Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I guess it's more of a figurative title

Picking up on a theme we started with the last's confession time! I am a sucker for good movie titles. This explains why I've watched The Ghost and the Darkness more than once. I'm not really sure what exactly entails a good movie title. It has to hit me in just the right way. This is exactly what happened with Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

I originally came across this movie while researching Zhang Yimou, director of big hits like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. I had seen and enjoyed both of those films so I figured there was a good chance of Riding Alone being of equally high quality. I was disappointed in unexpected ways.

Don't get me wrong, the movie was quite good. The story focuses on Gouichi Takata, a man estranged from his son for several years. The first scene of the film depicts Gouichi learning the news that his son is in the hospital, dying of liver cancer. Gouichi's daughter-in-law gives him a sample of the film his son was creating about the Chinese Nuo opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, hence the title. Gouichi decides to complete the filming of the opera to earn the forgiveness of his son.

So we have a standard journey of self-discovery, right? Well, sort of. Gouichi doesn't do much riding alone and although he travels thousands of miles in the relative comfort of modern transportation. Instead Gouichi embarks on a journey fraught with...well, inconvenient setbacks, such as language barriers, arrested actors, prison regulations, other people's estranged sons, other people's estranged sons running away, and so forth. In the end, Gouichi realizes that he needed to forgive himself as much as he needed his son's forgiveness.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Three Dog Night

Let's start out with a confession: I am a sucker for a good guitar riff. Thus my off-and-on relationship with groups like ZZ Top and Rage Against the Machine. They have some awesome riffs, heck, even Rage's overall message isn't bad, at least it addresses issues that most people are afraid to address; although I thought the same about Michael Moore and he turned out to be just a liberal with a camera...but I digress...despite the music any time the vocals come in I want to stop the song.

With that background in my mind we'll get down to the topic at hand. Namely Three Dog Night. If you don't what I'm talking about you'd better go to Youtube and look up some of their songs. I recommend Joy to the World as a starting point.

One of the things I like the most about Three Dog Night is their lyrics. They cover a whole gamut of styles and range from the absolutely ridiculous to the surprisingly profound. Check out some examples:

From Play Something Sweet:
"Play somethin' sweet, play somethin' mellow
play somethin' I can sink my teeth in like jello"
"Play somethin' sweet and make it funky,
just let me lay back and grin like a monkey"

These lyrics are the kind of thing that make you wonder what they were smoking back in the '60s and '70s. I mean really? Who uses rhymes like those?

From Never Been to Spain:
"Well I never been to heaven
but I been to Oklahoma
Well they tell me I was born there
but I really don't remember"

We see some improvement here. There's no atrocious rhymes (although they later rhyme Oklahoma with Arizona) and the meter flows very well. But still, what are they even saying?

From Black and White:
"The ink is black,
the page is white.
Together we learn
to read and write."

Ah yes, the activism of the '60s shines through. Does anybody make music like this anymore? I honestly have no idea. True, the lyrics are rather simplistic and this is their only good analogy, but the song as a whole makes an excellent and relevant point.

From Sure as I'm Sitting Here:
"Don't gotta look for God,
He's just sittin' here.
And I think he's got a plan
but it's not too clear."

Maybe it's just me but these are some of the most profound lines that I've heard in a mainstream song and they're hidden away in one of the silliest sounding songs. This is the kind of thing that makes me enjoy Three Dog Night. I'd elaborate but I don't fully understand it myself.

By the way, my interpretation of the lines: firstly I see a parallel here with 1 Kings 19 or Elijah's experience on the mountain, waiting for God's presence; it's not a huge event, it's in the quiet whisper, the stillness because God is just sitting here waiting for us to stop hurrying around and notice him. Secondly, I see a warning against trying too hard to understand the will of God. Too many people create their own interpretations of what God wants but how are we as mere humans supposed to fathom something like that? It's not clear to us, but it's clear to God and we just need to put our trust in Him.

I hope you at least enjoy the music.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What book did I just finish? It's a mystery.

It appears that I'm not very good at this here "blogging" thing. No posts since June? and only 10 over 8 months? Blah! Given that I reserve my blogs for book reviews so the existence of a blog is predicated on my finishing a book; and for a while that didn't happen because I kept picking up super boring books. But I've actually finished a couple of books in the last month or so and not reviewed them at all. Now what were they?

The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

This is another one of those instances where somebody recommends I read something and I end up enjoying it very much (see The Shadow of the Wind). This recommendation took some convincing, not because I was hesitant about Chandler (I had not even heard of him previously) but because I was hesitant about the source of the recommendation. We have quite different tastes in literature, though apparently there is some crossover.

Some background on Chandler for those who don't know of him. He, along with Dashiell Hammett, perfected the genre of Noir fiction or hardboiled private detective stories. You've heard of film noir? The Maltese Falcon? Good. So now you know what we're dealing with here. Hopefully.

I'm actually hesitant about providing plot summaries; first because I'm talking about two separate novels, and second because they are so dang intricate that it's hard to know what details to include and what not to include without ruining the mystery. Well, I'll be brief and vague (two things I'm quite good at).

Our main character is Philip Marlowe, a tough private detective who is obviously not in it for the money, because there isn't any. Sometimes he's actually hired for a case, sometimes he just starts investigating out of sheer curiosity, sometimes he's literally pulled into a case against his will. Regardless of the situation Marlowe remains cool and collected, almost detached. Chandler achieves this attitude by telling the story from Marlowe's point of view and through a superb use of understatement.

Seriously, you should go find some Chandler novels and read them. If nothing else read them for Chandler's beautiful prose style. After reading his first novel he immediately catapulted into the ranks of Charles Dickens and Douglas Adams as my favorite stylists, and I actually detect some Chandlerian influence in Adams' Dirk Gently novels. Anyways, go read some. Now!

Oh and sorry for the terrible pun in the title.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A nice typical science fiction story

Sundiver by David Brin

After some disappointments interspersed with some extreme mind-stretchers it was quite a relief to actually read a very typical science fiction novel. I was hesitant since I had just finished The Postman and was rather annoyed with Brin's writing style. However, Sundiver is quite a bit different. Fewer jumps in continuity, less sexist dialogue between male and female characters, more intrigue.

Sundiver is the first novel set in the "Uplift" universe. Humans have made contact with extraterrestrials and have discovered that the social structure of the galactic races is based on who assisted which race in evolving into sentient beings. The humans are uniquely out of place as they appear to have evolved on their own. In fact, the only reason they are accepted into the extremely conservative society of the universe is because humans have assisted dolphins and chimpanzees evolve into sentient beings. This is the background of the story.

Our troubled-past main character, Jacob Demwa, is recruited to assist in a risky expedition to the sun. The expedition has already been running for some time but Demwa and a couple others are brought in because of the strange phenomena occurring. It turns out there are some fairly distinctly sentient lifeforms living in the chromosphere of the sun. The Galactic library, which contains every piece of recorded knowledge from every single race that has ever existed, has no record of these beings. Intriguing, yes? So is the fact that somebody is apparently out to cover up this fact and sabotage the whole program. That's where Demwa comes in. I guess he's an investigator or something. Who knows, he doesn't really have any special skills or knowledge that the reader knows of, so really any character could have done what he did.

Other than Demwa's rather uninteresting character, the story is quite good. The first part of the book is, unfortunately, much better than the last. The only reason this is bad is because you reach a very nice and tidy conclusion only to find out you were wrong, but instead of repeating the same formula that got him to that point Brin decides to try something different and adds in some boring romance between Demwa and the captain and drags out the final conflict over several chapters. Or maybe it just seemed like several chapters. Either way, it's a strike against the style in my opinion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Did I seriously just read a modern novel and enjoy it?

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Translated by Lucia Graves

A better question might be Did I seriously just post two blogs in a row? Okay, maybe that's not a better question. Back to the book.

The setting is Barcelona in post-civil war Spain. I'm already in way above my head. Coming into this book I knew next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War and despite Mrs. Lungwitz's best efforts in 3rd grade, next to nothing about Barcelona or even Spain. It's still an enjoyable book to read.

Daniel is a young boy who lives with his father, a used bookseller. At the beginning of the story Daniel discovers a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax and immediately falls in love with it. He wants to read more of Carax's novels so he begins searching. Despite his access to a knowledgeable network of booksellers, Daniel fails to find any more novels; in fact, many people haven't even heard of Carax. Thus begins the mystery.

Daniel sets out to find more details on Carax's life, his works, and what ultimately happened to him. This includes questions like: Why did Carax leave Barcelona without a trace in the '20s? What happened to Carax after he returned in the '40s? Who is burning all available copies of Carax's novels? Why is Nuria Monfort lying about how much she knows? Why is the police inspector obsessed with Daniel's findings? Who is posing as a mysterious character from Carax's novel?

This mystery is what drives the novel and I must say, drives it very well. In the midst of his searching Daniel continues to live his life but soon notices eerie parallels between his life and Julian Carax's. Parallels with ultimately disastrous ends. Dun dun dun!

Okay, seriously, this is a good book. Very well written/translated. As with any mystery though, you can't give away too many details. If you've read anything about this book you might notice that I didn't mention anything about The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Every review I've read makes a big deal out of this first chapter. It is a cool concept but honestly as far as plot development, very minor. In fact, it almost seems like the author took a completely different route than the Cemetery chapter foreshadowed, so in my mind it is not really worth mentioning.

How many postal puns can I fit into this review?

The Postman by David Brin

The answer to the title question is: a lot. For the sake of retaining readers I will refrain from making too many.

So The Postman is about this guy named Gordon who is struggling to survive in post-apocalyptic America. Apparently this is something that is quite difficult to do. We first find Gordon struggling in the mountains of Oregon fighting off a group of bandits. Well, maybe fighting off isn't a good term, perhaps running away from? Yes that works much better. As you can see Gordon is not your typical heroic character. He is an ordinary guy just trying to survive and hoping to find somewhere in the United States where some form of order remains intact instead of the isolated settlements struggling to survive and the roving bands of pillagers that are so common back east.

In his flight from the bandits Gordon discovers an abandoned postal jeep. One thing leads to another and Gordon finds himself posing as a Postal Inspector for the Restored United States Government; all of which he totally made up himself in order to not be killed by some paranoid villagers. Soon Gordon is traveling from town to town bringing letters and setting up post offices all the time struggling with the knowledge of the facade and his longing to find somebody who is restoring order.

Do you see where this is going? Yeah, so did I about 4 chapters in. Gordon on the other hand doesn't figure out that he is that order-restoring somebody until the end of the book. Actually, not even then. He's kind of an idiot, really.

Basically, in my opinion, The Postman fails to deliver (okay, sorry, but honestly Brin used a postal pun in a horribly inappropriate situation so really, this isn't as bad). It seemed like the whole driving force of the book would be Gordon's realization that even though he was lying to all these citizens about a restored government, he was helping to create one himself through the hope that he was providing. Unfortunately, that doesn't sink in. Instead there's some action sequences, fighting, romance, strangely misplaced chauvinism, and more self-doubting than you can handle with a 10-gallon bucket. Through it all Gordon spreads hope and reopens communication lines creating a small pocket of civilization in Oregon without ever realizing the impact he is having.

Only one line on the second to last page even hints at this getting through to Gordon. I'd quote it but I already returned the book to the library. It was something about people believing in their myths so much that they eventually make them true. It was the best line in the book, which, from a stylistic viewpoint, wouldn't have taken much.

I've started reading another Brin novel since I finished this one otherwise I would dismiss him as a scientist posing rather poorly as a writer. Now that I have some more perspective though I think The Postman just wasn't his best stuff, despite the various awards it won. Honestly, I don't understand that aspect.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

This is the way to read Ayn Rand

Anthem by Ayn Rand

So I had heard of Ayn Rand before and I had heard that her novels were very philosophical and perhaps life-changing? I was hesitant to say the least. Then I saw the length of her two most famous novels. I decided that perhaps Ayn Rand wasn't for me. Then I read a summary of some of her philosophies. That confirmed it.

And yet when I came across this particular book I took a second glance at it and was curious enough to read the dust jacket. It sounded interesting enough and happened to be short enough (less than 90 pages) so I decided to read it that day.

The setting is your typical dystopia. An indeterminate future time where individuality is not only suppressed, it is downright illegal. To enhance this idea the entire novel is written in first-person plural. The main character refers to himself as "we" and to other characters as "they". The main character is torn between his scientific curiosity and the ingrained idea that individuality is a sin. The two come to a head when he discovers an ancient tunnel from the "before times" that no one is allowed to talk about.

This story has all your typical dystopian traits. Future world, individual thinker against a group mindset, love as an expression of individuality. The thing that bugs me is that Rand's anti-individualist future resembles the dark ages. Rejecting science is apparently the way to get everyone thinking the same way? Whatever. Also, how the heck does this guy survive once he breaks free of the repressive society? He'll have to learn to hunt, to fashion weapons, to grow food...none of which he has any training in or knowledge of. He was friggin' street sweeper after all. He can sweep and pick up litter, but plowing and knowing when to sow? I remain unconvinced that he survived his rediscovery of individualism.