06/29/13

The Game of the Book of Thrones


GuardianNo, it’s not about that heavyweight book series by George Martin, or the TV series based on it (or even about how you really need to read the books to understand anything that is happening in the TV series). It’s about the other throne, the porcelain one. And what books are best for reading thereon.

Yes, reading on the toilet. Don’t tell me you just sit there and stare vacantly into space.

This is important time. Those few rare minutes when we really have uninterrupted time to ourselves; quality time with our bodily functions unhampered by TV, by the phone, by people wanting to see your gas bill or water heater, by the cats or the dog, by the kids or the neighbours.*

Perfect time for reading. It’s quiet, peaceful, gently lit and often fragranced by the sweet aromas of toiletries, like a garden of lilacs and roses. There you can concentrate, focus your attention on the book at hand, while your body takes care of the autonomous business of emptying itself.

So what sort of publication is perfect for that all-too-short slice of intellectual freedom? What work can you read for a few, exhilarating minutes, put down for several hours or even a whole day, and pick up again and continue reading without having lost the thread or diminished the intellectual thrill?

Clearly, for most folks, that’s a challenge. Continuity makes it difficult to read War and Peace in five-minute snippets. From one day to the next, you won’t remember who Count Whats-his-name is or why he’s out of favour, or who’s sleeping with whom or why they’re all akimbo over the French. For this sort of book, continuity matters.

I know, I’ve tried. I’ve been inching my way through Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the downstairs bathroom for the past two years. Unsuccessfully, if keeping clear all his comments, his activities and his conversations is the point. I switched to Bruce Campbell’s autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, and found – despite the shallow, narcissistic content – it was much easier to track through Campbell’s life than Johnson’s. But I feel somehow my bathroom experienced is cheapened.

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05/22/13

Musing on Melville’s Poetry


Herman MelvilleI came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life.

Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on its site (on PDF here). He wrote many more, it seems – many of them naval or related to the sea, others about the Civil War – and the collected works can be found at the University of Virginia.

Here’s the poem that pleasantly surprised me by its complexity and modernity, given its 1888 publication. It’s called The Maldive Shark:

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw,
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat —
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

It’s hard, reading that, to remember Melville was a contemporary of Walt Whitman and that both of them published rather morally-laden socially instructive books of poetry about the Civil War almost simultaneously (Whitman’s Drum Taps in 1865, Melville’s Battle Pieces in 1866).

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05/18/13

Little Dorrit: BBC Drama


Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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05/5/13

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship


Tom Swift and His Rocket ShipI was 8, maybe 9 years old, when my parents gave me a hardcover copy of Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship by Victor Appleton II. Probably a birthday or Xmas present. I can’t recall which. I just recall how excited I was when I read this book – my earliest experience of science fiction. I soon had a couple of dozen of the Tom Swift books in my collection.

My memory of Tom Swift (Jr) and that book came back today when I wandered into a garage sale on Cedar Street and found a copy of the same original edition (1954) of that title. Fifty cents bought all those memories for me.

I don’t know if kids today have such a series – I know about the fantasy, the magic, the vampires and werewolves in their modern books, but are there books with some science in them like we had in Tom Swift? Given the audience and the times, Tom Swift Jr. was remarkable sophisticated as far as science was concerned. It inspired a generation to pursue science as a career. Or at least a passion, as in my own case. Is there anything comparable?

Finding the book also bought me the opportunity to do some research into the books, the series and the author. According to Wikipedia,

Tom Swift Jr. is the central character in a series of 33 adventure novels for male adolescents, following in the tradition of the earlier Tom Swift (“Senior”) novels. The series was entitled The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures… The covers were created by illustrator (J.) Graham Kaye. Covers in the later half of the series were mostly by Charles Brey. A total of 33 volumes were eventually published.
For the Tom Swift Jr. series the books were outlined mostly by Harriet (Stratemeyer) Adams, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, attributed to the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II, and published in hardcover by Grosset & Dunlap. Most of the books were written by James Duncan Lawrence, who had an interest in science and technology and was faithful to the canon of the previous Tom Swift series.

So there was no “Victor Appleton II.” I think I wrote a fan letter to him, in the late 1950s or early 60s. Never got a reply that I can recall. But it doesn’t matter. The tales helped inspire me to become a writer because I wanted to tell stories like those I read. Never did much in fiction, but the urge still boils and bubbles beneath the surface. They also encouraged me to study science.

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04/20/13

The Pulp Renaissance


Burroughs novelIn the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own Annual and other English books. Of course I had to open it and read it.

From the very start, I was fascinated by it, by the adventure, by the sheer fantasy of it all. It was, as I recall more than 50 years later, the first ‘adult’ novel I ever read.* It was also the only such book on the shelf – among the various textbooks, Agatha Christie mysteries, and a few odds end ends. Only Tarzan, among them, held my attention.

In the early 1960s, I discovered science fiction. I used to wait in the local library for my father to pick me up after work (my mother was in hospital for a couple of years), and the library was a safe, welcoming place, albeit the Bendale branch was small. I was precocious and bored; and the children’s section was too small to contain my restless intelligence. I soon graduated from the children’s section to adult books in my impatience. I read voraciously.

Top of the list of fiction I read then were novels by writers like Andre Norton, Ben Bova, Chad Oliver, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, John Wyndham, James Blish, John W. Campbell, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Lester del Rey, Jack Vance, Brian W. Aldiss and many others. By the time I reached my teens I had read hundreds of scifi and fantasy novels. A lot of ‘space opera’ among them.**

About the same time, in the early half of the 1960s, paperback publishers like Bantam and Ace started reprinting the pulp stories of the pre-war years. While some kids collected baseball and hockey cards, I collected paperback book series.

Soon all of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs were available in print, and I bought every one, building a library of his works (which I still have, mostly complete, although I may be missing a few of his western titles). I avidly read his Barsoom and Pellucidar series, finding them far more entertaining than the many Tarzan novels (which I collected and read, anyway). Given that the first Barsoom novel was written in 1912, it certainly has had staying power.

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04/19/13

The Missing Lines


Mesopotamian tabletThe National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*.

In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came in. According to Wikipedia:

According to museum officials the looters concentrated on the heart of the exhibition: “the Warka Vase, a Sumerian alabaster piece more than 5,000 years old; a bronze Uruk statue from the Akkadian period, also 5,000 years old, which weighs 660 pounds; and the headless statue of Entemena. The Harp of Ur was torn apart by looters who removed its gold inlay.”[4] Among the stolen artifacts is the Bassetki Statue made out of bronze, a life-size statue of a young man, originally found in the village Basitke in the northern part of Iraq, an Acadian piece that goes back to 2300 B.C. and the stone statue of King Schalmanezer, from the eighth century B.C.
In addition, the museum’s aboveground storage rooms were looted; the exterior steel doors showed no signs of forced entry. Approximately 3,100 excavation site pieces (jars, vessels, pottery shards, etc.) were stolen, of which over 3,000 have been recovered. The thefts did not appear to be discriminating; for example, an entire shelf of fakes was stolen, while an adjacent shelf of much greater value was undisturbed.
The third occurrence of theft was in the underground storage rooms, where evidence pointed to an inside job. The thieves attempted to steal the most easily transportable objects, which had been intentionally stored in the most remote location possible. Of the four rooms, the only portion disturbed was a single corner in the furthest room, where cabinets contained 100 small boxes containing cylinder seals, beads, and jewelry. Evidence indicated that the thieves possessed keys to the cabinets but dropped them in the dark. Instead, they stole 10,000 small objects that were lying in plastic boxes on the floor. Of them, nearly 2,500 have been recovered.
One of the most valuable artifacts looted was a headless stone statue of the Sumerian king Entemena of Lagash. The Entemena statue, “estimated to be 4,400 years old, is the first significant artifact returned from the United States and by far the most important piece found outside Iraq. American officials declined to discuss how they recovered the statue.” The statue of the king, located in the center of the museum’s second-floor Sumerian Hall, weighs hundreds of pounds, making it the heaviest piece stolen from the museum – the looters “probably rolled or slid it down marble stairs to remove it, smashing the steps and damaging other artifacts.” It was recovered in the United States with the help of Hicham Aboutaam, an art dealer in New York.

The looting was severe enough to spawn several books and magazine articles (also here and here). The museum is still rebuilding and not open to the public, a decade later.

One of the side effects of the war was to end international archeological research into the region. And while we wait to see if the country ever settles so it becomes safe enough to resume such activities, looters continue to steal everything they can, including from archeological sites.

The Museum reported that many of its cuneiform tablets were looted, although some were later recovered. Those tablets contain some of the oldest writing in the world, among them the epic of Gilgamesh (the tablet shown in the image above, is the 11th tablet in the epic, from the library of Ashurbanipal (Assyrian King 669-631 BCE), now in the British Museum).

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