Archive for Tolkien

Arcad’yaaawn… [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by xi'an

“How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale…” Robin’s Books

“Indeed, Arcadia seems to be aimed at the lucrative crossover point between the grownup and YA markets, even if it lacks the antic density of the Harry Potter series or the focused peril of The Hunger Games.” Steven Poole, The Guardian

The picture above is completely unrelated with the book if not the title. (And be at rest: I am not going to start an otter theme in the spirit of Andrew’s cats… Actually a cat plays a significant role in this book.) But Pears’ Arcadia is a fairly boring tale and an attempt at a rather dry play on the over-exploited theme of time-travel. Yaaawny, indeed!

I am fairly disappointed by this book, the more because Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost is a superb book, one of my favourites!, with a complexity of threads and levels, while maintaining a coherence of the plot that makes the final revelation a masterpiece. The Dream of Scipio also covers several historical periods of French Provence with a satisfactory plot and deep enough background (fed by a deep knowledge of the area and the eras…). The background, the broader perspective, the deep humanity of the characters, all these qualities of Pears’ books are lost in Arcadia, which sums up as an accumulation of clichés on dystopias, time-travel, and late 1950’s Oxford academics. [Warning, spoilers ahoy!] The parallel (and broadly medieval) universe to which the 20th century characters time-travel has some justifications for being a new type of Flatland: it is the creation of a single Oxonian academic, a mix of J.R. Tolkien and Eric Ambler. But these 20th century characters are equally charicaturesque. And so are the oppressors and the rebels in the distant future. (Set on the Isle of Mull, of all places!) And the mathematics of the time-travel apparatus are carefully kept hidden (with the vague psychomathematics there reminding me of the carefully constructed Asimov’s psychohistory.)

There is a point after which pastiches get stale and unattractive. And boring, so Yawn again. (That the book came to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year is a mystery.)

Eagle and Child

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel, University life, Wines with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2016 by xi'an

the buried giant [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2015 by xi'an

Last year, I posted a review of Ishiguro’s  “When we were orphans”, with the comment that, while I enjoyed the novel and appreciated its multiple layers, while missing a strong enough grasp on the characters… I brought back from New York Ishiguro’s latest novel, “The Buried Giant“, with high expectations, doubled by the location of the story in an Arthurian setting, at a time when Britons had not yet been subsumed into Anglo-Saxon culture or forced to migrate to little Britain (Brittany). Looking forward a re-creation of an Arthurian cycle, possibly with a post-modern twist. (Plus, the book as an object is quite nice, with a black slice.)

“I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”” Ursula Le Gun, March 2, 2015.

Alas, thrice alas, after reading it within a fortnight, I am quite disappointed by the book. Which, like the giant, would have better remained buried..  Ishiguro pursues his delving into the notion of memories and remembrances, with the twisted reality they convey. After the detective cum historical novel of “When we were orphans”, he moves to the allegory of the early medieval tale, where characters have to embark upon a quest and face supernatural dangers like pixies and ogres. But mostly suffer from a collective amnesia they cannot shake. The idea is quite clever and once again attractive, but the resulting story sounds too artificial and contrived to involve me into the devenir of its characters. As an aside, the two central characters, Beatrix and Axl, have hardly Briton names. Beatrix is of Latin origin and means traveller, while Axl is of Scandinavian origin and means father of peace. Appropriate symbols for their roles in the allegory, obviously. But this also makes me wonder how deep the allegory is, that is, how many levels of references and stories are hidden behind the bland trek of A & B through a fantasy Britain.

A book review in The Guardian links this book with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I fail to see the connection: Tolkien was immersed for his whole life into Norse sagas and Saxon tales, creating his own myth out of his studies without a thought for parody or allegory. Here, the whole universe is misty and vague, and characters act with no reason or rationale. The whole episode in the monastery and the subsequent tunnel exploration do not make sense in terms of the story, while I cannot fathom what they are supposed to stand for. The theme of the ferryman carrying couples to an island where they may rest, together or not, sounds too obvious to just mean this. What else does it stand for?! The encounters of the rag woman, first in the Roman ruins where she threatens to cut a rabbit’s neck, then in a boat where she acts as a decoy, are completely obscure as to what they are supposed to mean. Maybe this accumulation of senseless events is the whole point of the book, but such a degree of deconstruction does not make for a pleasant read. Eventually, I came to hope that the mists rise again and carry away all past memories of “The Buried Giant“!

desolation of Smaug [guest post]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on January 5, 2014 by xi'an

[To keep with tradition, here is my daughter’s comments on the second Hobbit movie.]

I think this second instalment is just as good as the first part of the hobbit. The biggest mistake of the movie is the part with the dragon, he spits fire when he wants and when he can kill some dwarves he doesn’t do it! It is said that he is very smart but the dwarves manage easily to deceit him. The part with the elves is not really better, the language imagined by Tolkien is fabulous but I expected more surprises in this universe. The fact that the dwarves easily get out is also incredible! And the fight with the orcs is unrealistic too.. The part in the forest is well made, the spiders seem real and the intervention of Bilbo is superb. The man who can change himself into a bear is a great idea, well realised but he doesn’t act in a logical way, he run after the dwarves and two seconds after he let them sleep in his house. The landscapes at the beginning are awesome, that is a great entry. But the music is disappointing, because there are very few songs and they are not as entertaining as the hobbit theme or the song of the lonely mountain in the first instalment, but the last song pushes the level up, too bad it is at the end. The actors play quite well, the news characters are really well made, like the fisherman Bard, contributing to a good section of the movie which feeds our curiosity. He is intriguing and his story unravels one step at a time. The Master of the city of Laketown is also typical, and his character is easily understood. The female elf is not a glamourous girl as in charicatural American movies, a good feature because it’s a change from others films. Tauriel plays in an interesting way but seems a little naïve at times. We don’t understand what are her feelings towards Legolas and the dwarf Kili.

The Hobbit (a Smaug screen)

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2013 by xi'an

In what seems to become a X’mas tradition, I went back to see a Hobbit movie with my kids. (If not in a Norman theatre, which permitted us to hear the original soundtrack.) And once more, we came out of the movie theatre with different reactions. Both my son and I thought it was better than the (very boring) first instalment. My daughter did not buy the dragon part (which is indeed difficult to buy!) and complained about the lack of depth and of this feeling of history and tradition that should come with elves. I completely agree with her analysis on this second part. The movie is too centred on action scenes—the park-ridesque escape from the Halls of Thranduil and the pursuit by the orcs, themselves pursued by the elves Legolas and Tauriel are definitely lacking in subtlety!—to spend time on the history of the land, and on the reasons for the behaviour of the elves towards the dwarves, or on the past glory of Dale… The New-Zealand mountain landscapes are as beautiful as ever, but lack in bringing strength to the story, a band of orgs on wargs against a thin ridge in the rising sun replacing a company of dwarves on a moor against a beautiful sunset in the mountains in the previous film. Smaug is also a delicate topic: it is beautifully played by Cumberbatch, who gave more than his voice to the dragon. (And the irony of having Smaug getting the higher ground in his conversation with Bilbo, just like Holmes getting the better of Watson in the BBC series!) Nonetheless, the last third of the film when the dwarves face him is altogether unconvincing, missing the subtle and hypnotic features of dragons and somehow making Smaug appear more like the dragon in Shrek… The trick of the final scene eventually worked out for me, but the preliminaries were so unconvincing. Having Smaug playing hide and seek with the group of dwarves, while destroying the halls of Erebor, is contradicting the reputation for deep cunning (Μῆτις) of the dragons! The last point I want to make is somehow of lesser importance: Peter Jackson chose to move away from the book in many more ways in this second film, when compared with the first one. This is not an issue in that no movie can reproduce the most notable features of the book, so changes would be welcomed had they brought a more epic tone to the Quest. Alas, this is not the case and the scenes of Gandalf in dol Guldur make him sound like an incompetent beginner, while the inclusions of Tauriel and of the corrupted Master of Laketown branch off the main theme with a superfluous love triangle and with an unnecessary depiction of greed, once again taking some precious time off from setting the journey more safely into its epic dimension. Not too mention the additional tension created by the orcish pursuit. All in all, not an unpleasant film, but much lighter than it could have been…

The Hobbit (3 hours long and it’s only the start..)

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , on January 5, 2013 by xi'an

On X’mas evening, I went to the movies with both my kids, such a rare event it deserves a special mention! Unsurprisingly, the common denominator for the three of us was The Hobbit (I), on its second week. The small Norman cinema where we went was far from packed, no wonder for a X’mas evening, and it reminded me of the time I took my brother-in-laws to see Time Bandits in the same room, with a crowd close to 12 people total! (Yes, it was a while ago, as Time Bandits came out about 1981…!)

Anyway, we watched the movie together and came out with divided opinions! My daughter liked it, my son thought it was not as good as the Lord of the Rings, not enough fighting maybe?, or simply less convincing orcs, and above all a missing Legolas!, and I considered the whole affair just ridiculous! I had misgivings from the start as Tolkien’s Hobbit is a kids book, which does not make for a proper setting for Jackson’s usually grandiose fantasy operas… It is also a short book and I could not see why it required three movies altogether! Well, I still do not see, except for providing the producers with more revenues. Continue reading

Back from Oxford

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by xi'an

Several interesting questions were raised during my seminar talk at Oxford. First, David Cox suggested I looked at the collection of the two p-values in the Poisson and geometric cases to check whether or not they could point out at a disagreement. (I am however unsure at how the p-values should be computed in this case, maybe as a likelihood-ratio test…) Chris Holmes asked about what happened to the ABC Bayes factor when both models were wrong. I had not thought of this earlier and will look into it: my first impression is that there is no reason for the same model to be chosen. It depends on the relative tail behaviour of the distribution of the summary statistics under both models… Stephen Lauritzen mentioned prior to the seminar a highly relevant book by a Copenhagen mathematician, whose definition of conditional densities was perfectly suited for constructing a convergence proof for ABC (to be incorporated in my Roma slides, if feasible). During the talk, he also pointed out at other (counter)examples of models where sufficient statistics remained sufficient across models: e.g., contingency tables with pairwise interactions. Arnaud Doucet got back to the Potts model (counter)example to stress that we needed perfect sampling to make it work and that our MCMC alternative could be adding another level of approximation to the process, which is quite right!

On the less academic side, I was in Oxford only for a short while, being due back in Paris for a presentation of our Statistics Master: I stil managed a short run in the morning in a nearby park where I saw a heron (blurred above!), as well as hints of the coming Spring (left) but I wish I had had more time (and indications!) to run along the rowers as I did in Cambridge. (I also wish I had had time to visit Tolkien’s favourite pub! Although I had a beer at the Lamb and Flag, which served as a meeting place for the later members of the Inklings…)