30 March 2011

Old English

Enrollment and money and everything is almost completely straightened out at school, finally. I discovered that one serious delay was caused by someone in the admissions office: apparently they wanted to keep track of all former Canterbury students who were now at Otago, so they classified them all as being enrolled in "certificates of proficiency" - a one-semester non-degree piece of crap no one ever seeks. And since you can't get a visa with a "CoP", New Zealand Immigration kicked back a bunch of visa applications and slowed everything up. It's made worse by the fact that they were processing a bunch of month-old applications that had been abandoned in Christchurch after the quake.

But all sorted, and all good. Lizzie's visa should follow, in much less time.

In the meantime, I've been in my classes and having a good time. I posted about my classes in general before, but since I've gotten some questions about Old English I thought it might be worth discussing it a little more in-depth.

Old English is not what a lot of people think. It's not Shakespeare ("Five talents is his debt, His means most short, his creditors most strait.") or Chaucer ("Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour"). Those are written in Early Modern and Middle English, respectively - the structure is pretty much the same as modern English, since it comes pretty much from the time after 1066 when the Normans invaded England and started the mix of Norman French with Anglo-Saxon, which was the last major shift in the language (relatively speaking).

Old English instead looks very much like a foreign language to English. Heavily influenced by German, it is partially inflected - that is, it retains case endings to words that indicate their function. This means that word order can be messed with, moving verbs and subjects and objects all around, without too greatly affecting meaning.

I took Latin for years. It's a fully inflected language, with hundreds of case endings, so I am familiar with the whole deal and the terminology (nominative, genitive, etc.). But somewhat disconcertingly, Old English is not fully inflected - it's only inflected by about half, sitting somewhere in the middle of the two ways of doing things. While this makes it easier in some respects (much less memorization) it also means that it can be enormously tricky, since there are all the hassles of a inflected language to learn but also countless exceptions and uninflected rules to tease out.

For example, Latin has case endings for verbs to indicate tense. If you want to say "I will sing," then you just use the base stem for "sing" and add the appropriate future ending. Done. But Old English has only past and present tense endings: they dropped the future endings altogether. Confusingly, though, they haven't quite worked their way around to the Middle and modern English way of indicating the future tense ("will"). Instead, they have a couple of half-measures. Some of the time, you use a form of "willan", the ancestor of our "will". Sometimes, you use subjunctive phrasing. And sometimes, you just have to guess what is meant because there's no way to tell. "I will eat" can be written identically to "I eat" without breaking any grammatical or usage rules.

What a headache! Adding to the mix are a few other choice oddities, like the addition of the symbols "þ" and "ð", which sound identical when spoken.

Fortunately, there's also a lot that's easy about the language. An enormous amount of common modern words have descended from Old English counterparts, even if the spelling is different. "Mistag" may look opaque at first, until you learn the rules of pronunciation and find out that the "g" is more like a "y" sound. Then its meaning of "misty" makes more sense!

In my class this year, we are learning essentially the whole of the language, until by the end we are able to translate it live and consider the merits of interpretation and allusions. With few exceptions, our text is Beowulf, the ancient epic poem.

Here's a sample.

Þā cōm of mōre   under mist‐hleoðum
Grendel gongan,   godes yrre bær.
Mynte se mān‐scaða   manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan   in sele þām hēan;
wōd under wolcnum,   tō þæs þe hē wīn‐reced,
gold‐sele gumena,   gearwost wisse
fǣttum fāhne.   Ne wæs þæt forma sīð,
þæt hē Hrōðgāres   hām gesōhte:
nǣfre hē on aldor‐dagum   ǣr nē siððan
heardran hæle,   heal‐þegnas fand!

And here's this segment (and more) being read aloud by Benjamin Bagby, a modern performer who attempts to re-enact the experience of listening to Beowulf, as a contemporary of the poem would have heard it. He's a little goofy, but it's interesting to listen to.

26 March 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Zadig", "Obasan", "The Famous Victories of Henry V", "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence", "The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes", and "Tarlton's Jests".

Zadig, Voltaire

I like to imagine Voltaire dictating all of his books to an associate in an outrageously bad French accent. He flips and flops the ends of his powdered white wig, and waves around a small silver baton with broad boisterous gestures to punctuate each point. He would speak something like this:

Oonh hunh hunh! So after zis terrible tragedy, Zadig was made to flee the city of Babylon. His enemies were most happy at this turn of events, to be sure! Oonh hunh hunh! And on the second day of his flight, he met a hermit who accompanied him to the home of a wealthy man for the night - ah, this idea, c'est magnifique! - and he said to Zadig, 'I will repay this man for letting us stay here, by giving him a good lesson.' And Zadig assented, only to find the hermit stealing the candlesticks! Pardieu, he was shocked! And he said to the hermit - oh ho, yes, I am so clever! - and he said to the hermit, 'Monsieur, why have you done this?' But the hermit answered, 'Now this man will have some caution to accompany his charity!' Ah ha, it iz brilliant!

Presumably this is not an accurate idea of Voltaire's writing process, but it remains how I think of him. Zadig seems in parts to be a formulaic bragging session, with Voltaire's skilled wit being overshadowed by his evident eagerness to display it.

The story will seem familiar to those who have read Candide, the work for which he is best known. Just as in Candide, the tale of Zadig is that of the titular protagonist's journeys to different places and his experienced with both women and fortune. The difference between the two is that Candide was a naive fool, and Zadig is a tiresomely competent master of every situation.

I suppose the comparison is unfair, but much of the humor and enjoyment of Candide came from the conflict between ideology and reality, and the reader's natural tendency to root for a goofy good-natured idiot. When presented with Zadig, who is better at everything than everyone else, it's hard to feel too bad for him. The catastrophes that happen to him remain his fault, and we are left to wonder why he didn't see them coming. "Of course the king's going to be suspicious," we think, rolling our eyes, "You really think spending all day every day with his wife isn't going to seem weird?"

This is why Zadig ends up seeming more like a vehicle for Voltairean self-praise. He becomes a minister at court so he can make a speech about how kings should act, then he gets promoted to being a judge so he can decide a series of cases with subtle and snappy logical legerdemain, and then he becomes a knight so that he can demonstrate proper chivalry. I'm not going to knock Voltaire for historical inaccuracy - although really, ancient Babylonian jousting? - but this book would have been better if it had seemed more a story and less a gilded frame.

If you haven't read Candide, skip this and read that instead. If you really enjoyed Candide and want more Voltaire, this might be worth it - but don't go out of your way.


Obasan, Joy Kogawa

This is one of the books from my Topic in Post-Colonial Literature class this year, so unsurprisingly it involves what one might call a topic in post-colonial literature. In this case, it's the experiences of Japanese-Canadians during and immediately after World War 2. The story follows the experiences of Naomi Nakane and her family, viewed through her memories, as they suffer increasing discrimination and eventually are forcibly relocated to "concentration camps" and exiled from their homes.

To tell the truth, this was a blank period in history for me. My knowledge of Canada during World War 2 was almost nonexistent - beyond knowing they sent troops, of course - and I had no idea that they had internment camps for their Japanese citizens, just like America did. My professor also mentioned that New Zealand had an internment camp, as well (set up at the behest of the U.S.) called Featherston. It's astonishing.

It's not that I wasn't aware of American internment camps, of course. I have even watched the propaganda movie produced in 1942 by the War Department - which is unintentionally hilarious: "They even have curtains!" But that there was this broad curtain of guilt over all the Allies... grim tidings.

The book is very well-written. It doesn't indulge in facile dualities; it's not a story about how a pristine life was wrecked by this injustice, and the novel's primary theme of silence is not just clumsily opposed to speech as one might expect. Instead, it's a complex story with well-developed characters. The easy voice of righteousness is present, but relegated to one character to become just part of a varied chorus of responses to oppression. Other characters respond with stoic acceptance, some with unmindful defiance, and Naomi herself responds to their treatment by shutting down inside.

There's not a great deal of history; the relocation and internment are settings and events, not the subject of the story. So don't grab it if you're looking for a lot of information on this troubled time. But if you want a marvelously-written story that will pull you right in, pick up Obasan, because it's the book for you.


The Famous Victories of Henry V, Anonymous

Last time I wrote of the source for much of Shakespeare's King Lear, the anonymous play King Leir. I said:

Shakespeare didn't come up with his own stories. That may sound harsh, but it was pretty much true. Like many authors, he took the stories of others or true occurrences and used them as sources. ... This version of the story of King Leir (Lear/Leare/Leire) is one such source.
Sad to say, but this play is almost wholly notable only because of its more impressive successor. Reading it is like reading a crayon rendition of the Sistine Chapel - you find delight mostly in the bits that remind you of the beauty of the real thing. ...
This one is interesting from an academic standpoint, and might stand well on its own in a world without a Shakespeare, but you're better served just reading Lear again instead.

In many ways, a lot of these things are also true about this play, Famous Victories of Henry V. It's the sketched-out bones of what Shakespeare would turn into Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V. The anonymous author of this play runs pell-mell through all the same events - wild young Hal's misdeeds, dying Henry IV and Hal's reformation, the insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, and the glory of Agincourt. It even has the same infusion of low comedy and screwball antics from the ruffians and clowns. But in this version, they're on fast-forward, skipping from event to event with barely any transition.

Some items are almost word-for-word as they are taken from the histories used by Shakespeare and the anonymous playwright, most prominently the scene where a bishop goes to great lengths to spell out Harry's right to the throne of France (taken from Holinshed's Chronicles). And the character of Derick in Famous Victories has much the same clowning attitude and some similar lines to the Shakespearean clowns.

It appears as though Famous Victories was created with ample free room between the lines - "underwritten" as it's said - so that the players could ad-lib their own jokes and fights and have a free hand. It must have been a sight to see in the theater back in the day, but you'd do better to skip it and - as with King Leir - return to the Shakespeare. The Bard is subtler and infinitely more beautiful.


Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that you just assumed must be funny? You chuckled for a moment and smiled uncertainly, perhaps?

Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, "Pass the soap." The second one says, "No soap, radio!"

Not funny, of course - the joke is that there's no joke. The prank uses our learned social graces against us, since we want to be polite and not make someone feel bad for telling a terrible joke and we also want to seem intelligent and capable of understanding a clever joke.

That's how I felt about this book when it was assigned in one of my classes. While reading it, I kept the mental equivalent of a hesitant smile on my face, even though right from the first chapter I was puzzled at how bad it was. I assumed I must be missing something - it must be purposefully sparse and awkward, to make a point. I kept waiting to get the joke, to understand the cleverness at work. It was assigned, so it must be good. Right?

No. The answer is an emphatic no. An exaggerated, head-shaking, disappointing no.

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three young indigenous Australian girls who are taken from their families by the government to a boarding school for "half-caste" (mixed race) children. They escape, and proceed to walk the entire width of Australia to return to their home. They find their way by locating and following the rabbit-proof fence that ran the length of the country, avoiding authority figures and begging for food.

The book is written in a dry and sparse manner, opening with a few imagined episodes from early history between the aboriginal peoples and European explorers, before settling into an account of the girls' families and the girls themselves. Every effort is made to spare the reader from any details of interesting description or creative storytelling, so as not to get in the way of a stultifying tale devoid of incident. Pilkington painstakingly goes on and on, and the tedium of it is all the more remarkable because the book is so short. How she managed to be so boring in only a bit more than 100 pages is a mystery. But nothing happens. The girls are kidnapped, they escape unpursued and easily, and then they walk home. They beg on the way, and sometimes we get a glimpse of how authorities are looking for them. It is a chore.

Skip this book. You don't need to read it, and wouldn't enjoy it if you did.


The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle

I have been making my way through the Sherlock Holmes books for a couple of months now. This is the last one available from Project Gutenberg's free ebooks, though, so this will probably be the end of my Holmes experiences for now. They have not been without their reward.

Like many books of short stories, these are perfect for when you can only snatch a moment of reading in between activities (or classes). And each one is clever and engaging in a different way. Some of them, of course, make you pause halfway through and smile to yourself about the secret shared between only yourself and the great detective, while Watson and Lestrade are harrumphing with confusion. You fools! Of course it must have been his wife!

Other stories are genuinely puzzling, and while you may know that Holmes will solve the mystery in the end, you just can't conceive of how he is going to do it. Sometimes this is an artifact of the changed times - phrenology is not longer considered a sound science, for example - but other times this is just because Doyle was a damned smart man. He wrote a good yarn.

As with the other books, I recommend reading this. It's enormous good fun for light pleasure reading.


Tarlton's Jests, Anonymous

This collection of pranks and jokes actually has little to do with the famous Elizabethan actor Richard Tarlton, beyond bearing his name. While all of the anecdotes feature him as the clown, they generally are previously-collected stories of uncertain origin. Tarlton was one of the most famous "players" to take the stage during Shakespeare's day, and an enormous celebrity, so the strength of his name would have been sufficient to make a collection of "his" jests fly off the shelves. There are a few items are actually from Tarlton himself - including one account of his performance in Famous Acts of Henry V, reviewed previously.

The jokes unfortunately demonstrate that a lot of Elizabethan humor just wasn't that funny. To wit, a sample "jest" (my explanatory edits are in brackets):

A jest of an apple hitting Tarlton on the face

Tarlton haying flouted the fellow for his pippin which hee threw, hee thought to be meet with Tarlton at length ["to be meet" = to get even with him]. So in the play, Tarlton's part was to travell, who, kneeling down to aske his other blessing, the fellow threw an apple at him, which hit him on the cheek. Tarlton taking up the apple, made this jest: —

Gentlemen, this fellow, with this face of mapple [gnarled like a maple tree]
Instead of a pipin, hath thrown me an apple.
But as for an apple, he hath cast a crab ;
So, instead of an honest woman, God hath sent him a drab [prostitute].

The people laughed heartily, for he had a queene [prostitute] to his wife

Yeah, pretty lame. Most of them are about of the same quality, or else crude sorts of pranks like when Tarlton goes to a doctor with a urinal full of wine, and then astonishes the doctor by drinking his own "urine." Or when Tarlton plays a "merrie jest" by setting someone's house on fire.

There are a few gems in the rough, though, and so it might be worth taking a look. It certainly is thick with the flavor of its time, and shows you that people have always been fascinated by celebrities. You might want to check it out.

Here's a clever one, to end on:

Tarlton's greeting with Banks his horse.

There was one Banks, in the time of Tarlton, who served the Earle of Essex, and had a horse of strange qualities, and being at the Crosse-keyes in Gracious streete, getting mony with him, as he was mightily resorted to. Tarlton then, with his fellowes, playing at the Bel by [nearby], came into the Crosse-keyes, amongst many people, to see fashions [shows], which Banks perceiving, to make the people laugh, saies Signior, to his horse, go fetch me the veryest foole in the company. The jade [bitch] comes immediately and with his mouth drawes Tarlton forth. Tarlton, with merry words, said nothing, but "God a mercy horse." In the end Tarlton, seeing the people laugh so, was angry inwardly, and said, Sir, had I power of your horse, as you have, I would doe more than that. What ere it be, said Banks, to please him, I will charge him to do it. Then, saies Tarlton, charge him to bring me the veriest whore-master in the company. The horse leades his master to him. Then "God a mercy horse, indeed," saies Tarlton. The people had much ado to keep peace : but Bankes and Tarlton had like to have squar'd, and the horse by to give aime. But ever after it was a by word [byword, i.e. a common saying] thorow London, God a mercy horse, and is to this day.

25 March 2011

Dissertation

For my ENGL490 class this year, I have to write a dissertation of 15,000 to 20,000 words - perhaps 60 to 80 pages or so. It's a challenge, but I'm really looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to it so much, in fact, that I've already geeked out and made a website for it. It's pretty spare, but if you're interested in that sort of thing or my topic - Nabakov's Pale Fire you might find it worth a glance. The name, Kobaltana, is from a bit of trivia found in the book and will be explained later as I press on with it. Check it out.

20 March 2011

From "The Book of Tea", by Kakuzo Okakura

Perhaps the only Japanese classic that was first published in English, The Book of Tea was written by Kakuzo Okakura in 1906. It is a dramatic and brilliantly concise discussion of all aspects of tea in Japan - ranging from such pedestrian topics as the history of tea and the proper preparation, all the way to the elegant philosophy of the tea ceremony and the metaphysical implications behind each element.

In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence. The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy of black lacquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact centre, lest it divide the space into equal halves. The pillar of the tokonoma should be of a different kind of wood from the other pillars, in order to break any suggestion of monotony in the room. Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from that of the Occident, where we see objects arrayed symmetrically on mantelpieces and elsewhere. In Western houses we are often confronted with what appears to us useless reiteration. We find it trying to talk to a man while his full-length portrait stares at us from behind his back. We wonder which is real, he of the picture or he who talks, and feel a curious conviction that one of them must be fraud. Many a time have we sat at a festive board contemplating, with a secret shock to our digestion, the representation of abundance on the dining-room walls. Why these pictured victims of chase and sport, the elaborate carvings of fishes and fruit? Why the display of family plates, reminding us of those who have dined and are dead? The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful. In the sixteenth century the tea-room afforded a welcome respite from labour to the fierce warriors and statesmen engaged in the unification and reconstruction of Japan. In the seventeenth century, after the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule had been developed, it offered the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits. Before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner. Nowadays industrialism is making true refinement more and more difficult all the world over. Do we not need the tea-room more than ever?

19 March 2011

Annie Proulx

"Well, if you want to get a library card, you just have to come back with some ID and a piece of mail with your address on it," the librarian said, smiling at Lizzie and me. "Just so we know you're in town, you know. But you can get out books and DVDs and magazines, and we sometimes have guest speakers like Annie Proulx-"

"Annie Proulx?!" Lizzie broke in.

The librarian nodded, adding apologetically, "That's all sold out, I'm afraid. She was supposed to go to Christchurch, but now she's coming here. Sold out, sorry - sold out that same day."

Lizzie and I chatted a few moments more with the pleasant lady at the desk of the Dunedin Library. when we finished and stepped out into the cool evening air, Lizzie leaned over and whispered urgently to me, "We have to ask Sue about it."

---

"Hey there!" Sue said, answering her phone. Her voice has a perfect Kiwi lilt, rounding her vowels musically. "So there's one ticket for you guys."

"Oh, wow!" I said into the phone, looking over at Lizzie and giving a big grin and dramatic waggle of my eyebrows. "Hey, no, one ticket is amazing! That's great, she'll love it! Thank you so much!"

Lizzie understood from my half of the conversation, and her eyes widened with happiness as I spoke. She waved her hands a little bit in excitement, then restrained herself to clutching her purse. She loves Annie Proulx, and in her purse at that very moment was a copy of Proulx's first book, Postcards.

---

I couldn't see Lizzie, but I knew she must already be seated inside the lecture hall. I waited in the small queue outside; some seven or eight other people had no tickets and were hoping for a chance to see the celebrated author speak. The librarians guarded the doors zealously. One enthusiastic young British man with a curly storm of hair actually tried to sneak in while they were looking the other way; they arrested him with a sharp glance. But really, who can get angry with someone for being so eager to see an author, in this day and age?

The librarians were clearly nervous. The elevator had been having trouble or something, so one of them stood nearby and fiddled with the door to the maintenance room. One librarian, rail-thin and kind, confessed that she would have just let us all in, but they'd done that before and "gotten burned when more people showed up." A different book release with a different famous author, it seems.

Finally she glanced nervously around one last time, and ushered us in.

---

Annie Proulx speaks in fluid paragraphs, spoken with great single breaths. Even when not reading from prepared text, she tended to swoop on at length - but then, she must get many of the same questions every time she goes to an event like this. She is an excellent public speaker, though, almost never stumbling or trailing off.

She is a woman with short gray hair and middling statute, tending towards girth but with the well-exercised good health of an outdoorswoman. She has a nice smile and good posture. She seems vigorous, with a tinge of sardonic humor.

Proulx's first sentence-paragraph set the tone, said in a single tone of voice even as it shifted from the speech in front of her to an extemporaneous question: "Thank you for having me here tonight, and I am going to speak to you of Birdcloud, and it's a story of a place and not a person, and is this thing on?"

Tap tap. Microphone problems.

Proulx writes a lot of depressing things. She has a great grasp of humanity and the sympathy of readers, but she usually uses it to belabor her characters with terrible events and passions. So it was unsurprising that her discussion of Birdcloud, her latest book about her new home in Wyoming, meandered after a few minutes onto the topic of suicide. "Wyoming is the most sparsely populated state in America," Proulx said, reeling off a few orphaned statistics. "But it has the highest suicide rate in the country."

The famous author spoke of a canyon near where she lives, carved out of the dirt by the scouring winds. For some reason, it became a tradition for suicidal ranchers to go to the bottom of this canyon to take their own lives.

As she proceeded to start reading the first section of her book, she would often break into the narrative with brief asides, usually wry explanations of the nature of Wyoming living. In reference to one local town, for example, she paused to mention that if you want to visit, you have to bring wire-cutters to pierce the private fences strung over public roads by the residents - "It's that kind of place," she commented.

The section of Birdcloud she read was about the early history of the community, centered around the life of one particular Scottish settler who had been drawn there by the lure of big-game hunting. By the end of her reading, all of the game was slaughtered and the land smudged into tracts of cattle ranches, and the satisfied Scot was reflecting on a life well-lived. Despite this book being non-fiction, there seemed little difference in the vissisitudes of a madcap fate. It's all in the story you choose to tell, I suppose.

When Proulx finished the selection from the book, there was time for questions. Some of the questions were what you might expect. One girl asked about the process of building her house in Birdcloud, giving the author a chance to remark that, "Books are the stuff of life for me." Her house was made to hold her books, she said, to such a degree that the architect called it a "bibliotech." I asked about how the community had received the book, and she replied that she didn't know because she'd been traveling, but she thought they'd probably hate it. "People in a place always hate it when you write about them, unless you just write that it's beautiful and the people are just fine and nice."

There were a couple of questions about her most popular book, The Shipping News. It's set in Newfoundland (she says they hated it) and Proulx spoke of how she got started on it when she visited on a fishing trip. "I have a habit of falling in love with places," she said. She told a joke about Newfoundlanders to illustrate the prejudice that exists about them.

Q: How many Newfies does it take for a firing squad?
A: As many as you want, since they stand in a circle.

When asked about her favorite authors, she halted and replied carefully the she loved J.F Powers' "The Wheat That Springeth Green", W.F. Hermans' "Beyond Sleep", and the works of Katherine Porter and Junot Diaz.

Two or three questioners were obviously big fans and eager to impress, so their questions were long, rambling statements capped off with a brief and irrelevant query tacked on as afterthought. I didn't get those down, but they were something like this:

I really loved The Shipping News and the way it related the plight of native peoples in a remote area when compared with visitors and newcomers, and I thought it was particularly interesting when you showed the evolution of their interactions over a period of time and how one group can actually transition to another and end up in a sort of between-state, and I thought it was actually particularly relevant to us down here in Dunedin when compared both to the native Maori and people who more recently have just come down from the north island, in two sort of larger ways, but have you had a chance to see much of the city since you've been here?

Proulx bore it calmly, and answered with the same care as she did everyone else.

At the end of perhaps an hour, the librarian in charge asked for final questions, and then called for a round of applause (delivered enthusiastically). Proulx stayed behind to sign books and answer questions. Lizzie waited in line, then offered her copy of Postcards to be signed.

"What was your name?" Proulx asked, joking. "You said 'Livy' - like the Roman writer?"


Unexpected things happen in Dunedin.

17 March 2011

Caruba Demands Simultaneous War and Peace

Upated 3/20

Conservative columnist Alan Caruba is terrible. If you read my blog regularly, you probably already know this. But somehow being consistently and unspeakably wrong about everything has not dissuaded him from continuing to write - mysteriously, he still regularly publishes his column. This week is a good example of him being terrible.

His column is called "Give the Peace Prize Back, Obama."

As the Middle East begets one insurrection after another against the oppression that has been endemic to the region for centuries and as Japan faces the worst nuclear energy disaster since Chernobyl, the President of America and Commander-in-Chief is Absent Without a Leave (AWOL).

Barack Hussein Obama is the first President of the United States who received a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up. It is a mark of how debased this once prestigious international prize has become. He should give it up. ...

It is an ancient axiom that power is lost when power is not exercised. Osama bin Laden seriously misread the U.S. when he referred to it as “a weak horse”, an Arab way of saying it could be attacked with impunity. George W. Bush responded by bombing the hell out of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and then by invading Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden has been in hiding ever since and his top lieutenants keep getting whacked.

Obama’s approach to foreign affairs has been to misunderstand and denigrate the role of America in a dangerous world. Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal calls it “The Collapse of Internationalism” because the failure to lead has demonstrated the uselessness of the United Nations, its Security Council, NATO, the European Union, and the Arab League when it comes to facing down a psychopathic despot like Libya’s Quadaffi and, of course, the same was true regarding Saddam Hussein.

This is how big wars occur.

Recent history bears out the failure to take action against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, against Adolf Hitler prior to his invasion of Poland, to anticipate the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and now the inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. ...

Just as Americans must organize to resist and survive Barack Hussein Obama over the next two years, having come to realize how utterly incompetent he is, other nations are wondering what will occur without the leadership the U.S. has always provided in the past, including two world wars, several smaller ones, and the containment of the former Soviet menace.

There's more, but that's essentially his argument.

First, let's take a moment to appreciate the beauty here. Alan Caruba thinks that Obama should give back the Nobel Peace Prize because he has failed to go to war against Libya. This is possibly the most wrong thing someone can say.

There are some legitimate arguments that can be made about Obama's inaction in Libya. You might think that the United States should have acted to even the odds between Qaddafi and the rebels by taking air power out of the equation with a no-fly zone imposed on their airspace. I personally don't think so, since there's a very small chance that such intervention would end well. The possible results:

  • Qaddafi soon wins (as seems likely, from what I read), and gets to claim he is not only the rightful leader, but that he "beat the U.S." This would make us seem rather a paper tiger - half-hearted interventionists who won't pose much of a real threat.
  • The civil war drags on (a spectre raised effectively by Ross Douthat in this same sort of discussion) and we are faced with either backing out and looking terrible or escalating into yet another protracted war in a country of which we have little understanding.
  • The rebels win, but because it was partly due to our intervention, we are faced with the moral dilemma of nation-building again: we helped them free themselves, now aren't we responsible for helping them build a working country? This either sinks us into a new quagmire of corruption or renders us despicable for failing to finish what we so violently helped start.
  • Or in the seemingly least likely but still possible final scenario, the rebels immediately win and initiate a new corruption-free government without our help. I must admit this could happen. But when was the last time this occurred? Didn't we learn anything from our recent exploits?

But let's return to Caruba. Let's examine the inactions at which he sneers, and the success story in which he delights.

Recent history bears out the failure to take action against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, against Adolf Hitler prior to his invasion of Poland, to anticipate the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and now the inevitable acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.

Ponder the sentence construction here. "Recent history bears out the failure..." Is this not saying the opposite of what he wants to say? Shouldn't it be "recent history condemns the failure..."? But whatever, he's only had this column for like forty years, so he's still not very good with the writing.

Notice that none of these are "recent history," unless you are 178 years old, like Caruba. WW2 was rather a few years ago, while Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is at some dubious point a decade or two away. For myself, I consider that WW2 turned out rather well, considering how Japan, Italy, and Germany are all fairly reformed countries these days. As far as wars go, those can be considered rather successful actions by America - with all the tragic results of death and destruction that accompanies such "success." Are these really his best examples of terrible results?

Here's a better and rather more recent set of examples: Iraq and Afghanistan. Oh, wait. Caruba beat me to it.

It is an ancient axiom that power is lost when power is not exercised. Osama bin Laden seriously misread the U.S. when he referred to it as “a weak horse”, an Arab way of saying it could be attacked with impunity. George W. Bush responded by bombing the hell out of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and then by invading Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden has been in hiding ever since and his top lieutenants keep getting whacked.

Wait a second... what did Iraq have to do with Bin Laden? Nothing at all, remember Carubakins? It was those WMDs. Surely you're not trying to conflate the two wars, are you? That would be profoundly dishonest.

And is this really the crowning triumph for neoconservative philosophy? It's been a decade of these wars, and casualties continue on large scale and the countries remain embroiled in bloody civil wars against their interior factions - does Caruba really want to hold this up as an example of how to do things right?

Caruba repeatedly calls for "leadership" on Libya. He did the same thing with Iran, demanding Obama do... well, something. What does he want? Does he want military intervention and a third war? Does he want us to supply money and weapons to the rebels (it worked out so well with the Contras, right?) even though open support from the States would be the kiss of death to any groundswell of support for a movement happening among people who generally dislike us?

This befuddled call for undefined "leadership" is a way of taking pot-shots from the sidelines, without being willing to actually endorse a plan. Obama is terrible because he's not doing something? Well, man up and tell us what he should do, since it's so obvious to you.

Failing that, at least Caruba should make his cowardly criticisms a little more coherent. Obama should give back his Nobel Peace Prize for failing to start another war? That's not just cowardly, it's lazy.

Update 3/20:  Well, the UN has indeed imposed a no-fly zone and ceasefire, and now active exchanges of fire are going on between UN forces and Qaddafi's military after they ignored the UN orders.  I am uneasy at this turn of events, but at least there is the silver lining that Caruba is wrong in yet another way.

14 March 2011

The School Plan

At the University of Otago, I am in four classes (or "papers" as they're called here) as I work towards my "Postgraduate Diploma in Arts." This diploma is the weird sort of degree I am seeking. See, generally speaking a New Zealand undergraduate only goes to school for three years. This is because high schools here have an optional thirteenth year, an option usually exercised by the college-bound. Students who want to get an M.A, though, also usually take a fourth year of undergraduate studies. This fourth optional year earns them a "Bachelor with Honors" degree rather than a more usual B.A., and is usually a prerequisite for entering the Master's program.

Obviously, I don't have a "B.A. (Hon)" - I just have a poor old B.A. So to get my Master's, I have to get the equivalent of that fourth year, in the form of the Postgraduate Diploma. It proves I have the research chops to tackle a serious thesis.

Now, it might seem initially unfair, since I already have a four-year degree. But because of the extra year of high school done by students here, it's the same number of years schooling in total. Plus, I really do need to demonstrate my ability to tackle a lengthy research project.

My papers this year are these, all full-year courses:
  • Shakespeare and His Contemporaries - A study of the Bard as well as the associated contemporary figures, like Marlowe and Jonson. It's taught by the head of the department, a fearsomely intelligent woman who is well-respected internationally for her work on Shakespeare. It is tremendous fun, particularly since we're delving into some truly arcane sources for some of my favorite plays. I was lucky enough to take an extremely relevant class in my undergrad days, so I am familiar with even some of the more obscure work covered, like The Roaring Girl and The Knight of the Burning Pestle
  • A Topic in Post-Colonial Literatures - An examination of the legacy of British colonialism in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Pretty interesting, with the luxury of being fully contemporary - which always seems like criticism on easy mode. I have a good background in this as well, although mostly with African post-colonialism (Dr. Schenck in Literary Criticism). I haven't been able to find the books secondhand, so I have been furtively going into a local bookshop and reading the assigned books in there ($35!).
  • Old English - This is the only class that has me seriously worried, because it's an unknown. I have extensive experience with the Old English texts - particularly Beowulf (I already owned one of the Beowulf editions we're using) - but relatively little experience with the raw language itself. It's a challenge, but exhilarating to try to translate and understand, cramming into memory new declensions and vocabulary. Luckily, while it may look weird, sounding it out helps a lot - for example, "þæt wæs god cyning" is pronounced very close to its translation of "that was a good king."
  • Dissertation - The big one. This independent research project aims to produce a 20,000 word dissertation on a serious topic, learning and proving research and writing skills. An enormous amount can go wrong because we are given an enormous amount of freedom; brief classes provide guidelines and help in research methodology and the like, but mostly we're left to our own devices under a research supervisor. Delightfully, my topic will be Nabakov's Pale Fire, a book about which I have had some serious interest in the past.
One interesting thing is that the dissertation - if good enough - would permit me to move right into a Ph.D, skipping an M.A. entirely. That's a year cut down off my studies entirely! But of course, that means that (a) I'd be getting my Ph.D from Otago, and (b) I'd have to be in New Zealand even longer than I expected.

Otago is a great school, of course. But I'd always had this idea of going from my M.A. to some seriously prestigious school in the States. I hadn't seriously considered the idea of coming away from New Zealand with my doctorate in hand - even if it would only take three/four years! And to be away from home for so long... I don't know. At least I have a year in which to decide.  And for now, I have a plan.

10 March 2011

Dunedin

Earthquake photos by Lizzie Whitman. Dunedin photos by me.  All rights reserved.

Following the earthquake in Christchurch, we were left to our own ends. Our hostel had been damaged, with its front collapsing and the rear sundered open by its falling chimney. We'd fixed it up and were living relatively comfortably, those of us left: the hostel owner, Peter, a local woman named Katherine, a German backpacker whose name was (maybe) Svenya, and us.

We were safe, and we got power after a couple of days. Given a few weeks, we might even eventually get water service again - although we weren't counting on it. While the inspectors and road service were out and working hard, and certainly we weren't in any serious need, there seemed to be little efforts actually on the ground anyplace outside of the city center. That makes sense - all the businesses and most of the injured people were there - but nonetheless it was frustrating.

My school, the University of Canterbury, had taken damage in all of its buildings, although none had collapsed. It was closed down for at least three weeks - maybe longer. No one could tell me much of anything.

Food was getting easier to come by, but after the initial re-opening of stores they were fairly cleaned out, and their resupplies were slow and scanty.

People were still missing. Still dying.

It was time to go, to wait somewhere else for school to restart.

Peter at the hostel was wonderful, and - of course - said we could stay as long as we'd like. And we probably could have - he was that kind of man. But when we told him we were getting ready to get out of Dodge, he was glad. He just wanted to lock the place up and go and stay with his daughter. I can't blame him.

We weren't sure where to go, and I'll be frank: we basically just picked a place off the map. Lizzie and I didn't know much about New Zealand, had few connections anywhere, had no plans - we just looked at the map and chose a place that sounded nice. Then on the bus, and off.  We would be away from this chaos and misery, at least.

On the bus.  South, to the bottom of the world, near the end of the South Island.



It's weird how things sometimes just work out.

They didn't work out right away, of course. At first we got off the bus and into a rough-edged, jam-packed hostel called Central Backpackers. It was crowded to the brim with people fleeing the quake.  There were people on mattresses on the floor and sleeping on couches in the lounge.

The hostel was nice enough - clean and friendly - but it was right on the central part of Dunedin: the Octagon.  It got noisy.

Dunedin is a college town, and the Octagon is a busy place come nightfall.  Kids just into university roam the sidewalks, laughing and jeering at each other.  They're not really very raucous (by American standards), with little violence or fighting, but a liquored-up teenager hollering across the street is annoying no matter where you are in the world.  Combine this noise with the overcrowding - filling the hostel near-bursting with tired backpackers with hollow eyes - and the problems with the gas line that deprived the whole building of hot water, and the cost of $60 a night... after two evenings in Central Backpackers, we wanted out.

Thus began a humiliating series of phone calls.

"Hello, I'm a student from the University of Canterbury, displaced by the earthquake.  I am just down here in Dunedin, and I was looking for a place where my wife and I could work for accommodations.  I was wondering if you had anything like that?  ....ah, well, maybe you know of a place where I could- okay, thank you anyway."

I'd hang up, cross the place off the BBH list of local hostels, and then call up the next place.  Sometimes they were brusque, sometimes they were rude, mostly they were sympathetic.  But without exception, they were unhelpful.

I'm not an overly proud man, but it's a hard thing to be almost begging.

But though I exercised my humility, I found nothing.  There were just too many people around Dunedin, all trying to get the same position.

We were starting to see no real way out of this, unless we got back on a bus and tried another town.  We'd barely had a chance to look around Dunedin, but it didn't seem like there was room here for us to stay while we waited for word from the University in Christchurch.

As sort of a last resort, we stopped by the iSite, a little office for tourism and newcomers.  Amongst the racks of brochures and posters advertising the DUNEDIN UNDERBELLY CRIME TOUR and EXPERIENCE THE ALBATROSS BOAT TOUR was a counter for people from Christchurch.  A trio of smiling women stood behind it.

"Need help?", a sign asked.

We did.  Enter Greg and Sue.

From Wikipedia:
Dunedin /dəˈniːdɨn/ (Māori: Ōtepoti) is the second-largest city in the South Island of New Zealand, and the principal city of the Otago Region. ... The Dunedin urban area lies on the central-eastern coast of Otago, surrounding the head of Otago Harbour. The harbour and hills around Dunedin are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The city suburbs extend out into the surrounding valleys and hills, onto the isthmus of the Otago Peninsula, and along the shores of the Otago Harbour and the Pacific Ocean.
Sue's a forty-ish woman with seemingly inexhaustible energy and a wide range of interests.  Her home is littered with evidence: on her patio is a stone sculpture in the process of being shaped; in her closet hangs a coat she sewed from a thick blanket; and many shelves are bent under the weight of books - all this in addition to her days spent as CEO of a local business.  On the day that Lizzie and I showed up looking for help, she was volunteering at the iSite, just trying to lend a hand.  On hearing that a couple were looking for someplace to work for accommodation, she rushed over to help with a big smile on her face.

Sue and her husband Greg are pretty amazing.  He owns his own business, golfs regularly and is a stolid member of the local Rotary, and plays chess weekly.  He peppers conversations with wry humor, always softened with his ready grin.

These two work hard and take care of their teenage son, but they still found the time to take in two Americans who found themselves in a tight spot.  And they did it with such ease and pleasure - almost before we knew it, Lizzie and I were up looking at their house, high up on the hills over the city.  And by the next afternoon, they'd installed us in their spare bedroom - putting together two twin beds for us - and done everything they could imagine to make us comfortable for the two weeks or so we were going to stay to wait on my school.

In the days since, we've felt more like family than a charity case.  We take turns making dinner and cleaning up the house, but they have without hesitation offered all the time to drop us off where we need to go, show us around to the sites, and give us advice about Dunedin.  We know that in a very real way, we can count on them.  And all they ask is, "Pay it forward."

We've had time to explore a little now.  And Dunedin, as it turns out, is gorgeous.



The town is heavily influenced by its early Scottish settlers, memorializing Scottish poet Robert Burns with a large statue and calling itself the "Edinburgh of the South."  Situated alongside the narrow Otago Harbor, Dunedin's a fairly dense city at its center surrounded by a belt of trees and some scattered suburbs.  It has only 100,000 residents (a third that of Jeju) but because of the many different ethnicities in New Zealand and a brisk trade in tourism, it has a lot of amenities only a larger city would ordinarily have - like a big variety of ethnic restaurants and club activities.

Among the commonly-cited attractions here are the world's steepest street, the Cadbury chocolate factory, New Zealand's only castle (Larnach Castle), Speight's brewery, and the Dunedin Railway Station.  But in the time I've been here, it seems to me that they barely deserve a mention next to the simple but spectacular beauty of the city and landscape itself.  A twenty-minute walk is sufficient to bring you up a steep hill in most directions, up above the generally flat city.  The view is amazing - perched up so high that you feel as if you might stir the clouds with a finger - you can see the harbor and the ocean, and down below, nestled in amongst the hills, is the city.  It's bright and clean and friendly, and at night it looks like a palmful of stars in the hollow of some great god's hand.

The wildlife is plentiful and pretty.  For a decent price, you can go out on a boat ride and see squawking local birds like the shag or garret, little swimming penguins hunting for fish, and thick rubbery seals lolloming on the rocks in the sun.  And sometimes, if you go late in the day, you can see the magnificent albatross.  Truly a royal bird, it slices through the wind like a broad white knife, steering with imperceptible motions of its black wingtips.  If you are as lucky as us, you can see two albatross curve in for long swooping arcs around a rocky promontory, matching their speed and bringing their wings in line as they size each other up as possible mates.

But we saw the beautiful city with the knowledge that it was temporary, and eventually we'd be going back to Christchurch.



From the University of Otago:
The University of Otago is New Zealand’s first university and a vibrant international centre of learning. It was established in 1869 by Scottish settlers with a strong conviction in the transforming power of education. Today the University has about 20,000 students, from all over New Zealand and from nearly 100 countries around the world. ...

As a research university, we also emphasise postgraduate study. Otago has a higher proportion of PhD students than any other university in New Zealand. In 2008 we opened Abbey College, New Zealand’s first residential college for postgraduates.
The day after Lizzie and I came to stay with Greg and Sue, I made an attempt at looking into my schooling options.  I didn't hold out much hope at this late date, but it seemed possible that given the circumstances I might be able to transfer to a local school like the University of Otago.  I placed a call over there and spoke to a laconic woman in the English Department, who soberly told me that she wasn't sure it would be feasible to transfer to Otago to complete my Bachelor with Honors there, instead of Canterbury.  I took her at her word: I didn't really know anything about the system here.  I'd never heard of a Bachelor with Honors one-year degree before I came to New Zealand, after all.

But Lizzie and I spent a couple more days in Dunedin.  And at least once a day, we'd be standing looking over a hill at the crashing waves and proud bluffs of the city, and Lizzie would turn to me with an appeal in her eyes.  "Look at this," her eyes said.  "And tell me you want to leave."

I went down to Otago in person.

As it turns out, they don't really know what a Bachelor with Honors one-year degree is, either.  They call it a Postgraduate Diploma in Arts.  No wonder they didn't think I could transfer; I had been asking about a degree they didn't even award!

I had a few days before the extended deadline to apply - I could get in, if I hustled.  Time to go to work!

Financial aid.  Visa office.  English Department.  Registrar.  International Office.  Accommodations Office.  And then back to all of them again.  Call Christchurch.  Call the government visa office.  Emails back and forth.  A desperate race across town to fabricate a "signed" copy of an authorization.  Run, run, run.  And I had to get copies of all the things I'd submitted to Canterbury, of course.

Things got going in short order, and I overcome most every obstacle.  Even the redundant documents were no problem.  As an aside, though: getting a transcript out of my undergraduate school (University of Tampa) taught me a lesson in what true incompetence can be.

True incompetence lies in getting an email and failing to understand any one single piece of information within the email.  It lies in managing to completely fail to understand the problem, much less solve it.  It lies in getting everything possible wrong, while still maintaining the outward appearance of functioning normality.

The University of Tampa tech support helpdesk is the worst helpdesk in an ocean of bad helpdesks.  It is bad and I hate it.

But!

But.  I got it done.



We've bought a car, a cheap but sturdy Nissan Pulsar.

We've rented a flat, a one-bedroom near the beach.

I'm going into my second week of classes, learning Old English and post-colonial criticism and contemporary Shakespearean stagecraft.

Sometimes we stop and have a beer near the Octagon, smiling as we pass Central Backpackers on the way to the pub.

We volunteer a few shifts a week at the Christchurch Embassy in town, giving advice and help to newly-arrived refugees like we once were.

And sometimes at night I look down at the city, and it looks like a palmful of stars.

09 March 2011

Weekly Book Review: "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," Accordion Crimes," The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Colonel Roosevelt", "The Count of Monte Cristo," "The Bin Ladens," "The Runes of the Earth," "King Leir," and "Never Let Me Go."

Book reviews were a little delayed, because of an annoying earthquake that got in the way.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins

As is usual with Tom Robbins books, the plot of Cowgirls is a wild mish-mash of dozens of scantily-related concepts that all bump along with each other, clashing into strange dialog and ludicrously impossible situations, and finally concluding with a thunderous collision that all seems to mesh as if it had been planned all along - a mastery of purpose that seems plausible but unlikely. And of course, Robbins remains enamored of sex - sex written in the most visceral and enthusiastic manner imaginable. Odoriferous, lubricious, salacious.

Cowgirls is about the most gifted hitchhiker of all time, the possessor of a pair of amazingly oversized thumbs, and her adventures with an all-female cattle ranch, a maker of feminine hygiene products, the Asian adoptee of a Native American apocalyptic cult, and the author himself. It cannot be summarized in any more coherent manner, and so I'm sorry if that looks like the result of a game of Mad Libs. It's just how the man writes.

He also writes in an exultant manner, throwing himself into each idea with almost the same enthusiasm he devotes to his descriptions of sex (almost). It's involving and fun, with little discomfort or malicious twisting. While there is dread and drama, it's written with the same Eyepatch Rule as most television: the threat of bodily harm to major characters is strictly commensurate to the level of drama necessary at this point in the story arc. There are no senseless, gut-wrenching deaths or nihilistic disasters. It's artificial, reassuring, and extremely welcome in an era of "edgy" sadist writers. You never find yourself cringing and throwing up your hands in irritation, or loudly declaring how almost every problem in the plot could be solved if people would sit down and have a quiet open talk. Robbins' books, in other words, are pretty much the opposite of the TV show Lost.

I recommend it for anyone.


Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx

Coming from Tom Robbins, we discover that Annie Proulx is entirely dissimilar. I guess we already knew this from Brokeback Mountain or The Shipping News, but the woman has no mercy.

Accordion Crimes is one of the "common element" sorts of books: a collection of basically unrelated short stories that each happen to include the same object or place to loosely tie them together. As one might guess, the common element in this book is an accordion. And believe me when I say that I am not spoiling anything for you to say that pretty much each story ends terribly. You'd have figured that out after the second or third nightmarish death by one of the accordion's owners.

Proulx is a brilliant writer. She has a particular turn of phrase that plucks a moment or person from out of the background, shining it carefully for inspection. But it's a harsh light, and even the fond or funny bits are limned with the awareness of a doom that will soon be upon us. It doesn't help that the accordion's owners are immigrants to America, and suffer many of the problems that such status has brought people for so many years - Oh, great, we're led to think. This one's a French immigrant. How's he going to be oppressed and crushed?

This book is worth reading, but it might be best to save for when you're in a particularly good mood. That way you can appreciate the wonderful writing and clever use of the bon mot without needing to go weep in the shower with a bottle of wine.


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (series), Douglas Adams

I read this series all in a shot, and my immediate thought was that I hadn't remembered hating Trillian quite so much the first time I read these, years ago.

I mean, yes, you're inclined to dislike her right from the start because she chooses intergalactic cad Zaphod Beeblebrox over the entirely pleasant (and more importantly, narrative) Arthur Dent. But that could be easily forgiven within the span of one book, let alone five. It might be too much to hope that Arthur "gets the girl," but they could become friends or she could regret her choices in a wistful way when she realizes she misses the boat - this latter moment could happen the third or fourth time Zaphod forgets her birthday or the like.

She becomes less relevant during the middle few books, but remains curt or condescending, and it's only in Mostly Harmless that she really comes into her own as a complete jerk. She conceives a child, gets bored with her, and dumps her on poor Arthur - who never asked for that responsibility and who was barely involved. Then she flits back out to her job.

Pretty much every time she shows up in the books, I hate her.

Beyond that, I was also surprised to find that they weren't anywhere near as good as I remembered them being. The first one is marvelous and extraordinarily funny, with clever jokes sprinkled liberally throughout a creative story. We care about the characters, we giggle at the word play, and all in all we walk away feeling pretty good. But right off the bat in the next book is an immediate decline in quality, swooping down into mediocrity. Adams' tone and quality of the books varies so widely that it's hard to believe they're meant to be a continuous narrative. The second, third, and fourth books tend to kind of run together as an in-discrete series of wacky ideas and random bizarreness.

The first and fifth books are by far the best, because they seem to have been actually put together with forethought. They have a dramatic arc that draws us in, interests us, and makes us emotionally invested. They're not just a madcap slosh of zaniness. Not that zaniness isn't good, but it gets tiring. We need the grounding of Arthur Dent and his house or Arthur Dent and his sandwiches before we can find our footing - that's when we can enjoyably watch a cascade of wacky adventures. In the second, third, and fourth books the action just rolls on ceaselessly, as [CHARACTERS] get out of a tight scrape because of [BIZARRE THREAT] and go to visit [UNUSUAL WISE MAN], only to get accidentally catapulted to [NORMAL PLANET WITH ONE WEIRD THING ABOUT IT].

These are some funny books, so you should definitely read them. But if you take my advice, you'll give yourself at least a couple of weeks between each one. Get your footing.


Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

One of the first serious biographies I ever read was Theodore Rex, Morris' account of Teddy Roosevelt's years in the White House. It was big and sweeping in scope, well-befitting the man himself. Colonel Roosevelt, the successor (and third in the series) concerns the years after his Presidency, when Teddy occupied himself with small-time politics (including a soon-abandoned third party), hunting, and writing.

The book is weighty and well-researched. Morris appears to have been meticulous in his compilation of all things Teddy. But that's not why these books set the standard, and have raised him to be the authority. Instead, it's his evocative writing. Since Roosevelt left copious personal journals, Morris is given the opportunity to humanize the man in a way seldom possible with such personal figures - and he avails himself of this chance with great skill.

Roosevelt was larger-than-life, the kind of person that would seem unrealistic in fiction. He was a brilliant naturalist, skilled hunter, dignified statesman, erudite author, and canny political operator. His list of accomplishments seems almost silly in its scope at times: he killed a cougar with a knife, personally led a heroic cavalry charge and was granted the Medal of Honor, won the Nobel Peace Prize, explored vast stretches of the unknown interior of Africa, instituted the public parks system in America, broke up the trusts, wrote more than a dozen books (including many bestsellers), and delivered a speech even after being shot by an attempted assassin.

He had his faults, of course. Even beyond the faults of his time (imperialism, racism, misogyny), he squandered much of his patrimony, toyed with the fates of thousands of disappointed and devoted followers with his ego-indulging third party even after it had clearly lost viability, and could be extremely selfish.

Roosevelt had the great good fortune to live a life that was filled with adventure and stunning achievements of a wide variety, and could easily have become a person-less hero in the hands of a lesser biographer. Morris does him good credit, writing of a great man with unclouded eyes. He keeps in touch with all the peripheral figures of Roosevelt's life, tracing the many relationships of a wide-traveling man with great consideration for the reader, who is delicately and seamlessly reminded of who Elihu Root was or where we last saw eldest son Ted. Morris makes only reasonable demands of the reader, presenting the story without making us try to memorize the life of a man he appears to have absorbed in toto. If you are interested in Roosevelt, you would do yourself a disservice not to start on the trilogy today. I can assure you that even by the time you reach this third book, you won't be bored with the life and times of the Rough Rider.


The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I was very pleased with Colonel Roosevelt, but its weighty mass was nonetheless a significant haul. And so I decided to relax with some lighter reading. When I say "lighter," of course, I am speaking purely of style: at 1300 pages, Monte Cristo is anything but light.

The story is a simple one. A man is framed for a crime, then condemned to prison for life. He eventually frees himself and obtains great riches and education, so as to return to hand out justice.

But while it might be lengthy (if not literally heavy, thanks to my Kindle), Dumas' masterpiece is not in any way a chore. I have returned to it repeatedly over the years with great delight, even as I disdain to revisit his other adventure stories (such as the Musketeers series). Something about this one just holds me, each and every time. I suffer with Edmund Dantes in his fall into the depths of the Castle D'If, thrill in his escape, then revel with him as he fondly rewards his friends and vengefully crushes his enemies. It's the ultimate fantasy: the wronged man becomes an agent of justice, in all the spectacular glory allowed by infinite wealth and infinite craftiness.

"I too, as happens to every man once in his life, have been taken by Satan into the highest mountain in the earth, and when there he showed me all the kingdoms of the world, and as he said before, so said he to me, 'Child of earth, what wouldst thou have to make thee adore me?'

"I reflected long, for a gnawing ambition had long preyed upon me, and then I replied, 'Listen,—I have always heard of providence, and yet I have never seen him, or anything that resembles him, or which can make me believe that he exists. I wish to be providence myself, for I feel that the most beautiful, noblest, most sublime thing in the world, is to recompense and punish.' Satan bowed his head, and groaned.

"'You mistake,' he said, 'providence does exist, only you have never seen him, because the child of God is as invisible as the parent. You have seen nothing that resembles him, because he works by secret springs, and moves by hidden ways. All I can do for you is to make you one of the agents of that providence.' The bargain was concluded. I may sacrifice my soul, but what matters it?" added Monte Cristo. "If the thing were to do again, I would again do it."

This is a novel of dizzying highs and terrifying lows, and the switching back and forth - what Kurt Vonnegut called in Sirens of Titan the "thrill of the fast reverse." It's a little fluffy - not high literature - but extremely enjoyable. Read it on cold evenings, curled up with a warm drink and marveling at the power of man to experience such extremes.


The Bin Ladens, Steve Coll

The Arab world is a pretty important place in recent history, but I have always been generally ignorant of it. It's shameful, but it was completely unmentioned in schooling and for a long time I never bothered to sit down and get a grasp on that whole mysterious, opaque world. Thankfully, that's starting to change, and this book is helping to change it.

The Bin Ladens was actually a wedding present, oddly enough, but it was just the sort of thing I like. It took a confusing and wide-ranging family history in a strange land, and distilled it into a narrative that was intriguing and easy to follow. The origins of the family and the origins of Saudi Arabia are told in the same manner, avoiding tedium with light-fingered summaries and touching down on amusing anecdotes and important events. It's written in a style that should be familiar to anyone who reads a lot of contemporary non-fiction - the manner of a newspaper reporter working himself into a new manner of speaking. Pacing is assigned central importance to hold your attention, and careful deference is paid to laying out the basis of future events. For example, in a chapter filled with breezy glosses about the many businesses and properties purchased by the wealthy Bin Ladens will come a pause, and Coll will describe one of them in detail for no immediate reason - only because in the next chapter someone important dies there, or gets married, or so on.

It's very formulaic writing, with almost no fire to it, but it's also very adept. If it lacks heart, that's not an unforgivable crime for such an informative and easy book. And it gives insight into a family that started out with a small catering cart and eventually became the personal concierge service of the entire Saudi royalty and the biggest construction firm in the country, responsible for renovating all of Mecca and Medinah (including the holy buildings like the Prophet's Mosque). Mohamed Bin Laden, the patriarch, had 54 children who would scatter to all manner of professions and lifestyles - keeping track of them and turning out their story in such a readable manner must have been a extremely difficult.

Don't read it for fun, but if you want to learn, check it out. Fair warning: Osama's story is given, but he's only a part of it - so don't pick this up thinking it's just about Terrorist #1.


The Runes of the Earth, Stephen R. Donaldson

I picked up Lord Foul's Bane when I was about sixteen. It was in the high school library, and looked interesting. Pickings were getting a bit thin at that point, and I liked some fantasy books. This one was decidedly strange, though.

Barely halfway through, I realized that this was more than trashy genre fiction. This was great stuff.

Flash forward a few months, and I'd read all of the Thomas Covenant books - they were two trilogies, with the sixth book completed at the year of my birth. They were marvelous books, written with a unique style. Donaldson has a penchant for a certain kind of obscure language, weaving in "puissance" and "eldritch" into his writing with deliberation. He recognizes the accumulated cultural power behind these words, and their call-back to old stories of high magic and honor, and turns that cultural weight into a tool. It could easily be goofy or awkward, but the solemnity with which he writes instead makes it a potent technique.

The Thomas Covenant books became great favorites of mine. The story is long and complicated, filling six books with ease, but it's a story of sacrifice, self-loathing, and transcendence.

Imagine my delight when I discovered in 2004 that Donaldson had begun writing a third trilogy, to complete the story. There had been a wait of twenty-one years, though, and so I refused to start the third trilogy until it was complete.  I couldn't stand beginning again, only to wait two or three years between each volume.

Finally, last week I saw the ninth and final Thomas Covenant book in the store. I could begin.

In the first trilogy, Thomas Covenant is a leper: outcast from society and afflicted with completely deadened nerves. But one day he is cast into a magical realm called the Land. Unwilling and unable to accept the reality of this world, he believes he must instead be in a dream or hallucination - anything less than this unbelief would unseat his reason. But as he journeys to defeat an avatar of evil, he learns greater self-loathing as he sins ,and his defenses begin to crumble. Only at the last does he realize a balance between having to choose, and he finally manages to make the one choice that matters.

The second trilogy joins Dr. Linden Avery to Covenant as he is thrust back into the Land after ten years of peace. He finds it vastly changed, and his hard-won unbelief and ability to manage this possible illusion compromised. They journey together on a second quest to defeat evil, and Covenant reaches the with another profound understanding that helps transform the way he will live his life.

This third trilogy stars only Dr. Avery, who returns to the Land by herself. Considering the twenty-one year gap, it was amazing how perfectly Donaldson kept the style and tone. I'm not sure I would have thought there was such intervening time, because it's as if he never stopped thinking about it.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are fantasy. They're not typical fantasy, so there are no elves or orcs, but they do take place in a land of magic and magical creatures. So if you hate those sorts of books, you probably won't like these.

Further, they are deep fantasy. They're not fluffy Dragonlance books or sleepwritten books about how awesome are swords. They're grim and terrible and glorious and wonderful. They end with crashing triumphs, and leave you with epigraphs sitting in your mind and moral questions tugging at your thoughts.

But really, who can say who might like these books? They're highly unusual, and very good. Give them a try - maybe you'll find out something new.


King Leir, Anonymous

Shakespeare didn't come up with his own stories. That may sound harsh, but it was pretty much true. Like many authors, he took the stories of others or true occurrences and used them as sources. We've tracked down a great many of these sources. The Tempest, for example, used as a primary source an account of a shipwreck near Bermuda.

This version of the story of King Leir (Lear/Leare/Leire) is one such source. It's a much simpler play, with broader themes, and with nothing like the brilliant writing of the Bard. It came out of a theatre troupe, the Queen's Men, formed by Queen Elizabeth to help spread the Tudor legend to the provinces.

The most glaring difference in this version is that it has a happy ending. Lear doesn't blind himself, doesn't go mad, and is instead put back on the throne at the end. No one gets hung tragically. In addition to this (rather important) change is that the Edmund/Edgar subplot does not exist. This is actually because it came from a different source, added to the story by Shakespeare.

Sad to say, but this play is almost wholly notable only because of its more impressive successor. Reading it is like reading a crayon rendition of the Sistine Chapel - you find delight mostly in the bits that remind you of the beauty of the real thing. You can see the spunk of Shakespeare's Kent in the spirited words of one of the French King's attendants, and a hint of Lear's epic madness in Leir's comparably tame wailing.

This one is interesting from an academic standpoint, and might stand well on its own in a world without a Shakespeare, but you're better served just reading Lear again instead.


Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

I had previously read and enjoyed Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, a story about a butler's quiet distant love, set in the different world of professional English servants. It was intense and wistful, and so spectacularly filled with passion and feeling that it was all the more remarkable that this emotion was conducted to us entirely by subtext. I loved it, and couldn't wait to read this next Ishiguro.

The plot couldn't be more different: in Never Let Me Go, the setting is the near future, in a mysterious boarding school called Hailsham where two girls and a boy develop a lasting bond. But the tone is precisely the same. Kathy is quietly forthright and kind, but watches as a relationship develops between her bolder friend Ruth and the boy Tommy with whom she has a strange rapport. As their lives progress through an unusual path towards an unavoidable doom, you can almost hear the unspoken longing that thrums through any contact between Kathy and Tommy. Small actions like a smile assume that electric tension you find in Victorian novels where anything more would be taboo.

There are two great mysteries in the book, introduced early on and revealed in full only near the end: where is Hailsham actually located, and what is the oft-hinted but never-spoken fate of Hailsham boarders, once they leave the school? But these matters aren't central, even though the latter would ordinarily seem to be overriding in importance. Instead, the central issues are the relationships between the characters, which loom large and whose vast feeling makes any questions of mere life or death seem less important.

I strongly recommend this book. It's extremely well-written with the subtlest touch, and it communicates a passionate but silent longing that is worth experiencing. You can't go wrong.

O'Keefe's shocking scoop: NPR executives will agree with crazy statements to get donations

You may already know James O'Keefe and his "Project Veritas" - he got famous by selectively editing dozens of videos of visits to ACORN offices, making it seem as though he posed as a pimp and got help oppressing immigrant prostitutes. In addition to that disgusting pile, he also was arrested for trying to tap the phones of Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. And to top it off, he tried to dupe a CNN reporter onto a boat stocked with dildos, in some bizarre and aborted plan to embarrass her. I wrote about it before, here.

Or you may remember his follow-up to these groundbreaking works of investigative slimery, his "Teacher's Unions Gone Wild" video. In this video, he tried to smear the reputation of a celebrated teacher, making her complaints about some of the injustices in the system seem like she was condoning them. She was fired, even though she had previously been praised by President Clinton for the time she rescued two students from an out-of-control van, throwing them out of the way and getting badly injured as a result. But hey, I guess the loss of a heroic teacher is just collateral damage to O'Keefe's larger cause, carried out by throwing mud anywhere it looks like it might stick with selective editing of his videos. More details on that one here.

And finally, he tried to sting Planned Parenthood last month, but got pretty much nowhere when they didn't do anything wrong. Shucks.

Well, he's at it again.

A while ago, his organization set up a fake group called the "Muslim Education Action Center," or MEAC. They set it up with a very convincing fake webpage, located here (now with a new frontpage advertising the stunt). This webpage was not very objectionable by and large - it has fairly generic pablum about spreading the real truth of Islam, assisting Islamic schools in America, and opposing the "corrupt entities such as Roger Ailes' Fox News." So it didn't really go over the top, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anything to really seize on as sinister. This didn't stop some conservative bloggers, of course, such as Pamela Gellar (creator of the "Ground Zero Mosque" nonsense). She found it outrageous, sneering at its fairly commonplace cry for greater understanding: "In other words, if you do not accept living under the most radical, extreme ideology on the earth, Islamic (sharia) law, than you are filled with 'confusion, hatred, intolerance and discrimination.' ... The media has signed our death warrant as a civilization."

So it was a good background, done with enough care to fool anyone - and in such a reasonable tone as to leave barely anything for even the biggest islamaphobe like Gellar to seize on. I have to give credit where it's due: O'Keefe's people are good at their pranks and put in the work (right down to ensuring adequate supplies of lube when necessary).

So then two guys from this fake group meet with two NPR executives, and tape the two hour lunch. They mention how they want to donate something like $5 million to NPR, and then proceed to say things ranging from biased to downright racist - waiting to see if they're contradicted - while they do their best to draw out some objectionable chit-chat from their dupes.



So let's just come out and say that Schiller may be a big pandering jerk, it's true. He saw a lot of money being offered by some potential donors and was willing to just nod along to whatever craziness he heard. He probably does think that the Tea Party is racist, and - who knows? - maybe he failed to spit out his food and contradict "Ibrahim" about the "Jew-run media" because he does indeed agree. Jack Schafer at Slate sums it up pretty well when he says:

[P]ardon me if I'm not outraged that 1) a pair of NPR officials hosting potential donors would merrily slag conservatives, Republicans, Tea Party members, and other non-liberals or 2) display temporary deafness when deep-pocketed potential funders say ugly and demented things.

If there's any outrage, it should be about the "message" O'Keefe is trying to send with this stunt. His webpage about it crows:

As you’ve most likely heard by now, two young investigative journalists trained by my organization, The Project Veritas, went incognito and filmed two top level NPR executives, Ron Schiller and Betsy Liley, blasting Republicans, Tea Partiers, middle America, Jews, and Christians.

Basically, if you’re not an ivory tower educated elite, they attacked you.

Even more shocking -- the NPR executives thought they were meeting with members of the Muslim Education Action Center (MEAC). The two undercover reporters actually told NPR the group was founded and funded by the Muslim Brotherhood!

This summary is a wild mis-characterization. Here's the dialog by "Ibrahim" about the Muslim Brotherhood connection, for example:

"So you asked about our organization... and we contribute to a number of Muslim schools - Orthodox Muslim schools - across the U.S., and more recently we've contributed to some universities... our organization was originally founded by a few members of the Muslim Brotherhood in America actually."

Especially in the rapid-fire delivery by Ibrahim near the end, it sounds a lot less like they're talking about being "founded and funded by the Muslim Brotherhood" and more like at some point in the past ("originally") some people left the Brotherhood to make this new organization or something like that.

The things they actually got Schiller to say are similarly overblown.

"The current Republican party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved with people's personal lives, and a very fundamental Christian - I wouldn't even call it Christian - it's this weird evangelical kind of move [sic]."

I don't know - I guess it's unfortunate that anyone, particularly a high executive in NPR, sits blithely by when a potential donor claims that the Jews and Zionists control the media. And it's somewhat worse that they'd be willing to take money from such a person. But it's hard to fault that same executive for having personal (and generally reasonable) opinions about the trends in society. If you pulled this stunt with almost anyone, taping them for two hours, you'd always be able to yank some things out of context to use as an attack.

What I do know is that O'Keefe and his crew have long ago forfeited any leeway they might be given: every assumption has to be made that they were trying to set Schiller and NPR up and smear them, rather than do a serious investigation. You can watch the video for yourself and decide just how terrible it is, but for my part I'm leagues away from outrage and more in the quiet-sigh-and-slight-eyeroll stage.

UPDATE:  The Blaze has analyzed the full video, and points out that most controversy is again the result of selective editing.

[T]he clip in the edited video implies Schiller is giving simply his own analysis of the Tea Party. He does do that in part, but the raw video reveals that he is largely recounting the views expressed to him by two top Republicans, one a former ambassador, who admitted to him that they voted for Obama.

When you make a hit piece about liberals and The Blaze, Glenn Beck's news site, is no longer on your side, you know you've got serious problems.