Saturday, February 28, 2009

Richard Dawkins is dead

If ever a headline was going to catch my attention - particularly in view of my past posts about Richard Dawkins - it was one that proclaimed: Richard Dawkins is Dead.
For a moment, until I began to read the post, I thought the grand old man of insane thinking had actually shuffled off this mortal coil. For better or worse, this is a joke, and, as far as we know, he still exists in a state which may be equated with a normal human life-form.
The post begins thus: After years of research by people who call themselves science lovers it was finally discovered that Richard Dawkins is dead. Richard (Latin for Dick) Dawkins (Latin for Dork King ie: king of the dorks) was found to have died at his irony board having exploded his mind trying to convince the himself that his genes still fit. Actually they stopped fitting long ago and ran off with some floozy because they were so selfish.
It probably has to be regarded as fairly low-level satire, (the sub-heading is: Dawkings Butt Kissers unite in prayer) but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dame Frevisse

Via the Books and Culture ezine, I learned about a series of murder mysteries by Margaret Frazer. They are set around a character called 'Dame Frevisse, a quick-witted Benedictine nun of St. Frideswide's Priory in Oxfordshire,' and have some similarities to the Brother Cadfael series, being set back in the 15th century.
The first in the series, which our library happened to have, is entitled, The Novice's Tale. The novice in question, Thomasine, is a rather irritating, overly-saintly teenager (the other nuns comment on it more than once) , whose harridan of an aunt turns up at the priory one day with her large retinue, has a conversation with Domina Edith (the equivalent of an Abbess) and Thomas Chaucer (an historical person, the son of Geoffrey Chaucer), and discovers something which sets her off to her other neice's home in such a fury that various unhappy events follow in the wake of her hasty departure.
The plotting is neat enough to keep you guessing - well, it kept me guessing, but I've never been very good at figuring out murder mysteries - and while Frevisse is a bit tart in nature (unlike Cadfael) you warm to her good sense and willingness to get herself in hot water if it will clear things up. Frazer knows her history and the details of the period, but doesn't stuff them down your throat (like the author Tim Severin, does in Buccanneer, a book I had to review but found to be so didactic in tone that the characters seldom came alive).
Apparently the seventeenth book in this series has just been published - The Apostate's Tale.
LaVonne Neff notes in her review of the book: The author, Margaret Frazer, actually started out as two women: mystery writer Mary Monica Pulver and amateur archaeologist/historian Gail Frazer, who met at the Society for Creative Anachronism, became friends, and wrote the first six Dame Frevisse novels together. When Pulver went on to other pursuits, Frazer continued the series on her own.
Unfortunately our local library is surprisingly short on books in the series: only the first two are in stock. Looks like a bit of hunting down of the other titles may be in order, now that I know the series is worth reading.


Seth Godin asked the other day on his blog: Do you deserve the luck you've been handed? The place you were born, the education you were given, the job you've got? Do you deserve your tribe, your customer base, your brand?

Wisely he answered that none of us deserve what we get at all. Especially people who have great opportunities. I had those who have great talents, great jobs, families, living situations, health and wealth. None of us deserve any of these things.

I remember a friend of mine saying, when I inherited what was a substantial amount of money in our terms, 'You deserve it.' I didn't respond, 'No, I don't,' but I should have.

God gives us the gifts, the talents, the lifestyle. He plants us in a certain place and offers us all manner of opportunities and choices. Yes, there's an element of taking up the opportunities, making the most of the gifts, but in no way do we deserve what we're given in this life. (And of course that includes those whose life is much less pleasant.)

Why God chooses one person to have talents and another not, one person to have a good family and another a mess, one person to father healthy children and another to father ones with all manner of illnesses is something God doesn't tell us, and won't, at least in this life.

Godin finishes his short post with this comment: The question shouldn’t be, “do you deserve it.” I think it should be, “what are you going to do with it now that you've got it?"

As always he's primarily thinking of the business/marketing world. But his comments are just as applicable to life in general.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Extreme Weather Events

I took Tim Jones’ first book of short stories, Extreme Weather Events, into hospital with me this week. His comment, before I went, was: EWE [is] a darker book, overall, than Transported [his second book], so it may not be ideal cheering-up fare if that is what you're looking for next week ... but that's up to you, of course. Well, EWE is certainly fairly dark in spots: Lizard, for instance, is plain horrible, in my reading of it, but it’s the darkest by a long way.
Some of the themes in this selection are similar to Tim’s second book: the apocalyptic destruction of the earth, climate change and the curious desire of people to worship in cultic groups where somehow morality is switched off.
Consequently, apart from the vile worshippers in Lizard, we have a bunch of them causing havoc in Temple in the Matrix, a sci-fi story with certain links to the film, The Matrix, and a vibrant language that’s sometimes unusual but never unreadable.
Maria and the Tree, the first story, takes place after some disaster has occurred in the world, and in spite of its gloomy tone, has a hopeful ending. Equally in the next story, Wintering Over, we know that there’s probably been a major nuclear disaster, but it’s only the background to the story of three scientists marking time in the Antarctic, rather than the main point.
In Tour Party some fairly large-scale disaster has happened, but we’re not party to the details.
These three stories lean to the pessimistic side of Jones’ writing, but, like many of his other stories, there’s a curious playful satire running across the surface. It’s not quite like the wit and humour of the second book (which was what encouraged me to read it), but it’s there.
The three short short stories, The New Land, The Kiwi Contingent, and The Pole, contain that delightful playing with a quirky idea that is Jones at his best, and The Man Who Loved Maps, quite apart from being set in my home town of Dunedin, is a warm-hearted story about a man who becomes the maps he so loves.
In another story, My Friend the Volcano, the female vulcanologist becomes one with Mt Taranaki via a bio-chip in her head. This story is told by a male narrator who falls in love with the girl, and who turns out to be surprisingly supportive of her rather odd approach to scientific study.
Black Box, the story of a kind of picture into the past that appears in the middle of Wellington one day (Wellington comes off rather badly in Tim’s world) ended a bit abruptly for me. I’d like to have explored further with the anonymous student who manages to break into the box, and discover what’s beyond its borders.
And finally, there’s Flensing, a very strange story about an abandoned fishing village and a church full of ghosts – and a family - father, mother and son - in which Oedipus might feel at home. There’s no doubt Jones has an imagination that hives off into peculiar corners. I can’t say I much liked this story (but then I’d just had an operation!), but it certainly sticks in the mind.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Mark's Mistake

"More than 175 million people use Facebook," said Mark Zuckerberg [co-founder of the social network]. "If it were a country, it would be the sixth most populated country in the world.
"This was a mistake and we apologise for the confusion."

Mr Zuckerman proving he knows his grammar better than he knows his customers, who rejected new Terms of Use which included a clause giving Facebook 'perpetual worldwide licence' to anything posted on the network.

I'm glad some people read Terms of Use. I'm afraid I'm one of the millions who don't very often.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Michael Clayton

Watched Michael Clayton last night, about which I'd heard rave reviews.
An intense piece with a fairly good story; rather too many characters, and a subplot about Clayton’s financial woes that really doesn’t add a lot to the thing. If he’s so smart why did he get himself in that sort of a mess?
The film is at times just a little slow, even though the actors try hard not to let you think of it as slow. It’s the pacing of the thing somehow. Some scenes are perhaps too long, so it’s probably the fault of the script or the cutting rather than anything else. One scene in particular, in which Tom Wilkinson (who’s lost the plot pretty much by this time) stands holding a dozen French sticks while talking to George Clooney (who plays Clayton), becomes annoying: your mind starts to ask, What was it like to do that scene several times holding all that bread? How annoying for the poor actor – especially since the French sticks don’t really play any role in the scene other than to be held.
The opening flash forward seems fine at the time, but when we see what it’s about, later in the movie, it’s a bit pretentious. What the heck have the horses got to do with the story? Okay, they show up in a book that Clayton’s son is reading and has passed onto Wilkinson, but beyond that they don’t really connect up.
Thinking about it, the film has a few excess stories: apart from Clayton’s financial woes, there’s his alcoholic brother who doesn’t appear to contribute anything to the film; all the silly stuff about the book with the strange name that the boy is so passionate about; Tilda Swinton’s rehearsing of her lines before the scene they appear in, and so on. Just a bit too much of a good thing at times.
Plainly the film needed some weight loss supplements!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire is an extraordinary movie, all the more so for being made by an British director, Danny Boyle, who’d never been to India before he started shooting there, and who spoke not a word of the language. It manages to have an essentially Indian feel to it, while also having the zest of a contemporary Western thriller.

The main character, Jamal, has had a brutal upbringing as a result of being a child of the slums, but has managed to survive and is doing reasonably well for himself. With utter resilience and native cunning, he and his brother have in turn escaped a massacre of their Muslim community by local Hindi, being kidnapped by a so-called ‘orphanage’ which turns the children into beggars – in some cases by purposely crippling them – finding themselves at the Taj Mahal and passing themselves off as guides, and returning to Mumbai, the place of their origin, where Jamal wants to find (amongst the eight or nine million people) the girl they left behind several years before.

Alongside all this back story is the contemporary one in which Jamal is successfully competing in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – India-style. And laid over that is his interrogation and beating because he’s been accused of being a cheat while on the show. Is it destiny that allows him to know the answers to almost all the questions – or is it plain happenstance? Jamal thinks it’s destiny, it seems, and is convinced enough by his faith to push forward against the odds.

I’d got the impression that the film was a comedy – before I went. Yes, it has some comedy moments, but it’s also brutal, vicious, thrilling, heart-stopping and surging with the life of modern India and its recent past. On top of that is the realisation that the old India is rapidly fading: technology is rampant, and everyone who can afford it takes the modern world for granted. And those who can’t afford the modern India, but still have to live in it, carry on in much the same way as they always have – forced to beg, forced to live on the streets, forced to live in slums, abused, treated as of no value, and regarded as if they didn’t exist.

But for all its horrors, the film is also life-affirming: a basic boy-gets-girl plot underlines the whole thing, and the ending is joyfully upbeat. I won’t tell you how it ends, but if Bollywood seems to be being kept at bay throughout the rest of the film, it explodes into the last scene with full force. (Not that it can be kept at bay: the music throughout is vibrant and frenetic and wondrous.)
This is one of those films that just knocks you off your feet.

Charlie Wilson's War

Began to watch Tropic Thunder last night but gave up fairly quickly. Apart from being schoolboy gross and full of foul language, it just wasn’t engaging – at least for us. Fortunately I’d got it out as my introductory ‘free’ New Release from Video Ezy after finding that the Civic Video had finally closed. Not surprising; it’s looked very unwell for some time.
I’d bought a couple of other DVDs, as it happened, one of which was Charlie Wilson’s War, which turned out to be a trifle odd also, but nowhere near as odd as its predecessor. For one thing, it may have been that Tom Hanks was playing a loose-living middle-aged Congressman with a penchant for whisky. I’ve often found that certain stars just don’t come across well when they play too far away from their usual screen persona. Most of them have screen personas that are broad enough to encompass a fair range, but when they step out of that and play the opposite type of character for instance, it generally doesn’t work – in my mind.
Denzil Washington is a prime example. He’s made a few films where he’s played against type, and, because in the audience’s mind he’s a man with integrity and heart and warmth and compassion, we just don’t believe him when he tries to play someone who’s really bad.
Can you imagine Danny de Vito playing any sort of hero or heroic character? Unlikely to succeed, and wisely he’s stuck to his conniving, grubby-minded characters. Gene Hackman, even when playing the hero, will be fairly flawed, but he seems to have found his niche in playing characters that are untrustworthy, venal, and ruthless. Jack Nicholson has managed to bring off a few characters that are sympathetic, but it takes some doing. He has to bring the audience around to ‘his way of thinking’ as it were. (About Schmidtt is an example.)
So to return to Tom Hanks. Tom will not easily play an out and out villain. Offhand, I can’t remember him doing so. He’s been fairly rough-edged a few times, but his trademark ‘innocence’ is what he does really well. Charlie Wilson isn’t innocent. He has integrity, but it’s very mixed, and the opening scene in the movie, with him in a spa pool with several other naked people, seems uncomfortable for Hanks.
However, once we get used to Hanks in this role, the film is well worth watching. Julia Roberts makes a brief appearance early in the piece and then vanishes for a good deal of the movie, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (who knows his place in movies as a wild man character, whether he’s playing good or bad) takes up the rest of the slack.
If the film wasn’t based on a true story we’d be unlikely to believe it, but since it apparently is, we have to assume that the scriptwriters haven’t played too fast and loose with the truth.
I said the movie was worth watching, nevertheless, it doesn’t seem well constructed for all that. There are several wonderful individual scenes (particularly Hoffman’s first appearance, and also his first encounter with Hanks), and the piece is uniformly well-acted, and directed, but there isn’t much suspense. It’s almost a forgone conclusion that Charlie Wilson will get his way and ‘save’ Afghanistan from the Russians. Along with Hoffman he’s a renegade who happens to be invisible enough in Congress not to cause huge anti-waves when he sets about supplying arms to the beleaguered country. And while the characters are well-drawn up to a point, I don’t know that I entirely believe in them. There were plenty of flamboyant characters in West Wing, for example, but they worked better than Charlie Wilson does, and both Hoffman and Roberts seem to be playing people who do their own thing and get away with it without a snub from anyone. Interestingly enough, Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay. It has plenty of his trademarks: snappy dialogue, smart one-liners that fit the scene, good scene construction. It’s just the overall effect that doesn’t quite hold. Maybe Sorkin needed a sub-plot to offset the main story, as he so often did in the TV series. Here he’s denied that.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another word on Gilead

To my surprise I discovered, on looking back through my old files, that I've never written a review of Gilead, in spite of being so deeply affected by it the first time, and very pleased to have read it again. The only time I came close to reviewing it was when I did the annual triple-brief review for the local paper, and space being what it is in those reviews, Gilead, like the other two books, got barely a 100 words. Hardly enough to do it justice.
But I'm more surprised that I didn't review it for Tui Motu, which would have been the obvious place to have written about it. Perhaps I felt it was just too big a book for me, in some ways. Not that it appears to be 'big' (like War and Peace, for instance, or one of Dickens' novels). I think it's more that the way it's written almost precludes getting ahold of it enough to try and sum it up.
The story seems very simple, yet it's a story full of stories (from the main biographical one to the puzzle of the main character, John Ames' godson to the story of the crazed old prophet of a grandfather to the strangely hilarious story of the horse that slowly sank into the tunnel under the road). The theology seems straightforwardly about grace and forgiveness, yet there are all the other elements that come into it too. Grace and forgiveness turn out to be only part of the theology; the book is almost thick with theology, but theology done in such a way that you just absorb it as you go along.
There are different slants on Christianity: Ames seems to be the most straightforward - but that's an illusion. The father seems to have been a good solid minister, but he's also a mystery. And the grandfather is John the Baptist come to life again, or Ezekiel, or one of the weird prophets out of Kings or Chronicles. He makes us realise just how hard to live with those OT prophets must have been.
Then there's the wife, who appears out of nowhere (she has no history in the book, unlike her husband, who is as much history as present), and who simply tells the man he should marry her and he does. Her Christianity is childlike, almost, and so open that even the difficult godson is honest with her.
There are almost no un-Christian characters in it; the outside secular world barely impinges. (A television makes little impact, and while a couple of the characters go to the movies, we hear nothing much about it.) This is a world where the Christian worldview is pretty much the norm. When the older brother comes home with his heretic views, he doesn't really seem to make much of a dent on the surroundings.
I'm sure I could say a lot more, could rave on about it. This is enough for the moment.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

3 CDs

Tomorrow I have to take back to the library three CDs I've had over the holiday period. Lilburn's three symphonies are on one, David Farquahar's on another, and the third is a collection of pieces by Edwin Carr [pictured]. It has The End of the Golden Weather music on it (seems a bit bitsy to me); the Concerto for piano and orchestra (something I'd like to know better), Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, which are very pleasant, and An Auckland Ode, which I can't say I'm fussed much about.

Lilburn's first symphony still seems to me to be the best of the three - the second has advanced to that waffly Lilburn stage where it can't seem to make up its mind what it's going to do next, and the third hasn't really made any great impression on me. Admittedly I haven't given it as much attention as I might have done - between being out in the garden working a good deal over the holidays and being away for eight days, these three CDs haven't had their full quota of listening.

I might get all three out again, and familiarise myself with them further. Yes, even the Lilburn!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

I've become boring - maybe

Feeling rather blogged out at present. It's probably in part because I've gone back to work this week after three weeks off, but it may also be that my energy levels aren't as high because of what's going on healthwise.
Or it may be that I've just become utterly boring and have nothing else to say.

At the end of the month I'm supposed to be doing a block course at Varsity - my first real experience of the place. (Hopefully I won't be in hospital having an op that week!). The course is one of the Theology Dept ones: Congregations in New Zealand. It was suggested by my boss at work, and I didn't think it would greatly grab me as a subject. However, I've begun reading the course notes, and the first couple of chapters have been more interesting than I thought they'd be. So maybe it'll suit me after all.
On the music front I started writing a piece for cornet and piano in the last few days of the holidays, and that was going reasonably well. And I discovered Prokofiev's 1st piano sonata. I may have heard it before, but I've never played it. It turns out to be very playable, in fact (much more so than some of the 5th, which I've worked at rather than played, for many years). I've ordered a copy of the piece online, as the copy I'm using is from the library.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Pain and Fear

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.

- Eleanor Roosevelt

I can't tell you where this quote comes from: I got it secondhand. It's interesting how much of our literature, and even more especially the Bible, tell us that pain and fear are things we have to overcome to be true to ourselves. Yet we hate both of these so much. And why do we gain strength, or courage, or confidence? Is there something in us that insists on breaking through yet another barrier, whether pain or fear? As though we were never quite complete unless we overcame...