Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Wednesday Quiz I:5 -- Human Achievement

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 5

Human Achievement

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy is way not cool. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week's Quiz is in the traditional IS IT or ISN'T IT format. The question is:

Is it, or isn't it, an accurate all-time world record (as of December 2009)?

It's all about the plausibility. The wrong answers are all very, very wrong.

1. The 100 Meter Dash
Men: 19.58 seconds
Women: 20.49 seconds

2. The 1500 Meter Run
Men: 3 minutes, 26 seconds
Women: 3 minutes, 50.46 seconds

3. The Marathon (26 miles, 385 yards)
Men: 2 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds
Women: 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds

4. 48-Hour Running "Ultramarathon"
Men: 473.495 Kilometers
Womens: 382.777 Kilometers

5. Discus
Men: 74.08 Meters
Women: 76.8 Meters

6. Bicycling One-Hour Record
Men: 190.598 Kilometers
Women: 184.020 Kilometers

7. 1500 Meter freestyle (Swimming)
Men: 4 minutes, 34.56 seconds
Women: 5 minutes, 42.54 seconds

8. Tournament Chess
Tournament games with consecutive wins: 325
Tournament games without a loss (ie. all wins or draws): 395

9. Points Scored, Career (American Football)
Professional: 2,544 -- Morten Andersen, 1982-2007 New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons
College: 468 -- Travis Prentice, 1996-99, Miami (Ohio)

10. Olympic Weight Lifting
Men: Snatch 512.5 kg, Clean and Jerk 363.5 kg
Women: Snatch 440.0 kg, Clean and Jerk 286.0 kg

Submit your answers in the comments!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Silence of the Lambs"

The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme, 1991

Prior Contact: I saw this in the theater on its original release with a girlfriend of the moment. I recall thinking it was a well-made movie. I also remember pretending to find it more scary than it really was, for purposes of huddling closer to my date.

- - - -

I once went to a movie theater and saw three straight previews for movies about serial killers. This got me thinking about the overrepresentation of psychopaths in our literature. Novelists and directors love the multiple murderer because he comes with built-in suspense: he must be caught before he claims another victim! Also, he is obviously pretty messed up, so it's just plausible that he might try to mess with the heads of the investigator, leaving strange codes or sending cryptic messages for the detective and the reader or watcher to puzzle out.

But while serial killers do exist, I am happy to report that they are extremely rare, and I've come to find their abundance in the world of movies kind of obnoxious. It promotes the idea that there are all sorts of people out there who will kill you, a total stranger, just because they're crazy, and that's scary stuff. It makes you a little more suspicious and a little more cautious, and makes the world of your fellow human beings a little more terrifying than it needs to be.

As the genre goes, though, Silence of the Lambs is suburbly crafted. Its music, sets, and pacing are all immaculate. And it of course creates the very vivid character of Hannibal Lector, whose name you and I remember, and the fairly vivid character of the FBI agent played by Jodie Foster, Clarise something. Both acting performances are terrific.

[spoilers start around here]

Clarise is an unusually believeable and well-realized character, but it's Hannibal the Cannibal who dominates the popular imagination. Well, he's a cannibal. He is larger than life. Honestly, on a second watching, he's probably a little TOO larger than life. His ability to manipulate others is unrealistically superhuman, and his escape from an over-the-top level of physical confinement combines the mad skillz of Houdini with the sheer strength of The Hulk, not to mention Martha Stewart's penchant for planning ahead and Wynton Marsalis' knack for improvisation. Also, the luck of five angels. Which is to say, he's not a very realistic character. He's more of a cartoon demon, a deeply ugly yet strangely jolly notion of what the most dangerous possible human being could be. If he wasn't so spooky, we'd notice that he's preposterous.

Speaking of preposterous, the climax scene is kind of silly too. After much crashing around in the killer's vast basement -- really, he's got enough room for a modest subterranian town down there -- the bad guy hangs out and watches Clarise through night vision goggles as she staggers about, blind and helpless. Then he follows around for awhile until he makes enough noise that she can figure out where he is, and plug him. The first time you see this, the sheer suspense keeps you from thinking too hard about it. The second time, it's no different from those adventure movies where the hero charges unscathed into machine gun fire. The successful ending is less satisfying because we know that in something more resembling the real world the hero, or Clarise, would be one seriously dead duck.

Plot: A young FBI cadet is sent to solicit a jailed serial killer's advice on how to catch another serial killer (did somebody just say "preposterous"?). They develop a combatitive relationship with strange overtones of mutual respect, yadda yadda yadda. Eventually, serial killer #1 escapes and serial killer #2 gets plugged by the FBI agent, who finds him through her smarts, pluck, hard work, and extraordinary blind luck (she knocks on his front door while looking for someone else). The movie ends with an annoying minor character about to be tortured and killed, which we are encouraged to find amusing.

Visuals: Very nicely filmed. There's a famous scene that cuts back and forth between the interior and exterior of a house, except eventually we understand that they are two different houses. This is generally considered a clever trick; personally, I find it a little annoying.

Dialog: It's a great script. Pretty much every line does double or even triple duty of advancing the plot, developing the character, and/or keeping the impeccable pacing right on track.

Prognosis: It's scary, it's gory. It's more an exquisitely crafted entertainment than it is a meaningful work of art. If you like you a good police procedural, you might love it. But it's not really a must-see.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Reading List: "Louis Riel"

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
by Chester Brown

I am strongly drawn to histories in cartoon form, but almost always a little disappointed by them. The problem is that the leading work in the genre -- Larry Gonick's many-volumed Cartoon History of the Universe -- is so outrageously good that it is hard for anyone else to compete. Gonick's books are treasures, and I would never wish them away, but the field of non-fiction cartooning might be a little more healthy if its pioneer hadn't set the bar quite so high.

Louis Riel is the biography of a Canadian populist, rebel, and, arguably, nut-job who was involved in two local conflicts during Canada's late 18th Century expansion onto the prairies. He led working-class, French-speaking, Metis inhabitants of the prairie provinces in their struggles against the great powers of the Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Students of westward expansion anywhere in the Americas will not be suprised to learn that minorities and those who opposed the expansion of capitalism and its attendant systems, here as elsewhere, end up with a fairly raw deal.

Brown's treatment of this history attempts a factual, relatively "literal" retelling, and makes no particular effort to be funny. Me, I'm old-fashioned -- I prefer comics that are, you know, comic, so as a matter of taste Louis Riel is not especially my cup of tea. I can attest that it is well-drawn in a style reminiscent of Tintin, albeit in stark black and white. As far as I can tell it is quite well researched. The incidents in question illustrate some of the real concerns and conflicts of "The West," which is nice; Western history has been so buried under more than a century's worth of competing mythologies that any glimpse at actual documented incidents is always full of surprises. Learning about the expansionist phase of Canadian history, furthermore, is a good exercise for those United Statesians who always imagine a halo floating up there above the Maple Leaf.

This particular work of "comix history" did not ~wow~ me, especially, but it illustrates the strength of the form: in a short evening, I went from total ignorance of a historical episode to having a comfortable layman's understanding of what happened and why it was significant. Thanks, Chester Brown! I salute Louis Riel as a successful effort in an important and underdeveloped genre. I would love to see many, many more books like this one.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

It's Boxing Day!

February 25th, 1964: Underdog Cassius Clay defeats world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 25

From the Inlaws5000 family collection of vintage postcards.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wednesday Quiz 1:4 -- European Monarchs

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 4

European Monarchs

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy is bad, bad, bad. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week's Quiz is a true or false sort of deal. The question is:

Is this an accurate description of a real European monarch?

Are the descriptions of these European kings and queens accurate? Or did I just make them up, salting them liberally with misinformation? In point of fact, there are six true ones and four false ones -- use your knowledge, intuition, and sense of the plausible to figure out which is which.

1. Æthelred the Unready of England, 978-1016 – Attacked repeatedly by Danish Vikings, he found out that paying large tributes tends to buy peace only on a temporary basis. After his downfall, England was ruled by Danish kings for three decades.

2. Beatrix of the Netherlands – Queen since 1980, Beatrix retains more power than most modern European monarchs, enjoying a considerable voice in her country's foreign policy. (She is also a member of the Bilderburg Group, which like the Trilateral Commission is thought by some to secretly run the world.) Earlier this year, eight people died when a would-be assassin plowed into a parade in an attempt to kill her.

3. Catherine the Great of Russia – Under Catherine's reign, Russia was dragged kicking and screaming into the Eighteenth Century. Although unable to do much for the serfs, she managed to improve public administration and stimulate some political and economic modernization. She also crushed rebellion without remorse. Her personal life was quite something – she enjoyed her boyfriends, and had plenty of them – but the one thing that everybody thinks they know about her is, rather obviously really, ridiculous. She died of a stroke.

4. Charlemagne – Considered Charles I of Germany, Charles I of France, and Charles I of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne conquered Italy and much of Central and Western Europe in the Eighth Century. Under his reign, Europe experienced a revival of art, literature, and learning, partially recovering some of the knowledge that had been lost after the collapse of the Roman Empire.

5. Charles II of Spain – Everybody knows that Ferdinand and Isabella financed the voyages of Columbus, but it was their son Charles II who comprehended that new wealth from the New World discoveries could be used to create a Spanish world empire. With a keen intelligence and not a little ruthlessness, he created a united kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula and gained effective control of Denmark, southern Italy, and Egypt.

6. Charles the Bold – At the height of medieval Germany’s military might, Charles IV ruled a territory stretching from southern Sweden to northern Italy, from Kiev to Paris. His nickname stems from his decisive leadership at the 1288 Battle of Avignon, when his disciplined, well-trained troops routed a numerically superior Papal army.

7. Ivan the Terrible – Not "terrible" as in inept but "terrible" as in fearsome, Ivan led an expansion of the Russians from their homeland around Moscow. By the end of his long reign, he ruled over a multiethnic empire that stretched eastward into Siberia; by some estimates, Russia expanded at a rate of around 130 square kilometers a day under his watch.

8. Kaiser Franz Joseph of Germany – Although a largely ceremonial figure who had very little to do with affairs of state, German Kaiser Franz Joseph became a popular scapegoat for the outbreak of World War I. Stripped of his throne by the victorious allies and widely reviled by his own disillusioned countrymen, he committed suicide in 1921, bringing to an end a German royal line that had lasted uninterrupted for more than a thousand years.

9. Louis XIV of France – As railroads and industrialization made radical changes in the fabric of French society, Louis XIV attempted a reactionary program of returning power to the country’s aristocracy. Highly averse to centralized government, his chronic underfunding and downsizing of the French army left the country open to defeat and humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War.

10. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia – He grew up the subject of political infighting, maybe, between his Christian grandma and his pagan mom. Landing on the Christian side, he led Bohemia to some victories and defeats. After being murdered by his brother, Wenceslaus was canonized as a martyr; he has persisted ever since as an important symbolic figure for the Czech people. There's an old song that lots of people sing about him this time of year.

Submit your answers in the comments.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 23

Masaccio, Madonna and Child. c. 1426. Tempera on panel, 24.5 x 18 cm. Uffizi, Florence.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Great Movies: "Manhattan"

Woody Allen, 1979

Previous Contact: I've seen this one a couple of times before, but it kind of blurs in with all of the other Woody Allen movies. I think I was expecting Annie Hall.

- - - - -

It's hard to give Manhattan a fair trial. The culture has changed around it in the three decades since it was made, and its dark comedy has become less funny and more unsettling. The obvious case in point: Allen's own character is a 42 year old man dating a 17 year old schoolgirl. In the late 1970s, this by and large seemed amusingly sleezy, a just-acceptible form of rakish bad behavior. By our current mores, it renders the character downright vile, and since the comic content depends on him being a basically sympathetic character, this pretty much kills the movie right in its tracks.

Give the film its due, though. It levelled a social critique on the self-indulgent behavior of a certain class of Americans, and does speak some truth about the ways that people can screw up their lives by inventing pointless romantic entanglements for themselves. At one point, Allen's character, a writer, speaks into a dictophone about:
An idea for a short story about people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these really unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves - because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable terrifying problems about the universe.
Manhattan is that short story, of course, and as an uncomfortable cautionary tale it does retain some power. Too, the movie was part of an ongoing American critique of a status quo organized around male convenience. And, it's this very critique that brought around the changes in our culture that renders Manhattan hard to watch today. To radically oversimplify: Manhattan made its points so well that it made itself almost unwatchable.

Plot: A tight circle of bored and lonely people keep falling in love in various combinations, in order to have somebody to talk to.

Visuals: Impeccably photographed in artsy black and white, with lots of glamour shots of North America's most densely-populated East Coast island.

Dialog: I have an old record of Woody Allen doing stand-up, and he kills. He's really, really good. Once you've heard him in that element, though, you recognize that his movie dialog is almost always a stand-up routine grafted onto a short story. It's not the most natural way for a movie character to speak.

Prognosis: An interesting movie, a well-crafted movie, but not a movie that has stood the test of time. Woody Allen fans and students of gender politics will want to watch it, of course; not especially recommended for anyone else.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 22

Danish postage stamp, 1940.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Africa

So I was at a meeting and I made this doodle.

Pretty good, no? I mean, except for some real minutiae (Liberia and Sierra Leone reversed (which I suppose doesn't feel like minutiae to the Sierra Leoneans and Liberians, but come on)), I got almost every African country in the rightish place. And many with their approximate shapes!

When I finished it, the Somali man sitting next to me looked over, clucked with disapproval, pointed at Somalia, and said "No, no! It's more pointy here!" That's why Somalia is kind of pointy now.

OK, then. I DOUBLE-DOG DARE YOU to freehand a map of African countries from memory! See if you can beat me! Images to m5kdecathlon at gmail. [alternative challenge: some crazy thing that you doodled at a recent meeting.]

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 21

Rogier van der Weyden. Nativity, Middelburg Altarpiece detail. c.1445-1448. Oil on panel. Gemaldegalerie, Berlin, Germany.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 20

Éric de Saussure, Announcement to the shepherds. From "Bible illustrée; Textes de la bible de Jérusalem," 1968.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Friday, December 18, 2009

Eighth Night

Eighth Night

Coffee Table Book Party: "BibliOdyssey"

I think most L&TM5K readers must be at least vaguely aware of BibliOdyssey, a blog of images kept by the compactly named "PK," or "peacay." Well, just in time for Christmas, um, 2007, the BibliOdyssey book arrived on various bookshelves!

Its appeal is obvious: you get the often lovely, often bizarre, always interesting images of BibliOdyssy -- in a coffee table book! You can look at them lying down! Or while at the margins of social activity!

Its problem is also pretty obvious -- online, BibliOdyssy cranks out an almost infinite number of images. Dozens a week, for a blog that has a lot of history behind it now -- it all adds up. In book form, PK had to select just a limited few images for reproduction.

On the other hand, that gives you more time to spend with each image...

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 18

Macha Chmakoff, Nativité à la mandorle jaune.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Library Book Sale CD Trove VII

Still reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

Veracini: Overtures 1-4 & 6
Accademia I Filarmonici
Alberto Martini, Conductor

These aren't overtures as in the music that comes before an opera, but concert overtures. In the Baroque period, the overture was kind of a proto-symphony -- a piece of fifteen minutes or so for a small orchestra, made up of several loosely related movements.

So no, I had never heard of Veracini either. He's good, though. These are baroque pieces that sound like, well, good baroque music. Even you classical music dorks, if I told you that it was Scarlatti or Gabrielli or whatever, you wouldn't doubt me. Unless you're really good, I could probably pass it off as Brandenburg Concerto style Bach. Ol' Veracini seems to have been a good orchestrator with a solid command of piece writing, a good feel for the standard forms of his day, and an occasional surprise up his sleeve.

Prognosis: Pleasant music worth keeping around. Plus, having written the above likely puts me among the top thousand Veracini scholars of my generation, which is cool.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 17

From the InLaw5000 family collection of vintage postcards.

Seventh Night

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wednesday Quiz I:3 -- Beethoven's Birthday Edition

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 3

Beethoven's Birthday Edition!!

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy is punishable by law. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week the Quiz is celebrating Beethoven's Birthday!

Who's the composer?!?

Name the composer of each of the following lists of classical pieces.

1. The Brandenburg Concertos, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, The Goldburg Variations, The St. Matthew’s Passion.

2. Seven symphonies, Finlandia, The Swan of Tuonela, Kullervo, En Saga.

3. Die Knaben Wunderhorn, Songs of the Wayfarer, Kindertottenleider, and the Symphony #8 (the “Symphony of a Thousand”).

4. Symphony #3 (“Eroica”), Fidelio, Missa Solemnus, and the Piano Sonata #23 (“Apassionata”).

5. Symphony #6 (“Pathetique”), Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Eugene Onegin.

6. The Symphony of Psalms, The Firebird, The Rite of Spring, Oedipus Rex.

7. Rodeo, El Salon Mexico, Hear Ye Hear Ye, Billy the Kid.

8. Symphony #6 (“Pastoral”), Piano Sonata #14 (“Moonlight”), The Creatures of Prometheus.

9. Fifteen symphonies (including the Seventh or “Leningrad”) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, as well as pieces like “March of the Soviet Police,” “From Karl Marx to Our Own Days,” and “The Sun Shines on Our Motherland.”

10. Die Rosenkavalier, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegal’s Merry Pranks, Don Juan

Submit your answers in the comments!

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 16

John Altoon, Fay's Christmas Painting (1958). Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena.

Sixth Night

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beethoven's Birthday Eve: the Book Review

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.

Being both an escapist and something of a numbskull, I read oodles of fiction but very little non-fiction. But then, there's not much non-fiction as good as The Rest is Noise, a cultural history of classical music in the Twentieth Century. Alex Ross writes with a lively mastery, serving up a blend of big ideas, supporting evidence, amusing incident, and juicy gossip that keeps you entertained even as it ensmartens you. I assumed this ability and his comprehensive mastery of the subject came from a long lifetime immersed in libraries and concert halls, but it turns out that he's exactly my age, which makes me kind of hate him.

Now, I happen to be interested in classical music, but this is the kind of book that might be worth reading even if you aren't interested in its specific subject matter. It tells a story of how culture works, how it is generated within a community of artists with complex agendas and personal relationships, and how cultural production exists in relationships with the political and economic institutions of its society. Twentieth Century music -- and by implication, all professional music everywhere -- is frightfully political, Ross shows, and representatives from all points of the spectrum come out looking pretty bad, and pretty silly, for their attempts to control the masses by controlling the symphony orchestras.

The Rest is Noise is especially valueable, though, in showing why the community of composers threw classical music so radically off the rails after the 1910s. Arnold Schoenberg himself -- the man who declared the death of tonality, the inventor of the "twelve-tone" system, and mentor to yet more abraisive composers like Webern and Berg -- emerges as a relatively sympathetic character. Ross explains what drove his experimentation, and reveals that he was not nearly as dogmatic as the later composers who seized on his methods would be. Teaching at UCLA after fleeing Nazi Germany (like myself, he became enamored of Pac-10* football), he startled a composition class by insisting that "there is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major."

Music became so radicalized in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, however, that composers openly declared that music should be written without reference to the listener. Anyone who incorporated traditional harmonies in their work was effectively ostracized from the cool kids' club. This is, as Ross shows, a hyperextension of a churning faddishness that gripped composition in the early years of the Century, with each composer attacking the work of their immediate predecessor in an attempt to carve out space in a repertoire dominated by the Big Names of the Past.

Too, the preference of Hitler and Stalin for conservative tonal music was used to denegrate all tonality. Indeed, you can still today find a few hard-cores who consider use of the major and minor scales to indicate a "fascist mindset." More than anything else in Ross' history, it is astonishing that such a patently absurd idea was accepted for so long by so many people. Hitler was, after all, famously fond of dogs and children, yet we do not consider a love for puppies or kids to betray some sinister personality flaw. That the connection could even be made with a straight face betrays how long it took Western Civilization to recover from the twin traumas of the World Wars.

Ross gets special commendation for continuing his narrative up to the present, and even daring to speculate on future trends (he sees increasing fusion of formal and popular music, and a chance for China to become the leading center of the European music tradition if it can relax a tendency to ignore everything that happened after Tchaikovsky). Also, for recognizing the importance and radical excellence of my man Jean Sibelius, whose sad fate it was to live to a very old age, drinking heavily, his music enjoyed by audiences but his nerves shattered from being used as a whipping boy by whole generations of younger composers who needed a corrupt, unworthy old music to constrast their newer music to.

In Sum: A fine book. Recommended Beethoven's Birthday Resolution: Read it by next year!

*At the time, of course, it was the Pac-8.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 15

Ukrainian Postage Stamp, 2001.

Fifth Night

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Seasonal Triumph

Mrs. and michael5000 are proud to announce their second-place finish in the third annual gingerbread house party hosted by occasional L&TM5K commenter, seasonal dynamo, and bicycle hoarder Vida!!!

Where more conventional gingerbread builders prefer simple residential buildings festooned with layers of sugary decor, the 5000 team opted for a sleak, modernist approach on a grand scale, refusing to hide the essential structural elements: gingerbread, graham cracker, and pretzel sticks.

There is some disagreement on what the building IS exactly, but it clearly has parking on the second level, a heliport, a cantilevered terrace garden, a free-standing replica of the 1939 World's Fair Trilon, and a killer central atrium. Inspired in equal measure by Wright and Corbusier, this is one gingerbread house (or office complex) that says "no thank you" to gingerbreading!

(Personally, I think we were totally overrated. But it was fun!)

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 14

From the In-Laws5000 family postcard collection.

Fourth Night

Friday, December 11, 2009

First Night

The Reading List: "The Eyre Affair"

In dissenting from The Eyre Affair’s nomination to the Reading List, Critical Bill suggested that it would probably best be read “with too much Zima in you.” In the time since the Reading List was compiled, lamentably, the Miller Brewing Company has ceased North American production of the iconic 1990s marketing concept cum alcoholic beverage, so I read this installment of the List more or less cold sober.

The Eyre Affair wouldn’t be on the List, of course, if readers had not nominated it and voted for it, and I know that some of you find this to be a very funny book. Let me be blunt: I didn’t. Indeed – and regrettably – I literally do not have a single good thing to say about it. So fans may want to bail at this point; we’re not likely to reach common ground on this one.

Also, you have to realize that my dislike of the book is exaggerated by circumstance. Ordinarily you don’t have to suffer all the way through a book you think is bad; you abandon it as soon as the badness is obvious. But in this case, well, a project is a project. I was required by the rules of the game, so to speak, to fight my way through Eyre Affair, so I ended up with more complaints than anyone would normally have about a book.

So Having Said All That....

The point of obvious badness, the point where I ordinarily would have abandoned ship, comes in the first two sentences. It is a singularly inauspicious beginning, combining an especially lame figure of speech with immediately tiresome exposition in an opening flourish worthy of the Bulwer-Lytton contest:

My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.
This sets the tone, and by “the tone” I mean poor writing. Fforde’s prose is inexpert at pretty much every level. Characters are one-note cartoons when they have any distinguishing characteristics at all, dialogue is wooden, the humor is juvenile (the protagonist’s name is “Thursday Next”; one of her antagonists' is “Jack Schitt”), and plotting is rendered irrelevant by foreshadowing that might as well be set in flashing neon. Each chapter has a long, pointless epigraph from an imagined book in Thursday Next’s world. (Often Thursday Next, the first-person narrator, uses long quotes from books by Thursday Next. Why? She is not otherwise depicted as titanically vain.) Throughout, exposition is ruthless.

Even the technical aspects of writing – the things that the publisher’s editorial staff should have caught – are botched. The book is ostensibly written in the first person, but the narrator becomes suddenly omniscient whenever convenient, and whole chapters in third person wander in with no explanation, as if from some other book. Fforde bombards us with sentence after sentence in simple subject-verb-object constructions, as often as not tied together with the less-than-electrifying verb "was." Antecedents are frequently unclear, and in dialog it is not always obvious who is speaking. Unusually for a book published since 1980, there is a modest but significant sprinkling of right-out grammatical and usage errors.

The plot is a fairly straightforward business of catching a villain and pursuing a love interest. The setting is a roughed-out alternative history with one salient characteristic (England and Russia are still fighting the Crimean War) and occasional arbitrary details tossed out to remind us we’re in an alternative history. There are Studebakers. Wales is a Stalinist state. People travel across Britain by blimp, despite the presence of much faster cars and trains; they are apparently motivated by an altruistic desire to make it obvious that commercial fixed-wing aircraft do not exist in their reality.

Oh, and the other thing about the setting: the boundary between fiction and reality is relaxed, so for various reasons the book’s “real” characters are occasionally able to interact with characters from far better books. Eventually, Fforde writes dialog for the characters of Jane Eyre, a task he is embarrassingly unready for.

The Eyre Affair’s most obvious antecedent is a Woody Allen short story called, if memory serves, “The Kugelmass Episode.” It’s about a man who has himself sent into Madame Bovary in order to pursue an romance with that novel’s title character. It’s not a great story, especially, but it covers the possibilities of the breakdown-between-fiction-and-reality plot rather more compactly than The Eyre Affair. (I note, however, that at least four Eyre Affair sequels have been published, so if you are a fan, you’re in luck).

Wait: I thought of a good thing to say about The Eyre Affair. It made me read Jane Eyre! And for that I will always be sincerely grateful. Fforde’s book, however, is not really a worthy, or for me even an entertaining, contribution to its namesake’s legacy.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 11

Paul Gauguin. Baby (The Nativity). 1896. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Library Book Sale CD Trove VI

Still reviewing my CD finds from half-price day at the Friends of the Multnomah County Library Annual Booksale.

R.E.M.: Up.

A lot of people become deeply invested in a musical act during their college years. I liked a lot of bands, but R.E.M. was always chief among my favorites. They were my first brand-name rock show and later my first large-venue show, and me and my buddies spent much time sprawled on the filthy carpets of student housing parsing out Michael Stipe's esoteric, low-in-the-mix lyrics.

Nowadays, I get irritated when bands put out an album every year, because I don't have time to listen to the "new one" before there's a new "new one" already. Back then, though, I would annoy the too-cool-for-me clerks at the record store down the street with redundant inquiries about release dates and times. Even after Out of Time and Automatic for the People, albums that I never entirely warmed up to, I still found myself up at midnight to buy the first possible copy of 1994's Monster.

That's pretty much the end of the story. I disliked Monster (except for, um, that one song) and before you know it fifteen years have gone by with me vaguely aware that R.E.M. is still putting out records, but not ever listening to them. Indeed, I haven't heard a "new" R.E.M. song in all that time, and before this purchase couldn't even have named one.

Finally hearing the album Up eleven years later, I am not distressed by what I've been missing. The bulk of the record consists of slow to mid-tempo songs that could kindly be called "moody" or unkindly be called "bland." Certainly, there is none of the jangling, slightly folky rock that was central to the band's 1980s sound. What you get instead is a keyboard-heavy arrangement that is vague, mushy, and, for me, kind of off-putting. It's not until the fourth track ("Hope") that Up achieves any kind of momentum at all, and only one song ("Daysleeper") has the kind of hit appeal that makes you want to listen to a rock album a second time. The quiet closer ("Falls to Climb") would be a reasonably cool finish for a record that had given us a hard-rocking workout, but as is it just seems like somewhat more anthemic mush.

Prognosis: I don't think I was missing much.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 10

Marc Chagall, Nativity. Lithograph, 1950.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Wednesday Quiz I:2 -- Really Big Companies

The Wednesday Quiz -- Season I -- Quiz 2

Really Big Companies

The Wednesday Quiz is a test of knowledge and intuition. Looking up answers or asking your buddy is verboten. Questions about the rules are answered here.

This week's Quiz is an IS IT or ISN'T IT affair, like the Thursday Quizzes of yore. The question is:

Is it, or isn't it, a Fortune 500 company?

The Fortune 500 List, in case you are not a regular reader of the business press, ranks U.S. companies in terms of their gross revenues.

Obviously, I don't expect you to distinguish between the 499th company on the list and the #501 first runner-up. I've picked companies that are in the top 50 to represent companies that ARE on the list.

1. Berkshire Hathaway (Conglomerate holding company)

2. Boeing (Aerospace)

3. Burger King Holdings (Fast Food)

4. ConocoPhillips (Energy)

5. Equifax (Credit Reporting)

6. Hewlett-Packard (Technology)

7. Home Depot (Retail)

8. King Pharmaceuticals (Pharmaceuticals)

9. Louisiana-Pacific (Building Materials)

10. Wal-Mart Stores (Retail)
Submit your answers in the comments!

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 9

Adoration of the Magi. Panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE. From the cemetary of St. Agnes in Rome. Museo Pio Christiano Inv. 31459, ex. 124, Vatican City.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Great Movies: "Wings of Desire"

Wings of Desire
(Der Himmel Uber Berlin)

Wim Wenders, 1986

Previous Contact: Did I watch this one in its original release? I think maybe I did. I think it seemed pretty far out to this small-town boy, but also that I felt kind of proud about being able to more or less like it. Then I took a class in avant garde German cinema, after which it seemed pretty mainstream.

- - - -

Wings of Desire is an emotionally detatched German art film shot mostly in black and white, with a bare minimum of narrative and lots of long scenes of people slowly walking around streets and libraries. Its climax is footage of a circus trapeze act. And if that doesn't sell you on it, it culminates in a long, painfully pretentious speech delivered from one character to another in the hushed stillness of a rock club bar. Oh, and it's about angels who want to be human so that they can experience passion.

The strange thing is that, from all of these ingrediants for truly first-class suckage, Wenders crafts a movie that is quite beautiful and surprisingly engrossing. Stunning photography helps; everyone and everything is shot magnificently. Once you figure out the daily rounds of the angels, who wander around listening to human thoughts, you also get the benefit of wish fulfillment; for the length of the movie, you get to read minds. Who hasn't ever wanted to do that? And such narrative as there is isn't too challenging, boiling down to boy-makes-sacrifice-to-get-girl.

A generous infusion of pop culture elements help the movie along, too. Peter Falk, the TV detective "Columbo," plays himself in a major supporting role. A period movie is being filmed, so we see stuntmen practicing their moves while extras dressed as Nazi officers chat genially with extras dressed as holocaust victims. Some quirky rock acts, including a Nick Cave who looks all of twenty, have extended screen time. The murals of the Berlin Wall -- still standing and very formidable when the movie was released -- are often in the background, and occasionally in the foreground. These all make the movie a little more immediately accessible; they aren't what makes it a Great Movie, but they might help keep you around long enough to notice that it's a great movie.

Plot: Well, take your pick. 1) The experience of being human is investigated, the differences between childhood and adulthood are explored and challenged, and an argument is sustained for the importance of conscious living-in-the-world. Or, 2) an angel decides to be human so he can do things like drink coffee and kiss a pretty girl.

Visuals: Mostly black and white, with cameras floating around and above Berlin like, well, angels. Lots of scenes in a library, which I've heard is significant for some reason. Occasional bursts of brilliant color, representing the human rather than the angelic viewpoint.

Dialog: There is relatively little spoken dialog; most of the voices you hear represent people's interior monologues. This raises the question of whether people think in language -- personally, I have my doubts -- but you'd have to use language in the movie in any event, and the film does a reasonable job of approximately representing the daily concerns of real people.

Prognosis: Recommended for any serious movie watcher, or anyone who wants to challenge the breadth of their movie appreciation. Approach it thoughtfully -- don't come to it seeking entirely passive entertainment, and don't talk your date out of watching Jackie Chan so you can watch this instead. Meet it halfway, have some patience, and you're likely to feel rewarded.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar
December 8

Workshop, circle or follower of Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi. ± 1474 or later. Oil on panel, 71.1 × 56.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The michael5000 Kitchen #15: "Oatmeal Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies"

Provenance: A few weeks ago, I let you in on the secret of the Pumpkin Cookies. And you are welcome. But now, as we enter the Season of Giving, I am going to go one step further. I am going to make the ultimate sacrifice. I am going to give you -- free of charge or commitment -- my signature Oatmeal Almond Chocolate Chip recipe. I do this at considerable sacrifice to myself. My real-world social life, and possibly my marriage, has largely been dependant on my ability to crank a batch of these puppies out from time to time. I'm pretty sure, in particular, that we will see no more of former L&TM5K reader Vida after this post; she will simply no longer need me. I'm honestly not sure where I got this recipe. The original, much-besplattered document is a half-page that looks like it was printed off a Mac in the early nineties or something. I've only been using the recipe for seven or eight years, though. Early on, I made a couple of key alterations to make it more, you know, delicious. And these cookies are nothing if not delicious. Indeed, at this Thanksgiving just past Sister Jen brazenly threw over the Pumpkin Cookies in favor of the O-A-CC as her favorite michael5000 holiday cookie. It was a real watershed moment.

The Recipe: Preheat oven to 375F.

1 1/4 cups Butter 3/4 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup sugar
Cream the Butter and Sugar together. I usually do this in a largish metal kettle, putting the Butter in the preheating oven for a few minutes to get it pliable. Then, stir or beat in:
1 Egg 1 tsp. Vanilla
OK. In another mixing bowl, mix these dry ingrediants nicely together:
1 1/2 cups Flour 1 tsp. Baking Soda 1/2 tsp. Salt 1 tsp. Cinnamon 1/8 tsp. Nutmeg
Frankly, I make it a pretty generous tsp and 1/8 tsp on the spices, because that's just the kind of guy I am. Anyway, at this juncture you can blend your dry mixture into your gooey mixture, and you'll start to have a thinnish cookie dough. Now comes:
3 cups Oats
I usually go with a 50/50 mixture of the old-school rolled oats and the thinner "quick oats" variety. But whatever. If it comes in a cylinder and has a picture of a religious dissident on it, you're on the right track. At this point, it should be getting difficult to stir, so make sure you have a stout wooden spoon at hand. And, there are two more critical ingredients to add!
12 ounces (a standard bag) Chocolate Chips 1 cup Almonds
With the almonds, you can use slivers, slices, or chunks -- the cookie will look different depending on which you choose, but it will taste the same. But, make sure you have ~toasted~ almonds. If you have raw almond slivers, toast them in the oven while it's preheating. It matters. OK! Slap generous dollops of your very chunky mixture onto cookies sheets. (It's going to be sticky, so be prepared to rinse your hands a lot.) Bake for 9 or 10 minutes, and cool 'em on a rack if you've got one.

The Results:

These are some extremely goddam tasty cookies.

The L&TM5K Advent Calendar December 7
From the In-Laws5000 family postcard collection.