Adventures with John Buchan

John Buchan: 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, 15th Governor-General of Canada, storyteller

Yesterday I decided not to finish a novel by one of my all time favorite authors, John Buchan. It was a hard choice to make.

Most of you have probably never heard of Buchan, unless you’re given to reading popular fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote biographies, adventure novels, historical novels, and historical adventure novels.* His most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was named one of the top hundred mystery novels of all time by the Mystery Novels of America in 1995. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie of it that was so far removed from the book and so awful without reference to the book that I urge you not to watch it. Or at least don’t blame it on Buchan.

I stumbled across Buchan’s Prester John my freshman year in college, as part of a term paper on images of imperialism in British novels.** I was hooked.

Midwinter is not one of Buchan’s best-known novels. It’s not even one of his best novels. It includes the elements of his most popular novels: a elaborate puzzle, a cross-country chase, a boyish heroine, heroes who are confused by their reaction to said heroine, and multiple last minute saves. But as far as I’m concerned they just don’t gel. Set during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invasion of England, Midwinter is an adventure novel without tension. We know that even if the hero escapes yet another trap set by his enemies, even if he uncovers the traitor in the Jacobite forces, even if he gets the critical information to his prince in time–it’s not going to make any difference. The Jacobites will still be brutally defeated at Culloden. The cause will still fail. Charles Edward Stuart will still flee England and become a drunken, cantankerous, maudlin nuisance to the French.

Frustrated by Midwinter, I am returning to my old favorites: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and Huntingtower. I want to cheer along as stalwart Richard Hannay, the chameleon-like Sandy Aburthnot and, most unlikely hero of all, retired Scottish grocer Dickson McCoy actually succeed in their efforts to defeat the Black Stone, German nationalists, Bolsheviks, international financial conspiracies, and other villains from the first decades of the 20th century. I want my heroes to have a fighting chance.***

* He also was an attorney and political hack who spent the last five years of his life as the Governor General of Canada.

** Not a topic reasonably covered in a 30-page term paper and one that I’ve returned to in various forms over the years.

*** A word of warning if I’ve inspired you to try Buchan: he shares some of the most unattractive prejudices of his period. His characters are free with racist comments against both Africans and Jews. They’re also pretty snotty about Germans and the Irish.

Sita Sings the Blues

The Ramayana is one of the classic Indian epics. Ascribed to the great Sanskrit poet-sage, Valmiki, it’s a love story, a moral lesson, and/or a foundation myth, depending on what kind of reader you are. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl to demon king. Boy rescues girl with the help of monkey-god. Boy worries that girl’s virtue has been smirched and puts her to ordeal by fire. Girl comes through ordeal triumphantly. Boy bows to public pressure and banishes girl to the forest, where she gives birth to twin sons. Boy finds girl again and they live happily ever after.

The story has had an enormous impact on art and culture in India. It has inspired poets in almost every Indic language, most notably the version by 16th century poet Tulsidas. The folk play Ramlilla is performed all over India and the Hindu diaspora as part of the Dusshera festival. Rama and Sita are the romantic leads in countless Hindi movies. And in almost every case, the story focuses on Prince Rama–it is after all the Rama-yana.

In Sita Sings the Blues, American cartoonist and animator Nina Paley turns the spotlight on Sita. Her animated version of the story is colorful, complex and edgy. Using multiple animation styles, Paley interweaves a straightforward, if Sita-centric, version of the Ramayana with commentary on the story by a trio of modern Indians (represented by Indonesian shadow puppets), a modern-day story of a relationship gone wrong, and musical numbers that are part Bollywood and part 1920s jazz singer. The result is an engaging, often hysterical, feast for eyes, ears, and mind. *

Sita Sings the Blues is available on Netflix and Amazon and at Sitasingstheblues.com. **

 

*A word of warning:  My Own True Love was not familiar with the story of the Ramayana and found the action a little hard to follow.  If you’re in his shoes, you might want to read this quick plot summary before you view.

** This review is entirely unsolicited.  Ms. Paley doesn’t know me from a water bug.

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Alhazen: The First True Scientist?

Islamic scholar Abu Ali al-Hassan Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1041), known in the West as Alhazen, began his career as just another Islamic polymath. He soon got himself in trouble with the ruler of Cairo by boasting that he could regulate the flow of the Nile with a series of dams and dikes. At first glance, it had looked like such a simple problem. But the more he studied it, the more impossible it seemed. Al-Hakim, known to his subjects as the Mad Caliph with good reason, was getting impatient. Alhazen only saw one way out: he pretended to be crazy. Safely confined as a madman until the caliph’s death ten years later, Alhazen continued to work.

Time and isolation? It was the perfect situation for a man with a book to write.

While confined in his home, Alhazen revolutionized the study of optics and laid the foundation for the scientific method. (Move over, Sir Isaac Newton.) Before Alhazen, vision and light were questions of philosophy. Alhazen considered vision and light in terms of mathematics, physics, physiology, and even psychology. In his Book of Optics, he discussed the nature of light and color. He accurately described the mechanism of sight and the anatomy of the eye. He was concerned with reflection and refraction. He experimented with mirrors and lenses. He discovered that rainbows are caused by refraction and calculated the height of earth’s atmosphere. In his spare time, he built the first camera obscura.

Modern physicist Jim al-Khalili, in his excellent The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727)., calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727). calls Alhazen the greatest physicist of the medieval world, and possibly the greatest in the 2000 years between Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. His Book of Optics was first translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteen century. It had an enormous impact on the work of western scientists from Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1292) to Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

 

This post previously appeared in Wonders & Marvels