Archive | February, 2013

Poetry Review: John Keats, The Human Seasons

25 Feb

There’s a boring way to read “The Human Seasons” having the four seasons represent youth, adulthood, old age, and death.  However, even by Keats’s time that metaphor was growing whiskers, and it really leaves this poem without any point.  The way I prefer to read this poem is having it be about the seasons of ideas.

I get this way of reading by Keats emphasizing that these seasons are “in the mind of man.”  Now we can either take that to be taken by people’s point of view, or four seasons that live in our minds, all constantly shifting and growing.

We start with “lusty spring, when fancy clear,/Takes in all beauty with an easy span.”  This is the birth of ideas, with concepts such as ease, creation, clarity, fancy (as in loose thinking not embroidered underpants).  This idea is something taken in from the outside world–the tremble of a leaf, or reflections in a pool of water, having the things around us have an influence.

Then summer when he “chews the honied cud of his fair spring thoughts/till, in his soul dissolved, the come to be/part of himself.”  Here the taking in part has ended, and meditating on this idea becomes the focus.  The creator takes the outside world and channels it into himself.  Notice how this form of thinking is very different from the ideals of the scientific method where the individual is supposed to remain separate from the data she is observing.   The chewing cud image also brings in mind of a slow form of thinking, of wearing things down in slow digestion.

In Autumn the idea is completely cut off from the world–I see this being the time where action happens, that book is written, those paintings finished.  Where time is spent in “havens of repose, when his tired wings/ are folded up, and he is content to look/on mists in idleness: to let fair things/pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.”  His idea takes up his whole mind, he only sees the mists and is no longer even sees the outside world beyond the idea.

And then winter “of pale misfeature.”  Which he must remember “lest he forget his mortal nature.”  Winter is blank white nothing.  Once an idea goes out in the world, the mind goes into a blank space that holds nothing.  The warning in this line has to do with a general warning about art–part of its purpose is to be finished and to go out in the world, lest it never be done.  There must be a point where all works must be let go to do what they will, and for the creator, that idea is dead, because it is finished.

What strikes me the most about this poem is the passivity involved.  Never do you see the individual striving, pushing–but observing, at length, at ease, restfully.  The interesting part is how, with all this activity, everything fades to white in the end.

Presidential Review–John Adams

24 Feb

Gosh,  if there ever was a president stuck with impossible odds, John Adams was it.  It’s not easy to follow a saint, and the inherent unfairness of John Adams’s situation–George Washington was above politics, but he was in a very specific situation that allowed him to take this stance, being a popular hero and not particularly political (in comparison to the other patriots anyway) proving his worth on the battlefield, which is a measurable set of accomplishments.  John Adams, however, started in politics, grew in politics, and ended in politics.  This, despite the fact that he wasn’t especially good with people.

In politics the middle way is none at all.  John Adams

Yep, there he is, very much on his high horse.  Actually his maxim seems to be speak loudly and at great lengths and often, and wear a sour expression as much as possible.  Honestly, his speeches almost make me cringe in their arrogance, even for its time which was big on speechifying.  In fact, when he was Washington’s vice-president, he so annoyed congress with his irate speeches that they threatened him with a gag-order.  It was all good and fine when he was having apoplectic fits against the British, but now that he’s dealing with Americans that he had to deal with every day, it became more of a problem.  That’s the other part of Adams’s predicament–unlike Washington who ignored a lot of the political maneuvering going on around him, Adams could not resist jumping right in the middle of it.

Anyway, Adams had one issue that dominated his term–relations with France.   To give a short rundown, the French Revolution was in full swing, and France was at war with Britain.  The United States was divided as to which side it supported.  The Federalists were on the British side because even though we had tension with England, most Americans still had roots there, and commercial interests were still heavily British oriented.  The Democratic-Republicans were more on the French side, because France had embraced democracy and England had not.  Really the sides on this issue mirrored the concerns in how the American government should take form–the Federalists for a strong central federal government, the Democratic-Republicans favoring more strength in state and local governments.

Added to this was both France and Britain’s insistence on commandeering American merchant ships suspected of  selling goods to their enemies, which is why we felt pressured to take a side in the first place.  Jay’s treaty, which firmed things up with Britain, enraged France and set things up for war.

So we start with the XYZ affair, which was Adams trying to come to a peaceful resolution with France.  Unfortunately, Tallyrand, France’s ambassador had a satanic level of diplomatic skullduggery and he fired at our three diplomats everything he had.  He demanded bribes, had unofficial pre-negotiations that dragged on and on trying to set up agreeable standards for negotiations to commence, he set the three American diplomats against each other, messed with their passports, used the negotiations to further himself in French politics.  Honestly, look up Tallyrand when you get a chance, the man played the game like no other.

So Adams tried to get congress to agree to further negotiations before action, and Adams’s opponents demanded that the papers from negotiations up until now be released because they mistakenly thought he was leaving facts out that would indicate peace with France was possible.  When the papers were released, there was a firestorm of anger against France, leading us into our first undeclared military engagement.  It’s called the Quasi War, but basically it gave American ships permission to do the same to French vessels in the Caribbean as they have been to us in Europe.  Minor sea battles ensued.

In the meantime, because of growing protest regarding this state of affairs (American merchants particularly suffered) Adams pushed through the Alien and Sedition acts in order to “protect the government.”  Essentially, he made it illegal to criticize the government publicly, curtailed free press, and made it more difficult for people to immigrate into the United States.   The French threat really was an excuse to pass these laws, and it wasn’t a coincidence that most immigrants tended to be Democratic-Republican rather than Federalist.  Immediately after that Kentucky and Virginia passed laws indicating that those laws were invalid in their states, thus challenging the federal government.

What scared the Federalists, which the French Revolution brought into clear focus as it went on, is the distinction between Democracy and mob rule.  It’s a very tough line to draw, but while the French Revolution devolved into a bloody mess, there was significant concern on the American side that we could go down that road too.  To the Federalists, the government is not just there to fulfill the wishes of the people, but also to slow the process down so that we take sensible courses that are good for everybody rather than acting on public (emotional) impulse.  I actually agree with them this far down the road, because public reaction to things initially often ends up being extreme and not thought out, and tends to normalize itself given a little time.

However, they were so certain that they were completely correct in this line of thinking, they felt that they had to protect these ideas by cutting off the very freedoms they claimed to protect.

In the end, Bonaparte taking control of France saved this diplomatic impasse, very quickly signing a treaty that ended tensions between the two countries for the time being.

So for Adams I can grade his dealings with the French as a B (he really was trying for peace, Congress messed that up), but a big giant F for the Alien and Sedition acts.  In general he was much more moderate than he had the reputation for, and by the end of his term Federalists felt like he had betrayed them by not following rank and file.

What about social issues?  Well, on slavery Adams really didn’t do anything one way or another.    While personally Adams was very much against slavery, he was not for simply ending it on a national scale.  He really thought that slavery was working its way out of our system, and that Federal action would just cause unnecessary conflict.  He also wasn’t a man who felt that everybody ever would be equal, not because of racism or anything like that, but because society always has people with more power than others.  Rather than trying to change that fact, his aim was to make sure that everybody gets better treatment whether they have power or not.  (Really, this line of thinking defines the philosophical differences between conservatives and liberals today, whether people can be equally free or not.)  As for Native American relations, Adams didn’t really do anything on that line either.

In the end I have to give him a B- as president.  Unlike Washington who served as a symbol for American unity, Adams had to function as a shock absorber, trying to keep the government from following extreme, not-ultimately-in-its-best-interests paths.  Anybody who forces others to exercise restraint is never going to be popular.  Also, Adams’s political thinking is his greatest legacy–a lot of patriots had political views that were a bit simplistic and naive, we cannot have an organized country that allows anybody to do whatever they want (libertarians will refute this, but I stand–social disorganization hurts everybody.)    His biggest failing was that stupid Alien and Sedition Act–if he didn’t pass that, I would have been able to add points.

Albums Worth Listening To: Carly Simon, Letters Never Sent

23 Feb

In 1993-1994 I can’t think of another artist who was both completely mainstream and completely out of touch with current trends than Carly Simon.   While her music from the seventies was still being played in every shopping mall in America, and she still did quite a few soundtracks, not many of her peers made any big albums in that era, and music was a few years away from re-embracing confessional singer-songwriting.  Because of that, I think this album largely got unjustly ignored.

I think this might be Simon’s best all-in-all album that she ever made.  Sure, she had some greater individual songs on other albums, but this album comes with such a powerful and direct voice, cinematic in scope, with a simple theme (Letters Never Sent) that holds everything together.  Each song makes you ask, why was this song from an unsent letter?  Were the emotions too raw?  Were there situational difficulties?  Two of these songs are to people who have recently died, so there’s that too.

In this album, Simon takes a kitchen sink approach, throwing anything that works into each song–harmonica, saxophone, sea-shanty, opera, harmonica, movie orchestra, blues bands–the list goes on, but it’s like a million memories swirling around in a subconscious filled with random other sounds and feelings.   In fact the opening song “Letters Never Sent” while bringing in the theme, and mostly being a blues song, breaks down into a Sgt. Pepper-like montage of snippets of sounds and phrases from all the songs that follow.

Then we fall into the siren-song of “Lost in Love.”  She’s singing in a thunderous voice of the wilderness, the music playing out a sort of heat mirage in the background, building up to a passionate exclamation for an unnamed lover.  The song raises until her voice climbs into a wail of desire “I can’t let you go free until you lose yourself in me.”

And then like opening a different letter “Like a River” is about the death of Simon’s mother.  I’m surprised at how blunt she is here, talking about bickering about her mother’s stuff, until going into the greater part–trying to picture the afterlife as a sort of comfort.  She acknowledges that one relationship is over (mother and daughter) and another has started, and I guess waiting like a river is moving on with life but still being there.  The connection is incredibly touching, and the grief wants to make something beautiful so badly that the song rises up into opera at the end, like climbing up into heaven.  This song isn’t for everyone, but Simon’s working through grief here I find touching.

A small song that Simon’s son sings about how time snuffs all young men.   The end waits for all of us.

“Touched by the Sun” is Simon mourning the death of Jackie Onassis (a personal friend).  I must say, Simon’s voice is in top form, rolling from angel to growl sometimes in one phrase.  This song is also top notch–a little angry, wanting to have the same sort of life that Onassis had–which I never saw Jackie as an example of living free and reaching high (I think she is quite incredible, it’s just that those traits aren’t the first that come to mind) but Simon knew her and I didn’t.

“Davy” is a pleasant, stately, love-lullaby that nicely breaks up the music, and also is incredibly pretty.  This song comes the closest to the kind of music you’d think Carly Simon would sing, incredibly done.  (I notice how she changes things up to keep things interesting like with the “if it feels alright” repetition towards the end of the song.)

The other standout is half-way around the world–the song of Simon the spurned–this is the gospel-blues-folk-sea shanty tune.  A break-up song–she is filled with sarcasm here, directly to her lover.  All the la la las are really fun though.

The Reason–What a weird song, filled with word games that almost run into nonsense–I know she’s saying that the reasons she gives for keeping distance with others are just made up.  “I never can be in love, I can only be in heat.”  She ends up in this lusty sort of playground chant ending with “never felt so hot.”

Private–I’m like OMG how did Tina Turner wander into this album?  Nah it’s still Carly Simon, singing, maybe about an affair, but certainly about a situation where they can’t make their relationship public.  She says that she’ll deny knowing him and end it if he tells.

Catch it Like a Fever–A little drum poem, intense like a bonfire dance.

You Were Born to Break My Heart–Another ballad–the only one that sounds a little nineties to me, though Simon is in fine voice, but it’s a slow piano ballad, about break-ups.

I’d Rather it Was You–We close the album with a rough song about missing people, I think with the same mindset we would all go through after rummaging through old letters.  She’s not missing A person so much here as she’s missing all the missing–the dead, the lost lovers, the disappeared.  It’s not a grief song, but more of a song of absence.  Like maybe it’s about the time to put these letters away and return to the present.  It’s a poignant end to an album that started so huge.

A brilliant album in scope, with dozens of musical ideas–nobody was doing this sort of thing in 1994, and I can say that had Simon consistently had material like this she would be ranked on the same level as Peter Gabriel.  As it is, I will match Letters Never Sent with any other album.

Pop Culture Friday:Stay for a Week in Winter and Explode edition

22 Feb

1.  Stay–Rihanna–Rihanna is one of the few pop stars that I really want to hear, underneath it all, what she’s really thinking.  The problem is, I don’t know that we ever will get such a thing, but her video for Stay comes pretty close.  On its own, Stay is a very pretty, somewhat sad, break-up song.  The production is top notch, the mood melancholy, it reminds me of a song that would be on a Twilight soundtrack or something (and while I hate the movies, the soundtracks did have something to be said about them.)  The only thing I wish about the song itself, was that Mikky Echo who has a beautiful pure voice, like Jeff Buckley pure, I wish he was in another song, and he was replaced with someone a little rougher, a little tireder–someone like Grant Lee Phillips, honestly–I think if they chose him to sing this song would go over the top.

The video has some silly elements–like they seem to be hanging out in bamboo, zen hut, bathroom.  And things like, Really Rihanna, you wear diamond earrings to the bath?  And basically you can skip the Mikky Echo visuals where he wanders around bathroom fixtures and mouths words.  Where the bang is, is Rihanna who lets out such a beautifully uncomfortable performance that she mesmerizes.  It starts with exploitation shots–Rihanna taking off her clothes to get in a bath, and the camera going over her like this song was going to be seductive.  It’s not, but the shots and the camerawork bring an uncomfortable tension between the “sexiness” and Rihanna looking vulnerable and broken.  Her face is a dead stare, she is curled up in this gigantic bath like someone who is lost, to the point that in several moments she stops mouthing the words like she’s just too tired.  And it’s hard to watch knowing her past, knowing that she was found punched, bitten, and passed out a few years ago, and it’s harder knowing that she is back with her attacker.  Sure he could have changed, but I’ve seen this too many times before to feel confident in that.

2.  Maeve Binchy–A Week in Winter–Maeve Binchy reminds me of my mother–she has all my mother’s values in each of her books, and while they don’t always suit my taste, I am glad to see her posthumous book doing so well.  Binchy has things like distrust of the city, the value of getting away from it all (honestly I can’t think of one book of hers where people are where they live), small things mattering, like politeness and home, staying away from graphic sexuality or politics, looking to the  future and not moldering over the past.    Yep, they all remind me of Mom, and a certain gentle insistence to look for the positive, to lessen conflict, to be kinder and more graceful.  I’m quite glad this is on top.

3.  A Good Day to Die Hard–Ok, to make sure that nothing on this list matches, we get a movie that I have the least desire to watch of nearly everything.  I didn’t even like the Die Hards when they were good.  I don’t know, it’s just all that machismo–that type A barreling through every obstruction to a rather simplistic goal that doesn’t exactly play to the better angels of our nature.   Also, c’mon, I’m not expecting an action movie to be Shakespeare, but Hollywood, can’t you stop drinking out of dry wells for movies?  We could have made three good movies for this “explosions go boom” behemoth.

Presidental Review George Washington

21 Feb

I’ve been wanting to review history for some time, and to honor his birthday, today we’re going to review Mr. 1 dollar bill himself, George Washington!!!!!

Actually Washington is incredibly difficult to review as a president.  He didn’t have to run for office, in fact he was specifically chosen for the presidency by the makers of the Constitution.  (The only other serious contender, Ben Franklin, bowed out due to age.)  Washington is one of the few individuals in American history who were as popular in their time as they are currently, in fact, I doubt there ever was even so much of a dip in esteem since his time in office.

Also, there’s such a large amount of mythmaking about this man.  First there’s the cherry tree nonsense, a made-up story which Parson Weems seemed to almost intentionally create to make every child hate George Washington with an unmitigated fury.  I’m sorry but that story makes him sound like exactly the sort of kid who would own up to their mistakes to adults in a way which makes everyone else look bad.  Maybe that’s why lil G.W. had no friends.  Also, it’s not like he really could have lied about the tree–how many other people were around that would chop it down?  Was it THAT hard a mystery to solve?  Anyway, it’s a myth so it doesn’t count.

Beyond that, George Washington has a reputation of being almost superhuman.  They talk about his strength, his drinking habits (now and then but not too much), his religion (now and then but not too much), he was great at dancing, he had a voice of a thousand angels, he invented the steam-buggy…ok I’m starting to get carried away.  The point is, he’s turned into a mythical figure, sure he might have had a bunch of talents, but he’s probably the only historical person of non-holy background to be seen as flawless, which is a shame really, because it almost takes away from his true and real greatness.

Anyway, the reasons George Washington was picked were many–first, he was a very popular general after a winning war, second, he had almost nothing to do with the Articles of Confederation government, third, he had no offspring so any (and these were real) fears of him becoming a king were moot, forth, he wasn’t an ideologue.  Now I know a lot of people who love quoting founding fathers use him as a reference, but he wasn’t the thinker of that group, in fact he tended to shy away from anything  that smelled like idealistic chit-chat, and largely kept his opinions of government, and the philosophy of government to himself.

I remember one of my teachers saying that generals make bad presidents.  I don’t know where she got that rule from (maybe Ulysses S. Grant) but actually the reverse tends to be true.  People that come from the military have the greatest chance of rising above the political infighting of government because their career hadn’t been based in that sort of functioning, while at the same time, they’ve had to be leaders in very stressful situations.  Most of our presidents have been in the military at some point, and two very good ones (Washington and Eisenhower) were generals.

So as president Washington had a bunch of challenges.  If we graded them they would go like this.  1) The establishment of the American presidency and a good chunk of the American government in a functional way (A+), 2)  His handling of The Whiskey Rebellion which set up a precedence that taxes are a required American duty for citizens for the common good (A+) 3) Jay’s Treaty which gave the United States definite borders and tied up most of the unresolved issues between America and Britain after the revolutionary war (A+)  4)The founding of the American Navy (A+)

Then there’s two *uncomfortable* issues that aren’t all sunshine and roses–1) The Northwest Indian War (ugh–D) and 2) Slavery (which is such a cluster that his grade goes beyond letters.)

So for the easier of the two, The Northwest Indian War–so we’ve gotten this land through a treaty that the people who live on it are crazy enough to believe that they own it.  We send in soldiers.  The Brits supply Native Americans with guns while (wink wink) staying out of it.  The message being, we can have the Northwest territories (Ohio and wherabouts) if we can take it.  What followed was a bloody war where both sides had terrible losses.  In fact the United States was decidedly on the losing side –for ten years there were a series of raids and village burnings on both sides which raged out of control.   This war started the pattern America followed in Indian wars through the 19th century–destroy villages and send in people until Native Americans are forced to cede land.  At least in this war the two sides were somewhat evenly matched.

Slavery is much tougher.  Many history scholars maintain that Washington intended for slavery to slowly diminish over time, and always bring up the fact that Washington emancipated his slaves after his death.  The truth is a little less comfy than that though.  While it is true that he didn’t want to raise the issue of slavery to a new country out of fears of splitting it up, at the same time wouldn’t that have been an ideal time to start over with a new leaf?  Also, he had no apparent qualms about signing the fugitive slave act, or sending aid to Haitian slave owners to keep the slaves there from becoming free.    Also at least some of Washington’s slaves were unhappy, he had two run away.  Beyond that, though Washington’s slaves were emancipated at his death, his wife’s slaves were not.

And it’s not as if other founding fathers ended owning slaves as a practice, whether it was Benjamin Franklin cold-turkey style, or John Jay’s practice of treating slaves like indentured servants, letting them free after a period of time (not perfect but at least it’s a start.)

And that’s where the true character of Washington comes in.  He was a general.  A man who gets things done and believes in protocol but is definitely not about trying to change society or the way it is built.  He did many fantastic deeds as a country builder, but as for society–he wasn’t about to shake the tree.  In fact, his definition of American citizen (Caucasian Male) would be the definition for the first 90 years of this country, and would take another 100 to shake off entirely after that.

And that’s a shame, because Washington was a great president in many ways, I feel so disheartened about his social stances particularly because he was the one founding father who had the biggest chance of changing that.  Things were fresh and new, and nobody could say but that’s how we’ve always done things, because there was no always, we were just beginning.

But at least he made a beginning of a country where rules are changeable, even if they are unjust, and for that I give him credit for being a great president.

Poetry Review, “The Spring Poem” Dave Smith

20 Feb

Ok, if you don’t normally read poetry (most of America) you might not get the joke of this poem “The Spring Poem” or you might, and then realize it isn’t really funny.  Well, in traditional poetry, seasons are spoken of almost obsessively going all the way back to the beginning.  What most people don’t realize is how culturally relevant this is, because if you think about it, you’d realize that some country like Saudi Arabia probably doesn’t have a huge amount of Spring poetry because its seasons are different there.  However we’re not talking about Saudi Arabia, we’re talking about the west.

So Spring is almost always the “nice” season (even more than summer surprisingly) filled with blooms and flowers and mating and new life.  It’s the only season that traditional poets can really enjoy, because winter=death and summer and autumn, while having their delights, require a constant reminder that winter is coming (honestly, traditional poets really like reminding you about death).

So Dave Smith makes his spring poem about springs.  Wait–before you close this post in disgust, it’s not played like that, as I said not a very funny joke.  Actually it reminds me of something a freshman poetry professor would go gaga over because it’s “surprising.”

This poem goes beyond surprising–the springs he’s talking about are the springs in the backseat of an old junked car that teenagers have sex in.  It’s a slightly sarcastic reply to Louise Gluck’s statement “Every poet should write a spring poem.”  Which, while I like Gluck’s work pretty well, that statement sounds like she should be wearing a fairy dress and talking in a lilt while waving a giant glitter feather pen.

“Each year this car, melting around that spring,/hears nails trench from boards and every squeak sing.”  See it’s the makeout car, and he describes every aspect of it sexually, because for a generation of kids who grew up there, that car was a rite of passage, and that has to do with spring as well, because spring’s about mating, and growing up.

The part of the poem that makes this more than a snarky response to Gluck (honestly, poetry doesn’t get that much professional conflict so I have to savor it when I can),  because the beauty comes from the juxtaposition of all these spring happenings with the state of the car, old, rusting, and that all the descriptions of the car, while all sexual, also signify rotting and falling apart.  What grows, in this spring, is rust, not flowers.

And what hides beneath this playfulness, is a fact that once you’re all grown up, that thing you’ve rushed so fast to do, all that’s left to do is age and eventually fall apart.  I’m not saying that’s all that’s left to do socially, but physically, you’re cooked, whenever you stopped growing, you were at your prime, and from that moment forward your body will show signs of aging.  I don’t think this is a tragedy per se, because death at the end of life is like a period at the end of a sentence.  It’s there, it gives it shape and color, it makes certain details noticeable   In fact the single determining factor of human life is foreknowledge that at some point it is done.

See that last paragraph?  That’s what this “joke” brought me to.  And that’s why you need to read “The Spring Poem.”


Book Review: The Nine Princes in Amber, Roger Zelazny

18 Feb

Wow.  I picked out this book just because I had always sort of heard about Amber without knowing what it was about, and this was completely different than I expected.

Normally, fantasy series tend to be very long, very descriptive, and very complex.  In fact, outside the use of magic, I would say that these three attributes are the calling cards of fantasy in general.  So when I imagine a fantasy book I imagine some big 300 page monster that will go down to the teeniest details about everything.  It’s not how I prefer my reading all the time, to be honest with you, but when I sign up for such a thing, it’s just one of my expectations.

Nine Princes is not that.  In fact, it just zooms by at such a quick pace that there’s a few places that I’d like to have a little more description just to catch my breath.    If I didn’t know that this was before fantasy as a rule suffered from bloat I would think that this book was a reaction for that.  All in all, I really appreciate this bare-bones approach, because  the quick pacing allows for greater immersion in the work in many ways.

How does Zelazny avoid bloat?  Well, the concept is simple but interesting (Amber is the true world in which all worlds are based from, and Corwin, our protagonist, is from there.)  The conflict is direct–the nine princes are battling for the throne, well not ALL nine princes but I’ll get to that later.  Magic takes a backseat to action, so there’s no lengthy sequences as to how magic works, and magic is never the deciding factor as to victory.  There’s no scheming, thus avoiding chapter long descriptions of basically fantasy business meetings.  In fact, everything takes backseat to the action, if somebody’s not doing something Zelazny’s not interested, making this book seem like a magical pulp novel.     Warning–spoilers follow.

So being built from pulp, instead of talking about world development, we’re talking about sequences, most of which are very strong.  The opening escape from the hospital sequence is terrific, Corwin wakes up in a hospital with amnesia determined to escape.  He fights his way out, using no magic.  This is a terrific introduction to his character–blunt, unafraid of violence, tough, and basically making it all up as he goes along.

As for the amnesia angle–it’s ok.  Obviously Zelazny does this so characters have to explain things to Corwin, thus explaining things to the reader.  There really isn’t that much of a mystery, but I don’t think Zelazny is going for mystery anyway, he uses it as away to have less exposition, and to be able to chop it up in between action sequences.  Just as the amnesia thing gets a little annoying, he fixes it and we don’t have to hear about it again.

The Flora sequence for the most part works as well, though it does fall a little bit apart with scrutiny.  There’s a big discussion about Zelazny being a little anti-woman in his books.  I can see both sides of the argument.  Since Amber takes so much from pulp novels, I kind of think women have the roles here that they would in a Sam Spade book, either love-interests or support for greater characters.  When Corwin shows up, she offers sanctuary but immediately tries to rat him out to Eric (the main antagonist).  She’s unable to though, and makes it clear that she’ll support whatever side is winning.    This in and of itself doesn’t really make her less of a character–most of Corwin’s family shifts sides according to what people can do for them, in fact selfishness is their calling card.  However, later, they clearly express the reason that Flora couldn’t get to Amber was because she was stupid.

Also, considering that Flora was on Earth to watch Corwin all this time, wouldn’t Eric have left a way for her to contact him?  Why would she be so easily duped by him pretending to have his memory back when he’s had amnesia for something like 500 years already.  Also, why did Eric fashion an “accident” to put Corwin away when he was already wandering around Earth oblivious in the first place?  Honestly, being sent to the hospital awoke Corwin’s desire to find his identity, couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?

Anyway, Random (a great shifty trickster type character) shows up, Corwin quickly throws his lot with Random, and off they go to Amber.   The trip to Amber involves changing the world one piece at a time until you get to the real place–again, simple and directly explained without having to bother with the whole magic stuff.  That’s one thing I really appreciate about Zelazny–he knows that as a reader, I can accept in a fantasy novel that some things are just magic, I don’t need to read made up science for how it works, I want it to have some sort of order to it, but that’s all.  Zelazny shows clearly that there are rules and limitations to magic without having to do a “this is how magic works” lecture in the middle of his book.

On the way to Amber we meet another brother, Julian, who is the hunter, and a rather sketchy one at that, riding a skeleton horse and his pack of wolf-hounds.  They get around him rather easily, then run into Deidre, another sister.

Deidre has no personality, and is basically just serves as a plot device.  She lets them know that Amber is firmly run by Eric, and Corwin lets Deidre and Random know that he has no memory.  They decide to go to the underwater world of Rebna, where Corwin can walk the pattern and get his memory back.    They get chased by Eric’s goons, but get to Rebna safely.

The Rebna sequence is probably the best in the book, despite some iffy choices.  So Rebna is the reflection of Amber underwater, and has everything that Amber does.  We meet Llewellyn who is completely forgettable, and Moire, the only woman who has personality and power in this book (not to mention the only person with power that’s not in the family.)

Some things that go for Moire is she’s a pretty good ruler.  She allows Corwin et. al. in the city only when she’s sure they aren’t going to entangle her in family matters, her punishment for Random (who knocked up a royal then ran away) by making him marry a blind woman to raise her social status is kind of thoughtful in a weird way, she knows he won’t stay with her, so she’s not expecting miracles.

However, Moire also sleeps with Corwin without a second thought.  I could accept this if they had a previous romance or something, but she makes it clear that this is the first time she’s ever met him.  I don’t know if she’s overpowered by his amnesiac charm or what, but it’s clearly a terrible decision for someone who wants to keep out of family squabbles.  Also the fact that she’s a strong queen but helpless before Corwin’s overpowering masculinity…sheesh.

Corwin walks the pattern and gets his memory back.  (Oh the pattern, it’s like a line on the floor they have to follow that has energy and stuff, don’t think too much about it.)  One thing I would like to see is Corwin’s life on earth–we get little snippets of it here and there, his time in WWII, being in France during the revolution, the black plague…but only tiny bits.  I found that stuff very fascinating, and it provides a reason for his character getting softer–being on Earth has humanized him.

He zaps over to the Amber castle, grabs a pack of cards, and gets in a fencing match with Eric.  Corwin loses (!) and zaps away to his brother Bleys.

The Bleys sequence is the one I don’t care so much for.  Corwin and Bleys join up to fight Eric.  Both want the throne, but they figure that if both are alive and they win at the end they could duel for it.  This arrangement doesn’t bother me, what does bother me is that Bleys has no personality either, and unlike other characters we’ve seen so far, he has plenty of opportunity to show something other than general loyalty.  The other problem with this part is that they raise armies, and in a misguided attempt to add tension, we constantly hear of a thousand soldiers being lost to firestorms, three thousand falling off the sides of boats during a storm–are we expected to add all these up and keep running tabs as to how many are left?  By the way, we count all the way down to the last soldier.

That being said, we do get a little bit of sympathy from Corwin, as well as a bit of moral squeamishness about using all these soldiers (who Corwin and Bleys present themselves to as Gods to get their allegience).  Though Corwin is never morally bothered enough to just not have a war and think of some other way.  Also, Corwin loses the war.  He ends up being thrown into a dungeon and blinded after Eric claims the crown.

The dungeon scenes are also effective–blinded, Corwin basically gives up.  Brought out once a year to parade before the court, other than a loyal servant who gives him cigarettes and wine now and then, Corwin is by himself.  Many years pass in fact, until Corwin’s eyes heal, and Dworkin shows up.    Yes, there’s a big Deus ex Machina here with both those elements, but Zelazny prepared us for them in a way.  First, Corwin is shown to having super-healing skills from the very first scene, where he’s clearly mended much sooner than a regular person is.  Throughout the book we get background hints of this super-healing, so his eyes coming last makes sense.  Dworkin, the designer of the pattern and the cards (I haven’t mentioned the cards yet–they are images of the whole family, which function as a sort of intergalactic cell phone, though you can travel through them too) and really the man who gave the family its power in the first place.    For one thing he’s completely bonkers, wandering around the prison cells because he’s “inprisoned” too (though not in a cell like Corwin.)  Two, it makes sense that Dworkin would be uninterested in Corwin when he was blind–Dworkin fancies himself an artist and wants people to see and admire his work.  Until Corwin can see, Dworkin doesn’t pay any attention to him.

Anyway, Corwin convinces Dworkin to draw a lighthouse on the wall, and uses it to transport away from the prison.  There he gathers strength under the eye of  the lighthouse-keeper, Jopin, an old salt.  He helps around at the lighthouse, fixing things up and being handy.  Before he leaves, Jopin (who knows who Corwin really is despite a cover) tells Corwin to look out the lighthouse telescope, where Corwin sees a path of evil coming into Amber.  Corwin knows that he’s responsible for this path of evil, having thrown down a curse when he was being blinded.   He feels a little guilty about this and wonders how he will fix it, but he also has a plan to bring gunpowder to Amber as a next step in his quest for the throne.  And here we end.

As I said, I really found this book to be pretty good considering that ALL the plot that I just described takes place in 120 pages.  The plotting is superb, the fight scenes are done really well, we never get mired in exposition, and there’s tension in nearly every scene.  There’s two weaknesses though, the dialogue is pretty bad sometimes, Zelazny feels the need to shift between modern speak and an archaic middle ages tone that sounds like an actor going in and out of a bad accent.  The other weakness is that some of the characters could use more personality–outside of Random and Corwin, the rest of them are completely personality-free, even Eric who seems to function as an antagonist, but nothing more.  Despite that, I recommend this book to anybody looking for a good light read that has a little more meat to it.

General History

16 Feb

Ahhh history–a subject that can be fascinating or bore me to tears.  When I was little I was fascinated by all the wars in history, not because I loved war mind you, but I loved history and wars (in my head then) were when history had a bunch of stuff happen in a short period of time and personalities and pomp and good vs. evil battles (I was like seven ok, not my fault) but the truth is, even wars can get pretty boring.

As an adult, I want to make a distinction between history and a log of past events.  History is almost always not the same as events actually happened, rather, it’s a collection of stories our culture makes up to put those events in a recognizable pattern.  If I wanted to look at hard history, I’d be looking at mostly data, collected things from archaeological digs, lists of numbers, public records, medical records, and truth be told it’s completely boring until each piece of information is put in the confines of a story.  It’s the difference between looking at a bunch of statistics about Civil War deaths and arranging those statistics within the larger stories of what the Civil War is about.  So I’m not interested in history gathering, I’m more interested in history application.  The story we put these facts in is always changing, and includes a lot of stuff that’s not true at all.  So I want to point out a few rules on history.

1.  History is an agreed story based on a series of preconceptions that may or may not be true.  Wanna do something that will kind of blow your mind?  Look at a History textbook from 1960.  Just like futuristic ideas (think of the original Star Trek) date really quickly, ideas about the past say as much about contemporary times as they do anything about the past.  We’re talking about people in far off times, but we’re seeing them with modern eyes and modern moralities and do things like place way more importance on things that matter now than things that mattered at the time, and ignore other things that people really cared about then (i.e. what do you know about the gold standard?  I thought so.)

2.  People tend to think that we’re in the most advanced time, and everything has been building up to now.  It’s a nice idea isn’t it?  Humanity has been learning their lessons and we have progressed to this point.  People today are more enlightened, are smarter, have a better social structure, than every culture before.  It’s an optimistic viewpoint, but not one that I believe.  While knowledge has built on itself over human history (though knowledge has and can be lost), humans have remained essentially the same, from the time we first started being able to have villages until today.  That’s one thing I really don’t like about seeing how things used to be and chalking it down with “people were so ignorant then.”  In one way I think it’s a cop-out, for instance, the Catholic church did not torture Jews in the Middle Ages because they were ignorant, they did it for some very shady reasons.  Also, explorers didn’t conquer Native Americans out of a naive ignorance that they were “savages that needed to be civilized,” rather they conveniently labeled them as savages to do what they wanted.  And this sort of thing still happens all the time.

3.  Sometimes cultures are important historically because they have better records.  One reason that the Roman Empire is studied so much, is because the Romans were absolutely tops when it came to documenting things.  Not only that, but many people since the Romans admired the Roman culture enough to save this documentation.  On the other hand, there’s whole cultures that rose and fell without any documentation at all, or hardly any.  Whether they didn’t document, or they didn’t document on materials that lasted doesn’t really matter–where we have no written explanation, we have very little insight as to how people acted at that time.  Yes we can find their buildings, and remains or whatever, but we won’t have access to their thinking, which leads us to a bunch of guesses, which are based in modern times.  In fact, I can think of at least one instance (The Greeks) that their written records arguably had more influence on history than however much land they owned at their height.

4.  Sometimes things are added in just to make them more interesting.  Ever wonder why Washington has so many myths about him?  The apple tree thing?  The wooden teeth?  Mostly because he was pretty dull.  Honestly,  he was well liked in his time, but his speeches were very short, he had very little going on in the home front, had no children, and while he was a very good general, he wasn’t one of the influential thinkers of his time.  I really think all these little made-up stories are to try to give him some character.  I mean, think of his presidency, very important, but most people don’t know a thing about that time.

5.  History is never objective, but it’s extremely changeable until the generation that has lived through it has passed on.  Honestly, I think that Vietnam matters more as a social issue (ie the people who lived through it and remember it)  than it will in future history.  At the same time, there are other events that at the time seemed like no big deal but later grew to matter enormously, for instance the car was thought of as an expensive toy when it first came out.

6.  History is always written with ulterior motives.  Cleopatra wasn’t like that–the Romans liked to see her as a maneater because Egypt was one of the only other civilizations in Rome’s sphere at that time that came even close to being a threat.  Richard III wasn’t ugly, Shakespeare wrote that because he was mainly writing for the royalty at the time who had some insecurities about credibility and lineage.   Wars don’t usually end with a big giant battle, but when one side or the other goes broke.  Lords and ladies haven’t gone away, they’re just replaced by corporations instead of castles, and in those castles they did more of what corporations do today than all the jousting and such we usually think of them as doing.  There’s no such things as simpler more innocent times–those are myths.

7.  But those myths are interesting, they get into our national psyches and tell us more about ourselves than anything else.  That’s why I think they’re interesting, even arguments about history are about really, who we are and what we value.  And just as I find myths to have value, I find history to have the same value, because underneath all these stories are our insecurities, our longings, our heroes, and people just like us.

Pop Culture Friday! Rock and Roll is going to be saved!!!

15 Feb

1.  Fall Out Boy–My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark—I never really got into Fall Out Boy–they were one of many American bands that came out in the first half of the 2000’s that I (fairly or unfairly) labeled as lame alternative ripoffs.  Or to put it in a slightly different way, when the teen pop thing started to fizzle, I felt like these bands were ladled to millennials as their serious wild music that says things, when it’s really commercial and emotionally shallow.  They broke up apparently, but now are back together and sending out a really confusing message.  So they blew up all their old albums in a bonfire in the same place where the disco sucks record burnings started.  Why?  I don’t know, maybe it’s about “saving rock n’ roll” which is the tour they are starting right now.    Why is he referencing an event that  happened before he was born?  You do know that the disco bonfires were started by radio DJs as publicity stunts right?  Also it’s not like rock music got really good once disco died–it more was eaten by MTV.  Anyway the song kind of rips off all the corporate hair metal of the late 80’s and shows their stuff being burned in a bonfire.  Weirdly enough, even though the song is kinda pseudo-epic, and the message is totally off, I find the act to be ballsy–I mean, he’s saying he’s going to save rock and roll, certainly a way to get people to pay attention to you.  I’m just worried that he’ll save Rock N’ Roll by becoming something lame like Bon Jovi, then doing anything cool or clever.

2.  Touch and Go, Lisa Gardner–“This is the truth: Love, safety, family . . . it’s all touch and go.”  I don’t even know what that tagline means.  Touch and go is a  saying that I would use on someone struggling to stay alive, or barely keeping on, and this story of a family being stolen doesn’t have to do that at all.  Maybe she means that those things are always at risk.  This book is a big fat turn-off for me, because it so french-kisses suburban values and feeds on suburban fears that it just bugs me.  Keep in mind I’m not knocking suburban living–every place has its own way of life and there’s a lot of reasons to choose whatever life you have, but why, if you were so much into that, would you read something so calculated to make the things you work so hard for seem threatened?  There’s no such thing as a risk free life, and the one big fallacy I see in suburban thinking is that the presence of a risk is equal to the presence of a threat.  And yes, you can take the story as the “evils that can lurk under the facades of a perfect family” but the message is still, everyone’s a threat, dangers lurk everywhere, hide away, play it safe, stay with the herd, and buy stuff.

3.  Identity Thief–Sigh–I really want to like Jason Bateman,  Arrested Development and all, but this movie if it had anybody else in it, I wouldn’t even glance at twice much less consider watching.  My problem is that Jason Bateman as a movie character is quickly turning into the uptight stick-in-the-mud  crotchety character that desperately needs to learn to lighten up.  That’s what he plays in every single movie.  It’s getting tedious.  Smart Jason Bateman, I know you’re still there somewhere–please come back!  We need you.

Ok America, each of these three things are understandable bad choices.  I don’t mind that you made them, I do want you to learn from them.  Now go to your room and think about this.


Movies From 2011 part 2

14 Feb

Ok, so I’m continuing my look at 2011 movies here, including the ones I watched.  I have to warn you, my watching habits are very eclectic, so there’s some big things I’ve missed, and some small things I’ve fallen in love with.  Here goes!

1.  Season of the Witch–UGH!  I’m so glad I missed this one.  What is wrong with Nicholas Cage lately?  I mean, will he just show up for anything or what?

2.  The Company Men–Is the sort of movie I feel like I should want to watch, but really I don’t.  Up in the Air follows the same sort of story and I just don’t see this one being better.

3.  Ka-Boom–I watched this.  Another movie about the end of the world, but before the others, so I can’t say it was bandwagoning. I liked it, even though it was like Greg Araki was setting it up in cool 90’s college rather than real life.  Very interesting, quite funny.

4.  Uncle Boonmee–This looks so out of the normal range of movie going experience I simply must watch it.  I might hate it but I must watch it.

5.  Jane Eyre–I watched this–a nearly perfect film adaptation of the book.  Not a popcorn movie, but an elegant little sonata that is so atmospherically rich that it will flavor your days for weeks.

6.  Bill Cunningham, New York–Because I like quirky little documentaries

7.   Win Win–I want to see this because it was the “Little Miss Sunshine” of the year, and just looked really solid.

8.  Potiche–I watched this.  What a fun French movie!  I like French movies when they’re light and fluffy like this one.

9.  Meek’s Cutoff-Because that movie looks so lovingly made.

10.  The Beaver–What were they thinking?  I don’t want to watch this, I just wondered if anyone involved here thought about this story.  Did they think it would do well?

11.  Bridesmaids–I watched this one, it was an average comedy.   I laughed a couple times but not very much.

12.  Midnight in Paris–I thought I’d never love Woody Allen again, but this movie, like champagne, so effortless and beautiful.  A perfect summer movie.

13.  The Tree of Life–Another movie that I might hate but must see simply because it tries for so much.

14.  The Trip–One of the few smart comedies I’ve seen in the past few years.

15.  Horrible Bosses-Ugh–not funny, SOOOOOO forced.  It’s like being tickled when you’re not ticklish.

16.  The Future–I loved this movie–a lot of people didn’t, but I thought it was fascinating.  I know a lot of people like this here in portland.

17.  The Hedgehog–I know it’s a kids movie, but it’s so sweet–it’s a good pick-me up on a dark day.