Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Statuary at the Victoria & Albert

The Victoria and Albert Museum is a beautiful, well-lit, thoughtfully arranged collection of art and art-like objects. It breaks with the stereotypical joke about British museums: most pieces are accompanied by a title plaque which indicates their provenance. (British Museum, I'm looking at you: "basically an active crime scene." - John Oliver) The day was too beautiful to spend much of it indoors, but I did sneak in and poke around the astonishing collection of statuary and... statue-like things:
The scrolling scenes on the pillars tell a story.
The rooms containing these items were themselves pretty, although a bit toned-down and plain, I think to divert visual focus onto the art. Solid-colored walls, understated balcony railings, beautiful square skylight grid.
Door decorations, things to hang on the wall, and freestanding... art? of religious significance?
The pulpits, excised from the cathedrals and collected like medical specimens.

The museum entrance is luminously bright, with a giant open space. In the center of this space was hanging a special... piece. Not quite a chandelier, since it served no lighting function, but in the place a chandelier would go and of similar size, vertical style, and eye-catching details.
The view from below as our tentacly overlords dangle the bait.
I don't remember finding a title placard for this piece of magnificence, but I think of it simply as "default hair behavior without intervention". Yes, in blues and greens.
Level side view of the glassy fuzz of curls.

Across the street from the V&A sits the Natural History Museum, which sprawls over a much larger footprint and is completely and totally delightful. Again, since I was in London for The Single Sunny Day of 2015, I did not spend much time inside. But still... I spent several hours. It was very, very cool. I went on a quest for the whale skeletons --- large, but surprisingly difficult to locate in the museum's people-flow maze. Their full majesty was impeded by the extensive scaffolding supporting the scientists employed to clean and stabilize the whale skeletons, in what must be the coolest boring job title in the city: Blue Whale Rib Duster.
This open space filled with a fine lace of metal and wood.

This post's theme word is crepitate, "to make a crackling or popping sound." The suspended cetacean skeleton's crepitating boded ill for the giraffes and hippopotamuses below.

Victoria really, really loved Albert

Just in case you had any doubt, a huge tract of land in valuable downtown London is devoted solely to a giant plinth and statue of Albert. The perspective does not give scale, but this statue is massive:
I think the intended message is: "Look at Albert. He was wonderful. I seriously miss him."

But personally, I find the physicality of this statue (a short walk away in the same park) much more compelling:

This post's theme word is emulous, "eager to imitate, equal, or surpass another" or "jealous or envious." No royal love can be emulous of that between Victoria and Albert.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Nightvale and Jason Webley in London

The venue was gothic, lit for high drama or an alien invasion. It was a Welcome to Nightvale show, so the combination event was a quite reasonable expectation.
I wondered what the builders of this church would have thought, if they could see the future and extremely secular performances that would one day take place here. Hopefully, they'd be delighted that art and community are alive.
The stagecraft was great, which has always impressed me about Welcome to Nightvale. The professionalism. It's amazing how much of a show they can put on from an audio-only podcast. Cecil Palmer is a breathtaking performer. Last year, his creepy hand gestures alone gave me goosebumps; his voice made me sigh; his energy is direct and electric, even when he is simply standing still onstage and not even using his melodious voice at all.

If you haven't listened to Welcome to Nightvale, please do. Start at the beginning. See for yourself if it grabs you, or tickles you, or is simply a nice backdrop for washing the dishes.

This post's theme word is mithridatism, "the developing of immunity to a poison by taking gradually increasing doses of it." Over time, Nightvale exposure will inoculate against Lovecraft- and purple prose-sensitivities via mithridatism and the pure joy of Carlos.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series continues with Tehanu, which despite the long authorial pause between books, starts about 10 minutes after the previous book ended. Ged is powerless and lost, Tenar is a widow, landowner, farmer, and responsible for an abandoned child (herself victim of horrible abuse).  They must all figure out how to live in the world again, each relying on the others. The book --- like so many of Le Guin's books --- is ultimately a gentle, soft paean to the power of community, and of the people standing behind the heroes (or even distantly offstage).

The book's main actions are small and the fantasy world's magic is secondary, since none of the main characters have any puissance left (Ged spent his in book #3, Tenar in book #2), so this book ends up being mostly about daily choices, doing chores, resolving again and again to live on past tragedy. It is a book of small enjoyments, where a single peach, ripe and juicy, is a recurrent focal point. The conflict is not clear (at least to this reader), and does not build steadily to a climactic denouement; rather, the many small conflicts of daily life are each resolved, or deferred, as they arise, and eventually the book has a very unexpected dramatic scene, then it ends.

Because I am on an Earthsea binge, this book was over before I realized; it is quiet, and subtle. The author's note at the end contains many noteworthy thoughts about the book, as well as summarizing various critical responses which touched on my too-fast reading: it was heavy-handed, or nothing happened, or it was radically pro- or anti-feminist. Really it's none of those things, but calling this a continuation of a "young adult" series is, IMHO, misleading ---- this book requires much more thought and slow consumption than usual young adult fare. Or perhaps I misremember my youth of voracious reading; this book will certainly be better savored in a reread, as the point is not what happens in the plot or even how the plot is written, but rather, what happens in the characters' minds between and around plot events. This requires a lot of attention from the reader to simulate and examine.

Still recommend! Start at the beginning of the series, though. Otherwise the emotional weight of these characters, making these decisions, will be missing for you.

This post's theme word is hircine, "of or relating to a goat; having a strong odor; lusty, lewd." The island of Gont has much that is hircine: goat milk, various wools, shepherding, etc.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

France in the distance

Reputable authorities assure me that yonder, past the clouds and across the lake, France awaits.
It's a lovely view.

This post's theme word is lucriferous, "lucrative, profitable." All of Switzerland is mysteriously lucriferous.

Nourissez la poubelle!

Public campaigns are often dour, lots of carrot and not much stick. But this one to reduce garbage is magnificent: each public garbage can is decorated like a monster, with a gaping mouth, and a solar-powered computer detects when garbage is thrown out in the can and makes a NOM NOM noise.
Nourrissez la poubelle! (Feed the trashcan!)
Apparently there was a problem with overzealous children throwing out things that were not garbage in order to get the silly noise. It's weird when public service campaigns go too far.

This post's theme word is adhibit, "to let in," or "to administer" or "to affix or attach" (transitive). The monster-face stickers, once adhibited, were unreasonably successful in adhibiting garbage.

Lausanne pagoda

On the lakefront of Lausanne, there is a park.

In this park, there is a pagoda.
The pagoda is elaborate, gold-leafed, ornately painted and detailed, and entirely exposed to the weather (which by inference is mild).
It's an imposing sight.
But it's snugged away in a little corner.

This post's theme word is cote, "a shelter for animals," or "to pass by." What an eccentric cote, how lucky we didn't cote it!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Farthest Shore

I continue to trundle my commuting-way through Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series: the next book to fall before my omnivorous eyes was The Farthest Shore.

... wherein we return to our hero, Ged, now the Archmage, widely recognized as important and powerful. He has matured and is generally better-regulated in terms of mood and garrulousness. But the dilemma of the book is that all magical power is being sapped out of the world, as well as all hope, determination, faith, and fellow-feeling. All apparently gone, to be replaced by isolation, fear of death, substance addiction, slavery, etc. --- dark subjects not previously indicated as widespread in Earthsea. Yet here they are, with a focal point somewhere in the west.

Having previously travelled so far east that he went beyond maps and map-monsters to a mythical location in the ocean, where he confronted his own death, Ged and his intrepid sidekick Arren now travel to the western extremity of the world, encountering again the dragons we remember there, and go beyond --- into the very realm of death. Which of course they do not conquer, but they at least come to terms with it, which is all that decent people can be expected to do in this life. Again Le Guin's powerful writing is about people trying to find satisfaction in their own lives, without seeking glory or any other outside acknowledgement.

Having travelled now furthest east, furthest west, to the southernmost islands, and spent his power to close a hole in the world, the worn-out Ged is given a merciful retirement to his home island, delivered as all heroes are on dragonback. The balance of the world is restored, a king is placed on the long-empty throne, and all people have a giant attitude-adjustment so that everything works better and more smoothly in society. Hooray!

This book was as magical as the others, but the sneaky parts about despair and suspicion and distrust were not sneaky enough --- I thought it was clear, based on the language used, that the suspicion of each character for the others was being imposed by a cloud of evil magic, and I wondered why the main characters just went with it instead of introspecting about their own suspicion for even a minute. But that's okay, it's a "young adult" book, I cannot expect everything of every book. It was still great, and the author's note at the end of the book featured all the grown-up introspection that I knew was hiding beneath the surface of the novel, delivered in beautifully clear and poetic prose.

This post's theme word is onomasticon, "a dictionary of names, esp. personal names or place names." The onomasticon is the most powerful tome in Earthsea, since magic, power, and control are all rooted in knowing proper names of things.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tombs of Atuan

The wonders of Earthsea continue with Ursula K. Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan. The second book in the loose series features another protagonist, another coming-of-age of sorts. This time the protagonist is a teenage girl, Tenar, the reincarnated focus of a religion that (to pick up on outside clues) is confined to a small part of Earthsea, and diminishing.  Tenar is in many ways the opposite of young Ged: she is accustomed to solitude, and not asking too many questions or receiving too many answers. She does not receive training or much guidance. She has no great dreams of adventure or power, content to be more inward-looking; but she fully explores her domain (a remote religious installation in the desert) and masters it. Like Ged, she must give up childish ideas to become adult, and like Ged, her choices have far-reaching consequences which she must learn to accept and weave into her own character in order to be a whole, complete person.

Just like the previous one, this book was a short, quick, satisfying read. As you, dear reader, may perhaps have realized, I am usually reading several books at once, and this means that my brain draws strange connections between them. This book was wonderful in contrast with Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (blog post forthcoming), which robbed its sole featured female character of any agency. Here, women are abundant, and interact with each other as people. The book passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, surpassing that minimum requirement and going on to make female characters important, to make their choices matter, to make important plot points and even the continuation of the book, or the universe. Also, to make this not a big deal.

Our previous protagonist, Ged, does make an appearance. He shows up partway through the book, and serves as a nice connection to the rest of Earthsea outside the parched abbey's walls and closed mindset. This is nice, but Ged doesn't take center stage, and although we readers know the outcome of the book from quite early (it is listed in Ged's long list of mythic accomplishments, at the end of the previous book), it is nice to see the detail that surrounds the one-sentence Summary of Legend. And this does not detract from Tenar's centrality or importance. Ged himself bows to her decisions, puts his life in her hands, and listens carefully when she decides, and often changes her mind, about what she wants to do.

This post's theme word is darkle, "to make or become dark." The darkling cave quenched all light, crushed all hope, and was decorated with many pretty pictures (which unfortunately no one would ever see again).

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea is a dollop of fantasy delight, a neat little story with tendrils sneaking out into a broader magical world, but all packaged up as a coming-of-age, coming-into-powers tale. I did not accurately remember its length --- in my mind it has the fleshed-out detail of a full novel, but it clocks in at only ~150 pages in my true-numbered ecopy. It took only two days of commuting-reading to finish, and my Magical Reading Tricorder of the Future informs me I spent less than 4 hours inhaling the book.

It's nice. It's calming. The narrator's voice sounds like a camp counselor over a fire, a voice that will comfort and lull you into sleep. The story is built around simple archetypes, foundational storytelling pillars laid firmly against bedrock. It feels dependable, and indeed, it can be relied-on to feature the nice elements of a Le Guin story. True friendships, good food, daily tasks described with love and care. A certain simple poetry in phrasings and structure. (In a moment of despair, one character muses that "at least his [own] death would put an end to the evil he had loosed by living." pg. 105) No sense of embellishment, or the science-like tricky details typical in the magical workings of, e.g., Brandon Sanderson.

A few details, roughly sketched, give a sense of the mystery and power of magic. I liked in particular that, akin to the logic of computer programming, scope must be specified and clear:
A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly. (pg. 41)
I liked that, although great puissance and achievements are foretold for the protagonist Ged, he is not an overpowered, unreasonably-lucky, unkillable master. He makes mistakes, a lot of them, and he doesn't instantly recover or learn his lesson. He earns scars, not always wisely or bravely, and they are ugly, not magical or handsome. His growing power and wisdom are accompanied by a proportionate loss of ego and desire to use the power.

A lovely book. Recommended.

This post's theme word is gascon, "a braggart" or "boastful." Ged gradually matures from a gascon to a proper adult, humble at the prospect of everything he knows he does not know.


Binti is an excellent novella by Nnedi Okorafor. Her previous fiction was vicious, and incisive, and demanding, and exhilarating; in this shorter format, she captures some of those features, but mostly the story serves as a small Petri dish, a focused look at one single character, the choices she makes, the way she finds of fitting herself into a broader cultural narrative that moves palpably around her, shaping her life and influencing her choices.

The short format made for a quick read, but the subject matter --- a mathematically-gifted woman takes a scholarship, and a spaceship ride, to the biggest university (planet-sized!), and encounters warlike betentacled space aliens --- meant that I inhaled Binti. It came out yesterday, and one of my horde of automated robots reminded me, so I purchased it. Then, 24 hours later, the entire contents were embedded in my brain, with no clear discernable moment where this happened. It read so quickly. It was a delight, with tension and drama and a narrator's voice that is firmly grounded in reasonable decisions and a knowledge of herself and her (extensive, impressive, but not superpowered) abilities.

I loved it.

This post's theme word is hecatomb, "a great public sacrifice (properly of a hundred oxen)." (Brought to you by China Miéville's Kraken, p. 483.) The other students served as a hecatomb for universal peace, or at least a lessening of universal, murderous animosity.

[Update: More specific, slightly spoilery review available at the publisher's website.]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

An idyllic afternoon in paradise

Whoops, typo, by "paradise" I mean "Paris". Look at those fluffy clouds. If you look long enough, you may see the cherubs poking around the edges of clouds, hedges, the ornate gate.
The Musée de l'Armée has a lovely front lawn and prospect down across the river.

This post's theme word is sprezzatura, "doing (or giving the appearance of doing) something effortlessly; effortless grace; nonchalance." Paris has a certain architectural sprezzatura.

Journée de patrimonie

On the journées de patrimoine ("heritage days"), buildings and locations in Paris that are usually closed to the public become, briefly, opened. For cultural and educational reasons, which I think we can agree are some pretty good reasons. For me, this has the sense of a city-wide, adults-included day of field trips.

First I went to a water-processing plant. The exterior of the building is adorned with a giant sculpture of a dragonlike worm, slithering through the fabric of reality.
Its transparent sections reveal a subject-matter-appropriate fountain within.

Inside, the plant has a mostly gravity-driven system to take in water from the Seine and filter out most of the solid particles, bits, and grit. Then the water is pumped through Paris' non-potable water supply, and used for non-potable water applications like washing the streets and filling the ornamental fountains.
The inside of the plant looked like the most fun, human-tube-sized toy set that I will never, ever, be allowed to tinker with or disassemble. Tant pis. Everyone who signed up for this tour was a fully-grown adult. We were issued hardhats to walk around on the catwalk. The walls were decorated with blueprints of the inner workings, with complicated color-coding and engineering shorthand. I would've happily spent time trying to decode them, but we got shuffled along and back into the dragon's welcome courtyard before I could crack the codes.

Next I proceeded to Les Invalides, where I and a bunch of prepubescent kids (and their parents) got to visit the secret ballroom section of the Musée de l'Armée.
The ballroom, apparently rentable for elite parties and fancy events, has chandeliers plentifully strewn about, and walls casually decorated with actual pieces of armor and weaponry. Authentic. It seems like the sort of high-stakes set dressing that guarantees a sword fight will break out during your soirée. (And that is why I should never be allowed to rent this venue.)
The light was plentiful --- clearly the building predates electric lighting and petty concerns like "retain heat through insulated walls and windows." The view is straight down the Esplanade des Invalides and across the Pont Alexandre III, which only heightened my conviction that fancy-dress balls held in this room would certainly be crashed by a high-speed action-movie chase, probably involving flinging someone on a cable from a helicopter as it whips across the river.

This post's theme word is plutolatry, "excessive devotion to wealth." My admiration for costume dramas derives not from plutolatry, but from an appreciation for delicate and fussy detail-work.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Coffee and a croissant, perfection

I am completely naïve and didn't realize that the perfection of sitting in a Parisian café, drinking coffee and eating a croissant, was not effortless. Apparently it requires makeup, wardrobe, several interns reflecting light onto you properly, a boom mike, and other accoutrements of visual/auditory perfection.
My guess is that the coffee wasn't even warm anymore. And that she didn't drink it. Overall, very pretty, but sensually disappointing.

This post's theme word is naff, "very unstylish or unsophisticated," or "useless, of poor quality." She would never be seen at the naff café around the corner.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Towards fluency

Further adventures in my quest towards fluency. (I have long since come to terms with the fact that I will never be as hyperbolically fluent, as precise, as witty, as referential, as in English.)

Part of my continued studies toward fluency involves studying samples of native speech taken from my ambient environment ("eavesdropping"). French-speaking adults are often so soft-spoken in public that it is impossible to hear them, even when they speak directly at one. Children, on the other hand, have not yet been inculcated in the practice of public quietness, and so are audible. Often from a considerable distance.

I was recently told that a particular colloquialism* I am using makes me sound "like a child." Huzzah! I sound like a native-speaking child! Hopefully my language skills will age faster than realtime; I've never heard a child give a presentation about the log-rank conjecture, but I subway commute twice a day so I have many opportunities to overhear such speech, if it ever happens.

This post's theme word is fomes, "an object capable of absorbing and transmitting infectious organisms from one person to another." The subway is a fomes of microbes and memes.

*The colloquialism: finishing sentences with "... ou quoi", meaning roughly "... or whatever." I'm using it as a substitute for words/phrases I don't know, so my sentences trail off but still try to convey some meaning. Sometimes the interlocutor guesses and luckily supplies the word/phrase I wanted, and then I acquire new vocabulary and expressiveness!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Land Across (part I)

Gene Wolfe's The Land Across is a strange book, and I have mixed feelings about it on first reading.

The novel is a first-person account of travel (to a fictional European country), starting somewhere close to a travel guide and quickly degenerating into a haphazard memoir in which time  flows irregularly. Some days stretch over chapters; some chapters cover months or years.

The narrator's voice is oddly without affect, and the narrator himself is unsympathetic and unreliable. (So obviously unreliable that it seems to point to some narrative trick being pulled.) Although unsympathetic, he must come across better in person, since he beds at least 3 women in the book  (of the maybe 6 he meets; of the others, two are uninterested or unavailable [e.g., a mostly-incorporeal ghost]). Events follow each other with no real sense of cause-and-effect or consequence, although the narrator keeps narrating as if a logical chain of causes and effects exists. This substantially contributes to my sense that the reader is being misled or left uninformed about some aspects of the book.

Also contributing to the seeming-puzzle-nature of the book: the narrator leaves out details, while noting they are omitted, and adds in extraneous-seeming facts, while noting that they seem extra or even that they are entirely unnecessary. I am sure several rereads, probably with notes, are required to figure out which of these are important and which truly dismissable, as well as which actually relevant information is being purposely omitted or obscured.

The effect? The entire book seems disjointed. I picked it up on the strong, strong recommendations of internet strangers, which suggested that this was a writer's writer, and this book was complicated and required rereading and was immensely rewarding. After the first reading, I am a little bored and disgusted with the narrator character: he is callous, scattered, opaque, and unsympathetic. And that's just in his own words, carefully and deliberately chosen. But I also see the giant signal flares, writ large across the novel's sky, saying that this novel contains hidden multitudes, puzzles, and mysteries.

So here I go: back for a reread, with the novel's details and my puzzlement still fresh in my mind. I'll let you know how it goes the second time around.

This post's theme word is quisling, "a traitor, esp. one who aids an invading enemy." Whether Grafton is a quisling or not, and who or what he is betraying to which particular organization/government/religion/woman, is not particularly compelling after the first few unexpected turns and reversals.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Louvre castle

The Louvre was once a royal castle, but not fortified [citation needed]. I think this addition will not help defend against invaders.
For one, it seems a little... low? Individual soldiers could easily vault the walls without assistance. Also, there are no gates. And the interior tents look flimsy. I could probably storm this castle-lette singlehanded.

This post's theme word is enciente, which as an adjective means "pregnant" and as a noun, "the fortification around a fort, castle, or town; area so enclosed." The Louvre's enceinte is not well-distinguished from the surrounding cityscape, and regularly overrun by pacific tourist swarms.