Saturday, April 30, 2016

Wrapping Up and Boldly Going

Read of England 2016 was by any reckoning a roaring success. Not only did I finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy. but I sampled a good variety of renown English authors from mid-March 'til yesterday.

English Classics
Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

English History
Waterloo, Bernard Cornwell

Other Works Set in England:
My Man Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
When the Eagle Hunts, Simon Scarrow
The Memoirs of  Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
In the Days of the Comet, H.G. Wells

Other Works, by English Authors
Frodo's Journey, Joseph Pearce
Bilbo's Journey, Joseph Pearce
Master and Commander, Patrick O'Brian
The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin

If I had to pick 'best of', it'd be  Jane Eyre.  The best use of Characters Wandering Around in Moors goes to Great Expectations, though, despite the competition from Jane and In the Days of the Comet.  I'd intended to read Sense and Sensibility as well, but somewhere around the time Lucy revealed that she was actually engaged to Edward, my interest in these people's love lives had more or less evaporated.  I'm not quite off the horse, though.

Getting us back into the normal swing of things, I have a few interesting science, science fiction, and history books on the way, drawing from that science TBR list and including complete surprises. I’m also starting a long-term project: the Warp Speed Discard Challenge!

See, in one corner of my bedroom is a half-sized bookcase full to the brim of Star Trek paperbacks. I have as many books  in that space as the laws of physics will allow, and as I cannae change said laws,  it’s time to deep-six the excess.  The preposterous thing about this problem is that most of these books were purchased six years ago, when I graduated uni and suddenly had spending money. Being without the usual vices, I chose to buy several boxes of books via eBay, netting several hundred for the paltry sum of $20.  In the six years since, I’ve read perhaps three from that acquisition,  reading instead newer releases, but  have been reluctant to part with any of the pile without having read them. So, I’m making myself read them, after which I can donate them guilt-free. It will take a fair bit of time, especially as I don’t intend for it to distract me from my usual enthusiasms.  The boxes included TOS, TNG, and DS9 paperbacks of the numbered variety, so they’re episodic and incapable of violating canon.  If nothing else, Star Trek’s boundless optimism will serve as a nice distraction from the grisly spectacle of  D.C. politics.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Voyage of the Beagle

The Voyage of the Beagle
© 1839 Charles Darwin
448 pages*

As a young man, Charles Darwin lacked sharp direction. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but he hated the sight of blood.  His passion was natural philosophy, the observation and study of the natural world,  and he briefly considered becoming a country parson so that he would have the time to pursue that passion. A chance opportunity to join the crew of the HMS Beagle, assigned to survey the extreme southern end of South America,  gave him more occasion to practice natural observation than he might have ever expected. It was on that journey that he collected the data that would produce his first book,  a monograph on coral reef formation, and stir his imagination about life's abundant variety.

Voyage consists of a log by Darwin, divided into sections of interest, and follows him and the Beagle  from England to South America, then across the Pacific back to England again. Darwin's real purpose on the ship was to keep the captain company,  a man who would have otherwise had to have made conversation with common sailors.   Virtually all of his commentary is given over to descriptions of Darwin's time spent on land, aside from brief mentions of dolphins frolicking.   Young Darwin explores the surrounding area every time the ship puts into port, but he is often dropped off for several days on end, trekking into the interior. Voyage is a work of scientific journalism, describing the flora and fauna of South America's rims and outlying islands. Darwin's commentary reveals an already practiced scientific mind, especially in the area of geology.  The author is most famous, of course, for his insights into biology, particularly the way natural selection forces living populations to change over time.    His  chapter on the Galapagos island and its famed finches drops a hint of the patterns Darwin was beginning to detect:

"Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends."

In addition to detailing the behavior of pumas and the native economy of this-or-that group of Patagonians, Darwin has a few extraordinary experiences. At least once he is marooned in-country during a revolution, and as the Beagle is sailing up the coast of Chile, there is a volcanic eruption and several earthquakes.  Darwin does not limit his commentary to the plants and animals he collects; he also has much to say about the peoples they meet, and here he comes off rather nicely. He views Spanish and English civilization being created in these distant lands an improvement on say, human sacrifice, but recognizes that the age of 'discovery' has also been one of violent ruin for many.   He takes in the many strange customs he sees not with condescension, but with wonder -- with the exception of commenting on stagnant rural economies.  Upon departing the eastern coast of South America on the return trip, he sighs with relief that he will never again witness a slave-country; in Australia, he exhibits a strong sympathy for the aboriginal peoples, who have lost their land to both Polynesians and the English.

For the reader with a scientific appetite and the willingness to chew on pages of description, Voyage is appealing.  This is not some layman's travel guide to South America, obviously, but a book intended for those who wish to learn about the land's geography and life. In 2016, of course, there is added historical appeal; not only in exploring a continent not yet hit by industrialism, but in seeing a giant of English scientific achievement in his youth, still gathering material awaiting the imaginative spark.

*I read from an online version from, so pagecount is taken from an Amazon edition. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

In the Days of the Comet

In the Days of the Comet
© 1906 H.G. Wells
276 pages

Have you been cyanogened yet?  Carl Sagan delivered that preposterous line in the original Cosmos, reading the newspaper headlines of a century past. Then, as Halley's Comet approached the Earth, fear and wonder spread -- and some enterprising rascal sold gas masks to people who feared the comet's toxic fumes. As it turns out, they needn't have worried; the comet's fumes are magic!

That's the setup for In the Days of the Comet, which opens with an old man reminiscing about his youth, set in the last days of Earth before 'the Change', when all was foul and dismal.  He spent that week brooding, ignoring his mother, and stalking an ex-girlfriend across the country with the intent of shooting her.  Fortunately for all concerned, as he crashed through the brambles firing his revolver at the girl and her new beau, the fumes of an approaching comet mixed with the atmosphere of Earth and made the world anew.  Every living thing fell into a stupor, wakes up, and -- after a contented belly scratch -- decide to abolish everything and create The World State.  And we all lived happily ever after.

Aside from a joke about Texas,  very little of In the Days of the Comet made for enjoyable reading. The narrator is from the start a boor, one of those types who has discovered the Secret of Life and is intent on lecturing everyone who will listen, and berating those who won't for being sheep.  He grows even more tedious after The Change, because now his eyes are open to how much else was wrong with the old world, and since his fellow characters now agree with him, the only audience for his lectures is...the Reader.  Alas.   In the Days has nothing of science fiction in it; it is instead a bit of wish-fulfillment in which Wells writes about what's wrong with the world: property, marriage,  tradition, and Jews.

Wells' status as an enlightened man of science takes quite the hit here, and not just because of the antisemitism. His views on society and economics are simplistic, to say the least,  with science depicted as maaaaaagic.   I guess they can't all be War of the Worlds, eh H.G.?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Much to Hope from the Flowers

(Wild Roses, Rick Hansen)

Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.

Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


The rose's smell and color are presumably useful to its pollinators, but it's still a lovely thought. Roses and "Moonlight Sonata" go a long way.

Teaser Tuesday: Murder on the Moor?

Teaser Tuesday bids participants to share a two-sentence excerpt from their current read.  It's hosted by Books and a Beat.

I stopped dead the other afternoon in my walk across the moor, where once the dismal outskirts of Swathinglea straggled towards Leet, and asked, "Was it here indeed that I crouched among the weeds and refuse and broken crockery and loaded my revolver ready for murder? Did ever such a thing happen in my life?

p. 9, In the Days of the Comet. H.G. Wells

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
256 pages
© 1894 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Has it been five years since I read a Holmes collection? I remember picking up Memoirs shortly after reading The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, not nothing that Memoirs was published well before that, but I fell into distraction at some point. More's the pity, because here collected are eleven classic stories that include both the beginning and the (first) end of Holmes' career, "The Gloria Scott" and "The Final Problem".   It contains a few iconic scenes; Holmes stalking about in his cape and seeming to read Watson's mind, as well as some of his best lines:

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
 "That was the curious incident."

Some Trek author inserted those lines into a novel years ago and it absolutely mystified me. Well, glad to have cleared that up. (On that Trek note, I must say that The Next Generation deceived me in regards to Professor Moriarty. He's charming onscreen, but decidedly uncharismatic here. Granted ,his only appearance is to threaten Holmes with death if he doesn't keep plotting the 'Napoleon of Crime's" Waterloo.)  Memoirs has the same engaging writing as the previous collections, and adds some interesting aspects to Holmes' character, namely his eccentric home decor (storing cigars in Persian slippers, using the wall as target practice).

A few of the mysteries:

  • "Silver Blaze": A prize horse has gone missing. (Okay, granted, it's not as ambitious as the missing train from Further Adventures, but it's still very mysterious.)
  • "The Musgrave Ritual": A brilliant butler vanishes after being caught studying nonsensical couplets used in an initiation ritual. Could it be that he divined some meaning into the lines?
  • "The Gloria Scott":  What secret does a cranky sailor have over this nervous country squire?
  • "The Greek Interpeter": A man is driven into the middle of nowhere and used to question a Greek man being held against his will --- why?
  • "The Cardboard Box":  Who ordered two human ears packed in salt? 

I think I've gone through all the short stories my library has access to, so when next I visit Baker Street, it will be for a full novel!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Funny in Farsi

Funny in Farsi: Growing up Iranian in America
© 2003 Firoozeh "Julie" Dumas
240 pages

Imagine a time when most Americans had never heard of Iran, when a little girl from a village thereof might as well be from Podunk, Eurasia.   Such was the case of young Firooezeh, whose father was an Iranian petroleum engineer sent to work in the United States for two years.  With little to prepare them, her family took English lessons from The Price is Right and went off to explore America.  Funny in Farsi is a collection of Firoozech’s comic coming of age in the United States, combining both the awkwardness of the immigrant experience and fond recollections of her childhood in Iran.

Though after the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis, Iran would take on a sinister charge in the American imagination,  Funny in Farsi isn’t written as a somber reflection on Iranians and the Revolution; virtually all of reminiscences here are written to draw a smile.  They accomplish it regardless of the setting, whether they’re about her uncle taking her halfway across Iran to find his favored brand of ham, or Firooezeh enduring her American classmate’s dearth of geographic knowledge. (“You know China? Iran is on the same continent.”)  Comments on the immigrant experience (why are Americans so enamored of the French? Iranians also eat snails! It’s not fair!) go back and forth with family tales, like her father’s  many attempts to teach her to swim, or  his immense pride in spending as little as possible, as when he obtained lunch by visiting a grocery wholesaler and dining on the free samples.

While these recollections are delightful in their own right -- a reassurance that everyone's family has its odd ducks, regardless of continent -- there's also a useful reminder here that Iran is more than the possession of the reigning ayatollahs, being instead an ancient nation which has endured many a tyrant and will outlast the current breed as well.

The Quest for Shakespeare

The Quest for Shakespeare: the Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome
© 2008 Joseph Pearce
275 pages

Although April 23rd is, historically, the feast of England’s patron saint George,   it is also the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s  death.  2016 marks the 400th year since England’s most famous author went to his grave, and in way of honoring him I read Joseph Pearce’s The Quest for Shakespeare. I’ve heard Pearce speak on Shakespeare before, rebutting arguments that other personalities wrote the plays and that Shakespeare is just given credit for them, like Homer.  I’d assume Quest  would follow the same tack, which it does in its introductory chapter, but the real heart of Quest is Pearce’s case for Shakespeare being Catholic.  Although there’s no direct evidence, Pearce argues that the Bard’s loyalties can be inferred from various connections and relationships.

Shakespeare’s religion isn’t just interesting trivia: he lived in the age of Elizabeth, when Henry VIII’s divorce from Rome was visiting the land with terror and blood.  As covered in Come Rack! Come Rope! and Faith and Treason, those who did not attend Anglican services were fined heavily, and Catholic priests were brutally executed. After the Pope’s bull declaring Elizabeth an unlawful monarch, Catholicism had the same ring as treason.   Shakespeare’s father and daughter were both listed and fined as ‘recusants’, establishing the Shakespeare family as Catholic, if not William himself.  His close associations with other Catholics, like a hanged Jesuit priest named Southwell, and the Arden family who were damned in the Somerset plot,  throw a Roman light on him, as does his purchase and maintenance of a house used for hiding priests and performing illegal Masses. That last was compelling for me, especially when combined with the fact that he went out of his way to  engage a crypto-Catholic priest to perform his wedding ceremony.

Pearce's underlying argument is that Shakespeare is not some empty vessel to be filled with the values of his critics, but a man in his own flesh whose values shaped his work. He writes that if Shakespeare were Catholic, this would give the plays a certain moral tone, and closes the book with two appending sections which offer a guide to the moral interpretation of Shakespeare, and an example of it in "King Lear".  Though Pearce flirts with seeing his own desires in Shakespeare himself,  he errs on the side of caution more often than not.  He does have a marked enthusiasm for the central idea, at one point speculating that the lack of information about Shakespeare's early life in London might indicate that he was living a quiet moral life free of scandal.  Well, perhaps, but presumably Anglicans are just as capable of living quiet, moral lives free of scandal. Even if there were an overt Christian theme in the plays, that wouldn't necessitate an overt Catholic theme.  At best in "King Lear" there are characters complaining about the times they lived in, but if someone isn't complaining you're not in the real world, you're in the first version of the Matrix, the one that failed because no one believed in it.

Although too little is known about Shakespeare's life to declare his beliefs or politics with surety -- and interpreting plays is tricky, as anyone can read anything into them --  the amount of connections suggests that even if Shakespeare wasn't an observant Catholic himself, his sense of drama and justice would be influenced by the spectre of his friends being persecuted and even killed by the court...and that is an aspect wholly missed by every teacher on Shakespeare I've ever had.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Promise

The Promise
© 1969 Chaim Potok
336 pages

Growing up is never easy, but for Orthodox boys in the mid-20th century, it's especially hard. The Jewish people are in turmoil after the horrors of the Holocaust, some pinning their hopes on Israel and others recoiling from it as anathema. The latter is true of Hasidic communities from Eastern Europe, fleeing both European and Soviet persecution, finding safe haven in the United States. The welcome American Jews might have given to their kin, however, is worn thin by the Hasids' swelling number and their fervent defense of rigid Orthodoxy.   In this setting Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, two Orthodox boys introduced in the gripping tale of The Chosen, complete their coming of age, united in the treatment of a young boy whose genius is matched by his inexplicable rage.

In The Chosen, Danny chose to depart from his father's legacy as a Hasidic rabbi, a leader of his community. He chose instead to pursue psychology, while his more mainstream rival-turned-friend Reuven realized a call to the rabbinate.  The Promise opens with both young men engaged in their graduate studies, and both faced with shared difficulties that force them to reconsider the paths they have taken. The first challenge is a boy with a passion for astronomy, the son of a humanistic Jewish scholar who is the object of scorn to the traditionalists governing Hirsch University.  Michael is very sick, possessed by fantasies and given to episodes of rage; he exhausts therapists and seemed doomed to be institutionalized.  Both Danny and Reuven have a personal connection to the stargazer Michael, in being companions of his older cousin Rachel. Danny has an idea for how to treat Michael, but it's risky: if it fails, it may destroy the boy's psyche altogether.  Meanwhile, Reuven's position as a graduate student who must soon defend his grasp and attitude of Talmud study to a panel of elders forces him between more liberal scholars like his father and Michael's, and the traditionalist Hasids. He recoils against the 'mental ghetto' of fundamentalist Talmud studies, but is not satisfied with  answers that reduce Judaism to empty family traditions.

In The Chosen, Potok impressed me by having Danny and Reuven both embroiled in an intense and challenging relationship with Danny's father, Reb Saunders, who despaired both of Danny's interest in the outside world, and of Reuven's own father's modernist approach to Talmudic study. Although they began as antagonists, however, ultimately they arrived at mutual understanding. No one is defeated,  their differences do not cease, but they break through the arguments to re-embrace the people making them. Potok accomplishes something very like that here, in the person of Rev Kalman. Kalman survived the death camps of the Nazi state, but lost nearly everyone he knew, and when confronted with American Jews he sees challengers that threaten to complete by sophistry what Hitler began with direct industrial  murder.    Kalman stands between Reuven and ordination, and is an especially difficult antagonist given that he rails against Reuven's father in the press.  Yet Potok does not resolve the tension by having Reuven choose a prescripted side. Instead, he makes his own choice, and Kalman proves to be much like Reb Saunders:  the enmity is defeated, but not his person.

Though initially appealing for being the further story of Danny and Reuven, Potok's skill at rendering intense debate that results in mutual understanding rather than one-sided triumphs impressed me. I imagine as a rabbi himself, Potok has spent long hours having similar heated conversations with his colleagues and academics, attempting to reconcile an ancient faith with modernity without losing the power of those values and practices to endue lives with direction and meaning.

I know this is English Literature month, so er...consider this a salute to Benjamin Disraeli, former Jewish prime minister of Great Britain. (It's also Passover, so..chag sameach!)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles
© 2015 Bernard Cornwell
352 pages

Bang upon the big drum, crash upon the cymbals
We'll sing as we go marching along boys, along
And although on this campaign
There's no whiskey or champagne
Still we'll keep our spirits going with a song, boys!
("Songs and Music of the Redcoats")

Bernard Cornwell's most famous work is his Sharpe's series, well over a dozen novels following a rifleman all around the Napoleonic world -- over the hills and far away, through Flanders, Portugal, and Spain, with India and France as bookends.  In Waterloo: the Story of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles, he attempts to parlay his considerable research into the Napoleonic wars to a work of nonfiction.  He introduces his latest with a question: why write another book on one of the most studied and famous battles in Western history?   Indeed, while Waterloo succeeds as popular history, considering the lavish visual detail it's practically more of a tribute than a study.

For me, Waterloo is a welcome arrival. Not only do I enjoy Cornwell enormously, but my knowledge of the Napoleonic period is fairly dismal; what little I possess is what I've gleaned from novels like Cornwell's and C.S. Forester's, not to mention the odd computer game. By way of background: following the Battle of Leipzig, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France,  Europe's tyrannical spectre for well over a decade, was sentenced to rule the little island of Elba. Frustrated by his island kingdom's lack of funds, Napoleon returned to Paris and the Allies' war against him renewed.  Hoping to deal with his enemies (England, Holland, Prussia, and Russia) piecemeal, Napoleon marched north to confront the Anglo-Dutch in Holland.  Rout them, and the other Allies might just call the whole thing off.  Thus did Bonaparte finally meet the Duke of Wellington, the man who had helped drive France's armies from Spain.

Like Gettysburg, Waterloo was less one battle than a campaign. Cornwell's tale unfolds across several days. Napoleon has to strike before the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies can meet, and fights two simultaneous battles at Quatre Bras and nearby Ligny in the hopes of pushing the Allies away from one another. While this isn't a roaring success for France, it does strain communications and gives Napoleon a day to push at the Anglo-Dutch.  Waterloo is that day of battle, the longest day of the year in which the bullets were still flying at nearly nine o'clock.   In addition to reporting on the campaign's development as the French pushed steadily toward the English lines, Cornwell explains  the nuances of  Napoleonic warfare to the reader.  Key to understanding this kind of war is the relationship between infantry, cavalry, and artillery; Cornwell describes it as a paper, rock, and scissors game.  Infantry moving in a line were effective offensively, but woefully exposed to cavalry charges; if they formed into a square,   they were deadly obstacles to cavalry but inviting targets to the artillery.  The armies involved are constantly attempting to out-manipulate the others and press an advantage.

Cornwell's extensive experience as a novelist is clearly present here: he frequently shifts between past and present tense, and employs the same kind of sentence combinations he uses for dramatic effect in the novels. (It's a one-two literary punch; a series of sentences leading the reader in one direction is suddenly reversed by a following and much shorter second sentence.)  The narrative thus brings to mind a novel, but there's no denying Cornwell's ability to communicate the sheer drama of these armies maneuvers as well as the horrendous cost the chaos of the battle was inflicting on the participants. I mentioned the lavish detail earlier, but it bears more comment. I have never seen a work of history this extravagantly illustrated.  There are two-page spreads of paintings depicting moments in the action, and not just one but interspersed throughout the text. Even the maps are indulgent, abounding and presented in full-color.   It's this kind of loving attention that makes Waterloo seem like something rendered more to honor and remember than merely to inform. While it sometimes seemed he wanted to write a novel, Waterloo is a fantastic first offering of nonfiction from Cornwell's pen.

Sharpe's Series, Bernard Cornwell.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Dawn of Battle

Four hundred years before, near a village called Azincourt, an English army had waited to do battle with the French, and on that October night it had rained and rained and the sky had echoed with thunder. It had been a drenching rain and next morning, as the rain at last ended, the field where the field where the English offered battle was a quagmire of mud. It was that mud, more than the English arrows or English valour, which defeated the French men-at-arms who, laden with fifty or sixty pounds of plate armour, had to wade through knee-deep mud to reach their opponents. The thick mud tired them so that when they reached Henry V's line they were hacked down in a merciless display of butchery. 
And on Sunday, 18 June 1815, the ground in the valley south of Waterloo would be muddy. It was an omen. 
The Emperor either did not know the history, or else had decided that rain on the eve of a battle was no omen at all.

118 - 119, Waterloo:  the History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles. Bernard Cornwell.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express
© 1934 Agatha Christie
256 pages

"Why does everyone on this train tell lies?!"

A dark and snowy night; the Orient Express, rolling from Istanbul to Paris, slows to a stop in the wilderness, trapped by the growing piles of snow as its passengers sleep. But the slumber of the travelers is disturbed by a sudden cry, the sighting of a figure in a red kimono, and -- the discovery of a dead passenger, stabbed in his sleep.  Murder has been committed -- murder most foul!

..or not. Quickly enough, an officer of the train line enlists his friend, Hercule Poirot, to sort out whodunit, and in the course of their investigation they realize the dead man was a notorious child-killer from America. If anyone deserved to run into a knife several times, it was this fellow. Still, train lines can't have passengers being stabbed willy-nilly; the culprit must be found out. So, with the train still stranded in the wilderness, and no escape available for any suspects, the passengers are summoned to the dining coach one by one and interviewed by the famed detective. The story grows ever more complex; the evidence is contradictory, and everyone seems to have an alibi.  The deceased didn't encounter some malicious vanishing wizard's casting of sectum sempra  -- someone on board must have plotted and committed the deed.

Murder on the Orient Express is my second Christie novel, the first being And Then There Were None, read during the Clinton years. Like that one, the ending here is a terrific twist.  Murder is a story of conversation and deduction, a classic locked-room mystery in which the room is a train cabin. Although the alias of the murdered man leads Poirot to suspect the stabbing had something to do with his notorious villainy in America, the presence of suspects with links to the devastated family confirms it. Only hitch: virtually everyone on the train proves to have some connection to that family.  Unlike the train itself, Poirot's investigation flies  along, with one confusing clue after another baffling the train officials and physician, but giving Poirot some insight into what they are being led to believe happened.   The ultimate resolution is a twist, as mentioned, but not improbable. It is, after all the other alternatives were exhausted, the only possible solution.

Christie definitely lives up to her reputation, and I'll warrant Poirot will appear here again..

Friday, April 15, 2016

When the Eagle Hunts

When the Eagle Hunts
© 2002 Simon Scarrow
274 pages

The Emperor Claudius is determined to make good the conquest of Britain, but his supply fleet sleeps with the fishes. The only Romans to survive a wintry crossing of the (English) channel are one officer, one woman, and two small children. Drowning might have been a better fate for them, however, as on shore they fall into the hands of an incredibly gruesome and violent sect of Druids. Used as objects of ransom, the royal family is threatened with death-by-bonfire if Rome doesn’t meet the druidic demands...demands which might compromise the whole expand-the-Empire dream.  Enter the grizzled Centurion Macro and his peach-fuzz faced second, Cato,  who have in the past proven quick enough on their feet to infiltrate barbarians and walk out alive.

When the Eagle Hunts is third in Scarrow’s Roman historical fiction, and features cloak-and-gladus operations more than larger battles.  Not that Hunts is without legion-wide brawls, for the first half of the book features the Second Legion patrolling the border and being brutally harried by the Durotriges.  Scarrow uses this to create a sense of dread about the Black Moon Druids, who expect some deity to arrive and consume the world, beginning with their enemies. The druids wage savage war against anyone who draws close to Rome, and if they spare women and children from being killed in battle, it is only so the captives can be tortuously executed at leisure. Scarrow still provides comic moments, here principally in the Romans' interaction with their Iceni guide, but Hunts is darker than the previous novels in the series. Of great interest is the role played by a red-haired Iceni named Boudica, who both Macro and Cato have a certain fascination for. She moves like a tiger, a fount of hidden and fierce strength, and she most definitely will feature in this series again, I'm sure.  The druidic horror show also has some interest given that Scarrow penned his afterword on fanaticism and violence  on September 12th, 2001.  Hunts is also a series milestone, a coming-of-age for  young Cato, who must attempt a rescue on his own after Macro is incapacitated.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The English Resistance

The English Resistance: the Underground War Against the Romans
© 2006 Peter Rex

I was scandalized to learn, in seventh grade, that once ages ago, England was conquered. Already I had acquired the mythic conception of England as an indomitable island redoubt, safe from whatever Continental mischief was carrying on. But there, in my book, in 1066, William of Normandy lands, kills the Witan-endorsed successor to the English throne, and installs himself as monarch, with a line that officially lives on today. Peter Rex argues in The English Resistance that William's assault at Hastings accomplished less than is popularly believed, only giving him the title of king and command of southern England, and that historians have heretofore been too pro-Norman to give the feisty Saxons their due.

1066 was a brutal year for Anglo-Saxon England, with no less than three battles culling its stock of leaders.  The depletion of ranks went a long way towards making southern England putty in William's hands, especially as he burned down villages that resisted. Bearing as he did a banner blessed by the Pope, the church hierarchy in England favored his cause as well...and considering their lands and knights, the bishops were no small allies. (The lower levels of the church, like the abbeys, were far more resistant to the Norman intrusion.)      In the north, however, the barons were unscathed, and several rebellions against William would erupt from it directly or with its support.  Intriguingly, one of the rebellions had the intent of routing William and establishing an Anglo-Danish state, with an English client-king.  The same death-and-fire approach William used to intimidate the south was leveled against the north with greater ferocity after the Bastard* concluded a siege of the rebels' marshy stronghold. Much of the north was 'wasted', the fields ruined for cultivation.

The English Resistance has more spell in its title than it its execution, because Rex assembles the book in a very odd way.  It opens with commentary on the long-term consequences of the resistance,  leading William to abandon his pretense of an Anglo-Norman state with continuity to the old line, devotes a few chapters to different rebellions mixed with extensive discussion of one rebel's genealogy, and then to end...introduces the characters of the drama?  Reverse order would seem more appropriate, with the many pages devoted to Hereward. the Wake's forefathers and descendants left to the book Rex has written on Hereward the Wake. The book tends toward the scholarly, with much discussion of source interpretation,  but there are pockets of drama. I might read one more book by Rex to see how it compares: he has written biographies of Edwin the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, Hereward the Wake, and other figures associated with the conquest. That sort of devoted study promises insights to be had.

The Fall of Saxon England, Richard Humble
Daily Life in Anglo-Saxon England, Sally Crawford

* A far more entertaining title than "William the Conqueror", and much less pompous.

Master and Commander

Master and Commander
© 1969 Patrick O'Brian
411 pages

This morning, in a quiet courtyard, I finished Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic naval stories.  These have been recommended to me ever since I finished Horatio Hornblower, though O’Brian devotes far more space to technical seafaring matters. He’s aware of this, too, having a sailor explain the workings of the good ship Sophie’s riggings to the newly-arrived surgeon.  The series is reliably referred to as the Aubrey-Maturin series for centering on the friendship between Commander Jack Aubrey and his surgeon, Stephen Maturin. There are other interesting relationships, like the Mysterious Past between Maturin and the lieutenant of the Sophie, Jack Dillon. Both seem to have a connection to the failed and bloodily-repulse Irish Uprising in 1798.  The book follows  Aubrey’s brief stint on the Sophie, which largely involves him chasing potential prizes, almost to the ruin of his ship.  One character comments that Aubrey would have been a better fit  as a pirate a century prior.  Despite his winning audacity, Aubrey's relationship with his immediate superiors is testy, to say the least. When O’Brian is not attempting to trip or entangle readers in the ropes and riggings of 19th century naval equipment,  he has a lovely hand for description, and I would not be surprised if I sailed with the good captain again. The main attraction for the books other to the naval action is the presence of a natural philosopher, a man fascinated by the world around him.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Dickens' Descent of Desertion

"...the great paradox of morality is that the very vilest sort of fault is exactly the most easy kind. We read in books and ballads about the wild fellow who might kill a man or smoke opium, but who would never stoop to lying or cowardice or 'anything mean'. But for actual human beings opium and slaughter have only occasional charm; the permanent human temptation is the temptation to be mean. The circle of the traitors is the lowest of the abyss, and the easiest to fall into. That is one of the ringing realities of the Bible, that it does not make its great men commit grand sins; it makes its great men (such as David and St. Peter) commit small sins and behave like sneaks. 
Dickens has dealt with this easy descent of desertion, this silent treason, with remarkable accuracy in the account of the indecisions of Pip."  

From p. 28 of Critical Essays on Charles Dicken's Great Expectations, G.K. Chesterton, quoting from GKC's Charles Dickens.   Another random discovery while poking about in the library's English literary criticism cases.

This week: 1066 and all that

A third of the way into April, this year's Read of England is already a roaring success. It helps that I had a head start in March, of course. The main reason I tried to reserve a block of time last year was to take on Dickens and Austen, since if my regular torrent of reading wasn't interrupted, the'd never compete. This year the project succeeds: several classics have been spoken for, along with a few minor diversions. Having favored literature so heavily at the start, this week I'll be relaxing with my usual treats, history and historical fiction, before pushing literature heavy again to close. What's up next? The English Resistance, most likely, though I've also purchased a book on Waterloo by a certain familiar author with the initials, B.C.

Our English pilgrimage so far:

English Classics
Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Other Works Set in England:
My Man Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson

Other Works, by English Authors
Frodo's Journey, Joseph Pearce
Bilbo's Journey, Joseph Pearce

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre
© 1847 Charlotte Bronte
525 pages

  Years ago an online quiz declared to me that of all the characters in English literature, I was most like…Jane Eyre. It may have been a quiz intended for women, but I had an awful lot of spare time on my hands in high school. Regardless, since that I’ve had a faint interest in reading Jane’s novel, and since I’ve instituted April as English Lit month, why not?   Jane Eyre is the story of a young orphan who must find her way in the world, overcoming both temptation and self-righteousness.  Jane is probably the most personable of the classics I’ve read, using as it does the first-person perspective and beginning not with a storied introduction, but with a seemingly mundane episode in Jane’s life that will set her on her own course.  Charlotte Bronte combines a happy talent for description with wisdom that is neither strident nor impotent.

Jane begins as a ward of her uncharitable aunt, a woman who bemoans the fact that she has been made the guardian of her niece. Rather than bringing Jane up as a member of the family, she instead attempts to reduce Jane to an abused servant.  This injustice so distresses Jane that she collapses in nervous sorrow, and on the advice of a doctor, is sent away to a boarding schools for indigent orphans, where she encounters a saintly young girl who  is an exemplar of virtuous patience and long-suffering.   The young girl perishes, as is the way of saintly mentors, and Jane quickly grows to become a teacher at the school herself.  The real story begins when she, craving something new, advertises for and lands a job as a governess. Her new home is a gloomy place with  an absent master and strange goings-on, some of which won’t be explained until very late in the novel, but presently the owner arrives and things grow steadily more agitated.  Though Jane has no money, no familial connections, and no great beauty, she develops feelings for this Mr. Rochester. Unknown to her,  but fairly obvious to the reader from his wide array of pet names,  Rochester also has feelings for Jane….but things aren’t quite that easy. Rochester isn’t the man he appears to be, and Jane must choose which she prefers: love or honor.

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am quite insane — quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."

Mad though she may be with love,  since her friend ‘s death she has attempted to live rightly, and it is that habit of seeking the Good, not merely what feels good or can be rationalized, that keeps her beginning a new life with a mistake.  From there she flees into the country, with resources and again fixing for herself alone, winning friends and admiration for her character and kindness. She discovers long-lost relations and encounters a different kind of proposal before returning to where the story began, for a marvelous conclusion.

Readers today might praise Jane for being an independent woman in the Victorian age, but truth be told she is a remarkable character even in today’s age. She is independent, but not self-obsessed. From an early age she is aware of her own dignity, and respects that of the people who  antagonize her; even when she denies them, thwarts them, she is doing it as much for their sake as hers.  Thus we have independence, but not egotism.  Jane’s strength is her character, her compassion. Unlike Pip, another literary orphan, she is not possessed by her wealth;  it leads her to embrace and strengthen her bonds with those "who knew her when", not push them away in search of social status.  (She did have the advantage of having escaped her youth, I suppose. Pre-Helen, Jane might have made Pip's same mistakes.)

Jane Eyre was for me another happy surprise. I intended on reading A Classic. I found myself immediately attached to an admirable and lovely young friend in Jane.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Reads to, Reels: War of the Worlds

"...coming this way, about twenty yards from my ri—"

Tonight I turned off the lights and put on a recording of Orson Welles' 1938 radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' (confusing, that) The War of the Worlds.  According to a popular urban myth,  the format of this radio-play  so confused and alarmed the listening audience that they began running amok, wandering into the country and firing guns at anything suspicious-like.  While the extent of that panic is greatly exaggerated,  having experienced the play I can appreciate why people might believe the myth.  After an introduction which identifies the novel as its inspiration, the play begins as a period music broadcast which is interrupted periodically by news accounts of strange activity on Mars, then some sort of impact in New Jersey, and then -- by golly -- the dots are connected.  The interruptions are first routine and annoying (I was rather enjoying "Stardust", though the version wasn't close to Glenn Miller's)  and then increasingly panicked.  The scene in which an on-site reporter arrives at the first impact and witnesses the cylinder begin to open are especially well done, and later we seem to hear a man killed by the Heat Ray on air.   Broadcast interruptions are frequent, as the fictional network officials scramble to keep accurate reporting even as the affair widens. By the time we reach an assumed-dead scientist commenting in a "it's the world as we know it" fashion, musing over the events of the last several days, the radio-play status of the broadcast is much more obvious. The recording ends with Orson Welles reminding readers that this was a Halloween play, and please do not run amok.  I don't know how the panic myth started, but I certainly enjoyed listening to the play and experiencing an odd piece of American history.  You can find copies on YouTube, of course.

Bilbo's Journey

Bilbo's Journey: Discovering the Hidden Meaning of the Hobbit
©  2012 Joseph Pearce
147 pages

The Hobbit begins with the sudden arrival of a pack of dwarves at Bilbo Baggin’s house. Though he is very much the quiet homebody, they have arrived expecting him to both play host an then join them on a dangerous quest – which he does, grudgingly, because he has little choice against a band of strangers and the stern wishes of the wizard Gandalf. His resulting adventure is a coming-of-age story in which the hobbit  learns to look outside his hobbit-hole and appreciate the world at large. Bilbo’s Journey expounds on the moral aspects of this travel into maturity, and sees in its conclusion a Bilbo who has learned to look outside himself.   Pearce relies on Tolkien’s myth-saturated scholarship to stress that the Dragon is not merely a large reptile whose lair was disturbed, but a creature of evil who is utterly craven. The Dragon feasts on innocents and hoards gold not because it is hungry and wishes to put something by for its retirement, but because it is wicked, and its presence makes real our own craven consumerism and selfishness. Tellingly,  when near the end the Dragon is loosed on the town and swoops down, shining in the moonlight, its lone piece of unarmored flesh is its black heart, open to one well-shot arrow.  As with Return of the King, the defeat of the monster is not the end of evil;  the wealth-obsessed dragon sickness leads to a war between various factions, and when Bilbo returns home he finds his distant relations greedily pawing at his own possessions. Having grown throughout the adventure, however, Bilbo is not nearly as wrecked by having lost his ‘precious’ possessions as he once was.  As with Frodo’s Journey, Pearce comments on other aspects of the story – the development of the ring, Thorin’s kingship vs Aragon’s  -- but the virtue against evil, charity vs selfishness theme is predominant.   There’s a fair bit of redundancy between this and Frodo’s Journey,  but this one has broader appeal.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

My Man Jeeves

My Man Jeeves
© 1919 P.G. Wodehouse
132 pages

"There's only one thing to do," I said.
"What's that?"
"Leave it to Jeeves."

What ho, readers all!   My Man Jeeves renews my acquaintance with young Bertie Wooster, exemplar of the aristocracy in decline.  Bertie has loads of money and no sense in the least, but is saved from the worst of his foibles by the ever-present Jeeves, he of the unrivaled brilliance.  The work gathers a handful of Bertie-and-Jeeves stories,  ranging from the whimsical to the inane.  There are also a couple of stories about Reggie Pepper, a  character who was a prototype for Bertie, and is just about as thick but lacks a Jeeves to see him through.   If he survives, let alone triumphs, it is only through that bit of wisdom that God preserves fools.  The premise is the same in this as in other collections; either Bertie himself, his aunts, or his friends have gotten him into a fix, and Jeeves must contrive to find a way out of it.  Plots thicken, Jeeves stirs, Bertie's out of the soup and into his recliner to enjoy a whiskey and soda and contemplate the wonder that is his man Jeeves.

In this collection, his friends are typically the culprits.  One notable exception is the arrival at his American apartment of one of his dreaded Aunt Agatha’s friends. She is on a tour of American prisons and wants Bertie to take care of her intensely repressed son, Wilmot. No sooner has mummy dearest run off on business than has Wilmost escaped the apartment to engage as much sordid revelry as he can. This is his one chance to accumulate a storied and sinful past, and he’s intent on making the most of it. It’s up to Bertie to keep him from ruining his health with all-night binge drinking and partying, so naturally the ward winds up in prison. There’s often an element of backfire here;  Jeeves suggests, for instance, that if friend Corky wants his uncle to approve of his girlfriend, that they arrange to impress said uncle with the young lady’s authorship of a book on said uncle’s favorite subject – not expecting the uncle to be so taken with her that he  marries her.  The Reggie stories are all backfire  While Bertie’s scrapes and Jeeves’ ingenuity are fun reading in themselves, as I’ve noted in prior volumes, part of the fun of reading Wodehouse is the writing.  Bertie is an eccentric character and an enthusiastic narrator,  the sort who manages to make sitting in a  chair fun to read about. He’s like laughing gas, nonsensical and with a contagious effect.

"Lady Malvern was a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season."

Here, in a sentence, is part of what makes Bertie a ball to read. There's such energy to his narrative, the way he slings out descriptive fun with a healthy sampling of odd slang, some of it assuredly made up on the spot.  There is no one funnier to read out loud than P.G. Wodehouse, especially if you do it in a Hugh-Laurie-as-Wooster voice.  Even more giggles are to be had from Bertie's interactions with Jeeves, who reins in his employer's questionable fashion choices and is often allowed to destroy an offensive article as a reward. While Bertie professes to resent being dominated sartorially by his valet,  Jeeves is such a master at getting Bertie and company out of trouble, getting rid of pink ties and colorful sports jackets are a small price to pay.  If your interest is piqued, My Man Jeeves is available online for free via Gutenberg,  or through Amazon. 

Frodo's Journey

Frodo's Journey: The Hidden Meaning of the Lord of the Rings
© 2015 Joseph Pearce
158 pages

Noting that Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring trilogy is rich with symbolism is rather akin to observing that the Pacific Ocean is big. The description is accurate, but weightless. Frodo’s Journey examines much of its symbolism in detail, chiefly elaborating on Tolkien’s observation that it was, “of course, a deeply religious work”. The religion is present not in the trappings of a Church, as with Asimov’s Foundation series, but in the epic’s core story of grace against evil.   Pearce informs his argument by studying the details of the story in the context of Tolkien’s mythic background, drawing from the Simarillion. Although his focus is on Tolkien’s Christian symbolism, Pearce also touches lightly on Tolkien’s love for the language and lore of pre-Norman England.

In the Simarillion, Pearce writes, Tolkien establishes a celestial atmosphere not unlike the Christian one. There is one central deity, the Iluvatar, who creates the Cosmos by conducting music. One heavenly musician refuses to play in harmony, and is struck down to Middle-Earth, but is told that no matter how much discord he attempts to introduce,  the grand master will always restore harmony..  Central to the story of the Lord of the Rings is, of course, the Ring, which is far different from the ring of The Hobbit. There it was a mysterious but powerfully helpful object;  in the Ring trilogy, it dominates the minds and hearts of those who wear it, and exposes them to attack by dark forces.   The ring, writes Pearce, is Sin – not only is it burdensome, but taking it on distances the wearer from the good world which was divinely created, and makes them more visible to the Dark Lord – Sauron,  Morgoth’s chief servant.  The coup de Grace:   according to Return of the King,  the ring was destroyed on March 25, the same day that Catholic tradition maintains was the date of the historic crucifixion.  The whole story has the stamp of Providence on it, writes Pearce, for Gandalf muses that Bilbo was meant find the Ring, so that it might be destroyed.  Although Pearce’s brief work shines a light on many of Tolkien’s other little allusions – the Charlemagne-like crowning of Aragon, the linguistic fun Tolkien has with the “far-seeing” stones that dispirit Sauron’s enemies and have the same etymological structure in Elvish as Television and Fernsehen do in English and German,   the Christian connection is the most broadly developed.

This meaning is not nearly as overt as C.S. Lewis’ own Narnian chronicles,  in which the Christ-figure Aslan announced to the children that he was known by another name in their world, but it definitely registers.  Being as Tolkien was a practicing Catholic, some degree of the inspiration could have been accidental, like the Mary-like veneration of Galadriel, but the use of dates has the stamp of deliberation.  For the Fellowship to have started out on December 25 (by Tolkien’s appendix) and triumphed on the same date of the first Good Friday makes clear that Tolkien was paying homage at the very least.   While this is my first foray in reading books about the Ring trilogy, it won't be the last, and I'm eager to see if other authors share or differ from Pearce. I'm sure the trilogy has tremendous depths to plumb!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man
© 1897 H,G, Wells
149 pages

The Invisible Man opens with the arrival of a Mysterious Stranger to a country inn. He is covered from head to toe, and remains so even after he takes a room. The townsfolk don't know what to make of the irritable visitor who insists on wearing gloves, a hat, and goggles indoors, and peevishness only intensifies their curiosity. That, and the fact that his luggage consisted of a small library and an enormous set of chemical apparatus.  The more time he spends with them the more suspicious he seems, and those who keep trying to get a feel for the man notice...curiosities. For instance, once his sleeve seemed to be empty, yet it moved in a way that would be impossible for an amputee's.  Driven to frustration by their constant prodding, the visitor reveals that he is, in fact, an Invisible Man. From there, the plot is one of spectacle, siege, and violence as the Man lashes out in desperation. The other villages think the people in the first hamlet are lunatics, but soon the "madness" spreads as he moves. His every encounter results in contemptuous treatment of the terrified people he meets, followed  by attempts to subdue people with inexplicable force. It turns out that the English winter is not the best time to embark on an experiment in invisibility.  Invisible he may be, but he still still needs clothing and food -- and both expose him.   Eventually the Man is cornered when he attempts to enlist the help of a university colleague. That man, Kemp, listens to his story but can't help but notice that the Invisible Man seems to be the one instigating all of the trouble. He is especially bothered by the Man's account of nicking a man's goods....from his very house. This is England, you transparent lout, don't you know a man's home is his castle?  When the Man reveals that he wants to inflict a profitable Reign of Terror on England, that's the last straw.  A trap is sprung, the man is caught, and when he dies the electro-chemical process he exposed himself to wears off to reveal him.  That's that.

The Invisible Man is curious, as compared to the other Wells novels I've read. It drops the reader right into the middle of the character's story, and doesn't consist of any thoughtful narration. In recapping the story, I've attempted to be as sympathetic as I can, attempting to frame him as a man driven to desperation by the miserable condition he inadvertently cast himself into.  It's a bit of a stretch, though, because the Invisible Man is a grump from page one, as though the invisibility simply escalated his own disdain and short temper. His intelligence is all technical; he doesn't have the least bit of tact or strategy in his head.  A Reign of Terror in England? Sounds awfully French.   I don't know if Wells was aware of the old Greek story about a ring that makes the wearer invisible and quickly immoral, but the lesson certainly applies to our fellow here.

This is a fast story, with the feel of horror.. The Invisible Man is more a monster to be feared than a man to be awed by or pitied.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies
© 1954 William Golding
156 pages

A group of boys marooned on a tiny Pacific Island must work together, battling the elements and one another. If they don't adapt, they'll be voted off the island -- or thrown off.   It's not Survivor, it's Lord of the Flies.  You know the story, of course.  A plane crash dumps a score or so of boys onto an island,  an attempt at restoring civilized order is made, but it falls apart in tribalism and bloodshed.  In taking a group of creme de la creme school children, some of them literally choir boys, and placing them in an idyllic setting that leads only to chaos and death, Golding offers not an adventure story but a reflection human nature.

The island not only abounds in food, but is predator-free. Coconuts, fresh water, and timber for making shelter are everywhere for the taking. Despite this, the boys become increasingly psychologically stressed, a plight made worse by the ambitions of one to become the next Chief.  This idyllic bloodshed directly repudiates the myth of the noble savage, though, maintaining that there is something dark and irrational within man that will devour society from within if it is not tamed.  Yet there is something irrational outside in this story, something that makes it a near-fantasy, because the boys are haunted by some Beast that attacks from the sea, from the trees, from the air. It's not simply a parachuted corpse they dread; at one point the Beast directly taunts one of the boys, and another time they enact murder under some sort of a mass delusion that one of their number is the Beast.  What keeps the boys together as long as they were is the proud memory of being English, and therefore devoted to good order and setting things aright.   The intelligent thing to do, maintains their leader Ralph, is to maintain a signal fire -- but the fun thing to do, the thing that enchants the senses and drives the boys to madness, is putting on war-paint and hunting pigs. The madness and chant of the hunt will so consume the boys that murder joins them on the island, though they are saved from destruction by Her Majesty's Ship, the Deus ex Machina.

This is a grim little story, of course, but a welcome rebuttal to those who today believe everything would be peachy-keen if it weren't for this politician or that program or lack thereof.  The 'beast' isn't so mild that it can be drawn out of the sea with a hook.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Reads to Reels: Great Expectations

"Hallo! Here's a church. Let's go in. Hallo! Here's some gloves. Let's put `em on! Hallo! Here's Ms. Skiffins. Let's have a wedding!" 

I've never done a reels this close on the heels to a read before, but there's no waiting with a movie that stars Ioan Gruffud and Ian McDiarmid! As soon as I discovered my library had this, I wanted to watch it, and waited only until I had finished the final pages of the book to begin.  This version is a 1999 television miniseries, but I thought it was marvelous.  Having just finished the book yesterday, of course, I caught a lot of the alterations made to the book.  A lot of frankly tedious scenes are dispatched with single lines here while characters are moving to action to action, and the attempted escape exit of Pip's Mysterious Patron is simplified nicely.  The Masterpiece host informed me at the end of the movie that there were two endings to Dickens' novel; the original had Estella married off to someone else, and a second ending left the matter of Pip and her relationship more ambiguous. The movie plays to the idea of the second ending, though in a far more spiriting way: the final shot is of Pip and Estella playing cards in a now-restored Satis house, not as lovers but together still. 

 Casting was on the whole superbly done, with the exception being Miss Haversham.  Yes, that's her on the cover, looking considerably less deathly than she's described in the book. She looks more appropriately corpselike in the actual film, but was too lively for the part.  Ian McDiarmid's casting as the lawyer Jaggers makes him absolutely sinister in retrospect, since the modern viewer is half expecting him to give a menacing smile and send Pip off on some murderous mission involving a sabre.  I know Gruffud from the Horatio Hornblower movies, and here he looks and sounds very much like good ol' Horry. He starts the film off affecting a brogue, but once he begins his education as a gentleman he reverts to RP. (Hearing Gruffud speak with anything less is jarring, especially when he did an American accent in Fantastic Four.)   As a curiosity, I'm tolerably sure the fellow who plays Wemmick (Jaggers' clerk and a friend to Pip) played the traitor Wolfe in the A&E movies, shot around the same time. He was a sterling addition here.  

Good pacing, excellent actors, nice music -- the only fly in the soup here is that midway through, Masterpeice SPOILS THE MOVIE'S ENDING! It's a television miniseries, consisting of two episodes, and midway through they stick in the preview trailer for the second half. The trailer actually gives away the patron's identity long before he appears in the movie properly.  I am astonished that PBS created a trailer that completely wrecks the twist,  and doubly so that they stuck it into the middle of the film. If you watch it with someone who's never seen the film, you'll need to fast forward through that bit.  Otherwise, it's a winner.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations
© 1861 Charles Dickens
544 pages

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

A chance encounter with a desperate and threatening convict in the dark marshes near his home, followed by an inexplicable invitation to a reclusive spinster's home, creates for young Pip an unexpected adolescence.  Pip is an orphan, a boy who lives with his weary and frequently abusive sister and her ironmonger-with-a-heart-of-gold husband, Joe.  The two events are not as random as they appear, with connections that will be exposed throughout this story of Pip's young life as he grows into a twenty-something with a lot of mistakes behind him.  More overtly pivotal is a third event, the arrival of a lawyer who announces to Pip that someone, somewhere, has taken an interest in him with the intention of making him into a gentleman. There is more to being gentle, however, than having money.

When I think of Dickens, I think of dirt -- of miserable hovels, filthy laborers,  dark streets filled with muck and offal, grimy oil lamps whose meager light masks even more despairing conditions. Great Expectations provides that amply, though not in the places to be expected. One of the more harrowing settings is the interior of a great house, Satis, which has been closed to the light and left to decay after a woman's heartbreak. When Pip meets the woman, Miss Havisham, she is much aged, more through anguish than time.  She is a woman utterly consumed by her grief, literally living in it: jilted by a fiance decades ago, she continues to wear a tattered bridal dress and lives in a room featuring the rotting remnant of her bridal feast. She proves to be a pivotal figure for Pip, not because she is the author of his (mis)fortune, but because she introduces him to someone who will be: her adopted daughter, Estella.  Estella she has raised to be the ruin of men, a siren whose rocky core breaks their hearts like flimsy ships. Pip, is literally starstruck and will spend the entire book pining for her -- accepting a mysterious fortune and reforming his manners and expectations to please her. For her, he will leave his sister and dear brother-in-law Joe behind; he will forget them entirely, ashamed of their tiny house and the dirty forge, their rough hands and woeful habit of referring to knaves as jacks within the card deck.

For all his being enraptured by Estella -- who, to her credit, does attempt to warn him off repeatedly --  Pip's eyes are not so clouded that he doesn't come to realize the mistakes he is making. Eventually the person who has been providing him this mysterious fortune appears, and there are complications -- creditors and men waiting at the gallows, desperate attempts at escape and plans foiled.  Pip will have to be rescued by some of the people he has left behind, and this time is properly ashamed -- not of them, but of his own cretinous behavior.  The ending doesn't have the resolution I would expect -- a man rescued, the girl gotten --  but it's truer for that, given that every thing has its cost.  Great Expectations was an utterly riveting story. I approached it with dread, having started it last year and then fallen off the track, but this year I couldn't put it down. I was ever surprised by Dickens' humor. I expect his work to be Very Serious dramas about the plight of orphans and the poor and such, but there's giggle-bits everywhere, from the characters to the narration. There's even a fart joke. (For shame, Dickens!) One bit of whimsy is a character directly and consistently referring to his senile father as The Aged Parent.  Expectations brims over with remarkable characters, most notably the haunted Havisham and  the extraordinary Magwitch,   Although I still have my sentimental attachment to A Christmas Carol, Expectations definitely deserves its status as Dickens' best.  Well over a century and a half after its publication, the story still resonates.

The News

The News: A User's Manual
© 2014 Alain de Botton
272 pages

The news more than any other modern institution has taken the role of shaping a nation’s collective consciousness, but  what shape does that leave us in? Alain de Botton’s The News:  A User’s Manual invites readers to think critically about the way consuming news through papers, the television, and online distorts our perception of ourselves and the nation in which we live, and ends with suggestions on how to  make the news more meaningful. His intent is not to awaken anyone to media conspiracies, but to stir the reader’s soul, to spark an interest in human flourishing which has undergirded virtually everything else de Botton has written. This is more than anything a work of practical philosophy.

How can the news have a philosophy?  Modern media outlets like to stress that they are unbiased reporting; they provide Facts, not idealism.   Sure they do, and to what end? In a similar work, Neil Postman asked the reader,  in view of their time spent watching and worrying about the news, what they intended to do about plague in Africa, wars in the middle east, and national inflation. The answer was, of course, absolutely nothing. There’s nothing we can do about such things, and to devote energy to considering them just turns us into distracted stress-heaps.  The news-generating organizations claim to simply report what happens, but there is a bias in the selection of the facts: the ones they choose are those most liable to snag attention, either because they portend doom or because they’re utterly horrific. We might listen to the global news to feel connected to the human cosmopolis, but how effective in that goal is listening to the daily toll of scandal and disasters, really?  We are numbed by the barrage of purposeless facts, distracted – in  Postman’s words, amused to death.

No point is made in stories about politics or disaster to connect them to our lives, to craft a story that we will respond to.  Even photographs are stupfyingly functional, included more as proof that the news article isn’t pure fiction. But the photograph of a Syrian man weeping as he holds his son, killed amid civil war, delivers far more emotional resonance than an article by even the most talented author.  De Botton imagines redesigning newspapers along themes of human interest,  . This is not some eccentric notion solely about the news that de Botton has; in Religion for Atheists he imagined redesigning museums to feature art about various themes of import (a Hall of Charity, for instance), and has written books like The Architecture of Happiness and  The Art of Travel, ever with an eye for how to increase human flourishing.  As with the suggestion about redesigning museums, it is difficult to imagine any media executive putting this advice to work.  It requires thoughtful imagination to create an article about city council meetings  that connects with greater discussion of the merits and limitations of democratic government, still more to use a report on some robbery-suicide  as part of a conversation on how to further public morality in a secular age.  In the marketplace of news consumption, where every paper and blog are hawking their wares as loudly and as brashly as they can, the odds are dim.   It’s not impossible: consider Humane Pursuits, a blog that focuses its articles on fulfillment, hope, charity, and creativity, but HP reflects once a month at best.

Alain de Botton is a marvelous perceiver of things, deeply introspective and always unexpectedly funny.   The value in reading The News, which is at is says a user’s manual, is that is opens eyes to the wearisome triviality burped up by the news. He never addresses the barrage of news and updates from television and our smartphones, and his ideals for some purposeful recrafting of the news would be even harder to apply to them.  His essential criticism, however, that news in its present form is 'bad' for us, dispiriting if swallowed unthinkingly,  applies across mediums.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Read of England 2016

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote,..
(The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer)

It's April, everyone, and that means it's time for this year's tribute to merrie old England, in which I read even more about England than I normally do.  I enjoyed last year's experiment so well that I'm going to repeat it with gusto. April (the 23rd of which is St. George's Day) is hereby devoted wholly to England -- English history, English literature, books about English culture and personalities.   Now, last year I got a touch carried away with English history, so I'm going to try to fall more on the side of literature this month.  What to expect?  Well, a venerable classic, along with a little more P.G. Wodehouse, who is not venerable in the least. (He is, however, awfully fun.) Expect a history of England by an English-type, and perhaps even some commentary on Shakespeare.   I'm actually off to a head start, having already read The Return of the King,  Bill Bryson's The Road to Little Dribbling, and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.  Perhaps I'll read one of H.G. Well's more obscure novels, just to mix things up.  Dickens is a shoe-in, because I've been working on one of his  all this week, and later in the month I intend to read The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans, per a suggestion from Cyberkitten.

Annnnnnnnnnnnd we're off!