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.