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.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

All the President's Men (1976)

On June 17, 1972, five men broke in to the Watergate Hotel with the intent of bugging the Democratic National Headquarters. By many, including a number of newspapers it was believed to be an unimportant crime. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post believed otherwise and it was their persistence that ended up uncovering one of the biggest political scandals in American history. 

As is fitting in a story about journalists we begin with a blank page. Soon enough though we're treated to a great visual of a typewriter stamping out a date, the keystrokes layered with gunshots and whip-lashes to give the scene some punch, foreshadowing the writing of many articles. From there we are treated to stock footage of President Nixon addressing Congress, the triumph before the fall.

The casting of Redford and Hoffman was a genius move as the two play off against each other well. You really believe their enthusiasm and dedication to following every lead, even when it appears hopeless. Apparently the two learned each others lines so they could talk over and interrupt one another, creating more organic conversations. The addition of Jason Robards also lends an amount of gravitas that helps to anchor the newsroom, lending an authenticity to the reluctance and risk taken by the Washington Post to publish stories on the Watergate scandal.

One detractor is the almost non-existent soundtrack. For the first 30 minutes there's no music whatsoever and after it's used too sparingly. In a political thriller music can be key to inform viewers to mood, character motivations, foreshadowing, etc. Without it, there are noticeable gaps where music would have helped elevate and fill out the scene. As well, there were a long of takes that dragged on and the lack of music left those scenes feeling stale and hollow.

As well the lack of transition scenes was a little jarring for some. With a movie like this, running at a breakneck pace and so packed full of information in the vein of names and numbers, it's important for the viewer to understand where and when they are at all times.  Transitions can help ease this verbal overflow and not leave the viewer confused over people, places and things.

There's a complete lack of tension in the movie until Woodward's meeting with Deep Throat where whistling is heard in the background. Before that point the Watergate scandal and the newspaper articles felt completely separate. Here they come together and the possible danger these men are putting themselves in, becomes palpable. These journalists aren't just uncovering a story; they may be risking their lives.

If you're looking for a good movie about journalists and or a political thriller I would highly recommend this film.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Captain Blood (1935)

Up that rigging, you monkeys! Aloft! There's no chains to hold you now. Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom! 

Peter Blood is a physician with the unfortunate luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He treats a patient involved in the Monmouth Rebellion, attempting to overthrow the of King of England and gets caught up amongst the rebels. For his involvement by association he's branded a traitor and sentenced to death. His fate is commuted though when the king is persuaded to sell the prisoners into slavery for profit and thus begins the long descent for Blood who protests his innocence at every opportunity, imagining every man shares the same scruples as himself. It's only upon arriving in Port Royal and encountering Arabella Bishop and her father the governor that Blood comes to realize the permanence and inherent danger in his situation. Arabella grows attached and does her best to help him but his pride gets in the way and when given the opportunity for escape and revenge he takes it, becoming the pirate of the title.

This was the movie that really introduced Errol Flynn to the world. Before this he had only played bit parts, non-speaking and supporting roles. This was his first starring part in America and boy what an entrance it was. He was charismatic and energetic, his big smile and bright laugh lighting up the screen. And there's no doubting the chemistry between him and Olivia de Havilland, despite the lack of development for her character.

The film also stars Basil Rathbone as a rival pirate captain and there's a great 'swashbuckling' scene between the two. Rathbone was actually a recreational fencer in his free time so if a real fight had broken out he would likely have wiped the floor with Flynn.

As well the film benefits from an epic sweeping soundtrack by Erich Korngold, lending some majesty to scenes with a thinner budget. It also gives the film a fighting chance against another swashbuckler of better quality made in the same year "Mutiny on the Bounty" though the latter would beat it out for Best Picture.

One complaint would be that the film is rather feast or famine when it comes to pacing and plot. The good parts come in waves and with the film nearly three hours long it can drag at times. This leads to a lack of tension and even Flynn can't distract from this. Though the film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing and Best Sound Editing there were better naval films made in the same year which makes this feel like a diet pirate movie.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

“Jack was too absorbed in his work to hear the bell. He was mesmerized by the challenge of making soft, round shapes of hard rock. The stone had a will of its own, and if he tried to make it do something it did not want to do, it would fight him, and his chisel would slip, or dig in too deeply, spoiling the shapes. But once he had got to know the lump of rock in front of him he could transform it. The more difficult the task, the more fascinated he was. He was beginning to feel that the decorative carving demanded by Tom was too easy. Zigzags, lozenges, dogtooth, spirals and plain roll moldings bored him, and even these leaves were rather stiff and repetitive. He wanted to curve natural-looking foliage, pliable and irregular, and copy the different shapes of real leaves, oak and ash and birch.”

This is the story of a cathedral and the people who fight for its birth and for its destruction, all encompassed by a succession crisis in 12th century England, complicated by secrets, lies and betrayals. Throughout the book, reader’s switch between several protagonists important in the life of the cathedral, experiencing the medieval period from down in the dirt, just struggling to survive.

I appreciated how much background was given to most of the characters, including our point of view characters. Readers come to understand how much Prior Philip cares for his makeshift family after his own had been killed when he was young; they root for Aliena to win the day after everything is taken from her over and over again; they cheer Jack on in his pursuit of becoming a Master Builder even when obstacles like family and his social economic status work against him. Follett makes you care about the fate of these characters and wonder about how they’re going to extricate themselves from certain situations. I also heartily enjoyed the moment when people pulled together to try and thwart the antagonists who seemed to have entirely too many opportunities for mischief.

The story did have a few glaring problems though. The pacing is poor, creating a lack of tension for the first half of the book. While the story does a good job of setting up the plot and introducing the characters, the action didn’t pick up until the end of the book. It felt like the majority of the conflict was held in reserve for the last half while the beginning was taken up with dialogue and description. The problem is likely in the switching between protagonists which creates a stop and start effect in the narrative, interrupting the fluidity of the story.

Follett does a good job of grounding the reader in the scene, giving you a taste of the period and all its myriad smells and sights. But there is entirely too much time spent on describing the architecture within the story. It’s understandable that some time would be devoted to this as the book centers around the building of a cathedral but it took too much time away from the story. Also, it seems unlikely that the majority of readers would be familiar with the features described so it would have helped if there had been diagrams at the front of the book. It was difficult to visualize some of the descriptions which brought me right out of the story.

Overall it was an interesting story but if a thousand page story is overlong for you I would recommend the miniseries produced several years ago. Keep in mind though that they do make changes to the story.  New characters and plotlines are added to flesh out the story and add tension. There are also several key changes made to characters which I didn’t agree with as it altered their entire personality.