Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of ThreadThe Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Tale of Despereaux weaves the strands of four compelling characters to form what looks like a traditional fairy tale.  There's the titular hero, Despereaux the mouse, the runt of the litter; there's the plucky Princess Pea; there's the naive servant girl Miggery Sow; and there's the devious vengeful rat Roscuro.  With talking animals, a princess, and a scullery maid, how can you not get any more traditional than that?

In tone and in style, Despereaux harkens back to an earlier time of children's stories.  The narrator addresses the reader directly, authoritative yet confidential.  Author Kate DiCamillo evokes the mood of Frank Stockton and George MacDonald.  There's little of the sass that marks so many contemporary juvenile lit.  This sets Despereaux apart from the rest of current genre.

DiCamillo fleshes out the four main characters well.  Their back stories meld well with their motivations and actions.  Despite their flaws, they're all sympathetic figures, even the villain Roscuro.  The minor characters are also drawn well, the only exception being the buffoonish king.

Where Despereaux differs from other fairy tales is in the ending.  Being a fairy tale, it ends happily, yes, but it doesn't go for the usual themes.  But you'll have to read the book to find out what it is.

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Case of Conscience

A Case of ConscienceA Case of Conscience by James Blish

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A Case of Conscience stands apart from other science fiction because it deals with a most unlikely subject: theology. Specifically, what happens when an alien encounter poses a near-unsolvable philosophical conundrum?

It's a bold theme, one not tackled before (back in 1958), and sadly not tackled again. SF master James Blish approaches the situation as to make for a thought-provoking read, even if, ultimately, the reasoning behind it is wonky.

The plot in outline: a contact team from Earth discovers a planet of sentient lizard-like beings. Ruiz-Sanchez, exobiologist and Jesuit priest, faces a personal crisis when he discovers the Lithians are creatures of pure reason, without any form of faith or belief. Ruiz-Sanchez's solution leads him down the path of an ancient heresy.

Such an outline might lead you to believe that A Case of Conscience devolves into melodrama with a stake-burning or two. But quite the contrary, the characters act logically and cerebrally, with stoic resignation.

The book comes in two parts, the first being the alien contact and conundrum described above, and the second, the effects on human society when the team brings back a Lithian to Earth. The second part delves more into the social structure of a world repressed into the grip of nuclear paranoia.

Of the two, the latter seems more plodding and heavyhanded, but is an essential counterpart to the first as it develops the situation into its explosive conclusion. It also provides the solution to Ruiz-Sanchez's dilemma.

For the real Vatican's views on extraterrestrials, listen to a podcast on the International Year of Astronomy.



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Wordstruck

Wordstruck: A MemoirWordstruck: A Memoir by Robert MacNeil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Wordstruck by Robert MacNeil shows how a proper memoir should be done, versus a full-blown autobiography.  MacNeil draws from his life experience to cast light on his love for literature and the English language.  The book hews close to the title: MacNeil is, as he describes himself, truly wordstruck.

MacNeil is no academic, but he's well qualified to write on the subject.  A well-respected veteran broadcaster, MacNeil has worked in radio and television and covered everything from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11.   His trade is in words, and he revels in the rhythm and precision, though he's by no means a pedant.

In Wordstruck, MacNeil relates how he came to love language, beginning with his boyhood experiences of his mother's bedside storytelling. MacNeil credits his parents with the pivotal role of planting the seeds.  The love affair develops further in his involvement in theater, in radio, in a delayed college education, and finally, in a career in TV.

MacNeil goes in tangents to talk about Stevenson, Milne, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway -- writers who have made the deep and lasting impression in him.  He also tackles the development of the English language -- its Germanic, Old English, Latin, and French roots, as well as the idioms from old traditions.  Reading through the analyses gave me new perspectives in approaching the writers.

However, this interweaving of personal life with literary and linguistic discourse also forms the major weakness of the book.   It's an ambitious attempt to marry the two, but the shifts in topic can be somewhat distracting.  Just when I'm getting engrossed in some part of his life, the tone changes as he takes on a language or literature.

It's a bit of a shame, really, as his family life is especially engaging: MacNeil really and truly does love his mother and father, and the book is as much an homage to them as it is to the English language.  This shows in the vignettes he chooses and the manner in which he chooses to present them.  On my first reading, it's this aspect of the book which draws me in as the reader.

Despite this weakness, the two subjects -- family and language -- have enough power to draw the reader in separately and alone.  While I found the family stories more engrossing in this first pass, I'll probably return now and then for his explanations and analyses of the English language.


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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

The Facts Behind the Helsinki RoccamatiosThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Would a collection like Yann Martel's The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios gained notice if it hadn't been for the success of his Life of Pi?  Flipping through the first few pages of Roccamatios got me wondering about that.

It's not that Roccamatios is a bad book; in fact, the four stories are audacious in style.  But they're not by any means spectacular, and I think, were it not for Pi, might have been relegated to anthologies.

The first story is the eponymous novella, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  To help his friend Paul cope with AIDS, the narrator concocts an epic project: the history of a family, the Roccamatios of Helsinki (to understand why you have such an un-Finnish name in Finland, you have to read the book).  The history would be spread out over 100 parts, the theme of each part corresponding to a year in the 20th century.

We only get to hear bits and pieces of the Roccamatio story; instead, more prominent are the historic events of each year.  But really, the Roccamatio project isn't the focus of Roccamatios: it's a device by which Martell marks the passage of time of the course of Paul's disease.  Martell avoids the cliches associated with AIDS.  Instead, he conveys the  frustration, devastation, and manners of coping of those afflicted and their families.  For that, the time device comes to great effect without at all intruding into the narrative.


Like Roccamatios, the other stories are also experiments in narrative.

The second story, The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton (whew!) uses music as a narrative device.

The third story, Manners of Dying, takes on the aspect of black comedy with its patterns and variations in a warden's letter to the mother of an executed inmate.

The last story, The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come, is the most experimental, listening in as it does on the rambling conversation of an old woman, with asides from her grandson.

The experimentation works seamlessly in all the stories; in fact, they're integral to the narrative.  In all of them, Martell shows a masterful hand.  But I can't help but think that experimentation is the binding theme in this collection, hence, we get only the paltry four.



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Review: Our Friends from Frolix 8

Our Friends from Frolix 8Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Telepaths, precogs, drugs, repressive governments: you know a Philip K Dick story when you read one. But it's not because of these recurring elements alone; even if he uses them over and over again, each work is different enough so that he never really repeats himself.

Take for instance Our Friends from Frolix 8. It doesn't stand as any of his major works, but it's just as funny and depressing / thought-provoking as, say, Ubik or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It defies description other than to say that it's a book by Philip K Dick.



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Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire-- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We DoWhy Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire-- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do by Alan S. Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A layman's introduction to the field of evolutionary psychology, simple and approachable at the start, yet ultimately shallow and repetitive. Capsule summary: our decisions are influenced by our desire to propagate our genes. Several compelling arguments, but I ended up wishing there was more to it. Sets up the Standard Social Science Model as a straw man far too often.



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Empire

EmpireEmpire by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 1 of 5 stars


Intriguing beginning, but falters a quarter of the way through with wooden characters and laughable plot. Devolves into outright silly camp towards the end. A thinly disguised vehicle for Card's politics, unworthy in my view of the author of the excellent "Ender's Game."



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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kurt Russell is missing

This incident happened in October last year.

I arrived at the office this morning to some small commotion. An elderly couple sat in our reception sofa, looking up intently at Fr. Denny as he explained something or other to them. Was this another impromptu parent -- or grandparent -- conference over failing grades and such? But no, there was a different sort of tension in the air, one of urgency and gravity. In the background, Jocel and Annette flipped through papers hurriedly and made phone calls.

"...just Francis? Don't you have a family name?" I heard Fr. Denny say to the couple from across the room. "It's going to be hard to find that guy." Then to one of the girls: "Can you look through my class records for anyone named Francis."

So it wasn't just another conference. Intrigued by the snippets, I approached the group. Somehow I had an inkling of what was going on.

"Someone missing?"

"Yes," Fr. Denny said. "Their grandson has been missing since October 8. We're trying to look up his friends to see if they know anything."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Confiscated trisikads

The green boys of Traffic Management Center swept up several trisikads plying the Bonifacio route yesterday. They piled them up high on a truck. It was a wonder there weren't any riots. I did see some of the drivers looking agitated, though.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Overheard

Overheard at the corridor in Ateneo de Davao this morning, one middle-aged working class woman to another:

"Pag-Facebook na ba!"


Like, ewww.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Minor Tragedies

Senior Night is a tradition within our division, a last bash for those graduating this week. Being my first year as full-time faculty, and the first time I felt close to a batch, I finally attended the fete the other night. Nothing fancy and more low-key than I expected such a party to be; plenty of good-natured ribbing and very loud cheering. Good clean fun, and I suppose, after four years of toil and tears, a fine way to cap off their last days of student life.

For all the joy of that evening, I couldn't dispel the wisp of sadness. Graduation was a couple of days away, but one of the students I knew well wouldn't be able to march. He already had all the requirements lined up but for one snag--he failed one of his minor subjects. Would that he had been really and truly delinquent in his classes, but no, he missed the mark by just that much.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Red Horse

No, not THAT kind of Red Horse. This one is actually pretty cute, and won't make you go all kinds of crazy.

In case you're wondering where all these pics are coming from: I'm cleaning out my files from the last three years and throwing out photos that don't really mean anything to me anymore. All I'm keeping are the ones of me and my family. I feel like I've stepped into a time machine, and reliving all my memories from the past few years in fast forward.

Seahorse

Seahorse, taken at Underwaterworld Singapore back in 2009.

Robot Sculpture

While cleaning up my old photos I came across this picture of a robot sculpture I took along Bugis in Singapore. Pretty cool, I still think. Snapped in 2009.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Majorettes

Taken during Araw ng Davao 2011.

Graduation pictorials

'Tis that joyful time of year again. I'm happy to be part of the pictorials.

Computer Literacy and the Facebook Age

Earlier this morning we presented Moodle to a school administration committee. We're part of a slew of new MIS offerings which includes grade submissions, student evaluation, and faculty ranking. We had started out as an online syllabus system, but really, why stop there when you can go whole hog with a complete learning environment?

The presentation went quite well, the committee suitably impressed with Moodle's capabilities. Then comes Q&A, and someone posts the question:

"What skill level does a teacher need in order to use Moodle?"

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Gathering

Section IT3B taking a break during this long hell week of SAD panel defenses. I like how this class is solid and cohesive, academically and otherwise.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Lent

Today as I write is Ash Wednesday. As per tradition, I went to church this morning for the services and had my forehead smudged with ash. And once more, the grim reminder: "Remember, man, thou art dust."

When I was younger, I dreaded the season of Lent and all the forced sacrifice it entailed. Abstinence on Fridays (oh those delicious hotdogs!) and fasting, too. I remember one Good Friday how I waited for midnight so I could raid the fridge for a piece of chocolate I had been eying. I think I missed the deadline by five minutes. So much for self-control.

And now that I'm older? I can't say for sure whether it's gotten easier or harder. Instead with age has come a greater appreciation of Lent and what it signifies. It's not sacrifice for sacrifice's sake, but as preparation for the Easter that is to come.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Socket to Me

Found at Handyman electrical department.

Napkin Follies

After dessert at Johnny Cupcakes, Emily and I had some fun with the napkins and a pen. The caramel ice cream, by the way, was excellent.

"No Available"

...and so we perpetuate another language stereotype. Found at a Korean food stall at GMall.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Hey, Chihuahua

No, not one of mine, but cute nonetheless. Had to take a photo.

The Class

I quite enjoy teaching during the second semester more than the first. Most of my students are in their senior year, you see, and with graduation looming, we have to wrap up classes by the first week of March. That means my workload lightens up almost a month before the official end of the term.

Are students happy to see classes end? Double that joy for teachers! No more lessons to prepare, no more lectures to deliver, no more papers to check, free if only briefly to pursue our research interests....

But truth be told, I'm going to miss this batch. I can't explain it but in the three years that I've been teaching at Ateneo de Davao, I've come to realize that classes are like wine. There are good years, there are middling years, and there are years of exceptional vintage. Like this year, for instance.