Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading 2015: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXXVII

For years now, I've handed out awards to the top seven books of my summer reading. These awards are called "The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading" in honor of Michael Ward's groundbreaking dissertation Planet Narnia which attempts to prove that C.S. Lewis structured the The Chronicles of Narnia around the Seven Heavens of the Medieval cosmology (not actually that weird when you remember that Lewis attempted to do just that with the space trilogy, was a medievalist, and had a taste for private jokes). For the awards, I match each reading with the attributes of a corresponding planet.

Luna: The award for the Planet of Madness goes to that-book-which-must-not-be-read, The King in Yellow, by R.W. Chambers. This creepy work of decadent literature forms a bridge between Gothic writers like Poe and 20th Century Horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. The work has just that combination of sophistication, refinement of sentiment, and gnawing pessimism that only exists in fin-de-siecle work.

Mercury: In the matter of Words and Voyages, one summer reading stands supreme: Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The man tosses words up and down like an expert juggler, making all their facets shimmer and sparkle and against the sun and then plunge down into darkness like the vast leviathans that are the chief subject of the work.

Venus: The award for the Planet of Life goes to a wonderful little book on a much under-studied aspect of Tolkien's mythology: The Plants of Middle Earth by Dinah Hazell. For sheer beauty and goodness, this work is worth the read; and most especially if you have a turn for herb-lore.

Sol: The Heaven of Scholars traditionally goes to an Inkling or to a book about the Inklings, and this year is no exception. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski is sure to become a landmark in all future studies of that wondrous band of Oxford intellectuals.

Mars: The Planet of Battles is usually an easy pick, but numerous summer readings this year featured war and ruin. In the end, I decided to go with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past by manga master Shotaro Ishinomori for the sheer pleasure it brought me through my operation. My mom looked at my little book pile, Salem Possessed and A Link to the Past, and declared that nothing had changed since I was last in the hospital at the age of 16. Mom also says that I was born at age 40, so hopefully that's ok...

Jupiter: The Planet of Kings belongs this year to a man who might have been emperor. This year's Jupiter Award goes to Mao by master historian Jonathan D. Spence.

Saturn: The award for the Planet of Catastrophes goes to a book that describes one that almost went unnoticed: Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn. Fenn demonstrates with flair that all those seemingly isolated incidents of smallpox across North America from 1775-1782 were actually part of a vast epidemic that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

So there you have it folks: 2015's Summer Reading Awards. I didn't think I'd be able to get to them the way things were going, but I'm happy to see at the end of the summer that there was still a sufficient pile to chose from. Here's hoping next summer's pile will be much increased!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Twist of the Stomach: The Platypus Marches On

My poor little blog has fallen silent for the past few weeks due to a sudden turn of events. All this summer we've been trouble shooting aspects of my perennial stomach problems. I had some minor work done in July along with numerous evaluations. The surprise came in late August when we found out that my herniated stomach had lurched up to a whopping 1/3 of its total size between my lungs. The nature of the hernia had also changed putting it in danger of strangling itself or my esophagus. Not only that, but the hernia had also seriously displaced my other internal organs. So, last Thursday, a wonderful team of doctors lathroscopically dragged my stomach back down, patched my diaphragm, sewed the top of my stomach into a knot to prevent reflux, and carefully placed my other internal organs back in order. The process went "textbook" and took 2 and 1/4 hours. Right now, I'm in the middle of my recovery period and it will still be about a month before I return to a completely normal diet. I'm tired and in pain, but I am deeply grateful to God, the surgical team, my wonderful wife, my Mom who flew out for yet another stay in the hospital with her son, my Dad (who provided a last meal complete with alligator), my grandmother who floated us some help with food bills, my siblings and relations who have called numerous times, and my community who have showered us in love, prayers, and Texan cookery. Anyhow, as soon as I'm a little more fit I'll be back at blogging with an update on how summer reading went. Until then, the Platypus will have to do most of the Truth-speaking around here.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Link To Comics: Platypus Nostalgia/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXXVI

The Legend of Zelda had a formative influence on me as a child, as it did so many children in my generation. My first encounter with the franchise was the original Nintendo game with its simple, yet wonderfully evocative 8-bit graphics. The second title frankly baffled me at that age, but when the third title, A Link to the Past, came out I was primed and ready to go. My first exposure to the game must have been at a friend's sleep-over birthday party. Watching Link run out into the rainy night in the wee hours of the morning captured my imagination and has held it captive ever since.

That said, it was a while before I got my own Super Nintendo and a chance to actually play the game. What I had to tide me over through that time was the comic series based on the game by Shotaro Ishinomori. It ran in episodes for twelve months in Nintendo Power Magazine. The somber ending was a little ahead of where I was at at the time (childhood illness left me rather sensitive), but I enjoyed it so much that I went out and bought a copy of the whole as soon as it became available.

Now, over the years, that copy and all my weighty collection of Nintendo Power Magazines were lost. I don't think I looked at it for almost twenty years. Well, here I am sick again (various stomach issues this time) and Viz comics released in May a new edition of the comic.

Returning to a childhood treasure is always a bit nerve-wracking. Some things simply don't hold up -they were never meant to. It may be a verdict on how well our childhood was spent if we consider how many of the things we dedicated our young lives to could interest us or win our appreciation at any level as adults. I was glad then to see that Shotaro Ishinomori's The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past still holds up. In fact, I feel in a better place to appreciate it for what it is (simple, enchanting, light entertainment) than I was as a child. Shotaro Ishinomori preserves the feel of the game while adapting it into a story that works in the comic book medium. He is able to mix drama and light-heartedness in just the right proportions for this sort of story. The opening layouts for each chapter are suitably dramatic, and quite beautiful, and Shotaro deftly handles the short space allotted to each chapter without making the parts feel too condensed or the whole feel incoherent. The presentation of Ganon is perhaps a little weak (though his back story given by the enchanted tree is haunting) but that is an artifact of the game, The artist wisely makes up for this by choosing to center the story around Link learning that being a hero means not working alone, not taking all the credit, and not getting the girl. The Japanese wisdom is definitely appreciated at my age.  All in all, the book was eminently worth the eleven or so dollars I paid for it and held up under three readings in quick succession. Here's looking forward to it holding up under many more.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Trying to be Carson: Creative Platypus

I spent an hour last night and about fifteen minutes this morning on my first endeavor to clean and polish our modest collection of family silver. Somewhere in the afterlife my Irish ancestors are very disappointed...

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Dead and Beautiful Rest (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LXXII

Poor Josiah Shelton has proved a bit of a puzzle for me in recent days. The only note I can find on him exists in The Families of James Shelton of McMinn County, Tennessee and his Father Roderick Shelton Buncombe County, North Carolina and their Antecedents by Arthur Paul Shelton. Arthur Paul Shelton lists Josiah Shelton as the son of Samuel Shelton and Abigail Nichols Shelton and says that he was rumored to be a Revolutionary War veteran (interesting because the Sheltons of Ripton were Loyalists who refused to take up arms for either side). It gives his deathdate as 19 March 1777, cause of death as Smallpox, and says that he was buried in Southford (which now seems to be a part of Southbury and very close to Josiah's place of residence in Ripton which is now called Shelton). The stone in the picture, however, resides at Long Hill Burial Ground in Shelton CT. The stone itself makes no bones about the fact that it is a grave marker and not a memorial tablet: here lies the body.

Not only the location of his body, but the date of his death is also interesting. The colonial army saw action in nearby Danbury Connecticut in April of 1777. According to Elizabeth A. Fenn's Pox Americana, the American troops in action near Danbury were exposed to Variola and infect the towns of Southington and Middletown in central Connecticut. All of this happened a month after Josiah's death. If his deathdate on the stone was in April or May, I would have assumed that he contracted the disease in the action around Danbury and died in Southington which ended up being confused with Southford (about 20 miles away by road). There is more tantalizing information on the other side of March. Fenn also notes that in February of 1777 Governor Trumbull set up a system of inspection and quarantine for troops returning from the failed attack on Quebec where Smallpox had ravaged the army (Benedict Arnold of New Haven Connecticut was one of the commanders of the ill fated attack and he was accompanied by members of the Welles and Nichols family that had branches in Josiah Shelton's hometown of Ripton). It takes about a month to die from Variola, so the question is: was Josiah Shelton one of Benedict Arnold's troops who died under quarantine at an unspecified location or did he contract the disease in camp from returning soldiers who escaped inspection and quarantine? The saddest part of the story is that Connecticut troops began to be inoculated en mass in the summer months of 1777. Fenn quotes Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Plumb Martin that he was inoculated along with four hundred Connecticut troops, all of who survived the process. Had Josiah remained uninfected for another month or two he could have been immunized courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Alas, How easily things go wrong!
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long.
And there follows a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.
-George MacDonald, Phantastes

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The Dead and Beautiful Rest (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LXXI

Our little stories are all part of larger stories.

This is the grave of Josiah Shelton. He died in 1777 of the Smallpox. The flag by his grave indicates that he was a military veteran. Smallpox decimated the Continental Army on several occasions. These incidents were part of a massive outbreak that racked the North American continent from 1775 until 1782 killing over 100,000 people including Josiah Shelton of Ripton (now Shelton) Connecticut.

I came across Josiah's grave last summer while I was looking up other members of the Shelton family. This summer, I picked up the book Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn about the massive Variola outbreak at the end of the 18th century. As I was reading, the odd note "died of the smallpox" on Josiah's grave came back to mind. A quick look back at the photo confirmed that he died in 1777, during the early years of the epidemic. Given that smallpox was killing so many in the army, the odd note on his grave about his cause of death now makes sense. His parents, Samuel and Abigail, had no idea of the continent sweeping force of this particular Variola outbreak; they only knew that a terrible disease had taken their son away. If they had know the larger pattern, would it have made a difference.

Where can Wisdom be found, and what is the place of Understanding? ... Death says "I have heard tell of it"

-The Book of Job

Saturday, July 25, 2015

New England Platypus

There were awesome sweeps of vivid valley where great cliffs rose, New England's virgin granite shewing grey and austere through the verdure that scaled the crests. There were gorges where untamed streams leaped, bearing down toward the river the unimagined secrets of a thousand pathless peaks. Branching away now and then were narrow, half-concealed roads that bored their way through solid, luxuriant masses of forest among whose primal trees whole armies of elemental spirits might well lurk.


... there was a strangely calming element of cosmic beauty in the hypnotic landscape through which we climbed and plunged fantastically, Time had lost itself in the labyrinths behind, and around us stretched only the flowering waves of faery and the recaptured lovliness of vanished centuries--the hoary groves, the untainted pastures edged with gay autumnal blossoms, and at vast intervals the small brown farmsteads nestling amidst huge trees beneath vertical precipices of fragrant brier and meadow-grass. Even the sunlight assumed a supernal glamour, as if some special atmosphere or exhalation mantled the whole region. I had seen nothing like it before save in magic vistas that sometimes form the backgrounds of Italian primitives. Sodoma and Leonardo conceived such expanses, but only at a distance, and through the vaultings of Renaissance arcades. We were now burrowing bodily through the midst of the picture, and I seemed to find in its necromancy a thing I had innately known or inherited, and for which I had always been vainly searching.

-H.P. Lovecraft, The Whisperer in Darkness