22 January 2014

Jaws, Peter Benchley 1974

I first read Benchley's book immediately after watching the Spielberg blockbuster at a cinema in 1974 (twice in the same week). Forty years later I have just listened to the 2009 BBC America audio book narrated by Erik Steele, and it still feels strong. I understand that the author had a good deal of advice on changing the mood of the novel so it is unlikely there was a eureka moment as he penned the words 'the end'. However when film producers read the final draft they bought the movie rights before the book had even been published.
In Amity Benchley nicely creates the small town feel of a beach resort which relies on summer visitors for its existence. Police Chief Martin Brody is soon in disagreement with Mayor Larry Vaughan over the appropriate action to take after a series of fatal shark attacks on bathers. Brody wants to close the beaches on safety grounds but knows Amity will suffer if summer tourist dollars don't arrive. This dilemma becomes as important an issue as the shark attacks themselves and is the subject of much debate. Benchley goes into detail over the Mayor's financial reasons for keeping the beaches open, hinting at blackmail by powerful property investors.
Oceanographic scientist Matt Hooper arrives on scene to advise and identifies the predator as a Great White. Over dinner with the Brodys he falls for the charms of Ellen Brody and a romantic sub plot plays out. They have a liaison at a motel and this sets up suspicion and friction between Brody and Hooper. At last the town decides to hire game fisherman Quint to hunt the shark.
The final quarter of the novel is set aboard The Orca with Brody and Hooper acting as unlikely deckhands for the colourful and testy Quint. The shark is a formidable adversary, taking on human attributes of persistence and revenge and appearing to outwit its hunters. After a series of titanic struggles the shark is killed, though not without loss of human life.
The film is significantly more successful because it strips out sub plots and shadowy financial motives and reduces the cast to bare essentials. The characters are more likeable, and relationships are realistically portrayed. Casting was of course sublime with Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss outstanding in their roles. Putting the lame animatronics aside, it is hard to imagine any twenty-first century re-make coming even close. Jaws the movie is a perfect example of how a more complex story can be distilled into ninety minutes of potent drama.
I can't disguise my love of the film, and if pressed will recite large passages of dialogue verbatim. Nonetheless Jaws the novel is an exciting read with enough subtext and motives to stand tall.

16 January 2014

Salem's Lot, Stephen King

Coming from a self-confessed King fan this might be a shock... I re-read Salem's Lot after a break of almost forty years and found a 'Lot' I didn't like any more. To be fair, this was only King's second novel and there are indeed strong hints of the world-conquering style to come. But... there are many faults.

Plot is forsaken in favour of a simple linear narrative; not disastrous but a more tangential approach could have been engaging. The characters are dull as ditch water, with the exception of young Mark Petrie, a trailblazer for many of King's future teenage heroes. Protagonist Ben Mears, author and Van Helsing wannabe, probably has too much of the author in him, and I couldn't believe in his stake-through-the-heart abilities.

King does a great job of creating his trademark small town feel but he would go on to do even better. Really, there are just too many small town people to keep track of. Dialogue is rudimentary and there were times when I said aloud, "Ridiculous. No one talks like that!"

I'm being very critical here but don't forget King himself would later write a whole book on the craft of writing, in the form of an autobiographical account. I grimaced at the many repetitions of a word within the same sentence. One example: you just cannot get away with saying a road is deserted and that a parked car is deserted in the same sentence. I know this sort of nonsense will be eradicated in later works but it sure spoils this ride. Most of the novel is straight exposition but these days we have been taught to prefer being shown rather than told, hence the experience is jarring.

I wonder how good King's editors were. I read several episodes that just didn't make sense. Here's one: makeshift spikes were constructed by plunging kitchen knives through squares of plywood then breaking off the handles. Try breaking off a knife handle! Here's another: a front door of an inhabited house was secured by fastening a padlock to the OUTSIDE. Maybe on a shed, but a house? Lastly (and this will appear throughout his entire career) King stubbornly calls stair treads 'risers.' Steve, you can't walk on the risers as they stand vertically. I just needed to say that.

The novel is very much of its time and only the relentlessly growing pace leaves it readable by today's standards. My own experience was enhanced significantly by the utterly marvelous performance of Ron McLarty who narrates the audio book. Now, don't get me started on the 1979 TV mini-series. The book's reputation is already in tatters! For balance, I did re-watch my DVDs of the adaptation. The strident 'scary music' is reminiscent of fifties Hammer horror films and the whole cliche-ridden thing is drawn out like a length of floppy elastic.

13 January 2014

Family History in the techonolgical era.

 I have over 2,500 names in my genealogical database, and most of those souls are long dead. For over twenty years I have steadily pushed my ancestral knowledge further back in time until I have run out of (close) lines to research. Genealogical research fits nicely with my love of puzzle solving, detection and meticulous record keeping.

Illiterate ancestors would have names written down for them by the likes of Registrars and Census Enumerators resulting in some hilarious phonetic monstrosities! Digitisation has brought an additional layer of inaccuracy. Handwriting might be hard to decipher so names get wrongly transcribed. I have become adept at guessing both alternate and phonetic spellings for names and have broken many deadlocked lines of research with a little creative imagination. Olding, Olden, Aulden, Auldring, Holden, Golden... see what I mean!

Out of curiosity I recently developed some strategies to work forward in time and possibly winkle out living people. Starting with my great grandparents (who died long before I was born) I sought out marriages of their many brothers and sisters. I used likely first marriage ages of between 18 and 30 and in most cases found obvious candidates in the British online records. Bear in mind only certificates of birth, marriage and death provide full details, but there is still surprisingly useful detail in the searchable indexes and lines can be followed forwards using certain techniques.

Take an ancestor with an unusual name, Eric Rine born 1902; there is only one indexed marriage in that name in all of Civil Registration (1837 to 2013). It must be his marriage in 1924 so his bride is Moir Griffiths. Her rare given name will be useful later. Next I search for births with the surname Rine but restricted to those where the mother's maiden name was Griffiths; there are four, registered either in the same district as the marriage or an adjacent one. I now have four more potential marriages look for. Using the same system I identify four marriages and fifteen children born of those marriages. After several hours of generational research into umpteen marriages and their issue I brought the descendants of Eric Rine forward to a raft of births in the latter twentieth century.

The proliferation of divorce and multiple re-marriage gains pace from the 1950s onward so when I fail to locate the birth entry for a wife I have to be mindful she may well be a divorcee. I then search for a previous marriage using her surname for a potential husband and her own given name for the spouse. Any 'Pearsall' marrying any 'Gwendoline' in a thirty year time frame will likely produce only one result, and that will give the spouse's maiden name. Now I can search for her birth entry. Occasionally I may have an even earlier previous marriage to negotiate first!

I'll also look for her death in her married name, any time after the birth of her last born child up to around age ninety. the death indexes quote not just the place but the age of the deceased, and after 1960-ish, their full date of birth. That information helps me pin down her correct birth entry, especially if her maiden name is common (although not ubiquitous), say Griffiths rather than Jones.

Going back to my earlier example of 'Moir Griffiths.' At first I couldn't know which of the four potential births in the indexes was hers - four with exactly the same name, two in one county, two in the neighbouring one. However, knowing she died as Moir Rine and finding a solitary entry in the indexes, the quoted age of that deceased pointed to the only correct birth candidate for this woman.

The site I subscribe to, FindMyPast, has digitised indexes not only of births, marriages and deaths, eight decades of Victorian censuses but a host of other records, including Electoral Rolls from 2002-2013. These you can search by name and place, either town or county, to find street addresses for registered voters. Then it's a couple of laptop clicks and I'm looking at the house on Google Street View; an interesting trail of detection that led from a distant Victorian relative to the lives and homes of modern day third or fourth cousins.

Street View has its shortcomings but an address search usually gets you to within striking distance. To find a particular house number I zoom in and look around the door, front wall or gate. If the number is too blurry I zip along the road looking at others to establish which way the numbers ascend then I work back to my goal address. Odd numbers on one side of the road, evens on the other of course. Other clues are there if you persist. Watch out for wheelie bins with twelve inch white numerals daubed on the sides! Bingo, nineteen times out of twenty I find the right house. Now I can save a screen grab as a jpeg and link the image to the address record in my database. I have several thousand images of people, gravestones and houses!

Next I do a name search in Facebook (both married and maiden names of course!) and narrow the results to a town. When public, I peruse the friends lists of likely candidates' profiles in search of confirmatory links to brothers, sisters, parents and even cousins. It's surprising in this security conscious age how many profiles are public. Once I've established the individual is correct I trawl their photos for recent images and save a copy so I can display a thumbnail head and shoulders on my gigantic family trees.

Well this is a different slant on the family history quest and one which I couldn't have dreamed of back in the nineteen eighties. I can search British digital indexes from Charlottetown on my laptop and bring up probable matches over a half century span in mere seconds. A feat which would have taken days of scouring through handwritten ledgers. I can view streets, houses and faces, all from a great distance. It's even possible to submit a DNA swab and have my ancestry analysed. I could learn from which gene pool I come and I could potentially hook up with international fifteenth cousins.

It's cheap these days at $99, but the hidden price is that your result set includes medical traits and susceptibilities. Information which not everyone is ready for yet.

10 January 2014

Toy Story

"Reach for the Sky!"
"To Infinity, and beyond!"
Are these phrases ingrained in your psyche? They are in mine because Toy Story has gripped the imagination of my girls. Their recently preferred viewing schedule has involved watching all three films in order on rotation, resulting in a Buzz 'n Woody fest of mammoth proportions. Just to be clear, video is mostly reserved for after-bath, before-bed scheduling. I do like to see them play with real toys too. If you haven't seen the films then you must have been on a different planet, maybe stationed in the Gamma Quadrant, Sector Four!
If you have seen them then you'll know they are a powerful example of what modern computer graphics can achieve; virtual reality is not an over-statement. Skin tones, reflections, shadows, graduated tinting, textures, facial expressions, body movement and landscapes make old cartoons look like, well, old cartoons.
But the Toy Story trilogy is not just about visual realism, it's an homage to all children's toys from the late twentieth century, their quirks, foibles and endearing qualities, to children and to growing up. The pixel-people are endowed with proper personalities, and even nicknames, so you care about them. But wait, the films are even more. There are spectacular voiceovers from Tom Hanks and co, including the above catchphrases and dozens more; makers Pixar developed storylines that really matter, involving the eternal struggle between good and evil, capture and escape, fear and fun, love and loathing all culminating in the coming of age of the toys' owner, Andy. There are credible relationships, camaraderie and strong emotions.
It's a fascinating and immersive experience with strong appeal from the cradle to the grave. Watching the films on Blu-Ray highlights the astonishing work of the graphic artists. High definition is a phrase which barely does it justice. But even the very best, photographic quality imagery is only half the story though, it demands a script of the highest standard, and here Toy Story delivers consistently across all three films. The humour is subtle and succeeds on more than one level. Kids can laugh at the stunts and scrapes, while peppered throughout are references to the full range of popular culture, which have this old granddad chortling.
I love watching these films and I love watching my girls watch them.

"There's a snake in my boot!"

02 January 2014

Winter in Charlottetown

A touch chilly this morning for the first day back at school. Maisie didn't mind the cold and I didn't mind the official one hour delayed start. Kathleen couldn't wait to get back from the school run to crack on with Toy Story 3!

CBC Radio has been offering helpful wintry advice: like, keep your cat indoors. But since when did dogs take 'bathroom breaks,' long or short? And you know you're on a small island when they give out on the news that one especially frozen school bus wouldn't start this morning so those kids can expect an additional forty-five minute delay!

Following hot on dad's heels, Maisie has finished her own five hundred piece puzzle. These days she starts unprompted with the edge pieces, and has now learned to sort the remainder, in this case into sky, trees, hills and main subject. Her tenacity and more than a little paternal assistance won the day.
Returning to the seasonal theme, there have been ominous creaking noises from the roof as the thousands of pounds of compacted snow and ice up there slowly succumb to gravity. You can't help but duck and hurry under the overhang!