Friday, July 31, 2009

Ghost Hunters

Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters is quite deceptively named—the subtitle, William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, is more apt. The book follows the life's work of the founding members of the Society for Psychical ResearchFrederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, and Henry Sidgwick—along with their American colleague, Harvard psychologist William James (brother of Henry). These scholars were caught between the charlatans of Lily Dale and the hardboiled skeptics of the scientific establishment, whose knee-jerk ridicule of psychical research seems just as dogmatic as those religious leaders who had pooh-poohed the theory of evolution only a few decades before.

There are poignant stories aplenty here: images from a dream used to locate the body of a missing teenager; the sad cases of mediums whose early promise dissolved into fakery and alcoholism; and a man obsessed with contacting his long-dead lover, whose golden memory eclipses the presence of his living wife. But the reader finds the scarcity of concrete 'proof' downright frustrating, so just imagine how those tireless researchers of the British and American Psychical Societies must have felt. It's all too fitting that these scholars should ultimately provide the most compelling evidence in the book—that is to say, their own after-death communication.

After the extraordinarily dedicated Australian researcher Richard Hodgson died of a heart attack on the handball court, he spoke to his old friend William James via the Boston medium Leonora Piper:

I am happy exceedingly difficult to come very. I understand why Myers came seldom. I must leave. I cannot stay. I cannot remain today.

The spirits of Gurney and Myers expressed this frustration in the cross correspondences experiment, which is the only one I found truly convincing. Several mediums separated by hundreds (or thousands) of miles, with no contact at all between them, came up with the eeriest corresponding messages using automatic writing. This "unlikely kind of chain letter from the dead" seems way too eerie for coincidence, really fascinating stuff. Anyway, I found it amusing how the spirits of the former psychical researchers sometimes took on the tone of short-tempered schoolmasters when talking to the mediums:
"Back in the old despondency," read one passage, taken down by Alice Fleming and signed 'Edmund Gurney.' "Why don't you write daily? You seem to form habits only to break them."

Mrs. Fleming told Alice Johnson that the complaint spilled out after she had been too busy to spare time for automatic writing. "If you don't care to try every day for a short period of time, better drop it all together. It's like making appointments and not keeping them," the Gurney message continued. 'You endanger your own powers of sensitiveness and annoy us bitterly."

Some of the messages signed by Myers seethed with frustration: "Yet another attempt to run the blockade—to strive to get a message through—how can I make your hand docile enough—how can I convince them?

"The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulties of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass—which blurs sight and deadens
sound—dictating feebly—to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary.

"A terrible feeling of impotence burdens me."
Ghost Hunters reinforced for me Jim Harold's belief that the paranormal of today is merely the science of tomorrow—or, put another way: "the unbelief of the educated classes...will be found by succeeding ages, to have been nothing better than unreasoning and unreasonable prejudice." That's from a Mr. Joshua Proctor, one of the correspondents quoted in Catherine Crowe's The Night-Side of Nature—a bestselling collection of supposedly-true ghost stories first published in 1848. I'll be blogging about that book next.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great Book #71: The Third Policeman

Even if I'd read The Third Policeman before I'd heard anything about Brian O'Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O'Brien, Myles na gCopaleen, et al.), I still would have figured the author was a total character. 'Maddening' is one of many adjectives used on the back cover, and it's certainly the most apt.

The unnamed narrator tells us of his claustrophobic existence somewhere in rural Ireland, and of his relationship with the leech-like John Divney, who's taken over his dead parents' farm and refuses to leave. Divney hatches a plan to murder a local miser, Mathers, and steal his money, and the hapless narrator agrees.

After returning to the house of the dead-and-buried miser to retrieve the money box, the narrator encounters Mathers in a dirty old bathrobe sipping watered-down tea. The money box has disappeared, and needless to say the narrator can't really be asking the inexplicably-alive-or-maybe-undead Mathers where it is. So he goes to the local police station thinking he'll claim he's lost his (nonexistent) American gold watch, and get the policemen's help finding the money box instead. There are a pair of cartoonish policemen at the station, and they spend a lot of time blabbing about humans who are part-bicycle and bicycles that are part-human, declaring this or that an 'insoluble pancake.' They take the narrator through the woods and down an elevator into a subterranean complex they claim is eternity, which they've found via the cracks on a bedroom ceiling that just happen to form a map of the area. Down in eternity the narrator wishes for wealth, a bottle of the best whiskey, and a fine suit, all of which materialize, but then the policemen tell him he can't take it into the elevator or they'll all explode. And so on and so forth.

After the first two (thoroughly engrossing) chapters I found The Third Policeman quite a tough slog—much too much gratuitous bizarreness, and the footnotes drove me nuts—but looking back on it now I see it all makes perfect sense. I wish I could discuss the ending, but I don't want to spoil it for you. I'll just say that what once seemed clever now feels derivative, because Brian O'Nolan did it first.

I think I'll be including my favorite passage in each of my '100 great books' write-ups. From page 40 of The Third Policeman:
...A good road will have character and a certain air of destiny, an indefinable intimation that it is going somewhere, be it east or west, and not coming back from there. If you go with such a road, he thinks, it will give you pleasant travelling, fine sights at every corner and a gentle ease of peregrination that will persuade you that you are walking forever on falling ground.
Next up (talk about a diverse assortment of titles!): Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Reader Poll

Hey reader, if you haven't already taken the poll at top right, I'd love it if you could do that now. I would like to blog about the things that actually interest you, so please do click on your interests even if you're a sporadic reader or don't like to leave comments (the poll is anonymous).

(Admittedly, the other reason I put up the poll is that I'd like to get an idea of how many people actually read this thing. I started this blog because the Random House marketing people said I should, and I've enjoyed it very much, but does feel a little weird sometimes to be writing and posting pictures when I'm not sure if anyone but my family and close friends are reading it.)

Thanks very much!

100 Great Books

I've come across several 100-great-books lists on various blogs, and I think it's a great idea: read 100 books (fiction or nonfiction) that you feel you ought to have read already, setting an end-date of five or seven (or ten?) years from now. They don't all have to be classics per se, but reading them can fill in the gaps where your literary education is concerned.

I decided that at least 20% of the books on my list should be translated works (which are starred on my list below). I intend to consume several of these books on CD/podcast, because let's face it—if I don't "read" while I knit, it's probably going to take me well over 10 years to get through this list. I also don’t think I’m going to get around to reading any doorstoppers like Ulysses, Herodotus’ Histories, de Toqueville's Democracy in America, or War and Peace; I’ll read them eventually, but in the meantime I’d rather read the Joyce and Tolstoy I already have on hand (Portrait of the Artist and a collection of the shorter novels and stories, respectively). I’m also thinking about making somewhat shorter lists for plays and poetry.

If you’re thinking about making a list yourself, check out the 'best' lists at the Modern Library, Waterstones, The Guardian, and San José State University (that one's aptly titled 'The Guilt List').

1. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
2. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
3. Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
4. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
5. Beowulf
6. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio *
7. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges *
8. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (Librivox)
10. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov *
11. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
12. Possession by A.S. Byatt
13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
14. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
15. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (read August-September '09)
16. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
17. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes *
18. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
19. The Vagabond by Colette *
20. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
21. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (Librivox)
22. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
23. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
24. The Divine Comedy by Dante *
25. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Librivox)
26. Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac *
27. The Little Prince by Antoine de Sainte-Exupéry * (read August 2009)
28. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (Librivox)
29. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
30. Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Librivox)
31. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
32. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky * (coming soon on Librivox)
33. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky * (Librivox)
34. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco *
35. Middlemarch by George Eliot (Librivox)
36. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
37. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
38. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
39. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert *
40. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (Librivox)
41. The Magus by John Fowles
42. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl * (read July/August 2009)
43. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
44. Neuromancer by William Gibson
45. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (audiobook, listened February 2010)
46. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (Librivox; listened May 2010)
47. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
48. Hunger by Knut Hamsun *
49. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (Librivox)
50. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
51. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse *
52. Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
53. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
54. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
55. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka *
56. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
57. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
58. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
59. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
60. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
61. If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi *
62. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
63. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (Librivox)
64. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
65. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez *
66. Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
67. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
68. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami *
69. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
70. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky * (audiobook—listened September-December '09)
71. The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (read June-July '09)
72. A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'Connor
73. One Thousand and One Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights) *
74. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
75. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque*
76. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
77. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
78. Blindness by José Saramago *
79. Rob Roy by Walter Scott (coming soon on Librivox)
80. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
81. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
82. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
83. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn *
84. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
85. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (audio version, Forgotten Classics)
86. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (Librivox)
87. Vanity Fair by William Makepace Thackeray (Librivox)
88. Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
89. The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy *
90. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
91. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne * (Librivox)
92. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas *
93. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
94. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (read August 2010)
95. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
96. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
97. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
98. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
99. Native Son by Richard Wright
100. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin *

The plan is to annotate this list periodically, blogging brief(ish) 'book appreciations' as I go. Feel free to leave me more recommendations —the master list is actually much longer!

First up: The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (I just finished it this week).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Mad Madam Mim

The Sword in the Stone is one of my favorite Disney movies. Tonight I watched it for the first time in umpteen years, and it was every bit as good as I remembered—partly because of this scene-stealing witchy lady (you know I have a thing for witches):

Tee hee!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My First Meme

How I'm entertaining myself this afternoon instead of working: this meme I found on a random blog, whereby you answer questions about yourself using only the song titles of your favorite band. (It doesn't really count as navel-gazing if it's good for a laugh, right?)

1. Are you a male or female: Switching Off

2. Describe yourself: Newborn

3. How do you feel about yourself: Great Expectations

4. Describe your parents: Grounds for Divorce

5. Describe your ex-boyfriend/girlfriends: Picky Bugger

6. Describe your current boy/girl situation: Any Day Now

7. Describe your current location: Fugitive Motel

8. Describe where you want to be: Flying Dream 143

9. Your best friend(s) is/are: The Everthere

10. Your favorite color is: Red

11. You know that: I’ve Got Your Number

12. If your life was a television show what would it be called: Little Beast

13. What is life to you: Grace Under Pressure

14. What is the best advice you have to give: Lay Down Your Cross; Don’t Mix Your Drinks

Why don't you leave a comment with your own answers?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Explosionist

Every so often I like to treat myself to a really smart children's or young adult novel. Last week it was Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist, an alternate history set in 1930s Scotland I got excited about before it was published, and then I forgot about it because the pub date was still so many months away.

Fifteen-year-old Sophie lives with her great-aunt Tabitha in an alternate version of Edinburgh in the late 1930s; Tabitha is rich, politically connected, and hosts seances in their dining room on a weekly basis (which in this reality isn't as eccentric as it sounds). The world is on the brink of war and Sophie and her aunt are both trying to figure out which organization is behind the city's frequent suicide bombings; Sophie has a big crush on her awkward young chemistry teacher, but fears he may be involved. Just as troubling is the prospect of her own life after boarding school; Sophie wants to study science at the university, but with war on the horizon she may be forced into the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security (the acronym is pronounced "irons"—which, needless to say, is no coincidence).

The overarching premise is that Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and consequently the early 20th century is only vaguely recognizable. The United States is split in two (since Delaware, which had most of the munitions factories, sided with the South), and Europe is also divided—between the independent (mostly northern) nations of the Hanseatic League, and the Fascist state that has already gobbled up France, Germany, and all the rest. England lost the Great War, and is now reduced to mass starvation and barbed-wire borders; an independent Scotland has taken its place as a world power. This alternate political reality is really interesting 'what-if' food for thought, although the frequent historical-figure switcheroos (Oscar Wilde as an obstetrician who invented the incubator?!) are pretty distracting. But that's my only real quibble with the novel—there's no mystery as to who's behind the terrorist attacks, but because Davidson is more interested in exploring this alternate reality than in a traditional whodunit, this wasn't an issue for me.

This is a pretty intense read, and I don't think I'd give it to anybody under the age of fourteen. The glimpses of an Orwellian women's secretarial training academy were downright horrifying, as was the prospect of suicide machines that look like telephone booths available in the lobby of every post office and library in the country.

The ending isn't so much an ending as a 'this is now 450 pages long so we'll save the rest of it for next time,' which is a little frustrating because the sequel (The Snow Queen) won't be out until fall 2010. Looking forward to it!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Vintage sweater #3

Christmas knitting is already well underway. Of course, most of it I can't share with you until December 26th, and that doesn't make for very interesting blogging. I've finished the Snow Flurries Wrap for Shelley's wedding (hooray!), so I'm treating myself to one more vintage jumper before I resume my holiday knitting schedule (er..."schedule"). It's an adorable tennis jumper from the 1930s, and the pattern scan is available at Vintage Knitting.

That's a simple lace panel in the center, the rest just plain stockinette stripes. This pattern is crazy though—how can you write a pattern without mentioning the gauge?!—and it was supposedly written to fit a 32" bust (hah!) So I'm basically rewriting the whole thing, adding length (15" before binding off for the armholes instead of 12"), and shortening the sleeves so they'll match the longer stripe pattern on the body. The whole thing's going to be fitted where the original was blousey; I think it'll be more flattering, but the real reason is I'm afraid I'm going to run out of yarn. I bought a few skeins of each color on sale before I knew what I wanted to make. (More detailed notes on my Ravelry project page.)

That blue isn't a color I'd normally wear, but I'm trying to do colors other than green, purple, and black. Now I just have to find a tennis racket...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Make Do and Mend

How exciting is this: I've got an essay in this week's episode of Cast On, which is far and away my favorite podcast! The series theme is 'Make Do and Mend,' taking inspiration from WWII-era booklets on repurposing and economizing. I'm continually inspired by my grandparents' thrifty lifestyle (I've already told you about the candy tin o' buttons), so that's what my essay is about. I know a lot of you reading this aren't knitters, but Brenda's podcast is well worth a listen regardless.

I have so many items of clothing ready to be mended or repurposed—the challenge is actually getting down to making the alterations. There's the vintage 100% wool cardi I mention in the essay, which I think will become a button-down vest from A Stitch in Time (a huge, beautifully illustrated book of modernized vintage patterns, which is on my Christmas wish list). There's another purple sweater I got for Kate when I worked at Anthropologie back in college, which is half-felted; I might as well felt it all the way and make a throw pillow out of it. I have a mohair jumper my mom got me at Kilkenny Design when I graduated with my M.A.; it's forest green, a good color for me, but the design itself is none too flattering (why did it take me so long to realize that?!), and someday I want to frog it (mohair...yikes!) and reuse the yarn so it can still remind me of graduation and my mother's generosity. And I have a sweater I got in Dublin in 2001 that has a hole in the elbow; I still love it, it's purple and in perfect condition otherwise, so I need to pick up some matching sock yarn to knit a pair of elbow patches. I have a feeling I'm going to have to visit more than a few yarn shops before I find a color that's close enough.

And I have yet another project that's all about the buttons: my mother has a black cotton cardigan with beautiful sparkly ones that she never wears because the garment itself is faded. As it is, those buttons are going to waste. So for Christmas I’m knitting a classic cardigan that will showcase those lovely buttons (it was her idea), and that faded but still serviceable cotton cardi will get a plainer set of buttons (out of the tin) before it’s donated to Goodwill. Two sweaters out of one!

But add all these makeover sweaters to a huge pile of unfinished sewing and knitting projects, and it's really overwhelming. Right now I really only have one completed 'make do and mend' project to boast of, and it's five or six years old. My favorite jeans had huge holes in the seat, too big to patch, so I decided to make a yoga mat bag out of one of the legs. I cut out a circle for the bottom out of the other leg, used a sparkly purple shoelace for a drawstring, and a rainbow-striped belt for the strap. Now that I've got my mom going to yoga classes, I figure I can use some corduroy scraps to make her a mat bag too. I'll just have to add it to The List.

Next entry: vintage sweater #3!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Moldy Oldie: Trash Your Panties!

Awhile back I mentioned this Washington Square News "op/ed" I wrote in the spring of 2000. It was headlined "Trash Your Panties: Going Commando With Camille." Sadly, it was by far the best thing I ever wrote for the paper. Hope you enjoy it.
Thirty years ago we burned our bras. We didn’t go far enough.

I have issues with underpants. They are expensive, unnecessary and often uncomfortable. No one ever seriously considers the possibility that we women could avoid the nearest Victoria’s Secret (or K-Mart) altogether in favor of a far more authentic way to live - with perfect freedom.

The prospect of going “commando” always makes for a hearty laugh, and it’s true that there’s no better place for a pair of lacy panties than atop an inebriated frat guy’s head. But why do we bother wearing underpants at all? Underwear, if you’re in the market for something a little more feminine than a pair of bland white cotton undies, will cost you more money than I consider it to be worth.

A girl makes a trip to the lingerie department for one reason and one reason only, whether she admits it or not — she’s looking for the most enticing scrap of something sheer and frilly just in case the opportunity for a certain type of encounter with the opposite sex should arise. In that case, why bother wasting $30 on a pair of underpants that are just going to be ripped off with wild beastly abandon anyway? So what if the joy of unwrapping the present is gone with the panties; we have more important assets to make use of.

Not that I’m advocating a panty boycott to make it easier for those crazy boys. It makes absolute sense that female underwear evolved from the chastity belt, the ultimate symbol of feminine oppression. It is for that very reason that we should abstain from wearing panties; such a defiant act would symbolize quite appropriately the social freedom we continue to desire with such fervor.

Fetishization of female undergarments is certainly widespread; girls, if you’re ever in desperate need of tuition money, you can always sell your panties steeped in that oh-so-attractive “natural aroma” online and make a bundle. (If I weren’t so concerned with simple decency, I might advocate ridding yourself of every pair you own by this method; it’s certainly more profitable than throwing them out in the trash.) If we were to avoid the wearing of underpants, men would have to find a more productive and meaningful garment to worship. I suggest socks because of their wintry practicality and distance from the danger zone.

Reasons of simplicity and freedom aside, we should reject the restrictions imposed upon us by underwear simply because this article of clothing is a constant source of male delight and strange fascination. We still want them to be fascinated, of course — just not with our panties. Getting rid of them now would force men to hurry a little faster along that evolutionary path. The absence of underwear also makes it easier for the more carnal and filthy-minded among them to get what they want, but I’m not worried. Men like that use newspapers for house-training themselves rather than for reading material, so if this idea catches on, they won’t know about it.

No more annoying wedgies, no more unsightly panty lines and no more hard-earned money wasted on garments that nobody is ever going to see. (At least that’s what your mother thinks.) It’s a curious thing that no one ever included the suggestion to “get rid of your underwear” in any of those “Simplify Your Life” books. Spend your money on something more practical, like ice cream, crossword puzzle magazines or itching powder. I’m holding onto my bra though; there’s a three-letter word that begins with S and ends with G that scares me too thoroughly to light that match.