Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Tree of Water

The Tree of Water
by Elizabeth Haydon
Recommended Ages: 12+


Brave New World

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley
Recommended Ages: 14+


Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair
by William Makepeace Thackeray
Recommended Ages: 13+

This satirical novel is widely considered the peak of Thackeray's career. Probably in its favor is the fact that it is hard to pigeon-hole. Said to be the second greatest novel of the Napoleonic wars after War and Peace, it has no scenes of battle, instead depicting Waterloo from the viewpoint of the frightened civilians hunkering in nearby Brussels. In its most memorable character, the manipulative social climber Becky Sharp, Thackeray set out to portray an irredeemably wicked person in brusque retort to popular entertainments that he saw as glorifying villainy; somehow, though, she grew to be a charming rogue at the center of a droll picaresque. The more sympathetic characters of Amelia Sedley and William Dobbin seem fated at first to play the role of virtuous lovers; but by the time they finally come together, the realization that they are both fools has taken the love out of their love story and the happiness out of their happily ever after. Meanwhile, the satire cuts at every layer of society without mercy, its tone of smirking wit barely concealing the author's disgust with human nature and British manners. Concluding with the ambiguous possibility that Becky gets away with murder, it leaves a dark, bitter aftertaste.

Thackeray teases us with a feint away from the usual pattern of ending the romance with the lovers finding each other and getting married. Amelia gets her George Osborne, and Rebecca gets her Rawdon Crawley, surprisingly early in the book. They have plenty of time with their husbands to grow unhappy with their triumph, and lose their husbands one way or another, and move on again. And when the true hero couple finally does tie the knot, right on schedule at the end of the book, they do it in a way that once again lets the air out of that convention. Meanwhile Becky schemes to get into high society, schemes for the favors of rich men, schemes to promote her husband's interests in the cutthroat game of inheriting money, and above all schemes to live in style on nothing a year, always showing the perfect antiheroine's love of self above all. As Thackeray depicts her repeated rise and fall with a frankness only lightly censored by consideration for the reader's delicate sensibilities, the rising and falling fates of good, sweet Miss Sedley, later Mrs. Osborne, become harder and harder to care about. The only really interesting thing about Amelia's story is the dawning realization, which finally comes to Dobbin, that she isn't worthy of the torch he has carried for her all his life. And even then it is Becky who both destroys their chances of happiness and who finally, by a unique act of self-denial, brings them back together for better or worse.

What else Becky destroys, and how thoroughly she destroys it, and how far she goes in destroying herself along the way, is what makes this an immortal book. If it weren't for the humor and self-deprecating touches, if it weren't for Thackeray's way of reminding us that it's only a novel after all, the feelings you would take away from this book would be a mixture of horror, sadness, and righteous anger. Its running conceit about society being a vanity fair crosses over into the realm of prophecy, as in "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity" - and that goes for British imperialism, and the military life, and capitalism, and the institution of marriage, and the fashions and taste of the rich, and family ties that have money interests tangled in them, and so much else.

I listened to an unabridged audio edition of this book narrated by Wanda McCaddon. I was thoroughly entertained from one end to the other, though I had to finish reading the book on Kindle because the last CD in the set was a multimedia disk, which meant my car's audio-only CD player couldn't play it. I wish audio book publishers would get over the temptation to combine part of the audio with a folder of data files. It takes some of the zest out of my project of becoming well-read while I commute.

Thackeray was a good satirist, to judge by this book. He made the evils of society not merely repulsive, but ridiculous. He made generous use of his gift for inventing silly names for silly people, such as the social parasite Tapeworm, the vulgar nobleman Sir Pitt Crawley, the snobbish Lady Bareacres, the mild Lady Jane Sheepshanks, and the vile Marquess of Steyne (pronounced like "stain"). No one is spared: neither unfaithful husbands nor their faithful wives; neither the genteel British practice of ostracizing people of lower social or moral standing, nor continental European society's willingness to take adventurers under its wing; neither the mother who makes an idol of her son, nor the one who hates and neglects hers; neither the unwise businessman who goes bankrupt nor the rich miser who takes his fortune to the grave; neither the gold-digging relatives nor the rich relation whose fickle favor makes and breaks their fortunes; neither the calculating vixen who claws herself nearly to the top of the social heap nor the chumps who allow her to bring them down with her into ruin again.

You may well ask what it is that Thackeray really wanted to attack. The answer might be: everything and everybody. The nobility, the rich, the servant class, the deserving and undeserving poor. The only constant in life, as he depicts it, is the ridiculous. People don't change much, either. They aren't ennobled by suffering. They take all their character traits with them, good and bad, wherever life leads them; hardship and reward only make their key characteristics stand out, perhaps in grotesque relief. And the story never really has an ending because the problems in life have no neat solution. At some given point the puppeteer must simply declare the puppet play to be at an end, as Thackeray does in a final sentence that wakes the reader like a dash of cold water in the face. And before that final sentence is a penultimate statement of the moral of it all: "Which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?"

Thackeray is best remembered today for his most bitingly satirical, early novels, of which Vanity Fair was his greatest success. Some of his other notable titles include The Luck of Barry Lyndon, The History of Pendennis, and The Book of Snobs.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Notes of Interest 2

Sorry to have been so remiss, but here are the September numbers of my weekly newspaper column Notes of Interest, in the Morgan County Press of Stover, Mo. As usual, the titles are something I came up with just now to get you in the mood.

Sept. 3: Haymarket Fever

It’s the week of Labor Day.

For many of us, this means little more than a welcome three-day weekend - or even a four-day weekend, in the case of the kids at MCR-I, who got Friday, Aug. 29, off too.

It means one last little vacation before summer turns into fall. It may mean fireworks, a cruise on the lake, ice clinking in a glass of your favorite drink, and the smoky taste of grilled meat.

Now we’re past that. Now we have to get serious. Nobody celebrates Columbus Day any more. So the next time off for a lot of us is the weekend of Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 27.

That seems like a long stretch from here. Late summer will be over. What’s left of it, unless you work outdoors, you’ll have to catch in weekend-sized grabs.

What happens the rest of the time is what Labor Day is about.

Well, technically Labor Day is about organized labor. It’s about the right to collective bargaining, about workers having the power to fight for what they want.

Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday in September in the U.S. and Canada. Other countries observe International Workers’ Day on May 1. The reason for both dates is the same: the Chicago Haymarket riot of May 4, 1886.

The following year President Grover Cleveland set Labor Day’s September date specifically to avoid connecting it in the popular mind with a scene of anarchy. Elsewhere in the world, labor activists, socialists, and communists chose the May date to commemorate that event.

What happened in the Haymarket? It started as a peaceful march. Tensions grew between the police and the demonstrators. Then somebody lobbed a bomb that killed seven policemen. The police opened fire, killing four. Over a hundred people were injured, over a hundred arrested.

It happened a long time ago, but it sounds awfully up-to-date.

I understand why Cleveland would want to distance the new holiday from that bloody affair.

I wonder what difference it would have made, had he gone the other way. It might have made it harder for the country to move forward. It might have kept the anger on both sides at a simmer, slowing the progress of bargaining and change.

It’s worth a moment’s thought as we go peacefully back to work for another three-month stretch. There are parts of the world, even parts of our state, where law and order, the essentials of normal everyday life, are caught in chaos and conflict.

These are gifts not to take for granted. Daily bread, even when we have to work hard for it, is a complex and delicate blessing. The people who work hardest for it deserve our respect. As we enjoy our short work-week, let’s remember to honor them.

Sept. 10: My 42nd Birthday

In one of my favorite novels, the late Douglas Adams described a society that built the ultimate computer. It was designed to calculate the answer to the life, the universe, and everything. After racking its processors for millions of years, the computer finally announced its answer: 42.

This coming Monday, Sept. 15, my birthday meter will roll over the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

I’ve been waiting a long time to reach that answer. In fact, it seems like almost 42 years.

Actually, it’s probably more like 23 years. I was a freshman in college when I first read Adams’ hilarious book, along with other sequels to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At that age, I thought I knew pretty much everything. If I didn’t already know it, I knew I could learn it fast and ace the quiz the next morning.

I have grown both dumber and more ignorant every year since then. I think I can remember the moment higher education really clicked for me. It was when I realized how little I actually knew, how much I had yet to learn.

It was astounding the first time I discovered it. It has grown less astounding each time I have rediscovered it. I seem to keep doing so, more often all the time.

The trouble with an answer like 42 is that it forces you to realize you don’t know what the question was.

The characters in Adams’ novel had to build an even bigger and more complex computer to find the question of life, the universe, and everything. The computer’s design turned out looking suspiciously like the whole world, its history, and all the business of everyday life. Then, just when it was about to achieve its goal, it was demolished by mistake.

That sounds true to life, too. And even when the computer was working as planned, it looked like the answer wasn’t going to fit the question. It was as though you couldn’t hold both the question and the answer in your mind.

I can’t speak for everyone, but at age 42 I still have plenty to learn. And though I’ve read a lot of books, I learn more from the business of everyday life.

I still keep asking why things work out the way they do. I am still wrapping my mind around the little piece of life, the universe, and everything that I know. I am still learning, day by day, that I know even less than I thought I knew.

In another book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, Adams reveals God’s final message to his creation. In mile-high letters of fire it says: “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

Adams was a kidder. I enjoyed the kidding. But I don’t think I have anything to hold against God. It’s not that he’s holding the answers back from me. It’s just that if you’re not learning anything, you’re not living.

Sept. 17: Don't Put All Your Eggs...

If you get him talking about it, Mike Warner has a lot to say about what could help Stover businesses succeed.

Warner hopes to see more retirees settle in this part of lake country, bringing with them an income that doesn’t depend on local wages. He says low real estate prices could be a drawing card. But he also admits business owners want to see their property value go up.

Another tip: shop local.

“People shopping local keeps the taxes local,” says Warner, “and that benefits our tax base.”

Warner adds, “When people shop locally, that allows business owners to hire employees, who then spend that money again. The spinoff effect would be really beneficial not only in Stover but in all of Morgan County, if people would make the effort.”

“Sometimes the cheapest price is not the best deal,” Warner says. “If you save $3 and the money goes out of the area, businesses don’t benefit from it. Employees don’t benefit. The city doesn’t benefit. There are other things to look at besides cost.”

Warner contrasts Stover’s business district, where several new shops have opened lately, with other downtown areas nearby - such as the struggling town of Climax Springs.

“If businesses are shutting down,” Warner says, “what is that doing to the community? What is that doing to the real estate values? Where is the opportunity for future growth?”

If the younger generation moves away and doesn’t come back to work and do business here, Warner adds, the fate of Climax Springs could befall Stover as well.

“In the surrounding area there are communities,” Warner hints, “that pull together, and are very tight-knit, and do business with each other as much as possible. They have been very successful. Maybe we should learn from them.”

As for how to succeed in business, I think there is another lesson you can learn from looking around town. The old saying sums it up: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The first local entrepreneur who impressed me was Charlotte Gaden. I met her when I was moving into the area.

The broker owner of Gem Realty, Gaden also runs two convenience stores in Ivy Bend: the Gem Mini Mart on Webb Loop, and the Gem Stop on Dogwood Drive.

“In general, we’re trying to serve the neighborhood,” says Gaden.

In addition to fuel, groceries, and general merchandise, the Gem Mini Mart includes a laundromat and U-haul rental. The Gem Stop serves a more basic convenience-store role for customers who can’t make it to the bigger store.

“They come on lawnmowers, bicycles, four-wheelers, or on foot,” Gaden says.

Ivy Bend has some 3,000 full-time residents, besides weekenders from out of town. But the size of the area she serves isn’t the secret to Gaden’s success.

“We diversify to the season,” Gaden says. “The reason is if something isn’t working today, something else is. Next week, when the weather changes, something may work that wasn’t working before.”

Some families in Stover take the eggs-basket lesson from a different angle.

Take Mike Warner again. He owns Tri-County Glass. His wife Karen runs The Gallery, a combination of restaurant and antique shop in downtown Stover.

The Warners aren’t the only family with multiple business concerns. Hailey Marshall, for example, runs the Beauty Barn in Stover, while her father Bob Witte is the local agent of Farmer Mutual Insurance. Witte also does a little heating, cooling, and plumbing work on the side.

“He calls it a hobby,” Marshall says of Witte’s sideline, “but it’s really more of a business. He usually gets paid in cookies or pies.”

Then there are the Palmers, Jeanette and Dwight, whose businesses stand side by side: Jeanette’s Tax Service and Stover Plumbing and Electrical Supply.

The Marriott family beats them all. Lee and Stacy Marriott own the Rocking M Ranch Western Emporium. Lee’s sister Cindy Beckmann runs both Marriott’s Circle M Cafe and Beckmann’s Farmer’s Market. Lee’s sister-in-law Stephanie Marriott is the namesake of Stephanie’s Salon. Casa Bonita Home Decor is owned by Jorge and Marsha Flores; Marsha is Lee’s sister.

Lee also owns Marriott’s Turkey Loading, Rocking M Turkey Loading, and Rocking M Fencing.

All these businesses are in Stover. Plus, Lee’s daughter Bailey Marriott points out her cousin Ashley Ratez owns RiOak Home Decor and Custom Signs, a business she runs out of her home in Cole Camp.

Marriott has a theory about why so many members of her family ended up owning businesses in or around Stover.

“They were all raised with a hard-work ethic,” says Marriott. “They continued that through the generations. And now their kids are coming back to town to help run the business or to start their own ventures.”

In a way, their story turns the “eggs in one basket” saw against itself. Or you could look at it this way: Lots of eggs, lots of baskets.

Sept. 24: Show Me the Middle

In July, financial news website Zero Hedge told how each state fared in a Gallup poll asking each state’s citizens whether their state was the best or worst possible state to live in.

All fifty states were ranked in two separate lists. In the first list, they were ranked in order of what percent of each state’s population said their own state was the worst possible state to live in. In the other, rankings were based on how many people said their state was the best.

The survey didn’t actually measure how bad or good life is in each of the states. It only really showed how strongly each state’s citizens felt about it, for or against.

At the top of each list was either the “most worst” or the “most best” state: the one that got the highest percentage of votes one way or the other. At the bottom, at “least worst” and “least best,” were the states that got the fewest votes either way.

It’s no surprise that certain states showed up very high on one list and very low on the other. Montana, for example, was number one on the best state list and number fifty on the worst state list. Most best, least worst.

Illinois, on the other hand, topped the worst state list but was only the second least best, thanks to a statistical quirk that put third-worst Rhode Island in fiftieth-best place.

How did Missouri do? Not too badly. In the list of worst possible states to live in, Missourians voted our state into 42nd place. Only eight states had fewer citizens voting themselves the worst in the country.

But Missouri didn’t score very well either. On the list of best possible states to live in, Missouri voted itself 39th. Only eleven states had fewer residents claiming to be the best.

So, compared to the way folks in other states feel, we’re not as badly off here as we would be in some other state. But we’re also not as well off.

We’re as close to least-best as some of the most-worst states. We’re as close to least-worst as some of the most-best. It could be much worse. It could be much better.

It’s as if the people of the great state of Missouri breathed out a collective “Meh.”

Our answer to “How ya doin’?” seems to be, as a state, “Not bad. Not great, but not bad.”

Gallup’s poll suggests something curious about the average Missourian’s sense of place, of communal self. It seems to have a strange, perhaps poetic link to where we’re at in the country.

It’s the feeling of belonging to one of the middle places. It’s not a flat open plain, nor does it boast mountain grandeur. Rivers run through it, though sometimes we call them lakes. It has neither a desert nor a seashore. Its cities have attractions and troubles, but only on a middling scale.

Missouri isn’t one of the rough patches that need to be smoothed away. It isn’t one of the beauty spots that tend to get tarnished. It’s not out on the fringes of hardship or luxury. It’s part of the solid, dependable middle.

It’s not most Missourians’ idea of the best or worst place to end up. But it’ll do.

"Is THAT How You Say" 6

I'm still listening to the same audio-book as when I last commented on this thread, and already I have more examples of words whose pronunciation I am forced, by the example of literary British actors, to reconsider.

Today I heard Wanda McCaddon pronounce maraschino with an "sh" sound, "ma-ra-SHEE-no," the way I always thought it was supposed to be spoken until I saw Some Like It Hot, with Jack Lemmon giving it an extra consonant sound: "ma-ra-SKEE-no." I figure the Italian language is probably on Lemmon's side.

Later I heard McCaddon say the word contumely, which I believe was the first time I had ever heard it spoken aloud. I learned the word by reading lots of Dickens, and I always imagined it had four syllables, owing to the fact that the "e" gets a lot of emphasis in the adjective form "contumelious," though in my mind's ear "contumely" is stressed on the second syllable. McCaddon, however, gave it a three-syllable rendition, with a silent "e" and accent on the first syllable. Who knew?

I am fascinated by the British stage dialect's approach to the letters "ng." I have only noticed lately that it pronounces words like congregate and distinguish with no hard "g," but only a simple nasal "ng." It's so subtle you might not notice it, but it's really quite different from the American pronunciation.

Then there's cantonment, another word that until lately I only knew by sight and not by sound. My guess as to its pronunciation was near the mark, but where I put a schwa in the second syllable, McCaddon places a very decided "o," almost as in "can-tone-ment," though perhaps nearer to "can't-on-ment."

And finally, there's the type of smoking apparatus that I first encountered in Alice in Wonderland, where we find a caterpillar using it. I would have expected hookah to rhyme with "palooka." But in McCaddon's British enunciation, it comes across almost as a homophone of "hooker," in an accent that drops final Rs.

The Silkworm

The Silkworm
by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J. K. Rowling)
Recommended Ages: 14+

Robert Galbraith's first novel enjoyed great financial and critical success even before he turned out to be J. K. Rowling, she of the Harry Potter series. The excitement of being a first-time author all over again seems to have spurred her imagination, bringing us this second Cormoran Strike mystery. I think it is as scintillating as the first installment, and if you'll forgive the slight spoiler, I look forward to following what promises to be an ongoing series.

In case you missed The Cuckoo's Calling, Cormoran Strike is a thirty-something private detective who lost a leg in Afghanistan while serving in the Special Investigation Branch of the British army. He could be famous for being the natural son of a rock star, the ex-fiance of a supermodel, and the sleuth who solved the Lula Landry murder. But he prefers to keep a low profile so he can follow cheating husbands without being spotted. He's good at this kind of work, but it clearly doesn't bring him total fulfillment. That becomes obvious when he chooses the case of a missing author, whose wife may not be able to pay his fee, rather than a rich client's quest for dirty laundry.

Owen Quine is an experimental novelist whose literary career has not lived up to the promise of his first novel. According to his wife Leonora, Quine has gone into hiding before and getting the police involved only made him angry. He has been out of touch for two weeks now, and Leonora wants him to come home. At first Strike thinks this will simply be a case of rounding up a delinquent husband and father who is sulking after his publisher refused to accept his latest novel. It also seems Quine may be looking for a way to self-publish his book full of thinly disguised, but extremely nasty, portraits of his rivals and associates. Just when Strike seems to have found the author's hideout, he finds instead the scene of a grisly murder.

The first Cormoran Strike novel used the formalities of a detective story as a lens to view the world of fame, glamor, and media frenzy. The second brings its focus to bear on the publishing and literary scene. Book editors, agents, publishers, and authors fill the frame with their disturbing fetishes, their long buried skeletons, their grudges and jealousies, their emotionally and mentally damaged loved ones. Even friends and lovers of the murdered writer come in for a share of the abuse in a novel-within-a-novel whose title, a reference to a creature that must be boiled alive to make silk, is the least troubling thing about it. And though the police think they have their killer, Strike's sense of literary proportion tells him something doesn't add up.

Aiding Strike in his investigation is a lovely young lady named Robin, who was only a temporary secretary when we first met her. By the end of this investigation, she has come a fair way toward becoming a case-solving partner to Strike, in spite of trouble at home with her tetchy fiance Matthew. Cormoran, too, has relationship problems to work on, including a turbulent romance that continues to die a long, lingering death. He is a character rich in paradox: a rich man's son who lives paycheck to paycheck, a plain looking solitary bloke who is irresistible to women, a working-class type who can quote Latin poetry by memory, a half cripple whose keen mind and dogged persistence ensure that he always gets his man (or woman). He couldn't be more different from a certain boy wizard whose fantasy-world adventures, while most enjoyable, require readers to accept a lot of improbable and whimsical ideas. He is a believable man in a recognizable world, and his race to solve the case before the coppers close it is an intense, intelligent piece of mystery-thriller writing.

J. K. Rowling owes herself, and her readers, more books like this. I think it's what she was made to do.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Is THAT How You Say" 5

It's been a while since the last time I added words to my inventory of English words I've known for years and only lately learned how to pronounce.

Take inventory, for example. I've written before about the sainted theology professor who taught me to reconsider how I have always pronounced the words "controversy" and "adversary." I think it may also have been he who put the emphasis on the second syllable of this word: "in-VEN-taree."

Only within the last week or two, I have heard two different British actors pronounce vitamin with a short "i" in the first syllable, like "VIT-a-min," instead of the long-i "VIE-ta-min" I have always known. It must be a U.K. thing.

The last little while, I've been listening to an audio-book of Thackeray's Vanity Fair by an actress of the British persuasion. It's early days, yet she has already given me a half dozen examples for this thread:

Sal volatile, otherwise known as smelling salts, is a compound once considered as indispensible to a well ordered household as pocket handkerchiefs and whalebone stays. Perhaps because of said stays, ladies used to faint a lot and needed to be brought around by the pungent-smelling vapor that sublimates off these crystals. Now that women's fashion exposes them to a much greater supply of oxygen, this sort of thing is not called for quite as frequently. In fact, I've never seen anyone faint in real life. So why should I know how this stuff is pronounced? I always guessed it was like the name of an Italian-American gangster, with the second name rather descriptive of his temper. Now I hear a cultured British voice pronouncing it like "Salvo Lattily." As in, "She bore the salvo lattily," i.e. with a frothy good humor, like steamed milk. Goodness! I feel faint!

Then there's the word placable, notable not so much for its surprising pronunciation as for the fact that it's a word at all. Thackeray uses it. I never knew it existed before, in spite of its implacable opposite.

I am a proficient player of the pianoforte, but apparently I have never pronounced my own instrument correctly. The "e" at the end is silent, according to this latest audio-book reader. I suppose if your pronunciation is influenced by French, rather than Italian (whence I thought the word came), that makes sense. The word "forte," as in, "Proper English pronunciation is not my forte," is supposed to end with a silent "e." But is the musical term for "loud" supposed to end likewise? I've heard the word pronounced by a lot of musicians from all over the world, and none of them seem to think so.

The next word I noted down was consummate, which I have always heard stressed on the first syllable. When used as a verb, it rhymes with "fate." The final vowel becomes a schwa in the adjective form. That's what I thought, anyway. But I was the consummate fool, evidently. My current informant pronounces the adjective with a stress on the second syllable: "con-SUM-mat." It sounds odd, but it does bring out the main idea of the word, doesn't it?

Finally for now, there's the equestrian word curveted, a word I actually had to look up. Google defines "curvet," when spoken of a horse, as "to leap gracefully or energetically." Being no kind of horse person whatever, I have neither understood nor pronounced this word correctly until now. I always thought it meant something to do with how the warm-blooded vehicle pranced and turned about, and would have pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable: "cur-VET-ted." But no, it means to jump and it's stressed on the first syllable: "CURV-et-ed." Wow. I now feel like a complete ass.