Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Link to art (of a sort)

Boing Boing offered this link, so I'm offering it to you. It contains an expletive that is written, but bleeped when it's spoken. Odd notion of how to handle expletives in polite company.


Heartburn (Book review)

     Heartburn by Nora Ephron(1985) 30-year-old chick-lit, written well before Bridget Jones (which I confess I haven’t read). The narrator, Rachel, is a cookbook author and TV presenter, who’s pregnant with her second child. Mark is her husband, a columnist and political commentator, and a self-centred jerk. The setting is Washington and New York, and the couples that form Rachel and Mark’s social circle. Mark is having an affair, and worse, has told Rachel he loves his mistress. So the plot question is: What will Rachel do about it? She ends the marriage, of course, by throwing a lemon-mint cream pie in Mark’s face. It takes a while for her to get to that point, partly because she interrupts the story with flashbacks and recipes, and partly because random events interrupt the steady progress towards freedom from a jerk. The recipes are clearly based on actual cooking.
     The style is self-consciously “witty”, in that archly ironic 70s mode that grates. But about halfway through the book I was surprised to find I actually cared about Rachel, and enjoyed her willingness to like and even love her friends and acquaintances, including the ones she claims she hates. This isn’t a great book, but it’s an enjoyable read if you’re in the mood for a funny broken-romance story. Meryl Streep starred in the movie version, which I haven’t seen. **
     Update 2016-03-22: Apparently, the book is based on Ephron's own marriage and divorce. She's been called "courageous" for using her own life as copy for a book, which i think is excessive praise. I'm listening to an interview with Jacob Bernstein, her son, who's just made a doc about his mother titled "Everything is Copy", his mother's principle for living and writing. But she hid her terminal illness, partly because she was directing a movie, and admitting her illness would have mnade it impossible to get insurance. But mostly, says Jacob, because she wanted to control her story, and an illness is inherently uncontrollable. If he's right, Ephron's use of her story as material for a novel is a way of keeping control. Maybe her portrayal of Mark as a jerk is the ultimate control. We all want our life to work out better than it does. Fictionalising it lets us live our life as we wish it were. The purest fantasy of all.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pride & Prejudice (Movie Review)

Pride and Prejudice (1995) [D:Simon Langton. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth] The original BBC series based on Austen’s book, and still IMO the best version. The producers were given that inestimable luxury, time: the episodes add up to 5hr 23min, and for Austen fans that’s barely enough. Others may feel there are a few too many lingering shots of faces, landscapes, and of course Pemberly. Not me: I saw this when it was first broadcast on PBS, and later the edited version released on DVD for A&E, barely 5 hours long.
     Pride and Prejudice is the love romance that defined the genre. The match is “impossible”, but love and a healthy dose of financial realism conquer all, and we know in our bones that Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy will have a great marriage. They are in all respects equals; and most importantly, they respect as well as love each other. It’s telling, I think, that when they finally confess their feelings, they apologise as well, for having misjudged each other so dreadfully. They each think themselves unworthy of the other. But having gotten that out of the way, they continue on their walk in amiable companionship, anticipating the joys of wedded bliss.
     As you can see, it’s difficult to write about the story without descending into cliche. That’s because so many of the cliches were coined by Austen or her immediate followers. The 19th century was the great age of the novel; that was when all the genres were invented by the English and European writers. Austen is still readable because she not only defines the love romance, she uses it to mock the premises on which it rests, and to criticise the marriage ethos of her time. For Pride and Prejudice is about marriage. That famous first sentence announces Austen’s intentions: she will examine the grounds and reasons for marriage and for married happiness. She’s ruthless: nothing less than love (as passionate as possible) and mutual respect will do. All other inducements are secondary, and worse, they can and do lead to bad matches.  The first such inducement is money: but a prospective groom’s income is not the reason to marry. Nor is his willingness to provide status and respectability, as Charlotte Lucas finds out.
     Youthful attractiveness and desire may forge a bond, but they cannot on their own create a union of mind and heart, as the Bennetts show us. What keeps them together is habit and a sense of duty, perhaps also an unwillingness to make unnecessary trouble for themselves. Their life together is made tolerable on Mr Bennett’s part by an ironic detachment that finds entertainment in the social comedy that surrounds him, and on Mrs Bennett’s by an overwhelming focus on getting her daughters well married, and carrying out all the delicious social duties and customs attending a wedding.
     The Gardners are an ideal couple, showing Elizabeth that a marriage founded on mutual respect and affection will conduce to happiness and contentment. She of course wants this, too, which is why she rejects Collins, who respects no one, not even Lady de Bourgh, who accepts his self-congratulatory flattery as sign of respectful esteem. Elizabeth is briefly attracted by Wickham’s treatment of her as an intellectual equal: Wickham is one of those conmen that works by enlisting you into his privileged inner circle. Elizabeth finally accepts Darcy when she can no longer deny she has thoroughly misjudged him, and realises that both passion and respect will shape their relationship. Austen, unlike today’s romance writers, avoids any explicit reference to sex, but there’s no question that Darcy and Elizabeth find each other very, very attractive.
     Austen always had a sharp eye (and often a sharp tongue) for the foibles and hypocrisies of humankind.  Her neighbours I think provided her with all that she needed to create characters such as the smarmy Mr Collins, the appallingly self-centred Lady de Bourgh, the flibberty Lydia, the smiling villain Wickham, the good-natured Sir Lucas, and the childish Mrs Bennett (struggling to fulfill her role of good mother, and repeatedly misplaying it).
     The video is very well made. The leads are just right, Firth knows how to flare a nostril, and Ehle’s sly smile shows insight and amusement. The secondary roles are well done: who can doubt that Bingley and Jane will always be happy with each other? Or that Collins will never be able to see himself as others see him? The costumes, settings, ambience no doubt idealise the early 19th century, but if the producers had decided to show us the actual grimness of the time, we could not pay attention to that which matters: the affairs of the heart. ****

Monday, January 09, 2012

Book Reviews: The Vault & Mind Over Matter

The first two books of 2012.

Rendell, Ruth The Vault (2011) The most recent (and probably the last, unfortunately) Wexford. Reg has retired, his actor daughter Sheila has offered her parents the use of her converted stable/coach house, and Det. Insp. Tom Ede, an old acquaintance, asks Reg to assist him. Four bodies have been found in a coal hole under a patio in a posh London neighbourhood. Wexford’s characteristic method of intuition, odd associations, wide-ranging understanding of the subtleties of human nature, and sheer luck lead to the solution.
     Along the way, Sylvia, the other daughter, is stabbed by a too-young jealous boyfriend and nearly dies, Wexford himself is stabbed, and he and Dora become used to the pleasures of theatre, art galleries, and long walks in London. There are nice little vignettes of Reg as a grandfather. Tom Ede and the other cops are given enough hints of a back story that their relationships with Wexford make sense. A slew of secondary characters, the kind that competent actors bring to life in videos with a few gestures and body language, add the to impression of a fully developed narrative. Even Mike Burden makes a few appearances.
     The tone is, as might be expected, mildly regretful. The freedoms of retirement and more time with Dora aren’t enough to compensate for the loss of work. Wexford grasps the offered diversion eagerly. He  must remind himself repeatedly that he is no longer a policeman, and so doesn’t have the right to ask questions and insist on entry into private homes. He and Dora refer to Poirot, Wimsey, Holmes, and other private sleuths of fiction, which reminds us on the one hand that Wexford himself is a fiction, and on the other that his new-found career as a private detective is a narrative device or convention. It may also be a hint that Rendell is contemplating a series of Wexford, retired, as private detective. I hope so. **-½

Cole, K C Mind over Matter (2003) Cole wrote a column about science for the L. A Times for many  years. This book collects a number of them. She writes well, explains clearly, and ends almost all her columns with an implicit question: How does this bit of science affect you? The answer often is, Much more than I ever realised. It’s clear she loves to think about science. Find out more about her on her web page (http://www.kccole.net/authors.html)
     I liked this book a lot. It’s like eating potato chips: once started you can’t stop. I’m not sure how well her explanations will resonate with people who are not already “entranced with science”, since any explanation assumes some prior knowledge in the audience. I know too much to be able to judge how much is needed to read Cole well. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to any one who wants to spend a few hours in the company of a delightful mind. It’s difficult to choose a sample, so I’ll just find one at random:
     In terms of the energy required, there’s no difference between accelerating and decelerating.... This is a good thing to remember the next time you’re struggling to break a bad habit. Whatever energy you put into creating the bad habit is the amount of energy you will need to push it out the door. Which implies that because we want to break the habit faster than we acquired it, getting rid of it will feel a lot harder than getting it did.
Good book. ****