Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Chronological Study Bible [Review]

Title: The Chronological Study Bible [Official Marketing Site]
Copyright: 2008, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee; ISBN 9780718020682
Length: 1,670 pages (includes 220 pages of study aids, index, concordance, etc.)
Genre: Religious Belief
Summary: The theory behind this particular presentation of the Bible is to offer readers the experience of following the Biblical narrative according to the chronological order of those events as described in the canonical texts (as opposed to offering the complete text of the books of the Bible in the traditional canonical order or the historical dating of the manuscripts themselves). The publisher, Thomas Nelson, believes that this approach satisfies a need felt by modern readers. To use their words, "To understand the Bible, the reader must understand something of the history to which the Bible refers. At the same time, though, that historical background is not readily apparent from the order of the books in the Bible itself." The introduction goes on to explain how the contributors to the Chronological Study Bible went about their re-arrangement of Biblical materials in the interests of helping the modern reader put this material into the proper context as well as the challenges such an attempt faced.
In practical terms, this means that this edition of the Bible is creatively laid out, with the Book of Esther appearing between the ninth chapter of I Chronicles (history) and the fourth chapter of Ezra (one of the minor prophets). Such a presentation permits the reader to understand that the attitudes expressed in the two books Ezra and Esther represented the attitudes of two different populations -- one body of Jews that were still in exile, under the control of foreign kings, and a different body of Jews who had in fact been returned. There is not a single two-page spread in this beautiful four-color volume that doesn't offer some kind of background tool to the reader. Some are descriptive tidbits pertaining to arts and culture, some are historical time capsules or timelines, some are images (including maps, photos, and recognized masterpieces of art.). On that basis alone, this book seems worth the price.
It's important to realize that this is not a formal work intended for Biblical scholars but one intended for the lay person who wants a better sense of the historical background of the histories, prophetic writings and literature which represent the Scriptures. This order of this presentation is not intended as a ultimately authoritative rendition, but rather more of a "best guess" useful to those who want to improve their understanding of Biblical times without undertaking college courses on Biblical archaeology, ancient social structures, or Greek translation.
Extract: This Bible is the NKJV (New King James Version). This means that the familiar lines of Verse 4 of the 23rd Psalm are rendered as follows: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. The main change in that verse is the replacement of Thou and Thy with the more familiar usage of You and Your.

Also Relevant: This is a useful reference tool. Despite publisher forethought in supplying a 28-page Reading Plan for the book, I doubt to some extent the likelihood of anyone sitting down and using this for the purposes of reading the Bible straight through. The size and weight of the tome would make it just too overwhelming. That said, I do think it would be an excellent reference to have on hand when trying to read a particular book of the Bible (say, Jeremiah or Lamentations) set in an historical period that even relatively educated lay readers might find to be obscure. Pulling it from the shelf and seeing that a set of advisors have put the five great poems that comprise Lamentations in the middle of Jeremiah and just before a bit of history from 2 Kings provides the reader with some semblance of orientation in the real world.
If I have any grumbles, they are minor ones. It's hard to navigate the very useful set of indexes and concordances in the back of the book; notched pages might have helped with that even if it meant that the price of the book went up. To offset this lack, I will note that the publisher offered visual clues by shading pages in color across the ten different divisions. It works but only to a limited extent. At the very least, a few ribbon bookmarks would have been useful for navigational support but I gather that those are only supplied with the more expensive leather-bound edition.
There is another quibble. The ten divisions that I referenced above correspond to nine bible epochs that Nelson has offered as a governing structure to their chronology (the tenth division contains the indexes, etc.). I wouldn't mind, but I can't quite fathom how who came up with those "bible epochs". They don't seem to correspond to any other historical divisions that I could find through an admittedly short-and-shallow search. Not being a biblical scholar, I can't speak to the validity of the divisions; only that the prefatory material doesn't explain how the contributors to this version of the Bible developed those divisions.

Bibles represent an interesting challenge in the publishing environment. Every October, Publishers Weekly offers up an article or two about the current status of this specific niche - see for example, this one or this one. There's also a fairly insightful overview in this 2006 article in The New Yorker Magazine. And it must be said that The Chronological Study Bible has had its fair share of critical attacks (although I gather such criticism is largely grounded in the more conservative attitudes; see this as one example)
Still, in all, I think this is a remarkable product. I will keep this on my reference shelf with the expectation that family members will find it useful.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Man in the Picture [Review]

Title: The Man in the Picture

Author: Susan Hill

Copyright: 2007 (Published in the U.S., 2008, Overlook Press, Woodstock, NY; ISBN: 978-1-59020-091-9)

Genre: Gothic

Length: 145 pages

Summary: A modern scholar of medieval literature visits his old tutor at Cambridge University, the Chaucerian scholar Theo Parmitter. Seated before a fire, with the lamplight low, in Parmitter's college rooms, Oliver is told the tale behind a painting that has been in Parmitter's rooms for some time. The painting shows a scene of revelers at a Carnivale Masque by the Grand Canal in Venice. It is the history of the painting that forms a tale within a tale, deliciously macabre and eliciting a delicate shiver. There are elements of frustrated love and unending imprisonment in this very short, highly enjoyable literary ghost story.

Extract: 'I do not know what I expected to find,' he said, after sipping his whiskey. 'I had no preconceived ideas of the place called Hawdon or of this Countess. If I had...You think mine is a strange story, Oliver. But my story is nothing, it is merely a prelude to the story told me by an extraordinary old woman.'

Also relevant: This was a quick read as I got through it in less than a week of commuting to and from my office. You may remember that I had a tremendous liking for Hill's other work, The Woman in Black, which is similarly gothic in tone. The Man In The Picture offers masks, crowds, cold hatred and shadows, prisoners being taken into custody and a delightful sense of unease. You still have a week before Halloween. This one is worth ordering from Amazon now so as to have it in hand, to read as you wait by the front door for mysterious figures seeking treats on the 31st. Excellently done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Season of Splendor [Review]

Title: A Season of Splendor: The Court of Mrs. Astor in Gilded Age New York

Author: Greg King

Copyright: 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken NJ. ISBN 9780470185698

Genre: History

Length: 508 pages including 50 pages of notes, bibliography and index. (PDF excerpts available on this page)

Summary: Between roughly 1870 and the outbreak of the first World War, the class structure of American society was dominated by Caroline Astor and her famous four hundred. Motivated by a certain idealism, author Greg King suggests that Caroline Astor thought to "endow American society with tradition and a sense of noblesse oblige...imposing on them a sense of responsibility to establish taste for the enrichment of the nation as a whole". In an attempt to position American wealth and breeding on a par with that found in major European capitals, Caroline Astor forged a new understanding of social rank which bridged old New York Knickerbocker society and that of the industrial nouveau riche. King embarks on a thoroughly footnoted tour of the various elements that were used to display that breeding -- clothing, architecture, jewelry, transportation, etc. He notes that the real excesses of the Gilded Age were spawned during the latter half of that time period, by those possessed of more wealth than intellect. The spectrum of excess and extravagance is breathtaking, even as one recognizes that, over time, the wealth of these families has been distributed throughout the country to modern museums and philanthropic organizations. King offers detail that both exemplifies and illuminates the Gilded Age. This book both educates and entertains, making it a worthwhile and fascinating read. The New York Social Diary found it to be equally worthwhile during a recent October weekend in New York.

Extract: A few of the older, socially secure, and traditionally minded hostesses still clung to the soirees common in the first years of the Gilded Age. Soirees were considered exceptionally difficult affairs to manage; they existed in a separate category and could not stray into hte territory reserved for a dinner or a ball, yet had to offer both entertainment and substantial refreshment. Held in the early evening, a soiree was generally artistic in nature, focusig on a literary reading, a chorale, or a small concert, often accompanied by a small buffet supper. Such an entertainment called for both foresight and diplomacy. In an era of increasingly opulent parties, a quiet circle listening to arias or somber chamber music offered little excitement, and there were few potential guest unlikely to be bored by such proceedings. Eventually, given the problems presented, most ladies abandoned the soiree entirely. (page 343)

Also relevant: Let's face it. The elegance of the gilded age is fascinating. I loved to watch the series, America's Castles, on A&E a few years ago as much because it gave me a glimpse into another way of life as because of the introduction to the architecture. While it isn't unheard of to encounter debutante balls in this day and age, such events have nowhere near the economic significance that they had for young women a hundred years ago. Back then, a young woman's introduction to society was the starting gate to a wealthy marriage and lifelong financial security, regardless of compatibility. The extract selected above gives a sense of how carefully social events were scheduled and orchestrated. One had to display a level of cultural taste and understanding while avoiding boring one's guests. Greg King does a spectacular job of conveying all of this to a modern reader.

So successful is he in covering this period that I find myself going on a reading binge of related titles. Wharton's The House of Mirth is on the top of one TBR pile and a coffee table book with photos of the famous 'four hundred' is en route from a used book store even as you read this. My lifestyle doesn't support any need for a parure of diamonds or other precious gems, but the documentation of a social environment that insisted upon such a set (tiara, matching necklace, earrings, and brooch) as a wedding or anniversary gift set me all agog with vicarious enjoyment. A Season of Splendor is a surprisingly engaging read.

Bonus link: I feel confident in saying that Caroline Astor is likely twirling in her grave at being included in this particular list of top twenty socialites of all time.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Today's Tidbit

Fantastic essay about how important our reading is in adolescence. Truly worthwhile! 

The Meaning of Everything [Review]

Title: The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

Author: Simon Winchester (author page with audio excerpt from the book, here)

Copyright: 2003, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 0198607024

Length: 260 pages

Genre: Non-fiction, history

Summary: In 1857, Chenevix Trench, an eminent churchman and then Dean of Winchester, read a paper at an evening meeting of The Philological Society with the interesting title, "On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries". Among other deficiencies identified, he suggested that the lexicons available to him and his colleagues offered incomplete histories of words, shallow, incomplete research as to the meaning of words and inadequate examples from English literature of the word in contextual use. The soon-to-be Archbishop of Dublin proposed that the Philological Society vote to sponsor the creation of a new dictionary that would capture the fluidity of the English language over the course of time. The result was the Oxford English Dictionary, a marvelous example of scholarship created by some of the most marvelous English eccentrics of the nineteenth century. Simon Winchester, perhaps most known for his book, The Professor and the Madman, presents the intriguing history of how this classic dictionary came to be compiled by dedicated volunteers and contributors.

Extract: The story of Fitzedward Hall might seem one of anger, bitterness and yet an obsessive devotion to duty; that of W.C. Minor, by contrast, is one of dangerous madness inelectable sadness, and ultimate redemption -- redemption in which his work for the dictionary became in time his therapy, a labour that he needed to perform in order to remain halfway sane. If the outward parallels between the two men -- both Americans, both learned, both with Eastern connections, both troubled in the mind -- are intriguing, the different ways in which the two made their separate contributions to the Dictionary -- and the ways in which the Dictionary in turn made improvements to their lives -- seem even more so.

Also Relevant: The Meaning of Everything offers an interesting reading experience, and I say that with something of a tongue-in-cheek meaning. On the one hand, it is a wonderful story that Winchester offers. It took roughly fifty years to assemble the various segments of the dictionary for final publication; the work was done by a scattered force of readers and scholars, each just a little more odd than the one before. I had only a casual awareness of how the OED came into existence so the book provided me with a historical perspective that I hadn't had before. I have a good deal more respect for Jimmy Wales and his work with Wikipedia, having read this book, than I might otherwise have. The effort of building the OED isn't very different from the effort of building the Wikipedia, except that our information and communication infrastructure is 1000 times more efficient than that supporting James Murray and his staff of editors. It is worth noting that just this past month the OED celebrated the 80th anniversary of the publication of the final fascicle of the original edition of the Dictionary. Given the problems surrounding its inital print publication, one wonders if any similarly ambitious project would ever found its way through the current economic jungle of publishing.

But as I think the extract shows, Winchester is somewhat obsessive and eccentric in his presentation of the story. His sentence structure is entirely convoluted and the reader has to frequently jump forward and back from the beginning of a paragraph to the final line of the paragraph to ensure that the sense is grasped. Add to that, the opening chapter offers a lengthy discussion of the roots of the English language as Winchester tries to show just how much our mother tongue shifts and morphs over time. It's fairly well-done, but that introduction represents about 20% of the book. (If you are one of those readers who decides to stick with a book based on whether the first 50 pages actively engages your attention, then in this instance, Winchester only has about 5 pages past that first chapter to retain your interest. ) Only further on does the reader discover the pigeonholes built to hold slips of paper associated with specific letters and word pairings or the depth of devotion shown by the afore-mentioned Fitzedward Hall as he spent four hours of every day for twenty years in delivering quotations, clippings, proofed pages, etc. to James Murray, the editor and true father of the OED.

I do believe that the OED should receive enormous respect, given its provenance. We're lucky that ninteenth-century England supported so many eccentric, detail-oriented readers.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Titles on My Kindle

So I got a Kindle from Amazon about two months or so ago. During that time, it has really become one of those things (on the order of cell phone, glasses, keys, train pass, etc.) that I ensure I've got in my bag whenever I leave the house. I even bought a beautiful red leather cover for the device to protect it during travel and commute. It's an imperfect device but very convenient for reading in a variety of settings. That said, here's a list of titles currently on *my* Kindle device.

1. Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy. This trilogy consists of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). It is interesting reading, part of a sub-genre in science fiction known as "mundane sf". The point of this sub-genre is to focus on the "what ifs" of modern technological life in the near-term, rather than the stereotypes of aliens and space ships generally associated with science fiction. The three volumes share thematic concerns -- primarily, global warming (or climate change, if you prefer) but also the balance between attitudes of "knowing" (scientific thought vs. buddhist thoughts), the associated pros and cons of national agencies' handling of science policy and funding in coping with global science issues, and the more cosmic theme of a human's place in the global ecosystem.

Robinson's style of storytelling is not particularly fast-paced. He throws in entire pages of hard science between chapters and scenes of characters' interactions. His characterization forms individuals into archetypes very quickly. Indeed, throughout the first volume, I was sure that the elusive female pursued by Frank Vanderwahl was intended to be symbolic of the Feminine Element rather than any specific identity in the story. Such characterization can be off-putting for some readers, but I think the patience and perserverance required in working one's way through the three books is rewarding. Robinson has a point -- some might say an agenda -- but the plot twisted just enough to keep my interest. The benefit of reading these on the Kindle was that I had the experience of reading all three volumes as a single narrative rather than having to wait a year or two between as with the original print publications.

Author interviews here, here and here.

(2) The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, Director by William Luhr. I have to discuss the classic detective novel by Dashiell Hammett in two weeks at the local library. I purchased this book because it has the script of the movie as well as several critical essays. I want to elicit discussion by the group of the challenges of transforming a novel into a screenplay. (The Kindle is conducive to focusing on shorter forms of writing. The screen -- six inches on the diagonal -- helps one to focus on grasping the point of each paragraph building the argument. I personally think it aids retention).

(3) Pride and Prejudice (Enriched E-book Edition) by Jane Austen. Undoubtedly you are questioning just how many copies any one woman needs of this particular classic. I do own multiple copies but each has a different value point to it. This particular Penguin edition contains the frequently-cited Tony Tanner introduction to the novel as well as extensive notes, a filmography, and a bibliography for suggested further reading including modern sequels. The book uses hypertext links throughout for navigation. (Not all publishers have been as smart on this.)

(4) The Missio-Dei Breviary. I would have preferred to carry around the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) on my Kindle, but Cambridge University Press hasn't made a Kindle edition of the prayerbook available as yet. Besides, there are plenty of Web-based versions of the BCP that I can use, if necessary. I like the Missio Dei Breviary for its brevity as well as for its roots in the social gospel. If you visit here and here, you can learn more.

(5) Mitch Albom's Commencement Speech to his nephew's high school graduating class (exclusive to the Amazon Kindle -- get some background on it here). This was a sweet gesture by the ESPN sportscaster who is also author of the best-selling Tuesdays With Morrie. I haven't read that one, but the commencement speech hit a nice, soft spot in me. I hope the nephew will grow to appreciate this gift from his uncle, if he doesn't already. I have read it frequently, just to bolster my spirits and keep my attitude properly adjusted. I even handed my Kindle over to my younger son so that he could read it. It has some lovely humorous touches as well as offering sound advice -- "avoid sushi in airports" and "call home regularly".

(6) The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas. I'm not much for scary stuff and I certainly haven't read any of the Twilight series of books, but this is one of the best vampire novels I have ever read. None of the gross Renfield stuff or the fantasy of vampire as seductive lover, this presents the vampire as a lonely wanderer in modern society. Charnas does not minimize the horror of the vampire but does manage to generate sympathy for the anthropology professor who suffers from this biological mutation. (More of her views on vampires).

The novel was originally published back in 1980 (which is when I read it) but has been in and out of print since then. A print edition is being re-released this very week through the Macmillan imprint, Orb Books. It's very well-done and I heartily recommend it. The Kindle edition is being used (I suppose) to generate a build-up of interest. Charnas is not as well known as I think she ought to be.

(7) Touchstone by Laurie King. This was the very first book I bought via the Kindle store, specifically because I was about to go away for a long Fourth of July weekend but didn't want to lug along the heavy hard-back book.This stand-alone novel is a tale of suspense set in England in the period between the two World Wars. The country is under stress due to economic strain and a paralyzing labor strike is in the offing. Touchstone has only about seven major characters to track; the focus is on following the psychological mindset of each during negotiations between the various factions. There is a primary character that serves as a central focal point in the action for the bulk of the book – Harris Stuyvesant, a well-drawn American agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). King uses a slow pacing to build characters, but the final third of the book moves rapidly and carries the reader along. The final resolution is neither weak nor entirely happy. Another thoroughly enjoyable read that I can heartily recommend. The paperback edition is due out in December of this year. The hardcover is currently available.

Author interview here.

By the by, the backstory on the Kindle is that publishers had been wary of Amazon's intent and so took the less risky approach of licensing only older back-list titles or those titles already proven to be money-makers. However, early data regarding sales since last November must have been positive because an increasing number of publishers have committed to working with Amazon in delivering digital editions for this reader. I summed it up in my work-related column to members this way: "...the Kindle is not a replacement for the traditional print version of high quality content, but rather a supplemental convenience. It soothes a persistent irritation rather than satisfies a pressing and urgent need." And yet, I'm carrying my Kindle with me most days I'm out of the house.

**NOTE** Rumors of this blog's death have been greatly exaggerated. I have just been overly-occupied by work and family obligations. This seems to happen during the summer and I haven't figured out the stumbling block associated with the lapse in expression. Heat? Humidity?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lady Jane by C.V. Jamison

Would you care to have your heart wrung by your reading selection this week? Are you in the mood for something old-fashioned, featuring an (upper-class) angelic, golden-haired child, alone in the world, but whose innate goodness and daintiness wins the hearts of those virtuous poor folk who come to care for her? Would it help if the story took place in New Orleans, with all of its quirky charm? Would the presence of a blue heron as the child's animal companion, provide further attraction to the story?

Thanks to the New York Public Library (NYPL) and the digitization activities of Google, you can read this story online. It's called Lady Jane and the author was Mrs. C.V. Jamison. The NYPL's copy is dated 1918, but I have reason to believe that the story may have been serialized in the noted 19th century children's magazine, St. Nicholas. (A Google search popped up a digitized volume that contained one of the chapters from Lady Jane.) I read my mother's copy of Lady Jane some forty years ago. I still think fondly of it. It is a lovely story, even if it is a bit of a period piece.

The stumbling block (for me as an adult reader) is the villainess, Madame Jozain. It's not that she isn't adequately mean to Lady Jane. It's that the back story provided for her by Jamison is such that I found myself feeling sorry for her. Here's what we learn of her background:

And perhaps it is not to be wondered at that she felt a desire to compensate herself by duplicity for what fate had honestly deprived her of for no one living had greater cause to complain of a cruel destiny than had Madame Jozain. Early in life she had great expectations. An only child of a well to do baker she inherited quite a little fortune and when she married the debonnair and handsome Andre Jozain she intended by virtue of his renown and her competency to live like a lady. He was a politician and a power in his ward which might eventually have led him to some prominence, but instead this same agency had conducted him by dark and devious ways to life long detention in the penitentiary of his State -- not however until he had pushing her down stairs in a quarrel. This accident had it disabled her arms might have incapacitated her from becoming a blanchisseuse de fin which occupation she was obliged to adopt when she found herself deprived of her husband's support by the too exacting laws of his country Lady Jane By Cecilia Viets Jamison

The son she adores is cut from the same cloth as his father (being of criminal character) and she has literally nothing to make her life tolerable. When Lady Jane and her mother come under Madame Jozain's care, her initial reaction to their needs is entirely practical rather than evil. She carefully calculates the likely cost of the clothing in the luggage, determines that the mother (now ill) is wealthy enough to pay handsomely for a nurse, and takes them into her home. She isn't intending to do anything more than be paid for her charitable act. It's only when Lady Jane's mother dies that the negative side of Madame Jozain emerges.

The problem is that from a historical standpoint I can't help but sympathize with the emotional stress that causes Madame Jozain to go bad. She's a woman without resources or family. She is without skills or much education. She is physically abused by her spouse. She ought to have been well situated in life based on where she began, but one bad marriage and she's done for.

Of course, in the story, I'm not supposed to feel any sympathy for her. She's abusive to Lady Jane in a variety of ways. She has no fine principles or inner strength. She succumbs to greed more times than not. But realistically what chance had she to do better? (By contrast, there's another well-born character Mamselle Diane D'Hautreve, a true aristocrat fallen into poverty, who displays all of the character that Madame Jozain lacks. It's impossible to miss the moral comparison presented to the reader.) There is a happy ending to the novel. Lady Jane, is ultimately restored to her proper sphere in life, her family's wealth provides for her future, and ultimately we get a hint that she will marry the right man. By contrast, Madame Jozain who did nothing to help Lady Jane back to her proper family, dies alone in a charity hospital, 'destitute of every necessity'. Put bluntly, she starves to death.

I'm not supposed to feel sorry for her, but I rather did. So, my question is, 'when was the last time that you felt sorry for a villain?'

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Looking for a word...

We need a descriptive term for brains that are on overload -- something that succinctly expresses in a single phrase that condition where one's relatively reliable brain has no more capacity to absorb anything than a sponge after scrubbing plates and silverware for an eighteen person dinner party. Despite attempts to read and digest the content of a wide range of books, diverse in genre and style, I have not had much success in processing anything of substance; I just haven't retained as much as might be wished. But here's the list of what I "read" this month.

1. The Return of King Arthur: The Legend Through Victorian Eyes. This actually pertains to artistic and cultural thinking surrounding the Arthurian Myth as presented in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. This is primarily an art book, published by Harry N. Abrams and the illustrations (engravings, oil paintings, woodcuts, etc.) are really delightful to study. The text is equally interesting. My stumbling block here was that the book was over-sized (as is standard with art books) which made it difficult to read comfortably. More information here.

2. Pearls Before Swine (published in the UK as Coroner's Pidgin). This is a very complex but intriguing Albert Campion mystery. Muse of Ire and I, after meeting each other virtually on LibraryThing, subsequently met up in the city a few weekends back in order to foster a better acquaintance in real life. She generously offered me first crack at nearly two dozen Campion mysteries in mass market paperback editions. This particular one opens with Lugg and an elderly duchess maneuvering a dead body into the living room of Campion's flat, unaware that Campion has returned from work elsewhere. Campion emerges from the bath to discover said corpse on the couch. Stop and think about that one -- I think it is a brilliant set-up for a mystery. The average person encounters that in the first chapter and has to know what happens next. Who is the dead person? Where did she come from? Why would an properly aristocratic duchess be involved in something so clearly unpleasant?

3. The Shadow of the Wind. This was the book we were supposed to discuss at Didi's house two weeks ago. It was not a popular choice. We weren't sure whether to attribute the problem to the original author or to the translator. The book just didn't grab the imagination or attention of any one in the group. Maybe I'll give it another whirl sometime later in the fall. For some reason, I keep thinking that I should have "gotten" this one.

4. Point of Honour This was the book for the township discussion group and I was a little concerned. It's not a particularly sophisticated effort, but the mystery followed an interesting course. In fact, there was one particularly well-done bit that we talked about from the perspective of writing conventions for mysteries. In one chapter, Sarah Tolerance, the heroine sleuth, and her client, Verseillion, are set upon by a set of thugs unexpectedly. In the next chapter, she explains to her client by counting out five items just how she could determine that one of his associates had turned on him. You could go through the scene where the assault took place and tick off those five ways in which the author had carefully laid out legitimate clues to the reader. It was a great way to underscore the writing requirements for a mystery writer in playing fair with the reader. Here's a review that I found; I don't really agree with the hard-boiled characterization.

5. Steampunk. This was much more of a challenge to read than I would have anticipated. The anthology was devoted to short works in this highly specific sub-genre of alternate history. I had read about steampunk in the New York Times and had thought it might be interesting. I must not get it. Didn't strike me as either good speculative fiction or good science fiction. Maybe I'll try again in six months.

And then two titles that were work-related:

5. Groundswell. This is a business title by two Forrester analysts, Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. The discussion focuses on laying out the business rationale for integrating web 2.0 technologies with strategic initiatives for the enterprise. Lots of case studies, lots of data, lots of bullet points. I would love to interpret this book as a harbinger of a happy, interactive future, if only because I've worked with all of the various technologies. But I personally suspect it will be another few years before wesuccessfully persuade C-Level executives that web 2.0 is the future.

6. Here Comes Everybody. This one I started this morning. There's also a humorous story tied to this that indicates why I think my brain is overloaded. A friend had recommended this book to me in an email. For some reason, my brain decided instead that she had recommended Groundswell (as above) so I waxed enthusiastic to her at lunch yesterday about what an interesting read it was. She looked a tad bemused and then gently explained my error. (Oops, awkward moment -- I'm supposed to be brilliant in keeping these things straight.) It is most fortunate she's a real friend and not just a business colleague. She's forgiving and won't spread the tale of my general vacuity.

There will be a prize for the person who comes up with the best descriptive phrase for my condition, the only rule being that the winning phrase may not make specific reference to middle age or mental competency.

Bonus bit of humor (assumes you've already seen the most recent Indiana Jones flick; the real punch line is in the fine print under the final graphic in the lower right hand corner.)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Politics in 2008 isn't so very different

From the politics of 1968

Wasn't Batman earnest back in those days?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Prince Caspian: Book into Film

With the Prince Caspian movie coming out at the end of the week, I thought I would read the original book by C.S. Lewis. There's no need to do a formal review, but I did enjoying thinking about it in context of the screen adaptation.

In a nutshell, Prince Caspian tells of Narnia centuries after the initial visit of the Pevensie children as told in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. While waiting for their train to take them back to school, the four children (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy), find themselves unexpectedly pulled back into Narnia. They meet up with a new Narnian companion, Trumpkin, a Red Dwarf, who brings them up to date on the current state of the country by recounting the story of the young Prince Caspian. More properly, he should be known as King Caspian X but his wicked uncle, Miraz, fancies himself as ruler and plots against Caspian. Doctor Cornelius, Caspian's tutor, has secretly revealed all of this to the young prince and sends the young man out into the world to gather his forces together to regain his rightful place on the throne. The above is just the first third of the book and the rest of the volume is taken up with two primary story lines -- Caspian's interactions with the Talking Beasts of Narnia and the journey the Pevensie children must take in order to meet up with Caspian and support his fight against Miraz.

Based on my reading, there are two story elements that I hope will be emphasized in the movie itself. First of all, there is an emphasis on swordplay throughout the book that ought to make for some some splendid bits of swashbuckling if properly done. There is a sort of training duel between Edmund and Trumpkin early on in the book. Later at a climactic point, there is a far more serious sword-fight between the wicked King Miraz and the oldest boy, Peter Pevensie. If I've not been misled by the marketing materials for the movie, they will have changed this, as Ben Barnes has been cast as an older Caspian (more of a romantic hero in his 20's than the book's young teen-prince). It is his heroic image (knight in armor with sword in hand) rather than the image of Peter, that is being sold on the covers of the various activity books and movie paraphernalia. Having seventeen-year-old Peter fight in place of a thirteen-year old boy-prince makes sense in the context of the book; I can't quite see how they can make it work if Caspian is the older and bigger of the two in the movie. (Note: In the book, ages are never offered for the characters, simply inferred.)

The second story element that I would hope is appropriately used is Lucy's interaction with the Trees. Lucy at one point awakens in the middle of the night and wanders off into a clearing of the woods without any oversight from her older brothers and sister. She experiences a moment of wonder, recalling stories of trees that are alive, and *almost* hears the voices of the trees speaking to her but not quite. Later in the film, these trees will come alive and participate in both battle and celebration of the victory over the Telmarines. Of the books in the Narnia series, this one draws most significantly on the mythical figures associated with woods and water as most naturally aligned with the Creator. Some people are even troubled over the inclusion of pagan elements in Prince Caspian. However, they are present and I noted, in one of the trailers, a closing glimpse of one such mythical figure rising from the water just as described in the book. C.S. Lewis cast the Telmarines as the non-believers in this tale -- those who don't believe in Aslan, the status of the Pevensies as High Kings and Queens of Narnia, the Talking Beasts or the sacredness of the natural forms of life. Believers in Aslan recognize the cosmic order and accord others the respect and appreciation properly due.

Depending on how much of Lewis' written moral is permitted to stay in the story, we should see Lucy (the youngest of the four children) assuming something of a leadership role. Roaming in Narnia, Lucy sees Aslan when no one else does, and she tries to be faithful to his instructions. She is tasked with the job of trying to persuade the others into following Aslan's path through a particular valley. Of course, Aslan's path looks impossible to the older siblings and they largely ignore their little sister, but as one might expect, it turns out that following Aslan despite appearances is the most advisable course. The Narnia series is Christian allegory, after all.

Which is why I find it a tad distressing that the trailers indicate a certain amount of darkness and battle fury in the movie. Lewis always does his battles in a brief page or two; he doesn't offer children real violence, only the general sense of conflict. He writes in greater detail about the general sense of well-being and celebrations that follow. My biggest irritation with the previous movie from Disney was that they dragged out the battle scenes, trying to make The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe a screen epic of war. I'll be interested in hearing what emerges next weekend about this most recent excursion into Narnia. I did like this very sympathetic interview with the producer

Interested in background on the actor playing Prince Caspian? Read:
For something in the way of literary interpretation, visit this page:
More from that particular expert in Touchstone Magazine:
Resources for Discussing Prince Caspian

Monday, May 05, 2008

Steinbeck's Acts of King Arthur [Review]

[an entry in fulfillment of the Once Upon A Time II challenge]

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck, edited by Chase Horton

Copyright: 2007, Viking, New York; ISBN 978-0-670-01824-6

402 pages

Folklore or folk literature; a re-telling of King Arthur and associated legends

This book was originally published back in 1976, some years after the death of Steinbeck in 1968. The work is essentially an unfinished manuscript of Steinbeck's re-working of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. Malory's work had captured Steinbeck's childhood imagination. His interest was in tweaking Malory in re-telling the stories in a fashion that would attract subsequent generations of readers, knowing that Malory's vocabulary and sentence structure might be found intimidating. This work, made up of 7 sections, shows how far he had gotten in this effort. The writing is not without flaws. Some sections, such as the opening tale of how Arthur came to be King, is very close to the original, in keeping with the statement Steinbeck makes to his editor early on in the process (see the Appendix) that he doesn't necessarily mean to add much to the stories. Later sections such as Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt seem, in my opinion, to have been revised to a greater extent, the story-telling incorporating more of Steinbeck's sense, humor and skill. The Appendix of the work gives insight into Steinbeck's working practices, incorporating research, travels to the locations named in the legends, etc.

Extract: King Arthur buried Lot in a rich tomb separately,but the twelve great lords he placed together and raised a triumphal monument over them. Merlin by his arts made figures of the twelve lords in gilded copper and brass, in attidues of defeat, and each figure held a candle which burned day and night. Above these effigies, Merlin placed a statue of King Arthur with a drawn sword held over his enemies' heads. And Merlin prophesied that the candles would burn until Arthur's death and at that moment would go out; and he made other prophecies that day of things to come.

(That segment came from the first section of the manuscript, the segment that is closer to Malory in its style and approach, but below is a second extract from the tale of Gawain, Ewain and Marhalt.)

The last month fled under the demands put upon it. Never had the lady been so critical, so caustic, so insulting. An action which in the past had drawn a little praise brought shrill attack. With blazing eyes she raked him and her thin mouth dripped poison as she tried to squeeze into him all her knowledge, her observation and invention. And then one evening of a day that had been soaked and shriveled with invective and despair, her voice dropped. She stepped back and looked at him, dirty, sweaty, weary, and insulted.

"There," she said. "That's all I can give you. If you aren't ready now, you never will be."

It took him a little time to know that the training was over. "Am I a good knight?" he asked at last.

"You aren't a knight at all until you are tested. But at least you are the earth out of which a good knight may grow."

Those two extracts each have an entirely different tone. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights may seem to read unevenly as a result. It may also have had much to do with the reason the manuscript was not published in Steinbeck's lifetime; for more discussion on this point, you may want to read this 2004 article from a scholarly journal published through San Francisco State University.

Feedback: Steinbeck offers a very masculine version of Arthurian legend. It isn't that he doesn't have strong women in these tales. He does. He offers the Lady Lyne (the woman in the second extract above) who clearly has both the brains and the strength of character to mold a strong and sensible knight. His version of Morgan Le Fay is entirely believable. But these two women are framed as supports to the main thread of the stories in which they appear. They are only important insofar as they highlight the character of the knights with whom they are involved. By contrast, the king and his knights are in the forefront, and to a limited extent realistically portrayed. These might be men that Steinbeck worked with or saw along the roadside.

Do I prefer this version of Arthur to that of Tennyson's Idylls of the King? You may remember that I had issues with the Victorian interpretation. And the answer to the question is both yes and no. I would rather my legendary figures be bigger than life, more formal and awe-inspiring in presence. As much as Tennyson's Arthurian figures are unrealistic ideals, Steinbeck's figures of legend are recognizably ordinary. There's a comment that King Arthur makes about his marriage to Guenevere that rang in my ear just a tad too much like a businessman talking about rejecting his stockbroker's advice. I could hear the tone of voice precisely. "Merlin was with me when I chose her. He tried to dissuade me...That was one of the few times I differed with him. Well, my choice has proven him fallible." There is another conversation between Sir Kay the Seneschal and Sir Lancelot that also has echoes of the business world of the '60's. That just did not work for me.

I still think fans should read Steinbeck's Arthurian tales. The work is incomplete and perhaps a little awkward, but the author still managed to evoke an echo of the meaning. Something about the Arthurian legend -- no matter who is recreating the tales -- awakens a wistfulness in me. It isn't so much a "white knight" syndrome (wishing for someone to come along and fight the battle for one) as it is the wish that we could persuade Everyman to accept the challenge to life's battle with the humility to gracefully win or lose once a best effort has been made. Guinevere says it well at one point "It's one thing to make one self great, but quite another to try to be not small."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Consequences of Sin [ Review ]

Title: Consequences of Sin

Author: Clare Langley-Hawthorne (official author site; her blog has limited activty)

Copyright: 2008, Penguin (New York; ISBN 9780143112938)

Length: 262 pages

Genre: Historical mystery

Summary: Oxford-educated Ursula Marlow is drawn into the misfortunes of her friend Winifred who is suspected of murdering her lover, Laura Radcliffe. As it happens, Laura is the daughter of Colonel Radcliffe, a business associate of Ursula's father, and upon hearing the news of his daughter's death, the colonel shoots himself in the head. This is Edwardian England in 1910 and upheaval is evident in the rise of interest in woman suffrage as well as in the increasing restiveness of the working class. Left to her own inclinations, Ursula Marlow would like to be actively involved in absolving Winifred of any guilt, but both the society into which she has been born as well as Lord Oliver Wrotham, another business associate of her father's, are actively interested in restricting her pursuit of any investigation. Her gender, her social position and her father's wealth are carefully used to envelope her, perhaps even muffle her. But Ursula manages to break away. Her insistence on learning the truth surrounding the deaths in the Radcliffe family rips away much of her protective cocoon. She must journey to the heart of darkness (in more ways than one) in order to emerge as a woman of strength in a world dominated by imperialism, capitalism, and violence. Langley-Hawthorne offers us an intelligent female protagonist whose behaviors are realistically constrained even as she tries to gain control of her own life.

Extract: Ursula decided that the only thing to do was to sit and wait. The woman, whoever she was, was crouching now in a corner, her hands and feet fast at work stripping a large palm frond into a series of strands and setting them aside. A basket lay half-woven beside her. As she concentrated on her work, Ursula seemed to fade. She had become non-existent. Ursula did not know what to do, except remain patient and silent. Her senses were heightened, and again she was struck by the connections -- the thread of sights and sounds. A sense of the mystical and magical. She could believe almost anything here. The most fantastical tale could easily be true.

Feedback: This book had an intriguing aspect to its plot. The author evokes The Heart of Darkness in a variety of ways -- in Ursula's surname, in a hallucinatory trip down a jungle river -- and consequently, one is on edge, awaiting an outbreak of madness and horror. There are those satisfactory moments when madness emerges in this mystery, but there is also a certain uneasiness as we watch Marlow undergo an emotional shift as she uncovers hidden truths about family and about commercial interests. Will she be all right in the end? There is a sub-thread of romance, but it is handled far more skillfully than in most mysteries. There is a sexual magnetism between the heroine and Lord Wrotham introduced from the first chapter, but not of the sort found in your average throbbing bodice-buster. Other reviewers have noted that this plot might have been more conventionally fleshed out in terms of characters and locations, but I rather think the author intended something of an homage to London's novel but with a feminist bent.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne, an Australian by birth and a lawyer by training, has a second book featuring Ursula Marlowe due out in August of 2008. Based on the title, The Serpent and The Scorpion, and the associated book cover prominently displayed on her official author website, it would appear to have some relation to the Middle East. I have to wonder if she will reveal parallels between Marlow and Gertrude Bell. Her blog hints that the third in the series has to do with the fight in Ireland for home rule. I will certainly be looking for these follow-ups in this series.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty [Review]

Title: Now, Voyager

Author: Olive Higgins Prouty (Wikipedia entry) (Plus)

Copyright: 2004, The Feminist Press, New York (ISBN: 1558614761); originally published 1941

Length: 284 pages

Genre: Fiction

Summary: Charlotte Vale, a member of one of the first families of Boston and well-provided for by her mother, has suffered under the same mother's domineering control. She has never been allowed any personal autonomy. She is always dictated to by her family and, most emphatically, her mother. Suffering a nervous breakdown, she is unsympathetically bundled off to a rest home, Cascades, where the benevolent Dr. Jaquith teaches her how to begin to cope with and actually live her life. Having graduated from Cascades, she is granted a reprieve before returning home to her mother's rule through the casual kindness of a relative who yields up her reservation for a stateroom on a departing ocean liner. Charlotte can practice some of what she's learned from Jaquith in socializing with the other passengers. Now, Voyager opens with her initial introduction to JD Durrance, a business man who is also traveling to Europe. The two fall in love and the story of that love has been immortalized by Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in the leading roles. If you loved that film (Warner Brothers, 1942), you will not want to miss reading this novel. The screenplay treated the text with respect but as is so frequently true in such cases, the book adds some depth to the author's thinking that the screenwriter didn't think to include.

Extract: A blizzard was raging in New York, so she had read on the bulletin board before she left the ship. It was difficult to visualize sheets of fine snow driving obliquely against facades, while sitting on an open terrace in the sun gazing at calla lilies in bloom bordered by freesia. (Isn't that a great opening?)

Feedback: This was published as part of the Feminist Press' series, Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp. In an attempt to remain objective, I might reluctantly concede that this could be classified as melodramatic pulp but it does not (in my opinion) read like that. I read it, completely riveted. In part, because I knew the film, but also because the book has one literary allusion that never made it onto the screen, one that makes all the difference in understanding Prouty's intent.

There is a reference early in Chapter 3 to Sarah Crewe, Frances Hodgson Burnett's heroine in The Little Princess. There are subsequent references to Sarah throughout the text. As soon as my brain processed the name, the author's point was clear to me. Sarah survives the domination of Miss Minchin by holding on to her internal conviction of self-worth, carefully inculcated in her by a loving father. If a parent doesn't instill that in a child, the lack has long-term repercussions in an individual's life.

Charlotte Vale was never given that internal sense of value and the story of Now, Voyager is of her having to find her value and her gifts along the way. Ultimately, she sees that she has something to offer others, specifically JD's daughter, Tina. There is a similar moment in The Little Princess when Sarah, believing herself to be as far down in life as possible, manages to think beyond herself and, as hungry as she is, share food with a beggar girl who she recognizes as having even less than herself. None of this was included in the screenplay of Now, Voyager. (Except that every woman I know, having read The Little Princess in their girlhood, would have immediately understood the underlying parallel. The (male) screen writer, likely never having read Burnett's book, did not understand the significance of the reference and omitted it!) The difference between Sarah and Charlotte is the quality of the parenting received.

Go read this book. Olive Higgins Prouty, for many reasons, does not deserve the obscurity into which she has fallen.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett [Review]

[Once Upon A Time II - fantasy novel]


Terry Pratchett (official site and Wikipedia entry. If you're in a fun mood, visit the Boffo Oracle. It has a certain relevance to the story.)

2006, Harper Tempest, an imprint of HarperCollins, 0-06-089031-2

323 pages

Fantasy/Young Adult

Tiffany Aching has quite enough to occupy her time. Working hard with the witch, Miss Treason, she really hasn't any spare time to give over to romance. But despite specific instructions from Miss Treason, Tiffany inadvertently inserts herself into the Dance That Never Ends between Winter and Summer. This misbehavior upsets the balance of the universe in a variety of ways (identical snowflakes, poorly placed icebergs, etc.). Now she has to extricate herself and protect those around her from the consequences of her unthinking act. She has help (of a sort) from the the tribe of Nac Mac Feegles, but, honestly, that kind of help can be more of a distraction. Tiffany has to grow into her role as a witch but her encounter with elementals is an education in everything from public relations to full-blown mythology. Wintersmith is a comic fantasy written for young adults and Pratchett makes his point to that audience without ever being pompous or didactic. Some of the jokes are best understood if one has a modicum of familiarity with myth and folklore, but the novel is light-hearted and straight-forward overall. Pratchett's writing style is very simple and easy to comprehend. The book is neither high fantasy nor high literature, but I could see where this might be one of those books very fondly recalled by adolescent readers years down the road.

Extract: What stopped this was the habit of visiting. Witches visited other witches all the time, sometimes travelng quite a long way for a cup of tea and a bun. Partly this was for gossip of course, because witches love gossip, especially if its more exciting than truthful. But mostly it was to keep an eye on one another.

Today Tiffany was visiting Granny Weatherwax, who was in the opinion of most witches (including Granny herself) the most powerful witch in the mountains. It was all very polite. No one said "Not gone bats then?" or "Certainly, not. I'm as sharp as a spoon." They didn't need to. They understood what it was all about, so they talked of other things. But when she was in a mood, Granny Weatherwax could be hard work. (page 108)

Feedback: This was a light and amusing read. I snickered at some points in the story and at other points, I would pause and admire the cleverness of the author in terms of delivery of a line or plot point. If asked, I would certainly recommend that this book be included in library collections serving youthful populations.

That said, I also feel compelled to note that I wasn't particularly engaged by this book. It was fun. It had a point without being didactic. There was a good deal of wisdom to it. But I was never fully carried away by the tale. I think the slight cartoon-ishness (not to mention the pseudo-Scottish dialect) of the Nac Mac Feegles and some of the characterization of the witches interfered with my enjoyment. I am well aware that there is a difference between comic fantasy and high fantasy. Both have their own ways of communicating life's truths. Maybe it is just my own personal idiosyncratic taste, but I always tend to prefer the high fantasy form for my reading. (Note: That last sentence may be code for "I'm having one of my pompous days".)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Lloyds of London Will Be Loaded...

Apparently Tom Lehrer is 80 years old today. This is one of my favorites of his wickedly funny songs.

Found via Crooked Timber.

Monday, April 07, 2008

New Book from Ursula K. LeGuin

I read today in the Christian Science Monitor that Ursula LeGuin has a new book out. It's titled Lavinia, for the bride of Aeneas (Harcourt, ISBN 978-0151014248). It is her story, rather than the story of the traditional hero. It clearly would qualify for the Once Upon A Time Challenge, if you are looking for an entry in the category of mythology.

I may have to go out and buy this one immediately. I so admire LeGuin's work. In my opinion, she is never dull and her perception of human behaviors are generally on-point.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Another Fantastic Tale: Smith of Wootton Major

This literary fairy tale by J.R.R. Tolkien is a wonderful option if you're looking for a captivating short read. Originally published in 1967, the story is placed in a medieval village, the Wootton Major of the title. The village takes its baking very seriously and the Master Cook is a person of some importance in the village. Each year, there is a special Feast of Good Children, but every twenty four years, there is a particularly special festival that features a Great Cake to which only twenty-four children may be invited. The Master Cook's legacy is the Great Cake that he delivers at that special Twenty-Four feast. Most cooks are only in office for a single opportunity at creating such a Great Cake.

We meet in his childhood, Smith, as one of the lucky attendees of a Twenty-Four feast. In consuming his portion of that feast's Great Cake, he inadvertently swallows a star of Faery and the star marks him both physically and philosophically (or spiritually, if you prefer). Because of that star, he is drawn away from his ordinary existance now and again, in order to step into Faery and see its wonders. He sees marvelous sights, seas with elven mariners, and ultimately dances with the Queen of Faerie herself. Eventually, however, he comes to understand that he must pass the star on to another child.

I'm not particularly enamored of the New York Times review of Smith written back in 1968, but the reviewer did capture the emotion one feels at the close of the book, Wistful and wishful that we could hold on to that star that leads us into such a sense of wonder.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fantastic Storyteller: Patricia A. McKillip

If you have never read anything by Patricia McKillip, starting with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld would offer you a wonderful introduction. The book won the World Fantasy Award in 1975. The heroine is Sybel, a woman of power, based on her skill with magic. She keeps at her side such fabulous creatures as the Liralen, the Lyon Gules, and Ter the Falcon. Living remotely on a mountain, she does not seek to meddle in the affairs of others, but a child brought to her door (Tam) by Coren of Sirle changes the dynamics of her existence. Eventually, she is ensnared by her love for Tam and the power struggle between Coren and the great king, Drede. Ultimately she calls to her side a dark creature, one that is part nightmare. The story unfolds from there. As one of McKillip's early works, her style here is very simple and her sentences short and clear, unlike more recent works like The Book of Atrix Wolf or the award-winning Ombria in Shadow. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a wonderful example of high fantasy.

I read this book for the first time when I was in my early 'twenties and still very open to tales of enchantment. It was very powerful for me at that point in my life because it articulated for me the idea, the observation, that women may exercise power from a different set of priorities than those used by men. (That may not strike you as a new idea but back in the women's movement of the '70's, it required greater emphasis.) What surprised me as I re-read Beasts in the mindset of a distracted, middle-aged adult was how rapidly I was caught again by McKillip's spell-binding story. It was the tone of the story, her language. An example would be something like this extract:

He nodded, the smile tugging deeper at his mouth. "The seventh son of Lord Steth of Sirle, my grandfather, had seven sons and I am his youngest. Perhaps that is why I hear things the trees tell as they whisper at moonrise, or the growing corn tells, or the birds at twilight. I have good ears. I heard the silence of your white walls even in the noisy halls at Sirle."

The people of Sybel's world do not quite sound like the people I encounter in this world. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote in her 1976 essay, From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, successful fantasy requires a recognition in written dialogue and tone that the world of Faery is distinct from this world. High fantasy -- that form of fiction that draws us from this world into the world of Faery -- is not easy to create. The real thing touches the numinous imagination, at the deepest part of the human spirit and soul. It is wonderful that McKillip consistently manages to convey that strangeness of Faery while still creating characters with whom we feel kinship. Like LeGuin, McKillip holds that to know the name of a living creature yields power over that creature.

If you are looking for something to read as part of Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge, keep this title in the back of your mind. It's sold nowadays as Young Adult Lit, but like the very best fantasy, it is appropriate for adults as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Heaven knows that the current state of the economy offers little joy, but this literally had me rolling on the floor laughing. Take your time and go through the archives!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Interesting Tidbits From My Inbox

Things that floated through my inbox at work that I think you'll find interesting:

Just some fodder for thought.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wahoo! Woot! and Other Joyful Noises (Updated)

Carl is doing another Once Upon A Time challenge. I missed participation in last year's and I'm not missing this one!

Don't know which Quest I will pick as yet, but I am looking forward to reading some Patricia McKillip (specifically, Alphabet of Thorn). If you are looking for a recommendation, I can heartily push Guy Gavriel Kaye on you (Lions of Al-Rassan). For that matter, you might want to look at the Ozark Trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin.

I'd write more, but I'm trying to catch up on visits to other people's blogs this evening...

Update: My titles for Quest the First (for the moment) appear below:

  1. Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip
  2. Spells of Enchantment: The Wondrous Fairy Tales of Western Culture by Jack Zipes
  3. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights - John Steinbeck
  4. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  5. The House of Arden by E. Nesbit
  6. D'aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D'Aulaire
I'm still making up my mind as to whether I want to do #5 or #6. Didi uses D'Aulaire in her classroom, so I have to think it's a worthwhile read.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

In A Fit of Austen

About two weeks ago, wanting something pleasant and non-violent on the television as background noise, I put on Mansfield Park. Not the Patricia Rozema version of 1999 or the IDC version that aired in the States during the past two months, but the older BBC dramatization of the novel, dating from 1983, which accurately delivers the storyline crafted by Jane Austen. In that adaptation, Aunt Norris is indeed self-serving and self-absorbed, and Fanny is exasperatingly self-effacing.

What this has led to has been a peculiar state of mental distraction. I am driven to seek out Jane Austen. Blogs, books, DVDs, social networking sites -- each has contributed to the fit. I started out reading a thread on LibraryThing which led me to this blog, which led me to this woman, who created millinery for a few of the dramatizations, then on to the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) where I learn that the 2009 JASNA Annual Meeting will be held in Philadelphia!

Suddenly, my mind is feverishly tossing out ideas, wondering whether I might produce an academic paper on the topic of sibling relationships in Mansfield Park of a quality that would get me on the JASNA program. There are the sisters, Maria and Julia, who compete with each other for Henry Crawford's attention, a situation certain to create friction. There are the Crawfords themselves, Mary and Henry. Mary and Henry share certain confidences with regard to their dealings with the Bertrams which suggests a certain fond tolerance of one another. There are the Bertram brothers, Tom and Edmund. Tom is profligate while Edmund tends to conservative ways, another situation rife with conflict. Finally, there are Fanny and her brother, William. (There's no clear reason given for why Fanny is so attached to William, but she ends up enduring a great deal from Henry Crawford on his behalf.) I imagine myself offering my thoughts on Fanny Price and William to an audience of eager Janeites. This is an OPPORTUNITY!

Okay. Reality check. (For one thing, there's an obligation to join the society even to participate as an attendee at the annual meeting. It's not that expensive to join, but it does imply a serious level of commitment to Austen, rather than my own dilettante attitude.)

At the same time, I've been digesting Mansfield Park for years now without ever publicly expressing my feelings on the subject of Fanny Price. She's something of a controversial figure as you know if you've ever spent time over at the Republic of Pemberley. (See the reference to the "Fanny Wars" here.) Is Fanny Price an insufferable, self-righteous little prig? Or is she actually a frail, somewhat crushed female, plain and repressed, whose triumph is greatest when the hero realizes the superiority of her mind and scope of her character in comparison with that of the worldly Mary Crawford?

Each time I have read Mansfield Park, I have been struck by Austen's characterization as well as her skill in choosing how to reveal personalities. I have always assumed that Austen knew readers might shy away from Fanny's self-effacing nature. Fanny isn't an ideal heroine, by any stretch, yet Austen shows us that as quiet and despised as Fanny may be, she has the strength of character that those around her have not developed. This time around as I re-read the novel, I was struck by the scene of Mary Crawford offering Fanny a chain to use with Henry's gift of a cross. Mary seems sincerely to extend a generosity to Fanny, in part as a kindness towards pleasing her brother and in part because it is a small thing to her to share with Fanny something that Mary has in abundance. She sees Fanny's reluctance in accepting the jewelry and laughs good-naturedly at the scrupulousness of Fanny's conscience. Fanny is horrified that Mary would so casually give to her a necklace that Mary received from her brother; we are left to suppose that Fanny would never part with a present that William had given her. Mary isn't in the least disturbed by the idea of offering it, but Fanny, we assume, can't imagine that evidence of a brother's regard would be given to her so lightly. There's a good case for the scene's use as an indication of each woman's mindset regarding a brother and his gift. In both instances, the cross William gives his sister and the chain Henry gives his, the value associated with an article of jewelry is a way of revealing how each woman regards the familial bond.

I don't want to go into more detail. Thanks to good friends who teach at the college level, I am ruefully conscious of some idiot student googling the point and turning it in for a grade, but the joy of reading is that one is taken with an idea (in the midst of boring, hum-drum daily life) and turns it over and plays with it. Why else read?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Humorous Column (San Francisco Chronicle)

Chortle, chuckle, snark

Although I think the cats would invariably want to be on the wrong side of the door. You'd never get to drink your coffee in peace.

More later.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Binu and the Great Wall [Review]

Title: Binu and the Great Wall (publisher's page)

Author: Su Tong

Copyright: 2007, Canongate, Edinburgh (Hardcover, ISBN 978-1-84195-904-7)

Length: 291 pages

Genre: Fiction/Part of the Canongate Myth Series

Summary: Binu discovers that her husband, Wan Qiliang , has been drafted into the service of the Emperor in building the Great Wall of China. But he has been taken so abruptly -- working bare-chested in the forest -- that he has no warm clothing for the winter. Binu sees her duty as a wife as traveling to the farthest reaches of the kingdom to bring Wan Qiliang his winter coat. The other village wives whose spouses have also been taken are unwilling to travel with her so Binu sets off alone. Her chief characteristic throughout the course of this journey is tenacity, her stoicism in facing the harsh judgments of others as she makes her way towards the Great Swallow Mountain. Those others, who offer her no sympathy, include a carter with no hands who drives his team with his feet, a herd of Deer-boys, even the great General Jianyang who can hear the sound of Binu's weeping from a great distance. She does have one mystic guide with her, a blind frog who retreats and then returns to support her. But it is critical to the point of the book to stress that Binu is isolated and alone, a person of no status, an orphan without family to intercede, a woman entirely vulnerable to every indignity that is part of the human experience.

The writing style of this tale contains both poetic imagery and bleak events. The presence of Death in this story is as much a constant as the blind frog. Binu and the Great Wall is not told as a happy fairy tale the way that the story of Meng Jiang is frequently told. (See this version sanitized for Western audiences.) Su Tong's novel, translated by Howard Goldblatt, has points that are utterly bleak but still pays homage to the capacity of the ordinary person to change the direction of the powerful.

Extract: The frog stayed put, a single tear on its face bringing a white light into the darkness. Binu turned away to avoid looking at that tear. Sorrow had lost its power on this night; a woman who did not cry had already shed all the tears she had, and the tears of the frog were now someone else's burden. Neither could get a reaction from the other. So a long confrontation between a pair of one-time traveling companions developed at the river bend, and an air of antagonism turned the atmosphere icy. Even the water flowing in the moonlight gasped tensely.

Also Relevant: The story on which Binu and The Great Wall is based is well-known in China. The softened version (linked above) is re-told in a fashion suitable for children; other versions (like this one) are told in the context of a historical period in Chinese history. I read Binu without any foreknowledge of the story of Meng Jiang's tears; while I recognized occasional flashes of dry humor in the writing, the novel still struck me as a fairly serious story making a point about the ways a repressed, saddened citizenry may erupt under the rule of bureaucracy. Binu consistently adheres to her own beliefs of appropriate behavior even though the society around criticizes harshly her behavior. As she moves in a symbolic journey from a simple village in the South to the more complex and unfamiliar urban society in the North, Binu is incapable of adopting survival mechanisms that could ease her living. Her single-minded intent to provide the necessities needed by her husband in winter weather is laughable to those with some level of power or control. She obviously cannot succeed and yet, inexplicably, her individual devotion to a perceived duty is what triggers great change. Thus, Binu and the Great Wall is peculiarly hopeful even as it closes without romanticism or traditional "happy ending".

I found this installment to the Canongate Myth series to be worthwhile reading and certainly thought- provoking. I reviewed Karen Armstrong's introductory volume to the full series here and subsequently reviewed Lion's Honey, another volume in the series, here. So far, I think this is my favorite.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hands (and Shopping Bags) Across The Water

Apparently, (and I'm basing this strictly on my readings of other people's blogs), there is a common cause for concern in both the US and the UK with regard to those wretched little plastic bags they hand out in grocery stores. You know, the ones that replaced the sound, solid brown paper bags that groceries *used* to be carried in. When I was a girl, the practice was to recycle the brown paper bags by making them into book covers for school, but there's really very little to be done with those plastic things that split before you've even gotten the full distance between the store front and your car.

Books, Mud and Compost points out that Marks and Spencer will be charging customers 5p per carrier bag in the interests of encouraging consumers to bring their own bags to the grocery store. This is apparently in the wake of the Prime Minister issuing warnings as to the consequences of continuing use of such polythene bags (via Mutterings & Meanderings). The Libertarians in the UK are really up in arms on this one.

On this side of the pond, bags are an object of interest as well in terms of re-use. Of course, Americans may be the ultimate consumer shopping bag population (see this NYTimes article that ran last December). And someone must be making a killing over here on Amazon.

My husband and I caved in yesterday morning when we went to the local Acme to do our food shopping. Food-wise, it was a light week and there, right by the cash registers, was a practical display of the new style carrier bag currently being pushed by the U.S. food industry. So we picked up two of them in which to carry home our $50 worth of food. Ours are Acme-trademark-blue and they're made of some peculiar fiber that is weird to the touch but ostensibly less threatening to the environment. I rather suspect that, over the long-term, I will prefer the canvas boat totes sold by LLBean for moving this kind of stuff around. The downside of the canvas is that those, properly loaded, strain my elbow joints. The re-usable Acme bags don't cost as much -- just a dollar a pop -- but I'll likely need to buy 2 or 3 more of them to carry away all my usual groceries. And my elbows will still ache.

They charged me for gift boxes this past Christmas at places like Sears, which is another harbinger of the future. I have already adapted to recycling various sturdy boxes and cloth gift bags for use at Christmas, as that makes sense to me. (I don't mind putting Hallmark out of business if that is deemed to be an economic or environmental necessity.) The carrier bag situation may also be more sensible. But I remember the energy crisis of the '70's and it irritated me no end last summer when everyone was fretting over the price of gas because no one seems willing to adopt the obvious solution of gas rationing or some other method of cutting down on our consumption. The individual simply ended up paying more for gas, even people like me in our itty-bitty Saturn. All I know is that it always costs me money when someone else decides that society as a whole should be environmentally conscious. I understand why it works that way, but jeez louise....