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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

The Year of the Flood

I just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I was surprised after I began reading it to find that it is a companion piece to Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and it includes many of the same characters and the same events only from different perspectives.

Honestly, I think Oryx and Crake is a much better book. The plot is tight whereas The Year of the Flood is really all over the place with a lot of magical coincidence (I just made that up).

One particular aspect about the book interested me quite a bit. In Oryx and Crake, we see a character try to create a perfect species. In The Year of the Flood, there is the attempt to create a perfect religion.

Atwood is taking this religion on the road with her oddly enough. The songs she wrote for the book are performed on tour by a choir. She also mentions in her acknowledgments that she has celebrated one of the feast days of the religion with her partner.

It is funny isn’t it that religion can be consciously created? You can will yourself into a new religion. I remember once when I was taking Classics in college my professor mentioned a man who had tried to adopt Greek mythology as his religion. He celebrated the right events and prayed to the appropriate gods based on what he wanted to accomplish. He found that he actually started to believe and would instinctively call out to certain gods without even thinking about it.

In The Year of the Flood a character does not believe in the religion that she is a member of, yet she continues the ritual despite that. By the end of the book we have indications that on some level she believes, and there are some events that could be construed as miracles which prove her religion.

Perhaps all religions begin this way.

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Heard on the radio

Wow. Last night listened to crotchety old man Harold Bloom on npr about the decline of the humanities. Translation: people study books and poetry that he doesn’t like. However, if like me you like literary criticism and you have the stomach for listening to him (he is quite amusing actually) then here is the link.

On to this morning where on npr they featured a story about moving the Guantanamo Bay prisoners to an Illinois prison. How do they begin this interesting feature? By interviewing a woman whose son fought in the Iraq war. After she tells us about the sacrifices her family has made, she says that bringing terrorists to America is like a direct slap in the face to soldiers like her son.

Excuse me? Did someone at npr think that interviewing an intellectually challenged woman about completely unrelated topics would have anything to add to the discussion? In what real world is harboring prisoners a direct slap in the face to soldiers. How is it that this would a slap in the face merely because it’s in America? I just don’t get npr anymore. None of it makes any sense.

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I was reading a blog the other day that used the above title as a sarcastic jab at the Salvation Army in Houston who reportedly was requesting social security numbers to prevent non-citizens from getting toys.

Working in Information Technology, you learn that collecting social security numbers is by far the stupidest thing you could ever do as an organization. The liability of having those numbers is just not worth the minuscule value they may provide, but that’s aside the point.

You may recall the title of this post is a line from Dickens A Christmas Carol. I’m posting an excerpt with this fabulous exchange in the hopes that you may consider the meaning of charity this Christmas season.

The clerk, in letting Scrooge’s nephew out, had let two other people in. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, and now stood, with their hats off, in Scrooge’s office. They had books and papers in their hands, and bowed to him.    ‘Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,’ said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. ‘Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Scrooge, or Mr Marley?’

‘Mr Marley has been dead these seven years,’ Scrooge replied. ‘He died seven years ago, this very night.’

‘We have no doubt his liberality is well represented by his surviving partner,’ said the gentleman, presenting his credentials.

It certainly was, for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word liberality, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

‘At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,’ said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ‘it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.’

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.

‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’

‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman,’ I wish I could say they were not.’

‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.

‘Both very busy, sir.’

‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’

‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’

‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides-excuse me-I don’t know that.’

‘But you might know it,’ observed the gentleman.

‘It’s not my business,’ Scrooge returned. ‘It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!’

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

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One of my favorite English classes at college was 18th-Century English literature. I found I really liked Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and other satirists. I guess I just really appreciated a time when people talked about serious things but in no way took themselves seriously. Jeni, if you’re reading this, what was the name of that class? It was something witty like “Sense and Sensuality.” Maybe that’s it.

Seattle has been unbearably rainy for the past 2 weeks. Here’s Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of  City Shower.”

Careful Observers may fortel the Hour
(By sure Prognosticks) when to dread a Show’r:
While Rain depends, the pensive Cat gives o’er
Her Frolicks, and pursues her Tail no more.
Returning Home at Night, you’ll find the Sink
Strike your offended Sense with double Stink.
If you be wise, then go not far to Dine,
You spend in Coach-hire more than save in Wine.
A coming Show’r your shooting Corns presage,
Old Aches throb, your hollow Tooth will rage.
Sauntring in Coffee-house is Dulman seen;
He damns the Climate, and complains of Spleen.

Mean while the South rising with dabbled Wings,
A Sable Cloud a-thwart the Welkin flings,
That swill’d more Liquor than it could contain,
And like a Drunkard gives it up again.
Brisk Susan whips her Linen from the Rope,
While the first drizzling Show’r is born aslope,
Such is that Sprinkling which some careless Quean
Flirts on you from her Mop, but not so clean.
You fly, invoke the Gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her Mop.
Not yet, the Dust had shun’d th’unequal Strife,
But aided by the Wind, fought still for Life;
And wafted with its Foe by violent Gust,
‘Twas doubtful which was Rain, and which was Dust.
Ah! where must needy Poet seek for Aid,
When Dust and Rain at once his Coat invade;
Sole Coat, where Dust cemented by the Rain,
Erects the Nap, and leaves a cloudy Stain.

Now in contiguous Drops the Flood comes down,
Threat’ning with Deloge this Devoted Town.
To Shops in Crouds the dagled Females fly,
Pretend to cheapen Goods, but nothing buy.
The Templer spruce, while ev’ry Spout’s a-broach,
Stays till ’tis fair, yet seems to call a Coach.
The tuck’d-up Sempstress walks with hasty Strides,
While Streams run down her oil’d Umbrella’s Sides.
Here various Kinds by various Fortunes led,
Commence Acquaintance underneath a Shed.
Triumphant Tories, and desponding Whigs,
Forget their Fewds, and join to save their Wigs.
Box’d in a Chair the Beau impatient sits,
While Spouts run clatt’ring o’er the Roof by Fits;
And ever and anon with frightful Din
The Leather sounds, he trembles from within.
So when Troy Chair-men bore the Wooden Steed,
Pregnant with Greeks, impatient to be freed,
(Those Bully Greeks, who, as the Moderns do,
Instead of paying Chair-men, run them thro’.)
Laoco’n struck the Outside with his Spear,
And each imprison’d Hero quak’d for Fear.

Now from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell
What Streets they sail’d from, by the Sight and Smell.
They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force
From Smithfield, or St.Pulchre’s shape their Course,
And in huge Confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge.
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnips-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

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Limericks are not that sophisticated.

Discuss.

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With all of this talk about someone forging a Kenyan birth certificate for Obama, I was reminded of a fascinating article I read many years ago in the Guardian.

Mark Hofman was a really good forger. He conducted careful research and he chose his victims well. They were people who bought the forgeries because they wanted to believe they were real. Or in the case of the Mormon Church, the church wanted to destroy “real” documents which contradicted existing Mormon Orthodox. They made their purchases to destroy the documents. Here is an excerpt. The whole article is a great read.

The man he was describing is no ordinary murderer. Poetry and literature were the accomplices in his crimes; parchment and ink the tools of his trade. His name is Mark Hofmann and, until he was incarcerated, he was America’s greatest literary forger: a man who combined obsessive historical research, extraordinary craftsmanship and an unerring instinct for what his customers wanted. Two years ago, one of those forgeries, a masterfully-executed poem by the much-loved American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886, turned up at Sotheby’s, New York, where it was sold for $21,000 to the Jones Library, in Dickinson’s home town, Amherst, Massachusetts.

“I thought: this is just extraordinary,” says Daniel Lombardo, the former curator of special collections at the Jones Library, recalling the moment when he first saw the poem in Sotheby’s catalogue for its June 1997 auction of fine books and manuscripts. “A complete poem, not a fragment of a poem. In my recollection, it had been decades since a poem came up this way.”

And part two is here.

Update: It occurred to me that an excerpt of the Mormon bit of the article might stir some interest.

Forging coins had taught him two lessons: that things have no intrinsic value, and that people will believe what they want to believe. The Church of the Latter Day Saints was the perfect victim. Since its beginnings, in 1863, it has been a religion in search of authentication. The hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of documents that Hofmann sold to the church were faith-promoting documents of the highest order. They included the earliest known Mormon artefact – a letter from the mother of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith – and the last: a letter written by Smith from jail just before he was murdered.

Hofmann’s real intention, however, was to destroy the faith he despised. Like a virus planted in a computer, he began to feed the Church of Latter Day Saints with documents that called into question some of the fundamental tenets of the faith. His most famous forgery came to be known as The White Salamander Letter. In it, Hofmann portrayed the Mormon church’s prophet, Joseph Smith, as a money-grubbing gold prospector who dabbled in black magic. Instead of angelic inspiration, he invented a diabolic, talking lizard. The Mormon Church bought the document for $250,000, and locked it away so that no one would see it.

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Amazon is being sued for deleting e-books from their customer’s Kindles when Amazon found out the e-books were pirated copies.

The lawsuit said Amazon never disclosed to customers that it “possessed the technological ability or right to remotely delete digital content purchased through the Kindle Store.”

No shit. I didn’t know that about the Kindle either. The book? You’ll never believe. Orwell’s 1984. Check out the story.

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