Friday, July 25, 2008

American Lit 2, Poor Me 1

So I've been following the lead of my friend Jacqui in her Remedial Literature Project, trying to get caught up on some of those American authors and novels I somehow missed when I was farting around playing Lode Runner immersed in British and Latin American Lit in college. I'm not nearly as ambitious as Jacqui, trying to read one book a week; I've got other important things to read, like the latest for my children's book club (checking out the competition) and Entertainment Weekly's New Classics! the newspapers and newsweeklies I need to keep up on local elections and various important events in the world.

So if you've been following my blog, you'll know so far I liked Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, while Meville's Moby Dick totally kicked my ass. So I turned to James Fenimore Cooper, author of the classic Leatherstocking Tales, to break the tie. The Pioneers (1823) is the first and most realistic of the Tales, and made Cooper an international success. One critic called it his masterpiece. As a bonus, I was pretty sure there weren't going to be any chapters on whale heads.

I'm sad to report, however, that for me, reading The Pioneers is like undergoing "advanced interrogation techniques" at Gitmo. It may not technically be torture, but it sure feels like it. I'm a third of a way through the book, and so far Judge Marmaduke Temple has shot and grazed a young woodsman while trying to hit a deer. Then he argued with Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking) about whether the deer was his or not. Then they took the young woodsman home to treat his minor wounds while they argued some more. Then they went to church. Then they went to the pub, where they argued about both the sermon and the deer. It's like Cooper decided to avoid breaking the classic literary rule of "Show, don't tell" by both showing and telling. (And I hate to break it to you, but having people sit around discussing what just happened counts as "telling," even if it is dialogue.)

That might not be so bad if he didn't break another rule regarding dialogue, namely, MAKE IT READABLE. Let's say you have a character who you want to portray as "uneducated." Ya cud do it by makin' everythin' he says drop a 'postrophe in ever' friggin' word, until yer reader feels like 'e is drownin' in 'postrophes. Or you could throw in a few choice words like "reckon" and "yonder" and the reader will supply the right voice.

Now, I understand that Cooper is trying to portray the diversity of the New York frontier. (It is set in 1793, back when New York state was the frontier.) There are immigrants from all over: a German major, a French gentleman, and an Irish barmaid, not to mention an African-American slave and the Native American John Mohegan. And Cooper had the right idea with the Monsieur, who speaks half in French, half in legible English. But then I had to endure the following within the space of two pages:

German major: "Ter teer is not so plenty as in ter old war, Pumppo; put ter lant is not mate as for ter teer to live on, put for Christians." Holy crap. At least I had the clue they were already talking about deer (teer), but mate for made? Put for But? Someone get me an aspirin.

Irish barmaid: "It's varry pratty men is the French; and jist when I stopt the cart, ... to kape the rig'lers in, a rigiment of the jontlemen marched by." I guess she's saying something nice about French soldiers, but exactly what is beyond me. If I have to stop to decipher what your characters are saying, I'm not reading anymore, I'm translating. And that's work.

Stubborn person that I am, I do plan on finishing The Pioneers. I'm pretty sure I know one of the major themes—who owns the land's bounty—and I think there might be a romance hidden among all the discussion about the deer. Here's hoping it's not so much more work to uncover it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Our system sucks: A nonpartisan political rant

I'm really looking forward to going to family fishing camp in a couple of weeks, but there's quite a bit to be done in preparation. Besides packing, figuring out what menu items to bring, and arranging a cat-sitter, I have to fill out my absentee ballot for the August primary. I've been thinking about the races quite a bit (it's hard not to when signs crowd the lawns and verges everywhere in town), and was planning to do the usual research, checking out the LWV website for candidate information, as well as several newspaper editorials. I take voting seriously, and haven't missed a primary or election since we returned from living abroad.

So I'd been cogitating over the various races, giving it some real thought, when I saw something on the ballot that brought my civic enthusiasm to a full halt: "Partisan Section: VOTE ONLY 1 SECTION."

Okay, so I get the "pick-one-party rule" when you're choosing a presidential candidate (although don't get me started on the disenfranchising mess that was Michigan's presidential primary this year). You want people to choose the candidate they want, not try to sabotage the other party's race. And since there's only one race, whichever route you decide to go, at least your voice is being heard.

This is not what's happening in August, however. And here's how our two-party system sucks: for the most part, it's weighted toward one party or the other, depending on how a district is gerrymandered, so there's no real choice in November. For instance, I live in Wayne County, Michigan, which also holds the city of Detroit. As a result, county government officials are almost uniformly Democratic, so picking the winner of the Democratic primary is where my vote counts the most. (In some instances, there is no Republican candidate, so it's the only time my vote counts.) My Congressional district is also gerrymandered Republican, so it's hard to get a decent Democratic opponent, and I'd definitely like a say in that as well.

Unfortunately, I also live in a township that swings Republican. Almost all our township officials are Republican, so my vote counts the most when I pick the candidates in the Republican primary. (In some races, only one Democrat is running unopposed.) Unfortunately, my official ballot says I have to choose: in which races do I want to have a real say? Township or County? Because according to our system, I can only pick one. And that sucks.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No comment!

In which I ask you, Dear Reader: What's up? Do you really not have anything to say to me? I look at the past week's carefully crafted blog entries and see the same disappointing (not to say ungrammatical) statistics: "0 comments ... 0 comments ... 0 comments." Am I typing my thoughts into the void of the internet, with no one reading them?

What's the big deal?, you may ask. It's just a blog. Well, if I wanted my writing to be ignored, I would send it out to agents and publishers and wait for their rejections. (Oh, wait, I already do that.) I was talking with someone about the frustrating process of finding a publisher the other day, and they said, "Oh, so you want to be famous?" I shook my head no, because that's not it at all. Fame/success/money might be nice (or might not be), but what I really want is to be heard.

I was reading Stephen King's On Writing the other week—a very entertaining as well as informative book about the craft—and he had the perfect metaphor for the act of reading. When you read something, he noted, you're engaging in telepathy with the author. If I describe something—say, a large, growling tiger—and you read my description, a picture is being transmitted from my mind to yours. The more details I include—the growling tiger is wearing a large purple tutu around its hips, and dancing an Irish jig atop a grand piano—the more similar our pictures become. Reading is an act of magic, because you can engage in telepathy across continents and cultures and even centuries. When I write something, I'm trying to create magic.

So when you don't comment, I don't know whether I've successfully brought the rabbit out of the hat, or if it got stuck somewhere below the brim. You don't have to be clever, or wordy. A simple "hi" will do. I'd even take "that's completely stupid," because at least it would mean you're reading. You don't have to be a Blogger member to comment. You don't even have to leave your name (although it would be nice). But let me know you're out there, Dear Reader, so I know if we're making the magic happen.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Photo of the Week--7/14/08

Ah, Barcelona! A beautiful city that has it all: lovely beaches, great food, friendly people, historic sites (including Roman ruins!), family activities (a great aquarium), and some of the most interesting architecture you'll ever see, courtesy of the Catalan master Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). He's best known for his still-unfinished cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, but evidence of his genius is all over the city. The Parc Güell has intriguing combinations of natural forms and mosaics combined with the usual features of public parks, and the Casa Batlló, an apartment building, has balconies that look like carnival masks (or skulls) accenting its tiled walls. My favorite photo comes from atop Gaudí's Casa Milà, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The style wasn't too popular when the building was completed c. 1910—the locals called it "La Pedrera," or "the pile of rocks"—but I loved wandering about the roof, feeling like I was Alice moving along a larger-than-life-sized chess board.