27 September 2006

Why we read and write and love

This evening, I went to hear a lecture given by Helen Fisher, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers and author of several books on the science of why people fall in love. Her latest book, Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love details her research into physiological changes in the brains of people in love as revealed by MRIs. Her work is fascinating and I'm sure that I couldn't do it justice summarizing here. If interested in details, go to her website, click on the 'more' link at the end of the first paragraph, and scroll down for a Q&A that summarizes the lecture I heard.

One of the things that interested me apart from her findings was an aside about literature. After making several references to authors and their works, Dr. Fisher commented that while other anthropologists may study pottery shards, she thought that poetry was a worthy object for the study of how people behave when infatuated, newly in love, in a life-long love relationship, or in pain over rejection and loss. She didn't quote at length from any particular work, but did recite a few lines from various poems and mentioned that she saw the world's oldest love letter (on a cuneiform-inscribed pot) in Turkey. She promised she would recite the world's "most beautiful love poem" in class tomorrow. I'm a little jealous of the students who get to hear that. She didn't give a title but said that it was native Alaskan poetry.

Poets, she said, for centuries have bled for lost love. How true. To capture a human emotion common to all humanity's experience -- love, rage, fear, sadness, joy, awe -- isn't that the objective of literature? It's why we write. And why we read.

25 September 2006

Odds and Ends; Bits and Pieces; Rats and Mice

Verse Libromancy
Go to Bud Bloom Poetry blog to get the Verse Libromancy button. Clicking on it will direct you randomly to one of over 500 literary sites on the web. Fiction, non-fiction and cultural commentary sites are included as well as poetry sites. The VL button code at Bud's site contains the listing if you're not willing to rely on serendipity. Link courtesy of Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. I've added the Verse Libromancy button to my sidebar on the right. Pretty cool.

AWAD Live Chat
Anu Garg at A Word A Day (AWAD) is hosting a live chat (9/26 6PM Pacific) with Paul Dickson, whose recent book is Labels for Locals: What to call people from Abilene to Zimbabwe?. Dixson has published several books. I'm particularly fond of Toasts; Words; and There Are Aligators in the Sewers. If you don't know AWAD, check it out. Anu's email will send you a new word every day with definition,pronunciation, and origins. Past chats with wordy people (ranging from cognitive psychologists to authors to dictionary editors) are archived on the site.

Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles mentioned this explication of Marmaduke today. It may be my new Daily Zen.

Lastly, with regards to this post's title. The astute reader will notice that I have not mentioned anything to do with rodents today (I don't think I ever have). Several years ago, a co-worker told me that New Zealanders use the expression "Rats and Mice" to mean Odds & Ends or Bits & Pieces. Apparently some of our NZ co-workers told her that, but I never heard any of them use it. She was a bit gullable. Maybe they really were talking about rats and mice? Is anyone out there familiar with this expression? It doesn't seem at all the same as bits & pieces, rodents being nasty things that you want to be rid of, where as odds and ends fill up the junk drawers in our brains, precisely because we don't want to be rid of them!

24 September 2006

Fear Stretched Thin: Some initial thoughts about the horror genre in fiction

"It's the other side" I had corrected my friend a few days earlier, not the "wrong" side of the road. But, as I rounded the bend and saw that the car coming towards me on the narrow Welsh road was not passing another vehicle, I realized it was the wrong side -- at that particular time. I was in the wrong place. The "other" was the wrong.

The adrenaline rush sent my heart racing and every muscle in my body was shaking uncontrollably. I was clammy from the sweat, a result of the near collision, not the sweltering 95-degree heat. And, then, after skidding to a stop, the parched fields returning from a green-and-fawn colored spinning blur to a crisp clear focus that showed not just the fields but each planted row, while the putrid smell of burning rubber still lingered in the air, I noticed a slightly jarring, almost eerie, sound: crickets. Song birds. A gentle rustling of leaves from a slight breeze.

It took a few seconds to catch my breath, to realize that, despite the heightened sensory awareness, all was okay. But the fear stayed with me for awhile. I trembled as I thought that I might have died alone, in a strange country, my loved ones helpless to comfort me. And that I might have been responsible for ending the lives of the man and his young daughter on that lonely country road where one would rarely expect to pass a car, and never expect a head-on collision. "They didn't see it coming around the curve" people would have said at the funerals. And others would shake their heads in agreement.

There was no damage to the car, but I had already been having mechanical problems. When I reached my destination, rather the exchange cars as intended, I left it at the rental shop and headed for the train station. Four and a half hours on a hot train seemed a better choice than three or more hours of additional stress in traffic on the M4. The train pulled into Paddington at rush hour. I made my way through the crowd and headed to the hotel. Fatigue had so settled into every bone of my body that I didn't have the energy to complain about the ground floor room, or about the closet-door style lock that would not have stopped any would-be intruders. The air conditioner worked -- and worked well -- so cold that it seemed to mist the air, microscopic water particles hitting my body as I collapsed on the bed. I didn't notice until I woke several hours later that at regular intervals, there was a muffled rumbling as the trains, just a few feet below my room, slowed on approach to the Underground station nearby. I felt like I had a hangover, a preferable state to being dead.

That was the last time that I felt real fear. Fear isn't always met on the highway, but it is something that lurks around the corner ahead. We don't know when we will encounter it, but we expect to at some time. We know the adrenaline rush, the ancestral fight or flight response. And we want to think that we will come out on the other side. The Other side -- the right side -- as if fear resides in a parallel universe, crossing over at unlucky times to inhabit our space.

I once heard anxiety described as "fear stretched thin". Anxiety is fear's half-sibling, twilight to fear's night. It bears similar characteristics, a familial resemblance, a safer variety like a quickly moving stream that you think you can surely navigate although you know there is a slight possibility that you might slip and fall into the unswimable rapids. It is the feeling, rather than the knowledge, that fear is around the next bend of the road, on the other side, waiting for us to cross the center line.

I am not a reader of the horror genre. Yet, when Carl V suggested the RIP challenge, I couldn't resist. What is this genre? I thought. What do I expect? Is it all the creepy zombie/vampire/blood-n-guts stuff of late-night B movies, the kind that we watched as kids on Nightmare Theatre with Sammy Terry, designed to scare us out of our wits? Does horror fiction only function on that juvenile level or is it something more?

It's fitting that the RIP challenge is timed to coincide with the Halloween season. All Hallow's Eve, the Christian version of the Celtic holy festival Samhain, is the acknowledgement of the other side of life, a time when souls can return to this world. I see it too as a recognition -- perhaps a recognition of the associated fear -- that not all souls are settled in the after-life, that sometimes death is not a finality bringing balance, peace and oneness in a spiritual hereafter. In its origins, All Hallow's Eve involved customs meant as means to frighten away the unsettled and evil spirits, to conquer those fears and overcome the horror of an eternal unsettled life, before honoring the eternity and the presence of All Saints and All Souls in the following days. "Trick or Treat" is a way to laugh at our luck in escaping that unsettledness of our anxieties and fears. To feel some semblance of control over that which we cannot control -- the unexpected and the unknown.

I don't think that horror fiction's intent is only to scare us. It provides us with a vicarious experience of anxiety, echoing fear by showing us the other side that we know is there. The side that isn't quite what we want to experience, but that which we cannot look away from. We understand the adrenaline rush. We imagine the pounding heartbeats, the clammy skin, the shortness of breathe when we have escaped and overcome the fearful. We know the heightened sense of awareness and enjoyment in our known world afterwards, having sensed what it might be like to lose it all.

Horror fiction may be the embodiment of fear stretched thin, wound around like a rubberband ball, ready to be catapulted across the page to the other side and into our souls, and then released in laughter and affirmation of life as we approach the final pages of the book. At least, that is what I expect to find as I begin reading some creepy, terrifying horror books for the RIP challenge.

21 September 2006

Comments: Bring it on!

I recently published a comment on a blog I read occasionally (I'm pretty confident that blog's owner doesn't visit my blog regularly & doesn't comment here, although I do wish she would read this). This is a blog that I usually find well-written, with a spirit of kindness and generosity. Unlike some blogs where the blogger is writing about her troubles, I don't find reading this one to be like watching for a train wreck. It's usually insightful, almost always causes me to think and to empathize, and has brought me close to tears a few times.

Anyway, there was a post several days ago that really bothered me. Although I knew its intent was to be funny and light-hearted, I found it not only unhumorous but also mean-spirited; I found it mocking and insulting. And I told her so. It was one of those times when I should have run it through the old bitchometer before I hit 'publish', but no -- I was pretty honked and I wanted to make my point. I thought that I explained my position: that if she realized how hurtful her comments could be to certain people, perhaps she would not have been poking fun as this was so uncharacteristic of everything she typically writes. In retrospect, I could have been more successful in making my point if I had extracted my emotions from it. Still, I don't think I went overboard in pointing out my disagreement, although I did say I was very disappointed in her so I guess that my judgmental side was showing a bit too much.

As anyone with more than two minutes of experience in Blogworld could probably guess, my little remarks spawned an enormous amount of comments (about 50), most of them telling me -- in words far more caustic than what I penned in anger -- how wrong I was. And not just that I was wrong, but that I was insensitive, too sensitive, stupid, self-centered, a censor, in need of a 'sense-of-humor transplant', unwelcome in this little corner of the blogosphere, and mean. Wow! I suppose I should have seen it coming, but I didn't. If I was truly insensitive, I would not have been close to tears when I checked back on this blog a few days later and read the vitriolic comments. (I did find the idea of a sense-of-humor transplant a wee bit funny though.)

The blogger posted an apology almost immediately, both within the comments and in a separate post, stating that she never intended - nor would she ever -- to make fun of someone. She wrote that she was mortified that her comments offended anyone, and I believe her. As typical of her writing, she made some thought-provoking comments about the responsibility of a blogger and how easily one can be misinterpreted.

But -- and this is what I find interesting -- all of the negative comments followed her apology. Rather than comment about the idea of community, the potential for misinterpretation inherent in the blog medium, or how much self-censoring one should do when posting, all but one of the comments were attacks on me for being candid in my response, some of them accusing me of wanting to limit free speech. One commentor pointed out that since all of the comments were opposed to me, I must be wrong. I wondered who would to dissent given the tone of the comments.

Is it really the rule of the blogworld that you don't comment unless you agree? Is it that we don't want to foster discussion and thought in our communities, but rather just want an enclave of like-minded folks? One person commented that if I didn't like it, I could 'change the channel'. It seems to me that that metaphor is not fitting in this case. While one can and should 'change the channel' on a television program if one doesn't like it, tv viewing is a passive activity. If one opens comments, one is soliciting feedback and thus making blogging an active endeavor. Do we really want only those that look just like us, think just like us, or talk like us, to participate? I don't think so.

I'd like your opinions -- whether you agree with me or not. I have intentionally not linked to the post or subsequent comments because I don't want to continue a flame war, but would like a general conversation regarding the responsibility of the blogger and commenters and the nature of building a blogging community. If you just happen to know to which blog I am referring, please honor my intent and keep it to yourself -- no links to it, please.

18 September 2006

Playing Pirates

Litlove recently wrote an interesting post regarding the idea of "play" in our lives. I've been thinking about this for the last week or so, considering how 'play' and reading intersect, particularly when one is reading a book that is a so-called easy read. But, I'll have to postpone that post about the concept of play in the interest of the real thing. I feel I must inform those of you who may not be in the know that tomorrow is an international holiday of sorts, dedicated to this very idea. It exists for one reason: to have fun.

Ayyyy. It's the annual Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Here are some links for you land-lubbers:

First, if you are unaware of Talk Like A Pirate Day (hereafter refered to as TLAPD), read about it here.

You can catch up on your pirate lingo on the site above. Or, check out A Word A Day, where Ol' Chumbucket (aka John Baur, TLAPD co-creator along with Mark Summers) is guest wordsmith this week. Today's word: Buccaneer. More piraty words to follow.

It doesn't take anything to play along other than a sense of humor, but won't it be much more fun if you had a pirate name? Your blogging pseudonym could work, but come on! You already have one 'goes by' name. Why not another? A legal system acquaintance introduced me to the goes-by term. So much more fun than an alias, isn't it? A pirate must have a pirated goes-by name!

I played around with potential pirate names. I even used the name generator on TLAPD website. Some choices:

Captain Dread (based on my blogger name)

Or these based on various combinations of first/middle/last names:

Neck-snapper Nancy
The Lone Drinker
Count Plunder
Captain Mary Bonney

But my favorite one is this one, based on what I call my pizza name*.

Gorgeous Jen Smythe

So I guess that makes this my pizza pirate name!

(*A pizza name being a name that is easily understood and/or spelled when placing orders/making reservations. Isn't used solely for pizza delivery; comes in handy in swanky places too. Those of you who are Smiths or Joneses, might not understand. I had used Simpson as my pizza name for years but it became unusable during the OJ trial years. So I changed it. Years later, when I first met my spouse, I told him that his surname was my pizza name. Some people are very confused when I tell them that X--- is not my married name, but my pizza name and there was no need to change it when I married. Maybe I'll change my pizza name to Smythe....)

Your pirate ship needs a name too. My ship's name? The Shameful Strumpet. You can find your ship's name on the same pirate site.

Pirates used to frighten me. The first poem I ever memorized, at the wise age of 5, was all about a pirate: Ogden Nash's "The Tale of Custard the Dragon". I wanted to be Belinda, but was so much like Custard. I also wanted that pirate's "cutlass bright". Didn't have a clue what it was, but I knew it had to be something wonderful and scary! You can read Nash's poem here.

Though I think those guys at TLAP are cool and all, I think they may have missed the pirate boat when it comes to books. Secretly I think every pirate, once he finds his buried treasure would spend all of those pieces-of-eight on books and retire to a nice Caribbean island to read them all. I think maybe I'll go read Treasure Island. I ended up with two copies last December due to a mis-shipment and the online store would not take one copy back. So, not quite pirate booty, (does a pirate offer to return goods not purchased?), but close enough for this 364-day-a-year land-lubber. Even though they claim pirates don't read, those pirate guys provide a link to an online version of Treasure Island. What's your favorite pirate book?

Lastly, here is a link to San Francisco's only independent Pirate Store, which is online too. Sponsored by 826 Valencia. They be good mates helping sprogs. Go. Support them. Support literacy.

Ahoy, matey!

You Are A Pirate!
You Are A Pirate!

What Type Of Swashbuckler Are You?
brought to you by Maddog Varuka & Dawg Brown

13 September 2006

The Moment: Joyce's The Dead

Cross posted at A Curious Singularity

There is a peculiar feeling that I experience from time to time that I like to think of as 'The Moment'. It isn't one moment that stands apart from all others; it isn't necessarily something profound, maybe not even memorable over time. Yet, it is a discernible present, a second or two that seems to last a little longer than a fleeting tick of the clock. Time seems to hang suspended for just long enough to perceive a difference. And, then, nothing is the same again.

It may happen when I'm reading a book. Or maybe when walking down a street in an unfamilar city. It may be a point during a conversation with an acquaintance. It is a melding of time and space in which I realize something that I did not know before. A moment of complete transformation where there isn't any going back: the point where a new town suddenly is made familiar; a new concept is learned; or a deeper understanding is gained of what makes your friend laugh or worry or cry so much that you now know them better than just a few minutes before.

Call it an epiphany, eureka, a paradigm shift, or a sudden flash of insight; it is what I call 'the moment'. It is palpable, perhaps measurable in some strange mathematical system. One's senses reel as one's brain steps quickly to rearrange all of the pieces into a new understandable pattern. It is this kind of a moment that is the culmination of James Joyce's The Dead.

There is so much that you could say about this story. Volumes of criticism have been written about Joyce. A simple Google query for "Joyce The Dead Criticism" returns a mere 1.1 million hits. Just looking at a few of them makes my head spin. I don't really care about knowing all of the obscure references to people and places in Joyce's life that are reflected in this story. For me, to think that one can segregate one's experiences from one's writing is almost incomprehensible. So, while it may be interesting to know that Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are based on real people that Joyce knew, or that Mr. Browne, the Protestant guest at that party, was named after a Protestant Irish minister, I don't think that it is a very useful means to look at a piece of fiction. I think Joyce wanted the reader to get something more out of this story than allusions to things in his life.

While the story does give one insight into Irish hospitality, or a glimpse into the politics of Irish nationalism, or a view of how men and women interacted in Dublin at the early part of the 20th century, I think Joyce's chief purpose in The Dead is to depict how one man's view of the world, of everything he knows to be true and real, can change in a heartbeat, a change so profound that he looks anew on his family, friends and life as if he had never seen them before.

The Dead is told from Gabriel's viewpoint, except for a brief beginning. Gabriel is a man consumed by self-doubt, by his social and familial obligations, and by an unrelenting sense of superiority. He regrets his conversation with Lily; he frets over the correct words for his speech, and he frequently muses over the lack of culture of his aunts and their social circle. These feelings seem disproportionate to the responses of the other party quests. Lily may think the available men in her social class are cads, but she doesn't seem offended by Gabriel's inquiry as much as he thinks she might be. Miss Ivors seems initially to be jovial in her talk with Gabriel, but he elevates it to a conflict that is noticed by others. He worries about his toast to his aunts and how others will perceive it, but the guests do not seem critical of his remarks. The Aunts and their friends seem to be versed in arts and in the politics of the day -- at least to the point that it interests them -- but Gabriel views them as naive, backward, uneducated. He believes that his views are considered, informed, and correct. Despite his self-recrimination regarding what he says and how he may be viewed, he is confident in his assessment of others.

Until the end of the story and the moment of his realization that maybe he doesn't understand things in his world at all. With Gretta's revelation that she once loved a young man who was willing to die for her, Gabriel realizes that he has never had --and never will have -- such a profound emotional connection with his wife. He realizes that the talk about dead people at the party was more than just chatter about someone from the past. It was a reminiscence of those people who had a profound impact on people's lives. The Dead are shadows, Gabriel realizes. The memory of the dead continues to influence the lives of the living. Realizing this his understanding of his wife, his aunts and others at the party is transformed.

It is his epiphanic moment that changes his life forever. The known city is now foreign; the once invisible dead are now seen in his world; his lack of love for Gretta exposed. In a moment, Gabriel Conroy realizes for the first time something that was present previously. In a brief fleeting moment he realizes the truth about his life. And nothing will be the same again.

12 September 2006

Sometimes it pays to read the SMALL PRINT!

6:40pm I double-check, in my usual obsessive way, what time the Zadie Smith reading is at Butler. Just in case it's at 7pm, not 7:30. Could still make it in time if I hurried. Good! 7:30pm. Just as I thought. Plenty of time.....

6:40:30pm What? It's where? The Krannert Room at Clowes? Not the auditorium? WTF? How big is that room? Well, still have plenty of time.....

Drive across town, park the car in the near empty lot, enter the main doors....

7:15pm. Yep, you guessed it. Venue full. They turned away over 100 people. The room holds 220 and they strictly enforced the fire marshall rule about no standing. Not a chance they could move it to the larger auditorium (which holds like 1200 people, I think). Someone on the usher staff was overheard saying that they had the opportunity to move it to a larger room last week but the sponsors opted not to due to cost.

I waited around, in hopes that someone would leave. After all, there are always a lot of bored students who stay long enough at these events for the quotable bit to prove they attended. (Apologies to those of you students who are interested. Don't take offense.) I was amused by the number of students, some showing up as late as 8pm who tried the 'But I'm required to be here for class' line. Didn't work with the ushers who, kudos to them, were very gracious and respectful despite some very disappointed people turned away at the door. Even after a round of applause, signaling, I hoped, that the reading was over and Q&A was beginning, no one left for at least another 20 minutes.

I did get in to hear (kind of -- the mic was not very loud) the last 3 questions posed:
- Impact of book reviews: Smith said she writes for a couple of years but reviews only last a few weeks. They are mostly irrelevant; any writer knows whether his/her writing is good or not. And, she is suspicious that a popular book (including her own) is any good if it is a best seller.
- Favorite authors: Zora Neale Hurston was one.
- Thoughts on American writers: Smith lauded the 'wealth of writers' here who are able to write in their natural voices, something, she said, that British writers aren't allowed to do.
- On visiting Jamaica: The vast difference between the extreme poverty of the citizens and the largess of the tourists is too jarring. She didn't like to travel there.

I'm not disappointed that I stayed despite missing most of the lecture. I would have wondered all evening if I should have stayed. The reading was videotaped and will be available for viewing by appointment. Unfortunately, I doubt that my schedule will allow for that. Oh well. Lesson learned: check the venue and don't wait until the last minute. As if I didn't know that already!

I did think quite a bit about how expensive it must be to host this type of event. In the 3 or 4 years that I've been attending Butler University's Visiting Writers Series, I have never been asked for a donation. And, despite the students who are reluctant attendees, there are often large numbers of people in the audience who do not appear to be students. I'm surprised that they don't ask for donations. I appreciate that they are free to the community. Maybe they should ask for donations from non-student attendees. I've made some amazing discoveries by attending readings of authors whom I have never heard of before. I don't have any problems parting with my dollars at Landmark Theatres. Certainly the arts are worth more than the cost of a movie ticket.

08 September 2006

Blogging voices: Defining characteristics

Kate wrote Thursday about distinctive voices of bloggers and how their voices are often instantly identifiable, even in comments on other blogs. (A lesson, perhaps, to not try to post something anonymously unless you're very, very good at disguises?) The first time I recognized a blogger by her voice, without regarding who placed the comment, I was a little surprised. Yet, it makes sense. If you read someone often enough, even in an informal medium like blogging, you're bound to recognize their style after awhile.

This leads me to another issue that I've thought of often. Are characteristics of a blogger noticeable, even if blogging pseudonymously? For example, can you readily identify someone by gender, by nationality or ethnicity, or by age, if those characteristics are not stated specifically?

I first thought about this several months ago when I asked my teen-aged son whether he thought most of the players in World Of Warcraft were teen & young adult males. He was a bit puzzled at first, but then thoughtfully said that he assumed most were, but he really didn't have any idea. He smiled slightly (maybe even blushed?) when I wondered what percentage of female characters in WoW were actually males. He said that he thought that a few women played the game, but said he didn't know if he could tell men playing women, or women playing men. He just knew that he didn't know any girls in real life who would play WoW, or at least admit to it. It does seem like a very male sort of game to me, although I know that not all gamers are male. His comment about not knowing girls who would play made me think about how much our concept of gender is based on what we know. He didn't know any girls that would play so therefore he might not know how to identify them in the role-playing game.

After this discussion, my husband said he re-read my blog to determine if there were gender signals within the writing (apart from the obvious things like 'my husband' etc.). I wasn't surprised that he thought it was definitely female, but I was surprised at what he pointed to as evidence of a female voice, the things that he claimed a man would never write.

I never would have tried to disguise my gender -- I don't know that I'd know how to do so while still retaining any sort of authenticity in my writing. A recent review in the NY Times of the new James Tiptree biography discussed how, in guessing the real identity of Tiptree, some had postulated that Tiptree had to be male. Tiptree was, in fact, a woman named Alice Sheldon. "The Women Men Don't See" is the only Tiptree that I've read. I already knew that Tiptree was a woman, but I found myself thinking as I read the story that there was a certain male quality, beyond the male first-person narration. Until I read the closing paragraphs of the story. Maybe the subtle, final joke of the story is that men can't understand women, but the character Althea -- and Tiptree-- certainly knew men and not in a way that men could recognize.

I don't know if it is as easy to identify age (assuming a mature adult narrative voice), although I have found myself surprised sometimes by things that are clues. For instance, on a blog I read frequently, the blogger recently mentioned something regarding her children which indicated that they were quite young. I thought: she's young enough to have a 5 or 6-year old? I hadn't consciously considered her age previously but I must have made some assumptions to be surprised that she was not the age that I expected.

In a role-playing game, like World of Warcraft, (I am not a player, btw), one could assume an identity that didn't have to share the same demographic characteristics as oneself. But, because it is a fictional world, perhaps it is easier to assume a radically different identity. In writing fiction, the writer has to be able to assume a portion of the identity of his characters in order to fully develop them. Otherwise, men could only write about men, and women about women. Sometimes, though, the gender, and maybe age & ethnicity as well, of the writer can be detected. It is an aspect of the style of writing that goes beyond the characters. Maybe in blogging, because it isn't usually a fictitious undertaking, those characteristics are more easily identified. After all, gender, age, religion, race make us who we are and influence what we choose to write about and how we choose to write it.

07 September 2006

A little surprise, a bit about reading, words, and poetry

Lots of different ideas scurrying around my brain today.

I don't like Tennyson. I loathed reading him in high school. I hated having to memorize "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Although I understood what the teacher meant by admonishing us to not read the poem "sing song", I couldn't understand how that was possible with this poem. Blah to the left of them! Blah! to the right of them! Blah! Blah! Droned the six hundred! Or at least it seemed as if we endured 600 students slogging through reciting this, although even in my big city high school I doubt my English class had more than 30 - 35 students.

I thought "The Lady of Shallot" was a bit better, but only because I loved Arthurian legends. I re-read it in college after seeing Waterhouse's gorgeous painting in the Tate. The painting set me on a brief course of discovering everything I could about the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, an interest that both amuses and puzzles me now and will never serve any useful purpose unless it's a category on Jeopardy! while I was an contestant. Still, I didn't care much for the poem.

So, imagine my surprise recently when I stumbled across this, from a wax cylinder recording of Tennyson reading "The Charge of the Light Brigade". Knocked me off my feet.

Wasn't Light Brigade written during the Crimean War? When was sound recording invented? Tennyson was still alive then?

Actually, the poem is about an event in the Crimean War, published in 1855; Edison invented the first sound recording device in 1877 and the Graphophone was patented in 1885; Tennyson died in 1892. This recording was done around 1890. Although the recording is very scratchy, and the softly spoken parts are almost inaudible, I don't think I'll ever read this poem and hear it read in that 'sing-song' teenage voice again. The Poetry Archive has other historical readings by poets. Fascinating!

Onto a different topic:

In my bookclub this evening someone asked whether one could say he had read a book if they had listened to the audio version? I would say 'yes', and pointed out that we "read" books with our kids even if we are the ones reading and they listen. It is a reading experience regardless of whether you are the reader or the one being read to. We talk about poets 'reading' their work, which is very different than when we read of poem. What about Braille books? The blind would say that they 'read' a book, wouldn't they? What do you think? If you were counting the number of books read in a year, would you include a book on tape? Are we splitting hairs to say that one should only claim to have listened to a book if he or she was not actually engaged in the physical act of making sense out of the ink shapes on the page?

Topic 3:
I found the WordNerd Podcast today. I only listened briefly to a few snippets from old casts (they'll air new shows beginning this Saturday following a summer hiatus). Based on what I heard and scrolling through the related blog, I think this seems really neat! The site has a forum feature as well, with discussions about all things wordy, not necessarily just the ideas on the weekly cast. Anything called WordNerds must be great for people like me who are, well, you know, Nerds about Words. I think I'll download their podcast -- once I get my ipod reconfigured after loosing the hard drive earlier this summer. Alas! I'm a bigger nerd with words than with some technologies!

Postscript: How funny! Blogger's spellchecker wants to change "WordNerd" to "ordinary". I've never met an ordinary Word Nerd in my life!

05 September 2006

Dry and Dusty

Oh my! I just started to read Ivanhoe this evening, this month's selection for my book club.

At the beginning is the Dedicatory Epistle (as if that isn't enough to frighten away a trepidacious reader), addressed to Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. Dryasdust? Dry.As.Dust?

I fear that the name is not meant to be funny. Oh my! What lies ahead?

In the Epistle, the fictitious Laurence Templeton writes:
He who first opens Chaucer, or any other ancient poet, is so much struck with the obsolete spelling, multiplied consonants, and antiquated appearance of the language, that he is apt to lay the work down in despair, as encrusted too deep with the rust of antiquity to permit his judging of its merits or tasting its beauties. But if some intelligent and accomplished friend point out to him that the difficulties by which he is startled are more in appearance than reality, if, by reading aloud to him, or by reducing the ordinary works to the modern orthography, he satisfies his proselyte that only about one-tenth part of the words employed are in fact obsolete, the novice may be easily persuaded to approach the "well of English undefiled," with the certainty that a slender degree of patience will enable him to enjoy both the humour and the pathos with which old Geoffrey delighted the age of Cressy and of Poictiers.

Cautiously, I approach Chapter 1 and am surprised to read the author addressing me, the reader, providing a bit of backstory:

This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader, who might be apt to forget that, although no great historical events, such as war or insurrection, mark the existence of the Anglo-Saxons as a separate people subsequent to the reign of William the Second, yet the great national distinctions betwixt them and their conquerors, the recollection of what they had formerly been, and to what they were now reduced, continued, down to the reign of Edward the Third, to keep open the wounds which with the Conquest had inflicted, and to maintain a line of separation betwixt the descendants of the victor Normans and the vanquished Saxons.

After choking down that bit of brevity, I read this beautiful description and almost overlook that there are nearly 100 words between the Initial Cap of hundreds and the terminal endmark following solitude.

Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copse-wood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of silvan solitude.

This continues on, subsequent sentences competing for the highest adjectival word count and then, the reader gets to the action a few pages later after the scene has been set.

"Betray thee! Answered the Jester; "no, that were the trick of a wise man; a fool cannot half so well help himself. But soft, whom have we here?"
"A murrain take thee!" rejoined the swineherd; "wilt thou talk of such things, while a terrible storm of thunder and lightening is raging with a few miles of us? Hark, how the thunder rumbles! and for summer rain, I never saw such broad downright flat drops fall out of the clouds; the oaks, too, notwithstanding the calm weather, sob and creak with their great boughs as if announcing a tempest. Thou canst play the rational if thou wilt; credit me for once, and let us home ere the storm begins to rage, for the night will be fearful."

Elizabethan dialog?

Hark, let us home this book into the dustbin with Mr. Dryasthesame and Sir Whatishisname. I do not posses such a slender degree of patience, nor such a vast well of time, to enjoy the humor and pathos of this. No earthly way this reader will finish this tome by Thursday night hence.

04 September 2006

Something scary this way comes....

When Danielle mentioned Carl's RIP Challenge a few days ago, I should have known that eventually I would succumb to the lure of this challenge and decide to participate.

But what to read? Horror is not a genre I'm at all familiar with. I've never read Dracula or Frankenstein, although both sit on my bookshelves. As for a writer more recent than Shelley or Stoker, well, I read one book by Stephen King -- in 1982! I'm not sure that I could even think of another current horror writer besides King. Is there anyone else? From the shelves at the bookstore, it doesn't look like King has much regular competition!

So, after reading several of the lists posted, and spending time browsing at Half-Price Books (I didn't know they were having a sale! Yipee!), I've come up with the following list. In my usual not completely 100% committed sort of way, it isn't 5 books; it's 3 books, a collection of short stories, and a listing of potential candidates for the last selection.

1. Dracula, Bram Stoker
2. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
3. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
4. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Washington Irving
5. TBD

From the collection of Irving stories, I'm going to read the title story, Rip Van Winkle, and The Spectre Bridegroom: A Traveler's Tale. (Isn't that a neat title?) I may add one or two more sketches from this collection if I have time.

I've been wanting to read something by James, so The Turn of the Screw will serve a dual purpose. I read this in college but remember absolutely nothing about this work. I do remember the professor though -- that may be a separate post! I used to think she was a prototype for one of the characters in the movie mentioned below -- the one with green skin! I recently mentioned that I wanted to read The Aspern Papers. Since it is in the same book, it took about 2 seconds for that book travel from the shelf to my cart. I'll read that after the RIP challenge.

I have a couple of ideas for my last choice. Straying a bit from the gothic ghost story, I'm considering Gregory Maguire's Wicked. It is about a witch and the Wizard of Oz might still scare me if I'd watch it again.

Or, more in the sci-fi category, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, may be my 5th selection. According to the blurb this novel is about a sane woman committed to an insane asylum and is about "...the timeless struggle between beauty and terror, between good and evil...." It seems like it is a dystopia, but that's scary to me. Maybe with a little bending of the rules, it could fit Carl's guidelines.

Or, I could read The Island of Dr Moreau which I realized today was on one of my bookshelves. I had too many other committments to begin this in time for the discussions at The Slaves of Golconda.

And, since I still want to read two works from my Summer Reading Challenge List (which was very agressive, times 2), maybe my idea to read Beowulf as well as Gardner's Grendl might be interesting choices since they are about monsters. After hearing my son's teacher talk about Gilgamesh, I want to read that also. I wish they'd finish with it so I can reclaim it after it has been relegated to the back seat of my son's car!

Speaking of the Summer Reading Challenge, I knew that I would extend this a few days through the Labor Day Weekend. It's been a read-a-thon at Chez Camille this weekend; I've managed to finish at least two books I started earlier in the summer. My SRC goal was 25 books. Yikes! I read 12. That was a big accomplishment for me; I had only read 15 books between Jan & the end of May. The SRC was fun. I think the Readers Imbibing Peril (R.I.P.) Autumn Challenge will be fun too, especially since I'll be reading works different from my usual choices. I know that there is some commonality with others participating, so it will be fun to compare thoughts on these readings.