Thursday, July 30, 2020

Poor Richard's Almanack - Benjamin Franklin

“The poor man must walk to get meat for his stomach, the rich man to get a stomach for his meat.”
This pamphlet was written by Benjamin Franklin under the pseudonym of “Poor Richard”. A prototype of the Farmer’s Alamanac, it contained a calendar, poems, a section on weather as well as astronomical and astrological information.

The version I read contains ONLY the sayings. The majority of them have fallen into obscurity and disuse but a few have survived intact into modern times: “Haste makes waste” and “Well done is better than well said” for example. On occasion the sayings are difficult to parse due to archaic diction, religious references and the evolution of technology. Throughout the book there are wood engravings, both pastoral and urban that break up the text.

The almanac was a popular work when it was published, selling thousands of copies a year. Even Napoleon knew of the work as he had it translated into Italian. As well a ship, gifted from Louis XVI to US naval commander John Paul Jones, was renamed after Franklin, who happened to be serving as Ambassador to France at the time.

It’s an interesting read but the full version of the almanac may make for a more fulfilling read.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Barren Lives (1963)

It’s crazy to go on. We’ll never get there.

“Barren Lives” is set in 1940's Brazil and shows a migrant family in the depths of poverty and what steps they take to survive.

I didn’t enjoy this movie. Every minute was agonizing and I just wanted it to be over. But I didn’t hate it because that was the point. The slow-moving plot, repressive heat, and the constant suffering of the family made for a tough watch. 

Director Nelson Pereira dos Santos makes you suffer alongside the family to the point of exhaustion.
Every aspect of the film has been calculated to create a depressive mood.  Shot in black and white, colour doesn’t exist in this world. Everything is dry like the creek bed  and deadly like the sun. The soundtrack is minimal and the viewer will notice the silence in many scenes where there’s no dialogue and only ambient sound.  What little music exists is mostly composed of a whining violin that persists like a hungry mosquito. Long shots of repetitive motion show the monotony of their lives and character flaws lead to tragic mistakes.

At every turn the family suffers. Whenever things go well, the situation soon sours. The father finds employment but his boss underpays him. They’re hired to look after cows but the drought starts to kill them. At times it seems the whole world including the environment is against them.

As well violence can be found throughout the film both visited upon and perpetrated by the family for survival and reveal the harshness of the world.

I can’t say I’d recommend this movie because it wasn’t a good watch. In fact, this review is meant to save you the 100 minutes I believe you’d waste watching this. It was both brutal and interesting but not something I would ever re-watch.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Tess of the Road - Rachel Hartman

“Her head nested in spindly weeds; beyond them the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her chewing slowed, she noticed a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bees were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savor of bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.”

Tess Dombegh is a problem child, the bad twin and a troublemaker. At least, that’s what her family would have you believe. When in truth she’s felt overlooked in favour of her “prettier, kinder” twin and her older half-dragon sister, endured years of verbal abuse from her mother and was assaulted by someone she trusted. Suffocated under the weight of familial expectations and forced to accept a role she doesn’t want, Tess leaves home on the hunt for purpose and adventure.

The story is decidedly mature with adult themes and situations and though it’s the third book in the series, readers don’t need to start from the beginning to understand the story. The world Hartman has built is full and populated with a plethora of complex characters and memorable personalities. We’re also introduced to a number of areas due to the distance Tess travels. This is all held together by rich description and vivid imagery that bring the kingdom of Goredd and its people to life.

Tess is a flawed character and a refreshing change from the stereotype of a perfect protagonist. She’s stubborn, has a temper and holds a grudge. Over the course of the story we witness her grow and change in relation to her circumstances and the people surrounding her. And thanks to length of the book, her character development felt organic and realistic.

One thing that would have made the story more comprehensive was a map. Without one it made picturing Tess’ journey difficult. As well there were some spots where scenes felt compressed or skipped over, such as at the monastery. Expanding these scenes would have allowed for more character interaction as these settings sometimes felt rushed through.

If you’re looking for an engaging story set in a world populated by magic, dragons and legends I would highly recommend you try this series.   

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lumberjanes Book 1 - Noelle Stevenson

An intrepid group of girls at sleepaway camp bond while solving mysteries in the woods and encountering supernatural creatures. This graphic novel has a Gravity Falls-esque feel to it and it all begins with a fight against a pack of three-eyed foxes.

Thus begins the adventure as the five girls of Roanoke cabin are left with a strange phrase and a golden eye that leads them past a river monster, down into the earth and in direct confrontation with a troop of mind controlled boy scouts.

The story is arranged in a unique way as if it’s been stuffed into the middle of a field manual for the camp. Each chapter begins with a page from the manual about a specific badge (all named using puns) and ends with polaroids documenting their journey. It creates an immersive feel that expands the world beyond the scope of the art and dialogue.

While it’s difficult to make this many characters distinctive “Lumberjanes” accomplishes this and then some. All of the girls are different with a variety of personalities and body types. And as the story begins in medias res we learn who they are through action and dialogue. Apart from being incredibly funny, the dialogue itself was fluid and an amusing substitute for swearing and a shared catchphrase showed how closely the group had bonded.

The artwork was bright and colourful, which felt fitting in terms of the ages of the characters and the supernatural elements of the story and creatures encountered in their investigations.

The one drawback is that the felt cut off. The first chapter is darn near perfect because it introduces us to the characters and the world and ties up the adventure encountered within while leaving room for questions and further exploration. The next three chapters are all tied together and created more questions than it answered by the end of the story and I was left feeling unsatisfied.

Apart from that one hiccup this was a great read and introduction to a series that both amused and intrigued me.  

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Terrier - Tamora Pierce

This book is set in the same world as “The Lioness Rampant” series, taking place several hundred years earlier, following Beka Cooper, a poor girl living in Tortall. She joins the Provost’s Dogs to keep the peace and soon discovers people who won’t be missed are disappearing.  Thanks to her mysterious powers, a magical cat and a stubborn streak a mile wide, she plunges headlong into a story that has implications for the entire Lower City.

Beka is a flawed character which makes her actions and dialogue that much more realistic. She has fears and doubts. She has trouble doing her job at times because of communication. But through the course of the book we see her adapt and evolve to her new situation and to those around her.

There are also some great well-rounded secondary characters such as Beka’s mentors Tunstall and Goodwin and Rosto the Piper. Their personalities are slowly revealed throughout the story and on occasion by third parties. This made for a more organic experience rather than an infodump through exposition.  

As well the maps and appendix were much appreciated as the book covers a lot of ground both geographically and linguistically. This helped to physically center the reader and the addition of slang made the story more immersive and showed how much world-building Pierce had put into the series.

One drawback that remained throughout the entire story was the epistolary style. At times it got in the way of the story. In the beginning I had to delve through three separate POV levels to get to Beka’s story which was confusing and the result was it took longer to get into the story. As well one diary entry contained a plethora of spelling errors which was distracting and unnecessary. There are other better ways to communicate a person’s literacy. The style was somewhat mitigated though by Pierce’s transitions between Beka’s passive and active voice. She created a seamless shift between diary entries and present action so that it’s unnoticeable and doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow of the story.

If you’re a fan of Pierce or of the Lioness series I would highly recommend this book as the beginning of an interesting new series.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

"Phantom Thread" (2017)

Imagine a fairy tale where Cinderella plays the villain, where the story begins as a romance but then slowly twists into a horror movie. Lush costuming and soft colours hide a sinister aggression that slowly unfolds over the course of the movie.

As with all Paul Thomas Anderson films, there is a soft precision in “Phantom Thread” that confidently sets the viewer in the period, allowing for the film to take other liberties that play against expectations. The plot for example, lulls the viewer into a false sense of familiarity before taking two separate twists that completely change the nature of the entire film.

The two main characters Woodcock and Alma are layered with multitudes, both equally fascinating and terrible in their own fascinating way.

Woodcock is petulant, exacting and unforgiving. He doesn’t suffer fools, nor does he permit his routine to be interrupted for anything or anyone. His attention to detail makes for an amazing designer with impeccable clothing but an unapproachable grump in social situations. One needs only look to how he treats his clients, his sister and even his muses to understand how he views everyone else. Everything subservient to his work and all who don’t lend themselves to this are anathema to him.
His strange relationship with his mother and sister seem to have rippled out to affect how he treats all women and coaxed him to retreat into himself and away from the world. It’s no coincidence that he lives in the same house that he works in. It’s both economic but also safe and comfortable. Some might say claustrophobic and stifling.

Alma is mysterious and her introduction would seem to indicate that she’ll just be one more muse in Woodcock’s long line of discarded women. At first she appears shy and clumsy, somewhat mousy and incredibly na├»ve category. After all, what woman would agree to visit the house of a man she’s just met or agree to strip down to her negligee for him? But as the film progresses we learn that under the surface Alma, is far more devious and sinister than at once conceived.  

His previous pattern involved choosing a live dress-form to clothe and copulate with but Alma balks at this tight control. Here Alma finds an ally in Cyril and isn’t so easily bullied. Oh she plays along as you can see in the second breakfast scene. She butters her toast in silence and moves with mute exactness. But as soon as she’s married she exaggerates her former behaviour, possibly to play with her newfound power. And as Woodcock has married her he seems incapable of even voicing his discontent. Instead we’re left to watch him squirm as he likely never has in his entire life.

What he and the audience don’t notice is that she was never weak or naive. She’s in fact very daring and it’s only when she starts to push back against his routine, fights his wish to control her outer appearance and inner thoughts that we see the real Alma. She forces Woodcock to acknowledge their relationship when previously he made no concessions or allowances for the women in his life, including his muses.

She is the aggressor, the one pushing for physical intimacy while he’d rather work. Their relationship in fact is at first an outgrowth of his work. He fits her for dresses, exhibits them and works under his harsh gaze. But she wants more and won’t be bullied by either him or Cyril. In fact she puts up with quite a lot of verbal abuse and refuses to leave when her situation is made uncomfortable. In fact in the second half of the film the balance of power shifts to her after she makes a drastic decision that moves the film into uncharted territory.

Difficult to categorize but pleasurably unpredictable, “Phantom Thread” is a quiet, unassuming film that hides a myriad of secrets that will change how you view the characters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The 6th Extinction - James Rollins

This is sierra, victor, whiskey. There’s been a breach. Fail-safe initiated. No matter the outcome: Kill us…kill us all.”

In Northern California a military research facility is blown up along with its staff in order to contain the experiments within. The precautions fail however, unleashing a deadly cloud that destroys everything it touches. Bad weather coupled with a lack of information has bureaucrats looking at a possible nuclear option.  Sigma Force must now find a cure, traveling as far afield as the Amazon rainforest and Antarctica for answers and a cure.   

The book is part of a series but can be read as a stand-alone. There will be references to past exploits and characters that can be confusing if you haven’t read the previous books but it doesn’t detract from the plot.

As well I appreciated how much the book leaned on real science for the foundation of the plot, addressing the ethical issues that can arise in the face of new technology as well as showing what happens when morality isn’t a consideration. For readers looking for an explanation of terms there is an entire section in the Author’s Note dedicated to expanding on the locations, history and science cited.

The main problem I had with the book was balance. While the book doesn’t drag in terms of plot, which is appreciated, it’s so long and unrelenting in terms of action that it gives readers no room to breathe. Rollins weaves multiple storylines together to create a complex plot but at times we jump around too much to stay grounded with one chapter being only five pages long. Also almost every chapter ended on a cliff-hanger which while exciting, also became predictable and exhausting. The pace of action never lagged but at over 500 pages it was a slog to reach the end.

It was an entertaining read that immediately grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. With a story and secrets that span centuries, this book will keep you on your toes until the very end.