Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Silver Canyon (1956)

     Louis L’Amour. Silver Canyon (1951 & 1956) A typical L’Amour: drifter gets in the middle of a range war, meets The Girl, promises to avenge a death, acquires a ranch and a wife (The Girl). Fade out on a prospective wedding. He’s fast with his guns, survives severe injuries, deals rough justice, and inspires loyalty. He’s in his 20s, good-looking, has had a tough life, knows his craft or trade, and has read a lot of books. In short, an ideal hero for a Western. L’Amour delivers, using 1st person narration, and describing the landscape and weather so well that you can see and taste it. This hero’s name is Matt Brennan, The Girl is Moira McLaren, and assorted good and bad guys make up the rest of the cast. There’s murder and duplicity, a silver strike, squabbles over water and grazing, a town on the verge of becoming civilised, a couple of chaste sex scenes (just kissing), and a sense that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. A satisfying read for the fan of Western adventure romance. **½

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A city smothered in ash

     Pompeii At the ROM, Toronto, Ontario. A thorough presentation of the life and times of the doomed city, destroyed by Vesuvius’s eruption in 79CE. The show leaves one with two dominant impressions: that the Romans were very like us, and that they were very different from us. Like us they wanted comfort and convenience, and liked to display their wealth and power. They had developed a material and civic culture that guaranteed a relatively safe and pleasant life for most citizens. That culture was sustained by slaves, who did much of the work that nowadays is done by or with the help of machines. Human and animal energy was cheap. The wealthier citizens even had laid-on indoor plumbing, via pipes from the nearest communal fountain. Their sewage systems weren’t quite as well done as ours, though. And because heating water was (and still is) energy-expensive, baths were a communal affair.
     The houses show that family life was very important. It’s not just the family shrines to ancestors and gods, it’s the layout of the rooms, organised around an atrium with a pool that collected rainwater, and backing on an enclosed private garden. The owners decorated the walls with murals, laid out mosaic pictures in their floors, and had statuettes and statues all over the place. There’s a lovely example of a multi-tiered oil lamp, each tier with four twin lamps, so that there were a dozen lights in all. It must have made quite a show. Of course, these are upper-middle class and upper class houses. The lower classes lived in flimsy wooden hovels, or rooms in flimsy wooden apartment blocks.
     The plaster casts of the hollows formed by the Pompeians who died and were covered with ash show that many of them tried to save each other. Nobody knows how many of the 12,000 inhabitants died. The eruption was a multi-stage affair; it was the last stage that blasted the top off Vesuvius and covered the city with ash and pumice. Some people escaped before the worst happened; those who stayed, I suppose believing that it was just another Vesuvian belly rumble, were caught.
     How were the Romans different from us? They were more matter-of-factly brutal, enjoying the spectacles of men and beasts fighting and killing each other. They were more practical about sex, painting erotic scenes in their bedrooms and in brothels. Religion was part of the fabric of everyday life. Public religion supported the civil society; private religion satisfied the longing for personal significance and meaning. Cults flourished. One of them was Christianity, a fact that is discreetly ignored in this show, even though Nero a few years later used Christians as scapegoats and foci of civil envy and unrest. Maybe there weren’t many Christians in Pompeii.
     Rank, and the client-culture it fostered and depended on, was stronger than today. Public works were undertaken by private citizens as signifiers of status or piety, and to curry political favour with the local electors or the powers in Rome. Politics was already violent: the Augustans came to power through wholesale murder of their opponents. There was no civil service, which would have stabilised Roman governance. The Empire devolved into a kleptocracy, a thug-state ruled by a small clique of infighting sociopaths. That’s what eventually destroyed it.
     But at the time of Pompeii’s destruction, life was still safe for most people, until the mountain blew up. I read almost all the explanations, something I rarely do, but had to skip them towards the end. I recommend a full day to see and absorb it. If you’re a ROM member, go more than once. ****

The Roman Record (1997)

     Paul Dowswell & Karen Tomlins. The Roman Record (1997) Roman history done in tabloid form. Very funny. The layout mirrors The Mirror, the writing echoes the screamier tabs, the authors rely on allusions to modern knowledge for sly irony, but the facts are there. A quick read, but it does prompt thinking. Here are a few of my thoughts.
     The  Romans loved their entertainment, became bored with the standard fare, and demanded an ever more intense frisson. They got it, eventually. The main difference between them and us was slavery (the owner had life and death power over his property), and the casual brutality of everyday life and politics.
     They were practical, focussing on making life more convenient and comfortable. They decorated their home with sculpture and painting. Upperclass homes included a private garden. Family and friends mattered most. Religion was (as it always is) a matter of cults and superstitions. They didn’t have mass media, but news spread fast via daily gossip in the baths and the the Forum.
     The apparatus of empire eventually became too much for them. Taxes rose, political infighting became more brutal and petty. One’s place in the machinery of government became more important than the purpose of government. The Romans did not develop the two most essential aspects of governance: a cadre of bureaucrats to operate the system, and kept it stable; and regulated transition at the top to prevent civil strife. By ca 500 AD, Rome was easy prey for the barbarians at the gate.
     The cover alludes to the destruction of Pompeii: Senator Livius Impluvius claims that the volcano will not erupt. He’s spent loads of money consulting with soothsayers, who all tell him that Pompeii will become “one of the most famous towns of ancient times.” Which in fact happened.
    Well worth the $9.40 it cost me. Jon would have loved it. ***

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas

I posted this comment on a Usenet photo-sharing group. All the comments on it were positive, so here it is for your contemplation. The reason for it: Someone had posted a photo of an extremely garish Christmas lights display. Several of the Comments expressed puzzlement that non-Christian neighbours from South East Asia were putting up Christmas lights.

"The notion that Christmas is Christian is erroneous. The Dec 25th date has no biblical authority whatsoever. There isn't even a hint that it was winter. "In those days Augustus decreed a census" is the closest to a date, but Augustus decreed more than one, so Jesus's birth date is anybody's guess. The "Jesus is the reason for the season" mantra is of
quite recent origin, proposed as a counter to the commercialisation of the festival. But Winter Solstice celebrations were/are pretty well universal north of the Mediterranean Sea. Many other Northern hemisphere peoples around the world also celebrate the Solstice.

Dec 25th was the date of the Roman Saturnalia, a celebration of the Solstice marked by all kinds of sensual delights. Around the same time the Norsemen and Germanic tribes celebrated Yule. The essence of these feasts was the return of the light, when the sun reverses its journey into darkness. It was an easy re-interpretation to identify this with the return of the Light of the World, aka Jesus. Hence Christ's Mass, or Weihnachten (= consecrated night), or Feliz Navidad (happy birth), or etc.

The Puritans knew very well that Christmas is non-biblical. They banned it after they cut off Charles I's head. Many Christian sects also know this, so they don't celebrate Christmas. The Scots Presbyterians, a dour lot with a general opposition to anything suggesting that pleasure was a good thing, discouraged Christmas, too, which is why the New Year is more important in Scotland. And is celebrated by grieving for Auld Lang Syne.

I'm all for Christmas, and any other Winter Solstice feast people celebrate. The return of the light, or the Light, symbolises hope. Without hope, we despair.

So Merry Christmas to all. May you be renewed in your faith, enjoy the company of family and friends, and find peace and hope in 2016. Without hope, we despair. So Merry Christmas to all. May you be renewed in your faith, enjoy the company of family and friends, and find peace and hope in 2016."

Monday, December 21, 2015

Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers

     Anne Emery. Cecilian Vespers (2009) Reinhold Schellenberg, a German priest attending a course on sacred music dies of semi-decapitation. Who killed him, and why? That’s the mystery, but Emery’s real interest is the fallout from Vatican II, in which Schellenberg played a small but crucial role. To judge from the book, she’s a devout Catholic who knows her history and theology. A good deal of the talk is about sacred music, the changes in the liturgy, and the theological and spiritual effects of those changes. She doesn’t pass up opportunities for satire, generally quite mild, but she really doesn’t like the feel-good, me-focussed self-congratulatory piety expressed in much modern church music. The course leader, Brennan Burke, detests this religiosity. He’s a priest of the old school liturgically and theologically. He’s the most complex character in the book.
     The narrator, Monty Collins, is like Emery herself a lawyer, but he doesn’t ring quite true. She needs a male narrator, a woman wouldn’t have the same kind of friendship with a priest, and hence access to information about the suspects. He’s recently separated from his wife who’s borne a child with an unnamed lover. He’s remained on polite terms with his wife, and loves his children. There’s a hint he’ll take to the bastard that’s been foisted on him; maybe in a the next book.
     But the narrator hasn’t enough inner life to make him fully believable. Not that it matters, the focus is on conversation. That conversation is always interesting, revealing character as well as the facts that fit and don’t fit the narrative which will solve the puzzle. The solution is a last-minute revelation of the facts needed to explicate the hints planted earlier. I didn’t like it much, I prefer a richer mix of relevant and irrelevant details than Emery provides. Maybe Emery wrote a wider-ranging, more rambling story, but had to cut it to fit a price point.
     Emery is really far more interested in her characters, in their back stories, their past relationships, the effects of social and psychological traumas they endured, how politics leads us into choices we would rather not make. She knows that ideas have consequences. Discovering the murderer means discovering the motivations of the innocent as well as the guilty. Motivation comes from our desires, but it’s shaped and directed by our beliefs.
     A good read, but not to everyone’s taste, I think. **½

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Arabesque (1996)

     Arabesque (1996) [D: Stanley Donen. Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel] David Pollock, an Oxford professor of eastern studies (Peck), is roped into deciphering a mysterious Hittite inscription used as a cipher in an international game of oil diplomacy and assassination of the Prime Minister of an obscure oil-rich middle eastern country. Beshraavi, an evil business man (Badel), is behind it all. His mistress Yasmin (Loren) plays a double double-cross in an attempt to prevent the killing. Many plot tangles and spy caper cliches later, David and Yasmin end up in each other’s arms punting on the Thames. Splashy fade-out.
     Competent film making, fun to watch, typical of its era, with a huge variety of settings, a helicopter chase, well-acted bit parts, and fast enough narration to keep you interested. Peck and Loren work well together. This movie doesn’t attempt to be anything other what it is, well-made fantasy adventure romance. Above average for the genre. **½

Village of Secrets. (2014)

     Caroline Moorehead. Village of Secrets. (2014) Subtitle: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Not so much defying as deceiving. The people of Le-Chambon-Sur-Lignon were able to save an astonishing number of children from deportation to the death camps. A handful of pastors and other community leaders were able to lead this effort partly because of the collusion of officials outside the region, the deliberate sloppiness of the police, and because external agencies (nowadays called NGOs) could operate until the USA entered the war, but mostly because this part of France is remote and in those days was ignored as of no economic or political account, whose inhabitants were ignorant and backward. That gave them a certain anonymity; they could hide behind their stereotypes. When you are fooling people who think they are smarter than you, it pays to play up your supposed inferiority.
     Nevertheless, the risks were real. The deprivations suffered by the Jews were terrible. Their self-delusion that as citizens of France they were safe are pitiful to contemplate: when thugs are in power, legal and cultural protections are meaningless.
     This is one the few books I did not finish. After reading two-thirds of it, I decided I didn’t need any more details. The people did what they did at great risk to themselves. Not a pleasurable read: the knowledge that so many children were saved from death is offset by the knowledge that they suffered from the loss of their families, most of whom died in the gas chambers.
     The book is well-written. Moorehead is one those historians who can write a story As a record what good people can do when they follow their conscience and use their wits, a story worth reading. It’s also a semi-comforting account of how the Nazis weren’t nearly as efficient as we have come to believe. You may be able to finish the book. ***

The Ark in the Garden. (1998)

     Alberto Manguel, ed. The Ark in the Garden. (1998) A well-made little book, a collection of fables or parables about current politics, economics, values. Margaret Atwood’s, A Christmas Lorac which inverts the Scrooge story, is typical: a reminder that our present version of capitalism is dysfunctional, a polite word for an appalling reality. The major theme is the disconnect between our understanding of ecosystems and our economic values. The common notion is that we can choose between “the environment” and “the economy.” That’s like believing we can choose between eating and breathing. We’ve become insane.
     The minor theme is freedom, the freedom to be what one is without unjust constraints, whether those constraints are our obligations to others, or limits on our choices, or others’ indifference. These two themes I think are related by a more abstract one: the necessity of growing up.
     A good book. ***

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Katherine Hall Page. The Body in the Snowdrift (2005)

     Katherine Hall Page. The Body in the Snowdrift (2005) The part-owner of a ski resort in Vermont dies. Faith Fairchild accompanies Tom her Episcopal priest husband there to a birthday party organised by and for her father-in-law Dick Fairchild. The ski resort is owned by family friends, the Staffords. Faith finds the body when she rises early for a solitary ski. Both families are dysfunctional, but Dick Fairchild is oblivious. The resort is on the edge of financial collapse, it needs a successful season. A of odd incidents occur, culminating in murder. Faith subs for the chef who has mysteriously disappeared, and whose body later is spread over the slopes by the snow-making machine. Faith somehow “solves” the murder, the murderer corners her, but her nephew and the daughter of one of the resort owners save her. The murderer and his evil genius (the aging-hippie Stafford sister) are unmasked. So that’s all right.
     The book is both over- and under-written. The plot is too slight to carry the tale. Hall Page really doesn’t have much interest in how a sleuth works, she’s far more interested in naming brands and dropping literary and culinary hints that the alert reader can use to suss the cultural markers necessary to pass as one of the beautiful people.
     The dysfunctional family is far more interesting than the crimes, but Hall Page’s narration suffers from pop-psych analyses and resolutions, not to mention dialogue in which everybody talks the same way. Characters are like those 2D figures whose arms and legs move, even lead-character Faith is a stereotype. The ambience is barely there; the setting is described in generic terms, so that there’s little sense of place. Much of it reads like a sponsored travelogue.  In fact, the whole book reeked of product placement.
     So why is this a best selling series? Basically, it’s a romance, a genre that has developed multiple sub-genres, all of which require serious suspension of disbelief. Here, there’s the gimmick that Faith is a master chef who owns a catering business, thus is an Independent Woman, despite having a husband and two young children. Some of her recipes are included in every book: to my very amateur eye, they seem simple enough for anyone to make, and rely on well-tried combinations of flavours. Besides being a great cook, loving wife, and good mother, she’s also a sleuth; but we don’t see any sleuthing beyond Faith’s puzzlements and speculations.
     Then there’s the heavy use of brand names. Plus a  story and language that require no concentration whatever. Cliches and familiar tropes lead the reader along the well-worn paths of semi-plausible realist fantasy. You can read this while daydreaming about schussing down a black diamond run then canoodling in front of a fire.
     The only tension is of the what-will-happen-next variety, which is enough to keep a semi-attentive reader turning the pages. I confess that sometimes I am such a reader, but even so, it took me several sessions to read this book, prompted more by a sense that I ought to finish the book before writing about it. Moderately good of its kind. More literate than most examples I’ve come across, hence a *½.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Star Over Bethlehem (1965)

     Agatha Christie. Star Over Bethlehem (1965) The mystery novels contain hints that Christie was a believer, especially her brief comments on guilt, innocence, and just punishment. This collection of stories and poems gives us a fuller impression of her beliefs.
      In I a Mrs Grierson knows that her dislike of people compromises her good works, done from moral conviction. She wishes that she could like the people she helps. A stranger on a water taxi wears a seamless robe. Tempted, she touches it, the touch transforms the way she sees and feels about her fellow humans. In the Cool of the Evening tells of an autistic boy who meets a stranger in his garden. With the stranger, he invents names for the odd animals that result from a nearby radioactive spill. His mother, embarrassed by him, doesn’t recognise his gift, and wishes he were normal.
     The last story, Promoted to the Highest, is a fantasy in which fourteen saints, depicted in an ancient fresco in a country church, petition to be allowed to return to Earth to continue their work. Dying for their faith wasn’t enough; they need to live it. Their request is granted. The recipients of their miraculous powers are rather disreputable. Christie shows her suspicion of mere respectability here as much as in her mysteries.
     I think this slight book should be more widely known. Christie strings clues and misinterpretations together just as she does in her mysteries. The stories  achieve their purposes. They’re parables, relying on outline of plot and character in order to prompt the us to think about puzzles that are difficult to pose any other way, and whose solution will always be provisional. Philosophers may be satisfied with abstractions. The rest of us want concrete experience. Christie delivers. These pieces remind me of C. S. Lewis. ***

Friday, December 04, 2015

So’s Your Aunt Emma (1942)

     So’s Your Aunt Emma (1942) Zasu Pitts leads a cast of B-list actors working their way through a script concocted by someone who thinks a good idea is enough. The good idea is that a respectable old maid travels to the city to see the boxer son of the man she didn’t marry, gets entangled in gangster double crosses, and of course manages to  bring everything to a successful end. Love and justice triumph, as do the wholesome values of Aunt Emma.
     But the script hobbles along, the acting is merely competent, the photography ranges from average to awful, and the narrative pace is too slow even for 1942. One of those movies that could have been much better. The title is a catch-phrase of the times. Look in Wikipedia for more details.
     Definitely a B movie, second half of a double bill.  Mildly amusing as an example of Hollywood product. **