Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lin Yutang: from The Importance of Living

"No one can say that a life with childhood, manhood and old age is not a beautiful arrangement; the day has its morning, noon and sunset, and the year has its season, and it is good that it is so.  There is no good or bad in life, except what is good according to its own season.  And if we take this biological view of  life and try to live according to the seasons, no one but a conceited fool or an impossible idealist can deny that human life can be lived like a poem.  Shakespeare has expressed this idea more graphically in his passage about the seven states of life, and a good many Chinese writers have said about the same thing.  It is curious that Shakespeare was never very religious, or very much concerned with religion.  I think this was his greatness; he took human life largely as it was, and intruded himself as little upon the general scheme of things as he did upon the characters of his plays.  Shakespeare was like Nature herself, and this is the greatest compliment we can pay to a writer or thinker.  He merely lived, observed life and went away."

What can one say then about those many lives that are cut short in childhood or maturity and never reach old age?  Would such a life be an unfinished poem?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Joseph Wood Krutch: the way of the desert and the way of the jungle

"The way of the desert and the way of the jungle represent the two opposite methods of reaching stability at two extremes of density.  In the jungle there is plenty of everything life needs except mere space, and it is not for the want of anything else that individuals die or that races have any limit set to their proliferation.  Everything is on top of everything else;  there is no cranny which is not both occupied and disputed. At every moment, war to the death rages fiercely.  The place left vacant by any creature that dies is seized almost instantly by another, and life seems to suffer from nothing except too favorable an environment.  In the desert, on the other hand, it is the environment itself which serves as the limiting factor.  To some extent the struggle of creature against creature is mitigated, though it is of course not abolished even in the vegetable kingdom.  For the plant which in the one place would be strangled to death by its neighbor dies a thirsty seedling in the desert because that same neighbor has drawn the scant moisture from the spot of earth out of which is was attempting to spring.

Sometimes  it seems to me that, of the two methods, the desert's is the kindlier and that, though I have never seen the jungle, it is there rather than here that I should feel the sense of discomfort (or worse) which the desert produces in some of those who experience it for the first time.  Certainly I am little aware of any such discomfort.  I wonder it it does not augur ill for the human race that its techniques have enabled it to produce for itself a sort of artificial, technological jungle in which too many people can live somehow--if not well--and where, therefore, as in the jungle, the struggle inevitably becomes ultimately the struggle of man against man and not the struggle of man against nature."

-- Joseph Wood Krutch --
from Baja California and the Geography of Hope

Having lived in Tucson, Arizona for over forty years now, and only a few miles from where Krutch himself spent his later years, I have to agree with him.  I have never seen a jungle, except in pictures, but I know I would much rather live here in a city in the desert than one in a jungle. 

Reading the headlines everyday, both local and international, leads me to suspect that Krutch, unfortunately, is right.  The human race now lives in a jungle of its own making. Perhaps that Garden of Eden was really a desert.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, novel

Carson McCullers' novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a remarkable work in itself.  That it was published when McCullers was only twenty-three just makes it even more unique.  I may have read some short stories by McCullers in the past, but this is the first novel I've read by her.  I will definitely search out others by her.

The central figure is John Singer, an ironic name for he is a deaf mute.  He communicates mostly by short notes and nods and gestures.  He knows sign language, but the only person in that small town "in the middle of the deep South" who could understand him was his roommate, Spiros Antonapoulos, who also was a deaf mute.  Since Antonapoulos seldom responded at any length, it is hard to know just how much he really understood.  Singer worked as an engraver in the local jewelry shop, a perfect job for him since he did not have to communicate with the customers.

At the start of the novel, Antonapoulos's behavior became very erratic and bizarre, and he was committed to the state mental institution.  Spiros accepted that so calmly and placidly, as he accepted everything else that happened to him, that I wondered if he understood what was happening, or even cared.   He had food to eat, shelter, and a staff that cared for him: he was content.  Seemingly Singer was far more disturbed than Spiros.

Regardless of how little Antonapoulos communicated with him, Singer had felt that someone understood him, and now that person was gone.  Singer had lost his only friend and confidant.  He was now more alone than he had been since he met Spiros.  Their room was now empty, and Singer couldn't spend the lonely hours after work there.  He spent more time now at the New York Cafe where he had his three meals a day, and he spent the evening hours walking about the town.

Then something unexpected happened.  Because he now spent more time out of his room, he became more accessible to others, especially those who felt alone and who felt that nobody in that town really understood them.  It was gradual, but Singer began to be sought out by others who believed that he and only he really grasped what they were saying.

I think Walt Whitman expressed it best in the following excerpt from "A Noiseless Patient Spider"

"And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul."

Singer would listen to them with a smile on his face, nod quietly at times, and occasionally write a brief note.  He never contradicted them nor did he ever argue with them.  He listened and accepted everything.  Even though he actually understood very little of what they were saying, he could read lips to some extent, he was, therefore, the perfect listener.  They would come up to him at the Cafe, or  they would walk along with him for a few blocks as he walked the town in the evening.  And even stranger yet, some would even visit him in his room, three in particular.

One was Jake Blount, a footloose wanderer who alternated between drunken sprees and attempts to unionize the workers in this small town.  The time was just prior to World War II, and union organizers were viewed with antagonism and hostility, and worse, suspected of being communists.  His concern was for the working man and only John Singer would listen to him without anger or fear.

Another was Dr. Benedict Copeland, the only black doctor in town and possibly in the county, and perhaps even in the state.  Many of the white residents of that town refused to believe that a black man could become a doctor.  Dr. Copeland's dream was to erase the barriers raised by segregation that made "his people" second class citizens and poverty-stricken because of poor schooling and low-paying menial jobs.  He someday hoped to be able to lead a thousand or more blacks on a march to Washington, DC, to demand the government end segregation.

The third person was Mick Kelly, a young girl of about twelve years of age whose parents owned the rooming house that John Singer lived in.  She thought of little else except music.  She had music in her but she didn't know how to get it out and had just started music lessons.  She didn't know what her future would but she knew music would be there.

I see those three, Blount, Copeland, and Mick, as searching for someone who could understand and accept them and their dreams.  They believed, erroneously, that John Singer was that person.  If they gained strength and hope from talking to him because they thought that he and he alone understood them, they were mistaken.  He did not understand them, but was really more of a mirror in that he reflected back their hopes and dreams.  Ironically, he was in the same position as they were for he also had been searching, reaching out for understanding to Spiros, who understood Singer no more than Singer understood his listeners.  Singer's dream,  in which he saw himself on a staircase  looking up at Spiros and behind him lower on the staircase were his listeners, looking up at him, is symbolic of their relationship.  As they reached out  for Singer, Singer reached out to Spiros.

Two other characters, though not confidants of Singer, played important roles.  Portia, the black housekeeper and cook at the Kelly rooming house, was a link between the white and black communities, for she was the daughter of  Dr. Copeland.  The second was Biff  Brannon, the owner of the New York Cafe.  He was the silent observer who watched and probably understood more about the relationship  between Singer and the others than did anyone else.  Brannon functions much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. 

This world, however, is not static.  Change is everywhere and inevitable.  And change comes to this small town in the middle of the deep South.  Some die.  Henry James once said, when questioned as to why death in his works was always offstage,  that death is not unique or unusual for it comes to all.  What is unique are the repercussions of that death, the effects of that death on others.  The ending is just that:  the outcome of those deaths on others.

I'll repeat what I said at the beginning:  this is a remarkable novel  by a remarkable author.  I shall have to read more by her.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Koushun Takami: Battle Royale, the novel

Koushun Takami's novel, Battle Royale, was first published in Japan in 1999 and translated into English in 2003.  The film version came out in 2000.  As I mentioned in my post about the film, I hadn't known of either the novel or the film until someone made a comment on my post about Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which was first published in 2008. The commenter suggested that I should see Battle Royale for it was superior to Collins'  novel.  My curiosity aroused, I watched the film and discovered it was based on the novel by Koushun Takami. 

I am intrigued, as one can tell from previous posts, by the relationship between the prose tale and the film inspired by it.  I have now read Battle Royale and, frankly, hadn't intended to do a post on it.  However, I keep thinking about the novel, and so I decided to comment on it also, hoping, I suspect, to exorcise it.

The core of the novel has been closely followed by the film's director, Kinji Fukasaku.  The major changes occur in the background or setting of the film.

The novel is set in an alternate universe, one in which The Republic of Greater East Asia (Japan), is ruled by a dictator, in fact the 318th dictator, which suggests that this government has lasted a long time.  That this is not true is an example of distorting the Past (see 1984 for the rationale) in order to maintain control of the population.

In the novel, one of the characters says that he's uncovered documents that suggest the dictatorship has probably lasted not more than 70 years, which, assuming the novel is set around the beginning of the 21st century, would put the beginning of the dictatorship in the 1930s.  That would correspond to the increasing control of Japan by the military in the real world.  And, the name echoes the actual creation of Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere by Japan at the beginning of World War II.  Moreover, the US is seen as the great enemy of the Republic, which also takes us back to the 30s and 40s in the real world.

Takami, the author,  in the new postscript to the novel says that he had taken most of  the language of the government diatribes against the US and also the government propaganda regarding the paradise it has created for the people from governmental communiques by the North Korean government.

There is no economic collapse in the novel as there is in the film which brings about the battle royale as an emergency measure; instead it is the established policy of the government to conduct such programs as a means of maintaining control of the population through terror and intimidation.  And, in the novel, it isn't just one class that's selected, it is one of fifty such junior high classes.  The toll, therefore, is around two thousand junior high school students.

The rules of the battle royale game are simple.  The winner is the last person alive.  If no one dies during any twenty-four hour period, then the collars, fixed around the neck of each student, will explode, thereby ending the game.  The killing must continue. In the map provided the students, the island, where the game takes place, is set in a grid pattern.  One of  the sections will be become off-limits regularly.  The collars of those found in an off-limit area will explode.  This forces the students out of their hiding places and also reduces the territory that they can occupy, which increases the likelihood of encounters among the students.  The students must kill or be killed.

The core of the novel consists of chapters that alternate between the struggle of the three main characters, Shogo, Shuya, and Noriko, to survive in this hell on earth, and the fates of the other students.  One chapter would be about the three mentioned above, and that would be followed by a chapter in which we would read about the events that led up to a meeting and the eventual death of one of the other students.  Since there were 42 students in the class, there are many such chapters depicting the death or deaths of one or more of the junior high students.

Most of the conflicts and deaths were the results of accidental meetings of the terrified students.  In some cases some would attempt to show they didn't want to fight, but the fear and mistrust had grown so that few trusted anybody at this point.  That they had been friends, fellow classmates, confidants, and even lovers in some cases, only a few hours earlier, made no difference at this point.  They felt they could trust no one. Some were so paralyzed by fear that they offered no resistance to any that they met or who stumbled upon them in their hiding places.

Several of the students became predators.  They would pretend to be friendly and peaceful until they got close enough to kill their prey.  One of the predators listened for signs of conflict and then head in that direction, intending to remain hidden during the fight and then kill the survivor(s) when given the opportunity.

I'm not sure how to characterize this novel; perhaps SF/Horror might be the most accurate description. It's an excellent translation, with none of the awkwardness that frequently appears when rendering a tale into a different language.

Can I recommend it?  It's a powerful novel, one that will stay with the reader for some time and I speak from personal experience here.  Right now, having just finished it a few days ago, I am very ambivalent about it.  I'm not sure that I should have finished it, nor do I completely understand why I finished it.  I can understand those who decide to neither read the novel nor see the film. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Robert Frost: Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length

One point to make about this title is that it certainly grabs my attention.  Usually I glance over the title, perhaps consider it for a very short time, and then move on to the work.  Not this time, for I really stop and contemplate it at length.  Why did Frost create such a long and unwieldy title?  It almost beats me over the head as  it says, "This is the moral, the theme.  I don't want you to miss it and, therefore, not understand the poem."  The intensity of  happiness overcomes its brevity is the meaning, or so it seems to be saying.  Anyway, here's the poem.


Happiness Makes Up In Height For What It lacks in Length

O stormy, stormy world,
The days you were not swirled
Around with mist and cloud,
Or wrapped as in a shroud,
And the sun's brilliant ball
Was not in part or all
Obscured from mortal view--
Were days so very few
I can but wonder whence
I get the lasting sense
Of so much warmth and light.
If my mistrust is right
It may be altogether
From one day's perfect weather,
When starting clear at dawn
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.
I verily believe
My fair impression may
Be all from that one day
No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude.

I find the syntax of the first seven lines very tangled.  Then  when "Were days so very few" appeared, I had to stop to go went back to work out just which days those were.  Each line is simple and straightforward in itself,  but the flow is rather murky at first.

Frost really stresses the point of this being, perhaps, one of those rare clear days in the following lines:

When starting clear at dawn
The day swept clearly on
To finish clear at eve.

The point seems to be that summer weather isn't quite as perfect as he remembers, and he may have been misled into thinking so because one perfect day overshadows many stormy, cloudy, rainy days.  It certainly seems as though that's what the poet is suggesting.  But, the problem is that this is Robert Frost and it's seldom as simple and straightforward as that.

"No shadow crossed but ours
As through its blazing flowers
We went from house to wood
For change of solitude."

As usual with Frost, the last lines of the poem frequently bring up questions or bring into question what appears to be the overall theme.  Frost tells us here at the end that there are two of them, something not even hinted at earlier.   "No shadow" suggests that it was a clear day and also that they were alone.  They did not go into the wood for solitude but for a "change of solitude."  They went for a different type of solitude, the kind found in the wood which was different from the kind found in a house.  And again, as usual with Frost, he leaves it up to us to discover or even perhaps to create those differences.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain LX

Quatrain LX continues the themes of the Creator or Potter, pottery, and earth.  In his later editions FitzGerald does something quite different to Quatrain LX.

First Edition:  Quatrain LX

And, strange to tell, among the Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
     And suddenly one quite impatient cried--
"Who is the Potter, pray, and who is the Pot?"

I'm going to change my usual format of providing the three versions and then discussing the differences among them. FitzGerald has not just simply revised the quatrain as he has done in the past by changing the wording, but he has also taken the two points he made in the first edition and split them into two separate quatrains.  This is true for both the second and the fifth editions.

The first point is that some of the pots could talk while others couldn't, a relatively simple distinction..

The second point is that one impatient pot wasn't sure who was the Potter (Creator) and who the Pot (created).  I find this strange (just as strange as he finds it in the telling) for seemingly there should be a vast difference between the Creator and Its creations.  Perhaps this might be an indication of the confusion that exists among those created as to their place in the universe, which certainly isn't something new introduced at this point by the Poet for one of the recurring themes of the Rubaiyat in previous quatrains has been the lack of  this knowledge: where did we come from?  why are we here?  where are we going?

In the first line the Poet also states that he found it "strange," but I'm not exactly certain as to what he found strange.  Was it strange that some pots could talk or was it strange that only some could talk while others couldn't?  I also puzzled a bit over those silent pots who didn't speak.  I wondered whether it was that they couldn't speak or simply had chosen to remain silent.  Eventually, because of the language of the second line, I decided that they couldn't speak.

"Some could articulate, while others not:"

I think that "could" is implied in the second part of the line so the line fully expressed would read

"Some could articulate, while others [could]  not:"

The First Point:  that some pots talked while other did not

Second Edition:  Quatrain  XC

And once again there gathered a scarce heard 
Whisper among them; as it were, the stirr'd
     Ashes of some all but extinguished Tongue,
Which mine ear kindled into living Word.

This echoes back to earlier quatrains in this edition (XXXVIII---XL) where the ability of the pots to speak was modified from some could while others couldn not speak to their speech was hard to distinguish.  In this quatrain, their speech is a whisper, such the sound produced by ashes being stirred about--almost impossible to hear.  These pots seem to be ancient for the Poet uses terms such as "Ashes" and "extinguished Tongue,"  Death is also suggested by the term Ashes--"Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. . . ."

T . S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" comes to mind here:

"We are the hollow men

.   .   .   .   .   .

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar"

Their speech is as meaningless as the wind in dry grass, air moving among the dead .  In the last line of the quatrain, the Poet says the he himself had to kindle those whispers into living Word.  Did those whispers have meaning or was the meaning given to them by the Poet?

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LXXXIII

Shapes of all Sorts and Sizes, great and small,
That stood along the floor and by the wall,
    And some loquacious Vessels were; and some
Listen'd perhaps, but never talk'd at all.

The quatrain in the fifth edition is very different from that of the second, but, like the first edition, the point here is that some talked and some didn't.   But, that being said, it is still rather different than both the first and second editions, which is unique, for up to this point, the fifth has been very close to the second edition.  First, the pots are described in more detail than in previous quatrains and editions.  They are not just around the place, but they are along the floor and by the wall.  While that really isn't very specific, it gives us a better sense of the place with its pots scattered almost everywhere.  Secondly, we now see pots that of all sizes an shapes, from great to small.  So, they are not uniform pots, but a wide variety of them, just as humans come in all sizes and shapes.

While the point here is that some talked while others did not, the Poet introduces ambiguity here for now we don't know whether the silent vessels could talk but chose not to or that they possibly were able to listen but could not speak.  

The Second Point: the pot who asked who is the Potter and who the Pot.

Second Edition:  Quatrain XCIV

Thus with the Dead as with the Living, What?
And Why? so ready, but the Wherefore not,
    One on a sudden peevishly exclaim'd,
"Which is the Potter, pray, and which the Pot?"

In the first line we can see a reference to the Dead and the Living, which is not present in either the first or fifth editions, but the sense is ambiguous, if not perplexing.  Among the living and the dead,  two questions "What?" and "Why?" are promptly asked but "Wherefor" is not.  Yet "wherefor" means for what reason or for what purpose, which to me seems the same as why.  Perhaps the previous quatrains in this edition might provide a clue.  Unfortunately, given the format I've adopted, I can't do that now.  Perhaps in future posts, we may see an answer to the problem of the first two lines.

The last two lines, though, pose no problem for they clearly are related to the last lines of the quatrain in the first edition.   Two changes are evident.  One is that the pot is no longer impatient as it was in the first edition, but it is now peevish, which has a different meaning.  Peevish suggests easily irritated or annoyed while an impatient person might be peevish but that would be related to a delay, something not suggested by peevish.

The second difference is the change of "Who" in the first edition  to "Which"  in the second.  There seems to me to be a very subtle distinction between the two, more of an impression than something specific to point at. To say "who" implies, to me anyway, that the pot simply wants to know the identity of the Potter and the identify of the Pot.  To say "which," again to me, suggests that there are two entities here and the Pot cannot distinguish between them sufficiently to be able to say which is the Potter and which the Pot.  "Who" is simply asking for an identification while "which" implies making a distinction between the Potter and the Pot.

Fifth Edition:  LXXXVII

Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot--
I think a Sufi pipkin--waxing hot--
    "All this of Pot and Potter--Tell me then,
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"

The fifth edition quatrain also differs somewhat from the first and the second editions.   The Poet has dropped the description of the pots in the second edition and now focuses on the pot that asked the question.  It is not impatient or peevish, but it is now "waxing hot."  That could mean getting excited or perhaps emotional, but impatience or peevishness could also be included here.  We don't know for certain. But while the Poet dropped description of the setting, we are given instead to know that the one asking the question might be a "Sufi pipkin."  A Sufi is a mystic who is a follower of  Islam, while a pipkin is a small pot with a horizontal rather than a vertical handle.  This could be subtle verbal jab at the Sufis.

The last two lines in this version appear to be more of a challenge than a request for information. The pipkin is irritated by the previous discussion and demands in exasperation to know   "Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?"  The Poet has now restored the Who from the first edition.  It is rare that the fifth edition follows the first rather than the second edition, but this is a rather unique treatment of the first edition quatrain.

The quatrain and its revisions poses several problems. One is the initial question as to the identity of the Potter and the Pot.  Could the significance of this be the Poet's concern that humans too often confuse the Creator with its creatures, that humans focus too much on the creations and ignore the Creator?  Or, could it be that humans don't know their place and begin criticizing  or critiquing the Creator's actions, such as when a student or perhaps students begin to disagree with a teacher's lesson plan and the teacher exasperatedly asks, "Who is the teacher here?"

Or, it could be an oblique way of asking whether God created humanity in Its own image or whether humanity created God in its own image.

There still are six more quatrains linked by the theme of the Potter and the Pot, so we may find some answers in subsequent quatrains.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Michael Lister: The Body and the Blood

Author:  Michael Lister
John Jordan series
Title: The Body and the Blood
Mystery Type:  Ex-Law Enforcement Officer
Setting:  Contemporary, northern Florida
Detective:  John Jordan, prison chaplain

This is one of two series that Michael Lister is writing at this time.  The Body and the Blood is the fourth in the "John Jordan" series, the first of which is Power in the Blood (1997).  He also has another series featuring a P. I. operating out of northern Florida and a number of standalone novels.

This is the first in the "John Jordan" series that I've read, but that didn't pose much of a problem.  Lister was able to sneak in needed background material without being too obvious or providing long expository paragraphs.

This is a family-oriented novel.  Jordan's father is the sheriff of the county where the prison is located, and his brother (no love lost there on either side) is a deputy.  The officer in charge of the investigation just happens to be Jordan's father-in-law, or to be precise, recently reinstated father-in-law.   Jodan's wife had divorced him, but for some reason had failed to file the papers and, therefore,  they had recently discovered that they were still married.   Now, they were attempting a reconciliation.  Daniels, the father-in-law,  is a recovering alcoholic and has gotten past the initial stages.  He has changed considerably, and all, including Jordan, are very pleased with the new Daniels.

Jordan is a chaplain at Potter Correctional Institution, located between Panama City and Tallahassee Florida.  He has received a tip that somebody will be murdered there, date, time, and place provided.  Jordan notified the prison authorities and decided to be present himself at the specified time.  Daniels, who is the Inspector General of the Florida Department of Corrections, is also present because one of the prisoners, Justin Menge, is a prosecution witness in a case that Daniels is personally interested in.

The murder is supposed to take place in the Protective Management (PM)  unit at the prison.  The inmates in this section are those who would be in serious danger if they were housed with the general prison population.  Former members of law enforcement agencies, the judicial branch, homosexuals, and child killers are examples of those found in a PM unit. At time of the murder, the Catholic Chaplain has come to the unit to hold Mass for the inmates.  The mass is being said in the hallway very near the cell doors.

Jordan and Daniels attend Mass with their attention obviously elsewhere--seeing who is there, who is absent, and who is moving about.  Near the end of the service, Jordan notices blood slowly seeping out from under the door of one of the cells.  They find the cell door locked and need to call in to have it released.  All locks are electronic and need to be opened or locked by a guard at the entry port to the unit.  Inside the locked cell is a dead man.  Neither Jordan nor Daniels had seen anyone, except for the victim, Justin Menge,  whose cell this is, enter the cell nor leave it.  It's a classic locked-room mystery, with the added complication of it being in a prison and under observation at all times.

Daniels asks Jordan to assist him on the case, as Jordan is far more familiar with the prison and the staff and inmates than he is.  Jordan agrees, for a variety of reasons.  One is that he enjoys being a detective and feels that he can be a chaplain and an investigator at the same time.  As to be expected, Jordan spends more time in investigating than he does being a chaplain.

The two questions facing  Jordan are why and how.  Once those questions are answered, figuring out who shouldn't be a problem.  There are a number of possible motives, each of which brings in a different set of suspects.  Menge was in the PM unit because he was a homosexual.  He and Chris Sobel were partners.  Was there someone who was jealous of Menge?

In addition, there had been a serious lack of communication among the staff: the person Menge was going to testify against was housed in the same unit.  Menge's death obviously was welcome news to the prisoner. Was he or someone employed by him responsible?  Or Menge could have learned something concerning either a prisoner or a staff member that brought about his death.

Jordan has some issues of his own to contend with.  His reconciliation with his wife and his relationship to a woman whom he had known for almost his entire life are causing him problems for he must choose between them.   Secondly, there's a violent side to him which is being exacerbated by his contact with the prisoners.  As one of the characters in the novel observes, prison changes everybody, and not just the prisoners. 

Jordan spends some time developing the north Florida region in the novel and also the prison setting, both of which are convincing and informative.  I've never been to Florida so I can't comment on the correspondance to the real northern Florida area, but I did teach a class or two every semester for at least five years at several prisons in Arizona.  While I never got as deeply involved as Jordan does, I found nothing in the depiction of the prison setting to contradict my own experiences and memories of teaching there.  

It's an interesting series, and I'm curious as where it goes.  I am planning on reading the first book,  Power in the Blood, because I would like to see if Jordan is still the same in the fourth book as he is in the first book in the series.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Woman in the Moon: a German SF film

Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou were married from 1922-1933.  During those eleven years, they collaborated on a number of remarkable films:  Lang as director and von Harbou as screenwriter.    In 1927 Lang directed and von Harbou wrote the script for Metropolis, one of the best SF films ever made.  Shortly afterwards, von Harbou wrote a novelization of the film.  I have a copy but I haven't had a chance to read it yet.  Perhaps I should rent the film again and then read the novel.

In 1929, Lang directed and again von Harbou did the screenplay for another SF film, The Woman in the Moon, which was based on a novel she had written the year before.  Then, in 1931, Lang directed von Harbou's script for M, starring a young Peter Lorre as a serial child murderer, whom the police seem unable to capture.  So, the criminal underworld, disturbed by the attentions of the police, decide to take a hand.  This is one of  Peter Lorre's finest performances.

As I mentioned above, The Woman in the Moon was produced several years after Metropolis.  It is a different sort of SF film in that it appears to be set in relatively contemporary Germany.  At least there was nothing that I could see, except for the space ship of course, that couldn't be found in Germany in the late 1920s.

Wolf Helius is an engineer and the prosperous owner of his own firm.  He is the friend and sole support of a disgraced scientist, Prof Manfeldt, who years ago had theorized that there was considerable gold on the moon.  When he propounded his theory at a scientific meeting, he was laughed at and ridiculed, and his reputation destroyed. However, Helius believed him and is in the process of building a spaceship, supposedly in search of the gold, but to Helius, the gold is really just an excuse to go to the moon.

A group of wealthy unscrupulous business folk (four men and a cigar-smoking woman) learn of Helius' plan and decide that the gold really should be in their hands and "not controlled by crackpots and visionaries," forgetting of course that it is the crackpots and visionaries who discovered the possibility of gold and  who  developed the nearly completed spaceship.  As part of a carefully laid plot, they stole the plans and threatened Helius with destroying the ship and possibly hurting a number of people.  He could prevent this only  by allowing their representative to go along on the journey.   He agreed, probably partially because he really wasn't interested in the gold--it was the journey that counted.

The ship's crew, therefore, consisted of Helius, Hans Windegger (his closest friend and assistant engineer and also assistant pilot),  Prof Manfeldt, and Turner, the representative of the evil business cabal.  Also aboard is Friede, a young astronomy student who is engaged to Windegger.  And after liftoff,  they discover a stowaway, a young boy who insists he an "expert" on space travel by virtue of having read numerous SF stories.  One complication that emerges during the trip is Helius' undeclared love for Friede which he has kept secret from everybody, but being in such close contact with her is making it extremely difficult for him.  As one might expect, this will play a significant role in what happens on the trip.

One advantage Lang had was his scientific consultant,  Dr. Hermann Oberth who,  along with the American  Robert Goddard and the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky,  is considered one of  the three founding fathers of space flight.

See if the following doesn't sound a bit familiar.  The ship was built in a large industrial complex, not in someone's back yard or out in the desert.  Secondly it was built in a large hanger with gantries that pulled back as the ship prepared for liftoff.  In addition,  the ship was based on a large platform that moved the ship out of the hanger to the lifting area (launch pad in NASA terminology).  Moreover, it was a  three-stage rocket which discarded stages one and two after liftoff.  I've seen a number of  early films about space travel, and I don't remember any that suggested a multi-stage rocket, prior to the NASA program.

--Helsius,  as they approached the time for liftoff, called out  "ten seconds to go....6...5...4...3...2...1."    This is the first time according to the commentary that a countdown had been used in a film.

--At the end of the film, they discovered that they didn't have enough oxygen for the return trip.  Somebody was going to have to remain on the moon (Destination Moon?)   But, since the moon had a breathable atmosphere, there was a chance that the one who remained could be rescued if the ship could be quickly readied for a return flight.  After all, there was gold in them thar' lunar hills.

--When I discovered the the film was based on von Harbou's novel, I immediately went looking for it.  Amazon.com had nothing available while abebooks.com had two available: a French language version for $2000+  and a second copy for over $9000 dollars.  Needless to say I'm not going to have my own copy soon.

I don't particularly care for silent films and normally give up after about 30 minutes, or even less sometimes.  However, I  found this film to be interesting enough to be able to watch it in its entirety.   Another exception to the rule is Metropolis.  Both are SF films and both are directed by Fritz Lang.  This may not be a coincidence.  Overall, this is one of  most technically accurate films of space travel I have seen that was made long before the actual trips to the moon.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Wallace Stevens: Anecdote of the Jar

This is one of Wallace Stevens' most familiar and most anthologized poems.  It's also an example of how memory can play tricks on one.  For years I've been remembering  a somewhat different poem, and all because of one misremembered verb.

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

 My problem was the verb in the first line:  I remembered the first line as "I found a jar in Tennessee,"  not "I placed a jar in Tennessee."  For years I had thought that he had stumbled across that jar on a hill in the midst of  wilderness, and, therefore, it was a magical discovery.  When I came across it again a short time ago, I was surprised to find that the poet had placed that jar on the hill.  Now, I must see this as more of an experiment than a bit of magic. The question now changes from how that jar got there to why he put it there. Once I got the verb right, I was able to answer the question of how it got there, but now I'm uncertain as to why he put it there.  As frequently happens, answering one question brings up a second.

I wonder if my substitution of  "placed"  by  "found" can be, perhaps partly, attributed to the poem itself.  The first two stanzas have a strong internal rhyme: the "ound" sound.  "Round" and "surround" appear in the first stanza.  In the second stanza we read "around,"  "round," and "ground."  It may have been this that influenced me to substitute "found" for "placed."

What is it about that jar that causes it to become the dominating element in the scene?  Situated on a hill certainly would draw one's attention to it, for would be the central component, and all around would now be seen in some way as being in subordinate to it. While the plants and trees and bushes have not moved, they would now seem to be ordered by the jar, "no longer wild."

 The power of being on the top of the hill is also a  common theme in art and literature.   I am reminded of castles and lonely mansions that command the surrounding territory because of their position.  Of course, it's also a powerful symbol for Christians--the cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem which features in many paintings and murals.

The jar is unlike anything else in Tennessee (a bit of poetic license here, as there surely are many jars in Tennessee) for it is a manufactured thing and therefore sterile, lifeless.  No bird or bush could ever come from the jar. It might be this quality that helps to give  it "dominion everywhere."   The jar is round, with no beginning and no stopping place,  and if I were to come across it and walk around it, I would come back to where I began, which is also the movement in the poem.  The poem begins with a jar in Tennessee and ends with that same jar in Tennessee.

Like most of Stevens' poetry, I get the feeling that I"m getting only a part of it and much is escaping me.  Or, perhaps I should just read the poem and take it as it is.


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Battle Royale, a Japanese SF film

A battle royale, according to my dictionary, is defined as a battle which could be one in which numerous combatants participate or a fight to the finish or an intense altercation.  Battle Royale actually fits all three definitions.

I came across this film, as I have done so many others, by chance, for I had never heard of it until a short time ago.  The SF  book discussion group that I belong to scheduled Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games a few months ago.  After the discussion, I heard that a film was being made of it and would be out soon.  I checked up on it to see what the general reaction to it was. The reviews were, as usual, mixed, but one comment interested me the most.  Essentially the comment was that Battle Royale was a much better film. So, off to Netflix I went.

I haven't seen The Hunger Games yet, so I can't really compare them, but I will say this: if The Hunger Games is more violent and bloody than Battle Royale, then I don't want to watch it.

BR's plot is simple and probably somewhat familiar to those who either read and/or watched T he Hunger Games. It is set in Japan in the near future when the economy has collapsed and unemployment is over 15%.  Violence has become routine, especially among young people.  The Battle Royale Act is passed which allows the government to take any 9th grade class at random and transport them to an island.  There they are issued, randomly, weapons, of varying usefulness.  Some get automatic weapons while others get a GPS tracking device.  Some get swords or knives while others get large pot lids.

In the film, the class selected is 49-B, mostly 15-year-old boys and girls.  They are told that this session will last three days, and at the end of three days, the one person alive is the winner and will be returned to Japan. They are also fitted with collars that can't be removed and have a small explosive charge, sufficient to kill the wearer.  Attempting to remove the collar without the proper tools will  also cause an explosion.  The person doing the briefing, actually a former teacher of this class who had left after one of the students had stabbed him, demonstrates the collar's effectiveness by detonating the collar of one of the more obstreperous youths (it may even have been the one who stabbed him).  If more than one person is alive at the end of the three days, all collars will be detonated, and there will be no winner.   Reports are broadcast regularly informing the students of how many are left and who are the latest to die. One can imagine the psychological effect of that on the survivors.

The definition of battle royale::

numerous combatants:  There are 43 students in the class. After the briefing, only 41 remain, 40 of whom must die within the next three days.

a fight to the finish: only one person can be alive at the end,  or to borrow the title of another film--last student standing.

intense altercation:  These are not strangers trying to survive by killing each other.  These are fellow classmates, some of whom may be their best friends or their worst enemy.  These are young people who know each other and trusted some of them.  Now?  Each hand is turned against the other.  Some try to form self-defense groups, while realizing that only one can be alive at the end. Some seem to enjoy the opportunity to revenge themselves for real or imagined slights.  Others are paralyzed by the situation.  "Intense"  is an understatement.  I found it far more intense than the novel The Hunger Games, but that just might be the effect of a visual presentation in comparison to a verbal one.  I shall have to see The Hunger Games film before I can come to a decision.

For those interested, here are the relevant dates:

Battle Royale:  the film came out in 2000.  The sequel, Battle Royale II, came out in 2003.  BRII, from what I've read, is the story of one of  the survivors who formed a "terrorist" group whose goal was to bring down the government that conducts the battles.  Sound familiar?

The Hunger Games:  the novel was published in 2008, with sequels arriving within the next 2-3 years.

The Hunger Games: the film came out in 2012.

So, if one influenced the other, it's fairly easy to see who influenced whom.

Overall Comments: the focus of the BR film and the Hunger Games novel differs.  In  BR, we see a number of characters all acting with varying motives, whereas in THG, we follow only one character: the rest are strangers mostly and are there to provide the danger to the main character and to die when their time comes.  This was not true in BR, for the viewer comes to know a number of them, so these are not strangers who die, but characters about whom we know something.

It is a violent film, definitely something to consider when deciding to see the film..