Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Silver Canyon (1956)

     Louis L’Amour. Silver Canyon (1951 & 1956) A typical L’Amour: drifter gets in the middle of a range war, meets The Girl, promises to avenge a death, acquires a ranch and a wife (The Girl). Fade out on a prospective wedding. He’s fast with his guns, survives severe injuries, deals rough justice, and inspires loyalty. He’s in his 20s, good-looking, has had a tough life, knows his craft or trade, and has read a lot of books. In short, an ideal hero for a Western. L’Amour delivers, using 1st person narration, and describing the landscape and weather so well that you can see and taste it. This hero’s name is Matt Brennan, The Girl is Moira McLaren, and assorted good and bad guys make up the rest of the cast. There’s murder and duplicity, a silver strike, squabbles over water and grazing, a town on the verge of becoming civilised, a couple of chaste sex scenes (just kissing), and a sense that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. A satisfying read for the fan of Western adventure romance. **½

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A city smothered in ash

     Pompeii At the ROM, Toronto, Ontario. A thorough presentation of the life and times of the doomed city, destroyed by Vesuvius’s eruption in 79CE. The show leaves one with two dominant impressions: that the Romans were very like us, and that they were very different from us. Like us they wanted comfort and convenience, and liked to display their wealth and power. They had developed a material and civic culture that guaranteed a relatively safe and pleasant life for most citizens. That culture was sustained by slaves, who did much of the work that nowadays is done by or with the help of machines. Human and animal energy was cheap. The wealthier citizens even had laid-on indoor plumbing, via pipes from the nearest communal fountain. Their sewage systems weren’t quite as well done as ours, though. And because heating water was (and still is) energy-expensive, baths were a communal affair.
     The houses show that family life was very important. It’s not just the family shrines to ancestors and gods, it’s the layout of the rooms, organised around an atrium with a pool that collected rainwater, and backing on an enclosed private garden. The owners decorated the walls with murals, laid out mosaic pictures in their floors, and had statuettes and statues all over the place. There’s a lovely example of a multi-tiered oil lamp, each tier with four twin lamps, so that there were a dozen lights in all. It must have made quite a show. Of course, these are upper-middle class and upper class houses. The lower classes lived in flimsy wooden hovels, or rooms in flimsy wooden apartment blocks.
     The plaster casts of the hollows formed by the Pompeians who died and were covered with ash show that many of them tried to save each other. Nobody knows how many of the 12,000 inhabitants died. The eruption was a multi-stage affair; it was the last stage that blasted the top off Vesuvius and covered the city with ash and pumice. Some people escaped before the worst happened; those who stayed, I suppose believing that it was just another Vesuvian belly rumble, were caught.
     How were the Romans different from us? They were more matter-of-factly brutal, enjoying the spectacles of men and beasts fighting and killing each other. They were more practical about sex, painting erotic scenes in their bedrooms and in brothels. Religion was part of the fabric of everyday life. Public religion supported the civil society; private religion satisfied the longing for personal significance and meaning. Cults flourished. One of them was Christianity, a fact that is discreetly ignored in this show, even though Nero a few years later used Christians as scapegoats and foci of civil envy and unrest. Maybe there weren’t many Christians in Pompeii.
     Rank, and the client-culture it fostered and depended on, was stronger than today. Public works were undertaken by private citizens as signifiers of status or piety, and to curry political favour with the local electors or the powers in Rome. Politics was already violent: the Augustans came to power through wholesale murder of their opponents. There was no civil service, which would have stabilised Roman governance. The Empire devolved into a kleptocracy, a thug-state ruled by a small clique of infighting sociopaths. That’s what eventually destroyed it.
     But at the time of Pompeii’s destruction, life was still safe for most people, until the mountain blew up. I read almost all the explanations, something I rarely do, but had to skip them towards the end. I recommend a full day to see and absorb it. If you’re a ROM member, go more than once. ****

The Roman Record (1997)

     Paul Dowswell & Karen Tomlins. The Roman Record (1997) Roman history done in tabloid form. Very funny. The layout mirrors The Mirror, the writing echoes the screamier tabs, the authors rely on allusions to modern knowledge for sly irony, but the facts are there. A quick read, but it does prompt thinking. Here are a few of my thoughts.
     The  Romans loved their entertainment, became bored with the standard fare, and demanded an ever more intense frisson. They got it, eventually. The main difference between them and us was slavery (the owner had life and death power over his property), and the casual brutality of everyday life and politics.
     They were practical, focussing on making life more convenient and comfortable. They decorated their home with sculpture and painting. Upperclass homes included a private garden. Family and friends mattered most. Religion was (as it always is) a matter of cults and superstitions. They didn’t have mass media, but news spread fast via daily gossip in the baths and the the Forum.
     The apparatus of empire eventually became too much for them. Taxes rose, political infighting became more brutal and petty. One’s place in the machinery of government became more important than the purpose of government. The Romans did not develop the two most essential aspects of governance: a cadre of bureaucrats to operate the system, and kept it stable; and regulated transition at the top to prevent civil strife. By ca 500 AD, Rome was easy prey for the barbarians at the gate.
     The cover alludes to the destruction of Pompeii: Senator Livius Impluvius claims that the volcano will not erupt. He’s spent loads of money consulting with soothsayers, who all tell him that Pompeii will become “one of the most famous towns of ancient times.” Which in fact happened.
    Well worth the $9.40 it cost me. Jon would have loved it. ***

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas

I posted this comment on a Usenet photo-sharing group. All the comments on it were positive, so here it is for your contemplation. The reason for it: Someone had posted a photo of an extremely garish Christmas lights display. Several of the Comments expressed puzzlement that non-Christian neighbours from South East Asia were putting up Christmas lights.

"The notion that Christmas is Christian is erroneous. The Dec 25th date has no biblical authority whatsoever. There isn't even a hint that it was winter. "In those days Augustus decreed a census" is the closest to a date, but Augustus decreed more than one, so Jesus's birth date is anybody's guess. The "Jesus is the reason for the season" mantra is of
quite recent origin, proposed as a counter to the commercialisation of the festival. But Winter Solstice celebrations were/are pretty well universal north of the Mediterranean Sea. Many other Northern hemisphere peoples around the world also celebrate the Solstice.

Dec 25th was the date of the Roman Saturnalia, a celebration of the Solstice marked by all kinds of sensual delights. Around the same time the Norsemen and Germanic tribes celebrated Yule. The essence of these feasts was the return of the light, when the sun reverses its journey into darkness. It was an easy re-interpretation to identify this with the return of the Light of the World, aka Jesus. Hence Christ's Mass, or Weihnachten (= consecrated night), or Feliz Navidad (happy birth), or etc.

The Puritans knew very well that Christmas is non-biblical. They banned it after they cut off Charles I's head. Many Christian sects also know this, so they don't celebrate Christmas. The Scots Presbyterians, a dour lot with a general opposition to anything suggesting that pleasure was a good thing, discouraged Christmas, too, which is why the New Year is more important in Scotland. And is celebrated by grieving for Auld Lang Syne.

I'm all for Christmas, and any other Winter Solstice feast people celebrate. The return of the light, or the Light, symbolises hope. Without hope, we despair.

So Merry Christmas to all. May you be renewed in your faith, enjoy the company of family and friends, and find peace and hope in 2016. Without hope, we despair. So Merry Christmas to all. May you be renewed in your faith, enjoy the company of family and friends, and find peace and hope in 2016."

Monday, December 21, 2015

Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers

     Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers (2009) Reinhold Schellenberg, a German priest attending a course on sacred music dies of semi-decapitation. Who killed him, and why? That’s the mystery, but Emery’s real interest is the fallout from Vatican II, in which Schellenberg played a small but crucial role. To judge from the book, she’s a devout Catholic who knows her history and theology. A good deal of the talk is about sacred music, the changes in the liturgy, and the theological and spiritual effects of those changes. She doesn’t pass up opportunities for satire, generally quite mild, but she really doesn’t like the feel-good, me-focussed self-congratulatory piety expressed in much modern church music. The course leader, Brennan Burke, detests this religiosity. He’s a priest of the old school liturgically and theologically. He’s the most complex character in the book.
     The narrator, Monty Collins, is like Emery herself a lawyer, but he doesn’t ring quite true. She needs a male narrator, a woman wouldn’t have the same kind of friendship with a priest, and hence access to information about the suspects. He’s recently separated from his wife who’s borne a child with an unnamed lover. He’s remained on polite terms with his wife, and loves his children. There’s a hint he’ll take to the bastard that’s been foisted on him; maybe in a the next book.
     But the narrator hasn’t enough inner life to make him fully believable. Not that it matters, the focus is on conversation. That conversation is always interesting, revealing character as well as the facts that fit and don’t fit the narrative which will solve the puzzle. The solution is a last-minute revelation of the facts needed to explicate the hints planted earlier. I didn’t like it much, I prefer a richer mix of relevant and irrelevant details than Emery provides. Maybe Emery wrote a wider-ranging, more rambling story, but had to cut it to fit a price point.
     Emery is really far more interested in her characters, in their back stories, their past relationships, the effects of social and psychological traumas they endured, how politics leads us into choices we would rather not make. She knows that ideas have consequences. Discovering the murderer means discovering the motivations of the innocent as well as the guilty. Motivation comes from our desires, but it’s shaped and directed by our beliefs.
     A good read, but not to everyone’s taste, I think. **½

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Arabesque (1996)

     Arabesque (1996) [D: Stanley Donen. Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel] David Pollock, an Oxford professor of eastern studies (Peck), is roped into deciphering a mysterious Hittite inscription used as a cipher in an international game of oil diplomacy and assassination of the Prime Minister of an obscure oil-rich middle eastern country. Beshraavi, an evil business man (Badel), is behind it all. His mistress Yasmin (Loren) plays a double double-cross in an attempt to prevent the killing. Many plot tangles and spy caper cliches later, David and Yasmin end up in each other’s arms punting on the Thames. Splashy fade-out.
     Competent film making, fun to watch, typical of its era, with a huge variety of settings, a helicopter chase, well-acted bit parts, and fast enough narration to keep you interested. Peck and Loren work well together. This movie doesn’t attempt to be anything other what it is, well-made fantasy adventure romance. Above average for the genre. **½

Village of Secrets. (2014)

     Caroline Moorehead. Village of Secrets. (2014) Subtitle: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Not so much defying as deceiving. The people of Le-Chambon-Sur-Lignon were able to save an astonishing number of children from deportation to the death camps. A handful of pastors and other community leaders were able to lead this effort partly because of the collusion of officials outside the region, the deliberate sloppiness of the police, and because external agencies (nowadays called NGOs) could operate until the USA entered the war, but mostly because this part of France is remote and in those days was ignored as of no economic or political account, whose inhabitants were ignorant and backward. That gave them a certain anonymity; they could hide behind their stereotypes. When you are fooling people who think they are smarter than you, it pays to play up your supposed inferiority.
     Nevertheless, the risks were real. The deprivations suffered by the Jews were terrible. Their self-delusion that as citizens of France they were safe are pitiful to contemplate: when thugs are in power, legal and cultural protections are meaningless.
     This is one the few books I did not finish. After reading two-thirds of it, I decided I didn’t need any more details. The people did what they did at great risk to themselves. Not a pleasurable read: the knowledge that so many children were saved from death is offset by the knowledge that they suffered from the loss of their families, most of whom died in the gas chambers.
     The book is well-written. Moorehead is one those historians who can write a story As a record what good people can do when they follow their conscience and use their wits, a story worth reading. It’s also a semi-comforting account of how the Nazis weren’t nearly as efficient as we have come to believe. You may be able to finish the book. ***

The Ark in the Garden. (1998)

     Alberto Manguel, ed. The Ark in the Garden. (1998) A well-made little book, a collection of fables or parables about current politics, economics, values. Margaret Atwood’s, A Christmas Lorac which inverts the Scrooge story, is typical: a reminder that our present version of capitalism is dysfunctional, a polite word for an appalling reality. The major theme is the disconnect between our understanding of ecosystems and our economic values. The common notion is that we can choose between “the environment” and “the economy.” That’s like believing we can choose between eating and breathing. We’ve become insane.
     The minor theme is freedom, the freedom to be what one is without unjust constraints, whether those constraints are our obligations to others, or limits on our choices, or others’ indifference. These two themes I think are related by a more abstract one: the necessity of growing up.
     A good book. ***

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Katherine Hall Page. The Body in the Snowdrift (2005)

     Katherine Hall Page. The Body in the Snowdrift (2005) The part-owner of a ski resort in Vermont dies. Faith Fairchild accompanies Tom her Episcopal priest husband there to a birthday party organised by and for her father-in-law Dick Fairchild. The ski resort is owned by family friends, the Staffords. Faith finds the body when she rises early for a solitary ski. Both families are dysfunctional, but Dick Fairchild is oblivious. The resort is on the edge of financial collapse, it needs a successful season. A of odd incidents occur, culminating in murder. Faith subs for the chef who has mysteriously disappeared, and whose body later is spread over the slopes by the snow-making machine. Faith somehow “solves” the murder, the murderer corners her, but her nephew and the daughter of one of the resort owners save her. The murderer and his evil genius (the aging-hippie Stafford sister) are unmasked. So that’s all right.
     The book is both over- and under-written. The plot is too slight to carry the tale. Hall Page really doesn’t have much interest in how a sleuth works, she’s far more interested in naming brands and dropping literary and culinary hints that the alert reader can use to suss the cultural markers necessary to pass as one of the beautiful people.
     The dysfunctional family is far more interesting than the crimes, but Hall Page’s narration suffers from pop-psych analyses and resolutions, not to mention dialogue in which everybody talks the same way. Characters are like those 2D figures whose arms and legs move, even lead-character Faith is a stereotype. The ambience is barely there; the setting is described in generic terms, so that there’s little sense of place. Much of it reads like a sponsored travelogue.  In fact, the whole book reeked of product placement.
     So why is this a best selling series? Basically, it’s a romance, a genre that has developed multiple sub-genres, all of which require serious suspension of disbelief. Here, there’s the gimmick that Faith is a master chef who owns a catering business, thus is an Independent Woman, despite having a husband and two young children. Some of her recipes are included in every book: to my very amateur eye, they seem simple enough for anyone to make, and rely on well-tried combinations of flavours. Besides being a great cook, loving wife, and good mother, she’s also a sleuth; but we don’t see any sleuthing beyond Faith’s puzzlements and speculations.
     Then there’s the heavy use of brand names. Plus a  story and language that require no concentration whatever. Cliches and familiar tropes lead the reader along the well-worn paths of semi-plausible realist fantasy. You can read this while daydreaming about schussing down a black diamond run then canoodling in front of a fire.
     The only tension is of the what-will-happen-next variety, which is enough to keep a semi-attentive reader turning the pages. I confess that sometimes I am such a reader, but even so, it took me several sessions to read this book, prompted more by a sense that I ought to finish the book before writing about it. Moderately good of its kind. More literate than most examples I’ve come across, hence a *½.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Star Over Bethlehem (1965)

     Agatha Christie. Star Over Bethlehem (1965) The mystery novels contain hints that Christie was a believer, especially her brief comments on guilt, innocence, and just punishment. This collection of stories and poems gives us a fuller impression of her beliefs.
      In I a Mrs Grierson knows that her dislike of people compromises her good works, done from moral conviction. She wishes that she could like the people she helps. A stranger on a water taxi wears a seamless robe. Tempted, she touches it, the touch transforms the way she sees and feels about her fellow humans. In the Cool of the Evening tells of an autistic boy who meets a stranger in his garden. With the stranger, he invents names for the odd animals that result from a nearby radioactive spill. His mother, embarrassed by him, doesn’t recognise his gift, and wishes he were normal.
     The last story, Promoted to the Highest, is a fantasy in which fourteen saints, depicted in an ancient fresco in a country church, petition to be allowed to return to Earth to continue their work. Dying for their faith wasn’t enough; they need to live it. Their request is granted. The recipients of their miraculous powers are rather disreputable. Christie shows her suspicion of mere respectability here as much as in her mysteries.
     I think this slight book should be more widely known. Christie strings clues and misinterpretations together just as she does in her mysteries. The stories  achieve their purposes. They’re parables, relying on outline of plot and character in order to prompt the us to think about puzzles that are difficult to pose any other way, and whose solution will always be provisional. Philosophers may be satisfied with abstractions. The rest of us want concrete experience. Christie delivers. These pieces remind me of C. S. Lewis. ***

Friday, December 04, 2015

So’s Your Aunt Emma (1942)

     So’s Your Aunt Emma (1942) Zasu Pitts leads a cast of B-list actors working their way through a script concocted by someone who thinks a good idea is enough. The good idea is that a respectable old maid travels to the city to see the boxer son of the man she didn’t marry, gets entangled in gangster double crosses, and of course manages to  bring everything to a successful end. Love and justice triumph, as do the wholesome values of Aunt Emma.
     But the script hobbles along, the acting is merely competent, the photography ranges from average to awful, and the narrative pace is too slow even for 1942. One of those movies that could have been much better. The title is a catch-phrase of the times. Look in Wikipedia for more details.
     Definitely a B movie, second half of a double bill.  Mildly amusing as an example of Hollywood product. **

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

     The Peanuts Movie (2015) See the IMDb information here.
     One of the charms of Schulz’s Peanuts was his line. He could put more expression into a squiggle-mouth than many artists could put into a whole canvas. He was also a great writer: it’s not easy to make a three- or four-panel strip tell a story, or imply a larger one. Unlike many strips, Peanuts had a backstory that Schulz continually developed. So although the kids lived in a timeless universe, things did happen, our knowledge of the characters deepened, and their relationships became more complex. Just how Schulz managed this with a cast of almost pure stereotypes repays careful study, but this review is not a thesis.
     When any well-loved cartoon is converted to a movie, many in the audience, including me, will watch with a critical eye. How well does the movie capture the look’n’feel, the ambience, the quirkiness of the source? The answer here is, very well. The producers decided to model the characters in 3D, but to keep their faces 2D. Their mouths and eyes and eyebrows are the expressive squiggles of Schulz’s strip. That makes the movie visually very appealing, and dialogue almost unnecessary.
     The story is simple enough, Charlie Brown falls in love with the Little Red Haired Girl that has just moved into town. But he’s too bashful to talk to her, too afraid that she will look down on his dorkiness, too much conditioned into accepting the role given him by his classmates, especially Lucy.
     There are sub-plots. We see Snoopy as the WW1 Flying Ace fighting the Red Baron, every character gets at least one scene centre-stage, kites are Charlie Brown’s nemesis, and so on. For us who grew up with Peanuts, or whose children did, the movie is a nostalgia trip. Everything ends well, there’s a preachy moment when the Little Red Haired Girl explains why she likes Charlie Brown, but otherwise the movie is a well-done riff on the perennial Peanuts themes. Recommended. ***½

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tough political decisions

Funny how "tough political decisions" always seem to be about cutting spending, and target spending on the poor, the weak, the disabled, the young, and so on.

The really tough political decision is to raise taxes. Funny how that option is never mentioned when tough political decisions are discussed.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Take Five by Dave Brubeck at Montreal in 2009

One of the great jazz standards is Take Five. Dave Brubeck made it his own. There are many versions available on line, but this 2009 Montreal Jazz Festival video is one of the bets. Brubeck was near the end of his life, and he just lets his crew take the tune to wherever they want to take it. Lovely sax, cello, bass, and drum solos. ****

Friday, November 13, 2015

[Pendon Museum]. Bringing the Past to Life (2015)

     [Pendon Museum]. Bringing the Past to Life (2015) The latest guide to the Pendon model railway, the brainchild and legacy of Roye England. Roye came from Australia to the UK in 1925. That was a time when even native-born Australians thought of the UK as Home, and Roye was shocked at the difference between his image of the country as a green and pleasant land and the reality of industrialisation and rapid modernisation. He resolved to preserve the England that was rapidly disappearing, and the medium he chose was a model railway.
     One may argue about whether the situation was as bad as Roye believed, but one can’t argue with the result: an amazing and beautiful recreation of the ambience of the Vale of the White Horse. Pendon not only fulfilled Roye’s vision, it inspired a higher standard of railway modelling. The people that gathered round him and helped him build the layout pioneered not only realistic modelling of  the railway and its setting but also realistic modelling of railway operations.
     The book includes a brief biography of Roye England, a history of the layout, and descriptions of its present state and operations. It’s worth reading merely as an account of one of the great model railways, but its emphasis on its function as a museum reminds us that we need to know the past in order to count the cost of the present and be wary of heedless innovation.  England was not as nice a place to live in as Roye believed. Working the farms was backbreaking, dangerous, and unhealthy: farmers had and have among the shortest life expectancies. The caste system that’s still a drag on Britain was even worse back then: the happy servant stereotype we like to watch in Downton Abbey was and is a fantasy. Even with railways as densely built as they then were, travel was expensive and time-consuming. There have been many changes since the 1920s. This museum model railway reminds us that not all change is progress.
     The text is brief but sufficient. A bonus is the Madder Valley Railway, built by John Ahearn, one of the pioneers of railway modelling. The pictures are well reproduced. A good souvenir and introduction to the Pendon. ***

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Caroline Graham. A Ghost in the Machine (2004

     Caroline Graham. A Ghost in the Machine (2004) I picked up this book because I like the Midsomer Murders series featuring DCI John Barnaby. As with all book-to-TV series, the first question I ask, does it work? Yes, with the usual shifts in tone, character, and ambience. The TV Barnaby is a more complex and nicer character than Graham’s, TV’s Sergeant Troy is single, not married and a randy alley cat. Graham’s characters are more black and white, so the inevitable comeuppances and changes are more extreme, too. As for ambience, TV with its visuals has the edge. Graham uses setting primarily to sharpen her character portraits through their reactions to their surroundings.
     So what about the book itself? It’s pretty good. Graham takes a long time to set up the murders. She describes Barnaby and Troy’s investigation well enough, but the solution should not surprise an alert reader (which I prefer not to be, I like the surprise). The extreme contrasts between the good and evil characters create a strong moralistic subtext. We know that the baddies will be punished, that their immoral behaviour arises from a lack of self-awareness, and that this obliviousness will lead them into the kind of stupid actions that can be lethal.
     Several plot lines intersect. Graham handles them well, we never lose track, and the alternation of the narrative snippets creates a pleasant tension. I won’t summarise, except to say that Graham likes to tidy up the loose ends, and does so satisfactorily, albeit by using a separate chapter in which the good get some consolation or reward for their sufferings, and the bad ones are or will be punished. This wrap-up is characteristic of romances, and that’s what this book is, a romance with touches of melodrama, satire, and comic-book style narrative compression. **½

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile

      Agatha Christie. Death on the Nile (1938) By the time she wrote this, Christie's interest had evidently shifted from mere puzzle construction towards character, and her always strong interest in romance began to trump her ruthless views on justice. Linnet Ridgeway, a very beautiful and very rich heiress, is the victim. Poirot happens to be present on the tour up the Nile because he has  has supposedly retired and is taking a holiday. (This is an early attempt by Christie to rid herself of the amusing Belgian. If he's retired, this could be his last bow.) The murder was carefully planned: Simon Doyle, the husband, and Jacqueline de Bellefort, his erstwhile fiancee, have arranged for Linnet to "take away" the man and marry him, then murder her, so that they could enjoy her lovely money. The murder depends on a double alibi, and a barely sufficient window of opportunity. Colonel Race (on the tour boat in his Secret Service capacity) and Poirot investigate, as the tour operators wish to have the affair settled before handing over the case to the Egyptian police.
    At first, Poirot is misled by the carefully staged alibi, but a couple of facts that don't fit arouse his suspicions, and he uses his usual method of looking at the facts from the opposite angle. Since he uses this method so often, and because Miss Marple does so too, I suspect this is Christie's comment on the best method for solving puzzles. Poirot also arranges for two couples to live happily ever after. The story ends with a murder suicide: Jacqueline has brought two pistols with her. Suicide as a way out becomes more common in Christie's later novels. Perhaps an unadmitted snobbishness (upper class people shouldn't be hanged), or a weakening of her pro-hanging views, or her sentimental attitude to true love (perhaps a wishful reaction to her own unsuccessful first marriage) produced this shift.
    The novel is one of Christie's masterpieces, no doubt the reason it was made into a film starring Peter Ustinov (1978). It  had a good success, but Ustinov is a bad Poirot. Despite his considerable acting skill he can't overcome the impression of general tattiness and rumpled disorder, greatly at odds with Poirot's neatness and precision. His clothes are always wrinkled – something Poirot would never permit himself, even in the humid heat of the Nile valley. The movie's simplified plot required significant changes, which IMO reduce the psychological complexity of the story. I suppose the producers couldn't afford the lengthy cast of the original story. Pity. ***

Agatha Christie. Evil Under The Sun

     Agatha Christie. Evil Under The Sun (1941) Poirot is resting his little grey cells at an expensive holiday resort. A woman who attracts men as honey attracts flies dies of unnatural causes, and none of the obvious suspects fit the crime. So Poirot wakes up his little grey cells, and shows that the crime must have been committed at a different time than initially believed, as deduced from the evidence of one of the two people who planned and carried out the murder. The widower and one of the suspects, who have know each other since childhood, will marry, which makes the man's child (who felt guilty because she hated her stepmother) very happy.
     This novel is one of the group dramatised for TV by A&E. Well done videos, albeit lacking much of the subtlety of the text. 1-1/2 hours is insufficient room for developing those nuances of character that Christies hinted at in her dialogue. The BBC dramatised the Poirot short stories (one of which uses a nearly identical plot as this novel), a wise decision, I think. The few that were based on novels were done as two- or even three- parters. But the BBC was not bound by rigid schedules of time and money. A good read. ***

How new theories grow from the old

The beautiful thing about philosophy is that philosophies die. New philosophy can then grow from the soil enriched by the dead. (Bas van Fraassen, 2004)

I think that much of what looks like radical rethinking of a theory arises from mistaken apprehension of the theory displaced by the new insights. For example, it seems that Einstein did not see gravity and acceleration as different, even though Newton’s physics tacitly assumed they were.

Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation (2007)

     Karen Armstrong. The Great Transformation (2007) Armstrong traces the shift from tribal, localised gods, who protected and nourished their worshippers, to a wider ranging perception of gods, and eventually God as the source of all being, who requires his devotees to consider not only themselves but all humankind as members of one family. Although in the East the concept of God disappeared, the notion of a single human family, and a single moral law that binds us to each other, appeared at about the same time in all parts of the world.
     More precisely (although Armstrong doesn't say so explicitly), it appears at the same stage of cultural development: when the nomadic life of the herders gives way to the settled life of the farmers, which enables the rise of cities and states. These larger conglomerations of human societies necessitate the toleration of differing religions and world views; hence the development of the five major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam), which have far more in common than even their most enlightened followers generally accept.
      A thoroughly researched book, sometimes tedious in its detail, that reminds us that we are all the same species, and one way or another must find common beliefs and values if we are to survive what we have done to the planet and to each other. Her A History of God presents the same thesis in a shorter and more thematic form. ***

Money and Ayn Rand

     Ayn Rand and her followers worship money. But on money, her notions are such a muddled mix of insight and delusion that it's hard to know where to begin a rational critique. From the Ayn Rand lexicon 
     Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with. This leads you to the decision to use gold as money. Gold money is a tangible value in itself and a token of wealth actually produced. When you accept a gold coin in payment for your goods, you actually deliver the goods to the buyer; the transaction is as safe as simple barter. When you store your savings in the form of gold coins, they represent the goods which you have actually produced and which have gone to buy time for other producers, who will keep the productive process going, so that you’ll be able to trade your coins for goods any time you wish.
    Her key points are nonsense. Gold has no more intrinsic value than any other currency; its value as money is only and exactly what people believe it is. Rand falls into the almost universal delusion that money some kind of stuff. She does this despite the fact that she says money should be "not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand". IOW, that the value of gold depends on people's beliefs about it.
     The notion that money somehow buys time for future production misses the point. "Delayed consumption" is possible only when there is a surplus of goods or productive capacity. Money cannot create a surplus, nor is it needed to ensure that any surplus will be used. Humans have invented many ways of saving surpluses without money. What you need is a technology that multiplies the effect of human work, and a system of customs that will ensure the surplus will be stored and traded. Fact is, even today much trade is done without money. The basic rule of all trade is "mutual obligation".
     And like practically everybody, Rand misquotes St. Paul’s comment on money:
So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . . Have you ever asked what is the root of money?
     St. Paul actually wrote, The love of money is the root of all evil. Look it up!
     Money is a way of making trade with strangers possible, and thereby mutually dependent. A very useful invention, IOW. For example, just try to calculate how many people have been involved in producing a ball point pen and making it available to you. A stranger is someone to whom you owe nothing, and vice versa. This makes interaction between strangers dangerous. Hence, all societies have had to invent ways of making at least temporary mutual obligation possible. Think of "guest right", for example. Puzzle: Why do all those strangers work to produce and deliver a cheap pen to you? Because money makes it not only possible to trade with people you will never see, it makes it easy to do so.
     Nowadays, money trades are used to measure economic activity, which produces such incomplete, gappy data that it causes pernicious delusions. Even in our highly monetised economy, about 1/3rd of economic activity does not involve money. In pre-money times, that was 100%.
     Basic rule about money: Money and wealth flow in opposite directions.
     I think everybody needs a good introductory survey course in anthropology, to learn about all the ways humans have organised the production and distribution of goods and services. It might cure one of the notion that our current economic arrangements are somehow natural (or, gaak!, god-given.) For over 95% of our existence as a culture-creating species, we humans have had no money. Yet humans managed to produce the goods and provide the services they needed. It’s true that money, because it accelerated trade, and more importantly enabled trade with strangers, accelerated the creation of wealth. But trade, and its beneficial effects on wealth creation and cultural exchange, existed long before money. It is Rand's blindness to this fact that leads her astray.

     2013-03-11; 2014-05-23; 2015-11-07; 2016-05-12

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Louise Penny. Still Life (2005)

      Louise Penny. Still Life (2005) I volunteer at our blood donor clinic, which offers opportunities for pleasant chats. Recently, a donor recommended Penny’s books, so I borrowed this one from the library. Glad I did, this is a very well done mystery novel. It’s the first in a series. I’m glad I followed up on the recommendation.
     The web comments say that Penny’s books are “village cozies”, but that’s a hugely superficial comment. True, the gore is minimal, and the setting is Three Pines, a village in Quebec’s eastern Townships region. And the ambience is cozy in the sense that everybody knows everybody else, and most people like each other, too. But the emotional damage that spreads outward from a murder is anything but cozy. Family relationships are strained and broken. People discover unpleasant truths about themselves. Some stupidly nasty people are irredeemable. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache can’t save a self-centered careerist young officer from herself. Penny is too wise a writer to tie up all loose ends in tidy happy endings.
     The world of Three Pines is fully realised. Knowing that there ten more novels in the series soothed the dissatisfaction of incomplete back-stories and merely sketched characters. But even these sketches have the quirkiness of real life.
     For those who haven’t yet read a Gamache book, begin with this one. A well-loved spinster school-teacher is murdered with a hunting arrow. The mystery is fairly represented, with all the clues in plain sight. Their significance is primarily psychological, not forensic. Gamache is one of those  detectives who solves crimes by listening to people, intuiting their personalities and character, linking present facts to the past. The officer who fails to learn from him can’t see past the literal, and the only character that interests her is her own.
     Penny’s strength is creating a complete world. I didn’t want to leave it, and read this book in one short and two long sittings. ****

Friday, October 23, 2015

Wives Under Suspicion (1938)

     Wives Under Suspicion (1938) [D:James Whale. Warren William, Gail Patrick, Lilian Yarbo]
     A workaholic District Attorney goes after the death penalty for a man who killed his wife in a fit of passionate jealousy and now suffers from extreme remorse and grief. Influenced by the man’s confession, he develops a jealous suspicion of his own wife, and comes close to duplicating the crime. This makes him reconsider the prosecution, and he asks that the charge be reduced to manslaughter. Fadeout on a clinch as the hero and his wife set out on a second honeymoon.
     Semi-competent programme-filler, what used to be called a women’s picture, with its hero realising how much he loves his wife. One cliche and stereotype after another, with a seriously underdeveloped depiction of the marriage, which is central to the movie. Of historical interest to students of popular culture with its do-nothing wife, its clamourous reporters, use of headline montages to tell the story of the trial, etc. Oh, the key scene, in which the hero thinks he sees his wife having an affair, turns out to be something completely different. *½

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Post election: first reactions

01:01 on 2015-10-20

I did not expect the Liberals to form a majority government. I did expect the Conservatives to hold onto their base, which is regional (Alberta/Saskatchewan) and rural (Southwestern Ontario, BC Interior, and Eastern Quebec). I expected them to do better in the urban areas. The Liberals have a slightly better national representation, but it's mostly in urban areas, the major exception being Atlantic Canada. Since most Canadians live  half a dozen or so conurbations, those votes gave the Liberals their majority. Only the NDP has widespread national support, coming in second in most of the ridings where other parties won. The Bloc Quebecois appeals to the same base as the Conservatives; their seats are primarily rural, several of them adjacent to the few Conservative seats in Quebec..

So we have a regional split together with a rural/urban split. This does not bode well.

Of the leaders' speeches: Mulcair didn't seem to be much fazed by his losses. He emphasised that the NDP would continue to fight for progressive values and policies. Pretty much all of them are also Liberal policies, so the ouster of Harper is welcome even though Mulcair didn't form the government. Elizabeth May looked forward to working with Trudeau. Harper repeated the appeals to his base, focussing on money. Trudeau emphasised hope, collaboration, unity, respect, positive values, and so on. He repeatedly used the word "citizens". His bearing was that of a man who knew he had work to do, and was looking forward to doing it.

Both Harper and Mulcair seemed to be almost relieved. The Conservative executive issued a release stating that Harper had requested the party to select an interim leader. I suspect Harper is looking forward to leaving office. He's achieved his goals of remaking Canada, and he knows that Trudeau will not be able to repair the damage easily. There was no similar news from the NDP, but Mulcair will certainly face murmurings (at least) about his leadership, and may look forward to leaving the stress of leadership to another person.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Three verses

 Looked through a notebook, found these verses I composed last year

What can we say? When
we’ve used up all the words
we speak of honour and faith
and then we draw our swords.

Young man, believe what you’ve been told,
it is not easy growing old.
But there’s one thing that keeps me young.
Yeah, it’s that old time rock’n’roll.

We’re in the fall of our lives now.
Soon the winter snows will come.
I look into your eyes and know
the journey’s done & I’ve come home.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Short History of Infinity

     Brian Clegg. A Short History of Infinity (2003) The title describes the book, and Clegg does a good job of introducing the “interested reader” to the mathematical concepts of infinity, and the many mathematicians who contributed to and developed the modern concepts of countable and uncountable infinities (terms he doesn’t use).
The basic ideas are in fact simple: two sets are the same size (cardinality) if you can match them element for element with no exceptions and none left over. Using this rule you discover that the set of whole numbers is the same size as the set of  square numbers, or any other set whose elements can be defined in terms of some operation on the whole numbers.
      The trouble starts when you are stuck at the stage of thinking of numbers as somehow real, just as kittens and trees are real. Not a problem with the whole numbers or the rational fractions: you see five pies on the kitchen counter, each cut into six pieces, so you 30 pieces of pie, or 30/6ths of a pie. But in the 15th  and 16th centuries mathematicians began to work with numbers that you couldn’t point to in this way. We need and use “imaginary” numbers because they work, they enable us to solve problems in both pure and applied math that we couldn’t deal with otherwise. Clegg needs us to accept the weirdness of infinite numbers, so he spends several chapters on imaginary numbers.
     The first of these was negative numbers. Here Clegg  (who is above all a compiler of information) seems to have missed something: a negative number can be pointed to: if you have -5 dollars, then you owe $5 to someone. Negative numbers may have been discovered as points on the number line, enabling solutions to otherwise insoluble equations, but bookkeepers made them real.
     The square root of -1 (i) was the next “imaginary” number to be discovered (or invented:  the verb you use reveals your metaphysics). Clegg makes a big thing of this one, too, but he asks us to accept on faith his assurance that it is used every day by engineers. A couple of examples would have been helpful.
     Finally, he comes to Cantor, whose mental health was fragile, and whose feud with Kronecker (his erstwhile mentor and sponsor) triggered the final crisis. Cantor applied the axioms of set theory to infinite sets, and in doing so showed that “infinity” was a viable mathematical concept. In particular, it helped clarify the differences between rational, irrational, and transcendental numbers.
     A good book, its flaws are minor and don’t interfere with understanding infinity. Clegg likes explaining things, and has a neat talent for potted biographies that give us both the facts essential to understanding the subject’s place in the central story, but also enough quirks to make the people real. What you make of other questions about infinity (such as whether the Universe is infinite or not) is left up to you. Recommended. ***

A Certain Justice

     P. D. James. A Certain Justice (1997) A murder in Chambers, office politics and rivalries, past evils and desires for present revenges, quite ordinary desires for security and love, and children loved too much or not loved enough make up this typically complex mix of character study and police procedural. One murder is solved, the one that prompted it will never be prosecuted because there will never be enough evidence to warrant laying a charge. In this late Adam Dalgleish P D James allows herself room to meditate on the nature of evil, and our inability to achieve more than a limited justice. I'm a fan, so I rate this ****

Malice Domestic 9

     Joan Hess, ed. Malice Domestic 9 (2000) A nice collection of purpose-written stories paying homage to Agatha Christie. In the last one, “Oliphants can Remember”, a nasty actor-manager is murdered because he seduced and abandoned a young actress, something he did regularly, but the girl killed herself. His murder recalls Murder on the Orient Express, so does the story succeed? Yes, as a puzzle, as pastiche, and as homage to Christie. Good collection, great for travelling, when you want the occasional fiction bon-bon, not a complete meals ** to ****

Monday, October 12, 2015

Night Train to Munich (1940)

     Night Train to Munich (1940) [D: Carol Reed. Margaret Lockwood, Rex Harrison, Paul Henreid (as Paul von Henried)]
     Agent Gus Bennett (Harrison) plays a German army officer in order to rescue Dr Bomasch, who was recaptured by the Nazis after an arranged escape of his daughter Anna (Lockwood) from a concentration camp. Henreid plays Karl Marsen, the evil Gestapo officer who tricked Anna into revealing her father’s location. Well plotted, but the slow narrative rhythm of the time allows us to see the holes. Harrison is in top form playing the stereotype he became famous for, the man who doesn’t take things seriously yet manages to outsmart and outfight all his adversaries, besides attracting the female lead who falls for him despite herself.
     A well done main feature, but even for the times the painted and model sets are a bit too obviously fake. The narrative pace is slow by today’s standards, which means that the story nicely fills its 95 minutes.  Radford and Wayne appear as Charters and Caldicott, the hapless and comically dense English tourists, who supply some levity and a crucial plot point. One of the earliest WW2 patriotic movies, and one of the best. Available for free download, and worth watching. ***

UP (2009)

     UP (2009) [D: Peter Docter, Bob Peterson. Voiced by Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, et al].
     After a long and happy marriage, Carl loses his wife Ellie, and almost his will to live. About to be evicted from his house, he lofts it with a bunch of balloons and sets out for Paradise Valley, as planned long ago with Ellie. Russell, a Wilderness Explorer seeking a Helping a Senior badge, inadvertently hitches a ride. They do make it to Paradise valley somewhere in South America, where they meet Charles Muntz, a childhood hero of Carl’s. But Muntz turns out to be a fame-obsessed sociopath who lives in a dirigible with a pack of servant dogs, one of whom takes a shine to Carl. Muntz wants Kevin, a 13 foot tall flightless bird that looks like a cross between a peacock and an emu. In the end Carl and Russell defeat Muntz. Russell gets his Helping a Senior medal, too. Nicely twisted plot, well done animation, and a less sentimental tone than one might infer from the plot summary. The movie won an Oscar, deservedly. ***

Friday, October 09, 2015

Lisa Wojna. The Bathroom Book of Canadian Quotes

     Lisa Wojna. The Bathroom Book of Canadian Quotes (2005) Just what it says, and better than I expected. Some of the political have become history, but most are still relevant. Eg, Governments are like underwear. They start smelling pretty bad if you don’t change them once in a while. (Ma Murray)
     A keeper. Probably out of print. ****

R. D. Wingfield. Frost at Christmas

     R. D. Wingfield. Frost at Christmas (1984) The first Jack Frost novel, with a cutesy title, published in Canada by PaperJacks. My copy is a much-read 2nd hand one I bought at Bearly Used Books in Parry Sound. The title refers only to the time of year. Several crimes interlace, complex plotting is one of Wingfield’s strengths. He’s pretty good on character, too, creating series characters with all the traits that were developed so well in the TV series. Ambience focusses on weather (awful) and work (mixed, with nicely done satire of careerists), and the mean and suburban streets.
     A girl is missing, she turns up murdered by accident. A bank heist, blackmail, an ancient crime, miscellaneous misdemeanours, and a rookie DC who is the Chief Constable’s nephew complicate Frost’s life and enrich the novel with the kind of detail that persuades us we are in a real world.  Frost suffers a gunshot wound, but will survive. According to the Wiki entry, Wingfield wanted this tale to be a one-off, but was persuaded to leave Frost’s survival open. Good decision for fans of Frost, and for the TV series, one of the best ever. ***

Friday, September 18, 2015

Louis L’Amour. Galloway (1970)

     Louis L’Amour. Galloway (1970) A well done potboiler of a Western, with three narrative strands coming together in a satisfying resolution. Fagan Sackett narrates one of them, the other two tell of his brother searching for and finding him, and a distant cousin wandering onto the set because he’s heard some Sacketts are in trouble. The nub of the conflict is a struggle with the Dunns, a lawless bunch who’ve lived off rustling, but now want to settle down and ranch in the same good country that Fagan and Galloway Sackett have selected. But they want it all, and hire an assassin to pick off the Sacketts one by one. Simplified characters, the usual L’Amour sense of place, and of course the unattainable woman as the prize for the hero.
     The book reads like an adaptation of a scenario. The switching from Fagan to other narrators feels like “Meanwhile, back at the ranch”, Fagan’s story is told in a series of set pieces, etc. It’s L’Amour’s ability to  put you into the scene that saves this book from mere formula. **½

The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States

     The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of the United States (1776 &1784) Published by Penguin Books as part of it 60th anniversary series of reprints.
     Every time I read these documents, I notice things I don’t think I noticed before, or I find some hazy memory corrected or confirmed. This time it was the following, from the Declaration:
     But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Objective evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
    “It is their duty”. Indeed it is. Of course, anyone who takes that seriously these days, and decides to foment revolution on these grounds, will find that most people will consider him an extremely dangerous person. To put it mildly.
     The text has been modernised in spelling, but not in punctuation. 18th century punctuation was somewhat haphazard, and writers were fond of the absolute adverbial phrase, which causes modern readers some trouble in discerning intent. Several articles were clearly responses to political issues of the time, which history has rendered irrelevant. There is entirely too much blaming of the King in the Declaration. By that time, Parliament was already the actual government, with the monarchy only a couple of steps away from a purely symbolic role with no actual power.
     It’s also clear that the Framers were worried that a strong President might take over the Government, much as a strong monarch might. They weren’t very aware of the political developments in England, and so opted for a Republican legislature instead of a Parliamentary one.  The long term result is a weak President, who must rely on both personal qualities and alliances with lawmakers to get his agenda accepted. Ironically, the Framers in effect created an elective monarchy with mid-18th century powers, which don’t amount to much.
     Nevertheless, worth rereading every year or two, if only to remind oneself that a liberal democracy is still an unrealised ideal, but always worth striving and if necessary fighting for. ****

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Picturing the Americas. At the AGO to September 20th, 2015.

     The AGO co-operated with the Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo and the Terra Foundation for American Art to present a survey of how Europeans saw the Americas. It’s obvious that from the beginning America was seen as an empty wilderness with a handful of salvages (forest dwellers) hunting and foraging, oblivious to the potential wealth of this untouched continent. Most of the early canvases show a vast wilderness, painted in the sublime style fostered by Romanticism, of varying skill and aesthetic appeal. Most of include a group of small figures to make the scale plausible. I noticed a number of them showed the European in the group waving his hand or pointing at whatever had caught his attention. It seemed the European was the guide and explicator of the landscape, not the native who showed him the trails through the bush.
     These paintings foster the myth that justified the European conquest. That there was a full range of cultures, with the majority of Americans living as farmers and townspeople has been more or less forgotten. There were several empires, and a number of federations built around trade and common cultural themes. Most Americans were killed by the diseases that the invaders brought to them. It wasn’t European weapons that defeated the Americans, it was European microbes. The Pilgrims of North America moved onto ready-made farms, left behind by the people who died of smallpox. That’s why American now means a citizen of the USA.
     Once the Europeans had established themselves, their art became a celebration of the new culture, which has adopted and adapted native motifs and stories. The exhibition ends with early to mid-20th century paintings, in which Canadians, Americans, Brazilians, and so on paint the visions of the land as it is, including railways and cities. But images of the wilderness still dominate. Even paintings of farming in the Mid-west emphasise the otherness of the landscape. Although created by humans, the vast fields seem more alien than the sublime wilderness painted a century earlier.
     Two texts that should be read in conjunction with this show: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, and What is America by Ronald Wright. Both retell the history of the Americas as one of the destruction of thriving local peoples and nations by the commercial and imperial ambitions of the European powers. Knowing that history, I saw most of the art as misrepresentations. It shows us how Europeans saw their new world. The native version became the stuff of archeology, a pre-historical narrative. Now that Native artists have begun to reclaim their history we see that early picturings of the Americas were an exercise in amnesia.
     A show worth seeing. As art **½ , as cultural commentary ****.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Politics: Election Issues 1

The desire to win elections makes politicians crazy.

Here we have Stephen Harper echoing his old refrain that cutting taxes will spur investment. It won’t of course. Businesses don’t invest tax savings, they pocket them. The only thing that spurs investment is the opportunity to retain or increase sales. With our economy edging into “official recession”, businesses won’t invest. Where are the customers?

Then we have Thomas Mulcair sounding even more fiscally prudent than Tony Blair did with his New Labour, which was a thinly disguised ploy to persuade the anti-commie nutbars that Labour was not really pink at all. A balanced budget in the first year of an NDP government? I doubt it. For one thing, the books will certainly show a deeper deficit than Harper as admitted, for another, there’s not enough revenue in added taxes and reversing tax giveaways to the wealthiest 20% to fund the new spending. Cutting subsidies for fossil fuels is a good idea, if it prompts oil-patch investors to shift their attention to renewables. But that entails uncertainty, and investors hate uncertainty. Mulcair is assuming a psychology that rarely operates in a for-profit economy.

Justin Trudeau admits that his plan to put us all to work building and repairing infrastructure will mean deficits for a couple of years or more. That’s a good ploy. It makes him sound honest and up front. Will enough voters agree that we have to spend money in order to make money, or will deficit-fear paralyse the little grey cells? Hard to tell. Most voters are moved more by the leader’s persona than by his policies, and Trudeau still seems too young to too many voters.

Harper merely needs to repeat his claim that he’s brought us through tough economic times unscathed, which is taking credit for the passing of the storm and the coming of the sunshine. Mulcair and Trudeau both think that they’re vulnerable to flank attacks from each other, so they fulfill their fears by mounting just such attacks. They should rather attack their common enemy, and assume that the voters will pick the better of the of the local candidates, that would pretty well guarantee a minority government by one of them, But then they would have to cooperate to make it work. 

Right now, I think the face off is between Harper and Mulcair, with Trudeau as the king-maker if Mulcair achieves a minority government, or needs a coalition partner. That might be a good thing. The Liberals’ desire for power, and the NDP’s yearning for ideological purity have stood in the way of the pragmatic answer to Harper’s Conservatives, which is a merger of the two parties. The fact is that Canada is centre left, not centre right. Harper’s base demands ideological purity, too, and only the centre-left split has kept him in power.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer at the Avon Theatre, Stratford. Directed by Martha Henry. Lucy Peacock, Joseph Ziegler, Maeve Beatty et al.
     Charles Marlow arrives at Hardcastle Hall thinking it’s an inn, and behaves abominably to both his father’s friend, Mr Hardcastle, and to his daughter Kate, whom he takes for the barmaid, and whom both his father and Mr Hardcastle hope will prove a suitable match. Meanwhile, his friend George Hastings is courting Kate’s cousin by marriage, Constance Neville, niece of Mrs Hardcastle, who wants her son Tony Lumpkin (Kate’s stepbrother) to marry Constance. So you can see there is a lot of scope for misunderstanding and semi-successful attempts at deceptions and trickery.
     The question is whether this 18th century concoction will work in 2015. It was very popular in its time and ever since. The script has never been out of print, and it’s been “revived” every other year or so somewhere in the world.
     Goldsmith wrote the play to suit his audience. The style is wordy, everybody speaks polite English, most of the jokes depend on the class distinctions that mattered so much at the time. And that’s the problem.  While I could understand that Marlow was misbehaving towards his host by treating him as an inn-keeper, I didn’t feel it. It wasn’t funny. The problem is that our standards of courtesy have changed, so seeing a gentleman treat another gentleman as a servant doesn’t raise a laugh. It’s just not prank material these days.
      So how do you play it? Do you portray Marlow as a boor, or as a bewildered victim? And how do you play Hardcastle? His protestations at the boorish behaviour of his guest must somehow play off his polite behaviour, since he knows Marlow is a gentleman and treats him as such. No wonder Marlow has a hard time reconciling the courtesy of his host with the poor service of the supposed inn.
     In short, the play’s premise is a problem. Marlow should come across as worthy of Kate. His honest love for her as barmaid suggests that he’s capable of ignoring the strictures of class and rank, but if he’s played as a boor, how are we to take the reveal scene in which he discovers that the barmaid is really Kate Hardcastle, whom he has just politely but firmly rejected? Is he an honourable man? Or is he just focussed on his desires, and just damn lucky that they happen to coincide with his father’s wishes after all?
     “We have all been adamant that these characters shall be real” writes Martha Henry. They should not be stylised modern take-offs on the 18th century roles. So we got a naturalistic interpretation of the roles, which worked quite well, despite the Avon Theatre’s atrocious acoustics, which swallow up conversation-level sound. The audience laughed often, so many of the jokes still work.
     But Goldsmith’s wordy style is not conversational. It’s also much of a muchness: the characters all talk the same way. That means we need more physicality in the acting. Henry writes that she and the cast wanted the characters to “live and breathe”. I suspect that this means she wanted people as like us as possible. She forgot that life-like is not the same as like life. The trick is to make unreality seem real. Goldsmith’s world is not our world. His attacks on sentimentality may suit us; but the expressions of sentimentality were different. Sentimentality is always stylised, it eventually becomes stale cliche. How to refresh the cliche so that it can be satirised? Not easy.
     Henry’s experiment in naturalism is a play that pleased but did not engage me. **½

Two anthologies: Montaigne and Keillor

     Michel de Montaigne. Four Essays (1680. Translated by M. A. Screech) In one of these essays, Montaigne discusses conversation, by which he means discussion, sharing of opinions, even debate. He’s laid back about other people’s opinions. He’s more concerned with how well people say things, which he thinks is a clue to whether they originated their ideas or merely stumbled upon them. What he wants from his interlocutor is a sense of the person, of the character and the mind. His essays give just this sense of Montaigne the person: he’s curious, he lets one idea lead to another, he has strong opinions, but above all he’s a man who enjoys his world and thinking about it. Screech translates Montaigne as a conversationalist: reading these essays we hear the voice of a man talking to us, entertaining us and himself with the reach and liveliness of his mind. ****
     Garson Keillor. Truckstop and Other Lake Wobegon Stories (1995) A handful of Keillor’s tales, a pleasure to read. On its 60th anniversary, Penguin issued a number of small books of excerpts from its wide range of reprints. This is one of them, and anyone who lights upon Keillor for the first time will want to read the complete editions. I’ve read them all before, but they are as fresh as when first read, or heard on The Prairie Home Companion. The six stories here all deal with the Krepsbachs, and add up to s small novel. That’s Keillor’s genius, his ability to chronicle the lives of the people of Lake Wobegon over dozens of tales. ****

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Caroline Graham. Death in Disguise (1992)

     Caroline Graham. Death in Disguise (1992) An Inspector Barnaby Mystery. Looking at the date, I see why this series is hard to find: paperbacks published twenty-some years have been pulped and made into boxboard.
     The series became the basis for the Midsomer Murders on TV. This book is well done. Graham is especially good at satirising fruit-loopery, in this case a New Age commune living in an ageing manor house. At times, this part of the story verges on farce, but Graham has an ill-suppressed fondness for some of these loopy people, who after all are merely trying to find what we all want, calm and a sense that the Universe isn’t too arbitrarily horrible. The murder puzzle is well set up, but a crucial detail about the killer’s past is omitted. The first victim is put down as an accident; the second and third are clearly murders. The main problem is that no one has any motive to kill the group’s leader, while the third murder looks like self-defence.
     As with all mysteries, we aren’t too involved with the victims, but we do care about some of the suspects. Barnaby is quite likeable, but not as complex as his TV self, but Sergeant Troy is much less likeable than his TV version. The other characters range from a despicable parvenu (but even he has a pitiful need to gain the love of his only child) to a pathetic traumatised boy. The murderer is your garden-variety sociopath: it’s clues to his character that should tip off the alert reader.
     A well done entertainment, which I read because I wanted to see the source of the TV series, which I like very much, even when it stumbles. I likely won’t read another Inspector Barnaby mystery, though. **½

Monday, August 10, 2015

Three collections: Peter Arno, Editorial Cartoons, and Urban Legends.

     Peter Arno: "You give such perfect parties, Alice. Is there someone here that you'd like to meet?" (1979) With an introduction by Charles Saxon. I’ve always liked Arno’s New Yorker cartoons. They have an edge to them. Arno also has an uncanny ability to present a social type and  milieu in a few brushstrokes. His career was with The New Yorker. Of the 248 drawings in this collection, 236 first appeared there. It’s a marvellous collection. I found it at the local food bank’s yard sale. It’s a keeper.
     Arno’s life started well, but ended sadly. He became a misanthropic recluse. Perhaps the politely silent contempt for an artist who was merely a cartoonist finally got to him. Saxon says that a visit to Arno’s studio showed how often he redrew the same image, trying to get it right. His obsession with composition, tone, texture, and line is the mark of an artist. That his pictures also conveyed social commentary and critique makes his work all the more admirable.
     The last cartoon of the book is the last one published before his death. A typically Pretty Young Thing, all perky bosom and thighs, is seated under a leafy tree. A satyr playing the pipes prances by. “Oh, grow up”, the girl says.
     Great book ****

     Guy Badeaux, ed. Portfoolio 13 (1997) “The year’s best Canadian editorial cartoons” the subtitle announces, and it is that. Worth studying not only as a reminder of what worked up our indignation and amusement back then, but also for what has and hasn’t changed. The cartoons range from wry commentary (Man reading paper with headline Banks Enjoy Record Profits says “I guess the times they aren’t a-changing that much...”) to savage (Western diplomat type wades through corpses while vulture labelled Karadzic perches on scarecrow labelled Dayton Accords, says “Getting rid of him would be too messy”).
     A document, a keeper, another find at the yard sale. ****

     Thomas J. Craughwell. Alligators in the Sewer (1999) A beautifully printed and bound book. The contents are the old standbys, a good introduction to anyone who likes urban legends, the kinds of stories that Jan Brunvand pointed out always happened to “a friend of a friend”. Craughwell likes the naughty ones, often obscene, but always morally correct: the sinners get theirs, and then some. A good gift book, a little light on the in my opinion necessary commentary on the age and history of these tales, most of which have been around for generations and even centuries. Only the details of setting and technology have changed, the core narratives are ancient. Some of the tales apparently have figured in best selling novels. **½

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Argosy (February 1955, January 1956)

     Argosy (February 1955, January 1956) Uncle Paul subscribed to this magazine, and sent his copies to Mother. I looked forward to them, I liked the ship on the cover, and every issue had one or more surprises. Most of the selections were reprints. The magazine reprinted short stories and excerpts from novels, as well three or four themed collections of short passages. There were several original stories, and part of a serialised novel. A prize crossword and one or more quizzes exercised the memory. Quite a feast for anyone who liked to read fiction.
     The stories covered several genres, adventure romance, fantasy, human interest, crime, and so on. No surprises, tried and true formulas, almost all with a twist at the end. One knew what one was getting. This was the magazine’s strength and ultimately its weakness. People turned more and more to TV for their fiction fix. But while it lasted, Argosy delivered well-crafted writing. Many of the authors were best-sellers at the time, others became so. These copies include Ray Bradbury, Paul Gallico, Edith Pargeter, Ludwig Bemelmans, Sean O’Faolain, Elizabeth Bowen.
     What’s just as interesting is the advertising. Almost all of it is for correspondence courses in writing, or career-enhancing skills. The ads are wordy, aimed at people who feel more or less unsuccessful, and want some way of improving their social and economic standing. It was a time when people were encouraged to feel that they could take control of their lives (Pelmanism appears in every issue), to overcome the  disadvantages of birth, education, and life history. Many ads include anecdotes (“original letters may be inspected at...”) testifying to the wonderful effects of the course or the nostrum.
     A pleasant read. Contents ** to ***

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Code (2012)

     The Code (2012) Presented by Marcus Du Sautoy. Three-part series about mathematics, and its role in describing the universe. An excellent overview and introduction to mathematics, clearly explained, with better than average visuals, and emphasis on everyday, real-life applications. The title alludes to Du Sautoy’s metaphysics: the code is a method of making sense of the world. The series is worth watching more than once, especially of you’ve forgotten most of your high-school math. Above all, it’s reminder of how much of our economy, our technology, our politics, our social life, even our  private lives is described and explained by the code, whether we know it or not. Understand the code, and you understand the universe.
     Or so it seems.
     Du Sautoy believes that mathematics underlies reality. I don’t. I believe that mathematics is one of many symbol systems we use to make models of our experience, models that are good enough to help us survive. We make mistakes in creating those models, and some models are more than a little off. The only check we have is that the models work. But I don’t think they answer the question of what’s really out there. If they did, then any model that works is a true representation of reality, at least insofar as it works, at least a partial truth, at least a limited glimpse of the real. Trouble is, we have models that contradict each other. When that happens we get into squabbles about which one is truer than the other. There’s no question that the religious models work in the sense that they give people a reason to get up in the morning. But they contradict each other, and they contradict mathematics.
     The mystery about mathematics is that it works so unreasonably well. Why? There is no good answer that I know of, there is none that satisfies me. But I think the observation that mathematics begins with physical interactions between us and the world around us offers a clue. Other animals do this too, sometimes so well that we want to ascribe conscious reasoning to them. It may be that a crow figuring out how to unlock a cage is reasoning consciously, but we’ll likely never know. We do know that we can devise algorithms that reason about the data that we feed in, and produce more reliable results than we do ourselves. Reasoning does not require consciousness.
     What then does require consciousness? The kind of understanding that enables us to choose the kind of reasoning we need, and more than that, to recognise and understand new problems, and devise the reasoning to solve them. It’s at this level of understanding that Du Sautoy’s belief in the underlying reality of mathematics occurs, and that I disagree.
     Not that it matters. This level is so abstract that it’s not about reality anymore, but about our images of reality. Those are all finally private. The wonder is that language enables us to share these private imaginings as well as we do. We can share mathematical models better than any other, which deepens the mystery.
     The series can be watched on TVO. ****

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989)

     Jay Ingram. The Science of Everyday Life (1989) Don’t let the date put you off. Like Jay says, good science is timeless. It’s still true that if you have a certain pair of gene variations, you will not only metabolise asparagus to make your urine smelly, you will also be among the few who can smell it. Or that we still don’t a good handle on why we yawn (the latest research suggests that it’s connected with sex, which may explain why yawning is considered rude almost everywhere).
     Or that walking, which we master in a few weeks around the age of 14 months, is an extremely complex behaviour. Much more complicated than accounting. Which reminds me that the easy stuff has long been mechanised, robotised, digitised, and computerised. It’s the hard stuff that we still need people for, but because most people can do it quite easily, we don’t realise how hard it is.
     This was a re-read, and just as much fun as the first time round. It’s been reissued, so you should be able to find a copy. ***

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Taming of the Shrew.

     The Taming of the Shrew. At the Stratford Festival Theatre. Directed by Chris Abraham. Ben Carlson (Petruchio), Deborah Hay (Katherina), Sarah Afful (Bianca), et al.
     In many ways a traditional Shrew, this production succeeds on many levels. Unusually, it includes the Induction, heavily adapted, but a good reminder that what we are about to see is a play put on for a gullible old drunken fool. It’s a mix of farce, fantasy, and fun, not to be taken too seriously. The company emphasised the fun, and worked together to produce high-quality theatre, inspired and shaped by the traces of commedia dell’arte in the script.
     Except of course that the play does raise serious questions, as all plays do. The director notes that in Shakespeare’s time marriage was being redefined, as if that were news: marriage is always being redefined. But the comment does remind us of all the other plays in which Shakespeare deals with courtship and marriage. Even the history plays, whose stories focus on politics and power, show us that the personal is the essence of all relationships, regardless of the social constructs from which we can never completely escape, and which most of us find quite comfortable and even comforting templates for our social selves.
     We can’t avoid the misogyny in the Shrew. Petruchio uses sleep-deprivation and hunger.  The best that can be done is to downplay the brutality, and present Petruchio as acting a part. Well then, does he truly tame Kate? Or does she too act a part, merely to humour this crazy guy, until she can figure out some way of living with him. That she is attracted to him may be inferred from their first encounters, when he persists in flattering her despite her hostile responses.
     How you answer these questions determines the meaning of the rest of the play. Perhaps she simply decides to play along; that’s how Hay plays it when on the return to Padua she agrees that the sun is the moon, and the elderly gentleman is a sprightly maid. She’s decided to play the role of dutiful wife, but why? Has she fallen in love with Petruchio despite herself? He’s like her, after all: has she scented an equal, unlike the self-satisfied fops and fortune hunters who are wooing Bianca?
     Kate’s final speech, in which she scolds the supposedly good wives for their frowardness, demands an answer to those questions. Its significance depends on them. The script doesn’t give much help; it’s certainly defective, and just how much Shakespeare contributed to it is unclear. That means a director can emend and adapt to suit their vision. Whether we read the speech as a final submission, or as an offer of love to a husband who will be her equal as a human being, Petruchio’s response is unambiguous admiration for this wench that has become his wife, and that’s enough, I think, to add a modern twist to the play’s ending. I suspect that many in the original audiences hoped for or confirmed the satisfactions of their own marriages. We want Kate and Petruchio to have a satisfying marriage, otherwise we can’t read that unpleasant middle passage as the parody of courtship that a farce demands. When the play somehow convinces us of the changing perceptions and attitudes in both these headstrong people, it has succeeded. This production does so. Go see it. ***
     Toronto Star review here, and Globe and Mail review here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hamlet. At the Stratford (Ontario) Festival Theatre.

      Hamlet. At the Stratford Festival Theatre. Directed by Antoni Cimolino. With Jonathan Goad (Hamlet), Seana McKenna (Gertrude), Geraint Wyn Davies (Claudius), Adrienne Gould (Ophelia), Tim Campbell (Horatio), Tom Rooney (Polonius), Mike Shara (Laertes), et al. An unimaginative, straightforward, and badly cut version. Like the curate’s egg, good in parts, but not adding up into a satisfying whole. I think the director forgot that Shakespeare is about character, not plot, not spectacle, not music. Doing Hamlet in early 20th century dress with rifles instead of swords and halberds may seem like a Real Cool Idea, but unless there’s some subtext that’s revealed by this costuming, there’s no point to it. In fact, it becomes ludicrous when Hamlet wanders around the castle with a rifle on his way to Gertrude after the play.
     The tricky questions in any production are about why the characters behave as they do; one must intuit their backstories. For example, why was Claudius accepted so readily as his brother’s successor? Was it because he turns out to be a skillful king? Or was he just the next available male in the royal house? Did he and Gertrude have something going? Even Claudius suggests that the wedding might seem to come to soon after Old Hamlet’s death.
     Any production of Hamlet stands and falls by the actor’s performance, which means by the director’s and actor’s conception of the character. Goad was competent, with very good moments. His scenes with Horatio all worked, these were clearly two men at ease with each other. But here and there he seemed unclear with the concept. Is his rage at Ophelia real, or merely an act? Or both? And what about the antic disposition, anyway? Is he acting every time, or does he act in order to cover a real breakdown? The text hints at these and many other possibilities. For the audience’s sake, the ambiguities must either be resolved, or clarified to avoid confusion.
     Most of all, this performance lacked energy and focus. Every player did a good job, most of the low-key and humorous scenes worked very well, but all in all, the play was piecey. The music was often too loud. The set design was I suppose intended to be dark, but it was dingy when it wasn’t merely dim.
    Richard Ouzounian gave the play a rave review.  He says,”Never have I seen a Hamlet in which people really talked to each other with such intensity. Every moment matters and every moment is played with full reality.” Well, I have seen several such performances.
     And here is Kelly Nestruck's review in the Globe and Mail.
     This Hamlet is #16 or 17 on stage and screen (I’ve lost count), and I can’t recall a less involving one. Maybe it was an off night. **

A. K. Dewdney. Yes, We Have No Neutrons (1997)

     A. K. Dewdney. Yes, We Have No Neutrons (1997) Nine examples of bad science, well told and well analysed. N-Rays as an example of wishful thinking misleading the investigator. Freud, theorising with no data and no testable predictions. IQ as a misunderstood and misappropriated concept, which still messes with people’s minds. SETI as an hypothesis with no hope of sufficient data to ever test  it.  Neural nets, a metaphor gone awry; plain Turing machines do better. Cold fusion, where ambition and inadequate experiments led to a gamble that didn’t pay off. Biosphere 2, poor design based on a grandiose vision. Rushton’s (and other sociologists’) misreading of the bell curve.
     The history is fairly told and complete, the analysis clear and on occasion harsh. Dewdney tries to be polite, but Freudianism and IQ mania have both caused harm, and he lets his anger show. A good book.
      Update on SETI: recent observations of planetary systems suggest that most stars have planets, which provides an estimate rather than a guess for one the terms in Drake’s famous formula for the probable number of intelligent aliens. But Earth-like planets seem to be rare, and those in a life-promoting orbit rare still, so the odds are if anything more clearly against our ever hearing from any aliens that re certainly out there.
Worth reading, as an example of clear reasoning as well as entertainment. ***

Sid Fleischman. The Whipping Boy (1986)

     Sid Fleischman. The Whipping Boy (1986) Jemmy is Prince Brat’s whipping boy. Since he’s whipped when Brat doesn’t do his lessons, Jemmy learns reading, arithmetic, history, and so on. One day, bored, Brat forces Jemmy to run away with him.  They’re kidnapped by two highwaymen, escape down a sewer, are rescued by a girl with pet dancing bear, and so on. Brat slowly grows from a spoiled little slime ball into a friend. He even endures a whipping without a whimper, as Jemmy has done. When they return, Brat talks to his father, who decides not to punish Jemmy. So all’s well etc.
     Well written, swift moving story. Jemmy is an engaging narrator, unwillingly loyal to his master. **½

Monday, July 13, 2015

Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015)

     Oliver Sacks. On the Move (2015) Sacks is one of my heroes, so I approached this memoir prepared to like it, and for the most part I did. Here and there Sacks gives us not much more than a list of events, but the rest of the book more than makes up for those rare longeurs. Reading his books may leave the impression that Sacks has had a straightforward career in clinical neurology, with many side trips following his passions and puzzlements. In fact, chance and the kindness of strangers had more to do with his success than focus and persistence. He became a neurologist because his mentors provided shelter and opportunities to practice when he had no regular position at the hospitals in which he learned his trade.
     He’s a man with a huge range of interests, variable enough that I wonder what’s the common thread that ties them together. I think it’s his willingness to satisfy his curiosity, no matter where it leads. Sometimes these trails transform into books, about cycads, his broken leg and recovery from a neurological side-effect, autism, and so on, but most of all about his patients. He’s remarkably lacking in caution, for example, he experimented with drugs in California, and for a while was addicted.
     He’s an inveterate diarist. He includes a photo of himself at the Amsterdam train station, his briefcase and umbrella on the ground in front of him, writing. I think that’s why his books are not neutral records but  personal experiences. He understands by imagining himself as the patient; journal writing feeds the imagination by recording memories.
     He had the luck to find his profession during its formative phase, when it was still unclear just how much could be known and understood about the brain and its glitches and injuries. And he trusts his skill in observation and knows his inability to abstract and generalise, hence recorded his cases as stories, not mere accumulations of data. I think this is the reason his books have become so popular, and have helped so many people. After each book he has received letters from people with similar problems, telling him how they understood themselves better.
     I enjoyed this book, reading most of it in three major sessions. If you like Oliver Sacks, this book is essential. Otherwise, it’s a remarkable record of a remarkable life lived during some of the most remarkable changes in our society and culture. By the way, Sacks really likes motorbikes, and spent a good deal of his time in California riding. He also won a weightlifting championship. His Uncle Tungsten records his life as a chemist. Like I said, he’s a man of widely variable interests. ***½

Thursday, July 09, 2015

M. C. Beaton. The Potted Gardener. (1994)

     M. C. Beaton. The Potted Gardener. (1994) Agatha Raisin returns from an extended, but lonely, holiday, to find the glamourous divorcee Mary Fortune ensconced as the most popular incomer to the Village of Carsley. She’s also James Lacey’s friend (later, she’s revealed as his paramour), which turns Agatha against her. Mary has an unfortunate habit of saying cruel things to people, and gazing at them with a look that screams superiority. James and Agatha discover her body in the conservatory, upside down with her head buried in a large pot. They of course embark on s pot of sleuthing. The perp suicides when he’s unmasked, handy, because there’s precious little evidence of the kind that would convince a judge or jury.
     The writing is low-average, much of it is tell rather than show, and too often Beaton informs the reader of some character's reaction that the reader has already sussed. Still, I engaged with the characters enough to keep reading, perhaps because Agatha is a 50ish, plumpish woman with romantic yearnings. James is a bit of a stick, afraid of his own emotions, and after his “competent” affair with Mary, ashamed of his lust, uncertain whether his feelings are honourable enough to justify a closer relationship with Agatha.
     But those remarks are already at the level of interpreting the characters for the purposes of scripting a TV series. The novel is not nearly as complex as they imply, more’s the pity. **

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Gary Larson. Wiener Dog Art (1990)

     Gary Larson. Wiener Dog Art (1990) If you like Larson, you’ll be happy to reread this. If you’ve not encountered Larson yet, this is as good an intro as any. If you don’t like Larson, it’s an opportunity for small delights lost. I like Larson’s work a lot. A search on “Gary Larson cartoons” will bring up a good sample of his work. ****

Inside Out (2015)

     Inside Out (2015) [Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen. Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black et al] 11-year-old Riley is moved from Minnesota (and hockey) to San Francisco (and home sickness) by her family. The parents have their own problems, delayed moving van etc, so don’t notice Riley’s sadness. Riley herself can’t allow herself to be sad, she must be “happy”, so she runs away. But it’s her sadness that brings her back home, where she cries, and the family unite in comforting each other. Simple story, the movie complicates it by showing five emotions (Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness) as controlling Riley’s perceptions, action, and relationships. Depicting that emotions are us was the aim of the moviemakers. The question is did they succeed?
     Yes and no. The switching between inside and outside was generally well done, one didn’t lose track of the story. The characterisation was a bit off, Joy was too bubbly-obtuse, Anger was merely hostility instead of focussed on unfairness, Disgust was too much of a fashion queen, Fear was a nerdy drip, and Sadness was dumpy, shy, passive, and lacking in confidence. She was actually the most complicated character. The animation was very well done, the design was stereotypical Disney, the conceptualisation of the different aspects of mind and self veered from the silly (Imaginationland misrepresented that most central cognitive faculty) to the poignantly nuanced (the pit of forgotten memories).
    “Piecey” Marie said, she’s right. Overall, a good attempt at doing an inherently difficulty job. The personalisation of mental faculties has an ancient history, the literary term is psyhcomachia. Interesting to see modern version. I think the desire to make the movie accessible to all age groups caused much of the variation in quality. The audience reaction indicated that the children followed the story easily, and if my response was typical, the adults read a more complex narrative. See the New York Times article by the scientific advisors. **½

Friday, July 03, 2015

Rex Stout. Some Buried Caesar (1938)

     Rex Stout. Some Buried Caesar (1938) Archie drives Wolfe to upstate New York for an orchid competition at an agricultural fair. A tire blows, and they end up in a field with a bull. That bull is the focus of a feud between Pratt, its current owner, and Osgoode, his neighbour, whose stable hand he was before he became a restaurateur. Then Osgoode’s son is murdered, apparently gored by the bull; and a second murder with a pitchfork is done at the agricultural fair while Wolfe is exhibiting his orchids. And so on. Wolfe is his usual irritating self, Archie meets Lily Rowan for the first time, and the jealousies and intrigues of Guernsey breeders are exhibited for our fascinated gaze. These people are serious; murder may be a plausible solution.
     There have been attempts at transposing Wolfe from print to video, apparently not very successfully. I think it’s Stout’s style. He’s a very good writer. The dialogue would work very well as is, but the ambience would be very difficult to do visually. The tales a funny-noir, a genre that’s very tough to pull off.
     An early Nero Wolfe story, a couple or three hours of well done entertainment. **½

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

St John's Night

   In Austria, a large fire was kindled on St John's Night. People ran and jumped through the flames. Some couples did so, too, I think it was supposed to confirm their union and make it last forever. Many years ago, I wrote a poem about it. I've posted it on the Stories page.

August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons

     August Derleth. The Memoirs of Solar Pons (1951) Solar Pons is one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches. Derleth has managed to emulate Doyle’s style better than most, with the occasional Americanisms (eg, a locomotive engineer instead of driver, a house in good shape instead of condition). He also writes what Doyle never wrote, “Elementary, my dear Parker”. But the plotting is very, very good, and the characterisations as good as Doyle’s. Sherlock Holmes is carefully constructed original stereotype. Every subsequent fictional detective, private or official, is a variation on or a development of that stereotype. One can point to precursors, but Doyle fixed the template.
     Pons is almost Holmes. His cases  resemble Holmes’s cases, too. Parker is almost Watson. The pleasure in reading these tales is precisely that they are such beautifully crafted variations on the Doyle’s characters and stories. A reread, and if anything more enjoyable the second time round. ***½

Two Austrian picture books

     Eduard Widmoser & Karl Waggerl, Österreich (1952). Franz Nabl, Österreich (1957). Large format photo-album books intended to feed nostalgia and attract visitors. The photos are very well composed, reproduced in first-class half-tone. The 1952 book emphasises winter sports, the 1957 one the beauty of mountains, forests, and lakes. Neither one presents Austrian city and town life. Both have photos of historical buildings, mostly baroque. Both create the impression of a mostly rural country, although Austria is one of the most highly urbanised countries in the world.
     The texts sketch the history and culture of the country. Both take us up to the breakup of the Hapsburg empire, and stop there.
     Karl Waggerl offers  an impression of the Austrian character, a mix of acute observation and romantic-sentimental claims. He says that Austrians feel that something bad is lurking round the corner, but there’s nothing to be done about it. He claims that Austrians are better able to empathise with and imagine other people’s experience. The essay as a whole has a vagueness, like a horoscope, what he says can be interpreted to apply to anyone. Including people who have not had the fortune of being born and raised Austrian. Widmoser’s overview of Austria’s “situation, history and culture” is workmanlike, sounding like a tourist brochure.
     The Nabl book is one of a series of Blaue Bücher, intended to satisfy popular desire for instruction and entertainment. Nabl yearns for Austria’s past greatness; a large part of his essay is a eulogy to the Hapsburg empire, a federation in which diverse peoples lived in harmony and peace. Like Widmoser, he carefully avoids discussion of what happened after 1918, and there is no hint of 1938 and the Second World War.
     Both these books are fascinating as documents. They show that in the immediate post-war period, Austria was trying to reinvent itself, to bury the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, which prepared for the Anschluss. They show a kind of amnesia; the immediate past is simply not there. A careful look at the pictures suggests that many of them are pre-war. The focus on landscape implies a flight from the city and its commerce and finance, its political and cultural strife, its constant change. The remoter past safe; the immediate past is dangerous. The village and small town imply tradition, and confirm a desire for unchanging values.
     I was taught that Austria was a victim of historical circumstances over which it had little or no control, and specifically, that the Anschluss was an invasion that could not be resisted. These two books express the same stance, as much by what they omit as by what they include. **½