Friday, April 29, 2011

The Reading List: "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"

I have finished the fourth installment of the hyper-popular and much-loved children’s heptilogy. I do not know if “heptilogy” is a real word, mind you. The spellchecker is pushing me for “herpetology,” which is not completely inappropriate given the volume of snakes and their genetic kin discussed in the Harry Potter books, but it is not really the idea I’m after. Maybe it would just be best to say “seven-volume epic.” But let's not get bogged down.

After reading each of the first three books I wrote that they were basically pretty good, and then pointed out some interesting problems that it seemed to me had been ignored in all the hyperpopularity and much-lovingness. This didn’t exactly make me Mr. Popular, so it is genuinely kind of a bummer to have to announce, right here up front, that I found Goblet of Fire the weakest entry in the series up to this point.

Here’s Why:

Actually, wait! Take this simple quiz first:
1. I love the Harry Potter series so much that it would make me unhappy to see it subjected to an unsympathetic analysis, especially one that indulges in overstatement in an attempt to create a humorous effect. True / False
2. I believe that Michael5000 intentionally finds fault with popular books just to be contrary, or whatever. True / False 
3. I believe that Michael5000 commits a fundamental error of judgment by subjecting to analysis that which is simply not intended to be analyzed, but merely to be enjoyed. True / False 
4. It is dumb to critique a children’s book from an adult perspective. True / False
If you answered “True” to any of the above, please skip down to “Coming Next on the Reading List,” below.

Now then. Here’s Why:

1 – This is a book – a children’s book – in which a character discovers that her society runs on an unacknowledged system of often abusive slave labor. Upset by this, she tries to do something about it. Her efforts are vaguely ridiculous, and the other characters tell her to lighten up, slaves like being slaves. So she lightens up, and the story line is dropped. Excuse me? What the hell is that?

Now, visitors from the future tell me that this issue is picked up again in subsequent volumes, and my God, I certainly hope so. Within the Goblet text, though, the matter just quietly fades away.

2 – Adult fans of the series like to talk about how fully imagined and complete the HP world is. Except it really isn’t. And as I get further into this epic, it’s increasingly disappointing to have so little basic coherence in the realm of the wizards. The nature of magic, for instance, is brazenly made up on the fly. Mr. Potter’s bacon is saved in this episode because, when two wands that share a hair or feather from the same creature are used against each other, there’s this cancelling-out effect that also envelopes the combatants in an impenetrable shell. What? Really? Why? Well, the why is obvious: because Harry needs to survive his fight. His survival feels less impressive, though, when his author-god is ad-libbing the laws of nature for his personal benefit.

And it’s not just the rules of magic. While there are references backwards to people, places, creatures, institutions, and social norms that were introduced in earlier books, new features of the world are also introduced higgledy-piggledy as needed. Never is there a sense that Harry’s life is taking place in the context of a broader world, unless you count the one liner of “everybody’s afraid that Lord Voldemort is coming back!” as a broader world.

Now this lack of a fully realized literary ecology doesn’t make the books bad. Not by any means. But it does dumb them down, and it makes them considerably less interesting to read. The pleasure of predicting what might happen next is absent, because what happens next is going to be completely arbitrary. It's not a fatal flaw, but the lack of a realized world certainly separates the Potter books from the top tier of fantasy writing, even fantasy writing for children.

2a – A trivial aside, but actually a pretty good example of the problem I've been nattering on about: have you ever noticed that Hogwarts teaches nothing but magic? True, the kids are expected to read (about magic) and write (about magic), but they get no training whatsoever in mathematics, literature, social studies, or the history or technology of their partners in humanity, the Muggles. They actively shun the formal knowledge system of the Muggles – “science” – and seem doggedly unaware that it is in many respects the equal of or superior to their own abilities. Hogwarts is, in other words, a training ground for incredibly powerful idiots. Terrific.

2a(i): Observation: Voldemort brought a wand to take on Harry Potter. A more clever villain would have brought a wand, and a gun.

3 – The soothing rhythm is getting a little too soothing. Harry has a wacky misadventure during the end of his summer with his foster parents, he goes to school, some incredibly destructive force is leveled against him, and he ultimately escapes through some new loophole in the nature of magic. A villain is revealed at seeming random from the roster of secondary characters, and this clears up the strange events that have been happening lately. Then there are the annual goodbyes. I wonder what will happen in the next book? Oh wait, I already know.

4 – Professor Snape, whom we are encouraged to loathe because he has greasy hair, disparages Harry as a student who sees himself as above the rules, who does whatever the hell he wants, and whom is never made accountable for behavior that would get any other student kicked right out of the institution without further ado. Snape is entirely correct. Harry’s at least an essentially decent kid, though, whereas his pal Ron is just kind of a jackass. Really, why is Hermione hanging out with these slackers?

5 – At the climax of Goblet, Voldemort makes a gloating speech the length of which would embarrass even the most loquacious James Bond villain. Well, OK. But then, few pages later, his henchman does the exact same thing. With this much exposition, why not give up the pretence of paragraphs and just start using bullet points?

But, But…

Oh, sure, it’s basically all right. It’s certainly no worse than most of the young adult fantasy books on the shelves, and it’s a damn sight better than many of ‘em. Rowling continues to impress me with the clarity of her sentence-level writing, which I thought made a step up from Volume III to Volume IV. This was the first of the Harry Potters that made me laugh out loud a few times at clever moments.

There is also a nice little scene when Harry or Ron or somebody has thrown a piece of toast out into the school’s lake, which we know to be populated by magical creatures. After floating for a few seconds, the toast gets snatched under by a tentacle of some unidentified creature. It’s a nice moment. These few sentences, almost uniquely within the HP text, are not directly harnessed to furthering the plot. And that, J.K., is how you move towards constructing a real fictive universe: it needs to operate on its own terms, and to contain, if only by implication, elements beyond the things that happen to or that happen because of the central characters.

There are a few remarks scattered in Goblet of Fire where it is hard to tell whether they might be sly asides intended to amuse all those grown-ups reading the book, chapter by chapter, through a long series of bedtimes. In a merman village: Harry sped on, staring around, and soon the dwellings became more numerous; there were gardens of weed around some of them. Dude. Dumbledore, on embarrassing family connections: "My own brother, Aberforth, was prosecuted for practicing inappropriate charms on a goat." Um.  Cough, cough.

Well. I quite enjoyed the first chapter of Goblet, which introduces and manages to round out rather nicely a vignette involving a Muggle whose fate will turn out to be intertwined with the unfolding of the main plot. This introductory gambit broke up the rhythm a bit, but it was a short reprieve; I nurture hope that there might be more tinkering with the formula in the last three installments..

The other nice thing about Goblet? It front-loaded the Quidditch.

But Seriously, Folks

It’s 2011. Either you’ve read the Harry Potter books, and you have your own well-formed opinion of their merit, or if you haven’t. At this stage, for those of voting age, I haven’t found a lot of value added in reading the books over watching the movies – although the movies, too, rather blur into each other with the relentless rhythm of the Hogwarts school year. There’s a cultural literacy issue at stake, though, so at a minimum you ought to read HP I and watch a few of the films. If Volumes V, VI, or VII pan out to be especially amazing, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Coming Next on the Reading List

Well, it’s supposed to be Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy, but I’m deep in the queue for a limited number of copies of that one. Nabakov’s Pnin will likely follow HPIV in jumping its place in line. I’ve heard it’s nowhere near as good as Lolita! But then, what is? After that, there’s something called A Primate’s Memoir. And about then I’ll be 2/3 of the way through the Reading List!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000


Located in the heart of apple country, Cashmere is the home of the world famous Aplets & Cotlets Candy Factory and the "Pioneer Village," a restoration of the typical old Western community at Chelan County Museum.

Cashmere is located between Leavenworth and Wenatchee and has a unique colonial look.

Provenance: Gift of Mrs.5000, Christmas 2010.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz suffers from an inadequate nose


The weekly game of knowledge, intuition, inductive reasoning, and willingness to risk public embarrassment in a friendly and moderately supportive environment!!

Answers come out Fridayish.

1. What 18th Century comic novel is about a man who suffers from a inauspicious conception, an inadequate nose, a poorly-chosen name, and an accidental circumcision by window sash, and who can't even get born until the third volume of his own autobiography?

2. This language is, depending on whom you ask, either the primary basis for the constitutionally-mandated Filipino language, or pretty much the exact same thing as the Filipino language.

3. It ends with the sons of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, baked in a pie!

4. What's the blue thing?

5. St. Paul's right-hand man, he was probably Bishop of Ephesus from 65 A.D. to 80 A.D., or maybe 97 A.D. If you aren't squeamish about reading other people's mail, there are two letters to him in the New Testament.

6. What is the most ubiquitous invention of the incredible Philo T. Farnsworth?

7. What is shown in both of these two images?

8. In Puccini's opera, any man who wants to marry this Chinese princess must answer her three riddles; if he gets any of them wrong, he will be beheaded.

9. It almost wouldn't be a Wednesday Quiz if you didn't have to identify a country!  A couple giveaway place names have been removed because they are, you know, giveaways.

10. What's the word for a straight line through a single point on a curve; or, the ratio of the length of the opposite side of an angle on a right triangle to the length of the adjacent side; or, a straight length of road or railroad?


The tie-breaker: Let's do the one again where you make a natural sentence that uses only words starting with this week's letter.


Put your answers in the comments in the form of an epistle to the Bishop of Ephesus.  

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Song of the American Road, pt. 15

A Florida Cocoanut Palm loaded with Fruit

One of Florida's greatest attractions is the beauty and variety of her palms.  Tall palms bending under the weight of cocoanut clusters, royal palms with the appearance of paved concrete columns, traveler palms spread like a fan and hundreds of others.


Dear Bert; You should get some St. Pete papers in a week or so.  I ordered some sent.  They will come in a bundle, one weeks papers.  Don't know just when you will get them.  I rec'd your letter.  It is plenty warm down here now but not too hot.  Just nice.  Love G.

no news from Motor Bureau

AZELEAS IN BLOOM at Sylvan Abbey between Clearwater and Safety Harbor, Florida.

Hi,  Now you know why we haven't been out to see you.  Was with Aunt Elsie & Uncle Cal yesterday they look good.  Tell you more when we see you.  Love, Paul & Elsie


How are you and Minnie?  It is spring here.  The flowers are in bloom and the sun is very warm.  It won't be long until spring will come to your part of the country.  Elzb


Magnificent trees, numbered in the hundreds, form picturesque backgrounds for a wealth of delicate coloring of azaleas, beautiful beyond description.

Here is a sample of what we see only they are much nicer, the flowers are beautiful.  We enjoy this vacation mor than any we ever had it s because the girls are here.  Mrs. P.P. Deeds & Family

Monday, April 25, 2011

Know Your Italian C-Artists!


Full Name: Antonio Allegri da Correggio
Lived: 1489 - 1534
Hometown: Correggio, Italy
Style: Rennaisance Mannerism
Artist's Statement: His use of dynamic composition, illusionistic perspective, and dramatic foreshortening made him responsible for some of the most vigorous and sensuous works of the 16th Century.
Which is to say: He made things look really lifelike.
Temperament: Loner
Personal Issue: Anonymity
Fun Fact: Apparently he was basically self-taught, and had no known apprentices.
Legacy: Successful in his day and influential afterwards. He was especially popular with the Grand Tour Victorians.

Correggio - The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Alexandria


Full Name: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Lived: 1571-1610
Hometown: Caravaggio, Italy
Style: Early Baroque
Artist's Statement: He employed a radical naturalism which combined close physical observation with a dramatic, even theatrical, use of chiaroscuro.
Which is to say: He was really good at painting people and using lighting effects.
Temperament: Asshole
Personal Issue: Brawling
Fun Fact: The Pope put a price on his head.
Legacy: Forgotten after death; rediscovered in 20th Century. Currently considered Very Big Deal.

Caravaggio - The Calling of St. Matthew


Full Name: Arcangelo Corelli
Lived: 1653 - 1713
Hometown: Fusignano, Italy
Style: Baroque
Artist's Statement: His compositions are distinguished by a beautiful flow of melody and by a mannerly treatment of the accompanying parts, which he is justly said to have liberated from the strict rules of counterpoint.
Which is to say: Hey, this guy's not even a painter!
Temperament: Can-do
Personal Issue: Had trouble with high notes.
Fun Fact: Wow, a composer that died rich and famous!
Legacy: Probably one of the most important figures in the evolution of western music.

Corelli - Sonatas of Three Parts for Two Violins and a Bass, etc.


Full Name: Giovanni Antonio Canal
Lived: 1697 - 1768
Hometown: Venice, Italy
Style: Landscape
Artist's Statement: Best known for dramatic and picturesque views of Venice, marked by strong contrasts of light and shade and free handling and executed with accuracy, precision, and luminosity.
Which is to say: He painted really vivid landscapes.
Temperament: Entrepreneurial
Personal Issue: Dropoff of Tourist Trade during War of Austrian Succession
Fun Fact: Lived in England for a decade to be closer to his market.
Legacy: Pretty much owns the paintings-of-canals niche.

Canaletto - Canals Are Really Pretty #43

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Your Sunday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Pickwick Dam and Lock is 206.7 miles upstream from the mouth of the Tennessee River and 52.7 miles downstream from Wilson Dam and creates a navigation channel for that distance.  Pickwick Lake, above the dam, has created a wonderland of scenic beauty and unlimited opportunity for water sports.  Pickwick Dam is 113 feet high, 7,715 feet long and its powerhouse has an installed capacity of 216,000 kw.  It was built 1935-1938 and a modern traffic bridge was opened 1963.  Resort centers and cities nearby are Shiloh National Park and Cemetary, Savannah, Selmer, Counce, Adamsville, Parsons and Lexington in Tennessee and Corich and Iuka in Mississippi.

Provenance: Gift of Mrs.5000, Christmas 2010.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flag Friday XXVI

Flag Friday is a periodic discussion of the world's national flags; the project is explained and indexed here.

These discussions are about graphic design, and perhaps about nationalism and national symbolism in general. They should not be taken as critical of the countries, ideals, cultures, or people that the flags represent.


Parsons: Without comment, the good doctor gives it a "B+", 75/100.

Michael5000: Namibia didn't manage to shake off of South Africa until 1990, so this is one of the more contemporary flags going in Africa.  I like it.  It's got all three primaries and green, which is pretty much an honorary primary, in a memorable and somehow friendly-seeming arrangement.  I guess it's the circle-and-triangles sun that makes it seem upbeat.  I bet some people will call it juvenile, but I think it stays on the dignified side of that line.  And everybody knows I'm a sucker for white stripelets.

Grade: A-


Parsons: Disliking a "Corporate Logo" look but feeling that it has a "good shape" (?), the good doctor gives it a "C+", 60/100.

Michael5000: Parsons must not have realized that we're looking at a map here.  Aren't we?  Yes, I just checked, and that's the map of an island that lies just south of the Equator.  Since I don't share Parsons' dislike of maps on flags, that almost makes me want to like it.  Not going to happen, though.  Putting the dominant visual element in the bottom half of a flag, even though I understand the reason, raises my design hackles.  And it really does have a very Corporate Logo look.  This should be the banner of Nauru Airlines, not Nauru.

Grade: C-


Parsons: With a "Bad Shape" but "Original," it ties with Nauru with a "C+", 60/100.

Michael5000: I have an absolutely terrific picture of some kids I work with, kids who grew up in refugee camps in Nepal, clustered around the Nepalese flag in the Hall of Flags on the Oregon State University campus, amazed to see such a familiar thing in such an unexpected context.  I'm not going to stick it online, for obvious reasons.  But, it's extremely cute.  

Yet even while I was taking the picture, I was wondering if it's really quite.... fair for Nepal to be quite so Bohemian (so to speak) in its flag design.  I mean, is that even properly a flag?  Innit more of a pendant?  Couldn't that design just been attached to a white field to make a still very distinct, but properly flag-shaped, national banner?

Hmm, I guess not.  It was worth a try, though.

Grade (for the real "flag"): C+


Parsons: No comments -- only a "B", 70/100.

Michael5000:   Back when we talked about Luxembourg, in addition making an embarrassing gaffe, I gave that little country's flag -- nearly identical to Netherland's -- a B-.  However, Luxembourg was getting graded down for creating a modern flag so easily confused with the very long-standing flag of a neighbor.  Very long-standing.  Very, very longstanding.  1572 longstanding.  This is, in fact, the original horizontal tricolor.  So where Luxembourg was derivative, the Netherlands is rocking an innovative design, and obviously one that has turned out to have some enduring appeal.  Got to respect that.

Grade: A

New Zealand

Parsons: Dr. Parsons can't be said to be too partial to the home team.  He dislikes the "Colonial Nonsense" of his own country's flag, and gives it only a "C", 55/100.

Michael5000: See Australia.  Mitigated by fewer and nicer stars.

Grade: C+

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Founded in 1907 by Louis C. Wachsmuth.  This unique shellfish restaurant is one of the showplaces of Portland.  Located on a narrow one-way street in the old business section of the city, the Oyster Bar is famous for its oyster stew and small native oysters.  The two main dining rooms are decorated in knotty pine and adorned with beautiful china plates, ship models, and oddities from all over the world.  208 S.W. Ankeny, Portland, Oregon.  Photo by Ray Conkling.

Provenance: Unknown.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz is an extremely viscous biopolymer!


The weekly game of knowledge, intuition, inductive reasoning, and willingness to risk public embarrassment in a friendly and moderately supportive environment!!

Answers come out Fridayish, or when somebody reminds me, or perhaps when Eavan loses patience.

1. The son of Darius and the grandson of Cyrius, he almost -- but not quite -- pulled off an invasion of Greece.

2. It's one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, the capital of Shaanxi province, the eastern end of the Silk Road, and home to the famous Terracotta Army. It's got a city and a metropolitan population that are both about the same as Chicago's. What is the name of this important city?

3. It's a product -- an extremely viscous biopolymer! -- that they make by fermenting sugar with a bacteria, then use to thicken food or stabilize cosmetic products.

4. What's the stuff on the left?

5. In the Republic of South Africa, Zulu is the most common home language. (Afrikaans is third, and English is sixth.)  What language, with about 8 million speakers, is the second most common?

6. This company built the first real personal computer, but didn't try to sell it commercially because it didn't seem like there would be much of a market.  Whoops.  Their success in the realm of photocopying has managed to keep them afloat, however.

7. These dry-climate gardeners are practicing ______________.

8. Element 54 is an inert, heavy, colorless, oderless gas that lights up when electrical current is run through it. What's it called?

9. This is something that thousands of Scrabble players make reference to all the time without having any idea what it is.  What is it?

10. In their less common name, they give credit to Wilhelm Röntgen, the guy who discovered them. But what do we usually call them at the dentist's office?


The tie-breaker: There really weren't too many other questions I could have used with this week's letter. Show us what YOU've got: add a few additional questions, if you can.


Put your answers in the comments in honor of Wilhelm Röntgen.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz is infallible, mostly

Before we go any further with this online enterprise, I'm afraid I have some... well... unpleasantness to report.

It has to do with the "C" Quiz of last Wednesday.  In that entertaining challenge, you might remember, you were presented with the following query:

I subsequently provided the correct answer in my usual prompt and efficient manner:

And everything was fine.  Everybody was happy.  People went forward with their lives, content in the knowledge that the Wednesday Quiz had run its weekly cycle.


Until Monday afternoon, when I found this threatening message lingering like a foul smell in my comment approval tab:

Well, naturally, my first concerned thought was to let legendary L&TM5K Dork-Emeritus-for-Life G know that someone was using her online identity for malicious purposes.

To my horror, she made a brazen attempt at extortion!

She should have known that there's no way for an honest blogger like me to come up with that kind of scratch.  Which is why I'm telling you this.  I want you to get the story straight, from me, and not from some power-addled, money-hungry student of Art History.  You deserve that much.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention that the Manhattan resident who generally answers the Quiz by postcard -- I think you know who you are -- gets a little bonus credit for the sentence "Gosh, I thought it was a lot too beautiful & serene to be Caravaggio." Apparently, it was.

Tomorrow: The Wednesday Quiz!  Now with more or less accurate answers!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Michael 5000 vs. The Beatles: The Preconceptions

The Beatles! Indisputably the best-loved and best-known rock band of all time! And equally indisputably among the most overrated!

For indeed, how could they be the one without the other? No matter how talented each of the members were (and they were), no matter how hard-working (and they were), no matter how innovative (and they were), no matter how influential (and they were), how could any group of popular singer-songwriter-instrumentalists possibly rise, in anything like objective terms, to the unparalleled level of cultural dominance enjoyed by the Fab Four? The planet is home to a lot of musicians.  Hundreds of thousands of bands, you have to concede, must have been as talented, or as hard-working, or as innovative at the Beatles, and it would be silly to deny that there must be, or have been, at least several hundred that could meet the Beatles, so to speak, on all three scores.

As for influence, well, influence is a tricky bugger, innit? The Beatles would have to be on any rational person's short list for Most Influential Band.   To acknowledge this is, however, is to stop well short of an implicit (and often explicit) assumption in our folklore of music history: the Beatles came along, and everything changed.

Well, no it didn't. Early Beatles music sounds much like popular music of the day, and it only takes a quick listen to their huge hit "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- a decidedly mild, pleasant, midtempo piece of fluff -- and I think you'll understand that there was something going on with those screaming, swooning, freaked out 1963 teenyboppers that had nothing to do with revolutionary new directions in music. As the decade went on, of course, the Beatles would eventually move on to help break new musical terrain, and were often at or near the forefront of new musical directions. But then all of popular culture was on the move in the 1960s, and -- critical point, here -- the technology of recorded sound was going through the most rapid stage of its evolution. (Don't get all excited about digital technology, either; you can manipulate sound faster and more efficiently with digital tech, but the technology to process noises at a level relevant to human hearing was for all intents and purposes perfected during the short tenure of the Beatles.)

So sure, the Beatles influenced other musicians. But then, the Beatles were deeply influenced themselves, by their own musical mileau and by the technologies available to them. They were, arguably, among the most influencED band of all time. So it is interesting to imagine an experimental control Earth, where everything is exactly the same except that George, Paul, Ringo, and John never meet. How would the history of music be altered? No way of telling, of course, although obviously there would be a lot of specific very well-known songs that never got written. But in terms of the overall sounds and song forms, the history of popular musicology? I would have to think that, if the Beatles had never been, music today would sound pretty much just like it does today. The Beatles, I believe -- pointlessly, since it is a belief equally immune to attack or proof -- are far less important as a transformational force in musical culture, or even as creators of a very popular body of musical work, than as a symbol, a little bit of synecdoche that helped and helps people make sense of a period of rapid changes, musically and culturally, in the 1960s.

Scope of Work

Which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to our project. I have assembled recordings of the thirteen (13) Beatles albums that no less an authority than the Wiki describes as their core canon. And I am going to listen to them, and talk about them.  Will I be underwhelmed?  Will I be blown away?  We'll find out!  Your job, meanwhile, will be to skim what I write and then send links to all your friends, so that they will go to my posts and my "clicks" numbers will go up, and that will make me feel all validated and like this little hobby of mine, keeping a blog, isn't just so much time hurled down the toilet. But I digress.

Before we can proceed, I must first indicate my preconceptions of the albums, so that I can either shake my head at my own naivete later, or so I can feel smug about how I really knew what I was talking about all along.  So:

The Preconceptions

1. Please Please Me
2. With the Beatles

Two albums of competent but unremarkable popular music of the early 1960s, with several songs that are extremely well known, and therefore immediately accessible, by virtue of having been recorded by the Beatles.

3. A Hard Day's Night

Includes music from the odd film of the same name. Still fairly pop in tone, but with some impressive glimmers of complexity and sensitivity.

4. Beatles for Sale

I have no idea what's on this album.

5. Help!

This is the one where you begin to get a little bit of an edge. Also -- I'm vague on this -- this is about where the lads stopped pretending they were recreating American blues music; contrary to Whig rock history, the next three decades of popular music will be dominated by the influence of British folksong.

6. Rubber Soul
7. Revolver

Who can keep these two straight? These are something like the alternative rock Beatles albums, if memory serves, and I vaguely expect to like them the best.

8. Sgt. Peppers

The title track sure is weird. Seriously, if it wasn't so familiar, you'd never expect that it could ever possibly become popular. I don't really know what to expect from rest of the album.

9. Magical Mystery Tour

Ah, Magical Mystery Tour. When I was a very little boy, I had very little record player with the Sword in the Stone soundtrack, the Jungle Book soundtrack, John Denver's Greatest Hits, and the Magical Mystery Tour album. I could have done much worse. MMT, by dint of that familiarity, is my starting-point favorite Beatles album, despite that it is only really one side* of music and with that one side including "Blue Jay Way."

*If you are too young to know what a "side" of music is, I simply can not believe you are reading this blog.

10. The White Album

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps," if memory serves, plus 3 4/5 sides of filler. Includes "Rocky Raccoon," very possibly the worst song ever to have become, by dint of sheer familiarity, beloved.

11. Yellow Submarine

The title track sure is weird. Seriously, if it wasn't so familiar, you'd never expect that it could ever possibly become popular. I don't really know what to expect from the album.

12. Abbey Road

The one where they're crossing the road and don't really like each other anymore. I forget what's on it, but I suspect it's one of the strongest.  I think it's the one with the medley of all the very short songs at the end. Like "The End."

13. Let It Be

The one where they loathe each other and can't wait to quit being the Beatles, and largely a product of post-production. I dunno. I've always kind of LIKED "The Long and Winding Road," but then I'm just a big mush at heart. I don't expect it to be great.


And there we have it! The journey begins!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Reading List: "To the Lighthouse"

The sum total of what I knew about Virginia Woolf before starting this novel, outside of a few biographical tidbits that I know because she is a Famous Person, is: (1) she is considered a modernist, and (2) she has cred among feminist literary types. Also, I was a bit afraid of Virginia Woolf – one is almost obliged to make the joke – having dipped inside one of her other books and found it difficult. I expected In the Lighthouse to be one of the Reading List’s hurdles.

Spoilers Start Here, for what they’re worth. I will now give a complete summary of the book. This will not really give away the plot, however, because the book doesn’t really have a traditional plot, and it won’t give away the ending, because the book doesn’t really have a traditional ending. Here goes: there’s this family of intellectuals spending a summer holiday at their cabin in the Hebredies. They putter about, and eventually have dinner. As they were getting up from dinner at about the 3/5 point, I thought “Wow, this book is going to take place entirely within a single evening.” When I turned the next page I saw a heading to the effect of “time passes,” and there follows an interlude in which time gradually accelerates, zips through ten years, and then decelerates again. The remainder of the book takes place ten years later, in the same location and with many of the same characters that we have met before. It is morning, this time, and one of the characters works on a painting while the others go for a ride in a boat.

OK. So, if you want to take James Joyce as the touchstone of modernism, which is a fairly reasonable thing to do, To the Lighthouse is certainly modernist. Woolf shares Joyce’s rejection of traditional narrative and his focus on the micro-scale events of everyday life. Woolf is also, like James, more concerned with the interior life of her characters than their activities and interactions; most of To the Lighthouse is to a greater or lesser extent interior monologue that would not seem wildly out of place in Ulysses.

The exception to this focus on interior life is the ten-year interlude. This section is remarkable not only for its sudden expansion of the passage of time, but because in it we leave the heads of the characters altogether and focus on the material condition of the beach cabin. Major events in the lives of the characters during the years of the interlude are mentioned, as if incidentally, in brackets. It's interesting that having these incidents mentioned parenthetically -- we get more than one announcement of a sudden death this way, for instance -- make them all the more jarring.

On either side of the interlude, time passes in To the Lighthouse at somewhat slower than reading speed. This is in part simply because Woolf writes densely. In her attempt to mimic the flow of thought, she recognizes that thought moves at a rather dizzying speed, and that we are generally thinking about more than one thing at any given instant, and that we are all ambivalent in our feelings towards, well, everything. Any attempt to represent all this complexity on paper is bound to get a little difficult, and it generally takes us longer to read about a moment than it does for the character to experience it. But then too, Woolf often leaves her two main point-of-view characters and drops, possibly for just a few sentences or possibly for several pages, into the mind of a secondary character. When this happens, we often fall back in time to re-experience an event from a new perspective.  These shifts give the flow of time a sort of two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of quality.

So, back to my expectations. To the Lighthouse certainly confirms Woolf’s modernist reputation. I would not expect this particular book to be unusually interesting to feminist critics, however. The two central characters, pre- and post-interlude, are women, to be sure, and they meditate insightfully about the behavior of men, and women, and men and women relative to each other, but I did not sense that the book was fundamentally about women’s experience.

What the book was, however, is existentialist. In spades. Throughout the novel, we see people continually fail to bridge the isolation between human minds. Regardless of whether the parties involved are fond of each other or dislike each other bitterly, Woolf portrays social interaction as an ongoing parade of misunderstandings, missed connections, and messages that never get sent due to innumerable constraints: the rules of polite behavior, inability to articulate, fear of commitment to a future course of action, sense of commitment to decisions made in the past, fear of rejection, straight-out shyness, and so on. So, I don’t know: maybe Woolf is considered one of your major existentialists, and I just never got the memo. If this is a major literary discovery, on the other hand, I think it’s worth at least an assistant professorship.  Job offers can be made in the comments.

Prognosis: Rich, interesting, atmospheric, and provocative, but still a bit of a haul, I doubt that To the Lighthouse is really anyone’s favorite book. But neither was it as opaque as I’d feared it might be. Not a must-read, but recommended for literary types and maybe as a challenge to build up to for casual readers.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Your Thursday Boring Postcard from Michael5000

Box 539, Rawlins, Wyoming 82301

East Rawlins on Airport Rd.  Just east of the junction of business I-80 and U.S. 287.  Cedar St. exit off I-80.  Trailers, Campers, Tenters welcome.  Level drive thru spaces.  Clean hot showers and restrooms - laundromat - grocery store - picnic tables - playground.  Owner: Ida Lee.  Phone (307) 324-9979.

Provenance: Gift of sister jen, Christmas 2010.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Wednesday Quiz leads the Volscians against Rome, seeking revenge!


The weekly game of knowledge, intuition, inductive reasoning, and willingness to risk public embarrassment in a friendly and moderately supportive environment!!

Answers come out Fridayish, or when somebody reminds me.

1. The first naval battle where neither side's ships saw or fired on each other resulted in the sinking of the Shōhō, the Lexington, and numerous smaller ships. What was it called?

2. What Mozart opera features a pair of buddies trying to hook up with each other's girlfriends while disguised as outrageous Albanians?

3. What's the island country in yon red circle?

4. What were the names for pre-industrial craftsmen who made, respectively, shoes, barrels, and candles?

5. She was Spain's ambassador to England, the first female ambassador in European history. She was regent of England for half a year. And, she was Queen of England from 1509 to 1533, until she was dumped in favor of somebody named Anne Boleyn. Who was this remarkable woman?

6. His Wiki entry says that he was
the foremost painter of the Parma school of the Italian Renaissance, who was responsible for some of the most vigorous and sensuous works of the 16th century. In his use of dynamic composition, illusionistic perspective and dramatic foreshortening, [he] prefigured the Rococo art of the 18th century. 
Who was this remarkable fellow, who painted stuff like this?

7. Who wrote -- in a graphically distinctive poem, which I quote here without the graphical distinctiveness -- that Buffalo Bill's defunct who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallionand break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat.

8. Not Shakespeare's most popular play, it is about a proud Roman patrician who first defeats the Volscians, then -- after he's been exiled -- leads the Volscians against Rome, seeking revenge.   In the end, the Volscians do him in because he doesn't follow through on his betrayal. What's the name of both the play and its protagonist?

9. What's this famous New York City structure called?

10. You can call him Charles I of France or Karl der GroBe of Germany. Pope Leo III called him Imperator Augustus. He is often called the "Father of Europe" these days, but Pepin the Short called him "son." What is this chap's most common name?


The tie-breaker: Twelve chemical elements have a symbol that begin with this week's letter. List as many as you can.


Put your answers in the comments in a graphically distinctive poem.