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text 2019-12-31 23:23
24 Festive Tasks: Door 4 - Guy Fawkes Night: Task 2

The one "revolution" I would like to see happening in the book world is that we all reconsider how we are thinking about books, and how we are treating them as a result. 


In recent years, they seem to have become chiefly "products" -- maybe not quite like clothing, electronics, or other forms of moveable goods, but not so todally different from them, either.  And of course, that is not entirely wrong -- authors and publishers make money selling books; reviewers and purchasers are protected by consumer product standards ... that is all as it's supposed to be. 


But books are so much MORE than just products:  They are, as Stephen King rightlly put it, a uniquely portable magic; a device that is able to transport us, with the flipping of a single page, to a foreign land, a sci-fi or fantasy world, or back into the past, and into the lives of characters we may never meet in person (though as a kid, I'll own that in my mind I did), but who will nevertheless quite likely become dearer to us than many a real life acquaintance.  And, as XOX's recent posts have reminded us, books are also catalysts of independent thought (and thus, the most potent weapen -- at least long term -- in combatting oppression and dictatorship). 



Yet, large parts of the publishing and book mass merchandizing industry (chiefly, but not limited to Amazon) seem to be treating book mainly in terms of what they can or cannot contribute to the bottom line, and that, I feel not only does the books themselves an injustice, but it also misses out on opportunities which to miss might ultimately be more than merely a pity -- it might be dangerous: most importantly, the opportunity to win over new readers, not by compelling them to read what somebody (advertising, teachers, literary gurus, whoever) has declared a "must read", but by making them actually curious about books and reading, and by letting them explore the wonderful world hidden between the pages of a book all on their own.


Something that ties into this idea is the importance of libraries -- because libraries, more than any other institution, are the catalysts of precisely this notion, of reading for the sake of the joy of literary exploration, rather than selling and owning books as a piece of merchandise or a possession used in order to show off (to demonstrate one's own erudition, as a piece of interiror decoration, or for whatever other purpose).  It is no accident, in my view, that libraries are struggling for survival in so many places -- and that publishers, sellers and distribution services are actively restricting the options made available to library users.  In my view, this is a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot -- they're depriving themselves of their own future customer base -- but I do find it worrying that this is happening at all; in an industry, moreover, that really should make it its business not only to be concerned with the product they're selling but also with the wider significance of that product.  (Of course self-publishing, the technical revolution and other factors have all got a role to play in this, but still -- the fact remains that books aren't just any old product, and we'd all do well to stop, take a deep breath, and refocus.)


(Task: Start a revolution: What one thing would you change about the book reading world? (Be it publishing, distribution, editing, cover art, bookstores – anything having to do with books.)


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review 2016-09-01 21:48
Beware the Flies Orestes! Beware the flies
Les Mouches - Jean-Paul Sartre

I have seem some recent adaptations of Greek myths in the cinemas of late and to say that they were rubbish was an absolute understatement. Mind you, that is Hollywood and Satre is anything but, and when I discovered that the last play in the book that I had picked up at a second-hand bookshop was based on the myth of Orestes my immediate thought was 'this is going to be good'. As it turned out it was good – really, really good. In fact I would love to see it performed. Actually I would so love to see it performed that I want to join an amateur theatre company and force them to stage it (though I know for a fact that that is not going to happen – having a full time job makes it really difficult to become involved in the arts, unless of course you devote your entire time to the project, which I simply cannot do).


The problem with writing a review of this play, in the way that I write reviews, is that I cannot do it without actually spoiling the play, especially since there is one enormous twist in it that reveals what is actually going on – and it all has to do with the flies. So, I will try to say as much as possible about the play without revealing the twist, and when I do I will put up a spoiler alert. Anyway, like the said Hollywood movies, what is happening is that Satre is putting his own interpretation on the myth, however unlike the aforementioned movies he does a much better job at it. The major themes with the modern interpretation of the ancient Greek myths is the rejection of the supernatural.


The thing with our modern interpretation is that we see these myths as a story of how humanity rejects the gods and takes control of their own lives. Unfortunately Hollywood simply dresses it up with great special effects and huge battles, and then finishes off by saying that humanity no longer has any need for the gods so bugger off and leave us alone. What Satre does is that he goes much deeper into it explaining why humanity, as represented by Orestes, has rejected the gods, and it all has to do with free will. Zeus gave Orestes free will to obey him, and Orestes uses that free will to reject Zeus (which is an interesting analogy to Christianity). However, as I will explain, while Orestes takes on a figure of Christ, this play isn't a Christian allegory (Satre was an atheist), but rather uses the play to create a new interpretation of Christ.


So, first, I should mention the background, though those who have been following my reviews probably already know the story of how when Agamemnon returned from Troy he discovered that his wife Clytemnestra was having an affair with Aegisthus, and they both murder him and Aegisthus takes the throne. Orestes flees as he is the heir to the throne, and for Aegisthus to become king he needs to get rid of the heir apparent. Anyway, the city becomes infested with flies, and these flies remain for over fifteen years. Aegisthus knows what these flies are about, however nobody else does. In a way they are the result of Aegisthus' sin – the murder of the true king, and his adulterous affair with Clytemnestra. The city of Argos, through their acts, has become tainted. However, it goes much further than that, which I have decided that I won't actually reveal.


Anyway, along comes Orestes, and the first part of the play, much like the Ancient Greek versions, has Orestes trying to find out who he can trust and who he can't. He approaches Electra and spends time testing her to see if she will support him or betray him. However, as it turns out it isn't Electra who betrays him, but Zeus. Yet despite Zeus' warning of his impending doom, Aegisthus chooses to do nothing – his crime, his guilt, and his sin has so worn him out that he simply has no desire to hold onto the throne anymore. In a way his claim to the throne is a Phyric victory – sure, he is king, but the guilt that has come upon him has so worn him down that it no longer seems worth it.


It is interesting that we see similar themes pop up in other plays – Hamlet has the usurper who kills the king and marries the queen, while Macbeth as the usurper whose guilt so wears him out that he simply become too exhausted to continue (though he does fight until the bitter end). Yet Shakespeare had a purpose in writing against usurpers, but I'm not entirely sure if Satre was writing in a similar vein – the play was published during World War II while France was occupied by the Nazis. In a way this could almost be a subtle dig at the Vichy government who, after capitulating to the Germans, pretty much became collaborators.


Yet there is also this idea of somebody coming along and taking away a nation's sin. At the end of the play Orestes rejects Zeus, claiming that because he has free will, he has the free will to reject Zeus and go his own way. However, he also acknowledges his crime (killing his mother) – something that Aegisthus (and the city) refused to do. In a way Aegisthus believed that he was in the right, and the fact that the city did not rise up against Aegisthus because he had a hand in murdering Agamemnon, were cursed to be tormented by the flies. However Orestes, while avenging the death of his father, takes ownership of his crime, and leaves the city, and takes the flies with him – in a way a form of Christ figure.


Yet it is interesting how, when he kills his mother, the city rises up against him in revolt – sure, they did nothing when Agamemnon was murdered, but then again he had been away for ten years, and ten years is an awful long time – long enough for the population to become accepting of a new king. Yet Orestes does not take the title – well he does, but he takes the title of a king without a country. In the original version he is driven out of Argos and flees to Athens when he faces trial, and is acquitted, for his crime. No such thing happens here, but he accepts his crime, and he accepts his punishment, and in doing so redeems the city from the curse of the flies.


Yes, Orestes sounds as if he is some sort of Christ figure, and in a way he is, yet there is a twist – Christ came as God in the flesh, while Orestes, through his free will, rejects Zeus. In a way what Orestes is doing is giving the people of Argos their freedom. He takes ownership of the crime and frees them from the curse of the flies, but in rejecting Zeus he shows them that they do not need to be beholden to the gods, but they have their own free will to make their own decisions and decide their own destiny. However, for the people to realise that, they needed a Christ figure to come along and show them – the problem is that people don't actually want to do that, they want to be led, which is why people like Jim Jones are always able to attract so many followers.


1 September 2016 - Paris

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review 2014-08-13 11:06
Dead Poets Society - Tom Schulman


R.I.P. Robin Williams – your big heart, sense of humor and empathy will be missed tremendously. As The Laugh Factory had it: "Now make God laugh!"


And what will your verse be in the poem of life?

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." (Henry David Thoreau, Walden.)

Hands up folks, how many of us discovered Thoreau after having watched this movie? Really discovered I mean, regardless whether you had known he'd existed before. How many believe they know what Thoreau was talking about in that passage about "sucking the marrow out of life," cited in the movie, even if you didn't spend the next 2+ years of your life living in a self-constructed cabin on a pond in the woods? How many bought a copy of Whitman's poems ... whatever collection? (And maybe even read more than Oh Captain! My Captain!?) How many went on to read Emerson? Frost? Or John Keats, on whose personality Robin Williams's John Keating is probably loosely based? To many people, this movie has a powerful appeal like few others and has proven inspirational far above and beyond the effect of an ordinary movie experience. And justifiedly so, despite the fact that charismatic Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), one of the story's main characters, tragically falters in the pursuit of his dreams, in the wake of apparent triumph. Because although Neil's story is one of failure, ultimately this film is a celebration of the triumph of free will, independent thinking and the growth of personality; embodied in its closing scene.

Of course, lofty goals such as these are not easily achieved. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) in particular, the last scene’s triumphant hero, is literally pushed to the edge of reason before he learns to overcome his inhibitions. And Thoreau warned in "Walden:" "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." Anyone who takes this movie's message to heart (and Thoreau's, and Whitman's, and Emerson's, Frost's and Keats's) knows that success too easily won is often no success at all, and most important accomplishments are based on focus, tenacity and hard work as much as anything else. And prudence, too – dashing Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) pays a terrible price for his spur-of-the-moment challenges of authority; although of course you just gotta love him for refusing to sign Keatings' indictment. "Carpe diem" – live life to its fullest, but also know what you are doing. You won't enjoy this movie if you are afraid of letting both your mind and your feelings run free.

Shot on the magnificent location of Delaware's St. Andrews Academy, "Dead Poets' Society" is visually stunning, particularly in its depiction of the amazingly beautiful scenery (where the progression of the seasons mirrors the progression of the movie's story line), and as emotionally engaging as it invites you to reexamine your position in life. Robin Williams delivers another Academy Award-worthy performance (he was nominated but unfortunately didn't win). Of course, Robin Williams will to a certain extent always be Robin Williams ... "Aladdin's" Genie, "Good Morning Vietnam's" Adrian Cronauer and "Good Will Hunting's" Professor McGuire (the 1997 role which would finally earn him his long overdue Oscar) all shimmer through in his portrayal of John Keating; and if you've ever seen him give an interview you know that the man can go from hilarious and irreverent to deeply reflective in a split second even when it's not a movie camera that's rolling. Yet, the black sheep among Welton Academy's teachers assumes as distinct and memorable a personality as any other one of Williams's film characters.

Of its many Academy Award nominations (in addition to Robin Williams's nomination for best leading actor, the movie was also nominated in the best picture, best director [Peter Weir] and best original screenplay categories), "Dead Poets' Society" ultimately only won the Oscar for Tom Schulman's script. But more importantly, it has long since won it's viewers' lasting appreciation, and for a reason. – As the Poet said: "Camerado! This is no book; Who touches this, touches a man" (Walt Whitman, So Long!), this is no movie; who watches this, watches himself!

(Original version of this review posted on ThemisAthena.info.  To mark Robin Williams's passing, also cross-posted on Leafmarks.)

Source: www.themisathena.info/movies/deadpoetssociety.html
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review 2013-10-26 04:42
When religion ignores the deity
Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

I can't believe that I am up to number 13 of the Discworld Books, but I guess that is not surprising since I am reading through them until I get to a point where I really don't want to read any more of them (since Pratchett still seems to be writing them for his die hard fans). I can't say that I am finding these books all that laugh out loud at this point in the series, however there is one thing that I can definitely say about Terry Pratchett and that is that he really knows how to end a book. Sure enough, the climax of this particular book is just as exciting as many of the other books of his that I have read. However, as I suggested, I suspect that many of his books are going to start going downhill from here.

In Small Gods Pratchett takes a satirical look at religion and philosophy, in particular the concept of monotheism. Basically a small god is a god that no longer has any worshippers and as such is stripped of all of its power. Om is almost at that particular point, except that he has one faithful believer, and that is a rather simple man name Burtha. However, ironically, the church of Om is quite powerful, it is just that they have ceased to worship Om the god and simply follow a bunch of rules and rituals that have been created by the priesthood over the centuries. Thus Om is in danger of becoming a small god.

The problem that I had with this book though is that while it is good as a fantasy story, as satire it simply does not work. The major religions of the world today are all monotheistic religions that stem from the same founder, that is Abraham. Granted we do have Hinduism, but I am disinclined to suggest that Buddhism, at its core, is a monothestic religion (it is more of an atheistic philosophy that attaches itself to other religions). Most of the polytheistic, or pantheistic religions, are generally in the minority (though they are still quite dominant in Asia, though they tend to be amalgamations of Buddhism). I suspect that if the major monotheistic religions (and the offshoots) were to be put into one category, we would find that they form a large majority of the world's population.

Therefore, satirising religion based upon the idea that a god's power is based upon the number of the god's followers simply does not work in a modern, or even in a post-modern, world, especially in such a society where the miraculous is no longer acknowledged.

However, putting aside the whole idea that I have discussed above, I think there are some very good points that Pratchett makes here, namely around the power of religion. What we see with the Omnians is the creation of a mono-culture, as they believe that not only their religion, but their form of worship and their rituals and practises are the only true way and thus they steam roll across the land destroying all forms of variety. They do not believe in making allies, or coming to agreements. It is a classic example of the bible and the gun.

Okay, I am a monotheist, and I also have a objective stance in regards to my faith, but that does not mean that everything is objective. Religion becomes dangerous when the subjective and the opinion are over-ridden by the objective, and that any form of independent thought is forbidden. I have been told that there is one particular off-shoot of Christianity where the guy at the top pretty much dictates what every adherent in the sect is supposed to read, preach, and talk about for that particular week, and there is no questioning those decrees. My response to that is 'what if that decree is wrong'. I have also seen it with regards to the attacks against Catholicism by certain evangelicals, yet in a discussion that I had last week, the only thing that we actually objected with regards to Catholicism was the deification of the saints. Pretty much every other aspect of Catholicism, when we actually think about it, is not all that offensive to evangelical Christianit – it is just that they do things a little differently to us, and in some cases, I actually think that they may do some things better than us.

It is the dogmatic attitude of some religions that Pratchett is satirising here, and we come across the conflict that this causes when the Omnians go to war against the Ephebians, which is the Discworld version of the Ancient Greeks. In a sense it is a clash against freedom of thought. What the dogmatic religion hates, and the reason that they hate it is because they fear it, is the ability to think for oneself and to question that which is around you. The reason they fear that is because freedom of thought actually gives us a form of freedom that nobody can take away. Once we begin to think for ourselves, and in doing so, begin questioning certain objective truths, the danger is that we may actually discover that these objective truths aren't actually objective, but rather relative, esoteric, or even little more than opinion. Once we begin to undermine those objective truths, the dogmatic leaders begin to lose power and, as was the case with Vorbis, end up being lost and alone.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/747407118
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