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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/29/08 -- Vol. 26, No. 35, Whole Number 1482
Table of Contents
The Bell Curve (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I saw a copy of THE BELL CURVE in my local library so I thought I would try to see why the book was so controversial. But it is a thick book and a heavy slog to read the book. I have been reading it for a week. I am still more than a standard deviation from the center of the book. [-mrl]
Netsuke (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last summer I visited the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. I was discussing the museum with a friend who had also visited it recently. She had enjoyed their exhibit of glass. I told her that we had spent a lot of time looking at the netsuke collection. She did not know what netsuke was. I guess if she did not know, there are other fans who also do not, though I first heard about it from other fans and it is to some degree fannish. I thought that rather than just explain it to her, I would write an article about this small but interesting art form dating back to 17th century Japan.
This is a whole field of art that came about because the wearing of kimonos is in some ways inconvenient. Kimonos, you see, have no pockets. What you take with you when you wear a kimono is what you have in your hand or hide up your sleeve or attach to the kimono. They do have belts or sashes called "obi". The Japanese who wore kimonos before pockets were known had no good way to carry their valuables. To solve this problem the user would carry nicely decorated boxes called "inro" or "sagemono". They were about the size of a hand held flat. These boxes hung from silk cords that were pulled up through the obi. The rope would fall back through without a toggle at the end to keep the rope from slipping back through the belt. That toggle was called a netsuke. I assume the toggles were originally plain. But not content to leave these toggles simple the decorative artists started to get better ideas. Fancy carved netsuke became their own art form. Soon it was a status symbol to have a beautiful toggle at the top of the obi. All sorts of strange themes were used and many interesting figures were carved for use.
The Japanese love decoration and they love tiny art. Bonsai trees are popular in Japan and so are intricate sword fittings. The toggle or netsuke (pronounced "nets-kee", by the way) started to be a very beautiful item. It became an entire art form to carve figures on a scale of about an inch and a half. Sometimes the figures are animals, sometimes demons, and sometimes people. They can be made of ivory, wood, porcelain, stone, bone, turtle shell, amber, or even metal. They are carved in amazing detail. Generally they are about an inch and a half high.
The subject matter could be funny looking people, animals, demons, monsters, people in erotic positions, or just scenes from everyday life. To see some of these lovingly carved pieces you can just set your search engine to look for images of netsuke.
Among my favorites is a figure of a little puppy looking in amazement around at his back where a fly has landed. This is all carved in very precise detail. Another piece I rather liked was at first appearance a fearsome demon. If one looks inside the mouth of the demon, however, one sees that it is really a festival costume and inside the mouth you can see the head of the man wearing the costume and a big grin on his face.
There are few restrictions on the artist who made netsuke. The figures have to be strong. I have an imitation netsuke that is a coiled snake with a delicate forked tongue. Part of the tongue broke off transporting it home, but it was a small loss. Whoever the artist was he did not understand netsuke. A real piece of netsuke should be carved with great detail, but the result should not be delicate. Real netsuke get pushed back and forth through the obi and anything that can break off will or might snag a silk kimono. Real netsuke do not have flat uncarved bases. They should look complete from every angle but for the fact that they may have the holes through them for the cord or if not a place where the hole can be carved out.
People have a fascination with the miniature. Because of its small size the netsuke has a certain delicacy and charm that is missing from larger sculpture. I recommend the reader to go through go to the search engine pages listed below. Look at not just the top page but the next and the next. You will see a lot of very nice pieces from sites all over the Internet. Remember each is only about an inch and a half across.
CHOP SHOP (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Life on the streets of Queens, New York, is a hand-to- mouth existence for a twelve-year-old Latino and his sister. The camera seems simply to follow young Alejandro around and show us the story of his life and his relationship with his older sister with whom he shares a plywood-clad room over the title auto body shop. Made on a very small budget, this film is actors in front of a camera telling a story that seems very real. The low-key drama has a real feel for the texture of life in the underbelly of Queens. Ramin Bahrani (of MAN PUSH CART) directs and co- authored the script. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
This review contains minor plot spoilers.
Using no music, little cinematic artifice and an almost documentary style, we are ushered into to the world of Alejandro. Ale (played by Alejandro Polanco) is a Puerto Rican boy about twelve surviving by doing whatever he can. He lives in an auto bodywork shop in Queens. Roger Ebert's review informs me that this area is the "Valley of Ashes" that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes us in THE GREAT GATSBY. It has not greatly improved over the years. Now it is the kind of dead end trap that we think of as being in the Third World.
Ale goes from one small job to the next. He works at the shop and tries to drag in customers; he does day labor for construction; he steals hubcaps; he hawks illegal DVDs; he sells candy on the subway. When he does the latter he announces to the subway car that he is NOT selling for a basketball team. In fact he does not go to school at all. We simply follow Ale around with a handheld camera and watch as he gets himself in and out of trouble. Ale's sixteen-year old sister is Isamar played by Isamar Gonzales. The five major actors all use their real first names.
Isamar has just run away from a safe house and is now living with Ale above the chop shop in a room with plywood walls and apparently one small bed. Together the two of them banter like brothers and sisters do anywhere. Their dream is to own a taco and beans truck. Isamar says it should have her name painted on the side, Ale insists it should have his name. Isamar cooks and cleans the tiny room, Ale hustles earning what money comes in. He and his friends talk in a disarmingly normal way about baseball and hookers. Trouble begins as the boys watch the hookers ply their trade on the ugly streets and Ale thinks he sees Isamar in a truck cab. Now the snack truck means to him not just an easier living, it is also how he hopes to rescue his sister from prostitution.
Ramin Bahrani is an Iranian-American filmmaker whose film MAN PUSH CART was well-received on the film festival circuit. In this follow-up film, he uses a style with a real feel of authenticity. Before the plot takes hold one might almost think this was a documentary. Yet eventually, as with THE BICYCLE THIEF, the scenes start adding up to a poignant plot. Alejandro Polanco has a lot of personality that holds this very low-key drama together as the story wends it way to a melancholy and inconclusive conclusion.
The setting may be New York, but it could be Africa or Central America. And the story could be from post-war Italy with filmmakers like Vittoria De Sica. I rate CHOP SHOP a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0990404/
Robert A. Heinlein (letters of comment by Rob Mitchell and Taras Wolansky):
In response to Evelyn's suggestion on what early Heinlein to read ("STARSHIP TROOPERS ... A reading binge of STARSHIP TROOPERS, Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR, and John Scalzi's OLD MAN"S WAR would not be unreasonable to suggest.") (made in the 02/22/08 issue of the MT VOID), Rob Mitchell responds, "As the Distinguished Heinlein Apologist Laureate, I respectfully disagree with Evelyn, or at least potentially disagree. I'd recommend THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, especially if the potential reader is a history fan. Sure, the math and computer technology is dated, but the book played a fundamental role in developing my adult character. STARSHIP TROOPERS (a great book, in my opinion) forced me to ask myself, "What do I owe Society?", but THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS forced me to ask myself, "WHat does Society owe me?" [-rm]
And Taras responds to the initial question from Joe Karpierz in the same issue by saying:
If I had to pick one (1) Heinlein novel from the Forties and Fifties, it wouldn't be STARSHIP TROOPERS. Heinlein admitted that book was written in a rush and partly as a polemic, so it doesn't show him at his best.
Not that it might not be interesting for other reasons to read, in order, STARSHIP TROOPERS (thesis), Haldeman's FOREVER WAR (antithesis), and Scalzi's OLD MAN'S WAR (synthesis).
It is cool to realize Heinlein was writing STARSHIP TROOPERS and STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND at the same time. For Heinlein, the defense of sexual freedom was one of the reasons you had a strong military.
But to pick one novel to represent Heinlein in the Forties and the Fifties: how about METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, serialized in 1941 and edited into a book in 1958. This book introduced Heinlein's fictional alter ego, Lazarus Long (a.k.a. Woodrow Wilson Smith), who later starred in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE (1973), a curious grab- bag of a novel which Heinlein may have thought was going to be his last.
Among the so-called juveniles, I have a special soft spot for THE STAR BEAST (1954), which shows off just how far ahead of his time Heinlein was in thinking about race and gender. [-tw]
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (letter of comment by Dan Kimmel):
In response to Mark's review of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES in the 02/22/08 issue of the MT VOID, Dan Kimmel writes, "It's actually a decent condensation of the series. The books themselves are slim volumes with lots of pictures, so together it's only one standard size novel, but there's a lot of repetition. In one they have an encounter with goblins, in another with fairies, in the last with the ogre. So the team of writers (if they even met each other) managed to hit the highlights and find the through story while paring away a lot of stuff. I thought it was an entertaining movie. [-dk]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
THE PAINTED VEIL by W. Somerset Maugham (ISBN-13 978-0-099-50739-0, ISBN-10 0-099-50739-0) was this month's selection for the "original" book discussion group. Mark and I had seen the movie a while ago, and Mark suggested the book for the group. The screenwriter changed a lot; more specifically, he added a lot. There is no aqueduct-building in the book, and no insurrection or civil war. (The ending is also significantly different.) I think the reason for this (besides wanting to add action sequences) was that the book was told entirely from the main character Kitty's point of view, and that was considered undesirable for the movie. First of all, it would mean that the lead actress would be in every scene, which is hard work. And second, this in turn would make the film "a woman's film", at least to the backers, meaning that it would not attract a wide enough audience. So the screenwriter added scenes of Walter Fane in the lab, scenes of Walter Fane in the hospital, scenes of Walter Fane by the river, and so on. Of Kitty's feelings about the nuns and their life and emotions--the main focus of the book-- very little is left.
They also moved the location of the British "colony" from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, for reasons I can't figure out. (Maugham himself had to change it from Hong Kong to the fictional Tching- Yen when the book first came out for legal reasons.)
[The film is set in the 1920s and to add dramatic tension they inserted anti-Western rioting in China's nationalist struggle. It was part of the same struggle you see in the film THE SAND PEBBLES. That would not work in Hong Kong where the British had a lot of control, but it did go well with Shanghai. It makes the film less faithful to the book but a whole lot more interesting. -mrl]
The notions of marriage in THE PAINTED VEIL seem very similar to Jane Austen's: Kitty is pressured to marry by her mother because, as she ask, "How long can you expect your father to support you?" Also, her younger sister gets engaged and Kitty feels she must marry, or be "shamed" by her continued spinsterhood. This is expressed more explicitly in the novel, which gives more of Kitty's history, rather than just the few days before her wedding.
OPENING ATLANTIS by Harry Turtledove (ISBN-13 978-0-451-46174-2, ISBN-10 0-451-46174-6) is yet another alternate history from Turtledove and is the start of yet another series ("the first of a brand-new trilogy"). And there has already been another story in this setting published elsewhere. But at least this series seems to be a group of relatively independent stories with a common setting, rather than one very long story published in multiple volumes. In fact, OPENING ATLANTIS is not one story, but really three novellas set about a hundred years apart. The first, "New Hastings", is the most interesting, postulating the discovery and colonization of a land (large island/small continent) between Europe and North America. Or perhaps more accurately, it detaches the eastern part of North America and moves it a thousand miles or so east. Because this land (named Atlantis by its discoverers) is much closer to Europe, it is colonized fifty years earlier than in our world, and pretty much simultaneously by the English, French, and Spanish. (The stories, however, are all told from the English point of view.)
The other two stories ("Avalon" and "Nouveau Redon") are less interesting. The second seems to be a fairly mundane pirate story, not substantially different from what one might find in our world, and the last a conflict among the three nations who have settled Atlantis. The stand-alone, "Audubon in Atlantis", was probably the best of the series so far.
As is often the case, one complaint I have is that European history does not seem to diverge enough as times progresses. The Hanovers still follow the Stuarts who presumably followed the Tudors who followed the Yorks, but with English colonies in the New World a hundred and fifty years sooner, one suspects that European politics would be fairly different (e.g., less threat from Spain). [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Suppose atomic bombs had reduced the population of the world to one brother and sister; should they let the human race die out? -- Bertrand Russell
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