Apr 14, 2014

The Mist in the Mirror

Declaration: I love ghost stories. M.R. James, Koji Suzuki, Susan Hill...they are all of a genre that intends to scare, but in a genteel and/or sophisticated way, without gore or too much titillation. The haunting story is a polite subset of the horror genre.

Susan Hill's novel, The Mist in the Mirror, is the story of gentleman adventurer James Monmouth, who becomes obsessed with the exploits of one Conrad Vane, whose dark secrets beckon Monmouth onward to more and more intense research into his own connections with the mysterious explorer who has inspired our protagonist's travels. A simple enough plot, but in the end it's horrifying in an unexpected way.

Most people think of the ghost story as popcorn lit -- something you consume not for substance or sustenance, but as a light snack, an aperitif to some literary main course. But the idea of the restless shade is ancient; the first ghostly apparitions appeared as far back as the Odyssey and the Old Testament. Literary scholar Jack Sullivan delineates a golden age of the ghost story occurring between the 1830s to the 1910s in his 1978 treatise on the topic, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood.

M.R. James, who some critics maintain wrote the most influential ghost story canon of the 20th century, cites professor Frank Coffman in "Some Remarks on the Ghost Stories". The five definitive features of English ghost stories are:

  • the pretense of truth: the story is presented as the rational narration of a credible individual
  • a level of fear that leads the protagonist forward instead of making him flee: "a pleasing terror"
  • an absence of gratuitous elements, e.g., bloodshed, sex, sensational plot devices
  • no "explanation of the machinery" -- the mystery of how a ghost exists is never explicated
  • a contemporary setting: the writer's story is set in his own era

From Hamlet to The Ring, the idea of restless spirits and unfinished business is a mainstay of literature. Hill's haunting stories are plotted simply, with subtle language and detailing that makes the resolution of her stories all the more frightening.

The Mist in the Mirror, by Susan Hill
224 pages.
February 2014 reprint, originally published 2011.

Apr 6, 2014

Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry

New York Times poetry critic David Orr begins his book by identifying the audience as "...two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day to day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it's a subject of, at best, mild and confused interest."

My own complicated relationship with poetry prior to reading this book can be summed up thusly: I think the culture of poetry is weird and insular, but when I do find a poet I like (e.g. Kay Ryan), my devotion is boundless. Of course, in my mind, I always situate the poets I like outside "the culture of poetry" construct I've built.

I'm always interested in the idea of poetry, but I don't go out of my way to find actual poems that I like. Probably because I assume so much of it is so bad. And where I get that idea is from the encounters I've had with some inexperienced poets who think that a poem is so easy to read (it's not always that easy to read, in fact), that it must also be easy to write, so they do. Badly. And books of poetry are easy to self-publish (aren't they? they're smaller anyway, so they'd at least be cheaper to self-publish), so how do I know which books of poetry are worth my mental energy?

Beautiful & Pointless makes me reconsider my ideas, and to recognize that the confessional poetry I think of as "contemporary poetry" is only a tiny part of poetry as a discipline. The author looks at modern poetry with humor, perspective, and an intelligent, critical eye.

Orr unpacks what it takes to make a bad poem bad, and the masterful ways that poets have turned the form to make subject matter that teeters on a tightrope of potential "badness" into well-honed poems. He discusses the tensions between poets and their audiences. He considers both the personal and political aspects of poetry in terms of content. He debunks the notion that poetry is a delicate, personal genre that cannot, or at least should not, be critiqued by readers and reviewers -- in fact, he suggests that readers take a look at all the ways poetry can be impersonal in order to appreciate it fully, as a craft and an art form rather than some mystical expression of a poet's soul.

What recommends poetry as a discipline? Why read it when we could be doing (or reading) any number of other things? Orr offers that in the end, life is made up of many preferences that don't matter, except to us individually. So giving your attention to poetry is as valid a choice of ways  to spend your time as, for instance, watching baseball or taking up skateboarding. There's no reason above and beyond the mere pleasures that poetry can bring -- pleasures akin to viewing paintings on display -- when appreciated from a place of knowledge and experience in the form. "...out of such small, unnecessary devotions," Orr says, "is the abundance of our lives sometimes made evident."

Beautiful & Pointless
HarperCollins, Published 2011
200 pages
Poetry, Criticism

Apr 4, 2014

Moby Dick, A Quote

“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”

-Ishmael, in Moby Dick

Moby Dick

I first read Moby Dick during my "52 books in 52 weeks" project back in 2008. I had to read a lot of Jules Verne novellas to stay on track after spending three weeks on Moby Dick, but who cares about keeping to a schedule when you find you've fallen in love. My lit crush? You can call him Ishmael.

I read Moby Dick again in March to steady myself after a month of maniacally obsessing over my JavaScript class this semester. Took the whole month, read it lazy and luxurious.

One thing to remember when you read Moby Dick: originally this was a whaling novel -- Ahab wasn't even in the first draft.

It's full of all kinds of stylistic surprises: science, art criticism, whale butchery procedurals, asides, interior monologues, and even a recipe for chowder. The dialogue is very often lovely and over-the-top Shakespearean, is occasionally hilarious, and Melville puts some of the action in stage directions. In fact, you get the feeling that he'd been reading a lot of Shakespeare during the writing of Moby Dick (he had), and that makes it all the more strange and interesting. Never fragmented, but it's very "experimental" of H.M. to bricolage all these different styles and elements -- Melville is like the David Foster Wallace of the 1850s. (Or vice versa -- I'm not sure yet; I'm only 100 pages into Infinite Jest).

The central story of Moby Dick is based on actual events. (I plan to read Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea --the Essex tragedy was the shipwreck Melville based his plot upon-- soon.) The central themes, of living authentically and without prejudices bred by the collective fears of society, of the dangers of falling prey to demagogues and megalomaniacs, of the pleasures of work and independence and companionship, resonate so loudly because we still, it goes without saying, struggle with them.

Despite Ishmael's obsession with the technical aspects of whaling, which at times obscures the plot, Ishmael-as-narrator is always present. And since Melville masterfully makes us love Ishmael in those first few chapters, the reader will then happily listen to him talking about the anatomy and dimensions (tattooed on his forearm) of the sperm whale, will wade through a long chapter on cetology, and will stay with him as he almost seems to entirely forget about Ahab's presence on the Pequod. Melville gets to engage us in all this literary sashaying (in terms of content, context, style) because of Ishmael. Ishmael is the most interesting person alive, and lucky to be [alive]. We readers can't help but fall in love with his feckless, reckless lifestyle, and his presumed older & wiser persona writing the book.


post script:

One more thing. If you've never read Moby Dick, don't let its heft daunt you. Those 672 pages are split up into bite-sized chapters of a only few pages each, so it's an easy book to read in small bits. Plus, it's worth every ounce of mental energy you put into it. It's a joy to read, by turns uplifting and distressing, hilarious and dark. And if you want a little primer before you begin, there's no harm in that. Try Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick, a slim volume of essays on topics both broad and narrow to be found in the novel.

Moby Dick
Penguin Reprint Published: Oct 2009
672 pages
Literature & Fiction: Sea Adventures

Mar 30, 2014

February Reading: JavaScript

I haven't written about the books I've been reading mainly because the only books I've been reading are books about JavaScript: Murach's, O'Reilly's, and Haverbeke's. Eloquent JavaScript is definitely my favorite of the three. It's the most literary, written not as much like an instruction manual translated from another language, but more like a love letter to JavaScript, with code. O'Reilly's The Good Parts book (hundreds of pages shorter than O'Reilly's The Definitive Guide, which is also pretty helpful) is nice because it pulls no punches -- you are, early on, informed that parts of JavaScript are annoying and you're just going to have to code around its inherent flaws.

JavaScript, for me, is difficult. I have a tendency to think that statements can only be used in the one way I learned them, and I have a hard time seeing how the different puzzle pieces in my personal jigsaw box of code fit together to solve a programming problem. But I'm still plugging away at it. After all, I scored high on the "programming aptitude test" my professor devised, so I SHOULD be able, even if I never become a master programmer, to become a capable one. If, once this class is complete (whether I pass or fail it), I can write an interactive choose your own adventure novel to the web, I'll be happy with that. In fact, even if I end up failing this class, I have learned 100% more than I knew before. I feel like I've learned a lot, just not quite enough to earn the grade I'm accustomed to earning...which I've finally come to peace with. This class may ruin my GPA, but is a GPA really more important than an education? I say not.

Because I have been consumed, body and soul, with how difficult this class is for me, my February reading time was consumed by books on programming. The one I loved best was Moths in the Machine by Daniel Kohanski. The title comes from the origins of the term "debugging" and the subtitle says it all: "The Power and Perils of Programming". This book is an overview of the craft of programming, with sections on the philosophy of the relationship between programmer-machine-user, mechanics (e.g. the structure of systems), tools (e.g. languages), history, ethics, and the necessary aesthetics of programs.

As for this JavaScript class, because the only listed prerequisites were HTML and CSS (both of which I am confident and comfortable with, and aced the class on them), I figured this would be tough but doable. Lately, I'm not so sure about the doable part. Granted, I am the only one in the class who's spending 40 hours a week on a 3 credit course (for which the expectation is that one will spend 12 hours a week tops), so it's doable for everyone else. But I feel like there's just one obvious thing I'm missing that needs to click into place.

For instance, way back in the aughts, I decided that even if I never plan to own a gun, it might be an interesting skill to know how to shoot one. Not "just in case", but more of a "why not know how to do things" situation. So I spent a few hours in class, and a few hours on the range. I could NOT hit a target. The instructor kept scratching his head, saying, I don't know why you're missing the target. You know everything you need to know. So he had me narrate my actions as I shot the gun, and he immediately figured out that he had forgotten to tell me (probably because to him it seemed obvious) that once you pull the shot off, you need to immediately line the sight back up with the target. Otherwise, the kick throws off the aim. Once I found that out, I was shooting, not bull's eyes, but close enough for my own sense of accomplishment. I just need to figure out what my sight-lining issue is with programming, and I'll be golden.

Which is why I've been reading everything I can get my hands on about the issue.

In March, I committed to stop spending more time on one class that I spend at work, and to stop letting the bad feelings I've had about this class infect the rest of my life, so I've stepped back a little, stopped worrying about how late my assignments are and started focusing on getting them right, and even though I'm still behind, and still not always understanding how statements interact, I'm calmer about it, and happier in general. And, y'know, reading things other than JavaScript manuals.