Praise of Jane Austen
Male Voices Newsletter
|Volume 1, Number 4||December 1, 2002|
Edited by Linda Fern & Cheryl
THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE, VOL. 3
From the Rise of Arabia to The Renaissance
You've probably seen a number of Larry Gonick's books at the bookstore or in the library; he has cartoon guides to everything from physics to genetics. But his Cartoon History series is what started it all. Originally published as individual comix, the Guides began with the Big Bang and with the end of the most recent volume, take us to the start of Columbus' voyage in 1492. It's been 8 years since the last volume which has provoked much complaining among fans, but I'd have to say it was worth the wait. (In the mean time, in addition to the Cartoon Guide franchise, Gonick has revised Vols. 1 & 2 as new information has come to light.)
Gonick has a rare talent in the genre of "popular" history: he can present the stupidest men and women and the most horrific consequences of their actions with humor and without judgement. He's never condescending to either his subjects or his readers. And he's equally skeptical of historical "tradition" and post modern historical theory, and very seldom gives into the temptation to put forth an alternate view of history simply because it is alternate.
Obviously, 300 AD to 1492 is a lot of ground to cover in 298 pages, so Gonick only hits those points which have relevance to his story as a whole. And while he's respectful of religion (he never used any form of the word "God" in his Old Testament volume, and Muhammed never appears "on camera" in this book) he pulls no punches about the violent pasts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. When he must insert a personal opinion into the book, they usually take the form of "footnotes" : stand-alone 3 panel cartoons at the bottom of the page.
Gonick's books are used by a large number of history and science teachers as an adjunct to more traditional texts; and with good reason. Gonick's love of history fairly leaps off the page. Nearly everyone I've recommended these books to has not only read and enjoyed them, but has taken advantage of their excellent bibliographies to expand their knowledge in areas of particular interest. The current volume lists no less than 80 books, most with some little comment or capsule review. Gonick is an excellent illustrator, using a variety of styles and points of view to convey extra information. His illustrations of actual artifacts and artwork are detailed and quite accurate. He also does his own drawing throughout the books ... there's no zip-a-tone here.
Overall, I'd rate this 4 out of 5 stars. There are a few minor inaccuracies and of course in some areas, the interpretation of events comes down to the writer's personal view. Be warned though, in the reviews I've read, Muslims have called the book over harsh to Islam and Christians have said the same thing about Gonick's depiction of the church. I'm neither and I think it's fairly even-handed, for what it's worth.
The paperback edition retails for $21.95. It's fairly rare to find Vols 1 & 2 for sale used, and if you go that way, you might want to see if it's the revised edition. This isn't so important for Vol 2, but astronomy & astrophysics have come a long way since 1985 and Vol. 1 is definitely out of date.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
It's funny that how well you like a book has a lot to do with how well you're going to like the movie based on it. I LOVED Chamber of Secrets. I thought it hit all the important parts of the book, left out most of the repetitious stuff, and was truer to the book than Sorcerer's Stone. My favorite of the books so far is Prisoner of Azkaban by the way. The spousal unit on the other hand found the movie "rushed and badly edited" with too many important plot elements left out. Guess which is his favorite of the series? The Chamber of Secrets plot is really a rerun of Sorcerer's Stone and the film is also a rerun in a way of what was good and bad about Sorcerer's Stone.
The Good Bits: Once again, casting is the strong point in this movie. Miriam Margoyles is professor Sprout, Colin Creevy doesn't even need any lines—the actor just IS Colin exactly as I pictured him. Tiny, geeky, PERFECT. Lucius Malfoy, after I got over the shock of his having long hair, sneered and menaced in the great Movie Villian tradition. Gemma Jones didn't have much to do in this one, but I'm looking forward to her expanded role in Prisoner. The only serious misstep was Moaning Myrtle, who comes off perkier than hell and even twice as annoying as she is in the book, which is saying something. Kenneth Branaugh was sadly underutilized as Gilderoy Lockheart, but we can't have everything (And we were once more cheated out of Rick Mayall as Peeves, darn it.) Tom Riddle is so close to perfect, it's going to be hard to top him if it ever gets to Goblet of Fire and we have to see the adult Lord Voldemort (surely it'll be Gary Oldman??)
As advertised, the acting and special effects were much improved. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watkins have matured into their roles quite a bit. (It's [unintentionally] amusing to watch how from scene to scene Rupert and Daniel change places as the tallest—growth spurts can be hell.) Richard Harris, who I thought was rather too twinkling and accessible in Sorcerer's Stone was much more the Albus Dumbledore I've imagined; whether due to his illness, or just by getting a clue I don't know. The spiders were excellent. I certainly wouldn't recommend this movie for children who haven't quite grasped the difference between movies and real life. There's a particularly disturbing shot where to camera pans up from Harry & Ron's point of view to dozens of giant spiders descending on webs. Maybe it's just that it's a replay of a particularly nasty nightmare I once had (the spiders were coming out of the light fixture above my bed), but the ladies beside me were squirming too. As for the "eat slugs Malfoy" part, they don't pull any punches there either. Ron is played green and vomiting so those with weak stomachs are forewarned. We have a lot fewer "gee whiz" moments in this film. Most of the "wizarding stuff" is presented in an offhand way and the movie is much improved by it. There are also a few sly references to later books which are fun, if not wise. Generally, the characters keep their best lines.
The Bad Bits: Again, the same as the first movie. While the effects were much improved, that doesn't fix the fact that the Quidditch scene lasted an eternity, without forwarding the plot one little bit. We see too little of life at The Burrow (another winner—the Burrow looks pretty much as I imagined it) and Ginny Weasly upon whom the entire plot turns is treated much the way Neville Longbottom was in the first movie—and with as poor results for the logic of the movie. The decision to change the dynamics of the Harry/Hagrid relationship is a mistake that will have to be rectified if the films continue. The Dursleys are too shrill to be believable and the effective grinding poverty in which Harry lives while surrounded by the Dursleys' riches seems totally lost on the director.
Sadly, the special effects crew completely missed on Fawkes the Phoenix. After how well done the rest of it was, Fawkes was disappointedly mundane and the animatronic bird looked as if it were left over from some low budget thriller. The Basilisk was okay, but totally ignored Rowling's description. The good news is that the writer and director haven't made the same mistake twice.
Overall, I'd say Chamber of Secrets is more successful in part because it embraces more of the darker aspects of the Harry Potter books. It's also funnier, mostly thanks to Rupert Grint's comedic abilities and much more exciting, thanks to improved special effects. While making a few symps to the "feel good" crowd, the writer and director seem maybe to have gotten the idea that the Harry Potter series is more than a story about an orphan finding his true family and have credited even the youngest fans with the intelligence they deserve.
reply to Ashton
I think you've got something there [ASHTON: vol.1 n.3 armed robbery]. The mystery of why a respectable clergyman would allow his daughters to act in plays is solved. Jane Austen used the whole thing as a cover for her double life. The costumes, no doubt aided her in her nefarious schemes, for hidden among them who would notice a highwayman's mask? And of course, she could use the "rehearsals" to practice her highwayman's voice. This explains letter number 1,204b which has always puzzled me.
"Jane made quite a Nuisance of herself whilst practising her Role' for The Gentleman of Verona on Tuesday last. She could not remember her Lines and instead entered Time and Time again shouting 'Stand & Deliver!' at the top of her lungs. She also insisted on leaping from behinde the Curtaine with one of the Ostler's Pistols instead of the Fan which I bought for her in London at Easter expressley for this purpose."
No doubt cousin Elizabeth found Jane's behavior odd, but with hindsight I think we can confirm Ashton's suspicions.
Let me add another Mark Twain anecdote.
MT had used his experiences as a steamboatman and among the gold miners to acquire a rather colorful vocabulary; words that would not be appropriate in JA's presence but would probably be familiar to her Naval officer brothers.
One day, he cut himself while shaving, and vigorously delivered himself of a string of strong language. His Wife Livie, who had heard all this many, many times, decided to give him a taste of his own medicine; to let him know what he sounded like.
She calmly and dispassionately repeated his tirade to his face, word for scandalous word. When she was done, he said: "My dear, you have the words, but you haven't got the tune."
Some really bad advice!
I have been thinking about one of Linda's contributions to the November newsletter. There our peerless editor mentioned some advice once given to Mark Twain by an older, seemingly wiser man, "Avoid inferiors. Seek your comradeships among your superiors in intellect and character; always climb." I wonder if that is good advice? I mean I think that was terrible advice. Well, good advice if you are a scientist or engineer, but for an artist? a writer?
I mean what kind of advice do you think this is for a nascent portrayer of humanity? Besides, in the context of humanity and art, what does "superior" mean in the first place. On the other hand, writers and artists too often have taken advice of this type. So, American writers go to (or went to) Paris in order to write the Great American Novel. There they joined fellowships of "superiors in intellect and character", read that "coteries". The result is that they wrote for other artists and, in order to accomplish that, they had to conform to the political and social norms of their superiors. But what has all that to do with me?—Absolutely nothing.
Jane Austen never belonged to a coterie. The two most famous novelists of her time, Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, did. Our Lady was once invited to join just such a fellowship, but she refused—most likely because of her natural shyness. And one other time, she might have reached out to Maria Edgeworth when that author was sent a copy of Emma a few days before publication. Edgeworth didn't know what to make of it. Jane Austen mingled with us, she wrote about us, she wrote for us. Jane Austen could have given Mark Twain better, more complete advice.
I have always believed this about Jane Austen's favorite novelist, Maria Edgeworth. Pick an Edgeworth novel at random, pick a page at random, and compare it to a Jane-Austen page selected at random. I will bet a dozen doughnuts that you will think, "Whoa! Maria Edgeworth was a much better writer than Jane Austen!" Do that for an entire chapter and you will likely think, "Yes, Maria Edgeworth was every bit as good as Jane Austen." But, do that for an entire novel and I am certain you will conclude, "Ehh! No wonder we never heard of Edgeworth and no wonder Jane Austen is so famous."
"Every day is a winding road / Every day is a feeling inside"
That's the chorus from a Sheryl Crow song. Sheryl was genetically engineered to be a drop-dead gorgeous super-model or film star or something but chose to be an outstanding song writer and performer instead. She is one of those beautiful women no one ever calls "cute" because she is too damn womanly looking—she is just "beautiful." Any man would be charmed if he put the TV on mute and just watched. Anyone could turn a back to the screen and be enchanted by merely listening. There are some men in this world who, like yours truly, can take the full treatment—sight and song—and barely whimper. I have what it takes. I love her lyrics, I love her voice, her stylings and interpretations demolish me.
Sheryl Crow was born and raised in southeastern Missouri. She mentioned, in an interview, that she remembered the stories her grandmother and mother told about the Mississippi—about how everyone knew someone taken by the river. She ended the segment by describing her own reaction when Jeff's body was found. I don't know who "Jeff " was, maybe a brother, maybe a lover.
Mark Twain was born and raised in northeastern Missouri and, sure enough, the River swallowed up someone he loved. Mark Twain was working on a river boat when he convinced a beloved younger brother to join him in that occupation. Twain had a terrible row with the captain and was kicked off in New Orleans. After that, the ship was headed upstream when the boiler blew up killing most aboard including the brother. It was a double whammy because Twain had enticed the brother on board in the first place and then he had to contend with survivor's syndrome on top of it.
Well, every day on Twain's trip around the world (Following the Equator) was a winding road—it was a feeling inside—and we are made to feel those feelings. The book is great and I hope you will pick it up. I do want to warn you of one thing; Mark Twain chose not to shield us from some feelings he was experiencing. I will mention one thing in particular, his coverage of the Thugee cult of India. My understanding of the word "Thugee" is that it is derived from an Afghan word for "deceiver". It was the source for a new word in the English language, "thugs". They had been in India for centuries before the British arrived and reached a pinnacle in Jane Austen's time when there were about 5,000 thousand Thugee committing something like 30,000 random murders per year. They were organized serial killers, and they were a quasi-religious sect that knew no class, caste, or religious distinctions. That is, some members were Hindu, other were Muslim. The sect paid homage to the Hindu goddess Kali, and used one of the myths about her to ritualize their murder ceremonies. The membership tended to be hereditary—passed down from father to son. Robbery was done but was not a primary motive; as Twain points out, they just seemed to enjoy the hunt. The reason for the "deceiver" appellation is that they spent several days with their intended victims to gain their confidence so to distract them at the moment of the killing. The British used Draconian methods to wipe out the sect—they imprisoned entire families for life, gave them opportunity for industry, but never allowed them to procreate. It worked—no more Thugee. (Some say that the Thugee myth was exaggerated by the British in order to excuse their suppression of political enemies—so maybe Twain was duped.)
The chapters where Twain tells us of these things (he learned all this from a British government report) are very disturbing and very disturbed. You can tell he was upset—so upset that he couldn't leave the subject alone, he had to talk about these things he had stumbled upon. It is deeply disturbing to read these things as well—I decided to set that part of the book aside several times but always returned. I guess I thought that I might learn something useful about Al Qaeda, or maybe I expected to comprehend the incomprehensible—the thoughts of serial killers. I can remember only one similar reading experience, my reading of de Sade. De Sade was a contemporary of Jane Austen so I decided to read something by him—scheezze!
Ah well, I can always listen to Sheryl Crow to try to sooth myself after reading things like that—after being upset like that. I think I must have a thing about southern women. I mean I love Sheryl Crow, Emmy Lou Harris, Andie MacDowell, Jennifer Ehle, etc. They seem so perfect. And the example of Jennifer Ehle indicates to us that, if we can transcend logic and move along a higher path of discovery, we will confirm something we have always suspected—Elizabeth Bennet was a southern girl.
Reply to Jim
Thank you, Jim! That anecdote is a perfect example of the relationship between Mark and Livy. Mark had a temper and was perfectly capable of pitching a fit, but in spite of that I have the impression from the books I have read that he held Livy in high regard, respected her, and was considerate of her comfort. I, particularly, notice "all those things" because I am in my own identity crisis, similar to the era of the late 60s and early 70s when the young folks "had to find themselves". At the time I thought the idea was kind of silly because I knew who I was or so I thought. Strange, how one gets smarter the older one gets. We have discussed feminism, slavery, Rebs and Yanks, etc. on the board, and I am beginning to realize that I really don't know why I am what I am. It may be the nature vs. nurture thing, too. What I have lately discovered is a whole host of books by Drew Gilpin Faust, Dean of Radcliffe, covering the South and its people. What is so great is we are almost the same age and experienced the same southern "nurture". I have peeked at her books (I bought them all) and get goose bumps at her insight. You all will probably be hearing more about this in the future.
Another Mark Twain book I finished reading
In Mark Twain to Mrs. Fairbanks Mark is quoted as saying "... that I who so often speak ill-naturedly of worthy people... "
In this book he also used two words that I have only encountered before in Pride and Prejudice - though I admit to being less well read than others. He used "politic" and "officious", both in quotation marks as if quoting from another source (JA?) in the same letter. Since they were in quotation marks it indicates to me that he did not ordinarily use them himself. The word "politic" (again in quotation marks) occurred alone in another letter. Imitation is the best form of flattery, I have heard it said.
After reading the two books mainly to determine why he said what he did about Jane Austen, my conclusion is that he did not mean it the way it sounds especially in light of the two above items. He spoke that way about almost everyone. Therefore I will not take him literally. ... but that from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood. I readily admit to not knowing him. In my last newsletter I forgot to mention the other great sadness in his life - the death of his younger brother whom Ashton so ably mentions above. I believe he blamed himself for that, as well as the death of his infant son mentioned below. It's a sad business.
For (Cheryl's) Roy
Just as a FYI, I took notice of the following three "medical" items. I am attentive to all those things. Susie took voice lessons from Madame Marchesi in Paris. Madame noted: Here was a case of voluntary self-starvation, and she [Susie] laughingly confessed to have lived chiefly on mixed pickles, ice-cream, candies and similar foods. If this be the case, no wonder that she was so sickly and died at age 24; she had no stamina.
During Mrs. Clemens first pregnancy she took a "sleeping potion", but no mention of exactly what. However, in something I read that Mark wrote (might have been Puddn'head) he mentions "laudanum" which is derived from opium. It makes one wonder if that had something to do with the sickly nature of their firstborn, that at 16 months he could not walk, also slow to talk and teeth, and his death at 19 months. Mark blamed himself for the baby's fatal illness because of his inattentiveness during a buggy ride on a cold day.
I have only scanty knowledge of the medical connection of diseases transmitted between animals and humans, but the youngest daughter, Jean, was an animal lover who developed epileptic seizures in her young womanhood. Quoting Mark: "Jean's got some kind of a horse-complaint. I don't know what it is, but I think it's the Horse-Kiss-Hives. It comes out on the mouth, and is not becoming." IMO people in those days were not as aware as we are of the dangerousness of picking up germs, etc. from animals.
I misread your vacation plans. I thought you and Roy were going on your anniversary trip in October, but now realize that it is next March. I think I have the straight of it now.
Thanks for the review of Larry Gonick's books. Something else I have never heard of, but they sound terribly interesting. See, that is why I do this newsletter. My library has a copy!
I send my heartiest "Thanks" for being so kind as to be a co-editor in this endeavor. There will be times when I need a helping hand.
Reply to Ashton
As far as the "coteries" are concerned, you are perfectly right about the majority of people but Mark Twain is the exception, IMHO. He did mingle with the literary elite in Hartford and Europe, but most (I believe we might say the greatest) of his writings reflect his homespun experiences. He did not "conform to the political and social norms of his superiors." He remained a rebel. Even his close relationship with Twitchell, the pastor, did not overly influence his religious beliefs.
You said: "Jane Austen could have given Mark Twain better, more complete advice". As a matter of fact, I think she did (meaning he read and learned from her) because, as I said, he stuck to his own experiences - for the most part. It's just that his experiences were different from hers. See the next paragraph.
Ken Burns presented a documentary on Mark Twain's life in November on PBS. I have it on tape and get to see it piecemeal when I can find a minute or two. It is extremely good in that it follows the books I recently read about him. The insights of the various historians seem to be in agreement with my own opinions - which is hard to believe! It gives you Mark's history without having to read a ton of books. I highly recommend it. As a matter of fact, some of the things that were said about him and his works also describe Jane Austen's life and works.
"Southern women" ... hm-mm. I wouldn't know about such things! ;-) However when I read your comments about the "Thugee" my heart broke at one more example of man's inhumanity to man. I shall have to read FtE and never mind the pain.
Your editor and co-editor wish to thank Ashton, our friendly Internet Technician for allowing us to post our humble meanderings online at his web site. We should have this new dimension ready sometime in December. He has also kindly provided us with our own MV Newsletter email address. If you please, check the board from time to time for "What's New" (or wherever he decides to announce it).
The family returned safely from the trek to Baton Rouge where a good time was had by all - no Turducken though. She did have a deep fried turkey once. "Turducken" seems to be something new - to me anyway, though my sister has heard of it and liked it. We had to leave just as the LSU - Arkansas game got underway on Friday. The teams have a grudge match (we Louisianians think we are better than Arkansans), not to mention a championship at stake. When we arrived home we found out that Arkansas won with a touchdown at the last few seconds. Since we had lived in Arkansas for several years and my son-in-law is from there, we were tickled to hear it.
I did hear from BREE who assures me she is still knee-deep in busy-ness! Which reminds me that I should do a report on my adventures with the American "Jane Austen" - Frances Parkinson Keyes who just happens to be the same religion as our Bree.
Wishing you all the best in the coming Holiday Season, I'll see you next Year! Goodness! 2003 - already!
Love from Linda
Mens' Voices Home Page
Table of Contents
Index and Archive
References and Links