Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

As a rule, I try to avoid harboring prejudices, but sometimes they're difficult to avoid. With an American Colonial history buried deeply in the nooks of one side of family, and an Irish line on the other, I must occasionally fight a reflexive anti-Englishness. Or maybe not a prejudice: better call it a distaste for certain aspects of my own east-coast cultural heritage, which I see as largely a refutation of the gentility of English classism, but which, like a rebellious teenager, never ended up so far away from Mom and Dad as it imagined. Our vaunted revolutionaries trended pretty aristocratic too (albeit Enlightened), even if our landed gentlemen were uncouth sorts, the pre-industrial agrarian society that spread through (the aptly named) New England was an outgrowth of the Old(e) England model. We're still telling our kids English fairy tales and English nursery rhymes, emphatically re-imagining some snug English pastoral spirit every single Christmas. (That the uptight breed invented "twee" is almost reason enough to detest them.) And like the English, we romanticized the lost inner frontiers once we tamed them, even if the brutal pacification of ours was only recent history and the landmass proved a lot bigger. Our nasty Empire is a take on the British model too, complete with state protection of favored lucrative industries, a similar missionary zeal to export our exceptionalism to the brown hordes even as we enrich satraps and butcher the lowly. The British of the early nineteenth century were particularly loathsome to us Yanks, given that 1812 was among the stupidest of wars fought on this soil, although perhaps we can cut them an ounce of slack over the next several years for resisting the Continental imperialists.

Which isn't to say that there are no fine stories to be crafted from this upper-crust milieu--some of the finest are, of course--it's just that any writer who dares present a bunch of gouty windbags (I mean, there's crazy old George the fucking Third ferchrissakes!) unironically congratulating themselves for their Englishness has got a bit of a handicap to overcome. And really, all this is a lengthy apology, because when Susanna Clarke served up a helping of these tobacco-reeking indolent old farts, I loved them from the first sentence. And if Clarke's aristocratic England is mildly romanticized, then it's tempered with an equally understated, but devilish, subversiveness. She is not shy, for example, about presenting servants who are superior in character than their masters, nor for subtly criticizing the absence of women from the circles of self-defining meritocracy. These things are shown, not lectured, and they are in the context of a historical verisimilitude that works at least here, considering she's taken the liberty of exorcising (or, perhaps, dramatically understating in a footnote or two) the differences that the real Christian church had with witchcraft, and to create a history which included magician-kings and in which the roads to Fairie could be mapped, even as the destination remained as inscrutable as in any old country tale.

How does the literary evolution of Faerie go again? Something like from the backyard gods of a woodsy people, to compilations, to Bowdlerized children's versions, to serious rediscovery in various nostalgic forms that have suited any convenient version of the people's lost connection to the world, whether thanks to the Great War or just under the usual thick layer of coal smoke and asphalt. I like faeries this way, as timeless natural spirits, creatures faintly adversarial, untrustworthy but beautiful, inhuman but representative of an ancient ecosystem that includes humanity, of a mysterious but familiar natural universe that people can neither tame nor do without. Clarke navigates this landscape of character pretty well, playing up one supernatural gentleman who has been in a thousand-year groove of wickedness and mystery, but generally working Faerie, into the countryside and into forgotten corners society too, keeping up with the general consensus of modern fantasy writers, without feeling very derivative of anything. Her magicians--the titular characters--are the bridge between the wild magic intrinsic to northern England and to modern society.

Although this conflict underlies everything in the story, it's not developed very explicitly. Much of the conflict is underdeveloped, even while all the elements for it are in place, and should work. There's a prophecy about the two magicians, that while brilliantly conveyed in a character, carries no logic or force. There is the matter of Mr Strange's wife, whose interactions with the faerie occur far too late in the novel, and which, as a plot-moving elements, are strangely attenuated. I've little idea why Strange had to spend so much time in the (largely bloodless, but chalk that up in part to the cultivated English understatement) battlefield, and given the events, it's a bit off to see the likes of Canning and Castlereagh doffing about with such casual pipe-scented aplomb. And I suppose these conflicts are all approximately resolved by the end, but without sufficient tension, there was no particular satisfaction. Pleasant as it is, the book still sagged in the middle, and I don't think it was entirely due to my damn job interfering so much in my reading schedule. The book didn't quite reach the point of being nice to read but easy to put down--I didn't get bored in 800 pages--but it did approach that point.

And the conflict between Strange and Norrell, I should add, was well-executed, and satisfying. Clarke's general strength is character, and both the men are pretty great ones. Norrell particularly: here's a timid little bookish bore of a man, completely unsuited to society, politics, or generosity. If anything else, the novel is an entertaining portrait of how it turns this unlikely little fellow, nothing worse than a packrat of knowledge really, into an influential tyrant, scooping up information from the reach of his betters and leaving the world to swallow his own viewpoint, so tediously expressed that no one can make it past the first couple of sentences. That Clarke could conceive that he and the ambitious, carefree Strange should find intellectual communion is a quality bit of writing, but in truth, every character is improved in the vicinity of Norrell. He's such a font of negative interest (and her best trick is showing him charmingly in spite of this), that his servants, collaborators, sycophants, must be that much more compelling to overcome his utter boringness.

So, call it good writing, and pleasant telling, and with only just enough plot to keep it from being merely atmospheric. I recommend reading it by a roaring coal fire, snug from the rainy February chill, with, of course, tea.

Monday, June 22, 2009

From the Annals of Erotic Fruit...

I know it's a big internet, but I wonder: is there yet a blog devoted to suggestively-shaped produce? Because if not, then I want to lay claim to the idea. It could finally be the do-nothing path to personal wealth that I've longed for since that first summer job.

[Editor's note: This picture just got less tasteful the more I looked at it. Eventually, I started thinking of the children... --KH]

Strangely, no one was interested in seeing my scrotum-berry yesterday. Or at least no one was interested until I explained it a little further (after which, no one was interested for different reasons).

And speaking of dangling modifiers (and where the hell is switters anyway?), before I went to bed last night, I caught the first few minutes of a Food Network show called, "The Best Thing I Ever Ate ....Totally Fried!" Um, yeah, I'm sure I don't remember.

[book review in a day or two]

[...or three or four. Busy week, and I'm preparing for a remarkably un-busy week off, which may include reviewing books, so long as it doesn't happen to feel like work. Both upcoming selections are twiffer-approved, by the way.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Beats of Different Drummers

More proclamations from the Royal Wii.

There are various versions of the story about how the musical odyssey began at Chateau Keifus. Was it the failed attempt at violin lessons? The short-scale mandolin that Dad managed to foist off on us one day? C.'s kiddie music class? All of these things certainly happened six or seven years ago as parts of a sort of uneven group awakening, one of those creeping gestalt dealies after which we began to see ourselves as a musical family for some reason (and without much evidence). All of the variations are about equally true if we're looking to plot out the beginning of a chapter in the family saga, and with that in mind, I've got to go with the drum set as the beginning of it all.

I know that I've told this story before (to hipparchia if I recall), buried down some thread or other. My wife had been interested in playing drums for years, and so on her birthday--or maybe it was Mother's Day, or Valentine's, but you get the idea--and lacking funds to purchase a drum kit outright (and, I admit, anticipating certain outcomes enough to be cautious about a big investment), I rented out an unladen snare and purchased an instructional video for my sweetheart. Naturally enough, the video recommended a more complete arrangement, with at least a high-hat and a bass drum to occupy the other hand and the feet, and better to work on the basic backbeat pattern that will get you farthest when trying to fake American music. A couple of toms and a crash cymbal are also obviously necessary because they sound cool. A careful observer may note that my initial cash outlay contained none of these things, and rather than hurry back to the music shop, I instead thought it more romantic to cobble together various approximations of these devices. In the photo, the multipurpose cymbal is a trash can lid, painstakingly and lovingly mounted, and you bet that random plastic vessels made fine toms. I regret that my foot pedal, which never did leave the base of the trash can (because where else would the sound come from?), doesn't show up in the picture as well. It had already been removed with extreme prejudice, I guess. The experiment didn't work as a musical instrument, but all in all, I feel it was funny enough to make it worth it.

Playing pretend music better suits our talent level anyway. Fast-forwarding half a decade to my daughter's birthday, we had more disposable income than in the single-drum times (and wisely, we didn't rely exclusively on my personal version of thoughtfulness), and sprang for Rock Band 2, complete with USB mike, plastic Stratocaster, and, of course, drum pads. (We have also a tambourine, a real one, so that whoever's stuck fourth, can at least be a backup singer or just keep time.) My little angel--yes, that same thoughtful wee poet you may have met a few days ago--enjoys certain mildly inappropriate tunes (guilty!) and we'd been eyeing the game as a potential family outlet for awhile now. It took the timely coincidence of her duodecannual and the release of the AC/DC trackpack with her to put us all over the edge. [And it's another thing entirely to sing along with the printed karaoke, isn't it? MTV games (surely a bad sign) mutes the curses ("you can say 'poop' if you want to, dear"), but there's metric tons of suggestion in there, which is a lot more unnerving than a "shit" or two. I'm hardly sure I'm doing the right thing here, but I'm thinking it's a safe place to explore somewhat controversial ideas, and at twelve, you're starting to learn that your traitor body is discovering suggestions all its own, like a walking innuendo. Moreover, if the thought does take her to rebel, here's the stuff she'll be rejecting. The eight-year-old, meanwhile, remains happily clueless.] If you were thinking about purchasing the game, be aware that this post officially makes it not cool anymore.

Rock Band is immensely fun. It's as if that air guitar you carried around since you were twelve somehow acquired a kickass amp connected, and without actually learning how to do very much, you can sound like you've spent countless hours in your bedroom learning the basics and mastering every famous riff. Playing together as a group, you do get some sensation of feedback, or, if someone isn't keeping up their part, of collective failure. (And when the tambourine is off time, we really hear it.) We were all doing our living room rock moves before very long--it just felt natural. After the first week, we'd all stayed up past our bedtimes every single night, unlocking half the tour, and we shambled around during the day like zombies, night creatures out of our element, nursing the wounds we suffered in the name of our imitation art. Junior lost her voice for a while. My wife's shoulder and kick-pedal leg got sore. My damn finger went numb--the counterfeit guitar doesn't have nicely sanded and careworn surfaces a real one does, and the injection-molded neck evidently has been digging into the base of my fragile pointer, but the show must go on. It was fun to make rocker versions of ourselves too, to which the game gives the characters convincing band mannerisms, and the video bits synch up impressively with the music. I'm pretty sure I've caught the Keifus avatar lusting after the cartoon drummer.

My conclusion about drumming back then, incidentally, was that's it's fucking hard. Too many body parts acting completely independently--walking and chewing gum, but also waving, and being sure to count the cracks. It takes a certain type, I think. Out of all the ersatz equipment, Rock Band only pretends that the drum pads are anything approaching a real instrument, and there's a drum jam tool buried in there somewhere--might even work with old training DVD. I guess they have a sufficient number of things to hit at the appropriate moments, representing all of a basic kit. As for the guitar, it only has one "string," and since the fret buttons are only loosely associated with the notes the recorded guitarist is playing, there's no knowledge of music that will help you very much, and if your hand is in the wrong position there's no immediate feedback (wrong note), even if it's obvious you're doing something that's not right (no sound at all). On the easier settings the sham guitar is pretty pointless beyond informing you a little of the fundamental shape of a song. On the harder settings (or at least on the harder settings on the easier songs), you fret most of the notes that are played, and if you're willing to suspend disbelief, you can almost convince yourself that those great sounds are coming from you. Which rules.

My imaginary music playing is cutting into my actual music playing time. (And much as I love the thing, a mandolin doesn't substitute a good electric guitar. It's like when you just want a good burger, already.) When I get my reduced time on the little mando, I surprise myself to find that I'm not any worse for the lack of practice. Even if my pretend guitar playing is meaningless pitch-wise, it does force me to keep a good rhythm, which hasn't ever been my strong point, which is something of a problem when you're playing a rhythm instrument. As for the quasi-fretted notes, I have the same issues, actually. Poor accuracy, and there's a speed threshold I can't generally surpass. I have never been able to gradually ramp it up to sneak my way into a faster tempo. At some bpm, my fingers just go from "adept" to "flail."

Since C. is summoning me to play, I need to wrap this up, and indeed, here's where I originally intended to end it, but I learned this morning that they have published an expansion pack of a certain Canadian progressive rock trio (shut up! that's why!). Which is badass. I figure I have to do better at it than these guys:

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Health Care - Fight Night

"Iiiin the Red corner, it's the man with the private plan, the carefully coiffured caregiver to the Commonwealth, the mighty Mormon middleweight, Miiiiiiiitttttt Romneeeey!"

[lights flash, random crowd noise, incoherent thunder from the gigantic woofers]

"And in the Blue corner, weighing in at 50 billion bucks, she's the heroine of human services, the diva of discretionary spending, the hyena of the budget subpeona, Czarina Kathaleeena Sebeeeeeeeelius!"

[thunder ramps up, crowd cheers.]

"Let's get ready to rrrrrruuuuuuuummmmmble!"

[brass noises increase in volume and crowd cheers "charge," then hushes.]

"It's an epic fight, wouldn't you say, Chris? Kathy's got the Democratic health care plan, and Mitt, well, he used to legislate this stuff."

"That's right Bob, and she's armed with secret documents. Look at her dance around those voters."

"Free Market Mitt looks a little dragged down out there. I thought he'd been training."

"Well, his platform has taken a few blows, and he's been trying to change his style too much. He doesn't want competition, but he still wants to advocate competition."

"He's going for the mental battle then. A chess master!"

"That's right Bob, if people could afford a government plan, they might actually buy it, and where would that leave his trainers?"

"His plan is to keep private coverage from getting better? A bold move! No wonder they called him... Er, what did they call him in Massachusetts, Chris? Wow, look at that feint!"

[oohs from the crowd.]

"Not even close to her, but she flinched. A Trojan horse! Whoa, pony!"

"Look! Sebelius is back on him. She wants competition. Her boss wants competition. U! S! A!"

"Mitt says there's enough competition!"

"You ever had a choice in yours, Bob?"

"They're going to have to make the plan awfully useless to keep consumers from defecting to it, Chris. The industry doesn't want her throwing any haymakers either. No hitting below the money belt.

"We don't make the rules."

"My God, Mitt might strike a blow! Unbelievable!"

"He hasn't been near a voter in five years, Bob."

"Look, Chris! The employers could defect. They could drop their workers and wash their hands of the whole thing, whatever service they all end up with."

"No wonder Kathy's dodging!"

"You hear that? She said that dismantling private coverage would discourage more employers from coming into the market place."

"Brilliant diversion!"

"It looks like a bad play to me, Chris. What good does insurance do for employers? It just makes hiring people more expensive."

"You're not thinkging about insurance employers"

"Masters. Chess. Masters."

[crowd oohs]

"It sounds rough down there. What's going on?"

[oohs turn to boos]

"It's a heckler! How'd she get in here? Hey Al, think we can get a feed down there?"

[various thumps, screech of feedback]

"...bzzt...ingle pay...crkrk...alf the costs!...sqwawjkivilized world...brrrr...anada and Fr[bleep!]"

"My God, get her out of there!"

"For the folks watching at home, we are aware this is a family-friendly fight, and we run a small time delay to keep it in FCC code."

"Any response from the fighters?"


"It looks like that's the round. Mitt's wandering back to his corner, maybe one of those other guys will replace him."

"Well, they all have a copy of something in their hands, and they're wearing the same suit.

"It looks like Kathy might have said something to the heckler, but no one seems able to make any sense out of it."

"The crowd's still booing."

"Neither of them look very damaged, Chris, or even particularly interested. Will this fight ever end?"

"It'll go to decision, Bob."

"Right, and hopefully by then, the audience will forget about it."

"Stay healthy, everyone. Stay employed."

"Good night, America"

Monday, June 15, 2009

Five More Thoughts: Relativism Ed.

rel•a•tiv•ism (rěl'ə-tĭ-vĭz'əm)
n. Philosophy
A theory, especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them.
It's as good a starting place as any. In my usual halfbaked way, and egged on a little by two of my favorite readers (which, relatively speaking, is quite a high fraction of them), I was intrigued to write a little point/counterpoint from the scary edges of moral relativism. My divinity, like the man said, is caught between the colors of a butterfly.* The second two thoughts are add-ons, uninspired observations about the tedious and narrow relativism that one needs to employ in order to take American politics seriously. And even the number five can be relative, of course.

A relatively weak theme, to be sure, but hey, what else is new?

1. And it doesn't mean a goddamn thing
It's hard to deny that despite our efforts to describe the experience of being, our thoughts and actions are merely products of the underlying physics, be they deterministic or probabilistic. Consciousness, whatever it feels like, whether or not it can be predicted, and, paradoxically, whether or not the basic phenomena are knowable enough for us to use them to sufficiently describe ourselves, nonetheless has to be the result of these processes. Thinking meat is weird stuff to be sure, but those choices and rationalizations it makes are manifestations of fundamental physical processes, the elaborate details of some long-term and ridiculously complicated path the universe takes down another cosmic entropy sink.

Not that anyone wants to fall down that rabbit hole. My goal here is more empathy, and the point is, no matter how satisfying it can be to undercut a moral argument, you can always go down one further, and really, what fun is that?

So we wretched Adams make our indispensible approximations, practice moral relativism on some scale or other. From my point of view, philosophy, in its broadest sense, is the art of exploring the consistency of ideas in light of some common assumptions necessary to keep ourselves sane: math works, free will exists, that sort of thing.

But at the bottom line, those assumptions are just good guesses. If we're into ethics, then they're practically arbitrary. Even considering that moral development is based on optimizing things like individual and group happiness, food supply, and genetic propagation, at heart our moral stance is whatever we choose to believe it is. It's like faith that way: true because we choose it to be true. And it leaves a lot of room for elective ethical frameworks. We can believe that our urge for compassion and that the organization of nature is a divine order, and it may as well be. Or else we like to believe that equality is a righteous humanist impulse, and so it is.

The practicing political ethos makes a lot more sense when you think about it that way. Why not go ahead and build your ethical system on the party platform? Why not acknowledge exceptionalism as the primary motivator of the populace, as most other societies have, in fact, admitted, right along with the corollary that other groups are naturally inferior. Why not lust for the glory of battle, get a little warrior worship going, accept violent death as the preferred end to inevitable suffering? I'd tell you that I don't accept that morality, and I really don't. I'd tell you that one of the offensive things about the American way of doing things is that we pretend one moral pose and practice another. I'd tell you that a good philosophical framework is consistent with observation and doesn't contradict itself. But calling inconsistency a vice is arbitrary too.

2. And if pigs can fly, then surely so can I
[And I type the first draft of this here on the plane. Is there any vehicle to which the human element is so obviously secondary? It's like sitting in a torpedo which has ludicrously lobbed itself into the air, using 90% of its mass to temporarily and futilely defy gravity. Inside the tube, people are lined up and watered like cattle in a barn, lonely together for the miles of thin, dark air that separates this slim silver dart from any other object. The earth itself is invisible under clouds we can't look down to see. There is solidarity here, unspoken and ignored, but should anything happen, in the exceedingly unlikely event it would be given an opportunity to play out, it's understood that we make up some core of a human civilization, with thoughts, prejudices, relationships all nascent and unexplored. Somehow it's understood that everything human can be represented in or developed from this small population, or in any of the other small isolated populations that are currently racing through the sky. Some passengers will share pieces of themselves to pass the time. We bump elbows and knees and look uncomfortably at our neighbors, reduced to the sweaty, tired, undisguised essence of our human selves. There is a thump, the nose of the plane tips forward. Was it supposed to do that? The lights flicker. Je--]

3. Like a bullet, as a friend
It's often said that there's no difference between the American parties, and it's not that they don't they stand for slightly different things, but there is surely a political society that has never evolved far from its expansionist, patrician roots, and it takes in most of the government.

I seem to have inherited an annoying habit of overusing words like "the state" and "the system" when I make political arguments, but there is some sort of continuous bureaucratic entity that appears to operate with its own arbitrarily defined, but predictable, ethical framework, reflected even in the few operatives who were sincere in their stated desire to change it. Maybe the better word for that thing is "the company," which makes our leaders quintissential company men and women.

The description seems to fit. In the company, the customer is always right, but the goal is really to make a buck off him, and the marketing to that effect is intense. Everybody works hard, and if they succeed or not, whether or not they agree with the corporate aims, the employees, owners, and bondholders are deeply invested in its persistence.

Perhaps Obama really did crave sunshine in government when he campaigned, but on issues like state spying, executive authority, and government-sponsored torture, he's been drawing the blinds as hurriedly as the last guy (and certainly as quickly as well-documented douchebags like Sens. Lieberman and Graham). The idea that this will inflame our enemies and threaten our soldiers is the starkest bullshit, of course. It's really just maintaining company policy.

No corporation fears ennobling the competition. The competition already resents your market position, and will resort to whatever means to take it that it is willing to risk executing. And we get that there's a marketing campaign for our competitors lurking in the bad press, but surely, they are already daring enough. What we've actually done to them, they already know with deadly certainty. The real fear here is that the torture photos would lose America customers. It's us that Obama doesn't want viewing the things. For the good of the company.

4. Add it up, extract a lesson
And see, that's why I find political writing so damn tiresome most of the time. Whether you side with the stockholders or bondholders, it's still, if you want to talk about your relativism, rah-rah for the company.

We read it because we're angry, and because we care, but political writing is a marketing entity all to itself. If you want to call that sort of analysis a literary genre, and you can, then partisan opinion writing is fucking fanfic. But still, a good writer can transcend his fiction aisle (the bar may, in fact, be higher for talented genre authors), and on the political blogging scene, there are precious few that can get away with hard partisanship. As always, it helps to write well, be aware of larger dynamics than some silly Republican/Democrat debate, and I'll tell you, well-delivered humor never, ever hurts. (Since the Republican party has had thirty years to write its own straight lines, it's no surprise that the list over there is a more than a little left-leaning.)

Anyway, the gang at The Poor Man Institute is one of the few who get away with using words like "wingnut," challenging the genre establishment a little bit. Good humorists, good general understanding, and an occasional engineer's sensibility that takes pleasure in mocking the likes of Gregg Easterbrook. I like them. So maybe you can understand why I found this a little disappointing:
Half the time Obama considers himself kind of lucky to be following George W. Bush’s opening act: it was such a profoundly colossal disaster of an administration on so many levels that all Obama has to do is not wreck the economy, start a catastrophic war of choice on false pretenses, let a treasured American city drown AND try to gut social security all at once and he should coast to re-election by landslide.
I mean curv3ball's point is fairly cynical in that sure, anyone would look peachy following that act. But even there, we're talking, what? Two out of four? And that's before the start of hurricane season.

5. Can that be all there is?
Well, it's all for today.

*here (and borrowing liberally throughout)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Better Poetry Than Mine

I'll have a normal post up soon (tomorrow, or Monday at the outside). In the meantime, I want to take advantage of this verbal lull to turn the spotlight to one of the coolest girls I know. These are some of her poems, which, as something of an incentive, I offered to show off on her Daddy's blog if they made the grade. They are from a book ("No Listening Allowed") that she recently dedicated to her great-grandmother, and before we drop it in the mail, I am upholding my end of the bargain. She's got more voice than I had at that age (and she's not doing so bad against the old man right now...), a bit of a naturalist evidently, and fond of naked word associations. Her silly streak makes me proud. Enjoy.

Gentle butterflies in my stomach
Waiting, watching, listening
I plea, "Robins sing your first chirp
Sun RISE!"
First day of spring right around

Walrus (Cinquain)
Fat, majestic
Swimming, spitting, maneuvering
Mounds of blubber
Upside-down beast

I am Earth
You know me for the eldest land you worship.
My mother is earthquakes.
My father is volcanic eruptions.
I was born in a meteor shower.
I live in the cracks of every rock.
My best friend is the Moon
Because she keeps the world balanced.
We like to frolic in circles.
My enemy is Mars
Because he throws meteors at me.
I fear losing Moon
Because of constant climate changes.
I love the flowers
Because they hide the rocks under the luscious scent.
I dream to go green.

Summer Day (Diamante)
Summer day
Sunny, bright
Sweating, blistering, showering
Sunburns, flip flops, stars, crescents
Soothing sleeping, comforting
Chilly, fresh
Winter night.

5 Ws Poem (included at her request)
Eats bugs
On the floor
On Saturdays
Because it's extra yummy that day.