Saturday, December 06, 2014

Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling

A Facebook discussion that mentioned Tolkien, Pullman, and Rowling led me to write the following comment, which I thought I'd save here for posterity.

I read Tolkien passionately at 14 or so. When I reread LOTR when I was about 22, I had just read "One Hundred Years of Solitude" for the second time. The juxtaposition of Garcia Marquez and Tolkien did not make T look good; if anything, it made him look terrible. — And when my son and I read LOTR out loud a few years ago, we eventually stopped, because it was ... boring. For a while, we entertained ourselves by making fun of it (everybody getting stoned in Lothlorien, for example), but that got boring after a while. — The world T imagines (or "bank-robs", to pick up your phrase) is incredibly impressive, though, as is Pullman's.

I first read Pullman because I read an article that called him "Rowling for adults", so I thought I'd check him out. He has much more ambition than Rowling, and for the most part, he pulls off a lot more. Further, his Mrs. Coulter exposes Rowling's characterization of ridiculous characters (Harry's aunt, uncle, and cousins) as well as of evil characters (above all, Voldemort) as two-dimensional at best.

In "The Amber Spyglass," though, Pullman exposes a flaw in his plotting. In the middle of a battle, one character has to explain something to another for a page or so — and it's clear that the explanation is less for the character than for the reader. This flaw made me notice something about Rowling's plotting: she *never* has to explain anything during exciting passages, because she *always* sets things up earlier. As a result, the exciting passages never get interrupted by explanations, but can just be exciting. — Beyond that, though, when she sets things up earlier, it never reads as "foreshadowing": whatever it is that is being explained is clearly part of the plot at the moment when it is explained, and it never comes across as explaining *for the reader*.

In short, for the creation of a fantasy world, Tolkien. For characterization, Pullman. But for effective plotting, Rowling.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Imaginary Icebergs

(To get the mouseover text, go to the original post here.)

The above comic reminded me of the following poem:


Elizabeth Bishop

We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship;
we'd rather own this breathing plain of snow
though the ship's sails were laid upon the sea
as the snow lies undissolved upon the water.
O solemn, floating field,
are you aware an iceberg takes repose
with you, and when it wakes may pasture on your snows?

This is a scene a sailor'd give his eyes for.
The ship's ignored. The iceberg rises
and sinks again; its glassy pinnacles
correct elliptics in the sky.
This is a scene where he who treads the boards
is artlessly rhetorical. The curtain
is light enough to rise on finest ropes
that airy twists of snow provide.
The wits of these white peaks
spar with the sun. Its weight the iceberg dares
upon a shifting stage and stands and stares.

The iceberg cuts its facets from within.
Like jewelry from a grave
it saves itself perpetually and adorns
only itself, perhaps the snows
which so surprise us lying on the sea.
Good-bye, we say, good-bye, the ship steers off
where waves give in to one another's waves
and clouds run in a warmer sky.
Icebergs behoove the soul
(both being self-made from elements least visible)
to see them so: fleshed, fair, erected indivisible.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Federer, Davis Cup

My first sighting of Roger Federer was live at the Davis Cup in Basel in February 2001. He won two singles matches and the doubles against the US. Such a joy to watch him now, almost 14 years later, winning the only tennis title missing from his laurels.

Monday, November 17, 2014

In language, no.

A claim made in a Facebook comment stream (a discussion of a complaint about the indicative being used where the mandative subjunctive is supposed to be the only correct choice, if you must know):

The number of people, who are doing something incorrectly, is not a determinant of the correctness of the act.

My response: in math, yes. In language, no.

(Is it rude to point out that the above claim contains commas that would best be omitted? Yes, it probably is ...) 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Such as and/or such X as?

In a review of the 2011 film of Jane Eyre, a student wrote the following:
... they were joined by an equally great supporting cast, featuring actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell.
I'm curious about that use of "such as". To me, it implies that Judi Dench and Jamie Bell are not only in the film but also the type of actors who are in the film. That is, from the name "Judi Dench", I should be able to make some pretty good guesses about who the other members of the supporting cast might be. That is, I read it as similar to this example (stolen from the COCA corpus):
It could be damage that happened as the result of an acute injury, such as spinal cord damage.
Here, "spinal cord damage" is an example of "an acute injury," and I can make some pretty guesses as to other members of that category. And I can't really do that with "actors such as Judi Dench and Jamie Bell."

However, I could do it with "featuring great actors, such as JD and JB." So it seems that the problem derives from two things: "actors" by itself seems odd with "such as" (as "an injury" by itself would in the above sentence?), and the absence of a comma before "such as" (though I'm not sure why that absence should be important here).

I actually prefer a different solution: "featuring such actors as JD and JB." To my ear, this implies that the named actors share some characteristic (probably "greatness"?) that is then also shared by the other members of the supporting cast. Even here, though, it would be a bit better to have that characteristic named, wouldn't it? "... featuring such great actors as JD and JB."

Why write all this up? First of all, to ask others what they think about the uses of "such as". And secondly, because I'm worried that I might be just peeving about something that is not as precise in other people's usage as I somehow expect it to be. If I'm just peeving about my own personal taste, then I know that I should just keep quiet about it. Along the lines recently suggested by Geoffrey Pullum: "The idea is that I will concentrate on my own usage rather than other people's."

Monday, November 10, 2014

Poetry in sports

Rob Hughes on Sergio Agüero:
There is poetry in sports when a man moves the way that Agüero can: plucking the ball out of the air with his right foot, feigning to shoot and then, as opponents cluster around him, flicking the ball to his other foot and shooting deftly.
If there's poetry here, what poem is it? As an Argentine, perhaps Agüero was reciting Borges:
Now he is invulnerable like the gods.
Or perhaps he prefers Ernesto Cardenal:
 Or Gabriela Mistral: