Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

I really liked this movie, and I’m happy we got to see it in a real theater. It also helped me clarify what I didn’t like about that book I read recently, The Christmas Shoes. Both the movie and the book have basically the same message: enjoy every moment of your life and the people in it. But Stranger than Fiction has a quirky, unique way of getting the message across. (I was going to say it has a novel way of getting the message across, but I just couldn’t do it.)

Will Ferrell plays the serious guy for once, and he is really good: his character, Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose life is suddenly being narrated by a female voice only he can hear, is earnest, shy, tentative, his life dictated by his routines. The other actors are also very good. Emma Thompson is the chain-smoking novelist narrating Harold’s life; Dustin Hoffman is a literature professor (and while he wasn’t exactly like any of my literature professors, he brought back memories of my days as a Comparative Literature major); Maggie Gyllenhaal is the love-interest, who is delightfully anti-taxes, purposely paying only 78% of her income tax, because the other 22% goes for stuff she doesn’t support.

If you’re looking for a science-fiction type of explanation for what's happening to Harold, you’ll be disappointed. But I didn’t miss it. It was funny without being silly and stupid; touching to watch the awkward romantic advances of a (previously) boring IRS agent; thought-provoking and beautiful to watch, with nice cinematography and good music. I’d like to see it again.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Ugly American (1963)

Hmmm.... I'm assuming this movie is not as good as the book. It brought up lots of important questions about U.S. involvement in foreign countries, but didn't really answer any.

My favorite line in the movie was uttered by the U.S. ambassador to a fictional Southeast Asian country, played by Marlon Brando, and it went something like this: "We'll support dictators if that's what it takes to keep the free world free!" It has taken me an embarrassingly long time to understand that since Communism was the Greatest Evil during the cold war, there was a lot of harmful and baffling intervention by the U.S. government in various foreign countries. That line summed it up pretty well, and now when I read about some country like Haiti, where the Americans supported crazy, murderous dictators in order to keep out the Socialists, I'll remember that line and think, oh, of course, that makes perfect sense!

The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest by Conrad Anker and David Roberts

George Mallory, one of the first explorers to try to climb Mount Everest, made three attempts in the early 1920s. On his third attempt, in 1924, he and his climbing partner, Sandy Irvine, never came down. This book is about the 1999 Everest expedition that found Mallory’s body. It’s pretty interesting. How could it not be?

This book reminded me of the weird things about Everest that were hard for me to believe at first. I think I had to be exposed several times to the fact that people who climb Everest actually go up and down it several times before trying for the summit—from base camp, they climb up several thousand feet, set up a second camp, then climb back down, spend the night. Next day climb up past the second camp, set up another camp, go back down to the second camp, spend the night. They’re carrying supplies and getting used to the altitude. Well, after all, they are trying to get to the summit of Mount Everest, which is 29,028 feet above sea level. Next time you fly, and the pilot says you’ll be cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, just think of those people standing on Everest, waving at you.

There are other weird things, too, things that don’t fit easily into my sheltered and comfortable world. Some people just leave their empty oxygen tanks up there? They litter on the world’s tallest mountain? How could they? And guess what? When someone dies up there, they just leave ‘em, even if they know right where they are. That sounds crazy, until I think about the risk everyone up there is taking, every single minute. (In recent years, there have been expeditions to clean up the oxygen tanks and other equipment and trash left up there.) Bottom line is, though, that Everest is a whole different world, and people just aren’t supposed to be that high up. But they go. It’s fascinating and amazing—you have to be a special kind of crazy to try to climb Everest. And if you are, chances are I want to read about it.

Anyway, The Lost Explorer is perhaps a tiny bit longer than it should be, and it’s a short book, so maybe it would have been a better magazine article. Or somewhere between a magazine article and a book. But I appreciated the historical stuff about Mallory and Irvine and what’s known about the 1924 expedition. The speculation about what might have happened to them and whether or not they reached the top was also interesting. (The first known ascent of Mount Everest was in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but the possibility that Mallory and Irvine might have summited before they died is intriguing.) Mostly this book satisfied my morbid curiosity about the discovery of Mallory’s body after 73 years. Definitely worth reading.

Other books about Everest: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer and Touching My Father’s Soul by Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Other books about Himalayan mountaineering and adventure: Below Another Sky by Rick Ridgeway; Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer; The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere

I didn’t like this very much. One of the book clubs I go to is reading it for December, and it’s a quick read, so not too much time lost. It’s a touching story, but too sentimental and predictable. I’m kind of dreading going to book club, because I’ll have to admit that I don’t like it. I will say that it wasn’t as manipulative as other sentimental fiction I’ve read, and it wasn't terribly written.

Oh, yeah, and it's based on a song. I don't know if I've ever heard it, but I don't really want to. I'm not sure why I react so strongly against stuff like this. I'll stop now.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life

Somehow I skirted the edges of awareness of Hugh Nibley for a long time, though many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have read his articles and books, or at least knew something about him.

When I was in high school, my mom had a copy of Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless that she read and really enjoyed, and she encouraged me to read it. I only read a little of it, and I don't remember it making much of an impression on me. As a student at BYU I heard his name mentioned from time to time, and around 1994 a friend took a Pearl of Great Price class from him. This friend was not impressed. He felt Dr. Nibley rambled on about seemingly arbitrary topics, and made no sense to the students. (It may have been this very class that caused Hugh to quit teaching in disgust with the students, an event described in the biography!)

Shortly after that time, Erin and I noticed our friends Mike Haire and Theron & Valerie Harmon were reading a bit of Nibley. Mike had read Approaching Zion, while Theron & Valerie were reading individual Nibley article reprints from FARMS. In the late 1990s I finally read Approaching Zion and then Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, and they gave me a lot to think about and ultimately influenced my views significantly. They enhanced the way I viewed wealth (not inherently good or bad, but just a tool; however, a very dangerous one to the steward of that wealth), and gave me a much greater appreciation of Brigham Young and the complexities of our stewardship of the earth.

Still, I wasn't interested in Nibley's studies of ancient culture, religion, or documents. When I saw Nibley speak in 1999 or 2000 at the new Joseph Smith Building at BYU, it was a good experience for me to hear the man's voice and manner, but didn't draw me into his other writings.

Then this summer while staying at Jon & Amy Krause's house (my brother- and sister-in-law), I needed something to read and found Jon's copy of Since Cumorah in their guest bedroom we were staying in. I read the first 4 chapters and was completely engrossed, and bought a copy for myself. The further I read, the more silly I felt at not having read the book earlier. It is, after all, about 40 years old. Nibley had raised many useful questions and made interesting observations about the Book of Mormon text and its ancient setting, and his style was aggressive and cheeky, though forever tentative, and enjoyable to read.

All this is an introduction (and likely an exasperatingly long one to you, dear reader) to my background as reader of this biography of Hugh Nibley. I'll summarize my review first: It is an excellent biography. It's well researched, with an enjoyable pace, tone, and point of view (which the author says is not objective, which isn't really possible, but fair and candid). It is not a hagiography, but the biographer (Nibley's son-in-law) does not hide his admiration for Hugh when the final assessment is in.

It was fascinating to learn about Hugh's grandfather, Charles W. Nibley, presiding bishop of the Church and later, second counselor to Heber J. Grant in the First Presidency and a successful businessman in the timber industry. Hugh grew up surrounded by wealth, but his grandfather had serious doubts about even the possibility of being an ethical businessman, and his own standing before the Lord. Hugh saw his own parents' marriage weakened by wealth and subsequent failure of risky investments as the Great Depression wore on. Yet his grandfather and parents were very generous people. His grandfather was a supporter of limited work weeks and holidays for his workers, and due to this was always running into opposition from chambers of commerce. His mother never turned away transients who wanted a meal, following her parents' policy on helping those in need. This all was part of Hugh's ambivalence and later hostility towards money. Even people trying to do the right thing with their wealth could be seriously harmed by it.

I enjoyed learning a bit about Hugh's childhood, his self-confident yet self-effacing personality, his 6-week solo wilderness adventure in Oregon, his studies, and his time in the military (he drove one of the first Jeeps onto Utah Beach during the Allied invasion of France). His amazing aptitude for languages did take time to develop into the almost absurd capability he later had. (It was reassuring to learn that even with his talent, his enthusiasm outstripped his ability early on, as I believe it does for most people who learn languages very well. You have to care more about trying than about making mistakes.) His dislike of war, any war, was no distant, detached complaint, but a first-hand observation. (One of the things Hugh would never discuss was what he saw at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany after it was liberated.)

The list of interesting points goes on and on: Hugh's courting a German emigrée and later an Armenian woman, both of whom rejected him. The discussion of urban legends about Hugh (some true, some perhaps, some definitely not). His good friends made during his studies of Arabic, Coptic, Egyptian, and more. Quotations from his letters and interviews of friends and acquaintances. His publications in the Improvement Era (the Church's official magazine, equivalent of today's Ensign) and his involvement with the Church's general authorities (for example, Spencer W. Kimball as an Apostle), which was closer than I had known. His political opposition to Republicans and to the John Birch Society and its support by Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen, combined with common cause in so many areas with those same people. His visits with the Hopi Indians. His wilderness adventures. His family life. His teaching. And so much more.

Especially enlightening for me (and heartening) was the clear impression that Hugh Nibley was in no way perfect, nor even a model for me in many areas. He was his own person, filling important roles in certain places and times. As Elder Boyd K. Packer said of him, "He is one of a kind -- it is a very good kind." We can learn so much from Hugh Nibley, and find so many useful and inspirational ideas, yet need not worry about becoming fanatical followers -- he really didn't leave much room for that, constantly focusing on the Gospel instead of himself or any other individual.

Probably the biggest disappointment of the book was not particularly big: The typesetting was not all that well done. The writing itself was very good, and the editing of the text was good, with just a few mistakes. But the typesetting seems to have been done by someone with little experience and no eye for detail. Not only were there two annoying spaces between sentences, but indeed two spaces after every period, including in names. Ending quotation marks appeared at the beginning of quotations in some places. "Jeredites" appeared instead of "Jaredites" frequently in footnotes, though not in the body of the text. And so on. I hate to belabor such points, but as a former typesetter they drive me a bit crazy, and they don't do justice to the excellent writing.

The main annoyance I found in the writing was the occasional mild repetition due to the topical rather than chronological organization of the book. The author explained this organization up front, but it still was a little distracting. I think it grew out of the fact that the chapters were originally individual articles presented at conferences (Sunstone symposia and a few other places), rather than any inherent superiority of such a topical organization. But it's probably too much to ask that this be changed.

This is such a valuable and enjoyable book, that my main suggestion to the author is to someday publish a second edition that covers Hugh's last years (the book was finished in 2002, and Hugh died in 2005) and is re-typeset more competently. I enjoyed the couple of source texts included in the appendix, and wouldn't mind seeing more of those, though that isn't essential.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Hugh Nibley himself; in Church history; in gospel approaches to wealth, war, priesthood leadership, or the environment; or in studies of the Book of Mormon or Pearl of Great Price.

Other references:

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

This is not the sort of book I normally pick up at the library. But I liked the movie so...

First of all, it's a lot different from the movie. And longer. It sort of went on and on, repeating a lot of phrases which got sort of annoying. Okay, I know the guy was an amnesiac, and he had to repeat phrases to himself to try to stir his memories or whatever, but if I had to read "Cain is for Charlie, Delta is for Cain. Get Carlos. Kill Carlos.." again, well....I would have skipped it like I did that last few times it was repeated.

The plot was really long and really confusing (I missed a lot). And THEN, after all the plot twists, all the chasing, fighting, running, excitement, the bad guy gets away!! Setting up for more books, I'm sure (which there are. More books, that is). The author was good at describing fight scenes, but my imagination has a hard time picturing it. Movies are much more intense. Now I have to watch the movie again. It was so different and I wonder why. They changed practically everything except for the basic storyline: amnesiac assassin trying to figure out who he is.

All in all, I picked up the (very fat) book and thought I'd start it, not finish it. But it sort of hooked me and I read all 500+ pages. Pretty good. Do I want to read the sequels? I haven't decided if it's worth the time yet. I do want to see who "Carlos" really is and see him die. However, there sure are a lot of pages to get to those answers.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Clueless (1995)

I think this is very funny, especially for fans of Emma. It's a pretty good modern interpretation of that book: Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is privileged, popular, and well-intentioned, but she ends up causing various problems while trying to help others find love. Her lawer father is hilarious (to Cher's slick, smooth-spoken and cocky date, he says, "I have a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anyone would miss you").

Jon watched it with me. He hasn't said he hated it, and he laughed several times, so that's good. (I'm very grateful to have a husband who will watch chick flicks with me. And without making gagging noises or anything like that.)

One of the reasons Clueless works so well as a Jane Austen adaptation is that the high school is an excellent parallel to class in pre-industrialized England. In Austen's time, income, titles, and background meant everything; in high school, it's how you dress, talk and what you do for fun ("the loadies hang out on that grassy knoll"). Maybe it's easier to move between the "classes" in a high school, but I think the comparison works pretty well.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Emma (1996)

This is another delightful adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, but I confess that it's my least favorite. Actually, the novel itself is my least favorite, because Emma annoys me. I think she's supposed to be annoying, or to put it differently, she is an immature and flawed character, and her actions have sad consequences for others (though everything turns out well in the end, of course).

I am also annoyed by the whole husband-as-teacher-and-guide thing. Knightley is so condescending towards Emma, at least in the film. I can't remember the book well enough to compare, but I hope I don't ever fall in love with someone who would hiss at me "Badly done, Emma! Badly done!" Of course that would be extra weird if it happened to me, since my name isn't Emma. Sorry. Couldn't (or didn't) resist that obvious joke.

The secondary characters are well-done and often very funny, but I seem to be experiencing an overdose of Gwyneth Paltrow, even though I haven't seen her in that much lately. Maybe I liked Bounce even less than I thought.

A thoroughly entertaining modern adaptation of Emma is the 1995 movie Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. It's a teen flick, but cleverly written and funny. I'm planning to make Jon watch it with me pretty soon, so stay tuned.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

The Prestige

This is a nice movie to see on the big screen. I loved Batman Begins, which also starred Christian Bale and was written and directed by the same guy. That would be Christopher Nolan.

I shouldn't say it's a nice film, though. It's not really "nice." Interesting, dark, entertaining, well-acted and well-told, beautiful to look at, yes. The movie starts at the end of the story, and I like that particular narrative trick. All of the acting was very good: Hugh Jackman, who has seemed run-of-the-mill until I saw him in this; Michael Caine, who's always very good; Christian Bale; even David Bowie, whom I forgot to recognize during the film. (I'd read somewhere that he was in it, but then I forgot, remembered during the credits and had to look at the cast listing to find out who he played. He played Nicola Tesla, who was a real person, of course, inventor of alternating current (AC) electric power and lots of other things. Tesla in the movie was interesting and weird enough that I went and read about him on Wikipedia. Pretty interesting guy, to say the least.)

However, I do wonder why the big question in the early on-screen death is "Which knot did you tie?" Wouldn't they all have been able to see which knot it was? Or did I miss something? I did miss a few minutes towards the very beginning of the film, because I was receiving the sad news of our dog's death. But I think that was well before the death in the film. Maybe that's explained in the novel, on which the film is based. I'll have to read it someday.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

I had a slow start with this book--there's a lot more literary criticism than I expected, and I got bogged down feeling like I should read all the books the author had her students read. Nabakov and Henry James, mostly. But then I just plowed through it. I had trouble keeping the characters straight, but that might have to do with the names, which are unfamiliar to me.

It is fascinating to read about these Iranian women and to try to get a picture of what things are like in Iran. The last paragraph, written by one of Nafisi's students who is still in Iran, made me cry:

Five years have passed since the time when the story began in a cloud-lit room where we read Madame Bovary and had chocolate from a wine-red dish on Thursday mornings. Hardly anything has changed in the nonstop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put on my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know of another "I" that has become naked on the pages of a book: in a fictional world, I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers.

I don't know what it's like to live under an extreme religious government, or what it's like to never show my face in public, to never feel the sun or wind on my skin. I don't know what it's like to regularly walk past giant posters that say "Death to America!" But reading a book like this helps me begin to imagine it. As Nafisi says several times in the book, one reason we read fiction is to learn how to have empathy for others, especially others we would normally not understand. This book makes me want to keep these women in my eyes, to remember their world. I hope it'll change.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Bounce (2000)

There were parts of this that I enjoyed, but after it ended, it seemed much less important than it had seemed while I was watching it. Which is a bad thing, I guess. Gwyneth Paltrow is a good actress and even managed to look almost dowdy in this role. But in retrospect, the main characters were too close to tears too often and the Ben Affleck character was kind of annoying: sometimes the advertising executive jerk, sometimes the eloquent potential lover, most of the time incapable of saying anything really meaningful. There are several scenes where he opens his mouth, about to say that really important thing, and instead he says something really inane. By the end of the movie, I think it's supposed to be some kind of code for how he really feels, and I'm supposed to be moved and want them to get back together. But I wanted her to say, "Not cute! Immature and stupid! Grow up!" or some variation thereof.

As an amusing (to me, at least) aside, a friend of mine who grew up in Boston had this to say about Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (who are fellow Bostonians, of course), waving her hand in a dismissive gesture: "They look just like every other guy from there."