Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Nancy Marie Brown
Art, archaeology

This is a frustrating book about the Lewis Chessmen. It has some really good good parts, and it has some really disappointing not-so-good parts.

Brown wants to assert that a woman known as Margaret the Adroit ("the most skilled carver in Iceland", according to an Icelandic family saga) created the Lewis chessmen for the 12th-century bishop Pall Jonsson. To get there, however, she has to make a series of assumptions, many of which are unstated. To detail only the grossest level: if the chessmen came from Iceland, and if they would have been considered a work of unusual skill, and if they were made for Bishop Pall, then it is plausible that Margaret made them. That's a lot of ifs for a person whose entire documented existence consists of a sentence or two. Some of the reasoning is decidedly dodgy, along the lines of what historical person X "would have said" or "would have thought". I can't help but suspect that Brown started with the conclusion, and then worked backward.

(Also: an author who chooses to put as her biographical blurb the facts that she speaks Icelandic and lives in Vermont with four Icelandic horses does nothing to dispel my impression of a deep and perhaps non-dispassionate connection to the subject. I freely admit that this is blatant stereotyping and unjustifiable speculation on my part.)

Then, too, Brown is not a master of factual organization. She has a clever approach--each chapter is named for a chess piece, and she uses that piece to explore the social history and position of both the piece and its real-world counterpart. Unfortunately, in doing this, she is forced away from a chronological approach. That's not necessarily bad, but Brown doesn't pull it off; she darts back and forward in time, with similarly-named actors doing similar things in different chapters, and loses the thread repeatedly.

On the other hand, the Icelandic-origin theory seems (at least according to Ivory Vikings) to have been unfairly pooh-poohed by scholars. The competing origin fables--Norway is the most popular--are also highly speculative. More importantly, Iceland wasn't some provincial backwater, but a wealthy and flourishing (if hard and remote) society. So Brown at least deserves credit for establishing that "plausible" thing.

But where she truly excels is in evoking the lost, strange, brutal, evocative, beautiful Northern world. And it truly was a world--an economic and cultural continuum spanning from Greenland into Russia, not long past the paganism of Thor and Odin, where trading and raiding coexisted for centuries: a place in the medieval European orbit, but fully not of it. There are stories here to conjure with, and names as well: Erlang Skew-Neck, King Magnus III Barelegs, Unn the Deep-Minded, Harold Hard-ruler, Ketil Flat-Nose. There are intrepid venturers in "white gold", walrus ivory. There are feuds and betrayals and ironic humor. In the best parts of Ivory Vikings, Braun dives deep into both the facts and the stories of the North, with particularly good scholarship on the Icelandic sagas.

I don't know that I'd be in a rush to read another non-fiction book by Nancy Marie Brown. On the other hand, if she ever publishes any translations of those sagas, I'm there.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

Spoiler-Free Notes on The Force Awakens

Yes, I saw the movie on its opening weekend. (Mainly because I don't want to have to leave the room while all my friends discuss it.) I may have some much more detailed spoiler-heavy analysis later. Here, however, are my first thoughts.
  1. It was, overall, pretty OK. (John Scalzi, as often happens, has a good analogy.) I went in with absolutely neutral expectations. I was not surprised either pleasantly or unpleasantly. I am not sorry to have seen it. I would not spend money to see it again.
  2. I specifically had no expectation of seeing anything that would have the kind of impact that the original had. It's not just that I'm REDACTED years older. When Star Wars came out in 1977, literally nobody had ever seen anything like it. What we think of as the SFX Blockbuster Movie Genre did not exist. Science fiction on the screen was still a niche, and not a respectable one either. The number of SF movies that were both critical and popular successes was one (the overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey).
  3. As a movie, it was vastly better than The Phantom Menace, which is the only one of the prequels I've seen. It was better than Return of the Jedi, which again is not the highest bar--I'm looking at you, Ewoks. I have a much more critical opinion of The Empire Strikes Back than most people seem to; I'd put this one not too far below it, or even on a level.
  4. As an exercise in nostalgia and fan-service, it was great! Look, sound, feel, and music all said Star Wars. If you want all your boxes checked off, The Force Awakens will check them. The cost of this, however, is that it's profoundly unimaginative and unoriginal--I'd even call it "derivative", verging on "rehash". To be clear, I'm not talking about the return of the original characters; I'm talking about the plot. There were some twists, but I'd guessed most of them (with, I admit, partial accuracy) weeks ago.
  5. The biggest script weakness is that there's nobody whose desires actually drive the story forward, which means that there's no real conflict--only characters running away and/or reacting to stuff. Compare to the original, where Luke is the protagonist, and the film revolves around his goals:
    1. When we meet him, he wants to get the hell off of Tattooine. But there is a conflict, because he also feels responsible to his aunt and uncle, and anyway it all seems impossible.
    2. After his family is killed, he wants to be a Jedi like his father and deliver R2-D2. But there is a conflict, because the Empire is hunting R2-D2 and, by extension, him.
    3. Once he gets to the Death Star, he wants to rescue the princess. But there is a conflict, because duh.
    4. In the climax, he wants to destroy the Death Star. But there is a conflict, because lasers and Tie fighters and the attack run and Darth Vader all disagree. (Notice, also, that the conflict between Vader's wants and Luke's wants gets more and more direct through the film.)
    I couldn't make the same sort of analysis of The Force Awakens. There are 2.5 main characters; the .5 doesn't do much, and the other two spend most of the movie trying to avoid conflict. The result is a series of scenes rather than a story. I will stipulate that many of the scenes are pretty good.
  6. The plot holes are moderately enormous. While watching the movie I could ignore them, and they didn't reduce my enjoyment substantially, which is the minimum that I ask.
A really good screenwriter could have made a much better movie out of this basic material. It wouldn't have made any more money, however, and The Force Awakens is at least a recovery from the depths of the prequels. I hope that the sequels will bring a real storyteller into the process; I'm not anticipating it, though.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Great Scott! I said this almost a year ago, and I have not done anything. Fortunately the Internet seems to have staggered along somehow, no doubt because others have stepped up in my absence. However, just in case ...

Note position of foot relative to head. 

This is the reason you shouldn't play Twister with cats. Well, one reason, anyway.

There. If that doesn't send my blog hits through the roof, nothing will.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: The White Road

The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Biography, art

A couple of years ago a ceramic artist named Edward de Waal wrote a book called The Hare With Amber Eyes. In it he used the titular netsuke figurine as a framing device for an evocative and moving history of his family. It's an absorbing book about loss and recovery, the ephemeral and the permanent.

The White Road is less successful. De Waal doesn't seem to understand what the book is about. Is it a single-subject history of porcelain? Is it a personal memoir? Is it a poetic meditation on Art? Is it a travelogue? It partakes of all of these things, but not fully enough to be any of them. It fails as a history of the substance, to pick on the first aspect, by not providing enough facts about what porcelain is, how it differs chemically and physically from other forms of pottery, what the full history of it encompasses, etc. etc. etc.

That would be a very Enlightenment sort of book, by the way. De Waal's preoccupations seem to be more Romantic. In the first third of the book, he seems to be trying to share with the reader the subjective, inner experience of what it means to truly love this beautiful material--a quintessentially Romantic concern. It's not an unworthy ambition, but De Waal doesn't pull it off. He tries to be profound, but too often he's merely precious. (Pro tip: littering your text with one-sentence paragraphs robs the device of any force that it might have had.) Among other things, he's annoyingly fond to the pathetic fallacy.

The White Road is by no means a complete failure. There are eloquent passages, there are interesting biographical anecdotes, there are informative facts. It's just that there aren't enough of any one of them to make a whole book out of. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review/Essay: The Fellowship

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip and Carol Zaleski
Literature, biography

The Fellowship is a readable, detailed, and sympathetic biography by a pair of Smith College professors. It's nice to see the Inklings get some scholarly attention, even if it's only a fraction of the attention that's been given to contemporaries such as the Bloomsbury Group. It's not, perhaps, for the casual reader; if your interest starts and ends with Middle-Earth and Narnia, you might want to work your way up to this one.

Inevitably, the coverage of the Inklings is uneven. Lewis and Tolkien get roughly equal time, with Lewis emerging as the driving force of the group. Williams and Barfield share a second tier. The remainder of the group, aside from Lewis's brother Warnie, gets only token attention. 

To be honest, that's fine by me. I've read some Charles Williams, but in general I find him obscure and unengaging. I have read nothing by Barfield, and based on this account I'm unlikely to do so; each of us would consider the other as spouting tendentious gibberish. No doubt both men were genuinely deep and original thinkers, but they wrote for an audience of which I'm not a member.

If anything, that points out the genius of Lewis and Tolkien. Both of them were first-rate intellectuals (critical snobbery aside), and far more deeply versed in theology, literature, and philosophy than I will ever be. They put that depth into their writings; and yet both men--especially Tolkien--can be read for pure, unadulterated pleasure. 

This, I think, is one of the two major divides between JRRT and the vast legions of schlock artists who've followed in his footsteps. You might not see the genuine depth of The Lord of the Rings, but you can still feel it. The sense of mingled loss and consolation, for example, that pervades the book isn't an accident; it's fundamental to Tolkien's Christian, Catholic, and Boethian philosophy.

The other (and related) major divide is that all the Inklings were fascinated by myths: how they work, why they work, and what they're good for. Commercial fantasy writers focus on the mere trappings of myth (swords, magic spells, divine power, etc.) without having the least idea of why. The result is a kind of literary placebo, which dulls the imagination rather than stimulating it. It is to the genuine stuff what Nabisco's "Chips Ahoy!" is to home-made chocolate cookies.

Confession: I've read my fair share of this writing. I hope never to do so again. Life's too short to spend it killing your own brain cells.

Humphrey Carpenter's J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography is a good starting point for the curious. Lewis has had a good many studies of his life and work, but they've mostly taken a rather academic slant.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Russian Spambot Overlords.

I've been discovered.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review: Digital Gold

Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money
Nathaniel Popper
Economics, computers

Some people have a stereotypical idea of what constitutes a Bitcoin zealot in their minds. Some people, indeed, probably imagine:
  • Technical brilliance combined with Asperger's syndrome or the like
  • Thin, worryingly intense men with beady eyes
  • Parents' basements
  • Orthodox Libertarians waving their copies of Mao's Little Red Book Atlas Shrugged in quasi-religious fervor
  • Scammers, fast-talkers, Machiavellians, suck-ups, and narcissists generally
Some people are, broadly speaking, correct. No one person in Digital Gold incorporates all of the stereotype, but even so a certain ... composite portrait ... emerges. (Two other facts are worth noting: 100% of the actors are male, and 98% of them seem to be jerks. One of the few exceptions lives in my home town, for what that's worth.)

Also, there are a lot of them. That's one of Digital Gold's main weaknesses. There are just too many characters, and they tend to drift into and out of the story, making it hard to remember who's who. A cast of characters, right up-front, would have been helpful; a timeline would not have come amiss. As it is, the book is a bit herky-jerky. The pieces are fine, and might stand on their own as newspaper articles, but as a whole it's a bit slice-of-life-ish.

This is, in part, because Nathaniel Popper chose to concentrate on the people rather than on the technology. I understand why.  I imagine that there are relatively few readers who will abandon the book because it's short on eye-watering engineering detail. That doesn't mean I don't miss it, though. There's only a short and shallow technical appendix, which isn't nearly enough.

Still, it's a pretty enjoyable read. The conclusion is a bit of a downer: the idealists go up against the System, and the System wins. But, as with the large and shifting cast, that's real life for you.