Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kirsten Dunst, Gender, and Too Many Victorian Novels on My Kindle


Apparently I am stingy, because I feel that intangible ebooks should be cheaper than tangible, second-hand paperbacks. This means that much of my Kindle reading involves free or cheap files filled with long-forgotten fiction of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. Most of it was forgotten for a reason.

Oh, my gosh. So… much… melodrama. The “Greatest Mystery Collection, Volume 2” contain gems like this: Imagine a mystery novel in which it turns out that the victim, a philanthropic and lovely older woman, actually stabbed herself in the heart. This was because she saw her adult son burst into her house (he didn’t know that she was his mother—all of her previous babies had died under what she felt was a curse, so she gave him to another woman to adopt in order to save his life, and herself took that other woman’s dead infant in exchange so that the other woman’s husband would think the babe was his). She is convinced, from the wild eyes of her unfortunately somewhat disreputable but handsome son, that he intends to rob her of the large sum of money which is concealed in her cupboard. In order to save him from committing such a vile deed and thereby descending along the path of wickedness, she stabs herself. Motherlove! When all is revealed and he is finally acquitted of having murdered her (apparently she forgot to think about the legal issues surrounding her noble deed), he honors her forever and goes every year to weep upon her grave. The text even tells us that she is the only woman whose memory is more dear to him than his love for his lovely young wife, and the wife is apparently totally OK with this. I could go on, but this gives you an idea of the style of Agatha Webb by Anna Katherine Green.

Even in the less sentimental, more humorous stories of the early Twentieth Century, such as Seven Keys To Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers, one finds beautiful blond girls who do things like tell random young men (I paraphrase), “You must trust me, and steal the money for me with no explanation. I will sit about helplessly and berate you as a traitor every time you fail. In the end, you can propose to me. I will point out that we just met, and you will say that doesn’t matter. I will finally surrender and go limp in your arms. The end.” I must mention that in his last and final proposal, the young man’s endearing argument against the girl’s hesitation over the fact that he doesn’t even know her last name is to tell her, “That’s women’s logic.” I rather like old-fashioned values, but this is too much for me.

Such books appear at first glance to be the antithesis of modern feelings about gender roles, romance, and correct behavior. It is easy to read this stuff and be glad that modernism brought us out of the age of swooning and sentimentality. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not as different from the Victorians and their Edwardian children as we think we are.  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Let’s Play, “Spot the Killer in Three Easy Steps” (or, Why Dorothy Sayers is Awesome)

(Image from HERE)

The problem with mystery novels is that they are expected to be surprising. This of course makes them unrealistic, because in real life, the sort of people who are the most likely to commit crimes usually do commit most of the crimes. In detective fiction, they rarely do. Readers of such literature will be aware of the following sacred and hallowed genre premises:

1. The least likely suspect is most likely to be guilty.
2. There are no random crimes.

Not to mention:

3. The inhabitants of small country villages spend so much time bashing each other on the head and having affairs with each others’ spouses, per capita, that it’s a wonder they get anything else done (or retain any population).

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Yes, There Is a Right Way to Portray Fairies (and Why It Matters)

By “fairies,” I refer to the creatures who inhabit the unsettling tales of old legend, not those winged lawn ornaments of Victorian and modern art. I really mean “the fey folk,” “the people under the hill,” “the fair ones.” We need them, and I shall explain why.

The fey folk are dangerous. Disobey their instructions not to look over your shoulder, and your head might get stuck that way. Annoy them, and your cows may never give milk again. Go to one of their parties, and you might just dance until the flesh falls off your bones. They are not like humans: they do not feel love or pity. They are unearthly and amoral.

Yet they are also fascinating. Their powers are mysterious, their race appears immortal, and often they are more beautiful than any sight yet seen by human eyes.

The only reliable thing about the fey folk is that they are unpredictable. Sometimes they plague a farm with tricks and mischief, sometimes they exchange a human child for one of their own, sometimes they steal a man away to be husband to a fey, sometimes they give a woman rich rewards for having helped them. Cautious people avoid them. Sane people are always terribly polite to them. Unfortunate people are driven mad by them.   

The folk play an important role in the stories that shape our imaginations. It is important to remember the lessons of the fey:
1. Always treat strangers with courtesy and caution, because you do not know who (or what) they might be.
2. There are mysteries in the world that make life deeper, more frightening, more beautiful, and more exciting than it would otherwise be.
3. There are realms into which humans ought not to delve, and desires which humans ought not to satisfy, lest we destroy ourselves.

The last point is something very much needed today. We live in a world where the concept of Eve’s apple and Pandora’s box is hard to truly understand, because it is fashionable now to think that any taboo can be thrown off and any barrier broken. We are accustomed to choice and freedom and scientific discovery. We are bold enough to think that we will be able to understand everything about the human brain, or outer space, or love, or engineering humans in petri dishes. We truly believe that everything in the world is ours for our taking (and we probably even believe that we can custom-order it while we take it).

Friday, March 28, 2014

Might Miss Austen Have Been Pleased? Literary Links in 7 Quick Takes


Increasingly, I wonder if brevity is the key to artistry, just as simplicity is often the heart of beauty. Good children’s novels are lovely because they distill observations about life and ideas into a short, simple, and potentially profound format. They appeal to the child and cause the adult to think. They are truly soul-stirring pieces of literature.

Brevity, conciseness, and distillation don’t necessarily require that pictures be small and books be short. Will Strunk, of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, says, “Vigorous writing is concise… This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” Sometimes a very long story gives the impression that every word is essential. However, often a space-challenged medium forces a storyteller to bring out the very best in his tale. Often shorter novels actually say more. Miss Austen’s books are not in the least long, as novels (especially nineteenth-century novels) go, but they are polished to such a degree that they say a great deal.

I found much to think about in Eva Brann’s fascinating (and admittedly long) discourse on Austen’s novels. In Austen-esque language, she discusses Jane’s Austen’s character and personal life as well as her artistry. You really should read it: “The Perfections of Jane Austen.” 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A New Project That Is Very Exciting

I haven't posted in over a week, for several quite defensible reasons:

1. I've been traveling
2. We are trying to convince our sweet little son that his sudden desire to party at night is most ill-advised
3. I've been working on a new project.

The new project is very exciting.

I would like to announce that "Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife" (a blog about vocational relationships from a Law and Gospel perspective) is now live! You'll be able to read articles by a variety of fantastic Lutheran women about topics like virtuous singlehood, mothering, and hospitality. Take a look at the first post and stick around the read the other articles that are already up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Distant Hours

by Kate Morton, 2010

After reading the first few chapters, I found myself hoping that I would love this novel. The leading protagonist is a bookish young Englishwoman who tends to get lost while driving (like me) and who comments that it is so much easier to write well than to speak well (I can identify). During the story, she finds herself trying to unravel the past in order to understand her own mother’s youth. This past history is interwoven with the lives of the mysterious, spinster daughters of a famous author who inspired the protagonist’s love of reading. Did I mention that the events in question are centered around an eerie, ancient, English castle where the heroine’s mother was evacuated from London during World War II? In addition, the prose of the book itself is written in a leisurely, promising style. The text alternates between our bookish Englishwoman’s research efforts and a series of events from the past, as told from the perspectives of the different spinster sisters. In the end, we also find out about the young soldier who went missing during the War and how he came to do so.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Indefatigable Blog Tinkering

It may be observed that the blog looks different again. Better, I think, but not yet quite... there. I'm enjoying learning how to play with the template and picmonkey, but so far am still cobbling things together in what is undoubtedly an inefficient method (i.e., my blog is now narrower because I needed to match the width of the title image). Perhaps it would help if I could draw. I could design myself a lovely sketch of an avocado upon a pile of books, or an avocado in front of a book, or an avocado reading a book...

Meanwhile, I'm trying to think of a strange and random item that could be magically enchanted (in fiction). Unsettling Wonder is taking story submissions on the topic, "Why would anyone enchant that?" It would be nice to return to more fiction writing. Do you think they would publish a story about an enchanted volume of the Book of Concord, or perhaps Luther's Small Catechism?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Whisky After the Funeral

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

(A story in about 500 words)

Old Man Shore at first thought that God had spared him the least worthwhile of his sons. Then, within six months of Appomattox, even that little joke came to an end—the remnant of Roy’s leg had never ceased oozing pus, and he too joined his brothers under sod. They buried him in his grey uniform with its yellow braid, despite the minister’s suggestion that civilian attire befit a time of peace. “There is a passage in the Bible,” Old Man Shore reminded the minister, “that says to beware those who cry, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. All we have now is reconstructing Yankees, not peace.”

The funeral was small. Miss Emily White was the only one who wept, and even her tears were restricted to a single drop that slid down her weathered face and into her collar when Shore dropped his fistful of earth onto the grave.

Shore walked home alone. In his study, he sat for a while beside a glass of whiskey. “I’m not going to take this in the manner of Job, you know,” he told God. Then he combed his hair neatly and took out Roy’s cavalry pistol from the drawer.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What on Earth is a Human Being?

 Since the dawn of modern science, we have been made uneasy by the prospect of using technology to change or enhance the human mind and body. Such an endeavor forces us to wonder what really defines us. Suppose we took a child and gave her a robotic leg. She would still be human. But what if we enlarged the scope of her robotics? What if she had a human head and a robot body? What if she had a human body with a robot head, or robotic enhancements to her brain? Sci-fi tale after tale has attempted to explore some permutation of this question (indeed, perhaps even Frankenstein fits among those volumes).

We have asked ourselves, “What separates us from machines?” Our answer has focused on the mind. The body does not much matter, we say. Instead, what makes us human are the thoughts, feelings, and desires that flow from the human brain (such a division may prove to be scientifically premature, considering recent discoveries that indicate how integrated our feelings and bodies are—for example, the tie between the bacteria in our guts and the feelings in our heads). Yet our delegation of the body to a lower shelf has contributed to a tremendous change in our culture’s understanding of fundamental aspects of being human: sex, gender, and the purpose of human life. We have come to the point where our physical body need no longer inform our identity, and where humans are considered perfectly sane although they attempt to exchange one healthy physical body for a preferred type of physical body, such a male body for a female one (we still consider Body Integrity Identity Disorder, in which sufferers feel that some part or whole of one of their limbs does not belong to themselves, and desire to have it amputated, to be an illness)

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Anniversary of the Sewing Machine in 7 Quick Takes


When I was a little girl, I liked asking for comparative data (“Daddy, if a tiger and a bear had a fight, which would win?”). I remember querying my mother as to which items she would rescue from our house first if the house was on fire and all the people were safe. In addition to photo albums, she was going to save her sewing machine. It is a Pfaff, and had been a significant investment when she was a young bride.

Sewing machines are fabulous things. Become fluent in the use of one, and you need no longer feel yourself at the mercy of wearing whatever this year’s fashion trends happen to provide, or of suffering with the fit of whatever trousers are closest to your size. 

Today, on the anniversary of the day that French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first functional sewing machine in 1830, let us rejoice.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: Marisa Meyer's Cinder

New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012
Young Adult

In futuristic Asia, the situation is bleak. A dreadful plague without a cure ravages the population, and the evil and powerful Lunar queen threatens the freedom of the countries on earth. Meanwhile, the royal prince is preparing for the annual ball and desperately hoping to uncover the true heir to the Lunar throne. This is one of those books that isn’t actually very good, yet somehow contains an intangible spark that makes a reader care about the protagonist.  The story’s weaknesses are all upfront: It is a young adult fantasy romance (not a promising genre). There are logical gaps that require suspension of disbelief. Its futuristic setting shows very little worldbuilding. In fact, even though a royal prince and international intrigue are involved, they are portrayed as they might be imagined by a historically ignorant ninth-grader.    

Yet something about the heroine—a orphaned, teenage cyborg who supports her unkind stepmother and her stepsisters by working as a mechanic in New Beijing—kept me turning pages. She is interesting. She makes me want to see her survive and succeed.

As a retelling of Cinderella, the tale is creative and imaginative. I enjoyed seeing how the source material was used and reinvented. After all, how often do you see Cinderella-as-cyborg? Cinder does end up going to the ball, of course, but her story is only begun in this novel. If I want to find out whether or not she marries the prince (and, more important to this retelling, whether the evil Lunar queen is defeated) I will have to read the other three books in the series. 

Read other reviews at What We're Reading Wednesday!

Friday, February 14, 2014

What Does It Take to Educate a Child? 5 Points and 7 Recommended Readings

Another way of asking the same question is, “What should an adult be like, and how do you encourage a child to become like that?” I’ve been bookmarking articles and posts that address one sliver or another of that massive question.

Educating a child takes:

1. A love of one’s subject that manifests as zeal, or toughness, when teaching it to others.

In, “Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results,” Joanne Lipman recalls her high school orchestra teacher and points out that modern research supports his old-fashioned teaching methods.

I had a teacher once who called his students "idiots" when they screwed up. He was our orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky, and when someone played out of tune, he would stop the entire group to yell, "Who eez deaf in first violins!?" He made us rehearse until our fingers almost bled. He corrected our wayward hands and arms by poking at us with a pencil.
 What did Mr. K do right? What can we learn from a teacher whose methods fly in the face of everything we think we know about education today, but who was undeniably effective?

2. The ability to inspire imagination.

In, “It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child” Daniel B. Coupland makes it clear that character isn’t learned from lesson plans and check marks.

These tales of fantasy and adventure are an inheritance that provides concrete images of goodness and evil — often in vivid blacks and whites — to the still receptive minds of the young. Over time, these images become patterns, and the patterns become habits, and the habits become our way of looking at reality. Children need these sharp distinctions to navigate in a morally confusing world.

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