30 November 2016

the uncanny valley.

explained for English majors, by an English major.

Right, you know when you're in a used-book store, one of those wonderful tiny ones where the books are organized by subject matter and nothing else, and the shelves are improbably high and if you tried to take a book down off the top shelf everything would fall down and kill you, probably? And there's a cat, because of course there's a cat, and it's absurdly satisfied with itself? Which it deserves to be, if you lived here you'd be satisfied with yourself too. You wouldn't mind trading lives with that cat for a week or so.

You circle the store in no great hurry. You poke through the section labeled Esoterica, hoping to find some Charles Fort (you've been re-reading From Hell lately) but all you can find are dusty paperbacks about astrology and candle magick and that sort of thing. You almost buy a translation of The Golden Ass, but you're trying lately not to buy books that you can trivially find from the library, so you leave it, even though it's by a translator you admire a great deal. In general living so near a public library rather punctures your enthusiasm for book-buying; what you really covet is that lovely bust of Hippocrates, which isn't for sale. Textbooks you still buy, though, so you dutifully (futilely) examine all the New Testament commentaries in hopes of finding the ones you've been assigned for Advanced Koinē next semester.

You also seriously consider a novel by A.S. Byatt, but your mother loves Byatt and so you reckon she probably owns a copy—you can borrow it over Christmas break. If she doesn't have it you can just re-read Possession; it's been over a year. In Drama you accidentally pick up some anti-Stratfordian literature, and because you're absurdly overdramatic you make an audible noise of disgust when you realize what it is you're holding. This is by far your favorite bit of the store, in the absence of any discernible sci-fi shelves, and in between looking at nice editions of your favorite Shakespeare plays you reiterate to yourself your long-standing intention to finally read The Revenger's Tragedy. 

Another thing that catches your eye over here is a little hardback of the first quarto of Hamlet, the bad quarto of 1603. You take it down and open it at random, and the first line your gaze falls on is Corambis (the bad quarto's equivalent of Polonius) saying "He hath, my lord, won from me a forced grant." The Folio line, you know very well, is "He hath, my lord, won from me my slow leave." It's almost exactly the same thing—scans the same, means the same. But this version is completely nails-on-chalkboard wrong to you, so wrong that you can't even judge on its own merits how good a line it is. It's the wrong line, end of, and it feels even more wrong because it's so close to the line you already know. You've always thought of Shakespeare as a binary state, whereby any given text is either Shakespeare or not-Shakespeare, but this is almost Shakespeare, and it makes you physically uncomfortable.

And, yeah, the uncanny valley is that feeling but with robots.

you thought I was joking about the cat, didn't you?

9 November 2016

I don't know what to say, but I'm still here. Heartbroken, and taking time to fully absorb what's happened. I've been rereading the C.S. Lewis essay "Learning in War-Time" all day long, because it's the only way to keep myself doing my schoolwork and not giving up entirely.
The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. [...] Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. If we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.
And so I'm doing the work I can do. If you're afraid: so am I, and I'm sorry, and I'm here for you. Read this; it helped me a little and it might help you too. Let's all be kind to each other, and work for knowledge and beauty as much as we can. Κύριε ἐλέησον. Χριστέ ἐλέησον.

7 November 2016

a series of promises in the event that I am magically transported to London 1601.

This exists in lieu of an actual review of Saving Hamlet, a new YA novel in which the protagonist is magically transported to London 1601. It's essentially a much less good version of Susan Cooper's King of Shadows, which is one of my favorite children's novels of all time. It was fun even so, but I had mixed feelings about it, largely because the central time traveler is so unrealistically incompetent that I was cringing throughout. This is a recurrent problem with time travel narratives; one of the few things I wholeheartedly admire about myself is that I know I would do a very good job of time traveling. Most of the below are not based on specific things the protagonist of Saving Hamlet does, but some of them would be good advice for her nevertheless.

See also this and this.


I will cheerfully eat and/or drink absolutely anything that anyone offers me. I will drink ale like it's water. I will not drink water, unless I am able to discreetly boil it.

I will not go around boiling water: that would attract attention.

If anyone suggests that I join them to go watch the bear-baiting, I will respond with enthusiasm and a blithe unconcern for the humane treatment of animals. This is a normal thing, I will say, and I am delighted to join you in this, a normal event which we will both without reservation enjoy.

I will be very grateful that my sense of smell is naturally quite weak, but to be completely safe I will not comment at all, even once, on the smell of anything. All smells I am smelling are normal smells, and I, a normal inhabitant of 1601, am completely okay with them. (The exception will be if I smell smoke—buildings of this period are extremely flammable, as am I, and I'm taking no risks.)

I will be very grateful that I'm not squeamish about blood.

I will express surprise at nothing; I will put forward no opinions.

I will do all in my power to ensure that no one notices me.

I will conjugate all verbs correctly. If I am unsure of how to conjugate a verb, I will not use it. There is always a workaround.

I will be aware of my use of pronouns. "You" is for strangers, social superiors, and groups of two or more. "Thou" is for friends, social inferiors, and supernatural beings. "Ye" is a plural form of "thou." I will not confuse these, but if I do I will err on the side of "you."

Despite my commitment to accurate EModE, I will not say "forsooth"; it will make me sound ridiculous. I might say "i'faith," but only if I hear other people doing it first.

Under no circumstances will I call anyone "nuncle."

I will not try to do the accent, because I have my pride. I will take as many notes as possible on the accent, though I will not let anyone notice me doing so; upon returning to my own time, I will anonymously mail these notes to Ben Crystal.

I will not attempt to invent feminism.

I will not attempt to invent vaccines.

I will not attempt to invent the germ theory of disease.

I will accept, generally, that I understand nothing about modern medicine, and that anything I say or do will help absolutely no one and might make people think I'm a witch.

That said, if I can actually do something to save somebody's life, I will.

I will express no doubts regarding the efficacy of bloodletting; in general, I will enthusiastically align myself with humor theory. Bile, man, am I right? (It will help that I already low-level believe in humor theory. Do I know it's been discredited? Yes. Do I avoid eating mustard when I'm in a bad mood? Religiously.)

I will figure out exactly what the deal was with Will Kempe and the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Any breakup that ends in one of the parties Morris dancing to Norwich must be a really good story.

I will remember that Shakespeare has not yet written Measure for Measure, All's Well that Ends Well, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, Pericles, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, The Tempest, or Two Noble Kinsmen. I will make no reference to any of these plays. I will be wary of mentioning Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, and Hamlet, all of which date to 1601 +/- a couple years. I will under no circumstances reference any of his sonnets at all; none of them have yet been published.

Anything by Kit Marlowe is fair game, though; he's already dead.

When I attempt to place evidence of myself in the historical record, I will do so subtly and with as little true anachronism as possible.

I will be extremely polite to Richard Burbage.

If I meet Edward de Vere, I will punch him in the face, and I will refuse to explain why. I may or may not seek him out for this express purpose.

3 November 2016

october bookblogging.

Susan Howatch, The Wonder Worker. Astute readers may remember that over the summer I read the Starbridge series, a collection of novels focusing on the Church of England from the thirties to the sixties. Later on, Howatch wrote three more in the series, featuring a different setting but lots of the same characters. These are the St. Benet's Trilogy, about a London-based ministry of healing. The thing I love about Howatch is her characters. They all feel so real, and coming back to her world after a few months away was like paying a call on old friends. Unlike the Starbridge books, this book has a different narrator for each part: Alice Fletcher, Lewis Hall, Rosalind Darrow, and Nicholas Darrow. The changing perspectives worked very well to build a full picture of events. I was able to see—for example—from Lewis' perspective that Rosalind was utterly ghastly and all wrong for Nicholas, and then I was able to see from Rosalind's perspective how agonizing it must be to be Nick's wife, and how having Lewis around wasn't helping even a little. Nuance! None of these people are terrible, although they can be terrible to one another. They all need lots of help. And divine grace.

Alejandro Zambra, Multiple Choice. Experimental Chilean novel (short stories? poetry? game?) written in the form of a multiple-choice test. It took me a while to get into the spirit of things, but it got better as it went and ultimately I think it's a successful project.

Ryan North & Erica Henderson, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now. And just like that there's three whole ongoing comics series I care about. (Saga and Ms. Marvel, obviously.) Doreen Green is a sophomore computer-science major with all the powers of squirrel! She fights crime! Where was this comic book when I was twelve! It's a warm-hearted all-ages comic, it's really funny, and Henderson's art is delightful.

David Prudhomme, Cruising Through the Louvre. Immersive and magical. A man wanders around the Louvre, feeling as though he's in an enormous comic book. Minimal dialogue and narration, lots of wonderful sketches of museum patrons. My favorite bits are the parallels between the patrons and the art, especially on the Raft of the Medusa page. Looking at people looking at art is one of my favorite parts of the museum experience, and Prudhomme captures that so beautifully.

Howatch, The High Flyer. I don't know what it is with Susan Howatch. Her early books were so subtle and psychologically nuanced. This book is not really either of those things. (Well, maybe the second. Definitely not the first.) Carter Graham is a high-powered City lawyer; her husband Kim has, depending on how you count, no fewer than three dark secrets. One of them involves Nazis; one of them involves gnosticism. The number and general over-the-topness of Kim's revelations rapidly leads to diminishing returns, such that the entire plotline becomes less shocking than funny. There's a lot to like here—Carter herself is well-drawn, and the St. Benet's crew are as lovely as ever—but overall it's a weak entry in the series.

Howatch, The Heartbreaker. A step up from The High Flyer, though still not up to her earlier standard. I think my major issue with these three is that they focus almost entirely on the laity, which means they lack all the church politics from the earlier volumes. It turns out I really was largely in it for the clerical infighting and archidiaconal scorn.

ed. Jack Lindsay, Loving Mad Tom. A collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Bedlamite songs. Folklore nerds, for the use of. (No, you regularly Google MA programs in folkloristics.) This was published in the twenties and reprinted in the seventies and is now out of print, and all I can say is thank God for college library privileges—it looks as though my other option would have been to buy it for $223 from Amazon. Which, like, if that sounds like a good deal to you then by all means go for it, though I'm not sure how wholeheartedly I can recommend that. In terms of the texts themselves it's an invaluable resource, but I wish the notes were less cumbersome to navigate. It's a good and important volume but not as user-friendly as it could be. (Also, shout-out to the foreword, by Robert Graves, which contains the following line on "Tom o' Bedlam": "All that need by said is that the author was someone pretty good." Same, bro.)

North & Henderson, Squirrel Power & Squirrel, You Know It's True. See above.

Pat Barker, Regeneration. A historical novel about Siegfried Sassoon's time in psychiatric care. I was going to say "long on incident, short on plot," but in fact it's short on both those things. It's a beautiful novel and I admire it, but the fact is that nothing happens and I had trouble telling the characters apart.

Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning. A new sci-fi novel that's going to get nominated for all this year's awards, and if there's any justice in the world it's going to win the Tiptree. (Seriously, it'll upend your perceptions of gender if you give it half a chance.) It's a bit, a little bit, like if Susanna Clarke wrote sci-fi instead of fantasy, complete with the shock of wait, what, this is her first novel, WHAT. Like JS&MN, this is one of those books that takes a while to ease into because all the while it's teaching you how to read it. It's set in the twenty-fifth century but written in an eighteenth-century style. The world is intricate and multifaceted, and it gets into your head. The thing people will want to do with this book is argue about whether it's utopian or dystopian, and the argument will be as boring and wrongheaded as it always is. The world is a bit good and a bit bad, which is why it's convincing. I wouldn't want to live in Palmer's world, but I want some of the things that it has and I can see why other people would want to live there. It's also theological sci-fi, though the theology is very strange and I won't be able to comment on it properly until I've read the rest of the series.

Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. This is such a weird play. It's got that sort of Grimm Brothers atmosphere of casual slapstick surrealism—which makes sense, of course, as the plot comes out of German folklore. "Let's be invisible and steal the Pope's dinner and then punch him!" and "that magician just ate a whole cartload of hay for literally no reason?" and "oh, I tried to wake this guy up and now his entire leg came off in my hand, this is fine," that sort of thing. Besides all that, Faustus' idea of earthly delights appears to be a) pranks b) arguing (he argues about existence of hell with a demon he just summoned out of hell; Faustus is too dumb to live—same with all that "think'st thou then that Faustus must be damned?" malarkey: you just now signed your soul over to Lucifer, my dude! Do you, like, not know what words mean, is that the problem?) and c) kissing Helen of Troy that one time. (He's always promising to make human sacrifices, which would be interestingly perverse and make a change from all the astronomy, but he never really seems to get around to it.) He does get a chariot drawn by dragons, but the dragons are offstage, probably on grounds of "Kit, we showed your draft to the props master and he started crying?" Mistake me not: this play is incredible. There are parts of it I would give a year of my life to have written, and I want to have sex with Kit Marlowe's brain. But, yeah, it's also kind of ridiculous. Feelings! They're complicated!

Dorothy Sayers, The Devil to Pay. Another play of the Faust legend, and it was not well served by being paired so directly with Marlowe. I grant that saying "Dorothy Sayers was not as good as Marlowe" does rather amount to praising her with faint damns. There's some really wonderful moments here—Faustus' soul being so degraded that even Mephistopheles isn't interested in it anymore is a neat touch, and I love the handling of Azrael—but on the whole this is very thin. I think that skill at writing everyday people, which served her so well in her life of Christ plays, is her undoing here; she tries to make Faustus believable and ends by making him ordinary. Ordinariness is of course the last thing I want from the Faustus myth, and the effect shows in the fact that though this play is occasionally clever, it is never terrifying. There are also rather too many things that go underexplained, and the gender roles are not at all what I'd expect from Sayers.