Friday, December 02, 2016

The Lost City of Z - David Grann

Percy Harrison Fawcett, renowned Amazon explorer, was most famous not for his many expeditions and contributions to the mapping of the Amazon but for his disappearance. Having departed along with his eldest son in search of the fabled city of “Z” in 1925 he was never heard from again. His absence resulted in various rescue expeditions with most invariably vanishing into the jungle, possibly leading to the deaths of up to 100 people with no one any closer to discovering the fate of Percy’s last expedition. Cut to 2009 when journalist David Grann also falls under the spell of Fawcett and the Amazon. He too lands in the jungle, determined to find out truth.

Much like “Into Thin Air”, author David Grann divides the book up into his own adventures and a history of Fawcett’s. This helps provide a background on the explorer as well as the challenges and perils of the Amazon.

Fawcett is a surprising character and largest than life. He was apparently the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Professor Challenger in “The Lost World”. On expeditions he appeared practically immune to the diseases and illnesses that plagued his companions. Luck and speed helped bolster his reputation, earning him a Founder’s medal and a well-respected name among the Royal Geographical Society as an Amazonian expert.

His travels though were interrupted by World War I and he spent years planning and dreaming of finding traces of a lost civilization in the jungle on the same scale as Machu Picchu. All the while he’s getting older, technology is shrinking the world and he’s being slowly but inexorably pushed out of his field by men with degrees in the emerging field of modern anthropology.

The book was engaging despite the interruption in narrative to switch between Fawcett and Grann’s stories. It was also interesting to see how expeditions and the jungle changed over time due to the evolution of technology and modernization. While not every question was answered, Grann provides a satisfactory ending that would surely have pleased Fawcett himself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Arrival" (2016)

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist and university professor trying to teach a class when news breaks that a ufo has touched down in Montana, causing no little amount of panic among her students, her mother and humanity in general. She seems unphased though and images hint at a tragedy that may be taking up more space in her thoughts. 
Despite her preoccupation though she’s contracted by the military to help communicate with the aliens thanks to her translation skills. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) she must learn their language in order to find out why they’re here. Timing is everything though as eleven other ships have landed all over the world with eleven other governments trying to do the same thing Banks is. 
The aliens are well-conceived in that they are so ‘other’ from what we are. Their appearance, their speech, their language and the way they perceive the world are entirely differently. They aren’t a facsimile of humans in any way. 
As well, beautiful cinematography is paired with an evocative soundtrack but those aren’t the reasons you’ll want to rewatch this. There’s a twist at the end that will make you think and without giving anything away the circular theme found throughout was appreciated as was the communication versus action aspect of the story.
The pace does slow down in the middle considerably which accompanied by long shots and a lack of physical action made the film drag. Also, Renner’s character felt wasted. It would have made more sense for his character to be a fellow linguist than a theoretical physicist as his skills aren’t utilized to the same level as Banks’. Seeing them collaborate over language would have made their bond more believable as the chemistry between the two was lacking.
If you’re interested in a sci-fi story that will cause discussion after the film, try this one on for size.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer


“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer, journalist for the adventure magazine Outside, was hired to document an expedition to Mt. Everest in 1996. What he couldn’t know was that by the end of the expedition, eight people would be dead and he would be left with a very different story than what he originally planned.  

We begin with the victory of Krakauer summiting the mountain, quickly followed by ominous words that presage what’s to come. But instead of heading straight into the disaster we know is coming, we’re given a history lesson on Mt. Everest instead. The book provides a mass of information on the dangerous of climbing and what summiting Everest requires in terms of equipment and fortitude. It also touches on Mallory and Irvine and Hillary and Norgay, building a solid foundation on the history of the mountain and how climbing has evolved over the years. Today it’s a commercial operation where inexperienced clients can add to the risk of climbing, endangering not only themselves but also guides and Sherpas.

In stories where the outcome is already known the ‘what’ becomes less important than the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Before reading this book I already knew it involved death and that things were going to go very wrong for a large number of people trying to ascend the mountain. This left me to discover the details around the larger story. Told in hindsight, it creates a growing anxiety as an accumulation of small problems and mistakes leads our climbers towards a slow but inevitable plod towards doom. It was unnerving, knowing some of the people I was reading about would never go home, that I was essentially reading about ghosts.  

Finishing this book I was left with one question. What is a human life worth? I already knew the story was a tragedy but I had no idea how the actions of some climbers would horrify and depress me. The actions and mistakes made along the way were one thing but to discover that climbers were left for dead, that others passed them by on the way to the summit or believed they were beyond help was sickening. It seemed callous and possibly criminal to make no attempt at saving a fellow climber and human being. The excuses made in the book were myriad. “We didn’t know them.” “It’s dangerous to help others at this altitude.” “I was worried for my own life.” But at what point does someone become culpable? They may not have had an active hand in their deaths but what if they could have been saved? Krakauer on other dwell on this, second-guessing themselves, wondering what might have been.


“The plain truth is that I knew better but went to Everest anyway. And in doing so I was a party to the death of good people, which is something that is apt to remain on my conscience for a very long time.” 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Eagle has Landed - Jack Higgins

"Well, let's put it this way, you'll be a major by nightfall or dead."

No one knows the story how of a group of Germans invaded Britain for the sole purpose of kidnapping Winston Churchill. All that remains is a concealed gravestone dedicated to a unit of Germans paratroopers in a British churchyard. The truth is a closely guarded secret by the citizens of Studley Constable, a village that was the epicentre of the most daring raid of the entire war. 

Having never read Higgins before, I had no expectations in reading this book. But I can honestly say this was a poignant, entertaining and exciting read. As a result I can't wait to read more of his works.

There's a variety of characters, all with depth, personality and a derth of needs and wants. Surprisingly enough, the majority of the story is told from the perspective of the antagonists. This is counter to what you would normally expect. Much like "Bel Canto" and "House of Cards", the writing convinces the reader to essentially sympathize with the villain(s) of the story.

Also, in most stories the tension is derived from not knowing how it all ends. This has all been avoided here as the book was written as frame story, meaning we already know how it ends. This can often be a risky idea as it often deflates interest but if done well, it draws readers in by focusing on how and why events end the way they do. Instead of concerning themselves with the end of the story, readers are more interested in the journey/middle. 

Truthfully the majority of the action takes place in the last 50-100 pages but I was never bored or frustrated by this. Higgins slowly moves the playing pieces into place. He slowly builds the plot, interweaving plotlines until you can see the inexorable disaster looming in the distance, forcing the reader to continue, already knowing the outcome.

If you enjoy WWII stories filled with intrigue and like a bit of a twist on the traditional 'hero' story, check out this book. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Annotated Les Miserables: Weeks 10 & 11

So....about three years ago maybe four, I decided to try and read this monster. I failed, more than once. But now I'm back and more focused. I've even got a schedule going. And considering how I started off posting annotations I thought I should see it through. 


If you're planning on reading this book for yourself I would suggest not reading any further if you don't want the book to be spoiled.

Start from the Beginning







Tilbury - A light, open, two-wheeled carriage, sometimes with a top, sometimes without. It was developed in the 19th century by the Tilbury company in London. They were coachbuilders. The vehicle was considered fast, light, sporty and dangerous. 

Gig - Also called a chair or chaise, it's a light, two-wheeled cart pulled by one horse. Travelling at night they would usually carry two oil lamps known as gig lamps. Traditionally it's more formal than a village cart or a meadowbrook cart. A light gig can be used for carriage racing. 

"To journey is to be born and die each minute."
"All the elements of life are in constant flight from us, with darkness and clarity intermingled, the vision and the eclipse." 

File:Palais-de-justice-paris.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Palais du Justice - Among the oldest surviving buildings of the former royal palace. The justice of the state has been dispensed here since medieval times. It was also the seat of Parliament from the 16th century to the French Revolution. It was reconstructed between 1857-1868. 






Bishop's Palace - Built in 1675 it was built by Mansart, the same man who was an architect for Versailles. It now houses the Goya Museum and holds the largest collection of Spanish paintings in France. 








Obsequiously - Characterized by or showing servile compalisance or defence; fawning; obedient; dutifulpontiff

Pontiff - A bishop; any high or chief priest; the Pope aka the Bishop of Rome


Florid - Very fancy or too fancy; having a red or reddish colour

Theramene - The tutor of Hippolyte from the play "Phedre"


Jean-Baptiste Racine.PNG
Jean-Baptiste Racine - (1639-1699) A French dramatist and one of the three great playwrights of 17th century France. The other two being Moliere and Corneille. Racine mostly wrote tragedies and he was accomplished at writing in alexandrine verse. His plays are very sparse and there is little action on stage. 





Phedre - A French dramatic tragedy in five acts, written in alexandrine verse by Jean Racine. It was first performed in 1677. The story was pulled from Greek mythology and the play didn't do well in its initial opening. This is because a rival group staged a play with practically the same story. Racine stopped writing plays after this work until commissioned by the king.

Peroration - To conclude a speech with a formal recapitulation; to speak at great length, often in a grandiloquent manner; declaim

Wheelwright - A person who builds or repairs wooden wheels. These tradesmen made wheels for carts and wagons. 

Enfant-Rouges - An orphanage where the children were dressed in red, the colour of charity. 

Mardi Gras - Part of Carnival celebrations. It begins on or after the Christian feast of the Epiphany and culminates right before Ash Wednesday. It translate directly to "Fat Tuesday" and reflects the practice of the last night of eating rich, fatty food before fasting for Lent. 

Thursday, July 07, 2016

The Annotated Les Miserables: Weeks 8 & 9



So....about three years ago maybe four, I decided to try and read this monster. I failed, more than once. But now I'm back and more focused. I've even got a schedule going. And considering how I started off posting annotations I thought I should see it through. 

If you're planning on reading this book for yourself I would suggest not reading any further if you don't want the book to be spoiled.

Start from the Beginning

Weeks 10 and 11




Pont-a-Mousson - An industrial town situated on the Moselle River. It contains several historical monuments including ones from the 18th century.

Charles Joseph Edouard Potier - (1806-1870) A 19th century French actor and playwright. He acted at the Theatre des Varietes, the Theatre du Palais-Royal and at the Theatre des Folies-Dramatiques. His plays were presented on various Parisian stages.

Theatre des Varietes - It was created by Marguerite Brunet. She was imprisoned for debt in 1803 by decree in 1806, she and her company were ordered to leave the Theatre du Palais-Royal. At the time that theater was called the name "Varietes." She didn't like having to leave and in 1807 she got an audience with Napoleon and received help and protection. Then she founded the new theatre.



Bolivar Arturo Michelena.jpg
By Arturo Michelena
Simon Bolivar - (1783-1830) He was Venezuelan involved in both the military and in politics, helping to establish Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama as sovereign states. Growing up he spent some time in Europe where he was introduced to ideas from the Enlightenment, giving him the ideas of replacing the Spanish as rulers of several countries. He was President of Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru and Gran Colombia. 

















Pablo-morillo.jpgPablo Morillo y Morillo - He was a Spanish general that participated in the Battle of Trafalgar and fought against Bonaparte in the Peninsular War. After the war he was appointed Expedition Commander and General Captain of the Provinces of Venezuela. He then had to fight in a military campaign against Simon Bolivar's revolutionary armies. He would later meet Bolivar in Santa Ana when negotiating a six month truce.









"Curiosity is a form of gluttony: to see is to devour."
Eau de vie - Aka "water of life", it's known as a clear, colourless fruit brandy made by fermentation and double distillation. It typically has a very light taste. 

"An insult to me may be said to be my property. I can do what I like with it."

Peremptory - (esp. of a person's manner or actions) Insisting on immediate attention or obedience, esp. in a brusquely imperious way

Bas-reliefs a kind of sculpture in which shapes are carved so that they are only slightly higher than the flat background

Rheims - It was founded by the Gauls and became a major city during the Roman Empire. It was also important because it was the traditional site where the kings of France where crowned. The Cathedral of Rheims is where the ceremony would take place. It also housed the Holy Ampulla containing consecrated oil allegedly brought by a white dove to the baptism of Clovis in 496. This oil was important for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation ceremony. 

Rene-Theophile-Hyacinthe Laennec.jpg
Professor Laennec - (1781-1826) Aka Rene-Theophile-Hyacinthe-Laennec. He was a French physician responsible for inventing the stethoscope in 1819 and pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions. He developed the understanding of peritonitis and cirrhosis. He coined the term melanoma and described metastases of melanoma to the lungs.








Auscultation - It's listening to the internal sounds of the body, usually using a stethoscope. It's performed in order to examine the circulatory, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

Simon-pure - Genuinely and thoroughly pure. Superficially or hypocritically pure. 

Assizes - A trial session, civil or criminal, held periodically in specific locations by a judge of a superior court. An inquest before members of a jury or assessors; a judicial inquiry. 

Chary - Cautious; wary; Not giving or expending freely; sparing

Patois-speaking - It's non-standard French and regional languages such as Piard, Occitan, Franco-Provencal and Catalan. Many vernacular forms of English spoken in the Caribbean are referred to as Patois. Other examples are Trasianka, Sheng and Tsotsitaal.

Jean Massieu - (1772-1846) He was a pioneering deaf educator. He taught at the famous school for the deaf in Paris where Laurent Clerc was one of his students. He later founded a deaf school in Lille, France. 


Mairie - Mayor's office; town hall


"Nothing discernible to the eye of the spirit is more brilliant or obscure than man; nothing is more formidable, complex, mysterious, and infinite. There is a prospect greater than the sea, and it is the sky; there is a prospect greater than the sky, and it is the human soul." 

 Sophistry - Plausible but fallacious argumentation. A plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.


"The infinite space that each man carries within himself wherein despairingly he contrasts the movements of his spirit with the acts of his life is an overpowering thing." 
"Dante Alighieri found himself one day at a fateful doorway which he hesitated to enter We too are confronted by such a doorway, an we too must hesitate but enter none the less."  

Quixotry - A wild, visionary idea, an eccentric notion or act; a quixotism.

Recidivist - Repeated or habitual relapse, as into crime. The chronic tendency towards repetition of criminal or antisocial behaviour patterns. 


"Diamonds are to be found only in the darkness of the earth, and truth in the darkness of the mind."
Sepulchre - A tomb, grave or burial place.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

"Nixon" (1995)

"Always remember: others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."

President Richard Nixon is alone with his thoughts, listening to his tape recordings and reflecting on a life that is about to come crashing down around him. Haunted by the past and surrounded on all sides by enemies waiting for his fall, he finds himself trapped within his failures, suffocating under the weight of his memories.

This film covers the length and breadth of Nixon's life, with Anthony Hopkins in the titular role. He does a great job of bringing the 40th President to life. While he looked nothing like the man, Hopkins adopted several of his affectations that translate well on the screen, the barking voice and the jutting teeth. There are also several moments where a flick of his tongue gives him a rather reptilian look.

Hopkins and Director Oliver Stone manage to present a story that explains rather than excuses the man for his actions. Surprisingly they create a somewhat sympathetic character in Nixon, showing him to be a man eventually consumed by guilt. Burdened by the religious expectations of his mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, their memory hung like a weight around his brain. But we're also shown the petty creature behind the mask, the man who remembered all who'd wronged him, punishing them in his own way, years later. He is always the wronged party, always on the defensive no matter the circumstance. He was a man continuously left unsatisfied by his successes, driven by feelings of inferiority that would eventually lead to his own destruction, encouraging viewers to both pity and loathe him.

While a lengthy film, the use of music lends an amount of emotionality to scenes and creates tension that drives the story forward.

Where the film fell flat was the extraneous use of visuals to illustrated emotion and memory. They felt jarring and random, interrupting the scene and drawing the viewer out of the film. Instead of added to the overall tapestry of the story they rather cluttered it. As well, it felt like overkill for the film to imply that Nixon was involved in the Kennedy assassination.

I would recommend watching the film primarily for the Hopkins and the supporting characters. They bring these characters to life, providing viewers with a front-row seat to Nixon's rise and fall.