Friday, August 17, 2007

Theatre Review: The Drawer Boy

The Drawer Boy, by Michael Healey. Gore Bay Players, Gore Bay ON, June 27 2007.

Two bachelor farmers, Morgan and Angus, friends since childhood, live together. Angus has been damaged by war. Morgan tells him the story of how they met two English girls, Sally and Frances, brought them back to Canada, and lost them in a car accident. This story fills in the gaps in Angus's memory, for five minutes or so. Myles, a young actor, asks to stay with them in order to learn about farming, as his collective' is 'writing' a play about farmers. This affords an excuse for a number of more or less corny jokes about how the uncouth farmer takes in the sophisticated city slicker.

But Myles overhears the story, and uses it as his scene in the play. Morgan and Angus see the rehearsal, and when they return from the theatre, Angus remembers not only Myles but the story as well. His memory seems to be restored, until Morgan has to admit that he made up the story. The injury that robbed Angus of his memory also made him moody and depressed, until Sally and Frances left them. Not much of a story, really, but Healey presents and reveals it layer by layer until we are left with what seems to be the truth.

The three actors did a creditable job, making us believe their characters and the gradual unfolding of Angus' and Morgan's history. Myles was played a little too much on one-note, but then he's not a complex character. Naive and trusting, he accepts Morgans deceptions and tricks at face value, and thinks he can somehow cure Angus. He almost succeeds, too. Morgan was more subtly portrayed, and he is a more complex person. Who would have thought that the boy who loved on action and adventure, who went to war because he wanted an adventure, would be so sensitive to his friend's needs, and invent such a tale to comfort him? Angus was the most difficult character to play, as his memory loss and repetitive compulsions tempt the actor to caricature, but this did not happen here. The transition into apparently full recovery of memory, his realisation that his memories are false, and that the truth would hurt, and his relapse into the forgetfulness that keeps him happy, were very well done. The set was a simple, semi-abstract portrayal of the kitchen and porch. Lighting shifted attention to the two acting areas, and colours, though simple, effectively signalled shifts in time. The music (what play these days doesn't use a soundtrack as a movie does?) was blessedly unobtrusive, and served more to reinforce the mood than guide it.

All in all, a very good production. Walter Maskel can be proud of his cast and crew. Marie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review: WLT, A Radio Romance

WLT: A Radio Romance by Garrison Keillor (1991)

I vaguely recall negative reviews of this book when it first appeared. It didn't conform to the cosy, down-home image that Keillor's fans had formed of him, based on his Prairie Home Companion tales. It's raunchy, rude, and cynical, yet underlying it is the streak of melancholy that also supports PHC.

Keillor is a master of the deadpan style that make horrors and ecstasies equally mundane - in this, he belongs with Raymond Carver and like-minded writers. The plot line that holds these rambling chapters together is Francis With's rise in radio and his eventual jump to TV. He renames himself Frank White, cultivates a resonant voice, makes himself an indispensable factotum to the station's owners, and after a bizarre road trip (designed to jettison an out-of-date Gospel music group from WLT) walks into a TV studio and starts talking. In the last chapter, told from the point of view of a muck-raking biographer, we learn that White married his sweetheart, had three children, and became the grand old man of television news. Hence the romance of the sub-title: Keillor's novel is a melodramatic fantasy. But despite the weirdness, the story has the ring of truth. That's the secret of Keillor's success as a raconteur. His husky, slightly bemused voice makes us believe even the most bizarre incidents and improbable coincidences. But unlike well-crafted novels, life does consist of bizarre events and improbable coincidences.

If you want to pick a nit, this book at times seemed to go on too long. ***

Book Review: The First Chimpanzee

The First Chimpanzee, by John Gribbin, & Jeremy Cherfas (2001)

An extended (and IMO unnecessarily long) argument that humans, chimps, and gorillas shared a common hominid ancestor some 3 to 4 million years ago. In other words, the chimp-gorilla line split from the human line after the evolution of hominids, not before. That would make chimps and gorillas hominids.

This hypothesis was developed by Sarich and Wilson in the late 1960s, when the molecular clock was first calibrated. The argument rests on molecular biology, and the development of the molecular clock in particular. It's been shown that DNA/RNA and hence proteins evolve at surprisingly steady rates. This enables the calculation not of dates but of ratios of time spans, and hence of the relative positions of divergence points in the evolutionary trees of related species. Add a few dates, and the ratios can be used to locate points in time. Fossil evidence has calibrated the molecular clock pretty accurately for non-human genera, and for vertebrates and chordates generally, so that its application to the primate group should be a no-brainer.

However, paleontologists don't like to have their speculations checked by external objective evidence. Even amongst themselves, they get rather testy when a colleague finds a fossil that requires "re-evaluation" of existing guesses.

Along the way, Gribbin and Cherfas provide reams of interesting data, the most important of which is that the sum total of all humanoid fossils could be laid out on a dining room table. Most of them are teeth. Insofar as I can judge the evidence, I go with Gribbin and Cherfas. Well written, but somewhat whingey in the final chapters, where they discuss the reception of the Sarich-Wilson hypothesis, which they support. So the rejection of that hypothesis becomes quite personal for them. **-½

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Book Review: The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks

Davies, Robertson The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks (1947)

Here, Marchbanks (or Davies) restrains himself a little compared to the second book, The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks. But in both he expresses himself forcefully on the absence of a Canadian sense of pleasure. According to him, Canadians cannot abide mere fun, let alone culture (a much more strenuous pursuit.) Although there have been changes for the better, we still have a lingering sense that something advertised as good for you cannot be and must not be pleasurable. It was Presbyterians that set the ground-rules for social and cultural life in this country, and many of us suffer from a lingering hangover of puritan megrims. Only the terms of opprobrium have changed: these days, the blue meanies oppose the arts not because of their putative immorality but because of their supposed impracticality. Significantly enough, the Harperites are willing to fund children's sports via a tax break for family expenditures on hockey and other forms of mayhem, but not for music lessons. Like many money-mad people, they confuse price and value, and worse, have a very limited knowledge of the market that they profess to admire and understand.

Marchbanks' struggles with his furnace form the leitmotif of his life as described in these diaries, and his repeated bouts of one or another kind of mild illness form the accompaniment. His casual mentions of daily triumphs and defeats remind us that in many ways our life has become more comfortable in the last 60 years. But it hasn't, therefore, become better. There's more to the good life than creature comforts.

The quotable bits in this book tend to be small paragraphs. Robertson has mastered the art of the long slow curve and the sudden break (he does not, however, use any baseball metaphors or allusions.) He tends to use the semi-colon where most writers would use a period, so that his sentences seem to be lengthy. But here and there one finds a sentence that can be quoted without context. "If man has conquered the air merely to fill it with bombs and illiteracy, we might as well discount this civilisation, and try another." "New York, I perceive, contains almost as many rogues as Toronto." "If we were all robbed of our wrong convictions, how empty our lives would be."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Diary 1, 2

Wednesday, 25 April 2007
Davies' Diary of Samuel Marchbanks and Table talk of Samuel Marchbanks have inspired me to try my hand at daily writing. I don't know how well this experiment will go. Imitating a writer is hard enough; emulating him is much more difficult.... J. returned to Toronto today; I took him to the bus stop this morning. He seemed cheerful enough, which is just as well, his having enjoyed free board and lodging, reimbursement for the bus ticket, and $100 reward for helping me with the Trade Show booth. It comforts me to think that such minimal sacrifices on my part can generate such contentment.

Thursday, 26 April 2007
Went to lunch at St Andrews today, as we usually do on the 3rd Thursday of the month. I chose leek and potato soup, a creamy broth of delicate flavour, that perhaps appeals to the 1/8th of me that's Welsh. A tolerable lemon cake with a good lemony icing, and a cup of coffee rounded out the meal. We sat with three friends that we have known since we came to Blind River 35 years ago, and had a pleasant conversation about inconsequential matters. This is the best kind, for it engages the mind agreeably without straining the prejudices. Since one of the people present was a geologist, we discussed rocks. He had a piece of Ayers Rock at home, picked up before it became necessary to forbid visitors there to pick up souvenirs. I wonder why people like to have stones as reminders of the places they have visited. One doesn't pay for stones, but that can't be a sufficient explanation, as most people are quite willing to put out cash for trays, spoons, tea towels, and other assorted items of dubious practicality. I suspect an unconscious return to the early childhood fascination with pebbles.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Book Review: Time Lord, by Clark Blaise

Clark Blaise Time Lord (2001) Blaise won the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction for this book. It is a good read, but finally a not very satisfying one. The bio of Fleming is competent enough, especially considering that Fleming himself left little evidence of his thoughts and feelings. Though he kept journals, their contents are almost entirely the facts of his life: arrival and departure times, what he spent his money on, whom he met, and so on.
     It was a misread timetable that prompted Fleming to think hard and deep about the problems of time keeping. Railways connected so many places that the inconvenience of calculating timings in terms of dozens of local times prompted the railways to adopt standard times of their own. Eventually, the railroads of N. America agreed to a common standard of time zones. This was the precursor of worldwide standard time. Great Britain had already adopted a single standard time. Blaise is good at tracing Fleming's involvement and influence in the move to standard time, a move that started as a technical problem and of course ended as a political one.
     But Blaise also meditates on the effects of standardising time, of removing time keeping from the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset, of midnight and noon. Here, his essay is less successful. Not because he doesn't make excellent points and observations, but because his reinterpretation of Victorian life in many ways breaks new ground, or looks at well known facts and ideas from a new angle. Inevitably, much of what he says is not fully worked out or clarified. He sees the changes in Victorian arts and social fabric as a response to the shift from the natural world of the senses to the abstract world of reason. In this he follows the Romantic criticism of the industrialisation of Europe. But unlike the Romantics, he sees those changes as forerunners of our own problems, not as redefinitions and abrogations of old ones. His argument amounts to a paradox: by freeing ourselves from natural time, we have become enslaved to abstract time. He hints and alludes to this paradox, but does not explicate it. But this very lack of full explication prompts the reader to think about the implications of what Blaise says.
     Blaise either forgets or chooses not to explore how early in European culture time became an abstraction. In the Middle Ages, clock time became a guide. The monks were the first to take clocks and calendars seriously, and they used them to order their spiritual life. It was a pope who authorised the recalculation of the calendar, a calendar inherited from the Romans. These clerics were the first to abstract time. The Romans took the first steps towards decoupling holy days from the moon and the sun, defining many of them in terms of their dates in the calendar rather than by the phase of the moon. Christians needed to calculate Easter, a holy day that links the phase of the moon to the position of the sun. The calculation required the abstraction of moon time and sun time so they could be brought into accurate relationship with each other. That, I think, was the beginning of the process that led to Standard Time, and in our own day has led to Universal Co-ordinated Time.
     The book is valuable as much for what it suggests as for what it says. What Blaise does say is often spot on, for example his analysis of the effects of a new awareness of time on painting: impressionism and cubism, he says, are attempts to make pictures timeless, to disconnect them from time. When time no longer inheres in the natural objects that surround us, we experience them as moments, as mere surfaces, not as carriers of narrative. Narrative, too, breaks up. Blaise says that Hemingway's style converts time into a series of events. Time is no longer the architecture of a life. To quote a saying he doesn't cite: Life is just one damned thing after another. Plot implies a structure in time, it is a structure in time. Modern literature abandons plot, replacing it with abstract patterns of image and event, of character and response, of perception and memory.
     A good book, because it makes one think. ***

Monday, February 05, 2007

Science is a Sacred Cow (Bookreview)

Standen, Anthony: Science is a Sacred Cow (1950) I got this book for Christmas, from my son, who is able to find all kinds of good things in used book shops. This is one of those good things, even though Standen's rant in the end fails to convince any but those who want some sticks to beat science with.
Standen writes well, and makes many valid points, but overall his book doesn't satisfy. He isn't attacking science so much as scientism - the belief that Science is the final answer to everything. He does capitalise Science, which shows he knows that he is attacking an attitude towards science rather than science itself. He was a scientist himself, actually.
But his arguments, relying as they do on shifting definitions and vague concepts, as often miss the target as hit it. The problem begins with his use of the word science or Science. Most of the time he is clearly talking about some people's attitudes (most of them, like himself, academics, by the way.) Sometimes, he is talking about science as social, political, or economic activity, or of some combination of these three. Yet he almost always fails to state explicitly what he's attacking, which is a pity, since his attacks on scientism are as valid today as they were back in 1950. Sometimes, usually when he's saying something nice, he is talking about science as a human activity. And while he writes in an easy to understand style, that doesn't mean he writes clearly. In fact the colloquialism of his style often hides the muddiness of his thought. Perhaps he thought that by being more precise he would leave "the interested layman" trailing after him wondering where on earth (or elsewhere) Standen was leading him.
Besides, much of his specific criticism has failed as science has continued to discover new things since 1950. His critique of psychology, for example, rests on the (correct) observation that Freud, Jung et al were in fact poets, and that novelists do a much better job of what these men set out to do. Since his day, these men's psychological theories have found some use in literature departments, and among those people whose malaise is one of the imagination rather than of the nervous system. Standen also believes that psychology of the more biological kind is pointless because man has a soul. So he really rejects psychology as a science.
Standen himself has a blind spot: he believes that science aims for Truth, and so of course he's upset when it produces merely probable truth. Thus mathematics, in which one can know (his emphasis) that one is right is the best science of all. Here and there he drops hints about God and morality which suggest that the major reason he rejects Science is that it conflicts with his beliefs in absolute moral truths. But he tends to disguise this attitude in the (correct) claim that there are questions that science can't answer, and that many of these questions are even more important than the questions science can answer. Which of course is true, and immediately raises the question about what questions are worth asking, and how to answer them. On this he makes wise comments, pointing out that science can only supply a more or less accurate description of what happens, and what is likely to happen if one chooses one or another course of action, but that the choice is an ethical question. But he fails to allow that precisely because science can predict a wide range of consequences, it is essential to any decision-making. One of the criteria for any ethical choice is that its consequences do less harm than the problem that raised the ethical issue in the first place. That is, choices based on moral judgements are only as good as the reach of those judgements. Too many are made with insufficient analysis of probable consequences, and so often lead to more harm than they are intended to prevent.
Since scientism is a common attitude in universities and colleges, Standen has found many quotations from science texts, and these make for both hilarity and appalled fascination. He makes too few comments on the kind of science education that should be offered so that the ordinary person has enough of the scientific attitude to facts that (s)he can make sense of the rather complicated questions that must be resolved, such as climate change. Standen's type of critique has had its effects: Scientists rarely give certain answers these days. Something is happening to the weather, and the best guess is that it's caused in large part by our spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But since the mechanisms are poorly understood, and at best the models lead to only more or less probable scenarios, many people think that climate change itself is a merely probable guess about what's happening, and that nothing is actually happening after all.
Ironically, many religionists, who believe in absolute certainty, refuse to accept the probabilities that science offers because they also believe that Science is about Truth. Which is Standen's attitude, too, so that in the end Standen is hoist by his own petard. He rejects scientism because it assumes that all sciences are equally about Truth. Yet that is not so, and it doesn't take a scientific training to have that insight. Standen grades the sciences on a descending scale, with math at the top because it provides certainty, and the social sciences at the bottom because they provide at best correlations. So he, too, wants Science rather than science - and his rant is perhaps as much the whinge of a disappointed believer as that of a coolly skeptical critic of self-aggrandising experts. But he writes with wit, so the book is pleasant reading. **