Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Whatever the Weather

It's a testament of its universal awesomeness that reading, as a past-time, is one that may be deemed appropriate no matter what the weather. From the blizzard conditions of winter when the only respectable place to be is in a comfortable fireside chair with a mug of some hot beverage in one hand and a tome with gilt pages in the other, to the beastly hot and humidity of summer when next to the A/C vent is the natural habitat of sane people.
When the weather continues charming, on the other hand, a nice "summer reading" is in order, preferably in a hammock outside under the shade of one's favorite tree, with the sun shining and a nice breeze that is just soft enough not to blow the pages of your book and lose your place.  (Unless of course you are reading on a tablet or other such electronic device, in which case the breeze can be as blustery as it likes.) 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: The Companions

This doesn't really fit my idea of The Companions themselves,
but it does remind me a bit of King Smoit and how I imagine his army "practiced" for battle.
One of the best things about The Chronicles of Prydain are the characters. Each is written with such care and obvious affection on the part of Lloyd Alexander, and each is very different from each other so that their interactions are dynamic and interesting no matter what the circumstance. There’s Gwydion, a warrior Prince of Don who is always compared to a shaggy gray wolf. There’s Achren, the beautiful but wicked and perhaps ancient enchantress and former queen of Prydain itself. There’s Dallben, an enchanter who is supposedly wise but spends most of his time either napping or cranky because someone woke him from a nap (although there is one extremely awesome chapter in The High King where he blew these preconceptions of mine out of the water). There’s Coll, a great warrior who just wants to get back to tending the turnips in his garden. There’s Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, three mysterious women who can appear as hags or beautiful women and perhaps represent the Fates, who are both horrifying and hilarious in their kindly attempts to turn the heroes into toads (or worse….Orgoch’s habit of licking her chops tips us off that she’s the grim reaper one).

Then there are characters like the good-natured but cotton-headed Prince Rhun, the philosopher-potter Annlaw Clay-Shaper, the resourceful family man Llonio, the pessimistic and hyperchondriac Marsh-wiggle watchman Gwystyl, the giant music-loving cat Llyan, the obnoxious former giant Glew, the very convincing villain Dorath, the sarcastic messenger-crow Kaw, Medwyn the animal-lover and possible Welsh interpretation of Noah, and the boisterous King Smoit. I haven’t even mentioned them all, but you get the idea of what a colorful cast of characters peoples the fair land of Prydain.  

But most importantly there are our heroes, the Companions:

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: The Story

The Chronicles of Prydain is comprised of five books: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. There is also a collection of short stories, The Foundling, which delves into some of the backstories of various characters. From the Author’s Notes Lloyd Alexander included prefacing each novel (which by the way are delightful in their own right), I’m not sure whether he really intended to write a series from the beginning, or whether he got as attached to the characters as his readers did and was drawn into writing more of their adventures. While The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron could easily be read as one-offs separate from any of the other books, the remaining books build upon each other, culminating in a truly grand finale in The High King. Personally, having first read the books spread out over a period of time, and just recently re-reading them in a huge lump as if they were one novel, I can attest that reading them all together and treating them as one story really is a more satisfying experience.

These books are children’s novels, and they actually read as such. The plots are simple, the lessons well-defined, and the tone almost like a fable. This last aspect is appropriate since Alexander was influenced by the Welsh collection of legends, The Mabinogion. In comparison to more contemporary children’s novels which tend towards more graphic violence and a sense of humor that verges more on sarcasm, Prydain focuses less on the blood and guts in its battles than the emotional aftermath of how someone’s death leaves a void in the lives of those who survive him, and its sense of humor is soft, clean, and good-natured.

This doesn’t mean that Prydain glosses over the more serious realities, however. Its main theme is the fight against evil to protect the innocent. The first two books in particular are almost moral stories, where Taran starts out with one conception of how the world works and by the end of the story events have taught him to understand these concepts in very different perspectives.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Chronicles of Prydain: Introduction

This is the Bildungroman (coming-of-age) story of an orphan taken in by the enchanter Dallben and raised by the former soldier and current farmer Coll, apprenticed as an Assistant Pig-Keeper, but with aspirations of heroism. The name is Taran, and the setting is a place not unlike ancient Wales, a magical and mysterious land called Prydain.

This is no Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle-Earth, although there are strains of similarity between these series of fantasy novels. In my mind, almost all of Prydain has a foggy, gray quality once Taran (and by extension we the readers) steps foot outside the sunny and green sanctuary of Caer Dallben. The reason for this is that a shadow has indeed been spreading slowly across the landscape of this once prosperous and wealthy land, in the form of the Death-Lord, Arawn.

Friday, June 16, 2017

I've been listening to too much Dumas fangirling

The subject of bereavement is one that has often been treated powerfully by poets, who have run the whole gamut of the emotions while laying bare for us the agony of those who have lost parents, wives, children, gazelles, money, fame, dogs, cats, doves, sweethearts, horses, and even collar studs.  But no poet has yet treated of the most poignant bereavement of all—that of the man halfway through a detective story who finds himself at bedtime without the book.

~  P.G. Wodehouse, Strychnine in the Soup

When I read "collar studs" I legitimately thought Wodehouse was making a reference to The Three Musketeers until I reminded myself that's a novel, not a poem. I guess I've been listening to my sister's Dumas fangirling too much!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Horror Worse than Heart of Darkness

I’ve been doing the majority of my lighter reading during snatched moments at work, during two fifteen-minute breaks and my half hour of lunch. By far the easiest way to read and eat at the same time, I must admit, is via e-reader.  Hence I’ve been thankful for my Kindle, which doesn’t fly shut on me or have a binding to break or paper pages to stain, and which I can flip through easily with my pinky finger without so much as putting down my fork.
As I’ve probably mentioned before, I tend towards being a cheapskate with my Kindle, downloading free, public domain books. I’ve read a lot of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, and Emmuska Orczy on my Kindle. I was in the mood for one of these lighter “dime novel” adventures, and decided to shake things up a bit with some Arthur Conan Doyle. The Crime of the Congo sounded Haggard-ish, so I opened that book up and began to read it.
It is not, I repeat NOT, a fictional adventure book. It is rather a report on the atrocities committed in the Congo to the Africans by the Belgian colonists. Doyle’s research is thorough, and his description of the events and actions graphic and detailed. No one could read Heart of Darkness after this book and think of it as a sort of morality tale of the dangers of natural racism. To do so, in my mind at least, would almost cheapen the suffering of the Congo people who were enslaved to harvest rubber in their own country, starved and beaten and dismembered and killed, and purposely and intentionally tortured as if they were not human. Most people would be disgusted if an animal were treated with such viciousness, much less another human being.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The horror, the horror!

"The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there--there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were--No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you--you so remote from the night of first ages--could comprehend."
- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
It’s easier to tear down than to build up, and so it’s easier to criticize someone else’s writing than it is to actually write something better. There it is, in black and white, an author’s hours upon hours of work, sweat, and tears. It’s placing their heart and mind on a pedestal for others to swing a stick at for any minor malfeasance.
This is why I normally try to talk about books I recommend. I’ll point out flaws, but an honest review is better than hyping up something only to disappoint you when you read it. I read a vast amount of books I don’t end up reviewing at all because it would be merely me with a stick in my hand. Life is too short to waste it on reading books you don’t love, and my life is too short to waste it on blogging about those books.
This entry is an exception, because another thing I like to do is go over classic literature with new eyes. Classics are hard to do this with, because most of us—even those who haven’t read them—have an idea how we should feel about a book from what teachers or other sources have implied. One of the most “preconceived” pieces of literature I encountered in my education and critical readings was Heart of Darkness.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

My first excuse to use "tête-à-têtes" in a sentence in a very long time

You may be an introvert when you actually do research on how to talk to people. Such was my reason for borrowing Jeanne Martinet’s The Art of Mingling: Fun and Proven Techniques for Mastering Any Room. It gave me a few ideas on how to improve my confidence when approaching someone, as well as some pointers on how to make small talk.

A lot of what is discussed is the logical answer to the question, "How do I engage a stranger in conversation?" Watching body language, following etiquette (turn off the cell phone!), and finding a balance of participating in conversation without monopolizing it--or, on the other end of the spectrum, losing complete control of where the conversation is going.

I liked Martinet's idea of "assuming a character"--that is, if you're a shy, intimidated person, put yourself in the mindset of a character who is self-possessed, confident, and charismatic. Maybe part of my liking this part of the book was the author's heavy reliance on "classic" actors like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart for examples. And it goes along with something I've long believed myself: that just as our self-esteem is affected by what other people say to us, we are also affected by what we say to ourselves, and thus can give a sort of pep-talk to ourselves when we feel overwhelmed or insufficient. 

While some things in this book--mostly little details or tips--were helpful and seemed to make sense as techniques one could successfully use to improve mingling, I must admit to being a bit scandalized at the treatment of deception in the book. Whether it was an opening line or an excuse to escape an uncomfortable conversation, the frequent answer in this book seems to be “make it up.” It seems that as long as one is charming or charismatic enough, they can get away with any sort of exaggeration, fib, or ignorance. 

I was also a bit disappointed in how the goal of mingling was treated. For me, mingling is dipping one’s toe into the waters of what one hopes to be a deeper friendship, a true “getting to know you” effort. Perhaps it’s because, like many introverts, I prefer small, intimate groups or tête-à-têtes that move decidedly from petty small talk to more engrossing and enlightening discussion. 

The goal of mingling according to this book, however, is to talk to as many people as possible in a large group of people. Thus this book’s audience is not so much geared toward the socially awkward or wallflowers as it is towards people who want to make social connections for other purposes, such as furthering careers or getting invited to even more large-group parties.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Lions say "Woof"?

“…We had to undertake a journey of 300 miles through a desolate and almost uninhabited region. I can assure you that I have rarely been in a worse position, and I have been in some queer ones. However, these things are the natural incidence of a hunter’s life, and the only thing to do was to make the best of them.”

Allan Quatermain is at it again in this relatively short story relating yet another of his adventures in Africa. For a guy who claims to dislike attention or telling stories of his life, Quatermain sure finds himself wiling away many an evening by the fireside in the company of curious Europeans (usually a fair amount of them easily-impressed and shocked ladies), telling the account of some adventure of his in which he (and not one of his equally-intrepid companions) is always the center of action and heroism.

In this particular tale, Quatermain is sick and stranded in the middle of the African savannah with a native Zulu, Mashune, and a Hottentot alliteratively named Hans. With limited supplies and only four cartridges of ammunition between the three of them, they have forty miles to travel through dangerous wilderness before they can hope to reach safety. Between them and civilization stands not only Quatermain’s illness, their imminent starvation/dehydration/exposure, but also man-eating lions and a very violent eland.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

H. Rider Haggard's "The Mahatma and the Hare"

A Mahatma, as H. Rider Haggard explains in the first pages of this story, means “Great Souled,” and is a person with a sort of sixth sense or at least an ability to transcend the usual human’s sense of reality.

A hare, on the other hand, is a sort of rabbit.

The narrator starts by talking about Mahatmas and also some passing acquaintance known as Jorsen. The narrator then U-turns into another topic, of how his wife and daughter died and the shock and heartbreak drove him to drink himself into a stupor and contemplate jumping into the river.

Enter Jorsen, who appears at the narrator’s side and knows the entire tragic tale. Jorsen mentions in passing that he knew the narrator in a past life. The narrator’s friendship of Jorsen brings him back from the edge of despair, followed by his studying of a pseudo-Eastern mysticism and a bunch of talk about Pharoahs and kas. At last is introduced a sort of limbo-world called the Great White Road, upon which ghosts must travel on their way to the afterlife. In a dream or stupor or some deep meditation, the narrator accesses this Great White Road and sees his dead child. Attempts to repeat this meeting are in vain, although the narrator meets many other spirits in subsequent visits to the Road.