Sunday, October 19, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 248: Mark Twain, Playing Courier (#248)

Mark Twain, "Playing Courier" (1892) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

Let's talk about the word "lesser" as it pertains to writers' work. When I say a story is "lesser Hawthorne" or "lesser Lovecraft" or "lesser Poe" (which I would never say, since Poe is never lesser), I generally mean something like:

  1. this story isn't as stylistically or technically perfect as their other work; or 
  2. this story doesn't capture some theme that seems important to the core of the author's work; or
  3. this story doesn't add anything new to what we see elsewhere.
Now, if you squint, (2) and (3) can seem a little contradictory. Take, say, Lovecraft: if you think of his work as being irreducibly about cosmic nihilism (that's a core theme in his work) and then you read, oh, I don't know, let's say "The Cats of Ulthar," with its story of revenge against people who are mean to cats. Not so much cosmic nihilism in that story (unless you think that cats are avatars of cosmic nihilism, in which case, you are correct). In fact, you could say that "Cats" does add something new that we don't see often in Lovecraft: a sense of cosmic justice.

So, on one hand, it misses something core to Lovecraft; and on the other, it adds something that seems peripheral--but it's still added. Is "Cats of Ulthar" "lesser" or not?

Which brings me by a roundabout way to talking about Mark Twain's story of European misadventure, "Playing Courier." This story/anecdote is about a time when Twain tried to move his family along on their European travels and failed. It's apparently fictional, but you could've fooled me.

You couldn't have fooled me if you told me this was an important work of Twainiana. It's not that this is a badly written story. I mean, this is Twain: he is almost always in control of his technique, and if nothing else, his use of under- and over-statement can get a smile.

But there's just no there there to this story. The narrator bumbles around, failing to deal with train tickets, trunks, cabs, local authorities, and etc. And then there's some more bumbling around. Followed by a little more. Some of it is humorous, but ultimately... yeah, it feels like lesser Twain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 247: Sherwood Anderson, Mother (#247)

Sherwood Anderson, "Mother" (1917) from Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories:

By and large, I have loved the Sherwood Anderson stories presented by the Library of America:

"Mother" falls somewhere in that range. It's Sherwood Anderson, through and through: a mother with thwarted ambitions, who seems to live just for her son (shades of "The Egg"); not a lot of plot but a lot of feeling; a father marked by failure; small town romance, broken into tiny shards.

But I don't have a lot to say about it right now. It's not my favorite, but it's so Anderson-y that I have to assume some of my reaction has to do with me right now. (Right now, I'm immersed in an accelerated web development bootcamp--that I am also writing about.)

It doesn't help (me) that the headnote includes a paragraph about how Anderson felt about his mother, which really makes this story seem more autobiographical than anything else.

(Though the headnote also goes into how some people hate hate hated Anderson's work for being so squalid, which is a fascinating little time capsule. But it's not like they missed the point: his work does tend to be squalid and sad. It's just that squalid and sad is kind of our thing these days.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 246: Louisa May Alcott, Anna’s Whim (#246)

Louisa May Alcott, "Anna’s Whim" (1873) from Louisa May Alcott: Work, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Stories & Other Writings:

There's a rather standard story-trope where a woman says how much she wants to be treated as a man; then she is treated equally and discovers that it's terrible. Where's the chivalry? Where's the protection and worldliness of a man to shield her delicate sensibilities? Because, sure, women may be oppressed and limited, but at least there's someone to open the door for them, and isn't that the best?

Louisa May Alcott is too smart to fall into this trap--and so smart that she includes some notes of this expected story. Here, Anna has a crazy whim: what if women were treated equally? And, true to form, Anna finds a man who will treat her equally--an old friend named Frank, now all grown up--and it has all sorts of problems. Frank doesn't help her to row unless asked directly or spend too much time making sure she's entertained. Boy, that experience sure shows Anna that it's better to be in a gilded cage than free, right?

Not so fast there, legacy-of-patriarchy. Yes, Alcott does describe some of Anna's distaste for this situation at first. But then Anna goes on: she has trouble following the serious topics of the day because her education didn't prepare her for discussions of moral and political economy. Anna may react to other women negatively--as if they were all hunting for the same scarce resource (husband material)--but ultimately, she affirms what she says at the beginning, that there's a lot more to life than being someone's wife.

So many other writers would use this story as a means to punish the rebellious woman. Alcott takes the opportunity to write a realistic woman who comes into her own.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Games people play and/or make

Last week, in my coding/web development class, we not only had to make a Checkers game in Javascript, but for our first hackathon, many people went ahead and created computer games, including a computer version of Speed. Which I guess is kind of like Spit, which is what we played in the Blattberg house.

All of which led to a discussion of card games at the DevHouse, which led to a long night of Cards Against Humanity (with a little Egyptian Ratscrew on the side, for nostalgia's sake). And being as we're all web developers in training, it wasn't long before we started proposing alternate rules and hacks. So, for your edification and annoyance, I present, a few strange ideas/sub-ideas for Cards Against Humanity.

  1. Throw a random white card in with everyone's choices
    1. Give the Card Czar the black card if they guess the random white card
  2. Let anyone throw in two white cards, but cost them a point if neither of their cards are chosen.
  3. Play card-on-the-forehead-style, where the Card Czar doesn't get to see their card, but has to infer it from the option given.
  4. ...
Actually, I guess we didn't have too many ideas for hacks/add-ons to the game. Not so easy to come up with ideas when most of the game is focused on coming up with some ridiculous and awful materials.

Though I think my favorite combo of the night was when the players were asked "What is Batman's guilty pleasure?" and the winning answer was "Vigilante justice."

I just love the idea of Batman talking to people (while he beats them up, probably), saying, "Oh, don't tell anyone about this, it's sort of my guilty pleasure."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 245: Truman Capote, On Richard Avedon (#245)

Truman Capote, On Richard Avedon (1959) from Art in America 1945–1970: Writings from the Age of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism:

If you're here, then there's a chance you'll know I went through a pretty hard-core photography phase. (I mean, if you're here, you're probably me in the future, trying to remember something I wrote in the past.) I never wanted to be a photographer, but I brought my (film) camera around just about everywhere. I had three nice lenses and a fair bit of dark-room experience, long before photoshop made photography a less chemical-filled experience. I also had access and flipped through a bunch of books on the great photographers and I loved to look at Steichen, Munkasci, and Man Ray's works.

And yet, four pages on Richard Avedon, and I feel my mind start to wander. Don't get me wrong: there is something thrilling about the master, the perfectionist, and their on-going quest for the perfect work of art. But that thrilling something isn't always enough to catch and keep one's interest, especially when there's not all that much else there besides "This guy is good at his job."

I'd much rather look at some of Avedon's work.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Exercise on the cheap

I ran outside this weekend, voluntarily. I was neither running to the bus or running away from slavering hordes of zombies. (Why are the zombies slavering? Do their salivary glands still work?) I ran just for health reasons.

Let's edit that: Health and financial reasons. Back in San Angelo, I used to go to the gym in our apartment complex. It was cheap, convenient, and almost always included at least one working piece of equipment.

Here in Austin, I have not yet made the plunge and bought a new gym membership. There are some cheap-to-reasonable ways to get a gym membership here. (For one thing, the Rosewood Park near-ish to the DevHouse has a really... uh authentic exercise room. And it's only $15 a month, which is pretty cheap.) But there's nothing that's both cheap and convenient. In San Angelo, I would go to the gym almost every day because the gym was less than a five-minute walk from my apartment. Put another obstacle in front of going to the gym and chances of going drop precipitously.

But what if the gym weren't just near the house, but right outside? What if the whole world was your gym? Ugh, that's too much, let's shrink it down: what if you just ran around inside the cemetery very close to the house? That way you get to avoid the annoyance of other people driving/walking and you get the fun of looking at some old graves.

Of course, that said, I feel like I might need to get better sneakers if I'm going to start running with any frequency.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 244: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Ice Palace (#244)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Ice Palace" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

I have a secret love of Fitzgerald. No, not secret: late. I'm not generally a believer in the idea that literature classes ruin people for books (or vice versa); but I do remember reading and hating Great Gatsby in high school and only later on realizing what sort of game he's playing.

Which is why I'm pretty unreserved in my recommendation for people to read some Fitzgerald, such as the earlier LoA stories: "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (rom-com with a bitter end), "The Cut-Glass Bowl" (a beautiful transition from laughing at a character to feeling her pain), and (to a lesser extent), "Porcelain and Pink" (light comedy in a bathtub). I'd also recommend all those as a primer before getting to today's story, "The Ice Palace."

The LoA headnote makes a lot of Fitzgerald's biographical connections to this story: in the story, we follow a Southern belle with a certain not-so-Southern liveliness (so says the story) as she gets engaged to a Minnesotan, culminating in her disastrous trip to the snowy North. As a New Yorker and a Chicagoan transplanted to Texas, I feel her pain. I also feel her emotional tumult, feeling that the South is too sleepy and dead, but also knowing that it's dear to her.

(Or rather: as a friend of liberal Texans, I've heard much of their plight, both at home and in the rest of the country, where "Texan" is a byword for conservative.)

In his own life, Fitzgerald was a Northern boy (hey, Minnesota) who fell in love with a Southern belle named Zelda; and once he proved he could provide for them by writing (so the headnote says), they got married. Like the Minnesotan in the story, Fitzgerald got taken to a cemetery by a girl who had some poetic ideas about the dead.

But curiously, in the story--spoiler alert for a story that's almost a century old--the North-South alliance comes to tragic end, whereas the Scott and Zelda story... well, had a different tragic end. Except maybe "tragic" isn't the right word for this story: sure, the girl who wanted to move out of her small sleepy town ends up back there, doing the same things at the end that she was doing at the beginning, but at least she didn't marry the guy, who ends up being a little bit in the mold of Tom Buchanan from Gatsby: a little bit of a giant jerk. I mean, he takes this girl to the Ice Palace (fine) and to the ice maze (still fine) and then he runs, expecting her to keep up (oy vey). Seriously, it's such a drip move to make that I almost can't feel bad when the engagement falls apart.

Of course, that's just the straw that breaks the ice camel's back. Before we ever get to that point, we've seen some of the cultural difference between North and South--the unbridgeable gulf that Sally Carrol "couldn't ever make [him] understand." Or, as she puts it about growing up in the beautiful, glorious, fantastic shadow of the Civil War, "people have these dreams they fasten onto things, and I've always grown up with that dream. It was so easy because it was all dead and there weren't any disillusions comin' to me."

Easy dreams, man--they'll get you every time.

Bonus points for the literature professor who speaks of the Minnesotans growing "Ibsenesque."

Monday, September 15, 2014

Roundup: blogging elsewhere, hard to get into books, code as brain-colonizer, a weak September movie list

Today, a roundup of smaller topics, for reasons that number 3 will explain.

1) While I'm in the MakerSquare course in Austin, I am trying to blog daily (for now) over at Incremental Code. Writing daily is... perhaps not the smartest thing to do, time-wise; but I'm limiting myself to 15 minutes or less per post; and writing daily helps me to process the day.

2) Before falling asleep many days, I read a few pages of Iain M Banks's 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first book in his Culture series. Banks is loved by people whose tastes match up with mine. And I like it... but I find it hard to get into.

Partly that's due to the writing, which is occasionally odd--and even when it's in a good way, odd prose is odd.

Partly that's due to the structure of the book, which is very episodic: one guy gets lost in space and tries to get somewhere. Even when the scenes are interesting--as when the main guy gets marooned on an island of religious cannibals and has to figure out a way off--it's hard to see the long-term stakes of these episodes. And long-term stakes matter when you've got such a long book.

3) In college, I took some computer science courses, and I noticed that writing code is a lot like playing Tetris: if you do it before bed, you'll start to dream about it. You'll look around the world and say (Tetris) "I wonder if an L could fit under that branch" or (code) "I wonder is a hash would be a better way to model bus riders." Like Tetris, code-writing colonizes your brain. (Kind of like any language, I guess.)

But the real way that code will colonize your brain is in how--hold on, I just thought of something.

::Time passes while I try something out on my code.::

And that is really the way that code colonizes your (or at least my) brain. You can be doing something else and suddenly--wham!--you thought of a way to solve a problem that you were stymied by before. That's just good, old-fashioned subconscious puzzle-solving, the same as when you fell asleep and woke up with the answer.

The colonizing part is when you have to stop whatever you're doing and go check that solution to see if it works. And that example above, that wasn't a joke. I really did have an idea and I wanted to see how it worked out.

Which is great for my code, which is getting incrementally better.

But it sure is hard on the rest of my life, which at any moment can be taken over by a code-related idea.

4) Which brings us to this: For that past few months, I have kept careful records of any movie I saw and I saw a lot of movies. Movies I watched with Sarah, movies I watched while at the gym, etc. So far, in September, I haven't purposely watched any movies. In fact, I purposely watched an episode of Star Wars Clone Wars--and that took me four-five days to watch a 20-minute show. This time in Austin may be not so good for my culture consumption. Which is ironic, since it's Austin and there's so much going on!