Friday, October 26, 2007

Brain Dead, But This Made Me Laugh

My friend, Cindy, brought this to my attention; she's attending one of the conferences I should be attending this weekend. She used Twitter (see box on right) to let me know what was going on.

Friday, October 19, 2007

To Husband and Sons

You need to read this. I'm neither weird nor obsessive. And, as a general rule, I don't buy four per year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Nifty Thing From New York Public

The New York Public Library has now made it possible for bloggers to embed images from their Digital Gallery into blogs, websites, etc. As I have done with this commercial poster advertising a book...

One of the most fascinating st... Digital ID: 1543071. New York Public Library

Kind of nifty, isn't it?

What I've Been Reading (Lots of Short Stuff)

For reasons unfathomable to man, I have recently read the following:

The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling. I am chagrined to note that I got it confused with the Golden Book about the Saggy, Baggy Elephant. That's what middle-age does to you. After all, how does one forget about 'satiable curtiosities...

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins. Deeply satisfying Victorian melodrama. Based upon a play which Collins co-produced with Charles Dickens, the story was something of a response to the dreadful rumors of cannibalism in the wake of the disastrous Franklin expedition to the North Pole in 1845. I was reading the Hesperus Press edition (worth every penny).

Also by Wilkie Collins, Miss Jeromette and The Clergyman. A somewhat gothic short story.

And if you're in that kind of Victorian mood, check out Good Lady Ducayne. I can't tell you anything about it lest I give away the ending. But really rather fun...

More later. I'm in and out a lot this month, traveling for work.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness [Review]

An entry in the RIP II Challenge

Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Copyright: Initially serialized in 1899 and published as a book in 1902; this text is in public domain. I read the Everyman's Library edition (1993, Knopf, New York).

Genre: Fiction

Length: 110 pages

Summary: A party of five men at their leisure on a yawl within sight of London listen to one man, Marlowe, tell of his experience in working for a Belgian enterprise in Africa as a steamship captain. He recalls his journey into the jungle to take supplies up the Congo river to a station agent, Mr. Kurtz. We hear Marlowe describe the intimidating nature of the jungle environment, the Company employees who fritter away time and resources, the ill-treatment of black laborers, and the strange personality cult that has arisen around Mr. Kurtz as he wields monarchical powers in the depths of the jungle. Kurtz, by the time Marlowe finds him, is deathly ill and those who surround him present odd perspectives of his role and influence in the jungle setting. After an illness, Marlowe subsequently returns to England, himself a changed man who may or may not be able to articulate the substance of his experience.

There is a good deal of the hallucination and nightmare in Marlowe's story. Conrad has Marlowe provide us with a fragmented set of events and expects us to add in those details left outside the printed page while inviting the reader to come to his/her own conclusions as to the point.

Extract: "They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks--these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at. For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long eight-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."

Also Relevant: This is for many a controversial book. In 1977, Chinua Achebe wrote an essay, challenging the continued praise heaped on Heart of Darkness and stressing its inherent racism on the basis of Conrad's inability to see African society as being of equal stature with that of European society. Certainly, Heart of Darkness spells out the incomprehensibility that Africa represents for Marlowe (and by extension, Conrad); he is unable to understand the language, finds navigating the physical environment both intimidating mystifying, and ultimately is unable to account for the behaviors of any humans in this setting. The baffled conclusion to Marlowe's tale to his fellows expresses that lack of comprehension; he does not know how to go forward in civilized life now that he has returned to London. He cannot reconcile man's interior purpose with civilized man's history, having seen Kurtz in Africa. He speaks of having wrestled with a man's soul while being unable to express the essence of the man to those who pursue Kurtz even after death.

I sat and scribbled in my moleskine for several pages, trying to frame what I thought of this book. The themes are rather numerous for working through the author's point. One can focus on colonialism, light vs. darkness, constant movement inward (we know nothing of how Marlowe makes his way back to London) and at least another dozen concepts found in the text. Thinking about it from another standpoint, the Fowler and TipTree short stories discussed here owed a good deal to Heart of Darkness. I realized it only once I'd really finished the book. But everything and everyone is "The Other" in Conrad's world. I think Conrad's point was that there is a mystery to our existence that we may never fathom (the real heart of darkness). We can look inward for as long as we wish and we may never find an answer to that mystery; if too obsessed by the inquiry, we may even drive ourselves mad.

I need more time to think about this one.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Prestige: Book and Movie [Review]

[ For both the RIP Challenge II and the Books into Movies Challenge ]

The Prestige by Christopher Priest (Tor Books (2006), Mass Market Paperback, 368 pages)

The Prestige: The Screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan (
Faber & Faber (2006), Paperback, 112 pages)

This is another two-for-one style review, just as I did earlier this month with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly.

My husband and youngest son brought the movie to my attention and subsequently the book as well. The book, originally published in 1995, had won the World Fantasy Award and the movie, which came out in 2006, was nominated for an Oscar in two of the lesser technical categories. Both my husband and my son found the movie to be intriguing -- to the point of watching the film multiple times. The book, according to my husband, was rather "creepier" than the movie and he recommended it. One day this past summer, while folding laundry or some equally mundane task, I got caught up in watching the movie version of The Prestige on cable. The movie got my attention because I couldn't fathom quite where it was going, given the plot twists, and I became deeply engaged in working out the puzzle. Subsequently, as my husband had thought it was rather interesting, I thought I'd read the original novel for the RIP Challenge this year. (After all, creepy is one of the necessary criteria.)

You would think that, having watched the movie, reading the book would be somewhat anti-climactic. After all, the reader/viewer knows the secret of how the stage magicians pull it all off. But that is not actually the case in this instance; the original author and the film screenwriters tell the same story with some slight differences and each version is wrought so carefully that the story-telling in each produces a satisfying experience.

The introduction to the screenplay describes the difficulty of transmuting the novel into a movie. Specifically, Jonathan Nolan writes, "The first step of adapting a brilliant book is heresy -- you have to throw it all out, then watch as piece by piece, it creeps its way back in, with a smile, as if to say, 'I told you so'. The biggest challenge was the structure." Priest's novel is structured in five sections (4 individual perspectives and a final dual view of events). It has a modern day setting and a setting in the late Victorian period. We hear the voices of two men, Rupert Angier and Albert Borden, and the voices of two of their descendants. Nolan, in modifying the story for the screen, drops out the modern element. All of the focus is on the two men in the 19th century, vying with one another for the premier position in their field. In the film, the triggering event for the artists' feud which builds into obsession is different from that of the text, but the screenwriter hasn't the luxury of the slower build-up employed in the book. Both handle the growing conflict plausibly and with interest.

Class is a significant element in the story of these two men, one the son of a carpenter and the other the son of a titled lord. Film conveys the class aspect rather more subtlety (costume, set design, etc.) than the book. Angier and Borden adopt different avenues of approach in choosing how they will succeed; one chooses an elaborate creation of illusion and the other calls upon science to manufacture the surprising end of his act. (The scientific element is how the figure of Nikolai Tesla enters into the story.). The surprise, the pay-off, in both book and film is how the clues are laid before the reader. If you are clever in following the clues, can you see where this story will ultimately end? It's rare (in my experience) to feel a need to watch a movie twice as well as read the book twice in order to closely track how the craft in telling the story is managed so that the resolution is not immediately obvious.

The themes here are duality (just as in Jekyll and Hyde) and the trade-offs associated with an upward struggle (just as in Mary Reilly). Are those who appear to be dead truly dead? Or will they return to the stage, whole and unexpected? Disguise is as much a part of the illusionist's craft as diversion. The touch of the gothic makes film and book just bit darker; one isn't necessarily scared as with The Woman in Black, but there is that level of discomfort, that quality of what my husband called "creepiness". Intellectual creepiness of the sort that makes you think -- when all you thought you were getting was either a popcorn flick or a fast read.

They are wonderfully crafted and enjoyable. If you have time to read, go for the novel; if you have only two hours of leisure, pick up the DVD. If you are stuck in the house over a gloomy, rainy weekend, do both.

Friday, October 05, 2007

This Made Me Smile All Over Again.

I'd linked to a shorter clip of this back in May, but this is the full version of the song, I think. The Weavers sang it originally. Apparently, the original creator of this pair is French; in some of the other videos, the hippo and the dog are speaking that language.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fun and Frolic over Edgar Allan Poe

Just a quick link. Sarah Weinman on Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind captures several links about the mild kerfuffle over whether Edgar Allan Poe should be claimed by Baltimore or by Philly. Frankly, our Phillies lost yesterday which makes fans here grumpy so I rather think you all should just hand Edgar over to us quiet and peaceable-like.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde and Mary Reilly [2 Reviews]

[ Two brief reviews as part of the Readers in Peril II Challenge ]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson (Vintage (1991), Paperback, 112 pages)
Mary Reilly - Valerie Martin (
New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990. 263 p.)

This entry will have to serve as two reviews as I have read both Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly as part of the RIP reading challenge. The two are closely related in that Martin's is a sequel to Stevenson's. Stevenson's story of a man who brings evil from within himself to physical being only to discover that he cannot control the evil personified is answered by Martin's tale of a virtuous servant girl in Jekyll's household. Stevenson's novella was written in 1886 and Martin's novel was published in 1990, a hundred years apart and the attitudes in each reflective of the different attitudes of their authors. Stevenson is examining the duality of good and evil in a man living in a relatively repressive society and Martin is examining a certain self-absorption in the Victorian power structure from the perspective of a servant holding no power at all.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so well known that it is rather difficult to find the sense of horror that so titillated Stevenson's readers. We spend no time in the head of Dr. Jekyll until the very end of the story. Instead we hear the story from Mr. Utterson, a respectable elderly lawyer with an understanding of human nature who worries about the activities of his client and good friend, fearing that Jekyll is being black-mailed into allowing the wicked Mr. Hyde to work with him. We learn that Hyde has no conscience, beating a young girl with a cane for merely careening into him by mistake. Only the efforts of passers-by force him into providing some financial recompense to the poor child's parents. We watch Jekyll lose control over Hyde's presence before the close of the novella, with the moral being that pride has brought the good doctor to his downfall. The few minor female characters are never given names; neither are Hyde's victims given identities by Stevenson. The only victim allowed that dignity is a murdered member of parliament who is socially Jekyll's equal. There's little dialogue in the story with only slightly more description included. While I recognize that the story was one of the first of its kind, I didn't find it a very compelling read. It only became compelling to me when I contrasted its message with that of Mary Reilly.

In Mary Reilly, the author uses sparse descriptions to allow our imaginations to set Mary in the filth of London in 1886. She is a housemaid and much time is spent on her knees scrubbing floors and cleaning out chimneys. She has however basic literacy, having been educated in one of the schools for the poor, established with Jekyll's money. Jekyll noting scars on Mary's arms and neck asks for some of her history and we learn that Mary has been abused by an alcoholic father. The narrative frame of the novel is Mary's writing out her story for Jekyll and in subsequent diary entries, what she observes of Jekyll's behavior and its impact on her and the rest of his household.

Martin makes clear that Mary accepts struggle as part of the human condition. Stevenson had stated clearly that Jekyll sees no reason why it should be so difficult to be good and his chemistry experiments arise from his wish to make it simple. If one could let go of one's evil side then one could easily and more readily be good. Mary Reilly recognizes that there is a certain lack of practical realism in Henry Jekyll's approach to the world. Struggle is simply part and parcel of organic life, as symbolized by Mary's on-going attempts to create a garden in the over-grown yard between Jekyll's home and his laboratory, digging out ugly useless bushes and pulling weeds. Jekyll has no idea of whether the school he helped to found is really a useful educational institution; Mary leads us to understand that it was barely tolerable. Jekyll avoids any responsibility for the consequences of Hyde's actions, sending Mary out on errands intended to hush complaints by those who suffer from the evil character.

Reading the two different stories was an interesting exercise as I went between the two books at different points, trying to gauge Martin's written response against Stevenson's nightmare tale. I liked the twentieth century version more than the nineteenth century classic, but that is hardly surprising. Stevenson's original work doesn't give one much with which to identify while reading. Martin's work is above the usual pedestrian sequels to famous classics, written and published for fans who may want to relive the experience of the original. Potential readers should be warned that Mary Reilly isn't a fast paced suspense story. It's almost a feminist meditation instead. But as I say, it was rather stimulating to read the two back to back. You can try it for yourself; Mary Reilly is still in print and available from Amazon and Stevenson's book is widely available, both in print and on the Web.