Tuesday, March 31, 2009

John Donne: 1572--March 31, 1631

John Donne's birth date, aside from the year, is unknown, so I thought that I would post this on the anniversary of his death. If more people would follow his philosophy, I think the world would be a more peaceful place.

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe;
Every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
If a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
As well as if a Promontorie were,
As well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
- Donne -
Devotions upon Emergent Occasion
Meditation XVII

Monday, March 30, 2009

Greg Benford: Across the Sea of Suns, Galactic Center Book II

Nigel Walmsley is back--just as obstreperous and cranky as before, and still a pain in the bureaucratic backside. This is a bit surprising because Nigel is getting up there in years now. The first book in the series, In the Ocean of Night, covered the period between 1999 and 2019. In 1999, Nigel was an experienced astronaut, which suggests that he was at least in his late 20s, if not older. Across the Sea of Suns begins in 2056 and ends in 2064. Even if Nigel had been in his twenties in 1999, he must now be getting close to 90. The only difference is that he's getting a bit creaky and can't handle physical chores now. But, his brain is still as good, and he's one of the few around who can go beyond the narrow limits of the various sciences and get an overall view.

And, that's his problem now. His overall view doesn't coincide with the official view. He sees a connection between the three encounters with aliens in the previous novel and the observations they are now making of a planet circling a star some 8.1 light years from Earth. Rather than remain silent, he keeps pushing and finagling and just generally irritating the wrong people. Back on Earth, that wouldn't have been a problem; he could just go on vacation or take a leave of absence and stay out of sight until all was forgotten or the bureaucrats he had angered had moved on. But, he's not on Earth now, and he can't drop out of sight.

A decade or so ago, transmissions were received from that unnamed star that appeared to be English words, but just English words transmitted at random. Several probes were sent, but little was learned except that the radio signals appeared to be coming from a small planet circling that star. The major powers on Earth, therefore, decided to send people and confiscated a colony ship that was under construction. Based on information gained from the three alien encounters, Earth decided to build its own asteroid ship, the Lancer. It was this ship that was hastily converted into a research vessel and sent to the star.

And aboard were Nigel and Nikki, a woman he had met while working on the alien ship that had crashed on the moon, thousands of years ago. Nikki, in fact, was the one who had found the ship when its still active automatic defense system shot her down as she came within range of its sensors.

The first part of the book details the discovery of the source of the signals, a alien race that is one of the strangest I've ever encountered in over 50 years of reading SF. This race survives on a planet on which it seems impossible for life to have evolved in the first place. And, around the planet orbits a satellite, apparently doing nothing. Nigel argues that life evolved first, and then the planet was attacked and reduced to its present state. And, he also insists that the satellite is there, at least, to observe the planet, a Watcher.

After leaving that system, the Lancer visits several other systems and finds Watchers around other planets that also appear to have been attacked, and also around other planets on which life had yet to appear, if ever.

Meanwhile, Earth is facing its own problems. Aliens have suddenly appeared in the oceans and have completely disrupted shipping and travel. (Reminds me of the John Wyndham novel, Out of the Deeps, aka The Kraken Awakes). Benford provides a second plot which focuses on Warren, a survivor of an attack by the aliens on his ship. He shares some characteristics with Nigel, namely that bad things happen and the best course is to deal with it, and forget about recriminations and finger pointing. And, most ominously, a Watcher has appeared in orbit around Earth.

Human leaders on Earth and in Space are prone to make mistakes, especially when they don't listen to the right advisers. The novel ends with a full scale nuclear war on Earth and the surviving crew of the Lancer on board a Watcher. Nigel, however, has managed to survive, so there's hope yet for the human race.

The novel includes some interesting speculations on life in a restricted area, with a limited population. In addition, Nigel repeats his adventure of the menage-a- trois in the first novel which featured Nigel, Alexandria, and Shirley, with a new adventure featuring Nigel, Nikki, and Carlotta. It may be the human version of the three-body problem (which I hear about frequently in SF but don't really understand, to be honest) in which there are two suns, Nigel and Alexandria or Nigel and Nikki, and a planet, Shirley or Carlotta, that must orbit both of them. Ultimately both Shirley and Carlotta decide that their primary purpose is to protect Alexandria and Nikki from the uncaring and insensitive Nigel, even though this insensitivity has yet to be noticed by either Alexandria or Nikki.

Overall Rating: Great science stuff and good human interest material here. Benford has incorporated enough new ideas for 10 books. I'm looking forward to the third book in the series,
Great Sky River.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Robert Frost: March 26, 1874--January 29, 1963


I WENT to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees; 5
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’


But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round, 15
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;


But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name, 25
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.


The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own; 35
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.


‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

-- Robert Frost --
from A Boy's Will

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Combination Plate 5: CJ Sansom, Steven Saylor, Colin Dexter, TV's Peter Gunn

C. J. Sansom's Revelation
An historical judicial detective tale,
The detective: Matthew Shardlake
Setting: London, during the reign of Henry VIII, immediately prior to his marriage to his sixth wife, Catherine Parr.

This is the fourth book in the series which features Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, who is hunchbacked. One of the strengths of the book is that it portrays the problems Shardlake faces in a society that is less sensitive than ours, although ours really isn't that sensitive. He is frequently insulted and jeered at by others, some of whom are enemies or at least angered by him, while others are simply passing strangers who see nothing wrong in calling him "crookback."

Sansom does an excellent job of portraying the confusion raging at that time, without appearing to be lecturing the reader. He skillfully includes the issues and controversies of that period and makes them a part of the story. The religious and political conflicts permeate almost every aspect of Shardlake's work, and it's hard to say which would be worse at this time: being accused of treason or being accused of heresy. Both charges are employed to settle old debts or as part of a power struggle. A whisper in the right place about doctrinal differences or a suspicious meeting with the wrong person could lead quickly to a visit to the Tower, torture, a show trial, and a summary execution.

In the midst of this turmoil, a friend of Shardlake's has been murdered. But, this isn't just a case of a robbery gone wrong or perhaps a case of revenge (he was a lawyer also), but one that has possibly a political connection involving Catherine Parr, whom Henry is wooing at this point. Moreover, there were possibly some religious issues here also, along with the bizarre manner of his death.

A second and a third murder quickly occur. Shardlake is contacted secretly by a number of powerful figures in Henry's court and asked to get involved, even though he has publicly sworn off any cases involving anything to do with politics or religion. The first three books in the series explains his reluctance to get involved. What puzzles Shardlake and others is the lack of any connection among the victims. It's almost as if they were chosen at random. What makes it even more frightening is that the murders seem to follow a pattern of events specifically outlined in the Book of Revelations. Shardlake and the others disagree as to the person's sanity and some wonder if the killer is possessed by the devil. Today we would nod knowingly and deduce the existence of a serial killer.

Overall Rating: a great work, 5/5.

I would recommend reading them in sequence, even though it's not absolutely necessary. The works in order are Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, and Revelation.


Steven Saylor's The Triumph of Caesar
An historical private professional tale
The detective: Gordianus the Finder
Setting: Rome, 46 BC, at the beginning of the reign of Julius Caesar as Dictator, just after he has consolidated his control by defeating all other claimants

This is the tenth book in the series depicting the cases of Gordianus the Finder, a private investigator whose work takes him frequently among the most powerful figures in Rome. The first novel began with a summons from Sulla the Dictator (82 BC to 79 BC). Each of the subsequent novels moves the reader a few years forward until we reach this novel in 46 BC. the historical background of the period takes the reader through the events that brought about the the dissolution of the Roman Republic and the establishment of Caesar's dictatorship.

Saylor, like Sansom, provides a wealth of details regarding the people, customs, conflicts of the times, but he does it skillfully by making it a part of the story. Too often, writers simply drop in historical details and make me feel I'm getting a lecture. Sansom is too good a writer to do that.

Gordianus insists he is retired, but one does not simply ignore a summons from Calpurnia, wife of Caesar and the most powerful woman in Rome. She is having bad dreams, and her haruspex, one who foretells the future by searching for omens in the entrails of sheep, has diagnosed a threat to Caesar. As Gordianus was in Egypt at that time (see The Judgment of Caesar for details), she hired another investigator. This investigator reported learning something important but was murdered before he could investigate further or even give her any information as to the threat.

Gordianus again insists he's retired, but he changes his mind when he discovers the murdered man was a friend of his, Hieronymus the Scapegoat of Massilia, who had saved his life some years past (for more information, see Last Seen in Massilia). Gordianus doesn't believe in dreams or the ability of sheep's entrails to foretell the future, but his friend was murdered. He will investigate his friend's murder and ignore warnings provided by sheep's entrails.

We follow Gordianus as he tries to decipher Heironymus' notes and retraces his steps, hoping to learn what Heironymus learned that caused his death. As he does so, Gordianus encounters some of the most powerful and significant individuals in Rome at that time: Caesar, Calpurnia, Marc Antony, Brutus, Cicero, and Octavius (Caesar's heir whom we know as Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor).

Heironymus himself gives Gordianus the clue, but neither Gordianus nor I figured it out until the end of the book. Maybe both of us should retire.

Overall Rating: 5/5 again. This is the tenth book in the series, which also includes two collections of short stories. This novel, as do all of the others, stands alone, but I would recommend reading the others to get the full extent of the background and also because they are good reads.

Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse,
The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, DVD
The detector: Inspector Morse
Police procedural tale
Setting: Oxford, UK, contemporary

While Dexter wrote some thirteen "Inspector Morse" novels, the TV series has televised over 30 episodes, most of which are "based on characters created by Colin Dexter." This production, The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, is based on the novel of the same name by Dexter. As usual, the TV versions have toned down Morse's character somewhat. He's not as cranky nor does he drink as much in the TV versions as he does in the novels. Sgt. Lewis comes across much as he does in the novels, long-suffering, patient, and occasionally irritated by his short-tempered and patronizing superior officer.

This story is based to some extent on Colin Dexter's own past. Nicholas Quinn is becoming quite deaf. He is employed by a syndicate that monitors the testing for Oxford University. Dexter, like Morse, was at Oxford and became a teacher until his increasing deafness made that impossible. He then took a position as a monitor for examinations, much as did Quinn.

The relationship between Morse and Lewis and Morse's loneliness are recurring themes throughout the series. The novels and the TV dramas are independent, and there's no real reason for being concerned about the chronology, except for the last two novels--Death is Now My Neighbor and The Remorseful Day. Colin Dexter announced that he will end the series and subsequently published The Remorseful Day, in which it is clear the series has ended. He made sure that there would be no Reichenbach Falls possibility in this series.

Overall Rating: an enjoyable read, lighter in scope and complexity than the works by Sansom and Saylor.

Blake Edward's Peter Gunn,
a TV Series from 1958 to 1961, now on DVD
Private professional
The detective: Peter Gunn
Setting: an unnamed waterfront city, contemporary at that time

This was a 30 minute TV show that had 114 episodes during its life span. As it was only a 30 minute show, the plots had to be relatively simple and easily solvable during that short period. The attractions were the characters and the relationships among them that developed throughout the show, and the theme music, provided by Henry Mancini.

The detective is Peter Gunn, who is the epitome of "cool." He is always laid back and in control, regardless of whose hand held the gun. He is also, as best as I can remember, one of the first of the well-dressed action heroes. In a recent episode, he is looked up and down by a young lady who comments on his very expensive shoes, his $200-300 suit (late 50s, remember), and his gold cigarette lighter (late 50s, remember). There probably are others, but the ones I remember best also started around the same time: Patrick McGooham as secret agent J0hn Drake in UK's Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent in the US (1960-2 and 1964-68), and, of course, the Sultan of Sartorial Splendor, Patrick Macnee as John Steed of The Avengers (1961-69)--the bowler and the brelly will do it every time.

The love interest is provided by Lola Albright who plays the nightclub singer Edie Hart. Hope Emerson does a marvelous job as Mother, the owner of Mother's, a small nightclub where Edie sings, Peter hangs out, and much of the action begins and frequently ends. Hershel Bernardi turns in an excellent performance as the patient and long-suffering Lt. Jacoby, of the local police force. I don't know if he's the first one, but Jacoby apparently has no first name. In fact, in one episode, a charming young lady, obviously on the make, asked him what his first name was. He looked at her for brief period and responded "Lieutenant." Several nights ago, I watched Inspector Morse as he responded to a woman who wanted to know what his first name was. His response? "You can call me Morse." While I finally learned Morse's first name, I still don't know what Lt. Jacoby's is.

Overall rating: nostalgia plays a role here, for me anyway. Historically, Gunn is one of the first of the well-dressed action heroes. And for some great jazz, listen to the theme music by Henry Mancini, which made the Top 40 for a few months, at least.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Kurosawa's _Rashomon_ and Martin Ritt's _The Outrage_

Warning: I have included considerable information about both films, including the endings.

As anyone who has visited Fred's Place might guess, I'm fascinated by Kurosawa's Rashomon, his great film that appeared in 1950. In two previous posts, on October 24, 2008 and December 12, 2008, I traced the ancestry of the film back to 12th century medieval Japan. Well, I finally caught up with its descendant, Martin Ritt's The Outrage, which appeared in 1964. As far as I can tell, this is the only descendant so far. If anyone knows of others, I'd appreciate the information.

Martin Ritt directed this remake of Rashomon. It is quite close to Kurosawa's version, with several significant revisions. One is the setting: The Outrage is moved from medieval Japan to post Civil War southwestern United States, near the mythical town of Silver Gulch. The setting is an abandoned railroad depot, at which trains seldom stop. One reference in the film is made to Tucson, so one might assume either southern Arizona or New Mexico. Silver Gulch is a dying town because the silver mines are played out. In southern New Mexico, one can find Silver City, a town that sprang up because of the silver mines, which are now shut down.

This is in keeping with previous remakes of Kurosawa's films, The Seven Samurai which became The Magnificent Seven, and Yojimbo which was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood, and again as Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, all of which were set in southwestern US or Mexico.

The samurai and his wife are now a Southern plantation owner and his wife, played by Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom, who have lost everything in the Civil War and are now looking for some place to start over again. Just what they are doing in a one-horse buggy out in the middle of the Sonoran desert with little or no luggage is beyond me.  The bandit, of course, is now a Mexican bandit, Juan Carrasco, played by old blue eyes himself--Paul Newman. In the Japanese version, the husband's body is discovered by a woodcutter; this becomes a prospector, played by Howard Da Silva.  The Buddhist priest has been transformed, naturally, into a Christian clergyman, and the actor selected for this part is probably best known for his role as the indomitable Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, a very young William Shattner.  The thief becomes a con man, a swindler, a seller of patent medicines which are as likely to kill as the condition they are supposed to cure. Edward G. Robinson was selected for this role.

A second change is that of the role of the shaman. In the Japanese version, the shaman goes into a trance and contacts the spirit of the dead husband, who then can tell his version of the events leading up to his death. This would never be accepted in an US court, so the husband's story was told by a medicine man who came along just as the husband was dying and heard his version.

Ritt also changed the ending. In Akutagawa's short stories, the reader was left with the three opposing stories, indicating that several, if not all, were lying. Kurosawa added a fourth version, that of the woodcutter whose version came closest to the bandit's tale, death in a duel. Ritt then changed Kurosawa's ending, and the prospector's final version also focused on the duel, but the husband tripped while carrying a knife, obviously not holding it point downward, and fell and stabbed himself.

Major problem: in spite of the considerable talents of the cast, I couldn't find them convincing in their roles. I always knew it was Paul Newman and Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom playing a part. I found Robinson's supposedly hearty and cynical laugh irritating and forced. The cast generally struck me as just walking through their lines. The only one who really came alive was Claire Bloom at the end when she taunts and goads her reluctant husband and the equally reluctant bandit to fight over her.

Overall Comment: Akutagawa took two medieval Japanese tales and a short story by Ambrose Bierce and created two short stories that went beyond the source material. One could see the seeds in his versions, but he added his own insight to the stories. Kurosawa did the same when he melded Akutagawa's short stories into his film. The germs of the originals are there, but again he took the material a step further. Ritt did not do this. His adaptation was a more or less faithful rendering into a western setting in which most of the changes were demanded by the new setting. The most significant change was not necessary and weakened the film--the ending, in which the prospector says the husband was killed by accident. There was no reason for that change.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain VI

From the first edition of Edward FitzGerald's rendering of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

And David's Lips are lock't; but in divine
High piping Pehlevi, with "Wine! Wine! Wine!
Red Wine!"--the Nightingale cries to the Rose
That yellow cheek of hers to incarnadine.

This quatrain remains the same for all succeeding editions.

This quatrain carries through the theme that began in Quatrain V, that of the disappearance of past glories while nature remains untouched. "David" refers to King David of the Hebrews, while "pehlevi" suggests either the language of ancient Zoroastrian works or a way writing used during the 3rd through the 6th century AD in Persia, or Iran as it is now known. In any case, it was no longer in use during Omar Khayyam's time, which began in the late 11th century and lasted through to the first quarter of the 12th century. David, having died centuries ago, as have others mentioned in earlier quatrains, can no longer can speak or perhaps sing, since he was known as a singer. This suggests that the glories of Israel are gone, while the garden, as represented by the Nightingale and the Rose, are still present, still singing their ancient songs.

The last line is ambiguous, and scholars have debated the meaning of it, especially whose "sallow cheek" is being referred to--the Nightingale's or the Rose's. Nor is it clear as to the meaning of "cries...That sallow cheek of hers to incarnadine." Perhaps the calling suggests excitement which would give color to that sallow cheek, or possibly the wine might bring a reddish hue to one's sallow cheeks.

I mentioned earlier that this quatrain remained the same for all editions. Frankly, considering the ambiguity of the last two lines, I wish that he had revised this quatrain.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Andreas Eschback's The Carpet Makers

The Carpet Makers is the first novel written by the German author Andreas Eschbach. It just happened to win the SFCD-Literature Prize, or as it is now called The German Science Fiction Award. Eschbach's second novel, Solarstation, won Germany's other prestigious SF award, the Kurd Lasswitz Award. Just to demonstrate that this wasn't a fluke, his third novel, The Jesus Video, won both awards. The film version of his third novel came out in 2002. Unfortunately I am having a problem finding it available. As far as I can find out, The Carpet Makers is the only work of Eschbach's that has been translated into English. I hope this changes soon.

The setting is perhaps 100,000 years in the future. Humans have spread throughout countless planets. This is the story of one planet, politically, culturally, economially, and militarily very insignificant, but it has one strange and remarkable export: hair carpets. The most important people on the planet are the hair-carpet makers. Each carpet maker makes only one carpet during his lifetime. It is made of the hair of his wives and daughters. The carpet maker, however, is allowed only one son; if a second son appears, one must be killed.

The reason for this is simple. By the time the hair-carpet is finished, the maker is old and near death. He gives the carpet to his son who sells it to a hair-carpet trader, when one appears. The son then takes the money and sets up his own household where he will begin making his own hair carpet, usually with the tools and equipment that belonged to his father. He and his family must live on the proceeds from the sale of his father's hair carpet. At the end of his life, when he has finished his hair carpet, he will then give it to his son, and the pattern repeats itself, as it has now for thousands of years.

Hair-carpet traders travel from small town to village, buying up hair carpets and eventually reaching the capital, where he sells the hair carpets to the Imperial trader. All hair carpets are purchased by representatives of the Emperor, who has need of an immense number of these carpets, presumably for his palace.

This has been going on for thousands of years, but now something is wrong. Rumors have sprung up that claim that the Emperor has abdicated. No one knows where these rumors come from, but everybody has heard them. Moreover, one hair carpet trader has kept records for many years and has discovered that the number of traders has diminished and the number of carpets has also dwindled considerably, and there seems no reason for either decrease.

I was confused when I first picked up The Carpet Makers. It's narrative structure is unusual, a bit disconcerting. Each chapter has a different POV character, and there are seventeen chapters. The first chapter features a carpet maker, the second a hair-carpet trader, the third a teacher, the fourth another hair-carpet maker, the fifth an old itinerant peddler woman, and the sixth an off-planet foreigner.

It wasn't until the third or perhaps fourth chapter that I finally realized what Eschbach was doing. The narrative structure is modeled on the structure of the hair carpets themselves. The carpet makers use the strands of hair to create his carpet, and each strand, although short, was intricately interwoven with other strands to create a pattern. Borlon, the carpet maker who appears in Chapter Four, has two wives, one with blond hair and one with black hair and creates the pattern in the carpet with those two colors.

Eschbach does the same with his strands/chapters of various characters. This would result in a very choppy structure, with a jerky narrative flow, except for something that Eschbach does. In each chapter, Eschbach has inserted back references and forward references to other chapters in the work. Moreover, he has included two themes that appear in almost every chapter: one is that of the hair carpets themselves, and the other is the Emperor. This helps to unify the work.

Take for example, Chapter Five--"The Peddler Woman." A peddler woman is referred to in Chapters One, Two, and Four. When she finally appears in Chapter Five, we follow her as she visits the carpet makers Ostvan, who is featured in Chapter One, and Borlon, the carpet maker in Chapter Four. She also meets the foreigner who has been referred to in Chapter Three. This foreigner becomes the POV character in Chapter Six and he refers back to Chapters Three, Four, and Five.

The narrative structure is not composed of a single thread moving forward into the future, but of numerous short threads that tell the story of the hair carpets and the Emperor. We see many people whose lives collide, intertwine, proceed along the same path for a short period of time, and then diverge as they go their own way. I don't think I've ever read another story that is structured quite this way, and I find it intriguing. I wonder if the narratives in his other novels, of which I hear there are now eight, are constructed the same way.

The novel isn't a quick read, but it isn't a very complex work either which one must struggle to get through. It flows naturally from the small village to the large city to off-planet settings to a resolution that I did not in any way expect. This is one of the attractions of the novel: I had no idea where this story was going.

Overall Rating: a quiet story that will reward rereading. I hope The Carpet Makers does well enough to encourage translations of other works by Andreas Eschbach.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain

Recently I viewed two films that were directed by Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008). I hadn't heard of him prior to watching these films and wasn't even aware that both were directed by him. The two films are Fires on the Plain (1959) and The Burmese Harp (1956). Both are considered anti-war films, and that's why I rented them. I was curious about anti-war films from Japan that emerged shortly after World War II.

The first film I viewed was Fires on the Plain, which appeared three years after The Burmese Harp. The film was based loosely on the novel Nobi, written by Shohei Ooka who was a soldier in the Japanese army and eventually captured by American troops. It is a bleak and horrific story about a group of starving Japanese soldiers who were fleeing the American Army and local guerrilla groups and trying desperately to reach the coast where they could be rescued by the Japanese Navy. Dante could have borrowed several scenes for his depiction of one of the circles of Hell, especially one for those who committed the sin of despair. The landscape seemed littered with bodies in various stages of decay. However, the food shortage became so critical that some of the soldiers turned to cannibalism.

The film is shot in black-and-white which adds to the desolate and gloomy aura of the film. The actors actually went without food for part of the filming in order to produce the appropriate appearance of starving soldiers.

It was at this point that I discovered that the second anti-war film in my queue, The Burmese Harp, was also directed by Ichikawa. I was curious to see what his earlier film was like, so I moved it up and watched it several days later.

The Burmese Harp, while clearly an anti-war film, is much different in depiction and theme. Perhaps this might be because the film was based on what is described as a children's fantasy work, The Harp of Burma, written by Michio Takeyama. In an interview included on the DVD, Ichikawa said that the film is considerably different from the novel, for if he had made the film to closely parallel the book, it would have turned out to be a fantasy for children, and he wanted something that would appeal to adults.

The setting is Burma, just at the end of the war. A Japanese military unit learns that Japan has surrendered. The officer, Captain Inouye, decides to surrender to the Americans (who look British to me) because they would be needed to help rebuild Japan which has been devastated by the bombing. They learn of another Japanese military unit that refuses to surrender and vows to fight until all are dead. One soldier, Mizushima, is asked to go to the unit that refuses to surrender and attempt to persuade them to give up. He goes but fails. All are killed in the attack, and he is wounded and not found by the Americans. He is later found and treated by Burmese living in the area.

Mizushima decides to return to his unit who are in a POW camp, awaiting their return to Japan. On his way back, he discovers large numbers of bodies of Japanese soldiers who have not been buried (a scene which is also frequently repeated in Ichikawa's later film, Fires on the Plain). He ultimately decides that he cannot go back to Japan until the bodies of the dead soldiers have been buried.

Several important themes are present in this film that do not appear in Fires on the Plain. One is music and the other is respect for the dead. Captain Inouye was a music teacher and choral director before the war, and he turns his unit into a very fine choral group, which helps to maintain morale. Mizushima has taught himself to play a local instrument, a harp, and he then becomes the musical core of the unit. The music throughout the film ranges from folk songs to religious choral works, primarily those for burial ceremonies. Two very effective musical scenes are the ones in which the soldiers learn of Japan's defeat and are serenaded by the American? forces, who also seem to be a fine choral unit, with a moving version of "Going Home," and one in which British nurses sing at a burial ceremony for deceased soldiers.

Mizushima's decision to remain in Burma in order to bury the Japanese soldiers is reminiscent of Sophocles' play Antigone, in which a young woman also breaks a law in order to perform burial rites for her brother, who is decreed by Creon to remain without proper rituals and burial. The penalty for breaking the law is death. In a way, Mizushima is risking the same fate for his unit has surrendered, and he is a soldier who is now traveling around Burma dressed as a Buddhist monk.

An even more interesting connection is provided by the dominant religion in Burma, Buddhism. In fact, a monk tells Mizushima that Burma is Buddhism. I'm not very familiar with Buddhism, but if I understand correctly, there are a number of Buddhas, each with various attributes. One that seems particularly significant is the Bodhisattva, or the Compassionate Buddha. The Bodhisattva is one who rejects nirvana and vows not to escape the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation until all creatures have achieved nirvana first. The following is a quote from the Wikipedia entry:

"The various divisions of Buddhism understand the word Bodhisattva in different ways, but especially in Mahayana Buddhism, it mainly refers to a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others."

Mizushima, in a way, has done something quite similar; he has rejected returning to his home (nirvana is considered the ultimate home of all creatures) until all those who have died have been properly buried.

I find it interesting that the first film Ichikawa directed, The Burmese Harp, has a far more optimistic and even a healing atmosphere, in comparison to the later film, Fires on the Plain, whose look is one of death and despair.

I'm not going to comment on the relationship between the films and the novels as I haven't read either of the novels. Nobi, the source for Fires on the Plain, isn't available now at the library, while The Harp of Burma is now in the process of being purchased by the public library. I have it on reserve, so I may get to read it, sometime soon, perhaps. I am adding Nobi to my search list.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Edmund Crispin The Case of the Gilded Fly

Edmund Crispin The Case of the Gilded Fly
First published in 1944
Type: Talented amateur
The Detective: Professor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, Oxford University

This is the first in a series of nine novels featuring the exploits of Gervase Fen, a sometimes arrogant and overbearing sleuth, at times reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. In addition, several of his earlier "cases" are referred to. However, unlike Holmes, Fen is noted for dropping obscure Latin and Shakespearean allusions, some of which are even appropriate. He also lacks Holmes' scientific background and a Watson. Like Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Allingham's Campion, Fen has a friend in the local police establishment, but he lacks a butler.

The novel follows the classic format. The characters are introduced, and in this novel, it soon becomes clear who the victim will be. She is universally hated by one and all, so there's no problem in identifying the suspects: they are everyone who comes in contact with her. We then follow Fen about as he questions the suspects and insists to one and all that he knows the murderer, or at least, knows enough about the murderer to be able to solve the case shortly. There are the usual red herrings, and two more deaths occur to muddy the waters a bit. And, at the end, Fen provides the obligatory explanation for his admirers.

One secondary character, and one I hope will appear in later works, is Sir Richard Freeman, Chief Constable of Oxford, who is an interesting companion for Fen. Fen is a professor of literature at Oxford who solves crimes as a hobby, while Freeman is a high-ranking police officer whose avocation is producing works of literary criticism. To date, he has published critical studies of Shakespeare, The Bible, and Chaucer.

Fen and Freeman "would sit for hours expounding fantastic theories about each other's work, and developing a fine scorn for each other's competence, and where detective stories, of which Fen was an avid reader, were concerned, they frequently nearly came to blows, since Fen would insist, maliciously but with some truth, that they were the only form of literature which carried on the true tradition of the English novel, while Sir Richard poured out his fury on the ridiculous problems which they presented and the even more ridiculous methods used in solving them." The relationship between them could provide the "buddy" atmosphere that the butlers and Watsons furnish other detectives.

I enjoyed the work, in spite of a few quibbles. The exact location of the murderer at a crucial moment was not very clear to me. Secondly, while this did not involved a "closed room" scenario, it was close enough to squeeze into that category. Therefore, the explanation of how the murder was committed tended to stretch the boundaries of believability a bit.

Overall Rating: definitely a series which I will explore in the future.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Is it a police procedural or a PI or...?

Several years ago I was scheduled to teach a lit class that focused on mystery works. Unfortunately the class didn't make it, but I did do some preparation for it, before it was cancelled. I developed a scheme for categorizing the varieties of mysteries that are now found on the shelves. But, since many mysteries seem to perch on the boundary lines of two or more categories, this would make for an interesting discussion. I arbitrarily selected the detective's occupation as the most significant element in deciding which category would be appropriate.

I thought I would list them here, along with definitions and examples, if I can come up with any, to see if you think this is useful. This is definitely a "work in progress," so if you have any suggestions, changes, or disagreements, post a comment.

1. Police procedural: any member of a governmental law enforcement agency--Scotland Yard, NYPD, small town police department, sheriff's department.

PD James--Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, England, Scotland Yard
Batya Gur--Inspector Michael Ohayon, Israel, Jerusalem CID
Giles Blunt--Detective John Cardinal, Canada, Algonquin Bay police dept.
Michael Connelly--Detective Harry Bosch, US, LAPD police dept.
Karin Fossum--Inspector Konrad Sejer, Norway, police dept.
Numerous others--I think there are now police procedurals from every continent on the planet (except
, possibly, Antarctica).

2. Private professional: any investigator who conducts investigations at the request of others for pay. This is the PI, in other words, regardless of what title is used: private investigator, private detective, inquiry agent, shamus, or various others.

Arthur Conan Doyle--probably invented this category, Sherlock Holmes, England
Raymond Chandler--Philip Marlowe, US
Dashiell Hammett--Sam Spade, US
Sue Grafton--Kinsey Millhone, US
PD James--Cordelia Gray, England
Alexander McCall Smith--Precious Ramotswe, Botswana
Steven Saylor--Gordianus the Finder, 1st novel at 80 b.c. and latest at 46 b.c., Rome

Sara Paretsky-- V. I. Warshawski, US

3. The Accidental Detective: a private citizen who gets involved in a mystery, frequently a death of a friend or relative. The authorities have written it off as an accident or suicide; however, the accidental detective knows better. The character remains an "accidental detective" if there is no second book; however, as soon as the second adventure appears, the character is now a "talented amateur."

PD James--
Innocent Blood, England
Steve Berry--The Charlemagne Pursuit

4. Talented Amateur: a private citizen who stumbles over bodies and crimes around every corner, regardless of their day job, or lack thereof--any of a plethora of cooks, caterers, knitters, gardeners, dog trainers, swimming pool cleaners, elevator operators, faculty members,
mystery writers, pet sitters, members of the aristocracy....


Edgar Allan Poe--C. Auguste Dupin, independently wealthy, France
Agatha Christie--Miss Marple, senior citizen, England
Margery Allingham--Albert Campion, unknown, England
Dorothy L. Sayers--Lord Peter Wimsey, aristocracy, England
Edmund Crispin--Gervase Fen, Literature professor, Oxford, England
Ellis Peters--Brother Cadfael, Benedictine monk, England, 12th century.

5. Technical professionals or experts: CSI, crime lab, pathologists, coroners, medical examiners, consultants. . .all of whom spend more time doing police investigations than working in the laboratory as they are being paid to do or perhaps doing their day job .

Patricia Cornwell, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, US.
Bernard Knight--Sir John de Wolfe, appointee to protect the Crown's interests in various situations, including that of possible criminal activity; his position eventually became what we now call the coroner.
12th century England.

6. Judicial detectives: any of a number of members of the judicial system who spend more time acting like police and almost no time doing the job they are being paid to do: lawyers, judges, defense attorneys, bailiffs, bounty hunters, prosecutors, district attorneys.

Erle Stanley Gardner--Perry Mason (who else?), defense attorney, US.
Janet Evanovich--Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, US
Linda Fairstein--Alexandra Cooper, assistant prosecutor,, US.

The above is subject to revision, naturally. If one or more belong in another category let me know. If I'm missing a category, let me know.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Combination Plate 4: Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, SF by Edgar Pangborn, Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, and JM Gregson's Remains To Be Seen

Got a real mixed bag this time:
--first is a BBC production of Tolstoy's domestic romance tragedy Anna Karenina
--second work is a collection of short SF stories by an unfortunately neglected Edgar Pangborn,
--the third work is an SF novel by Christopher Priest, The Inverted World,
--and last is a mystery novel by J. M. Gregson, Remains To Be Seen.

Anna Karenina, DVD:
This was the ten part BBC production that was first broadcast in 1977. I had read the novel years ago, so while I felt that BBC took no really outrageous liberties with the text, I couldn't tell what changes had been made. I felt the overall flow of the dramatization was close to the Tolstoy's text.

What surprised me the most was the treatment of Karenin. I had seen several other productions over the years, and one of my major complaints had always been that he was treated as a complete monster. I hadn't gotten that feeling from the novel. One of the strengths of Tolstoy's work was his refusal to make angels and demons out of his characters. Even Levin and Kitty have their faults, even though they are the most sympathetically treated characters in the novel.

Karenin is not the unfeeling insensitive creature that the previous adaptions turned him into. While he's not a sensitive 90s guy, he does have strong feelings and can be a very generous person, as several of the characters point out, especially when Anna is involved. Unfortunately, his feelings push him into unfamiliar territory, and he relies on the help of a rigid pietistic meddler. Unfortunately she gains control over him and turns him into a moralizing Christian who stifles his most generous impulses. One can see at the end that he is torn between his own generous feelings and the rigid Christian attitudes imposed on him.

Nicola Pagett played the role of Anna and did a creditable job of it, except for a few scenes during the last part when she demonstrated Anna's growing unhappiness in some situations with a series of absurd face twitches and grimaces. Aside from those, she was quite convincing.

Alexei Vronsky was played by Stuart Wilson, who also did a credible job of convincing me that he had changed from the heartless, selfish, insensitive heartbreaker who played the game once too often and now was trapped in an impossible situation. However, he did not just bow out, as he probably would have if he hadn't changed considerably.

Eric Porter, in the role of Karenin, Anna's husband, was the star of the show, as far as I was concerned. He did a masterful job of portraying a man who has a generous nature that has been entombed within the myriad rules and roles that constrain a man of importance. Under stress it does emerge though, surprising Anna and Vronsky, and I think, him also.

Overall Rating: Very good. It is long, ten episodes, but worth the time spent watching it.


Edgar Pangborn: Good Neighbors and Other Strangers
This is a collection of SF short stories by the author of Davy, A Mirror for Observers, and West of the Sun. The most significant work, and the longest also, in the collection is "Angel's Egg," probably his finest short work.

The theme throughout is the relationship between humans and alien visitors. The first story, "Good neighbors" seems to exemplify Frost's poem, "Mending Wall" and the necessity of walls when livestock is involved. The appropriate line in the poem reads, "'Good fences make good neighbors'." But, since the livestock belongs to alien visitors, the problem goes beyond that of simply grazing in a neighbor's field or trampling a garden.

"Longtooth" is the story of a lovesick Sasquatch or Bigfoot in Maine, who kidnaps a housewife whose her husband subsequently is suspected of murdering her, not without reason, as most townspeople would admit.

"The Posonby Case" is about a police officer who is trying to write a report that won't get him fired or disciplined for drinking on duty. His task is simply to explain why a naked man ended up in the elephant cage at the local zoo.

Ab Thompson, in "Pickup for Olympus," is so entranced by the pickup model that he fails to notice that the driver, who asked him if this was the way to Olympus, has cloven hooves and horns on his head, while the woman in the back of the pickup is lounging around with a full grown leopard and a half dozen "shy little goats."

"Angel's Egg" is one of those rare stories, at least for the 50s when this was written for it tells of aliens who have come here quietly to help us survive. The 'fifties was the most serious and deadly period of the Cold War. A nuclear war seemed almost inevitable at that time. It was his first published science fiction story, and it appeared in Galaxy Magazine in 1951. It immediately established him as a writer with serious potential and his novels, especially Davy and A Mirror For Observers justified that evaluation.

Overall Rating: some very good stories here, and sufficient variety for almost everyone to find a favorite.


Christopher Priest: The Inverted World, an SF novel

Imagine a city, rather long and narrow, that travels on what are railroad tracks. The city travels very slowly and sometimes it doesn't move at all. This gives the Trackmen time enough to pick up the track that the city has just travelled on and rush it to the front of the city and place it down for the city to pass over it again. And that's the most normal part of Priest's world.

Strange things happen to those who walk back where the city/train has come from or go far in advance of it. One's perspective changes or rather the geography changes. A gorge which took weeks for the Trackmen to build a bridge over it now becomes, just days later, a crack in the earth which a person's foot could easily span. Time passes differently if one goes back or goes forward in front of the city/train. A week's trip turns out to be a day or so long, or perhaps several months in duration when one returns.

Who are these people? Where are they? How did they get in this situation? Did all this really come about as an attempt to solve the energy crisis?

Overall Rating: intriguing concept. While his description of the city/train culture/society is brief, the novel is 240+ pages long, it does give one a good overview, even if the day-to-day working is obscure. The main character is sympathetic, and one can easily identify with him as he is as ignorant of the overall situation as the reader. His bewilderment is ours.

Overall Rating: good. Some problems but the story is a grabber as the reader tries to make sense of the situation.


J. M. Gregson: Remains To Be Seen, a mystery novel
Police Procedural: England

Gregson has approximately 35 novels out at this time, most of which belong to two police procedural series. This novel belongs to the "Detective Inspector Peach and Detective Sergeant Lucy Blake" series. He has a second series which features the crimes solved by Superintendent John Lambert and Detective Sergeant Bert Hook.

This is my first exposure to a work by Gregson, and perhaps it may be my last. The plot is fairly standard and characterization is about what one might expect from a writer who has churned out some 35 novels since his first was published in 1989.

The major problem that I have with him is stylistic, his descriptions of his characters. For example, the narrator tells us that his men said about Peach that "You got a fair deal, if you worked for Percy Peach...You didn't get an easy ride, but you didn't expect one. You'd get the occasional fierce bollocking, but only if you didn't stick to Percy's strict rules. If you did, he'd support you, even when things went wrong. His loyalty and affection for his team were never expressed--DCI Peach would have considered that a weakness--but they were unswerving."

We are told later that the police officer assigned to handle the phones, Brendan Murphy, "was both sensitive and patient, the ideal man to deal sympathetically with calls which had to be listened to, but which you knew within ten seconds were going to be a waste of police time. He was also shrewd and intelligent: if the one call in a hundred came through which was vital, he wouldn't miss out on it."

These descriptions of the perfect members of the police are found throughout the work--a more perfect group of people who couldn't find anywhere else.

One more quibble: the solution of the crime came through the hackneyed element of the murderer saying something and the officer recognizing that only the murderer could have known this.

Overall Rating: I might read one more of his works, but in the other series, about police officers Lambert and Hook. If that one exhibits similar characteristics, I shall spend my time more profitably reading elsewhere.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Little Caesar meets The Public Enemy

I recently watched two classic "gangster" films, Little Caesar (LC) and The Public Enemy (TPE). Both appeared in 1931, and both were the breakout films for their respective stars, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Ironically, both struggled with being typecast from that point on. Other stars were Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell in TPE and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in LC. Jean Harlow seemed out-of-place, but that just may have been her role as a high society type who gets involved with gangsters. Both films were placed by the American Film Institute (AFI) on its top ten gangster film list with TPE at No. 8 and LC in the 9th position.

Both films focus on the development of the main character as he shoots his way to the top, or near to the top of the gang. The two lead characters, Tom Powers (Cagney) and Rico (Robinson), while both see violence as necessary, differ considerably, even though they both end violently.

Rico comes across as tough, mean, and nasty as he snarls his way to the top, growling around his ever present cigar, or holding and jabbing it at a hapless underling who has displeased him. Cagney seems psychotic, almost easy-going and sometimes insolent as he winks and sneers his way through confrontations, but always seemingly on the verge of exploding into violence. Cagney's habit of playfully pulled punches supposedly suggests affection, but they seem to occur at times when Cagney represses a violent reaction, sometimes even with his mother.

Rico (Robinson), at the beginning of LC, is a small time thief who decides to go to the big city where the real action is. He and his friend Joe Massala join a mob. As the film progresses, one can see his growing ambition as he moves on up the criminal corporate ladder. His craving for power eventually drives him to become one of the most powerful gangsters in the city.

TPE, on the other hand, begins with Tom Powers (Cagney) as a young boy, growing up in a lower class urban setting. The film traces his development from shoplifting when only a child to a robbery that goes wrong and ends with a dead police officer. He and his friend Mike join a gang just as Prohibition begins. Bootlegging then becomes extremely lucrative. Powers moves up in the gang hierarchy because he is more violent than the others, but he differs from Rico in that he does not seem to be driven by Rico's craving for power.

Both films, naturally, feature violent endings, as the Biblical injunction demands: "All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword."

After Power's friend is shot down during a struggle between two gangs, he gets two guns and marches into the rival gang's headquarters. In a surprising display of restraint, the film does not depict the gory shootout, with every splatter of blood shown as it would be today, but we only hear a number of shots and a scream. Then, during a driving rainstorm, Cagney staggers outside, obviously badly wounded, takes a few steps, falls into the gutter, and utters what probably is his most famous last line: "I ain't so tough."

Rico, on the other hand, is shot and killed by the police officer who had vowed to bring him down. Rico also uttered the last words of the film as he is shot down in the bitter cold behind a billboard advertising the appearance of his friend Joe and Joe's girlfriend as a dance team: "Mother of Mercy. Is this the end of Rico?"

While both films were considered violent when they appeared in 1931, standards have changed considerably since then, and I doubt that either would get an R rating today.

TPE is also famous for the incident at breakfast, when Powers, irritated by his moll, shoves a grapefruit in her face. There are a number of stories about the origin of that scene, but the one that critics consider most credible and also the one told by Cagney and Mae Clarke (the victim) is that it was conceived by Cagney and Clarke as a practical joke on the film crew. Even though it wasn't in the script, William A. Wellman, the director, at end of filming changed his mind and decided to keep it in.

Overall Reaction: two very good films. I would recommend watching them together.