Memory, Recall, and Significance

As we age, we tend to fret that we can’t remember what happened yesterday or last week as well as some events of our youth which seemed as if they happened just yesterday. Our most recent days seem to blur into each other.

I think this is not just an effect of age, but of perspective. We have sifted through those distant events. The ones imbued with the most significance rise to the top; the rest drain away. We recall them time and again, talking with friends and family, looking at old photos. We shape and mold those memories. We create them.

Likewise we have forgotten as many trivial moments of our early life as the trivial moments of our present life. We don’t remember the groceries we bought, the loads of laundry we did, the algebra homework, the endless boring meetings at work. Obviously we don’t remember what we have forgotten.

Until we have moved some distance away from this moment, we will not be able to assess its significance. When we say goodbye to a friend, we cannot know if those will be the last words we speak to him until some moment much later. When we say hello to a stranger, we cannot know if she will become a friend or a lover.

We live our life in the moment; we create our narrative upon reflection.



The difficulty with making films about historical characters is that the audience comes armed with prejudice. The face is familiar to us in a way that creates rather than closes a distance. It is a face that stands for something so that the person the face belongs becomes a kind of shorthand for an ideal or a moment in time. That person ceases to be a human being. He is larger than life.

Characters larger than life are conveniently not like us. We excuse ourselves for living our small, ordinary lives because, after all, we are not like the great men who perform great deeds.

So when faced with the choice to see a movie about Lincoln, who is much more a myth than a man, does it feel rather like a school assignment? Of course it does. As such, I went expecting very little. How would Spielberg make this movie something other than spectacle?

Spielberg succeeds by eschewing spectacle entirely, by starting with Lincoln listening to soldiers on the front and continuing with the small details of a domestic scene: a husband and wife talking. For the entire movie, he remains on this tight focus of personal conversation. (Don’t let the trailer fool you.) He removes the epic from what, in America, is always viewed as epic: our great divide, the Civil War. He makes history personal.

What a challenge to move us past the the filters of our eyes, that familiar figure, the costumes, the old-fashioned speech until we are caught up with the people, their personalities, their arguments, and personal passions.

The focus of the movie is not on Lincoln’s life, in a biographical sweep, or on the Civil War but on passing a piece of legislation: the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The film is a study in politics, about what men do to get things done: when they stand their ground in the face of opposition and when they compromise—about doing anything you have to do when your need to accomplish it is more important to you than yourself as an individual…even if those things are not exactly neat and tidy.

The tone and pacing of the movie is very like TV show, The West Wing…just in a different period. And like that show, and perhaps the real life West Wing of the Clinton and Obama administrations, the president’s wife plays a key role as confidant and partner. She is not just part of the scenery. She has dimension.

Daniel Day-Lewis delivers the goods by not chewing the scenery. When his Lincoln is very, very angry he gets deathly quiet. After awhile you forget Lincoln’s face, you forget Daniel Day-Lewis’s face and you begin to see a person not unlike yourself.

The only bone I have to pick with Spielberg is the usual one. He doesn’t know when to end a movie. He should’ve stopped several scenes earlier, with Lincoln walking down the hallway after success. Instead, we have to continue onto the assassination and the mourning and one last ending speech.

Other than that quibble, Lincoln is a good film. It’s probably the only film I’ve seen this year that I’d like to see again. In fact, if you were here, I’d say let’s go now.

Bottom Line: Recommended

We Need to Talk About Kevin

I had heard great things about Tilda Swinton’s performance. She is a mother racked with guilt and duty. She lives her life in a hollow-eyed state of post traumatic stress. What I wanted most from this movie was a character arc. I was disappointed. In an interview with Swinton that played before the film, she said she most enjoyed playing characters whose basic foundation was shaken–who were forced to change. For me that just didn’t happen in Kevin.

Part of the fault lies in the structure of the movie. It’s one of those modern intercut movies, where the past is overlaid on the present. I don’t think we can even refer to the scenes in the past as flashbacks anymore. In this particular story, I felt the technique defused the tension, rather than heightened it. If we want to witness Tilda Swinton’s character dragged into her own personal hell, doesn’t she have to start off in a good place? I was surprised, somewhere two-thirds of the way in the film to learn that she was a successful travel author. In every other scene she seems trapped by circumstances.

Reading around the web, I see that Roger Ebert disagrees with me completely about this. He says,

“The mistake would be to take the film apart and try to reconnect the pieces in chronological order. The wife and mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), has been so overwhelmed by despair that her life exists in her mind all at the same time. There is no pattern. Nothing makes sense.

I guess how you feel about the film’s structure depends on what you think the film is trying to portray. Is it enough to be adrift in the mind of the sufferer? Is the audience supposed to feel what it is to know that there is no way out. The film certainly succeeds providing a sense of eternal damnation–the sameness of the eternal present.

Every scene in the movie is colored in red. One is always aware of it. The effect is not like Ozu, however; it’s more like a B-horror flick. Like Lady Macbeth, Swinton’s character cannot wash the blood off her hands. And time after time we see her try, whether it’s red paint, or tomato juice, or strawberry jam. I can’t decide of this is overdone or the best thing about the movie.

Bottom Line

Well-played. Intriguing. And yet I can’t think of a single person I’d encourage to see it.

Retribution Falls

This was recommended to me as a fun bit of fluff, “Firefly in airships.” So I didn’t approach it with the bar set high. Even so, I apparently expect more from my fluff because I was disappointed. Reading it I spent most of my time wondering why it kept missing the mark. What sets a good book apart? What makes the beloved motley crew of Serenity beloved and the pale imitations pale?

One bad habit is the awkward revelation of information in dialog. Yes, it would be nice if the reader learned things as the characters do but if there is no way to make this natural, the writer should just tell us, quickly and simply. Don’t set up a conversation just to have one character ask another to explain the political/religious/economic situation of their shared environment.

For the most part, the narrative flow is competent. Despite starting off at gunpoint, it is slow to get going. The real plot doesn’t kick in until page 50. A heist. A double-cross. Our motley crew caught up in machinations and plots, pawns in someone else’s game. Can they foil the plot, save their hides, and clear their names?

In Retribution Falls, the point-of-view refuses to settle. We get inside most of the crew’s heads but don’t stay with any of them long enough to build affection. The most interesting character is the passenger, Crake, a daemonist (someone who harnesses daemonic forces in a scientific way, as we might use electricity). Jez, the navigator, also has some interesting differences she is trying to keep from bubbling to the surface. Had the story been told entirely through either of their eyes, it would have been more interesting. Ostensibly, the ship’s captain, Frey, is the hero. This kind of story demands he be a lovable rogue, a bit crusty from his hard luck life.

A frat boy immaturity clings our band of misfits. They each have a distinctive twitch but they don’t have any depth. They whore, drink, and gamble in a gentle PG-rated way — and I’m thankful that Retribution Falls lacks any real ugliness. For the most part, it’s just flat. And then there’s the matter of our captain’s love life. Painful. Rather than making him admirable, his attitude made me root for the other team. Are we supposed to muster sympathy and feel his outrage when he says, “You murdered our baby!” to the woman who attempted suicide after he left her at the altar, pregnant with his child. Really?

Overall, I found the construction of the characters and environment lazy. The imagined world reminded me of the criticism that Richard Harter made of The Mote in God’s Eye: “Hack after hack has rewritten Roman and European history into galactic Empires, dark ages, etc. It has been all too much a matter of projecting the romanticism of the past into the future without any real consideration of plausibility.” Retribution Falls is Renaissance Fair with pirates in airships.

Books Read

I can’t decide whether to make a list of books read for each year or just a huge master file. So I’ll just start with 2010 and see how easily bored I become with list making.

2011-12-31. Update

I decided to add to the list for 2011 rather than break it into two lists.

Books Read 2010

I should clarify to say that this is a list of books read for the first time in 2010–well, mostly. I love to reread books or just to step into the pages for a short visit with favorite characters. Sometimes I get involved in rereading entire long series of books. In some ways it’s as difficult to interest myself in a new book as it is to interest myself in a new person. Both require my concentration and energy, so they must be compelling in some way. If I reread the book from beginning to end, I included it; if I just dipped into it, I did not.

I felt that in 2010 I read comparatively few new books. When I list them all, my list is longer than I thought it would be. I’d already forgotten some of them! AJM bought an iPad this year and is now reading more light fiction as ebooks. I prefer bound paper books…but then I don’t read much light fiction.

  • 2010-01-01. Heat Wave. Not a great book but a very clever tie-in to Castle. I like the characters so can forgive much for a little fun.
  • 2010-01-09. My Life in France. Julia Child.
    Julia is an ESTJ, I think. I love how she attacks everything with gusto and is so straightforward and matter-of-fact. No apologies.
  • 2010-01-24. Un Lun Dun. China Mieville.
    Very slow in the first and second acts. More of an adult’s idea of what a children’s book should be than really a children’s book.
  • 2010-02-13. West from Home: Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder, San Francisco 1915.
    I like reading books about places I’ve been–understand layout.
  • 2010-02-28. Where Angels Fear to Tread. E. M. Forster
    Would have appreciated the movie more had I read the book first. Like how the book expands my understanding.
  • 2010-04-01. Extra Virgin.
    (Reread for the umpteenth time.) I would like to find the sequel.
  • 2010-04-17. Predictably Irrational.
    DanAriely was my favorite speaker at #SXSWi 2010. This book on behavioral economics gave me a lot to think about.
  • 2010-05-07. Romancing Miss Bronte.
    A novel that wants to be a biography but has to imagine so much it can’t be called one.
  • 2010-05-30. Villette. Charlotte Bronte.
    (Reread) Didn’t engage me any more this reading than when I first read it 35 years ago. Really tried to pay attention this time, too.
  • 2010-06-11. The Nutmeg of Consolation.
    (Reread) The first book I read in the Aubrey/Maturin series but the second to last to acquire. One left to complete my set.
  • 2010-06-20. The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants.
  • 2010-07-02. The Upside of Irrationality. Dan Ariely.
    I saw Dan Ariely at SXSWi 2010. Reading his books is just like talking with him. Insightful and interesting.
  • 2010-07-19. Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. (Reread.)
  • 2010-07-28. Enchanted Temples of Taos: My Story of Rosario.
    In which I learn a lot about my mother’s side of the family.
  • 2010-08-23. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives.
  • 2010-09-25. The Year of No Money in Tokyo.
    I was 1/3 of the way through before I discovered he wasn’t just another whiny white guy in Japan.
  • 2010-09-15. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol I.
  • 2010-09-30. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol II.
  • 2010-10-13. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol III.
  • 2010-10-28. Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery. Vol IV.
  • 2010-11-24. The Ivington Diaries. Monty Don.
  • 2010-11-29. From My Grandmother’s Bedside.

Books Read in 2011

I will reiterate and say that this is a list of books read for the first time in 2011–well, mostly. If I reread the book from beginning to end, I included it; if I just dipped into it, I did not.

One of my resolutions for 2011 was to write something about every book I read. This started out well and then worked against me. Sometimes I hadn’t digested a book fully and hit a wall trying to write about it. As a result, I began to shy away from reading toward the end of 2011 because I was failing in my resolution. In the beginning of 2011, I had to move all our books around several times because we had the house painted. As a result, I got back into reading some science fiction and enjoyed it a lot.

  • 2011-01-21. Japanese Houses: Architecture and Interior.
    Mostly a picture book.
  • 2011-02-21. Shanghai Diary.
  • 2011-02-27. Old Man’s War.
  • 2011-02-28. The Ghost Brigades.
  • 2011-03-01. The Last Colony.
  • 2011-03-01. With Respect to the Japanese.
  • 2011-04-10. Beautiful Joe.
    I loved this book as a child. Possibly I read an abridged version. The original is disappointingly racist.
  • 2011-05-06. At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England.
  • 2011-05-??. Fuzzy Nation.
  • A Midwife’s Tale.
  • Shirley.
  • Vanity Fair.
  • Wild Swans.
  • 2011-11-??. Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You
  • 2011-11-26. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.
    I found the movie more affecting.

I reread Wild Swans and Women of the Pleasure Quarters completely. Dabbled in Tales of Old Japan. Started but didn’t finish: The Morville Hours. Began and am still reading: The Silent Traveller in New York, A Little History of British Gardening; Retribution Falls.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is straight forward action from beginning to end. In fact, it is very much like The Adventures of Tintin and I like them both for the same reason: simplicity. The good guys are good and the bad guys must be stopped. There’s a job to do and our heroes get it done. The focus is on the method not the motive.

I also appreciate that Ghost Protocol lacks the meanness of many action movies. Sure the generic bad guy wants to detonate a nuclear bomb and start Armageddon. But that’s general evil, not personal sadism. As much as I liked Daniel Craig’s reboot of Bond, watching him stripped naked getting his balls kicked wasn’t exactly escapism.

Ghost Protocol also succeeds in taking itself not too seriously. For example, thanks to face recognition software there’s now apparently an app for identifying assassins. The only downside is that while you’re looking at your phone to see why it’s alerted you, the assassin has time to walk right up to you and kill you. Ah, the dangers of contemporary life; walking around looking at your phone oblivious to the world in front of you. In fact, Ghost Protocol has quite a few amusing instances of user experience design failure. I’d certainly have words with whomever designed a lock on a train car that can be opened only with a retinal scan. Director Brad Bird has a lot of fun with all the gadgets but also seems to be reminding us that we can’t rely too heavily on them. In the end, we must depend on our courage and wit.

Simon Pegg, as computer geek turned newly minted field agent, also balances Tom Cruise’s one-note intentness. Jeremy Renner is interesting as the analyst that becomes part of the team when things go dark. After an improbable escape he can’t help but ask the questions the whole audience is thinking, “What made you think that would work?” The only weak link in the cast, for me, was Paula Patton. Her character was competent but she didn’t bring anything special to the team; she wasn’t quite at their level. She seemed merely to be the “female team member”, stuck in for diversity. However, what I really like about Ghost Protocol is that we don’t get bogged down with character backstory or motivation. It’s simple, clean action from beginning to end.

Finally. Kudos to Tom Cruise for the skyscraper stunt.

Bottom Line: Recommended

Thrills. No frills.

Hugo (3D)

Any sense of wonder was more cerebral than heartfelt…which was okay by us. However, it didn’t really seem like a “fun for the whole family” movie. The joys were too abstract for children and too childish for adults. We found it interesting but not great and in many places just too contrived. The bits of the Scorcese documentary on film, which the Alamo was running as a prelude, interested both of us more. Both of us preferred the scenes of Georges Méliès making film. That’s the real feast for the imagination.

Also, I detest characters such as Sasha Cohen’s–the one-dimensional evil which exists only as a convenient roadblock to the course of the story. This is such lazy writing and it bothers me especially in movies targeted toward children because it talks down to them. I hated it in Disney films when I was a child and I hate it now.


Lukewarm recommendation. Good set design. Wrong story focus.

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress

Enchanted by the movie, I searched for a used copy of the book for about half a year. In my impatience, I finally bought the paperback edition new from Amazon. When it arrived, I read it in a night. After all my anticipation, I felt a little let down. The book is slight. In fact, without the movie to provide detail and context, it would not have had much of an effect on me.

Set in early 1970s China, the novel with some autobiographical elements is about two first loves intertwined: the discovery of the opposite sex and the discovery of literature. Two city boys are sent to the peasant countryside to be reeducated. Reeducation consists primarily of carrying manures and night soil to the fields or working in the coal mine. Their parents are professionals and have been condemned as class enemies of the state. The boys, however, prove to be just boys. The story does not focus on history, politics, or even much of the privation of rural life. Instead, the boys fall under the spell of illicit foreign literature and the charms of the little Chinese seamstress. The narrator’s friend has an affair with her. He seduces her with stories of faraway places and hopes to raise her to his intellectual level so that she can be a suitable mate. He succeeds too well. Once the little Chinese seamstress tastes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge…

Perhaps the point of the story is that even a terrible experience like Mao’s reeducation experiment can be tinged with the nostalgia and bittersweet memories of first love. Overall I was much more affected by Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans. She, too was from Chengdu and sent to the mountains for reeducation. No nostalgia there. Is this the unbridgeable difference between men and women? Women endure suffering. Men escape it via sex and books.

My comparison is unfair. Dai Sijie has said the point of his book is to show the power of literature, and was not intended to be a critique of history of politics. I feel the movie succeeds in this even more than the book. Because of it, Balzac’s Cousin Bette is next on my reading list.

Change of Season

A change of season always invigorates me especially if it is changing from summer to fall. Although Advent is weeks away, I’m already in prep mode. That means cleaning out closets. The physical weighing, evaluating, maintaining, and purging reinforces my psychological need to step back and take stock of the year and my life.

We packed away our summer clothes and got out our winter clothes last weekend. I have only three linear feet of closet space so half my clothes are stored in the garage at any given time. I don’t find this a burden. I enjoy it. Unpacking clothes is like opening presents. I never remember what I have. This year was especially fun because, after losing more than twenty pounds, I’m able to fit into my 1990s work outfits–all of which are much fancier than my current working-in-the-garden peasant clothes.

I also found it extremely satisfying to pack up the clothes I bought when I was overweight to give to Goodwill. Not that there were many. I resent spending money on clothes. I’ve always reasoned that a dollar spent on clothes is dollar unavailable for purchasing books, so buying clothes has never been much of a priority nor brought me much joy. And when I look at clothes, I usually walk away thinking, “I could make that myself.” even though I haven’t sewn in decades. For the last ten years, buying clothes has been a depressing experience which I put off as much as I could. However, now that I’m back to my former size, I find my interest in clothing and costuming perking up.

The day we cleaned the closets was also the final day of the Settlement House garage sale. I bought a $3 box intending to fill it with clay pots and anything else I could find for the garden. I did. I picked up much more than $3 worth of small clay pots. But I still had a box to fill. So I wandered over to the clothes section and found seven knit tops and sweaters that Iiked. I didn’t care if they fit or if I would like them in the long run. At this point, I’d already gotten my $3 worth and so anything I picked up was essentially free. As it turns out they all fit well. The donors to the charity auction have good taste and donate far more expensive clothes than I normally buy. I like all the clothes I found but nothing matches the pleasure of the bargain.

The surface and beneath the surface