Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (The Modern Library, 1945)

I got this absolutely lovely copy of The Modern Library's collection of The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (1945) at the book sale at my library this year, and I've found it to be an instant cure for the blues.

Nash is known for his light, comedic, rhyming poetry. His most famous poem might be the very brief "Reflections on Ice-Breaking" (Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker), but his longer poems are just as perceptive and satisfying. While some of the verses have rather dated gender and racial views, most of them are just as enjoyable as they were when they were written.

And you are really missing out if you don't read them out loud.

Here is one of my favorites (long, but quick):

The Life of the Party

Lily, there isn't a thing you lack,
Your effect is simply stunning.
But Lily, your gown is low in the back,
So conduct yourself with cunning.
Some of your charm is charm of face,
But some of your charm is spinal;
Losing your looks is no disgrace,
But losing your poise is final.
Ridicule's name is Legion,
So look to your dorsal region.

For Artie,
Old Artie,
The life of the party,
Is practically perfect tonight;
He's prettily, properly tight;
He's never appeared so bright.
Have you ever seen Artie
Enliven a party?
You've never seen Artie --
Why Lord love a duck!
At present old Artie is running amuck.
There's a wink in his eye
And a smile on his lips
For the matron he tickles,
The waiter he trips.
There's a rubber cigar,
And a smoking-room jest,
To melt the reserve
Of the clerical guest.
There's a pin for the man who stoops over,
And a little trained flea for Rover.
So Lily, beware of your back!
More daring than duller and older blades,
Artie is hot on the track.
I've noticed him eying your shoulder blades.
And maybe it's salad,
And maybe it's ice,
But I fear he has planned
Some amusing device,
For the laughter is slack
And he's taking it hard --
He's eying your back --
And Artie's a card --
He's forming a plan --
May I fetch you a shawl?
That inventive young man --
There is one in the hall.
Though your back is divine
In its natural state,
May I curtain your spine? --
Dear Heaven, I'm late!
Aren't you glad that you came to the party?
And weren't you amused by Artie?

Horace, the moment that you appeared,
I admired your manly beauty,
But I feel that a word about your beard
Is only my bounden duty.
Your tailor's craft is a dandy's dream,
Your suavity leaves me lyrical,
But escaping tonight with your self-esteem
Will require a minor miracle.
Fun is a gay deceiver,
So look to your kingly beaver.

For Artie,
Old Artie,
The life of the party,
Is hitting his stride tonight.
No bushel obscures his light.
He's knocking them left and right.
Have you ever seen Artie
Enliven a party?
You've never seen Artie --
My lad, you're in luck,
For Artie, old Artie, is running amuck.
At Artie's approach
Lesser wags droop.
Have you seen the tin roach
He drops in your soup?
Is a spoon in your pocket?
Or gum on your chair?
It's Artie, old Artie,
Who magicked them there.
And of those who complain, there's a rumor
That they're lacking in sense of humor.
So Horace, beware of your beard!
I sense some fantastic flubdubbery!
Old Artie has just disappeared
And I've noticed him eying your shrubbery.
And maybe it's syrup,
And maybe it's mice,
But I fear he has planned
Some amusing device.
His conceptions are weird,
And nothing is barred --
He was eying your beard --
And Artie's a card --
When Artie returns,
The fun will begin --
May I fetch you a bag
To put on your chin?
Just a small paper bag
To envelop the bait?
For Artie's a wag --
Dear Heaven, I'm late!
Aren't you glad that you came to the party?
And weren't you amused by Artie?

As always, the Modern Library put out a wonderful copy of these poems. The book is just the right size, nicely printed, and sturdily bound. This one will go into the permanent collection, to be pulled out on occasions when I'm taking myself too seriously.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mudd's Angels by J.A. Lawrence (1978)

It should be no real surprise that I bought this copy of Mudd's Angels by J.A. Lawrence (1978) for the cover. Just look at it! Who could resist Mudd and his bevy of beauties?

This book consists of adaptations of two Star Trek episodes ("Mudd's Women" and "I, Mudd") and an original novella featuring Mudd and the Star Trek crew ("The Business, as Usual, During Altercations"). I've seen some Star Trek movies and the occasional episode of the original show, but I've never been a super fan. The character of Harvey Mudd, a sloppy, selfish, con-man who doesn't fit at all into the neat regulations of the Starship Enterprise, however, could make me change my mind.

When they first meet Mudd, he is charging along in an unregistered spaceship and gets beamed up, along with his crew, just before their ship is hit by an asteroid. Mudd's crew is nothing but three extremely beautiful ladies that quickly entrance the Enterprise crew (except for Spock). Mudd plans to wed the ladies to three lonely space miners (for a small fee), but his secret is soon revealed by Captain Kirk: he's been giving the ladies a drug that makes them irresistible to men. It's unclear why that matters so much to the three lonely space miners, and in the end the main lady learns that she is just as beautiful without taking the drug, ala Dumbo's feather.

In the next story, Mudd is back, and this time he has found a planet of abandoned high-tech androids that have been waiting for a human to serve for over a million years. He quickly molds them to his liking (including hundreds of identical fem-bots "programmed for pleasure"). The bots, however, want more humans to study and serve, so Mudd sneakily gets the Enterprise crew onto the planet, where they find it very difficult to leave. When the bots' plan to take over the universe and enslave humanity in a web of pleasure is revealed, Kirk and his crew use illogic (even Spock!) to get the bots' circuits to lock up so they can escape (there might be an ad at the start of this video, but it is worth it):

In the final novella, Mudd has gotten even more creative with his androids and his conning and has stolen the galaxy's supply of dilithium crystals, needed to power the starships. The Enterprise is in charge of finding out where the crystals went, and follow Mudd and his rogue ship out of the galaxy, bending space and time when they return. There is a slightly dull trial of robots vs. humans in this one, but ultimately it stays true to all the characters and involves some fun time travel.

This isn't high literature by any means, but as a non-Star Trek sci-fi fan, I found the stories nicely thought out and well written. If I was more sensitive to that kind of thing, the objectification of the ladies might get to me a bit, but somehow in the context of Mudd, I didn't mind. Also, J.A. Lawrence is a woman, the widow of James Blish, another Star Trek novelist. Sometimes the characterizations were hammered in a little too hard (Spock's raised eyebrow, Scotty's accent, McCoy's bickering), but overall the book lives up to its cover.

Life long and prosper!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

My latest read from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (2011), a look at the recent financial crisis through the eyes of one of Britain's oldest banking families.

The patriarch of the family, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, has had a stroke and no one can understand him but his devoted old maid secretary, Estelle. The bank has been put in the hands of the younger son, Julian, as his older brother took off to find himself in the world of international adventure after the death of their mother. Julian and his right-hand-man, Nigel, both got caught up in hedge fund mania, and the Trubal bank is in just as much trouble as all the "new money" banks in London. They can't let anyone know about it because they hope to sell the bank to an American conglomerate and get out while the getting is good. In the meantime, Fleur, Harry's much younger trophy wife, is on unsteady footing with the family; Artair MacCleod (playwright, director, and Fleur's ex-husband) has stopped receiving his long-term "grant" from the Trubal estate (which was basically a pay off for letting Fleur go); and Melissa Tregarthen, a young Cornish journalist, is sent off to interview MacCleod about his new play but ends up uncovering a major banking scandal.

This is a very readable (and very British) book, which is also often very funny: "[MacCleod's] grand project is to produce a five-hour play based on the life and novels of Flann O'Brien. But today he has taken a break to start hand-writing his manuscript, because he has heard that a university in Texas will pay good money for original manuscripts; his is, in fact, mostly a cut-and-paste job from the work of O'Brien, with stage directions added in marker pen." -- archives humor!. Cartwright is at his best when he shows us how the interior view of a person contrasts with how they are seen by others, but the clunky dialogue can put a wrench in the action and the book occasionally gets dragged down in predictability and cliche. There are also a couple of weirdly sexualized descriptions of Julian's four-year-old daughter that made me uncomfortable, and didn't seem to serve any real purpose.

The book makes for a quick and satisfying read despite these reservations, and while its explorations of class and morality might not be as in-depth as I would have liked, there was enough here to keep me interested until the nicely drawn conclusion.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 1 (1792)

My latest dip into the western canon is the first of twelve volumes of the Works of Samuel Johnson, as compiled and edited by his contemporary and friend, Arthur Murphy, in 1792, eight years after Johnson's death.

About half of this first volume is dedicated to Murphy's lengthy biographical essay on Johnson, in which he sets the record straight on Johnson's life after the publication of a previous biography that he felt misrepresented his friend. Murphy's biography sometimes goes a little overboard with praise, but for the most part seems to be a fair impression of Samuel Johnson as a man and doesn't hide all his warts and flaws. Johnson's slow and often poverty-striken rise from the son of a bookseller to England's most well-known man of letters makes for interesting reading, and Murphy hits all the literary high points of Johnson's career, including the extended Dictionary project.

Johnson comes through in the biographical essay mostly through quotes from his letters and publications. Here, for example, is Johnson's take on having to write a regular column in one of his magazines (advice which may also apply to the occasional blogger): "He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topic, till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgement to examine or reduce."

The rest of this first volume is dedicated to Johnson's poetry, including two longer poems, a five act tragedy in verse, and a series of shorter poems and epitaphs (including about 30 pages of poems in Latin). The strongest section for me was the tragedy, Irene, which is beautifully written and appropriately tragic. Definitely something worth reading out loud.

And as someone who recently had her 35th birthday, this jaunty poem really spoke to me:

To Mrs. Thrale on completing her thirty-fifth year
Oft in danger, yet alive,
We are come to thirty-five;
Long may better years arrive,
Better years than thirty-five.
Could philosophers contrive
Life to stop at thirty-five,
Time his hours should never drive
O'er the bounds of thirty-five.
High to soar, and deep to dive,
Nature gives at thirty-five;
Ladies, stock and tend your hive,
Trifle not at thirty-five;
For, howe'er we boast and strive,
Life declines from thirty-five;
He that ever hopes to thrive,
Must begin by thirty-five;
And all who wisely wish to wive
Must look on Thrale at thirty-five.

My copy of this book is a direct reproduction of the 1792 edition, so it includes archaic typographic conventions like the long s (those s's that look like f's), which take some getting used to (and also makes the word sun-beams look like fun-beams, which never stops making me laugh). My only problem with this edition is that in some cases the text in this reproduction is very light, and that combined with the old typography can make certain lines very difficult to read.

My first dip into the life and works of Samuel Johnson was a success -- only 11 more volumes to go! (Hopefully containing a little less Latin.)