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Connie Willis

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Two posts in one day…I know, I might be coming out of this fugue.   Maybe it’s the prospect of finally finishing my undergrad degree (two more weeks, baby!) .  At this rate, I’ll be back to writing about the semi-eponymous fellow soon enough- I have not lost the love, TPaw.  Put your heart at ease.

So Connie Willis.  Is Awesome.  She’s a science fiction writer, apparently one of the most successful in decades.  Wikipedia tells me she’s been wracking up Hugo awards like they’re those 6 inch plastic trophies I got playing Rec ball in 6th grade-  Thank You for Participating, Connie Willis.  Job well done.  Unlike me, however, she deserves them.    Somehow, I’d never heard of her until two days ago when I happened to pick up, To Say Nothing of the Dog.  It’s about…well, you can click to see what it’s about.  Oh, alright: chaos theory, Waterloo, time travel, Luftwaffe air raids, the quiesence of the moon as it yawns down on a dreaming meadow.  All with the funny of Jasper Fforde if he happened to exchange literary references for science and history ones.

Today, I sped through the first 150 pages of Bellwether.  The chaos theory is more explicit, the air raids are gone, Waterloo stays in the 19th century, fads are in, and the moon pops up, albeit a Plutonian one, as an odd bump on a scientific-readerwhatsit thingy.  Even though this particular novel didn’t win any Hugo’s, I actually like it a bit better.  Or equal.  They’re both great.

Something I like, besides the topics: the pace.  They’re incredibly quick reads, but the actual story pacing is deliberate.  Normally, I’m too impatient for slowly unraveling plots, but somehow Willis makes it fit.  In Bellwether, two scientists are trying to solve separate but related problems.  I’ll never be a scientist, but for a brief time, that pacing allowed me to feel like one; the trial and error, the systematism which is often supplanted by inspiration, and the frustration.  It’s all there along with writing which is really awfully good for someone whose books are stashed over by the Romance section- hey I love Sci-Fi and fantasy, but mostly, Dickens they are not.

Oh and they’re not political; not even remotely political.  And yet…she pokes fun at the anti-smoking craze and sides with individual initiative, largely, over blind forces.  There’s something cultural in there that works for me, though I can’t imagine it turning off any liberals.  Anyway, I recommend them if you have a few spare hours this holiday season- or sooner, definitely sooner.

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The Long-Dark Tea Time of the Soul

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

A couple days ago, my mom found a brand new tea-ball hidden away in an old box.  Since I’d wanted one for awhile, I was pretty excited.  So I dug out my copy Douglas Adam’s Salmon of a Doubt and read the essay he wrote on how to make a good cup of tea (I needed the authentic Britishness).  Well, I read the essay and made the tea- excellent by the way, noticably better than how I’ve made it- but I also stumbled on essay he wrote on P.G. Wodehouse, the British comedic writer.  It’s a great essay, apparently prefacing an edition of Wodehouse’s final novel, which makes the case that Wodehouse’s particular brand of genius puts him in the company of Shakespeare and Milton.  A few nuggets:

What Wodehouse writes is pure word music…he is the greatest musician of the English language.

And:

Like Milton Wodehouse reaches outside his paradise for metaphors that will make it real for his readers…Of course, Wodehouse never burdened himself with justifying the ways of God to Man, but only of making man, for a few hours at a time, inextinguishably happy.

Wodehouse better than Milton?  Well, of course it’s an absurd comparison, but I know which one I’d keep in the balloon, and not just for his company, but for his art.

Finally:

He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.

Heavy praise, indeed.  Now I haven’t read any Wodehouse, though I want to and I’ll probably make time now, so I can’t really comment on his genius.  He’s one of those niche authors whose books all come in $19 hardback editions because, within that niche, price isn’t an object.  Unfortunately, it is an object for me and I don’t much like reading humor books in the store (people give you funny looks if you start rolling on the floor).  But, the essay reminded me of how I’ve thought of G.K. Chesterton- a glorious writer who is woefully underappreciated because he wrote the wrong sort of things.

He’s not a perfect writer.  Adams pooh poohs the criticism that Wodehouse was repetitive, but that’s certainly something that was true of Chesterton.  He had mastered the particular- individual sentences, paragraphs, etc- but as you move outward to page and plot, the writing wears on you a bit.  Rare is the Chesterton book which holds up as a unified whole.  And don’t try to read too much Chesterton in a short period of time- he needs to be doled out like tart cheese.

His fiction has unique difficulties- the people are all just ideas masquerading as characters.  The same ideas, usually.  Still, in that short space- what I’ve called, in honor of him, the “two minute” passage (it takes approximately 2 minutes to read aloud)- when his ideas are at their sharpest, he is a man nearly unmatched in English letters. Is there anything better than this?

But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world. If it were an error, it seems as if the error could it hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in it instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For, it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ, and the soul of it was common sense, Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid and the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor, and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple trees or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light.

I don’t know that I’d put Chesterton with Milton or Shakespeare, because I don’t know how much of that seeming limitation was self-imposed, a result of his laser focus to do but one thing: defend the Christian religion to mankind.  Regardless, I think our “literary” pantheon should have a bigger place for writers like Wodehouse and Chesterton, who had geniuses of their own though they didn’t hue to convention.

What Should We Buy?

December 3, 2009 1 comment

Mrs. Peel has a neat post on an economics article that deals with the dead-weight loss involved in gift-giving. She writes:

Basically, when you give someone a gift, you are increasing their wealth by the cost of that gift.  However, the recipient’s value of the gift – in economic terms, its utility – is not necessarily equal to the cost.  In other words, the recipient could possibly have achieved greater utility by spending the same amount of money (the cost) elsewhere; alternatively, the giver could have spent less money to provide the same utility to the recipient.

It is possible for a giver to provide greater utility than the cost if the recipient is uninformed.  For one example, say I asked for the Kindle 2, and after you asked me what I wanted from an ereader, you discovered that the Nook would be a better choice for me.  I had never heard of the Nook, so I was uninformed.  Therefore, your gift actually had a larger utility than I would have obtained by spending the same amount of money myself.

In general, however, recipients are informed, so the best a giver can do is equal the utility the recipient would have achieved.  This is commonly accomplished through cash or gift certificates.  Though the author did not address this possibility, it can also, as we have discussed in the comments here, be accomplished through wish lists.

That is an interesting article.  A couple things that occur to me: first, I think the idea of an “uninformed” consumer is much broader than laid out here.  I’m uninformed, maybe, about the best e-book reader, but I’m also uninformed about all sorts of things.  Contra Peel, I’m almost certainly generally not informed, relative to the collective knowledge of my associates.  For instance, I’ve seen a limited number of movies.  There are, literally, thousands of American movies I’ve never even heard of.  And I’m a movie buff.  If you buy me a relatively obscure movie, and you know me well enough to understand my tastes and interests, there’s a decent chance that you’ll be getting me something I’d love, but would have no reasonable expectation of encountering in the ordinary course of things.

Since I am movie buff, this is how I sometimes approach gifts; I’m pretty confident that I can get someone a movie they’d thoroughly enjoy, which is effectively beyond their reach.  And this is part of limited usefulness of utility; because getting someone something they’ll enjoy, but don’t possess the interest or expertise to come into contact with themselves, has a utility all its own.

It opens up new networks for one thing.  A few months ago I’d seen only three Alfred Hitchcock movies, when a friend pointed to an AMC marathon of Cary Grant movies.  I saw To Catch a Thief and adored it.  Now I’ve watched over a dozen Hitchcock movies and that has led me in all sorts of other directions.  To Catch A Thief probably wouldn’t crack my top 10 favorite movies (maybe top 20), but it had a value greater than the monetary amount I would have shelled out had I known it existed.

And I’d say this is particularly true when you’ve started to, sort of, exhaust a subject.  I’ve read so many books, I find that half the time, when I go in a bookstore, I can’t find anything new that even vaguely interests me.  And I can’t see any reasonably easy way to get information on whether or how much I’d enjoy these other books.  You know, if the book jacket isn’t doing it for me, where do I go?

I don’t begin to have the time to read a dozen pages of every novel.  Yeah, maybe things like Symantec Web will make this sort of search much easier, but that’s still early stages.  For now, I need people who know me, who maybe have a greater expertise but similar interests, to point me in the right direction and open up new pathways.

So I’d mostly suggest this: give what you know, not what they know.  If you don’t know clothes, and you don’t have any concrete thoughts on their opinion on clothes, don’t get clothes.  You can’t possibly buy them better clothes than they’d buy themselves- you’d have to become a whole new person to do so.  If you do know music, even if your thoughts on their opinion is vague, you might want to consider getting them music.  This might sound strange and counter-intuitive; some of the worst presents are sometimes variations on “this is my favorite thing and I demand you like it”.  And it seems somewhat egotistical.  But, I really think it’s the best way.  My little sis never read- ever- but I just kept on buying her books for birthdays and Christmas, and now she reads a lot.  Maybe I played a part.  I definitely seemed to do worse when I tried to cater to interests I knew nothing about.

Word of the Week..6?

November 1, 2009 Leave a comment

gamin, \ˈga-mən\= urchin

They’ve been having a 50% off all Barnes and Nobles Essential Library books for the last few weeks, and out of curiosity I picked The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie.  Anyway, so “gamin” came from that book.  Here’s the sentence.

There was a certain gamin element in the girl, at all events she invariably got on well with small boys.

It’s a really good book actually, though the plot is pretty thin.  Somehow, I’d never read anything by Agatha Christie before, which is strange since I do like mystery.  But, here’s the weirdest thing: according to Wikipedia, Agatha Christie is the single most popular author of all time.  I was flabbergasted when I read that.  At 4 billion volumes sold, she’s topped Shakespeare.  Her works only trail the Bible in sales.  Is there some conspiracy to hide this news from…well, everyone?  I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard Agatha’s Christie’s name mentioned once in my 17 years of schooling and I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard it mentioned, period, in the last few years.  But, here she is quietly selling 125k books a day for the past 80 years.  Is there some secret contingent of Borneans who worship a Malayian translation of The Secret Adversary?

The Glory and the Dream

October 14, 2009 2 comments

After what feels like ages, I’ve finished my audiobook of William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream.  Manchester, for those of you living under a history rock, is the author of a terrific two part biography of Winston Churchill.  The Glory and the Dream details a subject closer to Manchester’s experience; the social history of America from 1932 to 1972.  So here’s a review.

This book contains a simply gargantuan amount of information.  Too much, almost.  And while the audio-book, significant glitches aside, was wonderfully read, I sort of wish I’d bought a hard copy.  I won’t remember even a tenth of the information he sought to convey.  Still, Manchester has a unique knack of leaving us with vivid impressions.  Twice now, I’ve read his descriptions of the bonus marchers (in this, and in American Caesar) and each time I felt something new.  It’s these years- those immediately preceding the war- that Manchester knows best and they leave the greatest impression.  His depiction of depression era life, the fragility of it contrasted with the sturdiness and determination of its people, is breathtaking.  I feel like I know its children and, when they went off to and returned from war, to a country prosperous and whole, I felt I knew their pride.  In terms of creating a vivid sense of a snapshot in time, Manchester is virtually flawless through the 50’s.

The first 2/3’s of The Glory and the Dream are unsurpassed for vision.  And yet…he doesn’t seem as comfortable in the 60’s or, rather, he seems too comfortable.  The big moments don’t seem quite as big, and the small moments- the little narrative vignettes he inserts- seem less emblematic of an era.  He sometimes loses the thread.  Structurally, this is problematic.  The great strength of the Glory and the Dream is in the method of telling.  Rather than proceeding on a straight chronology, Manchester chooses to give a broad survey of political events, and then loop back to zoom in on particular cultural phenomenons.  Davy Crocket and hula hoops make an appearance.  Because of this method, we build our own narrative about the culture without having us drummed into us.  Through most of the 60’s and 70’s, when these vignettes make an appearance, they’re either exclusively political, or they don’t seem to produce any consistent narrative.  Maybe this is what he was driving at, as a way to highlight the muddle of the age.  But, intentional or not, I don’t have any clear sense of how the mass of ordinary Americans behaved during those turbulent times.

And here’s where Manchester’s politics intrude a bit.  It’s strange to note that the biographer of two great conservative heroes, Winston Churchill and Douglas MacArthur, was a New Deal era Democrat pretty much all his life.  Sometimes this doesn’t matter.  The story of the early civil rights movement sparkles and I can’t help but believe that Manchester’s obvious leanings give the tale some of its sheen.  He’s less persuasive on the development of black militants and upper-class, young hippies.   Now Manchester’s too honest of a historian to leave out the ugly moments, but his focus and occasional commentary is sometimes incredible.  Cops are properly castigated for their occasional abuses, but their sometimes foes are usually let off scotch free.  They’re expressing a fundamental “right to protest”, or they’re reacting somewhat reasonably to centuries of abuse.  Whatever the legitimate grievances- and they were many- of blacks and youth in the late 60s, surely their actual actions deserve a better microscope than that.

We’re treated to, probably in a 50 page span, to a noncommittal description of two random youths copulating in a field without exchanging a word, and then a glorious appraisal of success of the sex education movement.  Manchester says, tellingly, “finally sanity prevailed”.  It never occurs to him that there might some connection between the two incidents.  He’s altogether too inclined to trust liberal ideals.  When Barry Goldwater comes around, all Manchester can manage, in praise, is something like “he was right about farm subsidies”.  Some of this is not his fault.  Conservatism, as a force, was still 5-6 years off when this volume hit stores.  Most of its criticisms of the New Deal and the Great Society had yet to bear fruit.  Indeed, one of the remarkable bits about this volume is its failure to anticipate some later developments.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned just 3 times, and his Time for Choosing speech is ignored entirely.  But, this seems like a somewhat understandable oversight  compared to the evaluation of the Cold War.  After recounting the Brezhnev summit in 72′ Manchester says, flatly, “The Cold War was over”.  Well….

Still, despite these flaws, this remains the single best broadly focused history book I’ve read.  Even at its worst, Manchester’s writing scales small mountains.  And he’s preternaturally optimistic and, as far as he can see it, fair.  It’s no small thing for a book published in 1974 to treat Richard Nixon with relative equanimity.  We aren’t given to a rousing psychological analysis designed to prove that, really, he’d been rotten from the start.  Instead, we can rejoice in his successes and mourn and scorn his downfall.  Properly Shakespearean.  Where the book goes wrong, it does so honestly and without malice.  As it should be.

Categories: Books and a Dream

Iliad and Odyssey thoughts

October 13, 2009 Leave a comment

So I finished both the Iliad and the Odyssey and I figured I’d write up a mini-review, mostly about the Iliad.  A couple of points that struck me.  A couple of spoilers here:

1.  The Gods kill the development of characters.  There are only really 3 1/2 proper “turning points” in the Iliad; i.e, moments when a character has a change of heart- a reversal- due to circumstances in the world.  First, is Achilles’ decision to sit out the war after Agamemnon steals Briseis.  The second comes when Helen moans that she’d rather she died before leaving Menelaus.  That’s the half since, you know, she regrets it, but ultimately stays.  The third comes when Agamemnon regrets his decision and sends an embassy to woo Achilles.  The fourth (3 and 1/2)…can you guess it?  Well, when Achilles suffers a loss and decides to enter the fray for revenge.  That’s it.  The rest of “changes”, major and minor, are the result of gods randomly messing with the characters.

And so you end up with countless characters changing their minds with nothing leading up to it.  I thought this was fascinating, how a lack of plot and character development could be plugged, pretty effectively, by the intervention of the gods. This wasn’t what Homer was getting at, obviously.  It’s an epic from oral tradition so this is almost certainly how the Greeks  thought of narrative.  But, you can sort of see how real plot could come out of this.  Fun stuff.

2.  The Greeks were strange and ridiculously violent but at times stunningly noble.  That fight over Patrocholus’ corpse?  I’ll never get over it.  There’s a lot of that in the Iliad, interspersed with moments of almost shocking callousness.  Even though I feel like I don’t know many of the characters after reading these two epics, I do feel like I know the ancient Greeks.  And they’re worth knowing.

3.  Read these books.

Update:  I wasn’t going to wade into this because A.)  I’m reading translations and don’t know a lick of Greek, B.)  I’ve read each book exactly once…but, I’ve decided to throw it out there anyway and quite probably embarrass myself.  I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that these epics were composed by the same person.  They just feel different to me, and I’m not just talking about in subject matter.  Two examples:  gods and death.  They don’t seem to handle the topics in the same way.  The Odyssey seems more…flippant about both.  Think of that famous scene with the Cyclops, where he bashes the brains out of, like 8 of Odyseuss’s men and eats them.  They’re upset about it, but it takes up comparatively little text.  My translation only makes one reference to it, at the end of the book,

So we moved out, sad in the vast offing,

having our precious lives, but not our friends.

This is nice, and powerful, but brief.  Almost every semi-serious death in the Iliad gets an equivalent bemoaning and the really serious one’s are given pages and pages.  Granted, even in the Iliad, only the Hector’s and Patrochulus’s of the world get 12 day dirges, but still.  Along with this, the Odyssey seems to have a looser sense of mortality for its heroes  Odysseus must be, if we go by the chronology, like 50 at the youngest during the Odyssey.  Penelope couldn’t be a whole lot younger.  But, they’re constantly being given back their youth by Athena.  In the Iliad heroes are strengthened by the gods, but there’s a definite sense, through the text, that death lies at the end for all of them; the strengthening is only temporary.  Think of that lovely Embassy to Achilles chapter, which seems out of place at the time, but brilliant later.  Achilles, all Ecclesiastes like, wonders, “what’s the point of winning all these honors when we all die?”.

There’s also a slight difference in the way the interactions with the gods play out.  In, like 80% of the interactions with the gods in the Iliad, the characters are changed from afar.  The heroes pray and are aided, but usually not too personally.  In fact, their are only a handful of cases in the Iliad where the gods intervene in a way that couldn’t be explained by some other plot device.  One, the gods will occasionally hurl some fighter away from death, and cover another fighter’s eyes.  But, even that’s not terribly personal since its just done, and then the fighters move on.  You also have a very few direct conversations with the gods.  The one Achilles has about Hector’s body comes to mind.

In contrast, even though the gods are less involved in the Odyssey, when they are involved it’s more frequently personal.  Odysseus lives on an two different islands with goddesses for years.  Virtually every character talks to gods and recognizes that they’re talking to gods. Maybe I’m making too much of the differences, but the Iliad feels mostly like an attempt to explain realish events through impersonal interventions by the gods, while the Odyssey feels like a fantasy where the gods are right at everyone’s fingertips.

Anyway, just my thoughts.  I’m probably totally wrong and would realize it on a second reading (fat chance of that).