Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain IV

Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

This was the version as it appeared in the first edition, and FitzGerald kept it the same throughout the following four editions.

Quatrain IV appears to introduce a shift from the first three quatrains which occur at dawn to a season of the year. In Persia, the New Year begins with the vernal equinox, which we call the first day of spring. The "White Hand of Moses" and "Jesus from Ground" are spring flowers, according to what I've been able to find out. In Exodus iv, 6, Moses' hand is turned white as if leprous and then healed. This would suggest that Moses could perform miracles of healing. It was also believed that even Jesus' breath could cure the sick and ailing.

Spring is the season for rebirth, and those cured of illness or a disability could be said, in some sense, to be reborn. Spring, of course, is the season traditionally associated with renewal, with new beginnings, which could connect it to the previous quatrains which took place in the morning of a new day, which is also considered a time of beginnings. As the quatrain tells us, the New Year or Spring is the time for "reviving old desires." We have come full circle here, because it is "old desires" that are being revived and not the emergence of new ones.

The second line puzzles me though; it almost hints that this may not be an unqualified blessing--

"The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires".

Could this rebirth or renewal be something to flee? I am reminded of a haiku by Issa that also seems to suggest an idea that is contrary to the usual portrayal of spring, the time of new beginnings and hope:

Spring begins again;
Upon folly,
Folly returns.
- Issa -

On the other hand, it might also be telling us that the beginning of the New Year is the time for reflecting back upon the past year, upon our successes and failures: What went right--and why? What went wrong--and why? In this context, Issa seems to be rather pessimistic about the possibilities of improvement.

This quatrain suggests the cyclic nature of the world; the wheel has turned. It is time for rebirth and renewal, but some of those "old desires," as Issa tells us, may be folly; therefore, a thoughtful soul will draw back and consider past successes and follies, as a guide for the future.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Thomas H. Cook: Breakheart Hill

Thomas H. Cook's Breakheart Hill was recommended to me by a friend. This is the first one by him that I've read, and frankly, I probably wouldn't have read it without a recommendation. It's not that I have heard anything about him that would discourage me, but there are so many writers out there that he would most likely have gotten lost in the crowd, without being pointed out to me.

Therefore, when I opened the book, I had no idea of what to expect and was grabbed immediately by the very first sentence. The novel begins, "This is the darkest story that I ever heard." I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite novels, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, which begins "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Coincidence? And, as I read the novel, I couldn't help but wonder if Cook had read Ford's novel.

Both novels are first person narratives in which the narrator looks back on his life and on the lives of those around him. Both narrators tell the story not in a chronologically coherent manner but wander back and forth, from the present to the past and then to the present again, and somehow at the end do manage to get the story told. Both writers employ the first person narrative to give the work a claustrophobic air by suggesting that there is so much more to be told, but the reader is trapped inside the head of a narrator who either doesn't understand what is going on until it is all over (Ford's novel) or chooses not to tell all he knows (Cook's novel). In addition, both novels focus on the actions of a small group of people and the way each affects the others in the group.

While there are structural similarities between the two novels, they are still quite different. Cook may have been influenced by Ford when he decided on the narrative structure and the opening sentence, but this is where the similarity ends. Dowell, Ford's narrator, knows nothing of what is going on around him. The relationships of his wife, and their best friends, the Ashburnhams, and the transient members of their little group, escape him completely. Consequently, he is unable to see the impending tragedy until he is confronted by it. On the other hand, Ben, Cook's narrator, frequently tells the reader that he alone knows the full story, and that he has spent the past 30 years making sure it never gets out, at least by him, anyway. The reader can only wonder why, and speculate.

Breakheart Hill is aptly named. It is the story of the events leading up to and resulting from a murderous attack on a teen-aged girl which took place on the appropriately named Breakheart Hill, just outside of the small town of Choctaw, Alabama. It is this event that has haunted the narrator and his friends for the past thirty years, and it is clear that her life wasn't the only one that was ultimately destroyed, or damaged in some way. At the end, I could only wish that she hadn't submitted that poem, or that Ben had not agreed to become the editor of the school paper, for it is a story about small and seemingly insignificant events and their unintended and unimagined consequences.

I'm not giving anything away when I say that the central question throughout the work is the narrator's involvement in the crime. It is, to me, the most significant element of the novel. This question arises in the first chapter:

"And yet there are times when I do hear certain things very distinctly: her body plunging through the undergrowth..."

"From time to time, though rarely, I actually hear her voice. It is faint, but persistent. Sometimes it comes in the form of a question: Why are you doing this to me?"

Elsewhere, he says that he can see her eyes raised to him in confusion and bewilderment.

And, it is clear that others, including Luke, his best friend of 30+ years, look at him suspiciously. Or, is that only his guilty conscience at work?

Throughout the work, I considered three possibilities: 1) he is guilty; 2) he is indirectly responsible; or 3) he has deluded himself into blaming himself for it. Cook skillfully encourages this by Ben's numerous, ambiguous reflections on past events that could support all three possibilities, and probably a fourth that I didn't see.

Breakheart Hill is not an action-oriented, page-turner. It moves deliberately, as the narrator slowly unveils the events that inexorably lead up to Breakheart Hill. It is not to be read in small portions--a page or two hastily in a few spare moments--but in large chunks, free from distractions.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Combination Plate: Books and Films


Batya Gur (1947-2005): The Saturday Morning Murder, the first in her short series (six novels) of police procedurals set in Jerusalem, featuring Chief Inspector Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem police force. I was hooked by the first novel and got all that followed, without even bothering to skim through them.

Her strong points are

1. the interesting characters who populate her works, from the police squad members to the suspects, including of course the various victims;

2. the specific environment for each crime, which ranged from a psychiatric training institute (The Saturday Morning Murder) to an university literature department ( A Literary Murder) to a kibbutz (Murder on a Kibbutz);

and the locale, Jerusalem and the Middle East, which poses special problems for the police who attempt to do their job in a country that seems to be permanently on a war-time status.

This "Psychoanalytic Case" bears on the murder of a senior member of a psychiatric training institute who is revered, almost worshipped by her colleagues and student. She was found in the institute hours before she was to give a lecture on ethical problems encountered in analytic treatment. No copies of the lecture can be found, nor can any notes be located. Is there a connection between her murder and the nature of the lecture?

Overall Rating: A+


C. J. Cherryh: Foreigner. A starship encounters navigational problems. Lost, various members of the human crew are forced to settle on a planet that already has a sentient population, the atevi. The humans, although technologically superior, are outnumbered and must enter into a precarious working relationship with one of the associations of the atevi.

The treaty gives the humans the right to occupy an island without interference from the atevi. In return, the humans will gradually turn over to the atevi their technology and scientific knowledge. All humans are required to remain on the island, except for one who will live with the atevi and function as a paidhi or mediator/interpreter between the atevi and the humans.

The paidhi's task is to explain the atevi to the humans and the humans to the atevi. Among numerous differences between the two races is the inability of the atevi to understand the human concept of liking or regard for another individual and also the importance humans place on boundaries. The atevi have no word to express love and have 14 words to express the concept of betrayal The atevi are motivated primarily through individual loyalties, almost feudal
in nature.

Moreover, assassination is an accepted and legal course of action in atevi society, as long as one files a permit and registers with the appropriate governmental agency one's intent to assassinate a specific individual. The story begins with an assassination attempt directed against Bren, the present paidhi.

The novel is action-oriented, but at the same time we spend much time inside Bren's head as he attempts to work his way through the labyrinth of the atevi society.

Overall Rating: A



The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964): this film is based on the novel by Charles G. Finney, The Circus of Dr. Lao. I haven't read the story, so I can't comment on the faithfulness of the film to the novel.

Briefly, Dr. Lao is a Chinese magician and brings a circus to this small western town, probably late 19th or early 20th century, from the look of the few autos present. The circus has six attractions, all of whom are played by Tony Randall, who also plays Dr. Lao. The film was nominated for an Oscar for special effects, and William Tuttle was given an honorary award for his work on Tony Randall's makeup.

There is a villain, of course, and a romance, naturally, which involves a properly reluctant widow and the crusading editor of the town's newspaper. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Lao (and the other six circus attractions), all ends well. The film's strong point is Tony Randall's efforts at portraying, among others, the Abominable Snowman, two magicians (both Dr. Lao and Merlin), a fortune teller, and Pan.

Overall Rating: B, lots of fun, definitely a feelgood film.

Lethal Weapon IV: this is the fourth in the series starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. I thought the first film was excellent, primarily because of the buddy relationship between the characters played by Gibson and Glover. But, as happens so frequently, the sequels proved to be less interesting as the numbers increase.

I couldn't finish this one as those inconsequential elements--plot, interesting characters, and dialogue--were ignored or downplayed in order to get more chase scenes, explosions, gun battles, and fights on the screen.

Overall Rating: D


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (aka Indiana Jones IV) I did manage to finish this one. However, my reaction to this was similar to my response to Lethal Weapon IV,
all action and minimal plot, etc.

Overall Rating: C-

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Martians

I just finished Kim Stanley Robinson's collection of short stories, The Martians. It consists of numerous short works, all related to his great trilogy, "RGB Mars." A number of the stories give us more information about the relationships among the various characters. For example, one is about the relationship between Maya and Coyote. Another tells of Coyote's search for Hiroko.

Some are whimsical tales about the red nanopeople--the real Martians. Those, also, obviously never were included. Others consist of short exploratory trips and hikes on Mars. One is clearly a mythic tale, a sort of Martian Paul Bunyan.

Another is an alternate beginning to the series, in which Michel recommends against sending a large ship with the 100 to begin a colony. Instead, he suggests trips in which fewer people go and colonization takes place over decades. His recommendation is accepted, and consequently the events of the first book never "take place." The history of the eventual colonization or settlement of Mars, therefore, is very different.

The longest story is "Green Mars," a tale about climbing Olympus Mons, which I think is considered to be the tallest mountain in the solar system. KSR must be a mountain climber, because the details of that climb are so realistic.

One could read the stories without having read "RGB Mars," but it adds a lot if one has read them.

I wonder if Robinson has visited the Red Rocks area and Arches National Park of southeastern Utah. That country, some of the most beautiful and striking
scenery as anything I have found in the US, is the closest that I have seen to Robinson's description of the Martian landscape.

Highly recommended for those like me who are fascinated by and want more of

1. KSR's depiction of the colonization and settlement of Mars,
2. the Martian landscape, and
3. Mars' effects on the people
---a. who went there,
---b. who were born there, and
---c. who came afterwards.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Science Fiction: What if...? or If this goes on...

Many years ago, in an intro to an SF book, the author suggested that there were two broad types or categories of SF. One asked "What if...?" and the other suggested that "If this goes on..."
I remember neither the book nor the author, but this idea has remained with me for a long time. It's a bit simplistic, but it is an interesting way to think about any particular story. And, it also provides a way begin to think about a story if, for some reason, one can't grab on to anything particular about it.

The "What if...?" story posits something unusual happening and then speculates on the meaning or consequences of that event. For example, "What if an alien spaceship should suddenly appear in the skies?" What would be the consequences of that occurrence? The answers to that question are many and varied, as numerous SF writers have demonstrated. Some writers would postulate that this was a hostile act with dire consequences for humanity, as HG Wells did in The War of the Worlds or as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle also suggested in Footfall, or as numerous other authors and film directors have done.

Other writers would suggest a different outcome, as did Harry Bates in his short story "Farewell to the Master" which became one of the best SF films ever made--The Day the Earth Stood Still. The aliens came, not to destroy humanity, but to warn them that its warlike behavior would lead to its destruction. In Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, the aliens appeared because they were to act as the guides or mentors for the human race as it evolved into a higher level of being.

Other stories ask "What if..." about the discovery of faster-than-light travel or controllable extra-sensory powers or the collision between earth and a large meteorite or immortality or the destruction of the sun. Stories that are listed as alternative world tales are all in the "What if" category. What if the Germans and Japanese won WWII. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle is just one story that plays with that idea. I'm sure any SF reader could come up with numerous titles of stories that answer any of those questions, or questions that I haven't mentioned.

The other category, "If this goes on...," takes a different strategy. The author looks at something going on in society or the culture at that time and speculates about the consequences of this trend continuing and even strengthening over time. Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth collaborated on several novels that would fit into this category. Their Space Merchants developed the idea of advertising agencies eventually becoming so powerful that they became the de facto government.

Over-population is another trend. Numerous authors have speculated on the consequences that might result if the human race continued to reproduce and spread over the entire planet. Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room is just one example of this. During the latter part of the 20th century, there was considerable discussion about multi-use buildings. Instead of developing building that were solely for residential use or business/commercial use, there was talk about buildings in which people could live and work and shop, and consequently seldom have to leave. Both Robert Silverberg in The World Inside and Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel play with this concept.

However, a story that is placed in one category doesn't always have to remain in that category. A story written in the 1950s or earlier about a problem on a space station or during a trip to the moon would be science fiction, whereas today it would be considered an action oriented tale and probably not even shelved in the SF section.

Beginning in the 1940s, Isaac Asimov wrote a number of SF stories about robots. At that time, I would have placed them in the "What if.." group. However, now, in the 21st century, I would be very likely to place them in the "If this goes on..." category.

I wonder now about stories that are about longevity for humans--"If this goes on...?" Perhaps. But immortality tales would still belong to the "What if..? category. Right? Along with F-T-L drives or hyperdrives or warp drives or ESP powers and alien contact stories--benign or otherwise.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Akira Kurosawa: East and West

It was Kipling who wrote:

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

I don't know what Kipling would think today if he saw the many Japanese and Korean cars parked in driveways and parking lots in Western countries, or what he would make of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean singers, violinists, pianists on the concert circuit playing those exotic "Eastern" composers--Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Perhaps he might think differently today.

One of the most fruitful and interesting "meeting places" is in the work of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest of Japanese film directors, and arguably one of the twentieth century' s great film directors, regardless of race or nationality.

I don't claim to be an expert on Kurosawa, and what I know about him comes from viewing many of his films, the bonus features on the DVDs, and the Wikipedia page about him. But, even a cursory glance at material about him reveals the West's influence on him and his influence on the West.

For example, at least four films directed by Kurosawa are directly or indirectly inspired by Western texts. There are others, no doubt, but these are the ones that I've been able to identify.

Ikiru, Kurosawa has been quoted as saying, was inspired by Tolstoy's novella "Death of Ivan Illych." Both the story and the film concern a man who realizes he is dying, without ever really having lived. Illych is able to accept only near the end that his life has been empty and wasted; the novella therefore focuses on his struggle to achieve a true picture of his life. Kanji Watanabe, on the other hand, comes to the same conclusion about his own life much earlier, and the film explores the various ways he attempts to make his life mean something at the end.

Kurosawa's film The Idiot is a faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, in which he changes the setting from 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia, to post WWII Hokkaido. The subplots in the novel have been dropped, and the film centers on the interrelationship among the Japanese counterparts of Myshkin, Rogozhin, Nastasya, and Aglaya. Kurosawa's winter scenes are a clear reminder of Russian winters.

Ran tells the story of a warlord who tires of the responsibilities of rule and divides his territory among his three sons. He, however, retains or attempts to retain, the privileges and benefits of power without actually possessing it. The plot is based partially on actual events from Japanese history and, of course, Shakespeare's King Lear.

Throne of Blood opens with two men returning from a great victory over their king's enemy. They meet three "weird sisters" who foretell that one of them will be greatly honored and rewarded by the king and eventually will become king himself. The film is a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, including the forest that comes to the castle.

However, the influence or inspiration has not been entirely in one direction. Kurosawa's films have influenced a number of Hollywood directors.

For example, The Seven Samurai is a film about a small village, repeatedly attacked by bandits, that decides to take action and hires seven samurai for defense. John Sturges moves the setting from Japan to Mexico and casts Yul Brynner as the leader of a group of seven gunfighters in The Magnificent Seven. It is interesting to view the two back-to-back and see what Sturges kept and what he dropped. What is also intriguing is that Kurosawa has said that this film was inspired by US westerns--perhaps a full circle here.

Another of Kurosawa's films that made it to Hollywood is Rashomon, the story of the death of a samurai as seen by three people: his wife, a bandit, and the samurai himself (as revealed by a shaman who went to the underworld to get the husband's version). Director Martin Ritt also moved the setting from Japan to Mexico and cast Paul Newman as the bandit, Claire Bloom as the wife, and Laurence Harvey as the husband. The film, The Outrage, did not gain the same recognition as The Magnificent Seven. It will finally be released on DVD next month, and while I haven't seen it yet, the list of characters does show some resemblance to the cast list of Rashomon.

George Lucas has been quoted as saying that one of the sources of inspiration for Star Wars was Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. In Kurosawa's film, a young woman is trapped within enemy territory and must make her way back to her homeland in order to rally the people to resist the coming invasion. Accompanying her are a wise old general and two mostly cowardly and greedy country bumpkins, included apparently for comedic relief. If we add two young men to this group, we have Ben Obi-Wan Kenobe (the wise old general), Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia (the perky princess) , and R2D2 and C3PO as the two country bumpkins.

My last example seems to be one that is best described as a full circle. Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest is a 1920's novel about a nameless private eye who is hired to save a small town that is being destroyed by two gangs of bootleggers, struggling to gain complete control. Kurosawa's Yojimbo is the story about a wandering samurai who enters a town that is being torn apart by two gangs in their struggle to eliminate each other. Sergio Leone transported the setting from Japan to (where else?) Mexico where the sword-wielding samurai is replaced by Clint Eastwood with a short cigar, a serape, and a six-shooter. In 1996, director Walter Hill decided the world was ready for yet another version, and the result is Last Man Standing, starring Bruce (these guns never go empty) Willis. Both Leone and Hill kept the plot very close to Kurosawa's, but both, especially Hill, focused more on the violence and less on character development.

One last point that I would like to make is that these are all excellent stories which, no doubt, is why Kurosawa borrowed them from the West and why Western film makers adapted his films. I would recommend that those who are interested should read the stories and see the films, both Kurosawa's efforts and the Western adaptations and the various sources.

I suspect there are numerous others that reflect a Western influence on Kurosawa and his influence on Western film makers. But the ones I've discussed give some idea of the interrelationship that existed even half a century ago and is probably even more true today.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sleuth: a puzzling title

Sleuth, as I stated above, is a puzzling title for this film. I was expecting a murder mystery or at least some sort of detective story, but that's definitely not what I got. Perhaps the viewer is supposed to be the sleuth. This is, essentially, a two-person play with Michael Caine playing the role of Andrew Wyke, an aging novelist, and Jude Law as Milo Tindle, the man who is having an affair with Wyke's wife. Tindle has come down from London to persuade Wyke to give his wife a divorce, but things don't go exactly the way Tindle expected.

Wyke has a proposition for Tindle: Tindle is to break into Wyke's house and steal some very expensive pieces of jewlery and then take off with Wyke's wife and the jewelry. Wyke insists he doesn't want his wife back, so Tindle is welcome to her. Both will benefit from Wyke's proposition: Tindle gets the woman and the jewelry, and Wyke is free of his wife and gets the insurance money for the "stolen" jewels.

I'm not going to say what happens after this because that would spoil all the fun. The interaction between the two turns into a psychological game of oneupmanship, in which the viewers, as well as the characters, are uncertain as to what is really taking place. Psychological control of the situation switches back-and-forth between the two men, until eventually, the viewers, at least this viewer anyway, no longer can distinguish between when the two are game-playing and when they aren't.

One of the problems I had was with the setting. The country house was unlike any country house I have seen. The exterior was typical for the English countryside, but the interior was stark and bare--mostly glass, metal, bare walls, open spaces, and high ceilings. It was also very hi-tech with CCTV, covering both the inside and outside of the house. Electronic controls were very prevalent. I found this distracting and lost track of the story as I spent more time looking at the setting than paying attention to the dialogue.

This film was made in 2007. It stars Michael Caine and Jude Law. The director is Kenneth Branagh, and the screenwriter is Harold Pinter, whose minimalist characteristics were evident in both the dialogue and the setting. The film is based on a play written by Anthony Shaffer.

There's one other point I should make about Sleuth. This is a remake of an earlier production which came out in 1972. The cast at that time included Lawrence Olivier as Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine as Milo Tindle. The 1972 version also included several others in the cast, so the 2007 version is a pared down version and definitely influenced by Pinter, I should say.

So, in 1972 we see Lawrence Olivier as Andrew Wyke, the aging novelist, and a younger Michael Caine as Milo Tindle. In 2007, we get an older Michael Caine as Wyke, the aging novelist, and Jude Law in the role of the younger man who steals Caine's wife. In 2042, will we see Jude Law as the aging novelist and ??? as Milo Tindle.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to see the 1972 version as it is not yet available on Netflix or at the public library. Perhaps it's time for a visit to one of the local rental places.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

J. R. R. Tolkien: 1892-1973

J. R. R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892 and died September 2, 1973.

He wrote The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.

He restored fantasy to the adult world with several scholarly essays.

'nuf said.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Isaac Asimov: 1920-1992

Isaac Asimov was born on Jan. 2, 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia, and died on April 6, 1992. In his 72 years, he wrote or edited over 500 books. In the Wikipedia entry about him, it was stated that his works were included in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System, the one exception being the category for Philosophy/Psychology.

I no longer remember the first SF story I ever read, but it most likely was a short story, and very well could have been one by Asimov.

My favorite works are "The Foundation Trilogy" and the Lije Baley/R. Daneel SF detective novels, Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. I thought the third one, The Robots of Dawn, written twenty-five years later, was considerably weaker than the first two. This was written when Asimov attempted to unify his two major series, the robotless "Foundation" universe and his numerous robot stories.

I doubt if it will surprise anyone familiar with Asimov to find that my favorite Asimov short story is "Nightfall."

Of the many works that he edited, my favorite would have to be Isaac Asimov Presents: the Great SF Stories. This twenty-five volume work, edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, is just one of many anthologies co-edited by them, but the best, in my estimation. The first volume begins with stories published in 1939 and ends with Vol. 25, the stories of 1963. I managed to get the complete set and find it invaluable when searching for SF stories during that quarter century. Asimov and Greenberg may have missed some great stories, but only a few, I suspect.

I think he can justifiably be called one of the Founders of Modern Science Fiction.