Friday, May 22, 2009

Replay [Book, ***]

I haven't read a lot of fiction in the last few years. During the two years I've been in grad school I had to put most recreational reading on hold, and since then I've mostly read either more technical books, or nonfiction about politics or philosophy. I decided that this is something I miss in my life, so I recently raided the Round Rock Library and checked out two books. Replay by Ken Grimwood is something I browsed in a bookstore a few months ago and found interesting enough to put on my mental wish list. Dune by Frank Herbert is a book that everyone praises but I have somehow not gotten around to yet. I finished the first, so here's my review.

Replay predates the movie Groundhog Day by a few years, and uses a similar high concept. I love that movie, as I love most sci-fi that involves time travel or other creative reorganizations of time. As in Groundhog Day, Replay involves a main character trapped in an unexplained time loop. Unlike Groundhog Day, where the scope of the loop is one day, the book has its character reliving 25 years of his life.

It opens with the death of the main character, Jeff. Trapped in a loveless and childless marriage and an unfulfilling job, Jeff experiences a heart attack at the age of 43 in 1988, keels over, and awakes to find himself trapped in the past, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. Oh, wrong story. But you get the idea.

Jeff lives his life about five times that are noteworthy. As Bill Murray did, Jeff goes through various stages in his attempt to come to grips with what's happening. He uses his knowledge of the future to become insanely rich. Then he tries to fulfill himself with a better committed relationship, which works out pretty well but is entirely erased on the next round. Then he spirals into hedonism and drug abuse, then finally meets a kindred spirit who understands what he's going through. Then they try to save the world.

Unlike Groundhog Day, a fair amount of time is devoted to speculating about the real cause of the time loop, but the effort is largely wasted because they never come to anything resembling a conclusion. In fact, the whole book didn't feel like it had much of a conclusion. Jeff wanders from one life to the next and does a whole lot of stuff, and makes some effort to throw out philosophical thoughts about the implications. But the book just ends, and nothing that happened seems all that significant. Jeff's learned something, I suppose. And there's a one-off epilogue that seems to try to make it feel more significant, but didn't much work for me.

Replay was still an enjoyable read. Ultimately it's simply about a whole bunch of stuff happening, and the stuff is interesting to read about. I don't feel like I got a greater message out of it in the end, so I'll categorize this as a good diversion. It does make you think about what you would do with multiple lives, though.

*** (out of 5)

Music and patriotism

I've been a bad blogger lately. It's been well over a month since I've written a proper post either here or on Castles of Air. Partly that's because I've had abundant life stress on multiple fronts, which I don't really want to go into here. But I think it's a good time for me to update various things that have interested me lately.

I have a chorus concert coming up tomorrow evening. The music selection is better than it has been in a while, so if you live in Austin and like music, there are worse ways you could spend your evening tomorrow night than buying a ticket and attending.

The lineup is:
W.A. Mozart, Missa Brevis
Leonard Bernstein, Chichester Psalms
Haydn, Te Deum
Frank Tichelli, Earth Song
Randall Stroope, Homeland

The last two obviously aren't as well known as the other three. Both of them are a lot more musically simplistic but very emotional sounding. The Tichelli strikes me thematically as sort of a hippy song -- "The shattered earth cries out in vain..." and "Music and singing have been my refuge" and ends with "I'll see peace." It's corny but the music is actually quite nice. And there's a giant PowerPoint presentation over our heads, with pictures of people crying or enjoying themselves, and sunsets and rainbows and things.

Now, the last one, the Stroope, is interesting. It is set to the tune of "Jupiter" in Holst's The Planets. You can hear the original performed here, or a high school chorus singing Stroope here. It does seem to be very much geared towards a high school group, fairly lacking in subtlety and also very patriotic.

Now, typically blunt patriotism turns me off. I like the way Ambrose Bierce described it in The Devil's Dictionary: "In Dr. Johnson's famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first." It's not that there's anything wrong with being proud of your country, and inspired to make it as good as possible. It's just that naked worship of country, as in "My country right or wrong" or "Why do you hate America?" rubs me the wrong way, just as all blind faith would.

But while rehearsing this piece, I've found myself getting choked up a few times. When I analyzed this feeling, I noticed I'm actually feeling more real patriotism than I have in a long time. I don't feel that the country is being run perfectly, but I think that policy is again being driven by people who care a bit about research and results more than ideology. Feels good.