Monday, December 29, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part V: Horatio Hornblower of C.S. Forester's "Beat to Quarters" et al.

Last week was Christmas, and to me, oddly enough, it’s not quite Christmas without Horatio Hornblower.  When Bing Crosby is incessantly crooning about wanting a White Christmas, I'd much rather be humming the "It's the INDIE!" theme:

When the A&E Hornblowerminiseries came out starring Eoin Gruffudd, I had not read the books.  Between seeing the first episode and eventually getting the second from the library, I’d read pretty much all of them.  Episodes seemed to come out around Christmas-time.  Even if they didn’t, it turned out my cousin was also a fan, so I’d have them on the old-fashioned VHS waiting for when my cousin came to visit at Christmas.  Nobody else seemed to share our fascination for watching cannons blowing French frigates to smithereens, so we’d stay up late, the sound turned down and our heads bent close to the screen in order to hear the whisper-quiet dialog while everyone else was sleeping. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part IV: Wolf Larsen of Jack London's "The Sea-Wolf"

The reason I took a small detour last week, talking about Harvey Cheyne Jr. of Kipling’s Captains Courageous, is that he reminds me of another “land lubber” who is thrown into a naval adventure: Humphrey van Weyden of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. Both narrators are refined intellectuals shipwrecked, rescued, and then shanghaied into service on the vessel that saved their lives.  Both are hardened by their experiences, matured, and changed forever by the sea.

My first exposure to Jack London’s work was what I would consider the “average” introduction to his work: through Call of the Wild and White Fang, which are by far his most famous works. So I think I was forgivable in assuming, just from these two books and from the title of The Sea-Wolf, that it was probably about a canine. 

“Let’s see…Call of the Wild is about a dog that goes to live with wolves. White Fang is about a wolf that goes to live with dogs.” So I guessed that The Sea-Wolf was…about a wolf that goes to live with seals? 

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Little Side Character Comparison: Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne Jr.

When setting out to write a character comparison of the fictional captains in nautical fiction, one of the first books that came to mind, by virtue of its title alone, was Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. The book isn’t about a Crazy Captain, however, as much as it is about the Boy Coming of Age at Sea. The protagonist is Harvey Cheyne, Jr., a spoiled teenaged son of rich socialites. When he’s saved from drowning by the We’re Here, he’s forced to become part of the crew until the next time they come into port.  His experiences give him the opportunity to get past his sense of entitlement and pride in his possessions, and to mature into true self-confidence so that by the time he actually makes it home, his parents don’t recognize the overindulged and petty son he used to be.

Both Captains Courageous and Treasure Island have an environment of seafaring, and both have young protagonists who come of age in that environment. The captain of the We’re Here, Disko Troop, doesn’t have much in common with Long John Silver—unless it’s the fact that both have unusual names. 

But as I said, the main comparison to be made is between Jim Hawkins and Harvey Cheyne Jr. The two protagonists are both young boys with a lot to learn. Jim longed for and sought adventure, whereas Harvey was happy and complacent with his life of luxury, and was (almost literally) thrown into adventure kicking and screaming. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part III: Long John Silver of Treasure Island

I want to love Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing. I really do.  I enjoy his poetry.  I like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde well enough.  I also thought Kidnapped was pretty interesting.  The Black Arrow was also reasonably exciting.  So it would seem a shoe-in that I’d love what is probably his most famous work, Treasure Island….right? 
Wrong.  Sure, the story starts out strong, with Jim Hawkins’ longing to have an adventurous life, the broken but mysterious Billy Bones, and especially the very menacing Blind Pew.  Black spots and treasure maps from dying traitorous pirates are all well and good, and build up plenty of steam that should propel the rest of the plot by sheer inertia to its fantastic conclusion.
It, in my humble opinion, does not.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Irresistible Art of Moby Dick

Much as I don’t care for the plot of the book, I will admit that as a piece of literature, Moby Dick is one of the best symbolic works I’ve read. One of the ways I know if a story has good symbolism is if I can imagine visual motifs to illustrate them. If a book’s plot can be conveyed or at least alluded to on a T-shirt, for example, probably has at least one major symbol.

Maybe it’s just a matter of the colors—a white sperm whale on a dark background—that makes for dynamic visuals. Maybe it’s just because I’m a sucker for animal art in general.  Maybe it’s simply that I like sperm whales, and any time I try to anthropomorphize Moby Dick into an epitome of the world’s evil like Captain Ahab does, the unfortunate outcome is not very profound: just the part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where a whale materializes in midair over an alien planet and has to come to grips with its existence on the way down to the ground.  

Whatever the reason, part of me wishes that I did love the book, so that I could buy, make, or wear these sorts of artistic renditions of the novel. Since I am more of a begrudging admirer, forced to admit the aesthetic value of Herman Melville’s writing Style, I’ll just leave these links and images here for others with better Taste to enjoy:  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Name Symbolism in Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick"

As I said in my last entry, I assume that in most written works authors include things deliberately—for instance, names of character. In the case of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, or, The Whale, some names might be chosen for the sake of authenticity, like Starbuck, which was a common Nantucket Quaker name amongst whalers.* Others are subtly symbolic, the way a sledgehammer subtly drives home a nail:

Ishmael – means “God hears.” The character in the Bible was the outcast son of Abram. Since he says “Call me” and never gives a first or last name, this probably is not his real name. So he must have chosen this alias for a reason. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Herman Melville's Moby Dick: Father Mapple’s Sermon and the Book of Jonah

It’s my assumption when reading any work that whatever is included or excluded by the author is done intentionally. So what is the reason Melville includes a full sermon at the outset of Moby Dick? The account of Jonah makes it clear that Melville is foreshadowing some event or theme that will follow later in the narrative. Jonah is one of my favorite books of the bible, because of its complexity despite being only “four yarns” (or chapters) long, and also because I find Jonah as a character to be very relatable.

Father Mapple sums up the themes of the book of Jonah as “A story of sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” I agree with this summary, with one exception: that this is only the first part of Jonah’s story, and the second part is equally as important. In the first part as discussed by Father Mapple, Jonah is comparable to Ishmael, as they both are wanderers in a sense—Jonah running away from God, Ishmael seeking to escape from the world in general. But this comparison waxes feeble when contrasted to the similarities between Jonah and Ahab.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Those Crazy Captains, Part II: Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab

I’ve done something for Herman Melville that I haven’t even done for some of the authors I’ve loved the most: I’ve read Moby Dick twice.  The first time I read it was for high school—in fact, since I was home-schooled this was self-assigned literature reading on my part, since I had heard Moby Dick, or, The Whale, was a classical giant that everyone should read.  I’d bought a very nice hardcover copy at my local library’s booksale, some reproduction edition from the 1950’s with such deep-pressed type I could have read the words in the dark simply by tracing my fingers across it. 

I remember clearly sitting on a chair in my room, my feet propped up on my bed, and thinking, “This is the most boring thing I’ve ever read.”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Those Crazy Captains: Introduction

It’s been an age since I’ve done a series of Character Analyses posts, mostly because I have to have read several books containing similar or comparable characters, all within a relatively short space of time so that I can adequately compare them. This doesn’t happen much, since I try to “space out” reading books that are too similar so that I don’t mix them up later.

For some reason, though, this summer I read a lot of books with a nautical theme. I’ve already reviewed the nonfiction The Outlaw Sea and The Pirate Queen, but shortly after a third audiobook I’d had on hold for a long while came in at the library. The Caine Mutiny is a book I’d wanted to read since seeing the Humphrey Bogart adaptation (I tend to read pretty much anything that was adapted into a Humphrey Bogart movie, now that I mention it).  While reading it I couldn’t help but compare it to other seafaring novels I’ve read in the past, such as Typhoon and Lord Jim, the Horatio Hornblower series, The Sea-Wolf, and of course Moby Dick

Not only does it feel natural to compare these novels because they have similar characters in obviously similar settings, it also is natural for me to be interested in comparing their themes, morals, and symbolism. I live in a relatively land-locked area, with plenty of streams and rivers and ponds and lakes, but the idea of the large expanse of a sea or ocean is something I pretty much have to rely on my imagination and these books to even begin to grasp. The ocean fascinates me. What would it be like to look out and only see water from one horizon to the next? What would it be like to owe one’s very existence to a floating object, and one’s continued existence to the cooperation and toil of everyone else living there?  Even with engines, a ship is subject to the tides, currents, winds and weather, all of which are fleetingly inconstant and often unpredictable. The concept is as alien as a science fiction story.  

Aside from the instant suspense that an author achieves by simply putting all his characters on a boat, there’s also a symbolism that I’m not alone in finding attractive. After all, isn’t life as malleable and unreliable as the sea?  

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Finish Line At Last

This past week I finally finished my yearly quota of one hundred books.  I’m a little early, I know, but I planned to read ten books a month for ten months, in order to have the last two months freed up for the holiday season.  After this, anything else is just gravy.*

Below is my list.  As I self-restricted myself, not included in the list are any picture books, graphic novels, How-To books (comprised mostly, though not entirely, of quilting or cookbooks), or any books I re-read.

Monday, October 27, 2014

"I Will Repay" by Emmuska Orczy - Sweded

France, 1783 
MESSENGER: Sorry but some guy named Déroulède killed your son.
DUC DE MARNY: What?  Juliette, my daughter, you must swear to kill him!
JULIETTE: Me? No offense, Father, but why don’t you do it yourself?
DUC DE MARNY: And get out of my deathbed? 
JULIETTE: Wait, if you were so sick why was my brother off dueling people for no good reason?
DUC DE MARNY: Fermez la bouche and take this oath to become a raging rampage of revenge!
JULIETTE: But I’m like eight years old!
DUC DE MARNY: Well I didn’t say you had to become one overnight!  Give it about ten years or so, that way you can try wreaking vengeance in the middle of social upheaval that will threaten your life since you’re of noble blood.
JULIETTE: But I’d much rather be a sweet and pious nun than a raging rampage of revenge, father!
DUC DE MARNY: Nonsense!  If you’re a nun then how are you going to be involved in the rest of the story ten years from now when I’m dead?
JULIETTE: Good point. 

Paris, 1793.  The city is mired in Revolutionary fervor…and paranoia. 
JULIETTE: Oo la la help me I am in trouble in this street that is coincidentally right in front of Déroulède’s front door.
DÉROULÈDE: Hey now what’s the matter?
JULIETTE: Oo la la I am fainting because this overzealous revolutionary woman is being mean to me.
OVERZEALOUS REVOLUTIONARY WOMAN: I hate her because she’s so pretty, it must logically follow she is an aristocratic collaborator for the monarchists!
JULIETTE: It’s not true even though it totally is.
DÉROULÈDE: Come now you have made this beautiful innocent and in no way treacherous young girl faint in my doorstep.  I’d better let her in and hope she isn’t plotting some evil-doings.
JULIETTE: *is faking being unconscious* mwahahahah
OVERZEALOUS REVOLUTIONARY WOMAN: She’s faking being unconscious!
JULIETTE: No I’m not!  I mean, *closes eyes and sticks tongue out*
OVERZEALOUS REVOLUTIONARY WOMAN: That handsome man helped out the pretty girl who is an aristocratic collaborator!  It must mean he is also a aristocratic collaborator!

DÉROULÈDE: I sure hope nobody suspects that I am in fact a aristocratic collaborator after I rescued that girl they suspected was an aristocrat.
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: Nah your cover is air-tight.
JULIETTE: Oo la la I must have fainted.
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: Gotta go.  Have fun with the turncoat.
DÉROULÈDE: Are you hurt, fair lady?
JULIETTE: No, but you will be, when I have wrought my vengeance upon you for my brother’s death?
DÉROULÈDE: Pardonez moi?
JULIETTE: I mean, oo la la, where am I?  I am so confused and helpless and innocent!
DÉROULÈDE: You’re in my home, and here is my trusty servant Anne Mie who is in love with me, and also my elderly mother.  Don’t we pose a heartwarming scene for you of domestic happiness?  Doesn’t it just make you want to marry into this family? 
JULIETTE: Your death will not come swiftly…er, I mean, can I stay here until the mob outside leaves?
DÉROULÈDE: Wha-at?  Nooo I…am not, I don’t know what made you suspect such a justifiable…uh…suspicion.
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Maybe by the fact that the aristocratic lady is sitting right here.
JULIETTE: Mwahahah my devious plan to get you killed is working!  That is…I mean: “Oops.”
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: I’ll leave you two alone to think about what you’ve done and possibly bond romantically during this life-threatening situation.  I expect you to be engaged and willing to confess when I get back.
DÉROULÈDE: Now that we are alone, Juliette, I do find I must confess?
JULIETTE: That you did kill my brother?
DÉROULÈDE: That too, but believe me he was being annoying and deserved it.  Plus he started it.  But above all I must confess…that I am in love with you!
JULIETTE: I love you too!
DÉROULÈDE: If we weren’t about to be taken away from the guillotine this would be the happiest moment of my life.
JULIETTE: ….But also…I must REPAY!
DÉROULÈDE: Is this about student loans or something?
JULIETTE: My sweet Déroulède who I love but am trying to kill, you don’t understand.  I am this sweet young woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly…but I must repay!  You are handsome and good and obviously not the type to go around impaling people’s brothers without incitement…but I must repay!  You did save me from that mob when I was really just trying to infiltrate your house to seek your doom…but I still must repay!
DÉROULÈDE: If this is about you staying here for several weeks on end while you recover from fake-fainting in the street, don’t worry.  I’m not charging rent.
JULIETTE: You know, for being an undercover agent of the Scarlet Pimpernel, you’re pretty naïve.
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Well, I’m back. Are you ready to confess?
ANNE MIE: I confess!  It was me!  Anne Mie!
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Well of course it was you.  No need to be repetitive.
ANNE MIE: No, I mean it was I that wrote the letter informing on Juliette as a collaborator.  I love my master so much that I wanted to protect him from her vengeance…and also maybe wanted to get her out of the picture so he’d fall for me on the rebound.  But apparently that’s not going to happen because I don’t fit the porcelain-doll stereotype of Victorian adventure novel heroines, so I might as well confess and save them in a sort of Sydney Carton way.
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Ha!  Well unbeknownst to you I was the one that caught that Charles Dickens character, and I have no intention of letting someone else make another “far far better thing I do” speech on my watch!  You’re all going to walk the plank!
DÉROULÈDE: Don’t you mean have our heads chopped off?
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: That too.  Come along now, all of you!  Get into this prison stagecoach
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: You look somewhat familiar, stagecoach driver person.  Have we met before?
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: No, but you seem like a suspiciously similar substitute to someone I killed a few books ago.
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Wait, that means you’re…
DÉROULÈDE: A deus ex machina?
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: No, more like you’re an overly convenient problem solver that comes in to save the day at the last moment. 
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: That’s what deus ex machina means, no matter if Word spellcheck keeps wanting to change it erroneously to “deus ex machine.”  It’s a person or plot device that miraculously comes at the last minute to solve all the issues and wrap all plot lines up in a nice neat bow.
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Then why didn’t you way so in the first place!  Speak French, man! 
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: I try, but it’s hard when my mother tongue is English, wot?
CHAUVLIN WANNABE: Ah ha!  As you are wearing a ring with a red flower on it, and also the fact that you basically admitted it just now, I deduce that you’re the Scarlet Pimpernel!  Since you’re already in the prison stagecoach all I have to do is say that you’re under arrest!
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: And all I have to do is say, “Hi ho, Silver!  Away!”
*They drive off into the sunset*
DÉROULÈDE: Wait, where are we going?
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: To England, of course!
DÉROULÈDE: In a stagecoach?  Won’t we get a little wet?
THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL: You finish getting the girl while I worry about the little details like that.  After all, I am super awesome.  This stagecoach probably transforms into a ship for all I know!
DÉROULÈDE: Oh that’s right.  Well, Juliette, what do you say?  Shall we take the opportunity of immigrating to a foreign country to start our romance anew, without any political upheaval interfering with our true feelings?
JULIETTE: Déroulède, there are so many things I’ve done against you.  Hating you all these years, planning your untimely demise, not having any clue how to pronounce your name…
DÉROULÈDE: I see.  Well, you have betrayed and plotted against my numerous times in the actual book, but on the other hand you are very beautiful, and I did kill your brother without apologizing.  Can we call it even?
JULIETTE: Only if I can call you Paul!
*And so everyone lived happily ever after until the next book.  Except Anne Mie who pretty much got the shaft from Orczy and Victorian heroine conventions*

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reviewing e e cummings' "The Enormous Room"

“Don’t be sad, my little son, everybody falls out of trees, 
they’re made for that by God,” 
~ The Enormous Room, e e cummings, pg. 102

Flitting about the online book world I came across a video by vlogbrothers, “18 Books You Probably Haven’t Read.”* Although I hadn’t read any of these books, I don’t feel too bad for not rushing out to read ALL of them since frankly Green goes through them so fast I couldn’t process whether I wanted to read them or not. The one exception which stood out was The Enormous Room, the autobiographical account of poet/author/playwright/artist e e cummings** and his time in a French prison in 1917.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

"The Time Machine" by H.G. Wells: A Review

A long time ago when I was just entering teen-hood and had spare time to waste on doing nonsensical things, I was trying to construct a pyramid out of marbles.  Marbles being round and therefore not exactly conducive to stacking like bricks, this was a laborious and time-intensive goal.  Enter listening to audiobooks while I did these sorts of things. In fact, I’m not at all sure, so long after the fact, that these sorts of nonsensical enterprises weren’t created in order to be doing something while listening to audiobooks.  Like the chicken and the egg, I’m not sure which came first.* 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bibliophile Websites

I'm sorting through some of my archived websites and links, and came across some which I thought might be worth sharing:

Welcome to the Book Arts Web is a good source of ideas, inspiration, online exhibits and tutorials on book arts and binding.  I'm not a huge book artist myself (it just cut up or draw on books), but when it comes to book repair, now that's something different altogether.  If it takes cloth tape, acid-free tape, or even glue to make a book readable again--unless it's some priceless antique that should be kept unadulterated by modern solutions--I'm all for it.

If you're in the U.S. and wanting to find more booksales (and really, who wouldn't be in the market for more reading material?), is worth a try.  Though this is wonderful news for expanding my personal library, it does not bode well for the expanding of my wallet.  This, however, is a sacrifice I am more than willing to make.

Another great resource which I myself haven't utilized nearly enough is CCProse, a channel on YouTube which posts free audiobooks.  Unlike books on CD, these books are often divided not into "tracks" of three minutes, but according to the chapter divisions.  YouTube being a visual medium, the words that are being read are also displayed on the screen, which I'd imagine would be helpful for anyone wishing to improve their English, spelling, or reading skills in general. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reading and Paintings

Reading is not just a great way to learn, relax, or have fun.  It's also a great way for painters and other artists to get their models to sit still for indeterminate amounts of time.  A simple Google search of "readers in paintings" or something along those lines will more than prove my point.  In case you'd rather not spend the time sifting through the thumbnails, here are a few of my favorites:

Young Woman Reading, Jean Honore Fragonard

Monday, September 22, 2014

Individual vs Community: A Character Comparison between Achilles and Aeneas

The Classical epic heroes Achilles and Aeneas serve as the respective paradigms of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures that produced them. The Romans borrowed extensively from Greeks—after all, the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid was built directly upon the foundation of the Greek poet Homer’s Iliad, the Aeneid being a continuation of the story of the Trojan War. But much as the Roman mythology of artistry was rooted in Greek tradition, the heroic ideals of their cultures were distinctly different from one another.

Achilles and Aeneas are not entirely dissimilar. Both are only part mortal, with the goddesses Thetis of the Silver Feet and Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) as their respective mothers and protectors. Both heroes have destinies to fulfill: Achilles must choose between a long life and a glorious legacy, and Aeneas is destined to become the founder of the city of Rome. But, because the Greeks and Romans had different sets of priorities—Greeks for honor and glory, Romans for family and duty—these priorities necessarily produced two different, but equally iconic cultural heroes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

You Win Some, You Lose Some: Agatha Christie's "Elephants Can Remember" and "The Moving Finger"

The hazard of finding an author you like whose work is prolific is that sometimes you find yourself disappointed. I’ll explain by giving a specific example: Agatha Christie. With 66 novels, 156 short stories, about two dozen plays (though some were based on aforesaid novels and short stories), and even a few nonfiction books, the odds are that even though I may love many of her novels, there are a few that will fall through the appreciation cracks.

It’s easy to understand how this happens. As a rule I’m not drawn to an author once I know they’ve written over a hundred works, figuring such a behemoth of work has probably resulted in a dilution of style, characterization, and plot. Quality is sacrifice for quantity. In fact if I see a book whose author’s name is larger than the title, I usually steer clear of it. A novel should rest on the merits of its title and plot alone, not on the name of the author. Marketing around an author’s name excludes new readers who may not know Agatha Christie is a master mystery novelist as opposed to some woman with two first names.*

The other reason this tends to happen is because an author gets “typecast” and stuck writing the same types of things, and when they start to get sick of it their prose suffers as a result.  Christie notoriously got sick of writing Hercule Poirot, just as Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock Holmes. The creative writer in them may have longed to try something else, but these series were what put food on the table so they were compelled to continue long after their excitement of writing these stories was depleted.

Monday, September 1, 2014

“In the Land of Invented Languages”: A Review

During this long span of weeks where I’ve been reviewing nonfiction adult books, I’ve been talking about the reason these books were written.  If a nonfiction book doesn’t exist solely to instruct, its purpose is also to persuade its audience to hold the same viewpoint as the author.  Sometimes the author makes their opinion clear, other times it’s not so well defined.  The trick when reading nonfiction is to root out that underlying thesis, because it’s only when you know the author’s perspective that you can make a conscious decision whether to agree, disagree, or maybe meet them halfway. 
Today’s reviewed book was one of those “halfway” situations with me.  In the Land of Invented Languages is about, obviously, invented languages ranging from Esperanto to Klingon.  Author Arika Okrent is a linguist who structures the book around her quest to pass a fluency test in Klingon, but goes on tangents outlining the history of constructed languages (as opposed to natural languages such as modern English that’s evolved from Middle and Old English, Gaelic, Latin, Ancient Greek, etc.).  Her thesis is basically “Why do Invented Languages exist?  Are they viable?  And do they serve a purpose?” 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Pirate Queen: A Review

Moving on to my next nonfictional audiobook, ThePirate Queen by Susan Ronald.  It was coincidental I got this book the same day as The Outlaw Sea, because although I do like to read about nautical topics from time to time, it wasn’t because I was in any particular seafaring mood on that specific trip to the library, but simply because those were two of the few audiobooks my library owns that I have not read yet.  (The pile is dwindling dangerously low in that section.)

The Pirate Queen is subtitled Queen Elizabeth I, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire, and the thesis for this book is pretty plain: Queen Elizabeth used her Pirate Adventurers (basically sanctioned pirates, also called privateers later in history) to buoy up a chaotic and politically precarious Britain into a stable foundation for the empire that was to come.  When Elizabeth took the throne, she was a Protestant monarch of a small island surrounded by powerful Catholic kingdoms, all doubting the legitimacy of her claim to the throne, all thirsty to add her lands to their own empires, and she had very little to work with in the way of money or firepower to fight against it. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reviewing William Langewiesche's "The Outlaw Sea"

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime by William Langewiesche was a perfectly decent nonfiction book, often riveting and mostly well-written, but marred by two and a half flaws.

I picked up the audiobook version from my library without really knowing (or being able to discern from the blurb on the back cover) what it was about. All I knew was it was vaguely nautical and catalogued as nonfiction. It turned out to be about four main stories to do with modern seafaring—I say “about four” because sometimes the storytelling was fluid enough to merge one story into another, and other times the “storytelling” stopped while the author went on a tangent about the politics of international shipping companies and policies—and these stories varied from a shipwreck due to the boat being too old, to a case of modern piracy, to the accidental sinking of a ship in the Baltic, to an investigation into “ship-breaking yards” where old ships go to be literally broken up and junked. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Search for the Elusive Thesis Statement

The general difference between children’s nonfiction and adult nonfiction is that children’s nonfiction is about instruction, and adult nonfiction is about persuasion. Children’s nonfiction is often centered on facts: if you go to your local library and check out a book on a U.S. president, for example, you should expect to find the simple facts of his biography, not an in-depth analysis of his administration. 

Of course there are facts-only books in the adult section, too. If you take out a “How to Repair Your Car” from the adult nonfiction section of the library, it’s not going to try to persuade you to repair your car.* The same would go for other How-To’s, crafts or cooking—although sometimes cookbooks try to persuade you to give up sugar or gluten or dairy.  But then there is another level of nonfiction that isn’t found nearly as often in the children’s section. It’s the kind of nonfiction book that one might be assigned in college, a book that I mentally have dubbed “thesis books,” because they’re basically long essays that, like all other essays, research papers, or well-written speeches, must include a thesis statement.

See, to write a book on something specialized, like linguistics, one should probably be a linguist. These kinds of specialists are often working in an academic setting like a college or university, and to get promoted or earn prestige they are expected—even required—to write articles and books about their specialized subject. From an essay-writing standpoint, a thesis statement is basically a topic sentence, stating what the essay’s goal is. And while some essays’ goals are simply to instruct or to say a certain topic is important, usually a thesis is really a confession to the reader of what the essay is going to try to convince them of. It’s the difference between instructional, “In this book I’m going to teach you to cook,” and persuasion, “I’m going to teach you to cook without meat because vegetarianism is healthier.”

Unfortunately some theses are harder to spot at the beginning of adult nonfiction. From my college days when we were graded on our ability to identify the thesis of every article or book we read, I can tell you the thesis is supposed to be in the first chapter or introduction, and it should be in the first paragraph or the first page. If the author is really ostensible they’ll probably word  it along the lines of “This book will show…” or “Such-and-such a topic is important for us to understand because…”, although generally this wording is avoided because it isn’t Subtle, and to writers nothing is so gauche as a lack of subtlety. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Literary Music

Sometimes things come full circle.  Once, at a library book sale, my mom purchased a CD by a group called Caedmon’s Call. It was called Back Home, and eventually after hearing it played in our car several times I asked if I could have it. 

Not only are the songs very good melody-wise, but the lyrics are very poetic. I’m not much of a musically-minded person—I have only the vaguest idea of what a “bridge” is, for instance—but I’ve read enough poetry to recognize a good lyric when I hear it. And that’s what Caedmon’s Call’s lyrics are like: poetry.

Now you may ask yourself why I’m reviewing a CD instead of a book. “This is totally the wrong medium,” you may be saying. “The blog is called ‘Come With Me If You Want to Read,’ not ‘Listen to a CD.’ And even if it were, the name wouldn’t be nearly as catchy.” 

Maybe if you wouldn’t keep interrupting me you’d get your explanation. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Amazing Multi-Fonted Post

Lately I've been reading a lot of nonfiction.  Which is good because I'm learning a ton of facts about stuff I probably will never use in Real Life.  But it's also a bit unfortunate in that I often don't have a lot of "review" to write here.  

Why?  Well, sure I can review whether the book was well-written, as opposed to being rife with grammatical or spelling errors or a despicable lack of Style.  But unless it's a book on a nonfiction thing I understand well--writing, for instance, or history or cooking--I don't tend to have an opinion formulated on the actual subject, and without an opinion I can't really critique the author's.  

Take, for instance, one of my current nonfiction conquests, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield.*  Now, I don't know much about typography.  This is the first book about fonts I have read (although it has made me want to read more).  However, like most people, I hold many deep convictions about fonts and font choice.  Most people might not realize that they have a preference for things like that, because it's such a subconscious thing.  Words are words, right?  Wrong.  You may take something more seriously if it's written in Courier than Comic Sans, for instance.  

That's what this book is about.  The history, psychology, and "personality" of fonts.  How certain fonts have invaded every aspect of life *cough*Helvetica*cough.*  How some fonts are copies of other fonts.  And how some fonts are inextricably connected to certain things, like Papyrus is to maps of Egypt or TV Victorian-adventure movies.**  Just My Type is also a nonfiction book that recognizes its place in our multimedia culture, referencing music, art, and even this online video from College Humor:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Importance of Seeing a Live Performance

Over the weekend a friend of mine treated me to a showing of one of my favorite plays, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Though it's one of my favorites, it had been quite some time not only since I'd read the play, but also since I've even seen the movie with Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon. In a way, although I knew the plot and most of the lines by heart, the play felt fresh and new.

Now I don't want to give away too much of the play's plot, because like so many comedies to spoil the plot would be to spoil some of the surprise and comedic suspense. So when I tell you that Earnest is a comedy centered on secret identities, double lives, twisting social conventions and figures of speech on their ear...I know it's going to sound boring, but believe me that I'm trying to save the best for when you actually see or read this play for yourself.  

(For those readers who already know the plot, c'mon. You know I'm right.)

So I Caved to Peer Pressure

....therefore it is your fault, dear readers.

This is what my coworkers get for not putting out price tags in a timely fashion.  Leave a "Quimby" price tag out too long, it grows cat ears and whiskers.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Yesterday at work I was using my Super Neat Sharpie Library Processing Handwriting* to write out sales tags.  Because some talents are wasted on the mundane.  In doing so, however, I found some piece of furniture named the Quimby, and that made it all worthwhile.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Fun with Kindle Comments

Due to a weird nerve pinch thing that affected my neck, left shoulder, and all along my back, I was laid up an entire workday last week.  Of course this--and the fact that my being left-handed meant I couldn't use my dominant hand for anything whilst being laid up--meant I had to sit in a recliner reading all day. 
*Sigh.*  What else was I to do, aside from complete three books (two of them from start to finish)?

Because of this misfortune I actually cleared my reading pile.  You'll notice I didn't capitalize that "reading pile," because my official To Be Read Pile is not some piffling three books tall.  Ever heard of the Eiffel Tower?  California Redwood Trees?  Mount Everest?  Good, then not only have you received a well-rounded education, but you're also getting closer to imagining how high my TBRP measures.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Taking Sides

Reading all the good books is like a conversation
with the finest people of past centuries. 
~ Rene Descartes

It may seem strange to a person who is more extroverted and less of a bibliophile, but I often feel as if an author is a personal acquaintance of mine, and that reading their works is like carrying on a conversation with them. The author may be dead, or even if they’re alive they may not live in the same country or speak the same language. There is a great unlikelihood* that I will ever have an actual face-to-face conversation.**

This very feeling of closeness, even kinship, with an author, is part of what prompts me to want to read so much. When you are friends with someone, you want to talk to them as much as possible, and if reading is a conversation, then you want to read as much as possible for the same reasons. 

A real complication arises from this, though: when you’re having a conversation with a real person, it goes without saying that sometimes this conversation becomes an argument. And if this argument takes place between you and a book—or even worse, between two books—it’s a bit hard to know how to react.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Let's leave this Untitled for Reasons that Will Soon be Made Clear

Lately I’ve been thinking about titles. To me, books are like their own compact, self-contained worlds. Opening a cover to its first page is like opening a door and seeing the first steps into that world. But what makes you open a book in the first place? We all know “never judge a book by its cover,” and most people who read books know that this isn’t entirely accurate. I have indeed picked up a book just by merit of its gilded letters or some graphics or even the soft feel of its spine against my fingers.

But covers change. Almost every time a book is reprinted the jacket art is different, the font is altered, even the blurb on its back or inside the dust jacket is rewritten. The thing that stays the same—aside from the actual text, and even that is subject to revision, annotation, or abridgment—is the title. 

The title then is the constant that often causes readers—myself included—to pick up a book. After all, most books are stored with other books, not facing out in full glory of their graphic design, but only a sliver of spine showing. Those gilt letters may draw the eye, but it’s what those letters spell out that often clinch the deal.

What I’ve been thinking about recently is how a title can be so evocative, abstract, even irrelevant to the plot, and still make me want to read the book. Most writer’s guides will say a title has to tell the reader something of the plot to “hook” them. I don’t think this is entirely true, because certainly Jane Eyre, Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Deronda only tell you the main character’s name. Other book titles are merely the places where the plot takes place. Anything could happen at Middlemarch or Key Largo. 

Sometimes the author adds a bit of information, by adding “The Adventures of” or “The Chronicles of” to the title. But then, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Vesper Holly, Sherlock Holmes, and Oliver Twist all have very different adventures. And really title padding like “The Chronicles,” “The Story” or “The Tales of” is pretty unnecessary; most readers know they’re reading a story/tale/chronicle. 
Other additions to a name that give hints to the actual plot of the story therein. It’s okay if they don’t give ALL the information.  I don’t need to know where Gulliver goes until I actually read the book.  It’s enough that he travels. We may not know where he got his diploma, but we know that Dr. Moreau has an island. 

Other titles are very obscure. Catch-22 wasn’t a catchphrase until the book. To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make any sense whatsoever until you’ve read the entire book. And then it still doesn’t make that much sense. Then again, sometimes obscurity creates a sense of mystery that is irresistible to even a casual reader who happens across it on the shelf. After all, Catch-22 is a better title than “An Impossible Situation,” and I’d be hard-pressed to summarize To Kill a Mockingbird (“Coming of Age Among Racism”?). 

I think some of the best titles are by Jules Verne. Evocative of foreign locations, action-packed plots, these titles seem to peek through the keyhole of the doorway into the book’s world. Around the World in 80 Days doesn’t tell us who, how or why, but still communicates an adventure that is time-sensitive and therefore urgent. Urgent to open that book and read it as fast as possible so that Phileas Fogg can reach his goal. The same goes for Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or From Earth to the Moon, or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Other books that do this well are Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (“Murder?” you say as you read the title, provoking the classic question at the root of every mystery, “But whodunit?”), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (At first it’s pretty much a case of “just what it says on the tin,” but at second glance you are prompted to ask WHY a Connecticut Yankee is IN King Arthur’s Court in the first place), The Secret Garden (of course now that we’re read the title, the garden isn’t so secret now, is it? But that begs the further question of why it was secret in the first place)…I could go on. 

My point being that a title doesn’t so much have to tell the prospective reader what the plot is, as a title needs to make the reader question what the plot might be.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Little Sister Takeover!

<PROLOGUE: Due to work, family visits and the ever-important Statewide Quilt Shop Hop, I was at a loss as to when and what I would write for this week's blog.  Therefore I am introducing my guest blogger and little "seester," who has often voiced a desire to try her pen at blogging and is ALMOST as much a bibliophile as myself.>

Having a remorseless reader as a big sister is good for when you’re bored—she’ll throw a book right at you and if you’re not concussed at least you’ll have something to do. It’s also good when you are attempting explain a plot point to one of your friends about a piece of literature—I can easily go into “Eng. Lit. Sis’s Lil. Sis Mode” and break down The Three Musketeers into one paragraph, or talk at length about how Victor Frankenstein is really bad at making life decisions.

But having a remorseless reader as a big sister is not so great when she gives you a book to read where the eldest child is the hero and their pesky little sibling hinders their quest/life in some way and if I dare complain about this trend in literature my big sis will brush her nails and chide me on how hard it was to grow up with me!

I understand that literature is filled with annoying little sisters from Lydia Bennett to Amy March to Deryn Sharp!  In comparison with Lydia Bennett—I’m a saint. But not all books have pesky little sisters! [Some cut out the little sister entirely and opt for making the protagonist an only child.] In fact there are quite a few awesome little sisters that show how lucky older sibling are. Which is why I decided to make a list.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Groundhog Day

A while back some coworkers of mine were having a deep and involved discussion of the Bill Murray film, Groundhog Day. For those who aren't aware of the movie's main plot, it's about a cynical and mean-spirited TV news reporter who gets stuck repeating the same day over and over (Groundhog Day) and only can continue with his life once he's become a nicer person and "done the day right." This being a Bill Murray movie he also gets away with a lot of pranks and things before he reforms, and because only he remembers the previous days no one else can hold him responsible for those actions beyond the 24-hour "time bubble." 

"What would you do if you were stuck in the same 24 hours?" was the question up for discussion amongst my peers. Some talked about catching up with the latest shows on their Netflix queue, or learning a different language.

To me, the True Solution is obvious. READ.

I would be at the library reading every book I'd ever wanted to read. Of course I'd eventually have to start time again once I'd finished with that library, because with the time-bubble effect I couldn't actually put anything on hold. But by that time I would have put a sizable dent in my To Be Read mountain of books. And maybe I'd also have learned a different language too. That would be from reading the 400's shelf in the ol' Dewey Decimal system. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged...

...That a bibliophile in possession of a large book collection must be in want of more books.

Okay, that altered quote doesn't have much to do with what I'm going to say, except that it introduces the topic of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.  This is obviously a parody of the novel's opening line.  The line I want to talk about, somewhat indirectly, comes toward the end, when the heroine's father Mr. Bennet has found that three of his five daughters are married or engaged, and he only has two more to "unload" before he can be sure of their future security:

"If any young men come for Mary or Kitty,
 send them in, for I am quite at leisure."
~ Chapter 59

As part of showing how books are relevant, I often try to record here the times in my so-called real life where I make direct connections to something I've read.  Today's episode in the Life of Laura has to do with Pride and Prejudice, and since no one else at the time understood my reference, you, dear reader, get to be afflicted blessed with it.

Almost ten months ago I started my job as an administrative assistant for a retail store.  "Administrative Assistant" sounds lofty, but really it is sales support/clerical and secretary  work/receptionist duties all rolled up into one.  It means I have a lot of time to read IF I've first had about fifty phone conversations, emailed coworkers a gagillion times, and slogged through a lot of data.  Don't get me wrong, I actually like to email and slog.  It's the phone conversations that sometimes get me rattled.  I'm not a phone person. Given a choice, I choose a phoneless cord over a cordless phone any time. 

Part of the reason I sought this kind of job was to get over a phone-phobia.  Little did I know that it would teach me more about human nature than I ever desired to learn.  Because when someone makes a phone call to a retail store, the disembodied voice they hear is not human, and so customers don't really treat me as such. 

Have a customer service problem?  Yell at the receptionist!  Have a grievance with a salesperson?  Yell at the receptionist!  Need to talk to a manager?  Don't let that receptionist transfer you to the correct extension without first making sure she understands in gruesome detail all the things that are wrong with the company she works for, and make sure she knows you're not mad at her by convincingly YELLING AND SWEARING THE ENTIRE TIME.

The other day, after about three incidents along this line--one of which in particular the customer CAME INTO THE STORE to GET A LOOK AT THE RECEPTIONIST (yours truly) to see the FACE OF WHOSE FAULT IT WAS (because of course it was my fault that I gave him the correct information; sometimes I could just kick myself for my commitment to accuracy)--I turned to my coworker and told him I was going to lunch.

"If any other customers come in wanting to yell at someone, page me up, for I am quite at leisure," I said. 

Not that it was all that brilliant or witty, and of course he didn't get it.  But for a moment as I was referencing that quotation I became as disconnected and aloof as Mr. Bennet, which gave me the feeling that I could face a bunch of silly, unreasonable people and not only not be upset by them, but actually be amused at them--though obviously in secret.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Library Binging

I don't know what it is about summer coming up, but around this time of year I always have the urge to borrow library books like crazy. I call these "library binges," in which I have to use not only one hand to hold my books but both. Sometimes the chin comes into play as I try to steady a tall, precariously leaning pile of books I'm trying to carry up to the checkout counter. 

Maybe one reason is that the summer is so short. The days are long, but it's over so fast. It makes me remember that life is short.  And my list of "books to put on hold" is so very, very long. 

It's downright overwhelming at times, seeing how many books I actually have to read. There are hundreds, even thousands of years' worth of literature to catch up on, and as if that's not enough there's always thousands, if not MILLIONS of new titles being churned out that fairness dictates I can't ignore. 

Yet overwhelming as it can be, there's nothing quite so satisfying as the feeling of your shoulders and elbows straining at their sockets, your vertebrae being smooshed, because you're carrying about 126 thick chapter books to your car. Sometimes it's worth renting a trailer or moving van for these sorts of summer expeditions to the library.