Archive for April, 2011


“I need a phone call, I need a raincoat…”

“I love a rainy night,” Walahfrid Strabo mused in A.D. 838 in a verse epistle to his friend Gottschalk. “It’s such a beautiful sight: I love to feel the rain on my face, taste the rain on my lips in the moonlight shadow.” Here in D.C., we’re too weary of rain to share Walahfrid’s glee—but in with the bluster come bright, blooming links.

Anecdotal Evidence chats up a neighbor with “nothing to think, and little to say.”

First Known When Lost goes home across the shires with a poem by W.S. Graham.

Life is better than art, but Hats & Rabbits knows we tell ourselves otherwise.

Cynthia Haven considers the “bland endeavor” of National Poetry Month.

Dame Eleanor Hull ponders introversion, professorhood, and bonding with students.

Lingwë reads reactions to “Goblin Feet,” an early Tolkien poem.

The Silver Key notes fantasy-based befuddlement from critics who don’t know the genre.

Julie K. Rose posts a beautiful painting: Girl Reading by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted.

Open Letters Monthly has books you can walk on or sleep in.

Dame Nora plays The Sims Medieval.

Jesse Freedman likes the academic novel Stoner.

Ferule and Fescue asks why there isn’t more Protestantism on American television.

Bill Blackbeard, comic-strip archivist extraordinaire, has died.

Ephemeral New York notes the photography of Saul Leiter.

If you’re into royal weddings, the World of Royalty blog is all over it.

Lost Fort visits Norway, with characteristically lovely photos.

As a Linguist remembers expat life in Istanbul.

If you’ve visited Iceland, you’ll recognize the view from this Reykjavik webcam.

“So, I’ll continue to continue to pretend…”

CANTERBURY BELLS
(GOOD FRIDAY)

Campanula may bow; they dare not bend,
Though shafts of sun seem ever more remote.
I do not think the rain will ever end.

You breed prosodic lilacs and pretend:
“The drocts of April / pairst us to the rote;
Campanula may bow / they dare not bend,”

But poems (even this one) condescend;
You still need your umbrella and your coat.
I do not think the rain will ever end.

“I’ll drown my books!” you cry. (Yes: God forfend
Your graveside vigil lack some pithy quote.)
“Campanula may bow; they dare not bend—”

It comes out wrong. But what did you intend?
You plucked your eyes for pearls, and dimly wrote:
“I do not think the reign will ever end.”

Oremus: What can sodden bells portend
When even you misdoubt one hopeful note?
Campanula may bow; they dare not bend.
I do not think the rain will ever end.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)

“Ten hundred books could I write you about her…”

I don’t know much about fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin, but this New York Times review of the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones intrigued me—not because I need more pseudo-mediaevalia in my life, but because all the bed-hopping in the TV series drove the Times critic to unsheathe one remarkably blunt assumption:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Via Facebook, a friend of mine chimed in: “Admittedly, with all its rather graphic sex and violence and other nastiness, I’d guess GoT has a lower female readership percentage than, say, The Lord of the Rings.” He’s right to be wary of contrary generalizations. Male and female SF/fantasy fans don’t have identical tastes, and some authors’ readerships likely skew either more male or more female.

That said, the Times television critic is wielding yesterday’s oxidized ignorance. Women have long driven the expansion of the SF/fantasy universe: Starting from small but not insignificant numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, women were already one-third of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction readers by 1965 and are nearly 40 percent today.

As of three years ago, women were 43 percent of the Sci Fi Channel audience.

As of two years ago, women were 40 percent of Comic-Con attendees.

A comment on this this 2008 post about SF fandom suggests that around 50 percent of serious fans are women:

While I have no empirical data on science fiction readers in general, I can claim a bit of expertise, derived from inter alia having chaired the World Science Fiction Convention, on the narrower subject of SF “fandom”, the hard core who attend conventions, publish zines, etc. Among that group, women are as numerous as men, and a sex-specific SF vs. fantasy split is just barely discernible.

While we’re at it: 40 percent of U.S. gamers are women, too.

And although I can’t find good statistics to support the rumors, I hear women also drive cars, do math, and vote.

Regular readers know (I hope) that Quid Plura? isn’t a venue for snarking at easy targets—but shouldn’t a newspaper critic know where the culture’s at these days? Has no one at the Times read these books? The print edition of the Sunday New York Times has a circulation of 1.4 million copies (and dropping). George R.R. Martin has sold more than 2.2 million fantasy novels. Which of them, really, is increasingly mainstream, and which is increasingly “niche”?

* * *

There’s another weird swipe in this review: “The show has been elaborately made to the point that producers turned to a professional at something called the Language Creation Society.” Yes, “something called” the Language Creation Society—I like that deniable hint of disdain for a worldwide organization of scholars who study constructed languages.

The reviewer concludes:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

Bloggers gleefully flay the New York Times for its politics, or the phrasematronic predictability of its columnists, or because the paper juxtaposes dire warnings about poverty with adverts for indoor lap pools. For me, the issue is sadder and more simple: With this review, the Times continues the trend of general-interest publications talking down to some hypothetical idiot and sneering at the intellectuals they assume aren’t among their readership. (Similarly, the Washington Post recently spent as many articles mocking one elderly National Humanities Medal recipient than it did covering all of this year’s honorees combined.)

Reader-starved newspapers don’t get that they’re alienating people with brains, people who pursue intellectual interests without regard for social approbation—in other words, people who actually read.

* * *

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz, who’s read Martin’s books, cheekily asks: Why would men want to watch this?

“And it takes a night, and a girl, and a book of this kind…”

Life intervenes, as it must, but here’s a drizzle of neat Friday links.

My favorite linguist throws a wet blanket on two babbling babies.

Ruff Notes shows you what Washington National Cathedral almost looked like.

“Inside,” says Hats and Rabbits, “we are all great pipe organs waiting for the right wind to bring us alive. But it seems to me that, often, the delicate pipes go unused until they rust and fall into disrepair.”

Too few of us know what bioethics commissions do.

The Book Haven remembers how the United States saved Russians from starvation.

Anecdotal Evidence walks Chaucerian among the dogwood.

National Poetry Month is kind of silly, but The Economist digs up a nice quip about poetic clothing from John Ashbery.

Paul Laurence Dunbar would have liked this recitation of his poem “Sympathy.”

Edwin Arlington Robinson would have liked this recitation of “Miniver Cheevy.”

Bibliographing reads All Things Shining.

Interpolations reads The Easter Parade.

Don’t let publishers mislead you! Write Better Book Titles.

Here’s the world’s greatest bluegrass cover of “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

“I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

In 1955, when Lloyd Alexander published his first book, he didn’t seem poised to become a children’s writer. The back-cover blurb for And Let the Credit Go emphasizes his studies at the Sorbonne, notes his published translations of Éluard, Sartre, and other French writers, and mentions his gigs as a piano player and cartoonist. Drawing its title from Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, this brief memoir makes a promise on its dust-flap that even a skilled fantasist might struggle to fulfill: to explore “one of the most hilarious and heartbreaking of worlds: banking.”

And Let the Credit Go is neither hilarious nor heartbreaking, but it may interest Alexander fans who want to know more about the author’s teenage years. Forced by his practical father to get a job (“And some day you might even be head of a department”), Alexander doesn’t fondly recall his pre-college, pre-war stint as a Philadelphia bank messenger, but he does sketch memorable characters: misers in moth-bitten afghans wheeled into the lobby to make deposits; a trigger-happy security guard (“I don’t think he was fundamentally interested in banking”); an investment counselor who kills himself in the safe-deposit vault.

In time, Alexander midwifes the epistolary courtship between a personnel manager and a legal secretary, and he watches, bemused, as a deluded clerk proclaims his Nazi sympathies in song. There’s a French chef here, too, who’s too busy writing reports for bank management to do any cooking, and a frustrated accountant who blackmails his boss while devising a mathematical system for betting on horses, all because he dreams of buying a case of champagne.

Later, Alexander observes the pathetic love between two strange analysts who discover mutual interests in “vital fluids and magnetism, the strange forces of nature; and of course, the ten lost tribes.” If anything, And Let the Credit Go paints an eccentric picture of banking culture in 1939. “Belief in the occult was not uncommon in The Bank,” Alexander explains, in one of this book’s few real insights into banking. “I knew half a dozen clerks who consoled themselves with astrology; or some other mystical system which allowed them more authority in another world than they had in the present one.”

Some elements of 1939 office culture are drearily familiar: a joyless party (rented phonograph, potted plants, ham-and-cheese sandwiches); a wedding shower for a secretary nobody likes; a Secret Santa game (here called “Polly-Anna”); and subdued Yuletide murmurs in upstairs cubicles, “many furtive celebrations, rather like those of the Christians in the catacombs.” But then Alexander invites us to sample the strange, lost custom of “Milk Time”:

Most of The Bank’s employees were very young or very old, and to sustain them throughout the day The Bank supplied two free glasses of milk, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The milk was consumed in the company restaurant on the fifth floor. Waitresses brought the milk, unskimmed, warm and delicious and the clerks crowded around the trays. Monsieur Piquet, a genuine French chef in charge of the restaurant, watched to see that no one took more than one glass.

And Let the Credit Go is a gentle book by a famously gentle soul, but it does offer one real surprise for lifelong readers of Alexander: Unlike his books for children, this one is not entirely chaste.

When Alexander visits Atlantic City with his buddies, he puts on a British accent and tells girls he’s a banker, an misadventure that leads him to a brothel, where he implies the obvious through detail, elision, and self-deprecation:

Sandra was sitting on the edge of an unmade bed. She was completely unclothed. Somehow I hadn’t expected that.

“Hello, honey,” she said.

“Hello,” I said.

The light from the parlor shone through the curtain and gave it a grainy look. The curtain did not quite reach the floor and in the gap I could see the maid’s shoes and heavy ankles. I thought of my aunt’s lodger sitting out there.

From that point, I knew everything was impossible.

Later, in a chapter called “Dorothea,” Alexander dates a girl messenger who has been abandoned by her father, manipulated by her mother, and educated into droll boredom. When he lands in her boudoir, he faces a challenge worthy of a hero of Prydain:

“Would you marry me?” she asked again. “Or would you rather go to school. You don’t have to marry me, you know.”

I walked over to the piano and tapped the keys with one finger. Had she been sober and asked me that question, asked me to go to Algeria, insult Mr. Flathers or do any number of other insane things, I would have done it.

Dorothea giggled. I turned around.

She had taken off her white blouse and was trying to unhook her little brassiere. She gave me a silly grin.

“I can’t make it,” she said.

The brassiere ripped and fell. Dorothea started to laugh again. She was very pale and slight.

“Is there anything wrong with me?” she asked.

I looked at her green eyes, her thin shoulders and tiny breasts and I knew that whatever I did would be wrong.

“Dorothea,” which appeared in an anthology a year before the book was published, is by far the best story here. I wonder if Alexander and his agent used its strength to sell the publisher on the lengthier recollections of a bank messenger—and if so, what they thought of the strange book they received.

Alexander’s humane nature is evident throughout. When his friend falls in love with a girl at the beach, he says only that she “was pretty in the way girls are pretty at the seashore.” When he creeps into the mansion of the blind, ancient bank chairman, he lets the old man’s utterances—”They feed on me” and “I wish I was dead”—speak for themselves. There are short stories to be written here, not chapters that veer drearily back to banking, so And Let the Credit Go is a hodgepodge. The bank never becomes a microcosm, an allegory, or a source of moral and ethical insight; it’s as if Alexander dislikes the place too much to give it greater meaning.

Readers who want to see the adult(ish) side of Lloyd Alexander or catch a highly censored view of 1939 bank culture as glimpsed from its bottom rung may be intrigued by this book, but I’m glad Alexander moved on and allowed other places, and other experiences, to shape his writing. “Working in a bank,” he concedes, “does not encourage generosity.”

“Tief im Westen, wo die Sonne verstaubt…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Lloyd Alexander invented Vesper Holly in 1986. She possesses, he wrote in The Illyrian Adventure, “the digestive talents of a goat and the mind of a chess master. She is familiar with half a dozen languages and can swear fluently in all of them. She understands the use of a slide rule but prefers doing calculations in her head.” Vesper has opinions about electromagnetism and women’s suffrage, is fluent in Latin and Turkish, and knows how to play the banjo. She’s also, improbably, a teenager in 19th-century Philadelphia—and by her third book, The Drackenberg Adventure, Vesper Holly begins to wear a little thin.

Of course, that’s the judgment of an adult. The Drackenberg Adventure is comfort food for Lloyd Alexander fans, and young girls, now as in 1988, are likely to be charmed by the Vesper Holly formula: A cry for help leads Vesper and her guardian, Professor Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett (who is also the narrator), to a fictional foreign country, where Vesper demonstrates her brilliance, flouts local mores, ingratiates herself with royalty, and discovers that her arch-enemy, Dr. Helvetius, is somehow involved. This time, the country is Drackenberg, a impoverished and strategically useless land notable only for “zither music and chicken paprika”—and only Vesper can solve the mystery behind a priceless painting and save the locals from invasion by neighboring Carpatia.

Alexander alters the formula slightly—Brinnie’s wife, Mary, joins the heroes on their mitteleuropäisch adventure—but there’s little new here otherwise. Brinnie’s narration is again comically stuffy; Dr. Helvetius is again a soulless aesthete who uses his knowledge for evil; and Vesper demonstrates, by contrast, that education can bring about wonders. When she falls in with gypsies, for example, she confronts a horse that refuses to ferry a wagon across a river:

Since Romany had failed, she tried French, German, and Italian. None of these brought any response. We moved neither forward nor backward. Mikalia, atop the vardo, had begun whimpering, and the despairing Zoltan clapped his hands to his head.

Vesper, of course, is fluent in most languages. By now, though, I feared she had exhausted her vocabulary. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she launched into the majestic cadences of classical Greek, declaiming passages from what I immediately recognized as the Iliad.

The horse pricked up its ears. Zoltan, open-mouthed, stared at her as she continued to ring out those mighty lines, while the animal reared and snorted and began to heave with all its strength.

Naturally, Vesper becomes an honorary gypsy—but only after helping Drackenberg discover its valuable stash of bauxite and demonstrating, accidentally, her understanding of art history. And did I mention her expert knowledge of paint chemistry?

Sure, the Vesper Holly books are both preposterous and formulaic, but a jaded adult who finds The Drackenberg Adventure predictable might point out that Lloyd Alexander was a good enough writer to develop an entirely new formula for himself, plus a rare and effective first-person narrator, well into his sixties. Alexander’s cartoonish fondness for gypsies notwithstanding, the fun he has in his Victorian alternate universe is infectious, and any line of kids’ books that celebrates the arts and sciences as springboards to adventure is a series I just can’t disdain.

“Hey, windowpane, do you remember…”

“April,” said Edna St. Vincent Millay, “comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” Although winter has yet to step aside, please accept this florilegium of links.

It’s not too late to enjoy this: Peter S. Beagle celebrated his 70th birthday, and 50 years as an author, by writing a new poem or song every week for 52 weeks. (Beagle, by the way, just published a neat new collection of stories.)

As a Linguist contemplates the noun “palimpsest” and the verb “salsify.” (She also has a blog that pairs her photos taken on vintage cameras with extremely short stories.)

Ephemeral New York finds ships and sea creatures in lower Manhattan.

Open Letters Monthly looks at the literary history of Tarzan.

How do you know your dinner party has flopped? When Polish poets question each other’s patriotism.

A sentence I never imagined I’d write: Scientists have inscribed a James Joyce quotation on the genome of a synthetic goat parasite. (Hat tip: Steven.)

If you enjoy German poetry, spend A Year with Rilke. (In my experience, Rilke draws you in for far longer than one year.)

Tor Books posts an obituary for fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones.

At First Known When Lost, Stephen reads Philip Larkin’s poem “Solar.”

I don’t know how I missed this, but The Economist has a books-and-arts blog, “Prospero.”

Hats and Rabbits ponders those who ponder Millennium Falcons.

The Oxford English Dictionary finds a use of “OMG” in…1917?

James “Dinotopia” Gurney dissects one of his own watercolors.

For a little folk whimsy, here’s “Monster’s Lullaby” by Meg Davis.

The Queen song “One Vision” is catchy, but context is everything, especially when you translate it into German.