Monthly Archives: May 2012

Films I Watched in May 2012

Self-explanatory. Six words each.
  1. Das Leben der Anderen — Renegade spy saves lives in USSR.
  2. Elephant White — Bangkok is a mess. Don’t go.
  3. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — Book’s about Asperger’s. Film’s about family.
  4. Fight Club — Change your life via schizophrenic hallucination.
  5. Rogue — Giant crocodile leaves tourists stranded. Aaagh!
  6. Trust — Always understand technology better than children.

Click here for more 6-word reviews.

Book: The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler's Wife
If McDonald’s® sold books, they’d sell this one. It’s fat, greasy, bitesize, objectionable and tasteless.

Fast, bite-sized and tasteless.
560 pages, ★

Critics were right to call The Time Traveler’s Wife “sexy” in their reviews. It’s “sexy” because it’s absolutely overloaded with sex: sex in the form of extra-marital affairs (which could possibly be excused by time travel), sex in the form of Henry f*cking Clare, and—mostly—sex in the form of Clare f*cking Henry. Sex and time travel are the only two aspects of this book that will stick in my mind.

The story is very simple: Henry and Clare meet, get married, and then attempt to have a baby. The book is written as an amalgamation of their two diaries, with the date and each character’s ages written at the top of each entry. The difference between Henry and Clare’s ages is a little disturbing (30 and 22 in “real time”, or 36 and 6 during an episode of “time travel”).

But time travel in this book is scientifically flawed. On page 322, we discover that this ability is the result of four very authentic-sounding genes: per4, timeless1, Clock and  an ‘unnamed gene’, and the book’s sleeve describes Henry’s time travel as “periodical genetic clock reset”. But by plotting their ages onto a chart, we notice two strange phenomena:

Time Travelers Wife Ages Chart
Henry and Clare’s ages from The Time Traveler’s Wife plotted against time. People who don’t time-travel age in a straight line. Two adjacent dots indicate two of the characters co-existing (and sometimes interacting).

First, Henry’s time travel can’t be due to “genetic clock reset” because he almost always travels backwards in time, not forwards.

Second, look at the uppermost orange dot on the chart. This shows that the end of the novel, Clare, too, travels back in time.

So what’s going on? The author tells us at one point that Henry is schizophrenic and all his time-travel is a hallucination. But if that were true, then he’d be able to hallucinate about the past but not step into the future and change it. It also doesn’t explain Clare’s diary entries from the future—unless the whole book is a hallucination. Either way, I no longer care. ★★

Book: 钟博士讲解弟子规

弟子规(钟博士讲解)
Maosen Zhong’s annotation of Dizigui (“Rules for Children”). Written in Chinese.

Recommended for all under 40 years of age. Study the original text intensely before reading.
196 pages, ★★★★
Language: Chinese 

I’m already a fan of Maosen Zhong’s teachings. Recently, I finished reading his annotated collection of classical excerpts on femininity called 窈窕淑女的标准 (which roughly translates as “How to be a Fair Lady“). I gave it five stars and recommended it for men, too.

Dizigui (pronounced ‘deetzergway’)  is an ancient Chinese classic that teaches children and adult students how to behave in daily life according to ancient Confucian principles. It focuses mainly on how to treat ones parents and teachers with “禮”, or “lǐ”, which is roughly translated as “respect”. Since Confucius placed so much emphasis on 禮, a book that fully expounds its meaning comes as a great relief.

Among the 360 rules in this book are:

  • Don’t be picky about food
  • Always get enough sleep
  • Stay away from drugs (including alcohol and karaoke bars)
  • Don’t be lazy
  • See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and read no evil.
  • …and many more, with stories to illustrate each rule.
Zhong interprets and illustrates these rules using his own (usually exemplary) experiences and the (usually erroneous) actions of others.

The original text consists of 360 lines of three characters each, which form a beautiful poem just 1080 characters long. Zhong has printed this original text in full at the beginning of the book, which you should study meticulously before reading. The author expounds each line in great detail (sometimes too much detail) later on in the book—so I strongly recommend trying to make your own interpretation of the text before reading the author’s.

All children under the age of 40 should read this book. It should be taught in all Chinese schools (and it is starting to be introduced). Accessible English versions, however, are still hard to come by. The Pure Land School of Buddhism offers the best English version, available free for download hereBetter still, I think this book should be translated as poetry. So I started. ★★★★

Mind Map: Taxonomy of Musical Instruments

I have created a musical instruments mind map based on the Hornbostel & Sachs (1914) method of classifying musical instruments.

Interestingly, brass is a subset of wind; and the closest relatives to the human voice are the organ reed pipes. Take a look. Click to download.

Taxonomy of Musical Instruments Mind Map James Kennedy Beijing
Taxonomy of Musical Instruments Mind Map by James Kennedy, Beijing. Click to download.

Book: What to Listen for in Music

What to Listen for in Music
Illustrated with hand-drawn sheet music. To touch, this book feels coated, like “Monsoon” (see my review). This book’s very logical structure lends itself well to being mind-mapped, which has also been keeping me busy. (If I can’t deconstruct the music yet, I can at least deconstruct the book.) 🙂 

Orchestral Music Bible. From tick-tock to Tchaikovsky—and, confusingly, beyond.
304 pages, ★★★★

What to Listen for in Music is designed for lovers of orchestral music and the people who play it. Anyone else (who merely enjoys music—that’s most of us) would lose track in this book little further than halfway through.

This book starts with scores of pages of praise for the author, Aaron Copland. He’s venerated in this book as one of the Gods of modern music. He is explicitly thanked for having given the United States of America its own style of orchestral music in the 20th century. Bravo.

As someone who merely enjoys music (on the “sensuous plane” as author Aaron Copland puts it with polite condescension), What to Listen for in Music reads like a Buddhist scripture. The book’s “3 planes of musical enjoyment”, “4 elements of music”, “12 major scales” and “5 types of repetition” are reminiscent of the numbered lists so prevalent in Buddhism. These numbered lists, which comprise just over half the book, are quite simple to understand.

What to Listen for in Music gets difficult when all these lists get tangled together. Monophony (a single note) becomes homophony (harmony) and polyphony, which, when played in polyrhythmic, irregular time can be completely indecipherable to those of us who ‘merely enjoy’ music.

Most of all, I learned that when people talk about classical music, not all of them are being pompous name-droppers. Some of them actually love music, and have tuned their ears finely enough to appreciate the great minds who created it. After reading this book, I no longer tune out of conversations about classical music; I simply listen and aspire to fully appreciate. ★★★★

Book: A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The paperback version would probably earn five jameskennedybeijing stars. I’ve been reading this in bed.

Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children.
305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback) 

A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.

Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.

I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.

E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and more like a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.

I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the World lends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★

Book: China’s History

$45.99 on Amazon USA. ¥56.90 ($9.01) on Amazon China. I bought this from China, of course.

Read Quick Access to Chinese History before this.
210 pages, ★★★★

China’s History was first written (or at least planned) in Chinese before being produced in English. The paragraph structure and rigid coherence to China’s official historical narrative screams “China!”. All Chinese history books, including this one, tell exactly the same story. This is reassuring. 🙂

However, having already read Quick Access to Chinese History, I didn’t learn much new from this book. It just reinforced what I’d already read. There’s a little more detail on several historical events, but this could be too complicated for absolute beginners. I strongly recommend reading Quick Access to Chinese History (a clear, event-by-event summary) before reading this book. ★★★★

Black Bamboo Park Little Planets (Beijing, China)

Beijing has only two seasons: winter and summer.

On March 18th, it was winter. We woke up to several inches of snow.

By March 30th, summer had arrived! These two Little Planet pictures were taken in Black Bamboo Park (紫竹院) at the start of Beijing’s glorious summer.