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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (8/27/15) 10:13am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Death Comes to Pemberley, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language [audiocourse], Pride and Prejudice, Traffic
Movies:  <none>
TV:  Good Eats [season 1], Transparent

Death Comes to Pemberley
This is the P. D. James mystery novel set six years after the events in Pride and Prejudice.

It pains me to say it, but if I had to sum up this book with one word, it would be "competent".  P. D. James is one of the best mystery writers of all time, though she's perhaps best known for the sci-fi novelChildren of Men.  She's clearly done her research on Regency England.  She constructs a very logical mystery.  While you may not be able to deduce the solution (as per the rules of "fair play" from the Golden Age of detective fiction), the solution does pay off all the odd bits of evidence, and the scenario doesn't require any of the characters to do arbitrary, stupid things for the sake of making the right plot moves.

But it never quite rises above competence.  The best mystery novels aren't about the mystery.  Gaudy Night is really about feminism in the 1930s, and creating your place in English society when you're no longer forced into a traditional role.  Exit Lines is really (and tragically) about growing old.  And Death Comes to Pemberley is, unfortunately, just about its plot.

The book is at its best when it cares the least about the murder mystery -- when it stops huffing and puffing and gathering facts and showing weird plot developments and heightening the mystery and-and-and, and it just lets the characters *be* for a while.  It had some lovely, quiet scenes with Darcy and Lizzy reflecting on their rollercoaster courtship years ago.  It occasionally used the novelist's license to go deep into a character's thoughts, reactions, and reflections to good effect.[1]  That seems like what any reader coming to this story would want -- just to see the characters again -- rather than watching the mysterious murder get solved.

Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language by John McWhorter [audiocourse]
This is Professor McWhorter's Teaching Company audiocourse about the history of English, how English works, and how often popular ideas about English get those two things wrong.

First off, this course is definitely second fiddle to his excellent The Story of Human Language, which covers all of linguistics in an epic sweep.  This course covers some of the same ground, but without that far-reaching context -- you mostly just see how these broad linguistic concepts have affected English in particular.  On the other hand, it's not a particularly exhaustive treatment of the subject like the History of English Podcast -- it's a less demanding survey across a hodgepodge of interesting topics.

But it's at its best when it tells you things about English that you always sort of knew, but had never put into words -- the grammar that never gets taught in school because (1) it's fiendishly difficult, and (2) no native speaker ever gets it wrong.  For example, English has something called "completive 'up'".  If you say, "he shot into the room", that implies that a few shots were fired and that was that.  If you say, "he shot *up* the room", then all the shooting that could have been done, was done.  By adding "up", you imply completion.  Who ever notices that?  Good lord, how to foreign speakers ever sort that out?

And its treatment of the history of the language is useful, too, in that it's in many ways the opposite of the classic "lo, and the Normans did attack the Jutes" historical approach.  The professor is a delightful contrarian here, lingering on newer historical theories that have challenged the status quo, and aspects of history that typically get overlooked.  He has a fascinating chapter on electronic communications, and how it's opening up a world of "informal writing" that hasn't really existed in English until now.  (Consider that a 'casual' letter home in the Civil War usually started with something like "My dearest Anoinette" and carried on with labored metaphors and allusions for several pages.)  The history of black English (AKA ebonics AKA African-American Vernacular English) is something I'd never even thought to wonder about, but he has a really interesting chapter devoted to how the dialect works and where the variations likely came from.

All in all, it adds up to a nice bag of interesting facts about English -- a few broad concepts and a fair amount of cute trivia.  Listen to The Story of Human Language, and if you're hungry for more, check this one out, too.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Yes, this is the classic Jane Austen novel, arguably the best work of arguably the best novelist in English, which follows an unlikely romance between Elizabeth Bennet, a sharp-witted, middle-class young woman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, an (apparently) judgmental and aloof aristocrat.

I'll probably spend my whole life feeling a bit sad that I don't totally "get" Jane Austen.  I've read all of her novels at one time or another (once upon a time, I was an English major), and I understand what happens in them, and I sort of get the historical context, and intellectually I perceive the light, dry humor and the masterful characterization that goes into them.

But try as I might to bridge the gap to Regency England, I never quite connect with the work; I only emotionally engage with it in fits and starts.  And that's on me, not the book.  Maybe I'm not romantic enough.  Maybe I'm just too far removed from its culture.  Or maybe the language itself is too challenging for me -- I eventually sort out what I'm reading, but it takes some effort for me to untangle the formal, two-hundred-year-old syntax and to sort out her zillion archaic synonyms for "horse-drawn carriage".

I realize I'm just speaking about my own experience with the book, so far -- but I fear I have little to add to the conversation about Austen's work, which has been carried on for a hundred years by people far smarter than me.  I can only repeat the usual things.  For instance, when it comes to sarcasm, Austen will always make amateurs of the rest of us.  Just take that first, quoted-into-oblivion line: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."  It immediately gives you that feeling of double vision -- you're right there with the gossips of Hertfordshire, asking, "Well, who shall he marry?" as a matter of course, but you've also got something of the narrator's detachment, how reductive and ultimately silly that attitude is.

And then you see sarcasm in the wild -- somebody sneers, "Nice *job*" after someone else has screwed something up -- and you kind of wish they'd put that weapon away and stop embarrassing themselves.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt
The full subtitle of the book is "Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us)", and it covers pretty much what it says on the tin.

This was disappointing.  Partly it wasn't the book I was hoping for.  After the huge kerfuffle in Austin about setting up a rapid-transit rail, I was hoping to find a good book about transportation design, and the things city planners take into account when building new highways or installing streetcar lines.  Instead, I got a book that (true to its title) is all about the psychology of driving.  This winds up including some city-planning topics along the way, but it's not the focus of the book.

And its treatment of that topic is not always all that interesting.  The book seems to go through a lot of throat-clearing, as it goes over driving topics that seem like common sense.  The prose is plain and functional, getting the job done without providing any particular pleasure.[2]  And the same "workmanlike" quality applies to the tone, as well -- less "isn't traffic a fascinating topic", more "traffic is something we all have to put up with, and here are some facts about it".

Eventually it does deliver some interesting and counterintuitive ideas -- say, the notion that signage is counterproductive beyond a certain point (it gets drivers focused on signs instead of on the environment itself), or that "safer" and more forgiving streets lead to more reckless driving (and sometimes more accidents).  It builds up a picture of drivers as distracted, confused, angry, blinkered to any attempt to help them drive better, and above all, delusional in their self-confidence.

Also, the book was published in 2009, and even just six years ago, we had a much different view of self-driving cars.  In the book, self-driving cars are kind of amusing and pitiful, and there are vague, brief speculations about how the mature technology may affect some distant, whiz-bang future that may never come to pass.  At this point, the technology has progressed quite a bit, and after reading this book I have to figure that the sooner we phase out human driving, the better.

Good Eats [season 1]
This is Alton Brown's best-known cooking show, which uses interviews, demonstrations, and sketch-comedy-esque scenework to explain basic cooking techniques.

It's also a show that started in the late 90s, back when the Food Network was about cooking, not eating.  (Damn you, Guy Fieri.)  And it seems perfectly pitched towards me -- it's less about rattling off recipes, and more about *why* you cook things the way you do.  It's not so much "here's how you make this dish" as "here's a general recipe for this sort of thing, and works because of these general principles, which are in turn based on these scientific ideas."  I doubt I'll ever really retain much of it (I'm watching this while exercising, after all), but I'm trying out a few of the simpler ideas in my day-to-day food prep, and it will always be a good reference to go back to.

It mostly succeeds as entertainment as well.  Its shoestring budget is endearing.  The more sketch-comedy-like aspects of it strain a little bit at being wacky, and a lot of the jokes don't land, but that's all done so unpretentiously and good-naturedly that it's all very pleasant.  Mr. Brown himself is a great host, clearly passionate about the material and able to convey the ideas clearly and simply, no matter how complicated things get.[3]

Transparent [season 1]
This is the critically acclaimed Amazon Prime drama about an elderly patriarch who comes out as transgender, and the shock waves that sends through his troubled family.

Imagine the most painful conversation you've had in the last few months.  Maybe you broke up with someone, and when they pressed you to explain why, dammit, you admitted that you thought they were self-destructive, and you were pretty sure they would take everyone close to them down with them.  Maybe you and your siblings talked about who would take care of your ailing parents, and it soon became a thinly-veiled,snarky argument about who has the least worthwhile life, most worthy to be sacrificed.  Maybe there was a surprise pregnancy, and you and your partner realized you had very different attitudes towards abortion.

Imagine one of those awful, shattering conversations that leaves you drained and weepy for days afterwards, a converation you find yourself involuntarily reliving over and over again, trying to imagine some way it could have been less horrible.

Transparent is kind of like that, over and over again, for ten episodes.

I know I'm oversimplifying, and I know that other viewers had very different experiences with the show.  Yes, there are moments of happiness for the Pfefferman family.  Yes, there is humor throughout.  But man, so much of the show leapfrogs from one agonizing conversation to the next, it makes even the happy moments feel foreboding, as you wonder how they're setting up their next piece of mutually-inflicted misery.

Now, all of that said, Transparent is an amazing show.  It's very, very good -- well-written, well-acted, and a welcome portrayal of something that hasn't ever shown up on TV outside of quick, shallow, sight-gag laughs.[4]  It's kind of like The Fosters in that you have a sigh of relief that you're finally seeing everything that got left out of the zillion "being a middle-aged white guy is *hard*!" golden-age dramas.  But I put Transparent firmly in the Requiem for a Dream category: "it was great, and I don't need to see it again."  Or more precisely, "I need to not see it again."

For next week: I'm watching season 2 of Good Eats and Last Week Tonight while exercising.  Meanwhile, I'm likely to start reading another JavaScript book.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale and nearing the end of season two of Community.

[1] ... though it can feel a bit modern to play out a novel like that.  Novelists of Austen's day tended to stick more to the exterior of most characters, using dialog and action to imply the inner world rather than spending pages and pages detailing every interior thought.
[2] It's not quite as bad as the high-school-essay tactic of giving a dictionary definition of a word and using that in your introduction -- no, wait, I take that back, this book totally does that.
[3] .... though, of course, much of the credit has to go to the writers there.
[4] After all, Jeffrey Tambor himself played the same situation for yuks in Arrested Development.

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