Context is very powerful

I’ve been teaching myself Spanish for the past six weeks or so, and am at the point where I can read very simple fiction such as the stories in this book, which are designed specifically for beginners, and use only simple, common words and phrases.

Although I don’t know all the words, and am still very confused by the grammar rules, tenses, and all that kind of stuff, it is surprising how easy it is to understand what a sentence as a whole means based on context. I find myself reading sentences, guessing at the meanings of words that I don’t know based on the sentence as a whole, and coming up with what I think the sentence means… and being right. Of course, sometimes I’m wrong (I always check, anyways) but not very often.

I remember being young and doing this with English words I didn’t know (before google!). If you see a word in context enough times you just learn what it means without anyone telling you, or if not exactly, then you get an aura, or flavor of what it generally means.

I also think that, aside from learning the meanings of words, we can learn all kinds of things just from context. Why did some character say a certain word, or act a certain way? What are a characters motivations or fears? We learn these things by the things that happen around the character. Not by having them explicitly, painfully, detailed for us.

Anyway, I’m having a lot of fun learning. It gives me that little hit of dopamine every time I successfully decipher a sentence, like solving a puzzle. My hope is that, if I can get good enough at it to read actual novels, I will become fluent through osmosis, by just reading and reading, which is how I got good at English, after all.

Then I could read Marquez and Borges in their original text! 😮 Life goals!

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Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald: A dark view on memory

This book is about memory. But similar to the other Sebald novel I’ve read, Rings of Saturn, the true meaning of the book was not clear to me until the end.

The novel features an unnamed narrator who may or may not be Sebald himself, traveling about Europe and reminiscing (also similar to Rings of Saturn.) Early in the story, it becomes apparent that there is a theme to the characters memories, and I found myself searching for meaning and patterns.

The narrator describes repeated instances of how certain things–a painting, the shape of a building, the hunch of a stranger’s shoulders–make him recall other experiences from his past in great detail. This remembering is involuntary and sometimes stops him in his tracks. This aspect of how memory works is so obvious that it seems pointless to describe, but I never thought of my memory as being involuntary until I read this book. This adds another strange element to to the story: the idea of how certain things can trigger us to fall into a memory against our will.

But Sebald does more than just describe this effect, he actually tricks the reader (or me, anyway) into experiencing it. Throughout the text are many vividly described and iconic images, that are recalled again and again throughout the book. Every time such an image (for example, a hunchback) is mentioned, I couldn’t help but thinking of the previous scene that was embedded in my memory, which then triggered the scene before it, and so on, causing me to fall helplessly through my own memories. This effect did, once, in fact give me a startling sense of vertigo.

After experiencing this strange effect, I thought that must be the point of the book–to describe the strange, involuntary way we experience memory. But it turns out the real message is something darker and sadder.

Early on in the novel, in a section detailing the life of Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name, Stendhal), Beyle remarks on a certain painting of a favorite view of his. He dislikes the painting because it has supplanted his memory of the real view with itself. Now, whenever he recalls gazing over that same vista, all he can think of is the painting. His original memory, has been in effect, destroyed by the painting.

By the end of the book I realized that this is the true message of the novel: the fragility and constant degrading of our memory. Every thing we see, makes us think of other things, and attaches itself to them, adds, and removes from them, changing them in subtle ways that we are not aware of. Each time Sebald repeated references to certain iconic images, they were diluted with each other, until I was unsure what event happened at which time.

In the last pages of Vertigo, the narrator falls asleep on a train while reading some accounts of the Chicago Fire. He dreams of walking through a desolate landscape composed of gravel and rock, and looking into a great void while snippets of what he was reading come back to him as echoing words in the emptiness….

We saw the fire grow. It was not bright, it was a gruesome, evil, bloody flame, sweeping, before the wind, through all the City. Pigeons lay destroyed upon the pavements, in hundreds, their feathers singed and burned. A crowd of looters roams through Lincoln’s Inn. The churches, houses, the woodwork and the building stones, ablaze at once. The churchyard yews ignited, each one a lighted torch, a shower of sparks now tumbling to the ground. And Bishop Braybrook’s grave is opened up, his body disinterred. Is this the end of time? A muffled, fearful, thudding sound, moving, like waves, throughout the air. The powder house exploded. We flee onto the water. The glare around us everywhere, and yonder, before the darkened skies, in one great arc the jagged wall of fire. And, the day after, a silent rain of ashes, westward, as far as Windsor Park.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Besides being a great story with amazingly developed characters that are intriguing to watch change over the course of the novel (well… most of them change…), this novel pointed out the giant blind spots I have about the world beyond my door step, and has encouraged me to seek out books that feature other cultures and times in history that I know nothing about, which is most of them….

I really loved how distinct the character’s voices were in this. Each chapter is written in first person from the perspective of one of five characters. Sometimes, when resuming in the middle of a chapter, I’d forget who’s chapter it was. I’d only have to listen for a few seconds before I knew, based on the way the characters observed the world around them.

Heartbreaking, entertaining, educational…

If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino

Maybe you’ve been watching my videos on this book, or maybe not! I have gotten tired of making them. I think writing is more my style than talking. But this book is definitely my style, and is one of the best things I’ve read, ever! I think it might be in my top 10 favorite books ever.

Why do we write? What is story? Why do we read? What are we after in each story as a reader or as a writer? All of these questions are a focus in this book.

This is a book made of beginnings, and interruptions. In short, it is a series of shorts that are framed as various books that you, the reader, keep getting interrupted from reading. But really it is a question about what makes a story a story. Does a story need to have an end?

Every page of this book was gold and I wanted to highlight all of it. I bought the kindle version even though I was listening to it, so I could do just that.

Read it if you have an interest in strange story structure, prose over plot, or just like things that make you think!

The Orville, episode 7, Nosedive

Oh, sorry, Nosedive is actually the title of the black mirror episode the writers were copying inspired by.

On this week’s episode of The Orville, the crew goes to a planet which, through paralell evolution, is somehow exactly like 21st century Earth, except a bit different. Okay… that is a bit silly… well, a LOT silly, but I’ll go along with it. The over-abundance of knowledge and care that these characters have for 21st century north america (not 20th or 22nd or any of the other surrounding centuries or other areas and cultures, just 21st century western world…) is possibly only irritating to me… but, what the hey, it’s a comedy show.

The crew stop by this planet searching for some missing anthropologists who have blended in to the society in order to observe it. The society, we quickly  find, is exactly like the dark future of that one black mirror episode, and everything is ruled by social media. This one is a bit more intense, in that there are no laws or anything, other than voting. It is a complete democracy. So, not only was this a riff on ‘social justice’ but on democracies imperfections.

The ideas were interesting, but the execution left me a bit confused. Even though the anthropologists have been learning about this society for years, supposedly, the crew goes down and tries to fit in without even 5 minutes of research. They don’t have their badges that literally everyone wears, they don’t understand money, they don’t understand how anything on the planet works–which, I get it, is a narrative function so the writers can easily explain to the viewer how things work through the character’s ignorance–but it’s dumb, REALLY dumb, for a science ship who’s one job is to explore new worlds, to have no idea what they are blissfully floating down into.

So, because of this lack of research (and common sense, or any kind of awareness that they are in a place that is not their home) John Lamar humps a statue of a respected founder, someone films it, puts it on the internet, and people start downvoting him.

Only problem is, when you reach 10  million downvotes, you are ‘corrected’ ie, lobotomized.

So, John has to go on an ‘apology tour’ to try to get people to stop downvoting him. He is a complete ass though, and can not even pretend to care about anything that is going on, and just gets mad at the situation. (also earlier got mad because the guy who’s trying to help him won’t explain what things like an ‘apology tour’ are… imagine someone asking “What is a crime? What’s jail?” Of course you’d think they are insane…)

Anyway, at the last minute the crew on the Orville manipulates the ‘main feed’ with videos of John playing with dogs and doing other nice things, and he doesn’t get enough votes to be killed.

At the end of the episode, we see the character from Black Mirror planet, who helped the crew save John, back in her own house watching the Main Feed where the latest person of interest is being interviewed. She reaches for the downvote button, but then instead turns off the tv… Okay.

So, it seems the message here is… don’t be a part of social media? I was expecting her to instead hit the upvote button, as a way to end the cycle of negativity and harassment of people who did something as simple as not getting up for a pregnant woman they didn’t see standing behind them on the bus. But, no, the message is ‘social media bad.’ Or possibly ‘voting bad.’

I think the real message we should take away from this episode, is that blundering into a society you have no idea about and expecting everyone to accommodate your ignorance with out consequence when you start pissing on people’s beliefs, traditions, and way of life is the actual bad thing here.

At least a thought provoking episode though!

The Orville, Episode 6

And we’re mostly back on track! This week, the crew of the Orville have an exciting (and mercifully short) space battle with the Krill, and find themselves with an intact Krill shuttle-craft. The decide to use it, and some kind of holograph disguise thingy, to infiltrate a Krill ship and find out what makes them tick, specifically, their religion.

Seth is slipping back into his ‘reference humor’ a bit this episode. After making it aboard the Krill ship, Captain Mercer can’t think of a Krill sounding name and introducing them as Chris and Devon. Got a good laugh from me. But later, when they find the Krill temple, and that the Krill god is called Avis, its repeated car insurance jokes for the rest of the episode, because Avis is also a car rental/insurance company in North America, Earth, four hundred years in the past. Half the people watching probably don’t know that. But a space pilot 400 years in the future sure does. Okay.

But, then we get treated with the Krill form of ‘worship’ which involves stabbing a severed human head with a ceremonial knife over and over. Just when this show starts to get too goofy, they throw something dark or serious at you…

Turns out the Krill have a fancy new bomb on board and are going to blow up a defenseless farming planet with it. Ed and Gordon have a plan to stop them, but it will kill every Krill on the ship… and there are a bunch of Krill children aboard. What do they do? Can they kill alien children in order to save hundreds of thousands of human lives?

Well, they don’t  have to because they find away to kill everyone but the children, and save the farming planet, and save the one Krill woman that they talked to, and get back to the Orville safe and sound with nothing lost by anyone. Okay.

Yes, it’s a light comedy show, but when you set up the Hard Decision, it’s a bit of let down when they don’t actually have to make the decision.

Looking forward to next week!