Monday, January 31, 2011

King Richard III by William Shakespeare

(Book Review)

Before I get into the actual review, first: A brief summary of my relationship with Shakespeare. (Because if you can’t be self-indulgent on your own blog, then where can you be self-indulgent?)

Ever since the 1950s (or before?), Shakespeare has had a reputation for boring schoolchildren.

And yet, there’s a certain type of child (bookish, introverted, un-athletic, quiet, geeky) that is fascinated by stories, and is curious about the classics from a young age, even if they lack the ability to read them for themselves.

And that was me. I wasn’t a gifted youngster in terms of reading ability, but I was always fascinated by good stories, and from a young age I was aware that there were lots of good stories locked away in classic literature, and I was eager to get at them.

As a pre-adolescent, I became especially interested in Shakespeare. I discovered we had a number of similar interests: Greek mythology, Ancient Rome, history, and, of course, blood and violence.

Why the adolescent male mind is attracted to violent stories is a question I’ll have to leave for psychiatrists. But we are.
Like many a child before me (and probably many afterwards) I discovered that there was much more blood and violence in classic literature than in the R rated movies I wasn’t allowed to watch. Hence began my fascination with books like the Iliad, and the Odyssey.

And Shakespeare fit into this scheme as well. Shakespeare wasn’t as action packed as Homer, but he could be frighteningly gruesome. For example, when I stumbled upon “Titus Andronicus” (which I had mail ordered simply because of my interest in Roman history, not being aware what kind of story it was) I was, like any boy would be, both repelled by it and fascinated by it.
It was certainly more horrific than any of the horror movies I wasn’t allowed to watch at the time. (And if you don’t believe me, go and find a detailed plot summary of this play, and then ask yourself if this isn’t much more gruesome than anything “Friday the 13th” or “Nightmare on Elmstreet” can dish up.)
I remember gleefully recounting the details of the play to my mother in the car one afternoon, knowing that she might stop me from watching horror movies, but that she couldn’t really forbid me from reading Shakespeare.

However since I was a child of limited literary abilities, all of my fascination with Shakespeare was based purely on the stories. I had no interest in or patience with his word play, similes, puns, poetry, or iambic pentameter. I just wanted to find out what the story was.
Similarly, all of the symbolism, themes, character foils, and the like usually went right over my head unless they were explicitly pointed out by someone (a teacher, or the text notes.)

As you would expect given this, I rarely had the patience to actually sit through and read a Shakespeare play from beginning to end. Instead I would specifically look for editions of Shakespeare which were rich with long introductions, explanatory notes, and with plot summaries and analyses for each scene. I would read all of these instead, and only just skim the actual play itself.
For plays I was specifically interested in, like "Trolius and Cressida" (because of my interest in the Trojan War), or Titus Andronicus, (because of my fascination with the macabre, mentioned above) I tried several times to sit down and read them from cover to cover, but always gave up within the first few pages.

The only times I ever actually found the will power to sit down and read a Shakespeare play was when I had to, because someone else was testing me on it.

With this level of external motivation, I found I could quite happily read through “Julius Caesar” (10th grade English) and not only get through the whole thing, but more or less understand it.
The same with “Macbeth” (12th grade English). And King Henry IV Part 1 (British Literature class at Calvin College), followed by King Henry IV Part 2.
And then the Shakespeare class I took at Calvin. (Hamlet, King Lear, 12th Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Tempest, Othello, Measure for Measure, Much Ado about Nothing). All of these I read because a teacher or professor made me read them. And all of them I ended up enjoying.
And yet I still never went on to read any plays on my own initiative.

…But I’ve always meant to.

This past year, I’ve found a new excuse.
I’ve given myself a bit of a crash course on British History. (For most of the year, until I recently found the audio book section in my local library, I’ve spent the entire year with just “This Sceptred Isle” (A), and “Monarchy” by David Starkey as the only selections on my ipod. And I listened to them over, and over, and over again. And now I finally know who all these medieval kings of England actually are.
Since I now had the historical background which I thought would help me appreciate Shakespeare’s history plays more, it seemed the perfect time to pick up Shakespeare again.

Short Disclaimer
A Japanese friend, who never really understood the appeal of Shakespeare, once cynically quoted to me the following line (apparently from a Japanese academic talking on Japanese TV): “There are so many books written about Shakespeare, that you could spend your whole life reading books of Shakespeare criticism, and never actually get around to reading Shakespeare himself.”
The scary part is—he wasn’t lying.

This makes it a bit intimidating to try and write anything new on the subject. But, since I’ve committed myself to this book review project, I’ve got to jot down at least a few thoughts.
As always, I’ll just write down what struck me about this book going through it as an average reader, and not worry if what I have to say is new or particularly insightful.
(For this reason, I have deliberately avoided consulting the critics, and have just written up my off-the-cuff impressions on the play.)

The Actual Review
This is the final play of a 4 part series detailing the Wars of the Roses. It is preceded by Henry VI part 1, Henry VI part 2, and Henry VI part 3. It is my understanding that many of the characters in this play make their first appearances in the earlier plays. And yet this is an independent work in its own right. Which is why I started with this play instead of the earlier ones. (Although now that I’ve finished this, I find myself interested in going back and reading the earlier plays.)
If you do jump directly into this play, it probably helps to know a little bit of the historical background behind the Wars of the Roses in order to understand who everyone is. But it’s probably nothing that some text notes or a good annotated version of the play can’t fix.
Having recently acquired some British history (see above) I felt like I understood pretty well what the historical background was, and who everyone was in this play. (At least as far as the main royal family anyway. I wasn’t so familiar with some of the various nobles and side players, but Shakespeare gets you up to speed pretty quickly.)

I was also able to catch a couple points where Shakespeare takes some liberties with history. (Historically there’s no proof that Richard, and not Edward, gave the order for Clarence’s death.)
[And actually, while I’m on the subject the last time I walked into my local bookstore there were about 4 or 5 revisionist histories of Richard III, all claiming he wasn’t such a bad guy after all and probably didn’t commit a lot of the murders attributed to him. But I’ll leave that aside.]

As with any historical novel (or historical play, or historical movie), a lot of the pleasure comes from seeing history come alive. Historical characters are fleshed out, made into people you care about, and get you emotionally involved in the story.

For example, it’s one thing to know the dry fact that Clarence was killed in the tower drowned in a tub of butt of marmsey. It’s a whole different level of emotional involvement to read him pleading with his murderer’s for his life.

Since this play takes place directly after the Yorkist victory in the War of the Roses, it’s interesting the way Shakespeare sets the play up as first two different factions (the Yorkists united against the one remaining Lancastrian, Margaret) and then later explores the Yorkist faction falling out among themselves.

The play also seems to have elements of the horror genre in it. Like many horror stories about ancient curses, Margaret (the last Lancastrian) pronounces curses on all the victorious Yorkists at the beginning of the play. At first they all laugh her off, but one by one, everyone she curses meets an untimely death. The inevitability of it makes it horrific. You can try and laugh off the curse, you can try and avoid it, you can try and repent of your evil ways, you can even try and run away, but sooner or later that curse will hunt you down and kill you.
The deaths are the result of Richard, of course, but it makes you wonder if Richard is actually doing the killing, or if he is just being used as the instrument of the curse.

The character of Richard, as Shakespeare, portrays him, is extremely good at lying. He always says one thing in private, and then swears up and down in public that his intention is just the opposite. It’s impossible to read this play and not think of modern politicians, which is perhaps why this play has remained so popular over the years.
That being said, given this play's reputation I was hoping for more of a psychological exploration about what makes a tyrant. And that we don’t get. Richard is evil just for the sake of being evil. (Supposedly he’s bitter at the whole world because of his physical deformity, but that level of motivation doesn’t rise much above a typical comic-book villain.)

Perhaps because of the fact that Richard was more of a plot device than an actual character, the ending of the play and his eventual defeat left me a feeling a little bit underwhelmed. I’m not sure exactly what kind of emotional conclusion I was hoping for from the play, but whatever it was I didn’t get it.

As far as readability: I thought it was pretty interesting. It’s got a high body count (which satisfies the macabre inside all of us), but because it has a high body count there are a lot of death speeches right before a character dies, and mourning speeches after a character is killed (which slows down the pace of the play a bit.)
And at the risk of sounding like my old English teacher, the verbal sparring between the characters is pretty interesting. There's a lot of wit on display in the antagonistic scenes as characters trade verbal barbs back and forth.

Anyways, for whatever it’s worth, those are my two cents on the most scrutinized playwright in English history.

Link of the Day
Chomsky in Lebanon

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

(Movie Review)

I can be a bit out of it. I didn’t really know anything about this movie except that when it first came out it generated a lot of buzz at some of the geek websites I follow. (I spend more time than I care to admit checking websites that report on geek culture.)

I can be skeptical about mainstream culture, but I usually like geek chic. I am a geek, after all. So even though I knew nothing about this movie, the glowing testimony of internet geeks sold me on it. And the fact that it got generally positive reviews at mainstream sites like rotten tomatoes was a bonus.

So I walked into the theater being sure I was going to love.

And was therefore unpleasantly surprised to discover I hated it.

Much of the movie is a one note gag. The gag is that it’s a guy’s love life played out as if it were a video game. Once you get that joke in the first 10 minutes, then the last 80 minutes or so of the movie doesn’t really have a lot to offer.

It’s also a movie that’s trying way way way too hard to be cool. The quick cuts, the ironic subtitles, the dry sarcastic conversations—the whole thing just reeks of effort. And the thing about being cool is, once the effort starts to show, it’s no longer cool.
And all the characters are really overdoing the hipster dry sarcasm thing. Throughout the whole movie. Which didn’t work for me.
It’s funny in a movie when one character is dry and sarcastic, especially when they can play off other less subtle characters. (The old vaudeville rule about only having one straightman.) But when all the characters are doing it all the time, I just got sick of it fast.

And plus I just didn’t think it was all that funny. I can pick remember about 2 or 3 lines which made me chuckle, but the rest of the jokes just seemed stupid and forced.

And perhaps worst of all, I wasn’t given a reason to care about any of these characters. And I wasn’t given any reason to understand any of their motivations.

I mean, I know it’s just a silly movie and I’m not supposed to take it too seriously. But you’ve got to make me care a little bit.
Why did Scott Pilgrim fall in love with Ramona? I didn’t particularly think she was all that great, and aside from the fact he had a mysterious dream about her I was never given any reason why he would suddenly get so obsessed with her.
Throughout the movie, I couldn’t see any reason why he should pick Ramona over Knives Chau, or vice-versa. One was just as good as the other it seemed to me.
Why were all the ex-boyfriends fighting Scott? Why did Knives Chau spend the whole movie being obsessed with him, and then suddenly have a change of heart and let him go in the end? Why was she obsessed with him in the first place?
Why did Scott’s roommate want to evict him?
Why did that one girl with the glasses really hate him?

I could go on all day listing things. None of the characters were given any reasons to do any of the things they did. And therefore I was bored watching it because I couldn’t care less about what happened to anyone.

Also: Did they have to name the one Chinese character in the movie Knives Chau? And did they have to portray those Japanese twins in such a stereo-typical way with the Asian dragons? And who thought it would be a good idea to have the one Indian character doing the Bollywood song?

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on U.S. Foreign Policy
Also: Don't shoot messenger for revealing uncomfortable truths

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg (Abridged)

(Book Review)

As you can see in the title to this post, this is the abridged version I'm reviewing.

Ordinarily I don't like abridged versions. (I'm enough of a stickler for details that I always wonder what I'm missing.) I do make certain expectations however, particularly if it's on audio book and I don't think that realistically I'll ever get around to reading the print version.

Of course you do never really know what you're missing. And my two main criticisms of this book (that it was very abrupt, and that most of it I already knew) could well be unique to the abridged version. In fact these types of criticism usually are. But I don't know. I can only review what I've listened to.

So, briefly, I'll deal with my two main criticisms. The first being the abrupt pace of the book.
This is set right from the opening sentences of the book, where without much of an introduction at all we're plunged right into the middle of the Germanic invasion of England, without any historical background at all as to what had been going on in England before the Anglos and the Saxons came, or why they came in the first place.

"So where did it begin? How did the billion tongued language of modern English first find it's voice? When and where did it begin to assume the form we know? How did it set out from such a remote and unlikely place on the map to forge it's way to spectacular success?
As far as England is concerned, the language that became English arrived in the 5th Century with Germanic warrior tribes from across the sea...."

The author then rushes from one fact to another without really letting the significance of any of it really sink in.

My second criticism, that I already knew most of it, is perhaps a bit of "know-it-all" thing to say. And to be fair, if I had come across this book a year ago much of it would have been completely new to me.
In the past year, however, I've been doing a lot of reading about linguistics (for example "The Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson and "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker.)
And I've also been brushing up a lot on my history of Britain. These two things combined manage to cover a lot of the same ground as a book about the history of the English language.

And in fact some of what Melvyn Bragg states as hard truth is challenged in these other books. Steven Pinker in his book casts doubt on the hypothesis that some prototype Indo-European language is the mother of all languages (something Melvyn Bragg states as a simple fact without qualifications.)
And at least one of these books (don't remember offhand if it was Pinker or Bryson) challenges the conventional folk linguistic story that the "beef/cow" distinction originated from the ruling Norman class never encountering farm animals until they came to their table served as meat. (Something else that Bragg states as a simple fact.)

However that's not to say I didn't learn anything at all from this book. About a quarter of the book, maybe half, was new information. For example much of the history of the English language bible was new to me.

The book is written by a British author for a British audience. (At least the version I listened to was. I know sometimes publishers re-edit books for their American release.) Some of it, the emphasis on place names in Britain, is of limited interest to Americans. But as the story of English expands it does include sections on American English. And Australian English gets some attention as well. (My own surname gets mentioned twice in the section on Australian English.)

Not anything Earth shattering in this book, but fairly interesting and pleasant enough to listen to.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky-Propaganda And Control Of The Public Mind
A Defense of Wikileaks

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

(Book Review)

Because my real life has become depressingly boring lately, I’ve decided to try and seek out a little bit of excitement in my leisure reading material. And so I come to one of the classic adventure stories: “King Solomon’s Mines”.

(This is also part of my project to read through the classics of pulp fiction. See also: "Sherlock Holmes”, “The Martian Trilogy”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu”, “Conan the Barbarian” and "The Scarlet Pimpernel" and "Prisoner of Zenda".)

I didn’t know much about this book before I started, and I confess that it was quite different from what I had expected.
I was expecting much more of a jungle adventure story--men hacking their way through thick green jungle foliage, boating down a jungle river, battling crocodiles and piranhas and tigers.

Instead, this is much more of an African savannah story. They cross through the great plains, there is a bit of elephant hunting, and then the real meat of the journey takes place crossing a desert. And then it becomes a desert story—men wishing for water—wishing they had water again—complaining about not having water, et cetera. (I don’t care for desert crossing stories all that much. They tend to be one note songs.)

Once they get across the desert, they find a kingdom hidden away in the mountains. And then it becomes a “hidden kingdom” story, and a “restoring the rightful king to the throne” story.

I really hate to say this about an old celebrated classic, but reading through these classic adventure stories, do you ever get the feeling that the only reason they became classics in the first place is that they were written before the publishing industry really took off? Maybe back in 1885 people were so desperate for fantasy adventure type stories they would lap up anything. In this day and age, when year after year bookstores are flooded with shelves full of fantasy books, I’m not sure this book would ever have gotten much notice.

That’s not to say this book is completely worthless. There is a bit of wonder that comes through when the characters are descending from the mountains into a completely new land. And there are a couple big epic battle scenes that show a lot of imagination in their descriptions. I just never was able to get past the rather bare bones writing style and skimpy plot.

(Admittedly part of the problem is that I waited too long to read this book. I should have read it at age 12. I would then have probably been a lot less critical of all the undeveloped characters and motivations, and just gotten swept up in all the big battle scenes.)

The publisher’s introduction to my copy warns that H. Rider Haggard presents a rather “patronizing” view of the native black Africans. And “patronizing” is about the right word for it. It’s not a negative view necessarily. The black natives are presented as having their own code of honor, and there are a lot of elements of the “noble savage” stereotype in their portrayal. But they are often presented as childlike in comparison with the white protagonists, easily impressed, easily persuaded, and never quite on the same intellectual level. They are capable of the greatest cruelties as well as the greatest bravery, depending on who gets them excited.
And, there are several little polemics against inter-racial romance in the book. “Can the sun mate with the darkness, or the white with the black?” one native girl says at one point, and the narrator later repeats it as a truism, as if one bad analogy had forever put the question to rest.
(By that logic, why stop at skin color? Why not forbid people with white hair from mating with people with dark hair?
I know, I’m preaching to the choir here. We’re all enlightened now in the 21st century. But one can imagine the effect this would have had on all those children who read this book 100 years ago.)

Well, I guess this is about what you’d expect from a 19th century book during the height of the British Empire.
The author, H. Rider Haggard, by the way, was a bit of an interesting fellow himself, and lived in Africa for a number of years. So he wasn’t simply writing this book from an armchair back in London, relying on newspaper reports and his imagination for an Africa he’d never seen (like Burroughs did with his Tarzan series.) Haggard actually had first hand contact with these people, so you would think his portrayal of them would have been a little bit more enlightened.
But then racism is a funny thing. Although we might like to think that more integration would lead to more understanding, historically this hasn’t always been true. For example the slave owners in the American South did not acquire any more enlightened views from their daily contact with their slaves.

In closing:
Well, I guess I’ve written a number of negative things about this book, but I didn’t hate it completely. (The books I really hate I usually don’t make it to the end of, so by default almost any book on this book review project is something that held my interest at least a little bit.) It’s a short little book (only 214 pages), and it reads fairly quickly. And for all its faults it was fast paced enough that I didn’t really get bored with it, and therefore was able to sit down with it for long periods of time. Not perfect, but a nice little quick read if nothing else.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: WikiLeaks Cables Reveal 'Profound Hatred for Democracy' by U.S. Govt Officials

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turn Right at Istanbul by Tony Wright [Abridged]

Subtitle: A Walk on the Gallipoli Peninsula

(Book Review)

[This is another book in which I did the abridged version because I did it as an audio book.]

I never heard of Gallipoli, or the Gallipoli Campaign, before I came to Australia. But since arriving here, it’s popped up many times.

It’s not that my Australian friends are always talking about it. (It’s only come up a couple times in actual conversation.) But it is part of the culture here. When you go to the bookstore, you always see books on Gallipoli. When you read the newspapers here, they reference it. And of course when you visit a War Memorial in Australia, there’s always something about Gallipoli.

My understanding of what happened was that during World War I, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), still under the British rule at that time, were sent to invade Turkey by sea from the Gallipoli peninsula. It was a disastrous mission, and many Australians and New Zealanders died before the allied commanders finally realized it was a lost cause.

And this was the origin of ANZAC day, the Australian and New Zealand version of Veterans Day.

This is a book by an Australian writer who goes to Gallipoli in Turkey to retrace the steps of his great uncle (a Gallipoli veteran) and to experience an ANZAC day ceremony on Gallipoli itself.

It is a book written by an Australian for other Australians (I’m not even sure if it’s available outside Australia), and as an American reading it I was obviously outside the target audience. But I enjoyed it.

The book was located in the history section of the University library, and I initially checked it out because of my interest in history. But it’s actually a combination of different genres and subjects. It’s partly about the history of Gallipoli, partly a travelogue on Turkey, partly about the history of Turkey, and mostly just about the Australian tourists who visit Turkey for ANZAC day.

I was not aware of this, but apparently every ANZAC day Turkey is flooded with Australians and New Zealanders who make the pilgrimage to the Gallipoli peninsula to visit the graves, and participate in the dawn service.

It is definitely an interesting phenomenon. Particularly interesting that in the 21st century (Wright is writing after September 11th, and during the events of the Iraq War) thousands of young Australians with no memory of World War One would think it necessary to come out and pay their respects at Gallipoli. (And the way Wright tells it, it does sound like it’s mostly the young Australians.)

[To the best of my knowledge, there’s no American equivalent of this. I know we have lots of dead buried at Normandy, but Normandy isn’t flooded every D-day with Americans coming to pay their respects. (Or is it? It could be I’m just ignorant. Someone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.)]

And, as Wright notes, all this is to commemorate not a glorious victory, but a disastrous defeat on a badly planned campaign in a war that’s now widely acknowledged as being pointless.

The book starts off with Wright arriving in Turkey by plane, then getting distracted for a few days in Istanbul by his Turkish guide who shows him around all the sights, and teaches him some interesting Turkish history.

[There’s an interesting Japanese connection here. It turns out that the Sultan’s of the old Ottoman Empire were fascinated by Chinese pottery, and when China couldn’t supply the pottery due to internal wars or trading problems, Japan learned to produce imitation Chinese pottery to fill the gap. So Wright‘s guide, it turns out, is an expert on Japanese pottery at the museum, and knowledgeable about Japanese culture.
He gives the anecdote that the day after September 11th, every Japanese tourist in Turkey got a phone call saying their travel insurance would be void unless they left Turkey immediately, and in one day all the Japanese tourists were cleared out of Istanbul. The Turks themselves thought this was a little silly since Turkey was located nowhere near ground zero.
Having been in Japan during September 11th and the months following, I can attest that there was a little bit of over-reacting going on there. School trips going anywhere abroad (even to places like New Zealand) were cancelled for that whole year.]

Anyway, Wright eventually breaks free and heads down to the Gallipoli peninsula. He goes budget class the whole trip, and stays primarily in youth hostels where he meets lots of young Australian and New Zealand backpackers, and he records his conversations with many of them as he tries to figure out why so many of them find it necessary to make this pilgrimage.

He doesn’t quite arrive at a conclusion, although he does float some interesting ideas—including an idea that preserving the importance of Gallipoli is a subtle way of excluding from mainstream Australia the new waves of Asian immigrants, most of whom are too recently arrived in Australia to have had any ancestors in World War I.
(From my own experience in Melbourne I can attest to both the changing face of Australia’s demographics, and to some of the tension this has produced.)

Speaking of my own experiences, after completing this book, and realizing what an important part of Australian culture ANZAC Day really is, I somewhat regret sleeping through the ANZAC ceremonies during my stay here. My Australian friends had assured me I didn’t need to wake up for it because it wasn’t really an big deal, and not many people care much about it any more. Tony Wright paints a much different picture.

And finally Wright also writes about "the lone pine tree" (W), a pine tree on the Gallipoli peninsula that the Australian soldiers named after an American book/song/movie. Wright notes that Americanization was becoming a problem even then. (Tying in one more aspect of my own experience, Americanization of Australia is a subject that's occasionally crept up over here with Australian friends).

Not a bad little book, and Wright is obviously a talented writer. The cover jacket however did promise a “sometimes hilarious” travel guide.
This may have been overselling Wright’s comic powers somewhat. The book's okay, but I went in expecting something with a lot of rich humor, like Bill Bryson’s travelogues and was unfortunately somewhat disappointed.

After a war, people need some sort of way to mourn their dead. But there’s always a tension about the meaning of war memorials. Are we supposed to remember the senseless slaughter of one war so that we will think twice before engaging in another one?
Or are we praising the courage and duty of one generation in order to remind the next generation that a similar sacrifice might someday be expected of them?

For the most part it’s a sneaky little debate. It’s not an argument that is out in the open during official Veteran’s Day events, but it’s in the subtext of everything. It’s in the little things people chose to emphasize and the way they emphasize them.
This is true in Australia as well as in the US. While I was in Melbourne, there were some public events held during the week of ANZAC day debating the meaning. And the bookstores displayed copies of a new book about the Politics of ANZAC Day.

Wright largely dodges the issue. He records the various views of people he meets along the way (some of which fall on one side or the other of the debate), but he avoids taking a strong stand himself.

I guess there’s a lot one could say about this debate one way or another.
As for me, I’ve recently been reading through a collection of the Great War Poets. I never really realized how much great poetry that War had produced. After serving in the front lines themselves, these poets were able to talk about the reality of war with such clarity. It’s a shame I was never introduced to these poets earlier. They really should be required reading in school. Of course that would never happen. (The military would have an even harder time making its recruitment goals if kids were exposed to this stuff.) But it should.

The Great War poets deserve to be a lot more widely read than they are, and part of me would like to quote them all in full. But if I had to pick just one poem, “The Next War” by Osbert Sitwell strikes me as being the most appropriate here.

The long war had ended.
Its miseries had grown faded.
Deaf men became difficult to talk to,
Heroes became bores.
Those alchemists
Who had converted blood into gold
Had grown elderly.
But they held a meeting,
"We think perhaps we ought
To put up tombs
Or erect altars
To those brave lads
Who were so willingly burnt,
Or blinded,
Or maimed.
Who lost all likeness to a living thing,
Or were blown to bleeding patches of flesh
For our sakes.
It would look well.
Or we might even educate the children.''
But the richest of these wizards
Coughed gently;

And he said:
"I have always been to the front
- In private enterprise-,
I yield in public spirit
To no man.
I think yours is a very good idea
-A capital idea-
And not too costly . . .
But it seems to me
That the cause for which we fought
Is again endangered.
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children
Should fall for the same cause?''
Rushing eagerly into the street,
The kindly old gentlemen cried
To the young:
"Will you sacrifice
Through your lethargy
What your fathers died to gain?
The world must be made safe for the young!"
And the children
Went . . .

Update: just the other day I saw in Saint Kilda (a suburb of Melbourne) a statue dedicated to the fallen soldiers with the words "they died so that we might have peace."
The subtext of course is that war is necessary for peace. I don't think that's true, although that's a different debate for a different post.
It is, however, uncontroversial to say at least that in most of the wars Australia has fought (the Boer War, World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War) were completely unconnected to domestic peace within Australia.

Link of the Day
Why WikiLeaks Won’t Stop the War By Noam Chomsky

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Social Network

(Movie Review)

Right about the time this movie was first starting to make waves, a friend of mine summed up her attitude to it over drinks at the bar. “At first I thought it was just way too soon to be making a facebook movie,” she said. “But then I started noticing all the absolute rave reviews this movie was getting, and I got interested.”

That pretty much sums up my attitude as well. That probably sums it up for a lot of us I would guess.

Well, once my attention was drawn to this by all the rave reviews, and after about the 10th person told me it was the best movie they had ever seen, I decided to check it out for myself.

It didn’t quite live up to its hype. (Nothing ever does.) It wasn’t the best movie I had ever seen. But it was good.

The actual plot of this movie is a bit thin. That’s its central flaw as well as its genius.
It’s a genius little bit of screenwriting that they took what was essentially two minor lawsuits, and stretched it into a 2 movie, and made it entertaining. And not only entertaining, but gave it lots of great dialogue so that every scene is really packing a lot of punches.
That they did so well with the source material is a credit to the writers. It doesn’t completely hide the fact that the source material is a bit skimpy to begin with, but it at least keeps you from noticing until the movie is over.

Other than that, I’m not sure what else to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said a million times. (Almost) all the characters are fully developed and interesting. The filmmakers do a really good job of not choosing sides in this story, but rather trying to show each character's point of view, and really make the movie almost a list of various character studies. The acting is top notch. The movie is paced perfectly so that nothing ever seems to drag.

You’ve probably already seen this movie by now, but if you haven’t seen it yet, definitely worth your time.

Addendum #1:
Some people on the internet have been complaining about this film’s portrayal of Asians. This little piece here seems to be making the rounds.

The world’s youngest billionaire is also one of the only young CEOs around to maintain a longstanding relationship with a smart girl he’s known since college. Mark Zuckerberg has been dating Priscilla Chan since they met at Harvard. But you wouldn’t know it from watching The Social Network.

Priscilla doesn’t even get a mention. It seems Aaron Sorkin was too busy sexing up the lives of Harvard programmers to fit her in. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of hot young Asian chics scattered throughout the new Facebook movie. But they’re more the kind of girls who like hooking up with strangers in the bathroom, stalking Jewish undergrads and drinking appletinis. The Social Network definitely has an Asian fetish.

You know, as a side note, I never really liked the term “Asian Fetish.” It makes it sound like there’s something inherently perverted about dating an Asian. Given what a significant portion of the world’s population Asians represent, it’s not statistically surprising that some people would end up dating them. It’s probably more statistically weird that white people on average usually end up dating other white people. How come we don’t have a derogatory term for that?

But, poor choice of words aside I take their general point about how Asian women are represented in this movie. Are they being too sensitive, or do they have a point?

I'm somewhat undecided on the matter myself. In and of itself, I'm not sure it’s such a big deal. (You could make the argument that the Asian girls, one of whom is a non-entity and the other who was portrayed as mentally unstable, were just what the story line required, and that they just happened to be Asian.) But taken as part of a larger problem in Hollywood casting, in which Asians are usually cast in either negative or - overly - stereo-typical - roles, then it becomes a little more telling.
And particularly telling when it turns out that in the real life story there was an Asian person in a significant role, and she got cut from the storyline completely.

Addendum #2.

I’ve noticed it’s hard for most people to review this movie without commenting on the phenomenon of facebook itself. And in a way that’s not surprising. I mean, most of us already waste more time on facebook than we’d like to admit, and now it’s even invading our time at the movies.

There are many examples of this, but take for example this review. (Which I found curtesy of Phil’s blog ).

As for me, I share the concern that more and more of my life is spent staring at a screen, and that virtual life is beginning to replace real world experiences.
Blogging has always been my poison of choice but when I’m looking to procrastinate on something, I can spend hours cruising friend’s profiles on facebook.

On the other hand, say what you want to about facebook, at the very least it is interactive material. And it lets you interact with real people that you actually know. In the days of the good old “old media,” you just sat back and watched passively. And you obsessed over movie stars you never meant, and TV characters who had no relationship to reality.

In fact maybe we should be less worried about talking about the internet in movies, and more worried about talking about movies on the internet. I mean, here I am, with a blog that let’s me talk to the world about any subject I could possibly choose. And what do I use it for? Blogging about all the movies I’ve seen. Now that’s pathetic.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure we would all benefit from turning off our screens and going outside for a while. All I’m saying is time spent on facebook may be better than time spent watching TV or movies.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk about War Geopolitics and History
and J'Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

The 5th book in the Flashman series. See also:
Tom Brown’s Schooldays,
Royal Flash,
Flash for Freedom,
And Flashman at the Charge.

“The Great Game” referred to in the title of this book is the 19th Century rivalry between Britain and Russia for influence in Afghanistan and India, played out by secret agents from both countries. It was first popularized by Rudyard Kipling in the novel “Kim”, and the explorer Richard Burton was among its participants. And it was one of my main reasons for picking up the Flasman series to begin with, as several of the Flashman books deal with this theme (such as “Flashman” and “Flashman at the Charge.”)

In the case of this book, however, the title is almost a misnomer. Or at least I thought so. My image of “The Great Game” is a kind of subtle spy-counterspy type intrigue. This book deals with the 1857 Indian rebellion against British colonial rule, and it’s much more about open warfare than it is about secret agents.
Although there are certainly elements of “The Great Game” in this book. There is a rivalry between Flashman and the Russian spy Ignatieff (who is the surviving villain from the previous book “Flashman at the Charge.”)

But the bulk of the book is about the Indian Rebellion. And this book continues the Forrest Gump like theme of Flashman being present at all the important points of the Rebellion (even though he doesn’t want to be, somehow he always ends up at them). So throughout the book he’s jumping from one danger point to the next.

As usual, George Macdonald Fraser shows a talent for unearthing the historical tidbits that are much more fascinating than fiction.
For example, Flashman and a few companions, after surviving the siege of Cawnpore, are led out under a truce agreement to boats on the Ganges. However when the rebels break the truce and start firing on the boats, there’s a vicious battle and only one boat escapes. Downstream, the boat becomes stuck in the mud, and they go into the jungle in search of help, where they are attacked by villagers. The British soldiers barricade themselves in a temple and try to hold off the villagers with rifle volleys. The villagers set the temple on fire, and they’re forced to make a run for it. Miraculously they make it back to the river, only to find their boat gone. But with the villagers in fast pursuit and the arrows flying, they have no choice but to just dive into the river and swim for it. They escape the villagers, but then are attacked by the crocodiles, which they only escape by heading for the rough water, in which they are nearly drowned.

It all sounds straight out of some Hollywood adventure movie, but the story is all backed up with footnotes, indicating that it really did happen. Flashman’s part in the adventure is pure fiction, of course, but everything else is vouched for in the journals of the soldiers.
And these kinds of forgotten historical adventures can be found throughout the whole book. There’s another incident where Flashman is trapped in yet another of the key sieges, and he has to escort out a crazed Irishman (who has spent too much time in the tunnels battling the Indian rebels). Under cover of night they have to sneak through the city and the besieging rebels so that the Irishman can act as a guide to the British army coming to relieve the siege.
Again, aside from Flashman’s part in it, all historical. The footnotes indicate the Irishman T. Henry Kavanaugh really did exist, and really did sneak through the enemy lines at night so he could guide the incoming army.

And, as with his previous books, George MacDonald Fraser also has an eye for fascinating historical figures that have been largely forgotten nowadays. Princess Lakshmibai, the Mararani of Jhansi, who was regarded as something like the Joan of Arc of India at the time, plays a major role in this story.

Also, continuing on the story lines established in the previous book, Harry “Scud” East, Flashman’s old schoolmate from the source material: “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” is again a character in this story.

As always, there’s also a fair amount of comedy mixed in with these stories. Flashman continues his rivalry with Lord Cardigan (the leader of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade, and who Flashman has grown to hate for personal reasons over the course of the previous books.) There’s a rumor going around at the time that Lord Cardigan didn’t actually charge with his troops, and when asked about it Flashman tried to imply that it’s true without actually saying so outright. This was a particularly funny scene.
Also returning triumphant from India, Flashman discovers his reputation in England has been completely ruined by the publication of “Tom Brown’s Schooldays.” Fraser did a nice job of imagining how the fictional character would react to reading about himself in the book.
And of course, as in every Flashman book, this continues the theme of Flashman running from every danger, crying and pleading for his life in front of all his enemies, and then somehow managing to still be perceived by his countrymen as the quintessential Victorian hero.


As someone who is interested in history, but not much of a voracious reader, most of my knowledge of the Indian Rebellion comes from television documentaries and radio programs. I’ve learned about the Indian Rebellion before in the PBS documentary series: Empire: Victoria (A). And the BBC series “This Sceptred Isle”. And in more detail in its spin-off series: “This Sceptred Isle: Empire (A).

If you’ve ever come across anything on the Indian Rebellion, you know that it was an example of incredibility barbarity on both sides: women and children were slaughtered by the rebels, and the British in turn took cruel revenge when their armies came in.

All of this is in the book. Fraser does not let the fact that he is writing satire prevent him from fully taking on these horror, and trying to examine why they occurred.
The satiric parts of the book are, for the most part, completely separated from the more serious parts of the book. All of it is told through the eyes of Flashman, who is not always the most sympathetic of narrators, but in this case even he is appalled by what he sees.

Still, at times the book struck me as a somewhat uncomfortable mix of genres. And while I’m on the subject, this was true for other books in the Flashman series as well. (“Flash for Freedom” dealt with the horrors of the slave trade.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this decreased my enjoyment of the books. In fact in a weird way, being jarred out of your comfort zone can actually make the book more interesting. But it might be reason enough to put in a caveat before recommending these books to someone else.

I should also confess that, since I’m living in an international dormitory at the moment, I did feel at times a tinge of embarrassment whenever an Indian student caught me reading this book at the dinner table. No one said anything to me about it, but if I were from India I might not appreciate having one of the most terrible events in my history retold by such an irreverent narrator.

Although someone did ask me if this book might not be an example of “Orientalism” (That is, stories which use the East as simply an exotic background for Western characters to have adventures in.) At the time I defended this book as a satire, but upon reflection there might be a hint of Orientalism in the Flashman series. And this is probably one of the reasons I enjoy the series so much.

It’s a guilty pleasure to be sure. But perhaps a little bit of Orientalism is not a bad thing. If we weren’t interested in foreign places, nobody would ever do any travelling. It’s always interesting to read about new places. And it helps the reader get into the story more if they can see the setting as the main characters do.

For example, one reason for the success of books like Shogun by Jame Clavell is that the reader gets to discover Japan alongside of John Blackthorne. And the same is true for a lot of the Flashman series.

….Well, for now I’ll just leave that thought hanging. I’ll just say that I enjoyed this book immensely, but admit it probably is a guilty pleasure.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - "Is Islam the Enemy?"
Also: I am Julian Assange