Art, Literature, Music Archives

August 10, 2009

How Netflix Works


How Netflix gets your movies to your mailbox so fast

Fascinating article on how Netflix processes and mails all those disks in all those little red envelopes.

It is almost enough to make me make the time to watch movies.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:53 AM | TrackBack

February 10, 2006

Olympics opening ceremonies

J and I watched part of the Olympic opening ceremonies tonight while I put together the tricycle for younger son's 2nd birthday party Sunday.

I had a couple of banal thoughts, nothing like my comments on previous ceremonies.

The first is that as I get more geezerly I have less and less patience for TV sports. I just find myself wanting to get up and go do something else after about half an hour of watching.

The second is that I will be rooting for the Czech ice hockey team. You just have to root for someplace whose past includes the defenestration of Prague and Vaclev Havel.

The third is that I stayed in the room with the opening ceremonies until the Mongolian team came in. I liked the hats. Like the Czech Republic, Mongolia is a place that I am fascinated by, have warm feelings towards, and would love to visit. In fact, if the University of Ulan Bator ever hires an Americanist, I will apply for the position.

And so to, well, I should go to bed, but City of Heroes just reactivated my old account for two weeks.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:36 PM | TrackBack

January 31, 2006

There's Coffee in the Pot

To the tune of Whiskey in the Jar

As my dreams were roaming over
The mountains of the morning
I heard something wake me and
It was a toddler crying

So I outs of my warm bed
For to see what's the matter
And I said lets get going
For you are an early riser

And it wack for the daddy oh (3x)
There's Coffee in the Pot

Posted by Red Ted at 10:34 PM | TrackBack

September 13, 2005

Phil Folk

We went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival a couple of weekends ago, and I forgot to blog about it. (Actually, I felt uncomfortable blogging about a music festival while the news was all Katrina all the time.)

It was good fun.

We went with J's father and step-mom, who had come down from Boston for the festival and to attend Elderson's birthday party the previous weekend. We day tripped Saturday and left before the end of the evening concert.

Highlights for me were Bethany and Rufus, Airdance, and the Johnson Girls. I got the B&R cd, and want to get some Airdance.

I liked about half of what Wolfstone did. To my ear they were powerful, driving, and compelling when they played hard rock and roll with lead bagpipes skirling over the top. They were just another boring English pop band when the piper shifted to whistles and the other guys started to sing. And, much as I liked the hard folk-rock sound, I suspect that a full evening of just bagpipes and guitars would be like a bluegrass festival – too much of the same sound.

J. was quite taken with Artisan and the Johnson Girls. She wanted to like Footworks, but preferred the things they used to do when they were the Fiddle Puppets. She still likes the group, but did not like the show they put on for the festival.

Elder Son loved Airdance, mostly because their drummer, Sam Zucchini, played a "boomy drum" aka a Bodhran. He also really liked the piper who opened the evening concert, and sort of liked Wolfstone's bagpiper as well.

Littler Man's favorite part was going to the dance tent for some square dancing. I danced for about an hour while holding him, flipping him from right hand to left depending on which hand I was about to need for the dance.

I think J's dad liked the Johnson Girls the most, but he is big into maritime music and sea chanteys. The J girls do have a HUGE sound, very impressive with lots of open chords and powerful harmonies.

It was good fun, and we expect to be back again next year.

Oh, and J and I talked about it and decided that the kids are big enough that we can start going out and doing things again, and that the thing we most enjoy doing is folk music and folk dancing.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:17 PM | TrackBack

June 25, 2005

Flagpipes !

"So elder son, do you want to listen to some music this morning?"

"yeah"

"What sort of music do you want to listen to?"

"uhmmm . . . flagpipes"

"Tannahill Weavers OK?"

"yeah"

And so we listened to flagpipes.

I have this terrible fear that, during his later obnoxious teen years, we will see him cruising down South street, going slow with the windows open and the convertible top down, with a pair of bagpipers tooting away in the back seat.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:09 AM | Comments (1)

April 20, 2005

Odd companions

What do these four folks have in common?

Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington
Emperor Francis Joseph I
Adolf Hitler
William Jefferson Clinton

All are biographies sitting on my "read me" shelf after my most recent trip to the library.

So far I am 180 pages into volume 1 of Ian Kershaw's 2 volume Hitler. April seems to be biography month.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:45 PM | TrackBack

April 08, 2005

Teaching and Social Norms

This one could easily have been titled "things the toddler taught me about teaching undergraduates," but that title would have raised expectations beyond this little post.

We were talking about the 1920s yesterday, and I chose to frame the decade using art in general and literature in specific to argue that it was an era of anxiety. So, we talked about Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place" and Mary Webb's With Affection and Esteem, then moved to a nice loose discussion about changes in class identity between the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. To the first approximation, 18th century class is defined by birth, 19th by behavior, 20th by consumption, with the qualifier that all three always matter. As Flea points out, you don't take your boyfriend to the job interview.

a graph showing births declining, behavior as an uneven bell curve, and consumption increasing steadily then going asymptotic

The transition between class defined as behavior and class defined as consumption came during the "modern" era - that moment between about 1885 and 1925. I used one of our short stories, Mary Webb's With Affection and Esteem as our transition. Read the short story, it is only about 1500 words and it is very good but sad.

I argued that one aspect of the story is that the landlady is coming out of the 19th century, with class, and worth, and meaning, defined by behavior and expectations. Myrtle Brown is a more modern woman, and wants to add worth and value and meaning to her life, to pay the debt of beauty that she feels owed, by engaging in an act of consumption - buying cut flowers.

So where does the toddler come in?

The slacker section had exactly two people read that short story. After pulling teeth for a while I gave up, decided that it was short, and spent 5 to 10 minutes of class time reading it out loud. I cry almost as easily as Dick Vermeil, and I choked up at the moment when she was buying her flowers and fulfilling her dream. But, since part of the toddler's bedtime ritual is to read three books, and since his second favorite toy after the Little People Schoolbus is the closest book, I have had a fair bit of practice at reading out loud.

Afterwards we had a pretty good discussion. The kids are not dumb, but they are overworked and a bit lazy.


Posted by Red Ted at 07:55 AM | TrackBack

March 23, 2005

I read weirder things than this on my box of breakfast cereal.

A couple of weeks ago I had the kids read the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol and then write me a one-page thing on the class identity of the characters.

Many of the kids thought the story was strange. One told me that this was the weirdest story she had ever read.

I gave into temptation, and wrote in the margin of her paper:

"then you need to read more."

But then, maybe I just like to read very weird things. I found "The Nose" to be a perfectly reasonable bit of surrealism. And I like surrealism.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:52 PM | TrackBack

March 05, 2005

Marx, Chaplin, and Bogey

A couple of times now I have asked the students if they have seen one or another cultural milestone, Casablanca for example. Few have. Heck, I never got around to until last year when La Sheila's rants finally convinced me to watch the thing.

On Tuesday we have a class titled "Karl, not Groucho." I predict that most of them will get the joke in the title, and that almost none of them will have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie.

The week after that is spring break. I am thinking about giving them an unofficial assignment - a recommendation rather than a requirement - that they watch at least one classic movie over the vacation. But what to require. As of right now my list is:

Anything by Buster Keaton
Anything by Chaplin
Anything by the Marx Brothers
Casablanca
Anything with Bogart and Bacall
Anything with Marlene Dietrich
Triumph of the Will (hard to find in video stores for some reason.)

What else should I give them?

Posted by Red Ted at 08:36 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

February 16, 2005

Monty Haul fiction

I was starting to catch up on January's reading over on the reading blog - so far I am through Jan 2 - and I had a random bookish thought that belongs over here.

Old-school gamers should be familiar with the phrase Monty Haul. It refers to a style of pencil-and-paper gaming where the game master hands out vast quantities of cool toys, the characters are hugely powerful, and the game consists of, basically, a batch of thugs in chainmail and magical artillery knocking on the front doors of "evil" critters, killing them, and taking even more cool toys.

As a game-master I always had to struggle against my inner Monty Haul - it is fun to give a neat thing to the characters. The trouble is, they keep it and continue to use it.

The same pattern appears in some light fiction, especially the various flavors of wish-fulfillment fiction, hackery, space opera, and, well, light entertainment. Gee, says the author, it would be neat if I could give my character this, or that. Let the poor policeman marry a rich girl with a high libido. Give the starship captain a telepathic connection to her pet cat. And so on.

The problem comes because light fiction, like Hollywood movies, tends to be written until the next one is projected to lose money. While not all authors in this genre are as, well, hackish as Piers Anthony or Bill Butterfield (Anthony writes two novels a year, and never writes a book he has not already sold. The last few volumes in his various pentologies tend to get mailed in. Butterfiel - W.E.B. Griffiths is his best byline - has half a dozen identities, has written over a hundred books with a couple of repetitive scenes and themes, and has been known to have one alias write cover blurbs for his other aliases. Both are nice guys, and I like their stuff, but it is hackery. Back to the topic.) While not all authors in this genre are as, well, hackish as Anthony and Butterfield, still there is a tendency for space opera, technothrillers, mysteries, and the like to be written for the market. If you write for a living, make sure you get paid for what you write.

I was reminded of the Monty Haul fiction problem while reading Elizabeth Moon's Marque and Reprisal - a very good space opera in which the heroine ends the book with a heck of a lot of cool toys. If Moon intends to do more with the character, she will either have to take away some of those toys or revamp the, well, power-level of her universe and its challenges so that things are once again a trouble for her heroine. I suspect she will handle the problem well - she is a very competant wordsmith - but she has given herself a Monty Haul problem.

I stopped reading Butterfield, despite liking the things he wrote as W.E.B. Griffiths, because I got tired of reading the same Monty Haul scenario again and again and again. Still, I am unusual - I read a lot, including a lot of dreck, and I remember and think about what I read.

And so to go read the sociology of religion. The joys of doing a literature review are myriad.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:53 AM | TrackBack

December 17, 2004

Lost or translation?

I am taking a break from grading and writing (one section graded, other has its exam this afternoon) to do a little more work on the reading packet for next semester.

Along the way I had a random thought - if you have partial knowledge of a foreign language, say something like my own knowledge of French where I can read Le Monde and get the gist of the articles but will miss the subtleties and nuances, are you better off reading in translation or struggling with the original?

I ask because the evil angel on my left shoulder thinks that I should have the kids read le declaration des droits des hommes while the good angel on my right shoulder would rather that they read the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

I think the good angel will win this one, if only because if the evil angel won he would want me to follow his policy on the other readings, and my Russian is not good enough to make sure I had a correct copy of "The Overcoat."

Still, it is an interesting question: struggle with the original or read someone else's interpretation of the original. Perhaps I should re-phrase it to "at what level of fluency are you better off reading the original over the translation"? Yes, that captures the crucial middle territory.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:51 AM | TrackBack

December 07, 2004

The music meme

I don't think I have posted one of these before. The drill has gone around the blogosphere a few times now: open your e-music utility, set it to random play, list the first ten items that appear.

My iTunes is mighty eclectic. Yep. That's a word for it. (ok, long on folk and on classic pop.)

1) Dońt Slit Your Wrists For Me --- Oysterband
2) Take Her in Your Arms --- Andy M. Stewart; Manus Lunny
3) Rock That Sucker --- Claudia Schmidt
4) Assumpta Est Maria, Antiphon -- Gregorian Chants: Schola de Monjos de Montserrat
5) Themes - I) Sound, II) Second Attention, III) Soul Warrior --- Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe
6) Freight Train -- Mike Seeger
7) I'll be there --- The Jackson 5
8) I Heard It Through The Grapevine --- Ben Harper/The Funk Brothers
9) So Why? --- Carbon Leaf
10) One World --- Dire Straits

Best 2 lyrics to play while I was blogging this:

But it all might have been diff'rent had he seen her in daylight.
She was painted
She was scented
But she drove yon man demented

From Andy M. Stewart

and

Sex is like a chain gang
There are no volunteers
You could be shackled to a maniac for
SIXTY YEARS

Oysterband, "Don't Slit Your Wrists for Me"

Posted by Red Ted at 08:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 04, 2004

Dangerous Web Sites

I found a very dangerous website - the Internet Archive and especially its collection of digitized live performances from taping-friendly bands.

I have been finishing up the paper grading for URU while downloading and listening to all manner of jam bands.

I think I really like Carbon Leaf, and that I might have to catch Railroad Earth in their upcoming Philly show.

Now to grade Suburban State.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:14 PM | TrackBack

December 02, 2004

Great American Novel ?

Blogging has been light because I have been wrestling with both insomnia and a big stack of papers to grade. I had the students read Uncle Tom's Cabin and write about that and some of the other primary documents for this semester. While driving the other day I had a semi-random thought inspired by all this lack of sleep and all this UTC.

I asked myself if UTC was the "great American novel" - a question I have asked myself before.

My answer this time surprised me. My answer is below the fold, but before you click on "more blather" ask yourself:
What is the Great 19th-Century American Novel?
What is the Great 20th-Century American Novel?
What is the "Great American Novel"?

Why?

And I want your immediate gut responses.

Now click.

My gut answer was that UTC was the Great 19th Century Novel but that Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was the Great American Novel.

In fact, if I were to rate the contenders for the title of Great American Novel, both of the 20th-century entries would be at the head of the pack:

Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby (J's choice)
Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Twain, Huckleberry Fin

I am not sure what the other plausible contenders are - much I think depends on how you set the criteria for the great national novel.

What surprised me is that I could not tell you which Faulkner novel is As I Lay Dying - as soon as I finish grading I will toddle over to the library, check it out, and read it to see if my gut answer was in any way correct. So my 20th century answer was from the gut, and I could not tell you why, while my 19th-century answer was reasoned through and is something I could talk about at great length - I touch on it on my Reading Log writeup of UTC, but I could go on and point out that UTC is speculative fiction written about an imagined future (check the chronology in the book) while Huck Finn is historical fiction written about an imagined past. The former is often more telling about our anxieties, the latter about our questions.

So, comment away - those of you who read this far. What are your votes, and do your gut and your reason agree with one another?

And so to bed.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:06 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

November 26, 2004

43 Boxes of books.

We spent the day moving boxes.

J's parents had come down for Thanksgiving at our place. My folks who live about an hour away went to New Mexico to visit my syster, so my brother and J's brother came to our house. It was a nice Thanksgiving - 7 adults, 2 kids, low stress, good food. I cooked. I like to cook for Thanksgiving, if only because it means I get out of doing dishes.

Anyhow, the point of this particular post is that this morning J's parents watched the kids while J and I went to our storage area and moved stuff from the 10' by 20' unit to a 10' by 10' unit. When we lived in Virginia we rented a 4 bedroom house for about 2/3 of what it cost us for first an apartment and then this mortgage. The excess stuff went into storage.

As part of moving and sorting (and flagging things to get thrown away or sold on ebay) I counted. We have 43 boxes of books in storage - almost all fiction, about half science fiction. My history books and journals are all in the house now. 43 boxes is a LOT of books - figure that one box is about one book shelf.

They say that if you don't use something for a year, you can get rid of it. We have had these books in boxes for three years now. But, several times a month, I wish I had them. So we get to keep them.

And so to count pieces and figure out how many of my old Avalon Hill games can be sold on Ebay. Anyone want a well-played copy of War at Sea? How about a very good copy of Magic Realm?

I am keeping my miniatures and some of the games, but we just have too much stuff.

Oh, the book boxes filled just under one quarter of the storage unit. The rest is filled head high with fabric and sewing, passover dishes, boxes of memories, memorabilia, and sheet music, and all manner of other good things. We hope to get rid of about half the contents of that storage area this coming year.

I am not sure if I would make a good turtle, for I carry my life around with me, or a poor turtle, because it is so heavy I can barely move.

p.s. we are keeping the 5-volume Ogden Nash.

p.p.s. The toddler likes Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, although he wants more pictures and less poetry.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:04 PM | TrackBack

November 18, 2004

Like Something out of William Gibson

William Gibson writes cyberpunk fiction about a world where communication, technology, and corporations have combined to create a completely alien gestalt over and through the rusting remnants of our industrial age.

One of his recent novels included a chain of convenience stores where every store had cameras mounted on it and every store had video screens all over it and every store was constantly displaying a shifting montage of random images viewed at all the other stores. It was a sort of worldwide urban kaleidoscope.

Eric Muller points out that Livejournal has a script that shows you the last 20 images posted to Livejournal. It is fascinating - a sort of random voyeurism of images voluntarily shared with the public. I find myself going back to see what is new, what is different, and to get some sort of a loose feel for what people are doing with their livejournals.

Now if only I could sleep.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:21 PM | TrackBack

November 08, 2004

17 >> 19 (for prose style)

Tomorrow's class will be reading parts of the Beecher/Grimke debate. As I was reviewing Catherine Beecher's explanation for why women should not participate in politics I noticed that she made a point that had earlier been made by John Winthrop in his "Model of Christian Charity." However, Winthrop said it much much better; Catherine Beecher puts me to sleep.

John Winthrop:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.
Catherine Beecher
It is the grand feature of the Divine economy, that there should be different stations of superiority and subordination, and it is impossible to annihilate this beneficent and immutable law.

Both of them get longwinded as they explain their point, but Beecher is just a polysylabic babble while Winthrop is at least writing in the rhythms of the king's English. Or, better yet, Beecher makes her point with adjectives, Winthrop with nouns.

Full paragraphs below the fold.

Winthrop:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

The Reason hereof.

1 Reas. First to hold conformity with the rest of his world, being delighted to show forth the glory of his wisdom in the variety and difference of the creatures, and the glory of his power in ordering all these differences for the preservation and good of the whole; and the glory of his greatness, that as it is the glory of princes to have many officers, soe this great king will haue many stewards, Counting himself more honoured in dispensing his gifts to man by man, than if he did it by his owne immediate hands.

2 Reas. Secondly that he might haue the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit: first upon the wicked in [Page 34] moderating and restraining them: soe that the riche and mighty should not eate upp the poore nor the poore and dispised rise upp against and shake off theire yoake. 2ly In the regenerate, in exerciseing his graces in them, as in the grate ones, theire love, mercy, gentleness,
temperance &c., in the poore and inferior sorte, theire faithe, patience, obedience &c.

3 Reas. Thirdly, that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knitt more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that noe man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himselfe, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man. Therefore God still reserves the propperty of these gifts to himself as Ezek. 16. 17. he there calls wealthe, his gold and his silver, and Prov. 3. 9. he claims theire service as his due, honor the Lord with thy riches &c.--All men being thus (by divine providence) ranked into two sorts, riche and poore; under the first are comprehended all such as are able to live comfortably by their own meanes duely improved; and all others are poore according to the former distribution.

Beecher:
It is the grand feature of the Divine economy, that there should be different stations of superiority and subordination, and it is impossible to annihilate this beneficent and immutable law. On its first entrance into life, the child is a dependent on parental love, and of necessity takes a place of subordination and obedience. As he advances in life these new relations of superiority and subordination multiply. The teacher must be the superior in station, the pupil a subordinate. The master of a family the superior, the domestic a subordinate--the ruler a superior, the subject a subordinate. Nor do these relations at all depend upon superiority either in intellectual or moral worth. However weak the parents, or intelligent the child, there is no reference to this, in the immutable law. However incompetent the teacher, or superior the pupil, no alteration of station can be allowed. However unworthy the master or worthy the servant, while their mutual relations continue, no change in station as to subordination can be allowed. In fulfilling the duties of these relations, true dignity consists in conforming to all those relations that demand subordination, with propriety and cheerfulness. When does a man, however high his character or station, appear more interesting or dignified than when yielding reverence and deferential attentions to an aged parent, however weak and infirm? And the pupil, the servant, or the subject, all equally sustain their own claims to self-respect, and to the esteem of others, by equally sustaining the appropriate relations and duties of subordination. In this arrangement of the duties of life, Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station, and this without any reference to the character or conduct of either. It is therefore as much for the dignity as it is for the interest of females, in all respects to conform to the duties of this relation. And it is as much a duty as it is for the child to fulfil similar relations to parents, or subjects to rulers. But while woman holds a subordinate relation in society to the other sex, it is not because it was designed that her duties or her influence should be any the less important, or all-pervading. But it was designed that the mode of gaining influence and of exercising power should be altogether different and peculiar.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:05 PM | TrackBack

October 28, 2004

Mosh

I finally got a chance to see Eminem's Mosh video. The word on the video is that it is a powerful political statement, and a chance to take anger at BushCo's policies to the voting booth. It is. "the stars and stripes / have been swiped" sings Eminem, who is angry that BushCo have claimed patriotism while pursuing policies that hurt poor, urban Americans.

But as I watched the video I was reminded of Echidne's reminder that Eminem has a long history of misogynist vocals and images, and that while he has made a piece of art whose politics the lefty blogosphere approves, this does not by itself rehabilitate him. In some ways Echidne reminds me of the (few) Republicans who praised Trent Lott for his actions as a party leader while condemning him for never renouncing his ties to white supremacist groups.

While it is unrealistic to demand total purity from one's political allies - that is the way to the small tent of the perennial loser - it does not mean that standing within the big tent protects you from all criticism. I tell my students that the study of history is a constant set of moral judgments, conscious or not, as we attempt to make sense of the people of the past, their world views and their decisions. Modern life is the same, and it is entirely consistent to praise a person for some of what they do, criticize them for other things that they do - the consistency is in the moral code you use to interpret the world, not in the relationship to any particular individual.

Watch the video - it is quite powerful. But also notice that it shows a predominantly male world - the mosh pit in the third verse is all male, most of the lead characters are male - with women appearing more as moral markers than as actors who decide their fate. I noticed three women: the soldier's wife, the single mom, and the grandmother registering voters. The first symbolizes family, and remains at home. The second does get political and appears next to Eminem as the crowd rushes to vote - but she is not one of the people who acts to clear away obstacles to voting. The third is the most obvious moral marker - the old lady sitting behind a desk as people sign their names and go to vote. She symbolizes good government, tradition, and the notion that the very old provide moral governance to the very young.

I am glad to see that Eminem has gotten political. I am fascinated at the extent to which politics has re-emerged as part of popular culture, especially youth culture. I am curious to see where that political energy goes after the election. Eminem closes his song with a warning to both candidates - Mr. President, Mr. Senator - saying that his mosh generation will insist on being heard in the future. Rather than giving a blank check to any one political party he is issuing a call for constant vigilance. But then, as both the founders and Barry Goldwater reminded us, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:10 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

October 02, 2004

Warm Fuzzy

I got a warm fuzzy. A couple of weeks ago I wrote up my thoughts on S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire and yesterday he stumbled across my review and liked it.

I re-read the review and liked it as well. I then went back and spell checked the thing, because I had left some doozies in there.

Science fiction is a community; the genre is defined in part by the constant conversation between readers and authors outside of the marketplace. The web makes it possible for people to stumble across things and comment on them. The combination can be pretty darn cool.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:06 AM | TrackBack

September 27, 2004

Reading Log update

Looks like four novels in the reading log this week. I have been nibbling on, erm, three history books but until I finish one I can't list it here.

Robert Heinlein To Sail Beyond Sunset
S.M. Stirling Dies the Fire - longer writeup and a good book.
Orson Scott Card First Meetings in the Enderverse - short stories. So So.
Suzanne Chazin The Fourth Angel a FDNY thriller, good procedural with a female lead.

That is all I want to blog up now. I need to think some more about the last thing I read, but I can and do recommend Catherine Asaro to folks.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:59 PM | TrackBack

September 21, 2004

What makes a good student?

I teach the US history surveys. As part of my class prep I read other peoples' syllabi. I also pay attention to what works in my classes, and to what does not work.

Teaching at several institutions, ranging from open enrollment community colleges to elite public universities, and following news and advice from other institutions, I have noticed a couple of patterns in what makes a good student: Good students read faster and with better comprehension.

One constant that I have noticed between schools is that, to the first approximation, elite schools and open enrollment schools cover about the same stuff in their classes. Every US1 survey will review, say, Bacon's Rebellion. The difference is that the better schools expect the students to have done more reading. One extreme of this is Cornel West's philosophy seminar at Princeton, where the undergraduates might be asked to read 300 pages of Aristotle for that week's class, and then spend the entire class session talking about some of the implications of the thought. They don't spend any class time reviewing what Aristotle wrote; West assumes, correctly, that the kids will have done the reading and understood it well enough to talk about its implications.

So, when I am talking to high school students about their own college choices, I point out that in the humanities the thing to check is their own reading speed and reading comprehension skills. If they are high, go for the better schools. If they are a slow reader with poor comprehension, be careful not to go to a school that will bury you under pages and pages of stuff.

I have in the past formed a poor impression of the reading comprehension skills of students at Urban Research University, largely because many of them really struggled to make it through the monographs I assigned them. I used perfectly readable books like Olivier Zunz Making America Corporate, Edmund Morgan American Slavery / American Freedom, and T.H. Breen Myne Owne Ground, and the kids hated them, struggled to understand them, and left me in a situation where I had to walk them through the book's argument even AFTER the kids had written a paper about the book.

I bring this up because I am teaching an identical syllabus at URU and at Suburban State University. This week we read excerpts from Ouladah Equiano's famous slave narrative. The kids at URU got it - they told me not to bother with the recap and we moved straight into analysis. And, sure enough, we had a good discussion of the book and it was clear that all 45 had read it, most had gotten it, and many could talk intelligently about it. Yesterday afternoon we did the same class at SSU. This time only 4 kids out of 35 could talk about the reading, and even though all wrote me a 200 word homework on it, it felt like most of them had either not done the reading or not understood the reading. So, I spent half an hour pulling teeth to work up the basic narrative of Equiano's life before moving on to new material and making my actual arguments. It was a very frustrating class.

I am still not sure how much of the difference in student quality comes from the two institutions, how much because URU is meeting at prime time while SSU is meeting at slacker time, but I am now 20 minutes behind in the SSU class. I will cut short their discussion of the middle colonies in order to tell the tale of Bacon's Rebellion and the shift from class-based to race-based hierarchies in the colonial Chesapeake. I think I can make time for that.

EDIT
I have now graded the homework that the kids wrote for that class. They had done the reading. Most of them knew the stuff we were talking about. But, for some reason, they did not feel confident in that knowledge and certainly were not forthcoming with what they knew. I have to think about my teaching style for that class and see if I can come up with something that might give them a little more self-confidence and thus get them more involved.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:23 AM | TrackBack

September 17, 2004

Reading Log update

I have not been keeping up with the reading log, much less with these announcements of what is on there.

Since the last of these announcements I have put up a bit of blather about:
Dick Francis Hot Money audiobook
Evelyn Waugh Vile Bodies (did not finish)
S.W.A.T. movie
Andrea Tone Devices and Desires history of contraception
Kent Haruf Plainsong audiobook
Stephen Davis Hammer of the Gods
Led Zeppelin concert DVD
Orson Scott Card Tales of Alvin Maker 6 novels
Lisa Scottoline Legal Tender
Hellboy movie.

I also read another thriller, but I returned it and have forgotten the title.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:25 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 09, 2004

Led Zeppelin

I got the urge to listen to some Led Zep.

So, I chased down their complete catalogue. I now have 8.1 hours of high quality screaming, thumping, and electrifying electric noise.

I think it will make fine writing music.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:58 AM | TrackBack

August 30, 2004

Phil Folk

Saturday the four of us day-tripped to the Philadelphia Folk Festival. It was good fun. We drove at off-peak, and it was only an hour and change away when we had expected to spend two hours or more, although if we had stayed until the end of the concert the traffic jam would almost certainly have added an hour to the drive home.

Anyhow, we had fun. We sat in the shade on a very hot day and listened to a lot of live music, including several bands we had never heard of before and found that we liked a lot. That is the cool part about a festival, especially an eclectic festival like Phil Folk, you hear new things in a genre that you know you like.

I was pleased to discover:
Ollabelle
DaVinci's Notebook
and was intrigued by
Uncle Earl

J reminder herself how much she likes
Cherish the Ladies
and also decided that she liked
erm, I forget and will edit this when she reminds me, and
Uncle Earl

The boys just had fun with the sounds, the people, and being out doors. The infant thought about over-heating, but we sponged him off and he was fine.

The toddler proved once again that he is bulldog smart. (Actually he is smarter than a bulldog, but work with me here.) You know bulldog smart? "Bulldogs have a reputation for being dumb dogs, but mine knows exactly which drawer holds his dog treats. How much smarter do you need to be?" I hit the snack food stands and got a burger for me and an ice cream sandwhich for him. The ice cream was a BIG hit. About 20 minutes later he decided it was time for another walk, grabbed J by the hand, walked her to the correct food stand, and looked hopefully up at her. She decided he had eaten enough ice cream for the day, and instead let him work off excess energy by running laps around her for the next half hour or so.

It was a good day. The Sunday concert lineup was more to our taste, but Saturday works for our schedules. Scedules permitting, we will be back next year, probably for another day trip.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:41 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 27, 2004

As if the school year were starting

I feel as if the school year were starting.

Why?

Over the last two days I have gotten a good dozen hits from searches on the term Reading Log. I am currently #18 on Google for that term.

What I can't guess is whether this is because kids are being told to start a reading log and want a model for what to do, or if it is because kids were told to turn in a reading log at the end of the summer, and want something they can crib off of.

I might very well change the syllabus to insist on an electronic submission of the long paper. I probably won't, but only for technical reasons regarding chasing down plagarism.

Let me explain.

There are some folks who will cheat no matter what. All you can do is make it more difficult for them to cheat effectively, but they often spend more time getting around security than it would have taken them to just do the darn work. Luckily, these folks are rare.

There are also some folks, many more, who will cheat if it seems easy and costless, will be more likely to cheat if they are in a climate of pervasive cheating, but would be perfectly willing to just do the work themselves. The trick in managing a classroom is to keep the first group from creating a climate where the second group feels impelled to cheat - either to hold their ground or because "everyone is doing it."

It turns out that there are two basic approaches to academic cheating. Both are comparably effective - the first is a little better at the first crowd, the second better at the second, larger group.

You can either proctor aggressively, letting the students know that their work will be tightly policed, that you will assume cheating unless they can prove their innocence, and then follow through. Tight proctoring and aggressive enforcement works on the first group, but it can also either turn off the second group or create a climate where students take cheating as a challenge, living down to your expectations. Finally, this aggressive approach can turn the classroom from a collaberation to a battleground.

The other effective approach is to emphasize honor. Schools with a strong honor code, enforced and impressed on the students at regular intervals, make a more fertile climate for the incorrigibles, but do a better job of keeping the swing students on the straight and narrow. It also creates a good classroom environment.

What you don't want to do is just trust that the kids won't cheat. They will. You have to do something, the question is whether you prefer to use hard or soft power.

Asking for electronic submissions of papers is fine if you will be grading on the computer or lugging floppies on vacation rather than a stack of paper. But I prefer to grade in a purple pen. So if I asked for electronic copies, it would be in order to submit them to search engines. Instead I will rely on visible soft power and less visible structural restrictions. What do I mean?

I explain plagarism early and spend a lot of effort building up the classroom as a place of collaberative learning. The kids help write the exam, and I draw them into discussion as much as the survey format lets me. I also structure the assignments to make it harder to cheat.

The kids have weekly homework assignments, about 200 words on some provocative topic: "Should Andrew Jackson be on the U.S. money?" They also have a long paper on Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. I can easily tell when someone turns in a paper that is completly unlike their homework. In addition, their paper has to make extensive use of both Stowe and two of the electronic documents from our class syllabus. The odds of someone buying a term paper that will do this is minimal, and I will have my eyes open for papers that include very slick discussions of Stowe and very clumsy discussions of the other material, well, that is a paper worth typing in a juicy paragraph or two and then searching.

We will see. I find that most blatant plagarism is the work of desparate and unprepared students, and is very easy to spot. And, considering the goofy nature of most of my write-ups on the reading log, I pity anyone who tries to turn them in as their summer work.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:38 PM | TrackBack

August 24, 2004

Reading: Baker, Buchanan; Massie, Castles of Steel; Moriarty, Center of Everything

Three more books on the reading blog, things I finished over the last week or so.

I also blitzed through Franklin's Autobiography, Frederick Douglass' pamphlet on the 5th of July and Lyman Beecher's Plea for the West today while abridging them for the kids. I don't really intend to count those on the reading log.

Jean Baker, James Buchanan

Robert Massie, Castles of Steel

Laura Moriarty, Center of Everything

Posted by Red Ted at 12:00 AM | TrackBack

August 19, 2004

See Lance Ride

Eric Neel of ESPN has a wonderful column talking about the new Nike commercial featuring Lance Armstrong.

The ad is simple and powerful, and very effective.

Nike has its corporate roots in college track, and their Just Do It campaign is a reminder to all of us of the pleasure that comes with bodily motion and physical activity. As Neel points out, this particular paen to exertion manipulates our emotions -- as do most Nike ads -- but it does it so well that neither he nor I mind the journey.

Of course, I run in New Balance because they are the best shoes for my knees, but I do approve of the way that Nike is combining good business with good public health.

"Just DO it" is not such a bad slogan for life in general.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:23 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 18, 2004

Reading: Pirates of the Caribbean; Sedgwick New-England Tale.

Two more entries in the reading log.

The movie Pirates of the Caribbean and
the 1822 novel A New-England Tale by Catherine Sedgwick.

Now that is a strange juxtaposition.

Oh, and one random rant.

I wish that DVDs came with a double soundtrack -- dialogue and everything else -- with separate volume controls for each. I have to watch modern movies with the volume control in hand, turning up the talking bits and turning down the soundtrack. The one is too quiet, the other blasts and blares. Computer games have separate volumes for music and effects, so the technology is not all that difficult if only we can create a market for it.

The extra volume is particularly noticable because I run the DVD sound through the big stereo and, well, it has the potential to be very loud indeed. Even with closed-cabinet speakers which suck up power at higher volumes, the beast can play louder than my ears can listen. I run movies at about 3 on the volume control, except when they whisper and I go up to 4, or the scene changes, and I go down to 2.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:14 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 17, 2004

Spam email header of the day.

This one just amused me, it was so very bizarre:

Re: his lawful beldame nags
People talk about found art, objects picked up and arranged to create a statement. This is found poetry, the product of some random word generator combining to create a phrase that makes the reader pause to try to figure out what is going on.

It makes me wonder what sort of a short story would start with the line "His lawful beldame nags."?

Posted by Red Ted at 08:26 AM | TrackBack

August 16, 2004

Reading update

I have gone over a week without updating the reading log. Then I did a lot all at once this morning.

Ringo & Evans Road to Damascus did not finish.
John Ringo The Emerald Sea should have watched Gilligan's Island instead
Sarah Zettel In Camelot's Shadow We like Gawaine!
Clancy & Zinni Battle Ready highly recommended
Greg Critser Fat Land polemic about a public health crisis

Still nibbling away at Jean Baker James Buchannon, Robert Massie Castles of Steel, Taubman's bio of Krushchev, and Trenchard and Gordon Cato's Letters.

And so to abridge readings for the kids.

Edit, forgot that I had also gutted
Garry Wills, Under God for work.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:57 AM | TrackBack

August 14, 2004

Olympic Miscellany

J and I have been watching the Olympics off and on.

I am interested in watching weightlifting and track and field - both sports I once did. J watches womens sports, all of them, and men's gymnastics and diving and such. J sez that swimmers make better eye candy than gymnasts - "some of the swimmers are a little soft, but most gymnasts look like mutants."

We had great fun watching the parade of nations on Friday. Of course, we did not take notes, and now I don't really remember who wore what, who we thought were spiffy, or any of it. (Other than that the Irish looked goofy with the striped jackets and green visors).

One of the big questions is who do you root for when there is no American in the final? I find myself rooting for the Iraqis (obviously), also for Turkey, Holland, and Russia. I find myself rooting against China and Bulgaria, just on general principles. J, on the other hand, roots against the Russians and Germans. She knows this is emotional echos of Jewish politics, "but there you have it."

Finally, I am a little cranky about the TV scheduling. There are a few things I would like to see. Today, for example, there was an absolutely marvelous performance in the women's 48kg weightlifting. The winner, a 104 lb woman, and the second place finisher, also 104 lbs, both lifted 209 lbs overhead in a single motion. (The gold medal lift 4 years ago had been in the 170s, 15% improvement in 4 years is a LOT!) The Turk won, the favored Chinese woman came in second. NBC did not show it, not on any of their goofy channels, after indicating that two or three different time blocks would contain the 48kg finals.

I just hope that I can chase up a webcast of the crucial lifts, just like I watched the Democratic Convention on webcasts after the fact.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:16 PM | TrackBack

August 04, 2004

More reading lists

Following Phil Carternew Army reading lists, discussed below, Stryker has posted the Air Force version.

I have not read any of these. More books to the in shelfshelves.

But for now, I am off to sleep. Well, after I finish reading Sgt. Mom's most recent wonderful story about raising a daughter while on active duty. You have to like any story that begins

“Mom? Is it OK if we stop by the bar on the way home from Vacation Bible School?” asked my daughter one morning in the summer of 1989 or so, and I confess that I had lived overseas for so long at that point, that it took me at least five minutes to realize that to most Americans there would be seeing something seriously out of whack about that sentence. Especially since I replied,
“OK, sweetie, just call me when you get home.”

Posted by Red Ted at 09:51 PM | TrackBack

August 03, 2004

Reading Lists

The real danger with reading blogs is that folks refer to books and movies that intrigue me, and then they go onto my reading lists. The reading list grows much faster than I actually read, and the more I look at a blog here and there between writing paragraphs, the more the reading backlog grows.

For example, Stephen Carter points out the Old and New U.S. Army reading lists and I see that I have only read a couple of the things on there: Once an Eagle, The Face of Battle, The Killer Angels, The U.S. Constitution, Ulysses Grant's Memoirs. There are a lot of other good entries.

Meanwhile, in cinema, Sheila O'Malley is having a wonderful game where she gives famous movie lines and her readers guess the movie and character. I get a lot of my movie suggestions from her raves, and now I have several more things on my "Watch this" list.

When I add the science fiction discussions on Volokh, the policy tomes on Drezner and DeLong, and the political commentary on Marshall, Drum, and Yglesias, well, the shelves get mighty heavy mighty quickly.

Still, at least I don't have to complain about not having anything to read.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:11 PM | TrackBack

August 02, 2004

Recent books

During the last week or so I read
Zachary Karabell, Chester Alan Arthur
Niven & Pournelle, The Burning City
and watched
Secondhand Lions

Karabell is the best of the lot, and he assumes his conclusion.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:01 PM | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

More books

In the reading blog, a quick comment on Laurie Winn Carlson, A Fever in Salem.

The short version - clever use of medical history to help make sense of cultural history. Not a fully persuasive explanation of the Salem Witch Trials.

EDIT
Add Peter Hoffer, The Devil's Disciples
and Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator

EDIT again
add Roger Zelazny, Chronicles of Amber

I watched the movie last night, read the two Salem books this morning and the Zelazny novels this afternoon while thinking around a construction problem on the revised chapter two. Why yes, I did more skimming than reading today. Why do you ask?

Posted by Red Ted at 01:59 PM | TrackBack

July 19, 2004

Reading Log update

New entries in the reading log.

Walter Jon Williams, Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis

Walter Jon Williams, Dread Empire's Fall: The Sundering

Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels audiobook

Posted by Red Ted at 03:26 PM | TrackBack

July 13, 2004

Buddy can you spare a name?

Eugene Volokh points out an incredibly bad Missoury State Supreme Court Decision. Comic book artist Todd McFarlane used the name Tony Twist for a villain in his Spawn comic books. Tony Twist is also a semi-famous hockey player - I had never heard of him before, but it appears that the comic book character's name was copied from the real person. The hockey player sued and won.

Volokh wrote a very good amicus curae brief that, I was amused to note, made extensive use of Robert A. Heinlein, both as an author who used real people's names for fictional characters and as a real person who appears as a fictionalized character in other people's work (although, in the work cited, the Robert Anson character was supposed to be RAH while in the comic book case the artist is arguing that the villain was NOT supposed to be the hockey player.

My followup thought was more personal. I sometimes contemplate writing fiction, although I am a slow distractable writer and I have all I can handle with the monster. Still, I do expect to write it again someday. If this ruling holds, would I have to do due diligence on all my character names to make sure that they are not the same name as someone who could reasonably claim to be famous? We all have our 15 minutes of fame after all.

I hope it will be overturned, but considering the success that rent-seeking entities have had with copyright law lately, including the Sonny Bono steal-from-the-future-in-the-name-of-the-past Copyright Extension Bill, I worry.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:11 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 07, 2004

iTunes

The last time I updated Quicktime Apple convinced me to download iTunes as well.

A few days ago I fired it up and started messing with it.

I like it a LOT more than Windows Media Player.

My only complaint is that it does not read Windows Media Player files. So, I had to convert my WMP library into iTunes - luckily I had burned my cds at 100% the first time so I had good sources to copy over. Still, it took some 24 hours of hard processing to convert a couple of thousand songs.

Since then I have been copying more of my CDs onto the computer - I do like having my music handy and mixable. So far I have some 3439 songs, and I still have a good hundred cds not yet scanned.

The scary thing is, I think I have a small music collection and we have not been buying much music for a couple of years now. I have almost NO idea who is hot right now, or why. And yet I have days of music on my computer.

I do like the random playlist feature - 25 random songs from my collection listed below the fold.

I Remember When I Was Young -- Kukuruza
So. Central Rain -- R.E.M.
She's Your Cocaine -- Tori Amos
Finale -- Cabaret [Original Soundtrack]
Shady Grove -- Bill Monroe
Blood Red Roses -- Oysterband
Star Wars [1977] -- John Williams/Skywalker Symphony Orchestra
Don't Sit Under the -- Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) -- Glenn Miller & His Orchestra
Miner's Wives -- The Battlefield Band
Cold Gray Light of Dawn -- Blue Öyster Cult
La pointe du jour / La marche des freres Gagnon -- Jeter Le Pont
Poco sostenuto - vivace -- Beethoven
Lovely Joan -- Boiled In Lead
Tommy's Holiday Camp -- The Who
Bennie and the Jets -- Elton John
The Galtee Set -- Boiled In Lead
I Got A Good 'Un -- John Lee Hooker
Hipbone -- Rare Air
Feed My Frankenstein -- Alice Cooper
Now It's My Turn -- Berlin
That Was Your Mother -- Paul Simon
Infinite and Unforeseen -- k.d. lang
Fallen Angel -- Blue Öyster Cult
Old Virginia [Live]-- Cordelia's Dad
Summertime -- Janis Joplin
Hopalong Peter -- Jerry Garcia & David Grisman

Posted by Red Ted at 10:54 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 06, 2004

A movie about flour

As we were heading home from the shore the other day I saw a big billboard for the King Arthur movie.

I was confused.

In these low-carb days, will people really turn out for a movie about flour?

Posted by Red Ted at 10:57 AM | TrackBack

June 09, 2004

Books

Three book writeups and a brief movie over on the reading log:

longer piece on Clancy and Franks, Into the Storm
short thing on Modesitt, Adiamante
and a couple of words on Chinatown
and on Lenner, Federal Principle in American Politics

and back to work.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:49 AM | TrackBack

Dirty Minds

I admit it, I have a dirty mind.

I was scrolling through the online library catalogue and discovered

Your Pet Beaver

Nope, not that beaver. It is a humerous kids book about the animal - apparantly they make great flyswatters.

Still, I am afraid to search that catalog for bearded clams or trouser snakes.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 03, 2004

Reading Suggestions

I offered to suggest a couple of books for one of my readers, a person who tends "to prefer reading about people rather than events, and military history is not one of my interests."

That means more biography and prosopography (history of a group of people), some intellectual/cultural history, and very little diplomatic/political history.

My favorite biography is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich A Midwife's Tale - Ulrich takes the diary of Martha Ballard, who worked as a midwife in Maine in the 1790s and 1800s, and decodes it into a full biography of Martha and partial history of her town. She traces the dislocations of the American Revolution and the Jeffersonian/Federalist conflict and shows how they affected the lives of Martha and her family. People who have enjoyed the recent Colonial House TV series might enjoy a look at the same ground some 170 years later.

Alan Taylor's book Liberty Men and Great Proprietors looks at events in mid-Maine from a larger perspective, focusing on the three families who bought the land grants that filled that part of Maine and tried to collect money from the people squatting there, and on the squatters and settlers who did not want to pay the proprietors. He has a wonderful set piece describing Mr and Mrs Henry Knox, and some great stories about settlers, treasure-hunting, and life in mid Maine. Taylor's
William Cooper's Town
looks at Cooperstown, NY, through William Cooper and the fiction of his son James Fenimore Cooper. It got more critical acclaim, but I still have not found it gripping enough to finish it.

Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra is not American history, but it is a wonderful biography of some interesting people. It is sad tragic, so be prepared. I just wrote about it on the reading log.

Anyone who works in a corporate environment should know some corporate history. My two favorite books there are Oliver Zunz Making America Corporate and Alfred Chandler The Visible Hand.

Zunz is the more modest book and it has held up better. He collected brief biographies of several hundred people who worked for corporations at the turn of the 20th century, then digs through these to show how they created modern corporate culture, one incremental little decision at a time. I like it, but when I assigned it in the survey the kids hated it - it was too hard and there were too many names.

Chandler's book is a big structural explanation of why and how we had big corporations in the 20th century. He argues that the successful corporations followed the planning and divisional model of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the DuPont, that planning is more efficient than other modes of doing business, and that once things get big they stay big. He wrote before the third industrial revolution kicked in, and most of the big long-lasting firms that he celebrated in the 1970s when he wrote the book have since gone tits up, merged, or been replaced by new corporations. So, his conclusions are faulty while his story of the growth of corporations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is still quite good.

Another good story about people and business is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis a geographic history of Chicago. This is the history of a place, like Burroughs and Wallace Gotham
but with a more focused argument. I like both; I recommend either to people who have ties to the appropriate city; I prefer Cronon's book.

Finally, for business history, I really like Roland Marchand Advertising the American Dream, a look at the growth of the advertising business in the 1920s. The book is recently back in print and it is a good thing that it is.

Some of the best written American history is written about the South. I am fond of two related books, both large and both focusing on the New South after the American Civil War. C. Van Woodward's The Origins of the New South is a wonderful political history of the era that includes a long discussion of culture and society. Ed Ayers The Promise of the New South is a wonderful cultural history that includes some discussions about politics and especially about the ambiguities of race. Ayers is particularly good at evoking the people of the era; as he describes the origins of the project, he was in the archives reading documents and stories and the people were so strong that he felt unable to summarize their stories, so instead he wrote what is basically a collage and let the people tell their own stories. It is a very postmodern book, in that Ayers disguises his argument and emphasizes the many overlapping voices of the past, but unlike the Cornell school Ayers writes clear grammatical sentences and crafts lucid and compelling prose. His art is to appear transparent when he is not, theirs is to add a layer of opacity to what would otherwise be clear. Both have their uses, but Ayers is a better light read.

That should be enough for now, more later.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:34 AM | TrackBack

June 01, 2004

Internet Sacred Texts

Via the Curmudgeonly Clerk I see a really neat archive of world sacred texts.

The cool thing about the internet is that special interest groups put up all sorts of primary documents, because they care about them.

The frustrating thing about the internet is that because it is special interest groups they tend to put up what they are interested in, not what you are interested in. In other words, they don't have the Geneva Bible online yet (and I am not about to type it in for them.)

Posted by Red Ted at 03:45 AM | TrackBack

May 31, 2004

Ironic?

Belle Waring at Crooked Timber writes about the Alanis Morisette song Ironic.

Much as I enjoyed reading the post and its comments, I find that I still do not understand irony. I persist in using it in its simple mode, the mode used by historians: irony is unintended consequences that undermine our intended desire. As such, history is commonly written in the ironic mode; we explain the situation that a person or group faced, figure out what actions that they took to meet that situation, and then explain how these actions were more or less successful and how they led to other, unexpected or at least unintended consequences.

Thus, to use a modern US example, Lyndon Johnson's Community Action Programs were intended to reach out to new voters, politicize people who were excluded from the political system, and build the democratic base. The program, as executed, ended up politicizing people who did not like Johnson and competed with the existing members of the Democratic coalition, thus undermining his political base without adding new voters. Johnson and his staff had not thought out the consequences of his program.

If you took away our unintended consequences, most historians would not be able to write.

Some fiction authors also use the term in this way. Belle and her commenters talk about Oedipus Rex and King Lear; my example comes from a mediocre science fiction author, Spider Robinson, and his short story, "God is an Iron."

The story tells of a man who walks into an apartment and finds a woman in the process of committing slow suicide through overdosing on electronic stimulation of her pleasure centers. The overdose consists not of extra stimulation, but of removing all time limits on the pleasure; she is sitting in bliss as she starves to death.

Our hero saves her, destroys the stimulation equipment, nurses her back to health, and convinces her that she does not have to commit suicide. At the end of the story she finally gets around to asking him who he is and why he has done this, and most of all how he got into her locked apartment.

He gives a long spiel about unintended consequences and argues that God acts through the ironic mode so extensively that he should be considered an Iron - one who committs irony. Then he explains how he got there:

It turns out that our hero had come in to burgle the place.

I love this short story; it is also a chapter in a really bad novel that I read once and regretted finishing. Is that combination ironic? It is to the extent that liking that short story convinced me to finish the novel.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 26, 2004

Bloom and King

I took a study break this afternoon and read the writing chapters of Stephen King's On Writing - I did not even look at the biographical chapters.

Much of what he said, I already knew but it is still good to hear again: write at the same time every day, write a lot and don't worry about quality until after you get it down, read a lot in order to write well. Other things were new to me, including the very sensible formula that 2nd draft = 1st draft -10%. I, like King, add words when revising. I need to remember to take word counts. Of course, I am also struggling with structure and evidence far more than a fiction writer has to, and this means I have gone through many more drafts than the 2 drafts plus proofreading that he recommends.

My current audiobook is Harold Bloom's How to Read Well. So far I am just into the first chapter; I disagree with almost everything he says; and I have learned a lot from it already. This is the sort of work that makes me discover things by inspiring me to shout "wrong, wrong, all WRONG" at the speaker, and then articulate what exactly is so very wrong.

What is bugging me is that Bloom assumes that one reads alone and that one reads in order to learn oneself better. It is a somewhat solipsic view of the practice, and he takes potshots along the way at the crude historicists who "assume that everything we do is predetermined by our surroundings."

What I have discovered from these few minutes of Bloom is that I do not read to discover myself, or at least not in the functionalist enlightenment way that he recommends. Instead I read so that I may talk about what it is that I have read. Knowledge, all knowledge, is social. The fun of a book is not simply in turning the pages and examining the words but in chewing on them and doing things with them - and the biggest thing we do with those words is to hash them out with other people. You can do this explicitly in a college classroom or a reading group or even a literary blog, or you can do it implicitly the next time that something you say or think or do is influenced by something that you read. But, for me, at the end of the day a book is social, not solitary. Or, more precisely, reading is a solitary pleasure with social consequences.

I will continue listening to Bloom - he crafts some fine sentences and he makes me mad enough to think. Expect to hear more rants about him over the next few weeks.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:58 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 23, 2004

Am I old enough

I picked up a book at the library on a whim the other day. I do not know if I am old enough to read it yet.

So far, I like the first two pages of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, but I also recall reading these words before - I think I started the book in my 20s and was unable to get very far in it.

They say that Proust's masterpiece is a book for old men, not a book for children or even mature adults. I have been feeling a little geezerly lately, so I will see if I can get going on the book.

I skidded out of Don Quixote a few days ago - after I return it to the library I will add it to the reading list as a "did not finish."

Proust might go better.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:20 AM | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

Reading List

Via Sheila O'Malley, we have a long list of books read.

I forget if I have done this one already or not, so here we go again.

Below the fold is a list of books and authors.

The way the meme is supposed to work is that you mark the items you have read in bold. I added to that - for many of these I have read other works by the author. There I marked the author in bold and left the title in plain text. I also put an asterisk in front of the books that I started and then put down. I have read the first 300 pages of War and Peace at least three times now.

My current books on tape are Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath and Heinlein Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Once I finish those I might dig into this list for suggested things to listen to.

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
*Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
*Brontë, Emily - Wuthering Heights
*Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
*Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
*Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
*Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
*Dante - Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
*Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
*Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
*James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
*Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
*O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
*Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
*Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

Posted by Red Ted at 10:04 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Flint - Ring of Fire

Long entry on Eric Flint [ed] Ring of Fire over in the reading blog.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:27 AM | TrackBack

March 30, 2004

Kipling

Do you like Kipling?

I wouldn't know, I've never kippled.

Now that is an old joke, yep.

Yesterday the kids kippled. As they came into the classroom I gleefully announced that it was Poetry Day, to which most of them replied "cool." I then handed out sheets with Kipling's "The Widow's Party" on one side and "White Man's Burden" on the other.

Partway through the class we stopped to talk about Kipling - I used him as a window into imperialist ideology.

Interestingly, the first section thought WMB was parody it was so over the top. The second thought it was straight. I gave them the poem very differently - for the first I reviewed the US role in the Philippines as they read, for the second I had them read the poem out loud.

I am always amused at the way that presentation shapes interpretation, and I struggle to present my materials to the kids in a way that is fair to the materials and useful for the class plan.

I do like Kipling. Much of his stuff is occasional poetry, like "Our Lady of the Snows" and much of it is doggerel, but good doggerel and good occasional poetry are hard to write. More, Kipling is deeply bounded in place and mind and that makes him a fine window into the Edwardian age. I like authors who are bound in time for they are easier to use to do history.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:05 AM | TrackBack

March 22, 2004

Whales and Poppies

Last night I watched the DVD of Whale Rider and read Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Both are powerful. Both are about lost generations, one told in terms of magic and hope, the other in reality and despair. Not surprisingly, I could not sleep last night.

What kept me up was thinking about the Great War and about the paper topic I am giving the kids. They have a paper due on Remarque in a couple of weeks and I need to give them the detailed paper topic. My preliminary thought was to ask them

Compare and contrast Germany before and after the Great War, use Remarque for examples. Show how the war changed the people and their society.
but after re-reading Remarque I am not sure that they will be able to write that paper, or at least write it well. Remarque focuses on his themes of the lost generation, the futility of warfare between nation states, and man's inhumanity to man; he only discusses the change between pre-war and postwar understandings within the context of Paul Baumer and the other members of the lost generation of schoolboys.

I thought about adding a little poetry to their assignment, to give them a better picture of the world before the war, and I discovered that I had been thinking about the optimistic side of the Belle Epoch while most of the avante garde, realist, and neonaturalist authors of the era, especially in Germany, had been pessimistic about the merits of industrialization and the new society. I had been thinking about Kipling's "Take up the White Man's Burden" and Teddy Roosevelt's popular persona, while they were closer to Edward Munch's painting The Scream or Nietzsche's nihilistic optimism as he declared that God was dead and that this was a good thing.

I dug around a little and rediscovered the Bartleby Project at Columbia University - the best argument I have seen in a long time for ending or limiting the current practice of long copyright laws. One of the things that they have scanned and archived there is a set of early twentieth century Norton Anthologies of Poetry. So I was able to check a 1920 book on the new poets and compare it to a 1917 book of mostly optimistic war poetry. I found a couple of good thoughts there, and on some of the very good online resources on the Great War.

My current thought is to give them four poems to supplement the novel:

and then ask them what it means to be a lost generation? Or, perhaps, how did the war affect the generation who went to war..

That might be forced, but I like the parallels in the two poems about mortality and poppies and the two very different takes on the lines from Horace. I do not know if the difference between the first two and the second two is one of generation or one of experiences; I suspect both. Neither is a great question

I will not use fiction, although I was tempted to compare Kipling's meditation on the loss of his own son, Kipling, The Gardener, with Owen Machen The Bowmen, a story that millions of English believed was true because they wanted something like it to be true. The problem is that most of the readily available short fiction is mourning fiction or is self-conscious writing wrestling with the problem of the lost generation. I thought about using Hemingway's In Our Time and I do assign bits of that to the US History courses, much of my take on the social impact of the Great War is influenced by Hemingway's painful set of wonderfully crafted short stories, but that is what we have Remarque for and we don't need to read two things that cover the same ground.

I keep coming back to Kipling, perhaps it is the attraction that I have for a poet who focuses on making sense of his era. I could probably have saved the kids a lot of reading if I had just assigned The Widow's Party and White Man's Burden to set the scene and then The Gardener and to close it off London Stone.

And so to have some breakfast and think on this some more.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 12, 2004

Predictable yet effective

A couple of days ago I read Anna's Story by Loren Jones, Chapter 1 in the Grantville Gazette, a collection of stories edited by Eric Flint and set in his 1632 universe.

I found Jones' story somewhat predictable, well enough written, and, at the end, suprisingly emotional and effective. I teared up - Jones succeeded in the storyteller's task of making us care about the characters. It is short, and worth a read.

More on Flint and 1632 below the fold.

I have written about Flint before, praising him because he writes for a general audience but thinks like a historian.

His 1632 takes a basic premise - the modern citizen in the medieval world - and adds some fascinating twists. H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan is one of the earliest and most influential of the genre, but it has become a staple. Unlike, say, Jerry Pournelle's Janissaries, Flint focuses on ideas and not tools. And, unlike the tendency in military science fiction to glorify the general, Flint's heros are like Delderfield's heros - common people who rise to the occasion. 1632 is a remarkable book for several reasons. To summarize the plot, a cosmic plot device lifts a five mile circle around a town in rural West Virginia and drops it in Germany during the 30-year's war.

The three that jump out at me about the novel are:
- the hero is a labor organizer for the UMWA, not a general and certainly not an authoritarian;
- the most important technology brought into the past is basic civics, not the traditional guns, machines, and division of labor.;
- the most important institution in the book is the modern American comprehensive public high school.

Flint originally intended the novel as a stand alone. It did well, so he went on with it, writing a sequel, 1633, that continued the story and that set up a narrative structure for multiple follow-ons in the same world.

That world has proved to be remarkably popular among the fan base, with people taking on the challenge of what tools and ideas would be effective then, asking how to downgrade modern technology to the early modern era, and even thinking about the intellectual and cultural chasms between the two eras. Some folks started writing fan fiction in his world, and Flint combined the best of it into the Grantville Gazette, including the story that inspired this little rant. I like watching the way that he has incorporated his fan base into the writing process, creating a forum to collect their ideas, asking for their suggestions, and working some of their characters into his novels. Someone at a science fiction con once mentioned to me that you can find out anything by asking a science fiction fan, and it is true.

Finally, the story I linked to is online because Baen Books has a truly remarkable project where they post books from their backlist online, complete and unabridged, free for the download. Their gamble, a gamble that seems to be working well for them, is that they will lose few sales from cannibilization while introducing their authors to a wider audience, and that people who read one thing by an author for free will go out and buy that author's newer books. So far, every author in their free library has seen sales pick up, including sales of the books in that free library. It is a remarkable project, and should be encouraged.

So, read the story above, read in Flint's world, and buy more books. Books are good for you.

Now I get to go edit chapter 4, a project I just procrastinated for 30 minutes.

Posted by Red Ted at 12:03 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 03, 2004

The better angels of our nature

I found myself thinking about why I read web logs, why I read fiction, and what things I find in common amid the various things that I read for fun.

What came to mind was this: I like to read things that celebrate or explain traits that I wish I had more of. For me, the traits that I respond to are being a doer not a slacker, being kind to others, having introspection and self-knowledge, and living a truthful life. These are the better angels of my nature, and I do what I can to encourage them in myself and, where possible, in others.

Perfection is boring. It is boring in fiction and, in real life, when I meet someone who seems too perfect I suspect a con game. Even Ben Franklin, who resolved at one point to become perfect, found that the best he could do was moderate those of his faults that he was aware of. In fiction, the perfect character is not inspirational and not all that interesting. The challenge for an author is to create an attractive character, someone who appeals to some of our better angels and is neither perfect nor despicable.

As bloggers, we create images of ourselves through our words, picking and choosing the stories to tell, the subjects to comment on, and the items to link. We also, through our selection of who we read and, even more, who we publicly admit to reading, display to other people what some of our aspirations are.

That is not to say that we want to be the people in our blogrolls, although it would be sort of fun to take Eugene Volokh's brain out for a spin some day, but rather that most of the people we read regularly have something appealing or attractive to them. And, most of the people that we read often but do not blogroll have something unattractive about them or something that appeals to the darker angels of our nature. I know I have many sites on my private blogroll that will never go to the list on the right simply because they are too negative, or they are slackers, or they put partisan concerns above a search for truth and understanding.

And so, while I sometimes silently add and drop people from the blogroll, sometimes we have to announce that we are dropping someone as a public protest against their words or as a statement that the balance of their public persona has shifted from, for example, being a good writer who has slacker tendencies to being a self-destructive slacker who used to write well but is now calling for help. I am self destructive and slack enough on my own - those traits do not need reinforcement. So, while I do hope that Rob gets his act together, it is time to edit the blogroll.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:10 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

Pander and Slime

Via Scribblingwoman I find a fine example of the local media at their finest.

According to Wood TV 8, of Grand Rapids Michigan

It is natural to assume that magazines purchased through a school fundraising drive would be suitable for children, especially since children are the ones doing the buying and selling. So you can imagine a Grandville mom's surprise when her daughter was able to order a magazine full of sexual content.
The magazine? None other than that notorious purveyor of porn, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. I read that in high school; I am tempted to see if the local public library carries it.

QSP, a rebundler that packages magazines for school fund raisers, had included Asimov's in their list of titles, in the "Science/Technology/Environmental" category not the "Children" category, and one teenager decided that she wanted it. Lo and behold, Mom picked up the magazine

Inside the magazine she found various short stories, science fiction, yes, but with strong adult content.

Becker read some of the explicit tales about sex, drugs and molestation inside the magazine for us that included, "Young girls with no panties, young girls in white socks, young girls looking at his wank-mags with him, young girls doing it with one another while he watched."

From context, it appears that one of the stories was about a character who was involved in a somewhat sordid lifestyle. Fair enough, the magazine is aimed at readers in their twenties and thirties - but these actions were mentioned and not described, a crucial difference except when you are trying to make a ratings point.

Luckily, the local TV news crew were on the story.

As we mentioned, since 24 Hour News 8 started this investigation, QSP has permanently severed its relationship with this science fiction magazine.

The magazine responded. And, of course, there was no mention of this response anywhere on Woodtv's web site (I checked). I wonder why not? Perhaps because, according to Asimov's press release

When reporter Kristi Andersen called our business offices, our Associate Publisher, Chris Begley, provided her with verifiable documentation that directly contradicts the information provided in her broadcast and print reports.
Of course, the facts might have gotten in the way of a nice juicy story, especially because she was then able to claim that due to her valiant coverage QSP had dropped Asimov's from its list - Asimov's documents show that they had fired QSP 2 weeks earlier in a dispute over the financial terms of their agreement. But what is a simple matter of timing to a sensational story?

As Brad DeLong repeats again and again, Why can't we have a better press corps? Asimov's' answer: In our opinion, Ms. Andersen and the News 8 channel are not practicing journalism, but sensationalism. They know, better than most, that "sex sells."

I know that journalism is hard, especially on a deadline. But still, willful misrepresentation for prurient reasons? Shame on wood tv 8.

Oh, and for those who care about the "liberal bias" in the media, TV 8 is an NBC affiliate.

WOOD TV8 Technical Specifications
Network Service: NBC
Licensee: LCH Communications Inc., 4 Richmond Square, Providence, RI 02906
Studio: 120 College Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Telephone: 616-456-8888
FAX: 616-456-9169

Posted by Red Ted at 04:38 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

What to say?

I am finishing up the lesson plan for the first of two classes on the First Industrial Revolution. The second class, Working Men/Working Women, will examine life in the mills, the way that industrialization changed the gendered division of labor in Europe, and the creation of working class identity and working class culture. Today's class will be the broad overview of the years between 1750 and 1850 and the combination of technologies and markets.

But, I don't quite know how to frame and present the class. I find myself wanting to make a literary move, framing it in terms of William Blake's "dark satanic mills" or Tolkein's nostalgia for an imagined rural past in the Scouring of the Shire. I suspect that this means that I should give a straightforward lecture on machines and markets, railroads and Adam Smith.

I love history, but the thing I struggle with is how best to frame a story to make it new, interesting, and useful.

EDIT - much better, as usual blogging about a difficulty helped me see the answer. Tolkein is out, as is the debate about the good and bad of industrialization. Instead Adam Smith and the classical economists are showing up to close the lecture. Good lads. Soundtrack for the class in the extended entry.

As I was thinking about class over breakfast I had the lyrics to Byker Hill get stuck in my head. I dug out the Young Tradition and played it. Theirs is a much more, well, traditional recording than the other one I have, by Boiled in Lead.

Byker Hill

If I had another penny
I would buy another gill
I would make the piper play
The Bonny lads of Byker Hill.

Chorus
Byker Hill and Walker Shore
Collier lads for evermore.

2. The pitman and the girls are trim
They drink bumble made from gin
Then to dance they do begin
To the tune of Elsie Marley.
Chorus

3. When first I went unto the dirt
I had no coat or no pit shirt
Now I’ve gotten two or three
Walker Pit’s done well by me.
Chorus

4. Geordie Johnson he had a pig
He hit with a shovel and it danced a jig
All the way to Walker Shore
To the tune of Elsie Marley.
Chorus

Posted by Red Ted at 09:59 AM | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

Dated music


James Lileks wrote a thing about 80s' rock, and Michelle of A Small Victory (I keep wanting to call her Victorious Michelle or Michelle Victoriette, but neither would be appropriate) responded with a comment on Yes. I was reminded of their discussion when I went back to my own record collection and played some vinyl from 1965.

Let me give some more context. The library lent us a recording of Shawn Colvin Live '88, a very good concert in the soprano with a guitar variety. She plays her hits: Steady On, Shotgun Down an Avalanche, and so on. She also covers the Paul Simon tune Kathy's song. Many of Colvin's choices for this concert are songs about love out of control, including Shotgun:

Sometimes you make me lose my will to live
And just become a beacon for your soul
But the past is stronger than my will to forgive
Forgive you or myself, I don't know

I'm riding shotgun down the avalanche
Tumbling and falling down the avalanche

It is a good song, both with the full band and in this minimalist approach. But, it did not grab me the way that Kathy's Song did. Again, it is a song about loving and longing, although while Shotgun is a breakup song this is a song about long distance relationships:
And as a song I was writing is left undone
I don't know why I spend my time
Writing songs I can't believe
With words that tear and strain to rhyme.

And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you.

I spent the entire weekend with that song, and its little guitar riff, stuck in my head. I thought about slapping myself to try to jar the needle out of its groove, but refrained because it might well have skipped to the Oysternband's I Look to You
Crazy people
Stare into the mirror to see what's true
But I
I look for you
a song that I alternately think is about obsessive love for a person and obsessive love for God.

I digress, I just wanted to share some lyrics.

To bring this back to James and Michelle, I dug out Sounds of Silence, the 1965 Simon and Garfunkle album with Kathy's Song on it and played the album through.

It is a good album, but it is also dated. In fact, I think it was dated by 1966 - the whole album is a mixture of laments about the difficulties people have communicating with one another, wistful love songs, and Greenwhich Village boho radical chic. On the other hand, they do use a wonderful Farfisa organ on a couple of tracks, and up-tempo Farfisa organs are always good.

Listening to the album, with its earnest concerns and cleverly commercialized remixes of material from their even more dated first album, was like looking through a window into a particular moment in the past. Some art is timeless, or so the Enlightenment dudes would claim, but this particular album is very closely tied to a time and place, and I think that is what I like about it.

That is all.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:53 AM | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

More on The Gouv.

I finished Gentleman Revolutionary, Richard Brookhiser's book on Gouverneur Morris, and I must say that I liked it.

There is a knack to writing popular history: your prose has to be sprightly, your narrative has to move along, and you have to be both reliable and interesting as you do so. I am not a Morris scholar so I can not speculate on how original this work is, but judging from the footnotes he has combined quotes and insights from the many earlier biographies into a coherent tale. Unlike David McCullogh, in other words, Brookhiser is generous in indicating that other people have written about his subject in the past (McCullogh is notorious for only citing primary sources.) But, this is popular history - he tells the tale of the man and his times rather than engaging in debates with other people about the man, his times, and how best to make sense of them.

The charm of the book is the charm of the man. The Gouv. (Joanne Freeman's nickname for him) was always charming and a brilliant writer; much of Brookhiser's work is simply providing a setting for Morris' wit and panache. That charm shows up in his formal prose - the preamble to the U.S. Constitution - and in even his didactic statements like these brilliantly balanced rules for living.

To try to do good, to avoid evil, a little severity for one's self, a little indulgence for others -- this is the means to obtain some good result out of our poor existence. To love one's friends, to be beloved by them -- this is the means to brighten it.
All of Morris' letters sparkle with this sort of prose. He really is the most fun of the founders - even before you consider the incongruity of a man with a fleshless right arm after a burn with boiling water as a teenager, a stump of a left leg after a carriage accident, and an incredible fondness for dancing, travelling, and seducing the wives of other men (perhaps in compensation for his own physical injuries.) Maimed in body, light in spirit, and every inch a gentleman -- you gotta love the Gouv.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:44 AM | TrackBack

February 05, 2004

Fantasy in the key of Licorice


Last night I finished reading Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey. It is a great big book, and she has two more with the same characters - the dreaded trilogy of doorstops. I found myself chewing on it, and wanted to say a few words about the novel.

J and I refer to kinky sex as licorice, as in "not everyone likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice." Phedre, the heroine, is fond of the strong, bitter and salty licorice - she is an anguisette, what we would call a pain bottom. Carey creates an alternate Europe containing a country built on the principle "love as thou wilt" and where a trained courtesan manages to become a crucial catalyst saving the kingdom.

I could not tell what had come first, the character or the world, but the basic setting was intriguing. Imagine that the Christ story had merged not with Horus and not with Platonic dualism but with Bacchus and Isis. Esau, the wandering God, either was the child of Christ and the Magdalene or, in his mythic version, sprung from the earth watered by the blood of Christ and the tears of the Magdalene as she wept for Him. He and his followers reveled, traveled, and finally settled in the South of France where they formed a kingdom. The background alone, and the way she works it up, are almost worth the price of admission.

Within this setting Carey creates a society of oath-bound hedonists. They seek pleasure, they celebrate beauty, but all the characters have sworn one oath or another, all find their choices limited and their desires driven by promises made in the past and constantly renewed in the presence. I am fascinated by oaths, and the chapter I am currently revising hinges in large part on the relationship between oaths and civil society, so this part of Carey was rather to my taste.

Oath-bound hedonism was both the most intriguing and, in retrospect, the most unstable part of her society. She has done a good job imagining and describing the checks and balances of religion, power, culture and custom that keep hedonism from degenerating into egotism, and yet this tension was the point where my suspension of disbelief was most tried. Well, that and the fact that the novel was really set in Boinkistan, that mythical land beloved of erotica authors where disease and unwanted pregnancy never deter or inconvenience the characters as they go about their appointed rounds.

As for the licorice, I do not play in the scene so I can not comment directly; I can only say that Cary's depiction of Phedre's psychology and experiences correspond with some of what I have read about the joy of being a bottom and a pain slut. I would be very curious to see what Eden or Cat have to say about the novel, if they have time for 700 pages of adequate prose. ]

I was struck by Carey's skill at keeping Phedre's assignations, or at least the descriptions of them, closely tied to the plot. The conceit is that she is a sacred prostitute, sworn to the service of Namaah who had paid the way for the Bacchus-God by lying with strangers for money. Beyond that, she is a spy and an intriguer, worming secrets out of people as they relax after beating, cutting or once burning her. Carey mentions the sex, but does not describe it. She does describe the emotional responses to sexual encounters, and the way that these responses shape further actions.

What almost got me to put the book down was not the licorice but the conspiracy. There are a host of characters, many with similar names. All of them are plotting and scheming and playing the game of thrones, all have their desires and alliances, and as Phedre and friends work plots within plots it is very easy for the reader to just plain glaze over. It is in some ways a stereotypically female book, a melodrama of conspiracy, for Carey focuses on interpersonal relationships and on the emotions of her characters - the plot with battles, imprisonments, escapes, magics, and exile is all secondary to the love stories. This is as Tolstoy would have wished it, of course, but the sheer volume of characters and emotions made it hard to keep track. I wondered if this is what goes on in soap operas, or romance novels with 20 characters all revealing secrets to one another?

So, I liked it; it was strange; I am curious to see what Eden and Cat have to say; I will read the next doorstop in the trilogy.

Edit - I would add that the book is not at all like Sam Delaney's Dhalgren, except that I had to stop and think about how it was unlike Dhalgren - the similarities are in the importance of memory, the importance of promises, and the plot role of non-vanilla sexuality.

Edit 2 - Cary, Carey - minor details.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:46 AM | TrackBack

February 02, 2004

Love and Charity?


Halley Suitt has decided to type in 1 Corinthians 13 in a number of different English translations and a couple of other versions as well. I approve.

Oddly enough, her version of the King James replaces "charity" with "love." I don't know why.

I always preferred charity as the English translation of agape. Her French translation uses charité. The word is most famously associated with John Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity (modern spelling), a sermon about the role of love as the glue holding together an organic society predicated on inequality of station and commonality of purpose.

I was struck by her choice simply because, as Kenneth Cmiel points out in Democratic Eloquence one of the great complaints about the Revised Bible of the late 19th century was that it replaced the King James' "charity" with the modern "love." The two words have very different connotations and very different constellations of meaning and reference; Charity is a fine hortatory name for a daughter, but few of us would name a child Love.

I wonder if Halley copied her extracts from a web source?

Posted by Red Ted at 10:42 AM | TrackBack

January 29, 2004

Rhetorical Whiplash


Right now I am suffering from rhetorical whiplash. It has been a reading day and I have read about 200 pages of 1834 legal briefs from the Abner Kneeland blasphemy case, about 150 pages of a crappy Star Wars novel, and both volumes of Tom Paine's Rights of Man so that I could write a more coherent answer to a student question. I also listened to about an hour of Tolkein Fellowship of the Ring on audiobook - thus the Tom Bombadil post below.

They are four completely different ways of using language, five if you count the very different rhetorical styles of the two lawyers I waded through. My head spins.

For the first two, Abner Kneeland was tried for blasphemy in Boston in 1834 for printing a cheap newspaper that challenged Christian verities, including the standard atheist mocking of the virgin birth and a forthright declaration of Kneeland's own disbelief in God: "The Universalists believe in a God, which I do not."

In his defense, Andrew Dunlap writes:

But if the defendant, who does not profess a belief in Christianity, is to be condemned, what shall be said of those, who, professing a belief in Christianity, have employed much coarser language when attacking the beliefs of their fellow christians? If all the violations of the laws of decency and propriety of manner in religious controversies, are to be punished, your Courts must be multiplied, and their whole time will be occupied with corrections of the virulence of religious quarrels, to the entire exclusion of all other business. I hold in my hand a volume ... This work though undoubtedly written, by a divine of unsullied reputation, is nevertheless composed with such a particularity of description, that I should at this day, offend the modesty of any audience, by reading the passage referred to. ..."
Over and above the substance of his argument, notice the form - Dunlap has a comma marking every pause in his delivery. He produces long, multi-point sentences, all building to a complex conclusion. I chose not to include any of his digressions or commentary. Let me just say that Dunlap spoke for three days while defending Kneeland from a 60-day jail sentence, and that this is one of his clearer and less referenced paragraphs.

In reply, the prosecutor, S.D. Parker, used a more cadenced prose, and a more accusatory tone.

It is not my intention to follow the gentleman into those fields of fancy and declamation where he so gracefully sported to the admiration of all those who heard him. Were it in my power to show a tenth part of the learning he has so profusely spread before you, or to rival the thunder and lightning of his oratory, I would not be tempted on this occasion, (especially when you, gentlemen, already are so much exhausted by following him,) to display the flowers or fruits of my reading, nor the extent and brilliance of my talents. We are not here for personal contest or exhibition. I am engaged in a business far too grave and important in my own estimate, to allow the amusing myself or others with rhetorical flourishes, historical narrations, declamatory harangues, splendid eulogiums, or lofty flights of the imagination. I am here to place before you, as men, as husbands, as fathers, as christians, and as Jurors, a most serious and shocking charge against that aged man now here to answer for it to the offended law. I am here in the name of all the Christian people of this Commonwealth to place before you the laws of this land, and the proofs of his guilt, and to require of you a solemn, sincere, just and true Verdict, whether upon that law and that evidence he be guilty of the foul offence charged upon him or not guilty thereof. It is a solemn hour to him, it is a solemn hour to us all who are engaged in the serious and highly important business of this investigation and trial. If he be acquitted upon this law and evidence, it may also prove a fatal hour to thousands of human beings, young and old, male and female, married and single, rich and poor. If such obscene and scandalous attacks upon religion, being proved, are to escape unpunished, the acquittal under such circumstances will be construed into an unlimited licence to repeat and multiply such impious and disgusting publications; and the innocence and virtue, the faith and happiness of countless multitudes of human beings may be sacrificed without check or limit at the altars of folly, infidelity and crime.
That particular paragraph goes on for another page and a half. The good news about wading through this stuff is that if you slow down to a subvocalized pace, where you can read the words out loud to yourself, then the superfluity of clauses and examples becomes rhythmical, almost hypnotic. Despite his disclaimers Parker is just as rhetorical as Dunlap, but his rhetoric is an aggregation of paired adjectives, often with no direct relevance to the point of his sentence but attempting to add weight and social pressure to his call for conformity in published materials.

After 4 hung juries - the jury in the first trial hung within 10 minutes with 11 wanting to convict and one refusing to do so - Kneeland was finally convicted and served his time. This was the last blasphemy prosecution in the U.S. Looking back on the day, what hit me was the style of the rhetoric. Especially because over lunch for relaxation I was reading a Star Wars by the Numbers novel. None of the dialogue was particularly awful, but none of it was any good either. "They were just the usual feckless types that the Bounty Hunter's Guild sends out. Its easier to walk around a pile of nerf dung than step right into it." Lets just say that I took an hour for lunch and digestion, and got through 200 pages of this while half-drowsing.

We ran some errands around dinner time, and I listened to about a tape of FOTR. I don't have a hardcopy handy, but we are all familiar with Tolkein's prose. This was the tail end of the barrow wights up through the singing song in Bree. Tom Bombadil was talking in rhyme, Frodo found unexpected courage while facing barrow wights, and they had their misadventure in the Prancing Pony in Bree with Frodo singing a song and falling off the table. Rhyming prose, thick description, careful depictions of the way that light touches the land, and all of it produced through repeated editing and polishing. LOTR is a heck of a lot of words, written in Tolkein's spare time, but he had enough time to polish and revise greatly - unlike everything else I read today - and that polish shows.

Then, after dinner, I read book 1 of Paine Rights of Man and skimmed book two. There we had a fourth completely different form of rhetoric. Paine is a bucket of cold water to the face. From book 1, chapter 1:

I am not contending for nor against any form of government, nor for nor against any party here or elsewhere. That which a whole nation chooses to do, it has a right to do. Mr. Burke says, No. Where then does the right exist? I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controlled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living. There was a time when kings disposed of their crowns by will upon their death-beds, and consigned the people, like beasts of the field, to whatever successor they appointed. This is now so exploded as scarcely to be remembered, and so monstrous as hardly to be believed. But the parliamentary clauses upon which Mr. Burke builds his political church, are of the same nature.
Paine, like everything else but the junk novel, was written to be read aloud. But Paine's reader is not a lawyer in a courtroom or an academic reading to his friend in the garden; it is a shop worker reading to his fellows while the labor at their trades, or it is a store of metaphors and images to be used by a street-corner orator or tavern radical. Paine is preaching subversion and rebellion, while both the lawyers I read earlier that day were trying to cry down Paine's legacy while still staying true to their own ideals of state and society. Tolkein, together with his deep compassion and essential humanism, also celebrated an organic society unlike Paine's cry for an eternal present.

So I have an American Jacksonian and a Whig arguing about whether a lecturing atheist is a threat to the republic, a hack science fiction novel, a medievalist writing fairy tales and rhymes, and an itenerant radical trying to overthrow the standing order. No wonder my head is spinning.

This was long, but it may have helped me get a handle on some of my work reading.

Oh, and for the record, it was not a very productive day. I should have finished the book of briefs instead of bogging down after 200 pages.
EDIT - punctuation, and I am sure I missed some.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:35 AM | TrackBack

Pesky Tom


Ho, Tom Bombadil
Tom's a jolly fellow
Bright blue is his coat
And his boots are yellow
Rob Inglis reads The Lord of the Rings very well. Along the way he sings all of the songs that Tolkein lards into his narrative to provide juice and savor to the tale. Some of the tunes Inglis uses are quite catchy.

For the last three hours I have had Tom Bombadil stuck in my head. Perhaps if I share this I will be able to give the words away.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:08 AM | TrackBack

January 19, 2004

The Limey


I just finished watching The Limey, (1999) a small, violent little piece about an Englishman and vengeance and loss. It is a sad movie, unexpectedly sad, and I think I will chew on it for a while. Terence Stamp plays Wilson, the Limey, Lois Guzman plays Eduardo Roel who helps the Englishman around LA - both are spectacular, as is Lesley Ann Warren.

Spoilers, although it is a 1999 movie so those who are likely to see it have already seen it.

The movie is oddly constructed, with constant shots of Terence Stamp sitting in an airplane interspersed with the events. Eventually I was able to figure out that this is the ride home, and he is remembering his trip to LA - and as the movie progresses we see new layers and complexities to his memories. As a framing device it works very well once I figured out what was going on, but folks who keep asking "whats happening now?" will be very confused for a very long time.

I am still chewing on the movie, but what I take away from it in the first hour is that it is a meditation on wasted time and wasted opportunities - The Limey spends the movie looking back on what seemed to be good decisions at the time, and only sees their real cost long after the fact. "Some other people should have gone, but I went instead." I don't know what Wilson will do next; I suspect that Wilson does not know what he will do next: but it is clear that events will continue after the movie stops filming. The characters, odd and grotesque as they are, will continue, and some of the actions on the screen have lasting importance.

I say some of the actions because the movie falls into the Hollywood pornography of violence - the body count is just short of Hamlet, but most of the deaths are by supporting characters. Wilson is surrounded by violence and death, is rarely visibly moved by it, but is deeply affected by conversations. At least the movie manages to avoid the easy denouement of the gunfight between protagonist and villain, with the hero engaging in gloriously redemptive violence - without consequences - in the penultimate scene just in time to fade to either a kiss or a ride into the sunset. Soderburgh avoids the worst of cliches and merges a very good psychological plot with a lot of gun violence.

As I said, I liked it and will chew on it for a while. The importance of memory to events, and of confrontation and truth-telling, remind me Last Orders, (2001) my favorite recent little movie and another movie featuring working-class Englishmen although without the guns. Checking dates I see that The Limey came first, although after the book Last Orders - I don't know if there are direct influences or simply a similarity of character and scene.

I was reminded of The Limey from the list of under-appreciated movies I wrote about last week - I will be watching more from the list; it is a wonderful resource.

Posted by Red Ted at 11:08 AM | TrackBack

January 16, 2004

Tolkein again


I am re-reading Fellowship of the Ring again, this time as an audiobook.

Sheila O'Malley has been on a Tolkein binge all this month - not linking it, too many posts to link. Check the sidebar and look for mid January. I want to comment, but I do not trust my memory enough to comment. And, since I am still waiting for the audiobook of Mystic River to wend its way through the hold sequence until it comes to me, LOTR:FOTR is it for me.

As I recall, Tolkein is wonderful on audiobook - the thick descriptions just flow through the speakers and paint a word picture. I know he wrote The Hobbit to be read aloud, I wonder if he was also hearing LOTR as he wrote it? I know that when I speak words to myself before writing them, they scan differently and flow differently than if I try to compose them for the written page.

And so to cook dinner, Meatloaf I think. There is something comforting about meatloaf and green beans on a cold winter Sabbath.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:17 AM | TrackBack

January 15, 2004

Gotham


Edwin Burroughs and Mike Wallace Gotham, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) is a great big book - 1326 large pages full of small type. I have been reading it, a chapter or two at a time, for months now. I finally finished it.

What can I say - it is a perfect Pulitzer winner: it has a simple chronological structure, tells a narrative of urban growth and class tension, and is so clearly written that the reader is drawn along rather than being confronted by the prose. I liked it, I recommend it to anyone who lives in New York City and anyone who wants a nice big book to read in.

I have been reading several other books alongside of Gotham, and it will be nice to start finishing some of them more quickly.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:55 AM | TrackBack

January 13, 2004

African or European?


Via Very Big Blog, I stumble across this exercise in ornithological insanity.

I was much amused.

Posted by Red Ted at 03:00 AM | TrackBack

January 12, 2004

Underappreciated Movies



Via Begging to Differ, I find Box Office Prophets top 50 underappreciated movies.

I have seen, erm, two of them. That is not a misprint - unlike the folks at BTD I am not a big movie fan. Or rather, I rarely make time to watch movies.

However, many of them are at the county library. I just summoned The Limey, and I will probably summon a few more over the next few months. Alas, most of these are only in the library on videotape. J owns the VCR - she tapes gory medical shows, and figure skating, and kids programming for the wee one. To watch these, I will have to check her taping schedule and make sure that I don't interfere with it. DVDs are easier, just drop it in the box and play while her VCR does whatever it is that it is supposed to do.

I have been watching movies a few minutes at a time in the evening after I get unproductive and J goes to sleep.

Speaking of which, I need to get back to the syllabus for next week. I had a molasses-head day yet again - got some work done but very distractable and I have absolutely no idea if what I wrote was any good. I think I need to talk to someone about this, writing should not be this hard. Or rather, staying focused on what I am trying to do should not be this hard.

And so to try to articulate my sweeping goals for the class.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:15 AM | TrackBack

January 08, 2004

Annie


Annie, at the Same River Twice, writes a nice blog. Today she writes about sneaking into college bookstores to see what the kids have been assigned - always good fun. In fact, I often chose my fourth undergrad class that way - pick the books then worry about the time and the professor.

Her comments don't work, so here is my reply to her:

You can also surf college textbooks virtually, although without the pleasure of running your fingers over the books and opening them to read a few paragraphs from the middle.

Search for syllabi - most colleges have some of them on line.
Then check the catalog for your local library to see which of the interesting books are available. I do a lot of my book browsing that way - with an amazon or a google window open on the left and the library catalog open on the right.

ps, email if you want a reading list (grin)

Posted by Red Ted at 09:53 AM | TrackBack

Review


The Weblog Review has reviewed me. I appear to write too many words for their reviewer.

I put in for the review a few weeks ago, and I regularly read their reviews. I mention this because part of their standard review template is a commentary on a blog's layout and color scheme, and my recent tweaks to my look and feel have been driven in part by their comments on other blogs - it was not something I had thought about before.

I fear that I fall into the old-school of web design, focusing on content and preferring to scroll down rather than constantly clicking on new windows. I suspect that I am comfortable with long web pages because I would much rather have an entire document before me to search and copy, and that this comfort leads me to create some mighty long html. That, and I keep writing 1000 word rants to make 200 word points.

In any case, I thank StephStah for struggling through my essays, and I do encourage all dozen or so readers to check out TWR for new reads.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:50 AM | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

Reading Report


I decided to start commenting more on my readings, and linking to the comments from the side-roll.

I just put Margaret Visser's Much Depends on Dinner back in its box. I made it to tape 8 of 11, which is pretty good for me and an audiobook. Now I am reading a KKK western instead.

Visser's book was frustrating - she had some good information, she had some pop anthrobabble, she had some careful commentary on the gains and weaknesses of the green revolution, and she had some stuff that was just plain wrong. I have read some food history and history of manners before; I like both subjects. Visser is good on them. She also has some good information about agricultural history, another subject I have read a little on and am vaguely interested in.

What I found frustrating about it was two things. The first was the anthrobabble. The book is a commentary on food and society, organized around a meal. So she writes about corn, about salt, about chicken, and so on. For each substance, she goes on rants saying that it is this but that, A and B, C but only sometimes D; she talks about the symbolism - salt is white, butter yellow, corn comes in many colors but North Americans don't like most of them - and quite frankly I felt like I could have created most of those paragraphs myself using a perl script and a set of adjectives. Consider the subtitle: "The Extraordinary History and Mythology, Allure and Obsessions, Perils and Taboos, of an Ordinary Meal." It runs on a bit, doesn't it. It is a fair warning - the whole book reads like the subtitle. And, while it was entertaining for a while, eventually it all ran together.

The book suffers from something that much creative non-fiction struggles with - there was no point to it. Or rather, she made a few points again and again with each foodstuff, to the point where I could predict where we were in the chapter by the sorts of things she was saying about each substance. I got bored and stopped listening.

Now I am listening to a truly fine and biased western, Gone To Texas. Forrest Carter [Asa Earl Carter] writes from within the Lost Cause, frames his characters according to the Lost Cause, and carefully creates his setting and situation so as to avoid any awkward questions. It is a novel about border outlaws and indians, it is set after an American Civil War without slavery - the war starts when Kansas outlaws burn the farm of Josey Wales the Missouri hill farmer. Not only was the war was not started by Southerners, I am pretty sure that there is not a single black person in the text - I read it in book form a few years ago, and the book is in a box in storage.

So, the book works on two levels, as a rollicking adventure tale and also as a document about how to tell a story that subtly shapes our understanding of the past. I like it for those reasons.

What I hate is that Carter uses TOO MANY "of" clauses. Josey Wales does not take the boy's hand, or the horse's reins, he takes the hand of the boy or the reins of the horse. It is jarring and obtrusive - I want to copy edit the thing as I listen to it.

Still, it is a good story and with only four cassettes I might even finish it. I don't have a good record with finishing books on tape.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:20 AM | TrackBack

January 06, 2004

Thank you John and Ian


John Jones and Ian Telfer write most of the lyrics for the Oysterband.

When I am feeling down, or unproductive, or slumpy, and want a musical kick in the pants, I often turn to them.

I just played two tracks on the big stereo: The Early Days of a Better Nation and and Gamblers (We Do Not Do That Any More)

I turned the stereo up to six. We have a lot of stereo - at six you can feel the bass moving your sternum and almost feel it moving your clothing.

My ears are now numb - but I feel less slumpy and more willing to write. (The sunlight outside helps as well.)

Posted by Red Ted at 09:04 AM | TrackBack

I stand corrected


A few posts down I explain why historians love second-rate novels.

My typology of novels has been challenged successfully. Let me write a new introductory paragraph.

Historians love second-rate novels. We read novels not for the plot or the characters or even the language, although all are bonuses, but rather for their ability to shine light on the author's universe. Novels are most useful for us when they are either completely immersed in the author's time and place - William Dean Howels A Modern Instance - or when they are flawed in such a way as to expose the fault lines in the author's society. All novels wrestle with the author and their opinions on the world around them; some flawed novels shows these strains so clearly that even a panicked undergraduate can see them. These flawed novels are just what the historian calls for.

I read a lot of light science fiction ...

Posted by Red Ted at 08:46 AM | TrackBack

January 05, 2004

Prior knowledge and film


I just finished watching GoodFellas and was oddly reminded of Seabiscuit: both movies rely on external knowledge to keep the viewer's interest.

The first hour of Seabiscuit is a montage of the lives of the three main characters: the jockey, the owner, and the trainer. Their lives are presented in a series of short vignettes, cut together with a series of slick transitions, and all indicating that these are flawed and broken people.

But, if you did not know that these were the three men whose lives would intersect with the racehorse, you would spend the first hour of the movie being confused. I know - I watched it with people who had not seen the trailers or read the book, were approaching the movie as a blank slate, and whose comment early was "this is all very nice, but who are these people and what is going on?"

Similarly, when I watched GoodFellas all I knew was that it was a well-respected gangster movie and that the "restaurant shot" was a spectacular piece of moviemaking. And, while Henry's narration quickly tells us that "all my life I all I wanted was to be a gangster" and the continued voiceovers tell us that something has happened, something has been lost, the movie itself is boring. Now, this might be because I was watching it in bits and pieces in the half hour between losing productivity and becoming sleepy, but I several times turned off the movie because I was bored with it. As I was watching, I decided that the movie was trying to derive its dramatic interest from the fact that gangsters are sexy - like vampires - and so anything about gangsters must automatically be exciting. After seeing the ending I now see what the movie was building up to, and if I had known that - if I had watched the movie during its first release when all the trailers and buzz were going on - then there would have been a lot more suspense.

I think it was Hitchcock who pointed out the nature of suspense. If you show two minutes of some men sitting at a table talking and then a bomb under the table explodes, the audience will be first bored and then surprised. If you show them the bomb under the table and then show the men talking, they will spend the two minutes wondering if the bomb is going to go off. That is suspense.

Both GoodFellas and Seabiscuit, and I suppose also ROTK, suffer because the moviemaker has relied on trailers and advertising to tell the audience about the bomb under the table. Essential background or narrative information has been left out of the film itself because they are incorporated elsewhere in the marketing and packaging that constitutes a modern major theater release.

I should add that there are times when a piece of narrative art - book, film, play, poem - relies on something at the end to re-shape and give new meaning to all that came before. Brideshead revisited is a very different novel the second time you read it, for you know for sure what will happen to Sebastian and you know how later events in the narrator's life have shaped his recollections of the events in the book. In poetry, the second time you read "Richard Corey" it is a work of suspense, the first time through the final couplet is a bit of a surprise. The difference between these and the movies I am writing about is a difference in execution rather than structure - Brideshead Revisited is interesting and it makes sense the first time through. There is a coherent narrative with foreshadowing aplenty, and while the novel improves on re-reading you don't have to read it twice or read it backwards for it to make any sense.

In contrast, I really did get the feel in Seabiscuit that the director and cutters knew what was going on at such a deep level that they forgot to tell the audience what was about to happen. This is not a new problem in film - we have all experienced trailers that give away the film or, as in Carrie, trailers that tell the reader what will happen, turning the surprise into a suspense or the "what will happen?" into a "how will these terrible things occur?" But, you can watch Carrie and know that something awful is going to happen - the trailer just gives away the what and where while the whole movie is drenched in foreboding doom.

I am repeating myself, I will close by just saying that for folks like me, who see our movies late and in bits and pieces, it makes watching movies dreadfully frustrating.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:52 AM | TrackBack

Pesky Literary Critics


Bloom on Sunsword complains about the lead paragraph below. He has some good points.

ps, this pointless post lets me publish a minor tweak to my template. Let me know if you have rendering troubles.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:29 AM | TrackBack

The use of bad fiction


More on gender roles and fiction, inspired in part by Steven King and the literary authors and in part by watching ROTK.

Historians love second-rate novels - they tend to be more closely tied to the world of the author, they tend to struggle with the social problems of that world, and so they give us a superior insight into one time and place while first-rate novels show us the timeless human condition. Second-rate novels also tend to struggle with genres and conventions, and in that struggle they show us the society. First rate novels, by definition, create new conventions.


I read a lot of light science fiction. Much of this fiction is formulaic, and since my mind looks for patterns I tend to find the formulas eventually. Science fiction and fantasy, being set elsewhere, traditionally contain a mix of "if this goes on ..." and "this is how it should be." The classic example was the tobacco warning in 1950s and 1960s science fiction; the characters all smoke, and the narrator always reminds the reader that smoking is dangerous unless you magically fix the tobacco. Some of these norms are driven by the authors, others by the publisher, and others by the marketplace. Publisher-driven norms often take the form of a formula.

Sometimes formulas collide, and when they do so they give a great look at the author's society. David Drake has made a good career for himself with a formula - he takes historical military campaigns and rewrites them in a science-fiction context. It works, it sells books, and it captures the pulp glory that was popular press from the late nineteenth century.

Science fiction written over the last ten years or so has followed another formula - the future is largely gender blind. Books have an equal number of male and female characters, few jobs are restricted by plumbing, and same-sex sexuality is considered about as important as handedness - you have to keep it in mind, but it has no normative value. In contrast, consider Heinlein's Starship Troopers where the ground-pounders were all male and the space navy officers were all female - gendered division of labor was built into his future society even as he went out of his way to get women into combat.

One of Drake's current projects is a rewriting of Napoleonic sea battles in a science fiction context. He has space ships that rig spars and sails outside their hull, these sails capture cosmic radiation as the ship travels through hyperspace, and the overall feel of his society is built on that of late Georgian England complete with lower class sailors climbing the rigging. In many ways it is Master and Commander with blast pistols and space torpedoes. They are good fun reads, especially the first one in that universe.

But, they are also jarring because Drake is forced to bring two norms together and make them fit. Napoleonic narratives are all male; the women stay ashore or, occasionally, travel as passengers. The crew works in monastic splendor, then once they land they run about spending their back pay on ale and whores. Modern science fiction is half female, and his ships crew fits that norm. Indeed, his loyal bosun is a woman. So, the brawny hornfisted son of the working classes becomes a brawny, horn-fisted daughter of the working classes - and when the ship makes landfall she too goes out into the dives to get drunk and pick up sweet young things. It does not scan to my mind, rooted in the late twentieth century; it is clear that Drake is struggling to resolve to formulas, and in his struggle we see another view of one of the fault lines and recurring concerns of our own culture.

We see a similar struggle with gender roles in Jackson's version of Tolkein. When Arwen and Glorfindel are merged as characters, it not only simplifies the story it also gives the woman a chance to be heroic. Tolkein's Eowyn was compelling because she was an emotionally damaged woman, unwilling to take her prescribed role, unwilling to stay at home while all she loved died, and thus riding in disguise as Dernhelm, with a look of fey grimness as one who did not expect to return from battle. Jackson's Eowyn is not trapped the same way - our modern post-feminist audience would not understand that she was trapped, and would sympathize with her rather than with her father once she was trapped. Rather than showing that she was a damaged woman, she would have shown she was a real woman.

So, Jackson had to revise Eowyn's role. In the process he shifted her relationship with Aragorn, and that in turn required him to change Aragorn's relationship with Arwen. And, the new Arwen makes no narrative sense, adds nothing to the plot, and distracts and detracts the viewer. But, it makes space for the revised Eowyn role. Alas, the revised Eowyn is not quite as wonderful as the literary Eowyn.

Jackson's movie is flawed because he is wrestling with translating cultures, and the world imagined by an Edwardian man who immersed himself in old Norse culture is, literally, unimaginable to most people in the twenty-first century. As he adapted his narrative, he weakened it - and as viewers we are drawn to the broken narrative and try to figure out what went wrong.

Jackson's trilogy are good fun movies, but they are second-rate art.

And this is why historians LOVE bad novels.

Posted by Red Ted at 01:17 AM | TrackBack

January 03, 2004

Skimming v Reading


I got through graduate classwork by reminding myself that "skim has the same number of letters as read." In other words, I adopted a philosophy that had been explained to me by my undergraduate advisor during the first week of freshman year: You can never do all the work. Part of college is figuring out what work you have to do and what work you can skip.

Let me give an example. I got tired of reading America's God which I have been nibbling on for months and reading a chapter at a time for weeks. So, this morning I gutted it - read the sections about the people I write about, skimmed through chapters, read beginnings and endings, and made it to the end. Gutting gives a less deep appreciation of the argument, but it also got the book off my desk so I could write.

I am thinking about this because, after looking over the syllabi I was working on yesterday, I seem to be assuming that my students also know that they can not do all the work. They don't know that, or at least many of the students at Urban Research University did not know that. I need to remind myself to mention it on the first day of class at Suburban State in a couple of weeks.

And so to write.

Posted by Red Ted at 09:55 AM | TrackBack

January 01, 2004

Reading Lists - 2004

This is where I will be keeping my 2004 reading lists.

Details in the extended entry.

Expect frequent edits to this list.

Most recent entries at the top of each category.

Note, list started March 17, 2004 so the first few months are done from memory.

Last Edit, March 23, 2004

Currently Reading:
Trenchard and Gordon, Cato's Letters
Jan Todd, Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women 1800-1870
Hanson, the warfare book
Dick Francis, 10 LB. Penalty
Movie: The Two Towers
Audiobook: Tolkein Return of the King

Recently Finished Fiction:
John Ringo, Here be Dragons 3/22/04
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front 3/21/04
Movie: Whale Rider 3/21/04
Dick Francis, Knockdown 3/20/04
Dick Francis, Second Wind 3/19/04
Dick Francis, Wild Horses
Modestit (spelling), Darkness
Modestit the one before Darkness
Modestit, the book about the soldier
Audiobook: Tolkein, The Two Towers

Recently Finished non-Fiction:
Stephen Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England 3/22/04
Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Experience excerpts 3/21/04
Nancy Schultz, Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834.3/20/04
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France
Thomas Paine, Rights of Man


Could Not Start:
Movie: Diner
Thriller about icebergs


Did not Finish:
Mario Puzo, The Last Don - fascinating characters, terrible prose.
Author? Prizzi's Honor

Posted by Red Ted at 12:00 PM | TrackBack

December 29, 2003

Moving Pictures


Shiela O'Malley wanted to know more about Terry Pratchett and one of his novels, Moving Pictures.

That is rather like walking up to the Tolkein fan club and asking what a hobbit is - it is hard to trim the information down to a useable flow.

Pratchett is an English author who writes fantasy. He is best at light fantasy, including the Bromeliad a set of children's books. He also writes with a strong moral center. The two combine oddly at times, particularly in books like Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman) a comedy about armegaddon.

Pratchett has two great comic gifts: he can turn a line and he writes good parody. The first is his superior talent, the latter just helps him frame things more quickly. He is most famous for a set of novels written about a place called the Diskworld - a platter-shaped world with a mountainous spine in the middle and seas pouring off all the edges. The world rests on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the great turtle A Tuin as he swims through space. I did mention that he was silly, didn't I?

Of the twentyfive or so Diskworld books, I prefer the 3rd through about the 8th. More recently he has been going to the well a little too often, and he has been wrestling with the problem of having created some characters who are so darn capable that they make it hard to create a worthwhile plot.

Moving Pictures is at about the one-third mark. Wizards have gotten silly, the city of Ankh-Morporkh is developing more character, and he returns to his recurring theme that banality and entropy are far worse things than simple evil.

The plot of the book is fairly simple - alchemists figure out how to project moving pictures, people set up on the grounds of an old temple to make these movies, movies open up a rift between our dimension and the place of bad things, one of them escapes, hijinks ensue.

I mentioned the Tolkein fan club up at the top. Pratchett has a fan club. He encourages them. They hold conventions and feed him banana dacquiris, and he attends, drinks, and entertains. They have a usenet group - alt.fan.terry-pratchett - which he regularly posts on. They annotate his books - here are the annotations and selected quotes from Moving Pictures. They are obsessive about him. No, really, they are. Little in-jokes from the books turn into fannish behavior - such as wearing a neck symbol of an ankh dressed in an anorak.

You don't have to be obsessive to enjoy the books. They are better if you are not obsessive - I got bored with the fan group after a few weeks of reading the heavy volume of repetitive postings.

You do have to be able to appreciate parody, to enjoy silliness, and to like comical footnotes. Since Sheila is a movie fan, I would suggest Moving Pictures as a light read. Other superior diskworld books include Equal Rites (a woman wants to become a wizard), Guards! Guards! (the trueborn king of the city joins the city watch), Mort (Death takes a vacation), and Wyrd Sisters (a Hamlet spoof set in a rural mountain kingdom.) Oh, and since Sheila likes Shakespeare and theater, add Lords and Ladies (Midsummer Night's Dream), and Maskerade (mediocre Phantom of the Opera). There are others, but I re-read these.

Get them from the library or the second-hand book store. I included Amazon links for the references.

Posted by Red Ted at 10:15 AM | TrackBack

December 23, 2003

Lifetime Reading Plan

Via Sheila O'Malley I receive a challenge: how many of these have I read.

I will mark the ones I have read, and add some comments in italics.

after marking up the list below.
It looks like I have read or read significantly in about 43 of the items on that list. I am long on history and political theory, light on plays and poetry. That does not surprise me - I am more social science than humanities.

This is a slightly goofy list based on the Western canon. I was struck by the differences between this list and my incomplete list of 50 essential reads.

Off the top of my head, the biggest gaps here are:
Religion:
Epic of Gilgamesh
Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians, Revelation. I would add Jonah to that list if only because of the story of the gourd at the end of the book.
Koran: The Cow. Not sure what other parts to add.
I would add some documents from non-semitic religions, but I don't know them well enough to suggest.

Literature:
Why are all of the books but one from Western Europe or North America? Off the top of my head, add:
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (powerful schlock, and influential both artistically and politically)
Mishima Yukio, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Sailer who Fell from Grace with the Sea.
feh, my Japanese lit is boxed up and I can't remember exact titles. That might be enough to disqualify most of it.

Looking at my not-ready-for-prime-time list, I see some things to add to this canon:
Karl Marx The 18th Brumiare of Louis Bonaparte]
Max Weber, the selections in From Max Weber, especially Protestant ethic, Charisma theory.
Martin L. King jr, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"
Franz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth
W.E.B. DuBois Souls of Black Folk
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (feel free to skim this)
Immanual Kant The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals
Norbert Elias The Civilizing Process
Jonathan Edwards The Religious Affections or Freedom of the Will

The remarkable thing about my list of 40 is how much it overlaps with this list of 100. For me the fascinating thing about canons is that everyone would make a different list, and many books will overlap from list to list.

I have some more reading to do. Yep. Marcus Aurelias first I think - I have long been curious about him.

The Beginning

Yes Homer. The Iliad.
Yes Homer. The Odyssey.
Yes Herodotus. The Histories.
Yes Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War.
Yes Plato. Selected Works.
Some Aristotle. Ethics; Politics. Read ethics

Aeschylus. The Oresteia.
Some Sophocles. Oedipus Rex; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone. Read two, did not read Antigone
Euripides. Alcestis; Medea; Hipploytus; Trojan Women; Electra; Bacchae.
Lucretius. Of the Nature of Things.
Virgil. The Aeneid.
Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. I keep hearing about this one, it is probably at the top of my classics list.

The Middle Ages

Augustine, Saint. Confessions.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Read portions
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Read portions


Plays

Some Shakespeare, William. Complete Works. Heh, I have read a dozen plays and 40 sonnets.

Molière. Selected Plays.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust.
Ibsen, Henrik. Selected Plays.
Shaw, George Bernard. Selcted Plays and Prefaces. Which selected plays? I have read a couple.
Chekhov, Anton. Uncle Vanya; Three Sisters; The Cherry Orchard.
O'Neill, Eugene. Mourning Becomes Electra; The Iceman Cometh; Long Day's Journey into Night.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot; Endgame; Krapp's Last Tape.
Watson, E. Bradlee and Benfield Pressey. Contemporary Drama
I don't read a lot of plays.

Narratives

Bunyan, John. Pilgrim's Progress.
Yes Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe.
Yes Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels; A Modest Proposal; Meditations upon a Broomstick; Resolutions when I Come to be Old.
Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice; Emma.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair.
Some Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers; David Copperfield; Bleak House; Great Expectations; Hard Times; Our Mutual Friend; Little Dorrit.
Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss; Middlemarch.
Yes Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Through the Looking-Glass.
Yes Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Conrad, Joseph. Nostromo.
Forster, E, M,. A Passage to India. Have read other Forster, not that one,
Joyce, James. Ulysses.
Some Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway; To the Lighthouse; Orlando; The Waves. Read Lighthouse in college
Yes Lawrence, D. H.. Sons and Lovers; Women in Love.
Yes Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World; Collected Essays.
Yes Orwell, George. Animal Farm; Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain.
Some Kafka, Franz. The Trial; The Castle; Selected Short Stories. Read some short stories

Rabelais, François. Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Voltaire. Candide and Other Works.
Stendhal. The Red and the Black. Started, got bored.
Balzac, Honoré de. Père Goriot; Eugénie Grandet.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary.
Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. I am not yet old enough to read this.
Malraux, André. Man's Fate.
Camus, Albert. The Plague; The Stranger. I know I read something by Camus, forget what.
Yes Poe, Edgar Allan. Short Stories and Other Works.
Yes Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter; Selcted Tales.
Yes Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; Bartleby the Scrivener.
Yes Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn.
James, Henry. The Ambassadors.
Yes Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying.
Yes Hemingway, Ernest. Short Stories.
Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March; Herzog; Humboldt's Gift.
Saavedra, Miguel de Cervantes de. Don Quixote.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths Dreamtigers.
Márquez, Gabriel Garcia. One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich. Dead Souls. Started, got bored.
Yes Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich. Fathers and Sons.
Yes Dostoevsky, Feodor Mikhailovich. Crime and Punishment; The Brothers Karamazov.
Yes Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich. War and Peace.
Some Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita; Pale Fire; Speak, Memory. Read Lolita. Hasn't everyone?
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich. The First Circle; Cancer Ward.


Philosophy, Psychology, Politics, Essays

Yes Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan.
Yes Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government.
Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. If you own it long enough, does that count?

Yes Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty.
Yes Engels, Karl Marx and Friedrich. The Communist Manifesto.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spake Zarathustra; Selected Other Works. Started Zarathustra
Freud, Sigmund. Selected Works.
Yes Macchiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince.
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de. Selected Essays.
Descartes, René. Discourse on Method.
Pascal, Blaise. Thoughts (Pensées).
Yes Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Both volumes
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Works. Some essays
Yes Thoreau, Henry David. Walden; Civil Disobedience.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology; Pragmatism and Four Essays from The Meaning of Truth; The Varieties of Religious Experience.
Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct.
Santayana, George. Skepticism and Animal Faith; Selected Other Works.


Poetry

Donne, John. Selected Works.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost; Lycidas; On the Morning of Christ's Nativity; Sonnets; Areopagitica.
Yes Blake, William. Selected Works.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude; Selected Shorter Poems; Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, 1800.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Ancient Mariner; Christabel; Kubla Khan; Biographia Literaria; Writings on Shakespeare. Read some
Yeats, William Butler. Collected Poems; Collected Plays; The Autobiography.
Eliot, T. S.. Collected Poems, Collected Plays.
Yes Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems; Democratic Vistas; Preface to the first issue of Leaves of Grass (1855); A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads.
Yes Frost, Robert. Collected Poems.
Poets of the English Language, edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson.
Yes The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Richard Ellmann and Robert O'Clair.
Most of the poetry I have read has come from school anthologies. I have read Kipling, Blake, and Whitman for fun.

History, Biography, Autobiography

Yes Basic Documents in American History, edited by Richard B. Morris What an obscure title - I bet I have read the documents, just not that collection.

Yes The Federalist Papers, edited by Clinton Rossiter.
Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Confessions. Read parts of his Social Contract.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson.
Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams.
Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II; Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century.


Annex

McNeill, William H.. The Rise of the West
Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People
Smith, Page. A People's History of the United States.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World.
Whitehead, Alfred North. An Introduction to Mathematics.
Gombrich. The Story of Art.
Adler, Mortimer J.. How to Read a Book (co-authored with Charles Van Doren)
This looks like a list of decent surveys, not a canon. I have most of the information, not in these forms.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:31 AM | TrackBack

Arise, arise, open up your eyes.


Chris Shaw, the Adirdondack songwriter, has a song, "Walter," with the chorus:

Arise! Arise! Open up your eyes
It's an Adirondack morning

It is a good song. It is in my mind right now because the little man went to bed early last night, around 6:15, and woke after his usual 11 hours. We have been up since 5:00, it is 6:30 now and I have breakfasted and will walk the dog once there is enough light to see my way through the woods.

I suppose that, since the baby is the best thing this year, it is appropriate to open my birthday with a baby cooing and singing from the other room.

I just wish he had slept in a little.

Posted by Red Ted at 06:36 AM | TrackBack

December 22, 2003

Add to reading list


Note to self, these are used by Gary Gallagher in his undergrad class on American military history to 1900. Put them on the shopping list - all look good.

Don Higginbotham, George Washington and the American Military Tradition

James Kirby Martin, A Respectable Army
Robert W. Johannsen, To the Halls of the Montezumas
James M. McPherson, For Country, Cause, and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War
Gabor S. Boritt, ed., Why the Confederacy Lost
Robert M. Utley, The Last Days of the Sioux Nation

Of course, I still have over a full shelf - say 40 running inches - of interesting history books that I have not yet made the time to read. My eyes are bigger than my brain sometimes.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:24 AM | TrackBack

December 18, 2003

Books unread


I updated the right side of the blog this morning, extending the list of things I did not finish.

Kieren Healy made a list of the best books he has not read in the last year - things he started but could not complete.

My reading is not so highbrow - I read a lot of genre fiction and a lot of soft history. Like Healy, I am fascinated by the process of unfinished books. Why do we pick something up and then feel no desire to finish it? This is particularly odd for me because I have a strong completeness fetish. Once I get near the end of a book, I WILL finish that sucker. But, for various reasons, the items at the bottom of the right hand list never made it to the red zone. Let me talk about some of the more recent DNF entries.

So why did I put these particular books down?

James Jones Some Came Running. I really like From Here to Eternity I read and enjoyed Thin Red Line, Go to the Widowmaker and his third book his WW2 sequence (I forget the title, but he once again features the sergeant, the cook, and the private, he once again changes their names, and he once again kills Prewitt.) Jones has the odd 1950s Hemingway thing going on. He writes "manly" books, he is concerned with manly questions, his men are bravura, and virile, and violent, and obsess on their mortality even while they challenge it. It can be a compelling mixture. But, I never got past the first 20 pages of SCR. I got far enough to figure out that our hero was a jerk and a drunk, that everyone was posturing in some way or another, and that it is hard to come home again. I felt no compulsion to read farther. The book might be wonderful, but not this month. Back to the library it goes.


Monsters Inc. We were on the waiting list for the DVD from the library for months. It arrived, J and I watched the first few minutes, then we had to put the baby to bed. Last night I watched a little more, hijinks were ensuing, and I got bored. The library wants it back, I will drop it off this morning. I like the Sully character - we are expected to like Sully - but the gorgeous animation was not enough to keep my attention through the plot.

Into the Darkness This is the book that inspired me to write this rant. Harry Turtledove is sometimes a perfectly adequate B-list author. I liked and re-read his sequence about republic-era Romans in an alternate world Byzantium where magic works. I liked and read the prequels he wrote to that world of Videssos. Turtledove did a nice job with what has become a cliche of alternate history and military science fiction. He then found a new genre. I read one sequence in that genre, put down an audiobook in it, and put down this hardback. Turtledove imagines a world-wide military conflict. He writes a very long sequence of vignettes from that conflict. He wraps it in a cover and calls it a novel. The one I read had continuing characters, the two I put down never did repeat a character. I find that just as I figure out who a character is or what is happening, the focus shifts. The overall narrative becomes the war, and while I think that Turtledove is trying to replicate the multitude of indepent actions and decisions that make up a vast social process, I also find that I require a more human narrative. War and Peace is a love story in the middle of a war. Herman Wouk self-consciously repeated Tolstoy's structure in Winds of War. Turtledove rejects Tolstoy's model. Instead of a focus on individual change and exploration, his is a focus on the masses. Instead of change over time within a person he is giving snapshots of a changed society. Despite the close focus on individuals in each vignette, the overall feel of the book is cold, heartless, and modern.

Turtledove may have been trying for that effect - he is a smart guy and he has written over twenty novels in this formula. People must like this effect - you don't publish that many words unless someone is buying. I find that I require more narrative, more humanity, and more complex characters. I spend my days reading the news, reading punditry, and researching the past. I spend my creative energy understanding social changes, describing the mental worlds of the past, and excerpting individual biographies and writings to describe those worlds and their changes to my readers. I read fiction for relaxation and escape. And, to me, a cold modern world full of violence and despair is not relaxing and does not provide an escape.

ps. During the classwork phase of graduate school we did a lot of historiographical writing - summarize the argument and evidence of a book, critique the book. I had a minor reputation for writing savage reviews in my historiography; I had to retrain myself so that I could write useful commentary on student papers. I appear to have let some of that savagery out in my comments on Turtledove. I need to add that despite the apparant randomness of his vignette technique, I think Turtledove has some pretty clever theory behind his books. He is a reasonably smart guy; I just do not care for his work.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:45 AM | TrackBack

December 13, 2003

Mary Sue


Via John and Belle, I find a definition of something I had seen before but never known had a label: Mary Sue fiction.

It is amazing just how much bad fiction out there fits this model. The concept first appeared in fan fiction - the writer inserted into the story as an idealized character who does no wrong and re-shapes the original universe - but I find it elsewhere as well.

Among other places, I sometimes play MMORGs. The challenge to a massively multiplayer game with a role-playing background is that everyone wants to be the hero, no one wants to be "third spear-carrier from the left". In other words, everyone in Everquest, or whatever, wants to be Mary Sue - and the game works only to the extent that the people playing the characters agree to give everyone their Mary Sue moments.

Interesting stuff, but almost everything John and Belle link to is interesting.

Posted by Red Ted at 07:40 AM | TrackBack

November 25, 2003

Uncle Tom


We talked about Uncle Tom's Cabin today.

We were supposed to talk about all sorts of things: the Kansas Nebraska Act, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brooks' assault on Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber, the rise of the Republican party and decline of the Know-Nothing party, Abraham Lincoln and Southern secession.

By the time I finished covering all I wanted to say about UTC, we had 10 minutes left. I used them to preview Kansas and Nebraska.

It is a good thing that I saved an extra class for review, because we are going to need that extra time.

But, we had a really good discussion about Tom, and Eva, and St. Clare, and Marie, and heros and villains, and religion, and slavery. The kids think I should assign the novel again next year.

Now I get to prep a quick dinner before company arrives. I do not know how much blogging I will do over the next few days. Between houseguests, hosting Thanksgiving, and grading papers I may need to remind myself to sleep.

And so to cook sausage and mushroom gravy for tonights dinner, and bread for stuffing, and muffins because I can.

Posted by Red Ted at 05:57 AM | TrackBack

November 18, 2003

Fiction and Literature


As I was commuting in and out of the city today I could have played the audiobook I keep in the care. Even if I was spending the drive in thinking about my class, I could have played it on the drive back. I did not. I have gotten bored with Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure - and I am still on the first tape. The novel is bleak, it is sad, and it foreshadows even more bleakness and sadness. It is read slowly and lovingly by Jenny Sterlin. She reads well, she emphasized the words and the characters and the feel of the novel. And I do not like it.

Audiobooks emphasize the language of literature. They move more slowly than I read for myself. This can be a very good thing - I have read The Lord of the Rings so many times now that my eyes glance over the paper while in an audiobook I linger in the descriptions. If the prose is rich and thick, and the point of the book is the way it is written, then an audiobook is a very good thing. However, when the point of the book is the plot, well, I begin to dislike audiobooks. When the book is abridged, taking out all the rich thick prose and leaving just plot, then I dislike it very much. Audiobooks reveal the weaknesses in a book; they are more demanding than paper. You can not flip back to check something, it is hard to replay a paragraph, you have to get it the first time and, if there are junk words and waste paragraphs in there, your eye can not skip by them. I put down most audiobooks unfinished. Thomas Hardy lingers lovingly on the crushing impossibility of real improvement and the doomed dreams of people who want to break free of their existence. I do not care to linger on that while I drive. Jude goes back to the library tomorrow.

Earlier today, as I was thinking about why I did not like Jude, I also thought about the nature of modern literature.

At one point I divided my library into fiction and literature, light books and serious books. I tried to define each, and could not come up with a definition that both held up in the abstract and matched the way I had shelved my books. I had shelved the genre novels in one room, thrown the crappy stuff in with them, and put the non-genre good stuff in another room. This was fairly arbitrary - some genre fiction is better written than most non-genre fiction: Gene Wolf, Terry Pratchett, Sam Delaney, and Walter Jon Williams all have some work that is absolutely spectacular. But, they went into the basement shelves next to Robert Wilson's Illuminati Trilogy and Mercedes Lackey, and Robert Tanenbaum, and the rest of the science fiction and mysteries and thrillers.

Thinking back to those two rooms of books there was a general pattern. The books in the basement were entertaining; some handled serious themes but all were page turners. And, by and large, the books in the basement were about success. The books upstairs moved more slowly. Some were page turners (Moby Dick is a page turner if you like Melville), others were slogs. But, by and large, the books upstairs were about failure. Especially with 20th century literature, we can approximately say that serious fiction is about failure and light fiction is about success. I wonder how many people will try to write a "serious" piece of fiction with light pages and a happy ending. It cuts both ways, of course. William Gibson voted himself from my "buy this" list to my "library" list when, at the end of Virtual Light he first kills a character and then, in the coda, tells us that the character somehow survived falling off the top tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. He forced his happy ending, and in doing so he undermined the world he had created in the previous 300 odd pages of his novel.

Earlier today I tried to articulate a distinction between fiction and literature that would capture that difference between success and failure, and I could not do it. Fiction is a story that did not really happen; literature is either everything that has been written or, in the narrow definition, everything that has been written well. Using the broad definition of literature, all fiction is literature. If we use the narrow definition then there is a small group of material that is both fiction and literature, well written stories that did not really happen. Those are pretty decent ideal types for someone who has never studied literary theory, but they don't help me file my books.

I have time before I need to work up a new filing system. In the new house there is no room for fiction, and while I am writing and teaching I have little time to read fiction. The books remain in boxes in a storage unit.

Someday the books will be unpacked, and then I will have to file them. I might file them as books about success and books about failure. J suggests that we just file all the stories that did not really happen in one set of shelves, with William Faulkner and Robert Frezza hanging out near each other; I might do that. I might also put all the books with repetitive plots in one set of shelves and everything else in another - that criterion might well put Sir Walter Scott in with Bernard Cornwell and David Drake. Or I might just file the books about happiness, the books about despair, and the books about bittersweet in three separate sets of shelves. That way I could grab a novel that suited my mood.

For now, I am going to go grade papers and read John Pemble's The Mediterranean Passion. That is a work of British history, so it will get filed in non-fiction.

Tomorrow, I will look for a new audiobook. I have summoned Mystic River after reading Sheila O'Malley's rave for its opening paragraph. If the rest of the book is as richly written, it will hold up to the audio process. But I am number 8 on the hold list, so I will need to find something to tide me over. There are not a lot of unabridged books on tape in the library, and most of them are books I do not care to read. But I will find something, I usually do.

Posted by Red Ted at 08:14 AM | TrackBack