Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Language Oddity #5,637,008



Thursday, November 12, 2009

Another Oddity of Language

So, last night I realized something:  when we say, "an American," we mean an American person.  But we don't say "an English" to mean an English person.

A Canadian, Mexican, Italian, Russian . . . but not a French, Irish, Turkish, Polish.  We say "a Pole."  Or a Swede or a Dane.  We say "a Danish" but that doesn't mean a person.

I think I may have heard people say "a Vietnamese" or "a Japanese" but that sounds rather ignorant to me.

And of course, we don't say "Chinish."  We say "Chinese."

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Zero-Sum Game

I've recently started reading Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Like his stuff a lot, even if he thinks of Prince as "his mother's music."  And god knows he could use a proofreader.  But anyway.  Not only are his posts interesting, but he's built up a large and mostly well-behaved commenting community.  I haven't joined it because it is so large and well-spoken even without me, and I just don't feel like creating one more damn account for myself, but I have to respond to this comment anyway:
As a white person (I don't presume to speak for all white people), one of the reasons why I find myself getting annoyed at anti-racists is because of their insistence that the only reason why I enjoy any comforts today is because of the suffering of others. . . . By speaking of racism as a zero-sum game, you are GUARANTEED to turn white people off. After all, if whites prospered at the expense of blacks, many whites reason that if blacks prosper, it will be at their expense.
Well, yeah, actually, the reason you are where you are today is because of the people who suffered and died to get you there.  To name just one example, as a white male Christian friend of mine wrote on his Facebook recently, "People died to give you the right to vote.  So go vote!"  I'm really astonished that anybody could be unmindful of those who came before them -- even if you just think of it in terms of your own ancestors.  (This reminds me of the piece I wrote three years ago.)  Perhaps the problem is that you don't like to think of people suffering unwillingly.  Is is really any better to imagine them gladly sacrificing their comforts for you?

As for the zero-sum game:  again, yes, that's what it is.  We all prosper at someone else's expense.  Take jobs for example. If you apply for a job and get it, everyone else loses out.  I'll assume for the sake of argument that the person who wrote this post and called themselves "Star Wars Nut" is a man, although it doesn't really matter.  So, if someone else gets hired for this job, and you find out it's a black person, do you get upset because black people are stealing jobs from whites?  If a white woman gets hired instead of you, are women stealing jobs from men?  If another white guy gets the job . . . well, who is there to be outraged against?  But it's still a zero-sum game, and you still lost.  Unless you congratulate yourself with the thought, "Well, at least the job is safely in the hands of a white person."

I don't think the problem is the zero-sum game.  I think the problem is a sense of entitlement, the belief that those people should stay in their places and not be taking jobs, etc. from the guys who have always had those jobs, always should, always will.  (Gee, this does remind me of a recent Presidential election.)  It makes sense to me that white men would feel threatened and want to cut down on the competition.  But then, of course, you're stuck with feeling guilty about those people who suffered so that you could continue to live in the style to which you're accustomed.  Nope, just can't win.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Disraeli and Obama

I've been wondering for a while how many similarities there are between Benjamin Disraeli (the first and so far only Jewish Prime Minister of England) and Barack Obama (the first black President of the United States.)  I didn't really know anything else about Disraeli.  Finally I got around to reducing my ignorance by visiting Wikipedia.

Two interesting things struck me:
  1. When Disraeli began his political career, it was illegal for practicing Jews to be Members of Parliament.  This was not actually a problem for Disraeli, since he had converted to Christianity, but it indicates the level of anti-Semitism that existed at the time.  In America, because we have freedom of religion, it is perfectly legal for Muslims to hold public office.  But apparently in some people's minds it ought not to be.  (And again, in Obama's case this would not be a problem, because he doesn't appear ever to have been a practicing Muslim.)
  2. As I was reading the Wikipedia article, I saw that Disraeli claimed to be of Spanish descent, that he speculated unsuccessfully in South American mines, had the reputation of being a ladies' man and finally married a rich English woman.  "Wow," I said, "he's Ferdinand Lopez!"
 Ferdinand Lopez is a character in the novel The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope.  He conceals his Jewish ancestry* (which I don't believe Disraeli ever did), does all the things mentioned above and is not really a very nice person.  According to this article, Trollope created several characters who resemble Disraeli, but it seems to me that Lopez is the most similar one.  I'm quite shocked actually. 

Trollope disliked Disraeli for several reasons:  his successful political career (Trollope attempted politics but failed); his literary career (I'm not sure how successful Disraeli was, but Trollope seems to have felt he was more successful than he deserved and that he himself was a better writer); and possibly his Jewishness.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama?  There's been a lot of discussion as to whether his political opponents are "racist" or not.  And Trollope is an interesting example of someone who objects to a certain person's policies and occasionally uses racist stereotypes to express his disapproval. 

Also, people have devoted quite a bit of time to arguing that Trollope was not "really" anti-Semitic -- because they like his writing and they don't want to admire anyone who's prejudiced.  Personally, I like his writing and I also think he displays some genuine anti-Semitism.  I've also heard that he made a number of racist statements about black people.  He's a little sexist too.  So . . . he was what they call a product of his time. On the other hand, Trollope always displayed a certain amount of sympathy for the underdog (especially if the underdog was female.)  But it seems pretty clear to me that as a white guy he was on top and he wanted to stay that way.  And when it comes to Obama, there's a fair amount of that floating around too.

* Incidentally, in the Palliser novels (which are pretty much the only Trollope I've read), nobody ever admits to being Jewish.  They are "said to be" Jewish, because apparently it was such a horrible thing that it could only be whispered about behind someone's back.  I don't know how many crypto-Jews there were in 19th-century England, and as I've mentioned above, Disraeli was not a crypto-Jew and Obama is not a crypto-Muslim, but there is certainly an ongoing belief that lily-white Christendom is under attack by sneaking, creeping, hate-filled hordes of darkness.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another Perspective

On one of the blogs that I visit, people were recently discussing the topic of religious/spiritual beliefs and "faith." One person said that he envied people who had faith . . .
What I envy, I think, is the idea that the universe is being personally benevolent to them. The universe is clearly benevolent to a degree: we exist, after all. But it isn't benevolent to any of us in particular.
Now, "the fact that we exist proves the universe is benevolent" pretty much sums up my spiritual philosophy. But the idea that the universe is supposed to care about any of us personally . . . I can't get behind that and I don't understand why anybody would want to. (I mean, I do understand it. We all hope that nothing bad will ever happen to us and we won't have to die. But it doesn't work that way.)

Moreover, it seems to me that the only way to believe the universe cares about you personally is to assume that it cares about other people less. If the universe cares about you personally, then whenever you want a particular job or a particular lover, they're yours, and everybody else is out of luck. If the universe cares about you personally, then no one would ever cut you off in traffic, and every red light turns green when you approach it. Right? Because when things don't go your way, that's a sign that the universe doesn't care about you personally. But in the real world, it frequently happens that one person's loss is someone else's gain. So whose side is the universe supposed to be on?

Maybe it drops a little benevolence on each person and then moves along to the next. But it's not going to take care of you all the time. (And you can't blame the universe if it happens to turn its attention elsewhere.)

Friday, October 02, 2009

Poetry Roundup #2

(cross-posted on Facebook)

elephant lore

the elephant sleeps and dreams of home
awakens to find to find itself captive and
often dies of homesickness

therefore the elephant drivers keep their elephants awake

therefore, says the poet,
live in fear
that someday your heart will awaken
and remember its home

(from Wilberforce-Clarke's notes on the 359th ghazal of Hafiz)

a misconception

Love is not a reward for good behavior.

It's a function of the universe:

Like sunlight, like rain,
it falls on everyone




I said recently, "We are all hyphenated Americans."
We all came from elsewhere (so they say.)

And when we arrived here, the earth said "Welcome!"
It didn't say, "No, go home!"
It couldn't say, "If you're staying, at least don't kill anyone."

It could only say:

"Whatever you put into me will come back to you.
If you sow poison, you will reap poison.
If you shed blood, someday blood will come looking for you."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Design for Living and Cavalcade (Noel Coward)

I recently watched the film Design for Living and I loved it.  I heard that it was different from the original play, so I decided to seek that out.  I've done a lot of thinking about the difference between books and film versions of the book; haven't ever thought much about the difference between theatrical and film versions of a script.

Design for Living is a interesting example, in that the play and the film are quite different from each other, but in my opinion, both very good.  (It's also interesting to note that the play premiered in January 1933, and the film came out that same year.  That seems very fast by today's terms, especially considering that the script was 99% rewritten.)  The play is much more compressed in terms of place and time . . . for example, we don't get to see the first meeting of the main characters, we only hear them talk about it (which is, obviously, not as interesting as actually seeing it.)

Design for Living is about a menage à trois between two men and a woman.  The major difference between stage and screen is the relationship between the men.  In the play, they're allowed to say that they love each other as much as they each love the woman.  Of course, that sort of thing was not allowed in a film.  As it turns out, reducing the importance of the male relationship moves the woman to center stage; and in the film version she's allowed to talk about herself more.  (Well, she talks quite a bit in the original script too, but there she's mostly criticizing herself for "cheating" on one man or the other.)  In the film, she points out that men are allowed to play the field before they get married.  She then delivers the immortal line, "A woman gets to try on a hundred hats before she picks one."  But when it comes to marriage, which is much more important than hats, she's not allowed to sample the merchandise before buying.

Noel Coward wrote this play as a vehicle for himself and his friends, actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  I don't know just how close their friendship was, but Coward remarked in his memoirs that an early version of the play had them all sitting in one bed for the duration.  "This, however, was hilariously discarded, after Alfred had suggested a few stage directions which if followed faithfully, would undoubtedly have landed all three of us in gaol."

One last note about Design for Living:  The female lead is named Gilda.  The well-known film of 1946, called Gilda, is also about a love triangle.  Although in Design for Living the woman's name is pronounced "Jill-da" and in the other film it's pronounced the other way.

Cavalcade was in the same volume as Design for Living, so I read it.  I don't believe there is anything funny about it at all.  The first act is set in England, 1899, when a woman's husband is going off to the Boer War.  She's very afraid for him, but remarks that at least her two young sons will never have to go to war.  Fast-forward fifteen years, when of course one of her sons goes off to fight in World War I, and eventually dies.

The other has already drowned on the Titanic, for good measure.  Actually, we see him and his wife, on a ship, on their honeymoon, talking about how happy they are.  Then the lady moves her cloak and we see the name of the ship.  Was Coward the inventor of this scene?  It's been done many times, I know that.

Possibly Cavalcade was not seen as an anti-war play when it came out, but it definitely seems like one to me now.  The 1930's are actually one of my favorite decades, for literature and film (maybe not so much the visual arts.)  Some of my favorite writers flourished then, and, being favorites of mine, none of them were very keen on war. Of course, most of them didn't know there was another big one coming up.  But they gathered their rosebuds while they might.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Classic Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

I've been watching some of the original Star Trek episodes, surprised by how enjoyable they are.  Old science fiction shows don't always age well . . . modern people complain about cheesy effects, the technology is usually laughable -- in short, what was cutting-edge then looks silly today.

But there are some things that don't change:  the importance of character psychology, dramatic conflict, and a sense of adventure.  Even back then, some people knew how to write good scripts, and some people knew how to act.

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" was the second of two pilot episodes. It stars Kirk and Spock, although the well-known cast had not yet been completely assembled and the costumes are different.  The plot involves an old friend of Kirk's (Gary Mitchell) who gets zapped by some mysterious ray (never actually explained) and develops super powers.

There is one very neat scene, in which Kirk comes to visit Mitchell in sickbay after he gets zapped.  Mitchell reminisces about their days at Starfleet Academy, when Kirk ("Lt." Kirk then) was a very demanding instructor and Mitchell was a rather lazy student.  In order to distract Kirk from his teaching duties, Mitchell sends a woman to seduce him.  He boasts, "I told her exactly what she had to do."  Kirk says "You set that up?  I almost married her!"

This scene accomplishes two important things: it tells us how long, and how intimately, Mitchell and Kirk have known each other; and it suggests that Mitchell has always been a little manipulative.  It's never spelled out, but obviously, if you think about it, these new abilities have given him the power to do more of what he's always enjoyed:  playing games with people, tricking them, generally interfering with their lives. It's not really true that he was changed into a different person.  Classic Trek isn't known for its subtlety . . . but it is there. That scene is very well done.

Another interesting thing about this episode is that it takes ESP (psychic powers) for granted.  Starfleet apparently tests people for "esper" skills, and we're told that Mitchell got a very high score.  Only in the 1960's could such a thing be seriously discussed and included in a science fiction show.

From what I've seen so far, classic Trek is an odd combination of optimism and paranoia.  The optimism is expressed in the bright color scheme and bright lighting, as well as the multiracial cast and the implication that humans are no longer at war with each other.  The paranoia is found in the fact that, as far as I can recall, most episodes of TOS involve encountering some entity with superhuman powers and destroying it.  There are a few exceptions, but for the most part we learn that the universe is full of hostile creatures and humans are plucky little heroes who succeed against all odds, rather like Hobbits.  (Mitchell becomes evil because he is no longer human.  Except, of course, he is.) 

On the one hand, the show argues that power corrupts.  On the other hand, our heroes are always justified in using whatever power they have in whatever way they see fit, because they are the Good Guys.  Everybody else is either misguided or downright evil.  Kirk pays lip service to the Prime Directive of non-interference, but really, how often does he abide by it?  Is he actually capable of visiting a planet and saying, "Well, I disapprove of the way these people live their lives, but I can't do anything about it.  Prime Directive!  End of episode!"  No.

It's also interesting that Kirk constantly praises the value of emotion; or rather, Spock's complete reliance on logic gives him the opportunity to praise emotion.  To what extent does this undercut Kirk's masculinity?  I was impressed by how often Kirk seems to be acting from the heart.  And of course, the episodes are structured so that he usually has to destroy the baddie of the week in order to save his crew.  How very nurturing of him.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ambivalent Legacy

Two recent news stories collided in my mind and I imagined that the late Ted Kennedy had once kidnapped an 11-year-old girl, kept her captive in his backyard for 15 years and fathered two children on her.  (Is that worse than leaving someone to die in a submerged car?  Answer to rhetorical question:  yes, I believe that prolonged abuse is worse than a "quick" death.  But anyway.)

On one of the blogs I visit, a discussion began on who was the "greatest American Senator" ever.  Someone suggested Henry Clay (about whom I know nothing) and someone else objected on the grounds that Clay owned slaves.  Then they headed into "you can't judge the past by the standards of the present" territory.  Personally I can't bring myself to agree with that.  It implies that nobody back then knew that slavery was wrong.  I am sure that the people who were living in slavery knew it was wrong. 

It's just that their opinions didn't count (because slaves are not human.)  And possibly there are people today who think that their opinions still don't count.  A thing does not become immoral until the ruling class decides that it's immoral. Isn't that right?

The Kennedys are just a big heap of moral ambiguity.  They did so many good things!  They did so many bad things!  Which one outweighs the other?  We all hope to be judged kindly.  But I . . . I don't think it's just a question of "I did ten good things and five bad things" or "I did three really good things and 15 things that were not really all that bad."  I think it's a question of power.

If someone uses their power for good, then that's good.  If they use their power for bad -- yeah, that's bad.  Abuses of power count for much more on the bad side than right uses of power count for the good.  And the reason is that people excuse abuses committed by the powerful.  They do this because they want to ally themselves with the powerful. There's no point in standing up for someone who has no power.  How can they benefit you?  You want to curry favor with someone who has favors to hand out.  You don't associate with losers.

I blogged recently about a conversation between a childhood friend of mine, and someone who bullied me in childhood.  I didn't mention that the bully also wrote "I admire you standing up for her."  Because it is so very unusual to take the side of someone who's demonstrated themselves to be a loser.  She didn't mean standing up for me at the time, either.  She's talking about their present conversation, years later.  Even now it is admirable, in the mind of a bully, to say just one little word.

Yes, a certain number of people are willing to side with the underdog, at least some of the time.  A large number of people are the underdog . . . sometimes they side with their oppressors and sometimes they don't.  I'm trying to say more than just "side with the underdog" . . . I'm trying to say, that powerful people are dangerous.  Because somehow, crimes against the powerless are always minimized.

I appreciate the ambiguity of someone who uses their powers both for good and for evil.  There's also a saying about "someone who has the power to do evil, but refrains . . . ."  But I just can't join in unmitigated, or even faintly mitigated, praise.  Because there are too many people, alive and dead, who never got a chance to speak for themselves.  That's why.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shakespeare Confession

Okay, I admit it: my favorite Shakespeare play is Measure for Measure. Yes, I admire Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (although I insist that what Lear needed was an appointment with the cluestick.) But Measure is just so weird, and dark, and twisted, and modern. Is it modern? Can I say that? It was written in 1604, after all.

It is officially a comedy, because it ends with a number of weddings, and nobody gets killed. But various people are threatened with death, and most of those weddings are coerced, which makes the classification as "comedy" a bit unsettling.

The action of the play is driven by the ruler of a city (the Duke), who decides to go away, leaving someone else (named Angelo) in charge, and then sneak back in disguise to see how things go.

Angelo is a cold-hearted bastard, who claims to believe, or honestly thinks he does believe, in Justice.  He decides to enforce certain laws against fornication, which have been on the books for some time but mostly ignored.  Claudio, who got his fiancee pregnant, is therefore condemned to death.  Claudio's sister, Isabella, goes to Angelo to plead for clemency.  Angelo gets the hots for her, and suddenly understands why fornication is to attractive.  He offers to pardon Claudio if Isabella will have sex with him.

Isabella is about to become a nun, which is to say, she places a very high value on chastity.  She says "No!" and rushes off to tell Claudio what happened.  At first Claudio agrees that it would be wrong.  One of the most chilling moments in the play is when he gradually breaks down and ends up begging Isabella to sacrifice her virginity for his life.
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
to lie in cold obstruction and to rot,
. . . 'tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
that age, ache, penury, and imprisonment
can lay on nature is a paradise
to what we fear of death.
Now the Duke, disguised as a friar, steps in. But he is a very manipulative guy.  Although he has a plan to  save Claudio's life, he tells him "It's hopeless.  Give up.  You're just going to die."  Apparently this is for the good of his soul.  The Duke also tells Isabella, later, that their plan failed and her brother is dead.  He lets her go on believing this for quite some time.

The Duke's actions bring about justice, but he seems to believe that justice cannot be done without tremendous amounts of deception.  That's just weird.  In short, there are no heroes in the play -- that's what makes it seem modern.

Although this particular play is very obscure, like all Shakespeare's work it generated several quotes which have passed into common discourse (depending, of course, on where you get your discourse from.)  "Be absolute for death," "They say best men are molded out of faults,"  "And the poor beetle, that we tread upon, In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great As when a giant dies" are all from Measure for Measure.

Good stuff.

Out of the Past

Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I discovered that two of my friends from elementary school were "friends" with someone who constantly teased me. I told them about it. One of them wrote to her "you were one of the kids that tortured her in school, so not cool."

This person's response:
Nope, you are right about it not being so cool. It taught many of us a good lesson to stop bullying. . . . She was always way brighter than most of us and did her own thing. Doing your own thing was something that took many of us years later to realize that it was okay.
On the one hand, I wonder exactly when "we" learned this lesson, because they certainly didn't stop teasing me the whole time I went to school there.

On the other hand, who taught these kids that "doing your own thing" was not okay?  They did all of us a disservice.  I'm angry about that.

Friday, August 14, 2009

How to Cast Off

Okay, I can figure out how to cast on, and I remember knitting and purling, but casting off doesn't stick in my mind after a year or so has gone by. So here is a helpful link:


It has several varieties of casting off, some of which look very useful even though I will never actually use them.

The basic technique: "Slip or knit the first stitch. *Knit the next stitch. Pass the first stitch over the second. Repeat from *. "


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Washington Irving

A friend recently loaned me Washington Irving's Sketch Book. She thought I would like it and she was right. I liked it so much that I headed over to Wikipedia to see what the dish on Irving is. Some of this info comes from there.

Washington Irving (1783-1859) is said to be one of the first Americans to make a living as a writer. He created the following items:
  • "Gotham" as a nickname for New York City.
  • the myth that in 1492, Columbus and his compatriots believed the Earth was flat. Yes, apparently it's a myth.
  • the tale of Rip van Winkle, which retained its popularity for a long time.
  • the tale of the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, which also retained its popularity for a long time, and was even made into a Walt Disney cartoon in 1958.
He did not invent the two stories listed above; his original contribution was an American setting and, I suppose, his writing style.

He lived in England for many years. As a Jane Austen fan, I have to remark that they briefly overlapped, chronologically as well as geographically. He first moved to England in 1815; Austen died two years later. It seems unlikely that they ever met, but they both worked with the same publisher (John Murray) and it is tempting to think that they had mutual acquaintances (I do not know if a publisher counts as an acquaintance.)

Sir Walter Scott was an admirer of both writers - Austen and Irving - but a personal friend and benefactor to Irving alone. In his preface to the Sketch Book, Irving tells the story of how Scott offered him the position of editor of a magazine. Perhaps because he had tried this before, Irving had to refuse. He quotes from his letter to Scott:
"My whole course of life has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind."
I find it rather amusing that, after having declared himself completely incapable of doing any actual work, he ended up going into the diplomatic service.

Throughout the Sketch Book he portrays himself as a dilettante, a rootless, homeless wanderer and essentially lazy person. This must have been somewhat of an exaggeration. The fact is that he did a lot of writing, which is hard work (especially if he was able to make it seem effortless), and a lot of traveling, which always requires exertion. It seems to have been part of his technique for charming people, to insist that he was not to be taken seriously.

The person who wrote the afterword to this edition of the Sketch Book claims, among other things, that underneath his light-hearted facade Irving was melancholy and obsessed with death. "Underneath" is not quite accurate. The Sketch Book contains many stories about tragic deaths, funerals, and so on, along with such lines as "[I was] indulging in that kind of melancholy fancying which has in it something sweeter even than pleasure." Apparently some later editions of the book removed all the depressing chapters - but that's not Irving's fault, now is it?

As for being obsessed with death: it may seem that way to a modern reader. But people paid much more attention to death in earlier times. It was present for them in a way that it's not for us. When Irving asks, "who is so fortunate as never to have followed someone he has loved to the tomb?" he's referring to ordinary reality. He himself was one of eleven children, of whom three died in infancy. His fiancee died at the age of nineteen (in fact, he never married.) I don't think he would have written so much about death and funeral customs if he didn't think his audience would be interested.

In some ways, he was a very conventional person. Many of the stories in the Sketch Book praise old customs and old writers, lament their passing, and criticize novelty. But he did allow himself a few rebellions. His sympathy for Native Americans was apparently very unusual for his time. He retells from a "volume of early colonial history" an incident in which a group of Europeans surround an Indian village, set fire to it and kill all the inhabitants (mostly women and children, as the warriors had been defeated in a previous battle.) He quotes:
"they were in much doubt then, and afterwards seriously enquired whether burning their enemies alive could be consistent with humanity, and the benevolent principles of the Gospel."
And yet you will note that they didn't discover their doubts until afterward.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rainbow Fields

When I was a college freshman, I spent a semester in therapy. For the first session, the counselor handed me a pad of paper and some crayons. "Draw a picture of your childhood," she said.

That was easy. Without hesitation, I drew a large circle, for the horizon. I drew a line intersecting the southern edge of the circle - that was the road. Most of the circle I colored green, pink and blue. The fields were green - they were never actually pink and blue, but that's the way I remember them: magical colors. In the summer they turned orange and yellow (for real!) with Indian paintbrush flowers. I should have drawn the woods too but I can't remember if I did.

I put a dot out in the field to represent myself. Where our house was I put a large black dot. It was concentrated: thick, black, ugly. I put four dots next to it to represent my family. I put one more dot outside of the circle to represent my father. Then I was done.

The counselor and I looked at the picture. "What do you see?" she asked. I started to explain it to her and then I stopped.

"That's strange," I said. "I didn't intend to do that."

"What?" she asked (no doubt with a certain professional satisfaction.)

"That dot out in the field is me," I said. "That's where I was happy. I put four dots to represent my family . . . my mother, my two brothers . . . and me, again. I didn't realize I was putting myself twice."

"There are two of you," she said.

"Yeah. There are two of me."

I don't recall that we talked about that very much. I needed time to assimilate this new idea, and there were more specific things that I wanted to talk about. But it's certainly true that I spent a lot of time - then, and right up to now - trying to find my real self. Not the self that everybody else saw, or failed to see.

It's certainly true that the lessons I learned in the rainbow fields are what have kept me alive. To summarize: the human world is not the only world, thank goodness. Human beings (including myself) are selfish, narrow-minded, and scared.

There's a whole universe out there, much bigger than humanity. It provides beauty, nourishment, and a certain amount of danger, too. It is constantly changing. Constantly alive. Humans build their little structures and push their little buttons. Many of them don't seem to realize that the universe is alive. Life goes on without them. I was stifling inside that little box. I had to get out.

Sometimes I still forget those lessons. But I have to remember, because I can't survive without them. (And even though I live in the city now, I worry about people who have never known any other environment. That can't be good.)

The universe still surprises me.

Note: I posted a slightly different version of this on my other blog.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunset Blvd

I saw this movie recently and thought it was amazing. I had heard a lot about it; ironically, it was not what I had been led to expect. It's often described as a "classic" -- I agree with that. Two other labels that get applied to it are "camp" and "film noir" -- those are two things I didn't see in the film.

It's very much an homage to bygone days: it harks back to the early Hollywood era, and even to earlier times than that. Norma Desmond, the aging silent-film star, has written a script for a movie version of Salome. For me, it's impossible to hear "Salome" and not think of Oscar Wilde, especially since he and Norma have quite a bit in common (including, but not limited to, a ravenous hunger for the limelight, a certain disconnection from reality, and a predilection for dangerous young men.) But the name of Norma's butler (and former director), Max von Mayerling, carries its own resonance of the tragic romantic. "Mayerling" is the place where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria killed his lover, Marie Vetsera, and himself. Several movies have been made about this -- the first one known to IMDB was in 1936.

As many people know, in Sunset Blvd the actors who portray Norma and Max were in real life a former film star and a former director. Gloria Swanson, fortunately, was much more successful than her character. When this film came out, in 1950, she had been absent from Hollywood for almost twenty years (aside from one appearance in a 1941 film), but she had plenty of stage work and entrepreneurship to keep her busy.

The appearance of Erich von Stroheim in this film is perhaps more amazing, since his career really could not be described as successful. He and Swanson only made one film together, but it was the film that destroyed his Hollywood career. It's also the film that Norma Desmond watches while recalling her past glory, and apparently Stroheim suggested that this particular film be used, and even provided the footage. Was that painful -- or could it perhaps have been gratifying? It is arguable that this movie is not merely an homage to the silent film era, but specifically to Stroheim. (For example, the character played by William Holden bears a certain resemblance to some of Stroheim's protagonists -- an unscruplous seducer of rich women.)

Is it camp? Is it noir? Not in my opinion -- because of the character of Norma Desmond. People who imitate her may well be doing camp, but she is not. She has no notion that anybody might find her mannerisms amusing -- in her own mind, she is behaving the way stars behave. (The interesting question is, is Gloria Swanson doing camp? There are some brief, key moments when she acts "normal" and you realize that she, at least, knows what naturalistic acting is. But because her character takes herself absolutely seriously, I can't help but think that Swanson takes it seriously too. She's not trying to give us the slightest opportunity to laugh, whereas, as far as I can tell, spectators of camp are always at least on the verge of laughter.)

Neither is it noir, because from what I've seen, in film noir the woman (there only ever seems to be one woman per film) is always evil. She has ulterior motives for seducing the hero; she's deceiving him. Norma is not deceiving anyone except herself; and she has no ulterior motives. She seduces Joe Gillis because she wants love, admiration and (quite possibly) sex with a handsome, virile young man. That's not evil . . . and yet Norma has a bad rep, because she's sexually active and somewhat grotesque (but nowhere near as much as I was led to believe.) She lives in a fantasy world -- but that's what Hollywood is all about.

Shortly before watching Sunset Blvd, I watched another film by the same director, Double Indemnity. Unmistakable, classic film noir. I hated it. It was too slow, too talky, and, without wishing to spoil the ending, I thought it was completely implausible. But the two films do have a very similar structure. They're both told in flashback, with a voiceover by the hero*. In Double Indemnity I thought that guy would never shut up. In Sunset Blvd he does have to stop talking occasionally, partly because Norma demands her share of attention and also because he's not really allowed to be explicit about his relationship with her.

He's a gigolo; that's bad enough. If he actually cared for her that would be even worse, and I personally think he does care, at least a little. She's fifty years old; his age is not specified but the actor himself was about thirty at the time. Pairings of older actors and younger actresses were, and still are, routine. For a man to get together with a woman old enough to be his mother was, and still is, highly unusual. In fact, I was so caught up in the film that when he leans over her for their first kiss, I thought, "They're not really gonna, are they? They can't!" (and the fadeout does actually finish before their lips touch.)

Anyway, great film. A film for lovers of film.

* I think he does count as the hero, although a flawed one. Another difference between Sunset Blvd and film noir, in my view, is that Norma Desmond is definitely the heroine of her film -- even though William Holden gets top billing -- but the women in noir don't ever seem to be heroines.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Poetry Roundup

(cross-posted on Facebook)

glass three-quarters full

sunlight, oxygen,
water and earth.

without these things to nourish us

free gifts from the universe

where would we be?

therefore I don't believe that evil outweighs good.
if that were true, nothing could live.

my role models

some people aspire
to reach the top of the heap,
where everyone will recognize their merits
(of course, this requires keeping down the competition.)

but I say:

it is not the favored ones
who can teach me
how to survive

On Hypocrisy

The cruelties of Fate I can't deny,
but human cruelty still makes me angry.

Hafiz writes of hypocrisy and wine - almost too much;
but hypocrisy is nearly the root of all evil.

Heaven says, "Everything I am, I am."
Only humans say, "No, that's not me."

I don't seek love; I am not cruel.

Written in Red

Last night I dreamed I was writing our story
in red ink
on the inside of my blue shirt.

When I looked at the outside, the letters had soaked through,
and I kept asking myself:

"What am I doing? What if people can read this? Do I really want everybody to see my pain?
Am I ruining my favorite shirt?"

But I kept writing.

Speaking of unrealistic goals . . .

the difference is
that if you lie long enough on the Friend's doorstep,
trembling with sincerity,
someday He will take you in.

from the footnote to ghazal 93:

my heart was flung into the fire
like a counterfeit coin
it turned black.

one who reaches the Beloved loses everything else,
even love.

Introduction to Hafiz


Hafiz takes off all his clothes
and jumps up and down in the marketplace.

Everyone knows you're supposed to hide
your nakedness


The poet says, God is everything.

But still we are drawn to imperfections:
the broken half of the moon.

(written on Facebook, April 9, 2009. Thanks to Tahar.)

The Novels of Thomas Hardy

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite books was A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam. There's a bit near the end where the protagonist is feeling rather depressed, so she decides to take her mind off it by reading all the Classic English Novels in the library. All goes well until she gets to H and discovers Jude the Obscure. According to her, the main point of this book is that nothing good ever happens to anyone, "BECAUSE IT NEVER DOES."

This convinced me that I ought to avoid Hardy, and I have kept that resolution until just lately. One of the things that slowly changed my mind was this comment in the memoirs of an Edwardian gentleman:
" . . . 'romantic love' is ceaselessly vaunted in novels, films, tooth-paste advertisements and in all other available media. Self-deception is widely encouraged and, when marriage intervenes before the rainbow colours fade, couples find themselves in chains. It has often struck me as ironical that Thomas Hardy, some of whose novels movingly illustrate this theme and give such clear-cut warning to romantic lovers, was in his day accused of corrupting young readers' minds! Our parents and grandparents would have done better if they had made him compulsory reading for everyone on the brink of marriage."
Finally, a friend kept telling me that Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a really good book. So I read it. He's right.* I have also read Jude the Obscure, and I highly recommend both of them.

Normally I prefer books with happy endings, but these didn't bother me as much, perhaps because society is different now and people who have sex outside of marriage are not ostracized (in fact, it seems to be accepted that everybody does it.) Of course, in Hardy's day lots of people did it too -- he was condemned only for putting facts in writing.

I admire his commitment to the truth (and the beautiful venom of his rants about his critics in the introduction to Tess, amounting to "only people with dirty minds see things like that in my book.") His style is definitely ponderous, but that makes it clear that he wasn't just writing to titillate. He took these problems seriously. In short, that girl in A Long Way from Verona didn't understand Hardy at all.

* Don't you hate it when people have been telling you all your life "You really should read such-and-such" and then they turn out to be right? The same thing happened to me with The Woman Warrior and The Country of the Pointed Firs. Stupid people knowing stuff.

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs. Gaskell was a contemporary of Charlotte Brontë. Although Brontë is better remembered now, Gaskell may have been more popular at the time. She was certainly more prolific (and, not coincidentally, longer-lived.)

I have only read a couple of her books. Wives and Daughters is very long and fairly interesting. It strongly resembles Mansfield Park, being the story of two young women, one meek and self-doubting, the other vivacious and almost too flirtatious for her own good, who are both involved with the same young man. He is, of course, very much taken with the temptress at first but in the end returns to his true love.

In this case, the two young women are stepsisters, which constitutes the other main thread of the novel. Molly's father decides that she needs a mother to assist and chaperone her through adolescence, so he marries a woman, who also has a daughter, without really getting to know her. This turns out to be a mistake.

One of the noteworthy things about the novel is that the "evil" stepmother is not evil at all. She is very frivolous, rather selfish, and not much inclined to honesty. But for the most part her faults are depicted as normal and understandable: she is only human. For example, there is a prolonged description of her struggle to make ends meet after her first husband's death (the only respectable occupation for an upper-middle-class woman at that time was teaching, and she's not very good at it) and her hopes that someone will marry her and relieve her of financial cares.

She also insists on treating Molly on fair and equal terms with her own daughter, unlike the evil stepmothers of fairy tale. There's a fair amount of selfishness in her decision -- she doesn't want people saying bad things about her, and as it turns out, she doesn't get along very well with her own daughter and often praises Molly at her expense.

Molly and Cynthia, her stepsister, become close friends. Cynthia, like her mother, is a very well-drawn and fascinating character -- fascinating in her flaws. She knows instinctively how to attract men . . . and very often doesn't know what to do with them when she's got them. She essentially grew up without any parenting . . . her father was dead and her mother packed her off to boarding school in France. In fact, her mother didn't even want her to come to her second wedding. Cynthia is more strong-willed than Molly but she lacks guidance and doesn't seem to have any plan for her life. She often says that she is not capable of love.

As if all this wasn't enough, the book also alludes to pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory, this being the young hero's field of study. His family is very interesting too, but I've gone on long enough already.

Wives and Daughters was Elizabeth Gaskell's last book. It was published in serial form from 1864 to 1866. Gaskell died at the end of 1865, before she could complete the final chapters.

Doctor Who, Season Three

For the most part, I disliked season 3. Compared to Torchwood it seems juvenile (which makes sense, because it's a "family" show), Daleks bore me*, and Martha's unrequited love just seemed gratuitous (and demeaning to the character.)

But I really liked the "Human Nature" two-parter. It was original, and it demonstrated to me that David Tennant can act, which I was starting to have doubts about. I want to see more of him now (don't we all?) Therefore, I have to admire the way it led up to the season finale . . . although I didn't like the finale as much.

  • The manic Doctor is slightly annoying at times (see above for my doubts about Tennant's acting abilities.) The manic Master is extremely annoying. What, are all Time Lords like this? Don't they have any other setting?
  • I dislike the use of popular music in TV shows. Russell T Davies seems to like it a lot. Actually, let me qualify that: a show like Scrubs uses music all the time, and I like it, because they've established it as part of the show. When it shows up in Who it surprises me. Also, I've always assumed that Who (and I suppose Torchwood) take place in an alternate universe, so how can they have the same music we do? Finally, although music has always been an important tool in establishing mood in film, there's something about using other people's songs (and especially other people's words) that just seems lazy to me. Do your own damn work, scriptwriters!
  • Yeah, okay, the Doctor. He's callous enough to abandon Jack when he's in trouble. He can't return the love that humans feel for him. But he begs his arch-enemy to stay with him, because he doesn't want to be the last of the Time Lords. That's a good one.
I've said it before: Davies' approach baffles me. Season 3 was often overly simplistic, playing the same cards over and over again. And yet . . . when it comes to the main character, he never fails to maintain an almost-perfect ambiguity. Just when you think he's made up his mind, he throws in something completely different. Very strange.

* My favorite Dalek episode is "Dalek," which suggests that one Dalek is more effective than one million, in dramatic terms. Actually the ideal number of Daleks is probably three. Maybe it wasn't just accidental that the BBC only ever built three working Dalek models.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

My Heart Is a Peach

my heart is a peach
sliced neatly into four quarters,
still clinging to the rock-like core.

and inside
inside the stone
is a hollow world
of eternal darkness
lit by the moon.

One More - Double Iris

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Walking Iris

Click on it for a larger view.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Late Spring/Early Summer

The surface of the river is dusty
with pollen.

The current flows both ways.

In sun and shadow,
fish go about their business--

above them, the dragonflies glide.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Red-Winged Blackbird

I had thought I was too close to the city to see any red-winged blackbirds around here, but yesterday I went to a park that's only a few miles away from my house. It's mostly a marsh, which was lots of fun, all slooshy and smelly and flat, but there was also a pond which was almost completely covered with pond scum and featured frogs, tall reeds and a pair of blackbirds. (Well, there were many birds, actually, but I only saw the red patch on one.)

Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera, but I could only have photographed the pond scum anyway. The frogs were not visible - only audible - and neither I nor my digital camera are fast enough to catch a bird.

The park also had various flowers that I don't know the names of, and many large honeysuckle bushes. I didn't know honeysuckle was a wild plant, but these were certainly out on their own. There was pink honeysuckle as well as yellow, which I've never seen before.

It was a lovely day.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Aprium

An aprium is a cross between an apricot and a plum. They look a lot like apricots, and are very tasty, if you like apricots and plums, which I do.

The Internet informs me that pluots are also a hybrid of apricot and plum. I didn't know that. I've never actually tried a pluot but now I will have to. Furthermore, both apriums and pluots are derived from another hybrid: the plumcot.

Isn't genetic engineering wonderful?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Three Novels by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911) was a writer and what we might today call a political activist, although she seems to have expressed herself mostly in religious terms. Her novel Iola Leroy is said to be one of the earliest known novels by an African-American. For many years it was believed that she had written no other novels, but three more were discovered and republished in 1994. I haven't read Iola Leroy, but the set of three books impressed me so much that I wanted to blog about them.

They are not only fascinating for historical reasons, but also entertaining to read.

These novels were serialized in a religious magazine. The modern-day editor remarks on the fact that they had almost no proofreading or editing performed upon them (in fact, contemporary subscribers complained about the number of typos throughout the paper.) Nonetheless they are well written. I don't believe I have read better dialogue anywhere.

Harper was devoted to both women's rights and the rights of black Americans. These days, black feminists frequently complain that they feel as if they have to choose between one or the other . . . as if feminism is a "white thing" and racial solidarity requires no complaints about sexism. Harper seems to have felt no such conflict. It's interesting that she also displays no interest in working with white feminists.

Anyway, on to the novels.
  • Minnie's Sacrifice (first published 1869) - deals with "passing" and the Reconstruction era, a time of tremendous joy and disillusionment. Those who had lived to see the end of slavery, after so many years, discover that some things still have not changed.
    ". . . when Mrs. Hickman said, 'Well, Sarah, I really pity you,' I saw her dark eyes flash, and she has really beautiful eyes, as she said, 'it is not pity we want, it is justice.'"
  • Sowing and Reaping (first published 1876-77) - a temperance story. One noteworthy thing about it is that the race of the characters is not specified at all. I almost wondered if it was set in some future time when racial discrimination no longer existed but alcoholism was still a problem. It shows that Harper cared deeply about many issues.
  • Trial and Triumph (first published 1888-89) - Frances Smith Foster, the editor, suggests that there are autobiographical elements in this book. It is the story of an intelligent, socially rather awkward, but tender-hearted girl who wants to make her way in the world, despite relatives who misunderstand her and prejudice from society. I learned from reading this book that only white girls were allowed to work in factories - and now we think of that as being demeaning work.
    ". . . Nor did she lay all the household burdens on the shoulders of the girls and leave her boys to the mercy of the pavement; she tried to make her home happy and taught them all to have a share in adding to its sunshine. 'It makes boys selfish,' she would say, 'to have their sisters do all the work and let the boys go scot-free. I don't believe there would be so many trifling men if the boys were trained to be more helpful at home and to feel more for their mothers and sisters.'"
All of these novels are on Project Gutenberg. Check them out!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Derelict Art Deco

This is a building near my house. They are currently renovating it . . . hope they'll keep those tiles.

Update (7/3/09) another detail which I never noticed before:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

If I had written "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Once upon a time there lived a painter. One day he encountered a most beauteous youth. "My goodness!" he said. "You are the most perfect thing I have ever seen. I must paint you!"

"If I am already perfect, why do you wish to add paint to me?" the young man asked. But at length he was persuaded to sit, and the portrait was done.

When the young man saw it, he cried, "Alas! This picture will remain forever young, while I will grow old and lose my beauty."

"My dear boy," the painter replied, "Beauty comes from within. When people speak of 'radiant beauty,' it is the inner light they see. Cultivate that light, and your beauty will never fade, no matter what happens to your looks."

(It so happens that this painter had a friend, who prided himself on his witty sallies. When he saw the portrait, he remarked, "A pretty boy is like a melody." This nobleman made a point of cultivating a languid and thoughtless demeanor, as though his exquisite remarks were produced without any effort on his part. Unfortunately, in truth they required so much exertion that one day he strained an extremely important muscle. Upon his doctor's orders, he was sent to convalesce in a country where no one spoke English, and he himself did not speak any of their languages. Naturally, he was never heard from again.)

The reigning Queen of this country had many children. One of her grown-up sons was notorious for his appreciation of male beauty. Consequently, the painter presented the portrait to him. His Royal Highness soon expressed an interest in meeting the original, and in time the two young men became the best of friends. Neither of them ever married.

One unhappy day, the Queen was informed by some malicious tongue that, not only were the two inseparable, but that there was something unnatural about their friendship. She let it be known that this displeased her, and before many months had passed new legislation was introduced into the country, forbidding excessive intimacy between men. This was all because of the portrait of Dorian Gray.

Dorian chose to leave the country, and settled in France. Since nothing of importance ever happens outside of England, there is not much more to be said about him, except that one day the painter came to visit him and confessed:

"My poor boy, I was the one who blackened your name to the Queen, and what is worse I did it out of sheer jealousy. Can you ever forgive me?"

"Pray, Basil, do not trouble yourself. The weather is lovely here, and one's money goes so much further. I am quite happy. I only wonder if poor old Chumpers was allowed to keep my portrait. Ah! Once I wished that the picture could grow old, while I stayed young. But now I have no regrets. And after all, if it were to show all the marks of experience, it would be as if the portrait itself did all those things, and not me at all."

And so it goes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I don't think I've ever seen one before.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

My Political Ideal

My analogy of good government is a traffic light. It gives everybody a chance to get where they're going and prevents us from crashing into each other. Of course, your destination is your own business.

I was briefly an anarchist when I was younger, but I've come to realize that we do need some order, and the rule of law. (Still like The Sex Pistols though.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Moon Poem

The moon says:

Everything that is not real
is real.

Everything that lives in darkness,
everything that lives in sleep.

The moon says

The sunlit life is only half a life.

Close your eyes and see
The radiance of the moon that shines within.

I wrote this over a year ago. (Somebody else wrote "by the light of the moon that shines within" and I borrowed it.)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pasta, Potatoes and Pesto

It sounds like a weird combination, but it's really good. I found this recipe in The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, and I assumed she had invented it. Turns out it's a traditional Italian dish . . . which somewhat revises my ideas of the Italians. Anyway, here it is:

3 medium potatoes, sliced or diced into fairly small pieces
about 3/4 lb. fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb. pasta
4-6 oz. basil pesto

Put the potatoes into a large pot, along with one gallon of cold water and one tbl. of salt. Bring to a boil, then add the pasta and green beans. Cook until the pasta is done.

Drain all of it into a colander, then put it back in the warm pot and add the pesto. Mix well.

That's it. Simple, cheap, good. Three of my favorite things.

Variations: you can use any type of pasta. I prefer the short kinds like penne or fusilli. The potatoes can either be cut very small, so that they break up and form part of the sauce, or somewhat larger, if you enjoy interacting with lumps of potato. Also, apparently you can use peas instead of green beans. Not sure I'd like that.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Super Diana Wynne Jones List

Since DWJ is one of my favorite authors, I've been wanting to write about her books for a while. However, I was afraid that the post would either be too short (two words: OMG! Squee!!!!) or too long (expanding those two words almost into infinity.) Here is a compromise: a list of her books with my favorites first, very brief descriptions, and publication date.

First Prize
  • Fire and Hemlock (1985) - this is absolutely her best. I like it because it's kind of scary. An adult man takes an interest in a prepubescent girl. He wants to use her for something, but he can't tell her what. She ends up repressing her memories of certain events. I don't believe that it's really about pedophilia, but the hints are disturbing nonetheless. (Usually I don't like horror at all - or rather, this is the kind of horror that I like, very understated.) And you ask why I like it? Because it's also a romance, a mystery, and a realistic depiction of adolescence and dysfunctional families. Plus she crams it all in without ever really telling us what's going on, and still makes it all work.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (1986) - contains several DWJ specialities: surprise ending, people who have magic powers but don't realize it, people who love each other but don't realize it and have lots of arguments instead, travel between 20th century Britain and other worlds, lots of humor, etc, etc. The movie does not do it justice. Sequels, less good: Castle in the Air (1990 - which I do like), House of Many Ways (2008 - which I haven't read)
  • The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) - This is my favorite of the "Chrestomanci" series, because the hero, without realizing it, assists some very bad people to do some very bad stuff. When he does realize, he has to stop them. I think this is kind of rare in a "children's" book, to give the protagonist something to feel genuinely guilty about - and yet make it clear that it wasn't his fault. Other books in this series that I like are Witch Week (1982) and Charmed Life (1977). The Magicians of Caprona (1980) is not very memorable. Conrad's Fate (2005) and The Pinhoe Egg (2006) are two recent additions which are good but not great. Resisting comparison to Harry Potter, of which I only ever read the first book and thought "This is like a cross between Witch Week and The Lives of Christopher Chant, only much worse."
  • The Homeward Bounders (1981) - I like this one a lot too. The ending is unusual for DWJ - won't tell you what it is.
  • Hexwood (1993) - another very well plotted book. The tagline on my copy says "Things are never what they seem to be" and that about sums it up.
Second Prize
  • Eight Days of Luke (1975) - I like this. Similar to Fire and Hemlock, it brings mythology into the present day, without spelling things out until the end.
  • Time of the Ghost (1981) - another "things are never what they seem to be."
  • Archer's Goon (1984) - mostly about time travel. The surprise ending is, perhaps, predictable once you've figured out what DWJ endings usually consist of, but I thought it was well done.
  • A Tale of Time City (1987) - I've written about this elsewhere.
Honorable Mention
  • The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996) - nonfiction, in a sense. Not fiction (unfortunately.) Very funny.
  • Wilkins' Tooth (USA: Witch's Business - 1973) - this deserves honorable mention because it was her first published children's book. Themes to be developed later appear: magic coexisting with everyday life, dysfunctional families, amusing euphemisms for swear words (this was a trend in her early books, seems to have faded away.) However, she hadn't figured out endings yet. She paints her characters into a corner and has to rip off a fairy tale to get them out. (Why is it that we mind less when someone "borrows" the beginning of a fairy tale and takes it in a new direction, but borrowing endings is seen as cheating?)
  • (Updated 10/5/2010) The Ogre Downstairs (1974) - her second published children's book.  Interesting as a preliminary sketch for ideas she expanded on later.  Should be read as a precursor to Time of the Ghost and the short story "Carruthers."
Less Good
  • Dogsbody (1975) - doesn't really pull it off, in my opinion. Ending was predictable (in other worlds, she does similar endings better elsewhere), hordes of talking animals and a Cinderella/political subplot (yes, that's what I mean) are ambitious but overdone.
  • The Magid series: Deep Secret (1997) and The Merlin Conspiracy (2003) - good but not great.
  • The Dalemark series: The Spellcoats (1979), Drowned Ammet (1977), Cart and Cwidder (1975), The Crown of Dalemark (1993) - DWJ's excursion into pure fantasy. I read them but don't remember much about them.
  • A Sudden Wild Magic (1992) - I read this a while ago and completely forgot about it until just now. I remember that it has a slightly more "adult" approach to sex than her other books, which shocked me a little at the time.
  • The Derkholm series: Dark Lord of Derkholm (1998), Year of the Griffin (2000) - again, not memorable, except for a very funny line in Year of the Griffin. A romantic youth opines, "To write poems to a cruel love is the height of artistry." The heartless lady's brother is heard to remark "that that was what they all said." Somehow putting it in the third person makes it funnier, to my mind. Should be read along with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, since they are set in that "world."
Short Stories

  • "Carruthers" - good
  • "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" - good
  • "Everard's Ride" - novella, good, not in her usual style
  • "The Fat Wizard" - funny
  • "No One" - I liked this
  • "The Plague of Peacocks" - funny, liked it a lot
  • "The Sage of Theare" - A Chrestomanci story - pretty good
  • "Little Dot" - pretty good, based on opera(!)
  • "The True State of Affairs" - good, scarier than her usual stuff
Ones I didn't like as much:
  • "Aunt Bea's Day Out" - funny
  • "Carol O'Neir's Hundredth Dream" - A Chrestomanci story, not bad
  • "Enna Hittims" - not very good
  • "The Fluffy Pink Toadstool" - not very good
  • "The Girl Who Loved The Sun" - interesting but predictable
  • "The Green Stone" - somewhat funny, set in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland world
  • "The Master" - a bit scary, not her best
  • "Nad and Dan adn Quaffy" - a bit funny, not her best
  • "Stealer of Souls" - A Chrestomanci story - pretty good
  • "Warlock at the Wheel" - A Chrestomanci story - not bad
  • "What The Cat Told Me" - not bad

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Torchwood (second look)

Well, I've been making my way through Torchwood, and I've now seen two episodes that really stand out.
  • "Countrycide" - I liked this a lot, even though a) I usually don't like horror at all and b) "countrycide" is actually a dumb name. Literally it would mean "killing the country" (on analogy with "homicide" - killing a person) but in this case it's arguably the countryside that's doing the killing. And that's what I liked about it.

    The Torchwood team gets stuck out in the middle of nowhere, and as the camera pulls back to show us the desolate hills looming over them, we understand that they are in deep trouble. One of the characters complains, "I hate the countryside." This is supposedly because he's a city boy, but those of us who have grown up there understand with all our hearts that, as Sherlock Holmes said many years ago, all kinds of bad stuff can happen out in the country, where there are no witnesses. In this particular episode, the explanation of what's going on might be implausible in spots, but it's fundamentally true, and that's why it works.

  • "Greeks Bearing Gifts" - again, this is a case where the "explanation" of the plot is a bit iffy, but the heart of the episode is powerful enough to make up for it. Toshiko feels that her teammates have betrayed her. A charming stranger is taking advantage of her loneliness. We see her being manipulated, and the details of the scam don't matter. She's truly suffering, and the actress, Naoko Mori, does an absolutely perfect job. (Ironically, although I felt that these episodes are superior to earlier ones, according to the episode commentary several scenes of "Greeks Bearing Gifts" were among the very first Torchwood scenes filmed.)
At this point I feel like mentioning that special effects don't usually do much for me. I mean, I'm a huge fan of science fiction and fantasy, and it's a great pleasure to be able to watch TV shows and movies that do no disservice to the genre (a fairly recent development). Obviously, you can't have SF&F without the FX. But I'm more interested in character than in watching things blow up.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blood Orange vs. Regular Orange

A friend of mine asked me what is the difference. Here is a visual aid:

As for the taste, blood oranges are slightly less sweet and slightly more . . . intense. I like them better than regular oranges.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Howl's Moving Castle (Miyazaki)

Finally saw it. So behind on everything. Knew that it deviated from the book, but what interested me was the habit it has of deviating and then wandering back. Book and film are still mostly about the same thing: the danger of catching falling stars. Isn't that right?

I thought the biggest change was in Howl's character. In the movie he's much more heroic (which makes the tantrum he throws over a hair dye malfunction seem rather out of place.) He doesn't flirt with anyone except Sophie - that was a major change. (In the book, in fact, Howl resembles Genji.) The unexpectedness and combativeness of their relationship is pretty much gone, which is kind of disappointing.

The only other comment I have is that Howl's apprentice is named Michael. The Japanese version of that seems to be "Murkl"??? and the English translation did not restore the English name. That's really weird.

Final verdict: not bad. Miyazaki is cool. Very very cool to see DIANA WYNNE JONES's name on the big screen. It's about time.