Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XX

The Marble Faun serves as my introduction to the writings of Nathanael Hawthorne. It's more of a back door in, as a move in the middle of my junior year of high school prevented me from having the normal entre of The Scarlet Letter. I did get a chance to read his friend, Herman Melville's great work, Moby Dick, which still ranks pretty high on my list of all-time favorites. At any rate, it was about time that I sat down with a work by one of New England's great writers.

The Marble Faun is often seen as one of Hawthorne's weaker works because of the heavy element of travel-log in the story. I have to say that made it particularly enjoyable to me as I could sit down every hundred pages or so and google-image every place, monument, painting, and sculpture that he mentions. It added a welcome layer of thick description, and put him instantly in dialog with so many great works, that I felt that I received more than the usual level of enrichment. Besides, I've traveled a little bit, so the travel-log doesn't seem so quaint or artificial to me. I've actually lived a bit of that lifestyle in Oxford and Africa (yes, yes, great white hunter, colonialist, neo-orientalist, adventurer prig and all that rot...).

On a deeper level, I was intrigued by Hawthorne's handling of the Fall of Man. I felt as if Hawthorne is pushing hard for a Felix Culpa, but didn't want to openly espouse heresy. He dances upon the point in such a way, however, that I'm not sure whether he is merely wrestling with idea or committed to it. The ambiguity seems intentional.

The thing I appreciate most about Hawthorne's writing in the novel is the way that he constantly uses imagery and symbolism to draw attention to the spiritual realities behind the overt action of the plot. Towers, for instance, seem to symbolize the soul's assent toward God. Donatello's mythic ancestry reminds us that he serves as a cypher for man in the state of nature. Rome, as the image of Civilization, seems to take on a life of its own; now horribly corrupt, now sublime beyond the ability of words to capture. In spite of this, the novel is not allegorical and, better yet, escapes the feel of allegory while one is in the midst of reading it. To understand it, one must be immersed in enjoying the work; the minute you step away to examine it, the inner meaning slips away.

So there you have it, The Marble Faun. If you're already a fan of Hawthorne, I recommend that you renew the acquaintance with his work by picking up a copy of this enjoyable romance. If you've never read him, don't be shy of starting here! There's time enough for The Scarlet Letter and all those other books you were supposed to have read in high school.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Why Platypi Don't Have Teeth

I've been dealing with various tooth related problems that have been keeping me in pain since the beginning of May. The dentist has been working away on them (he's been gracious enough not to charge for the lion's share of the work) but other problems I have (like grinding) keep interfering with the work, and the teeth are having a hard time accepting all the fillings, re-packings, grindings, bite-adjustments, and what-not. To sum it up, I'm in a lot of pain, and I don't know when, how, and at what cost this will all end (my dentist, at least, is pretty optimistic). If you would pray for healing, that would be great.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XIX

In honor of Michael Ward's groundbreaking new book, "Planet Narnia," I've decided to post my own seven heavens of summer reading. Each book is selected to follow the virtues of a particular planet in Medieval cosmology.

Jupiter: The Trojan War by Barrey Strauss

This is a master-work that blurs the line between history and novel in the vein of Jonnathan Spence's Treason by the Book. Strauss combines the evidence from latest dig at Hisarlik with Homer's text, and a strong, swift human sympathy to create a narrative overflowing with regal tragedy. The strong narrative structure makes for a very pleasant summer read that won't bog you down in a mire of scholarly prose.

Mars: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice-Burrows

In keeping with its title, this book overflows with Martial virtues. It's also a quick read, and a nice, refreshing break from today's 700+ page sci-fi behemoths.

Sol: The Book of Lost Tales Volume II by J.R.R. Tolkien

For those interested in achieving a state of scholarly heaven this summer, I can't stress the value of reading the "Lost Tales" enough. They are a Tolkien scholar's dream come true, allowing the reader a peak into Tolkien's world at the instant of its creation.

Luna: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne

As proper to a descendant of the Puritans, this book is about sin. Set among the decaying remains of ancient Rome and the decadence of nineteenth century Italy, Hawthorne explores the interplay between the immutable stone archetypes of his setting and the all too mutable human hearts of his characters in a reenactment of the Fall of Man.

Mercury: The Odyssey by Homer

The original "return of the king." Homer presents us with an intricately woven tale of a lost heart seeking its true home.

Venus: Serenity: Those Left Behind by Joss Weadon et al.

Those who have seen Firefly know that Joss Weadon's space opera is pretty far from your standard sci-fi shoot-em-up. At the core of the work are the bonds of love that develop between the members of the "created family" that make Serenity their home. Of course, it's got plenty of romance too.

Saturn: Hellboy by Mike Mignola et al.

You know that you've found the book of catastrophes when the main character's destiny is to end the world with his big red right hand. However, it also possesses that other most Saturnine characteristic of being one of the few comic books that makes me really sit down and think.

How about you? What are your "seven heavens" of summer reading?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XVIII

I always tell my kids that the moral of every Russian fairy tale is "don't ask the Baba Yaga for favors!!!!". Evidently, however, if someone else sends you to ask the Baba Yaga a favor on their behalf, you just might get something really nifty; like a glowing skull on a stick that vaporizes your enemies. Of course it helps if you have a magic doll that can do just about anything if you feed it.

I definitely see this one coming up in future lectures...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XVII

I've finished "A Princess of Mars," and it turns out to have followed through with my original expectations. Overall, I liked the book. It was a fast-paced, short read with just enough depth to keep you interested and a pacing that keeps you from pausing to break out and laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing. Classic pulp to the core. The heroes are larger than life, the villains are just plain villainous, and the ending sets up for plenty of sequels.

My only qualm: since when is it o.k. to sack a city using ravening hordes of brutal barbarians just to get the woman you love out of trouble? In keeping with the Martian setting, exulting in physical prowess, and martial skill are at the core of this work. This would leave us in a Nietzachean universe were it not for the countervailing emphasis placed on love, pity (Zarathustra's great sin!), and friendship.

Moving on down my list of summer reading, Hellboy Volume 8: "Darkness Calls" came in yesterday. I've had time for a strait read-through, and then some skimming of key passages to help clarify my thoughts (I use this method for all serious comic book reading). This volume was certainly, and appropriate to where the overall story is at this point, the most intense. The choice of handing over the actual art-work and layout to Duncan Fegredo plays a large part in this. Fegredo's style is much more direct than Mignola's. Fegredo keeps thrusting us into the action with his panels where Mignola would defer or come at a situation obliquely. Still, their styles are similar enough, overall, to avoid jarring the reader out of the world (a weakness in my opinion with some of the stories in Volume 7: "The Troll Witch and Others").

Without giving away the plot, Yolen's assessment on the jacket seems correct: this volume sets us up for the eucatastrophe. My big question is "how will this play out?" This question is wrapped up with the very fabric of the world Mike Mignola has created. If we are in a fundamentally "Christian" world, then good will definitively triumph over evil. If we are in a dualistic world, then somehow the devil will get his/her? due. This all hinges on whether Hecate is right in the Epilogue. Typical of Mignola's work, the bad-guys often seem to be the closest to the truth, but they then draw the wrong conclusions from it. We'll see if this is actually the case.*

*Caveat: Mignola is express in stating that "Hellboy" is meant to take place in its own sub-created universe and is not meant to represent cosmological realities in our own.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XVI

Summer is here, and with it my return to pulp! Hellboy Volume 8: "Darkness Calls" has just shipped, and while I'm waiting I've decided to delve into one of those ubiquitous ur-sources: Edgar Rice-Burroughs' "A Princess of Mars." The book is an odd (but appreciated) mixture of fantasy and sci-fi that reminds me very much of Lewis' "Out of the Silent Planet." It's also much lower (so far) on the whole quotient of "metal-clad-space-bikini-babes" than much of the later jacket covers seem to suggest (Though I think it's implied that our heroes spend most of the first chapters in a sort of heroic grecco-roman nudity). Maybe I just don't understand what good space-pulp is all about... It does have giant green men though! Anyhow, I'm only a third of the way through the book, so a full review will have to wait. It's well done so far, and holds my interest much better than more recent novels in the genre seem to.

Also on the list for the summer:

"Planet Narnia" by Michael Ward
"The Marble Faun" by Nathanael Hawthorne
"1776" by David McCullough
"The Book of Lost Tales Volume II" by J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien
"Dorothy L. Sayers" by Ralph E. Hone (the late husband of a very generous woman at our church)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Platypus and the Riddle of Graduation

What do you say to all of your adoring followers? -just hope no one cuts my head off...

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Platypus Checks Out

What do you mean I have to recheck, sort, and file all of my students' textbooks A.S.A.P.!?!?!!!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Platypus Reads Part XV

What do Thucydides and Xenophon have to tell us about democracy (it being an election year and all):

1. Democracy is not the opposite of tyranny. It is merely the tyranny of the majority.

2. Building off of #1, democracy often ends up being the rule of whatever elite can most effectively sway the majority. This leads to de facto aristocracies (ie. Bushes, Kennedys, Clintons).

3. Democracies tend to function by fomenting class envy and other forms of "us vs. them" thinking.

4. Building off of points 2 and 3, democracies tend to be guided by the passions of the many, and are thus highly inconsistent in their policy-making.

5. Following from point 4, democracies are much more likely to go to war than more conservative forms of government.

6. Again, following point 4, democracies most adept at short, concerted bursts of energy, and break down when it comes to the long haul.

None of this is to say that Thucydides and Xenophon are right in their observations. One must also remember that the democracy at Athens functioned differently from America's representative-democracy. Still, it seems worth considering.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Platypus Finale

One day of finals left...