Sunday, March 22, 2015

Faust (Part I)

Faust (Part I), by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe seems to have made his play about Faust the great work of his life.  He started writing pieces of it in the early 1770s, when he was in his early to mid-20s, published a preliminary version in 1808, and continued revising it until 1828 or so, when he published a final version.  That's Part I, which is what I read.  Part II took up most of Goethe's attention during his later years and was finished in 1831.

Goethe's version is very different from Marlowe's, which I read several months ago.  It starts with a framing device that echoes the book of Job; the devil makes a bet with God that he can lead the virtuous scholar Faust astray.  When Mephistopheles arrives on scene in the form of a large black dog, Faust is already complaining that earthly knowledge is not enough and that he wishes to delve into the deeper knowledge afforded by black magic.  Mephistopheles has no trouble convincing him to agree to a deal in which the demon will serve him for his lifetime, and then Faust will serve him in Hell for eternity.

Faust and his devil visit various scenes--a witch, some drunken students--but then he sees the lovely  girl Margareta and asks Mephistopheles to help him seduce her.  She is a very virtuous young woman, but eventually falls in love and succumbs.  This leads to the murders of her mother, brother, and the resulting infant.  (Ouch.)  Faust forgets about her for a while but then tries to save her from the prison where she awaits execution.  She refuses to escape her due punishment, and as she is taken away to the scaffold, Faust runs off but hears angels announce that she is saved in Heaven.

Rendered in English, it's still a pretty fascinating play and enjoyable to read.  It made me wish that I could read German fluently and enjoy it properly.  It's nearly 200 pages long in my copy and must take several hours to perform in its entirety.


Fanda always asks that we talk a bit about literary movements.  She's got questions:
  1. Whether he/she fits the literary movement you have categorized him/her? Tell us your reason. 
  2. If not, where he/she should be? Tell us your reason.
March is Enlightenment month, and I think we can certainly put Goethe there, but he also fits into the Romantic movement.  He pretty much started it with the Sorrows of Young Werther in 1775, which sparked the Sturm und Drang movement and got everybody into Romanticism.  Goethe was also not really convinced by the Enlightenment theory that people could live by pure reason.

But!  Goethe was also an Enlightenment kind of guy.  He did a lot of science; in fact he thought his treatise on color was the most important thing he wrote.  He was very interested in geology and mineralogy.  He was also a lawyer.  He wrote essays, treatises, criticism...all sorts of stuff, and despite sort of kick-starting Romanticism, he wasn't a huge fan of it.  He liked restraint and taste and all those more controlled Age of Reason kind of things...but he didn't really buy that Reason could, or should, be supreme.

All that to say that Goethe doesn't fit into a literary movement very well; he's too talented.  He made literary fashion more than he followed it.  I don't know nearly enough about him to be able to make judgments, but I'd quite like to learn more. 



Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Royal Game

A woodcut illustration from "Chess"
The Royal Game and Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig

After reading Beware of Pity last year, I wanted to read a little more Zweig, preferably the short novel Chess.   Happily, I ran across it while shelfreading the German literature at work.  Here, it's under the title The Royal Game and collected with four other short stories:

Amok
The Burning Secret
Fear
Letter from an Unknown Woman

I read them one at a time, with a lot of space in between, so that I could enjoy and absorb them slowly without blurring them together.  All the stories are excellent.  It's no wonder Zweig was one of the most popular European authors of his day.  (That day was the 1920s and 30s.  Zweig committed suicide in 1942, out of despair about the state of the world and Nazi victories.)

I can't tell you much about the stories; they're fairly short (well, long for short stories) and to describe them would be to spoil them for you.  But they're great stuff and I do recommend them.  Zweig is realistic and meticulous in his descriptions, showing the deep feelings that may run under the surface.


Player Choice

Player Choice, by Jeff Deck

Glen, video-game coder, is on his way to the business meeting of his life, where he will pitch his beloved baby of a project, the one he's been designing in private for years, the one he hopes might even help people change the world--Novamundas.  Even his commuter train crashing can't stop him.  But then Glen starts switching realities.  Or reality is changing around him--how can he tell?  Is he really reality-jumping?  Is someone trying to torture him?  Or did his brain implant malfunction?  Glen tries to figure out what's real and survive to get back home--whatever that might be.  He can't remember...

This is quite a good science-fiction story.  I was grabbed.  There are some great ideas to play with here, and the characters are interesting and real.  It's set in 2040, and nearly everyone has celphs--brain implants that function as personal devices and assistants--like Siri, only far more so.  It's a great idea and completely organic to the world (and our own quite possible future).  I think celph is a great term as a play on what cellphone could turn into, and am quite tempted to use it myself.  One price of having a celph, though, is that companies can zero in on you for advertising.

I like Glen.  He's a lot like many software guys I have known.  His co-workers are interesting, and when we meet his friends through the story it's really nice; they're nicely fleshed out and it works.  Then there are some other, more difficult relationships as well.


The Novamundas concept gets a lot of play in the second half of the book.  Gamers will probably have a lot of fun with it.  I am a complete non-gamer but it was still a great story, so don't worry if you're not either.

There was some profanity in the book, which I'm not really a fan of, but it wasn't awful or anything.  Overall, I enjoyed it a lot.  It's well worth spending $3 on Amazon to read it yourself.  If you're hesitant about self-published books, don't worry about this one; Deck has written professionally for a long time and Player Choice is a polished novel.  From what I hear, a lot of SF is moving to the self-publishing sphere and if a good percentage of it is of this quality, it will work.



I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Islands of Chaldea

The Islands of Chaldea, by Diana Wynne Jones

I took some time to read this on Sunday, and it was just lovely to sink into the story.  This is only the second time I've read The Islands of Chaldea, so it was practically new and there was plenty of treasure to find.

Aileen is a really nice heroine for the story.  She starts off really down in the dumps, because she has just failed her initiation; she is supposed to be the next Wise Woman of Skarr, but she couldn't even have the most measly little vision.  And then the King sends her Aunt Beck off on a quest, so she's going too, though nobody wants to (and in fact they're all being sabotaged).  So Aileen has a long way to go--she needs confidence and daring and the ability to command, but as her friend says, she keeps wailing about being talentless and plain.  Through the frustrating, uncomfortable, irritating (and dangerous) journey, Aileen comes into her own.

I love the four Guardians of Chaldea.  They come along on the trip, but aren't recognizable at first.  They are very fun.  And one is a winged bull, which is neat.  Each has one of the islands in its stewardship.  The islands themselves are takeoffs on the British Isles, if you divided each large island into two and put Wales partway into a new place.  Each one is quite different and I enjoy how SWJ played with the names.

Aunt Beck is a nice example of an adult woman who isn't a villain in a DWJ novel.  In fact, the central villain is a man--but he's backed up by a hungry mother, sure enough.



I've missed a lot of DWJ March, unfortunately.  I wish I was keeping up with it better, and with blogging in general.  Life got really nuts a couple of months back and it hasn't really settled back yet.  I do plan to read Conrad's Fate this weekend and I still want to read at least some of Reflections.  I'm just more in a Conrad mood just now.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Book of My Lives

I really like the little alien.
The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon collects personal essays into a sort of memoir/collection of personal essays.  He is mostly a fiction writer.

The essays are all over the place; a couple are about dogs, some about his childhood, others about life in the US, one about pick-up soccer in Chicago.  Hemon is Bosnian and grew up in Sarajevo; he was in his late 20s when war broke out and he happened to be on a visit to the US when his home city was invaded, after which he could not go back, so he stayed.  The war certainly overshadows most of the book, and I appreciated being able to read about it and gain some understanding of what went on (I was in college at the time and mostly didn't even see the daily news, so my knowledge is patchy).

The essays are good.  Very worth reading.  The last one, however, is so completely tragic and heartbreaking that a warning label would have been a good idea.  I was blindsided by it, as indeed he was by the events that he chronicles, so possibly that was the point.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Black Maria

Black Maria, by Diana Wynne Jones

Mig, her mother, and her brother Chris go to visit Aunt Maria in her little village of Cranbury-on-Sea.  She's really Mig's father's aunt by marriage, but Aunt Maria is very good at guilting people into things.  Now that they're there, Mig sees that Maria has no intention of letting them go again.  She is the Queen Bee of Cranbury and she expects to get her own way...

Black Maria is really where DWJ lets loose on her opinions about gender roles and equality.  Cranbury is a society run by women--completely by women, and it's horrifying.  Jones is pointing out rather forcefully that a complete matriarchy would be just as bad as a complete patriarchy.  (I always suspect that she had been subjected to one too many enthusiastic lectures about the divine feminine and how wonderful the world was in [fictional] prehistoric times when society was matriarchal and peace-loving.)  Under Aunt Maria's reign of manipulation and guilt, these women have forced their husbands to become hen-pecked corporate drones with little will of their own.  The children are imprisoned in an orphanage where they are regimented to all be alike.  And it's all disguised under a veneer of fluffy sweetness.  .

DWJ only barely touches on the further back history of Cranbury, but it seems that centuries ago, the villagers divided up magic, splitting it between male and female.  They went on building up more and more rules about the differences between the two sides until each regarded the other as an enemy.  Aunt Maria broke the balance completely, imprisoning the leader of the male side and taking over, but she wouldn't have had the chance had there not already been the problem of the split in the first place.  The real issue is that every person in Cranbury lives inside a mental prison that forces them to behave according to unreal rules.  The men expect to be manipulated; they don't exactly like it, but they can't deal with a woman who doesn't play by the rules they're used to.  The women expect the men to be cads, callous and unfeeling, and when a man comes along who wants to be honest and loving, they imprison him.

Because of this, Mig and Chris--who want to work together--keep finding themselves being shoved onto sides because of their gender.  Chris treats Mig with suspicion because she's a girl, and Mig is horrified to find that she is expected to submit to being groomed for queendom.  Too many of their supposed allies are too enmeshed in the rules to be able to defeat Maria.  It takes four people who simply refuse to play by those false rules at all to break the pattern and free Cranbury.


DWJ grew up in the 1940s and 50s and did have a hard time with being a girl.  Remember that her parents were (to put it mildly) neglectful, and it sounds as though they often parented by stereotypes--girls could not be heroes of stories, they were supposed to keep house.  DWJ talked about what a relief it was to find a few girl heroes in stories (Britomart, for example) who won by doing things, rather than by dying.  But it seems to me that she had personal experience and difficulty with both sides; she grew up in a patriarchal society that didn't want to let her do the things she wanted to do, but on the other hand, she clearly had a visceral horror about older, motherly, queenly figures.  I think she may have been more truly worried about women in positions of unchecked power.  The only answer, clearly, is men and women working together with honesty and respect, as equals.

I suppose this is probably DWJ's most overtly message-y book; she's not normally this way.  It's good enough that you don't mind.


Note that this novel is titled Aunt Maria in the US, which makes sense because we don't have the cultural meaning attached to the term "Black Maria."  But I bought my copy in the UK, and I think the title is a zillion times better if you do know what a Black Maria is (in US idiom, it's a paddy wagon--a locked van for transporting prisoners).  Also, I'm pretty sure it should be pronounced the way that Americans would spell Mariah.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Analects of Confucius

The Analects of Confucius

The Analects is not at all a long book.  It consists of twenty short books, each containing about twenty-five sayings attributed to Master K'ung, or Confucius.  Some take the form of short conversations with particular disciples, or anecdotes, others are plain statements, and much of it has been changed or added to by legend.  Since most of it is abstract statements, often involving men of rank in various ancient Chinese states, it is interesting, but not something you can read for long stretches.  I found it best to try to read one book a day.


Confucius's sayings are mostly about how to behave, and they are entirely focused on the life of a gentleman.  He isn't particularly worried about the common people, because they will behave well if their rulers do.  He isn't worried about women at all.  He is only concerned with how a gentleman of wealth and rank should behave.  These men should ideally pursue the Good (as it is translated in my edition).  Very few people will ever achieve perfect Goodness, but all should try.

The Good consists of, firstly, doing all things in accordance with ritual.  What "ritual" consists of is not defined, because they all knew already, but it definitely involves doing religious ceremonies properly and honoring one's elders--including mourning a father for three years and making no changes in the household for that time.  A Good man would also rule wisely and well, keep promises, be respectful, and generally do as he would be done by.

My translation is a little elderly, but it's very informative and I liked it fine.  Here are some excerpts:
Fan Ch'ih asked about Goodness.  The Master said, In private life, courteous, in public life, diligent, in relationships, loyal.  This is a maxim that no matter where you may be, even amid the barbarians of the east or north, may never be set aside.  (XIII.19)
Tzu-kung was always criticizing other people.  The Master said, It is fortunate for Ssu that he is so perfect himself as to have time to spare for this.  I myself have none. (XIV.31)


This last week or so has been pretty nuts.  I feel a little bit like roadkill on the street of my own life.  I have been reading some interesting stuff, including two Diana Wynne Jones books, and I have lots to say about them, but blogging time is in short supply just now.

Friday, February 27, 2015

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald

A couple of years ago, a successful NSA contractor in his late 20s, Edward Snowden, collected a whole lot of top secret NSA files and revealed to the world that the super-paranoid, tin-foil hat wearing people who were convinced that the US government was keeping tabs on everyone...were not anywhere near paranoid enough.

Because the NSA is keeping tabs on all of us.  In fact, its explicit goal--ironically, an inefficient and ineffective one, if the stated mission is to fight terrorism--is for no phone call, email, chat message, or internet session in the US to go unmonitored.  They store billions of exchanges per day, quite unconstitutionally.  None of this has ever caught a terrorist attack in the planning stages.  But it does ensure that we feel surveilled.

Greenwald tells the story of how Snowden contacted him and how they broke the story in a series of news stories at the Guardian.  He then breaks off to tell the story itself, covering the basics of the NSA's goals and methods.  In the third section, he talks about the aftermath and how he and Snowden were targeted.  Greenwald has a lot to say about journalism and how it too often serves the interests of those in power rather than all citizens.

This is one of those books that is important to read, but is hugely depressing. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book

Book, by Robert Grudin

Back in the mid-90s, I had a copy of this novel and enjoyed it a lot, but at some point it disappeared.  Happily, I found a library copy (pro tip: do not name your novel Book, for it will give library software fits if you can't remember the author's name) and took it home to enjoy once more.  This is possibly the first academic satirical comedy I read, unless David Lodge came first.

Adam Snell, professor of literature and failed novelist, has disappeared just two days before his post-tenure review--at which half the English department was planning to savage his reputation and get rid of him.  They're just as happy to think he'll turn up dead soon so they can get a really cutting-edge literary theorist in.  But where is Snell?  Why are copies of his novel disappearing?

Grudin, an English professor himself (and fellow graduate of Berkeley's comparative literature program, albeit 25 years earlier than I), just has a fun little romp through literary theory and textual conventions.  Collected documents and transcripts tell the story--part of the time, anyway.  Footnotes and marginalia stage a revolt in disgust.  A good time is had by all.

I wish I still had my copy of Book.  I like re-reading it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Henry V

Henry V, by William Shakespeare

 I've been wanting to read Henry V for a long time; I never have before, so I wanted to fill in that gap.  Everybody knows what happens--I don't like writing posts about Shakespeare plays because I feel like whatever I say, it's kind of pointless.  However, just in case, this is a "historical" play about the young Henry V, his claim to own all of France, and his campaign to win it.  In a surprise fluke, the English actually defeated the numerically superior French at the battle of Agincourt, for God, Harry and St. George.


Even though I knew what to expect in the plot of Henry V, I had a really hard time getting into it.  My daughter and I got out the DVD of the movie--the 1989 one with Kenneth Branagh as Henry--and watched it together, and that really helped a lot (I got it for schooly purposes but we hadn't watched it yet).  What I mostly noticed about the film, which is beautifully produced with lots of setting and costuming, was that they cut about 90% of the dialogue from the play.  Even the most famous speeches lost a few lines.  Instead, there was much more emphasis on the visuals, with lots of time on landscapes and people doing things, and of course plenty of fighting.  To explain some background, they also added in that final scene from Henry IV Part 2 where the new king throws Falstaff off like an old pair of shoes. The film of Henry V is over two hours long; the play performed as written must be even longer.  It would be neat to see it performed like that, and I wonder if anyone produces it whole these days.

Much of this play is historical propaganda, really.  English people looked back on Henry V as a wonderful king.  The glory of Agincourt!  France right where it belonged, under an English king! Never mind the fact that ruling both France and England together was just not possible.  It was a ridiculous idea that consumed lives and years and treasure and never paid off.  Then, the Tudors descended from Katherine of Valois, Henry's French wife.  Henry left her a widow after only two years, during which he was mostly still fighting in France.  She was young and pretty, and the government was worried sick that she would remarry, so they passed a law that she could not marry until her son reached his majority (he was six at the time) and approved a marriage.  Katherine then proceeded to live with Owen Tudor and produced six children, almost certainly without getting married at all, though the Tudors claimed she did.  Henry VII was their grandson.

I don't quite know how to count this for the Reading England challenge; it mostly takes place in France, but I think it should count.  I shall put it down as belonging to Southampton, where at least one act takes place, and that is in Hampshire.