Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Books what I done readed recently

Sometimes it comes to pass that you accidentally read some books without having the chance to write about them in real time, so they pile up, and it seems like you'll NEVER get to them. Hence, this.

Terry Pratchett, Hogfather (1997)--I have extremely strong memories of where and when I was when I first read this, but I remembered very little about it. It turns out that the Hogfather—the Discworld's answer to Santa Claus—has gone missing, and Death is filling in for him. His granddaughter, Susan (introduced in Soul Music) is also around. It's thematically similar to Small Gods, with all the stuff about the nature of belief. Perhaps it's just a touch less deftly plotted than the other two I recently read, but let's be clear: it's still pretty durn delightful, and it is in fact probable that I laughed more than at the others. My favorite silly joke: the wizards have a sort of computer-type thing called Hex, that runs in part by ants inside it, that run around through specific tunnels and things to do math and whatnot, and it has a sticker on it saying “Anthill Inside.” Because I'm just that way, though, I have to note this, which is such a glaringly obvious editorial fail that I cannot believe it went through. Susan says, meeting a Tooth Fairy:

Yes, yes, we see each other sometimes in Biers [a bar for supernatural entities], and when you came for Twyla's last tooth you were so shocked that I could see you I had to give you a drink to get your nerves back.

And then, not a page later, she goes on about how she never, ever drinks. You can make up a post hoc rationalization, but really, now.

Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages (2009)--Here's a book about invented languages. It's broadly divided into five parts: one on John Wilkins and “philosophical languages” of the sixteenth-and-seventeenth-ish centuries; one about Esperanto; one about out Charles Bliss and his “blissymbolics;” one about Loglan/Lojban; and one about Klingon. It's a perfectly entertaining book, and I feel like if I say I was hoping for it to delve a bit more deeply into its subject, and maybe have a bit more of a linguistic focus, I'm probably coming close to the cardinal sin of criticizing it for not being what it was never meant to be. There are a few amazon reviews which take a weirdly defensive attitude towards it, asserting that Okrent's purpose is to ridicule and otherwise tear down these languages and their inventors; from a non-axe-to-grind-having perspective, this is clearly bizarre nonsense, but there is one moment which is just so glaringly tonally off that one can't not mention it. She's writing about Charles Bliss, who invented this complicated system of symbols that were supposed to be understandable by all because they represented what things truly were in some fundamental way. This system was roundly ignored, until a Canadian care facility for disabled, non-verbal children found that they were extremely useful in helping these kids communicate—not what Bliss was originally aiming for, but certainly not nothing (if this story is familiar, it may be because it was featured on an episode of Radiolab some time ago). Bliss was quite an eccentric, however, and made a royal pain of himself, complaining if schools using his system changed anything to make it work better, demanding money, and generally being obnoxious. All of this is true. Which really does not justify the following, in which the center came to an agreement where they flat-out purchased the rights to the system from Bliss for a hundred sixty thousand dollars:

That's right. There's no other way to put it: bliss, self-proclaimed savior of humanity, stole $160,000 from crippled children.

Really, Okrent? Really? No other way to put it? None at all? 'Cause I kind of feel like it's actually super-easy to think of other ways to put it, most of which have the advantage of not toeing that fine line between wildly uncharitable hyperbole and out-and-out libel. I mean, I get that the idea is to contrast the good that Bliss did with his less noble characteristics, but if you want to play things up to that extent, you need a lot more to go on.

James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)--About the first third of this novel is taken up with an “editorial note” detailing the conflict between two brothers, George and Robert; they are the sons of a Scottish laird, but, convinced that Robert wasn't his, he was given up to be raised outside the family by a fanatical preacher, inculcating in him extreme ideas. He somehow conceives an intense hatred of George and his ways, and starts engaging in obnoxious behavior towards him that quickly becomes a lot worse than “obnoxious.” Then, we get to Robert's memoirs themselves. He'd been brought up to believe in the Calvinist idea of predestination: that is, that some people are born damned and some saved and that there's nothing anything can do to influence this (this seems to be like an insane idea that would just lead to total nihilism, but apparently people believe in it?), and that he himself is one of the saved. This seems to already be asking for trouble, but things get worse when a mysterious figure who (it's obvious right from the start) is actually the devil comes around and starts convincing him how important it is to cleanse the world of people who don't follow this doctrine. Admittedly, he can't help but seem a little dim for not figuring out what's going on, but it does reinforce his own prejudices, so maybe it makes sense. His corruption, degradation, and ultimate downfall are diabolical good fun to read, though admittedly the extended coda, in which the alleged editor explains where the text came from &c, is a bit of a momentum-killer. Still worth checking out.


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