March, 2016

A Sort of Book Review

March 31st, 2016 21 Comments

Sense and Sensibility

 

After watching Emma Thompson’s movie and realizing I had never read the book, I ordered a copy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I have no intention of reviewing or critiquing or even praising Jane Austen’s masterpiece—it certainly needs no pat on the back from me—but I was so impressed by the edition I got that I do want to review that.

The internet has replaced the independent corner bookstore for many people, and while I find that a lamentable thing generally, I have to admit it is a boon for those of us who live out in the boonies. Looking for a copy of Sense and Sensibility, I mulled over the many possibilities on the market (new, used, collectible, rare, hardbound, paperback, and many further permutations within each of those categories), and being an inquisitive type who enjoys learning, I decided to get an annotated edition. I selected one edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks of the University of Virginia, and published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University.

I don’t know exactly what I thought I might be getting, but it certainly wasn’t this. For one thing, the book is very large by today’s standards, ten inches high by almost ten inches wide. To call it a hardbound book is understating the thing considerably: it is hardbound the way books used to be hardbound a century ago and the way all good books worth keeping ought to be bound today, which is to say it is bound to last and endure, with heavy cloth covers and real, honest-to-God stitching. It has subtly watermarked endpapers (if I get some of the terminology wrong, forgive me: I am not a bookbinder) and the pages themselves are of heavy and durable bond paper. Even the dust jacket is heavier and more substantial than on any book I have seen for many a long day.

The volume is profusely and magnificently illustrated with, primarily, appropriate contemporary art (think William Blake, Sir David Wilkie, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, a watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, some of the illustrations done for early editions, that sort of thing) all of it carefully chosen to illuminate either references in the original text or commentary by Ms. Spacks.

And Ms. Spacks knows her stuff! Much of the effect of Jane Austen’s writing relies on her observations of the habits and customs of her day, and sometimes there were subtleties of behavior in 1800 that no longer exist. As an example, when Lucy Steele tells poor Elinor that she, Miss Steele, is engaged to Edward Ferrars, Elinor is able to cling to disbelief until the moment Lucy Steele shows her a letter written by Edward to Miss Steele. It is not the content of the letter that is of any importance—in fact, we never learn the content—it is the fact of the letter that is so momentous, because in those days a gentleman simply did not, could not, write a letter to a young lady unless he intended to marry her. It is that kind of subtlety I might have missed, but for Ms. Spacks.

Another reason to get this annotated edition is because language is a mutable and constantly evolving thing, and words are used in different ways to mean different things today than they were two-hundred years ago. I admit that I’m at least as arrogant as the next fellow: I flatter myself that I am reasonably well-read; I rarely have to look up a word or an unusual usage of a word when reading Shakespeare, say; and I certainly didn’t expect to learn as much as I have from Ms. Spacks’ commentary. To take the most obvious example, both the words “sense” and “sensibility” had slightly different and far more complex implications of meaning than we are used to, differences that have a profound influence on how we understand what Miss Austen was saying.

Finally, I’d like to compliment Emma Thompson. As Ms. Spacks points out in her commentary (quoting an earlier critic of Jane Austen), Edward Ferrars is probably the weakest character in Sense and Sensibility. The reader must believe that Elinor loves him, but because Austen has used the plot device of Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele that causes him to be depressed and dispirited, the result is that Edward is unable to reveal his real persona to Elinor and so becomes a sort of pale watercolor of a figure, with the result that the reader is left a little confused as to why Elinor loves him to the exclusion of all other possible men. In her movie version, Emma Thompson very cleverly solved this problem in part by casting the offensively handsome and charming Hugh Grant as Edward, and also by showing Edward interacting with the youngest sister, Margaret, in ways that make him very appealing. (Elinor catches him discreetly pushing a large atlas under the table where Margaret is hiding from her mother; he subsequently starts a lovely piece of nonsensical conversation with Elinor about the source of the Nile—“I think it’s in Belgium.”—to finally draw the little girl out from her hiding place; he sends the atlas to her later as a gift; a wonderful scene where he is observed by Elinor fencing with Margaret, using wooden swords, and losing badly.) I normally quake at rewrites of masterpieces (I believe it was the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that famously included the credit, “additional dialogue by…”) as being the result of the febrile arrogance of fools, but in this case, Ms. Thompson was exactly right (or write, take your pick). She identified a problem, and provided a charming and graceful remedy.

If you love Jane Austen, buy this book. Hell, even if you don’t, go ahead and buy this book. The illustrations alone are worth it.

 

Motiveless Malignity

March 23rd, 2016 32 Comments

Belgian flag

 

“A Farmer found in the winter time a Snake stiff and frozen with cold. He had compassion on it, and taking it up placed it in his bosom. The Snake on being thawed by the warmth quickly revived, when, resuming its natural instincts, he bit his benefactor, inflicting on him a mortal wound. The Farmer said with his last breath, ‘I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel!’

“The greatest benefits will not bind the ungrateful.”

The Fables of Aesop

 

In my very first acting class (with the great Kirk Denmark at Beloit College in another century) I was taught that it was the actor’s responsibility to make sense of the senseless, to comprehend the incomprehensible. In other words, if you are cast as Iago, the villain Samuel Taylor Coleridge once described as the epitome of “motiveless malignity,” it is your job to find motives for his villainy, the idea being that pure good is only possible for God, and pure evil is only possible for the devil, and neither of those make for compelling or even playable characters on the stage. (I could make an argument that Coleridge was all wet, and that Iago gives a very good reason for his malignity, but that’s a blog for another season.)

With Professor Denmark’s admonition in mind, I have been trying to comprehend the Islamic terrorist bombing in Belgium.

For well over three decades, European countries have opened their borders, their doors, their wallets, and their hearts to a steady stream of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Pakistan, and North Africa. In recent times, ISIS times, that trickle has become a cataract. Those same European countries have tolerated a lot of abuse from their guests: violent crime rates have soared in some countries (particularly Great Britain, Luxembourg, Denmark, and Hungary; in Germany specifically, rape has increased dramatically); Muslims have demanded and in many cases been allowed concessions to their own minority culture, concessions that frequently fly in the face of the habits and customs of their host country; Muslims have created “no-go” zones in some metropolitan areas where sharia law is enforced; food and drink have had to be modified in the public schools of some countries to accommodate the dietary restrictions of the immigrants; in at least one British prison, all the toilets had to be retrofitted to accommodate Islamic needs; the list goes on.

And now, by way of thank-you, Islamic terrorists have declared war—or jihad—on the innocent civilians of the very countries that took them in and gave them shelter. The terrorist Salah Abdeslam, the mastermind of the 2015 Paris attacks who was arrested just four days before the Belgian attacks in which he was also involved, was born in Brussels to parents who had emigrated from Morocco.

I was thinking about the description of the undetonated bombs the police recovered, packed with nails and malignity. If a foreign country, let’s take the North Koreans as an unlikely but not incomprehensible example, somehow managed to invade America, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill as many of them as I could by whatever means I was capable of, and it wouldn’t disturb my sleep by one second. So I can understand violence and killing in terms of self-defense; I can even understand the motives that sent US troops to Europe in World War One and to Europe and Asia in World War Two. In both cases, evil was afoot in the world and had to be stopped, and a viper can only be stopped by chopping its head off. Perhaps now another kind of evil is afoot in the world. Perhaps now a truly motiveless malignity is afoot in the world.

Say a prayer for the Belgians. Say a prayer for us all.

Jay Dusard Workshop

March 22nd, 2016 4 Comments

Jay Dusard book

We live in an era where the art of photography has been sadly reduced by every grey-beard loon who stoppeth one of three and holds the Wedding-Guest with his glittering eye while he shows off smart phone snapshots of family members the Wedding-Guest has never met, never will meet, and hopes to go to his grave without meeting. Even the vast bulk of visual images on the news consists of incidental snapshots taken by people with their smart phones. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t qualify as art.

In this accidental digital age there are still a few old dinosaurs who regard photography as an art form, and among those there are a handful—at the most—who have clung tenaciously to the intricate and enduring past, using large-format cameras to create the kinds of art we associate with Ansel Adams.

And that’s a good place to start, because Jay Dusard is, I believe, the last living photographer to have studied with Ansel Adams.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know who Jay Dusard is, but for those of you who have only stumbled onto this site recently, pay attention, because this is a rare opportunity.

Warner and Wendy (Small)

Jay was born on a farm in southern Illinois and studied architecture at the University of Florida, but like many another gifted student, his own success ruined him before he began. He was awarded a scholarship to study American architecture from coast to coast, and set out with good intentions, but he never made it out of the American West. He fell so in love with the landscapes, lifestyles, and skills of ranchers and cowboys that he ended up working on Warner Glenn’s borderland ranch for “bunk and board and seven dollars a day” as he learned the cowboy trade. That gives you a pretty good idea of what you can achieve with a degree in architecture.

A few years later Jay discovered photography, an addiction that led to study with both Ansel Adams and Frederick Sommer, a seven-year career as a professor of photography at Prescott College, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, more books and awards than you can shake a stick at, and exhibits at museums from Mexico City to Calgary and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Now pushing eighty, he still travels extensively to both photograph and teach photography, plays jazz cornet, raises quarter horses, and—like a damned fool—still punches cattle.

Jay and his fellow photographers, Bruce Barnbaum and Bill Ellzey, will be teaching a workshop in the Pacific Northwest, and if you have any interest in photography, and have the opportunity, this is an unparalleled chance to learn from the best of the very best. Jay—being Jay—does not have a website, but go to:

http://www.barnbaum.com or http://www.billellzey.com.

If you go, send me a photograph.

First Lines

March 10th, 2016 51 Comments

Old bboks

(Photo courtesy of Goucher.edu)

We watched Sense and Sensibility the other night. I’m talking about the 1995 movie, which I believe is the only movie version ever made, with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and the late, great Alan Rickman. It’s about the third or fourth time I’ve seen it, but it’s so good it deserves to be watched repeatedly. I’ve never read Sense and Sensibility, but I was so impressed with Emma Thompson’s script that afterward I went into the library to get a copy so I could dive in and compare Jane Austen’s book to Ms. Thompson’s adaptation. Instead, by accident, the first volume I grabbed was my father’s copy of Pride and Prejudice, and like all confirmed, hardcore, unreformed booklovers, even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I automatically opened it.

There on the flyleaf was my father’s name in his queer, old-fashioned, elegant script, written with a fountain pen (what else?) at the ascending angle he always used putting his name in books. As it always does, just the sight of his writing, and knowing his hand had been on that page, took me rushing back to the golden days when he was alive; he really was the most extraordinary and wonderful man I will ever know.

But then I turned to the first page and saw Jane Austen’s first line of her second major book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Well, I mean to say! The genius of all great first lines is that they capture within a few words both the reader’s interest and the tone and essence of the book to follow. And that thought started me thinking about great first lines.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” which brought to mind a cartoon The New Yorker ran many years ago showing one of those arrogant, self-satisfied editors all writers would love to choke looking across his desk at Charles Dickens and saying: “Come, come, Mr. Dickens! Either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times; it can hardly have been both.”

Actually, Dickens had a lot of great first lines:

“Marley was dead, to begin with.”

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.”

“Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great armchair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

And J.D. Salinger played off that opening for the beginning of The Catcher in the Rye: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

John D. MacDonald’s first line of his very first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, set the stage and the tone for an entire series: “It was to have been a quiet evening at home.”

The second volume of what will eventually be Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell opens with: “His children are falling from the sky.”

With “I did it—I should have known better; I persuaded Reginald to go to the McKillops’ garden-party against his will,” Saki (H. H. Munro) sets the humorously resigned tone of disaster for all his “Reginald” short stories.

“True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” Edgar Allan Poe draws you into the horrors of The Tell-Tale Heart instantly.

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home.” Kenneth Grahame draws you into the gentle joys of The Wind in the Willows.

Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for his body of work, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opens with: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” And his Love in the Time of Cholera opens with: “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s first line of Anna Karenina is possibly the most famous first line of all.

The Leper’s Companions, by Julia Blackburn: “One day in the month of September, when the low autumn sun was casting long shadows across the grass, she lost someone she had loved.”

“I lost my own father at 12yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a word I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.” Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is written entirely in the late eighteenth century Australian working-class slang of a semi-literate (or semi-illiterate) career criminal, which makes it sound almost inaccessible, but not so, not so; it’s as uniquely compelling as everything Carey writes.

Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way, set in Ireland in the terrible days of World War One and the Troubles, begins: “He was born in the dying days.”

Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche takes a lighter approach: “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The Old Man and the Sea, arguably the greatest thing Hemingway ever wrote.

There are many, many more great first lines, but what is probably my favorite of all time comes from M.F.K. Fisher, who wrote primarily about food and did it better than anyone else. From Consider the Oyster: “The oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.”

Tell me your favorites.

Donald Trump for…

March 3rd, 2016 42 Comments

Donald Trump

 

I watched my first Donald Trump for President rally today on CNN, the one held in Portland, Maine, and I think I understand now what makes him so popular with so many people. He combines the essence of Gene Hackman’s character, Senator Kevin Keeley, in the movie The Birdcage, with the emptiness of the old Seinfeld show.

In The Birdcage, Gene Hackman as Senator Keeley goes off on a long, meaningless monologue describing their drive from Washington, DC to Miami, rambling on in an incoherent description of the beauty of the land, this great country, the beauty of this great country, the trees, the beauty of the trees changing color in this great country, the roads, the beauty of the roads in this great country, the fields, the beauty of the fields in this great country, the beauty of this beautiful great country in this… It’s an absolutely deadpan send-up of the kind of empty garbage that politicians indulge in, politicians who have nothing to say and who aren’t smart enough to come up with anything original, and in Gene Hackman’s hands it becomes both hysterically funny and cringe-worthy, proving that he is one of the greatest talents America has ever produced.

That was what the first five minutes of Trump’s speech imitated: a pandering paean to Maine landscape. The Trumpster was nowhere near as funny as Gene Hackman, but he was even more incoherent and rambling, and it sounded as if he had lifted whole passages, verbatim, from the movie.

I was riveted to the spot. Darleen was trying to show me something on her computer, but I couldn’t tear myself away, and I am so glad I didn’t because then the Trumpster started the body of his speech and shifted into Seinfeld mode.

Do you remember the series, Seinfeld? It was the highly successful comedy created by the off-beat genius of Larry David, about a group of basically despicable and self-centered neurotics who never do or accomplish anything other than leaving a trail of disaster in their wake. Larry David himself described it as a show about nothing, which is in part why it was so successful: you could read practically anything into it because there was nothing there except laughter.

That’s Donald Trump, minus the laughter. Seinfeld’s empty and self-centered neurosis was entertaining because the show was well-written and the actors were very talented and it was, after all, a television show we could all laugh at, not real life. The Trumpster manages to capture the neurosis, the despicable and self-centered qualities, and he is certainly every bit as empty, but he adds to it a mean-spiritedness that Larry David’s show never had. Larry David asked us to laugh at his creations. Donald Trump asks us to laugh at and make fun of and belittle virtually everybody and everything that isn’t Donald Trump, and you can read practically anything into him because there is no substance to him. In an entire hour of speaking, he never once outlined a single policy or gave a coherent explanation of how he hoped to achieve any of the policies he never outlined. He never even finished an entire sentence: he speaks in strange, disjointed beginnings of thoughts that he himself then interrupts with parenthetical other thoughts that carry him off in some new direction toward some new destination he never achieves.

What you end up with, listening to the Trumpster, are poorly formed fragments of sentences that hint at even more poorly formed feelings of discontent and anger. He does not suggest policies, but vague, poorly formed and poorly expressed fantasies that border on revenge. Make America great again! Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it! Outwit the Chinese! Bomb ISIS and steal their oil! Force other countries to give us their oil! Make America sick of winning! Never lose again! Throw all the illegals out! Stop all Muslims from coming in! The only positives in his harangue are the positives that come from a mean-spirited reducing of everyone else: make America great again by making everyone else smaller and less than.

And between the incomplete and incoherent sentences that fail to express incomplete and incoherent thoughts, he contradicts himself in ways that made me think he must be unstable, naming famous businessmen as friends, as terrible people, as good guys, men who do terrible things, smart men he will work with as president, all in a single unfinished sentence that never led to any conclusion that had any link to the idea that had started him off.

And that too is part of the Trumpster’s appeal: because he is so incoherent, you can read into him practically anything you want, and if you are moved by his anger, by his discontent, by his fantasies, you will identify with him.

 

Scam Artists Limited: Very Limited

March 3rd, 2016 9 Comments

Laurel and Hardy

 

Perhaps we should all be a little kinder to and more understanding of our criminal element. Clearly, if you’re attempting to make your living through a life of crime, you’re probably the kind of person who needs adult supervision and assistance putting your pants on in the morning.

The other day, Darleen and I drove into town to fill out our income tax forms with our lovely tax lady. (You could make an argument that if a perfectly ordinary, middleclass, middle-income couple needs to hire an expert to help them obey the law, then it is likely that the government has gotten a snooch too complex to be anything like workable, but I’ll let it go for now.) We went through our files with the lady who helps us, gave her the paperwork she needed, and left her to do the math. Then we drove home.

When we walked in the door, there was a message on the answering machine from—I kid you not—an agent of the United States Treasury informing us that we were in arrears with our taxes and that if we didn’t return his phone call the instant—the instant—we heard the message, the U.S. Treasury would send agents out to arrest us.

OMG!

The unspoken implication in the voice on the machine was that the agents who would kick in our door at three AM would be large men with broken noses, no necks, and armed to the teeth with AR15s, tear gas canisters, body armor, and very, very uncomfortable handcuffs.

OMG!

Now, I understand the seasonal aspect to this particular type of criminal scam. It’s sort of like pretending to be a Salvation Army Santa; you might look a little out of place dressed in your Santa outfit at a Fourth of July celebration. But if you were going to try to fleece people for not paying their taxes, wouldn’t it make sense to you to wait until, oh, let’s say, at least one day after April 15th? Just a thought. I mean, I know the government is in debt to the tune of almost twenty-trillion dollars (and ask me if I’m going to vote for Uncle Bernie), but no one is going to believe the feds are soooo desperate that they’ll charge you with a crime you haven’t even had time to commit yet. It’s like robbing a victim before he withdraws cash from the bank. (Strother Martin in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Morons! I’ve got morons on my team. No one is going to rob us going down the mountain. We have got no money going down the mountain. When we have got the money, on the way back, then you can sweat.”)

Of course, thinking about it, twenty-trillion dollars is such an unimaginably egregious sum that maybe the feds actually are resorting to arresting people for failure to pay taxes that aren’t due yet, and maybe that was a real Treasury agent.

OMG!

Maybe I better call him back.

OMG!

Maybe Winston Churchill Was Right

March 2nd, 2016 10 Comments

Winston Churchill

 

When I write these blogs I try conscientiously to be as accurate as possible. If I am writing about something other than personal experience, or something about which I do not have substantial first-hand knowledge, I do as much research as I can, usually checking multiple sources online and, whenever possible, at least one written source (e.g: the Encyclopedia Britannica, a volume from my library, a technical manual, whatever). It’s the online research that leads me sometimes into paths of darkness I could never before have even begun to imagine.

For the previous blog about Hillary’s possible assault on the first amendment, I tried to do as much research as I could stand on the FCC’s planned (and subsequently canceled) “Critical Information Needs” program, and in the course of this I stumbled onto a well-known (even I had heard of it) self-described “progressive blog” which, out of Christian charity, I choose not to identify.

Progressive blogs, and even too many progressive mainstream news sources, tend to repeat the misinformation—or lies—that fit their narrative, regardless of how completely and often those lies may have been debunked. There also seems to be a willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to throwing mud at whatever the target of the day might be, so that ignorant or dishonest voices are lifted in shrill protest against problems that frequently don’t even exist. And when I say “shrill protest” I am being exceptionally kind and generous: some of the comments I read about the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and most of the comments about the NRA, were clearly the obscene products of severely disturbed minds, so I simply discounted them, but even making allowances for mental illness, there was a lot of plain, old-fashioned ugliness on that blog.

But what I stumbled across on this progressive blog that was relevant to the FCC, was shrill and indignant protest from a woman who was railing against the Right Wing [sic] press for opposing the FCC’s proposed “Critical Information Needs” study. I kid you not.

So let’s see if I’ve got this right. The FCC, under Barack Hussein Obama’s administration, not an administration noted for its strict, conservative constitutionalism, proposed to send out questionnaires to every news room in America, and to place bureaucratic governmental monitors in selected newsrooms, to ensure that news was reported in ways that the government felt reflected the needs of the community served by that particular news organization.

Are you with me so far? Do the words “Big Brother is watching you,” mean anything to you?

But the woman who wrote the piece I stumbled upon specifically cited—as her objection to the Right Wing [sic] press’s objection—the right and need for people to have unbiased and open access to the news. In other words, she felt it was wrong for the press to object to very real and direct influence by the government on the reporting of the news because she wanted the news to be reported without bias.

Okie dokie. I felt as if I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, or stepped through a mirror. Perhaps Winston Churchill was right when he condemned our American form of government by saying, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

 

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