Thursday, May 31, 2012

I Read Books: American Notes and Pictures of Italy

More Dickens, in this case non-fiction travelogues. American Notes gives some details of Dickens' visit to America and Canada in 1842; Pictures from Italy some of his impressions of his time travelling in France and Italy in 1844. In each case Dickens has minor adventures and tells us about the various methods of travel, which I found to be very interesting. Humorous characters of differing levels of comedy make an appearance, including, of course, Dickens himself, who we laugh at as well as with when he misunderstands some local situation.

In his trip to America, Dickens is interested in institutions and society. He visits hospitals, prisons, school, homes for the blind and disabled. Also newly built industrial towns, courts, government buildings. On his trip to the White House he meets the President[1]. He makes observations on all of these, approving of much, and criticising what he considers failures. Due to his celebrity status nearly everybody is happy to let him see everything he wants, the most obvious exception being when on a plantation the owner ignores his request to see the slaves eating dinner.

Slavery is Dickens main criticism of the country, and he takes on a few of the contemporary arguments for it. His list of runaway slaves, taken from the newspapers, has as distinguishing marks on nearly every one scars, brands and missing fingers and ears. How mysterious that they would run away.

Also criticised are the press, and the habit of chewing tobacco and spitting everywhere, except in the spittoon of course. This was a particular problem in the White House it seemed.

The travel is fascinating. The usual method of travelling from city to city appears to be to get on a steamboat, head up or down river to a railhead, or sometimes to where coaches will pick you up and take you on a very bad road to a railway station, ride the railroad to a river, get off and cross by ferry, get on another train, or possibly coach, and so on until you mostly get to where you're going. Each journey, and each stage of each journey, has it's own individual quirks to do with classes of travel, sleeping arrangements, food (lots of meat, even for a carnivorous English Victorian), drink (travelling through dry areas is a particular hardship) and connections.

Travel in Pictures from Italy is similarly difficult and important, but much less varied. Dickens mostly travels in his own coach on roads which vary from fair to bad. Every now and then he goes by steamship, and once there is a rail journey. This being before Italian unification, there are many borders to cross in his travels. Dickens is much less interested in the government and institutions of Italy - they're mostly bad - and more of a tourist looking at sights and events. He often gets up early and takes long walks to see things of interest.

There are a odd bits - seeing people on Good Friday going up a staircase on their knees[2] he says "I never, in my life, saw anything at once so ridiculous, and so unpleasant, as this sight - ridiculous in the absurd incidents inseparable from it; and unpleasant in its senseless and unmeaning degradation." This is a little disconcerting as earlier in the chapter he has been to see a public execution where a man was guillotined.

All in all these are interesting and well written travelogues of 1840s America and Italy; Dickens as travel writer has much the same strengths and flaws as Dickens the novelist.

Read This: For stories of 1840s America and Italy seen first hand.
Don't Read This: If you don't like Victorian prose, or aren't interested in America or Europe in the 19th Century, or prefer reading things that come to conclusions or have strong plots and themes rather than having some bloke just wandering about looking at stuff.
The Re-read: Click here to see the whole of it.
American Notes for General Circulation online. Pictures From Italy online.

[1] It's John Tyler, perhaps best known for being the first to succeed to the presidency after the death of the sitting president.
[2] This staircase being the one that Christ went up to be tried by Pontius Pilate.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Read Books: A Tale of Two Cities

1. Dan Brown Eat Your Heart Out

My Dickens (re)-read has now reached A Tale of Two Cities, not just Dickens' bestselling book, not just history's bestselling novel, but according to the methodology adopted by the Wikipedia List of best-selling books page [1], the bestselling book ever. This is what it's all about people. Forget the characters, psychology, the foundations of the detective novel, the zany plots, the evocative descriptions, the campaigns for social justice. Dickens has sold 200 Megacopies of this one novel. You've got to respect that.

2. The Fellowship of the Best of Times

This will be more spoilery than my previous reviews, which I hope is okay for a 153 year-old out-of-copyright novel available from many good bookstores and for free on the internet[2] which has sold more copies than any other book. Anyway, compared to most of the Dickens novels I've read so far it has a much cleaner plot, smaller cast of characters, and, in fact, less pages and words. Could it's brevity be part of it's popularity? That and many other points are covered in this, the last in a series of essays on the top 10 bestselling books from that Wikipedia list I referred to earlier.

Anyway, we open on the road from London to Dover, where Mr Lorry is on his way to France. He meets with Lucy Manette and reveals that her father, Dr Manette, is not dead, but has been a prisoner in the Bastille for many years. He has been released, but has gone mad, obsessed with making shoes. They find him in the care of the Defarges, a husband and wife who were previously his servants, but are now wine shop owners and clandestine revolutionaries. Dr Manette initially doesn't recognise anything, but eventually compares Lucy to her (dead) mother and is convinced to journey with them to London.

3. A Tale of Two Towers

In part two we find ourselves at the treason trial of Charles Darnay at the Old Bailey. He has been framed, but is got off partly due to intervention of the self-loathing barrister Sydney Carton, who discredits some testimony by revealing himself to look almost identical to Darnay[3].

In Paris, a Marquis who is so posh that he needs four men to serve him his morning chocolate, runs down a child in his coach and tosses the father a coin. At his estate he meets his nephew, Darnay who is so ashamed of his families inhumanity as aristocrats, he has changed his name and moved to England. That night the Marquis is killed by the father. Sometime later the man is caught and hanged, above the village fountain which poisons the water.

Darnay returns to England and becomes the successful one of three suitors for Lucy Manette's hand. The other two are Darnay's barrister from the trial and his partner Sydney Carton[4], who promises to "embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you"[3]. Darnay reveals his family name to Dr Manette on the morning of the wedding which triggers a brief relapse, but Dr Manette soon recovers and Lorry and Miss Pross the housekeeper destroy the shoe making tools.

The Bastille is stormed with the Defarges in the lead. Following a comment of Dr Manette, M Defarge investigates One Hundred and Five North Tower. Meanwhile the Darnays have had a daughter (also a son who died) and have formed an extended family that includes Dr Manette, the bachelor Lorry, the housekeeper Miss Pross and (sometimes) Carton. Lorry is called to Paris to deal with the branch of the bank that he works for, because things have got a bit tricky what with the French Revolution. Then Darnay gets a letter from the agent/tax collector of his uncle who has been seized for being part of the ancien regime, although many years ago Darnay instructed him to only collect the Kings taxes, not rent or anything else.

4. The Return of the Worst of Times

Darnay goes to Paris to testify in favour of the agent but is arrested. Dr Manette, Lucy and family come to Paris to try and free him. As a skilled physician, former inmate of the Bastille, and friend of the influential Defarges, Dr Manette is greatly respected by the Republican authorities. However Darnay is nevertheless imprisoned for more than a year. He's finally tried, Manette gets him released and then he's arrested again that same day.

At the second trial Darnay is denounced as the new Marquis and Defarge reveals what he found in the Bastille - a manuscript written by Dr Manette that details the crimes of Darnay's father and uncle and that Manette was locked up to hide the truth. Darnay is sentenced to the Guillotine.

Carton then engineers an escape, taking the place of Darnay while forcing Darnay to take his carriage seat. In the end he finds redemption in the form of accepting his latent Christianity before being executed.

5. A Far Far Better Review

So we have secrets, conspiracy, a love story, legal dramas, redemption, rapid changes of fortune, unrequited love and sacrifice, not to mention Dickens' trademark concern for social justice - pay attention guys, because if you don't learn this lesson, the Terror could happen here too. Still bestselling book of all time? It's not that this is a bad novel - overwritten and melodramatic in that Dickensian/Victorian style as it is, it's still pretty cool - but it's no Bleak House or Great Expectations. Perhaps that's what makes it appealing - it's Dickens stripped down with a sleek plot and compact cast of characters. It's also a historical novel - of a period almost, but not quite out of living memory in 1859 when the book was published. It was late in Dickens career, when his reputation was unmatched in the world of English Letters. I don't know. I was expecting more somehow.

Read This: If you like to read Dickens, and want to see his version of a streamlined historical potboiler. Also if you like knitting.
Don't Read This: If you don't like 19th century fiction at all, or if your favourite part of Dickens are huge casts of wacky characters with funny names and convoluted subplots of dubious likelihood. Also not too many jokes in this one.
In Translation: There's a literalness to the translation of characters when they speak French. This is mostly fine, but sometimes a bit clunky.
Available online for free: All over the place, but here's Project Gutenberg.

[1] "This list is incomplete, since there are many books ... which are commonly cited as 'best-selling books' yet have no reliable sales figures."  "Religious books, especially The Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are probably the most-printed books, but it is nearly impossible to find reliable sales figures for them. Print figures are missing or unreliable since these books are produced by many different and unrelated publishers. Furthermore, many copies of the Bible, the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita are printed and given away free, instead of being sold. The same goes for some political books..."
[2] If it's not okay, I suggest that you stop reading this post and complain in the comments. I will treat any such criticism with the respect it deserves.
[3] This is an important plot point.
[4] Carton, alcoholic and depressive, actually declares himself too dissipated to be considered, but, you know, if anyone could have saved him from his life of iniquity... Frankly that's not really the declaration you should make to a woman about to be married. Also, seriously, what is his problem? He's a good detail lawyer who wastes his talent as the partner of a brilliant trial lawyer? In some circles we call that a law firm. He drinks too much, but he seems pretty high functioning. If he has other sins, the hints are too subtle for my 21st century brain to pick them out. I can't help thinking that he needs some anti-depresseants, or possibly (and within the capabilities of an 18th century gentleman) just a change of scene, more exercise and a healthier diet with a minimal amount of booze.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Out Of Time

Wrote this poem then immediately came across this post in which Charlie Stross mocks an IPO based on disrupting the poetry market. Clearly things these things are meant to be. As it's a time machine poem, clearly timing is everything.

What happened before will happen again
As my memory changes and flickers
I sketch the circuit with paper and pen
Needing to make myself a replica

As my memory changes and and flickers
Combine history and engineering
Needing to make myself a replica
I'm desperately looking, seeking, peering

Combine history and engineering
Building from nothing what has always been
I'm desperately looking, seeking, peering
Sometime and somewhere is my time machine

Building from nothing what has always been
I sketch the circuit with paper and pen
Sometime and somewhere is my time machine
What happened before will happen again

Friday, May 04, 2012

I Read Books: Bleak House

1. That's what I'm talking about

Now we're getting somewhere. This may be the best novel so far in my Dickens re-read; it's at least as good as Great Expectations. There's variation in writing style, zany characters, sad characters, heartening characters, dumb characters (and some of them are all four), debts, the law, secrets, satire, and big morals about the difference between the help you want to give and the help that's needed and how obsession distorts good intentions into bad. It's like this Dickens guy's reputation is based on something! Alright, let's do this review.

2. Points of view

The novel is written from two different points of view. One is a first person narrative written by Esther Summerson, an orphan who is taken on as a companion for Ada Clare and housekeeper for John Jarndyce, the owner of the titular Bleak House. The other is an omniscient third person viewpoint that sees all and knows all.

I like to think that this mirrors the two main plots - one is the detective story as various people try to discover the secrets that surround Esther's parentage, and the other is the slow grind of the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that sets everything in motion and motivates many of the characters into their various actions. Of course, these two plots wind around each other and often send off sub-plots in all directions; similarly sometimes the Esther viewpoint goes into people's hearts and homes, while the omniscient skates over the surface.

3. Satire and social justice

Dickens takes a pop at the court of Chancery, and by pop I mean the backbone of the novel is a case that has been going on for several generations and has no end in sight, has driven at least one and probably several characters mad and causes several kind and compassionate characters to become variously depressed, paranoid and bankrupt. Dickens, of course, had worked as a law clerk and had attempted to enforce copyright of his books through Chancery. One character says "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"

All this is well known, and was part of the ongoing effort to reform the court. Indeed, the novel must be set sometime before it was written due to the fact that some reforms had already changed the court from how it was described[1].

More interesting to me are the various charitable ladies of the novel. Mrs Jellyby pays more attention to settling people in Africa than to her own children and her main comment on her daughter getting married is to laugh and complain that she has had to hire a boy to write the letters her daughter used to[2]. Mrs Pardiggle goes to a poor house where the bricklayer is a drunk and beats his wife and reads the uplifting literature to them. Esther and Ada do more actual good  in a hour with some practical help than Mrs Pardiggle's weekly visits and reading has ever done.

As a parallel, the dancing master that Mrs Jellyby's daughter marries has a father, Mr Turveydrop, who is well respected for his Deportment, but does nothing to help his son's business, and indeed his wardrobe and lifestyle consume most of his son's income. It doesn't require a great deal of subtlety to read the lesson Dickens is trying to get across: Charity Begins At Home and Practical Help Is More Important Than Posing.

4. Bleak or happy?

In the end secrets come out, people are reconciled and the case actually comes to a conclusion that satisfies nobody. People get married, have children and the last chapter is set seven years after climax of the novel so we know how it all turns out okay. It's a happy ending, except possibly for the people who died of illness, or exposure, or opium overdose, or were murdered, or suffered spontaneous human combustion. Also it's not that happy for Sir Leicester Dedlock, but you can't have everything.

5. Who wins?

The lawyers do, of course.

Read This: For a classic Dickens tale with a huge cast, entertaining subplots and some actual insight into people.
Don't Read This: If you don't like melodramatic craziness in your novels. Also the usual caveat on longwinded Victorian prose.
Where is Bleak House: Hertfordshire, near St Albans; then later in South Yorkshire. Or you can go and see Dickens' holiday home in Broadstairs which was called Fort House at the time but has now been renamed Bleak House.
Link to Free etext: Project Gutenberg has the out of copyright novel here.

[1] Also as some railways that existed in 1852 had not yet been built.
[2] When the Borrioboola-Gha project fails she turns her attention to attempts to get women seated in parliament. What a wacky character she is!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Documents Relating to a Lady's Mirror

Documents Relating to a Lady's Mirror.
Number 6, The Albany
12th June 1867

It has come to my attention that you have offered for sale an object, of which I have certain information that I can only conclude you must not be aware. I refer to your advertisement in the classified section of the Times newspaper, Friday last. The object was described as ‘A vintage looking glass, framed in the rococo style, present at the shocking murder of Maria DuBois, and haunted by her unquiet spirit since that event’.
I do not know how the object came into your possession, but I feel I must inform you that the DuBois family is still extant and as the nephew and heir of Maria DuBois I have an interest in the property in question. I also must object in the strongest possible terms that you have attempted to use the tragic death of my aunt for pecuniary gain. If, as you claim, the object is possessed of an immortal soul then it should be treated with respect and discretion and a gentleman would return it to the DuBois family. I pass over the possibility that it is not, as that would not be the realm of a gentleman, but instead that of a common charlatan.
Yours faithfully,
Jonathan DuBois

12 Chandlers Court
13th June 1867

I have received your letter of the 12th with some surprise. The looking glass of which you enquired was purchased by auction from a house clearance after the dispersal of Mme DuBois worldly goods in accordance with the directions of the probate court. As the disposal of the court is final, our purchase of the item gave us full and clear title to the object in question. The interest of any heirs had already been dealt with.
As for the supernatural aspects of the case I can assure you that they are very much present. It would be unprofessional to offer for sale such an item without giving fair warning to any potential purchaser. As to the rights of a relative in such a case, I am informed that both English law and good manners are silent as to a nephew’s position in dealing with the spectre of his aunt. Nevertheless I am more than willing to discuss the matter with you and will not sell the item until we have done so. I am available at my business address every day for the next week between the hours of nine o’clock and twelve o’clock.
Yours Faithfully
P N Snidesworthy

Advertisement from the Hounslow Telegraph dated 16th  September 1867
The DUBOIS Looking Glass of Doom, present at the shocking and grisly murder of MME MARIA DUBOIS and haunted by her unearthly presence since; and recently employed with villainous intent by Jonathan DuBois, the KILLER of CHANDLER COURT in his gruesome crime resulting in the UNPLEASANT DEATH of Pericles Nathanial Snidesworthy, as reported in the press throughout the English Speaking World.
Visitors can also see the HORRIFIC trousers of Doctor Crippenstein; the very hand of cards that lead to the DREADFUL MASSACRE OF BALLS POND ROAD; and the terribly malformed skeleton of the notoriously dissolute COUNTESS OF WEST GENEVA; as well as many other cautionary and educational exhibits. 
Open Monday to Saturday, 10 til 6. 3d per visitor, 1½d for children under 6.

Notes: This is the free choice work I did between terms of my creative writing class, 569 words of well polished possibly supernatural crime/suspense. Other than a few grammar queries (put right here) no one in the class had any improvements to suggest. What the hell am I paying for?

Still, good to see I have the faux-Victorian prose down pretty well. Epistolary novels and stories were popular at the time, and Dickens and Collins are one of the roots of the English detective novel. In addition they, like many Victorian writers, fed the contemporary hunger for the bizarre and grotesque. It's almost as though I think about this stuff!

I don't know if 3d is the right amount for a museum of the curious and macabre, but nor do most other people. When I get around to writing more of this kind of thing I'll do some research.

My favourite line was also a favourite of the group: "As to the rights of a relative in such a case, I am informed that both English law and good manners are silent as to a nephew's position in dealing with the spectre of his aunt."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

I Watch Films: Son of a Lion

0. Boring Introduction

This film (Son of a Lion (2007)) was sent to my brother in his professional capacity by the director Benjamin Gilmour. It was filmed and set in Darra, a gunmaking town near the tribal areas of Pakistan. My brother arranges tours in Central Asia including in this area and they have discussed collaborating. This review, however, is purely my own and is as unbiased as I can make it, considering that a. I'm me; b. I watched it three months ago, and; c. I watched it in Amsterdam after catching the overnight coach and having about 2 hours sleep the night before, then spent the day marching through a snowstorm.

1. Setting and Story

As I said in the boring introduction, the film was made and mostly set in Darra in Pakistan, a Pashtun town devoted to making guns, with some scenes set in Peshawar. The story starts with a boy receiving a letter from his cousin. He is unable to read it. He decides he wants to go to school and learn to read, but his father wants him to stay with him and continue his apprenticeship as a gunsmith.

This is the central conflict of the story, with most of the characters lining up to support the boy, but the father resisting. Adding nuance to his refusal is the fact that boy, father and grandmother are all the family who live in Darra. The boy is an only child and his mother is dead.

2. Reasons To Watch The Film 1: Unique Viewpoint

This story is pretty familiar to anyone likely to watch the film. But we don't really watch films for the story[1], so I'm not sad about this. The most interesting part to me is when the elders of village get together to drink tea and discuss the situation. They start off with some relevant points - Pashtuns need lawyers and other educated professionals to avoid being screwed over by the government, but they swiftly get distracted into other issues - America, terrorism and Osama bin Laden, who at the time was believed to be in hiding in the areas Darra supplies guns for[2]. One guy's nuanced take (bin Laden would be welcome as a guest who comes in peace, but not as a terrorist) was notable. There was swift disagreement that, as a criminal, he should be turned over to the authorities by one guy (who in my memory had a magnificent white beard) which was followed by the joke that he wanted to get his hands on the reward.

The elders' influence is complicated by the fact that the father is respected and a little feared because, as a young man, he fought with the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, and was one of 30 survivors of 200. There seemed an edge to the exaggerated courtesy everyone used with him that reflected that.

3. Reasons To Watch The Film 2: Visuals

The countryside is magnificent. Filmed on location in the Hindu Kush, the hills, valleys, and rivers are on full display. Most journeys are taken on heavily decorated buses and trucks (the boy's uncle owns a trucking firm in Peshawar) which are worth watching for. The Darra bazaar looks like a dull row of booths and shops until gunsmiths step outside their shops to test their weapons by firing into the air. The scenes in Peshawar, the big city, are slightly more familiar, but the sheer volume of life is still extraordinary.

4. Reasons To Watch The Film 3: Music

The music was composed by Amanda Brown in what I'm told are Afghan and Pakistani styles. I remember it as being pretty good and it won an award. Of course, this might actually be a reason to get the soundtrack rather than watch the film.

5. Problems Learning Experiences

There is a fair amount of sitting around in walled compounds talking[3]. This isn't really a problem, except for the fact that as I don't speak Pashto I'm just reading the subtitles and glancing up at yet another still face hiding any feelings. The grandmother in particular seemed to declare her lines in an unnatural way.

This was unfortunate as the grandmother was one of only two female speaking roles. On the night I made a big fuss about this; obviously for practical reasons there would be few female characters. However the cousin, whose letter starts the film, seemed oddly placed in the story. A similar age to the boy, she is seen in several of the Peshawar scenes. Firstly she goes to the cinema with the boy and her father (his uncle); then she's seen fascinated with, and touching one of the decorated trucks while her uncle is on the phone; lastly she brings towels and water to greet the boy when he runs away to Peshawar. She's significant but I can't figure out what she signifies; she has the start of her own story, but it doesn't seem to end. I WANT MORE COUSIN. Maybe the sequel should by Daughter of a Lion? I'm sure that there will be no problems with Ben Gilmour wandering into Central Asia and saying "Hi, I'd like to film your wives, sisters and daughters."[4]

6. Summing Up
Watch This: To see a more human and possibly more realistic view of the Pashtun people and culture, and a window into the sort of life that happens when everyone in the village is into everyone else's business.
Don't Watch This: If a fairly conventional story married to unconventional settings and characters aren't your thing. Also if you don't like subtitles. Also if you can't play region 4 DVDs.
One Last Thing: Benjamin Gilmour's website.

[1] No, really. Character, visuals, sound, jokes, drama, all much more important to most people.
[2] But as it turns out, not.
[3] Not having permission to be there, as well as it being an area with strong Taliban connections meant that most of the dialogue scenes are either inside compounds or out in deserted countryside.
[4] In my mind, there are parallel scenes with the elders' in which the women gather to shop, or wash or something and discuss the same issues from another point of view, which influence what's going on in subtle but profound ways.