Monthly Archives: February 2016

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice: A Novel” by Alix Christie

I’m always on the lookout for good historical fiction, and it’s nice to take a break from merrie olde England. This novel takes place in Germany, during the mid fifteenth century. The protagonist is Peter Shoeffer, an orphan who faced a harsh life in rural poverty until being adopted by a distant relative.

Shoeffer was apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg, who is generally credited with inventing movable type. This technological revolution is often identified as the beginning of “modern civilization”.

Printing was as surprising and destabilizing as the emergence of the internet. Before that time, all books were the work of scribes, and the church had a monopoly on their services.

Christie’s book emphasizes the aesthetic aspects of printing.

Gutenberg is portrayed as a wild man – unpredictable, demanding, sometimes unscrupulous, and certainly a genius.

Christie provides lots of detail and atmosphere, as well as some romance. I hope this impressive first novel is followed by others.

“The Magicians: A Novel” by Lev Grossman – book AND TV series

I know I read this book many months ago, but I can’t find it in my blog. Maybe I was embarrassed about reading “junk”? Was I away on vacation? I read it on my Kindle.

“The Magicians” is like the Harry Potter books, but takes place in the USA and at the college level (graduate school in the TV series). A bright, moody young man is recruited by Brakebill’s University of Magic, an elite training ground for the magically inclined. Most of the faculty and students have read (and obsessed over) a series of books that sound just like the The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.

I went BACK to this book after the TV series started. We watched out of curiosity, to see if the series stayed close to the books. The casting is good, but the plot diverged early and extensively. As usual for me, I prefer the books. But I’ll start watching the series again if it shows the students traveling to Antarctica as a flock of geese!

I liked The Magicians better the second time I read it, when I wasn’t hurrying along just to figure out the plot. The TV series is darker and less coherent than the book, and I lack any particular taste for the dystopian.

“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

Tom Stoppard never caught my attention before. Everyone but me has read or seen “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

I went to see “The Hard Problem” because a friend was performing. Not acting, but providing musical accompaniment on the saxophone, mostly improvised. Good enough reason for a Sunday afternoon venture to Philadelphia.

I watched the play with no expectations whatsoever. That’s how I like theater. I’m ready to buy into whatever the playwright and producer offer. I love to see the curtain rise on the unknown and unexpected.

Part of the plot framework for this play is an Institute for Brain Science, a think tank that employs the heroine, a young woman named Hilary. At the beginning, I was afraid the whole play would be about evolutionary neurobiology, which could have been pedantic. But Hilary has a habit that surprises some of her acquaintances. She PRAYS. This makes no sense to those who believe that “consciousness” is physically determined.

That’s the “hard problem” of the title. What is consciousness? If it is as predetermined as quantum physics, how does one explain love, or sorrow?

The music that accompanies parts of the play is intended to reflect Hilary’s inner life, which includes emotions that can’t be explained by any theory of consciousness and which are revealed to the audience only slowly. Apparently, the musical accompaniment was an addition by the Artistic Director of this particular production of “The Hard Problem”, a relatively new work. I’m curious how the playwright feels about it, and whether it will be included in future productions. I vote “yes”.

I liked the music, but don’t feel I got the maximum from it. The dialogue was dense and required all my attention, so I think I tuned out the music some of the time. If I were to see the play again, I might react differently, and I do assume I might see it again. After all, I watch Shakespeare over and over.

At the end of the play, Hilary is giving up neurobiology for the study of philosophy. Does this tell us what Stoppard thinks about consciousness?

Oedipus Rex (by Sophocles) Revisited

On Sunday afternoon, I joined my husband’s alumni organization for a seminar on the classical Greek drama Oedipus Rex. I hadn’t thought about Oedipus since high school.

(Reminder – Oedipus was cast aside by his father the King of Thebes because a prophet said he would kill his father and marry his mother. Rescued by a sheperd, he was adopted and raised in an adjacent city-state. Unknowingly, he fulfilled the prophecy. See Wikipedia or Sparknotes for a better summary.)

The usual pattern for these seminars is to have a tutor (teacher) who asks a starting question and keeps the discussion “on track”, whatever that means. Our small group (seven participants) had no leader, but in less than five minutes we had a good starting question. Which was Oedipus’s greater sin, murder or incest? We seemed to spend more time and effort discussing the murder. Oedipus had, after all, killed a man, and had not troubled to find out that person’s identity.

The action of the play (Oedipus’ efforts to discover who had killed the king who preceded him on the throne of Thebes) is triggered by an oracle, who says Thebes will not thrive until the old king is avenged.

So… we spent lots of time trying to figure out the oracle, as well as Tiresius the soothsayer. The oracle had great power. What does it mean to live under the weight of a prophecy? The old king had so much fear of prophecy that he sent his infant to die on a hillside.

We talked about identity. Oedipus literally didn’t know who he was. He resentfully ignored hints that he was not the legitimate son of the man who raised him.

We talked about modern “oracles” and our experiences with them. How do we explain coincidences and miracles in a modern world without oracles and prophets?

We talked for two hours! What else will I find if I go back to other books I haven’t read since high school?

Please feel free to leave a recommendation.