Sun, 24 Aug 2003

The Perils of Pauline

— SjG @ 4:13 pm

Charles Goddard, publication date obscure, read as an e-book reformatting of Project Gutenberg Text

I’d heard the title used metaphorically many times, but knew nothing beyond the reference. In all likelihood, the reference wasn’t to the book, but to the “cliff-hanger” movie serials made from the book starting around 1914, and known particularly for the image of the hero rescuing the heroine who had been abandoned, bound hand and foot, upon the tracks before a rapidly approaching train. This scene does not appear in the book, but fear not, the book is no more subtle.
In the world of Pauline, the extremely wealthy are pure and meritorious, the poor are dark, dishonest, and immoral. Motor cars, airplanes, submarines, purebred horses, and hot-air balloons are all tools for the amusement of the thrill-seeking elite, although the commoners who operate them often pay with their lives in order to propel the plot along. Thin as the plot may be, it’s enough to take our heroine to other exotic locales, where she and her handsome foster-brother/husband-to-be [!] vanquish still other niedermenschen, whether they be Sioux Indians who mistake her for a goddess, gypsies who wish to kill her, the denizens of Chinatown who would trap her in their opium dens, or sinister agents of un-named countries who would do her in just for the hell of it.

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Sat, 23 Aug 2003

Notre-Dame de Paris a.k.a. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

— SjG @ 4:12 pm

Victor Hugo, originally published in 1831, e-book of uncertain origin.
Disney Lovers, Repent!
Hugo has a keen eye for the foibles of humanity, sparing neither nobility nor the emerging bourgeois class, skewering the Parisian rich and poor, thieves and mystics, church officials and students.
But Hugo’s greatest scorn, evidently, is for those who don’t appreciate good medieval architecture. The discussions of architecture and the story of the growth of Paris would make interesting books in and of themselves, and Hugo’s theory of the printed word’s ascendancy over that of architecture (as humanity’s means of communication) is thought provoking.

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Wed, 20 Aug 2003

The Gnostic Gospels

— SjG @ 4:08 pm

Elaine Pagels, 1979, Vintage Books, nonfiction.

I’ve seen many references to the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, whether in “counterculture” literature from the likes of Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, in lit-crit rantings like the work of Hakim Bey, or in more popular literature like The DaVinci Code (see review, if you so desire). I had a vague idea that there was controversy surrounding this collection of texts, just as there was around the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I knew very little about the texts themselves.
This book deals with the texts from Nag Hammadi, but specifically with regard to what they tell us about early Christianity and the formation of the Church. It does not go into great depth in describing general Gnostic philosophy outside of these concerns.
The book is fascinating. Many of the Gnostic Gospels had vanished, having been purged from the historical and religious record when they were declared heretical and apocryphal. In fact, as Pagels describes it, much of the previous understanding of Gnostic Christianity came from the Church polemics against it. With the discovery of some of the original writings, the picture of early Christianity and the doctrinal divisions becomes clearer. Pagels does a remarkable job of articulating these differences, and bringing back to life the diverse interpretations of faith that defined early Christianity. We even get to hear the words of the opposition: Gnostic Christian polemics directed at the orthodoxy of the Church and criticism of their interpretations. Early attitudes towards the individual’s relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the hierarchy of the Church are explored, as are differences in the value of martyrdom, mystical revelation, and validity of the non-apostolic writings.
Recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the development of religious ideas and ideology.

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The Three Musketeers

— SjG @ 4:06 pm

Alexandre Dumas, originally published 1844, e-book version of uncertain origin.

This book was one of the vast canon of “Great Literature Which Everyone is Expected to Have Read And Yet Which I Have Somehow Avoided.” To my joy, it is no longer in that collection, as it is a ripping good yarn, a rollicking adventure, and a laugh out loud funny book to boot! Now I, too, join those who know that it’s really about four Musketeers, more or less, and that they actually do use muskets (and musketoons) on rare occasions, instead of depending entirely upon their swords. It’s no surprise that so many film-makers have used the book as a vehicle for swashbuckling adventure stories (although I can’t claim to have watched all fifteen feature films made of the story, nor the half dozen animations, I have seen enough excerpted to know that their faithfulness to the original is, shall we say, typical Hollywood).
I enjoyed how Dumas not only shows us the King’s Guard as a bunch of rough, overprivileged thugs, but actually makes us like some of them as well. His depictions of political intrigue, court gossip, and the romantic manipulations of the nobility are also particularly entertaining.
It may need to be noted that social norms change, and some ideas that are taken for granted by Dumas may annoy modern readers. Attitudes towards women, servants, Jews, blacks, Muslims, Huguenots, Puritans, or just about any other group of non-Nobility won’t be mistaken for progressive. If you find yourself bothered by this kind of thing, you can take solace in the fact that Dumas attacks with a broad brush, and few escape unscathed.

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Tue, 19 Aug 2003

The DaVinci Code

— SjG @ 4:05 pm

Dan Brown, 2003, Doubleday

Brown couldn’t decide if he wanted to write a Hollywood thriller screenplay, or an Umberto Eco tribute. So he selected elements of each, and thus The DaVinci Code was born.
It’s an action packed tale, spanning roughly two days time, where the Grail Conspiracy collides with greedy Church officials, eccentric British knights, Harvard Symbology professors, and, of course, the requisite blood-line of Jesus. While it’s a fun ride, I frequently found myself wanting to get a bit … er … medieval on Brown. His transgressions start with his cribbed-from-Fyodor’s place descriptions, to his tour-guide size comparisons. How many times must I read the square footage of a building or a plaza? And must I be told that the Louvre is longer than three Eiffel Towers laid end to end, while the Grand Gallery is as long as three Washington Monuments?
Then, borrowing a page from any techno- thriller, Brown has high-tech tracking gadgets and frequent cell phone usage. Unfortunately, he feels the need to go into detail on how these things work; even more unfortunately, he gets it all hopelessly wrong. Cell phones ringing on planes over the mid- Atlantic? A tracking dot that “continuously transmits its location to a Global Positioning System satellite that [police] can monitor” which works to an accuracy of two feet, even when the trackee is underground.
The overall plot is, as mentioned before, a fun ride. It’s full of the improbable narrow escapes and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t switcheroos that make for a good Summer action film, mixed with enough history and Grail legends to give it an intellectual patina. Still, in the end, we’re left unsatisfied. It’s difficult to have strong feelings for any of the characters, as they’re often presented as foils for a plot point or an opportunity to lecture on semiotics. The twists and turns get less and less believable as the pages pass, and, by the end of the book, we find that we wish it had ended a few twists back.

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