Saturday, August 19, 2017

From Stuff You Like: Shouting FIRE In A Theater | That Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means



The historical origins of the phrase "Yelling fire in a crowded theater" was one of the late Christopher Hitchens' favorite anecdotes.  (See here)



On Hitchens' influence, I used this in my own argument in defense of Wikileaks back in 2010.
From History Buffs: Rome Season One



I'm a huge fan of the History Buffs Youtube channel.  But this was not his best work.

He spends 15 out of 30 minutes talking about the Gallic Wars, which weren't even part of HBO's Rome series.
Then when he finally gets around to the actual series, he doesn't talk about any of the historical events in the actual series itself.
(There's a lot of things Rome got right, and there's plenty it got wrong, so there should have been tons to talk about.)

I guess I can't complain about free entertainment on Youtube.  But I can at least point out that it's not up to his usual standards.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017



MSNBC has titled the above video as: Donald Trump Is Lying About Charlottesville, Says Witness

But to me, that's the wrong title.
The most shocking part of this video is not that Donald Trump is lying.  (Old news if there ever was.)  The most shocking part of the video is a description of how worshipers at a non-violent church service were not allowed to leave the church because the mob of Nazis outside.
In America.  In 2017.
So, like everyone else, my jaw has just been on the floor about Trump's statements about Charlottesville.

I suppose there's no use being surprised by this though.  Trump knows exactly what he's doing.

He already knows he'll never pick up any points with the Left, so he's deliberately pandering to the Right here.

Trump knows, of course, that both sides were not equally at fault for the violence.  But he also knows that his only hope of political survival lies in keeping his base happy, and so there's nothing to be gained by making any concessions to the Left.

I predicted this would happen back in January.  To quote myself:

When Bush won in 2000, and saw how much liberals hated him, he (and his stage managers) decided it was useless to try a strategy of reconciling with liberals.
Instead, their strategy became to appeal to their conservative base, and just concentrate on keeping the Republicans really happy.
If the Republican base could be counted on to come out in big numbers in 2004, and if the country was relatively stable, then the fact that we liberals were fuming mad about everything didn't matter at all.
Which was why, right from day one, Bush started appointing a very conservative, very ultra-right cabinet, and started pursuing a very ultra-right agenda.
And it worked for him.
There are ample signs already that Trump is going to be using the same playbook for the next 4 years.  He's already started making a lot of symbolic gestures that show his strategy is going to be giving red-meat to his conservative base, and screwing over the liberals.

This is also a very old strategy.  Nixon used the same strategy back in 1970.  After the FBI had murdered Black leaders, instead of condemning the murders, Nixon praised the FBI more.
Nixon knew it would play well to his base, and indeed it got him re-elected in 1972.

The fact that it was blatantly wrong....well, who cares about these things in politics?

To see the footage of this, watch the video below from the 30:00 mark:



Trump is doing the same thing now.  We can cry and scream about it all we want, but it won't stop him from following this strategy.  He knows who his base is, and he knows this is how to keep them happy.
And if liberals get screaming mad about it, all the better.  (His base loves it when liberals get impotently angry).
The way things are going now, we may well be headed for a Trump victory in 2020.
CinemaSins: Everything Wrong With Kong: Skull Island



My own review is over here.  I gave the movie a favorable review, and I haven't changed my mind, but that said I do agree with a lot of the points this video makes.
Honest Trailers - Guardians of the Galaxy 2



I think they pretty much nail it.   (Among other points, I agree with them that the characters are too indestructible, and think their own jokes are funnier than they actually are.) My own review, for what it's worth, is over here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hot Fuzz - Tamara's Never Seen



My own review is here.  I agree with Tamara that the movie is "really, really good".


The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book / My History With the Source Material

I had never heard of this book before, but on a recent trip back home, my mother was reading this book for her book club, and I found about about it from her.
My mother had also been familiar with the author, Geraldine Brooks, for a long time, and had enjoyed several of her other books.

Despite my mother's fondness for Geraldine Brooks, she ended up giving this particular book a mixed review.  When she finally finished the book, she said that in retrospect she could probably have done without reading it.  (I think she was a bit put off by some of the more graphic violent scenes in the book.)

But I was still intrigued enough by the book's premise that I ended up buying myself a copy before flying back to Vietnam.

The book is a novel based on the King David story.  And I've always been fascinated by the King David story.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by Bible stories.  And even now that I'm an agnostic, I remain fascinated by the Bible stories as stories.  (As I've indicated on this blog before--here, here, here and here, for example.)

I have a complicated relationship with these stories, as I do with everything from childhood, because I was exposed to them before my critical thinking skills had fully developed.  And so whenever I read these stories, I'm never fully viewing them through adult eyes.  I'm also remembering the fascination they held for me as a child.

As a child, I was always fascinated by these brutal iron-age tales of blood and savagery.  And I assumed everyone else would be as well.
But since then, I've meet several people who didn't grow up in Sunday School.  And they never understand the fascination with these stories.
A couple years ago, I got into a long debate in a bar with a Scotsman.  He had grown up in a secular house, and he couldn't understand why people were at all interested in the Bible stories. He was adamant that the stories in the Bible were less interesting than any other mythology.  Why waste your time reading the Old Testament when you could read Homer?
I reflexively argued for the Old Testament stories, but as the conversation progressed I actually found that it was an uphill battle.
Have you read 1st and 2nd Kings lately?  It's hard to argue that these are artistically the equal of the Greek mythological canon.
I've also discovered that in Asia (or at least Japan, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where I've lived) there is absolutely zero interest in the Old Testament Bible stories among the native population.

But for anyone who grew up with these stories in Sunday School, they are fascinating.

For one thing, they were the most violent and brutal stories that I was exposed to at the time.
And they were also an insight in to what I believed was mankind's earliest history.  (I now know better--I now know these stories were probably composed--or at least compiled--in the 4th century B.C., and that they are not actually mankind's earliest surviving historical record.   But at the time I believed it was the only window we had back to the dawn of history.)

As a child, I went to Church on Sundays and Wednesday night.  And I also went to a Christian school where we studied the Bible for one period every day.
From Kindergarten to 2nd grade, the teacher would just tell us these stories in language that little kids could understand.  From 3rd grade on, we got our own Bibles, and would read these stories directly.
Also, from 7th grade through 10th grade, I embarked on a reading project of my own to read a chapter of the Bible every night until I had read the whole thing cover to cover.

But perhaps what sticks in my mind most vividly is not the actual text of the Bible itself, but The David C Cook comics version.
Anyone else remember this?  It was distributed as Pix Magazine (W), given free of charge to kids attending Sunday School.  Every issue featured a comic book retelling of a Bible story.


The comics were also collected in one binding and sold as The Picture Bible (A). But The Picture Bible is actually a heavily abridged version of the comic book series.  (I assume because it would have been physically impossible to put the whole series under one binding).
The weekly Pix comics were actually surprisingly thorough in their trudge through the Old Testament histories.  If memory serves, they omitted all the sexual violence from the Bible, and they omitted the disembowelings.  But they left in pretty much all the other details.
I loved Pix as a kid.  (It's amazing how kids will read anything if you put it in a comic book form, although as I mentioned above I was predisposed to be interested in these stories anyway.)  And many of these Bible stories I remember better from their visual Pix form than from the actual text of the Old Testament.  (One example from many: the way David conquered Jerusalem by sneaking his men in through the underground water shafts--the underground assault is only vaguely alluded in the actual Bible itself, so it would never have caught my attention if Pix hadn't illustrated it.)

Another reason the King David story stuck in my mind is because it is tonally dissonant from the rest of the Old Testament, which used to confuse me as a kid.
Most of the Old Testament history is presented as a simple morality tale. Serve God, and get rewarded.  Disobey God, and get punished.
The King David Story loses this simple morality as we delve into political machinations in which there are no clear good guys and bad guys.
I remember how confused I was as a kid when Abner killed Asahel.  Asahel was one of David's men, fighting for David's cause.  Wasn't God supposed to be protecting him?
What about when Saul's grandchildren were killed by the Gibeonites?  Who was supposed to be the good guy here?
The character of Joab fascinated and confused me.  He was clearly a brutal man, and yet he was someone that David needed, and who did most of David's fighting.  But then after all that, Joab gets unceremoniously killed off by King Solomon in the 2nd Chapter of 1st Kings.
Was Joab one of the good guys or not?  The Bible didn't seem to indicate, which confused me because ordinarily the Bible isn't shy about editorializing.
One day I asked my 5th grade Bible teacher, "Looking at his whole life, was Joab a good person or a bad person?"  I remember she didn't give me a clear answer, but she did later mention to my parents that I was asking a lot of good questions in Bible class.

Since I've stopped going to Sunday School, these stories have somewhat faded to the back of my mind over the years.
But, like a lot of the stories I remember from childhood, they'll occasionally come back to me at odd moments.  And I'll have one of those "Wait, was that real?" type moments.
Did David actually serve the Philistine king for a period?
Was the Ark of the Covenant actually captured by the Philistines?
Did Prince Jonathon defeat a whole detachment of Philistines just by himself?

And then I'll go back to the Bible and look these stories up to make sure I wasn't imagining them.
So even though I've stopped going to Church long ago, the stories have stayed in my imagination.

In fact, as I mentioned back in 2013, it was precisely my fascination with the King David saga that caused me to seek out books and podcasts related to Biblical history.
At the time I was also looking for other books on the King David story, but as I was living in Cambodia, I had trouble finding what I wanted.

So when my mother mentioned this book to me, it sounded right up my alley.

Historicity of the Original Source Material

Some of this commentary will inform my critique of the novel.  Some of this is me just going off on my areas of interest.  Feel free to skip over this.

Biblical scholars have identified 4 sources for the historical sections of the Old Testament: The Yawist Source (W), the Elohist Source (W) the Priestly Source (W) and the Deuteronomistic Historian (W).

The Deuteronomistic Historian was also the editor of this material.
Writing after the exile (about the 4th Century BC), the Deuteronomistic Historian was trying to figure out why God had allowed the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
His thesis was simple--God had allowed them to be conquered because they hadn't followed God's commandments.  (Footnote: This is actually a pretty common occurrence in world history.  Often when a nation suffers some kind of disaster or military defeat, they conclude it is because God has become angry with them, and they need to be more pious about observing religion.  I was recently reading a history of ancient Thailand which linked a revival of devout Buddhism to the destruction of Thailand's capital.)

The book of Deuteronomy, written by the Deuteronomistic Historian, sets out the thesis clearly.  In Deuteronomy, God makes a Covenant with the people of Israel.  If you follow my commandments, and you will be victorious over your enemies.  If you abandon my commandments, disaster will strike you.

And then, sure enough, the rest of the historical books follow this thesis.  All through the conquest of Canaan, the period of the judges, and the period of the two kingdoms, every time the Israelites follow God, they are victorious.  Every time they worship false gods and idols, they are defeated by their enemies.

This polemic, and the consistency with which it's applied throughout the Old Testament histories, makes the King David story all the more interesting because it is an exception.
In the King David story, the Deuteronomistic Historian takes an unusual detour from his morality tale to talk about the political squabbles and civil wars of ancient Israel.
The moralizing tone will often drop, and instead the emphasis shifts to realpolitik.  (During the civil war between King David and the remnants of the house of Saul, it's not clear who God is favoring.  Both sides fight themselves to a standstill at the battle of Gibeon.)

There's another oddity in the King David Story.
Much of the Old Testament, particularly the later prophets, look back on King David's reign as the golden age of Israel.  And David himself is frequently praised as Israel's greatest king.
But if you actually read 2nd Samuel, King David was a terrible king.  He was weak, he couldn't make decisions, he couldn't control his generals, he couldn't control his sons, and there were multiple popular uprisings against him during his reign, which indicated he wasn't all that popular with the people.

For both of these reasons, it's hypothesized that the narrative of 2nd Samuel came from a separate source that the Deuteronomistic Historian inserted into his history.
Because this source paints a very flawed picture of King David, it is assumed that this source is roughly contemporary with the actual reign of King David, and does not come from the later period when King David was being mythologized
And because the story of King David shows intimate knowledge of the quarrels of King David's court (quarrels among King David's sons and nephews), it is hypothesized it might be written by someone who was actually an eye-witness at the court, and is therefore called the Court History.

This is the view of even some atheist scholars, like Robin Lane Fox, who argues that the King David story must have been authentic, because there's no way this story could have come from the later period when David was being mythologized.

To quote from Robin Lane Fox himself:

This section of the royal narrative is unlike any other. It contains no miracles but is full of intrigues and devious trick: women are prominent in the action. It reports the private dialogues of persons of high rank; it tells an interconnected story, from the wars against Ammon to the affair of David and Bathsheba, the deaths of two of David’s sons and the manoeurves to succeed to his throne…During these twenty years or so of David’s reign, the main focus is on events at court among David’s friends and enemies.  As a result, D’s source for these chapters has been ascribed as a court history, the work of a near-contemporary with access to court secrets….The scope, nature and date of this source are naturally strongly contested (we have to infer them) but there is no mistaking its difference of tone: its picture of King David is not unduly flattering (he commits adultery with Bathsehba and kills off her husband Uriah). On the strength of it, this source has been classed as an ‘anti-history’ and dated late during the Exile in reaction to others’ idealizing of David, the head of the royal messianic line.  Yet there is no trace anywhere else of such ‘anti-history’; the later our sources, the more they idealize David the king. Rather, the work’s detail, tone and focus point to a text which was written much earlier: how else did the author know so much court detail and geography, tell it relatively straight? (Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version p. 188).
(Note: D=the Deuteronomistic Historian)

This is also the view that Geraldine Brooks takes.  Although she doesn't waste a lot of time defending her view, she does mention briefly in her afterward: "...I tend to agree with Duff Cooper, who concluded that David must actually have existed, for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero" (Author's Afterward, p.333)

On the same page, Geraldine Brooks writes: "David is the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age. Some scholars have called this biography the oldest piece of history writing, predating Herodotus by at least half a millennium" (Author's Afterward, p.333).

This claim is controversial--not everyone agrees that the King David story is based on an authentic court history from 1000 B.C.--but it is at least an intriguing possibility, and one that adds potential interest to the King David story.

But there are also arguments that the King David story is not historical.
For one thing, the archaeological evidence does not appear to support the size and scope of David's Kingdom as reported in 2nd Samuel.
King David, if he existed in Israel in 1000 BC, was much more likely to be a tribal chieftain than the king of a united Israelite kingdom.
Of course this need not disprove everything in King David story.  It's possible that the basis of the story is still true, even if the scope of it is exaggerated.

But there's another factor to consider as well.  Geraldine Brooks and Robin Lane Fox both seem to be basing their arguments on the tone of the story--no people would invent such a flawed king as a mythological national symbol, so therefore King David must be historical.
But in fact, the story of "the once great king who grows weak" pops up in mythology all the time, even among national symbols.
The story of King Arthur is very similar to the story of King David.  Just like King David, King Arthur starts out as a strong king, but as he grows old he loses control of his kingdom.  And just like King David, King Arthur also faces challenges from his sons and nephews.
King Lear is another figure.
Many of the ancient Greek tragedies revolve around heroes who perform great deeds when they are younger, but suffer tragedies in old age.  (There's an interesting article here King David and Oedipus Rex which points out the many similarities between the King David story and Greek tragedies.)

Which brings me to my next point
Style and Themes of the Original Source Material

Within the long long historical narrative of the Old Testament, the King David story is the closest thing the Old Testament has to an epic.
It's got all the elements for a great Greek Epic, or a Shakespearean tragedy.: Jonathon's conflict between his duty to his parents and his love for his friend, David's conflict between his love for Saul's family and his destiny to overthrow Saul, David's heartbreak as his own sons turn against him, plus lots of surprise assassinations, murders, and strange political alliances.

...Or at least, The King David Story would have all these elements, if it had been told by a better narrator.
As it is, the Old Testament narrator keeps such a distance from the story that it makes it hard for the reader to become invested in any of these characters.

Christine Hayes in her lectures on the Old Testament describes the style of the Biblical Narrative perfectly.  She is describing the story of Abraham and Isaac, but actually the same comments could be made about much of the King David story, so I'll just quote her at length.  (Full text here).

This week's assigned reading includes selections from Robert Alter's book, The Art of Biblical Narrative, which I heartily recommend to read in its entirety. Alter describes the extreme economy of biblical narrative, economy in the description of physical settings and character as well as speech. Rarely does the narrator comment on or explain a character's actions or thoughts or motives. There's only the barest minimum of dialogue. And on the few occasions that the Bible will violate this principle of verbal economy — for example if two characters converse at length — you can be sure it's significant. You'll want to pay extra attention. The biblical narrator's concealing of details and the motives of the characters, God and Abraham and Isaac, leads to ambiguity, and the possibility of very many interpretations. And that is a striking characteristic of biblical prose: its suppression of detail, its terse, laconic style. That makes the little that is given so powerful, so "fraught with background" to use the phrase of Eric Auerbach, whose article you are also to read this week. Auerbach contrasts the literary style of Homer with the biblical writer's style specifically in connection with the story of Genesis 22.
The ambiguities and the indeterminacy of this story make it one of the most interpreted texts of all time. Why is God testing Abraham? Does God really desire such a sacrifice? What is Abraham thinking and feeling as he walks — for three days, already — walks with his son, bearing the wood and the fire for the sacrifice? Does he fully intend to obey this command, to annul the covenantal promise with his own hand? Or does he trust in God to intervene? Or is this a paradox of faith? Does Abraham intend faithfully to obey, all the while trusting faithfully that God's promise will nevertheless be fulfilled? What's Isaac thinking? Does he understand what is happening? How old is he? Is this a little boy or a grown man? Is he prepared to obey? He sees the wood and the firestone in his father's hand. Clearly a sacrifice is planned. He's got three days to figure that out. He asks his father: Where is the sheep for the burnt offering? Does he know the answer even as he asks? Does he hear the double entendre in his father's very simple and solemn reply, which in the unpunctuated Hebrew might be read, "The lord will provide the sheep for the offering: my son." Does he struggle when he's bound? Does he acquiesce?
The beauty of the narrative is its sheer economy. It offers so little that we as readers are forced to imagine the innumerable possibilities. We play out the drama in countless ways, with an Abraham who's reluctant and an Isaac who's ignorant. Or an Abraham who's eager to serve his God to the point of sacrificing his own son, and an Isaac who willingly bares his neck to the knife. 
As Christine Hayes points out, the beauty of the Biblical narrative is that the details are so sparse that multiple interpretations are possible.  But this is also its frustration as well.  Reading through the bare text of 1st and 2nd Samuel, the reader is often left confused about how they are supposed to feel about the events.

The other problem with the original source material is that everything happens twice.
Apparently the Deuteronomistic Historian had access to multiple accounts of the same story when he edited together the Old Testament histories.  Rather than choosing one account and throwing the other account away, he decided to preserve both accounts.
This is not unique to the King David stories--it's all the way through the Old Testament.  (There are two different creations accounts in the book of Genesis, for example).
But it's particularly noticeable with the King David story.
King Saul loses God's favor twice.
David is presented to King Saul twice.
Saul turns against David twice.
David flees twice.
David finds King Saul sleeping and spares Saul's life twice.
David is presented to the Philistine King twice.
And as Christine Hayes points out, Goliath is even killed twice in two different battles.

This need not be a negative, and indeed literature professor Grant Voth sees this as a fascinating literary technique.   The reader is presented with two different versions of the same story, but with different themes and morals in each.  For example, in the story of how King David came to be part of Saul's court, there are two conflicting stories.  In one story, David is completely passive, and God does all the work.  In the other story, God is largely absent from the story, and David comes to Saul's attention through his own action and agency.
Which story is true?  While, that depends on the reader, and whatever themes and values the reader wants to emphasize.  It's kind of like the first "Choose Your Own Adventure" book in world literature.  (See Grant Voth's lecture on the Old Testament HERE).

Grant Voth's perspective provides a fascinating way to read the Old Testament, but this was not the way we were taught to read it in Sunday School.
We were taught that every word of the Bible was true, which meant that we had to interpret the story not as a series of choices, but just as a very repetitive story in which everything kept happening multiple times (for some reason) which completely kills the forward momentum of the narrative.

The Challenge
Despite my Scottish friend's certainty that the Bible can't compare to Greek mythology, one gets the feeling that there's an epic story somewhere in the King David narrative--one that I think could compare with the Greek epics.

The issue is all the problems with the source material mentioned above.
But then, all the more reason for a modern day novelist to come along and rescue the basic narrative from the source material--flesh out the parts that need fleshing out, and smooth over all the internal contradictions and repetitions.

Indeed, it's slightly surprising that more novelists haven't taken on the King David material.
Geraldine Brooks is not exactly the first novelist to attempt this story (Wikipedia has a list of all the fiction written about King David), but even so the list is much shorter than it should be given the inherent appeal of this material.
But I suppose that being incorporated into the Bible is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, every Sunday School student knows the stories.  But on the other hand, the source material has to be treated with such reverence that no one is allowed to play with it.
(If King David hadn't been part of the Bible, then I suspect that he might have gone the way of King Arthur--the story would have been retold hundreds of times, and each successive author would add in new complications and plot details, until the story would have become truly rich and epic.  But alas, this was never allowed to happen.)

There's another problem as well--there is a lot of brutal stuff in the source material.  King David massacred a lot of people, and the original source material is unapologetic about it.
An honest author probably can't omit these details, and yet to make these brutal Iron Age stories relatable to a modern day reader is always going to be an uphill battle.

The Review
Despite my fascination with the source material, it has to be admitted that (for all the reasons mentioned above) it was always going to be an uphill battle to make a coherent novel out of this that would be relatable to modern day readers.

I think Geraldine Brooks does the best that can be done given the material she has.

At it's best, the book does a good job of fleshing out the stories that are only vaguely hinted at in the Biblical narrative.

For example, take this brief passage from 2 Samuel 21:

15 Once again there was a battle between the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. 16 And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels and who was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. 17 But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished.”

There's not really much of a story here, but there could be.
Homer--who may have been a contemporary of the author of the King David narrative (see above)--would never have told the story like this.  Homer would have fleshed out all the details of the battle.

Geraldine Brooks takes this brief passage as the opening for her novel, and fully fleshes it out.  She describes the battle, how King David was fighting in it, how King David was almost killed by a Philistine spear thrower, and how Abishai jumped in front of the spear to save King David's life at the last minute.
And we also see all of the emotions that were absent from the original Biblical text--how angry King David was at Abishai for saving his life, and making him look weak in front of his men.  How King David hated the decision that he must never go out into battle again, and how on the next campaign he raged in his palace when he was left behind while Joab led his men.

At its best, the novel takes all these little passages from the Bible (passages that you might just skip over and not even notice when reading the Old Testament because they seem like minor details) and fleshes them out into proper stories.

I'll give a couple more examples.

As mentioned above, the conquest of Jerusalem via the water shafts is barely even mentioned in the actual Bible itself:

 The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” 7 Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion—which is the City of David. 8 On that day David had said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the water shaft to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies.” That is why they say, “The ‘blind and lame’ will not enter the palace.”

But what were these water shafts?  Where were they?  How did they work?  How did King David find out about them?  Why weren't they guarded by the Jebusites?   Where did the soldiers enter them?  What was it like going through them?  What did the soldiers do once they got through the water shafts?

All of these questions find answers in Geraldine Brooks's story.

And there are many, many more instances of this--throughout the Old Testament, there are all sorts of bizarre little details that are not fully explained.
Who was this prophet Nathan, and where did he come from?
Why did Jesse appear to forget he had a younger son when Samuel came to his house?
How come David and Jonathon had such a deep attachment to each other?  What was really going on here?
How did Michal feel about being separated from her husband and brought back to David?
Why did her husband follow her?
Why did King David allow Joab to live after Joab killed Abner?
Why did David get so angry at Michal when he criticized her for dancing?
Why did David deliver up Saul's descendants to the Gibeonites?
Whatever happened to Tamar after Amnon rapped her?
Why didn't King David punish Amnon?
Why did Amnon go to Absalom's feast when he knew Absalom hated him?
Why did Jonadab appear to have Amnon's confidence in one part of the narrative, and Absalom's confidence in another part?  Whose side was he on really?
Why did Joab plead for Absalom's return?
Why did Absalom rebel against his father?
Why did Joab ignore the order he was given not to kill Absalom?
Why did King David appoint Amasa (the general of the rebel forces) as the commander of his own forces?
Why did Joab kill Amasa?
Why did the prophet Nathan support Solomon's claim to the throne instead of that of the older brother Adonijah?

All these and more are questions that are left unanswered in the Biblical text, but find answers in Geraldine Brooks's narrative.

I enjoyed this book best when it was attempting to make sense out of the Biblical King David stories.

There are also some references to the Jewish apocrypha.  (The mother of David is never named in the Bible, but Geraldine Brooks gets her name Nitzevet from the Jewish sources).

I found it slightly less interesting when the book went off on its own original tangents.
For example the prophet Nathan is given a complete backstory in this book--one that I think Geraldine Brooks is just making up out of whole cloth (unless it comes from the Jewish apocrypha?)
There's also a backstory to David's birth and childhood which I assume is also Geraldine Brooks's own invention.
These parts weren't badly written, but I was much more interested once we got to the real meat of the Biblical stories (around page 50).

The book also jumps around in time a lot.
The book is told from the perspective of the prophet Nathan.
It starts out during the reign of King Solomon when Nathan is an old man.  Then it jumps back in time to when King David is on the throne and angry about not being allowed to go on military campaigns.  Then flashes back to the battle in which Abishai saved King David's life.  Then Nathan is instructed to write King David's biography, and we have various interviews with people in which the backstory is told, interspersed with Nathan's own flashbacks, interspersed with the narrative of David and Bathsheba...et cetera.

If you know your Old Testament stories well, you'll be able to follow all the jumps in time without any problems.  But I worry that readers not familiar with the Bible will be completely confused.

Lastly, there's the problem of the brutality inherent in the source material.

In 1st Samuel 27, David has come under the protection of the Philistine king.

6 So on that day Achish gave him Ziklag, and it has belonged to the kings of Judah ever since. 7 David lived in Philistine territory a year and four months.
8 Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. (From ancient times these peoples had lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt.) 9 Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. Then he returned to Achish.
10 When Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would say, “Against the Negev of Judah” or “Against the Negev of Jerahmeel” or “Against the Negev of the Kenites.” 11 He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory. 12 Achish trusted David and said to himself, “He has become so obnoxious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant for life.” 
As with a lot of the stuff in the King David narrative, the morality of this is ambiguous even within the context of its source material.
Several times throughout the Old Testament, God instructs the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites.  So possibly David is massacring the Amalekites out of zeal for God.  But based on the context, it appears that these particular massacres are not sanctioned directly by God, and are just a way for David to cover up his lies to the Philistine King.

A novelist writing about King David must decide what to do with this material.  It could easily have been omitted, but Geraldine Brooks makes the decision to leave it in, and to her credit, I think that is the only honest way to deal with this material.

Told from the 1st person perspective of Nathan, Geraldine Brooks writes the event like this:

These lies had a cascade of ill consequences.  To conceal our duplicity, David commanded that we leave no one alive in the sacked villages to tell what we had done.  These were ugly, cruel, asymmetric fights.  We were well-armed and seasoned soldiers; the villagers were simple herdsmen and farmers, often defending themselves only with scythes and hoes.On one searing day I fought beside David as he cut down an man who had confronted him bravely--the village headman, so it seemed.  There was something in the decisive, almost casual way that David slew him, something in the way the man fell, his face registering surprise rather than fear or panic--and then I saw the boy, struggling in the grip of his howling mother.  A boy of the age I had been when David took my father's life with just the same detachment.Bile rose in my throat.  Despair, like a smothering fall of earth, crushed me.  As David turned and moved toward the boy and his mother, I cried out,"Don't do it!"David turned for a moment, his expression perplexed, but then he moved like a lynx and in two sword thrusts dispatched the woman and her child.  He turned back to me and lifted his shoulders.  "It was necessary.  We can't leave any alive.  You know that."  And then he turned in search of his next kill.I stood there in the swirling dust, staring at the body of the boy.  He'd fallen against his mother, his hand open on the dirt as if reaching for her face.  The sobs that convulsed me were unstoppable, a spring in spate.  I could barely breathe.  These were the tears I'd never shed for my own father, the grief that vision's fierce grip had torn away from me.  I went and knelt by the boy, my hand on his head.  Others of our band passed me.  Some paused a moment to see if I was injured.  After a summing look, they moved on to the chore of killing until everyone was dead. (p.90-91)
 It is to Geraldine Brooks's credit that she doesn't shy away from these details, and forces the reader to confront the brutality of these Bible stories with all their gory details.

But the problem, from a storytelling standpoint, is that after this passage I completely lost any sympathy with David.

What do I care about David after this?  Later in the book, Geraldine Brooks goes on to describe King David's beautiful singing voice, his wonderful songs, his golden locks of hair.  But all this couldn't make this character regain my sympathy.  Later, when David suffered his own misfortunes, and grieved over Jonathon's death, I still couldn't sympathize with him

Maybe in the Iron Age you could massacre whole villages, and still be regarded as a great poet with a soft heart.
But in the modern age, you can't make these minor details.  You can't say, "... oh, and by the way, he also massacred whole villages."  Once you describe him massacring whole villages, that then becomes the story.
I'm told Pol Pot wrote beautiful poetry, but I don't care.

I suspect this is the reason that Geraldine Brooks made Nathan the narrator of this book--so that the reader could have someone they identified with as the focal point of the story instead of King David.
But Nathan is so sycophantic towards David that I was even more repulsed by him.  How could Nathan even talk about David's beautiful hair and lovely singing voice when Nathan has seen these massacres?

Despite this revulsion, however, I kept reading, and when the story got into the so-called Succession Narrative, I got hooked again.

(Most of 2nd Samuel focuses on the infighting between King David's nephews and sons, in what Biblical scholars have have named the Succession Narrative).

Despite the fact that there aren't many likable characters in the succession narrative, the constant plotting, betrayals, and backstabbings can't help but make for interesting drama.  (I suppose it's like watching HBO dramas like The Sopranos.  Even though you know all the characters are bad, you still get hooked on the drama of all their plotting against each other).

In the end, there was enough juicy drama in 2nd Samuel, and Geraldine Brooks told it with enough skill, that it completely held my interest.

Other Notes
* I'm including this in my list of historical fiction books.  Even though I've listed above all the reasons why the King David story may not be historical, at the very least it's still in debate.  And so the story gets the benefit of the doubt, and this book gets counted as historical fiction.

* In 2013, I included the King David story on my list of historical dramas I would like to see get turned into TV shows.
Since then, someone at ABC actually took me up on my idea, and in 2016 released a TV show called Of Kings and Prophets.  But since the show wasn't a big hit, and since I was living abroad, I didn't even know it existed until it had been cancelled.
Apparently the show was a failure.
Nevertheless, I still believe there's the potential for a good television drama buried somewhere in this story, if someone knows how to dig it out.

Video Reviews
Video reviews here and here and embedded below

Part 1


Part 2


Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: The War on Iraq

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Jimmy Dore show: Chomsky Bombshell: US Rejected N. Korean Peace Offer

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - Movies with Mikey


This is actually a fairly intelligent review, if you skip ahead to 3:16.  (The first 3 minutes of this video is self-indulgent rubbish).

And one nit-pick: The video claims that Stalin supported the 1936 Spanish coup.  I'm fairly sure this is wrong.  (The 1936 coup was a coup against the Communists). Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

...Other than that, a pretty intelligent review, I thought.  My own thoughts on Pan's Labyrinth are here.
Finished--The Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria  (Review coming soon...hopefully)


Starting and Finishing

I'm announcing a new blogging project.

From now on, in addition to my regular book reviews, I'm going to be posting to announce when I start reading a book, and when I finish reading it.

The reasons for this are pure self-indulgence.
I just want to post more about what I'm reading.

Up until now, I've been saving up all my thoughts for one massive book review at the end.  But I'm usually most enthusiastic about a book right when I start reading it.  And so I want to start sharing the beginning of new reading projects as well.

Also, I get an enormous sense of self-satisfaction when I get to the end of a book.  However, since it often takes me days, weeks, months (or in some rare cases even over a year) to sort my thoughts out for a review, I often have to delay my satisfaction of announcing that I've completed another book until the review is written.
Under this new system, I'm going to reward myself for finishing the book with a little mini-announcement before I get down to reading the review.

There's a couple of additional considerations.

Some books I don't really read straight through, but instead will slowly nibble at them.  In these cases, it can take me several months, or even over a year to complete a book.  By which point, when I write the review, the beginning of the book has faded in my memory, and I'm really only reviewing the last half of it.
This added feature will help with the transparency in such cases.  People can see the dates of when I've started a book and when I've finished, and adjust their expectations of my review accordingly.  (Although admittedly, I'm probably the only one losing any sleep over this.)

I'm going to start doing this moving forward.  Books I'm already currently reading won't get a starting announcement, but I'll announce when I finish them.

There are a couple books I've already finished, and am currently trying to write reviews for, but those will also get skipped over.  Only books I finish from this date forward will get announced.

Link of the Day
Professor Noam Chomsky August 13, 2017 - Brexit Annual Guest Lecture With Noam Chomsky

Saturday, August 12, 2017

IELTS Writing Task 2 Brainstorming Game

(TESOL Worksheets--IELTS Writing Task 2)

Google DriveDocsPub

A frequent complaint in the staffroom is that students can not think of their own ideas for IELTS Writing Task 2.  So I re-purposed my IELTS Writing Task 2 Discussion Activity as a brainstorming game.
Print the questions out, and cut up the questions along the lines. (Make multiple copies first, so you will have one copy for each group.)
Distribute the questions one at a time to the groups.  Set them a time limit, and have them brainstorm ideas.  The group with the most ideas will be the winner.
To increase the challenge, you can gradually decrease the amount of time the groups have to brainstorm ideas.





1. In many countries women no longer feel the need to get married.   Some people believe that this is because women are able to earn their own income and therefore do not require the financial security that marriage can bring.
To what extent do you agree?

2. Most societies have a homeless problem.   Some people think that the best way to help them is to give them money.
To what extent do you agree?

3. In many countries people are moving away from rural areas and to urban areas.
 Why do you think that is?
 What problems can this cause?

4. With the development of society is the loss of traditional ways of life.
Is it important to keep our traditional way of life?
How can this be achieved?

5. Every culture throughout history has recorded its history in one way or another.
In what ways can history be passed on to the next generation?
Why is history important to society?

6. All societies have their own music and art. 
In what ways are music and art important for society and for the individual? 

7. The population of most cities is growing as people move to the cities to find work and new opportunities.
What problems does overpopulation in these cities cause?
How can these problems be solved?



8. Being able to speak a foreign language is an advantage these days.  Some people think that children should start learning a foreign language at primary school, while others think that children should begin in secondary school.
Discuss both sides and give your opinion.

9. Some schools are very strict about their school uniform and the appearance of their pupils while others have a more relaxed dress code. 
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a school uniform?

10. These days, we are seeing an increasing amount of violence on television, and this is having a negative impact on children's behaviour.
Do you agree or disagree?

11. Nowadays, families are not as close as in the past and a lot of people have become used to this.
Explain the reasons for this and discuss any possible effects it may have on society.

12. There is an increasing trend around the world to have a small family rather than a large family.
What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having a small family rather than a large family?

13. Nowadays many people have access to computers on a wide basis and a large number of children play computer games.
What are the negative and positive impacts of playing computer games and what can be done to minimize the bad effects?

14. Some people think that children who spend a lot of time reading children’s story books are wasting their time, which could be better used doing other more useful activities.
To what extent do you agree?

15. Finding job satisfaction is considered to be a luxury in many developing countries. 
Why do you think that is?
Do you think job satisfaction is important?


16. Some people think that the government is wasting money on the arts, and that this money could be better spent elsewhere.
To what extent do you agree with this view?

17. Do young people today make good use of their leisure time? Or do they spend too much time watching television and playing video games, instead of taking part in more productive activities? 

18. In some countries young people are encouraged to work or travel for a year between finishing high school and starting university studies.
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages for young people who decide to do this.

19. ‘Going on strike’ is commonly used as a catalyst to resolve industrial disputes. Many conservative governments are strongly opposed to this mechanism for bringing about change.
Discuss the pros and cons of this action in resolving disputes.





Friday, August 11, 2017

English World 2 Unit 8 Listening p.90

 (Supplementary Material for Specific Textbooks--English World 2)




Google Drive Folder HERE
PowerPoint: drive, slides, pub
Transcript: drive, docs, pub
Production Activity: drive, docs, pub
Just for the record, I don't think the probability of nuclear war is high.  I imagine that after all the rhetoric gets exhausted, things will settle down again.  Like they usually do.

But it does bother me slightly that we have a crazy person in the White House during this nuclear crisis.
And it bothers me even more that the other guy is more crazy.

At least when Kennedy faced off against Khrushchev, we knew both guys were relatively sane and valued the future of humanity more than their own egos.

This time, I'm not sure the same could be said for either side of the nuclear stand-off.

What a low-point in world history!  Centuries of science, art, history, discovery...all to come down to two mad men holding their fingers on the nuclear buttons.
Even if we come out of this unscathed, we're still going to have to live with the knowledge that we let it get to this point in the first place.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

an impact vs. much impact

(Grammar Questions I Couldn't Answer)

During peer-editing of an IELTS task 2 essay, a couple of the students got into a debate, and I was called on to arbitrate.

The sentence in question was: "I admit that color has impact on people’s emotions."
The proposed edit was "has an impact" instead of "has impact".

"Yes, that's right," I affirmed.

"So impact is countable then?" the other student asked.

"Yeah, sure," I answered.  "You could impact something in many different ways, so you could have many different impacts."

But then the student drew my attention to a sentence earlier in the text.
"But I don’t think color has much impact on public buildings".

"much" is the quantifier used with uncountable nouns in English (e.g. "There isn't much water left" versus "There aren't many books")

"So should I change it to 'many impacts' ?" the student asked me.

My native speaker intuition was telling me that "much impact" here was correct.  On the other hand, "an impact" definitely seemed to be correct in the earlier sentence.  So I didn't know what to answer.
Today in "Hey, I know that Guy!"

I can't claim to know Ben Betterby well.  Only met him a couple times (he's a friend of a friend).  But he was friendly to me the couple times I met him.

Anyway, he's embarked on a new project: 100 DAYS SINGLE

The first video is The Importance of Being Active and Constructive



He gets some great views of Saigon in here as well.  Several of the streets he films and a couple of the shops are familiar to me.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

If you're a nerd, you'll find these video series fascinating.

From SF Debris:
Hero's Journey and
Shadow's Journey

Notes:
I've linked to SF Debris videos in the past (example here) but always with caveats.
SF Debris's corny sense of humor is so cringe worthy that it was hard to seriously recommend his videos.
And yet, I still watched them.  They were short, they were punchy, and they catered perfectly to my ruined attention span.  After all, in this day and age of youtube videos, who has the patience to sit through a 50 minute episode of Star Trek anymore?  It was much better to just watch SF Debris's 10 minute summary, even if you did have to put up with his awful jokes.

However, as the above links make clear, once SF Debris drops his corny attempts at humor, and just embraces his role as a nerd documentarian, he really steps into his own.  He's created some fascinating documentaries on his website (and thankfully he seems to be dropping his forced attempts at humor).

Hero's Journey documents the making of the original Star Wars.
Shadow's Journey documents the making of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Both of these documentaries perfectly answer many of the questions that I've been wondering about - on this blog - for the past few years.
Namely, how was it that the same George Lucas was simultaneously so brilliant, and so awful?
If George Lucas was so awful on the prequel trilogy, then how did he create such a masterpiece in the original Star Wars?
And, if saving Star Wars was simply a matter of removing George Lucas, and getting the professionals back on board, then how come no one was able to duplicate the success of the original Star Wars? (You remember during the early 1980s every movie studio was trying to come up with their own version of Star Wars, but nobody could duplicate the success.)

The answer to these questions, it turns out, is long and complicated.  (Like, several hours long if you watch all the videos in SF Debris's series.)
But the short answer appears to be that genius story telling is difficult to duplicate.
It was a minor miracle that Star Wars got made at all.
It was an even greater miracle that The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be as great as it was.  (Watch all the videos for all the behind the scenes documentation.)

It was too much to expect that this kind of lightening-in-a-bottle could be captured 3 times.

People like to complain that there are only really 2 good Star Wars in the whole series.  But perhaps this is viewing the glass as half empty.
Instead, we should be amazed that George Lucas and his team managed to pull off not one, but 2 brilliant movies.
The fact that they ran out of steam eventually was perhaps inevitable.

Perhaps the problem is with us, the entitled fan, and the entitlement fan culture.  We expect that everything we get served has to be absolutely brilliant.  But the truth is that pure genius story telling only strikes rarely.  We got two absolutely brilliant movies, we should be content with that.

If Disney keeps churning out more and more Star Wars movies, the law of averages dictates that eventually they'll probably stumble upon genius again.  But in between the genius movies, there are going to be a lot of mediocre movies.  And we fans need to just accept that.  We can't have every movie be genius.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz

(Graded Reader)

So, after taking about a year's break, I've decided to try to bring Story Time back into my classroom.

This is a book I'd wanted to do for a long time, but had held off because I didn't think my students were quite ready for it.  (It uses a lot of advanced vocabulary).
But it's amazing how much progress they've made this past year, so I decided to give this book a try.

This book was very popular with my own elementary school teachers back when I was growing up.  I remember it was read to us several times when I was at school.
My 4th grade teacher read it to us, and then for a creative writing assignment, had us write our own Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
I decided to duplicate that writing assignment with my own students.

So far I've used this book in a couple different classrooms, and the reaction has been positive.  The students laughed a lot at it, and at least some of them had fun with the writing assignment.

This book is available on amazon.com here.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on the Crimes committed by U S Presidents

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

English World 5 Unit 1 Vocabulary

(Supplementary Material for Specific Textbooks--English World 5)


Slideshow: slides, pub
Quizlet: docs, pub


English World 5 Unit 1 Vocabulary
https://quizlet.com/_3l69lq

English World 5 Unit 1 Vocabulary
https://quizlet.com/_3l69lq

English World 5 Unit 1 Vocabulary
https://quizlet.com/_3l69lq

English World 5 Unit 1 Vocabulary
https://quizlet.com/_3l69lq