than literary merit. I read a short segment aloud to Dr. Wife; Mrs. Rowson would have been appalled to see my lady in such uncontrollable mirth.
The villains are all, in keeping with the conventions of the genre, military men. It is unclear what these British soldiers are doing being stationed near New York in the 1780s; the novel seems to take place in a vague no-time that is a cross between colonial and post-Revolutionary America. A lot of the story doesn't really stand up to scrutiny: why does Charlotte's seducer Montraville trust his comrade Belcour with Charlotte's care, after Belcour has proven himself an unworthy scoundrel? When Montraville finally kills Belcour at the end, the reader wonders why it didn't happen ten chapters earlier.
It's intriguing to see how delicately Charlotte's character has to be balanced. Charlotte can't be too much of a thoughtless libertine, you see, or her message will not resonate with young female readers: they would say, "Oh, that's what happens to bad girls." No, Charlotte has to be almost perfect; she has to stray microscopically, just far enough for her imprudence to doom her. The lesson needs to be: "The precipice is much, much closer than you think it is, girls." Oh, so you don't have to read it: Charlotte dies, and the infant child of her shame is raised by Charlotte's parents (and becomes the heroine of the sequel, Lucy Temple, which I will probably never read).
My next book is Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop. We seem to be in the haunted season; perhaps I will soon read The Haunted Barbershop or The Haunted Schoolhouse.
|Saturday, March 22nd, 2014|
Project Gutenberg etext #170: The Haunted Hotel
I have just finished Wilkie Collins's novel, The Haunted Hotel. It was serialized in 1878, and published in book form in 1879. This is the second novel by Collins that I've read; it was an odd choice for Project Gutenberg, because it's not considered one of Collins's better novels. The conventional wisdom is that Collins wrote his four best novels during the 1860's, and that for his two remaining decades he cranked out inferior work, and my small sample agrees with this.
The story is engaging enough, but was weakened for my by the supernatural element. This is not because I'm intolerant of supernatural-themed novels; on the contrary I sometimes enjoy it a lot. But I need some kind of clue that I am in fact reading a supernatural story. For a lot of The Haunted Hotel, I suspected it was not a supernatural story, but rather a "Scooby-Doo" story in which the apparent uncanny happenings would be revealed to have been staged by the villains. It turned out that the uncanny events really were supernatural, but I found it a bit trying to be balanced between interpretations.
I noticed a minor inconsistency in the story: the oldest daughter of the new Lord Montbarry writes a letter to the heroine and signs herself Lucy in the first half of the novel, but when she comes onstage in person in the second half, her name has changed to Marian. (Collins's oldest daughter Marian was about 10 when this novel was written.)
The Haunted Hotel is not considered major enough to have its own Wikipedia article, but it isn't downright bad. I enjoyed it.
My next Project Gutenberg novel will be Charlotte Temple by Mrs. Susanna Rowson; I have never heard of novel or author, so I'm intrigued.
|Tuesday, March 18th, 2014|
|Project Gutenberg etext #169: The Well at the World's End
That was pretty good! I don't know when I would have gotten around to reading William Morris's 1896 heroic fantasy novel, The Well at the World's End: A Tale
, if it hadn't been for Project Project Gutenberg. So far the project is serving up enjoyable reading often enough to be at least as good as following hunches and friends' recommendations. Not that I am averse to recommendations; by now you are getting to know what I like, so if you have recommendations, recommend away!The Well at the World's End
is a there-and-back-again heroic quest which will feel quite comfortable to fans of modern fantasy. It's clearly a wellspring, or at least a conduit, for a lot of the conventions of the modern genre; in particular it is clear that Tolkien learned a lot of his lore about the proper structure of a quest narrative from Morris's example. I'll give some examples of Morris's influence on Tolkien a little later.
Some readers might be put off by Morris's deliberately archaized English. I think he's aiming at late 17th or early 18th century, and he does it better than a lot of writers who have tried. In particular it rings truer to me than Joseph Smith's faux-King-James English. As we might expect, though, Morris is a little uneven, since he is not a native speaker of the kind of English he's using. He's almost
consistent in his choice of Southern -th over Northern -s in the third person singular of the present tense, but he drops into the -s form when his guard is down. He deploys the old second-person "thou" throughout (with correct verb suffixes almost always); people in Morris's world all "thou" and "thee" each other without any apparent regard to relative social standing. This is either a misunderstanding of the thou/you distinction on Morris's part, or an intentional affectation to indicate that social strata in Morris's world are less forbidding than they are in real life.
He also uses at least one colloquial form, "pretty much", which I suspect is anachronistic. He uses a few archaic words, some of which I confess I did not look up, and he puzzled me for a while with the expression "one's above", meaning "one's victory, one's deserved favorable outcome". I've never seen that before, and can't find that sense in any dictionary -- but I haven't checked the OED yet. But I learned "carline" = "old woman", and a few other nice tidbits.
Occasionally, especially at a scene shift or narrative joint, Morris shifts to present tense for a sentence or two, or sometimes just a part of a sentence: "At last, a little after dark, back comes the carline again, and he met her at the door ..." (Book One, Chapter 21). Again, I'm not sure how much license this practice has in earlier usage.
Morris's narrative is almost always sprightly, and it is occasionally insightful and moving. For example, the old retainer Richard tries to help with the hero Ralph's deep mourning and depression:
"... But mayhappen thou mayst tell me of one thing that thou desirest more than another." Said Ralph: "I desire to die." And the tears started up in his eyes therewith. But Richard spake, smiling on him kindly: "That way is open for thee on any day of the week. Why hast thou not taken it already?" But Ralph answered naught. Richard said: "Is it not because thou hopest to desire something; if not to-day, then to-morrow, or the next day or the next?"
On another occasion Ralph dreams that he receives a visit from a recently dead friend, and Morris's recounting of this mourning-dream rang true enough to me (for I've also had such dreams) that it brought tears to my eyes: in the dream, Ralph knows that he must not try to touch his friend, just as I knew, when I dreamt of my mother, that I must leave her alone and let her get about her business.
Lovers of The Lord of the Rings
may be surprised to find in these pages an (evil) old man named Gandolf, and a peerless horse named Silverfax. In one scene Ralph watches an erupting volcano, at the end of a spur of mountains projecting from a larger range: "Thence they looked north and beheld afar off a very pillar of fire rising up from a ness of the mountain wall, and seeming as if it bore up a black roof of smoke ..." But besides these pre-echoes, the whole structure of the narrative is intensely Tolkienesque: the hero travels an immense distance over a period a several years, and crosses several mountain ranges to reach his goal; the return journey is an unwinding eerily similar in tone to the corresponding part of The Return of the King
, and culminates in an episode much like "The Scouring of the Shire", in which Ralph finds his little home-kingdom beset by enemies.
There are major differences between Morris's milieu and Tolkien's, however. Morris's world is much vaguer in conception; there is no hint of a map (though I think one could be drawn, and it would have helped). We are clearly in late medieval Christian Europe; there is mention of Rome, and less direct mention of Turkey. But the geography is all wrong: the actual landscape of Europe has nothing like the three north-south mountain ranges of Morris's world (the easternmost so dramatic that it is called "the Wall of the World", though the world does not end beyond it). And Ralph's journey is not long enough for the eastern ocean he reaches at its end to be the Pacific. All the peoples he encounters, except for one, speak the same language, and the one exception is mentioned only in passing. Ralph and the Innocent Folk he meets in the far East have no trouble understanding each other.
There is not much
magic in Ralph's world; even the eponymous Well could almost
be a placebo. There are no exotic humanoid races, and no unusual animals. One prophetic dream Ralph has turns out to be wrong in a basic particular; I kept expecting the discrepancy to be explained, but it never was. And Morris doesn't love horses the way Tolkien does: Silverfax, in particular, is casually left in the wilderness and never seen again. But Morris is not nearly as squeamish about sex as Tolkien is; some passionate love happens almost on camera. In fact, Ralph has two romantic conquests in the book, and Morris gleefully describes him as a "man with whom all women are in love"; Ralph himself remains almost oblivious of his mojo throughout.
Now I am going to begin another novel by Wilkie Collins, The Haunted Hotel
. This is not one of his famous ones, but I enjoyed The Moonstone
enough that I'm looking forward to this second sample.
|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.