29 March 2008

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

This is a librivox recording. All librivox recordings are in the public domain. This reading by Stewart Wills. Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. Chapters 34 and 35.

The envelope text for each mp3 file, chapter by chapter, all 45 of them, all 14 and a half hours of them. The entire thing is read by Wills, who, over the course of those 14 hours, becomes a meta-Marlow, narrating the internally narrated tale for you (or me, in this case), seemingly in the middle of my head as I, appropriately, row down the imaginary river.

Wills' reading was amazing. I will report on other readers and whether they are as good/professional/engaging, but having just finished Persuasion read by a professional actress, this was equally good. He didn't try too much for accents, but instead provided a change in the quality of his voice for certain characters, with a bit of accent thrown in--the key was that he was consistent: you knew you were hearing the German captain of the Patna, the Australian ne'er-do-well, the Malay deck hand. The book relates the story of Jim through the voice of Marlow, so we have multiple narrators: Conrad, describing Marlow's narration, Marlow, narrating the story of Jim to various audiences, and Jim, usually in conversation with Marlow. Wills changed his tone for each narrator such that the transition was seamless. He became the meta-Marlow.

Book-wise, I can recommend Lord Jim: it's a fascinating insight into the small world that was seafaring around the Indian Ocean in the late 19th century. It's got a heart-of-darkness theme (remember how we all only really have one idea and we repeat it--that's definitely true here, although it's repeated in an entertaining and fascinating way). It also talks about people falling into the 'one of us' category: Marlow helps Jim throughout the novel, but feels torn about it. He falls back on the 'he's (obviously) one of us' framework to justify it, which calls into question those who are not of 'us' and why they are not. It's about class primarily, but it's also about the fact that no matter how much Jim separates himself from his own past (class, family, actions), for Marlow he is always 'one of us' and will never shake that.

The novel does suffer occasionally from a feeling that Conrad was getting paid by the word and, well, needed to stretch things out a bit. But those passages also feel like short stories along the way in a larger narrative about the Indian Ocean, and so it maintains its entertaining edge even when the larger story isn't carried forward for a few chapters. The book also, like much Conrad, provides a counter-narrative to the imperialist understanding of colonialism: here we are on the ground with the unworthy and disorganised coloniser, seeing the scrabbling for just a bit more money, a bit more adventure, a bit more profit. And the successful ones (like Marlow) are those who are, frankly, a bit bored by it all, who remain aloof, not reaching for adventure but treating the world like the world. Of course, the world is one in which Europeans who are of the 'us' enjoy privilege of connection and birth. But Conrad lets you see that about Marlow too, and thereby provides a critical edge to his narrative about the seas. Recommended for rowers, those intrigued by port culture, colonialism, heroism, honesty, and butterflies.

23 March 2008

something from nothing. or the other way around.

Easter: big day. day of disappearances, resurrections, caves left empty.

creation is the other way around, although there is some resurrection in creation--rewriting in writing. I sent off two chapters of a 'book' this week to a publisher for review. in rewriting and rethinking the words in the chapters it struck me--and struck me hard--that this was simply words. flimsy words, put up as some frail representation of ideas, ideas that don't really exist, or certainly didn't before the words. and then the words go together, and they form this thing called 'book'. but the weird thing is this: 'book' seems solid. it seems real. it seems whole and good and you put it in italics in a bibliography entry. words are thin little things. tiny. insignificant. and once, not too long ago, there weren't any of them. and yet we depend on them quite a lot. a lot a lot.

I am sure I'm not being clear. here it is: emptiness....words....book. but the book is really just emptiness. much like the cave. strange. and awesome.

or: tidy.

19 March 2008

the dog knows a coda

Whilst at a supper dance at the golf club on Dewi Sant day (St. David's, 1 March), we sat next to a lovely couple who, it turned out, were fanatical dog people. In the sense that they love dogs and, finding us of like mind, regaled us with stories of past dogs (she was a good one, that) and present dogs (so I had to adopt him, mind--you understand! what could I do!). One of their dogs-of-yore was a collie who, according to the gentleman in question, could count. He taught her to count painstakingly with 'chocolate buttons', and eventually the dog could count to 10 with barks. How many fingers, pooch? 'bark bark bark' good girl!

I believe this to be entirely true. Dogs are smart (some of them) and can learn, particularly when there is chocolate involved. (Oddly like humans in that way, if I recall the persuasive graham cracker and chocolate milk combo of kindergarten days.) And so we reflected: could we teach our dog to count? Probably, but did we have the patience? No.

But we will say that our dog can do it one better: he understands the narrative structure of the television drama (and by extension, most dramatic forms). Specifically, he knows his codas. DS9, for all of its genius, follows the normal pattern of intro, [opening credits] three acts, and a coda with some regularity. And usually, after we are done watching said programme in the evening, we let Luke out for a final trip to the loo and then go to bed. After assiduous training through seven seasons of DS9, Luke can now anticipate this. He'll be dead asleep (for those who know, this is the upside-down, neck curled back, forearm in the air, chasing the squirrel type asleep) and we won't move or say anything, but something in the narrative arc of the show will change. A completion of the story's main narrative, followed by a palpable shift in the music, or the tone of the dialogue, or the sound of 'space'. Who knows--Luke can sense it. At the start of the coda, he wakes from sleep, stretches, and walks to the back door. We sometimes have to tell him to wait if the coda goes on for more than the usual minute or so, or if there are two codas (rare, but it happens).

Nothing like having a dog with an intimate understanding of narrative structure.

We believe that he will now shift to train his ear/body for the bass notes of the Wire's closing credits. Or our utterances of 'damn' at the end of each episode. One of the two. Not that we're creatures of habit at all. Not us.

17 March 2008

Speaking of Television and Colonialism

Every one of should definitely check out the latest issue of Slayage: The International Journal of Buffy Studies. There is always some top quality stuff in Slayage, but for my money, this issue on Firefly/Serenity hold a particular gem.

Go take a look.

15 March 2008

A vote for Hillary is a vote for Kai Winn

Folks, it's time to watch DS9 again. If you haven't seen it since it aired, obviously, it's way past time. And I'm not talking a few eps here and there. I'm talking the entire 7-season run. Because we learn a lot about power, colonialism, imperialism, resistance, and--perhaps most intriguing of them all--terrorism. DS9 was criticised by trekkies when it aired because it dared to set the entire show on a relatively stationary space station rather than a ship that zoomed around the galaxy. But this very fact allowed it to explore the aftermath of colonialism (and the repercussions of resistance movements), the role of religion in politics, and the valorisation of terrorist tactics--without ever losing sight of the human costs that come with torture, killing civilians, and sleeping with the enemy.

Kira Narys' character serves as a tactical adviser throughout the show--precisely because she has experience working within a resistance/terrorist-type organisation, one organised into autonomous cells and fighting with guerilla tactics, often taking civilians down with the rest. 'Collaboration', a theme examined to great effect on Battlestar as well, is sometimes articulated in the 'if you're not with us...' formulation, but is usually then explored to greater subtlety with the characters involved, specifically Kira's partner in the final season, Odo, who worked for the Cardassians during the occupation. Terrorism, and being a terrorist, and what it means to be a 'good' terrorist (including a great episode where Kira berates her Cardassian nemesis Ducat for not being a good terrorist) are themes that run throughout the series. I don't think these lines could even be thought today, nor put into the mouths of the characters who are consistently placed within the camp of 'the good guys' and certainly always in the camp of the 'us'.

Power plays complex and interesting roles within the series: the problems with seeking it, its relation to transcendent identities or god-like status, its repercussions once you have lost control, the power gained in giving up one's body/life to a cause, the assimilatory power of neo-liberalism. And so my title for this post. Kai Winn, the 'kai' or religious leader of Bajor, is consumed by her drive to have the love, loyalty, and respect of the Bajorans. But Capt. Sisko's anointing as 'the emissary' has thwarted her, and despite devoting her whole life to the religion, she has not been spoken to by the prophets, whereas many others have (Kira was even possessed by one of them, in addition to seeing them; Sisko sees them all the time it seems). She is a complex character: one who wants desperately to be a part of the prophet-seeing club, one who believes in the prophets, but one who, all along, does not really have faith. She is also politically savvy--throughout the series she often gets Sisko and others to do what she wants through maneuvering, and while on the one hand she truly truly desperately wants to have faith, that very desire preempts her ability to indeed put her faith in the prophets. Kai Winn's character demonstrates how desire cannot produce visions, and how desire in fact bars us from being able to speak to the prophets--those who can guide us on our path. Sisko does not desire and indeed tries to reject his role as the chosen one, the emissary, but in a few seasons he has embraced the role, and begun to have faith, even to the extent of ignoring his duties to (the almighty) Starfleet because of that faith. Kai Wynn, when presented with the option of stepping down as Kai in order to follow 'the path that the prophets have laid out' rejects this option in favour of, in the end, following the pah wraiths (the prophets' godly enemies) so as to secure her power.

I have not exhausted the complexities of Kai Winn's character--and this is no simple analogy I propose. This is why it's time to watch DS9 again. Because its complexity helps us to understand the problems we face right now, and the show reveals to us how limited we have become in the range of questions and answers we can voice today.

09 March 2008

Book update: N. Ireland, gender, and persuasion

I haven't done the book-a-week thus far; my February writing got in the way a bit, but I'm close. So an update on some of the books I've finished over the past few weeks.

Persuasion, Jane Austen, on the ipod (audible)
I can recommend 'reading' the 'classics' such as this one on audiobook. Rather than a daunting, thick tome, you're faced with a file that has a delimited time (8 hours in this case). Plus, for books like those of the Austen variety, it's nice to rely on an actor to interpret the tone of various banal statements such that you easily and seamlessly understand snootiness, sarcasm, 'well I declare' naivete, and gruff embarrassment. Persuasion itself is an interesting book in terms of its depiction of the tiny spaces women have to maneuver within, whether they are persuaders or persuadees. It is a book about how to convince others and oneself of the proper path to take through sometimes treacherous social interrelations. On one level it's about relations among women, whether an aunt-like mentor, an older confidante, a sister, a cousin, or a rival. And it's about the emotional and physical harm done in the minutiae of social interactions. I find it very much like the original psychological novel: The Tale of Genji. Everything happens with one phrase, one note, one letter. Lives are saved or shattered on the backs of these tiny turns. I recommend reading it on audio book--it makes these nuances easier to absorb.

Northern Ireland: A Very Short Introduction, Marc Mulholland, OUP, in the loo
This book was demoted (promoted?) from 'plane reading' to 'loo reading' and as a result I actually got through the thing. 150 pages of utter lack of persuasion, wrapped up in terrible writing and capped by the assumption that the reader already knows everything about northern Ireland. Which is unfortunate for a book with its subtitle. The author takes no clear path through the confusing material, instead assuming we're following him: mentioning Stormont several pages before he actually explains what it is, casually noting the killing of 10 people on a bus on one page and then three pages later labelling it a 'massacre', failing utterly to define terms or provide necessary background for understanding party affiliations. I realise these little books are often tossed together in a week or two. And perhaps they should merely remain what the marketing seems to wish for them: books you buy as gifts at the checkout with no expectation the recipient will read them. If you would like to understand the northern Ireland conflict, do not read this book. It did, however, make me feel better about my own writing ability. Read it if you need that kind of contrast.

Written on the Body, Jeannette Winterson, on the sofa (link)
Omigod is this book soooo 1992. In a good way. But it made me realise how literature comes out of a particular context, and that by 'particular' we mean 'the 23rd week of 1992'. This is my first Winterson, and may be my last; I find it a bit too clever in the lack of gendered identification of the narrator, which is intellectually interesting but I'm not sure how much it adds to the overarching point of the narrative. That is, interesting trick, but what does it bring to the story? I enjoy the anti-cliche attitude of the text, and the writing is compelling, evocative and expressive. But I wasn't sure I liked being in the head of the narrator, not because of the a-gendered quality of the narration but because I wanted different perspectives. In that sense, the book succeeds in producing a feeling of being inside a body and wanting out, or wanting to connect--the interiority of the narration produces that extremely well. But I was reminded of heady days in grad school reading Butler and out-there lesbian/transgender literature, and it made me crave the coffee and whole-grain vegan cookies at Dunn Brothers across from Macalester. Perhaps not the kind of craving Winterson was going for!

Other books read recently:
Anthony Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations
Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica
Lisa Trivedi, Clothing Gandhi's Nation
Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies

my secret weapon

Really it's not me writing all those words. Luke is not only an excellent writer, but as you can tell, clearly enjoys his work. All he needs is a cuppa and he's good to go.

06 March 2008

I'm sure someone else notices this....

Just last night we watched the pre-primary Daily Show in which he interviews Hilary (one day delay for US to UK, a second day for it being DVR'ed). I didn't take notice at first, so my tally only includes the last 2/3 of the interview, but in that very brief time HRC said 'you know' at least 18 times. Seriously. 18 times.

Does this not bother anyone else but me?

Honestly, I think I'd rather listen to GWB speak. Yes, he mangles the English language some times, but I swear he beats Hilary handily when it comes to dead-air-filling verbal ticks.

Oh, and one other thing: can Hilary not see the performative contradiction involved in giving a speech about the the hollowness of speeches?