Wednesday, December 31, 2008





Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sinclair Lewis--ARROWSMITH

I had read Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and Main Street, so I fully expected him to sharpen up his pen and go after the medical profession in this novel. I wasn't disappointed. It is a pointed and painful depiction of the medical field, ranging from small town practitioners to large urban medical facilities to research organizations. The various characters that Martin Arrowsmith meets verge on the Dickensian at times.

Lewis was also prophetic in that the large research institution he depicted has become the norm for today. Most research now comes from large, well-funded institutions, such as universities and drug companies, because the costs of the necessary equipment and supplies have become too expensive in many cases for any but a very wealthy individual.

I had two problems with the novel, something I hadn't encountered in Lewis' other works that I read. One was Martin Arrowsmith, the protagonist, whom we follow over the course of several decades as he attempts to make his way through the world of Sinclair Lewis. There is a saying that goes something like this: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!"

Well, Arrowsmith doesn't get fooled just once or twice but at least four times and possibly five. He just doesn't learn. At the end, he ends up probably where he should have been all along, but it isn't because of some blinding insight on his part. It is the only course left for him, as he's tried and failed at everything else.

Part of his problem was the structure of the novel--which is the second problem I came across. It is highly repetitive. The pattern begins when Arrowsmith moves into a new situation. He is ecstatic; this is Edenic. He admires the people with whom he will be working and intends to model himself after them. After six months or so, he is disillusioned. He intensely dislikes those around him, many of whom he has no respect for any more, and they resent him as much, if not more. He alienates important people, and the only question is whether he will move on before he gets terminated.

He luckily finds a better position in which he is once again highly impressed by the quality of the people and the environment. Then, six months or a year later, he once more finds himself at odds with others around him, and eventually he moves on.

This pattern appears at least four times throughout the novel, and I lost interest in the novel because of this predictability. Ultimately, Arrowsmith comes across as a puppet who marches through various scenarios as his Master pulls the highly visible strings. This is not a novel about the trials and tribulations of Martin Arrowsmith, but an exposure of a particular environment, the medical field in this case.

I would recommend it for Lewis' perspective on the medical field of his day, for both the situations and the various characters. It is as sardonic as his view of the middle class and small town Americans.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain III

Quatrain III, from the First Version:

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted--"Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

FitzGerald was obviously satisfied with this quatrain, or at least he couldn't come up with a version he liked better, for this one remained unrevised throughout all five versions.

I think the most interesting point to be made is the shift of the speaker from inside the Tavern/Temple to outside. Whereas in Quatrain II, the speaker was inside exhorting those outside to come, here we see the speaker to be among those waiting outside and demanding to be let in. The speakers, however, in both quatrains, inside and outside, concentrate on the issue of time passing.

There appears to be a difference of opinion as to why the worshipers remain outside. Those inside wonder at the delay of those outside, but those outside argue that the door is closed. It's almost as if something appears to be blocking the entrance, but that the inside speaker does not see it. Perhaps a later quatrain will explain.

The speaker in QIII also added further reason for hurry:

"You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more."

Life is short and there's no second chance. This appears to be an expression of the philosophy of carpe diem, or "seize the day, sometimes expressed as "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."

One of my favorite examples is found in Andrew Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress," when the speaker tells his coy mistress that she deserves a long courtship--

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song:

The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

A bit of trivia: Peter Beagle wrote a fine short story about two ghosts who fall in love in a graveyard; the title is, of course, "A Fine and Private Place."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ford Madox Ford: December 17, 1873 – June 26, 1939

Born on this day in 1873 is one of my favorite novelists, Ford Madox Ford. His novel The Good Soldier is permanently installed in my top ten favorite novels list. His WWI tetralogy Parades End is one that I have read several times and will continue to reread regularly.

His importance or effect on English literature is not limited to the works he himself wrote. The following is a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"In 1908, he founded The English Review, in which he published Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, John Galsworthy, and William Butler Yeats, and gave debuts to Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, and Norman Douglas. In the 1920s, he founded The Transatlantic Review, a journal with great influence on modern literature. Staying with the artistic community in the Latin Quarter of Paris, France, he made friends with James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Jean Rhys, all of whom he would publish (Ford is the model for the character Braddocks in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). In a later sojourn in the United States, he was involved with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon, Katherine Porter and Robert Lowell (who was then a student). Despite his deep Victorian roots, Ford was always a champion of new literature and literary experimentation."

His collaboration with Joseph Conrad produced two novels, Inheritance, a novel about aliens from another dimension who are gradually taking control of England, and Romance, a swashbuckling novel set mostly in the Caribbean and features pirates, buried treasure, damsels in distress, and last minute rescues. Apparently it was made into a film in 1927 under the title of The Road to Romance, starring Ramon Navarro. Ford and Conrad also collaborated on a shorter work, The Nature of a Crime, a work I believe neither could have written alone. In fact, Conrad later denied having even heard of the work and was convinced of his part in it only when Ford showed him drafts in Conrad's handwriting.

If you haven't read it yet, I would strongly recommend reading at least Ford's The Good Soldier. I would also recommend Parades End and various works by Conrad, including their collaborations.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Torchwood--CSI meets the X-Files

Torchwood is a British TV SF series that is described as a spin-off of Doctor Who, the modern series. I gather that's because of the presence of Captain Jack Harkness, the head of the Torchwood team. Not having seen any of the recent episodes of Doctor Who, I don't know exactly who he is. I guess I'll have to watch that series also, once I've finished going through the original episodes. The premise of the show is that aliens invade earth regularly, and the Torchwood team's mission is to protect earth from them.

I've viewed the first two episodes and must admit I don't see any thematic or atmospheric connection to the original series, although there is occasionally a bit of whimsy that sneaks through. Based on the first two episodes, I would say that Torchwood is a darker show with a grimmer atmosphere in which death occurs, frequently of the grisly variety. Sex also plays a much larger role in the show, as the second episode concerns a sex-starved alien who has traveled light years to earth in order to sample sex as earth people know it. I don't think I'm revealing anything significant here as this point is made clear in the first 5 minutes or so of the show.

As I mentioned earlier, the show doesn't have the feel of the original Doctor Who series. Probably the best I way I can describe it is to say that CSI meets The X-Files. Torchwood is a super-secret organization that investigates strange happenings. There are five members, each of whom, naturally, is an expert in something--electronics, medicine, the obligatory computer hacker. If they get to the scene first, they simply take control and wave off the authorities when they arrive. However, if the local authorities are in control, they show up in their van, wave ID cards, take over with their various suitcases of equipment, and send the locals off. Along with investigating incidents of possible alien invasions, their task is to destroy the invaders, if present, and clean up the mess, so that the ordinary citizenry remain unaware of their true danger.

They also confiscate all alien artifacts and store them in their secret underground lab. The members of the team have to promise that the alien devices will remain in the lab and not be taken outside for personal use. This promise is obviously broken by various members of the team in the first episode, sometimes with humorous results.

The setting for the show is Cardiff, Wales. The POV character is a Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff police officer, who is at the scene of a murder in the first episode, when the Torchwood squad arrives and takes over. She asks a fellow officer about them and is told this is Torchwood, a group about which nothing is known, except that they occasionally appear and take control of some incidents. She spies on them as they go about their work with some strange devices and does a little investigating of her own; you can guess what happens.

Fortunately, there are no men in black, but it's early days--I've only seen the first two episodes. I certainly hope the men in black don't appear, bringing with them the governmental conspiracy theme that eventually dominated The X-Files, to its detriment, as far as I was concerned. That's when I lost interest.

One last point--Gwen Cooper, the female lead in Torchwood, accepted the existence of aliens in the very first show. How many seasons of The X-Files did Mulder need to convince Scully that "they're out there"?

I'll be watching the next episodes of this show. I did enjoy it, and while I'm not initially ecstatic over it, it is possible that the show will grow on me. Much depends upon the interaction of the team's members: that could make the show, or break it, for me anyway.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Akutagawa's short story: In a Grove (cont.)

In October 2008, I posted an entry about Akutagawa's short story, "In A Grove." According to the translator, he based his story on a 12th century tale. The translator also added that Ambrose Bierce's short story, "The Moonlit Night", may also have had an influence on the story. At that time I hadn't found the original medieval Japanese tale so I was unable to determine nature of the various influences on Akutagawa's story. However, I have been able to get a copy of the medieval, 12th century tale and read it.

The 12th century medieval Japanese story:
Format--straightforward traditional narrative
Plot--husband and wife are traveling and meet a stranger on the road. The stranger tricks the husband and is able to overpower him. The stranger rapes the wife and leaves. The wife unties her husband and berates him for being a coward and a fool.

Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road"
Format--three separate depositions from the son, the father, and the mother. The mother's deposition comes from a medium or a spiritualist because the mother was murdered.
Plot--none of the three know the full story. Only the readers know who murdered the mother and why the father ran away because they have read all three depositions.

Akutagawa's "In a Grove'
Format--4 or 5 depositions from the characters involved.
Plot--husband and wife traveling, meet stranger, who uses the husband's greed to trick him. He ties up husband and rapes wife. All this is very similar to the original Japanese tale. However, what happens next is not. The husband is killed. The bandit claims he killed the husband in a duel for the wife; the wife claims she killed the husband because she couldn't take his look of hatred and contempt for her; and the husband claims he committed suicide for being unable to defend his wife. The husband's story, since he is dead, comes through a shaman who contacts him in the afterlife and gets his story.

The first part of the story appears to come from the Japanese tale, up to the point just after the rape. Nobody dies in that story. Bierce's influence seems to have resulted in the change of format of the story from a traditional narrative to the deposition format. Bierce's story also seems to have contributed at least the appearance of the shaman or medium in order to get the murdered victim's story--the husband in Akutagawa's story and the wife in Bierce's story. Akutagawa may also have gotten the idea of the death of one of the spouses from Bierce's story.

My next task is to locate a copy of the Hollywood version of Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, which is based on Akutagawa's story. So far, it's only out on VHS, and mine isn't working. The Hollywood version, The Outrage, stars Paul Newman as the bandit, with Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom in the roles of the husband and the wife. William Shattner (Captain Kirk) plays the role of the preacher, and Edward G. Robinson the role of the con man.

Until then, I shall be satisfied seeing Rashomon and reading "In a Grove."

Both highly recommended.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Robert Silverberg--Project Pendulum

Robert Silverberg's Project Pendulum, is, unfortunately, a relatively lightweight time travel tale published first in 1987. It's another one of those stories that has an interesting premise, but the author really goes nowhere with it.

The time traveling machine sends twin brothers, one a paleontologist and the other a physicist, on a trip through time that most resembles a pendulum, as the title suggests. Twins were selected because the two travelers had to have similar weights. One twin initially goes back in time while the other goes forward an equal length in time. Then the one going back in time goes forward, while the other goes back. Each "swing" from past to present to past, is longer than the previous stop. Eric first goes back 5 minutes and then moves forward 50 minutes from time zero--the time the experiment began. He then swings back 500 minutes from time zero. Sean, his brother, does the exact opposite--forward 5 minutes, then back 50 minutes, and the forward 500 minutes. Neither stops at the point the other brother stopped on the "outward" leg of the trip. However, they will on the return leg.

This process only allows for a brief period at any stop, though the length of the stop increases as they get further away from time zero. This is the weak point in the story. We really don't get a chance to see much of what each period is like, either going back or going forward. All the reader, and the time travelers get, is a brief glimpse of what that era is like.

I was also surprised that, although they were scheduled to travel millions of years into the past and future, no one seemed concerned about possible changes in the atmosphere. This actually posed a threat to one of the brothers, and presumably will to the other on the return leg, if he isn't killed prior to getting to that stop in time.

While reading the novel, I was almost immediately reminded of another novel, A. E. van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher, first published in the early 1950's, in which van Vogt posits a similar time pendulum. To keep it brief, thousands of years in the future, an energy weapon disguised as a large building is trained on one of the Weapon Shops. The Weapon Shop's energy screen causes the two of them to move through time in opposite directions. A man in 1951 enters the Shop and becomes the focus of the energy beam, and he now moves back and forth in time while the energy weapon building moves in the opposite direction, just as Sean and Eric move back and forth in Silverberg's novel.

Since there is no author's foreward or introduction, I can't say for certain that Silverberg was influenced by van Vogt's novel. In addition, I can't find any internal reference that might suggest Silverberg's familiarity with van Vogt's novel.

Overall, Project Pendulum is a lightweight work, a pleasant but forgettable read. A better introduction to Silverberg's work would be Lord Valentine's Castle, The World Inside, At Winter's End, and Shadrach in the Furnace.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sin City--UltraViolence?

Sin City is another entry in the apparently ever-increasing number of films that are based on either comics or graphic novels. I haven't seen many of them, so my comments should be taken as relating to my own limited experience and not to this film category in general. Perhaps others more knowledgeable can comment on the overall state. This film is based on several tales from Frank Miller's graphic novels.

Sex and violence in literature and film generate a discussion, usually when the amount or type exceeds some viewers' tolerance level. The point becomes then whether the amount is necessary or gratuitous. War films are about violence, so violence is expected, and I think a higher level of violence would be acceptable to most viewers or readers than in other genres. The issue of excess violence generally is raised when the violence seems to go beyond some acceptable level and then brings up the question of why. Is it poor taste on the part of the director or others involved in the film? Is it an attempt to distract the viewers from realizing the weakness of the story? Is it a cynical ploy to increase ticket sales?

Sin City, however, seems to have taken the issue of violence to a new level. In this film, violence is neither an integral part of the story or a ploy to increase sales; violence is the story. Remove the violence from the film and not much is left. Someone is killed early in the story and the rest of the film involves torturing and/or killing numerous others as the POV characters try to survive or seek revenge. In this world, killing or torturing others is normal, and many enjoy it, including one or more of the "good guys."

Sin City received an R rating, but I think it should have been NC-17.

That being said, I thought the film was innovative in its use of special effects--a blend of straight filming with animation, computer graphics, and freeze-frame, or so it appeared to me. The film opens with a scene from a balcony overlooking the city. It is mostly dark with, of course, city lights off in the distance. Then a woman walks out onto the balcony in a red dress--a bright red comic book red, that style of coloring that was featured in a "Dick Tracy" movie a decade or so ago. It is startling, and it does attract the viewer's eye. Throughout the film, the action, at times, appeared to be taking place in an animated comic strip. Sorry, about this, but not being an aficionado, I lack the vocabulary. Overall, I found that the technology used made it a very interesting film to watch.

One other point--I was reminded of another film, Pulp Fiction, while watching this. It's been awhile since I watched Pulp Fiction, but it seems to me that there were a number of plot lines in the film, which surprisingly, to me anyway, did not all come together at the end, or so I remember. The characters from the various plots would bump into each other at times, but the resolutions to the plots were independent of each other. This is also true of Sin City. Major characters from one plot line would have a walk-on in anther plot, but would not play a significant role. For example, I think some characters from all plots eventually visited the same bar at one time or another. One of the waitresses waited on the characters in two of the plots and was a major character in the other.

Perhaps I was reminded of Pulp Fiction because it was directed by Quentin Tarentino, and the credits for Sin City list Quentin Tarentino as "guest director."

This is an interesting and innovative film for its use of special effects and technology. However, forget it if you're looking for drama, complex plots, and character development. This universe is a brutal one, and killing is the only solution.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Mystery of Cloomber

I ran into a reference to this work, The Mystery of Cloomber, quite by accident, searching for something else. I know Doyle had written other types of works in addition to his Sherlock Holmes series, but this was one I hadn't heard about before.

This isn't a Holmes-Watson tale, but, frankly, it could have been. It's set in Scotland, off the coast of the Irish Sea. The countryside is described in part as being as unappealing and frightening as the Moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

John Fothergill West, his sister, and his father have moved here because of the kindness of his father's stepbrother. The stepbrother, advised by his physician to seek a warmer climate, was going to move to Italy, and he asked John's father if he would like to move into his place while he was gone and act as steward. Being in financial difficulties at the time, the offer was immediately accepted.

Shortly after moving there, John, the POV character, discovered that the long abandoned Cloomber Hall had been taken up once again, apparently by a wealthy family, for considerable money was spent on repairs.

But, this wasn't just an ordinary move into a neighborhood by ordinary people. The family consisted of Major-General J. B. Heatherstone, Ret., his wife and son and daughter. John West first met Heatherstone the night Heatherstone came to look over the place. It was dark, and when Heatherstone saw West in the light of the lantern, he jumped back, became very agitated and remarked that West's skin was very dark, that he wasn't an Englishman. The property agent with Heatherstone reassured him that West was an Englishman and that there was no need to be alarmed. Several days later, they met again in the daylight, and Heatherstone apologized, but again remarked that West was darker than the people in the area usually were. West said it was because he had Spanish blood.

Further curious episodes occurred. Heatherstone had a high fence built entirely surrounding the house and grounds. The maids were from London, thus depriving the villagers of the endless amount of information that could be counted on if some of the domestic staff had been local people. Furthermore, when the Wests' went to pay their first neighborly call on the new family, they found the following sign by the gate:
"General and Mrs. Heatherstone
have no wish to increase the circle
of their acquaintances."

In addition, the Heatherstones become quite popular with the local stores for they lay in a supply of food for months, much as if they expected to be enclosed in a siege.

However, Heatherstone's son and daughter, Mordaunt and Gabriel, respectively, feel quite differently about increasing their circle of acquaintances, and in time John and his sister Esther become well acquainted with Mordaunt and Gabriel. The Wests eventually learn that the Major-General isn't always like this; it is only as they approach Oct. 5 that he becomes so frightened and agitated. Once October 6 arrives, he becomes his old self again, only to fall into a depression as Oct. 5 comes around once again.

The Major-General asks the Wests to be on the lookout for strangers, vagabonds, gypsies, "that sort of people" who arrive in the neighborhood.

A brief search of the India Army list reveals that Major-General Heatherstone had been stationed in India for a number of years and had taken part in several significant and bloody battles.

Curious and curiouser: the man served in India, the mysterious East, the home of wisdom and powers unknown to Europeans; his fear that increased every year as they approached an anniversary? of something; his attempt to build an impregnable fortress and avoid contact with people; and his fear especially of darker skinned people.

I kept expecting Holmes and Watson to appear on the scene. But, I guess they were busy at the time, and I had to go it alone, relying solely upon my own poor powers of deduction.

The inside front cover blurb reads: "Master of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle here presents an extraordinary tale..., revealing his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal."

It's an interesting story, not as strong as Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, but still an interesting short novel.