Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Finished 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. At last.

Lordy, I'm glad that's over.  It was a strange little book, the type where you just have to let stuff go sometimes. 

If you drew two circles and labeled one Kafka & one Marquez, there would be some overlap, but not that much.  For me it was a lot easier to follow than Kafka, but I saw some similarities.   They both mix in reality with unreality, but yet treat the unreality as if it were real.  In Kafka's Metamorphosis, a guy turned into a bug, and people didn't freak out & run away, they tried to talk to him (it).  In Marquez's village of Macondo, the whole town at one time or another experienced a couple of years of insomnia, almost 5 solid years of rain, and various other miraculous things happened to individual people along the way.

I begin to see the book as a series of stories.  My favorite was the one where Jose Arcadio Buendia, the family patriarch, discovered on his own that the world was round, centuries after this had become common knowledge.  I liked the stories surrounding Remedios the Beauty who was so beautiful that one day she just acended into heaven, along with a set of Aramanta's favorite sheets.  I've taken to referring to our dog as "Pickles the Beauty", but I'm afraid she'll get the big head.   I liked the stories of Jose Arcadio Segundo & Areliano Sequndo, who were twins and would fool people by switching identities as children.  They did it so often that Ursula (their great-grandmother) was convinced they had got themselves mixed up.  Aureliano had the personalities of all the Jose Arcadios, and Jose Arcadio had the personality of all the Aureliano's.  They died on the same day, in the end the pall bearers were drunk and got the coffins mixed up so that they were buried in the other's grave.  Which may have been correct after all.   In every generation there was one (usually an Aureliano, the exception was Jose Segundo) who spent a lot of time in an old room trying to figure out manuscripts left behind by a mystic gypsy.  

I started reading this book back in November.   It usually doesnt take me this long to read through a book, and I have no excuses for this one.  I just wasn't into it for some reason.  I have this stupid bit of pride that I'm not going to let any book get the best of me.  So I read the stupid thing, and parts of it were quite good, parts quite funny and parts I just struggled through like trudging through knee deep mud.  Its done.  On to something else.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A little bit of mind wandering nerve damage, perhaps.

Yesterday I had a hearing test and all is well, except I have a very slight loss at the highest tones in one ear.  This means I've either suffered some minor nerve damage along the way, or my mind was wandering during part of the test. 

Either scenario is extremely plausible. 

I worked for a few years in an environment where very loud noises were common place and we didn't really have adequate hearing protection.  This, I think, was one of the benefits of not having a union. 

Also my mind wanders all the time.  So, who knows.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

My .02 on Huckleberry Finn

It's been in the news lately that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn is being published, with the "n-word" expunged, replaced with the word "slave".   A lot of people think this is a good thing, that it doesn't change the story and perhaps because of this change a lot more students will be allowed to read it as part of a high school curriculum.   But a lot of other people feel that it is censorship and by removing that word you remove some of the power and meaning the book.  

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightening and a lightening bug.  There is a reason he used that word.

I read Huckleberry Finn the first time when I was 11 years old.  I read it on my own, not part of a school assignment or anything, complete with all 200 + instances of the 'n-word'.   At age 11, I knew well enough that I should not go repeating that word amongst my classmates.  I new it's connotations and history.  Much later I read Huckleberry Finn to my son, the very same book I had read as a child, one chapter at a time when he was quite young - much too young to grasp the finer points.  When I read this to my son, I did exactly what this person who is publishing a revised version is doing - I substituted the word "slave" for the "n-word".  But here is the difference - my son was 5 or 6 years old at the time, an age when kids repeat everything they've heard.  I'm pretty sure he wasn't old enough to understand that he should not go slinging this word around the playground. 

By the time people are old enough to read this on their own, they should be able to distinguish between differences in usage and connotations of words in the mid-19th century and the early 21st century.  They should have a grasp of context. 

The book was published in 1884, and is set some 30-35 years earlier, in the 1850s.  It starts in Missouri, a state where slavery was legal at the time, and ends in the deep south, mainly because Huck and Jim fell asleep and missed their intended destination of Cairo, Illinois. (In reality, Jim probably would not have found much sympathy in Cairo, Illinois, but that's reality, and Huckleberry Finn was fiction). But anyway, along the way there are all kinds of people, descriptions of Mississippi River life, humor, and some astute social commentary.  

Huckleberry Finn may have been the first major novel to make use of dialect, or at least the first American one.  I think I read somewhere that Mark Twain used 7 dialects for his characters, but I'm not sure.  When I read it at age 11, I had no trouble understanding most the language used.  Much of it was very similar to the way my grandparents spoke, and even though I didn't use most of the words or phrases in my everyday speech, they were very familiar to me.   I didn't realize it at the time, but this gave me a bit of an advantage in understanding this book.  Anyway,  Jim, the uneducated slave, spoke differently than Huckleberry who had a little bit of education forced upon him.  Huck spoke slightly differently than Tom Sawyer, who attended school more regularly.  Huck's father was as uneducated as Jim, but spoke differently than either Huck or Jim, because he had a different background.  They all spoke differently than the Widow Douglas, who tortured poor ol' Huck with manners and religion.  And none of them spoke as articulately as Judge Thatcher, who was quite well educated. (An aside:  I always thought Judge Thatcher may have been a bit of a crook.  Can't prove it, but in the "Adventures of Tom Sawyer",  Huck had come into a bunch of money as a result of an encounter with Indian Joe, and in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Judge Thatcher seemed a little too agreeable to manage Huck's 'fortune').

What I'm getting at is that Mark Twain wrote the book with the characters speaking American English as it was spoken in by various strata of society in Missouri in the 1850s.   I am sure the "n-word" was used at that time by people of all races without a second thought.  I don't know that it had the same connotations or meanings then that it has now.   I do know that the connotations and meaning it has now are not good. 
Writing dialect, getting it right and being consistent is difficult.  If you remove this word from the book you weaken part of the author's attempt at authenticity and reality.  It skews the portrait of life in the 1850s.

Does it matter?  Maybe not.  It won't change people's lives one way or another.  Neither will painting a Hitler mustache on the Mona Lisa, but I hope no one does it.  However, I think if you can't handle reality in literature you should stick to sit-coms on TV, where (sarcasm alert) they'd never ever dream of using stereotypes or offensive language.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Still reading 100 years of solitude. Sigh.......

I've been reading this book forever.  I stopped for awhile initially because I was trying to adjust to my very first prescription for bi-focals.  And delayed picking it up again because I wasn't sure I wanted to put myself through what reading this book was going to put me through.

I understand that many actually consider this book to be honest to goodness literature.  I believe it.

I can tell it's an exceptional book.  The characters are great, there's a lot of subtle humor and observations in it, it has some mystical elements, and on more than one occasion it happily ignores the laws of physics. 

I'm at the point where the story is going to be about Jose Arcadio Segundo and Aurielio Segundo, and I just not sure I want to put forth the effort to get to know these characters.  I've made it to my 4th generation of Jose Arcadio's and Aurielio's, surely that's enough. Sufferin' Cats.  And the first Aurielio, the Colonel and their grandfather, had 17 boys by 17 women, and named them all Aurielio.  Why not stick a Rafael or an Enrico in there?  And Ursula (their great-grandmother & the family matriarch) is apparently going to live forever, but that remains to be seen.  But with the Segundos it's a whole new story and I'm just not identifying with anything.  At the moment Aurielo is talking to a ghost and wallpapering the house with 1 peso notes, and has become wealthy because all his livestock procreates at an abnormal rate.  Not quite sure what Jose Arcadio is up to, but I'll find out before long.

I don't know.  Normally a book like this is right up my alley.  Maybe I'm just tired of thinking.  I never really liked books about "families".

So anyway, I've decided to take the plunge and finish this book.  It'll be a happy day when I'm done.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Our eBay Year - 2010

Well the totals are in - I know that 'cause I figured them out.  And in my continuing effort to make sense of things and have a little bit of predictability I look through the spreadsheet and search for patterns.  I do this off and on as the mood strikes, but the end of a year seems to be an especially good time.

Comparing our 2010 business to our business in 2009 or earlier is like comparing apples & oranges.  That is because we decided to stop doing consignment sales.  In 2009 & 2008 a good chunk of our sales were consignment.  We made some money off of it, and I think we pleased our customers for the most part, but turns out it's a ton of work and extra record keeping, and we just decided to stop doing it, on a large scale anyway.  We might sell something for someone every now and then, but we are not actively seeking consignment customers. 

As a result the vast majority of the money we made on this business this year came as the result of a couple of people sitting at a large folding table in a room in a house listing and selling postcards and antique photos on eBay.  Because we decided to stop doing consignments, our net sales (after expenses) was about $36.00 a month less this year than last.   It's worth it.

Also, eBay made a major change in it's pricing structure at the end of March.  Our immediate adjustment to what amounted to a major increase in fees was to concentrate on fixed priced listings rather than auction listings.  At one time it was not uncommon for us to have 200 or more auctions going a week, now we may only run 20 auctions a week.  The vast majority of our offerings are fixed price buy-it-now listings.  I have a feeling that we did exactly what eBay, for whatever reason, wanted us to do.  It was a major change for us.

We sell a lot of postcards, it is the core of our business right now.  In the May/June time frame we made an adjustment in shipping costs - essentially we offer free shipping on postcard "singles".  Apparently it works - 63% of our postcard sales came in the 2nd half of the year.  The downside is eBay takes more in fees when you offer free shipping.  As a seller I'd get to keep more money if I sold something for $10 with a $2 shipping charge, than I will if I sell something for $12 with free shipping, because eBay charges fees only on the sale price.   As a buyer you've spent $12 either way, but it must be psychological, because it seems that $12 & free shipping will sell more frequently that $10 and any amount of shipping charge. 

Antique Photos, the other major item we sell, seemed to remain pretty steady throughout the year.  We do have a shipping charge on those, and we made no major changes in that this year.

We didn't sell as many postcards this year as last, but that's a bit misleading - last year we sold many more large lots (groups of 200 or 300 postcards) than we did this year.  We decided not to sell as many large lots, because we were not getting the prices that we wanted.   So even though we sold fewer postcards, the price per postcard we received was significantly higher.

The Antique photos were another story though - we sold about 20% more of them this year than last, at a slightly higher price.

I've discovered most of our sales came on Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday. 

Most of our postcards sales are of US state and town views, with California leading the way.   No surprise there.

Our best selling non-state topic - art.  Somewhat, but not much of a surprise.

We sell internationally, figuring money is money no matter where it comes from.  This year we sent items to two dozen countries or so, alphabetically from Argentina to Zambia.  Yep, we sent a postcard to continental Africa this year, a first for us.  Canada, Australia, the UK, France & Germany were our best customers.  International sales accounted for about 12% of our overall sales, so it's worth it.

The business has changed quite a bit since we started it, and I wonder how it's going to change this year.  Very little is static, it will be interesting to see.