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Fri, 5 Sep 2003

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

— SjG @ 4:14 pm

Harriet Beecher Stowe, originally published as a serial in 1850, published as a book 1852, read as an e-book reformatting of Project Gutenberg text.

My first surprise was to learn that Uncle Tom was intended as a hero, a true example of a noble Christian. Having only heard his name used as a term of contempt, I expected to find him set up as a contemptible character by Stowe. I was also surprised to find, in a book published a mere ten years before the Emancipation Proclamation, how little the author assumed the reader knew about the institution of slavery.
The importance of this book and its effect on American history is well known; I think it’s also interesting as documenting that history. It obviously is crafted as a work of Abolitionist propaganda (which is not necessarily to suggest inaccuracy), and the perspective it gives on everything ranging from gender roles and religious life in America in the mid-Nineteenth Century to the establishment of Liberia are all fascinating.

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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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