Airplane Reading

I’m in Franklin, Massachusetts all this week, on business. It’s fairly quiet here, and I’m pretty much on my own, so no painting the town for me.

I had hoped to spend my evenings working on a post for our professional blog — a post on “the rhetoric of data visualization”. The topic idea was inspired by a passing comment that Theophrastus made in the comments section of his post over at BLT about, of all things, HP Calculators. But the workdays have been long, and I’ve been tired. Hopefully tonight, after this post, I’ll get to it.

Henry James. Photo: Wikipedia.

It was a five hour nonstop flight from San Francisco to Boston, so I did a lot of reading. First up: the short story “Maud-Evelyn,” by Henry James. Joyce Carole Oates mentions it in the preface to American Gothic Tales, and though I’d gathered it up into my e-collection of “Supernatural tales by Henry James,” I hadn’t yet read it. It isn’t actually supernatural. It tells the story of a bereaved couple whose daughter died young, before she has “had all they want her to have.” They draw a good hearted-young man, Marmaduke, into their memories/fantasy life, where Maud-Evelyn is still alive. Eventually, they convince him to help them live their daughter’s life forward, “fulfilling all her young happiness” — by courting her, and marrying her. Marmaduke is given emotional support in this project by Lavinia, his erstwhile (and living) fiancée.

It’s an interesting idea — Lavinia calls it “a beautiful idea” — but the framing of James’ narrative through the retold memories of an older woman who knows both Marmaduke and Lavinia gives the story a detached, remote tone that I didn’t find compelling. I can’t help wondering: what would E.T.A. Hoffman have done with this idea? Or Edgar Allan Poe? Though I suspect I would like Hoffman’s version a bit better.

But while looking for an online version of the story to link to, I also found this post on the parallel between Maud-Evelyn and the old Chinese practice of ghost marriages.  The perfect topic for this blog to link to, don’t you think?

Ambrose Bierce. Photo: Wikipedia

Then after “Maud-Evelyn,” I finished The Parenticide Club, by Ambrose Bierce, on a recommendation from Acid Free Pulp. My favorite of the four stories was “Oil of Dog,” which wasn’t strictly a parenticide. Maybe I should call this post “The Adventure of the Misfiled Short Stories.” Bierce’s humor is black and acerbic here, and the satire is almost over the top. It was a fun read, although I prefer his more seriously told stories, both supernatural and otherwise, like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or “The Death of Halpin Frayser.”

After that — The Etymologicon, and that’s where I stayed. I found that on a recommendation from BLT, and boy, is it fun! Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool) gives us a demented tour of the English language as a chain of etymologies. It goes all over the place, and I mean all over the place. Did you know that the word avocado derives from the Aztec word for testicle? Or that an old Dutch word for butterfly is essentially “buttershit”? That being the color of butterfly feces, apparently. I will never look at guacamole or toast points the same way again.

Hmm. My email tells me that I have “homework” for the client tonight, so no rhetoric of data visualization, and no further word etymologies. Ah, well, it was fun while it lasted.

7 thoughts on “Airplane Reading

  1. I’m so pleased that you found our blog’s book recommendations to be entertaining — and that one my random musings could provide a spark for a post on your professional blog.

    Sometimes I think that our blog is a bit of a bicker-blog — since my co-bloggers and I like to joust. I don’t know how we accidentally let a good post out, but I’m pleased we did.

    1. I enjoy BLT quite a bit, though much of it goes over my head. I see the Greek letters and I think “wow, that’s a really ugly algebra formula” :).

      I especially enjoyed your article on the Book of Job as folklore, though I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to comment about it.

    1. Well, I wouldn’t try to read The Dubliners on a plane, but short stories work pretty well. Read a couple, look up and watch part of the episode of Friends that’s on the video screen (without sound), read a couple more…. The Etymologicon worked the same way.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the Bierce collection even though it wasn’t as serious as some of his other writings. He was so prolific, I feel he has a work for everyone. I haven’t read them but I hear he had longer (perhaps, novel length?) horror stories. Have fun in Massachusetts (one of my favorite states!).

    1. Massachusetts is lovely. I thought about staying in Boston (great city), but the 50 mile drive to Franklin every day didn’t sound attractive.

      Bierce has a collection called Can Such Things Be? of horror shorts — some are probably novella length — that is pretty good. Love his Civil War stories, as well.

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