Thursday, February 26, 2009
I'm sure I'm not the only word-lover who finds herself falling in love with a different word each week. I was very disappointed when it struck me yesterday that I would never be able to refer to myself as "just a bloke who [fill-in the blank]." Never. There is no female equivalent to the word bloke, or if there is, I'm sure it doesn't trip off the tongue so lightly.
Also, I will never be knighted--partially because I'm not male and partially because I'm not British. (Speaking of which, I'm not sure I've ever heard an American say bloke.) But supposing I, oh, suddenly woke up British tomorrow and then happened to do something really noteworthy, the best I could hope for is to be made a dame, which really just sounds like something out of a PI novel (i.e. "Then this dame burst in. I could tell she was trouble from the way she was swinging her Order of the British Empire around"). Not that special. On the positive side, I can't find any evidence that the British actually refer to the bestowing of this honor as being "damed," which is a relief.
P.S. The refuge of the lazy blogger, Wikipedia, informs me that I don't have to wake up British tomorrow to in order to receive an honorary knight-, er, dame-hood.
Also, I may have watched just a little too much of PBS' Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work this week.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Oliver Twist is not my favorite Dickens' novel, but "Boz" and I go way back, so I watched Masterpiece Classic's first installment of The Tales of Charles Dickens series.
This movie-length version zips along at a much faster pace than the novel, and in about thirty minutes Oliver is out of the workhouse, past the undertaker's workshop, in London, and being introduced to Fagin (played by Timothy Spall). And I'm all excited and thinking about the use of color, the musical score, the beefing up of Oliver's personality when--Oh my word! They didn't...
They did. They made Fagin a Jew, again.
In case you don't know, there is a long, perturbed history behind this. Fagin is considered the 19th century literary equivalent to Shakespeare's Shylock.
Historical Side Note: After Dickens became friends with James and Eliza Davis, a Jewish couple, Eliza expressed disappointment over his portrayal of Fagin. Dickens (after some initial defensiveness) stopped the printing of Oliver Twist and removed most mentions of Fagin's Jewishness from the last, unset chapters of the novel. (He also, presumably, created Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend as attempt to atone for Fagin.) But the miserly, demon-like image of Fagin "the Jew" had already been born.
The other versions of Oliver Twist that I've seen have blended together in my mind, but my impression was that contemporary directors tended to downplay or ignore Fagin's Judaism. (Some quick internet research shows that this isn't true, but I haven't seen/remembered all those interpretations.) I do remember frightening portrayals of Fagin, but he was also clever, almost to point of being a lovable, unrepentant rogue. This has been what I remember instead of a continuation Dickens' stereotype.
In a PBS interview, Timothy Spall said that his goal was to make Fagin more sympathetic, which seems like plausible idea to me (after all Fagin is the first remotely kind face Oliver meets in the novel). Spall is a good actor (I thought the scene where Dodger finds him praying was well-done), but his talent seems to have been poured into creating another Jewish caricature. Spall's Fagin is ingratiating, awkward, anxious... morally and physically weak. Spall even says, "Fagin seems to be used to getting hit a lot." Sympathetic apparently equals downtrodden and helpless.
I can't help feeling that the Jew as powerless victim isn't an improvement on Dickens' stereotype. Nancy and the Artful Dodger were each given moments where, futile or not, the viewer saw them set their teeth and go against the flow of circumstances--making them tragically heroic. Fagin kept folding like a card-table; somewhere along the way he'd lost the one admirable trait Dickens gave him: his resourceful mind. Without spoiling the ending, I can say that there was a moment where Fagin almost regained his dignity, but it wasn't enough for me. The focus of the scene was not on Fagin but on the prejudice that surrounded him, and he seemed like a flustered rabbit swallowed by hounds rather than a man overcome by tragedy.
I think I still feel a little stunned, both by what was attempted and what I actually saw. Has anyone else seen this? Thoughts?
(Image from BBC America Shop.)
Monday, February 23, 2009
I know, is an offence, and with just cause
I bear the rigours of your punishment:
Since to be born is man's worst crime. But yet
I long to know (to clarify my doubts)
What greater crime, apart from being born,
Can thus have earned my greater chastisement,
Aren't others born like me? And yet they seem
To boast a freedom that I've never known.
The bird is born, and in the hues of beauty
Clothed with its plumes, yet scarce has it become
A feathered posy--or a flower with wings--
When through ethereal halls it cuts its way,
Refusing the kind shelter of its nest.
And I, who have more soul than any bird,
Must have less liberty?
My reading of Marlowe's somber Doctor Faustus probably suffered from being followed immediately by Pedro Calderón de la Barca's techni-color Life is a Dream. Roy Campbell's translation of Calderón is thrillingly vibrant. I hadn't heard much about this play, but after reading it, I won't be able to think about Renaissance theatre without this play jumping to my mind as the (late) essence of the era.
Let me count the ways Calderón delighted me: his poetic language, the question of free will vs. destiny, parallels in his characters' dilemmas with honor, disguises, imprisonment, the force of Rosaura's personality, the portrait struggle scene, etc. The tragi-comedy mix of Life is a Dream threw me for a loop several times, but this was also part of what made the play so enjoyable--not knowing whether a scene would end in laughter or an increase in the overall body count.
There were some scenes that sat oddly with my modern sensibilities. The romantic pairings at the end of the play occurred with swift, Renaissance comedy convenience ("You hate me? Let's get married!" "Sure!"), which I imagine is a challenge for contemporary directors. But I enjoyed this play so much, I was willing to temporarily suspend whole truckloads of disbelief.
Note on the Translation: I don't know much about translations beyond the fact that I enjoyed Roy Campbell's efforts in Life is a Dream. The first pages of Edward FitzGerald's translation on Project Gutenberg read much differently than Campbell's (almost like a different play). In Spanish, Life is a Dream rhymes, and FitzGerald attempts to keep this element in his English translation (Campbell doesn't). FitzGerald's version, however, seems to have very different (flatter) images and many more lines than Campbell's. I don't know if there are several versions of Life is a Dream (Calderón reworked his plays frequently) or if FitzGerald just took more creative liberties, but Denis Florence MacCarthy's translation is much closer to Campbell's (while rhyming).
Thursday, February 19, 2009
I was feeling very proud of myself for noticing allusions to Faust in Conrad's Heart of Darkness when I realized I'd never actually read any version of Faust.I decided to start with Christopher Marlowe's version because, well, that's what I found on the shelf.
I'd been led to believe that Marlowe was Shakespeare with a more exciting personal life, better hair, and less PR. Sometimes it's unfortunate how expectations play into one's enjoyment of a story; I wasn't overly impressed with my first full-length Marlowe play.
Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is the source of the famous lines about Helen of Troy, a wonderful dialogue of Mephistopheles' about hell being wherever he is, "misery loves company" as an explanation of Satan's desire for Faustus' soul, and a truly pitiful closing plea by Faustus. In general, however, I found Marlowe's language less fluid and quotable than the best of Shakespeare. (Unless, of course, Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays, then... well, I still didn't like it as much.) Perhaps I'm just too familar with hellfire-and-damnation language, but I anticipated most of Marlowe's metaphors before I read them. The descriptions of hell and salvation seemed pulled straight out of morality plays. (You could, I suppose, attribute this to an underlying subversion of religion in Faustus--but often virtue and sin seemed equally dry.) Also, Marlowe's characters read like slightly rounder versions of morality play stand-ins. The only time I really believed Faustus' emotion was at the play's close. Faustus seems to switch between hardened sinner and piously fearful almost-penitent whenever Marlowe gets bored.
Typical Doctor Faustus scene (repeat as needed)...
Random person/angel who we will never see again: Faustus! Stop dabbling in black magic and making deals with the devil--you'll lose your soul!
Faustus: Oh no! I will? Woe is me! I must repent!
Mephistopheles: (Suddenly appearing.) Again? Geez, Faustus! Remember, you like evil. Also, I own you, nerd-boy.
Faustus: Oh, okay! Let's go raise people from the dead and recreate some more scenes from the Iliad!
Mephistopheles: (under his breath) Only twenty-four years, only twenty-four...
Doctor Faustus is obviously not my favorite Renaissance play, but P.M. Pasinetti (1979 Norton's Anthology of World Masterpieces introduction to Renaissance lit.) points out that Marlowe should be credited for creating a Faust/Doctor Faustus who sells his soul not merely for power but for knowledge; a temptation which is understandable to curious Renaissance audiences and scholars in all eras.
Speaking of which, I now have a great desire to read other versions of Faust and compare them to Marlowe's.
(Image from AssociatedContent.com.)
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
My family was amused that I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness during our power-outage. I kind of wish I'd picked something else; Conrad does not make one feel better about being cold and unshowered.
I was warned at the beginning of Heart of Darkness that for Marlow (the main narrator) "the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow bring brings out a haze." But by the end I felt like, "Curse you, Conrad! Where's my deep, hidden kernel? I read all this, and no kernel?"
In other words, you can pretty much guess the basic idea of the book from the title: Life is dark and people stink.
Although Conrad's novel reads as an anti-Euporean-imperialism work, Heart of Darkness contains the disturbing assumption that African cultures are not "civilizations" (i.e. that they place no moral restrictions on their members) and are therefore much closer to the frightening, "primeval" heart of man. Chinua Achebe has some sharp words about this in "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." I didn't read all the critical responses to Achebe's speech, but I think you could argue that Conrad is portraying Marlow, not as the sum of his own feelings as an author, but as a man caught between his natural cynicism of imperialism (and just about everything else) and his inbred ideas about Africans. However, the only times Marlow (and through him, Conrad) recognizes Africans as human are when he sees the "darker" aspects of humanity in them. In other words, Conrad seems to say, "Yes, blacks are savage and wild and superstitious, but so are we all, under the skin," which may not technically be racism, but it is definitely dehumanizing.
Oh, and yes, there are Marlow's characterizations of women. Also annoying.
Also, it sort of irritates me when a character is "telling" a story, but he uses language that even the most eloquent of storytellers would never use off the cuff.
Of course, Heart of Darkness is a classic, so Conrad must have done more here than write things to annoy Bethany. This would include:
Creating one of the eeriest atmospheres in literature. Conrad's Congo is a psychological terror.
Creating suspense. Not a lot actually happens in this book and it's pretty short, but, like Marlow, I found myself on pins and needles, waiting to meet Kurtz.
Employing a cool narration inside a narration style.
Verlyn Klinkenborg's introduction in my Everyman's Library edition, which helped me understand Conrad better and made me feel smart, even though I probably disagree with most of Klinkenborg's conclusions. Well, okay, Conrad can't take complete credit for that.
Creating one of the best titles ever.
Convincing me to read Lord Jim in spite of myself.
(Image from ManyBooks.net.)
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Here are some other links on food and books that I enjoyed:
Literary Quotes on Food
Serious Eats Discusses Food in Literature
And a similar discussion on Chowhound
So which books made you hungry/gastronomically curious? (I credit Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy with making me give mushrooms a second chance.)
Also, has anyone read the literature/food journal Alimentum? I'm intrigued by the idea behind it.
Monday, February 16, 2009
So here's a short Washington Post article that warmed the cockles of my Chicago-Manual-of-Style-addicted heart. (Once an editor, always an editor...)
Friday, February 13, 2009
On a slightly different note, here are some interesting Valentine's Day gifts (too late, I know, but maybe next year):
All of Shakespeare's sonnets on one page. One-hundred-fifty sonnets. One big, poster-sized page.
Finally, chocolate you can hide on your bookshelves.
The Most Adorable Shakespeare Teddy Bear Possible! Followed by the more-affordable-but-still-charming Shakespeare teddy bear.
Also, I am jealous of the lucky people who live in Columbia, SC and get to eat chocolate at Literary Sweets Cafe. Looks wonderful.
(Note: Images from Gifts.com, PRweb, and WednesdayABC.)
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Roses, they're red;
Daggers should be too.
Buttercups are yellow.
Question is... Are you?
Your Lady "Tigress"
The roses were red;
The violets were blue.
"Allergies," you said.
Here's a hanky. Achoo!
I paid for our evening;
Roses are purple; violets are gray,
Tomorrow is St. Valentine's Day...
Pansies are yellow; rue is like gold.
Marriage is hellish; nunneries, cold.
Pray, love, remember, when you are blue,
That--hey, nonny, hey--I'm crazy for you!
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
A Journey of Poems: An Original Anthology of Verse edited by Richard Niebling was compiled in the 1960s as a student's introduction to both well- and lesser-known poems.
Two things are particularly noteworthy about this book. One is Niebling's choice of divisions. Many introductory literature texts are divided chronologically, which makes sense, but often leaves the uninitiated reader sick of literature before he manages to clear the Renaissance. Niebling's divisions are loosely based on tone and theme, and within each section, poems are carefully ordered so that one idea flows easily into the next. He also lets the poems "be"--not forcing interpretations on readers and keeping explanatory notes to a minimum.
The second noteworthy choice is Niebling's placement of lesser-known poems and poets ("Pitcher" by Robert Francis and "The Gull" by Michael Thwaites) next to ubiquitous classics (Yeats' "Second Coming," Shakespeare's "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day," Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"). Even work by the expected poets is not necessarily expected. (How wonderful to find something by Frost in an introductory collection other than "The Road Not Taken.")
This is not my favorite anthology. I would have preferred more translations and the inclusion of, say, some e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, T.S. Eliot, etc. But how much can you fit in a poetry volume without making it look frighteningly huge? (A Journey of Poems is a slim 175 pages of poems.) A Journey of Poems also contains poets who interested me when I was younger, but whose over-familiarity has now bred... well, something more like boredom than contempt. Niebling's volume is, however, an enjoyable collection--for both the student and anyone interested in sampling various poetry flavors.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Gaelic Ghosts includes about 20 woodblock illustrations by Nonny Hogrogian, but book remains fairly text-heavy, although short (110 p.).
In this collection of ten non-terrors, the task of ghosts is not so much to frighten but to correct a wrong. In "Sandy MacNeil and His Dog," "The Grateful Old Cailleach," and "The Old Laird and His Dogs" the ghosts reward and protect those they "haunt." In "The Giant Bones," "The Gambling Ghosts," "The Walking Boundary Stones," "The Lady's Loaf-field," and "The Holy Relic of Bannockburn" hauntings serve to set people back on the straight and narrow. Most of all, however, the ghosts serve as reminders not to value the past too lightly.
Gaelic Ghosts ends on the farcical tale "The House that Lacked a Bogle." My memory is that this story (or a very similar version) appeared in a Halloween issue of the children's magazine Cricket, and several online sellers are marketing Gaelic Ghosts as a children's book. I hadn't considered the book a children's collection while I was reading it, but like the best folktales, the stories in Gaelic Ghosts should amuse readers across a wide span of ages.
Monday, February 9, 2009
A fairytale about a young boy who runs away from home to live with a (very surprised) troll, a princess cursed with being able to read people's thoughts, several bouncy dogs, and an evil queen with a pet ferret. Jean Ferris' middle school novel Once Upon a Marigold: Part Comedy, Part Love Story, Part Everything-But-the-Kitchen-Sink really ought to be the sort of book I love. Unfortunately, somewhere between the concept and the writing, the author lost me.
I suppose I was expecting more from Once Upon a Marigold because I've read such great things about Ferris' Love Among the Walnuts, Or How I Saved My Family from Being Poisoned (recommended by ALA and nominated for a National Book Award).
But back to Once Upon a Marigold... Ferris is half poking fun at fairytales and half over-earnest. On the one hand, there are tongue-in-cheek subplots, such as Edric's attempt to crack the Tooth Fairy's monopoly of the tooth market. And Edric's mangled metaphors ("He'd buttered his bread, and now he had to lie in it") never fail to trigger smiles.
On the other hand, despite Ferris' obvious writing skills, her prose often needs tightening. There are too many scenes where characters tell and then retell each other information the reader already knows and too many characters' responses that are based on the needs of the plot rather than believable human reactions. I also wish more had been made of Marigold's curse--this interesting idea was merely incidental to the plot. The protagonists, Christian and Marigold, are highly likable, but sound so cheesy at times that I have to wince. I expect love and marriage to be somewhat simplified in books for middle-schoolers. But I know this can be presented better:
Compare Ferris' passage above to another confession of love in another popular middle school fantasy, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine:
"If my Marigold vouches for you, that's good enough for me. But you'll have to stay here just a little longer."
"No, Papa," Marigold insisted, holding on to the bars of Christian's cell. "They have to get out now."
Christian reached through the bars to run his fingers along the smooth curve of her cheek. "It's all right. I'll be waiting for you. Don't forget me."
"Never," she said.
Oh my, thought Ed and Swithbert simultaneously.
Still a little silly, yes, but a more believable, love-induced silly.
Impatience is not usually my weakness. But your letters torment me. They make me long to saddle my horse and ride to Frell, where I would make you explain yourself. They are playful, interesting, thoughtful, and (occasionally) serious. I'm overjoyed to recieve them, yet they bring misery[...].
You like me. You wouldn't waste time or paper on a being you didn't like. But I think I've loved you since we met at your mother's funeral. I want to be with you forever and beyond, but you write that you are too young to marry or too old to marry or too short or too hungry--until I crumple your letters up in despair, only to smooth them out again for a twelfth reading, hunting for hidden meanings.
Most of the reviews online were glowing, and most were by middle-schoolers, whose judgements of this book matter a great deal more than mine. While overwhelmingly positive, several reviews complained about Once Upon a Marigold's slapdash ending. Beyond the surprise of sudden conclusions to previously stretched-out senarios, what startled me was Ferris' cliffhanger ending. The unsatisfying last lines are obviously a lead-in to Ferris' sequel Twice Upon a Marigold, but while I still plan to look for Ferris' Love Among the Walnuts, I think I'll skip Once Upon a Marigold, Part Deux.
Note: Book cover image from Norwalk Middle School Library.
Friday, February 6, 2009
Thursday, February 5, 2009
I Once was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us about Their Path to Jesus by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp
Don Everts and Doug Schaupp admit that they don't have a firm definition of postmodern (I don't know anyone who does), but they've noticed that people's views and their approaches to Christianity have shifted subtly during the past two decades. In I Once was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us about Their Path to Jesus, they discuss what they've learned about ministering to a postmodern culture.
This book interested me because I've sometimes wondered if I don't quite "get" evangelism. The image I was generally given of a good evangelist was either someone who worked the Romans Road into every conversation with non-Christian friends or somehow yanked these friends into church, where a fiery sermon and an altar call would do the trick. Well, most of my non-Christian friends are pretty darn smart, and there's no way I could ever "trick" any them into the faith. Any traditional evangelical efforts only result in rolled eyes and an affirmation of their beliefs about "crazy religious fundamentalists."
Some non-Christians are just waiting for an invitation to believe. But Everts and Schaupp believe that "the lost" are not simply a one-dimensional lump of humanity.
If our most sophisticated understanding of the path to faith says that our neighbor is either a Christian ("on") or not a Christian ("off"), then we tend to have just as unsophisticated a response to them. If they aren't a Christian, well, it's time to pull out evangelism shotgun to try to force the switch to the "on" position. That's what it means to "do evangelism," after all. (Which tends to explain why we so rarely engage in evangelism.)
I Once was Lost encourages Christians to match their evangelistic efforts to individuals rather than abstractions, and suggests viewing non-Christians as at different thresholds in their journey to Jesus.
The thresholds are
1) Trusting a Christian
2) Becoming Curious
3) Opening Up to Change
4) Seeking After God
5) Entering the Kingdom
I won't try to explain all the thresholds here (click the book title above if you're curious). These divisions are based on conversations the authors had with over 1,000 postmoderns about their conversion experiences. Although this is still a form of lumping people together, the categories didn't feel contrived to me. In fact, they set off little light bulbs in my head as I thought back to conversations with friends and realized, "Oh, that's where they were coming from!" (It also may explain some of my uncertainty about Mere Christianity; the book's geared toward those who are open to Christianity, but I've heard many people say that they hand it to dedicated atheists. I can't imagine this works well.)
Cons: I hit a passage that said: "If you ever feel stuck wondering what you could do to help a non-Christian friend grow, telling him or her your favorite stories about Jesus is almost always a great thing to do."
My immediate reaction was "Seriously?" That seems a little contrived to me. Most of my non-Christian friends have grown up around Christianity and they can smell "subtle" proselytizing from a mile away. Just beneath this passage, Everts and Schaupp reiterate the need "be sensitive to what level of interest [people] actually have," so my reaction may say more about my friends' levels of religion-based distrust than Everts' and Schaupp's methods. But I felt, at times, that they needed to remind readers to be natural with their Christianity--when talking about your faith, you are (hopefully) presenting the relationship and excitement about Jesus you actually have, not the relationship and excitement you think you ought to have.
All in all, however, I highly recommend I Once was Lost. Everts and Schaupp are frank about the absence of a magic, fail-proof way to convince people to believe and the fact that each non-believer is an individual, not simply another fish in the evangelism sea.
Note: Book cover image from Barnes and Noble.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Like elaborate blown-glass... Aprox. one inch of ice, which the local media said made the trees weigh 30 times more.
Most of our trees couldn't hold that kind of burden.
The treeline around the house (or anywhere I've been, really) looks like a drunk barber came through with a giant pair of clippers. For at least 24 hours after the storm hit you could hear large branches cracking and falling at the rate of about three a minute. First, there would be a sudden popping noise, like gunfire in the distance; then a loud crack! as the branch broke completely free; and finally a tinkling sound, like glass wind-chimes, as everything fell.
After the ice melted, the top finally snapped off this juniper tree (greenish thing to the left). Stepping outside, the first thing that hit me was the "green" and slightly spicy smell of all the broken pine and oak trees.
Close-up of a hole through the roof of my parents' house. (Caitlin, if you're reading this, take a close look--it'll be gone before you get back. Terribly undramatic for a hole-through-the-roof, I thought. Not that I'm complaining.)
Dad taking care of some of the mess with his chainsaw. Still photos don't begin to capture the otherworldly nature of the aftermath. Sometimes life is more dramatic than literature.
(Note: Many of these photos were stolen from my parents. Thanks, Mom and Dad!)