Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Review: Arrival/The Story Of Your Life

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

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Following are my thoughts about the movie, Arrival.

Despite my efforts, it’s possible that reading this post will spoil the movie for you. I’m not intending to, but would hate if I did …

So, maybe, watch the movie, or read the novella The Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang before you read further? Watching the film and especially reading the novella – well worth your while.

By the time I turned 10, I could distinguish between the dreams that were predictive and the ones of that are mere processing.

It’s not as if those early portents were of much consequence.

The structure of those early Knowings was part of their message.

Every one of those early dreams would begin with me in a place I’d never been in before.

First, I’d see every detail of my surroundings, as if the camera were panning around the place so I’d remember it when next I saw it. It was as if the Universe were announcing, “Stay turned for the following important Message.

But then what would come next would not seem to me to be an important message at all. In the dream, I’d participate in an innocuous conversation with someone, sometimes someone I already knew, sometimes not.

Sometimes, the conversation would be a disagreement, but it was not usually something I cared about very much, in the dream at least. Usually, I had very little context. These messages were not very long – maybe a minute or two of talk at most after the scene had been set.

Despite my resentment that the Universe was instructing me to store such a ridiculously uninteresting tableau, I would remember these Messages.

Then, sometime later – a day, week, month, or year later – the exact conversation that I’d dreamed would take place in my waking life in precisely the place I dreamed it would. Every word that I’d dreamed would be spoken. Every item I’d dreamed of would be on every shelf; every leaf would tremble just as it did in the dream.

Every time one of my dreams played out in my real life, I wondered, at the end of its reiteration, if I should tell the person I was talking with that I had already had the conversation we’d been having. Usually, I didn’t. Once in a while, if I were talking with someone I knew would just honor my honesty and not argue with me, I’d say something like, “You know, I dreamed this conversation a few weeks ago. I was thinking of trying to deliberately deviate from the script I dreamed, but felt bound to relive it as the dream instructed me to.” What would you do if you were talking with an 8-year old who told you something like this, or even a 20-year old? You’d move on to other topics, wouldn’t you?

Much later on, some of my dreams would predict real, consequential events in my life. These dreams would be less specific as to exact location and words spoken. After all the dreams, all the training, the Universe knew I was familiar with the drill.

In these later dreams, I’d dream the thing happening and Know it would happen and that I could not stop it. In these cases, when I’d startle awake from the dream, I’d usually tell the person I was with what I’d dreamed would happen. And we would agree, because we were grown-ups, that I could not renege on my commitment on the basis of the dream.

So, for example, on the morning I awoke to lightning flashing after a dream in which I was a passenger in a car that crashed on a wet, windy road in Princeton Junction, NJ, I got on the train that took me to Princeton Junction (should I have canceled the trip), seated myself in the passenger seat (should I have insisted upon driving), my mother driving, and the car was hit head-on by an idiot who took a curve too wide and totaled it (should I have suggested an alternate route?).

As we sat on the side of the road, I did NOT tell me mother I had known since I’d awoken that we would not be driving in that car ever again.

Needless to say, I am not good at sleeping. But now, my Messages don’t only come in dreams. Often, I just Know things that will happen. And, as even the Greeks have told us, the world does not appreciate hearing dire predictions, and resent people who say “I told you so.”

Knowing things without any basis for Knowing them is, if anything, even worse than dreaming them. In particular, with close family and friends, I often Know what will happen (sometimes very specifically) as soon as they describe some path they are considering. It is only rarely that I tell them what I Know.

There’s a movie out now. I think it will not be in theatres for long. It’s called Arrival, and it’s based on a novella called “The Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang that I recognized as a Message from the Universe when I first read it in around 2002.

The first time I saw Arrival, I went alone to a free Women Who Code showing. With my foot in a cast, I walk slowly and I got into the showing 15 minutes late.

Although I enjoyed the film, I felt that if I had not read the story first, I would not have been able to understand it. But I thought that maybe this was because I’d missed the beginning.

So, last week, I dragged my husband and daughter with me to see it again, beginning to end this time.

Turned out that DH, who has a terrifying ability to grok any movie plot no matter how confused, understood every single thing about Arrival.

My daughter, who is brilliant in general and a very savvy watcher of movies, was indeed confused. Also, I misunderstood when I thought she had asked me what exactly Arrival was about, and when I told her, she was extremely miffed with me.

Given its thoughtful pace and meditative mood, my feeling is that Arrival is not going to be a blockbuster. But it’s a film that adult children ought to take their parents to. The kids are unlikely to get it; the parents will on first watch.

Then, you all, read the novella. The novella avoids a lot of the silliness of the movie and gives the complete Message.

(Based on my recent Knowings, the endings of both the movie and the story feel inappropriately optimistic, but then Chiang was writing just after 9/11 and before the Iraq Invasion, when the world was a very different place.)

In this very cool piece, a linguist reality-checks the process Amy Adams’ character used to learn the alien’s language.

Humor Abuse

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

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Lorenzo Pisoni was just two years old when he created and presented his first act during into intermission in his family’s Pickle Circus. His performance was so compelling it cut significantly into concession sales. Lorenzo Pisoni was drafted into the performance itself.

Humor Abuse, Pisoni’s one-man show about his life in the circus and out, is a brilliant meditation on how a severely gifted person can be accidentally abused by his parents as they nurture a child’s gifts. The problem a gifted child with gifted parents faces is that when he gets into the family business, he sometimes finds himself also taking on his parents’ burdens.

Humor Abuse is a hilarious and sad and impressive tribute to hard work, circus, clowning, and family. The pratfalls scripted into the show echo the slips and trips that occur in life as parents and child learn to nurture their talents.

Today is the closing day of this run. Go!

Book review: Song of the Lark

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

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Author:Willa Cather
Reading Level (Conceptual):Children 12 and up
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:Fiction
Year of publication:1915

I am always blown away when a novel that is nearly 100 years old speaks to me as compellingly as Song of the Lark did. The story of Thea Kronborg, one of many children in a family

Recommended.

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Book review: The Monkey Bible

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

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Author:Mark Laxer
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:science fiction
Year of publication:2010

I am frankly very disappointed in this book. It had so much potential, and I really enjoyed the first maybe two-thirds of it. Up to that point, Laxer posed questions that I personally thought were fascinating: What is the relationship between humans and the "non-human" world? Do we have any right to separate them at all [I don't think we do]? What does religion mean? How does the mental process of religion relate to the physical world? I was also impressed that there were no direct answers to these questions, because the answers are different for any individual... And Laxer effectively communicated that flexibility with a mix of narrators who all found different answers for themselves.

BUT. After a couple of hundred pages, the answers started being drilled into me, which I didn't appreciate, because all of a sudden the open-ness I had felt disappeared. I was also unhappy that the story took a lot of turns towards the impractical, so that by the end I didn't believe in the world presented to me anymore. All in all, The Monkey Bible represents a great idea, started off very well, but ended all-too-mush-ily for me.


I forgot to mention the "Companion Music CD" included with the book. I haven't been able to force myself to actually listen to it, because the lyrics are written out of the back of the book, and my reaction to them perfectly matches my feeling that they tried too hard: to "get a message across," to be super new-agey, to "enlighten" the audience in a way I didn't want to be enlightened. I think the book would have been able to speak for itself.

-- Fizzy

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Book review: Harmonic Feedback

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

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Author:Tara Kelly
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2010

I really liked this book: it's told from the perspective of a girl diagnosed with Asperger's and ADHD.

Her biggest challenge in the book was realizing that the labels "normal" and "abnormal" are nothing more than labels, and that nobody is the same, so "normal" is subjective.


I found that her mental journey to that realization was very well put together and really hit home.

Note: High school level: drugs, sex.

-- Fizzy

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Musical Review: Rent

Friday, August 20th, 2010

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Some musicals strike us as perfect, or at least nearly perfect. We’ve seen Into the Woods nearly fifty times and would be willing to watch it weekly or more if we could afford to. The book is interesting to us, most of the lyrics are clearly intentional and speak to us, the music is complex and beautiful. Sure there are songs that we think could go, or be improved, but still.

Rent seems terrifically unfinished to us. My teenage daughter who did not experience the 1980’s when AIDS first began to wreak havoc with so many lives and who had never heard the acronym AZT was utterly confused by the initial half hour. (We paused the DVD to explain what was happening and why.)

We admired Rent as an impassioned, furious, context-free snapshot of that awful time. The performers on the DVD are gorgeous, with voices to match. But the music and lyrics don’t rise to the cause they represent. The perfect song that Roger runs away to Santa Fe to write is not.

Wonder if perhaps, if the creator, Jonathan Larson, had lived to see the show on Broadway, he would have refined it further.

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Book review: Water for Elephants

Monday, May 10th, 2010

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Author:Sara Gruen
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2007

Fizzy says:

Great book. REALLY cool. It follows the story of one man for one summer, as he runs away to the circus. Accidentally.

Gruen definitely did her research, and gets deep into the gritty life of traveling circuses around the 1930's. The hierarchy that separated bosses, performers, and workers is very clear, and Jacob, the narrator, doesn't fit into any of those categories, which leads to an interesting and fast paced novel.

I read it in about a day and a half. SUPER good. Recommend it to anyone.

Emily says:

Beautiful and deep, but interspersed with the fascinating circus lore is unspeakable cruelty, human to human, and especially, human to animal. Balanced, sometimes, by unbelievable grace.

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Book review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Monday, April 26th, 2010

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Author:Muriel Barbery
Reading Level (Conceptual):Sophisticated readers
Reading Level (Vocabulary):Children 12 and up
Genre:fiction

This book is remarkable, in that with every page I read, I was more captivated.

For one thing, the author tells the story in a very interesting way: The story is narrated by two very different, but also very similar, characters. One is a 12 year old genius and the other is a 50-something year old concierge in the fancy hotel she lives in.

So that's cool, but the writing style is what really got to me. Barbery gets very deep into some philosophical questions, that at many points I found confusing at first, but once I got into my "elegance of the hedgehog mood", I really enjoyed it.

The way she uses language is just so PRETTY that I easily got sucked in. My only warning is that the ending is super surprising, although very satisfying nonetheless. I had to wait awhile to write my review because a) I didn't know what to say, and b) The ending got me pretty emotional, because the characters were so believable (I was almost crying on the bus when I finished it).

-- Fizzy

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Book review: Makers

Friday, February 5th, 2010

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Author:Cory Doctorow
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction, cyberpunk
Year of publication:2009

Let me start by saying that I would like at least one of every invention described in Makers. I am particularly taken by the RFID/GPS/labeling/cataloging system that allows a person to locate any item they have tagged by typing in its name. But I would be happy to ride The Ride, or own any one or all of the tiny robots, the Super Marios, well, truly, any and all of them.

Doctorow also puts forward an interesting business model - the 6 months and you're out theory of manufacturing anything. Seems exhausting, but true to life. And may very well be the only viable model for hardware manufacturing in the future.

That said, Makers is the book that Ayn Rand would have written instead of The Fountainhead if she'd lived a few years later and chosen engineering rather than architecture as her metaphor.

In the Makers world, anyone with a moderate-to-high IQ is not only smart, but sensitive, creative, well-intentioned, and deep-down-to-the-core good (although sometimes that is not immediately apparent). Sure smart guys (and they are mostly guys, of course) may occasionally take actions that send others to the hospital for months at a time, but they do eventually realize the error(s) of their ways and take steps to correct them.

Women in the Makers world are very, very bright, attracted to Makers, attractive, moral, tolerant, thrifty, ... well, you know, they are pretty much not very reality-based.

Oh, and then there are the policemen. Seems that policemen (and lawyers) were pretty much put on this earth to physically and/or psychically destroy smart people.

Anyway, the plot moves along at an involving pace. And you like and approve of and root for all the smart people who are constantly inventing all kinds of very cool things.

And then appears the very horrific random outburst of violence or kind of overly long sex scene (but then, I am probably not the target audience of this book; maybe the Powers That Be thought these were necessary).

So, anyway, I'm very glad I read this book. But I did feel that Death Waits was treated overly harshly. He is a very young smart person, no doubt, but he IS a smart person, if not an engineer. It's good that in some fictional universes, smart people are not the enemies. Now, in addition, I'd really like to visit a fictional universe in which smart women are people too.

-- Emily Berk

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Book review: The Children’s Book

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

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Author:A.S. Byatt
Reading Level (Conceptual):For grown-ups
Reading Level (Vocabulary):For grown-ups
Genre:fiction
Year of publication:2009

There are so many intertwining, involving stories in The Children's Book that it was sometimes hard to slow down and remember that great novels are not entirely about what they are about.

Set in the time leading up to World War I and before women's sufferage, the plot tells of a group of families and their associates and friends. There is a destitute young boy who is nurtured to become the artist he deserves to be. There are the young women who, lacking the vote and receiving conflicting messages about how to behave socially and politically, pay terrible prices. The subplots about how various characters resolve their needs to express themselves politically, even when expressing their opinions may adversely affect those they love should be required reading for anyone thinking of a career in politics.


This is not an easy book to read, but it is also not an easy book to put down.

It's as if Byatt is leading us through a magical party. She continually blows up the most beautiful balloons and then, once you've become entranced by one, she wanders back to burst it.

-- Emily

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