Author Archives: Katherine

History Nuggets – Gold

Three bite-size non-fiction reviews tied together with a delicious topical dipping sauce!

The theme: Mansa Musa, Sultan of Mali, was arguably the wealthiest person ever to live. No kidding. You know you’ve reached mythological levels of lucre when you show up on maps made by people living halfway across the known world with an annotation about how much gold you have. Mali was such a rich kingdom because the territory it controls – centered around the city Timbuktu – is situated on the Niger River and in a position to control trade across the Sahara to and from the European subcontinent.

Ivory Coast jewelry

By Papischou (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Akan people of Ghana and Ivory Coast are still known for the quality and quantity of their goldwork. A stupefying amount of trade flowed through Timbuktu, with most of it paid for in gold, mined out of ore-bearing seams just to the South. There’s a reason we call the ocean-border of Ghana the Gold Coast. Did I mention the gold?

I like to imagine Sultan Mansa Musa swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. But that would probably understate how much gold he had. According to legend, Mansa Musa had so much gold, that when he went on the Hajj he took an enormous caravan including camels with sacks of pure gold dust on their backs, and crashed the unsuspecting economies of entire city states with inflation because their markets literally could not handle the influx of gold. Did this actually happen? Historical accounts disagree (with most saying it did happen). However, we do know that the Sultan bankrolled a massive building boom in Mali, with new mosques, libraries, and colleges sprouting up in cities all over the kingdom.

Great Mosque of Djenne

By BluesyPete (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a prime example of Malian architecture, the Great Mosque of Djenne. These are not cheap to build. Here’s another one, financed by the Sultan himself.

Another massive public building paid for by the Sultan.

By KaTeznik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

If the style of these buildings look weirdly familiar, like they belong to a desert planet orbiting twin suns in a galaxy far far away, it’s because Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope was filmed on a relatively tiny budget, largely on location in Tunisia, which has some of the same classically Northwest African architecture. The Skywalker home was an actual house, which is now Hotel Sidi Driss. Bits of Star Wars set are strewn all over parts of the Tunisian desert. Understanding history is all about making connections, after all, so put on that John Williams soundtrack, and read on!

 

Salt, Kurlansky

Sodium Chloride makes for some seriously gripping reading. Doesn’t hurt that it’s really well written.

As for the big picture of what (aside from gold) the Kingdom of Mali was built on, and where Timbuktu fit in on the world stage of the international salt trade, Mark Kurlansky’s excellent overview Salt: A World History will put it nicely in context.  Salt was first published in 2002, but it’s every bit the excellent true world history it’s ever been.

 

Timbuktu book cover

I like my histories dense and well-seasoned with primary material. Bonus points for Ibn Battuta!

If, however, what you wanted was a history of the city of Timbuktu – the center, but not the capitol, of Mali – read Timbuktu: the Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold. This book gives a very thorough treatment of the history of the city, especially the establishment of the trade and the Kingdom of Mali, and the heyday of the city as a hub of trade for caravans across the Sahara.

 

Librarians of Timbuktu

I couldn’t resist.

For an even more focused view on the world of Sultan Mansa Musa and how it intersects with our own there’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of TimbuktuThe Kingdom’s wealth and economic connections meant a massive heap of documentation, making the medieval libraries and colleges of Timbuktu a treasure-trove of manuscripts. When Mali’s most recent rebellion broke out in 2012, the race was on to secure and hide the priceless documents before the historic buildings and the knowledge they housed were destroyed by Islamist forces. History is littered with tragic library-burnings – Alexandria, Hanlin Academy – but, this time, the books were saved, and our world is truly richer for it in wealth of knowledge, not gold.

Reviews by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Liu Bei hears Zhuge Liang's plans for dividing the state, but contending for power.

“Should you wish to take the overlordship, you will yield the Heaven’s favor to Cao Cao in the north, and you will relinquish the Earth’s advantage to Sun Quan in the south. You, General, will hold the Human’s heart and complete the trinity.”

Remember, folks, it’s not spoilers if it happened almost two thousand years ago. In this episode of Classic Adaptations, we explore the work that represents the richest mother lode of adaptations I’ve found yet: the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three KingdomsThere’s a lot of ground to cover here, so I’ll be moving pretty fast, but this is still a really long post.

Note: Chinese names have the form – Familyname Givenname – so that the first name is the family someone belongs to, and the second is their personal name. People who share a family name are, at least in theory, related by blood (or adoption) on their father’s side. There is also the courtesy name also called style, or zi, which was used when it would be impolite to use the given name.

Example: Zhao Yun, styled Zilong.

Is this confusing? Yes, but only for a little while, until you get used to it. The real headache is that some translations use different romanization schemes than others…

 

The History

The Three Kingdoms period followed on the collapse of the (Latter) Han Dynasty, and officially lasted from 220 to 280. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is historical fiction, itself an adaptation of folklore, in turn adapted from well-known history. We’re in for quadruple or even quintuple adaptations, with this classic!

History writing in Han Dynasty China (as in nearly all Chinese states) wasn’t a hobby for the educated, as it was in contemporaneous Rome, it was the foundation of any new regime. Official histories collected the previous dynasty’s paperwork, and stitched these records into a narrative, generally calculated to make the first Emperors of any government look as good as possible, and the last ones as bad and incompetent as possible, to justify not only the current regime, but also the structure of dynastic succession itself.

As to that succession, the one, overarching principle is that of the Mandate of Heaven. Unlike in Europe, where Kings and Emperors were considered God’s regents on Earth, if a previous Emperor had done a bad enough job to provoke natural disasters or uprisings that undermined the stability of the state, then he could be replaced. Anyone who successfully unseated the previous Emperor and united the other Chinese states became the next Emperor, preferably in a formal ceremony, in which the previous Emperor handed over power (and the Mandate of Heaven) to the new Emperor, establishing a new dynasty. A central concern, therefore, is from whom, and on what grounds, a dynasty claims succession of the Mandate of Heaven.

This political bias leads to some fascinating interactions, when this model for history is adapted to fiction. In an official history, someone loses the Mandate of Heaven because he’s incompetent and a bad guy, and the new ruler is, by default, a good guy, because that’s politically expedient for everybody. In fiction, someone’s a bad guy, because it makes a better story that way. Writing a Chinese historical fiction novel could get you into trouble, if you craft a villain out of the wrong person. In this context, it’s not touchiness to read an allegory for contemporary politics into historical narrative, it’s just common sense.

If you want to read more about the history behind this novel, and its many, many spin-offs, there’s actually a fan website that covers many of them, and provides timelines, and a who’s who section, including fan translations of the biographies in the Records of the Three Kingdoms – the official history of the era, written when the Jin Dynasty came to power.

 

The Classic

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

By Luo Guanzhong

Romance of the Three Kingdoms cover image

I own this book. It’s about 800 pages long. See that “Volume I”? You better believe there’s a second volume, just as fat as the first. The introduction is a single page that boils down to “if you have this book you know why you’re here.” I love that.

In all seriousness, though, this is a loooo-oooooo-oooonnng book, up there with Les MisérablesMost translations weigh in at around 2000 pages. Given that the plot spans a century, it goes by FAST, though. Characters can be introduced and killed off within a single paragraph. This isn’t a novel about a close study of individual psychologies, it’s about the grand sweep of history. No time for navel-gazing here. Or romance. If there’s a marriage, it’s about politics, or maybe it’s an assassination plot or honey trap. That’s not to say that the main characters aren’t well developed. It’s just that there’s a couple dozen of them. In a small miracle of storytelling economy, the author lets the actions of these characters speak for themselves, and leaves the rest to the reader’s inference.

Since Luo Guanzhong‘s 15th Century audience for the novel would have been very familiar with this history, he doesn’t change the major events, but rather paints the characters in a heroic or villainous light, to conform to his own era’s biases as to who was the most fit to rule, and often at odds with the official histories, which in turn, were biased in their own way. Five centuries have passed since the novel was written, and we, as readers from a different time, and half a world away, have our own filters to deal with. The choices the author makes, to adapt this history to his own time, and then the reader’s interpretations layered on top of it, mean that a story told primarily through actions develops complex and ambiguous outcomes in the reading – and this is where it gets really interesting.

EXAMPLE: Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty edition illustration of Sun Jian

Qing Dynasty illustration of Sun Jian with the Imperial Seal. Whether he even finds it – and what happens next – depends on the adaptation.

Sun Jian’s character, although not as obviously as some of the others, has been tinkered with by the authors of the novel. He did, apparently, fight a bunch of pirates when he was a teen (!!!). He did, according to his official biography, eventually become a general under Yuan Shu for the Han Dynasty against the tyrant, Dong Zhuo. His biography in the Records of the Three Kingdoms says nothing about the Imperial Seal. In the novel, however, one of his followers finds the seal in a ruined well, and gives it to Sun Jian, who lies to Yuan Shu about finding it (showing how power-hungry Yuan Shu is, and also how Sun Jian harbors ambitions of his own). The novel doesn’t mention that he restored the looted tombs in Luoyang, and also credits his killing of enemy officer Hua Xiong to another character (Guan Yu, incidentally, who got a massive heroism upgrade due to being literally ascended to godhood in the course of intervening centuries, as we will see).

Subtly, fiction molds real, complicated people into emotionally resonant roles in a story.

When the actions that define a character have gained, lost, or changed meaning across time and cultures, however, the real test of a story is how well it can weather such an unanticipated and cataclysmic journey. Romance of the Three Kingdoms succeeds spectacularly, telling a universal and deeply compelling tale, including heroic weeping into sleeves, baby tossing, and the odd incident of virtuous cannibalism.

 

The OTHER Adaptations

It’s hard to overstate just how significant Romance of the Three Kingdoms is in terms of how far it’s permeated the culture of China, and the East Asian cultural sphere in general. If you’ve so much as eaten in an American Chinese restaurant, I can just about guarantee you that you’ve seen a representation of at least one of the characters of the novel. Specifically, Guan Yu, who rocketed to the heights of apotheosis via a heroic treatment in the novel, several excellent Chinese opera suites, and Imperial patronage. The following are just a few of the many, many adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and each one is definitely worth a look, on its own, with unique perspectives, and takes on each character (who, by and large, were real, historical, living people).

  • Chinese Operas (Too many to count!)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994 TV series)
  • The Ravages of Time (2001 manhua – Chinese comic book – series)
  • Three Kingdoms 2010 (2010 TV series)
  • Red Cliff (2008 motion picture)
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (video game series)
  • Dynasty Warrior(video game series)

 

Postscript:

Temporary Guan Gong shrine at the Umbrella Movement barricade.

By David290 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Above is a picture of the improvised Guan Yu temple at a roadblock during the Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong in 2014. Although often called a God of War, as if he were an analogue of Ares or Athena, Lord Guan is rather a god of brotherhood in a united cause, and self-improvement by reading literature. Really, there’s no better choice of patron deity for a (mostly) student protest movement.

Highlights of the above picture: under the oranges on the altar, hand-drawn angry chibi-style Lord Guan with an umbrella; to the right of that, a poster with the character model of Guan Yu from the Japanese video game Dynasty Warriors 5! In this image, we have history from the 3rd Century mutating into a novel which spawns a video game series centuries later in a different country, which ricochets back for religious and political use.

God of literacy in a library blog For The Win!

Guan Yu reading

By Fred Hsu on en.wikipedia (Photo taken and uploaded by user) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: Hamlet

In this installment of the Classic Adaptations series, I seize the opportunity to rant about biological realism in cartoons. Also, it’s about Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

 

The Classic

Hamlet

By: Shakespeare

Hamlet cover art

You know this story, guys, come on. I’m dead certain you’ve seen at least one adaptation, too.

This particular edition is my favorite, with lots of annotations, and scholarly essays and such. You’ll probably need lots of annotations, too, to deal with Shakespeare unfiltered. Even then, most modern editions are kind enough to “correct” the spelling. You’ll probably also notice that Shakespeare’s language is pretty filthy. Hamlet‘s probably the filthiest of his plays, in terms of language, too. (Titus Andronicus is way more gratuitously violent and offensive to the modern tastes, though. There’s a reason it’s not often staged… if it were a movie, it would be NC-17 for Everything.) Let’s just say that “get thee to a nunnery” – in a Tudor (+ subsequent… “unrest”) England when Catholics vs Church of England was Serious Business of the highest order – doesn’t refer to a literal nunnery, and leave it at that. Basically everything Hamlet says, especially to Ophelia, is some form of bawdy innuendo, or just straight-up bawdy. If you haven’t read Shakespeare since high school, just remember: your English teachers may have taught you everything you know, but they didn’t necessarily teach you everything they know.

You know this story, though. Hamlet’s father’s ghost(?) says his brother murdered him. Hamlet (pretends to be insane? actually goes insane?) to lure his uncle, the new king, into a false sense of security, so he can investigate the crime, stall for time, and ultimately try to kill him. Everybody dies. The end.

Countless adaptations have been made of Hamlet, from stage productions to motion pictures, but we will be focusing on just one, in particular.

 

Adaptation

The Lion King

Lion King DVD cover art.

Hamlet cleaned up for kids, with cartoon lions, and a happy ending.

This is, seriously, one of the most successful movies of all time. You know that already. You’ve probably seen it already. Yes, it’s mostly Hamlet with lions. I saw it at a drive-in theater with my family as a kid. The scale was incredible. The animation was amazing. Nothing really matches how big and vibrant this movie feels to watch. They were also pretty gutsy about killing major characters off nearly on-screen. We owned this on VHS, and I saw it almost monthly, for a while, not the least because my brother also liked it.

Here’s the basic plot of The Lion King: Mufasa’s brother Scar kills him and takes over the pride, driving out his son, Simba (Hamlet), who fritters away his adolescence in an oasis with Pumbaa and Timon (Horatio, and Rosencrantz/Guildenstern). Simba sees an apparition(?) of his father which convinces him to return home to defeat his sinister uncle, and take back the pride. Conveniently, the hyenas kill Scar, so that the protagonist keeps his paws clean.

Even now, I’m fascinated by lions, and love animals in general. The Lion King is a great movie, but it definitely doesn’t have anything like realism, regarding its wildlife cast. Let’s learn a bit about lions, and what this can teach us about adaptations.

There’s a few very good reasons male lions don’t return to the pride of their birth, as Simba does. Lionesses remain with their mothers (like Nala does), generally, so that a lion pride is composed of related lionesses, who are all sisters, mothers, aunts, and sometimes grannies of each other. When male lions mature, they are driven out by the resident male. Sometimes, as seen in The Lion King, two or so related males form a “coalition” and work together to drive resident males from a pride, and take their place. On taking over the resident male position in a pride, male lions immediately massacre any cubs they can find. Cannibalism may or may not be involved, depending on how hungry they are.

Labeled picture of a lion pride.

Composition of a pride of lions.

If these were real lions, given the cub massacre, Simba and Nala have to be Mufasa and Scar’s children. They’re at least first cousins on their father’s side. And, given that lionesses are usually related, they’re probably double first cousins. We know they don’t have the same mother, but their father(s) are at least brothers, if not the same individual. Eugh. Don’t even get me started on spotted hyenas, either, although making Whoopi Goldberg the leader was a solid choice: they’re matriarchal. (And have a far more complex and sophisticated social life than lions, too. I could do a whole post on spotted hyenas alone.)

The Lion King isn’t really Hamlet with lions, then. It’s Hamlet – a very human story about a kingdom in distress, and a conflicted protagonist confronted with competing values and ethical systems – as played by emphatically make-believe lion-shaped cartoons.

Common Clownfish

Nature isn’t obliged to follow human expectations.

Did you know clownfish are protandrous sequential hermaphrodites? Now you do. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In all seriousness, though, taking a look at stories adapted to a telling through animal actors gives us a unique chance to see the limitations and frameworks of our own society and point of view as a species. The advent of computer animation (and limitations of early rendering to perform best with smooth textures) led to a flurry of movies in the late 1990’s and 2000’s starring eusocial insects like bees and ants:

All of these movies portray these insects as if they were human-like societies, with a monarch, and equal sex ratios. But bees aren’t little fuzzy insect people. And there’s no such thing as a male worker honeybee.

Antz DVD cover art

Inaccuracies don’t necessarily make a movie bad.

Bee Movie DVD cover art.

Sometimes, a movie must be inaccurate to be comprehensible, let alone sympathetic and engaging.

I’d argue, though, that most people wouldn’t want to see a movie starring actual, realistic bees. A fantasy kingdom of people in ant suits is far more relate-able than the very real behaviors of honeybees.

Worker bee.

A mature worker bee, doing what she does best: collecting provisions for the hive, and pollinating flowers. Without bees, flowering plants produce no fruit or seeds. This is why you should care about bees.

Could you make a realistic version of The Lion King? As close as possible to “Hamlet With Lions”? Sure. But I doubt anyone would care what happens to Mufasa if they see him slaughtering and eating lion cubs.

P. S. – Support your local pollinators!

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Classic Adaptations: The Count of Monte Cristo

This is the first of a series of posts on works of classic literature and their adaptations. Classic literature is usually classic for a reason (especially if they’re older than 100 years or so) ; these works tap into central concerns and universal themes. Given all of this, they’re especially prone to being remade over time, as people tell and re-tell the stories – usually while trying to knock off the jagged edges of the age and culture in which it was originally written. Taking a good hard look at classic adaptations can lend a lot of insight into cultural differences and changes over time, and also into what does not change, that universal core of experience.

My pick to launch this project is, naturally, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Here’s my reasoning:

  1. It’s good (really good), especially if you like broody, psychological revenge tales.
  2. Counts as a double adaptation, since I read English, and the original is in French.
  3. This post will involve space vampires. Of course.

Before we dive right in, let’s establish some ground rules. “Classic Literature” refers to the super-stars of the literature world. These are the most famous works in the canon of their respective cultures, proverbially famous, even, and endlessly re-told. I’m also only counting works over a century old, since it would take at least that long for the culture to change around it enough to see if the story can truly stand the test of time. Until then, it’s just a best-seller.

Due to how well-known these stories are, there’s no such thing as spoilers for the most part. I mean, imagine this situation:

Romeo and Juliet’s puppy love for each other [SPOILER ALERT guys! Highlight with your mouse between the asterisks to read the spoilers!] * Doesn’t end well, because they’re impulsive teens. They both die. The end. * [Spoilers end here!]

Yeah, it’s sort of silly. If it’s been out for four centuries, and/or it’s grade school level history, it can’t be spoiled. That said, I won’t assume you know everything about it, and I’ll step lightly on the plot to keep it fresh. The focus here is on how the story is told, and how it changes in adaptations. Let’s get this party started!

 

The Classic

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

This cuddly photo of the author is completely unrepresentative of the contents. Perfect cover choice, guys.

If you haven’t read this book, read this book. Right now. It’s not like you’re on a library website or anything like that. Get to the catalog, and get a copy. It’s that good. It’s also very very long, but it covers a huge span of time, lots of characters, and a complex plot. If you like juicy, scandalous, vicious revenge stories, this one is the granddaddy of them all. There’s romance, intrigue, and action aplenty. Arguably, what makes this book a classic is how credible the characters are, and the interactions, motivations, and mental states behind what they do. This level of detail lends extra weight to the central concern of the book – revenge measured against redemption and mercy. This is heavy, good stuff right here. It’s like a rich, dark chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and drizzled in hot fudge made of more chocolate and utter ruin.

 

The Adaptations

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

This is the movie poster for the 2002 Count of Monte Cristo adaptation.

Here’s the cover art for the DVD, and I think it does a very good job of conveying what it’s all about.

This is some tremendously ambitious stuff, right here. The unabridged novel is a real doorstop of a book, and the aim in this case is to make an adaptation that fits into a standard feature-length film, with a run time of about two hours. Do they succeed??

Maybe: it’s an entertaining movie, gripping, action packed, fun to watch. I remember catching it on TV re-runs once, though, and was utterly confused about the last third or so, where it diverges wildly from the novel. Also, given only about an hour and fifteen minutes of Count of Monte Cristo, much of the psychological richness that makes the original successful gets lost in the compression to film. The storytelling would have to be incredibly compact to begin with, to fit in a complete adaptation, so maybe taking an alternate path as the filmmakers did is the better choice? But I have a hunch that they made the changes to conform to what a modern audience expects in a feature film: we want action, suspense, and a “love story” where the main character has a romance and ultimately gets the girl. The novel has no love stories in this sense, given that all of the relationships are immensely complicated by the social, economic, and political environment in which it is set, to say nothing of the plot’s impact. Any of the novel’s female characters, however, are infinitely more interesting and complete as credible characters than the stock “love interest” of most of our feature films.

In sum, a good movie, but only a very loose adaptation.

 

Gankutsuou: the Count of Monte Cristo (originally aired 2004)

Gankutsuou DVD cover art.

Any still image is a very poor representation of what this anime is like. Imagine a breathtakingly elaborate animated digital collage.

I promised you space vampires, didn’t I? You know how I implied in the movie review that an adaptation of such a long book would be more nuanced and complete if it had longer than two hours to develop characters and motivations? If it was, perhaps, a miniseries? This is that miniseries. In the future. In SPACE.

(Why yes, it IS an anime, too. How could you tell??)

Despite the changes to the setting, this is still the most faithful and complete adaptation of the book that I have seen. Told over 24 episodes, the series does make changes to the original, but keeps the engine of the plot running strong fueled by sensitive characterization and giving the story a chance to pace itself and develop to maturity. In terms of major plot points, none are lost in the telling, and only a few are shuffled around in order to accommodate the run time.

Visually, this is an impressive work of art as well ; where many series use computer animation and coloring to take cheap shortcuts, this anime uses it to render the entire series in a unique style, with each scene a moving collage of textures and patterns. The largest difference between this adaptation and the book, apart from medium and setting is what, precisely, happened at the island prison (space station) Château d’If, therefore changing the Count’s true motivations in his quest for revenge. The series begins during Carnival on the Moon, and is told completely through the point of view of Albert de Morcerf, the trusting and innocent son of one of the Count’s enemies – this choice conveniently focuses all 24 episodes on the revenge plot itself, leaving the Count’s imprisonment and escape to brief allusions. It’s worth watching even a few episodes of this riveting series, if just to admire the artistry and vision of the creators.

 

In the case of these versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, the changes made in the course of adapting the work, even in the most successful adaptations, are generally due to the constraints of space available for the plot to play out in (2 hour run length), as well as face-lifts intended to improve the attractiveness of the story to a different audience and culture than it was initially written for (love story, space vampires, the Count’s motivations). As we will explore in future installations of this series, changes to the original story don’t necessarily make an adaptation a bad one, even if it starts with Carnival on the Moon.

Alexandre Dumas, Sr.

I’ve never seen a picture of Dumas, Sr. not looking cuddly, though. Like everybody’s storytelling grandpa. Seriously, though, the Dumas family has an incredibly interesting history. Like one of his novels, actually. Specifically, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Beat Cabin Fever

Now that the weather’s actually acting like winter after a gray and soggy December, Cabin Fever is starting to set in, but spring won’t be here for a few months. Here’s four things you can do to beat cabin fever, and get yourself through to the spring thaw.

Get Organized

Don’t wait for spring cleaning to get organized, channel all that squirrelly energy you have right now into getting your living space in shape. Ditch the stuff you don’t need. Tidy up the things you do need. Do just a little bit a day, and feel productive and smug. Smugly productive.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on "cleaning" out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Seriously, though. This book is better than any 10 books on “cleaning” out there. I mean, for real, get ORGANIZED.

Make checklists, and post them where you have to deal with them – physically touch them – every day. I post mine on a whiteboard with my daily schedule on it above my wall calendar, and put active checklists on top of my laptop. There are apps for this sort of thing, too, with reminders, and checklists, but those are easily disabled, or ignored. I’m talking about changing your behavior. A physical checklist forces you to deal with it.

Think about processes: “what do I do with and in my space?” Analyse behaviors: “why do these behaviors happen, and how can they be improved?” When dealing with an item while cleaning, don’t think “what should I do with this?” think “Triage.” If it’s DOA, ditch it.

Learn a New Skill

Your library is stuffed with books that can teach new skills, from the ground up.

You like snuggly scarves and warm mittens, and fuzzy sweaters. Everybody does.

crochet

Learn to crochet and make some.

afghans

Make an entire afghan.

amigurumi

Make stuffed animals.

Make cozies for things. Make cozies for everything. If you don’t have a couch-side holster for your remote controls, you should make one. Your exercise bike doesn’t have a drink rest? Make one. That’s what you can do with a new skill: use it in creative ways to improve your life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to pay people to maintain your computer for you? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could alter the couch to match the walls? Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to get someone in to patch that hole in the drywall?

Fix Things

You won’t want to find out why the bathtub drains slowly when it’s April and sunny. Get in there right now with a pipe snake and fix it. If you don’t know how, then learn how:

dare to repair

You’ll feel better.

I dragged a wad of hair out of the bathtub drainpipe once that was the size and weight of a sodden guinea pig. I should have sold it to a circus. Fixing it felt GREAT. (And probably saved a truckload of money, which felt even better.) Fix everything you can indoors while the weather’s bad, and there will be less to deal with later. The more organized you are, and the more skills you have, the more time and effort and money you can save. Get organized now, and fix small problems before they become big ones. It’s easier that way.

(I’m not lazy: I prefer “efficient.”)

Make Plans

Plans give you something to look forward to, to work toward. They’re the best kind of leverage out of the depths of the mid-winter dumps.

Plan a garden.

Plan a garden.

Plan a road trip.

Plan a road trip.

Make any kind of long-term, complex plan you want. It’s even better, if you make it with friends. They’ll keep you to it. You know what goes great with complex, long-term plans? Organization and checklists.

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

 

Science and History with Conan the Barbarian!

pulpmagazines

Pulp fiction – real pulp fiction – has a reputation for being brainless fluff. I’m talking here about Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. These stories, now generally bound as collections in books, were originally published in weekly magazines printed on very cheap wood pulp paper. This is popcorn reading: predictable, lurid, and exploitative – calculated to shock and play into the prejudices of their readers. However, like an iceberg, most of the substance is deep under the surface.

Pulp fiction is the domain of early detective stories, the entire Noir genre, the primordial soup out of which rose comic books, fertile ground for science fiction and modern horror writing. Most of our entertainment today – the themes of our hit movies, television shows, video games, books – owes a great deal to these cheap pulp stories. These tales grew out of the social environment of the 1920s and 1930s, and, while there’s plenty of sexism and racism to go around, there’s also a stunning amount of science history embedded in the fabric of the stories and the worlds they are set in.

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Let’s look into some science history with Robert E. Howard’s Conan (featuring H. P. Lovecraft):

Hyborea isn’t quite a fantasy universe.

(NOTE: All of the following uses Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the setting of the Conan stories, The Hyborean Age. Free eBook here at Project Gutenberg.)

Conan the Cimmerian’s world is actually our world, in our own distant past, one we remember only through garbled mythology. The fact that continents move was just coming into acceptance at the time these stories were being written in the 1930s – plate tectonics as we know it found acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s, with the discovery of seafloor rift zones. The actual rate of this movement was not yet known, allowing Howard’s world to have a different shape than our own, including hypothetical “lost continents” such as Lemuria and Atlantis – popular with occultists and mystics at the time.

Human history, too, it was becoming clear, was much longer than once thought, allowing the fictional Hyborean Age plenty of temporal elbow room for lost empires and forgotten gods: these stories take place in the bronze age, on the cusp of the adoption of iron. The people of Conan’s world, similarly, derive from projecting backwards in time from theories of race current in the 1930s (now discredited). According to Howard, Conan’s own people, the Cimmerians, would eventually become the Celts. Both the geography and the population of the Conan stories owe a lot to cutting-edge geology and archaeology of the first few decades of the 20th Century. Although these stories are fiction, they were founded, as much as possible, on the most current science available, and even though we’ve advanced our understanding of the world since, they still present a snapshot of the state of science and corresponding social anxieties in the first part of the 20th Century.

Howard and H. P. Lovecraft kept up a correspondence, and both authors’ bodies of work are interrelated. The stories of Conan interlock with the early human history of Lovecraft’s fiction, and share some of the same place names and even background characters. Lovecraft based much of the horror in his own writing on a new understanding in science in the 1920s that the universe was far larger than previously thought.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — The Call of Cthulhu (excerpt) by H.P. Lovecraft

That is not the outlook of fiction with a sense of security in humanity’s central place in the universe. Howard’s evil gods and abyssal horrors share this template, and even some of the literary and conceptual background, especially the new scientific outlook that made it possible. From cosmology to geology, and even anthropology and history, the Conan stories may be pulp fiction, but, like their protagonist, they’re definitely far more intelligent than they look.

Cover art for The Best of Robert E. Howard: Crimson Shadows

A very nice compilation, to get you started on Howard’s pulp fiction in general – it even includes some Kull stories, which fit into the distant past of the Conan narratives.

Or, if comic books are more your speed…

Cover art for Conan: the God in the Bowl and Other Stories

Kurt Busiek is one of my favorite comic book writers, creator of the incomparable Astro City series. This adaptation is fantastic! Cary Nord ’s art fits the world and characters well, with primal rage fairly rippling off the page.

Related Science Resources:

Enjoy!

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type), Graphic Novel

Article by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes

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Hedy Lamarr is best known today for being a gorgeous movie starlet. However, her most lasting contributions to history may well be her skill as an inventor, rather than her stunning looks on the silver screen. Richard Rhodes draws on a range of historical sources – military and show biz – to detail how Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil developed and patented spread-spectrum radio technology to make radio-directed torpedoes un-jammable – ultimately the seed of today’s digital wireless communications networks, from cell phones to wifi Internet.

Richard Rhodes is best known for winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 with The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Here, he writes well out of his usual history-epic comfort zone, and, in some respects, it shows. This book is terse, and more “dishy” in tone, attempting to emulate a movie industry gossip rag, equal parts frothy biography and dense technological history. Ultimately, whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like either or both of these genres, and can tolerate the other.

If you like this:

Publicity photo of Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr in “Let’s Live a Little” (1948)

You better like this with it, too:

USS Wahoo

USS Wahoo SS-238: one of the most successful US submarines of WW II. Lost with all hands in 1943.

If you do like your Hollywood gossip biographies with a hefty helping of technological wartime bureaucratic drama, or the reverse, then this is the ideal book for you.

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), e-Book, Audiobook (CD and Downloadable)

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is Canadian animator Guy Delisle‘s cartoon diary of his stay in North Korea while working in an animation studio. While other books focus on North Korea’s history, leadership, or place in international politics, this one examines with dry humor and sharp wit the day to day experience of living as a foreign guest worker in Pyongyang, and the tension between what is there, what visitors are allowed to see, and what everyone is allowed to say. The huge fake smiles plastered on the faces of the accordion girls – the illustration chosen for the cover – mirrors the ongoing theme of this bizarre masquerade.

Delisle’s style is classic cartoon, with clean line art and caricature, and he uses it to best effect, telling his story – presented as a series of vignettes – directly, effectively, and with great clarity and force. While other presentations of the same material could come off as heavy-handed or unrelievedly grim, Delisle manages the mood with a keen eye for the absurd, and pitch-black humor.

This often-surreal travelogue benefits from the distance of the author’s outside perspective, a remove that allows for humor and wit. Despite this, Pyongyang remains good-natured and compassionate, as well as insightful and entertaining. If you’re looking for a short but incisive and genuinely funny perspective on life in North Korea (at least the parts foreigners are allowed to see) this is the book for you.

Formats Available:  Graphic Novel

Reviewed by Katherine, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch