Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Murder on the Orient Express--Hollywood at what it does best

I just finished a film version of Agatha Cristie's Murder on the Orient Express--the 1974 version.  I'm not going to do a summary or analysis of the plot or even a comparison of the film to the book.  Others have done that, numerous times, so I'm just going to do a very short commentary here on some trifles.

What I enjoyed most about the film was the cast--the cast--the cast.  In an interview, somebody--the producer?  the director?--said that they weren't going to do a tight little black-and-white British mystery.  They were going to do a real glamour job on it--an Hollywood big picture, expensive, marvelous costumes and sets, star-studded cast, and all the trimmings.  They did it and then some.

The film score is excellent and provides an excellent example of what they tried to do and succeeded in doing.  In an early scene, we see the train pulling out of the station at night. The steam from the engine provides a foggy atmosphere.  And the music and sound effects?  It isn't the expected sound of the driving wheels, and the music doesn't provide that sense of imminent danger ahead--something bad is going to happen.  NO!  What we get is a waltz! The train pulls out of the station and chugs through the countryside to a Viennese Waltz, perhaps even a variation on a Strauss waltz.  The feeling is that of a vacation, a fairyland trip, almost a musical.

Well, that's all I'm going to say about the film itself--now here's a list of the cast.

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot

Lauren Bacall

Martin Balsam

Ingrid Bergman

Jacqueline Bisset

Sean Connery

Sir John Gielgud

Wendy Hiller

Anthony Perkins

Vanessa Redgrave

Richard Widmark

Michael York

I couldn't recognize Albert Finney because of his makeup.  And Ingrid Bergman?  One of the actors in an interview talked about sitting in the makeup room next to Ingrid Bergman who was being "deglamorized." --his term and very appropriate.

Sir John Gielgud--the consummate professional--does more with a look and syllable than most with a long monologue.  At one point, Gielgud, who plays a butler in the film, has just been questioned by Poirot, and as he leaves, one of the others present says very seriously, "The butler did it."  Gielgud, as he leaves the room,  turns his head and with a sneer utters one syllable of a contemptuous sound.  Gielgud's butler is superior to everyone there, and he lets everyone know it.

Great film--lots of fun--go see it, perhaps with a glass of champagne.  That's what I'm going to do the next time I watch it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLII, Second Edition

This quatrain focuses on a libation

"A libation is a ritual pouring of a liquid as an offering to a god or spirit or in memory of those who have died. It was common in many religions of antiquity and continues to be offered in various cultures today."  (From the Wikipedia entry)

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLII
And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
On the parcht herbage but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXIX

And not a drop that from our Cups we throw 
For Earth to drink of, but may steal below
    To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye
There hidden--far beneath, and long ago.

The only change from the 2nd to the 5th Edition  occurs in the second line where "On the parcht herbage" becomes "For Earth to drink of."  The change makes the pouring of the wine into an event that is broader in scope, from where there are dry plants to any situation where a libation is made.   This makes more sense in that the Poet/Narrator tells us that there is a someone below nearly everywhere one goes.

The first word, "And,"   links back to the previous quatrain which echoed Genesis:

                               "Of such a clod of saturated Earth
                                 Cast by the Maker into Human mould"

What is the Earth "saturated" with?  Water?  Wine?  Perhaps it refers to the life force or soul with which the Maker infuses this clod to create a human.  

The most intriguing line is the third--To quench the fire of Anguish in some Eye.  Both Islamic and Christian religious beliefs include a heaven and a hell.  To suggest that all who have died and are buried below are suffering would be contrary to those beliefs, so I think that the "fire of Anguish" belongs to those in hell.  I do not know where hell's location is thought to be by the followers of Islam, but Christians generally indicate that hell is below and heaven above, perhaps not literally, but symbolically anyway.

This suggests that the libation may ease, even if only temporarily, the suffering of those in hell.  This would seem to go against the religious traditions that accept a hell, which is conceived of as eternal and relentless suffering, and the witnessing of the misery and the pain of the sinners should cause the faithful to rejoice, according to most religious texts I have encountered.  

Is the Poet/Narrator positing a heretical idea here?  Moreover, it appears to me anyway that he seems to be encouraging us to ease the suffering of those condemned to hell for eternity.   Unfortunately, I cannot ask either Omar Khayyam or Edward FitzGerald what they meant here, so I am left with a question, and not the first one that arose while reading The Rubaiyat.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon: "A Crime for Llewellyn"

Theodore Sturgeon:  "A Crime for Llewellyn"

"He had a grey little job clerking in the free clinic at the hospital, doing what he'd done the day he started, and that was nineteen years back.  His name was Llewellyn, and Ivy Shoots called him Lulu.

Ivy took care of him.  He'd lived with Ivy ever since she was an owlish intellectual with an uncertain almost little girl look about her and he was a scared, mixed up adolescent wilting in the interim between high school and his first job.  Ivy was in several senses his maiden experience--first date, first drink, first drunk,  and first hangover in a strange hotel in a strange city accompanied by a strange girl.  Strange or not--and she was--she was his Secret.

A man like Lulu needs a Secret.  A sheltered background consisting of positive morality, tea-cosies, spinster aunts and the violent contrast of  eighteen months as a public charge--after the aunts had burned to death, uninsured--had convinced him that he was totally incapable of coping with a world in which everybody else knew all the angles.  So he fell joyfully into the arrangement with Ivy Shoots and the Secret that went with it.

He was small and he was pudgy, and he wasn't bright, and his eyes weren't too good, and the very idea of his stealing a nickel or crossing in the middle of the block was ridiculous.  It seemed to him that all the men around him emanated the virtue of sin--the winks and whistles at the girls, the Monday tales (boy did I tie one on Saturday night), the legends of the easy conquests and looseness and casual infidelity, the dirty jokes, and the oaths and expletives--and because they seemed to have no scruples they kept their stature as men in a world of men.

In this, Lulu could easily have drowned.  Only his Secret kept him afloat.  He told it to no one, partly because he sensed instinctively that he would treasure it more if he kept it to himself, and partly because he knew he would not be believed even if he proved it.  He  could listen contentedly to the boasting of the men he envied, thinking if you only knew! and you think that's something!  hugging to himself all the while the realization that no one among them had committed  the enormity of living in sin as he was doing."

That was his Secret:  He was living in sin!

Then, his world came tumbling down around him.  Ivy, misunderstanding him, thought he felt guilty about living together.  So, one night, after work, she confessed Her secret.  She brought out their marriage license--they were married after all.  That wild night when Llewellyn met Ivy and got drunk and woke up the next morning in bed with her was very hazy in his mind.  He had blacked out during the evening and never knew that he and Ivy had gotten married.  He was devastated.

But, Llewellyn had a stout heart and was more than ever determined to commit a crime.  After all, it can't be that hard to do something illegal or immoral, could it?  Somebody had once told Llewellyn that there were so many laws that it was hard for the average person to go through the day without committing some sort of crime.  Only luck kept most of us out of jail.  Lulu was confident--it should be easy.  And, it really was important. 

But, our destinies are not completely under our control.  Fate plays a role in determining what happens to us, and Llewellyn was soon to learn this inescapable fact--that if some are destined to be criminals, regardless of what they do, then there may be others who are just the opposite--in spite of theft or bigamy or murder or .  .  .

Poor Llewellyn.   We now follow Llewellyn as he fumbles his way around in his attempt to commit a crime, handicapped by Fate which seems determined that his destiny is to remain a good person. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kenko: the ideal house

No. 55

"A house should be built with the summer in mind.  In winter it is possible to live anywhere, but a badly made house is unbearable when it gets hot.

There is nothing cool-looking about deep water; a shallow, flowing stream is far cooler.  When you are reading fine print you will find that a room with sliding doors is lighter than one with hinged shutters.  A room with a high ceiling is cold in winter and dark by lamplight.  People agree that a house with plenty of spare room is attractive to look at and may be put to many different uses."

-- Kenko --
from Essays in Idleness

As I live in Tucson, Arizona, I have to agree with Kenko's first statement.  Conquering the hot summers, especially at night, is most important.  When winter comes, I can always add a sweater if necessary.

Is the perceived difference between deep water and shallow, flowing stream real or psychological?   Perhaps more moisture is lifted into the air by a shallow, flowing stream than by a deep pool and that moisture is what gives the impression of coolness?  I must admit though I would find a shallow, flowing stream more interesting than a deep pool, although a deep pool does have its own attractions. 

Some haiku, remotely appropriate

      For deliciousness
Try fording this rivulet.  .  .
         Sandals in hand one hand
                        -- Buson --
from A Little Treasury of Haiku

 This hot day
         swept away
by the River Mogami
               -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

At the ancient pond
      a frog plunges into
           the sound of water

                    -- Basho --
from The Sound of Water

 The last haiku is probably Basho's most famous; in fact there's a book titled something like 101 versions of this haiku.  This is my favorite simply because it suggests that the frog plunges, not into the pond, but into the sound of water, the sound of the splash.  Just why this fascinates me, I have no idea.      

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Robert Frost: Trial by Existence

Robert Frost:  "Trial by Existence"

Normally I don't post poems this long, but this one I just have to.  It is, to me anyway, one of Frost's most unusual and inexplicable poems.    It is fairly straightforward and understandable on the surface level, but something else is going on here.  Just what this is, I have no idea, which is why I have posted it.  I'm hoping somebody can help me understand this poem and Frost's thinking as he wrote it.  Perhaps that's too much to ask, and I should just read and go with it.  But, I have this itch .  .  .


Even the bravest that are slain
Shall not dissemble their surprise
On waking to find valor reign,
Even as on earth, in paradise;
And where they sought without the sword
Wide fields of asphodel fore'er,
To find that the utmost reward
Of daring should be still to dare.

The light of heaven falls whole and white
And is not shattered into dyes,
The light forever is morning light;
The hills are verdured pasture-wise;
The angel hosts with freshness go,
And seek with laughter what to brave;--
And binding all is the hushed snow
Of the far-distant breaking wave.

And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
And the slant spirits trooping by
In streams and cross- and counter-streams
Can but give ear to that sweet cry
For its suggestion of what dreams!

And the more loitering are turned
To view once more the sacrifice
Of those who for some good discerned
Will gladly give up paradise.
And a white shimmering concourse rolls
Toward the throne to witness there
The speeding of devoted souls
Which God makes his especial care.

And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
And very beautifully God limns,
And tenderly, life's little dream,
But naught extenuates or dims,
Setting the thing that is supreme.

Nor is there wanting in the press
Some spirit to stand simply forth,
Heroic in it nakedness,
Against the uttermost of earth.
The tale of earth's unhonored things
Sounds nobler there than 'neath the sun;
And the mind whirls and the heart sings,
And a shout greets the daring one.

But always God speaks at the end:
'One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.'

And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.

'Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.

 Do you find this a strange poem when put up against others of his that you know about?

What does this say about the various religious traditions that concern themselves with guilt and everlasting punishment for sins committed here in this life?

Choosing the life of a saint or hero or some remarkable person would be understandable.  And perhaps choosing a martyr's life could also be understood.   But, choosing to live the life of Hitler? 

In the post immediately preceding this one, Hoffer talked about freedom to choose or not to choose.  I wonder if there's any connection between Hoffer's comments and my sudden decision to provide this poem a day later.  And, it was a sudden decision.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Eric Hoffer: two types of freedom

No. 57

To some, freedom means the opportunity to do what they want to do; to most it means not to do what they do not want to do.  It is perhaps true that those who can grow will feel free under any condition.

-- Eric Hoffer --
from Reflections on the Human Condition

Are these the only types of freedom?

It strikes me that one is positive--able to do what one wants-- and one is negative--not having to do what one does not want to do.  I can see how someone with a positive view can feel free to grow, but how would someone who can grow feel free under the negative view.

Something's missing here.  .  .

Monday, March 2, 2015

PD James: Unnatural Causes, Aunt Who?

PD James
Unnatural Causes

This is the third in the series of mysteries featuring  the cases of Dalgliesh, James' poetry writing Scotland Yard detective.  This one is a bit different in that it really isn't Dalgliesh's case, for he's on vacation, visiting his Aunt Jane Dalgliesh who lives in a small village on the coast that has become sort of an undeclared writers' colony.  However, the officer in charge of the case is very ambivalent towards Dalgliesh.  He doesn't like Dalgliesh, and Dalgliesh returns the feeling, but he wants to draw upon Dalgliesh's experience and expertise.  This makes for a rocky professional relationship.

A corpse is discovered in a small dinghy floating off the coast.  His hands have been cut off, probably after his death, according to the autopsy.  He is soon identified as he had been one of the writers who lived in the small village.  How did he die?  Why were his hands removed after death?  Some sort of warning?  A false trail?  As usual, James provides much to keep us occupied.

This is probably my third, and perhaps even the fourth, reading of this novel.  Even though I knew whodunnit, I still find James' works entertaining as novels about people and their behavior.    And something new always shows up at each reading.  This time Dalgliesh's aunt stood out from the background.  I become aware of her this time, much more than in previous readings.  Just why, of course, is probably a case of over-reading on my part, but I find it interesting anyway.

Adam Dalgliesh and his Aunt Jane are very close, in spite of the difference in their ages, or perhaps because of this difference.  She is in her eighties now and a spinster.  She had been engaged as a young woman back in 1918, but her fiance had been killed six months before the Armistice in November.  Apparently no one has come along since then to engage her affections.  She was the daughter of a minister, and after her mother died, shortly after her fiance's death, she took over the role of housekeeper for her father.

After his death  in 1955, she moved to the coast of Suffolk and lived quietly there.  Her one hobby, ornithology, kept her occupied.  Her careful and meticulous observations provided her with material for several books and she found herself, eventually, considered to be "one of the most respected of  amateur ornithologists in England."  Her reputation in the small village increased when it was discovered that several distinguished individuals, including a famous writer who had been a recluse for many years, were seen in her company. 

Dalgliesh later in the novel remarks that Aunt Jane was not a sentimental woman, quite the contrary.  "To Jane Dalgliesh people were as they were.  It was as pointlessly presumptuous to try to change them as it was impertinent to pity them.  Never before had his aunt's uninvolvement struck him so forcibly; never before had it seemed so frightening."  Jane Dalgliesh seems to be one who see people clearly and objectively, with few romantic illusions about her fellow inhabitants of this small planet and views them coldly and dispassionately.  They are as they are.

Now, why does this suddenly stand out, waving frantically for my attention.  Well, PD James' death last November got me to begin rereading her works again and to also remember an interview I had seen many years ago.  In the interview she said that Jane Austen was her favorite writer and that if she were alive today, Austen would be writing mysteries.

Jane Austen, who,  in the past, had frequently been referred to as "Dear Aunt Jane,"  was also a spinster at her death.  She too had been the daughter of a minister and remained in the family household until her death at 41.  She had never married, but had several chances.  One, at an early age, according to a family tradition, had occurred while they were living on the coast.  According to her sister Cassandra, a young man had fallen in love with Jane.  He had made a favorable impression on Cassandra, and she thought that he would have been successful in his courtship.  However, he had to leave, but he also made it clear that he would return.  Shortly afterwards, however,  they learned of his death.

Jane Austen's novels, based on careful and meticulous observation of the people around her, while never making any top ten list, did attract readers, one of whom was the Prince Regent who apparently kept copies of her works at each of his residences.  Her novels fostered no illusions about people and clearly presented them as they were, warts and all.

I suppose this is a real stretch.  Both aunts are named Jane, both had a minister for a father, both remained spinsters, both when young apparently lost a possibly successful  suitor  through death, both gained some fame as a writer whose works featured close and meticulous observation of their subjects, and both apparently had a clear and unromantic view of those about them, perhaps approaching a cruel and detached vision.

And to push this even further--I can't help thinking of another aunt who also clearly, perceptively, and objectively views her neighbors and sees the evil buried deep within--Aunt Jane Marple.   Obviously, I have a bad case of Aunt Jane fever. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Gene Wolfe's NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN--First impressions

Gene Wolfe
Nightside the Long Sun

I've finally managed to get to the book and am now in Chapter 4.  These are some random impressions based on the early chapters.

This reminds me of Wolfe's earlier series,  The Book of the New Sun.  It's the language that conveys this impression.  It is archaic and very formal, with many foreign and obscure English words.
I find myself heading for the dictionary or search function on the browser.  Just now I discovered, after a number of tries (the usual response was "no such word" while the others directed me to Gene Wolfe's novels), the following definition for manteion.  And, it appears to be Greek.

Manteion:  "An oracle; either a person or a shrine but usually a title denoting a prophet and reader of the omens of sacrifice. "

The story is illustrative of the role of the augur: "he does not predict what course of action should be taken, but through his augury he finds signs on whether or not a course already decided upon meets with divine sanction and should proceed." 

Patera Silk is an auger;  in the story he is  one who  reads the will of the gods by studying the entrails of sacrificed animals. It appears as though the term in the far future has become confused with another term--haruspex--for augers observe and interpret the flight of birds while a haruspex is the one who interprets from the entrails of sacrificed animals.  Both augur and haruspex go back to the days of the Roman Empire.

As in his earlier series, Wolfe loves to show us how history and myth and legend become confused and intertwined over long periods of time.

The Christian Sign of the Cross has now become the addition sign that Patera Silk makes. 

patera probably comes from the latin "pater" which means father.

Our Father--pater noster

Pater Silk, so far, appears to be a variation of the Holy Fool, an innocent who understands little of the world about him, but is blessed with almost divine wisdom in understanding the hearts of others.
That he is first seen as playing with children is indicative of the type of person he is.  He is a strange mix of a Christian minister or priest and teacher and a Roman official who reads the will of the gods in bird flight and the entrails of sacrificial animals--two very contradictory actions.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy: March 26, 1931--Feb. 27, 2015 RIP

                                                              R. I. P.

Leonard Nimoy died this morning of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Like many others, no doubt.  I shall always remember him as Mr. Spock.  I saw him once in a play in Chicago, A Visit to a Small Planet, and while the character was nothing like Spock  (he was played by Jerry Lewis in the film version), he was still Spock to me, and perhaps to many others in the audience.

I still can't hear anybody say "fascinating" without thinking of Mr. Spock.     

I also saw him when he joined the cast of Mission Impossible, as Paris, the master of disguise.  It made no difference.  He was still a Vulcan. And, the director?, somebody? played on that also.  In one episode of MI, Nimoy was in the lobby of a large hotel.  He glances over to a stairway leading up to the next floor, and a puzzled look appears on his face.  The camera pans over to the stairs, and we see William Shatner climbing the stairs.  Then Shatner looks around and sees Nimoy, and he too looks puzzled, as if he should know him but can't quite place him.

Fortunately we have him on film, and it's been many years since I last watched Star Trek.  Perhaps now would be a good time to resurrect some happy memories.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Loren Eiseley: Coyote Country


If you should go, soft-footed and  alert,
Down the long slope of shale
Into a tumbled land of scarp and butte
Beyond the pale
Of the herding men, where water is under stone,
You would be in coyote country.  It is the place
Where tumbleweed is blown
Four ways at once, and your neighbors are not seen
Except as loping shapes
Or tangible dust.
Once, if you're lucky, something may pause and lift
One paw and two grey ears
In a moment's trust
That is gone like wind.

Coyote PhotoThis is the road.  Go down
Over the harsh way.  If you dare, go down
Into the waste, where lonely and apart
The road runs north.  Somewhere here is my heart,
If anywhere, I spy
Nothing at all--and you in turn may try
The thistle and subtle stones,
Or you may go
Southward tonight--be certain you will not know
More of  me than is found
In two poised ears
Or feet gone without sound.
-- Loren Eiseley --
All the Night Wings

I don't know where Loren Eiseley spent most of his time--out in the field or behind a desk or in a classroom--but I think I know where his heart was. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XLI, Second Edition

This quatrain, first appeared in the Second Edition, and remained in all subsequent editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XLI

For has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain XXXVIII

And has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man's successive generations roll'd
   Of such a clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould? 

FitzGerald introduced only one change in the quatrain: he substituted "And" for "For."

This quatrain refers obliquely back to previous quatrains that refer to the Potter and his pots.  The story "from of Old" of course refers to Genesis in which God creates Adam out of clay.  What I find interesting is that humans were, supposedly,  created in the likeness of God while the Poet says that this clod of earth was cast "into Human mould."

I suspect that FitzGerald added this quatrain to make more explicit the identification between God and the Potter and its creations and humanity.  While it seemed fairly clear in the First Edition, it was never stated explicitly, and perhaps FitzGerald felt it needed a clearer exposition for some readers.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Two very, very different films

Snowpiercer, an SF Film

Into Great Silence, a documentary

Several nights ago, I watched two very different films.  One was Snowpiercer, directed by the South Korean director  Bong Joon-ho.  It's a post-catastrophe or post-apocalypse film that reflects current events.

In an attempt to deal with global warning, a chemical is interjected into the upper atmosphere.  It, of course, goes wrong (otherwise there would be no film), and, instead, sends earth off into a planet-wide ice age, killing off everything.  The only survivors are the lucky ones who managed to get aboard a long, powerful, and self-sufficient supertrain created by the mysterious and wealthy Wilford.  Obsessed with trains, Wilford uses his wealth to create a world-wide railway system for his train. 

It's now seventeen years later, and a strict brutal class/caste system has evolved.  The train is a linear depiction of this system, with the train tailenders at the back living in a few overcrowded and rundown cars, on rations barely above the starvation level.   any grumbling is met with a lecture about how ungrateful they are to be allowed to live.  They are at the back end and others at the front because that's the way it is and they should know their place.  This is the natural order of things.   Sound familiar?

As we move forward, the conditions improve until we reach just behind the Eternal Engine where the rich live idle lives with a variety of rich foods, clothing, and drugs, with no concern for the less fortunate at the train's back end. At the front is the Eternal Engine compartment, occupied only by Wilford, who is seen almost as a deity at this point and visited by only a few.

However, yet another revolution by the ungrateful powerless poor is brewing.  Curtis, one of those trapped in the rear of the train, leads the poor and dispossessed through the train which provides numerous fight scenes, violence, and a high body count. 

The number of interesting characters among the rebels and the ruling elite is one of this film's strong points.

One point made by the film perhaps explains the behavior of the very rich and powerful today.  They seem unconcerned about the dangers brought about by global warming at this point, and spend millions of dollars fighting legislation that is designed to reduce the threat if that legislation reduces either their power or their profits.   The film suggests that they believe that, while global warming or any severe climate change may cause problems, they are rich enough and powerful enough to ensure their own comfortable survival. 

Into Great Silence

Fortunately that wasn't the only film I watched that  night and doubly fortunate that I watched Into Great Silence, a documentary about life in a Carthusian monastery, the Grande Chartreuse monestery in the Chartreuse Mountains of France, afterwards.   The non-stop action in Snowpiercer would have kept me awake for a long time.  Into Great Silence was the exact opposite-- almost a silent film, with only one instance of the monks engaging in conversation and that at a permitted time.  The only other examples of the human voice was the chanting during ceremonies and a formulized question-and-answer dialogue when a novice took his temporary vows.  Oh yes, one other bit of talk occurred when the monk, whose job it was to feed the monastery cats, called them for dinner.  He talked a little to them and noted that one was the big boss. 

Philip Groning, the director, had contacted the monastery in 1984, requesting permission to do the documentary.  They responded that they weren't ready yet.  Finally, 16 years later Groning was told they were ready. 

The film is a visual documentary:  there is no narrative voice explaining what is being filmed.  The viewer is forced to guess.  Groning shot the film in natural light so the viewer sees the monastery and its inhabitants going about their daily routine without any artificial lighting.

The monastery does have electricity, but its use seems to be limited to when it is absolutely necessary; for example during night time services, small lights are placed by the music stands so they can see the music.  Clearly it replaces candles.  The Carthusians do not have tonsures, but instead get all of their hair cut off regularly.  (Reminded me of my time in basic training in the USAF)  They use electric hair clippers instead of hand clippers. 

The monks were shown going about their daily lives of prayer, work, meditation, and rituals without commentary.  They never spoke, except for the examples noted above, and seemingly spent most of the day silently and solitary, at least outwardly so. 

The combination of the silence and the beautiful photography both inside the monastery and outside made this an extraordinary film.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Some Great Books Read in 2014

The following are books that I really enjoyed reading during the past year, and, if granted time, there's a good chance I will read them again. 

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time, Movements 1 and 2.
--We start with Nick Jenkins as a school boy just after WWI and follow him and his friends and acquaintances up to just before the outbreak of WWII.  A fascinating look at English life between the two world wars.
--Movements 3 and 4 will probably cover WWII and after.  I've got them and they're just waiting for some free time. 
--Link to post

 Adrian McKinty:  The Cold Cold Ground and I Hear the Sirens in the Streets
--the first two of McKinty's four mysteries set in the Time of the Troubles in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Books 3 and 4 are on my TBR list.  It's 1981, and Sean Duffy is one of the few Roman Catholics in the predominantly Protestant police force in Belfast and is viewed with suspicion by both Catholics and Protestants.  Complex plots and local color set against a background of a city at war with itself in an undeclared civil war make this a must read series.

M John Harrison:  Light, Nova Swing, and Empty Space: A Haunting,  the Kefahuchi trilogy
--a space adventure that ranges from the late 20th century to the 25th century.  Strange things happen, and some of them never get explained, especially those involving aliens.
--The three novels  are relatively independent of each other, but I would recommend reading them in the published order.
--Humans in space, in Harrison's trilogy (in fact in most of his novels), encounter aliens that are truly alien, not just humans in Halloween costumes, as are so many in other works involving aliens.  Some are harmless, some helpful, some dangerous (some deliberately and some ??), and many inexplicable.
If you're looking for something different, try this series.

Michael Stanley:  Death of the Mantis and Deadly Harvest.
--Books 3 and 4 of the cases of Detective "Kubu" of the Botswana Police. Good mysteries, good plots, interesting characters, and fascinating lore about the people of Botswana and southern Africa in general.  Waiting now for Book 5.  The novels are independent of each other, so they can be read out of order.  If you can read only one, then choose Death of the Mantis

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
--the best haunted house novel I have ever read.  
--see post on Oct. 31, 2010, made the first time I read it.  The post also contains some comments about the 1963 film.

Gregory Benford: Anomalies
--a great collection of short stories, covering a wide variety of topics: adventures involving time travel, black holes, cryogenics, high tech warfare, a mix of science and religion, and several cosmological theories.
Link to a number of posts about the stories.

David Brin:  Existence
--Brin's most recent novel.  A new look at the First Contact theme and its possible threats.
--he uses multiple narrators to provide a variety of viewpoints responding to the first contact.
--link to post

Loren Eiseley:  The Night Country
--I joined the Time Reading Program after seeing an ad about the program which featured one paragraph from another of his books.  After reading that one, The Immense Journey, I searched for everything and anything written by him.
--See link to various posts about this work.

Kobo Abe':  The Face of Another
--a man whose face is terribly scarred from an industrial accident creates a lifelike mask, that seems to take on a life of its own when he wears it.
The following link leads to posts about the novel and the film

Franz Werfel:  Star of the Unborn
--little known and mostly ignored SF novel about a man who dies and is resurrected 100.000 years in the future and presented as a wedding gift.
--fascinating picture of future humans and their culture
--stuffy and somewhat pompous narrator adds to the fun.  He reminds me of the narrator in Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus.
--link to posts about the novel

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Russell Hoban: Feb 4, 1925 -- December 13, 2011

"The Slickman A4 Quotation Event takes place on 4th February each year, to commemorate Russell Hoban's birth in 1925. Each year his readers from around the world share their favourite quotations from his books by leaving them in public places, invariably written on yellow A4 paper (the sort he used). Fans also post photos of their quotations on this site, and these are gathered under"  (from the Official  Russell Hoban Web Site)

Since I won't be going anyplace appropriate to drop off a quotation, I decided to leave one here instead.

   "My desk is a clutter of stones written upon and not; seashells, acorns and oak leaves, china mermaids from long-gone aquaria, postcards of medieval carven lions, clockwork frogs and photographs of distant moments.  It's a good desk, there's a lot of action even when I'm not there.  Propped up amongst the stones and clutter are two books open at colour plates of Vermeer's Head of a Young Girl; there are also a postcard of it stuck on the edge of the monitor screen and a large print over the fireplace.  Night and day in all weathers she looks out at me from her hereness and her goneness.  Even the ageing of the painting seems organic to it;  one can see in the reproductions how the reticulation of fine cracks in the paint follows lovingly from light into shadow the curve of her cheek, the softness of her mouth, the glisten of her eyes, the fineness of brow and nose, the delicacy of her chin."

The  quotation is from The Medusa Frequency and purports to be a description of the narrator's desk.  I wonder if the description might also resemble Hoban's own desk. I once saw a photo of his office, and clutter might a close and accurate adjective;  some of the items mentioned seem familiar, as if I had encountered them in one or more of his novels.

If you haven't read anything by Russell Hoban, yet, then I would encourage you to pick one up.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Harper Lee--Great News

Harper Lee to Publish Sequel to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

"To Kill a Mockingbird  will not be Harper Lee's only published book after all.  Publisher Harper announced Tuesday that "Go Set a Watchman," a novel the Pulitzer Prize-winning author completed in the 1950s and put aside, will be released July 14. Rediscovered last fall, "Go Set a Watchman" is essentially a sequel to  To Kill a Mockingbird," although it was finished earlier. The 304-page book will be Lee's second, and the first new work in more than 50 years."

Link to complete article:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Dostoyevsky: Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from Underground

I found that I had posted several entries about The Notes from Underground in association with other works, but I had never given this work its own posting.  So, I decided (being lazy) to gather together the various comments I had made to see if I could make something coherent about this very complex work.

The first part consists of an extended passage in which the underground man (UM) reveals himself. He is a civil servant who has come into a small inheritance and has retired. He is an outsider with no friends or relatives. He lives in isolation. He sneers at society, but at the same time longs to join them, to be one of them.  It is also a philosophical rant against those who think that human behavior will eventually be completely explainable and predictable by the immutable laws of science.  In addition the narrator contends that there are two types of people:  the doers and the thinkers or the intellectuals.   Everything that is accomplished is done by the doers, because the thinkers are paralyzed when they attempt to handle all the ramifications of acting.

The second part shows our reclusive narrator in action and supports both of the arguments put forth in the first part.  In the second part, the UM forces himself upon some former student acquaintances who are giving a going-away party for one of the students. The UM insists on attending the party, while mocking himself and eventually the others. He desires to be one with them, but actively works to make this impossible.

 The UM also meets a prostitute in the second part; the UM persuades Liza to escape from the life of a prostitute. However, when Liza appears at his apartment several days later, telling him that she wants to escape, he rejects her and sends her away.

This is one of Dostoyevsky's most unusual works.  It was while I was reading it, for the third or fourth time actually, that I began to see some similarities between Dostoyevsky's short novel and Poe's short story, "The Imp of the Perverse." "The Imp of the Perverse" is another of Poe's first person confessions--the individual attempts to explain why he committed his act from a jail cell, with a gallows outside awaiting him.

One of the similarities is the format: both begin with lectures on one or more topics which are of considerable length in comparison to the work which is then followed by an incident that exemplifies the topic(s) discussed in the first part. Poe's lecture is solely on the nature of perverseness in human behavior while Dostoyevsky's contains several themes, only one of which is perverseness.

One of Dostoyevsky's first examples of perverseness is that at times he is sick but doesn't go to the doctor out of spite. Who is he injuring--himself. He knows he should go because he is "only injuring [himself]...My liver is bad, well--- let it get worse." He is knowingly acting against his own best interests. Later he speaks of a "friend" of his:

"When he prepares for any undertaking this gentleman immediately explains to you, elegantly and clearly, exactly how he must act in accordance with the laws of reason and truth. What is more, he will talk to you with excitement and passion of the true normal interests of man; with irony he will upbraid the shortsighted fools who do not understand their own interests, nor the true significance of virtue; and within a quarter of of an hour, without any sudden outside provocation, but simply through something inside him which is stronger than all his interests, he will go off on quite a different tack--that is, act in direct opposition to what he has just been saying about himself, in opposition to the laws of reason, in opposition to his own advantage, in fact in opposition to everything..."

Poe advances a similar argument about perversity: "Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say through its promptings we act, for the reason we should not."  In other words, we act  because we know we shouldn't.

Dostoyevsky here, like Poe, argues that humans will act at times in direct conflict with what they know to be their best interests.

Dostoyevsky postulates an advance in science which might provide accurate prediction of human behavior while Poe points out a combination of phrenology and metaphysics that attempts do the same. Both then attack the possibility of a completely accurate science of predicting human behavior.

Dostoyevsky says, "science itself will teach man that he never really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano key or the stop of an organ, and that there are , besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will not longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms..."

And then, when complete rational harmony and prosperity is established, someone will stand up and say that we should "'kick over the whole show here and scatter rationalism to the winds' ... [and] he would be sure to find followers--such is the nature of man. And all that for the most foolish reason, which, one would think, was hardly worth mentioning; that is, that man everywhere and at all times, whoever he may be, has preferred to act as he chose and not in the least as his reason and advantage dictated."

Again, we do things simply for the sake of  being perverse or because we know we shouldn't.

A Side Note:

There are some subtle comic comments buried within the text. The UM seems such a humorless person in much of the work, I wonder if he understands what he says here.   

". . . I began to feel an irresistible urge to plunge into society.  To me plunging into society meant paying a visit to my office chief, Anton Antonych Setochkin.  He's the only lasting acquaintance I've made during my lifetime;  I too now marvel at this circumstance.  But even then I would visit him only when my dreams had reached such a degree of happiness that it was absolutely essential for me to embrace people and all humanity at once; for that reason I needed to have at least one person on hand who actually existed.  However, one could only call upon Anton Antonych on Tuesday (his receiving day); consequently, I always had to adjust the urge to embrace all humanity so that it occurred on Tuesday. . . .The host usually sat in his study on a leather couch in front of a table together with some gray-haired guest, a civil servant either from our office or another one.  I never saw more than two or three guests there, and they were always the same ones.  They talked about excise taxes, debates in the Senate, salaries, promotions, His Excellency and how to please him,  and so on and so forth. I had the patience to sit here like a fool next to these people for four hours or so; I listened without daring to say a word to them or even knowing what to talk about.   I sat there in a stupor; several times I broke into a sweat; I felt numbed by paralysis; but it was good and useful.  Upon returning home I would postpone for some time my desire to embrace all humanity."

 Is he being ironic?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Robert Grudin: the mind's blind spot


In the same way that our eyes have blind spots in space, our minds have blind spots in time;  areas of time which we habitually or congenitally ignore.  My own blind spot is the recent past, the events of yesterday or last week.  I experience things quite fully in the present; but then they submerge, not to reappear until they are images on the flat wall of the past.  Why is this so?  Is there something uncomfortable, raw, undigested, embarrassing about the jumble of experience just behind me?  Is it ignored simply because it is too chaotic to make sense?  Look at the past day, the past hour:  their interruptions, frivolities, compromises, false startsWe may well have good reason to overlook the immediate past, for the immediate past holds the uncensored truth of the present.

I have trouble remembering in the evening what I did that morning or afternoon.  This is why I write things down that I want to remember in a small notebook that I carry with me, wherever I go.  I call it my non-volatile memory.  Even this isn't 100% perfect for sometimes I write so hastily that I can't read my writing (too many years in school taking notes).

At other times I don't put enough information down, so when I do finally stumble across the note, I wonder what it means and why I wrote it.  For example, I will come across a note--find and email the name of the author of such-and-such book.  Unfortunately I didn't write down the name of the person I was doing the research for.

I suspect we forget a lot that happens recently because we consider it trivial and don't really focus on it long enough to be retained in memory.   Something happens and then something else happens that pushes it out of our mind, and so it goes, until a significant event occurs, which remains with us long enough to be retained. 

Any thoughts?

Do you have any mental blind spots? 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain XXXVI

This is another quatrain that first appeared in the Second Edition.  FitzGerald then included it in the following three editions.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XXXVI

Earth could not answer: nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor Heaven, with those eternal Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Fifth  Edition:  Quatrain XXXIII

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
    Nor rolling Heaven, with all his Signs reveal'd
And hidden by the sleeve of Night and Morn.

Aside from a punctuation change, the most significant change occurs in the third line.  The addition of "rolling" adds a sense of movement or change to Heaven, while the removal of "eternal" suggests that those "Signs reveal'd" are no longer eternal and may be changed.

To see what Earth, the Seas, and Heaven could not answer, we must go back to Quatrain  XXXIV to discover that in spite of all his efforts, the Poet/Narrator could not unravel "the Master-knot of Human Fate."  In other quatrains, he dismisses those who claim to have the answer.  None who have left us have ever returned to tell us.

One thought that has occurred to me is that the reference to Heaven may be a subtle way of referring to astrology.  The position of the stars and planets do change, and, therefore, the reading given by an astronomical chart on one viewing may be different on another night.  Just what is signified by the Earth and the Seas that mourn escapes me. In addition, just whom the Seas are mourning-- "In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn" -- is also obscure to me.

The main point of this quatrain seems to be that there is no answer to the puzzle of human fate, but this point has already been made in several earlier quatrains. (See Quatrains XXIX, XXX,  and XXXIV)  However, it must serve some purpose for FitzGerald left the quatrain in, with that modification in line three.

I must admit this quatrain is a puzzle. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Hermann Hesse: Demian

Hermann Hesse
trans.  Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck
Bantam Books edition 

In an earlier post, Baltasar Gracian suggested that we can't tell a book by its cover.  After reading Hermann Hesse's Demian,  I wonder if we can tell a book by its title.   While Demian is in the novel, and a significant character, I think the main character is really Emil Sinclair.   In fact, inside the book, the title page reads Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair's Youth.  Well, enough quibbling, let's get to the story.

Those who have read several works by Hesse will probably recognize the basic themes of growth, the loneliness of the one who doesn't fit in, and the setbacks and obstacles along the never-ending path to enlightenment.  Beyond the mountain range, the hero of Hesse's works always finds another range to climb.  And, death seems to be the only resting place.  Those familiar with Steppenwolf, Magister Ludi, Siddhartha, and Peter Caminzind among others will recognize this work.

Various stages in Emil Sinclair's growth:

Innocence:  Sinclair's Edenic existence at home as a child

Rude Awakening: Sinclair's first sin

Rescue and the beginning of his journey: Demian and a new way of viewing the biblical story of Cain and Abel

Debauchery and Sin:  Sinclair goes to a boarding school and discovers sin and alcohol

Redemption:  Beatrice  (see Dante)

A new mentor:  Pistorius
The Return:  Demian reappears

Following is what I consider to be the core of the novel. At one point, Sinclair decides:

"I did not exist to write poems, to preach or to paint, neither I nor anyone else.  All of that was incidental.  Each man had only one genuine vocation--to find the way to himself.  He might end up as poet or madman, as prophet or criminal--that was not his affair, ultimately it was of no concern.  His task was to discover his own destiny--not an arbitrary one--and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.  Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideas of the masses, conformity and fear of one's own inwardness.  The new vision rose up before me, glimpsed a hundred times, possibly even expressed  before but now experienced for the first time by me.  I was an experiment on the part of Nature, a gamble within the unknown, perhaps for a new purpose, perhaps for nothing , and my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine. That or nothing!"

Eastern thought is very strong in this work, as, actually, it is in many, if not most, of Hesse's works.  While I'm far, impossibly far, from being an expert in Eastern thought, I do have one strong objection here.  I see nothing wrong in the struggle for self-enlightenment, but the part that disturbs me is the acceptance of what appears to be one's destiny--"my only task was to allow this game on the part of primeval depths to takes its course, to feel its will within me and make it wholly mine."  In other words, this seems to be saying that if one discovers one's destiny is to be a murderer, then one should accept this and become the best murderer one can be. 

I'm guess I'm too much of a Westerner to accept this.  I do feel that I have responsibility for my actions.   I may have only a limited control over my environment and the things that fate has in store for me, but I do have considerable control over my actions.  Many times I do have choices, choices beyond that of resignation and acquiescence to fate.  Sometimes acceptance may be the best choice, but not always.

And your thoughts?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gregory Benford: the last of the Anomalies

These are the last stories from Greg Benford's latest collection of short stories,  Anomalies.

"Gravity's Whispers"
A CETI Tale:   A scientist with LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory--a real institution sponsored by CalTech and MIT) has detected a gravity wave fluctuation and sent it to a mathematician to see if there's something there.  There is, but it's an artificial pattern, obviously created by someone?  And, there's a problem.  To be able to create a gravitational wave with a signal requires the ability to "sling around neutron stars and make them sing in code." Do we really want to open communication with a race so powerful?

"Ol' Gator"
 Evolution seems to be the focus of this strange little story.  It's a narrative told by a GI in Iraq.  He alternates between what's happening to him during the conflict with Saddam Hussein's troops and  memories of his childhood days in the South.  It was that part of Iraq that had been swampland and then partially drained that brought back those memories, for the crocs in the swamp reminded him of the gators back home and his grandpa's war with the patriarch of the swamp--Ol' Gator. 

At one point in the story the narrator is separated from his unit and finds a very large contingent of Iraqi insurgents headed his way.   However he finds he's not alone, for he has some very unusual companions.  Rather than spoil the fun, I'll just quote Loren Eiseley, the eminent anthropologist and essayist:  "The world is fixed, we say: fish in the sea, birds in the air. But in the mangrove swamps by the Niger, fish climb trees and ogle uneasy naturalists who try unsuccessfully to chase them back into the water. There are things still coming ashore."  from The Immense Journey

"The Champagne Award"
According to a Note provided by Benford, this is a satiric look at the government and population control.  As the general population seems unwilling or unable to control the birth rate, the government steps in with its own program.  People are issued KidCred cards which gives each person the right to bear a child.  They can use the credit themselves or can transfer it to someone else.  Or they could offer it in a lottery in which they get the proceeds.  That could turn out to be in the millions of dollars, if offered at the right time.  The parents of children born illegally, to those without KidCred or who have used up their KidCred, are fined heavily, and the children receive no social benefits and no education.  There is even some talk about prison sentences for those who bear children without KidCred.

Inter-dimensional travel.  As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, one common theme in SF is the time travel story in which there is an attempt to go back in time to prevent some great evil or catastrophe: assassinating Hitler is a favorite among writers. This story doesn't involve time travel but a different method of preventing some evil.

Set some time in the future, Warren has become rich and uses his wealth to bring his dream to fruition.  He has hated serial killers since he first learned of them as a teenager.  It's too late to do something about those in the world in the dimension in which he resides, so he decides to do something about those in worlds in other dimensions, especially those so "close" that there's only a very small difference between them and his world.

He has the people who work for him research these other worlds for those who appear to be the counterparts of serial killers in his world.  He decides to kill them, and to kill them before they've started killing.  In other words, Warren has decided on a pre-emptive strike, since these people have not yet harmed anyone.  There's a problem though, something Warren did not take into account, but he eventually encounters it.

The moral question one might consider is Warren's justification for killing these people: they haven't harmed anyone at the point he is to kill them.  Is this justifiable? 

"Doing Lennon"
This is another cryonics tale. It was written in 1975, some five years before John Lennon was killed in 1980.  Henry Fielding has chosen "the long sleep" before he really needed it.  When he awakes in the 22nd century, he claims to be John Lennon and that he was "fleeing political persecution."  This is why he used the alias.

In his real life, Henry Fielding had been a broker who had done quite well financially, along with surreptitiously dipping into several accounts belonging to others.  He was a devoted follower of the Beatles, collecting records, memorabilia, and gossip about them, as well as memorizing the lyrics to all of their songs.  On his vacations, he haunted Liverpool, picking up the local colour and accents and visiting places important to the Beatles legend. Now he was going to put all that knowledge to work. 

Things go well for a while for him in the future: his singing and guitar playing are accepted by all.  Then things get complicated.  First, he is told that the corpsicle of Paul McCartney has been discovered, and everybody is breathlessly awaiting their reunion.  Then, he discovers Henry Fielding the Real.  Who then is he?

Brief comments by Gregory Benford about each of the stories.