Monday, December 26, 2016

The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka

"We can never know the answers to great spiritual questions, but it's all right not to understand. We have been born and are living on the earth to face directly the reality of living."
-- Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (112)

This 1978 book is another one that crossed my path by the most random of happenstance, and I'm not sure why I picked it up. Agriculture, alternative or otherwise, is not really one of my areas of interest or expertise, but within that field, this book is definitely a classic, and I pretty much agreed with every word, despite the number of DVDs and bags of potato chips in my house.

Fukuoka was a young scientist studying plant diseases, when an existential crisis led him to a liberating epiphany about the futility of human endeavors: "Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort" (4). Thought an eccentric by everyone, and after the interruption of the Second World War, Fukuoka begins to practically apply his philosophy to his chosen field of agriculture, pioneering what he calls "do-nothing" farming (15).

He jokes about how others always think that means there's no work involved, which isn't true, but his techniques are all about working with one's specific environment, and interfering as little as possible with the natural growth of crops, which, as he had realized, can flourish in the wild without any human intervention. He is constantly thinking "How about not doing this?" (ibid)

The introduction, by noted author Wendell Berry, points out that the book's specific farming techniques are designed for Fukuoka's land in Japan, and aren't directly applicable to other conditions. I won't spend much time on those, although that was more interesting than I expected. But I was most interested in the underlying framework, which was surprisingly profound. He points out that a small compromise for convenience can send one down the road to complete complicity in an unhealthy system, and commiserates with the city dwellers whose options for "natural" food are almost as unnatural as just eating the Doritos (okay, that's my example).

At heart, his message is this: "The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something" (159). And he warns, "Human beings can destroy natural forms, but they cannot create them" (154).

Of course, we're in a modern industrial age, when generations of tampering in the name of progress can't really be unraveled. Fukuoka's vision is entirely impractical, and the vast majority of people wouldn't want to live that way even if they could. As it says in Good Omens (by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), instead of a desire to go Back to Nature, "almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible." Still, it's kind of hard to argue against the idea that the world is a mess, and many efforts to fix it are making more of a mess. Or that the human urge for "fast rather than slow, more rather than less" (110) has led to big problems, so maybe we could try slow over fast, and less over more.

On a less pensive note, this was a clearly-written and thought-provoking read, worth putting on anybody's book lists about food, farming, or modern industrial problems.

Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Books for Hogswatch

My recommendation for your Hogswatch/Yule/Christmas reading this year, The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. Sooooo good!


I'm assuming that you've already read the all-time classic, Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett, and watched the equally classic movie (starring Lady Mary herself, Michelle Dockery), along with the Brom's Krampus: The Yule Lord. If not, get on that, too.

But about the new Valancourt book: I've been waiting for years for someone to put out a collection of Victorian Christmas ghost stories, and better people couldn't have done the job. The stories are all good, and perfect for reading on cold winter nights, which I know, since I was in the middle of this the night our furnace went out (getting down to 53 degrees before we got it fixed). If I could buy you all stocking stuffers, this is what you'd get. And you'd like it!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dune, by Frank Herbert

"Thufir, old friend," Paul said, "as you can see, my back is toward no door."
"The universe is full of doors," Howat said.

"Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. but the real universe is always one step beyond logic."

-- from Dune (770, 604)

Dune (1965) is one of those classics I always resisted, even back when I was mainly reading science fiction. It seemed kind of heavy and message-y, and its fans came across as cultish. It went onto the list after a viewing of the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which is fantastic, and you should watch it -- who knew such an inspiring film could be made out of a creative failure? I finally picked it up to read in those oddball off times at a science fiction convention, and I took to it immediately. I'm a sucker for faux nonfiction, so I ate up all the excerpts from histories-within-the-book, and the sayings and lore interspersed throughout. I also appreciated that the novel's far futuristic society and alien planets are significantly alien. The royal houses, the Bene Gesserit order, Arrakis: none of them are the half-hearted extensions of modern life one so often sees (even in things I love, like Star Trek), but have evolved in ways that are truly different and strange.

For most of this book's "running time," I kept having the same nagging thought in the back of my head: "I do not see Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides one little bit!" The more I read, the stranger that casting seemed. Nothing against Kyle, who's a fine actor, but, geez. I don't know who I would have expected to play the young nobleman gone native as a Messiah figure on an unforgiving desert planet.

I'm also not sure what to make of Herbert's ecological concerns. There's a whole theme about the ecosystem of Arrakin, and how its elements are more interconnected than people realize, and along with that, it seems like he's saying the desert-living Fremen are more in harmony, adapted to the planet's environment. But they're still manipulating it, working to reform it, making it more comfortable for human life. They're just doing it in a slow and systematic way, rather than the usual lumbering one.

My other main thought is that I felt like Dune was really a complete book. I know there's a whole of slew of sequels, by Herbert and his son, but while I enjoyed reading this a lot, I don't feel any need to continue. It didn't pose many unanswered questions, and in fact has a lot of foreshadowing about what the end results are going to be for the universe (hint: not good).

This is one of those books that was worth avoiding, just so I had it to read fresh now.

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace premium edition. New York: Berkley, 2010.

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

"My sole desire to to proceed straight through this history with all convenient despatch." 

"Don't be afraid; we won't make an author of you, while there's an honest trade to be learnt, or brick-making to tun to."

-- from Oliver Twist (p. 135, 108)

It's funny that Oliver Twist is the novel that got the full-on musical treatment, with 1968's Oliver! Although the young Oliver Reed was dead-on casting for the brutal Bill Sikes. (So far), It's the grimmest of all the Dickens that I've read. Unrelieved by comedic side trips, it sticks closely to Oliver's life and experience, only straying to relate what's going on with characters who pretty directly affect him, so it lacks the broad panorama-of-society effect of, say, Bleak House. Many of Dickens' novels depict squalor, poverty, and misery, in large doses, and also expose the corruption of society that allows them to exist, but in Oliver Twist, the darkness seems particularly unrelieved. Even the boy's brief escape to the home of kindly Mr. Brownlow comes off like a twist of the knife (oh, sorry about the pun), snatching away a glimmer of hope.

In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf annoyed me by saying of Charlotte Bronte's writings that " if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly." Well, it's pretty obvious that if Jane Eyre was written in a rage, so was Oliver Twist, and then some.

I'm not the only one to notice this: G. K. Chesterton wrote that even the humorous parts of Oliver Twist "amuse, but they cannot be enjoyed ... Dickens makes game of Mr. Bumble because he wants to kill Mr. Bumble" (25). The famous Fagin is described as "like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness" (Dickens 153), but even he's better than the heartless authorities who profit off human misery.

Eventually -- and sure, spoilers, why not? -- Oliver has to get shot before things in his life take a turn for the better, and he finally meets some people who don't view him as a number in a ledger column or a resource to be exploited, but as a little boy alone in the world, who needs some help.

The machinations of melodrama, with some fantastic but fully anticipated coincidences that connect various characters, seem a little balder here than in some of his other novels, although that leads to a refreshing, uh, twist, when Oliver's background is revealed. He was the son of a miserably married gentleman and a young lady he loved, making him the heir to a fortune, and bitterly resented by his dissipated half-brother. When the latter calls him a "bastard child," kindly Mr. Brownlow "sternly" says "that term ... reflects true disgrace on no one living, except you who use it" (431, 432). Right on!

Similarly, the most sympathetic character in the book is Nancy, whose position as a prostitute is only slightly obscured. She's clearly not responsible for the options she met with in life, and while there are some speeches on the subject, and her ultimate acts of nobility, I liked that her character was sketched so well in one early line: "There was no flinching about the girl" (161).

So, Dickens. Please, sir, may I have some more? I still have at least five full novels to go, and just don't know what's next. I'm still resistant to David Copperfield and Great Expectations, so I'm guessing those will be the last. Leaning toward Hard Times, or maybe Martin Chuzzlewit. I hear so much about his attacks on America that it sounds pretty entertaining.

Chesterton, G.K. Criticisms and Appreciations of the Works of Charles Dickens. Kelly Bray, Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2008.
Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. London: Penguin, 2003.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts.”
-- from To Kill a Mockingbird

I was in New Orleans in August, and, with a nasty sunburn (my own fault), ended up spending one full day hiding from the hot sun in the air conditioning of my hotel room. At least it was one of those really old historic hotels, so I didn't feel like I was completely wasting my trip! That gave me the opportunity to finally read Harper Lee's 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird mostly in that day; for the record, I started it in the airport on the way down.

Many are the people who have been shocked over the years to learn that I, the incessant reader, had never read this classic and staple of high-school English courses. Usually I've said that I'd get around to it, although when I've been honest, I've said something like "I'm not big on American literature." Or most modern literature. That should probably be obvious by now. There are some American writers whose work I do really like: Herman Melville. Robert E. Howard. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Chester Hines, Ursula LeGuin. There's Charles Brockden Brown, father of the American Gothic. And current writers like Nick Mamatas, and A. Lee Martinez, and other people who aren't leaping to mind. But in general, whatever the time period, if the choice is between an American writer and a non-American writer, I tend to go for the latter. And if it's between something from the 20th century or later, and something before, I'll go for the latter.

My kneejerk stereotype about mainstream American literature is that it's too on-the-nose. Too obsessed with realism, too much thinking it's full of meaning because it deigns to include some symbolism. It says what it is, and after it's over, you say, " 'Kay. Got it." This tendency can be found in other writers, too: I feel the same way about D. H. Lawrence, for example. But I find it a lot in Americans. These can be okay reads, but there's so much out there that's richer and fuller.

So the truth is, had I not brought Lee's masterpiece as an airport book, and stuck to my room that day until it got cooler, I probably still wouldn't have read it. Not that there was anything wrong, as such, with the opening chapters. But as with my reading of Ready Player One, when it was over, I realized there wasn't a single line that I wanted to underline. In the end, that's probably my most damning summary of anything I read. I mean, I enjoyed the language in Crescent Carnival, a total potboiler, a lot more, and underlined a bunch of stuff! Most damning of all, I left it on the free book pile on the steps of a used book store, so I wouldn't have to carry the weight on the trip back. Ouch.

Maybe it's just that I like the adjectives.

In summary, To Kill a Mockingbird was fine. It was certainly better than watching Law and Order marathons in a hotel room all day. I liked the idea that such an esteemed and much-read classic has such an unconventional female narrator/protagonist, who chafes so openly at the limitations put on girls. It also, of course, contains an important message: racism is wrong. How depressing is it that this is still relevant?

And now when it comes up, I don't have to field questions about why the hell I never read one of the most famous American novels of all time. Just don't ask me about Go Tell a Watchman!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Found in the Stacks

Did you know that Edward Gorey illustrated an edition of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds? I did not. But I'm happy he did.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Crescent Carnival, by Frances Parkinson Keyes

"She was even conscious of a rush of thankfulness that she had found the courage to speak from her soul, at least once, before she was silenced forever."
-- from  Crescent Carnival (130)

Contains spoilers, but seriously, they're mentioned on the book cover.

After reviewing three (very interesting) books in a row that  are collections of anecdotes and experiences -- diary entries, erotic Socratic dialogues, and a collection of short tales and lore -- I found myself with a powerful hankering for narrative. And that was certainly delivered by Crescent Carnival, an 807-page multi-generational saga, originally published in 1942.

From Keyes' New Orleans-set novels, I picked this one for the promise of historical Mardi Gras culture. Its succession of young heroines, spanning the 1890s to the start of World War II, are all expected to become Carnival Queens, and while the situations play out differently in the different time periods, there's enough description of parades and balls to satisfy that expectation.

Along the way, I was surprised and thrilled to find many specific locations in the book that I'm familiar with: the home of the earliest protagonist, Estelle Lenoir, is the building I've toured on Royal Street that now houses the Historic New Orleans Collection. The Sisters of the Holy Family convent, now a hotel where I've stayed twice, plays a role. Plus obvious spots like the cornstalk fence house in the Garden District, the Napoleon House, the St. Louis Cathedral, and an unnamed coffee shop near the Cathedral which might be Cafe du Monde (it could also be the Morning Call).

Starting at a Mardi Gras ball in 1940, the novel flashes back to the star-crossed love between Estelle, a beautiful Creole heiress, and Andrew Breckenridge, a Yankee plantation-owner scandalously involved in the real-life Louisiana State Lottery Company. The sheltered, devoutly Catholic Estelle, barely allowed to leave the house by herself, comes to the brink of defying her family, and the rules of her whole society, for love, but is frightened away by her lover's vehement romantic ultimatums: "If you want to marry me enough, you'll let the whole world crash to pieces without stopping you from doing that" (149).

While this thwarting of narrative expectations, in a novel with all the trappings of romantic fiction, was somewhat frustrating, I did like two aspects of it. First, Estelle is no Scarlett O'Hara, and neither is her daughter, who'll fall into a similarly doomed romance with Andrew's son (unhappily married to a completely incompatible woman, who sort of Carol Kennicotts everyone around her). Everyone can't defy their times, and many people still have difficulties going against the grain of social and familial pressure, and this novel doesn't pretend that most people can.

Secondly, the relative boldness of the young women in the 1940s section (Estelle's granddaughter Stella, and the distantly related Patty) is shown as a function of their time. They've grown up wearing comfortable clothes, driving cars, mixing socially with young men, and because of that lack of constraint, they are freer to make choices about their own lives. That doesn't necessarily make the course of true love run more smoothly, since throughout the book, the biggest obstacle to any couple's happiness is their own mistakes, but it illustrates changes in social attitudes without getting heavy-handed about it.

Slangy, career-oriented Stella is particularly interesting. She scoffs at her grandmother's Downton Abbey-esque view of the changing times -- "Grannie dear ... you keep telling me we've come to the end of an era " (30) -- and when she meets her true love, she can think "How could she resist an embrace which encompassed her so naturally and so inevitably? Why should she?" (522, italics and obvious implication, in the text) But she and her fiancee spend much of the book thwarting their own happiness, due to pride and mutual misunderstanding, just like their ancestors' happiness was thwarted by fears and social conformity.

The couple who bring it all together are a little too good to be true, but by then, SOMEONE deserves a happy ending, so it didn't annoy me too much.

I will warn you, this book was written by a white woman about white Southern culture, in 1942, with all that implies. Characters casually say things like "that's mighty white of you," without anyone thinking it odd, and there are various patronizing depictions of their black servants and plantation laborers. Plus, there's a whole subplot about Huey Long -- his 1935 assassination occurs within the novel --  and the characters we're following, and by extension identifying with, are politically opposed to him. They talk about his dictatorial ways and his stranglehold on the process, which makes this opposition seem perfectly appropriate and democratic. But suddenly, they're all praising an anti-Long speech against some of his legislature: "When this ugly bill is boiled down in its own juices, it disfranchises the white people of Louisiana ... you cannot sell the birthright of another white man" (528).

So it was a tyrant against a bunch of racists. Wow; good times. But not inaccurate, historically.

Fortunately, there are only a few of those "eee" moments, and otherwise, it's an interesting and sprightly period piece. If I get caught up on other things, I'd certainly read some of Keyes' other works -- maybe the other New Orleans saga, Dinner at Antoine's.

Keyes, Frances Parkinson. Crescent Carnival. Boston: Second Line Press, 2014.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

"On the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there." 
-- from Little House on the Prairie (41)

Well, this is crazily more dramatic than Little House in the Big Woods: crossing the river! Ma almost crushed by a log! Wolves surrounding the house! Prairie fires! Irritated Native Americans!  But oddly, it's the one I remember least well.

There's a lot of (lovely) description of the prairie, and an exhausting amount of construction. Pa builds a house, a barn, the doors, the furniture, the fireplace, the well. So there's plenty of wood-working and mud-stirring, much more so than depiction of food and clothes. Not that it's uninteresting, exactly, but it doesn't thrill me in quite the same way.

Laura is a little older and more worldly than the previous book, and she hasn't lost the rebellious nature that makes her such a beloved character. She still wants to slap her sister so badly that "she dared not look at Mary again" (181), and when reminded that children mustn't complain, "she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself" (15).

That self-control that she's being conditioned to is shown in this book as a matter of survival value, as it was in Big Woods when they encountered a bear. At separate points in the story, the children doing what they're told is pivotal to their safety. However, the down side of that is obvious in the heart-wrenching moment when Laura believes their dog has drowned when crossing a rising river: "She knew it was shameful to cry, but there was crying inside her" (24). Her need to hold back her deep feelings of sorrow almost made ME cry, especially since this comes right after the realization of how nearly the whole family had come to perishing. "The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them" (ibid). That's a lot for a little girl to take in.

On the lighter side, the only things in the whole series that I like as much as the Surveyor's House are the Little House Christmases, and this is a great one: "Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny" (250). Reading that, I couldn't help thinking we might not be better of if we could be so happy with so little, or had any real grasp of the difference between desires and necessities. Not that I want to be digging my own well any time soon.

What I remembered vividly, but didn't remember it was this book: The scene of Mr. Edwards dancing like a jack-in-the-box. I had thought the dugout appeared in this book, but now I think that's Plum Creek.

Ma's aesthetic sense: Ma's china shepherdess survives the trip in the covered wagon (117), and when they're still on the trail, she not only washes, but irons, their dresses! (47) It makes me speechless.

The current trends: Gone into town for supplies, Pa brings the girls black rubber hair combs. Each has a star cut out of it, with a ribbon underneath, so Mary has a black headband with a blue star, and Laura with a red star. "They had never had anything so pretty" (271). Since the combs are "curved to fit over the top of a little girl's head" (270), there must be enough little girls passing through for this store in the middle of nowhere to stock this kind of thing.

Progress: The problematic nature of so-called progress comes across in this book, which sees white settlers displacing the Native American population (although they'll get driven out too, temporarily). The Ingalls' neighbors hold forth on how "the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (211, 284) which, eeee, obviously, but it's certainly true to the times. Earlier, one of them had said "They'd never do anything this with country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that'll farm it. That's only common sense and justice" (211). Sort of a woman-on-the-street view of Manifest Destiny, tied in, maybe, with a perverse view of the Protestant Work Ethic, and while I couldn't disagree with this more, it does illustrate the common attitudes.

The books are often faulted in modern times for their attitudes toward Native Americans, so Wilder's perspective here is more balanced than I'd expected. Pa tells her that "when white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on," and she replies, "But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to --" And just like real life, he shuts that down with "Go to sleep" (237). Later, though, he tells the neighbor that "Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks" (284). Even after he finds out later that they had been in some danger from these understandably aggrieved tribes, the narrative explicitly states that "Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian" (301). So, not perfect, but it could be worse.

In the end, of course, the Ingalls family is moved on by the same government, and after a few detours, will end up on the famous Plum Creek.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1953.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling

"A lonely soul in a strange land dreads the desolation of the grave."
-- One of the many attractive ghosts in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (178)

This Penguin edition collects 104 of the short tales of odd and frequently supernatural occurrences written by Pu Songling, who died in 1715, but whose work wasn't published until 1766. Just like the people in these stories, we're living, 250 years later, in a time full of soul-crushing bureaucracy, only without the consolations of shrines, ghosts, and fox spirits. Personally, I'd love to visit the Island of Antiquities (185), or be able to believe that grievances against the dead could be settled in the courts of the Nether World (147), although I wouldn't be too thrilled to have a miniature person come out of my ear.

I was surprised by the number of tiny people in these stories, as well the often-sympathetic view taken toward the spirit world. The presence of ghosts may often be harmful to the living, and the fox spirits may be known for their seductive and otherwise trickstery ways, but the individuals of their -- species?, particularly women, are shown in many of the tales to be loving and essentially decent.

Also, there is a tale about a giant turtle, about whom the nearby monks proclaim "All we can do is worship it and pray to it not to fly into a rage" (194): the original Gamera? It doesn't fly, or breathe fire, but frankly, that wouldn't be at all out of place here.

Editor and translator John Minford provides so much in the way of fascinating backstory and detailed footnotes, I wish I could fake-drink that cup of oblivion offered by Yama in the afterlife, and be reborn to study Chinese literature in more depth. Clearly, it would take me a lifetime to read through all the relevant texts mentioned. Especially since there are whole genres of stories called "Weird Accounts" and "Strange Stories," the former being shorter records of peculiar events, and the latter more fleshed-out short stories on similar themes. (Both styles represented here).

Highly recommended, particularly for a time when you don't have a lot of time, or attention span, to devote to reading. Some of the tales are only half a page long, and even the longer narratives fly by quickly.

Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Translated and edited by John Minford.  London: Penguin, 2006.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise, by Abbe du Prat

"Look, here is a book that I will lend you; make good use of it; it will instruct you of many things."

"There is no book that of its nature bears a forbidden title; only the use we make of it means that is good, bad, or neither."

-- from Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise (34, 81)


This short collection of dialogues, subtitled "Curious Conversations," was originally published in 1683, with later editions that continued to add new material to what is, essentially, 17th century soft porn. Pretty soft, and surprisingly philosophical, by porn standards, although it does start off with one pretty nun interrupting another (in, you guessed it, her chemise), who is pretty obviously masturbating.

In the non-linear series of anecdotes that follows, mostly about the love lives of the characters' fellow nuns, we learn that the French apparently once called French kisses "Florentine" kisses (79), and that communities of nuns and monks were originally connected so they could ease each others' tensions -- making it infidelity if they strayed with partners who belonged to different religious orders. Which did make me laugh.There's an ongoing thread about how some physical pleasures are natural and right, but the characters still judge some others for debauchery. As Sister Angelique says, "All extremes are dangerous" (82).

Just to prove, again, that some things never change, and human inconsistency is one of those things. "There is nothing certain or assured in this world; there is no point of view that can be sustained, and ... we we have merely false and confused ideas of the things that we think we know most perfectly" (77).

Along the way, there are some jabs at the church as an institution, and particularly at the ascetics and, well, the uptight. "What you call 'the contemplation of diving things' is at bottom merely a soft and cowardly sloth, incapable of any action," Angelique declares. The book doesn't get too heavy about this, keeping its tone fairly light, because while it assumes religion and belief in God to be true, its main interest is in everyday human life, accepting sexuality as a part of that. "You know well that our hearts cannot get by without a little amusement ... nature allows these hearts of ours to seek out objects that will fulfil them" (95).

Several books are mentioned in the text, which interested me, since I came to this book because of its mention in Henry Fielding's Shamela. A few of them are particularly intriguing: "A Plain and Pleasant Path for Preventing a Problematic Plumpness," and "Collection of Remedies against Perilous Plumpness, composed for the commodity of the religious ladies of Saint-Georges" (44, 51). I doubt those are specific real books, but they seem clearly based on real ones, and I'd love to see their suggestions!

du Prat, Abbe. Venus in the Cloister, or, The Nun in a Chemise: Curious Conversations. Translated by Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus Press, 2012.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"


"I did not think it worth while to get up in the morning. What could I do but offend God?"
-- from Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions"

Influenced by PBS's Mercy Street, I first intended to read Florence Nightingale's "Cassandra," but then realized it was just an essay, so not really Classics Club material. That led me to this curious volume,credited to Michael D. Calabria, who edited the material, and contextualizes Nightinale's diary with historical and biographical information, along with plenty of excerpts from her letters from Egypt, Greece, and parts of Europe. Those are much more descriptive, and I almost thought I should be reading them instead, but they apparently don't do much to illuminate her inner feelings, which are the focus of her more personal writing.

In 1850, the time of the travels recorded here, she had not definitively embarked on her famous nursing career, and she struggles both with obvious depression over her life, and with determining the will of God for her future. Although she seems to have a mystical temperament, it's still balanced by an unflaggingly practical side: she makes notes about the cook and a tour guide, and then adds "Settled the question with God," as if it's something on her to-do list (46).

It's delightful to see her quick entries about her "dreadful fights with Trout" (25). Trout was her servant on the trip, with whom Nightingale did NOT seem to get along; later though, when Trout has been ill, she'll say she "found the prospect of having that wretched woman ... to nurse cheer me up suddenly" (31) -- probably proving how close she was to finding her permanent vocation.

The diary entries are appended by two pieces of fanciful philosophical writing, a brief "Greek Vision," and the "Vision of Temples," in which she imagines the creation of six real Egyptian temples, and the reaction of an immortal God-figure to them. Each temple represents a different way of approaching God, or a different theological style (one more dedicated to a show of wealth and magnificence, for example, and one to the worship of Nature).

There's a lot of interesting material in this short piece. For example, she says that God "has given them (humanity) to create with toil and trouble, that they might have the satisfaction of thinking, 'I have done this,' " (125) -- an explanation for the hardship of life with roots in psychology. And the poetic reverie that "Night is the genesis of all things; primeval darkness is the mother of the world, for darkness is more ancient than light, and day was born of night" (126). I'll be quoting that, somewhere.

Nightingale posits the correct approach as one that accepts the existence of evil, with "the two spirits of God, Good and Evil" (129), and sees her God as "the great Unknown, the Unutterable, the Infinite Himself ... I will build a temple ... mysterious as the future, and vast as the past; yet it shall be the symbol of a day ... that my people may know that upon the hours of a day are laid the destinies of man" (128). After all her spiritual angst, she comes to a place that combines the Infinite with the small measures of human time, where she'd find the work she believed in.

Calabria, Michael D.  Florence Nightingale in Egypt and Greece: Her Diary and "Visions." Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveeo: A Pre-Adamitical History, by Eliza Haywood


“Why must our Pains alone be Virtue, and all our Pleasures Vice?”

“It is not given us Mortals to fathom the deep Mysteries of Futurity.”

-- from Adventures of Eovaai, p. 97, 102

One of the notes I tend to write in the margins of books, particularly those from previous centuries, is “Nihil novum” – a relic of my bygone Latin studies, meaning “Nothing new,” as in “under the sun.” Well, this whole 1741 novel is one of the nihil novumest things I’ve ever read. It was written, largely, as a specific satire against then-Prime Minister Robert Walpole (whose stranglehold on the British government was discussed in Geoffrey Ashe's excellent history The Hell-Fire Clubs), and it seems logical that would make a book’s subject matter dated. But no!

This short novel, a faux history of ancient times, filtered through a series of supposed translators and commentators, is a fanciful fable, almost a work of early fantasy, which allows the author to indulge her imagination, and revel in bizarre names and  magical incidents. I've only read more realistic "amatory" fiction by Eliza Haywood, my prolific fave, but the editor of this edition includes excerpts from some of her similarly oddly-genred other works.

The princess Eovaai has been raised to be utterly virtuous and a wise ruler, in ignorance both of her own beauty and the sins of the world (thus, in a way, in an Edenic state). In a Pandora's Box-like turn, her curiosity, about a royal jewel that causes the kingdom to run smoothly, leads to her dropping and losing it. Her subjects turn against her, and she eventually ends up magically exiled in the kingdom of Hypotofa.
This realm is ruled by the the plots of Ochihatou (Walpole’s stand-in), who is not the king, but manipulates the people for his own benefit. “Every body wears what he thinks will best become him, and professes that Worship which is either most agreeable to his own Opinions, or most consistent with his Interest: All that is required from the People, is to be satisfied with whatever is done by the Government … and never to enquire into the Actions of the Ministers” (74). As long as they ignore the political sphere, the people have all the liberty they want in a choice of consumer luxuries and frivolous entertainments … hey, wait a minute!

Not only that, but their “private Luxury” is (a trade-off) for “publick Misery,” in a place and time in which “nothing was to be seen but excessive Grandeur or extreme Wretchedness” (108). At the same time, the people are seriously burdened with taxes on those very luxuries. How did this all come to pass? Because: “Which of you has not, for a shew of private Advantage, consented to give up Publick-Good?” (105) Eovaii wonders to see “so fatal a Negligence in a whole People” (100).

Tweak the language, and all this could be ripped from today’s editorial pages. It’s kind of a downer to think that so little has changed in almost 300 years, but on the other hand, it's also nice to know that civilization has survived similar problems.

A few other stories are embedded in the tale, with female protagonists who are like alternate versions of Eovaai: there’s the unlucky Yximilla, another princess, but one who ends up forced into marriage at the end of a bloody war, and the cautionary tale of another woman who was smitten by Ochihatou, who had come this-close to seducing Eovaii while using magic to cover up his ugliness. The satire, doubtless, comes from his ability to convince others of his non-existent virtues, and to prevent them from seeing his unpleasant qualities, while he seduces them in the arena of politics and public opinion.

Since Haywood was known for being relatively frank about sexuality, however, this allows her to have some fun with the metaphorical acting-out of a politician screwing other people over. For example, when Eovaii's "Extasies" are interrupted at the crucial moment by affairs of state, she finds that "the warm Inclinations which the Behaviour of Ochihatou had raised, demanded Gratification ." Haywood's footnote from the book's fictional editor drily notes that commentators are "at a loss for the Author's Meaning," since they've been assured by various "Ladies" that their gender "is wholly free from any Inquietudes of that nature" (92). LOL. 

Note on Walpole: he may have basically ruled England, but yes, his son was THE Horace Walpole (a much bigger name in my world), author of The Castle of Otranto, among other important works in the Gothic revival. 

Haywood, Eliza. Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveeo: A Pre-Adamitical History. Edited by Earla Wilputte. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press: 1999.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson

"She may be turned loose to her evil destiny, and echo to the woods and groves her piteous lamentations for the loss of her fantastical innocence."
-- the still-plotting Mr. B. about Pamela (p. 170)

"What is left me but words?"
-- Pamela herself (p. 220)


In 1740, 51-year-old English printer Samuel Richardson published a story in letter form that was meant to illustrate moral principles.  It highlighted the temptations and outright dangers that attractive young women of lower social classes would meet with from gentlemen in high society, when they went out to work. This novel, Pamela, became a huge sensation, and led him to a career that would find him often designated, when I was an undergraduate, as the Father of the English Novel.

Of course, later reading shows there were plenty of other novels before Richardson. But although the style often seems far from what we find on the best-seller lists today, he popularized the use of the form to probe the psychological dimensions of a character, and what we'd call a "narrative arc," in contrast to writers like Sterne and Smollett. Of course, my old friend Eliza Haywood was already writing best-sellers like that, but for whatever fluke of zeitgeist, Pamela -- like a Jaws or a Star Wars -- was the one that really set the world on fire.

Haywood, in her response novel Anti-Pamela, and Henry Fielding in Shamela, both addressed something that struck me the first time I attempted to read it, long ago, which is that the story plays outs in a way that works against its attempted moral theme. Pamela's employer, Mr. B., trying to get her to sleep with him, attempts seduction, offers financial rewards, kidnaps her, and threatens her with rape. In the face of all, she remains so steadfast in defense of  her virtue that she inspires him to reform. When he finally offers her real marriage, the girl who thought he was stooping to even acknowledge her finally admits that, yup, she really was in love with him, and is rewarded with an elevation into wealth and high society.

In the first place, it's obvious that Mr. B.'s earlier behavior is a problem for a romantic hero, although plenty of explanation is offered later for why he might have been such a jerk. And it does seem, with the reactions of other high-born characters to her plight, that he's meant to be a pattern of the age: behaving like any man of his class might have, feeling themselves entitled to sex with any woman over whom they have authority, and we're meant to believe that his experience with Pamela has truly shown him the error of those ways.

For example, a neighboring lord famously remarks "What is all this ... but that our neighbor has a mind to his mother's waiting-maid! And if takes care she wants for nothing, I don't see any great injury will be done her ... 'tis what all young gentlemen will do" (138, 139).

Still, it's awfully unsavory, especially when she's gushing later about how wonderful he is.

The fact that Pamela is rewarded so much for standing her ground provides a pretty standard happy ending. It's kind of like Cinderella (minus wicked stepfamily) meets Beauty and the Beast. But the reward muddies the water of her exemplary behavior, and opens her up to the suspicion of hypocrisy, and of holding out for a better deal. After all, what happens when people hold fast to what they think is right, and they aren't rewarded for it? In the end, the work fits the mode of romance, but it's hard to put aside a more realistic perspective on what would really happen to a woman in a similar bind.

Another problematic element crops up early on, which is that everyone loves her! Everyone is praising her all the time, and she calmly repeats all their praise. "Don't think me presumptuous and conceited" (50), she says, but many readers have found her so.

Richardson, either because of some of that critical reaction, or from a recognition of the troublesome elements in the book, later embarked on Clarissa, which explicitly addresses a lot of these issues.

So, where to even begin talking about the specifics? I should have blogged as I went!

Pamela is a young woman from a poor background, working as a serving-maid for a wealthy woman who taught her all sorts of more refined accomplishments. When her employer dies, she catches the eye of the woman's son. Because there are no laws against sexual harassment, and little social disapproval for it, she finds herself at his mercy, but ultimately prevails, even winning over the members of the upper classes who are originally horrified at her elevation.

Along the way, there are detailed conversations, escape attempts, times when she could escape, but doesn't, and lots and lots and lots of philosophical pontificating from our heroine, who, on the verge of a kidnapping, secured plenty of paper and ink to continue her journal to her parents, and keeps the papers sewn into her "under-coat, next to my linen" to hide them: "I begin to be afraid my writings may be discovered; for they grow large" (134). There's a delightfully meta touch when her parents "wonder how you could find time and opportunity" for all this detailed writing (165).

Right off the bat, Pamela's poor but honest parents are concerned about her. "Our chief trouble is, and indeed a very great one, for fear you should be brought to anything honest or wicked, by being set so above yourself ... what avails all this, if you are to be ruined and undone!" (5) They're concerned that becoming educated and "a genteel girl" is likely to give her airs, and they immediately suspect that her new master's kindness can only be motivated by bad intentions, especially since Pamela is "so taken with his kind expressions." They remind her that "we had rather see you all covered with rags, and even follow you to the churchyard, than have it said, a child of ours preferred any worldly conveniences to her virtue" (6, 6-7).

Yup, they'd rather see her dead! "Arm yourself, my dear child, for the worst; and resolve to lose your life sooner than your virtue" (13).

Once Mr. B. proves her parents right, grabbing and kissing her, she insists "You have taught me to forget myself and what belongs to me, and have lessened the distance that fortune has made between us, by demeaning yourself, to be so free to a poor servant" (17). She seems more bothered that he isn't acting according to his station, than she is by his abuse of his position.

In turn, he assumes (like Fielding will) that her resistance is all part of a strategy, and she responds, Clarissa-like, "I had better be thought artful and subtle, than be so" (23). Early on, her thoughts seem clearer on the subject: "He may condescend, perhaps, to think I may be good enough for his harlot; and these things don't disgrace men that ruin poor women, as the world goes" (37). At this point, I can't help thinking that, whatever the plot will bring, Richardson's popularity with women readers may have had something to do with these kinds of asides from Pamela's first-person perspective. Sometimes it's enough just to see a viewpoint articulated, and while she eventually succumbs to happiness with her moody persecutor, Pamela does rail against the double standards of her time. Similarly, she points out that "if you was not rich and great, and I poor and little, you would not insult me thus" (67), and that's true.

It does remain consistent throughout the book that Pamela, despite her personal virtuousness, refuses to condemn other women who've been "ruined," and she mentions this early on: "it is grown more a wonder that the men are resisted, than that the women comply ... one don't know what arts and stratagems men may devise to gain their vile ends; and so I will think as well as I can of those poor undone creatures and pity them" (68). Pity may not be ideal, but still, this was fairly progressive of Richardson.

Throughout the book, Mr. B. (along with his accomplice, Mrs. Jewkes, and his sister, Lady Davers) will call her all kinds of names: mostly "creature," but also "hussy" and "slut." My favorite is when he calls Pamela "the amiable gewgaw" (169), which sounds like a title for an old-school Regency romance: The Amiable Gewgaw.

 Whisked off to a country house where she's kept under guard, she comes up with various escape plans, but she begins to ruminate on the fact that "with all his ill usage of me, I cannot hate him" (187). When he begins to be jealous of a clergyman who tried to help her by offering marriage, she insists that she doesn't want to be married, adding in her journal "the only one I could honour more than another, is the gentleman who, of all others, seeks my everlasting dishonour" (198), and  "What pity his heart is not as good as his appearance" (206). It isn't much longer before she admits "I begin to be afraid I know too well the reason" why she couldn't hate him (224).

The situation resolves rather anti-climactically, with Mr. B. finally sending her to her parents to be rid of her, then calling her back and promising he'll treat her honorably. She takes him at his word, and (Stockholm Syndrome?) goes back of her own free will, leading to a happy ending which will take Richardson another couple hundred pages to describe.

Once he clears up her doubts and they get engaged, then married, Pamela has to come to terms with "the weight of the obligations you oppress me with" (325) -- very interesting language. Then they'll have to win over Lord B.'s snobby sister, who called his wife "the dirt you seem so fond of" (270). Ouch! And who will for a long time refuse to believe they're really married, claiming that Pamela is just one more girl "in the list of his credulous harlots" (413).

One detail I quite liked is that, after all that emphasis on guarding her virginity, Pamela has some trepidation about the wedding night. She wishes she had a "kind friend of one's own sex, to communicate one's foolish thoughts to" (353); of the marriage ceremony, she says "O sir, 'tis very awful, and makes one shudder, to reflect upon it!" (359). Even though she's married to "her beloved, gracious master! the lord of her wishes!" (364) (eww, right?), their sharing a bed is "yet dreadful to me to think of" (367).

For Clarissa fans, it's relevant to note that she muses here on the lot of women like herself married against their will, to their parents' choices, and how they'd have to face the reality of sex with those men: "what do not such poor innocent victims suffer!" (367) So that theme of women's powerlessness over their own bodies (and lack of "agency," as people might say in our day) was already on Richardson's mind in this novel as well.

Pamela's journal takes us practically to the moment itself, with an entry dated 11:00 pm on her wedding night, "to this happy, yet awful moment," and then picks up the next day with her in transports of oddly-phrased happiness."His words are so pure, his ideas so chaste, and his whole behavior so sweetly decent" (372). As many words as we have in this book, I could stand a little more detail at this point, because, what exactly is she talking about?

The story carries on a great deal after the wedding, depicting a lot of confrontations with the outraged Lady Davers, which remind us that, with the difference in their social classes, Mr. B. couldn't have honorably courted Pamela from the beginning even if he'd really wanted to, and that marrying her is more shocking to people than if he'd actually raped her. Which does make him look more honorable, in the end, than most of the people around him, although I still wish she'd gone back to her parents and refused to marry him.

Her compassion for women who fell like she didn't comes around again when she feels deeply empathetic toward a former mistress of Mr. B.'s who had a daughter out of wedlock, and promises to not only accept the little girl, but shower her with love.

As the narrative trickles off to a conclusion, there are some more mixed messages about a woman's place in society. Lady Davers points out the double standard that she wouldn't be forgiven for marrying her groom, and while Mr. B. counters that with the conventional idea that it's totally different, because the man has to be the head of the household, she's allowed to make an articulate case. Then Pamela, getting to know how ill-tempered he can be when angry, sounds her husband out for all his philosophies on married life. Although she seems to accept the loose rules he sets out for marital happiness, she points out that it's "a little hard" if, for example, she's supposed to "bear with him, even when I find him in the wrong" (476).

However, one of his ideas is "that the words COMMAND and OBEY shall be blotted out of the Vocabulary," to which she adds, "Very good!" (477)

So, in summary (whew!), while its problematic qualities are still problematic, I didn't hate Pamela in the way I expected to. It comes across as a work that's struggling to be progressive, but is still bogged down in its refusal to rock the boat of convention too much. I did find the character of Pamela somewhat conceited, but since she was supposed to be a very young woman left to defend herself with her wit, I couldn't dislike her the way I did when I was younger myself. And it's a fascinating portrait of its age.

The sequel, (Pamela's Conduct in High Life), has been so forgotten that it's often not even listed as one of his novels, but it's available, under the title Pamela Vol. II, at Project Gutenberg.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder


"Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world."
-- from Little House in the Big Woods, p. 170

Part 1 of a Little House Read-Along, details found at Smoke & Mirrors and An Armchair by the Sea.

The Little House books had a huge influence on me as a kid. I read all of them over and over; my best friend and I took over the whole house with our pioneering accoutrements as "Laura and Mary;" and the television show was my primal "It's not like the book!" pop culture trauma. I really hated the show, and the reasons why my come up later on in the Read-Along, as, probably, will my thoughts on various other themes that develop.

But today we're starting with the first book, originally published in 1932. It's set in Wisconsin in the early 1870s, and in the course of it, the fictional Laura turns 6 (although the real thing was a tish younger). Like the Harry Potters, the books grow up with their readers, being roughly appropriate for the age group of the characters, then getting more adult in subject matter (although still discrete), and more grown-up in style as they go along. So this is the one geared to the youngest readers, but the crispness of the language helps keep it from feeling dumbed-down to an adult.

As far as the story goes, the book talks about how the Ingalls family lived their life in a log cabin, through all their seasonal work.  The rivalry between Laura and her too-perfect sister Mary which will continue through the books until circumstances change their dynamic, is marked here, since this is the book in which (Spoiler Alert!) Laura gets whipped for slapping Mary, who's been superior about her blonde curls. Come to think of it, I'd never thought of Laura as a role model, but she was, especially when the stories acknowledge that she's not always right, or doing what she should. Her occasional rebelliousness about sitting still and doing what she's told is a sign of her spirited nature, and it's nice to see that she's sometimes angry and frustrated, but that doesn't make her a bad person.

We also, in the very beginning, get a sense that this is all about Laura's growing up, and her little milestones toward maturity. She starts out feeling completely safe and comfortable in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild animals, since this is life as she's always known it, and she has complete trust in her parents to protect her and provide for her. The scene where she's mind-boggled and thrilled by going to town for the first time almost strikes me, a lot older than when I last read this, as a kind of eating of the apple. But self-consciousness and awareness of the larger world are going to happen sometime.

Wilder's simply expressed, but richly detailed descriptions of physical objects are part of why I always loved them so much, and that certainly starts here. I do suspect that I always kind of skimmed over the stuff about farming, however. That's a little more interesting now that I've seen vintage steam threshers in action. But when it comes to buildings and clothing and food and household goods, she's a master!

What I remembered best from this book: Their making "candy" by dropping maple syrup onto the snow to freeze into shapes.

What I remembered vividly, but didn't remember it was this book: Ahh, it's Aunt Docia who has the dress with "the black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them" (141).  Of course it was: Aunt Docia was very stylish.

Speaking of, "Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa" (128): Indeed, Ma has a fine aesthetic sense. Even in the log cabin, she has her precious decorative china shepherdess. After laboriously making her own butter, she equally laboriously dyes it with carrot shavings and shapes it in a butter mold, with a pattern of strawberries carved on top, because "Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty" (30). This really puts into perspective how lazy I am. I sit all day in a climate-controlled room, and can barely make boxed macaroni and cheese! Then there's the delaine dress (a fine wool or other worsted fabric, according to le Wikipedia), which she keeps wrapped in paper, in some corner of a house where they do such an insane amount of work, and every spare bit of space is used to store food for the winter.

Little Laura, despite always having the reputation of a tomboy, clearly follows in those footsteps, lavishing her attention on color and fabrics. This is seen in their own clothes (the girls' good dresses, and even their Christmas mittens), at the dance that takes place during maple syrup season, and when she's overwhelmed by all the choices at the store.

The current trends: Pa and Uncle Peter both make pretty carved shelves for their wives for Christmas.

Progress. It's amazing how much work they have to do. Ma homemakes both their cheese and their hats, and Pa not only kills their meat, he makes his own bullets every night for the next day.  Still there's a lot of recognition that times are now more modern. For women specifically, it's noted on page 96 that the old days were "harder for little girls. Because they had to behave like little ladies all the time,  not only on Sundays," where Laura does a lot of romping outside with her boy cousins. And Pa, having gone in on communal use of one of those noisy threshing machines, says "Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I'm all for progress. It's a great age we're living in" (228).

Odd detail: Ma tells Laura about the moon,  which is NOT made of green cheese as she had joked, but a "dead, cold moon that is like little world on which nothing grows" (191). Scientific accuracy!

In Summary: I'm looking forward to the next book!

Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House in the Big Woods. Revised edition. New York: HarperCollins: 1953.
In general: 228

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Man in the Moone, by Francis Godwin

"O Vanities, fansies, Dreames!"
-- from The Man in the Moone, p. 97

I honestly don't remember when or why I picked up this book, although I've bought a lot of titles from Broadview Press sight unseen, and this is one of them. It's an odd one, even by my standards. Written in about the 1630s by an English bishop, The Man in the Moone tells the story of a Spanish adventurer who discovers an unusual species of wild swans, and trains them to fly carrying a "Device" of his own invention. They get out of his control, and, just like the song says, fly him to the moon (which turns out to be part of their migratory cycle).

He hangs out there for some months, learning the musical Lunar language, and eventually, missing his family, returns home. Along the way, he mentions that any moon children who seem prone to "a wicked or imperfect disposition" are shuttled to Earth and exchanged, changelinglike (113).

The Broadview introduction (and tons of footnotes) compare the quasi-scientific parts of the work to the knowledge of the day. Since I'm here for language, not science, I enjoyed how this material was tempered by the narrator's admission that he's basing some things on "the Astronomy that I learned being a young man at Salamanca, but have now almost forgotten" (91) -- there's a touch of realism for ya! Just like the Astronomy class I once took. The appendixes give us selections from earlier literary lunar speculations, ethnographic models from earthly travels that influenced Godwin, and best of all, brief "Arguments About Aliens" from 16th and 17th century theologians (p. 142 - 142), who apparently did in fact worry about whether people on other planets would be covered by Jesus' crucifixion, or whether they were even subject to original sin. That bit of information was worth the price of the book!

Although the style is, well, from the 1600s, and that can be an uphill battle, the actual text is only 53 pages long, so it's not much of a commitment for "the first work of English science fiction" (7). And amongst the discussions of magnetism and telegraphy, some striking images stick out, like the lovey, if inaccurate, description of lunar oceans: "that same splendor appearing unto us, and giving light unto our night, appeareth to be nothing else but the reflexion of the Sun beames returning unto us out of the water, as out of a glasse" (97).

Godwin, Francis. The Man in the Moone. Edited by William Poole. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2009.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

"Going outside is highly overrated."
-- from Ready Player One, p. 267

I've been on such a tear, immersed in prior centuries, that I thought I'd bring some balance to the Force and do something crazy, by reading a really contemporary book. As long as I was tweaking my Classics Club anyway. Something I'd heard talked about as an "instant classic" in its genre. While I was musing on what that would be (and rejecting various recent best-sellers and book club favorites out of hand), I saw this in the store, and made a snap decision for Ready Player One -- certainly a book I've heard that kind of talk about.

This 2011 s-f novel is set in an extrapolated dystopian future, where resources are scarce, and the few  haves are mostly aligned with ruthless corporations, while the have-nots, the vast majority of the population, live in bleak and crowded conditions. The Internet has morphed into a massive virtual reality environment called the OASIS, and it's commonplace for most people to spend the majority of their days there: working, going to school, and making friends, while remaining isolated in their limited "real life" time.

When the inventor of the OASIS dies, he wills his fortune to whoever can win a complex online game, with clues spread out throughout the almost infinite virtual multiverse. Because he was obsessed with '70s and '80s pop culture (peaking about the time of the early arcade videogames and home computers), the players amass a vast knowledge of the era's movies and music, even though most of them, like the protagonist, Parzival, were born many decades later.

I found this this to be very imaginative, with a page-turning storyline, and a prose style that gets out of its way. It's not "bad," like I find much of modern writing, although a lot of people online disagree with me. Amusingly, although I've heard nothing but good things about this, and the reviews are mostly very positive, the comments are all about how terrible it is ... so who can even tell? A lot of people are really turned off by the '80s nostalgia thing, which is fair enough, but since I'm always surprised by the existing '80s nostalgia among young people who weren't even born yet, it seemed like a plausible premise to me! And also, it represents the last gasp of a "simpler time" before the Internet culture it birthed, which seems important, since the book does explore a chicken and egg premise. That is: the online world is a consolation for the harshness of reality, allowing people to do things they couldn't otherwise afford to do. However, the very existence of the more comfortable online world may have prevented them from making an effort to improve upon that reality.

One thing I noted, about the style, was that it's so straightforward. Now, there's nothing wrong with using language to tell a story and impart creative ideas. But I do tend to like words that I can roll around in. When I was reading Benighted, the only thing that stopped me from underlining a sentence on every page was the fact that it was a library book. I bought Ready Player One, and didn't underline anything. So this probably won't make my upper echelon of later-20th-century-plus s-f books (Snow Crash, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and, especially The City and the City).

Because of that, and now knowing that there isn't as much consensus as I'd thought about this book's status as a contemporary classic, it makes me ponder the whole idea of classics. There's no way to tell if this book will stand any test of time. Come to think of it, a lot of the books I love haven't stood the test so well either. Even if they're available, many of them are out of print, or obscure. Years ago, when a city I'd lived in was tearing down a beloved corner bar, there was a letter in the newspaper from someone sniffing that just because something was old, doesn't mean it was historic. And I was like: yes, it does! On the other hand, all the really badly written books being published today won't be "classics" in a couple of hundred years. Or will they? Maybe they will make good windows into their time, and be valuable for that. Who knows?

I guess it's good to shake up my complacency that I know what a classic is.

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Benighted, by J.B. Priestley

"It's our flesh, Pendleton told himself, the jellied stuff that rots so easily, which quivers and creeps, goes goosey with fright; but our bones stand up and don't give a damn."
-- from Benighted, p. 16

"It was only yourself that pushed you over the edge, where the horrors began."
-- p. 30

I am wildly excited about this book: it's one those I want to hand out to everyone in the world and tell them to read it. This is absolutely first class whistling past the graveyard! So bear with me if I start to gush.

Benighted (1927) is most famous  today as the source of James Whale's famous thriller/comedy, The Old Dark House, a movie that's startling for those of us who only knew Gloria Stuart from Titanic. It's one thing that she was gorgeous, but another that she was outright sexy as the representative of then-modern Jazz Age mores.

The film was remarkably faithful to the novel, apart from a few major divergences in the plot. A married couple, the Wavertons, who have some obscure distance between them, leave a house party with a friend of the husband's (Penderel), a hard-drinking fellow full of jovial black humor, who doesn't seem to have gotten over the war. Caught in a raging storm, with roads flooding all around them, they see a light over at the Femm place (the introduction in the beautiful Valancourt press edition points out that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is probably the most familiar work in this particular genre to current readers). They take shelter with the unfriendly inhabitants, and their troubles really begin.

Joined by the also stranded Sir William, a blustering baronet, and Gladys, a "week-ending chorus girl" (44), they wait out the night by the fire, playing the game Truth -- "the very existence" of which "is an awful commentary on society" (49). (Literary note: the book that Gladys took her stage name from, The Expensive Miss Du Cane, is a real book, written by Sarah Macnaughton in 1907, and currently available in some dodgy reprints). This opens them up to reveal things about their lives, adding insightful psychological levels about human nature and the feeling between the wars. At the same time, the Gothic elements of the spooky house, with its disturbed inhabitants and mysteriously locked rooms, close around them, reminding them that, as Penderel earlier responded to the promise of a place that's "safe and there's a roof and a fire": "Nothing's safe" (19). So much so that two separate characters refer to the storm as being like the end of the world.

The combination of Gothic ambiance with the existential aftermath of the First World War isn't something that's been explored often enough for my taste, and I'm delighted that we have Benighted to hit that mark. Growing up so much after the fact, it never occurred to me how much the Roaring '20s, with its loosening of sexual and social inhibitions and notoriously hard-partying ways, may have been a reaction to the devastation of the war, with the attendant knowledge of chaos and darkness underlying the seemingly civilized world. "Until at last you begin to feel that all the safe and clean and sane things have gone forever" (142).

At the same time, we see how the superficial elements of society, the niceties, are used to bolster people up against the darkness, and keep it at bay, giving them something familiar to cling to. A woman like Margaret Waverton may do her hair and makeup, even in a crisis, partly out of ingrained vanity, but also because it helps her feel in control of something, in order to face her fears. Which is a not unuseful insight. The novel contains people clinging to conventions, and ones knocking against them, but those are both understandable responses, and they all have to face the existential darkness and the horror of life.

It's not just its own time that Benighted enlightens, either, but has plenty that's applicable to our own. Philip Waverton, identifies "the fly in the ointment" of life as the fact that "If you let things go at all, disaster comes" (50). But if you're working and worrying to prevent the disasters, there's little room left for anything else. In this self-conscious age, life has become "so careful, so ordered, has become so conscious, asks for so much planning and safeguarding, that we never really arrive at any real enjoyment or ease, to say nothing of sheer rapture" (50). He should have seen life in the Internet age!

Which makes this sound pretty grim, but it's also very witty, which had to have attracted James Whale. Told that gin will make him melancholy, Penderel agrees "Gin is saddening ... but not so saddening as no gin" (22). Asked why he doesn't wear a watch, he says that if he needs to know the time, "there's always somebody ready to tell me. Some people never seem to think about anything else" (65). And he describes the women of the time who are "very long and slender or a kind of boy" as "these death's head and crossbones women you see everywhere now" (104). Come to think of it, Penderel is really a stand-out character, who, "even when you're saying how miserable you are, you seem to be enjoying yourself a lot more than most people are when they think they're really happy for once" (108).

It's also surprisingly romantic, with love still "a glimpse of sunrise in a lost world" (126), and full of warmth and humanity, despite the existential despair. I'm thrilled to see that other of Priestley's novels are also back in print, and can't wait to read more!

Priestely, J. B. Benighted. Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2013.