Friday, February 29, 2008

Spin spaz

As an archivist and a vaguely politically aware person I have a lot of doubts about the security and reliability of electronic voting as it is currently practiced, but damn it if it isn't fun to spin that little dial around. I'd vote ten times if I could just to hear that little clicky noise and have the fun of pressing a big "Cast Ballot" button.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Unfettered Spacebeer

Dr. M has left me alone for a few days, so I am able to be the real me -- unhampered by the needs and wants of my robusband. In no particular order, this is apparently what the real me wants to do:

1. Eat a big bowl of green beans.
2. Watch a movie and pause it whenever I want. Even if I just want to check my email.
3. Have another cocktail.
4. Sing the same line of a song over and over again as I wander around the apartment.
5. Play another round of Text Twist (which I suck at, but can't stop playing for some reason).
6. Eat a big bowl of broccoli.
7. Clean the bathroom.
8. Rewatch several episodes of the Ben Stiller Show (which zips me right back to the early nineties. And is only about half good. But the good parts are great: "I am not a robot!").
9. Try to decide what to listen to when I can't just listen to the Ipod on shuffle.
10. Have another cocktail.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Hamilton Stark

In Russell Banks' 1978 novel Hamilton Stark, the reader meets the title character, a drunken, brutish New Hampshire pipefitter who has been married and divorced five times, kicked his mother out of her own house, and loves to get into bar fights. Well, we don't exactly meet him since he has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a car with bullet-holes in the windshield and a locked up house, but we hear an awful lot about him from his biggest fan: our narrator.

Hoping to convince us of the philosophical purity of Stark's life, the narrator twists together interviews with Stark's ex-wives, his own experiences with Stark, long sections from a novel by Stark's daughter (with whom the narrator had a brief affair) based on her father's life, and his own lengthy discussions about Stark with his lonely neighbor. And of course the novel as a whole isn't even about Stark (which is a pseudonym the narrator uses for his novel), it is actually about A., the "real" man who the narrator worships for his uncompromising rejection of society and natural inclinations. And really, in the end, the book isn't even about A. Instead it is about our narrator.

This is Banks' first novel and he uses an experimental style that goes well with the story. Although the constant switching of tactics and retracing of steps is distancing, as a reader I didn't mind being held at arms length from this confused and untrustworthy narrator and his misogynistic hero. And although experimental, the novel is overall very engaging and follows a pretty straight narrative once you dig down into it.

Banks wrote the novels on which the movies Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter were based, and I'd be more than happy to check out some of his other work...

Friday, February 22, 2008


I don't know why, but I totally want an ASUS Eee, even though it has potentially the dumbest name of any product on earth. I've got zero flexibility in my budget right now, and it would be dumb to buy one when we are going to buy Dr. M a Macbook for his school this summer, but just look how cute and tiny they are! Plus all solid-state construction and full of Linux and Open Office. And tiny! And this one is under $300!

But does anyone actually own one of these? Are they really as cute and nice as they look? I should probably file this next to a Roomba in the neat-gadgets-I-will-probably-never-buy box.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason

I have been really good about not going out and buying books lately, but when Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason (2002) by Jessica Warner was listed in my favorite discount book catalog from which I just happened to be buying legitimate Christmas gifts, I couldn't say no. Basically if you have debauchery in your subtitle, I am in.

In this book Warner gives the reader a social and political history of the effects of gin on English culture in the mid-1700s -- primarily as it was legislated through the Gin Acts of 1729 through 1751. Although distilled liquor (or "strong water") had been around since the fifteenth century, it wasn't until the 1700s that methods of cheaply distilling liquor from local grains came to England. Before that the poor drank beer and ale, and plenty of it (Warner quotes the national average at 30 gallons a year) -- hard liquor was mostly imported and mostly for the rich. That all changed when gin came to town at a time when wages were slightly higher than usual. The working poor made room in their bellies and budgets for plenty of gin (2 gallons per person per year, at its peak -- and they didn't drink less beer, they just added on the gin), and this made the upper classes a little nervous. Why can't the poor be happy with beer and gruel? Why do they have to want gin and imported coffee? [Just take a look at this side-by-side comparison of William Hogarth's "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street" prints and decide where you would rather live....] If they don't produce tons of healthy children, who will fight our wars? Single women are getting drunk and causing trouble! Aren't they getting kind of uppity? All these questions and more bounced around the halls of Parliament. To complicate matters, all that gin was heavily taxed by the government, and the government really really needed the tax money to pay for a series of long wars.

These conflicts resulted in a series of more and less stringent Gin Acts that hoped to both curb the amount of gin sold to the working poor (and the amount of unlicensed street hawkers selling that gin), and to increase the amount of tax money coming into government coffers. None of the legislation really worked though, and the primary result was more drinking with the added fun of occasional riots and mob justice for the informers who made their living testifying against unlicensed gin sellers.

The details of the various gin acts and their political motivations can get a little dull, and because of a real lack of documentation of the lives and thoughts of the poor in this time period the examples and narratives that Warner constructs are often repeated and frustratingly short on detail. Warner does a nice job of drawing on contemporary newspaper accounts and court records, and fleshes out the story as much as she can through biographies and memoirs written by politicians and authors of the era.

And I learned that no 18th century newspaper was complete without a pun-filled poem opining on the news of the day. Better journalism through poetry!

I'm moving to Beer Street. I'll see you jerks later.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ruggles of Red Gap

Since it isn't on DVD, you might have to go to a little effort to see it, but go out right now and find yourself a copy of Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) with Charles Laughton. Bits from this perfectly pitched comedy keep coming back to me and making me laugh (even though this has been a pretty crappy week). Laughton plays Ruggles, a perfect English butler who has the misfortune of being lost by his master in a poker game. His new master and mistress are from the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington. In America. Ruggles is not pleased, but being an uncomplaining English sort he goes along with it.

The relationships between Ruggles, his rootin' tootin' new master, and his stuffy new mistress highlight all that is good and bad about Americans. And, appropriately enough for this President's Day weekend, there is a climactic scene where Ruggles recites the Gettysburg Address in a saloon that is actually pretty moving. Although the best part of the movie might be when Ruggles inadvertently gets really drunk in Paris...

The only clip I could find from the movie is this charming exchange between Roland Young (who plays George Vane Bassingwell, the Earl of Burnstead -- Ruggles' English employer) and Leila Hyams (who astute viewers might recognize from Todd Browning's 1932 movie Freaks), a dance hall girl with whom the Earl is smitten. It is a pretty great clip, and Young's delivery is hilarious, but I wish I could find something with Charles Laughton in it...

This story, based on the 1915 book by Harry Leon Wilson (which you can read in its entirety here), was filmed several times, but I think the 1935 version looks like the best one. And even though Fancy Pants might be a better title, Bob Hope is certainly no Charles Laughton.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

From me to you

[Joolie is way better at this than I am, but to be fair all I have is Paint, no patience, and a shaky mouse hand... Still, it's better than some tacky jewelry or stale chocolates, right?]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Black Ships

I received an advance copy of Black Ships by Jo Graham (March 2008) via the always wonderful LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The way the Early Reviewers group works is, you request books you would be interested in reading from a list of available titles, then the magic of LibraryThing analyzes your current library, runs a few crazy algorithms, and matches you up with one of the titles. If you are lucky. Since I like to read pretty much anything, I tend to request all the fiction and a good chunk of the available non-fiction titles too. So, when this copy of Black Ships showed up, I initially thought I had made a poor selection. I mean, just check out the description:

The world is ending. One by one the mighty cities are falling, to earthquakes, to flood, to raiders on both land and sea. In a time of war and doubt, Gull is an oracle. Daughter of a slave taken from fallen Troy, chosen at the age of seven to be the voice of the Lady of the Dead, it is her destiny to counsel kings. When nine black ships appear, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, Gull must decide between the life she has been destined for and the most perilous adventure — to join the remnant of her mother's people in their desperate flight. From the doomed bastions of the City of Pirates to the temples of Byblos, from the intrigues of the Egyptian court to the haunted caves beneath Mount Vesuvius, only Gull can guide Prince Aeneas on his quest, and only she can dare the gates of the Underworld itself to lead him to his destiny. In the last shadowed days of the Age of Bronze, one woman dreams of the world beginning anew. This is her story.

An oracle named Gull? Pirates? Princes? I thought maybe I had fallen down into the slippery slope of fantasy writing. Would there be dragons in this thing? Who knows?

Luckily I am ultimately an open-minded reader and I gave Black Ships a shot. And you know what? It was really a very compelling and fun to read book. And much smarter than I initially thought it would be.

Graham based her debut novel on Virgil's Aeneid -- the struggle of the Trojans who fled their dying city (after the whole Trojan horse thing), went off in ships and had a bunch of adventures, and ended up founding Rome. Our narrator, Gull, has the unique position of being a woman who all the men will listen to (since she is a priestess). And since priestesses are allowed to have lovers and bear children (just not get married) she also gets herself into a tidy little love triangle with a ship's captain and Prince Aeneas himself. Nice. Combine all that with some interesting history (and Graham really did her research), a trip to Egypt, a smattering of Greek mythology, and a whole lot of ship-sailing and battle fighting, and you end up with a pretty nice little novel.

Black Ships won me over completely. Early Reviewers, I will never doubt the power of your algorithms again!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Unmitigated Humbug

Advertised in the Louisville Weekly Journal, August 14, 1855. All spelling, punctuation, and poetry reproduced as printed.

The Bliss of Marriage – The Way to the Altar

Matrimony Made Easy, or How to Win a Lover, a book of 160 pages. Price $1….

"Love rules the court, the camp, the grove / For love is Heaven, and Heaven is Love." / So sang the bard; yet thousands pine / For love – of life the light divine / Who, did they know some gentle charm, / The hearts of those they love to warm, / Might live, might die, in bliss supreme / Possessing all of which they dream. / The road to wedlock would you know? / Delay not, but to RONDOUT go. / Time flies, and from his gloomy wings / A shadow falls on living things; / Then seize the moments as they pass / Ere fall the last sands through the glass; / At least the present is your own, / While all the future is unknown. / A happy marriage man or maid / Can now secure by RONDOUT's aid.

Professor RONDOUT, of New York, where he has been the means of bringing about thousands of happy marriages, will send to any address, on receipt of ONE DOLLAR, post-paid, plain directions to enable Ladies or Gentlemen to win the devoted affections of as many of the opposite sex as they may desire. The process is so simple, but so captivating, that all may be married, irrespective of age, appearance, or position; and last, though not least, it can be arranged with the utmost ease and delicacy.

This is decidedly the most fascinating, interesting, and really useful and practical work on Courtship, Matrimony, and the duties and delights of Married Life that has ever been issued from the American press. The artificial social system which in so many instances prevents a union of hearts, and sacrifices to conventionalism the happiness and even the lives of thousands of the young and hopeful of both sexes, is thoroughly analyzed and exposed. Every one who contemplates marriage and wishes for an infallible guide in the selection of a partner for life, should purchase this great text-book of connubial felicity.

N. B. This is no humbug, but one of the greatest sciences the world ever produced, which thousands of ladies and gentlemen in the city of New York can attest to. No one will ever regret the price paid for such an invaluable secret; which is contained in a book of 160 pages, with all the necessary directions….

All that is necessary for you to do is to write a letter in as few words as possible, inclose the money, and write the name with the post-office, county, and State…

And for extra fun, check out this contemporary review of Professor RONDOUT's work from Humbug: A Look at Some Popular Impositions by S. F. French (1859). [Thanks to Harvard and dear Google Books, the digitization megalord that librarians love to hate.] The whole book is great, but at the very least do yourself a favor and check out the table of contents. You will not be disappointed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The House That Stood Still

Once again I was seduced into buying an A. E. Van Vogt book by the awesome cover. How could I resist this? The House That Stood Still was originally published in the 1950s, and it should be no surprise to you that this printing came out in 1971. Totally psychedelic, man!

As you may remember, I was not totally wowed by the only other Van Vogt book I've read (which I apparently read last February -- February is Van Vogt month in Spacebeer-land!), although I still thought it (and its cover) were worthwhile. The House That Stood Still was a much more enjoyable story and I give it an enthusiastic recommendation that goes beyond the awesomeness of the crazy rainbow-colored woman-house with an eye-bridge on the cover.

The most interesting thing about this book is that it is hardly a science fiction book at all, even though Van Vogt is one of the best known science fiction writers of the 40s and 50s. Instead, the book reads like a noir-y California detective novel. I have no problem with this since I happen to love noir-y California detective novels.

Our hero, Allison Stephens, is a lawyer for one of the oldest families in Almirante, California, whose ancestral home is an imposing marble structure that looks over the town and the ocean from a high hill. The head of the family dies and an unknown nephew takes his place -- but as soon as the new guy gets to town, strange things start happening to Allison. First he is confronted with an anonymous note claiming that the uncle's grave is empty. Then he comes across a strange Ancient-Mexican cult in one of the offices in the family-owned office building where he works -- he overhears some cryptic conversation and bursts in to stop them from whipping a beautiful woman. This woman ends up popping up unexpectedly into Allison's life over and over again and sleeping with him (in some of the truly vaguest and yet somehow salacious sex scenes ever). His desire for the mysterious woman, and his obligation to protect the interests of his client, lead him deeper and deeper into the secrets of the house, and into the world of a group of dozens of immortals that have lived in and near the house since the days when ancient Mexican civilizations ruled the California coast.

Oh, and there is also a thwarted nuclear attack and a robot spaceship, but I wouldn't want to give away too much.

Here is the back cover (with a rather misleading description of the book that makes it sound way more traditionally science-fiction-y than it really is). And here is the quite awesome personalized embossing I found in my copy. I would love one of those things. You better believe I'd be embossing everything in sight.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Here's to appropriate fashion choices


Your cool too-tight rocker black jeans and ironic shrunken t-shirt might look nice as you slink between clubs on Red River, but they look pretty lame when you are riding your bike home in the afternoon and showing everyone your pasty ass as you hunch over your handlebars. That is why real rockers ride the bus.



Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Nicholas and Alexandra

I bought my copy of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie (1967) for a dollar at the short-lived BookRack used book store at 70th and Van Dorn in Lincoln, probably while I was in high school. Seeing as I love books about royal families and have always been a little bit fascinated by the totally odd Rasputin, I'm not sure why I hadn't read it before this.

Massie's interest in the Last Tsar of Russia and his family started with the disease of hemophilia -- a disease shared by the Tsar's son, Alexis, and Massie's own son. The central thesis of Massie's book is that, while the causes of the Russian Revolution were naturally very complicated, the fact that the Heir to the throne had a life-threatening disease spurred the fall of the empire. If the Tsarevich wasn't a hemophiliac, his mother never would have relied on Rasputin to the extent that she did, and his influence on the royal family would have been small, if not non-existent. However, since the Empress saw Rasputin as the only person who could ease her son's pain and stop his fits of bleeding, the empire was in his weird, religious, hypnotic, sex-obsessed hands.

It's actually not a bad argument, and although Massie gives a sometimes overly-sympathetic portrait of the Tsar and his family (while ignoring much of the social and political context of Russia in the early-20th century), he ends up providing us with a thoughtful and sensitive portrait of Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children not as politicians, rulers, or pawns in an ideological struggle, but as a tight-knit family who really didn't deserve the ending they got. And regardless of how inevitable the Russian Revolution might have been, the ultimate execution of the entire royal family could have been prevented in a million ways. The last section of the book is rather rough reading as each and every avenue of escape is closed off due to disorganization, miscommunication, cowardice, or lack of responsibility.

Oddly enough, just as I was starting this book, Dr. M and I watched Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, which is filmed entirely in the Hermitage in St. Petersberg, which was formerly the Winter Palace and a home of the Tsar and his family. [The movie is famous for being done entirely in one shot, and it really is amazing to watch -- you should totally rent it.]

If you (like me) love looking at old pictures and artifacts, you will drool over the massive online Romanov-related exhibits on (and linked from) this site. The awesome thing about reading a history book about famous people who lived after the dawn of photography is that you aren't shackled to the few pictures in the center of the book since Google Image Search can show you a picture of any minor historical character in which you might be interested. How about Mathilde Kschessinska, the famous ballerina that had a long affair with the young Tsar, or Natalie Cheremetevskaya, the twice-divorced commoner that married the Tsar's younger brother, almost lost him his royal appointment and very nearly became empress after the abdication of Nicholas. No problem. I love that...

Now for a few facts that I can't help but share:
  • The reign of Nicholas and Alexandra got off to a bad start when a celebration in Khodynka Meadow the day after the coronation turned into a blood bath after rumors that there wouldn't be enough free beer for everyone gathered turned into a mad rush for the beer carts. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured.
  • The Tsar had a private librarian whose job was to select twenty of the best books from around the world each month (since the Tsar spoke and read many languages), which the Tsar would then carefully arrange in order of preference.
  • Although he spoke Russian to everyone else, Nicholas always spoke and wrote to his wife in English. Alexandra was a German Princess, but she was also the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and spent much of her youth in England. Thus her English was always stronger than her Russian.
  • When Alexandra finally gave birth to a son (and Heir) after having four girls, the country was ecstatic. At his baptism, he was carried to the alter by an elderly woman who had carried young royals to their baptism for years. Since everyone was worried that the old woman might drop the Tsarevich, a special golden support harness was fastened to her shoulders and around the basinette.
  • The house in which the royal family was executed housed the archives of the local Communist party in the 1950s. Massie notes that the basement room in which the killing took place was "now occupied by dusty bins filled with old documents."
So, while this was a fun-to-read and interesting history of the last Tsar and the fall of Russia, I feel like I'll need to read a few more books in order to get a more balanced look at the whole thing. Still (as you can see from this really long post), I liked the book a lot and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in this intriguing royal family.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ain't it satisfactory?

It is entirely possible that I have spent too much time over the past week looking at old missionary magazines and Christian newspapers for early-20th-century youth. But who could resist these jokes? Note that 80% of the humor comes from funny dialects and 20% comes from horrible puns. Spacebeer Industries is not responsible for offending any Scotsmen or Christian Scientists. Headlines and jokes transcribed in all their glory:

[From Onward, a weekly illustrated paper for young people.]

(from 1911)

Mummies the Word
"What's in here?" asked the tourist.

"Remains to be seen," responded the guide, as he led the way into the mummy-room.

A Countermand

A man is said to have written to a certain mail order house, on a postal card, as follows:

Dere Surs – I see yore advertisement. I wisht you would send me as soon as possebul yore caterlog of Elecktrical Goods, and Oblige. / Yours Truly, _______ / P. S. Never mine – you needen send it. I have changed my mine.

Crazy Ticket Agent
Clancy – Oi'm after a ticket ter Chicago.

Ticket Agent – Do you want an excursion Ticket? One that will take you there and back?

Clancy – What's the since of me payin' ter go there an' back when I'm here alriddy?

Keeping Tab on the Dentist
A Scotchman at the dentist's was told that he must take gas. While the dentist was getting it ready the Scot began to count his money.

The dentist said, somewhat testily, "You need not pay until the tooth is out."

"I ken that," said the Scotchman, "but as y're aboot to mak me sleep I jist want to see hoo I stand."

And No Longer
The long young person had just submitted his manuscript to the editor.

"Do you think I can get by with it?" he asked.

"Yes," said the editor after a long pause. "It's all right, as long as it is against the law to hit a man with a baseball bat.

(from 1913)

Couldn't Fool Fido
"Mamma, I just now fell down stairs and hit every stop all the way down!" exclaimed little Mary, who attends the Christian Science Sunday-school.

"Did you hurt yourself, dear?"

"No, mamma; I kept saying, 'Truth, truth, truth!' every step I hit, and I didn't hurt myself a bit. But I had Fido in my arms when I fell, and I think he is pretty badly hurt."

"What makes you think so, dear?"

"Why, every step we hit he yelled, 'Error, error, error!'"

He "Did" Them
"Did you hear about the defacement of Skinner's Tombstone?"

"No; what was it?"

"Someone added the word 'friends' to the epitaph."

"What was the epitaph?"

"'He did his best.'"

Goods back, Money refunded
Guide (before statue in museum) – "This piece of work that you are now looking at goes back to Praxiteles."

Visitor – "What's the matter? Ain't it satisfactory?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Field trip!

Dr. M and I took a little field trip to Kyle, Texas this weekend as research for a writing project about Katherine Anne Porter that he is doing for school. On the list of things to see was the house Porter grew up in (now the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center), and three of the town's cemeteries, one of which contains the remains of Porter's paternal grandparents who helped raise Porter in Kyle after the death of her mother.

Although we were mostly respectful amongst the dead of Kyle, and tried really hard not to walk on any graves or trip over any headstones, we did occasionally turn into junior high kids and break into giggles over hilarious names. Like this one. And this one. Who are buried right next to each other. In this family plot. It's like they buried them that way as part of an elaborate joke...

We also ate very tasty sandwiches at a little cafe on Center street. I had chicken salad. Plus they graciously stayed open a little late so we could eat our sandwiches there instead of out in our car.

See all the wondrous photos from our trip here.