Category Archives: Culture

Thoughts about culture; arts, music, writing, sculpture, photography and more.

The Book List Game

Classic booksIn a recent story titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read,” the eminent astrophysicist listed his top eight book titles – from a Reddit conversation that was going on back in December, 2011. Here are the books he chose back then (check the linked story above for his comments on why he picked these titles):

  1. The Bible;
  2. The System of the World, by Isaac Newton;
  3. On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin;
  4. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift;
  5. The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine;
  6. The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith;
  7. The Art of War, by Sun Tzu;
  8. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I certainly can’t argue with his choices as worthy of being read, although they wouldn’t all be my top choices. I have all of them but the Newton on my bookshelves.  This list was much discussed at the time it was first released. Open Culture commented:

The list, which has generated a great deal of interest and discussion, leads you to think about the very nature of not just what constitutes essential reading, but what defines an “intelligent person.” Should every such individual really read any book in particular? Does it matter if others already acknowledge these books as essential, or can they have gone thus far undiscovered?… he makes the perhaps daring implication that an intelligent person must connect to a widely shared culture, rather than demonstrating their brainpower by getting through volume upon little-read volume, written in the most labyrinthine language, expounding on the most abstract subject matter, or grappling with the knottiest philosophical problems.

A followup discussion with other recommended titles was published by Open Culture in April 2014. And in republishing the list again after two years, it has re-opened the discussion in 2015. To which I weigh in, first by commenting on his choices.

I have a suspicion that the Bible was slipped in as a political sop to prevent him from being targeted as a godless atheist or some such name by the fundamentalists. Can’t have non-religious scientists. While I know many people who have read some part of it, I have met few who are not in the religion business (ministers, priests and rabbis) who have read it in its entirety. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, either, but have read a good deal of it in several translations.

Not that it’s a bad book to read. It formed the foundation for Western culture, law and morality until the mid-19th century and still plays a vital role in it, despite the trend to secularism these past 150 years. Just that it’s not in the same intellectual grouping as the rest and makes me wonder what his criteria were for the rest.

Actually I recommend all people should read the core of the world’s religious and spiritual literature – the Dhammapada, for example, is one of my favourite titles. The Bhagavad Gita, the Diamond Sutra, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Nag Hammadi codex, the Talmud, the Kalamas Sutra… we should all read these books so we can better understand the faiths of others and engage in informed discussion about them – not simply pursue ideologies or knee-jerk, media-induced reactions.

But I also recommend people read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens to get a look at alternative views on religion. Having no religion should be an intellectual decision, not a puff of lifestyle negativity, like a diet fad.

And that raises the question about philosophy: why are there no works by major philosophers – no Plato, Aristotle, Montaigne, Sartre, Voltaire… although one can suggest that Machiavelli was somewhat of one, at least a political philosopher. And why not recommend The Discourses – a more comprehensive and broader approach to power and politics – instead of The Prince?

Similarly, Gulliver’s Travels is a marvellous political and social satire that still has resonance and humour today despite almost 300 years since it was first written. But it is written in a style that is no longer popular, its humour may be too dated (and obscure) for some, and can be seen as rather too rambling. Don Quixote is as much a satire on the human condition, so why was it ignored? Was there nothing more modern that was worthy?

Choosing one work of fiction from the millions of books written is tough. Is Swift a better choice for the sole novelist than Joyce? Or Tolstoy? Hugo? Herbert? Clavell? Austen? Shelley? Melville? Conrad? Clancy? Cervantes? Dumas? Woolf? Lawrence? Achebe? Orwell? Melville? Hardy? Dickens? Each writes about the human condition, although not necessarily as a satire. And which of their works to include? Why would you pick Anna Karenina over War and Peace?  Pride and Prejudice over Sense and Sensibility?

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47 Ronin Reviewed


This week, after watching the 2013 film, 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, I had to wonder why Hollywood felt it necessary to take a powerful story, a great historical drama, and mess with it. And, of course, why they would put Keanu Reeves into a film about 18th century Japanese samurai. Or, for that matter, into any film.

I’m not an actor, so my appreciation of their talents is only as an outsider. But Reeves seems to be pretty much a one-dimensional character. It worked in the Matrix, albeit less so in the sequels, but in films like the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, he was awful. (the 1951 original remains so much better…). His breadth of emotional expression seems very limited: his face always shows an angry bewilderment.

Perhaps that flatness was thought well-suited to the stoicism expected of samurai culture. And in part it does work in the scenes of fighting and warrior bonding, but then there’s the whole love scene thing and he just doesn’t come across as the romantic lead when required.

Reeves plays a half-breed, a role not fully explained (why did the director, Carl Rinsch require a Western lead in a story that is purely Japanese?). Nor is the whole isolated-Japan-no-contact political situation fleshed out (which didn’t really alter until the Meijin era, almost two centuries later), which might explain somewhat better why Reeve’s character was shunned by the samurai (and that whole sold-into-slavery gladiator thing was a very odd inclusion, especially since slavery was banned in Japan in 1590).

The film didn’t score well at Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB. It scores much lower than the black-and-white 1941 film of the same name by Kurosawa.

But to be fair, what critics like and what the public likes are often at odds with one another. And personally, I am often entertained by films that critics panned. And 47 Ronin entertained me, despite my reservations about Reeves and the Hollywood accouterments. It’s a fun film, but it could have been a great film.

Hollywood hasn’t learned that colour, action and special effects can’t make up for good storytelling, solid acting, well-written dialogue and effective directing.

This film has some of that – aside from Reeves, the acting is good, albeit straight-jacketed by the emotionally restrained period. Just not quite enough to make it a great film. The story is confused; context isn’t clear and it seems to dart around without purpose at times. The special effects detracted me (as they often do in Hollywood films) from the story.

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Heart of Darkness

Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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Falling Skies: Aliens as Metaphor

Falling SkiesWe watched the last of Season Two of the Falling Skies series last night. After a bit of research this morning, I learned I have two more seasons to watch and a fifth season has been scheduled. Something to look forward to. I wasn’t sure about how it would turn out, but the series has matured nicely, although one can’t say that about its politics.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about American reaction to an alien invasion – one could say it is a drawn-out remake of War of the Worlds. The aliens, of course, have more advanced weaponry and technology and aim at world domination. And enslavement of the human race along the way. Falling Skies spices up the mix with a rich back story about the aliens I won’t spoil here. But at least by the end of Season Two, there’s no indication that anyone else on the planet has survived and formed a resistance. It’s solely an American underground.  One bridles at that.

My first impression was that it was Walking Dead with aliens instead of zombies. I personally didn’t care much for the Walking Dead series and didn’t manage to watch even the whole first season. But, as a scifi buff, Falling Skies caught and held my attention.*

The ostensible premise is straight out of H.G. Wells: high-tech aliens invade, destroy much of the planet’s civilization and infrastructure, and pockets of humans fight back. But there’s more to it.

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A Few More Uke Arrangements

Lately, I’ve been redoing all the arrangements of songs I put together for the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group (CPLUG) this year, as well as arranging some new pieces for the group. I’m working on a new layout for the tunes that makes them easier for beginners to follow and makes the songbook somewhat easier to manage.

I’ve zipped a few of the most recent tunes (in PDF) here: Dec 2014.zip. As I often do, I offer some of the songs in alternate keys. You can always transpose any song yourself, with the help of my free chord transposition wheel.

This zipped file includes:

  • Mr Bojangles (F)
  • Till There Was You (C and D)
  • I’m So Lonesome I could Cry (F and G)
  • Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody (G)
  • Paint it Black (Dm)
  • St. James Infirmary Blues (Dm)
  • Tower of Song (G and F)
  • Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (G & F) added Dec 18
  • That’s Amore in G (added Dec 19)

Vorson ukuleleHope you enjoy them. Please let me know if you find any problems or mistakes with the files. I’ll post a link when I have the older songbooks complete.  Have a great holiday season and keep practicing!

PS. These are only the songs I’ve arranged recently, not all the songs from other groups and arrangers I’ve shared with the CPLUG members in the past or any of the Christmas music. And I’m working on a version of That’s Amore to send out to members before the New Year.

And for those who read my ukulele reviews, I will have a new review coming soon: the Vorson steel-stringed electric uke, see in the photo on the right. it’s an interesting instrument and not very expensive.

Finally: interested in owning a very rare, all-metal, tenor resonator guitar? One of only 12 made by Mike Soares. Sale or trade. Contact me…

Gravity: A Review

gravity
While watching director Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Gravity, this weekend, I was struck by how powerful the mixed themes of isolation and survival can be. I was reminded not simply of films – Tom Hanks in Castaway came to mind immediately – but in literature, too; from Robinson Crusoe to Blindness. Stories of survival have captivated humankind since the Gilgamesh epic was scratched into clay tablets by an anonymous Sumerian scribe.

I really enjoyed Gravity for several reasons and highly recommend it.

First it’s a science fiction film and scifi is my favourite genre of movies. And it’s a good, well-done, high-quality production, not the usual cheesy B-flicks I consume. This one is visually stunning, especially on Blu-Ray. And the sound is gorgeous too – watch the extras about how the sound was developed. Fascinating.

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Julius Caesar: Best of the Bard?

Julius CaesarFor my money, Julius Caesar is simply Billy Shakespeare’s best ever play. I mean, what’s not to like in it? It has some stonking great speeches in it – including one of his top five ever (Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen….”) as well as a passel of memorable lines you can quote at parties (Who among my readers hasn’t passed off a quick “Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war…” just for effect?).

Plus it has a conspiracy, a murder, a riot, a battle, and a couple of suicides to gussy up the action. Treachery, betrayal, loyalty, raw ambition, backstabbing, front-stabbing, ghosts… really: what’s not to like?

It’s short and brisk, so it can be read in an evening and the plot followed easily enough, even by a non-academic. It’s bereft of the knotty love-action that makes you scratch your head and wonder which twin is onstage and why. WS eschewed his usual love for complicated metaphors, and hidden meanings when writing it, so almost anyone can understand it.

And on top of that, it’s all about politics and Billy the Bard was in his best game when writing about politics. Like I said, what’s not to like?

And then there’s the whole mess of subtext about manliness and masculinity, about friendship and loyalty, about power, about the conflict between reason and passion, about the nature of the state and the greater good, and whether it’s okay to kill someone for a Big Reason like saving the republic.

Like every other Shakespearean play, it’s about the complexity of being human and interacting with other conflicted humans. The issues, the insights, the internal tug-of-war over ethics and morals, the passions and lusts – they were the same in his day as they are in ours, and he makes them accessible by weaving them into great stories. That’s why the Bard is still so relevant today.

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The Three Godzillas: Size Matters

Godzilla posterThis year another remake of Godzilla was released, and of course I had to get a copy. I have many of the other Godzilla films made over the past 60 years, sadly not all of them. There were so many monster movies made in Japan through the 1950s and 60s that it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone collect them. B-films, all of them, and still entertaining if you can find them.

(If I recall it properly, I first watched the original Godzilla in the late 1950s at a drive-in theatre, sitting with my parents in the front seat of the car, with the speaker hanging inside on the driver’s side window; but I also saw it on TV in the late 50s-early 60s and several times on TV and DVD since)

Even the eight-disc Godzilla Collection only has eight of the films: Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero), All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge) and Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Why I say it’s hard to know if you own or have seen them all is twofold. First, there were so many it’s hard to keep track of them all (and I don’t even know if they have all been released in North America on DVD). Second, several titles were renamed (and sometimes more than once) for their NAm release, so you can’t be sure what you’ve got until you watch them. Some are sold as single titles, others only in multi-film collections.

After the first film in 1954, there followed a slew of monster movies in which Godzilla took on a whole collection of monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah. Here are some of the film titles: Godzilla Vs Biollante, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Godzilla Vs Destoroyah, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Godzilla Vs. Gigan, Godzilla on Monster Island, The Return of Godzilla, Godzilla Vs. the Sea Monster, All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla 2000 (aka Godzilla Millennium), Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep (aka Godzilla vs The Seat Monster) and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster.

Plus there were spinoff series for the Gamera, Mothra and Rodan monsters in which Godzilla usually did not appear. I don’t know about you, but I want them all.

Godzilla moved between villain and hero at various times, too, defending the world and attacking it in different films, fighting other monsters and allying with them. The Godzilla franchise is huge (31 films according to this list) and that doesn’t even include the animated series. The list at the bottom of the Godzilla Wiki site includes video game appearances, books and comics.

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