Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tolkien Was A Racist?

Based on the evidence, we’ve got a writer creating villains, colored black, who oppose the pure-hearted white heroes, right?  Well, let’s just ignore for now the fact that most of the people who play that bullshit race card with Tolkien also claim that the Elves are supposed to represent Oriental Asians and the Hobbits represent the English, and explore the notion that perhaps he was going back to age-old idea that black represents evil while white represents good.  Going back to what many of these “Tolkien was a racist” enthusiast propagate, if I was determining what group of humanity Tolkien preferred based on The Lord of the Rings, I’d say it wasn’t his own people.  But these are the same people who say that The Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for either World War I, World War II, or Christianity in general—all of which Tolkien himself dismissed.  But what doesn’t authorial intent mean?  Nothing, apparently.
So was Tolkien a racist?  I don’t know, nor do I care.  He was a brilliant man who wrote a classic piece of fantasy.  Based on the evidence taken from that classic though, I’d say no.  Anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t fully understand literature or symbolism when dealing with color.  Like it or hate it, black is a symbol throughout literature for evil.  Tolkien wasn’t exactly a rebel when it came to literature.  He preferred the works that came before him and took much influence from them, especially Medieval literature.  If we read a Medieval “history” (read: fantasy) dealing with black invaders, we would assume the color was a symbol for evil, simply because most Medieval authors I’ve read, when referring to Africans or Arabs, called them either dark skinned or brown.  This is easily explained by saying, they are dark skinned or brown.  The fact that we call them “black” doesn’t change the fact that they are not, in fact, black.
Let me just finish by saying, I’m white (though, in actuality, my skin is more of a pinkish color), and I didn’t assume Tolkien thought I was a part of some master race simply because Aragorn was the same color as me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

"Quaint" is the first word that comes to mind.  I would almost describe it as one of Eliot's idyllic novels, if it had been written by Dickens.  I would say that, if it weren't a disservice to all the authors involved.  Jane Austen would be a more apt comparison, if Austen's works were more episodic.  Mrs. Gaskell has a sweetness and a wit throughout the novel, with a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the inhabitants of Cranford, that brings to mind both the works of Dickens and Austen--especially the characterizations, which are quite good.  This is important, as with only a thin veil of a plot to tie to chapters together, the responsibility of drawing the reader in falls solely on the shoulders of her characters.  Moving from incident to incident, as was not uncommon in Victorian novels, the novel begs us to pay attention simply because the characters are worth giving our attention.  Obviously, a weak novel is one wants to study plot, but one could certainly choose a worth book to pick up to study the art of comedic characterization.  With less on it's mind than some of Gaskell's other works--from what I've read--Cranford is an easy, enjoyable read, but far from life changing.  It is simply a well-written, enjoyable read, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reading Update

I've finally gotten to the point in my reading list for this year where I will make my first real volley into Medieval literature.  I'm starting it with three books that will perhaps help me understand the actual Medieval texts better.  First, Terry Jones' Medieval Lives by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, which I am half-way through.  Next will either be C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image or 1066 by David Howarth.  These are all three decidedly English, though Lewis' work will be more cosmopolitan than the other two, I'm sure.  I would argue that most of the Medieval works I'll be reading are English, but only three are: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, History of the Kings of Britain, and The Canterbury Tales.  I'll be starting with The Consolation of Philosophy and going through Gargantua and Pentagruel by RabelaisBoethius is from the early Middle Ages--quaintly known as the "Dark Ages"--and his Consolation was widely popular throughout the entire Medieval period.  It was a personal favorite of Alfred the Great.  Rabelais wrote during the French Renaissance, but the 16th century isn't really that far off from the end of the Middle Ages, and it'll be good to see it's influence on such a prominent Renaissance writer.  Also, I really want to read it.
After Boethius I'll be reading Confessions by Saint Augustine, though I'm thinking of reading Augustine first, as he was the earlier writer.  I suppose I have two more books to read before I have to make that decision.  Part of me is a bit concerned I'll be burnt out on it by the end, and maybe I will.  Six or seven Medieval texts in a row can be straining, I suppose.  That's why I'll be reading something light at the end.  I mean, Rabelais is known as "scatological humor."  I've also heard Gargantua and Pentagruel referred to as the French Don Quixote, but I think that's an unfair comparison.
I hope to be updating more often with thoughts on what I'll be reading, but we'll see.  I've been spending less and less time on the internet lately.  I'm not sure why, but it just hasn't been as appealing as other things.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones 1934--2011

I think it would be remiss of me to go without mentioning the death of one of my favorite fantasy writers of the last century--Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl's Moving Castle, the Chrestomanci series, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Jones died on the twenty-sixth of March from lung cancer, which she had been diagnosed with in 2009.  I believe she left one book unfinished, but I'm not sure.  I did read that they will be releasing her last book, as well as a book of interviews and what-not sometime later on in the year.
I hope I have made it abundantly clear as to my tastes in this blog, but in case I have not, let me say again, I am not a fan on modern literature, with few exceptions.  Jones was one of those, being one of the few living authors I maintained a fondness for.  Now, of course, she no longer fits into that category.
She was born in London in 1934, the child of two educators.  She moved several times throughout her childhood, beginning with an evacuation to Whales right after the second World War was announced.  She studied at St. Anne's College in Oxford, where she attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  She graduated in 1956, the same year she married John Burrow.
She was author of many different novels, spanning several decades and only ending at the time of her death.  She won the Guardian Award in 1977 for her book Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci series.  Though, perhaps, she is most famous for her novel Howl's Moving Castle, which was made into an animated film by the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki, though it was a loose translation.
Her influence on fantasy can be seen in many of the writers who came after, most notably J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman.
At times like these many people like to say the literary community has suffered a great loss, but I feel differently.  Jones gave us many wonderful novels and while she will be missed, she led a very accomplished life.  While the fantasy community might not be better for the loss, I feel it would almost be a discredit to act as if her death was a tremendous blow.  Rather than focus on what she could've accomplished had she lived longer, I think it would be more to our benefit to focus on her vast achievements.  I do believe, however, that the fantasy community is sorely lacking in writers of such a caliber.
I highly recommend anyone who reads this that has not read Jones' works to go out and find some.  She is extremely enjoyable.  While not my favorite author by any means, she never disappointed.  I'm looking forward to reading more of her works next year.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Oh, yeah--I had a birthday too.

It's been over a week since I hurt my back and went to the emergency room.  I moved out of my apartment on Monday, though I could do very little to help with the move.  I got a new job on Wednesday.  I'm not taking anymore prescription medication.  And frankly, I don't remember much of last week.  Everything is kind of in a haze, but to be fair, I was pretty doped up on pain killers the entire time.  I would be right now if I still had some.  Well, I do, but you aren't supposed to take ketorolac (toradol) for more than five days in a row.  It's the hyrdocodone I'm out of.  I've been taking ibuprofen, which does not work nearly as well.
Let me just say, I'm ashamed of how little reading I've gotten done considering how much time I spent in bed last week.  I've been reading, on average, about twenty pages a day, I'd say.  It's hard to comprehend what you're reading when you're essentially high, especially when what you're reading is written in the Queen Anne style.  I was thinking that Henry Esmond seems really hard to follow compared to Thackeray's other works, but it's probably the drugs.  Maybe I'll reread it sometime when I'm not constantly impaired.
I've been downloading more music than anything else.  Probably because I wake up extremely early.  Before everyone else, so I just look up music and wander the internet.  Eisley has a new album out that's pretty amazing, and I'm been listening to a lot of MC FrontalotNerdcore is the only hip hop I'll listen to.  I've downloaded about twenty-five albums in a week.  I have to say, just to get it off my chest, I've been listening to the new Hellogoodbye album quite a bit and it's rather good.  This maturer sound they've developed is refreshing.  It's poppy, but not in the dance punk style they used to have, which had long since grown stale.  It sounds more like The Format.  Hell, I even downloaded a William Shatner album.  I was surprised by how much I liked it.
All this staying up late and waking up early shit has got to stop.  Granted, two Saturdays ago--the day after my fall--I slept for nearly thirteen hours.  But I woke up at 5:00 in the morning and stayed up till around 1:30 AM, only to wake up four hours later in extreme pain.  It's been about the same routine since then.  No matter how good I feel during the day, I always wake up around 6:00 or 7:00 with my back feeling completely awful.  Right now is the worst my back's felt at night for a while, but that's probably because I haven't had a pain pill since 7:00 this morning.  Plus, I took a nap after work, and I always feel worse after sleeping.
This post seems in no way coherent to me.  That's the way I've been since the fall.  I have a hard time concentrating.  But maybe that's me blaming my accident for how I've always been.  I have had memory problems.  Not real issues.  Just not as quick on the draw as I usually am.  My wife says I should be back to speed in a little while.  Once I'm completely off of any medication, probably.  Hopefully in a weeks more time I'll stop pausing for two minutes trying to remember something I should have readily available in my mind, and stop filling my sentences with "uh's," "um's," and "I can't think of it right now's."  No brain damage or anything.  Don't worry about that.  I didn't hit my head when I fell, and my new job is at a hotel I worked at before and after three hours of refresher training I was running the shift on my own.  So, my mind is fine, just running a bit slow is all.
Hopefully this doesn't set me back on my reading list, esspecially considering I added a few books to it, I still plan on reading all five of Dickens' Christmas books in December, and I have another big move in five months.  We'll see.  I'm only on nine out of forty-one, and seven of those were in January.  I was hoping to have Henry Esmond done by the end of February, but "there's many a slip between the cup and lip" and all that.  I love that expression.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

William Makepeace Thakeray: Second isn't Always the First Loser

William Thackeray had his nose broken twice by two different boys.  That's why his nose looks the way it does in pictures.  But how many men can say they had their nose broken by a friend of Tennyson?  Of course, George Stovin Venables wasn't Alfred Tennyson's friend at the time.  Nor was he yet a Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.  He was a fellow student with Thackeray at Charterhouse School, the third school he had attended.
Venables described Thackeray as "a pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy."  My response to that would've been, "So why did you break this timid boy's nose?"  We don't know if his broken nose was the result of a swift punch in the face or came about after a fight between the two boys, but we do know that before the first broken nose was finished healing, it was broken again by another boy whose name is unknown to history.
So why all the violence towards this "pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy"?  Knowing what we know about Thackeray today, it's easy to assume he was a sharp witted youth who perhaps made statements his fists couldn't back up.  But if Thackeray was anything like the title character from his novel The History of Pendennis, which he most likely was considering it's autobiographical nature, it is very likely that Venables and this mystery boy were defending themselves against an easily provoked youth.  (Interestingly enough, Venables is said to be the basis for George Warrington, the bosom buddy of Arthur Pendennis.)
We can make some fair assumptions about an author based on their body of work.  For example, only using his works to study him, we can assume Dickens was a sentimental, enthusiastic, compassionate, optimistic, and often ridiculous man.  Thackeray, on the other hand, it would be safe to assume, was abrasive, intelligent, witty, pessimistic, and perhaps a bit of a rascal.  I'd also say he had a strong appreciation for justice and morality, a characteristic he shared with Dickens.  I think it is ever so likely that he quite possibly deserved a punch in the face and possibly gave as good as he got.
In a scene early on in Pendennis, Arthur strikes down a boy for making a rude comment to him regarding an attachment he had made to a low-bred actress.  Hobnell Major is surrounded by his friends, but Arthur, not standing for any jokes at his expense, leaps upon him and knocks him down into an open grave and turns upon Major's friends to see if any of them will have some of the same.  They decline.  It is a very intense scene, and in all likelihood is nothing more than wish fulfillment.  Of course, history doesn't record how many times Thackeray was the one breaking noses, so I suppose we'll never know.
Thackeray, age 2, with his mother Anne
We do know that this timid boy was also a mamma's boy.  Born in Calcutta in 1811, Thackeray can never really claim to have known his father, who died in 1815.  His mother, however, outlived Thackeray by a year, dying in 1864.  She returned to England in 1819, remarried to an old flame, who Thackeray admired and used for inspiration in his novel The Newcomes, narrated by Arthur Pendennis.  From Pendennis alone, we can see something that goes beyond merely a deep appreciation for the matronly figure.  Thackeray's mother would serve, for him, as the prime example of the best in womankind.
When he came of age (twenty-one), he received his inheritance, which he quickly squandered away on gambling as well as funding two unsuccessful newspapers.  He was rather idle in his youth, and after his money was nearly wasted away, he began to consider art a viable source of income.  It was not until after his marriage in 1836 to Isabella Shawe that he seriously turned to writing, which, as history clearly shows, he did pretty well with.
His wife "went mad" in 1840, after the birth of their third daughter.  He spent less time at home after this so he could get work done, but after feeling guilty, he went back to take care of her.  In hopes of curing her, he took her on a trip to Ireland, but while on the way, she threw herself overboard.  She was rescued.  It's easy to assume this was postpartum depression, but considering that she eventually detached from reality altogether and never recovered, confined to a home in Paris for the rest of  her life, it's possible it was something else.  Thackeray looked eagerly for a cure, but never found one.
Being essentially a widower, he did pursued two women after this, one a married woman named Jane Brookfield, whose husband barred him from seeing her, and another named Sally Baxter, an American twenty years his junior, who married someone else in 1855.  Of course, we cannot assume Thackeray was as virtuous as his fictional self, though I will not presume to say if he had a physical relationship with either Mrs. Brookfield or Miss Baxter.  His wife died in 1893, outliving him by thirty years.
Thackeray's caricature of himself
Thackeray's interest in the feminine character is shown throughout his works.  Perhaps this understanding of women is due to his unique relationships with them, as well as the fact that he had three daughters, though the second born died after eight months.  His mad wife might also explain, in part, his interest in Jane Eyre, which he said he read in one sitting.
Thackeray was not unfamiliar with illness.  One such illness struck him in the middle of writing Pendennis and, as he indicated in the dedication to that novel, nearly ended the novel prematurely.  Despite this, he went on to produce several novels afterwords, most notably The Newcomes and his personal favorite The History of Henry Esmond, a novel George Eliot called "the most uncomfortable book you can imagine."
His health began to deteriorate more noticeably in the 1850's, when he was stuck in bed for days at a time.  Much to be expected from a man like Thackeray, rather than help himself, he over ate and drank, as well as got little exercise.  To top things off, he refused to give up spicy peppers, which only worsened his digestion.
On the 23rd of December in 1863, he died of a stroke while getting ready for bed, after coming home from a dinner, where you can be sure he eat and drank his fill.  But it seems to me, if he had given up the drink, the peppers, and the abundance of food, if he had gotten more exercise, we may have gotten a few more years out of him; but it wouldn't seem like William Makepeace Thackeray to me. The savage satirist went out in pure Thackerayan style: stubborn and irascible, just like his most famous characters.
Seven years later, the only writer of the era rated higher than Thackeray would also die of a stroke in his home, Gad's Hill Place, ending what some consider to be the greatest days of the novel.  Today, that man--Charles Dickens--is better known and more appreciated, but there is a reason why Thackeray was second only to Dickens in his day.  They two were distinctly different animals from the other novelists of their day.  In a way, they are two sides of the same coin: Dickens the optimist and Thackeray the pessimist.  But to truly understand the Victorian period, it is necessary to read both, and thoroughly.  Sure, there are other Victorian authors ones need to read--when studying the era--but I deride an Academia that can award someone a masters in Victorian literature without requiring them to read a word of Thackeray.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome Klapka Jerome: some people are just blessed with the best names.  Is it any wonder he was a humorist?  It's like the name Charlie Chaplin.  You can't help but hear it and assume he's going to amuse you.  Granted, Charlie's full name, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, is less provoking of a man falling down humorously.
Jerome K. Jerome, to say nothing of the dog
For those who don't know who Jerome K. Jerome is, I'll explain.  He was a Victorian humorist, most famous for his travelogue Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog.  According to Jerome, he "did not intend to write a funny book, at first."  To say it just sort of happened is not exactly fair though.  He was recently married, and had written some works before.  On Stage and Off was about his time in a traveling theatre group, and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow was a collection of brief sketches about simple topics, such as being shy, being in love, cats and dogs, et cetera.  These two--mostly the latter--had established him somewhat as a writer, though his claim to fame was the book he wrote in 1888: Three Men in a Boat.
Based somewhat on his personal experiences of traveling down the Thames with his two friends, the book was begun as a simple travelogue with some humorous anecdotes thrown in for good measure.  With that in mind, it stands to reason that he was intending to write it strictly for the money, as these travelogues were becoming popular in England at the time.  The humorous anecdotes took over, however, and his publisher pretty much threw out all the rest.  What was left is the delightful tale, similar in style to Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, of three men--J., Harris, and George (not to mention the dog, Montmorency)--as they take an excursion down the Thames, to improve their health, which, frankly, had nothing wrong with it to begin with.
It wasn't exactly a hit right away.  Jerome himself said in his autobiography, "I think I may claim to have been, for the first twenty years of my career, the best abused author in England."  But that's not fair.  It wasn't a hit with critics.  His publisher said, "I pay Jerome so much in royalties I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them."  In ten years, 202, 000 copies were sold, which isn't including the pirated copies sold in America.  (Seriously, America, what the hell?  For shame, America. For shame!)  Needless to say, the public highly enjoyed it, and still does today.  Jerome is considered on the best humorists of the Victorian period, compared to Dickens and the George Grossmith, who was a principle actor in the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and famous for his book, written with his brother Weedon, The Diary of a Nobody.
In 1900, Jerome brought the characters back for a sequel entitled Three Men on the Bummel.  It was not as well received as it's predecessor, though it was used as a school book in German for a while.  The main flaw with this book is that it is too vast; there is too much room to wander, which is something Jerome is prone to do.  Even in Three Men in a Boat, he finds himself off in places unexpected, but the Thames is always there, and in the end, he must stay on course.  However, a cycling tour through German's Black Forest allows for plenty of space to get lost in.  It has received praise, however, for certain parts that are considered not only as funny but often funnier than Three Men in a Boat.
While Jerome went on to write many other works, most notably, his autobiographical novel Paul Kelver, his somber play The Passing of the Third Floor Back, and his actual autobiography, none of them have maintained the success of Three Men in a Boat or it's sequel.
Still, for the fourth child of an ironmonger and Congregationalist preacher (Jerome Clapp), I'd say this Victorian humorist has done quite well for himself, notwithstanding the whole being dead thing, which I'm sure he had no choice in doing and we should probably just forgive him for it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Aliens: argle-bargle or foofaraw?

Is this guy watching us?  Probably not.
I'm going to break this down simply.  Believing that somewhere out in that gigantic universe is a planet other than our own with life on it: sensible.  Believing that said life has visited our planet: ridiculous.
To make the statement "We have been visited by creatures not of this planet" is making some very wild assumptions.  Some of them are so wild that they fall under the realm of insanity.  And I don't feel at all that saying so is an exaggeration.
Let's start with the most basic of those assumptions: our planet is worth caring about.  Even if there are creatures out there, unknown to us, with technology to reach our planet, the trip would be long and arduous.  So out of all the planets in the night sky, they decide upon ours to visit and study.  People forget how vast the universe really is.  Let me explain this in a matter of figures.  Pluto is the farthest planet from the sun.  (I'm typing this in Illinois, and Pluto is still considered a planet by Illinois law.)  Pluto is around 5.7 billion kilometers from Earth.  At the closest, they're 4.3 billion kilometers apart.  The estimate I found online says that it would take us around 23 years to get to Pluto.  The alien society that is presumably watching us is farther away than Pluto.  (I know that's an assumption, but it's a rather safe one to make.)  So either they've already explored all the the planets in  between here and there, or they picked us out to be their main focus.  What would make us so special?  It's a hard question to answer, really.
But let's assume they did want to study Earth, either from process of elimination or by conscious choice.  So they have a trip that, like I said, is long and arduous.  So when they arrive, how does this alien society study us?  Secretively.  According to many UFO enthusiasts, aliens have been visiting our planet for centuries, some even say millennia.  And, according to some UFO enthusiasts, it must be the same society, as all of their crafts are similar--disk shaped, with no apparent thrusters or propulsion systems.  So clearly, they've been making this trek for a long time.  Why not land and say hello?  Let's put ourselves in their position.  Most people agree that these are scientific missions.  If we sent astronauts to a planet on a scientific mission, are we just going to hover in the clouds or are we going to land?  Ask any scientist.  If we make that journey, which even to Mars would take several years, you can be damned sure we're going to land.  If it's a military mission, then why now attack already?  They clearly have more advanced technology.  It seems illogical, and there's a reason for that.
Now, one might argue that maybe we're not being visited by the same society of aliens.  Reasonable enough, at first glance.  Perhaps this explains why they've not landed.  Maybe one society showed up and decided not to land, and another one happened to do the same, followed by another and another, each one more wary that the last.  If you can't already see why this is a ridiculous hypothesis, I'll explain.  The likelihood of one society of aliens coming to Earth and not making themselves well-known is not high, but it is still possible.  The likelihood of two societies doing the same thing is so low that it's laughable.  An explanation does lend itself to the multiple societies theory though.  If so many societies of aliens have visited us, and we've never visited a single one of them, we're clearly the dummies of the galaxy and it's no wonder why none of these more advanced societies want to stop by and chat.
But a major chink in this theory is that, as near as we can tell, there are no planets in our solar system that have life on them except our own.  If you believe in evolution, then you'll agree that is stands to reason that the creation of life is so rare that two planets having life on them and being near enough for interplanetary space travel to be possible, is highly unlikely.  If you believe God put us here, then it also stands to reason that He only created life on planets that were a good distance apart.  Maybe he even limited it to one life-filled planet per galaxy.  That seems just as likely as Him creating life on every planet.  You could also go with C.S. Lewis' proposition from Out of the Silent Planet that since we are a fallen race, the other races of the universe are forbid from canoodling with us.
Going back to interplanetary travel, the belief that other planets have obtained this while we remain without it is presupposing quite a few things as well.  The first and foremost being, if not beyond lightspeed travel, a fuel source better than anything we've come up with.  Now, as for lightspeed or beyond lightspeed travel, it's not bloody likely.  I was disappointed when I found out that scientists are pretty sure that it's impossible to achieve, but they're probably right.  Is it possible that aliens uncovered some truth that has evaded us?  Yes. But science is science all over the universe, and what's true for earth is probably true for any other society out there.  As for an alternate fuel, let me say this: if we're to travel to Mars, it's believed by many scientist that it'll have to be a colonial expedition.  The reason for this is, there's simply no way to go there with enough fuel to bring us back.  The heavier an object is, the more fuel is needs to propel it.  Simple enough, right?  The more fuel held on a ship, the heavier it is.  The heavier it is, the more fuel needs to be held on the ship.  You see the dilemma?  Aliens would have to overcome this obstacle as well, which is a rather tall hurdle to leap over.
Another assumption caused by the notion of interplanetary travel is this: you assume that the alien society is more advanced then our own.  This, at first glance, seems like a harmless assumption, but when you really think about it, what is there to say we're not the most advanced beings in the universe?  There's nothing disproving that hypothesis, but nothing proving it as well.  What we do know is that we're more advanced then, say, fish.  How do I know that?  Fish can't breath on land, and that's why you never see fish getting out of the water of their on volition.  Humans can't breath under water.  So what did we do?  We constructed devices to give us that ability.  (Humans, 1; fish, 0.)  The point being, there might be life on other planets, but there's nothing to say whether that life is an ageless telepathic civilization that has unlocked the mysteries of science, or just fish.
Millions of billions seems smaller until you see it.
Now, recapping my point, there might be life out in the universe.  Don't let me discourage anyone from not believing that somewhere out there is a planet teeming with life.  In fact, with how vast the universe is, it's more laughable to say we're the only intelligent life in the universe than to say otherwise.  But it's also so vast that it's pretty laughable to assume that any of that intelligent life is in any position to contact us personally.
There are literally millions of billions of planets in the universe, at a conservative estimate.  Yes, there is likely life on at least one other planet than our own.  But why should we think that out of those millions of billions of planets, two planets would both form intelligent life (not just fish), at least one develop the technology for traveling through space, and both be near enough for one or both to make contact?  With those types of numbers, yes, it is possible.  But any reasonable thinker also has to see that it's a pretty big assumption, and in logical thinking, we should always avoid such large assumptions.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Modernism: An Art of Confusion?

I like a good Scotch, but sometimes I'm just in the mood to sip on some cider and relax.  That's the way I feel about literature.  I don't want every book I read to force me to ruminate over each chapter and read multiple essays about it just to understand what it's about.  Sometimes I like a simple narrative, an enjoyable story.  There's nothing wrong with that, though some people tend to think that this attitude makes you a simpleton, that you should always be challenging yourself.  I don't need to challenge myself with every read to feel like I accomplished something at the end of it.
This is not the face of a man who takes things lightly.
I read Bruno Schulz' two collections of short stories first thing this year--technically G.K. Chesterton was first thing, but it was started in 2010--so once that was done, I was tired.  Literally, worn out.  I switched to H.G. Wells.  I didn't think The Croquet Player was going to be as haunting as it was.  Now, I'm reading The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham.  While I wouldn't call him simple, I would say that he has Victorian sensibilities when it comes to storytelling.  He writes a plain narrative, and while he talks about deep issues, he talks about them simply.  And to be honest, I'm getting more out of The Moon and Sixpence then I did out of all of Bruno Schulz.  Maybe Maugham wasn't as good a writer as Schulz, but Maugham was the most popular British author since Charles Dickens.  He wrote things people connected to, and frankly, it's hard to connect to something you don't understand.
T.S. Eliot, looking so cash.
T.S. Eliot said that modern novelists, like modern poets, should be difficult.  I disagree.  I like T.S. Eliot, but there's a reason why Byron is my favorite poet.  Some might say it's apples and oranges.  All I know is, the Romantics had quite a lot of important things to say and they said them clearly and wonderfully.  I'm not entirely sure what Eliot was trying to say; all I know if he said it beautifully.
Let's be honest here, many of the greatest works in literature were simple stories.  Sometimes they told cavernously deep messages, but the stories were enjoyable, even if you missed the message.  The stories of Shakespeare were written to do two things: entertain and sell.  Marlowe was a bit deeper, but he's also not as well beloved.  Don Quixote is a simple, entertaining story.  One could study it for years and find many things to talk about, but to enjoy it, one simply has to read it.  The same can be said of Dickens or Thackeray.  They wrote to entertain, themselves and the people.  They also wrote with important messages, and they felt little reason to hide those messages behind obscure prose.
I'm not saying writers such as Joyce, Kafka, Schulz, or Eliot are bad writers for creating difficult and challenging literature; but I am saying that just because they are difficult does not make them better.  Like I said, I've been more challenged by Maugham than Schulz, and I think the reason might just be that I've comprehended more of Maugham's message.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Books to Read in 2011

For the last two years--the years I've been keeping track--I've had a habit of reading thirty books (not including Charles Dickens' Christmas books, as I've pointed out before).  I'm hoping to change this in 2011.  For this year I've made a reading list of forty books, and I've already completed three books.  I had wanted to reread some books this year, but they just don't fit with my reading list.   Next year will be a year for rereading old favorites; this year is for reading books I've never read before.
Like I said, I've read three this year: St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz  and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz (he only wrote two books and I might as well get them both).  I have the next four planned out as well.  The Croquet Player by H.G. Wells, Pendennis by William Thackeray, Gargantua and Pentagruel by Francois Rabelais, and Robinson Crusoe.
Here's the complete list of books I intend to read this year.  I feel like posting it online will help me actually get through them.

Pendennis by William Makepeace Thackeray
The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray
New Grub Street by George Gissing
The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy by Lawrence Sterne
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Confessions by Saint Augustine
Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede
The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Gargantua and Pentagruel by Francois Rabelais
The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
St. Francis of Assisi by G.K. Chesterton
The Return of Don Quixote by G.K. Chesterton
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Baudolino by Umberto Eco
Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
1066 by David Howarth
The Moon & Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
The Egoist by George Meredith
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass by Bruno Schulz
The Travels of Marco Polo
Waverly by Walter Scott
The Croquet Player by H.G. Wells
Tono-Bungay by H.G. Wells
Medieval Lives by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Thursday, January 13, 2011

H.G. Wells: The First Man in the Moon

Science fiction, much like many children growing up in homosexual households, has two fathers.  (One could make the obvious joke that that's why science fiction is so gay, but I find that joke in poor taste and will refrain from using it.)  These two fathers are, of course, Jules Verne and Herbert George Wells, more commonly referred to as H.G. Wells.
Now, we all know science fiction had other writers before these two.  It's generally agreed that the oldest work of science fiction dates back to the 2nd century, with Lucian's True History, though it differs greatly from what we would consider science fiction today.  One can see elements of the genre in Gulliver's Travels by Swift, which is from the 18th century.  One of the earliest manifestations of the genre as we know it today would be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  And, of course, let us not forget Mr. Poe's works of science fiction as so many other people tend to do.  But I'm not here to discuss science fiction, so much as one of its fathers.
There always seems to be a bit of a debate as to who was the better science fiction writer: Verne or Wells.  I think a large part of who you choose is determined by which one you grew up on, though I'll not voice my opinion of who is the more superior author.
Now, I remember when I was a lad, I tried to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Much like my attempt to read Moby Dick, it failed miserably.  I had no stick-to-it-iveness, I guess.  This somewhat turned me off to Verne.  Maybe it was the translation, but I found the prose too dense for my young brain to comprehend.  In 2009 I read Around the World in Eighty Days, and while I enjoyed it, it felt little more than an adventure novel, a travelogue.  I would like to read more by Verne, but he failed to make my list of books to read this year.  Maybe next year.
Wells, on the other hand, I did not even attempt until I was a bit older.  Not that I thought it'd be too difficult, but he was an author who never really suggested himself to me.  He stood back quietly and awaited my arrival.  I was twenty the first time I read War of the Worlds.  I was in Indiana at the time, which was when I mostly read nothing but C.S. Lewis.  Wells stuck with me though.  It wasn't until 2006 that I began reading other works by him.  There are two used bookstores in my home town.  They're right next to each other so I would always stop at one and then walk down to the other.  Between the two, I found a good selection of books by Wells.  All the well known titles, but also some more obscure ones, such as In the Days of the Comet and The First Men in the Moon, which is my favorite.  I devoured them.  Wells is the only author, saving C.S. Lewis, that I have devoted to reading so wholeheartedly, as I read him without stopping to read anyone else.
I hit a wall though when I began reading When the Sleeper Wakes, republished later as The Sleeper Awakes.  I can't tell you why, but to this day, it's one of the few books I started and never finished.  The story was interesting--a man stays awake for a long period of time and then sleeps for two hundred and three years.  The writing was as good as any other Wells novel.  But, I couldn't find an interest in it.  My love affair with Wells had ended.
This was not too long ago--November of 2007, if I remember correctly--because When the Sleeper Awakes  was a late find for me.  I tried to read it again in the summer of 2008 and had the same difficulty.  Perhaps I should've simply started on a different Wells novel--The Food of the Gods had recently shown up at one of the bookstores--but instead, I moved on to other things.  That was the year I really got into Charles Dickens, and my interests had shifted from science fiction to the more realistic novels of the Victorian period (comparatively more realistic).
Now, I never intended for Wells to fade into the obscurity of authors long past, though I will admit, three years of not reading him might imply that.  Remember my brief mentioning of a reading list for this year--the one Verne failed to make it onto?  Well, while visiting my parents, I took a trip back to one of those bookstores in town and happened upon an old friend.  Not only were these not in the science fiction section, which is where they usually kept Wells, they were books I'd never heard of before: The Croquet Player and Tono-Bungay.  Maybe it was nostalgia or guilt or maybe the fact that neither were science fiction, but I was intrinsically drawn to the two books and quickly snatched them up.  I meant to read them last year, but kept putting them off.  Now, they've been put on my reading list, and I'm itching to get started on The Croquet Player, which is apparently a horror story.
Will this spark another obsession with an author who used to rank with my top favorites?  Well, I've already added six books by Wells to my wishlist.  We'll see though.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

To anyone who doesn't know that Little Nell dies in the end: don't read this post. . .Whoops.

I once read a definition of tragedy and comedy.   I feel like it must've been G.K. Chesterton, but I'm also attaching Walter Scott to it, so I don't know.  The definition was simply this: in tragedy, the reader (or viewer) is constantly thinking, "They're going to make it; they're going to make it."  In the end, they do not make it.  Comedy is just the opposite.  I can cite certain examples of this, though it is far from a comprehensive definition.  A good example of this type of tragedy (let us call it a type, rather than a definition) is Romeo & Juliet.  It is one of the most famous love stories, so I'll not recap anything for the reader.  But imagine it was not so famous or imagine that you were one of the first viewers of the tragedy.  I believe the real power of the play comes from the feeling given throughout.  It is not so much that the viewer wants the young lovers to escape and be together forever, but that the story itself seems to indicate that they--if not ought to escape--will.  The fact that they don't should come as a shock.  Anyone who fancies themselves an expert on Shakespeare can disagree with me if you like.  I'm admittedly far from an expert.
Little Nell is the girl, not the old man.
An author I am--Well, perhaps not an "expert" per se, but I at least know more than the average reader.  I'll say again, slightly amended, one author I do know quite a bit about is Charles Dickens.  I also know quite a few people--literary types--who roll their eyes at the name, but the fact remains, despite their rolling eyes, that Dickens stands taller than any other figure in English literature, save the Bard himself.  And anyone who knows any substantial amount about Dickensian literature knows the controversy over Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop.
There is nothing exactly wrong with the character of Little Nell.  For those familier with Dickensian literature, she is fairly standard.  The innocently good--beyond-belief-good--character is seen throughout the works of Dickens and the works of many authors inspired by him.  Some other examples include, Oliver Twist, Paul Dombey, Tiny Tim, Agnes Wickfield, and even Little Dorrit.  Chesterton had a theory that Dickens based this character on someone he knew.  Perhaps it was his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, whom Dickens was quite attached to and was heartbroken when she died young.  Some theorize that he was in love with her.  We'll only ever have speculation on that end.  Little Nell is considered by most to be based on her, though I have see nothing from Dickens explicitly saying this.  Another theory is that it was some child he knew while working in the blacking factory who he became friends with.  Some child who died.  Dickens did not enjoy talking about those times and we know little more than he tells us.  All I know is, he wrote many characters in this style and most of them die young.  (An interesting exception is Agnes, who is of this ilk, but does not die; whereas, Dora Copperfield, née Spenlow, does die young, but is not of this type of character.  She represents young love and is based on a girl Dickens' admired as a young man.  I will perhaps post further about Dora, Agnes, and their parallel characters from Little Dorrit.)
Of course, with all this talk of people dying, it is probably made clear that Little Nell dies.  This is where the controversy arises.  At the time, people all over the world were devastated by the news.  We've all heard the story of people in New York City flooding the docks to ask sailors from England, who might have read the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, if Nell had lived.  At the time it was considered a truly moving tragedy.
That opinion has become part of a heavy debate among Dickensians as well as foes of Dickens.  I won't go so far as to agree with Oscar Wilde and say that her death should incite tears of laughter, but I will say that her death seems out of place with the story.  It seems forced.
Perhaps that is because Dickens didn't have her death planned until later in the book, after he'd heard that his fans expected it.  Now, if there's one thing Dickens liked to do, it was please his fans.  He loved his readers and they loved him for it.  Now, it's also possible that Dickens didn't ever plan on keeping her alive.  I've only just tonight heard that he had planned it, but haven't found the evidence for it yet.  Either way, there is a definitive shift in the novel where one begins to expects Nell to die.  Not because the story calls for it, but the attitude of the author seems to change.  He begins to treat her with something more than pity, which he holds for her throughout the novel.  It's not so much that this aura isn't there, as it is the question of whether it should be or not.  Little Nell dies, yes, but should she?  She seems a makeshift tragic heroine.
Now, I realize this was Dickens first real attempt at tragedy--the books before this were comedies expect for Oliver Twist--and Nell death is not going to be as masterfully done as, say, Sydney Carton.  His was a truly moving death.  Nell's death, however, seems pointless.  She dies at the end simply to die, as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty author--Dickens killed people with the indifference of a pagan god.  He clearly improved as an author, and despite Little Nell, The Old Curiosity Shop is filled with a wide cast of wonderfully done characters--customers, I almost want to say.  It's hard to find a better villain in all of Dickens' novels than Daniel Quilp, and Dick Swiveller is one of the most lovable of Dickens' rascals.  Also, I know that regardless of my, and many people's, opinion that Little Nell should have lived, people will still read The Old Curiosity Shop and cry at the end.  That's fine.  For the sake of honesty, I'll admit it: I cried at the end too.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bruno Schulz

Some months ago I was looking at books in Borders when I stumbled across The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz.  Like most people whose literary focus has been vaguely European but specifically British, the name did not ring any bells.  However, the name intrigued me, and upon reading the brief biography, I was deterimed to learn more about the book and the man.
For those of you who are wondering: no, Bruno Schulz is no relation to Peanuts author Charles Schulz.  Well, by no way I've found, and if they were, it would certainly be very distantly.  (Maybe not as distantly as my possible relation to Thomas Mann, but we're talking about a good sized separation.)  Schulz is a very common German family name, though Bruno Schulz was not a German.  He was a Polish Jew.
He was born in 1892 in the then small Austro-Hungarian town of Drohobrycz, the son of a cloth merchant.  He was raised there and spent most of his life there.  Apparently he really liked it, and judging from the pictures I've seen of modern day Drohobych (it's modern name), it's easy to see why someone would want to stay there.  Still, he did travel somewhat, like when he studied architecture at Lviv University and briefly in Vienna.  Without traveling at all from Drohobrycz though, his nationality changed four times, as the city changed hands that many times in his lifetime.  Countries must've loved them some Drohobrycz.
Like I mentioned, he was a Jew and was very interested in Jewish culture, though he didn't know Yiddish.  He spoke Polish and German, and helped his fiancée Józefina Szelińska translate Kafka's The Trial into Polish.   He wrote in Polish, and was awarded Poland's Golden Laurel award by the Polish Academy of Literature in 1938.
From 1924 to 1941 he was an art teacher in Drohobrycz, though he apparently didn't enjoy it and only kept the job for monetary reasons.  He apparently kept to himself; he was perceived as a hermit.  Most of his life was uneventful--you know, except for all that writing of the best Polish literature of the 20th century.
His life was uneventful, I should say, until 1939.  For those who aren't familiar with history (or not good with dates) it was at this time that World War II began.  You know that one.  It's the one with the Nazis.  Yeah, it's gonna be one of those stories.  At the time, the Soviet Union owned Drohobrycz, but after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Schulz, like the other Jews in Drobobrycz, was put in a ghetto.  At the time, he was working on a novel supposedly called The Messiah, thought to be his masterpiece.  He gave this and other papers and artwork to some gentile friends for safe keeping.  They have never been seen since.
It's not all bad though.  He's still alive, and not only that, a Gestapo officer named Felix Landau found out about his talents as an artist and put Schulz to work painting murals on his child's playroom.  This of course gave Schulz certain privileges, not the least important being protection.
That is, supposed protection.  On a night in November of 1942, at the corner of Czacki and Mickiewicz streets, Schulz was shot in the head by Karl Günther, a Gestapo officer.  You might be wondering why.  Apparently, like Landau, Günther had himself a "favored Jew," who was killed by Landau.  "You killed my Jew," he said.  "I killed yours."  And so, one of the greatest Polish writers--possibly the greatest--of the 20th century died.
According to the forward to my copy of The Street of Crocodiles, Schulz was planned an escape from the ghetto that very night.  It's impossible to say if he would've succeeded.  We'll never know.  Perhaps, if he had, he would've had to start all over on The Messiah; and perhaps it would've been a masterpiece of literature, changing the art form forever.  Perhaps it would've been terrible.
As for Schulz known work, we have The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass.  They are collections of interconnected short stories, containing some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read.  Of course, large credit goes to the translator Celina Wieniewska for giving us such a wonderful English version.  I highly recommend the Penguin Classics edition pictured above as it contains both books and three other short stories.
I'll end this with one of my favorite passages from The Street of Crocodiles, from the short story "August."  It is a discription of a sunflower, yet it brings to mind Schulz himself for me.
"An enormous sunflower, lifted on a powerful stem and suffering from hypertrophy, clad in the yellow mourning of the last sorrowful days of its life, bent under the weight of its monstrous girth.  But the naive suburban bluebells and unpretentious dimity flowers stood helpless in their starched pink and white shifts, indifferent to the sunflower's tragedy."