1. AOTW ... I don't really have someone this week. Oh, sure, we saw lots of wack jobs on the highways between home and Fallingwater over in Pennsylvania--but nothing that really stood out--or reeked with a special fetor. Just the usual: failing to use turn signals, speeding in work zones, passing and then nearly hitting us when returning to our lane ... the usual.
2. I finished a few books this week--a few words about each.
- Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson (1990). I've owned this book since 1990, but Joyce and I just got around to reading it this summer. It had earned a number of honors, back in the early 1990s, including the National Book Award (fiction). As Johnson acknowledges, it's a book heavily influenced by earlier seafaring tales, including Moby-Dick and Melville's great story "Benito Cereno." From the latter, Johnson actually borrows some of his own characters' names.
- The novel's in the format of a journal kept by Rutherford Calhoun, a young recently freed slave who runs away to sea when his love life gets complicated. It's a ship involved in the slave trade, and soon there are two revolts brewing: one by the sailors, another by the slaves.
- Rutherford had a somewhat literate background--he alludes to Chaucer and Shakespeare and some philosophers. But he's also a naive narrator at times, too.
- I loved the book--until near the end when Coincidence arrived in full costume. It's not quite as bad as David Copperfield finding his old schoolboy enemy James Steerforth washed up on the beach after a shipwreck--but close.
- The Meaning of Human Existence, by E. O. Wilson (2014). Wilson, who taught at Harvard for decades and has won two Pulitzer Prizes (On Human Nature, 1979; The Ants, 1991), writes vigorously here about a scientific and a humanities approach to viewing the world. Early on, he writes, "[W]e are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world" (26).
- He is not a religious writer--does not believe--but neither is he a combative atheist like Richard Dawkins (whom he labels a "science journalist" (71)) or Sam Harris. Rather, he argues for the use of reason--for listening to scientists (and artists and novelists, etc.) to discover the truth of our nature--of why we are here.
- What interested me most (among many things) is his recognition that we are a storytelling species. "We are devoted to stories," he says, "because that his how the mind works--a never-ending wandering through past scenarios and through alternative scenarios of the future" (43).
- He sees tribalism as religion's "exquisite human flaw" (150). The more we align ourselves with limited groups, he writes, the more dangerous we become. This is the familiar argument about fearing/demonizing The Other.
- The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Led Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, by Michael Shermer (2015), monthly columnist for Scientific American and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. This was one of my "bedtime" books (ten pages or so at night, now and then), so it took me nearly seven months to work my way through its 439 pages of text.
- With a vast amount of research and reading, Shermer tries to show that we have grown as a species--to the extent we have grown--principally because of the discoveries and teachings of science.
- He alluded to so many works I'd never heard of--but it's good to feel ignorant, now and then. Keeps you motivated as a reader. But I felt ignorant a lot of the time in this book.
- Because news networks nowadays are so determined to focus only on what the most depraved among us are doing, it's surprising to discover that in so many ways we have become less violent, less cruel, less biased. (Many charts to show how/why this is so.)
- I liked his discussion of what's called "the confirmation bias"--"where we look for and find confirming evidence for what we already believe and we ignore or rationalize away disconfirming evidence" (386). We are all, more or less, guilty of this, aren't we? We read op-ed writers with whom we're going to agree; we'll watch TV shows that feature people who say what we want to hear; etc. We friend/unfriend people on Facebook who disagree with us. (Proud to say I have not ever unfriended anyone--though the temptation now and then has been powerful!)
3. On Friday night, Joyce and I went to see the recent Guy Ritchie film, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., (trailer for film). The original TV series (with Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo, David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin) began in 1964 (the fall of my junior year in college) and aired its final episode in January 1968 (midway through my second year of my teaching career--Aurora Middle School; Aurora, Ohio). I watched lots of the episodes (maybe all?), and like many other fans (most) was most partial to Ilya Kuryakin. The show also featured veteran actor Leo G. Carroll (at the right in the poster), who'd starred in a TV show I'd liked as a kid--Topper (1953-55)--a series about a man who could see the ghosts of the people who used to live in his house.
- The film was pretty calm for a Guy Ritchie film--think Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and the two Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr.
- Still, there some classic Ritchie touches.
- Twice, for example, amusing/dangerous/violent things were going on in the background while the camera focused on an unaware character or two in the foreground.
- There were plot flips and surprises I didn't see coming.
- Split screens, multiple screens, funny music, etc.--all Guy Ritche touches.
- The characters are somewhat different from their TV parents. Kuryakin on TV was a slight man, skilled in martial arts, etc. But not physically intimidating. The Kuryakin in the film (Armie Hammer--whom I really liked in The Lone Ranger, a film that is far better than the critics said) is a boiling cauldron--a temper, an intimidating presence. And Solo (Henry Cavill, fresh from the title role in Man of Steel) is a former thief, a slick guy, far more slick than even the TV Solo was slick.
- The plot was fairly typical world-on-the-precipice-of-disaster stuff (a nuclear weapon on the loose, etc.), but it was fun to see Ritchie deal with the cliches and make them his own (in a good way).
- Oh, the Leo G. Carroll part was played by Hugh Grant ... strange to see the Bad Boy of an earlier generation now playing the Older Dude.
- Joyce and I both laughed a lot (where we were supposed to), and I was glad to see they left open the possibility of sequels.
- This was sort of the "origin story" of the series--how Solo and Kuryakin met, how U.N.C.L.E. got formed (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement).
4. I got a surprise on the computer today. I inadvertently hit some keys, and suddenly a voice was narrating everything I was doing. (Windows 10) Took me a bit to figure out how to shut off the guy, but I did. Here's a link if you want to turn yours on (and off!).