The Name of the Rose

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Umberto Eco is one of those authors that you consistently hear about – a reference here, a mention there, but never have a rabid following. They’re respected, but certainlly no J.K. Rowling.

Umberto Eco’s books deserve a much wider readership and appreciation, for the simple reason that they are brilliant. At once witty and deep, scholarly yet adventurous,  Eco’s delicious sense of pulp and high intellectual drama is peerless. His books are unique in this sense in that they are de facto works of philosophy that are also highly enjoyable and readable tales that can be read simply for their own pleasure.

The Name of the Rose was Eco’s debut novel, and that alone is saying something; I would rate this book better than most author’s entire oeuvre. Part thrilling murder mystery and defective story, part intellectual and academic meditation on the nature of scholarship and language and part coming-of-age story, The Name of the Rose is masterful on multiple layers. It can be read effortlessly as a medieval Sherlock Holmes story (one of the two leading characters is William of Baskerville) but it also works just as well as a philosophical demonstration of Eco’s day-job academic ideas, steeped in postmodernism and deconstructionism.

Set during the high middle ages, during the epic, centuries long clash between pope and emperor, this book even manages to mix in high political and cultural drama. The final confrontation between bad guy and good guy is both dramatic and intellectually stimulating and meaningful. Again, very few authors could possibly manage this. Eco’s books work very well on multiple levels.

This is top tier writing; a great example of the power and value of books and the written word over all other types of media.

 

A Game of Thrones

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HBO has a formula. One part shock value: violence, torture. One part sex: nudity, boobies, education. And one part of actually really great television: you know, that one scene every few episodes where an awesome character delivers and awesome monologue or your mind is blown by some epic twist. I used referred to it as “sexy history” a la The Tudors staring Johnathon Rhyes Myers. I could enjoy it, but once you’ve detected the pattern, it wears thin.

For some reason, I never quite saw HBO as a network that would go to the world of pure fantasy for their source material, but clearly it’s brilliant. You see: it’s just sexy history where the source material fits the HBO formula better than real history. How can Johnathon Rhyes Myers play a fat 50 year old man and still be sexy?

I watched Game of Thrones not really sure if I would like it. My wife will tell you I’m obsessed now, but I want to stand on saying that I very much enjoy Game of Thrones but step back from obsession. For me, Westworld takes that title.

The truth is that Donald Trump is president, and escapism – in the face of ecological destruction, American fascism and the death of the Great American Republic a very likely probability – is the order of the day. Game of Thrones is as good escape as any.

George R.R. Martin is a great writer because he knows very well he is not a great writer. He is a master borrower and adaptor. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros while distinctly different from European history, is at the same time reassuringly familiar: it’s a world that you immediately understand and know the rules too. The Dornish remind me of Moorish Spain; the Lannisters strike me as a little French. The Starks strike me as Scottish. Similarly, the religions of this universe parallel quite nicely with European paganism, Catholic Christianity and Islam. While no one to one comparison is ever possible (it’s not really Martin’s style to make social commentary, I would say), things fit together more or less they way then did in the middle ages. Martin’s fantasy has just the right amount of fantasy to be brilliant.

Here’s another example. Yes, there are dragons. And yes, there is magic. And yes, there might even be ice zombies. But they remain in the background to real human drama; they act more like props or symbols or metaphors. The dragons don’t talk; they are simply animals that happen to fly and breathe fire. Magic appears as illusion or religion or possibly chance; we are very far from Harry Potter. The ice zombies remain a terrible, possibly false myth; they add to the drama rather than being major plot points.

I was struck by how closely the television show follows the books. They really did a great job adapting it.

Final verdict: Game of Thrones is grade-A escapism.

Dear Tom Perez….

Congratulations on being elected to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

It’s very exciting to know that the mindset of myopia, hypocrisy, backroom dealings and ineptitude that lost the 2016 election to a reality TV star and snake-oil salesman named Donald Trump is still solidly in control of the Democratic Party. It’s a real honour to lead the most corrupt political party in American history: the party of machine politics and smoked-filled backrooms, Mayor Daley and Herbert Humphrey, and now the party of Hilary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and yourself. A smug insider elected by smug insiders that vividly, excruciatingly have no reason to be smug: that’s your situation right now.

Oh, I know that Hilary won the popular vote, but you have clearly not learned a lesson from the election. Nor have you and your backers any conception of what is happening to this country right now. The Democratic Brand embodied by the Clintons: neoliberalism, identity politics, wealthy behind the scenes donors, technocratic centrism loaded with platitudes about Hope and Change has actually just been torpedoed. You are captain of a sinking ship that just voted to tell it’s progressive base – and not for the first time in very recent memory – to go f*** itself. There is no other way to say it.

Thank you, Mr. Perez, for confirming to progressive voters that they are not at fault for Trump’s election. Thank you for confirming our suspicion that he Democrats are a corporate party, designed more to foil progressive politics then to represent them. Every time I start to feel any sort of loyalty or start to identify with the Democrats, somewhere behind the closed doors of the DNC, some sort of wedge issue emerges to reconfirm that the DNC is the Abbott to the GOP’s Costello. A few months ago, I thought between demographic changes and the fielding of Trump that the Democrats where going to be the party in power for the foreseeable future and the GOP was going to split into a sort of regional party and a libertarian party. Now I don’t even think we will see any real democracy ever again.

Thank you for freeing me from any sense of loyalty to Democrats. If this election has done anything good, it has revealed a lot of true stripes. For all the fake news and indefinably rigged primaries and elections, there is a decent chance that Americans will get to see exactly where things stand now. With this catastrophic loss to Trump, I thought that the Democrats would embrace progressive politics and lay the foundation for the millennial generation to really come to identify with  a major US political party. Well, that dream is done; perhaps  I was foolish and naive to think that was possible. Instead of fighting for democracy and choosing to represent and fight for an energised progressive base, you have opted to stay fiercely loyal to the very things that where rejected in this last election. Millennials – the largest and most highly educated generation – are seeking political representation and you have failed them again and again. Brilliant. The galling thing is that both your tactical moves and your strategic moves are not working…

Of course, that’s not your perspective. I know that your calculation is that progressives and millennials have no choice but to vote Democrat in 2018 and 2020, but if the results of the election suggest anything, they suggest that the American voter isn’t buying the (never very successful) Democratic model that Bill Clinton started. It’s all about money after all, isn’t it?  The progressive voter cannot be counted on to show up on voting day.

As a progressive voter, I’ve heard it all before. Sarah Silverman’s “You’re being ridiculous!” has come to define the party you now lead. I wish the Democrats were as effective as opposing Republicans as they where at foiling their own progressive wing of their party.

It’s not too late though Mr. Perez. We’re looking for leaders. Right now we have Bernie, but there is a hunger for leaders that voters can trust. Trump won because a big block of Americans felt they could trust him; they felt they represented their interests. I think they are stupid and dead wrong, but that is beside the point.

The majority of Americans want what ‘Merica wants. True representation.

You might try it sometime.