Monthly Archives: February 2009

Joseph Conrad on blogging, language teaching, and verbiage

Well, not exactly on blogging: here in Under Western Eyes (get it at Manybooks and Feedbooks.)he is talking about keeping a diary, which seems a lot less egoistical than blogging in retrospect. Not to mention a lot more quaint:

A mysterious impulse of human nature comes into play here … innumerable people, criminals, saints, philosophers, young girls, statesman, and simple imbeciles, have kept self-revealing records from vanity no doubt, but also from other more inscrutable motives. There must be a wonderful soothing power in mere words since so many men have used them for self-communion. Being myself a quiet individual I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace. Certainly they are loud enough for it at the present day.

In other news, I guess I should get out of the language-teaching business. At least, according to Conrad:

Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. I have been for many years a teacher of languages. It is an occupation which at length becomes fatal to whatever share of imagination, observation, and insight an ordinary person might be heir to. To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.

Ouch. Okay, I promise. Just because I’ve been an English teacher doesn’t mean I think you’re a parrot.

A small observation. Many writers take Chekhov’s advice that if you have a 7 page story, you should lop off the first 3 pages. (I paraphrase, probably badly; can’t locate the source of this – if I’m totally off-base or someone has this quote to hand, please correct me). Most contemporary writers, it seems to me, have taken this advice entirely to heart, and go happily a-loppin’ everything extraneous they can find. If Conrad had taken this approach, likely we wouldn’t have the above little bits of ebullient brilliance. He just would have gotten on to the story.

Anyway, maybe he should have. Don’t know yet. I’ll let you know when I finish Under Western Eyes. These two gems came up in the first few pages and were too good to keep for a full review. Besides, who knows what else Conrad has in store. Might make these passages pale in comparison. Here’s hoping.

Download the Bible so it can be locked up on your Kindle

Surely if any book were ever published with the express intention of being shared, it is the Bible. But that’s not how Amazon sees it. Right now you can download the Holy Bible to your Kindle for free. Made available by Crossway Books and Bibles, this authoritative Holy Scripture comes complete with DRM. Meaning it remains locked up on your Kindle.

No doubt the good folks at Crossway are more concerned with spreading the word than considering how it is spread. Crossway’s number one purpose is “to bring men, women and children to Christ as their Lord and Savior”. My guess is the Lord and Savior would approve of sharing the Good Word. I wonder if He would approve of hacking my Kindle to break the DRM so I could share it further? Maybe I better consult my Bible, see what I can find out.

I imagine the Crossway folks don’t have any idea about DRM. And the Amazon people are just plugging another book into the system. Ah … the irony of the humanity of it.

I’ve emailed Crossway to see if they have anything to say about it. I’ll update if they do. Oh, and for the record, I downloaded it. Because it’s always good to have a copy of the Bible handy.

UPDATE, 11:08 AM: It appears that every email address Crossway lists on their website isn’t functioning. Well, I’m unlikely to send them a postcard so I imagine we won’t be hearing from them. I have posted a “review” on Amazon, though. Should be up soon.

UPDATE 2, 9:38 AM, 28 Feb: The folks at Crossway have gotten in touch with me. I’ve asked for permission to put our email communications up here – I don’t think you have to do this, technically speaking, but it’s always nice to ask – and when I hear back from them I’ll probably make a second post out of it. Stay tuned.

What we’ll be missing about Siam

I’ve been asked what I’ll miss about Thailand. Also, I’ve been encouraged to write some more about Siam while still here. Alright. You know what we’ll miss? This:


That’s a rhino bug. Which wandered up on our porch last night, probably looking for something to eat, or a child to beat up.

The second-coolest bug in Siam. The coolest is a walking stick, but I didn’t have a camera the time one fell in the water basin and was skittering around like, well, like a stick that walks.

In my second-to-next life I’m going to be an entomologist. (That’s after I finish being a country singer in the next one.) I’ll be over here, cataloging bizarre bugs with one hand, stuffing mango with sticky rice and coconut milk in my mouth with the other.

The rhino bug, then, in all its hairy glory:


UPDATE, 8:25 AM 27 Feb: An alert reader sent along a link to this video of two rhino bugs dueling it out:

What we'll be missing about Siam

I’ve been asked what I’ll miss about Thailand. Also, I’ve been encouraged to write some more about Siam while still here. Alright. You know what we’ll miss? This:


That’s a rhino bug. Which wandered up on our porch last night, probably looking for something to eat, or a child to beat up.

The second-coolest bug in Siam. The coolest is a walking stick, but I didn’t have a camera the time one fell in the water basin and was skittering around like, well, like a stick that walks.

In my second-to-next life I’m going to be an entomologist. (That’s after I finish being a country singer in the next one.) I’ll be over here, cataloging bizarre bugs with one hand, stuffing mango with sticky rice and coconut milk in my mouth with the other.

The rhino bug, then, in all its hairy glory:


UPDATE, 8:25 AM 27 Feb: An alert reader sent along a link to this video of two rhino bugs dueling it out:

Book Review: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men opens with a perfectly 19th-century-like description of a creek. We almost expect a respectable bourgeois couple to emerge from the trees discussing a ball or an engagement. Instead we get Lennie and George:

“So you forgot that awready, did you? I gotta tell you again, do I? Jesus Christ, you’re a crazy bastard!”
“I forgot,” Lennie said softly. “I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.”
“O.K. – O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tellin’ you things and then you forget ’em, and I tell you again.”
“Tried and tried,” said Lennie, “but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.”

It’s hard to appreciate, I think, just how steeped we are in these archetypes now. They are instantly recognizable to the contemporary reader. George and Lennie are popular culture.

Of Mice and Men is a long way from Dickens’ fixation with the workaday dilemmas of the faintly well-to-do, which is in itself a far cry from the country gentry of Austen and Bronte. Some of Hardy’s better novels dwell on the workers, but never quite believably. Though his father was a stonemason, his fingers aren’t dirty enough. And it has always seemed to me that Faulkner’s portraits of working folk bear the imprint of a soft-handed gentleman, the brilliant observer with fingernails stained by ink, not dirt. Doubtless I am missing others.

So along rolls the Great Depression. Steinbeck is right there to chronicle it. (Avoid the dreary In Dubious Battle, which reads like a museum-piece.) Steinbeck’s fingers might not have been callused – evidently he, too, was more observer than doer – but he wrote as if they were. Lennie and George have come to stand in for a whole generation, while the depiction of the black stable buck Crooks is especially poignant today, mere hours after America’s first black president has delivered his first State of the Union address.

Steinbeck is no master stylist. He uses too many apostrophes in the hunt for accuracy of dialect and his descriptions are sometimes flat and leaden. But if you read with your spine as Nabokov suggested, Of Mice and Men is an unbridled pleasure. It recalls the joys of childhood reading, the kind that highfalutin literature and pedantic high school English teachers often kill. Of Mice and Men is finely-rendered tragedy coated in a working man’s dust and sweat.

George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They ain’t got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ’em – ”
“But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”
George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said.
“Because – ”
“Because I got you an’—”
“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us.” Lennie cried in triumph.

Book Review: Little Dorrit

In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov said, “If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens.” Yes. Let us. You could hardly contemplate a more worthy koan or saint or syllable. So please. Go download some Dickens and bathe in the River Charles for as long as your leisure permits.

(As always, spoilers follow.)

Possibly the kindest and most humane of all writers, Dickens just can’t help himself in Little Dorrit. A cynic might say he was so wordy because he was paid by each one. I prefer to think he was just too kind-hearted to do anything but full verbose justice to every sentence. And why not, when the result is this:

“Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to any one, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing; nobody knew that he had any capacity or utterance of any sort in him, which had ever thrown, for any creature, the feeblest farthing-candle ray of light on any path of duty or diversion, pain or pleasure, toil or rest, fact or fancy, among the multiplicity of paths in the labyrinth trodden by the sons of Adam; nobody had the smallest reason for supposing the clay of which this object of worship was made, to be other than the commonest clay, with as clogged a wick smouldering inside of it as ever kept an image of humanity from tumbling to pieces. All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him, more degradedly and less excusably than the darkest savage creeps out of his hole in the ground to propitiate, in some log or reptile, the Deity of his benighted soul.”

Alright, so that was two sentences. But ones nicely illustrating Little Dorrit’s twin virtues: art and social commentary.

Today’s Madoff is merely Merdle reborn. Except the swindler Merdle commits suicide while his present-day counterpart cringes in a mansion hoping for parole. Thusly demonstrating the chasm between Dicken’s artistic temperament and the real world’s shabby realities. Though Dickens is under no illusions that justice will prevail:

“’I hope,’ said Arthur, ‘that he and his dupes may be a warning to people not to have so much done with them again.’
‘My dear Mr Clennam,’ returned Ferdinand, laughing, ‘have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle; in that fact lies the complete manual of governing them.’”

But Little Dorrit is no mere morality tale. Dickens is too big-hearted to be a scold. In fact, he loves his characters so exquisitely he can’t let the bad world happen to them. Oh, they undergo various trials and predicaments. Some even die. But Dickens the Kind Creator gives no one a burden she cannot bear or one that does not ultimately improve her or doesn’t testify to her inherent goodness.

He can’t even stand to create a truly evil character. The villains have a cartoonish quality, cut-out understudies for evil, not evil itself. The cigar-puffing black-outfitted Blandois is so farcical a portrait of a villainy I doubt even Dickens’ contemporaries took it seriously. The preposterous incompetence of the bureaucrats in the Circumlocution Office (i.e., the British Treasury) is a lampooning of all red tape ever spilled anywhere. The hapless prisoners of the Marshalsea and the poor residents of Bleeding Heart Yard have their foibles, their sins and blindnesses. The puffed up rich and powerful are cast from their false pedestals with contempt.

Revealing the common humanity of them all. No need to debase his characters with barbarity or subject them to violence, actual or spiritual. Like a loving father he gently prods them to light, and like wayward children, they obey. As in Little Dorrit herself:

“So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather, flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, in his compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart from the rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take her up in his arms and carry her to her journey’s end.”

Needless to say, Little Dorrit takes her place in the Dickensian pantheon of shamefully mistreated heroes who eventually triumph. The inevitable happy ending arrives with all the grandeur of a duckling in the rain, Little Dorrit’s rickety narrative structure a hair’s breadth from collapse.

But you don’t read this book to get to the end. You read it for the endlessly artful sentences and the droll insight into the nature of the human beast. Few contemporary works have this kind of ambition and so appear trivial in comparison.

“The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the Sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings.”

Such is the task Dickens set himself in Little Dorrit, if not all his works. Of course he did not entirely succeed, but for long stretches he comes admirably close, and where he fails, well, he fails grandly indeed.

Get it for free at Feedbooks and Manybooks.

* * *

Despite more moaning about eyestrain (“For all the claims of their optical friendliness and handiness, e-books still strain the eyes and are challenging to carry around.”), I plowed through Little Dorrit, 1024 pages on paper, on the Kindle with no eyestrain or unhandiness. By now I don’t even notice the blinking of a page turn nor the button-pushing.

I have dogeared hundreds of books with the intention of returning to choice quotes. But since I don’t read with a pen in hand, these remain lost on the page even on those rare occasions when I pick up a book again. Not a problem with the Kindle. Exact quotes are highlighted and stored. A remarkably handy feature that serves as a reminder of why you treasured a fine book in the first place.

Obama sushi

I know I ripped a bit on the estimable Cory Doctorow, but I sure do get a lot of geeky hilarity from his co-blog, Boing Boing. Such as Obama sushi:


オバマさんの肌はアミ(小さなエビ)のつくだ煮を使用。髪は黒ゴマで、歯はかまぼこ。

The Japanese reads “Small Ami shrimp, Tsukuda-style, are used for Obama’s skin. His hair is black sesame and his teeth fish paste.”

The Japanese prime minister is set to visit the White House next week. I wonder if those sushi chefs making BHO look like Fat Albert will come up?

From Boing Boing via MSN Japan.

She’s Automatic

In 2001 I was living in Tokyo and had a girlfriend who loved Rancid with as pure a love as has ever been loved. The closest I ever came to being held in similar regard was when I got us tickets to go see them.

When Rancid came onstage she disappeared into the melee. I glimpsed her at one point during “She’s Automatic” before the crowd and her own delirium swept her away. Didn’t see her again until I found a frazzled pile of sweaty exhaustion spit out by the mosh pit after the third encore. I think she had as genuine a religious experience as any kneeling penitent in a cathedral.

Today I stumbled across the YouTube clip of that very song from that very concert. Somewhere in that swirling mass of twacked-out Japanese kids Minori is ascending to nirvana.

Yes, she is.