The Virginian

A huge thank you to Ella for choosing The Virginian as this month's selection for the Slaves of Golconda. Thank you, because it never would have occurred to me to read this book otherwise. It was terrific!

The Virginian is a Western. The plot outline sounds stupid and generic: Tenderfoot Nameless First Person Narrator goes out west and meets Handsome Strong Silent Hero Who Lives By A Perfect Code of Honor And Therefore Must Occasionally Take The Law Into His Own Hands (aka "The Virginian"). Tenderfoot also meets Beautiful Young Schoolteacher Who Loves Hero But Fears Her Family Won't Accept Him Because His Lineage And Manners Aren't As Classy As Hers. Oh yes, and there's also Mean Drunken Yellow-bellied Bad Guy Who Makes Things Difficult For Hero.

How does this book rise above these generic plot elements? Well, for one, it has a bit of humor. One of my favorite parts is Schoolteacher's first appearance in the book. She's written a letter inquiring about the teaching position, and Tenderfoot, Virginian, and Minor Character are discussing it. The letter is hilarious: she inquires whether she could sue if the Wyoming climate ruins her complexion, she comments that she may be unsuited for teaching because she leaves out the "u" in "honor," and finally she signs it "your very sincere spinster." Though Minor Character "over whose not highly civilized head certain portions of the letter had highly passed" takes the letter at face value ("I guess that means she's forty"), The Virginian immediately susses that she couldn't be more than twenty, and thus "the seed of love" is sown.

For another, it is so much about the land. Here's The Virginian and Schoolteacher on their honeymoon:
They passed through the gates of the foot-hills, following the stream up among them. The outstretching fences and the widely trodden dust were no more. Now and then they rose again into view of the fields and houses down in the plain below. But as the sum of the miles and hours grew, they were glad to see the road less worn with travel, and the traces of men passing from sight. The ploughed and planted country, that quilt of many-colored harvests which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world which they had watched yesterday, lay in another world from this where they rode now. No hand but nature's had sown these crops of yellow flowers, these willow thickets and tall cottonwoods. Somewhere in a passage of red rocks the last sign of wagon wheels was lost, and after this the trail became a wild mountain trail. . . . Full solitude was around them now, so that their words grew scarce, and when they spoke it was with low voices.

Sigh! This book was written almost at the time that it takes place (first published in 1902). Owen Wister was really there. The characters may be idealized heroic/romantic stereotypes, but Wyoming -- that's what he really saw!

The Virginian is not without flaws. The worst, in my opinion, is that for much of the book Tenderfoot is narrating events, conversations, thoughts, and feelings that he wasn't privy to. Once or twice his deep friendship with Schoolteacher is briefly alluded to, and we must assume she told him "everything" -- but it doesn't quite work. And Tenderfoot is not a well-defined character. Why is he even in Wyoming? Maybe Wister didn't want to delve too deeply into Tenderfoot's character for, ahem, other reasons, such as the fact that Tenderfoot's first description of The Virginian is "a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures."

Another thing I didn't like was that although it's mentioned many times that The Virginian must take matters into his own hands because the judicial system is so corrupt, we don't really see the corruption. I would have liked the corruption to be more integral to the plot since it's so integral to The Virginian's motivations.

Still and all, I love Westerns, and I love idealized romantic heroes. This one was a page-turner. I was so worried that The Virginian might not live through the final showdown with Bad Guy that I actually flipped ahead to check -- something I normally would never, never do.

Thanks again, Ella!

Happy Birthday

It's hard to believe, but . . . I'm married to a forty-year-old! Happy Birthday, dear Steve!

He's not finding this a big deal at all. In fact, he mistakenly thought he was turning forty last year. I, however, am thinking about it a lot. I'm turning forty this year, too, though not until December. How on earth did this happen? Just yesterday I was ten!

So, do you think it's wrong for me to let a 2yo lick the bowl when the birthday cake batter contains not only four raw eggs but also an eighth of a cup of Meyer's Dark Rum? Personally, I think I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't let him. After all, he should get some recompense for the five seconds he spent stirring.

* * *

I had a couple of days earlier this week where I was really afraid that I wouldn't be able to deliver what I'd rashly promised my client: a website that she would be able to update herself, almost as easily as posting to Blogger. But I stubbornly persisted like a true INTJ, and after a couple of days I figured out the content management system. I think I'm going to be able to make good on my promise after all. Phew! Now I've got most of the structure down and it's just a question of inserting the content from the old site into the new one. The process is tedious, yet so satisfying. Tedious because the only way I know of to get rid of all the old <font> tags and other unnecessary crap is to do it by hand. Yet so satisfying! I love nothing better than pruning. And when I'm done the site will be clean, crisp, and simple. Yesssss!!

But surely, you ask, you're not spending every minute of the day pruning old <font> tags? Yes, that's true. I could've been blogging . . . except that I was reading. Finally I managed to get with the Slaves of Golconda program, and I've been reading The Virginian. We're not supposed to post about it until April 30, so I will just say for now that I. Couldn't. Put. It. Down.

Now I'm in the process of whipping through two Orson Scott Card novels before getting into my next book club book, Bittersweet. So Orson Scott Card, in case you don't know, is a once-great science fiction writer who now just seems to write the same one novel over and over again. Literally! Ender's Game was one of the best sci-fi books of all time. A great read, satisfying on many levels. Likewise great is its sequel, Speaker for the Dead, which takes place hundreds of years after the events in the first novel and has almost no relation to it. A striking, original story. But Card is one of those writers who just can't leave well enough alone. No, he continued the series with a couple more books after Speaker that are just cheesy and formulaic. And if that's not enough, he then went back to Ender's Game and rewrote it from the point of view of another character, calling it a "parallel" novel. Okay, that's a cool idea -- in fact, I'm a sucker for stories that tell the same event through the eyes of different characters -- and that book, Ender's Shadow, turned out all right. But now he's written three more books that come after Shadow, again, cheesy and formulaic. Why do I helplessly keep reading them? I do not know.

Enough, already!

**WARNING: Once again I go on and on about Patrick O'Brian. If you're sick of reading about my teeny-bopper adulation please feel free to skip this post.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about Patrick O'Brian is that he managed to churn out no less than twenty books with the same characters and the same adventures, and somehow these books never feel stale or repetitive. I mean, let's face it. A naval battle is a naval battle. How much variation can there be?

Well, one of the (many) reasons he never grows stale is that he uses a huge variety of literary conventions or techniques to convey the action. For example, say the chapter ends with the lookout sighting an enemy ship. You turn the page to find out the result of the battle (because Captain Aubrey doesn't always win). Turn the page and you might find:

  • A detailed description of the engagement, manoeuvres, etc.
  • Captain Aubrey writing his log book entry: a very abbreviated version of the battle.
  • Captain Aubrey writing the official letter to his superiors: a detailed, stilted description bound to contain one or two solecisms.
  • Captain Aubrey struggling to write a description of the battle to his wife minus any references to violence whatsoever, so as not to alarm her.
  • Captain Aubrey visiting the sick bay.
  • Captain Aubrey handing out the prize money.
  • Dr. Maturin railing against the evils of war while eating toasted cheese with Captain Aubrey in the great cabin.
  • Captain Aubrey et al. having dinner with the captain and officers of the captured ship, because of course they are all gentlemen with no personal grudge against each other.
  • Captain Aubrey, back home six months later, defending his actions in a court-martial proceeding.
  • Captain Aubrey, back home six months later, receiving congratulations and huzzahs from all & sundry.
  • Dr. Maturin, back home six months later, debriefing with the Head of Naval Intelligence.
Whichever way, the end result is the same: you learn the outcome of the battle.

Busy bee

In the last few days I sent out drafts of three brochures, a website, a flyer, and half of a newsletter. I went to a marketing committee meeting where I made deeply insightful comments about the virtues of using plain text rather than html for electronic newsletters. And I got hired for a big website that I am very excited about! Woo-hoo!

I made a potato-veggie kugel and my famous spicy carrot salad to bring to my parents' seder.

I read a book, Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner, which I highly recommend to anyone who loves ridiculous plot coincidences and/or one-dimensional stock characters of which none are the least bit sympathetic or interesting.

To get the taste of that out of my mouth I went back to the old tried-and-true you-know-who. The Far Side of the World happened to be closest at hand this time. Right now we're just getting out of the doldrums, thank God, and pretty soon the bad thing that happens as a result of the love triangle between Mr. Horner (the impotent gunner) and Mr. Hollar (the down-and-out midshipman, possibly a Jonah, but boy can he sing exquisitely) and Mr. Horner's wife (who will wash her smalls in the fresh water that's needed for steeping the salt meat and mixing the grog), is going to happen. And Dr. Maturin and Mr. Martin, bless their hearts, are presently going to see some blue-faced boobies.

And wouldn't you know it, Steve recently discovered that there are TWO seasons of Six Feet Under at the video store that we haven't seen. You know what that means: shuffling the kids off to bed as early as we decently can, and then gluing ourselves to the tv to watch three or four episodes per night. Night after bleary night until we're done. We can't help ourselves. This is why we don't have regular tv (no reception at all). At least with videos we only do this a few times a year. Other shows we've watched: CSI Las Vegas, Sopranos, and 24. Though we're not planning to continue with 24, not after the last season where the show's right-wing agenda became so painfully apparent. Six Feet Under, if nothing else, is a good antidote for that.

Dream sequence

Most of the time I dread having to listen to other people tell their dreams. Why is it so tedious? I dunno, but it sure is. However, I have one friend -- a very dear friend, whom I've known since age 10, through thick and thin, etc., etc. -- who has the most amazingly fertile and hilarious imagination. Whenever she starts a conversation with the words "I had the weirdest dream last night" I settle down happily 'cause I know I'm in for a treat.

The other day I got this email from her. She wrote:

So yesterday, in Evanston, Ed woke me up out of dream by handing the phone to me. It was [our friend] Tom, who, after listening to me babble for a moment, asked me what my dream was. In this way I actually remembered it.

I dreamed that you, Julie, were the editor of a private investigators' weekly newspaper. You used standard black and white print but with banners of neon green. In the paper you had a weekly dating column; however, the only couple you ever featured was you guys. The text went something like: "This week our leading lady is this paper's own Julie Hathaway! And who's the lucky guy who sweeps her off her feet? It's her husband, Steve!"

Julie, you were represented in the paper by a neon green pince-nez.

Steve, you were represented by a neon green block letter H.

So thanks, you guys, for providing me with a very amusing dream. We'll have to work out the symbolism of your respective representations :) .

Oh ha ha! And to think that her dream about me included typography! My influence is deeper than I'd realized . . . [gleefully rubbing hands together] bwa ha ha ha . . . !

An astonishing discovery

Plot, plot, plot. Of course I read for plot. Who doesn't? All I'm saying is, I do recognize that there can be more to a book than just plot. I will probably pick up The Plot Against America again some time. I'm sure it's a great book. Maybe it was just bad timing. Have you ever had it happen that you don't like a perfectly good book just because it clashes with the book you just finished? I might have liked Kite Runner if I hadn't just read Atonement, for example. Anyway, enough of that. Movin' right along . . . .

I made an astonishing -- astonishing! -- discovery yesterday. I can't stop grinning over this. Last month's book group selection was The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. I absolutely loved this book, even though I only read half of it. If you think evolutionary theory is the most beautiful thing ever, and if Darwin happens to be your personal hero, you will love, love, love this book. And if you also happen to be an absolute sucker for scientists who spend months and months on a desert island measuring millimeter differences in the size of finch beaks, well, you will love this book even more. This book was selected for our "community reads" program, and the actual scientists are giving a talk right here in town tomorrow evening. I am so there!

Anyway, my discovery. Yesterday afternoon as I was whipping through the last bit of the book my eye happened to light upon a quote by Darwin. Sez he: ". . . I cannot admit that man's rudimentary mammae, bladder drained as if he went on all four legs, and pug-nose were designed." Isn't this EXACTLY what I've been saying? And even threatening to make a bumper sticker out of? If we're so intelligently designed, why do men have nipples? And Darwin said. The. Exact. Same. Thing. Ok, he called them rudimentary mammae, but still. Pride goeth before a fall, I know, but I'm just so chuffed that Charles Darwin and I independently arrived at the same exact thought. Wow.