Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Angel of Darkness

I first encountered author Caleb Carr's work through his best-known novel, The Alienist. A police procedural, The Alienist centers on a group of modern-minded sleuths, from both inside and outside the formal police department, who combine their skills and talents to solve a series of grisly murders in 1896 New York City. The book is thickly populated with actual historical figures (Theodore Roosevelt is practically a first-tier major character) and lovingly described locations.

More than that, the book struck me as an ingenious piece of work: it was essentially a technothriller that happened to be set a century in the past. The core group of investigators are at the forefront of crime-fighting technology, and are ready and willing to try out cutting-edge methods.

At one point they attempt to employ the new science of 'fingerprinting', the idea that each person's fingerprints are unique, and that a person's presence at a scene could be established by the prints he had left behind. And at another point, they attempt a different unproven science: they remove a murder victim's eyes and process them back in the lab, in the hope that the last images the victim saw before his death can be extracted from the eyeballs like pictures can be developed from film in a camera.

Fingerprinting and eyeball-image-developing are presented as similarly unproven, barely tested technologies, and our heroes have no way of knowing ahead of time which will yield fruitful results and which is a dead end. I liked that. It made The Alienist feel like science fiction, even though the narrative stayed firmly grounded in the 1890s. It made me wonder if Carr had ever written a novel that was actually science fiction.

I'm not going to name names. I'm not going to go into any detail about my next Carr-ian reading experience. But let's all just agree to agree that Caleb Carr has never written a book in the science fiction genre. And, if any of you happen to be in a bookstore or library and you think you see a science fiction novel by Caleb Carr, just leave it on the shelf and walk away. Trust me on this. You really don't want to investigate any further.

It's too bad Caleb Carr never wrote any novels that were explicitly science fiction. It's too bad they never made any sequels to The Matrix.

My confidence in Carr badly shaken by the reading experience I will not discuss, I bought The Angel of Darkness a while later. It is a sequel, reuniting most of the main characters of The Alienist and presenting an adventure that unfolds along similar lines. A baby is kidnapped from the wife of a Spanish diplomat in New York City, in the tense period that preceded the Spanish-American War, and the investigation spearheaded by chief protagonist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler turns up a gruesome trail of dead children connected to the suspected baby-snatcher.

The narrator from the first book (and Watson figure to Dr. Kreizler's Holmes), New York Times journalist John Moore, is demoted to comic relief status. The new narrator is Stevie, the rescued street urchin who was a supporting character in the first book.

The Angel of Darkness is not a bad book. It's a fairly exciting page-turner (it had better be, at over 600 pages) and is intelligently written. But I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as The Alienist. And I think a lot of the reason why has to do with my attitude towards sequels.

I like sequels that break new ground. Or, I like sequels that stand on their own just as much as the original story. I do not care for 'The whole gang is back to go on another adventure!' stories. And unfortunately, The Angel of Darkness is very much that kind of book.

Part of it is the perhaps unavoidable fact that, with The Alienist, I felt like old tropes had been assembled into a new and exciting form. But with The Angel of Darkness, the form was a familiar one. Also, in The Alienist, it felt like anything could happen. Obviously Teddy Roosevelt was going to survive, as were the characters who appeared in the 1919 frame story. But the other fictional named characters really seemed in mortal danger, and there was one death that genuinely shocked and surprised me. Contrast with The Angel of Darkness. I'm going to spoil it for you: even though The Angel of Darkness is a fairly bloody book, every 'good guy' who returns from the first book will survive the second. But that's not even much of a spoiler, since I never felt like any of the 'old friends' were ever in any danger.

Finally, it would be interesting to discuss the portrayal of certain non-white characters in the novel. I'm not certain if one character in particular really crossed the line into offensive territory, but I'm going to go with 'probably yes'.

Spring Fun

Spring Fun is about a young Taiwanese woman who has just committed suicide. The novel traces her life and the influences upon her thinking, that have led her to this final step.

The novel focuses both on the protagonist, who spent much of her childhood in Amsterdam, and several of her friends, who show different sides of being female and Taiwanese.

Lynn-Yuling Tzeng's novel (purchased here in Taiwan, although I can't recall exactly where) is an interesting, locally-published creation. For the first time I can remember, I have a book with no publishing information to be found anywhere on it, and Internet searches come up with very scanty results. Even tiny publishing houses generally put their brands on books they publish, so Tzeng's novel is something of an interesting anomaly. I wish I could remember how it came into our possession.

This is going to sound unkinder than I mean it, but here goes: This book clearly never saw a professional editor. It's not just that the prose makes me think it was written by a non-native English speaker and then proofread by a native speaker who didn't feel at liberty to edit on a large scale. It's also the odd and inconsistent use of footnotes, and a generally not-quite-polished style.

And that's not meant as negativity -- I rather liked the slight clunkiness. It brought me feeling a bit closer to the author, as if I was reading a manuscript. It didn't take me long to get accustomed to the style, and then I felt perfectly at ease with it.

I just have one negative thing to say about the novel. I know it's explicitly a feminist work. I'm not even going to say there's nothing wrong with that -- that would just sound condescending -- but rather, I like that; I like reading books written by people who are not coming from my own viewpoint. That said, I wish there had been male characters in this universe who weren't jerks. That's all.

The busy part's over

I haven't updated this thing since December 2. That's largely for two reasons:

1. Moving. We've moved from our old place in Jingmei to a much nicer apartment in central Taipei. As it turns out, even when nothing goes wrong (and nothing did go too horribly wrong for us), moving is a hugely time-consuming and stressful process, one which has made me appreciate the idea of making do with less stuff.

2. Christmas, which was ultimately a smaller deal for us than moving, but which did involve a lot of scurrying about busying ourselves with various errands.

Now I pledge to update at least a few more times before the end of the month/year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Usurper of the Sun

My first Japanese SF novel, Housuke Nojiri's Usurper of the Sun starts off with high school astronomy buff Aki becoming one of the first to view an astonishing new phenomenon: someone or something is disassembling the planet Mercury in order to create a gigantic ring around the Sun.

Over the next few years, Aki goes on to become one of the world's most well-respected experts on the Ring, as the situation on Earth goes from bad to worse. The Ring grows so thick it drastically reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches Earth. The resulting climate change causes crop failures and famines that kill a billion people.

So when a crewed spaceship is prepared to visit the Ring to find out what humans can do about the situation, Aki is of course one of the four chosen to make the journey. I found the novel at this point readable but not exceptionally compelling. The first third of the novel reads like your standard Big Dumb Object story, the kind of hard SF that I respect but don't consider to be my favorite subset of science fiction.

My interest perked up considerably when, with 2/3 of the book left to go, the Earth people's mission to the Ring turns out to be unexpectedly productive. The Ring is destroyed, and Earth is saved. For the time being, that is. Aki and crew return to an Earth which now needs to prepare itself, logistically and psychologically, for the possible arrival of possibly very angry aliens.

This is where Usurper of the Sun becomes the sort of speculative fiction I like. Glimpses of an Earth simultaneously giddy with accomplishment and very apprehensive about the future struck me as fairly realistically done.

What really intrigued me, though, were the philosophical questions raised by the utter inscrutability of the aliens. This was some of the best speculation I've seen yet about aliens who really might not think like human beings. Rather than aliens who merely don't appear to come from an Anglo-Saxon-derived culture, which is what we get all too often in science fiction.

(Note to future SF writers: The mindset of an actual alien from another star system is likely to be less comprehensible to the average human, than the mindset of a human with autism. Autistic people are human too. Space aliens aren't. Housuke Nojiri gets this.)

I wasn't terribly happy when, at novel's end, the aliens turned from incomprehensible to comprehensible far too easily. I know it wrapped up the novel nicely, and to his credit, the author did justify it pretty well in-universe. It's just... after so much talk devoted to how alien the aliens were, I felt like they shouldn't have been rendered knowable so quickly.

That said, the philosophical musings of the final two thirds were enough for me to enjoy Usurper of the Sun. I'm well aware this recommendation probably won't get people rushing in droves to buy the book. (Unlike certain extraterrestrial civilizations, I'm not mind-blind.) But hey, it's what I enjoyed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jeeves Takes Charge

I've never seen the 1990s TV show based on P.G. Wodehouse's stories, Jeeves and Wooster. But I know of its existence, and I have two things to say about it.

First, of course Jeeves and Wooster were played by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. I mean, that's pretty obvious. Read the stories and you'll notice that Wodehouse clearly had Fry and Laurie in mind as he was writing. The fact that neither man had been born yet is just testament to Wodehouse's genius: he wasn't stuck within a one-way arrow of time, remembering only the past.

Second, even though I haven't seen the TV show, when I read Wodehouse's prose I hear Hugh Laurie's voice in my head, as if he's narrating the audiobook. I haven't seen Laurie play Bertie Wooster, but I have seen him on the latter two seasons of Black Adder, and I assume the mannerisms and voice he used were pretty similar.

(All this probably sounds quite peculiar if you know Hugh Laurie primarily as Dr. House.)

Jeeves Takes Charge is not so much a novel as it is a series of short stories strung together, but there is enough continuity that I don't feel too uncomfortable foisting the title of 'novel' on it.

Reading Wodehouse, I am struck with a bit of cognitive dissonance:

1. Wodehouse is supposed to be one of the foundations of modern British comedy. He's the guy who influenced Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and countless others.

2. But his plots remind me of low-brow American sitcoms, complete with tropes and cliches that would not be out of place on Gilligan's Island. (There is, at one point, a perfectly formed example of what TV Tropes calls the 'Gilligan Cut'.)


I'm a snob. I'm making the mistake of thinking, If it reminds me of American sitcoms, it can't be good. Because I think sitcoms are Not Sufficiently Cool.

Wodehouse scoured the history of comedy for his plots, some of which are based on Ancient Greek comedies. The same plots and tropes get re-used again and again, to the point that many modern-day American sitcoms employ plot developments that had their origins over two thousand years ago. There's nothing new under the sun.

Or, another way of looking at it is, we don't read Wodehouse today so much for his plotting as his dialogue and his use of language, particularly that which comes from the fictional mouth of Bertie Wooster, possibly my new favorite first-person narrator.

Various Ways to Serve Food

Lately UC Davis has been in the news rather a lot, in conjunction with recent news stories involving students being sprayed with pepper spray.

Many watchers of cable TV news know what FOX News hosts clarified today: pepper spray is a form of food. Remember, if you're the sort of person who would willingly eat a pepper, you shouldn't complain when you're hit in the face by a burst of pepper spray. In essence, these students were just being given free snacks.

Sure, pepper spray might burn your eyes. But people eat peppers because they like the burning, right?

Unless some of those kids don't like spicy food. Then it was just assault.

When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of Nick at Nite. One show in their rotation was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. One of AHP's most famous episodes was 'Lamb to the Slaughter', which I realize now was based on a Roald Dahl short story.

'Lamb to the Slaughter' is about a woman who kills her husband by cracking his skull with a frozen leg of lamb. She calls the police and reports that she came home to find her husband lying dead on the floor.

Detectives come by to inspect the crime scene. However, they remark to each other that the man's death will probably remain unsolved as long as they lack a murder weapon... as they eat the leg of lamb the woman has prepared for them.

Let's look at this plot from a modern, FOX News-informed sensibility. From our perspective, what's happened here is that the woman served her husband food in an unorthodox manner. His system couldn't take it, and he died. But remember, all the woman was doing was giving him a form of food. Just like getting hit with pepper spray.

Unless the man was a vegetarian. Then it was murder.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Seven Per Cent Solution

Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is an odd beast of a novel. Essentially a feature-length bit of Sherlock Holmes fanfic (I use the word with none of its pejorative associations), Meyer's book played with my expectations.

I can't really say how without including massive spoilers. So, spoilers aplenty from this point forth.

We think of Professor Moriarty as Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis. The first well-known supervillain in world literature. The funny thing is, Moriarty is much more prominent outside of Conan Doyle's stories than within them.

Moriarty only shows up at all in two of Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories. (That's the same number of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes that center around the Trek universe's version ofMoriarty. But nobody thinks of Moriarty as a Star Trek villain.)

What's more, for Moriarty's introduction, in 'The Final Problem', Conan Doyle performs a narrative trick that would have people rolling their eyes if someone tried it today. He doesn't bother to establish Moriarty as a supervillain at all; instead he just has Holmes show up and state that Moriarty's this evil genius. Moriarty's the greatest bad guy in England because Conan Doyle tells us so, not because of anything that we see him do.

Moriarty is famous, but when you go back to the source material you see that he is quite probably the most overrated supervillain in the history of fictional bad guys.

Nicholas Meyer probably wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution thinking much the same thing.

Moriarty is indeed very much in evidence in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. He seeks out Dr. Watson and complains that Sherlock Holmes is hallucinating that he's this fabulous criminal mastermind, when in reality he's just a meek mathematics teacher.

Now, every reader is probably thinking at this point, Aha! Dr. Watson will of course fall for Moriarty's ruse -- but Holmes will see right through it and foil his plans in the end!

And every reader would be wrong. Within the universe of this novel, Moriarty really is a mild-mannered math teacher, and Sherlock Holmes is a crazed cocaine addict who's imagining things. (Told you there'd be spoilers.)

Nicholas Meyer spends the first half of the novel subverting and defusing Holmes' most famous antagonist. He has Holmes visit Sigmund Freud in Vienna, in order to receive treatment for his cocaine addition. Then he gives Holmes and Freud a case to solve together.

Now, if you define the 'plot' of a Holmes story to be the actual case that Holmes and Watson solve, then the plot of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution actually begins when the novel is more than half over. This may frustrate and annoy some readers.

On the other hand, Nicholas Meyer intends for the main plot to be character-based: Sherlock Holmes' journey from cocaine-induced paranoid fantasy to clear and sober thinking. In that respect, the book works much better.

I'm satisfied with what Meyer has done here, even if my expectations got a bad case of whiplash.

Monday, November 21, 2011


It's rather astonishing that, almost thirty years after his death, Philip K. Dick's short stories and novels have inspired so many Hollywood movies. Compared to other prominent American science fiction authors, Dick wasn't exactly mainstream. He was often bizarre. A let's-explore-the-labyrinthine-workings-of-the-inside-of-Dick's-own-head kind of bizarre.

I once read a collection of short stories from across Dick's entire career. His early stories were pleasingly quirky, but as the Sixties and Seventies wore on, the tone of his writing just became more and more out-there.

It's easy to say that Dick slowly went insane. Indeed, looking at his biography, that does appear to be the case. But if he went insane, he was well aware of the fact as it was happening.

What sort of novel would a highly intelligent, well-read person whose mind is turning inside out write? Well, he would write VALIS.

I actually started VALIS last year, but put it down again because I was in the mood for something more akin to a traditional novel. VALIS reads more like a couple of characters discussing difficult, abstruse philosophy, in the context of 1970s California.

There was one bit that I gleaned from my first attempt, that I absolutely loved. I learned about the two-proposition self-cancelling structure. In layman's terms, this is an argument of the form 'A. Also, B.' where B looks like it reinforces A, but in fact it negates it.

For example:

1. God does not exist.
2. And what's more, he's stupid.

Everybody go have fun looking for real-life examples of this structure.

The plot, to the extent that there is one, concerns main character Horselover Fat's attempts to build a valid philosophy based on Gnosticism after a friend of his commits suicide. Gnosticism is an ancient philosophy I have a hard time getting my head around, even though I know it's got elements in common with Hinduism and Buddhism and also resembles many quite modern ways of looking at the universe. I still can't say I retained very much of Horselover Fat's philosophy.

VALIS is narrated in the first person by Phil. Phil is Philip K. Dick. Within the narrative Phil even mentions real-life books he's written in the past. Horselover Fat, the main protagonist, is also Philip K. Dick. This is made very clear at several points in the narrative. Phil and Horselover Fat share many conversations about philosophy. There's one point where Horselover Fat travels the world and sends letters back to Phil back in California. Go ponder that and report back to me when you're finished.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Good Old Days

I've been thinking lately about something I read earlier this year in Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation, and a conversation inspired by it. It concerns how wars were fought in Zhou Dynasty China, and how later (but still ancient, from our perspective) Chinese generations looked back on them.

(The Zhou Dynasty is not what it sounds like to Westerners. It wasn't really a time when China was ruled by a series of emperors of the family Zhou. In fact, the Zhou Dynasty was a time when the land we call China was not and never had been ruled by a single government. It was a time when continental East Asia was composed of a patchwork quilt of kingdoms that were not unified, and more often than not were at war with each other.)

In the early part of the 295-year-long time in ancient history we call the Spring and Autumn period (771 BC - 476 BC), the land was ruled by local nobles who used their armed forces to vie for power with each other. No surprise here. But apparently, they conducted their military campaigns in an astonishingly civilized fashion. As Armstrong says, 'Warfare became an elaborate pageant, governed by courtesy and restraint'. (p. 175)

The [proprieties] demanded an external attitude of 'yielding' to the enemy, but they were generally performed in a spirit of pride and bravado. In this chivalric game, the sport was to bully the enemy with acts of kindness. . . . If its driver paid a ransom on the spot, a true [gentleman] would always let an enemy chariot escape. During a battle between Chu and Jin, a Chu archer used his last arrow to shoot a stag that was blocking the path of his chariot, and his lancer immediately presented it to the team in the Jin chariot bearing down upon them. The Jin at once conceded defeat, crying in admiration: 'Here is a worthy archer and well-spoken warrior! These are gentlemen!'

A nobleman lost status if he killed too many people. A prince once rebuked a warrior who was boasting that he had slain six enemy soldiers: 'You will bring great dishonour on your country. Tomorrow you will die -- victim of your proficiency!' . . . On one occasion, when two chariots were locked in combat, one of them turned aside and seemed about to retreat. The archer in the winning chariot shot, missed, and was about to take aim again, when the enemy archer cried, 'You must let me exchange my arrow for yours, or it will be an evil deed!' So without more ado, the first archer took the arrow from his bow and calmly waited for death. . . .

In 638 [BC], the duke of the principality of Song was waiting for the arrival of the Chu army, which greatly outnumbered his own. When they heard that the Chu were crossing a nearby river, the duke's vassals urged him to attack at once, but he refused. He also rejected the suggestion that he should attack the Chu while they were drawing up their battle lines. When finally the fighting began, Song was defeated and the duke badly wounded, but he was unrepentant. 'A [gentleman] worthy of the name does not seek to overcome the enemy in misfortune.' (p. 177-178)

It's no surprise this eventually broke down completely. By the final stage of what we retroactively call the Zhou Dynasty, the Warring States period (475 BC - 221 BC), there were no more rules and all of what we retroactively call Chinese states were savagely fighting each other, double-crossing each other, allying themselves with and then betraying each other, and generally behaving the way we would expect a bunch of kingdoms that share a continent to act. A battle became an occasion to try to kill as many of the enemy army as you could before they could kill you.

The great thinkers of this time, of whom Confucius was the first to emerge and is the best-known, thought this was a terrible state of affairs. (Technically Confucius came at the very end of the Spring and Autumn Period, but he lived in a violent world in disarray without the chivalric code described above, and he grieved for its loss.)

To be well-read meant you had a powerful sense of history. In the East Asian tradition, citing ancient precedent and telling parables about ancient rulers was how you made your point. It was thought that Mankind had declined, by this time, from the more civilized state it had been in before.

In other words, they were pining for the good old days. Which they had never actually witnessed, only read about.

While reading Karen Armstrong's book, I remarked to my wife that I was surprised that the 'most civilized warfare' period of the early Spring and Autumn period had existed at all. Of course it was going to break down at some point; what was shocking was that it lasted for as long as it did.

My wife, however, had a very different idea. She thinks it's far more likely that the scribes and the keepers of the records of the old Zhou-era kingdoms only wrote down in their Annals what they considered Right and Proper.

So after a bloody, chaotic battle, the official record-keepers would describe it for posterity as this elegant military engagement that followed all the rules. In a society where few people apart from royal scribes were literate, who was going to tell future generations any different?

In other words, the good old days that the social critics of the Warring States period were pining for, very likely never existed.

Take from that what you will.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Qingshan Wang 2011!

For your education and edification about Taiwan folk religion, please enjoy my wife's videos from yesterday's Qingshan Wang celebrations at Qingshan Temple in Taipei:

I was there. I don't think I appear on-camera, but I ended up covered with ash and glittery bits, smelling like smoke, and with a ringing in my ears from all the firecrackers. As is proper in the Taiwanese religious tradition.

See Jenna's write-up (with more pictures!) at Lao Ren Cha.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare

Will Shakespeare Greenberg is a pot-smoking slacker grad student in Santa Cruz in 1986 whose primary passion, apart from getting high and having sex, is Shakespeare. Despite knowing quite a bit of Shakespeare's work by heart, Will is having a difficult time getting his Master's thesis finished (or started, to tell the truth), in large part due to his pot-and-psychedelic-mushroom-addled lifestyle.

Will Shakespeare is a young Latin teacher in Stratford in 1582 whose primary passion, apart from bedding local women, is composing witty satirical verse. His family's deep Catholic roots will land him in hot water.

Jess Winfield's novel, which recounts turning points in the parallel lives of the two protagonists, is something of an odd beast. The target audience would appear to be fans of Shakespeare who are knowledgable enough to get most of the references (many of which I think went right over my head), but who also don't mind reading a stoner comedy with extremely explicit sex scenes written largely for laughs. If you were to compose a Venn diagram of the two very different groups of readers Winfield's trying to attract, it's not clear how much overlap you'd get.

But while Winfield's novel is a weird hybrid beast, it's a beast that's extremely well crafted. Winfield knows his stuff. He's one of the founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. (The novel's 1980s narrative may contain a fictionalized version of the RSC's beginning, although Winfield has said Will Greenberg isn't supposed to be himself.) He's clearly done a tremendous amount of research into Elizabethan England and what little is known of Shakespeare's early life.

In the end, I have to say this is as good as any pothead sex comedy set in 1980s California and starring William Shakespeare you care to name. Winfield has tried something very strange here, and he's largely succeeded.

And thus ends my duo of Shakespeare books for November. I may try to polish off some of his actual plays next year. Cultural literacy and all that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You adorable dirty hippies!

Here's a tidbit that came out of the Occupy protests a while ago: in Chicago, some Board of Trade member decided to treat the protestors to a few more pieces of litter:

Someone at the Chicago Board of Trade issued another message to the Occupy Chicago protesters by blanketing them with these McDonald's job applications. The protesters are understandably offended by both the message and by the hundreds of pieces of new litter around them.

Now, let's try to get inside that person's head. What did they think they were accomplishing?

a) The protestors, upon receiving applications to work at McDonald's, would realize that there actually were ways for them to make money and get ahead in life. They would then get up off their asses and go work at McDonald's and make money. Value: Something.


b) The application-dumper found it enjoyable, and perhaps a bit reassuring, to think that the Occupy protestors were a bunch of slackers who just didn't have the gumption to get up off their lazy asses and make something of themselves. So this person dumped McDonald's job applications on the Occupiers' heads, hoping that this would be slightly wittier than just standing outside and shouting, 'Get a job, you dirty hippies!' As a result, the application-dumper felt some self-satisfaction and the Occupiers felt even more alienated from the people they were protesting. Value: Nothing. Less than nothing, in fact.

Are there other ways to interpret this action? If you think I'm misunderstanding something, go ahead and post a comment. Me, I think option b) sounds slightly more believable.

I don't live in the United States, and I don't regularly watch American TV news. I'm watching this all from Taiwan. Therefore, it is theoretically possible that I am the victim of a massive misinformation campaign regarding the content of what the American mass media is delivering to people's homes. If so, I apologize for what I'm about to say.

But from what I gather, the journalists of the mass media have been pretending from the start that they don't understand what the Occupy protestors want, and are generally trying to paint them as aimless, dirty hippie types.

I've gone through several stages of thinking about this.

At first, I thought, 'HOLY CRAP! The paranoid conspiracy theorists were right all along about the Mainstream Media being in the pocket of Big Business! I was wrong to mock them!'

Then, I thought, 'Wow. The corporate media must be really scared of Occupy Wall Street if they're not going to report on them fairly. In their minds, even the great prudent cautious silent majority of American society will go out on the streets and start protesting if they get news that is even remotely accurate. America must be more screwed than I thought.'

Then my thoughts settled into, 'No, it's not as bad as all that. It's just that TV news wants to create a family and community atmosphere among its viewers, and what brings people together as a community more than thinking that next door lives a bunch of crazies who may seem threatening at first, but are really just a bit silly and harmless and let's all mock them together?'

That's what I think now. The Occupy Wall Street group are that bunch of silly people that TV news wants Americans to good-naturedly mock, the better to come together to feel like a large nation-wide community who gathers 'round the TV in the evenings to watch what's happening elsewhere in the world.

I don't think this is as conspiracy-theoryish as it sounds, because I don't think it's the result of conscious decision-making. I think it's the aggregate intuition of thousands of people in the media, about what they think viewers want to see. It's unconscious.

But it violates one of my rules for dealing with people who are different from you: It's wrong to misunderstand them in order to make yourself and others feel better.

There are fine, nebulous lines that separate:

a) misunderstanding someone deliberately and consciously,
b) misunderstanding someone unconsciously, because you've primed yourself to see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear, and
c) misunderstanding someone totally innocently.

A) and b) are wrong. It's wrong to call someone at an Occupy protest a lazy slacker who doesn't want to work for a living when you've got no evidence that is the case for that particular person. It's wrong because while it may make you feel satisfied in the short term, it makes the other person hate you and feel alienated. And what's more, that's very bad strategy in the long term. You're not going to get what you want by mindlessly insulting other people.

It's wrong when people do it to the Occupy Wall Street crowd.

And in all fairness, it was wrong to do it to Tea Partiers too, with 'racist ignorant moron' replacing 'unshowered hippie slacker'.

Way back in September of 2009, back when Tea Partiers were the fresh new thing in the USA, I was astonished when the Taipei Times ran a story on a Tea Party protest back in the States, which quoted possibly the least intelligent person attending that protest.

"[US President Barack Obama] is a traitor. He's either a Marxist or a Communist ... I think Saudi Arabia is behind him."

And then the Taipei Times -- read by plenty of non-Americans, mind you -- made that quote their Quote of the Day. At the time, my astonishment took the form of, how does that moron deserve to be featured prominently in a newspaper across the world in Taiwan?!

But now, in light of what's been thrown into sharp focus by media coverage of Occupy protests, I'm angry about that quote for a different reason.

My point is not to compare the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, or imply if one is legitimate the other must be too, or draw any kind of equivalency between them. Except for this:

They're both composed of human beings with human psychology.

When news organizations took a singularly moronic comment at a Tea Party rally and made it seem like it represented the beliefs and motivations of everyone there, it accomplished two things. It made people think, 'Hah! I thought the Tea Partiers were people we had to take seriously, but really they're a bunch of morons.'

And it also made Tea Partiers look at the media with even more suspicion. It gave them a grievance that they could nurse for a good long time. It made them feel condescended to.

In the end, no one wins.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

I like this kind of history. James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare puts Shakespeare in context, describing the political issues that most concerned the English in 1599, which Shapiro believes to be the most consequential of Shakespeare's writing career.

I like putting things in context. I've never warmed to the school of literary criticism that states that you should focus solely on the text itself, and all else is irrelevant. I like to know why an author wrote something the way he did, particularly if the reason is something he expected his readers to know because it was common knowledge at the time. I love annotated editions of classics, even when they end up diminishing the work somewhat. (I'm thinking of the heavily annotated collection of Sherlock Holmes stories I read, where the annotation dutifully pointed out every instance where an obscure fact at Holmes' disposal turned out to be something Conan Doyle just made up.)

I should point out that I'm not a Shakespearean scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I've read three of his plays in their entirety (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and Othello), in each case because it was assigned for school. As for the rest, I've picked up bits and pieces of cultural knowledge through the years.

So anyway, what sorts of issues were the English talking and fretting about in 1599?

- Queen Elizabeth was getting old and there was no official heir. It was widely expected that when the Queen died, James, King of Scots, would come down and take over in London. This is indeed what eventually happened. But while we, in retrospect, know that the transition of power was accomplished smoothly and without bloodshed, nervous English of the latter part of Elizabeth's reign were not so sure. It didn't help matters much that the Palace and its network of spies were not happy when people openly discussed Elizabeth's anticipated death.

- There was a rebellion in Ireland. Catholic rebels had bested all English attempts to rule Ireland with an iron fist. In the early part of 1599, Robert Devereux, the mighty and powerful Earl of Essex, went to Ireland with a huge army to crush the rebellion once and for all. It was widely expected that he would return to England a conquering hero and reap the benefits of fame and fortune. He would be the greatest man in England, a symbol of English national might. As the Queen was old and there was no official heir to the throne, the implications of this are obvious.

- But what actually happened was that the Earl's forces got bogged down and were unable to secure a decisive victory. Scores of English soliders died on the battlefield and nothing much was gained. The Earl of Essex returned to England, against the Queen's wishes, his reputation in tatters. Two years later, he would attempt a coup d'etat, fail, and become the last man ever beheaded in the Tower of London.

- Meanwhile, all of England braced for a massive Spanish invasion. The best English intelligence said that Philip III had assembled a mighty armada, to try to succeed where his father had failed in 1588. London spent a panicked summer waiting for an invasion fleet that never materialized.

What Shapiro does is examine the four plays he believes Shakespeare wrote in 1599 (Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet) in light of contemporary events, Elizabethan culture, and Shakespeare's own life and career.

There's a lot of conjecture in Shapiro's book. Exact details on aspects of Shakespeare's life and career are notoriously hard to come by. (If Wikipedia is accurate, there's no good reason to think Shakespeare wrote As You Like It in 1599 -- scholars have been unable to ascertain in what year it was first performed, much less written. But there's no reason he couldn't have written it in 1599.) That's fine. As I made clear in a recent post, I don't want to read a list of proven facts about history. I want to read a narrative.

Henry V has an interesting context. Elizabethans had far different expectations for their historical dramas than we do. They expected Henry V to be full of clowning around and merry-making and romantic comedy with Henry romancing the French queen. They wanted, in other words, a sequel to the two Henry IV plays.

Shakespeare didn't give that to them. He wanted to write something grittier. This may or may not have caused a rift among his theatre company.

As most Shakespeare fans know, Shakespeare wrote most of his famous roles with specific actors in mind. Throughout the 1590s, Shakespeare worked with a famous comedian named Will Kemp. Kemp was probably a far bigger celebrity in his day than Shakespeare was. He specialized in a sort of rustic, bawdy, countryside clowning-about, and if you saw a Shakespeare play in the 1590s it probably would have ended with a Kemp comedy performance which may or may not have been related to the plot of the play.

Shakespeare wrote comic characters such as Dogberry and Bottom and Falstaff specifically for Kemp. Around the beginning of 1599, Kemp and Shakespeare's company had a falling-out and Kemp left to do his own thing. Shakespeare's next play was Henry V, in which Falstaff fails to appear; instead, a character reports that he died off-stage.

It's easy to read a causal connection there, although scholars will probably never determine what occurred first, Kemp's departure or Falstaff's 'death'.

Henry V is the story of an English king making war in France. When it premiered in London, the powerful and kingly Earl of Essex had just departed to make war in Ireland. Contemporary politics and references are easy to find in Henry V. Shakespeare didn't have the liberty of full freedom of speech (his plays would have been vetted by censors), and modern scholars have never been able to determine his own political views, but his plays are certainly better understood in the context of the issues of the day.

Given the political situation of the time, I'm somewhat surprised that Shakespeare dared have his next play be about the assassination of a successful general who (it was feared) wanted to make himself king. Julius Caesar is also analyzed in Shapiro's book terms of the political situation, as well as in light of fascinating aspects of Elizabethan culture.

Shakespeare's next play (if we believe Shapiro's chronology) was, by contrast, remarkably apolitical. As You Like It is a romantic comedy in which nothing much happens, if we go by old-timey traditional standards for what constitutes plot developments, such as murders, kidnappings, betrayals, etc. What action there is, is only there to set up the play's premise. This is pure character-based plotting, and Shapiro represents it as something new in the world of 1599.

Finally, there's Hamlet. What I didn't realize before is that there are two full-length versions of Hamlet out there, both of them far too long to be performed: the version published in 1604, nowadays called Q2 (for 2nd Quarto; Q1 was a far shorter version published in 1603 either as a stage-friendly version or a knockoff assembled from an actor's recollections), and the version in the First Folio of 1623, called F1. Shapiro believes Q2 was Shakespeare's first complete version, and F1 was the result of heavy editing and re-writing in subsequent years. Many latter-day published versions of Hamlet blend the two together, which Shapiro is opposed to; he thinks that muddles the development of Hamlet's motivations. The two plays are fairly different, and opinions vary among Shakespeare scholars which is preferred.

And that's all that I'll say about that, because I'm out of my depth, never having read the original Hamlet in any form. I keep meaning to, and I probably will at some point, but for now I'm just smiling and nodding my head.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The 2012 Republican Veep, Revisited

Back in January I made my prediction regarding the Republican nomination: there would be a titanic battle over the nomination, full of sound and fury and interesting moments for the cable TV news shows, but none of it would matter because the Republicans would end up nominating Mitt Romney, which was what they were going to do all along.

So far I think my prediction has held up excellently. Like I predicted, we've seen a tremendous amount of drama and noise which has provided cable TV news with plenty of material. And despite it all, the Republicans seem if anything more likely to nominate Romney than they did ten months ago.

Perry and Bachmann have both thoroughly marginalized themselves. Cain's strategy is to signal that he has no intention of actually being president. That's enough to drive up his poll numbers due to the large size of the career politician-hating, contrarian segment of the Republican populace, but it won't get him the nomination. And the latest news is that many erstwhile Cain supporters are now transferring their allegiance to Newt Gingrich. Gingrich is if anything a less likely nominee than Perry or Bachmann or Cain; to me this shows that the anti-Romney Republicans are spreading themselves quite thin.

So I'm still fairly confident that Romney is going to be the nominee. I haven't got a clue if he'll lock up the nomination in February or March or June, but it'll be him at some point.

What I'd like to amend is my post from June, in which I speculate who the VP nominee is likely to be. I figured the GOP wouldn't want to nominate two generic-looking white men in suits, largely for image reasons. And they would be wary of nominating a woman for VP, for fear of reminding voters of Sarah Palin.

This is all fairly offensive thinking, but I suspect it's how political bosses think behind closed doors. It's not so much that they think, We want an ethnic guy as VP! It's more like, We think having an ethnic guy as VP will play well to voters!

That's why I figured the GOP would nominate either Florida senator Marco Rubio, or Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. They're both conservative politicians who don't seem to frighten moderate and independent voters. And they're both non-threateningly ethnic, representing groups the Democrats have not yet nominated to national office.

Well, I've reconsidered, and I've decided I was wrong. Neither Rubio nor Jindal will be nominated to fill out a national ticket headed by Mitt Romney. And if you've found my thinking offensive so far, just wait until you hear this.

Rubio and Jindal are both Roman Catholics. That wouldn't be a negative, in fact it might even be a plus, if the guy at the top of the ticket were a regular old vanilla Protestant like Reagan or Bush.

But I do not believe that the Republican Party will nominate a Mormon for President and a Catholic for VP. If they go with Romney, they're going to want a safe Protestant serving in the #2 spot.

For the record, I believe the Democratic Party would employ similar thinking. In either case, you've got a bunch of political bosses behind closed doors trying to put themselves in the mindset of hazily defined Middle Americans that they've had little personal contact with. Doesn't matter if the bosses are Democrats or Republicans.

I stand by my prediction that the Republicans will not nominate two generic-looking white men in suits for President and Vice President. But assuming they nominate Mitt Romney, I'm no longer so sure who the VP will be.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Total Oblivion, More or Less

Macy Palmer is a contemporary sixteen-year-old living in suburban Minnesota, whose life is turned upside down when...

wait for it...

...the United States crumbles as waves of Scythian warriors on horseback start rampaging out of the frozen North, looting and pillaging and burning as they go. In the south the Empire musters its forces to repel the Scythian threat.

Macy and her family become refugees, traveling south along the Mississippi on a riverboat. The Plague breaks out. Dogs can talk -- at least, there's one dog who can talk, but he has a good reason.

Macy's old life is gone forever. The future, no one can predict.

Yeah. Alan DeNiro's Total Oblivion, More or Less is like that.

So how did we get from Point A (the world of today) to Point B (mounted Scythian warriors pillage suburbia)? I'm going to spoil the end for you, just a little: there's never any explanation for the world being turned upside down.

So what gives?

You can read the author's thoughts on what it all means here.

Here's my interpretation. This isn't why I think all this stuff happened in-universe. Speculating on that would be besides the point. Rather, this is how I choose to interpret the novel as a whole.

Throughout history, people thought they lived in stable communities. If your family has lived in the village for generations, and you haven't witnessed dramatic change and upheaval in your own lifetime, then you'll naturally expect that while people will come and go, local businesses will change hands, and bits and pieces of everyday minutiae will undergo a slow turnover, the big picture will never change.

Especially in premodern societies, people thought like that. And they were often right. A village might stay in more or less the same state for several generations. People would live and die without ever venturing far from their homes. You would have no reason to doubt that things would continue on the way 'they always had'.

And then everything would fall apart. No matter where in the pre-modern world you were situated, the dislocation would eventually come, as waves of Mongol or Germanic or Bantu or Hunnish or Spanish or Arab or Turkic warriors would come tearing into your ancestral lands and turn your life upside down. Then they would recede (or become the new distant imperial overlords) and a new normal would be established. Except you might be dead. Or a refugee in a distant land where things don't make sense.

We 'modern people' think we're past all that. True, we worry about our civilization collapsing around us, but there are certain ways in which we think it's likely to happen (meteor strike, plague, nuclear war, etc).

We don't think our civilization is going to undergo catastrophic change that we're unable to wrap our minds around even while it's happening.

Macy and her family and her suburban American civilization thought they had a handle on what their future was going to be like. Turns out they were no better off than anyone else in human history.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Original Zinn by Howard Zinn

Original Zinn is a collection of interviews with Howard Zinn from approximately the years 2002-2005, in which the historian holds forth on his opinions on the United States, the state of the world, and the political Left.

I read it in a couple of hours while in Patara, Turkey. That was about two months ago. I don't think I can remember much that is specific to this book, especially as it's already thoroughly blended together in my mind with other opinion-esque pieces I've read, by Zinn and by other like-minded people.

So, sorry everyone. I'm not going to talk about Howard Zinn in this post.

Instead, I'm going to rant a bit on a related topic. I'm going to create a fictitious commenter, pretend he's left a comment, and then reply to that comment.

Strawman2011 says:
LOL don't you know zinn wasn't a real historian? he was just a hippie lefty activist who twisted history to fit his ideological biases. why don't you read a real historian sometime hahahahaha

Thank you, Strawman2011. In response, let me tell you about an episode of The Daily Show I saw earlier this year.

The guest was Mike Huckabee. My politics differs from Huckabee's quite a bit, but I will admit he was gregarious and charming on Jon Stewart's show.

(This can be attributed to the fact that he was not, at the moment, running for president. A few months ago I watched Tim Pawlenty on The Daily Show. Pawlenty was indeed running for president at the time, and as a result he was stiff and delivered only preprogrammed responses. He was Politico-Bot and at that time I believe he would have failed the Turing Test.)

Stewart brought up the historian David Barton. Barton is a figure whom Huckabee has praised in highly complimentary terms. People who like to think the USA was founded as a Christian nation generally tend to like Barton's work. In contrast, proponents of the separation of church and state have tended to dismiss him as an ideological crank. In all fairness I should mention that I've never read a thing he wrote.

I haven't seen the interview since it first aired -- apologies if I'm about to get some details wrong. Huckabee's defense basically boiled down to, 'Look, Barton's telling the truth -- he's not just making stuff up. Look at the primary sources for yourself if you don't believe me.'

This bothered me, and I was disappointed that Stewart didn't pursue the matter further.

It bothered me because not making stuff up, and convincingly demonstrating that what you claim happened, really happened, is not the mark of a first-class historian.

It's more like the absolute minimum that's expected of you.

The role of the historian is not just to say, 'Here's a bunch of stuff that happened in the past.' True, saying that is indeed part of the job of being a historian. I'm sure there are plenty of incompetent history teachers who do that part, clock out, and go home.

But the truth, as touchy-feely and unscientific as it may sound, is that being a historian is largely about storytelling. It's about constructing a narrative.

When there's a great deal of material, a historian must choose what to focus on. That's especially true when a historian is writing for a popular audience and needs to create a compelling narrative. I read Her Little Majesty, Carolly Erickson's 267-page biography of Queen Victoria, and when I finished I was quite unsure of just how much I had really learned about the old queen. Erickson's a wonderful writer, but in order to fit a readable narrative of a person's life into 267 pages, an author must choose what to emphasize, what to spin into a narrative, and what to leave out. Her Little Majesty is nonfiction, but it could be read as an unusually fact-based novel. I'm not criticizing Erickson -- she couldn't have done any differently, given the format she was working in.

And sometimes there isn't a lot of material. Many prominent people's lives are astonishingly poorly documented. It's amazing how little firsthand information we have on the life of Alexander the Great, for instance; most of our information comes from historians who lived long after his death. Any historian who tackles that period of history is going to have to pull together separate sources and conjecture a lot.

And of course, no historian can truly know what any given person was thinking at any given time. No historian can know what a person's subjective experience was like, no matter how well documented the person was.

That's why I was disappointed with Mike Huckabee's defense of David Barton. It's not enough to say a historian is factually correct. What you really need to defend is his interpretation. The narrative he strings together. His spin, if you will. Huckabee defended Barton by saying he got the basic building blocks right, when he should have defended his interpretation.

Huckabee pretended that the job of a historian is to tell us a bunch of stuff that happened. That's just not true.

Everyone who writes or talks about history creates a narrative. Good historians are honest about it. I'm a big fan of Dan Carlin's history podcast, Hardcore History. In the first installment of his series on the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, he straightforwardly says that this is a period of history that's been written about and analyzed many times before, but now his listeners are going to get the Dan Carlin version of what happened. I respect that.

Let's bring this back around to Howard Zinn. You might respect Zinn's politics and his take on history, or you might not. Fair enough.

But to attack Zinn (or David Barton, for that matter) for delivering his own version of history? Sorry, but that's just what historians do. Unless you want to wait until after the Singularity, when posthuman HistoryBots will presumably create narratives based solely on a probabilistic calculation of how things must have progressed given certain parameters in order to create the world that they exist in.

Granted, there are historians whose biases shape their work to the point that the narrative is more about themselves than objective reality. And that's a problem. But there's a continuum between a historian blinded by his own biases, and HistoryBot 4000. Every person trying to construct honest narratives about the past falls somewhere on that continuum.

If you think your favorite historian tells history 100% objectively, I'd have to say that a) you're not familiar enough with that period of history to know the whole story, b) the historian's personal biases happen to match yours, or most likely c) both.

I'm not offended by historians who wear their politics on their sleeve, as long as they honestly and sincerely try to work within the real world as it is (and was). We should all just remember that the issue isn't whether their interpretations are factually correct, because that's the absolute minimum standard that they should be achieving anyway. The issue is whether their interpretations, their narratives, are actually useful in understanding the past. And the present.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Every scene in this book has the feel of an Edward Gorey illustration.


After King, Queen, Knave, I continued the theme of novels mocking the upper classes of pre-World War II Europe with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, knowing nothing of the novel or the plot beyond the fact that a well-known Alfred Hitchcock film had been based on it.

As it turns out, Rebecca is the story of a naive young nameless heroine, who marries a much older English landed aristocrat and goes off to live at his immense estate. She is never able to escape the disapproving looks of the estate's staff, led by Mrs. Danvers, who can't help comparing her unfavorably to Rebecca, her husband's dead first wife and the novel's title character.

Unfortunately, the protagonist suffers from what TV Tropes, with its talent for description, calls Wrong Genre Savvy. She thinks she's the lead character in a fairly standard romantic story, and believes that her husband is still pining after his dead wife. She thinks her role is to convince her husband that he should let Rebecca go and he should live for the future, and to find a way to make peace with mean old Mrs. Danvers.

The, when the novel's half finished, some fundamentally game-changing bits of information come to light.

I was able to read Rebecca totally unspoiled, so I got to spend the first half of the novel raging at the heroine for being such a spineless wilting nonentity who let Mrs. Danvers bully her to her heart's content, and the second half fascinated to find out how the suddenly much more compelling plot would play itself out.

Never having seen the Hitchcock film, I imagined Mrs. Danvers as looking like a malevolent version of Professor McGonagall as played by Maggie Smith in the last Harry Potter movie -- basically, a strong, imperious old lady. Apparently in the film version her character's interpreted quite differently, by Dame Judith Anderson. She's quite younger (Anderson was in her 40s), and rather than coming across as a vengeful mother figure who has lost her child (as in the novel), her relationship with Rebecca has lesbian undertones instead. Either interpretation works, I suppose, but they're mutually exclusive (one would hope).

If I do see the movie version, I'm sure the alternative Mrs. Danvers will find an equal home in my imagination.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov

King, Queen, Knave was originally published in 1928, when Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian emigre living in Germany. It was not translated into English until the 1960s, when Nabokov and his son Dmitri translated it together as a father-son team.

Because the Nabokovs made it clear that they altered the novel to a significant degree, I'm not sure how much of what I read really dated to the 1920s. I assumed the English version was faithful in the small details to the original, and I enjoyed the little everyday details of life in what would retroactively be called Weimar Germany.

The plot, in broad strokes, is as follows. A country boy comes to Berlin, to work in his uncle's department store. The nephew and the uncle's wife really hit it off, to the point that they begin a steamy love affair, which the uncle remains cheerfully oblivious to.

Queen and Knave conspire to murder the King, despite both being quite inexperienced at planning and carrying out a crime of this magnitude. Psychological tension and fatal complications ensue.

The plot, as the author readily admits, is not terribly innovative. It's the prose (even if the reader is never quite sure if any given snippet of English prose came from the elder or younger Nabokov) and the macabre atmosphere that make the novel worth reading.

I never trained myself to intelligently discuss prose the way a literature professor might, so I feel somewhat hobbled when talking about modern literary writers like Nabokov.

To me, King Queen, Knave provides a look at life in 1920s Germany. It lets me play at deducing what was the same in the original 1928 Russian-language edition, and what was changed in the 1960s. But it's been two months since I actually read the thing (while traveling in southern Turkey in late August), so I can't quite recall the prose enough to discuss it at any length.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

It took me a long time to get into Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, a fact I attribute to my aversion to long series, particularly in the fantasy / SF genres. Generally I approach a series in one of two ways: either I read the first book and end it there, pretending the sequels never existed (and savoring any unanswered questions I've got as proof of the mysterious vastness of the universe). Or I read the entire series all at once as one long novel. That's what I did with Harry Potter the summer the last book came out. It only works when you've got a finished series, though.

So I was a bit apprehensive about the Discworld books, even as they approached massive popularity with more and more fans, including several of my friends. In the USA, Pratchett has fully caught up with Douglas Adams as the face of modern British fantastical drollery. Finally I gave in and started buying his books as they appeared at used bookstores.

My first Discworld book was Jingo, which probably was not the best choice for a beginner, as it focuses on a group of characters it assumes you're already familiar with (Sam Vimes and his cohort).

My second Discworld book was Monstrous Regiment, which was published later but is probably a better choice for a beginner. It's firmly set within the Discworld universe but it's more of a standalone, as it introduces a brand-new group of protagonists.

Both of these books were written after Pratchett had been writing Discworld books for a while. He'd settled into a comfortable groove, in which he parodies the tropes of several different genres within a single novel.

That said, I think it's a mistake to consider the mature Discworld novels to be parodies first and foremost. To me, a parody isn't just any humorous work that can be slotted comfortably into a particular genre. A parody is a humorous work that derives most of its humor from mocking the tropes of a particular genre. But most of the humor of the later Discworld books is character-based.

So, for example, while Monstrous Regiment does indeed parody (verb) many military fiction tropes (and thoroughly deconstructs the hoary 'brave young girl disguises herself as a man so she can enlist in the army' trope), you can't just label the novel as a whole a parody (noun). That's so limiting.

Anyway. My third Discworld book was the very first Discworld book: The Colour of Magic. As one can expect from the very first installment of a long-running series, The Colour of Magic features loads and loads of what TVTropes calls 'Early Installment Weirdness'. The novel is divided into chapters (each subsequent Discworld book would be one continuous undivided story), the story is much more episodic and disjointed than later books, stupid jokes and cheap humor are much more in evidence, and everything's a parody! Every segment of the episodic plot is a parody of a different sub-genre of fantasy.

That said, The Colour of Magic isn't a bad book. It's well-written, and Rincewind and Twoflower are both very nicely done comic characters. But it's not typical Discworld.

Which brings me to The Light Fantastic, #2 in the Discworld series. The Light Fantastic has much in common with its predecessor. Later Discworld novels would each be self-contained stories set in a well-established universe with recurring characters, but The Light Fantastic is a direct sequel to The Colour of Magic, beginning seconds after the first book ended with Rincewind and Twoflower launched off the edge of the world. The two books are one episodic novel split in half.

It's interesting to view the book as a snapshot of Discworld evolution. #2 continues the plot from #1, and like #1 it contains its share of painful jokes. (Upon hearing that the civil unrest has resulted in a mob ransacking the city's music stores, Rincewind shakes his head. 'Luters', he mutters.) It's also not all that great with its female characters; every woman in the book is a parody of a particular fantasy trope, and gets little character development beyond that. (Pratchett would get much, much better at writing women in his later books -- see Monstrous Regiment as proof of that.)

And while there's plenty of character-based humor, in The Light Fantastic it seems like Pratchett is more likely to, say, describe some aspect of Twoflower's personality in a humorous way, rather than have Twoflower actually do something humorous that fits his personality.

But there are also signs in #2 that Pratchett is settling into the groove he would ride so successfully (and profitably) in the years ahead. The Light Fantastic comes much closer to giving its readers a single cohesive story than its predecessor. It's not divided into chapters. And people who are far more serious Pratchett fans than I am claim that many of the long-running elements of the Discworld series get their start in The Light Fantastic.

I'll take their word for it -- after all, so far I've only read four novels out of -- let me check Wikipedia -- wow, 39 in total so far. Ever since I read Jingo in 2008, I've read the Discworld books at a rate of one a year. I find Pratchett to be a pleasant enough read, but I'm not sure if I'll increase my Discworld novel consumption speed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Istanbul Musings

Istanbul is hilly. There's a story that Constantinople was founded where it was because Rome has seven hills, and the site of Constantinople also has seven hills. Well, I can say that there are hilly streets in Ortakoy, several kilometers outside of the city as it existed in Byzantine times, that are at a grade I didn't know existed outside of San Francisco. We got vertigo riding a taxi down one of those streets.

Istanbul is full of cats. And often they're the fattest, healthiest street cats that I've ever seen. We've speculated that maybe some Ottoman sultan really liked cats and declared that no cat in the empire was ever to come to harm. There does seem to be a continuum between cats who are a specific person's pet who happen to spend a lot of time outdoors, to cats who don't belong to anyone in particular but seem to be collectively cared for by a neighborhood, to cats who are genuine strays but at least they're lucky enough to be strays in Istanbul.

Istanbul has street food. It varies in quality. The corn on the cob you can buy from street stalls turned out to be astonishingly mediocre. But anything bread-based was generally quite good. I had simit (a ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds) for breakfast almost every day, always bought from the same guy in Taksim. Our personal favorites were the mussels, sold with a clump of flavored rice and a squirt of lemon. They were cheap and didn't make us sick even once.

Istanbul has its traffic problems, but things are getting better. We chose an apartment that was only a short subway ride to our school in Levent (thus giving us an easier experience than some of our classmates, who lived over on the Asian side and endured far more difficult commutes). Public transit is really not sufficient, but where it exists it does its job well, and the city is in the process of expanding and building more rail lines.

(All photos by Jenna.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hagia Sophia

On September 7, we arrived in Istanbul. The CELTA course ran from Sept. 12 to Oct. 7, so we had four days of sightseeing first before getting down to study.

Istanbul's divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosphorus. The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn, with the bulk of the old city to the south and the center of modern Istanbul to the north. Although we'd traveled widely in Asian Turkey, we never set foot in Asian Istanbul the whole time we were there. Our apartment and school were in Europe, as are most of the places tourists are encouraged to visit; we never felt the need (or had the time) to cross the Bosphorus.

The Hagia Sophia had been closed during our day in Istanbul in August, so of course it was our first priority on our return. It's one of those famed tourist attractions that fully live up to their hype. It's always full of tourists, but with its vast size it can easily hold them all without getting cramped (unlike, say, some of the old churches in Cappadocia).

The Hagia Sophia is no longer a mosque, so visitors can wander throughout it without worrying about propriety. However, that also means that unlike a mosque, you have to pay to get in.

It's worth it, for the chance to wander about, admire the architecture, and get in plenty of your fellow tourists' photographs.

The Hagia Sophia is old. It predates any of the European nation-states. When it was built there was no England; there were only a handful of squabbling Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. There were no French or Italians or Russians as we know them today, only assorted tribes. There were no Muslims anywhere; Islam would be introduced a century later. China hadn't been a unified country since the collapse of the Han centuries earlier; there was no particular reason to expect a Chinese empire would ever rise again.

The Hagia Sophia is old, and it still stands. Its Wikipedia article reveals that it has been severely damaged on several occasions, and its dome has collapsed more than once, but it was always promptly rebuilt. I can't think of another building, anywhere in the world outside Istanbul, that is as old as the Hagia Sophia and still so well-preserved. (The Pyramids don't count -- they're not buildings in the sense of something that must be continuously maintained.)

I know of one building in Istanbul that rivals the Hagia Sophia in age: the Little Hagia Sophia, the still-functioning mosque on the city's southern edge that was slightly pre-dates its larger, more famous architectural cousin.

I'm curious. Is there a building (in the sense of a structure that people could work and live in) anywhere in the world that pre-dates the Little Hagia Sophia, and hasn't collapsed into ruins?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Selçuk, Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis

Selçuk is a town in eastern Turkey whose proximity to lots of fascinating ancient ruins has enabled it to develop quite a thriving tourist industry.

The main attraction is Ephesus, a very well-preserved Roman city that is on everyone's tourist itinerary. No matter when you go, you can be assured you'll get to share Ephesus with hundreds of fellow ancient ruin buffs. Lonely Planet looks on the bright side, pointing out that having so many people around makes it easier to imagine as a living city.

I'm not convinced - at no point did I ever feel I was anywhere but Ruin Park - but at least there's ample space for all the tourists, and we never felt embarrassed to pull out and check our guidebook in front of everybody.

Ephesus is about 3km from downtown Selçuk. We didn't have much desire to walk there, opting for a taxicab instead, but we walked back to town, stopping on our way for a surprisingly acceptable meal at a buffet restaurant clearly meant to feed large tour groups.

And on the way back, the Temple of Artemis.

Reference books that list the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World usually tell us that the Pyramids are the only original Wonder that still survives mostly intact. This is true.

The second best-preserved Wonder is probably the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, which judging from its Wikipedia entry, is now a great big pile of rubble near Bodrum, Turkey. We did not go to Bodrum on our trip.

But the third best-preserved Wonder is the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which you pass on the walk back to Selçuk. Bear in mind that when I say it's the third best-preserved Wonder, what I mean is that we know where it is and someone's taken the liberty of stacking up a bunch of fragments of various columns to make one new column.

The Temple of Artemis today. As I told Jenna, 'This must have been really cool back when it existed.' In the far background you can see the Kale (castle), still really old but of far more recent construction, currently closed for renovations.

Selçuk itself is a pleasant touristy town. The ruins of the Basilica of St John are fascinating to wander through and are right in the town proper.

And be sure to visit one of the many cafes and restaurants in town with outdoor seating, so that as you enjoy your meal you may be beset upon by pleasantly rotund street cats, who will come waddling up to you hoping that you will take pity on them and share your dinner. Turkey in general is known for its street cats who appear suspiciously well-fed, but one street kitty in Selçuk is about the same size as two strays in a town where cats are less fortunate.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Patara and Kalkan

Patara is a town on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey which has made itself completely into a backpacker haven. I mean that in the nicest possible way. It's a very pleasant place, although slightly inconveniently located -- it's not quite walking distance either from the main road or the deservedly popular Patara beach.

We stayed at Rose Pension, which I am mentioning by name because, after a good review in the 11th edition of Lonely Planet, it inexplicably disappeared from the 12th edition, causing much grumbling among our hosts. It's a shame -- Rose Pension had some of the best food of any pension we stayed at in Turkey.

Patara Beach fills to the brim with Turks and Europeans in the summer months. The good news is that it's big enough to contain all of them, and it's mostly clean and pleasant. There's a cafe serving passable food. Big beaches aren't everyone's thing (I tend to sit under an umbrella and read) but if they're what you like, Patara is an excellent choice.

The ruins start a short walk inland. Patara used to be a prosperous fishing community, probably best known as the birthplace of St. Nicholas. Yes, that's St. Nicholas as in Santa Claus -- imagine the potential tackiness if the local tourism promoters ever decide to build campaigns around the Santa connection.

The ruins are not as spectacular as some ruins in Turkey, but they're worth a look if you're already in Patara, and you can enjoy the novelty of exploring a ruined city with goats and cattle wandering around. (I suspect even Patara at its height had goats and cattle . The notion that a city center shouldn't have livestock wandering about is probably a very recent one in historical terms, which still hasn't spread to all parts of the globe.)

We took a day trip to the nearby town of Kalkan.

The difference between Patara and Kalkan:

Patara: Backpackers
Kalkan: Wealthy tourists

And that about sums it up. We weren't really the correct demographic to properly enjoy Kalkan, but we got a good meal of meze there, and we were amused by the number of well-fed cats and dogs lazing about town.

The beach, though, is somewhat lackluster compared with Patara's, and transportation is somewhat awkward - shuttles run to the town center infrequently, and to get back to the bus terminal, you either have to trudge uphill quite a ways, or you pay a cabdriver to take you.

Overall we quite enjoyed our time along the Turkish Riviera - relaxing and with enough to maintain our interest. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Patara, with white wine (from an unlabeled bottle!) and nargile. Very pleasant.


From Şanlıurfa, we headed southwest to Hatay. The city of Antakya is known to history buffs as Antioch.

Antakya continues the grand Turkish tradition of being home to very old and historically significant places. Here, it's the rock-cut church of St. Peter, the oldest place where Christians congregated in secret and arguably the oldest Christian church of them all.

Most of what you see there now isn't nearly that old; the facade was built by Crusaders, and there was restoration work done in the 19th century. But it's still a place of great historical significance, and there are very old details that survive, such as the escape tunnel that worshippers would take if approaching authorities were spotted.

The guidebook claims that the church is a fairly easy walk from central Antakya. The reality is that while the church is indeed walkable, much of that is past a strip of small-industrial and mechanical shops -- not a terribly inspiring walk, in other words, and downright unpleasant on a hot day.

The Antakya Archeology Museum on the main traffic circle doesn't look like much from the outside. Looks are deceiving, however -- on the inside it's a spacious and fascinating look at a collection of Roman mosaics and sculpture, well worth the eight lira.

Hatay is of special importance to my wife because her grandfather's family comes from here -- they're Armenians from Musa Dagh who fled persecution in the early part of the 20th Century. We made a special trip to the one Armenian village remaining in the area, which she wrote up on her own blog.

Armenian and Arab influences are strong in Hatay, which was part of Syria until the late 1930s. Before we went I worried that the unrest in Syria would adversely affect our trip, as I'd been reading reports of Syrian refugees crossing into Hatay. As it turned out, while in Hatay I saw or heard nothing of the nearby problems (which may be due more to our obliviousness than to anything else).

Hatay cuisine is much more Arab-influenced than in the rest of Turkey. For instance, hummus is for some reason not widely eaten elsewhere in the country, but it's common in Hatay. There was a small eatery near our hotel that served excellent hummus. We only learned on our last visit there that the guy who ran the place was ethnic Armenian, and what we'd been eating was Armenian hummus, cousin to what J. had been raised on.