Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Back in the Office on Thursday

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

I think folks have recently been introducing folks to other bloggers and blogs that they enjoy. May I therefore introduce you to Dave? Click the links above.

Quote of the Day

"All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people."

(My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures)

Conference done.

Friday, February 23, 2007

And All The Little Saints

My mother-in-law has a phrase she uses in moments of utter exasperation,"Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and all the little saints!" It's not said when she's in a real temper, but as a verbal accompaniment to a rolling-of-the-eyes. It is intended to elicit divine attention at the point of need for patience in dealing with the real idiocies of daily existence.

When I first heard of this controversy, I echoed the phrase and her heartfelt tone. Surely, surely an author may be allowed to use anatomically correct terms when writing a book without setting off alarms. Anyone in a classroom who can't talk his or her way around the use of such a term in a way that avoids embarrassment needs to practice their verbal skills. Having said that, I have to agree with the Annoyed Librarian, who suggests that the litmus test (at least for children's literature) might be whether it is a word you'd choose to use in polite conversation. How well can you define it if pressed? The only thing worse might be to imagine the helpful young second or third-grader in the classroom who offers to show the questioner exactly where that particular portion of the male anatomy appears in order to clarify. At the same time, the author claims the incident in the book was taken from real life. It's not like she sat at her computer wondering how best to shock the neighbors. The columnist at the Toronto Star has a good grasp of the realities of the situation. Forbes is pointing out that the controversy is fueling book sales.

One does wonder if we've lost a grip on reality. Neil Gaiman suggests that it's just a small group of librarians who have gone over to the dark side. Of course, his headline uses an anatomically correct term as well so you might not trust him either.

(My responsibilities for the conference begin tomorrow evening; I'll be four days, three nights at the Ritz Carlton. It's a posh setting, but meeting planners don't get to enjoy the full benefits. For the record, there are special places in Perdition for speakers who cancel at 4:45 pm on a Friday afternoon when they are supposed to speak on the following Monday. Remember that bit I shared about people who are like Slinkies?

Back in four days.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Morality Play (Barry Unsworth)

[Not for any challenge; just an ordinary review]

Title: Morality Play

Author: Barry Unsworth

Copyright: 1996 (Paperback, W.W. Norton, New York, ISBN 0-393-31569-6)

Length: 206 pages

Genre: Mystery; literary fiction

Summary: Nicholas Barber is a youth, too young to know his own mind and what will make him happy. Seven months ago, during the month of May, he had caught spring fever and broken away from his priestly occupations. Now it is December and he is standing in the snow overlooking a sad tableau, a group of players surrounding one of their dying members. "It was a Death that began it all..." is the opening of this wonderful novel. Nicholas joins this group of poor players and in attempting to earn money to bury the dead man, that group becomes part of a larger mystery-- a murder, a new form of drama and a shift in thinking. Each player becomes real, largely due to Unsworthy's gift for providing just a few distinct details to make a picture come clear. The historical account of mystery and morality plays is fascinating, particularly if you've never given much thought to how performers might have had to manage scripts and staging in the fourteenth century.


First there was the shame, to cause distress to my Bishop, who had given me the tonsure, who had always treated me like a father, because this was not the first time I had left without permission, but the third, and always in the May-time of the year at the stirring of the blood and this time the reason was different but the stirring was the same. I had been sent to act as a secretary to Sir Robert de Brian, a noble knight and generous in his benefactions but not of discerning taste in letters and in short a very vile poet who set me to transcribing his voluminous verses and as fast as I copied them, he would bring others. All this I endured. But then in addition, he set me the task of transcribing Pilato's long-winded version of Homer. (from the opening of Chapter 2)

The extract has a certain humor to it, but the bulk of this book is serious and meaty. The extract however does give a taste of Unsworth's skill in providing Nicholas with a distinctive voice - one that mixes both fear and occasionally pompous insecurity.

Also Relevant: This book is an absolute favorite of mine. I am offering it as a historical mystery to my Township library group later this week, but anyone reading it may find far more in it than just the mystery. Given that it is such a short book, I don't want to reveal too much, but for me the themes resonate every time I read it. The outsider looking in and percieving truth where others can not; empowering Everyman to trust his own sense of right and wrong, the importance of Figures (archetypes) in the telling of stories and how stories change when we personalize Figures. Morality Play is, on many different levels, a coming-of-age story.

As I have been slowly reading both John Mullen's How Novels Work as well as Armstrong's A Short History of Myth, re-visiting this book just now seemed a happy serendipity. Mullen discusses types when he talks about people (characters) while Armstrong's Short History touches briefly on how acting out myths gives rise to liturgy. At the time of this story, the Church depended on the Actor's Guilds to portray biblical tales and allegorical renditions of a cosmic and social hierarchy. (For more of the historical background on this, visit this discussion of mystery and morality plays in the city of York.)

I've used this book with discussion groups multiple times. Norton provides a reading group guide with additional historical background provided briefly by the author. The publisher's site also provides a list of literary prizes for which this book was shortlisted and/or awarded. Every time I've read it, I've discovered or noticed something new. If Barry Unsworth is considered to be a leading literary artist, then this is the book you hope will be deemed a classic one day. It would be a shame for it to be lost in the flood of lesser works.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Old Woman Reading From a Lectionary

Old Woman Reading From a Lectionary (Gerard Dou, 1630, Rijksmuseum)

As you can tell by the picture, I've aged some in the past few days. (Actually, if you click through on that link, you'll learn that the portrait is ostensibly of Rembrandt's mother. Dou was a student of Rembrandt's.)

My computer glasses broke and I was somewhat taken aback by the hindrance this represented. Fifteen minutes on the machine -- just long enough to check my email and respond as necessary -- and then off quickly before my eyes felt the strain. Composing using a pad and pen was time-consuming; I've lost the knack of it.

The ice outside the house was severe enough that I lost two full days from work, just because it was THERE and impassable. In the office briefly on Friday, but then had to navigate the streets back and forth with mounds of ice as obstacles; I looked like a grey-haired flamingo balancing on one foot while desperately looking for a safe spot to put the other foot down. SUVs were in a rush to get around me in turning corners onto one-way streets and were too impatient to wait for me to negotiate the slippery spots while crossing the street.

The weekend was generally discombobulated. My brain went on the fritz from work-related stress. Books all seemed to contain very big words and very complex concepts. Even putting together a dish of baked ziti seemed a significant challenge as I couldn't follow directions to save my life.

The correct response to all of this seemed to be cleaning the kitchen. Scrubbing pots and pans can sometimes yield up a self-satisfied sense of thoroughness and useful accomplishment. Today the nice man fixed my glasses with no waiting and kindly didn't charge me for the privilege. [Honestly, I had feared he would insist the damage to the ten-year old frames was irreparable, require me to order new computer glasses, charge me hundreds of dollars for unbecoming frames, and then make me wait three days before getting my eyes back.]

Reviews return this week.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

She Has a Lovely Face

The Lady of Shalott
Yearning After

What a happy Valentine!

Totally Iced In

Okay, everyone else in the blogosphere seems to be having attractive photogenic winters (see here, here, and here). In my area, we just get gray clouds, ice, sleet and what might charitably be called snow (otherwise known as slush-and-muck). Of course, we can't compete with this.

We have finally gotten a real taste of the storms that have plagued the rest of the country; in the Northeast, this generally means everyone jumps into their cars and rushes to the store to buy bread, eggs, and milk. This ice storm seems to be severe enough that I'm not seeing even much of that type of traffic. The wind howling around the house is rattling the garage door and finding access to the house in every single draft point. What's of greater concern is that tomorrow is supposed to be one of the Arctic-blast days so unless stuff melts this afternoon (temps topping out at a rip-roaring 34 degrees) then this daunting ice, sleet, and wind will impact on life for a few more days at any rate.

On the upside, it's a guilt-free day when the office is officially closed. Legitimate donning of sweats, warm socks and a hoodie to keep warm. Books, hot chocolate and no phone calls from those vague souls who have just realized that they need a hotel room.

On the downside, we have exactly seven working days before the Annual Conference (two weeks from today, it will all be over). Someone has to be in the office to field those calls, pack boxes and cajole the hotel into yielding up one more room to our wayward attendees.

By the way, if that's your image I've tripped across and used above, please email me. I don't mean to infringe; I just can't recall where I found it. (Which feeble statement certainly wouldn't protect me from either the MPAA or the RIAA in terms of piracy.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Blessings on you all!

Bless all of you for commenting on yesterday's post. I was so irritated by work today that to find a couple of comments on a single entry in my inbox just perked me right up. There is a reason for living!

The Victorian Publishing and Mrs. Gaskell's Work is drier than I had thought it might be. Why do university press monographs always seem to suffer from such deadly seriousness? But here's an interesting quote from the Introduction:

The elder Mrs. Jenkyns (Deborah), who champions the literary merits of Dr. Johnson over the talents of popular upstarts, opines, 'I consider it vulgar, and below the dignity of literature to publish in numbers'. Here Gaskell's wit is self-directed, since she herself like Hood and Dickens published in numbers. Serialization was often censured for being cheap (commercial rather than whole and artistic) and fragmented...The intervals between arts created enormous gaps, both spatial and temporal...destroying artistic integrity...But these spaces that from one point of view were thought unused ("virgin") were found by readers to be highly productive, granting them increased agency in forecasting, interpreting and discussing an ongoing literary work.

Puts me in mind of the reader discussions that are currently on-going as to how J.K.Rowling will finish up the Harry Potter series, come July.

And from the closing pages of Armstrong's Short History of Myth:

If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.

And from the Introduction of Heart of Darkness for which JenClair evinces a great fondness, comes this quote from a letter written by Joseph Conrad himself,

"The only legitimate basis of creative work lies in the courageous recognition of all the irreconcilable antagonisms that make our life so enigmatic, so burdensome, so fascinating, so dangerous, so full of hope."

Which explains to me why novels and myths are so closely tied together.

Lest you worry that you are reading too much or immersing yourself in frivolous forms of fiction, think of it instead as working out bits and parts of your spiritual self -- and we don't care whether it was published in serial "numbers" form or in books.

And I thought I'd let Mary know that I'm making progress through Mullen's How Novels Work. It's quite good and worth the time she said she needed to find in order to sink into it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New Books

I really cannot say what it was that possessed me:

  1. Victorian Publishing and Mrs. Gaskell's Work, Hughes, Linda K. and Lund, Michael; University Press of Virginia, 1999
  2. Heart of Darkness, Conrad, Joseph; Introduction by Verlyn Klinkenborg, Random House, Knopf, Everyman's Library, 1993
  3. A Short History of Myth, Armstrong, Karen; Canongate, New York, 2005
But they are all sitting on my dining room table waiting to be entered into LibraryThing.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Narrative and Adaptations

Michele over at Scholars Blog has an interesting entry on a discussion of narrative that Philip Pullman delivered at a talk she attended. Now, I'm not a fan of Pullman's work but he articulates the basic concept of narrative very well. Here's a quote from Michele's report of his talk:

We receive an enormous amount of information every day, most of it through our eyes, yet it never overwhelms us because our unconscious effortlessly processes the information we receive and fits it into contexts that allow us to make narrative sense of the information.

Fundamental Particles of Narrative are neutral, but they have a metaphorical charge that allows them to mean more than one thing, and this move from the literal to the metaphorical is what allows them to be used to make narrative sense of events.

That's why it is so much easier to watch television than it is to read a book. The brain doesn't have to work as hard to put all of the pieces of the story together. In a world without television, authors had to include that kind of detail to convey the picture, but may not feel the same need to incorporate such minutiae in today's writing.

I was caught up by the discussion at Scholars Blog because this past week at Didi's we were discussing the novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the Anthony Andrews production of same. We were all agreed that the book was enjoyable froth, but part of what makes the book satisfying froth is the way in which Baroness Orczy presents her story (narrative). Each chapter is a distinct segment of action but when translated to the screen, the novel's action (minus the descriptive passages) only constitutes at best a two hour TV move (with commercials). When I pointed that out, PatP. recalled that the Anthony Andrews version of Pimpernel is somewhat fleshed out by incorporating bits of the next novel in the series, El Dorado, where the Pimpernel is rescuing the young Dauphin. Orczy had been fortunate in having success with the dramatic version in 1903 and with the novel version in 1905. It's not surprising then that the structure of the dramatic form facilitated the narrative of the other.

In watching the DVD version of several of the BBC Campion mysteries, it's clear to me that Margery Allingham's mysteries were perfectly structured as stories even though some of the charming period aspects of the text version have to be dropped for television. On the other hand, seeing the stories visually makes them far more accessible to a wider audience. It's at times like this that I actually understand the value of the visual adaptation in supporting the ongoing life of the print product.

Before I go, I must mention that in Didi's post, if you scroll down to the very end of the post, she picks the most unutterably romantic passage from which to quote. At the end of Chapter 16, we see that Sir Percy lets the woman he loves leave and then he stoops down and kisses the ground on which she walked. Now there's a scene that no one even *tries* to do visually. Why? Hold still, Didi dear, while I beat you about the head and shoulders with my reality nightstick. Sir Percy really is a bit of a fantasy figure.

Update: Must be the phase of the moon or some such. I see that Superfast Reader has also been talking about novels and adaptations.

Update II: Okay this is definitely an alignment of the planets. Cam over at Cam's Commentary also had some thoughts on novels and movie adaptations.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Just for the Record

I thoroughly enjoy Sr. Claire Joy's blog. She makes me laugh and she makes me think. I've never met her in real life, but she strikes me as being such a cool, fun type of person. Read the subtext under the title of her blog, Flavor of the Month, and look at the picture of her laughing on the right hand nav bar. Humor gets us all through a lot. Here's a sample of her approach to life.

No further message. Just, as I say, for the record. I'm hoping that I can add to somebody else's enjoyment in encountering neat new people. Earlier this month (or maybe it was late last month), an entry over at Mary's Library introduced me to Cornflower who led me over to Letters from a Hill Farm and somewhere in there, I happened to notice that lots of people had links to Historical/Present. They're all lovely people. I appreciate the introductions and simply hope to return the favor.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Gaskell's Mary Barton

[An Entry in the Winter Classics Challenge]

Title: Mary Barton

Author: Elizabeth Gaskell

Copyright: 1848 (public domain, Project Gutenberg offers the full text); I used the Everyman's Library cloth 1994 edition, with introduction by Jenny Uglow).

Genre: Fiction

Length: 390 pages

Summary: Gaskell's novel follows the fortunes of two families, the Bartons and the Wilsons, living in Manchester during the 1830's with the greatest focus on John Barton and his daughter, Mary Barton. England was in a period of economic upheaval and the story references the failed Chartist movement (of which John Barton is a member) and documents the daily struggles of the ordinary working class as they struggle to make do amid scarcity of employment. John Barton doesn't want his daughter serving in the factories and Mary ultimately finds work as an apprentice to Miss Simmonds, a dressmaker. This brings her to the attention of a well-to-do mill owner's son, Henry Carson, while poor working man Jem Wilson also seeks her in courtship. Carson is murdered midway through the book with Jem being accused of the crime. A third family in the tale, Job Legh and his granddaughter, Margaret, play strong supporting roles in the novel. Job is something of an amateur naturalist while Margaret becomes Mary's best friend. Essentially, each of these characters are good people, with the novel's focus being the working out of the problem of unequal distribution of wealth and its consequences. If some have more than others, what does that mean in terms of daily existence, and is the prevailing social model one that is correct and justifiable?

Extract: From Chapter 15,

Four days had Jem Wilson watched for Mr. Harry Carson without success; his hours of going and returning to his home were so irregular, owing to the meetings and consultations among the masters, which were rendered necessary by the turn-out. On the fifth, without any purpose on Jem's part, they met.

It was the workman's dinner hour, the interval between twelve and one; when the streets of Manchester are comparatively quiet, for a few shopping ladies, and lounging gentlemen, count for nothing in that busy, bustling, living place. Jem had been on an errand for his master, instead of returning to his dinner; and in passing along a lane, a road (called, in compliment to the intentions of some future builder, a street), he encountered Harry Carson, the only person, as far as he saw, beside himself, treading the unfrequented path. Along one side ran a high broad fence, blackened over by coal-tar, and spiked and stuck with pointed nails at the top, to prevent any one from climbing over into the garden beyond. By this fence was the footpath. The carriage-road was such as no carriage, no, not even a cart, could possibly have passed along, without Hercules to assist in lifting it out of the deep clay ruts. On the other side of the way was a dead brick wall; and a field after that, where there was a sawpit, and joiner's shed.

Jem's heart beat violently, when he saw the gay, handsome young man approaching, with a light buoyant step. This, then, was he whom Mary loved. It was, perhaps, no wonder; for he seemed to the poor smith so elegant, so well appointed, that he felt the superiority in externals, strangely and painfully, for an instant. Then something uprose within him, and told him, that "a man's a man for a' that, for a' that, and twice as much as a' that." And he no longer felt troubled by the outward appearance of his rival.

Also Relevant: Read hard on the heels of Moonstone and Silas Marner, I would certainly admit that Mary Barton has its faults as a novel. (As Becs reminds me in the comments to this earlier post, Mary Barton was Gaskell's first novel.) The plot, while not a bad one, has points where it creaks with coincidence and moans with melodrama. There is plenty of Victorian piety and period verse (see Didi's entry on that aspect). Having said that, Gaskell's gift for observation and ear for dialogue lifts this above mere sentimental twaddle. In contrast to the costume dramas of television, where much of the impact of any historical period's filth and disease is softened, Gaskell makes sure that we are aware of the foulness of the streets, the dampness of a cellar, and other general suffering in the community.

I like Gaskell's work. Even if ultimately one must concede that Mary Barton is a flawed work, Gaskell has been given short shrift in terms of acknowledging the quality of her work. She is understanding of human nature and realistic in her characterization. Only Henry Carson is shown to be venal in his thinking and that largely due to his understanding of the class gap between his status in society and that of the working class. Mary Barton isn't as passionate in its voice as the contemporary novel, Jane Eyre, but Jane as a heroine cried out against the social forces immediately touching her personal status while Mary is brought face to face with larger social structures that may destroy, not just her own happiness, but the economic and social network of her world.

[My two other blog postings about this book and its author.)

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thereby Raising My Blood Pressure

Some twenty-odd years ago, Joanna Russ wrote a book, How To Suppress Women's Writing, that discussed the attitudes that had historically prevented the work of women writers from being taken seriously. It was in the early 'eighties when women's studies as a discipline were only just beginning to be being accepted at the upper levels of education. The mental attitudes tended to start with the phrase, "She wrote it, but..." She wrote it but she shouldn't have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. The book has an extremely angry tone to it (as well it ought), but while I reading Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, Mary Barton, today, it struck me that this novel's relative obscurity was exactly an example of that which infuriated Russ.

Mary Barton is a novel of social injustice. Gaskell wrote it at the encouragement of her spouse who wanted to distract her from the death of a child. The fire of the book is fueled by her observations of the deprivations of daily life for the mill workers in Manchester and is critical of the mill owners' treatment of those in their employ. It was initially published anonymously but eventually her identity became known, an issue given that there were those within her husband's parish who felt themselves portrayed unfairly. Mary Barton isn't a polemic, but it does offer quite vivid descriptions of lower-class life in an urban environment during that period. Her descriptive passages are not so very extensive as to slow down the pace of the story but they are uncommonly clear in painting the scene. The novel was most well-received when it was published in 1848 and the work brought Gaskell to the notice of Charles Dickens who commissioned more of her work.

So why is it that nowadays no one is required to read Gaskell whereas Dickens' work considered to be so much a requirement? She's been restored to the nineteenth-century canon to a certain extent, but not to the level one might argue she deserves.

And that leaves me disgusted. And grumpy.