24 May 2020

Alice's Restaurant

Last night I watched Alice's Restaurant for the third time.

The film was made in 1969, and in a way was a kind of epilogue on the 1960s.

The plot is fairly simple. Two funerals and a wedding.

Ray buys an old deconsecrated church and Alice opens a restaurant in it. Arlo goes to see Alice for Thanksgivng and as a favour takes her trash to the dump. When the dump is closed, he drops it on top of another pile of garbage at the bottom of a ravine. When the local sheriff finds out a major manhunt begins. Arlo manages to survive the courtroom experience but when he is to be inducted into the army via the draft and is asked whether he has ever been arrested, he has to say yes. Has he been convicted of a crime? Yes. Even through the crime was littering, he is sent to the group with major criminals.

One reviewer at the IMDb site says
Alice's Restaurant is about life and loss, and the traps we allow ourselves to get caught up in. It's about addiction, youth, anarchy, death, and aimlessness. It's a celebration and a lament for all those things.

As we were watching it, there is a scene with a tent evangelist, and they are singing Amazing Grace. Val remarked that that must be one of the overplayed hymns ever, like Kum-ba-ya. And I recalled that when I first saw the film, in Windhoek on 15 December 1970, it was the first time I had ever heard Amazing Grace, so it came to me as fresh and new then. I heard it quite a lot thereafter, and I wondered it it was the film that was responsible for its subsequent popularity. Certainly in my mind that song was always associated with the film, and in 2006, when the family asked what I wanted as a birthday present, one of the things I mentioned was the DVD of Alice's Restaurant, so I could remind myself of where I first heard that song.

A couple of years later, when I was living in Durban, staying with Larry and Carol Gilley and their family, they had an old hymn book with Amazing Grace in it, and I used it a few times in church services, and at that time, too, I had never heard it anywhere else but in the film. And a couple of years later it was heard everywhere, though in a slightly different version, with different music for the third line.

When I first saw Alice's Restaurant I was living in a Christian commune in Windhoek and that was one of the dreams of the 1960s that didn't quite come true. And at the end of the film Ray and Alice get married, and they have a big celebration with lots of friends in their church-cum-restaurant. Then one by one the friends leave, and Ray and Alice urge them to stay. Ray says they will move to a farm in the country, where they can all live together and see each other whenever they want. They go to the door, and see of the last of their friends. and Ray talks some more about that, in the same way that we often talked about such things in those days. Then he goes inside, and Alice is left, alone and lonely, at the door. And that seems to sum up the 1960s.

In the same year that the film was released, a book was published, The Lonely Crowd, and the visions of communal living expressed by Ray in the film were intended to be a solution to that, but at the end Alice is left alone on the steps of a deconsecrated church, the symbol of a failed Christian community.

And so it calls to mind another song, not in the film, released a couple of years later, about dreams of freedom:
Yesterday's dream didn't quite come true
We fought for our freedom, and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.

14 May 2020

A Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien

A Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. by Nigel CawthorneA Brief Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Author of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. by Nigel Cawthorne by Nigel Cawthorne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked this book a lot better than I thought I would. I picked it up cheap in the first book shop I found open since the corona virus lockdown began, and having just re-read the first three Harry Potter books for third or fourth time I wanted to read something I hadn't read before, even if it was about books that I had read before.

It does what it says it does in the title.

If you have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and you want to know a bit more about the books and their author, and how they came to be written, then this is the book to read. It's not a book for Tolkien scholars, or for people who are studying the place of Tolkien's work in 20th century literature. It's an introduction, a brief guide, though its brevity runs to 278 pages. It has an index, a bibliography of books by and about Tolkien, but no journal articles.

Perhaps the best way to indicate what it contains is to list the Table of Contents.

Introduction: The man and the myth
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Hobbit
Journey to Middle-earth.
The Inklings
Major Works
Posthumous Publications
Living in Middle-earth
The inhabitants of Middle-earth
The Characters of Middle-earth
The Languages of Middle-earth
Filming Tolkien

The one thing it doesn't have is maps, for those you must go to the books themselves.

Flaws? Yes there are some.

One, which is not the fault of the author or publisher, is that an undergraduate student of English literature who had one of Tolkien's major books as prescribed reading could easily get away with reading the plot summaries in this book rather than the works themselves.

The second fault, for which I do blame the author and publisher, is that there are numerous typographical and spelling errors, especially in the names of the characters. The author himself makes the point that Tolkien was

...scrupulous about names. They needed to make sense and have some reasonable derivation no matter how obscure. He was always critical of earlier fantasy writers, such as Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, who seemed to pick names at random. For Tolkien names had to be fashioned by sound linguistic rules.

In view of that the publishers could at least have tried a bit harder to get the spelling of the names right.

Another thing I wasn't sure what to make of was the disclaimer on the front and back cover and the title page:

The Unauthorised Guide to the Author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I wasn't sure what message this is meant to send to the reader. Could it be saying that it gives the real information that the authorised editions all suppress, or that it doesn't, because only authorised writers are allowed access to that material? At any rate the information it give seemed generally pretty good to me.

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04 May 2020

Re-reading the Harry Potter books

One of the things we discovered we had during the Covid-19 lockdown was a set of DVDs with the first five Harry Potter films. We watched a couple, and since all bookshops and libraries are closed I thought I would re-read them as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my criteria for a good book is that I must enjoy re-reading it, and I enjoyed reading this one for the third (or perhaps the fourth) time almost as much as I did the first time.

The Harry Potter series came out at a time when there was a dearth of good children's books. For years the children's shelves in book shops had been filled with dreck like the "Goosebumps" series, and so one of the reasons the Harry Potter books seemed so good was simply the contrast with the other reading material available at the time. But twenty years later this one still seems good, and that, to me, indicates that it has stood the test of time, and can be counted as a classic of children's literature.

I recall, from my first reading, that I liked this one best one the whole series, Each book in the series seemed to be longer than the previous one, and the quantity did not seem to correlate with quality, so I don't know how far I'll get with the series in this re-reading, since I recall that it was all downhill from here.

I enjoyed the first one in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, almost as much on re-reading, though there were a couple of rather disconcerting plot holes in that one.

By now the Harry Potter books have been translated into many other languages (they even needed to be translated into different dialects of English for American readers). I've referred to some of the difficulties of translating children's books, including the Harry Potter books, for readers of different cultures here The Owl Service: reading and culture | Khanya. Someone even wrote a doctoral thesis on the difficulty of translating the Harry Potter books into SePedi, not least the idea of travelling to school by train -- for rural South African children it might need to be translated to bus or taxi.

But perhaps the most difficult concepts to translate are those of witchcraft and wizardry. In British culture, since the Enlightenment, witches and wizards have generally been figures of fun, and are not seen as posing any real threat. They are not seen as "real", so fiction writers can portray them any way they like, and sometimes in vastly varying ways. An English reader can change the parameters for legendary and imaginary beings without much effort. When you read of Legolas the elf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, you know the parameters are different from those of Dobby the house elf in the Harry Potter books. But in SePedi culture, at the very time the Harry Potter books were first bring published, some people were burning suspected witches (baloi). In SePedi culture the parameters of the concept "witch" are far narrower and more rigid than they are in English, and they are seen by many people as a very real threat. So I wonder how well the Harry Potter books translate into other cultures. 

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