a book by william styron

sophie's choice

sophie’s choice (1979) narrated by stingo, a 22-year old aspiring writer from the south trying to make a start in new york city, is the story of his friendship with two broken souls / nathan, destroyed by paranoid schizophrenia & sophie, a polish catholic ravaged by a cruel choice she was forced to make at a nazi concentration camp  \ it won the national book award in 1980 and is considered as styron’s best work & as one of the major works of the 20th century 

i saw the movie version of “sophie’s choice” in the early ‘80s \ i found it profoundly depressing & troubling that from then on i consciously avoided movies & books with the themes of the holocaust, war & slavery / the only other similar movie that i have seen without any inkling that it was as depressing & troubling was “atonement” <2007> an adaptation of the novel of the same name \ the heartbreaking plots & unfortunate characters of both novels are masterfully explored & expressed

with the story’s main characters & their backgrounds, styron draws parallels to the dark histories of slavery & lynching in the american south and nazi germany’s anti-semitism <which is an interesting perspective i had not read before> \ and explores the impact of the holocaust on non-jews / sophie, a polish catholic, was conflicted by her professor-father’s unbridled anti-semitism though he himself was killed by the nazis \ as with other explorations of the subject, the holocaust showcased the human capacity for evil / while sophie physically survived the concentration camp, she forever carries the guilt & torment from her decision to give up her daughter <in favor of her son> to be killed in the gas chamber \ a choice forced upon her by the camp doctor | whom i consider to be the embodiment of supreme evil

how can one survive that kind of guilt? \ two of the most profoundly painful emotions one can ever feel are guilt & regret / that is why i found the movie to be utterly depressing \ the book is less so because of its humor which fit the characters & situations well \ it’s worth a read not only because of the story itself & the historical perspective but also to savor styron’s use of the english language | for a novel, there are a number of complex words gracing the pages

other similarly sad noteworthy books are “atonement” <2001 | ian mcewan, heartbreaking twist of a revelation in the end>,  “angela’s ashes” <1996 | frank mccourt, laugh & cry both> and “the human stain” <2000 | philip roth, you wouldn’t detect its racial theme till halfway through the book>

will you be my albatross?

albatross in culture

current references to the albatross in culture include a metaphor, a rare golf outcome & a musical instrument \ their mating habits could add yet another

someone with an albatross around the neck carries a burden or obstacle / in “the rime of the ancient mariner” <1798> by samuel taylor coleridge, the mariner of the poem kills with a crossbow an albatross <generally considered an omen of good luck> that was following his ship  \ the killing of the albatross was believed to curse the ship / as punishment, the mariner was made to wear the dead albatross around his neck <for an indefinite period of time>

in golf, to score three under par <-3> means scoring an albatross <or double eagle> \ a hole-in-one on par-four holes is also an albatross / albatrosses in golf are extremely rare \ fewer than three per year were recorded between 1970 and 2003 on the pga tour \ why the allusion to the albatross? hopefully not because they will soon become rare / 19 of 21 albatross species are threatened with extinction \ other bird references in golf are birdie, eagle & condor \ indeed, my favorite golfer tells me that the rarity of a -3 is why it was named after the albatross <birdie is small, the albatross is one of the largest flying birds; thus too -3 is a “double eagle”>

the maori carved flutes out of the bones of the albatross whose wingspan can be as much as 12 feet! \ and they are highly efficient in the air / instead of flying they glide| they use a special flying technique called dynamic soaring \whereby they use the up-draft of the wind above the waves to provide lifts for extended periods of time / they can glide for hours without rest or flapping their wings

now a recent report on npr about “divorce rates” among birds cited the albatross as sustaining <or enduring, depending on how one views it> the longest monogamous relationship \ albatrosses can live up to 50 years on average & the rate at which they leave their mate is… 0% | yup, they are 100% faithful / will you be my albatross? could make a compelling hallmark card

on-the-water rowing starts!

apr 2014 on-the-water practicei was in dragon boat camp when my rowing team had its first practice on the river \ we went out last tuesday & i rowed starboard / i was fine when we rowed on the square but come time to feather, my left wrist just had no memory or strength to be able do it well \ so on this sunny sunday morning on the allegheny river, i was back as port | i’ve dropped my ambition of being bisweptual / though i am still interested in learning to scull

a book about the pencil

the pencil petroski

“all made objects owe their very existence to some kind of engineering…” from the preface of “the pencil: a history of design and circumstance” (1989) by henry petroski \  a very engaging history of the invention of this common & ordinary object / petroski highlights the evolution of engineering from its roots in the trades practiced by master craftsmen & builders

i have fond childhood memories of pencils / the school year in the philippines begins in june <which also marks the start of the rainy season> \ weeks before school starts, my mother would come home with school supplies including boxes of mongol pencils <pictured above> / in the late 40s, the philippines, hong kong & india were the primary markets for american products, including pencils \ “mongol” as a brand name & yellow as the desired finish were used to associate with the orient | in the late 1800s, graphite from siberia were considered to be the finest

the earliest illustration of a pencil was from the german-swiss physician & naturalist konrad gesner’s book of fossils published in 1565 <pictured above, the one with latin words | he died of the plague in the same year> he writes “The stylus shown below is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which I have heard some call English antimony), shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle.”  \ gesner’s illustration was reprinted in a 1648 book but aldrovandi, another naturalist, called the pencil’s lead “lapis plumbarius” or lead stone instead of “stimmi anglicanum” \ keswick & cumberland <borrowdale> in england were the only sources of this main ingredient and was known by many other names:  plumbago, black lead, kellow/killow, wad/wadt, black-cowke, kish, crayon noir / its name settled to “graphite” <from the greek graphein, to write>

a turning point in the history of the pencil was the process of mixing graphite <after being removed of impurities> with clay & firing at high temperatures & then encasing the lead in wood \ this process was developed & patented by nicolas-jacques conte in 1795 / and was a matter of necessity | high quality graphite from borrowdale was unavailable in france \ conte’s knowledge of plumbago for making crucibles in which to melt metal was also instrumental in this innovation <knowledge of materials science> / the alternative method of the germans <mixing graphite dust with sulphur & glue> made inferior but serviceable pencils

skipping to another interesting point in the pencil’s history sees the involvement of henry david thoreau better known as the american philosopher, transcendentalist* & poet, author of walden and resistance to civil government \ his family business, using the conte process <of which thoreau was instrumental in researching & implementing> successfully produced & marketed pencils but they later abandoned this to the more profitable business of selling graphite powder <to be used for the recently invented process of electrotyping>

the book is quite comprehensive in covering pencil production from its origins to its continual improvement as new materials & new processes were developed | innovations in the product itself, its design & marketing | domestic pricing as well as the global trade & market for pencils | and even its known use among famous writers such as steinbeck & hemingway \ i also especially like the section where the author describes the skill of drawing various perspectives <orthographic projection> that the modern engineer needs to learn  <i fondly remember my engineering friends & roommates in college and their ES11, i think it was called 🙂 >  this is a very interesting, informative & highly engaging book, worth a read

i found this book while looking for one about fountain pens / but i like wood-encased pencils too so this was a nice find \ *potentially interesting book to read would be about american transcendentalism

let it run!

imagethe culmination of our week-long dragon boat camp was a 2k race among nine crews / great opportunity for us to apply what we learned \ we had 17 out of a typical full boat of 20 paddlers & was heavily gender unbalanced <not true race conditions> / don’t know our final time yet but coach said we likely broke our goal of 11:30