Friday, November 21, 2014

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

I've dipped my toe in the pool of vampire popularity with the Twilight series (liked the first one and it was downhill from there), Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (loved them), The Vampire Diaries (gave up in season 2 or 3; too soap opera-y), and just a couple of episodes of Being Human (both UK and American versions; too graphic for me), plus The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (pretty good). I thought I'd try the book that sort of started the vampire craze anew, recognizing that vampire lore has been around for hundreds of years and is nothing new. Maybe I should say that Interview with the Vampire started the sexy/moral vampire as part of pop culture.

I expected it to be gripping and suspenseful and maybe more graphic and sexy than I'm used to. Not at all. I struggled to finish it. The story wasn't bad, but I really disliked the way it was narrated. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find that it's actually written as an interview, one that lasts many hours and has very few questions or comments from the interviewer. So Louis the vampire narrates the whole thing and manages to make it really boring. At least in my opinion. It's possible that it has lost some of its originality in the years since it was published in 1976, especially with the Twilight-inspired rise of the paranormal section in every bookstore, a section that didn't exist before a few years ago, as far as I know. Someone correct me if I'm wrong. I'm pretty sure that I liked Twilight partly because it was a new take on the vampire, and Interview with the Vampire must have had that same advantage years ago.

Anyway, Louis seemed whiny and moody and sort of pathetic to me. There are some moments of excitement, but the narration manages to remove the reader from the action so it's not that exciting anymore. I really didn't like it. Looking at my list above, maybe I just need some comic relief with my vampires. Although I loved Dracula by Bram Stoker, and that's not funny at all.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Those Were the Days / Дорогой длинною

The song “Those Were the Days” is an English version of the Russian song Дорогой длинною (By the Long Road). I like both versions a lot. The English one by Mark Hopkin from 1968 is very popular:

A bit of related history is stranger than fiction:

On Christmas 1975, the President of Equatorial Guinea, Francisco Macías Nguema, had 150 alleged coup plotters executed in the national stadium while Mary Hopkins’ cover of “Those Were the Days” was played over the PA system.

That was reported in the Wikipedia article on the song.

The first Russian recordings of the song go back to the 1920s and 1930s. This video anthologizes excerpts from some of them, giving a feel for the range of adaptations:

I find the Russian lyrics and English translation are more interesting than the later English version.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Book review of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, by Jesse Walker.
421 pages excluding index.
Published 2013 by HarperCollins.

This book makes well its case that “The Paranoid Style Is American Politics”, as the name of the first chapter states. It covers pretty much everything, at least in passing: Presidential assassinations; slave uprisings; religious disputes; Indian conflict; influence by the French, English, and Spanish; overt devil worship; Freemasonry; Jews; Communism; the Illuminati; the Ku Klux Klan; later the FBI and COINTELPRO; the CIA and CHAOS; Rosicrucianism; Watergate; the Vietnam War; the tradition of paranoid movies and TV shows; Christian fears of devil worshiping and witchcraft and ritual mutilations and child abuse.

Chapter 3, The Devil Next Door, includes detailed coverage of anti-Mormon paranoia about polygamy, harems, bloc voting, the Danites, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and treatment in novels by Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet) and Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage. It also talks about the Shakers, Catholics and Jesuits, Puritans and Indians. Just in that one chapter.

It was interesting to see “benevolent conspiracies” treated as a separate category. Even traditional religious worldviews somewhat fit into this category, of God and angels and prophets working together for everyone’s ultimate good.

I really enjoyed reading the review of prank, ironic, and parody conspiracy theorizing from the Forteans, Discordianism, Robert Anton Wilson, the Church of the SubGenius, and others. I am an active Mormon, and in high school my mom (also Mormon) bought me the Book of the SubGenius because she knew I would enjoy it. I did and do. I, like many of the parody conspiracy peddlers, don’t think that having fun with it means no conspiracy is ever true. Of course some are. But the paranoid mindset seems best countered with a lack of self-seriousness.

The review of conspiracy beliefs since the end of the Cold War around 1990 was interesting. It starts with some of this quotation:

The end of the Cold War was a deferred apocalypse. The outcome “and then one side basically imploded suddenly” was not on the menu. The Cold War was supposed to end in a nuclear inferno that killed everyone. It wasn’t supposed to just have the air go out of it. And a deferred eschaton has unusual power. Culturally, we spent decades expecting that we were all going to die. The reprieve didn’t suddenly make everybody less pessimistic. It just turned that pessimism inward.

―Philip Sandifer, Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 39 (Prime Suspect, Cracker), September 12, 2012, cited in The United States of Paranoia, p. 275

By 1990 fax machines were common and underground communication had picked up pace. Conspiracy theories were morphing ever more quickly, and convenient but never very accurate lines between “left” and “right” fell apart. President Bush senior declaring the “New World Order” couldn’t have been a bigger invitation to paranoia and the catchphrase was picked up by left-leaning (e.g. Test Dept’s song series New World Order) and continued to be of concern to constitutionalists and others.

By 1994 the popular advent of the World Wide Web made most every theory and news tidbit available immediately, and its reach to readers grew steadily. That world was the backdrop for my college and early post-college years, with specifics such as Ruby Ridge, Waco, supposed conspiracies between and by Federal Reserve and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the FBI’s open battle against real privacy with The Clipper Chip, the national security conspiracy against us in considering strong cryptography (such as PGP and HTTPS/SSL) to be regulated munitions.

The book’s investigation of the militia and later Tea Party movements as much more diverse than the racist portrayal in popular media is well-researched and presented. Many real terrorist conspiracies were revealed by militias to police, who then foiled them. But militias in general were smeared by the popular press rather than shown to be more mainstream than those who splintered away from them for violent purposes. There were many reviews in the book of what eventually was discovered about who was connected to whom or who was a lone actor, that I had not heard before.

One of my favorite things about the book is that it didn’t bog down on any one topic for too long. It is not, for the most part, trying to prove or debunk specific conspiracy theories, especially the older and interminably contentious ones. Though it is enlightening, instead it is showing that conspiracy theories and paranoia are a central feature of American history, not just the province of the fringe. Because some conspiracies are definitely real and proven, the tendency to find conspiracies can never be fully eradicated due to the rational basis and occasionally confirmed facts. But the pull to see conspiracies everywhere leads to paranoia and attracts and distracts many people, and can become a serious problem for them. There are some interesting lessons to consider here about faith of all types.

It is an excellent book. I found it a fun read, easy to read in big gulps or in bite-sized chunks. Even the endnotes were rewarding. I was delighted to see my friend Eric Dixon thanked in the acknowledgements! I appreciated that the book was well-edited, both because book publishing in recent years seems to have gotten sloppier, and because books on conspiracy are often poorly edited and/or poorly sourced which raises concerns about the quality of research. Jesse Walker has done a great job here and I recommend it highly.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Advertisements during the Pope’s Funeral

Václav Havel, Washington, April 9, 2005

Yesterday I watched the pope’s [John Paul II] funeral on television. It was a grand and moving spectacle. I knew the pope, and I’d even dare say that we were friends, and perhaps for that very reason I was incapable of experiencing any great sorrow at his death. The thing is, I had a visceral feeling that, with great peace in his soul, he was departing for a place he knew he was going to, a good place. But America is a rather odd country. It’s very religious, and at the same time it allows the broadcast of the pope’s funeral to be interrupted by advertisements, many of which were the direct embodiment of what he had criticized for his entire life. I found it truly hard to understand, and it made me more and more uncomfortable, until I finally switched the television off.

To the Castle and Back, Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson, 2007, p. 20

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Final Ride by LeAnn Bednar

I thought I'd have to push myself to read this book about a Teton Valley man's ride along the Great Western Trail after he's diagnosed with cancer. I was wrong, though. I found it fascinating. Written in first-person by Chuck Christensen's daughter from his journals, newspaper articles, and interviews with people who rode with him, it's a day-by-day account of his two-part journey. Part one is from Teton Valley, Idaho to the Mexico border and part two is from Teton Valley to the Canada border a couple of years later.

About halfway through the book, I suddenly realized that I know one of his daughters and a couple of his grandkids and I've met his wife a few times, which made the book even more enjoyable. I'm pretty sure I know others of his relatives, but the family trees in these parts, while well-known to the locals, are confusing and complex and have taken me years to even begin to understand and remember. But even before I recognized the connection, I was riveted.

I learned a lot about traveling with mules and horses and how it's different from backpacking. Apparently, there's a special bond between mule and horse people, and it was moving to read about the help Chuck received from people along the way who didn't know anything about him except that he was traveling with mules and horses. As a sometime hiker and backpacker, it was interesting to read about wilderness travel from a different perspective. Also, if I ever meet up with a horse- or mule-rider on a precipitous mountain trail like you might find in the Grand Canyon, I will be very still and quiet as they pass. Just FYI.

I loved this book about a tenacious man who rode through pain and discomfort like I've never experienced. Chuck is a fascinating character -- thoughtful, educated, curious, stubborn, tough. There are so many different kinds of people in the world, and I was glad to learn about this one.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

Even though we home school, I found a lot of fascinating stuff in this book that looks at public education in the U.S. and in three countries whose 15-year-olds test much higher than ours do: South Korea, Finland, and Poland. Some things that matter: rigor, high expectations, well-trained teachers. Some things that don't matter so much: money, high-tech gadgetry, sports programs. There's much more to it than that, of course. The tone is hopeful and doesn't condemn American education, just gives some good ideas. And even though the three featured countries test high, the author shows the limitations of their schools, as well. (South Korea is particularly ... uh, interesting. Yes, let's go with that adjective.) That's a pretty lame summary, but I loved this book and highly recommend it to everyone.

By the way, at least 2/3 of my kids said to me while I was reading this, "Oh, you're reading a book about us!" They are so funny.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Plovdiv, Bulgaria Memorial complex Hillock of fraternity

Plovdiv was a Thracian city before it became a Greek city around 340 BC. (See the Wikipedia Plovdiv page for more history.) There is an impressive Communist-era concrete monument in Plovdiv which I only saw a few weeks before we moved away. I went will Lillian and Seth. The OpenBuildings page on Memorial complex Hillock of fraternity describes it this way:

The “Hillock of fraternity” monument symbolizes a Thracian hillock. It reminds of a stone wreath from above. A 90m long sculpture composition inside the monument is dedicated to the Liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule, the The Unification of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian partisan movement and “the victory of socialism” in 1944. Bones of partisans from Plovdiv region were placed inside the memorial complex, once it was finished. It was inaugurated on 9 September 1974 by the party leader Todor Zhivkov in honor of the 30th anniversary of the “socialist revolution” in Bulgaria. There were plans to connect the “Hillock of fraternity” memorial to the Soviet army monument [colloquially known as “Aliosha” on the nearby hill Bunardjika / Бунарджика], through a spacious boulevard which would then be used to perform “festive rituals”.

It's a neat place to visit. Some of the statues have the same aesthetic as a certain style of Nativity scene, which I'm sure some of its creators would be unhappy to hear me say. It is locked, presumably to try to reduce damage and theft of things inside.

It is right next to the new Mall Plovdiv:

Further photos and explanation of the area are in these three websites: Forgotten Monuments From the Communist Era in Bulgaria, Commie Travels' Bulgaria page, and Nikola Mihov's Forget Your Past.