So the last two weeks have been busy. Lots going on at work and I’ve been doing a lot of side reading at the same time. So when the day winds down and the eyes cannot look at anymore words, what to do to unwind? Well, I apparently watch mindless, crap movies.

Here’s the last week in pictures.

[List lost in the apocalypse. I know Conan the Barbarian was among the crap.]

Hamlet’s Blackberry

Hamlet's BlackberryI read this looking for a book to teach with The Shallows. It’s plodding at bits because it’s driving home an obvious point. But that point is important and the book discusses it clearly, being both well-structured and directly written. “Plodding” in this sense is an asset for a research writing course. And I think the students might connect with it. They’ll certainly be able to fill in the necessary context.

(An additional, less positive cause of plodding: the book isn’t self-help, but it isn’t not self-help either…with all that awkward double-negative implies. It is a book aiming for practical application. Deep analysis is beyond it’s scope. It explores philosophical arguments, but it does so with it’s feet squarely on the ground. No soaring into the ether and there’s plenty of vulgarization. I’ve got nothing against vulgarization, but I’ve read Phaedrus closely enough to yearn for the real thing. That’s about me, not the book.)

The Road

The RoadI just reread this novel. Absolutely extraordinary. A narrative of patterns.

I took extensive notes in my edition. When I get a chance, I should type them up and organize them.

Consider Phlebus

Consider PhlebusConsider Phlebas tells of a galactic war between a human-computer and an “alien” civilization. A sentient computer (a Mind) is lost on a planet and both sides are trying to find it. I enjoyed it. If it was a bit too “action movie in words” in sections (is there anything more tedious that reading a fight sequence) there are other sections that are stunning. The two first-person chapters told by the Mind, the long description of the Orbital (and later its destruction), the game of Damage and the two appendixes (why do I always like appendixes and glossary’s in novels) stand out.

Now, I don’t read science fiction very much. I watch movies, but don’t read books. There are probably a lot of reasons. Sci-fi always seems a bit macho on the page: gear-head, hard-tech stuff or computer-nerd fantasy. Neither really appeal to me, and when it’s neither, it’s often silly. The biggest problem is that “genre” often becomes a vehicle for “childish” in sci-fi, a missed mark that disappoints and offends me so badly I’ll put the book down.

Sci-fi I’ve liked have been things like Dune and Frank Herbert’s other books (The God Makers and The Messiah Complex stick out) and C. S. Friedman’s The Madness Season. Otherwise, my sci-fi picks were always sci-fi fantasy hybrids: Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy and, when I was much much younger, Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity trilogy.

Dune hits pretty squarely what I enjoy in sci-fi: an interest in large-scale philosophical and political questions allegorized into space-travel terms. (I’ve had Dune on the mind since summer. It is a book about gridlock and religion and works as an allegory of the 21st century. I’ll probably reread it and post more detailed thoughts in the coming months.) These books are sci-fi but the drama, the interest is on the decidedly non-scientific humans at the center of the story.

The Madness Season does something less elaborate but just as enjoyable: transform gothic fears into technological terms without reducing them. (I’ve been thinking about steam-punk and wondering if some of this might crop up there.) Oddly enough, this book, like The Madness Season has a changeling as its protagonist, and like Fiedman’s book, a central element of the plot is this character’s struggle to be someone coherent, to maintain some kind of identity.

I plan on reading the next of Bank’s Culture novels. I’ll wait a bit though. This book was long. I had a hard time giving so much time to…I hate to say it, but it’s true….a genre novel. At least at this time of year.

The Hobbit

The HobbitI hadn’t read this book since I was a child. Rereading it now, my response repeats near exactly my reaction a few years ago when I reread The Lord of the Rings while I was in Paris. I was surprised at how good they are and how melancholy (The Hobbit less so). Tolkien’s talents as a writer are immense although–and I hate saying this–they are undermined by his subject. There’s no getting away from the fact that Middle Earth and all the rest, treated this carefully and this well, seem silly and more than a little embarrassing. Which is ridiculous, because I honestly love these books. But reading them, I can’t get away from wondering how a grown man (like me) could sit down and write this seriously about these things without chickening out. Which raises immediately the question: would Tolkien have written better or not at all if he had tried to write something else?

Reading this time, I was conscious of the shift of action off-stage and onto non-major characters in the last chapters of the book. Reading as a child, this shift always threw me. In fact, I was surprised how much of the book takes place after the Mirkwood. When I was younger, Bilbo’s adventures as he’s trying to keep up and keep it together attracted me. When (I now see) he begins to manage events that are larger than him and center on others, I dropped out of the story. Reading now, I see how important this shift is to what came after. It is as if Tolkien, like Bilbo, is inching his way out of the atmospheric but non-dramatic shire and discovering what might be possible elsewhere, and at what scale.

I was also caught off guard by the length of chapters. These are tightly narrated units that, especially early on, progress with the benefit of only a few line breaks to separate and organize action.

Finally, the illustrations were new to me. No other edition I read had them. Seeing them here, I was struck by how much the visual art interacted with and supported the literary art. Wikipedia has a nice run down of their history here.

Coteau Rouge

Coteau RougeI don’t know André Forcier’s earlier work, but I’ve seen his last three films. Along with Xavier Dolan’s two films, I think they are among the most interesting to come out of Québec in the last seven or eight years.

This film isn’t polished and works in an anti-nostalgic mode which makes it stand out from films like C.R.A.Z.Y. et al. It is absurd, non-psychological and looks closely at an unvarnished life populated with types of characters and of stories. It is ironic without being cynical or misanthropic. Instead, the irony cycles around toward the mythic. Here, the lawn mowers and grass, the sheets hanging outside, the silly schemes to build condos and to fake paternity, and the maternity that proves sufficient, rich while remaining oddly, terribly human, together these and all the rest press into the terrain of myth, suggesting a new story about who we are and why we’re here.

Films don’t reach for so much today. They come with pre-fab questions and we watch them with pre-fab answers looking for confirmation. They depend upon gestures or styles or twists. and indicate they are serious by being unpleasant or “difficult.” Coteau Rouge is different: short, simply shot and simply edited. It moves along at a good clip. It does what it does so economically and enjoyably that it would take no effort on our part at all to take the film as a bit piece too silly for television. Oops. Pause, rewind.

It would take no effort at all–none–to miss the fact that something bigger is going on.

Long live the pariah.

Heart, Intuition and Jobs

Steve Jobs at Stanford. From Steve Jobs: Imitated, Never Duplicated – NYTimes.com:

“In 2005, Steve Jobs gave the commencement address to the graduating students at Stanford. He told them the secret that defined him in every action, every decision, every creation of his tragically unfinished life:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.””