Book 6

003If ever there was a pioneer in women’s rights and feminism, Fanny Fern (born Sara Willis) was she. And if ever there was a book that was the cornerstone of such movements, Ruth Hall (1854) is it. Sure, there had been others before her, but Fern made such a statement with all her writings, and became so popular among women and men, that she must have at least made a huge impact in that step towards women’s independency, and her fictional autobiography shows it.

Fanny Fern became the first newspaper columnist in the U.S. during a period that was dominated by men in every field. And on top of that, she became the highest paid newspaper writer of her time, a huge blow to men everywhere, and a giant step for women. And she did so from a poverty so low that she could barely feed herself and one child on a daily basis, resorting to milk and bread for most meals, if she even had the money for that. Her family shunned her because of her free spirit, continued to shun her for her poverty after her husband died (a marriage arranged by her parents, by the way), embraced her only when she became wealthy, and then shunned her again when she exploited them for all the wrongs they did to her when she needed them the most. She is the epitome of feminine independence, for after she received no help from her own family, she strove to make ends meat, endured every hardship thrown her way, and worked all hours of the day to finally make enough money to support herself and her children. Then she wrote all about it, in a fictionalized way, in her novel Ruth Hall.

Though a bit exaggerated and sarcastic, Ruth Hall exploits the uncivil side of society that we all know exists: The negative, unsupportive, greedy people that prevail and preside over the average, honest, hard-working people that go unnoticed. But Fern’s exaggeration and witty sarcasm are what make us really realize the truth behind her words. She shows us how evil humankind can be – not just men, but women as well – and especially when assistance is needed most. She emphasizes the nation’s obsession with gender roles in the nineteenth century and ridicules the necessity of such, and she does so by retelling her own tale through the fictional character of Ruth Hall.

It is amazing how one person can go through so many hardships in one life, but Hall does it and prevails just as Fern did so priorly, and it makes for a great, riveting story that stands the test of time. As for the “Other Writings” as the title of the book pictured suggests, I have not read them, but I am sure they are equally engaging. I did, however, read the long-winded introduction, which is where I got the information of Fanny Fern’s biography. And by long-winded, I mean long-winded. The introduction amounts for 10% of the book, equal to about a fifth of the actual novel. The last 40% of the book, the “Other Writings,” include many of the actual newspaper articles written by Fanny Fern, which made her famous and opened the door to her life as a journalist and author.

If you have not had a chance to pick this story up yet, do so soon, as it is a great book for men and women alike, and I recommend it to all. I give Ruth Hall 4 out of 5 stars.

The Color Blue

lapis_lazuli_precious_stones_blue_232620I don’t know much about purple, but I did come across some interesting facts about the color blue this past week. I’m taking an art history course at the University of New Hampshire, and have been bombarded with a plethora of awesome images of art over the past 40,000 years or so, from cave drawings to abstract expressionism. It amazes me to see some of the exquisite detail put into drawings and sculptures back when people used their hands to paint and carving tools consisted of sharpened rocks or bones. Not only that, but the amount of effort put into buildings is mind-blowing (think the Parthenon or the Pyramids of Giza). Sometimes it seems they were better off before modern engineering and technology…

In order to learn about the history of art, we had to delve into the history of colors. Some colors were easy to come across throughout the early years, as their pigments were found abundantly in plants or stones, but some colors were not. Blue was one of those colors. In fact, blue was not able to be used as a color until about 6,000 years ago. Until then, everyone had to imagine the azure sky or a cobalt sea on the paintings they saw. So what happened to make the change? Two words: Lapis Lazuli.

If you’ve ever read George R. R. Martin’s series The Song of Ice and Fire (some of my favorite books, by the way), then you’ve probably heard of lapis. I’m sure many other authors have used it in their stories, as well, but his are most notable to me, and he uses the semi-precious stone quite a bit. I had never heard of it before reading his books, though. And to be honest, I thought it was made up at first. But after searching the dictionary, I found it to be a deep blue stone, and looked no further. What I didn’t realize, and what I have since learned, is that the stone (pictured above) can mostly only be found in Afghanistan. It’s been found elsewhere, as well, but it is most abundant in Afghanistan.

TutNow, 6,000 years ago, Afghanistan was right in the middle of the trade route between Egypt and China. So those two cultures, and everywhere in between, were the biggest users of lapis lazuli. The Egyptians loved it. They put it and gold on everything important, especially Pharoah masks and tombs. It’s all over King Tutankhamen’s burial mask, as you can see. Cleopatra used it in her eye shadow. They loved the scarce stone so much that they tried to recreate it using chemistry. They weren’t able to, but they did create Egyptian Blue by combining copper, sand, and limestone. Obviously, they didn’t call it that, but they did use it quite a bit, until they were conquered by the Romans anyway, and the process was forgotten.

Their discovery spread, though, and soon other nations began to develop their own blue pigments through chemistry. The Greeks and the Roman built factories just to produce blue pigments. The Chinese took it a step further. They used elements like barium and mercury in their blues, and, well, I’m sure you know what happened to them. Like the Daguerreoptypists in a previous post I wrote, who used mercury vapors to develop pictures, the Chinese emperors who surrounded themselves by these new blues suffered poisonous deaths.

220px-Indigofera_tinctoria1The Mayans  were also successful in creating a blue pigment, but they did so with a more natural ingredient. They used an extract from the indigo plant to create a color known as Mayan Blue (again, I could be wrong, but that’s probably not what they called it). Or at least it’s believed that’s where the pigment came from. We can’t exactly ask them how they did it any more. Whatever the case may be, blue was still a very rare color to come across, and was pretty much used for royalty.

I love using blue in my writing. Especially blue eyes. Blue eyes seem to be the most piercing, striking, and serious, but they also seem to be mysterious. I wrote an entire story (“The Masquerade”) around a mysterious and deadly woman, whose only feature that could be seen, besides her hair, was her bright and melancholic blue eyes. I love focusing on a beautiful blue sky just before revealing something dark and ghastly on ground level. One thing I have learned is that you don’t need a dark and ominous setting to reveal something equally dark and ominous. It’s too cliche now. It’s been overdone. Sometimes using stark contrast has a better effect. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself.

I’m really happy I decided to take the art history course. Not just because I learned about blue, but because looking at other people’s stories, or their adaptations of the surrounding environment, helps to open my mind and be more perceptive to my own surroundings, which in turn improves my writing. I had a fiction teacher last year who brought us to an art gallery and asked us to write a story about something in the gallery. It was an incredible experience, and one I plan to do again on my own. In fact, I am already being inspired just by seeing pictures of the sculptures, drawings, and buildings that have been created in the past. It’s amazing how our creativity can be stimulated by somebody else’s creativity.

Something else I learned through blue is that the Catholic church once color-coded the saints (or maybe still do, who knows). Blue was chosen for Mary, and from then on her robes were always blue. That was 1500 years ago, though, so who knows if they still practice that strange custom. And the reason  people of authority always seem to be dressed in blue? It’s the color of trustworthiness, harmony, faithfulness, and confidence (and sometimes sadness, but let’s not be blue about it).

Book 5

001I noticed the other day that fellow New Hampshirite (New Hampshiran? New Hampshirese? Whatever) Dan Brown published the fourth book of his Robert Langdon-Conspiracy-Symbology series, Inferno, and I realized that I hadn’t even read the first one yet, though it’s been on my shelf (and on my to-read list) for years. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware that he had written a third book. I’ve enjoyed the movies so far, despite how far-fetched they are and the poor mixed reviews they got from critics and viewers alike, so I decided the books would be worth reading. And besides, I got the first two for free, so why not?

One thing I noticed right away about Angels & Demons was Brown’s simplistic style of writing. Short sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, even his vocabulary is pretty basic. To add to that, he takes completely unrealistic circumstances, throws in an unrealistic hero, and puts him through trials and tribulations that nobody could endure. For these reasons, many people have proclaimed that he is an awful writer, but I found it a nice break from the flowery, long-winded writing of the 19th and early 20th century that I have been reading lately. 

The brevity of the writing style and book format made Angels & Demons a very quick read. Nearly every chapter ends with a cliffhanger that makes one want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. Even though I found the events highly unlikely, the book had my attention. It pulled me in right from the start, and kept my attention until nearly the end. Then, suddenly, the book slowed down drastically. The last hundred pages or so dragged on forever, and I often found myself wishing the book would just end.

In my opinion, Brown had a very good eye for architectural details, of which I am a huge fan. Architecture has been a love of mine since high school, and I think he did an excellent job showing Rome and the Vatican city. There is some speculation that he did not do very much historical research for his books, and that the information he put into the book was way off, but I can’t confirm that. To be honest, though, I didn’t care what was accurate in regards to the history of religion, science, and cults. This is fiction, and I’m sure he made a lot of stuff up, as fiction writers do. Even historical fiction writers have to change things so that their story makes sense. I did not read the book for a history lesson, I read it to be entertained. And I was entertained, for the most part.

Two things that really irked me about the book were the flow of time within the story and the amount of physical exertion that is not displayed. The entire thing takes place in approximately twelve hours, and the amount of action packed into it would leave anyone practically comatose. Sure, Langdon is in decent shape (he swims a lot), but nobody could put up with the amount of mental and physical strain that he goes through. The characters seem to have perfectly calm conversations while running at top speed, never pausing or gasping for breath.  Also, there are times when 20-30 minutes pass while a few characters have a short conversation, then at other times only a few minutes go by while they are running across the city, having flashbacks, and telling each other life stories. There is one point in particular where it takes them nearly ten minutes to traverse (running, mind you) an underground passage, but they return via the same route in a fraction of the time.

Overall, Brown did an excellent job of keeping my attention, which makes up for the inaccurate and unrealistic  details of the story. I give Angels & Demons 3 out of 5 stars.

The Daguerreotype – A History

Louis Daguerre 1844One of the main topics of the last book I read, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, was the Daguerreotype (Duhgairuh-type). It was only about ten years old when the book was written, and it was very popular. People flocked from all over to see their local Daguerreotypist, of which there was one just about every corner in large cities like London. In fact, the main idea of Daguerreotypy is still popular today, although we call it by a different name. Today, we simply call it Taking Pictures.

For the book discussion, I was tasked to do a presentation on the Daguerreotype. I hate doing presentations, but I love doing research. And for this topic, I had to do a lot of it. I’m sure many of you already know all about Daguerreotypes, but I had never heard of it until I read the book. Sure, I had probably heard it when I was younger, in elementary or middle school, but it probably went in one ear and out the other. So when I was doing research, it was all new to me. What I found out was really interesting.

About 2500 years ago, philosophers like Aristotle and Mozi (he was Chinese, by the way) discovered that when light was shone through a small hole, it could project an image on a large surface across from it. The image, of course, would be inverted and upside down, but there is proof of this phenomenon in castles across the globe, where images of outlying scenery were burned into walls across from arrow slits. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

The principles of this technique of projecting an image through a pinhole were experimented with over the centuries, and in the 10th century, the first camera obscura and pinhole camera were invented by an Arab scientist named Alhazen. The camera obscura is what would be used centuries later to create the first photograph (called a heliograph back then). The pinhole camera was used for solargraphy, a way to look at and record the movement of the sun, and most notably during a solar eclipse. Alhazen used an entire room for his camera obscura (which wasn’t named until 1604), where he successfully cast a full image onto a screen.

Scientists, philosophers, and artists everywhere (but most notably in China, England, Spain, Italy, and France) continued to experiment and improve the camera obscura. A lens was added. A portable device was created. And soon, images were cast onto metal plates. And thus began the creation of a portable photograph (as opposed to a painting).

Daguerreotype Camera 1839In 1825, A french inventor named Joseph Nicephore Niepce successfully created the first photograph, an image of the view from a window in his estate. He had placed a sheet of pewter coated with bitumen into a camera obscura device, similar to the one pictured here, and let the image develop for at least 8 hours (some say it could have been a couple days). The only problem is that the picture not only faded, but it could also only be seen at certain angles of light.

Another French inventor, Louis Daguerre (the man pictured at the top)  was working on a similar process, and in 1829, he partnered with Niepce. Together, they discovered that silver coated plates work better than pewter, and that when subjected to iodine vapors, it creates a light-sensitive chemical compound.

Niepce died in 1833, but Daguerre continued experimenting, and eventually found that the images on the plate could be brought out (exposed) a little more with the use of warmed mercury fumes. Yes, these people were no doubt inhaling mercury fumes for many years. And now you know why so many people died so early in those days. But, in my opinion, they made the ultimate sacrifice. They pioneered a process that nearly everyone uses today. Almost all cell phones have a camera, and digital cameras are cheaper and better than ever. Photography can be seen everywhere: in museums, hanging on everyone’s walls, and of course, littering everyone’s Facebook page.

Using mercury fumes was a huge breakthrough for Daguerre. It cut the exposure process down from 8 hours to only 20-30 minutes! But he didn’t stop there. In 1837, Dagurre found that using a salt solution could fix the image onto the plate, finally figuring out how to keep the image from fading away.

Two years later, he introduced the Daguerreotype Process to the world, and forever changed the lives of humanity and caused portrait painters around the world to go bankrupt. Okay, that last bit was a little over the top.

Daguerreotype StudioThe first Daguerreotype studio opened in 1841 in London. Here’s a drawing of what it may have looked like. Notice the sitter up on a platform, his head held firm by a clamp. He had to sit there for 20-30 minutes without moving (hence why nobody is ever smiling in older photographs). You try it. The guy on the bottom right is buffing a silver plate before having it exposed to all those chemicals. The camera obscura is on that shelf on the top right. The ceiling is made of glass, to allow the most amount of light in.

The finished product was covered in glass (mainly because the image could be washed away still) and either framed or placed in a leather bound book. Before this, it could be gilded or even colored with powdered pigments, if you had enough money, I’m sure.

The process scared some people, mainly the superstitious types and those who thought they were going to be tortured after seeing the head clamp device. But many others sought out the nearest Daguerreotypist to have their pictures taken. The process boomed, and of course was updated. By the 1860’s, faster and cheaper processes were developed, and not long after that, film was introduced to the world. But we owe it all to these pioneers like Daguerre and Niepce, who made it possible for us to take our own pictures. Many Daguerreotypists did lose their lives from inhaling too much mercury fumes. But it was all for a good cause, I believe. I, for one, have taken more pictures than I can count, and will take many, many more in the future.

Book 4 of 2014

006I’ve never read The Scarlet Letter (I know, I know, shame on me! But it’s on my list!), but I have read some shorter works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I’ve enjoyed everything. The same goes for The House of the Seven Gables. When I signed up for the class “Major American Authors of the 1850’s,” and saw Hawthorne’s name on the list, I thought for sure we would be reading his first, and most famous, novel. But as it turns out, the class has a strong focus on life in the early and mid-19th century, and The Scarlet Letter takes place two centuries prior, so it only makes sense that Seven Gables was chosen.

I was a little disappointed at first, until I opened the book and starting reading away, and realized it was about a cursed family in a haunted house. The book begins in the past, around the time of the Salem Witch Trials, when the revered Colonel Pyncheon accuses Matthew Maule of practicing witchcraft and has him hung. Said Colonel then seizes Maule’s land (with him buried on it) from his cold, dead clutch, and builds a giant seven-gabled house. And who does he hire to build it? Oh, Maule’s son Thomas. “Hey, I killed your father, now build me a house. No hard feelings right?” Well, as the story unfolds, we learn that not only are Wizarding abilities passed down through generations, but so is vengeance. The Maule’s do everything they can to subtly make the Pyncheon’s lives hellish. In the end, a descendant of Maule (under the name of Holgrave) marries one of the last remaining Pyncheons, a beautiful ray of sunshine named Phoebe. One can only wonder if this is the final act of Maule vengeance, uniting the the two ancient families (I’m sure the Colonel is rolling in his grave by this time), or if the two genuinely love each other. After all, Holgrave does hypnotize the poor girl at one point, but stops before he gets too deep into her mind. Or does he? 

Aside from the plot, Hawthorne does a masterful job with language, pacing, and using real names and events, but twisting them around to make them his own. His flowery prose, iconic of just about any book from this time period, gets a little wordy at times. But Hawthorne creates some really wonderful dark settings and creepy images throughout the book. His pacing starts off slow, as explanations of past events are carefully unfolded, but when the action speeds up, so does the pace. And as our mind gets used to reading in the 19th century, we are more able to comprehend the long, flowery sentences, and therefore, allowing the book to move along even quicker. Obviously Hawthorne did not know that his readers’ vocabulary would drastically decrease over the next 150 years (curse you texting and tweeting!), but he does make the reading easier when he’s not giving a tour of the house.

Not only did I enjoy the book, but I also learned a bit of history as well (always a plus!). I had no idea that Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. Hawthorne didn’t like that he was related to someone who sentenced innocent people to death, so he added the ‘W’ to his surname so that he was not associated with his ancestor. I also found out that Pyncheon and Maule were real families, and that he used real people for his characters, though he changed them quite drastically. Thomas Maule, who also happened to be an architect and builder, was not a witch (or wizard), but he did call out those Puritan ministers in their false accusations of witchcraft. He was whipped and all copies of his book were confiscated for his “crime.” I find it very interesting how Hawthorne took real people, places, and events, and twisted them around to create a compelling story.

I did not read the entire book pictured above, as half of it is just essays and such. Those that I have read thus far are interesting enough, but this review is for the novel only. I give The House of the Seven Gables 4 out of 5 stars.