Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Page One: A Game of Thrones

Page One: A Game of Thrones, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

This ought to be my final word on A Game of Thrones for a bit, but it certainly warrants inclusion in my "Page One" series. So here it is: page one of A Game of Thrones.

The best way to comment on a book...

...is not actually a long and thought-out blog post, but rather, a series of Internet meme-photos with the captions altered. So here are some Y U No... pics in honor of A Game of Thrones.

Monday, January 30, 2012

"You still stammered on the 'W'."

The King's Speech

I've seen British period dramas referred to as "Bigscreen episodes of Masterpiece Theater", which I suppose is kind of an apt description. But it's something of a dismissive description, isn't it? It seems designed to put off the kind of people who think that watching stuffy Brits on Masterpiece Theater is the stuff of torture. And it can be, if what's on Masterpiece Theater isn't all that good. But when it is good, what's wrong with that?

This is what I kept thinking of while recently watching The King's Speech: "This reminds me of Masterpiece Theater." And not in a bad way, mind you, because I've always liked the good things on Masterpiece Theater. But it's the air of the story: very little by way of visual invention; instead, it's very solidly produced drama, with a good script, acted out by a great cast. Aside from a few stylistic things along the way, there's no real feel of a particular "director's hand" in The King's Speech.

The story follows a particular Prince of Wales who is destined – although, being second in line, he doesn't know it – to be King George V of England. This particular Prince has a deep problem that seemingly makes any public life nearly impossible: he has a terrible stutter. The King's Speech would probably be the best movie I've ever seen about a stutterer, if not for A Fish Called Wanda. As it is, this movie runs a nice second.

Colin Firth plays the future king, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, who in the first part of the film is frustrated by his stutter when he needs to speak in public but is also thankful that as second in line, he isn't called that often to perform acts of oratory. He seeks out some treatments, but none of them work; it is his wife (Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, played by Helena Bonham Carter) who visits yet another 'expert' on the treatment of stuttering, one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Over the course of the film Logue provides Albert with treatments, most of which Logue has developed on an ad hoc basis over his life. And over the course of the film the two men develop a deep friendship, despite Albert's insistence that they cannot (because of his station) and Lionel's insistence that when the door closes in his office, and it's just the Prince and Lionel, then it's Lionel's rules that must be obeyed.

Of course, we know – without even needing to consult the history books – that Prince Albert will, in fact, become King; we also know that he will be called to address his entire nation via the relatively new medium of radio, and that this speech will be either his big triumph or the hill on which he dies. How it goes really isn't a surprise at all, and it shouldn't be; for all the historical drama, Masterpiece Theater production full of Brits thing that this movie has going on, it's pretty clear early on that The King's Speech is simply a new version of one of storytelling's most classic tropes, the student who must learn from an enigmatic and idiosyncratic teacher if he/she is to triumph over his/her foes. The only difference is that here, the foe that must be triumphed over is a part of Prince Albert's own character. It's an inner struggle, and it's only in that that The King's Speech differs much in structure at all from, say, The Karate Kid.

A problem is established for which a person needs help. The person has a tentative, untrusting meeting with a teacher who promises to help. The lessons begin, and they're a bit confusing at first, both to the student and to us, watching it. But over time, as the connections begin to form, the lessons make more sense, and the story builds to the inevitable conflict, whether it be against a particular boxer, the rich blond black-belt karate dude, or against the expectations that the King will fail to deliver a stirring speech to his nation in a time of war.

Ultimately, what makes The King's Speech compelling is pretty much what makes all movies compelling that tell familiar stories: the characters and the relationships amongst them. Albert and Lionel form a friendship based in deep respect for one another and, even, need, without ever really coming out and saying it. Albert, obviously, needs help with his stutter, but Lionel needs some kind of acceptance. Lionel, it seems, is an amateur actor who wishes to play the lead in something, anything, but who seems eternally relegated to secondary roles. In helping the future King, he finally – in some way – achieves his wish. I also like how the film makes a gentle feint in the direction of having the King turn away from his teacher, but this well-worn and frankly unsurprising turn is avoided by the two men having a frank conversation.

Tom Hooper's direction is fairly understated; he seems content for the most part to let his actors do most of the heavy lifting after he decides where to put the camera or how to light the room. In fairness, there are a lot of interesting choices to be made there, and Hooper makes them. He rarely puts his actors in the center of the frame, for instance; they are always slightly off to the left, or close to the bottom. The lighting is generally bright and washed out; this is not your standard English drama with long walks in gorgeous gardens while everyone talks about God Save the King. After watching a bit of the film, I started to wonder why Hooper just didn't go all-in and shoot The King's Speech in black-and-white.

The King's Speech won the Best Picture Oscar for its year. I've seen some evidence out there, amongst the various pop-culture and film-oriented sites that I frequent, that the general opinion is starting to settle that The King's Speech was unworthy of that award, and that it should have gone to The Social Network instead. Speaking for myself, I personally found The King's Speech far more engaging and interesting, particularly in its human interactions, than The Social Network, which largely left me cold. Obviously your mileage may vary...but The King's Speech lingers in my memory much longer than The Social Network did.

(Apparently Tom Hooper is now helming the filmed adaptation, long-awaited, of the Les Miserables musical. Well, he's got his work cut out for him. I've made that movie in my head to the point where I can read the credits over the final montage.)

Sentential Links

Linkage...but first, Slinky-age!

Wow, those fellows need to get out more. Which is my way of saying, yes, I'm sad that I didn't think of this myself. (And at the very end, I can't help thinking, "Dude, watch out! You'll lose your fingers that way!")

Anyway, the linkage!

:: I realize this morning that what I have learned from the Curandera, the dream and Brian, is that I’m not a crazy dog lady. I just happen to love my dog. And anyone who is a true animal lover can understand that dogs really are members of one’s family. Yoda and I are a package deal. He’s not in my mate space, but he definitely has a huge chunk of my heart. And I’m never again going to hide that fact from a man.

:: Before I went on Lexapro, I said to the doctor that I felt like I was living on a thin precipice beneath a giant, sucking whirlpool that I couldn't get past. I don't feel like that now, haven't in years, and maybe the drug helped me get past it and I need instead to focus on controlling my anger for myself, by myself, instead of just letting the drug numb me to it. (For various reasons, SamuraiFrog is abandoning his antidepressants, and he's blogging frankly and honestly about the experience. I hope it all works out for him, and for his wife.)

:: I know I’ve mentioned before in these pages that I think Chuck Norris sucks and the people who like him kind of suck, but just to remind you: Chuck Norris sucks and the people who like him kind of suck. (Yes, SamuraiFrog again, but it's from a different blog he writes for, so we're all good.)

:: It’s been well established established that Dagwood and Herb use aggressive, angry breakdancing as a way to express extreme negative emotion. (Note to self: learn to spin around on your head like that! It would be awesome!)

:: On Wednesday, January 25th, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich spoke to a crowd of supporters in Florida. In a short speech guaranteed to create a buzz—online, as well as among space enthusiasts—he declared that if elected president, “… by the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American.”

That’s a pretty bold statement. Unfortunately, it’s also impossible.

:: To put it another way, when a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you.

More next week!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Saturday Centus (Sunday edition)

This week's prompt is straight-forward, if a bit macabre. I'm going back to my science fiction roots here:

Two robots looked down on the fires of Earth from their orbital platform. They were there to monitor the climate, but with no one left to report it to, what now?

"Do you think anyone will remember humans?" asked the younger robot, with a quivering synth-voice. Its emotion chip was state-of-the-art.

"We will," replied the older, robot. His emotion chip was first-gen, so he wasn't given to sentiment. "We know where the bodies are buried, anyway." He pointed to a screen. "Cold front in North America," he said.

"Snow in the Caucasus," said the first bot.

I wonder what did us all in. I hope it wasn't us.

Convening the Department of Random Complaints, Grievances, and Pithy Observations

Time to get some stuff off my chest!

:: If you are standing somewhere, talking to another person or a small group of persons, please look around. If you are standing within ten feet of an entrance to the place where you are standing, please move out of the way. NOW.

:: If you run into someone you haven't seen in quite a while in a grocery store or a place like Target, don't stand where you are to catch up. These kinds of places almost always have some kind of cafe or seating area now; go get a cup of coffee and catch up all you want.

:: If we're going to have a warm winter with significantly less snowfall than usual, fine. But do we have to have 50+ mph winds every second or third day?

:: I don't think it's too much to ask that a retail establishment hours of operation as listed on the website actually match the hours of operation that are listed on the door. Nor do I think it's too much to ask that a retail establishment actually abide by the hours of operation that are listed on the door, if there is a discrepancy.

:: If you want me to actually read in its entirety your long list of reasons why Obama is the worst President in American history, you probably shouldn't lead off with "#1: He FAKED the assassination of Osama bin Laden!". Save the crazy for the end. (A bit difficult, that, as the list was ninety percent crazy.)

:: News websites that lure me in with vague headlines piss me off. I'd rather see the headline "Actor Ian Abercrombie dies" than "Seinfeld Regular Dies".

:: There are lots of tools designed for prying stuff. A slotted screwdriver is not one of them.

:: Slotted screws suck. Why do they even exist?!

:: I love it when a piece of equipment's casing is secured together with seven or so Philips head screws...and a single tamper-resistant TOR-X screw. Because it's fun having to use two drivers to open the cabinet up!

:: The only Presidential candidate talking about moon bases is the whacko moral-midget Newt Gingrich. And he's talking about them wrong, anyway.

:: I'm rapidly tiring of an apparent retail trend to put teevees displaying video content everywhere. I almost never see anyone watching the video content. All the teevees do is suck up energy.

:: I hate when I take too long to write a blog post, and am thus late in getting the pork roast into the oven. To the kitchen!

"Dark wings, dark words."

One down, four to go: I finished re-reading A Game of Thrones the other night. As noted the other day, I'm going to read something else before returning to Westeros (and the lands beyond the Narrow Sea) for A Clash of Kings. (What book will that be? I wonder!)

So...what do I make of A Game of Thrones?

As I've noted a number of times, my overall impression of the series is that it starts off very strong and gets less good with each book. I'll need to read the others before I can verify whether this is the case or not, but for now, my original view is somewhat confirmed: A Game of Thrones is a very strong book, indeed. But it's also a changed one when one knows what's coming. The moments that were clearly designed to shock no longer do so, and instead, I find myself being more attentive to George RR Martin's story architecture than simply being swept along in the momentum of his narrative. The question I kept asking myself during this re-read is simply this: What is this story about?

I don't mean this as a criticism, but I once compared A Song of Ice and Fire to a soap opera, and I have to admit that I'm standing by that comparison. All the trappings of soap operas are here: families with long-standing enmities between them, members within the families who are both honorable and complete louses, threats from within and from without, et cetera and so forth. I don't mean it a criticism when I say that often A Song of Ice and Fire feels to me like General Hospital with swords and dragons.

I'm also intrigued that the series, by its very nature and structure, seems to have absolutely no protagonist. Instead, we have the very soap opera-ish conceit that every person is the protagonist in their own story. And besides, protagonists are overrated, anyway.

So, to return to the question: what is A Song of Ice and Fire about? Well, given that we've got a story that currently stands at somewhere around 5000 pages in length, it's not going to be about a single thing, is it? It's about a lot of things. Here are some of them:

:: A Song of Ice and Fire is about the passing of conflict from one generation to the next. Every family depicted here has a history of not much liking the other families, and every family is depicted in multiple generations. Every conflict, it seems, is handed down to the kids to deal with. Especially the Starks versus the Lannisters.

:: A Song of Ice and Fire is even more about the demands and expectations placed upon children by their parents. If there's one dominant recurring motif in A Game of Thrones, this is it. How is it that the child of Eddard Stark who so seemingly manifests his father's honorable qualities is Jon, the bastard he sired outside of his marriage (and whose mother he refuses to discuss...now there's a plotline that's certainly not a dangling thread!)? Arya, too, seems to be cut from the block of Ned...but she's a girl, so it matters little, and by book's end, Arya's been used as a marriage pawn to buy an alliance, even though she's not even present to know about it. Then there is Tyrion Lannister, the misshapen dwarf who is loathed by his father and only allowed to be useful when preferred older brother Jaime is out of the picture. And let's not forget Samwell Tarly, who was so hated by his father that he was given the choice of either joining the Night's Watch or find himself the victim of an unfortunate 'accident'. Yeesh, indeed.

And then there's young Robert Arryn, who is still breastfeeding at six years of age. He actually isn't falling short of his parents' expectations, as father Jon is dead and mother Lysa is something of a protective lunatic.

It interests me that of all the characters in the book, the ones I like the most are the ones who are children whose success in things will depend greatly on their abilities to outstrip the expectations placed upon them by their fathers and by their world. Here I'm talking about Jon, Arya, Tyrion, Daenerys, and good old Samwell Tarly.

:: A Song of Ice and Fire is about great, vast, huge, oceanic amounts of suffering caused by people in power who care about two things, and two things only: Keeping their power, and avenging personal slights. That's it. What motivates Robert Baratheon to muster an army and ride to war against the reigning Targaryen dynasty? A personal slight. What motivates all of Cersei Lannister's scheming against King Robert? A personal slight. What motivates Viserys and Daenerys? Nothing more than the desire to get back the throne that was stolen from their family.

The only characters not motivated by some kind of personal slight or out of a desire for personal power seem to be the Starks themselves -- all they want is to get everything nice and peaceable again so they can all go back to living in Winterfell, far away from all the various intrigues and dark things going on – and the men of the Night's Watch up on the Wall, who are on guard against whatever very dark things there are that live in the icy, frozen North. There's a real sense in which only the men of the Night's Watch are concerned with the survival and protection of the entire realm of the Seven Kingdoms.

So, A Song of Ice and Fire is about suffering, and hereditary conflict, and grown-ups who drag their children into their conflicts and saddle them with all the issues that come from expectations, both unfulfilled and those that are impossible to fulfill. What a good thing that Martin is a fine writer with a gift for often sparkling dialogue, because otherwise, this would be an insanely depressing series to try to get through. Even as it is, an awful lot of depressing stuff happens. We're talking about a book that in the first hundred-fifty pages has one kid getting pushed out a tower window when he saw something he shouldn't have, another kid basically getting forced to go join the Night's Watch (a lifetime commitment of hardship) because he's not wanted around by his step-mother, and another innocent kid getting sucked into her sister's mischief and having her pet wolf killed because of it. Heavens.

I mention above that I noticed more of Martin's story architecture on this re-read, and it surprises me to see that some of the plot developments that shocked me the first time seem almost contrived the second time. Cersei's manipulation of Robert into ordering the murder of Sansa's pet direwolf is a good example. The first time I read this, I remember being viscerally surprised by this, and it certainly went a long way to cementing a hatred of Cersei as a character. But this time, I don't know...it just felt forced to me, as if Martin felt a need to really get the audience firmly on the anti-Cersei side of the fence.

Ditto a bit later on, when Ned Stark decides that he's had enough of being King Robert's Hand, resigns the position, and makes arrangements to leave King's Landing. Problem is he's attacked that night by Jaime Lannister and his men – for something his wife has done – and he's injured, this forcing him to stick around, so that the rest of the plot can unfold. There are more such false-feeling moments in the book, where it seems as though Martin is simply providing plot-related reasons as to why characters can't do the very obvious thing.

A special note about Ned Stark: he's a deeply likeable, deeply honorable man. And yet, he's a complete idiot whose time in King's Landing is marked by one mistake after another. This is a guy who places his trust in another guy who is well-known for being somewhat slithery as an individual, was once notably in love with Ned's wife, and who specifically tells Ned, "You don't want to trust me." Ned carries on an open investigation as to why Jon Arryn was killed, not bothering in the least to cover his tracks or look like he's not investigating; and when he discovers the reason, he tells the guilty party about it and leaves it up to them as to what to do! This, obviously, goes exceedingly poorly; so poorly does it go, in fact, that it quite frankly makes Ned Stark the dumbest blockhead in the entire book. Who else can compete? Well, there's Robert Baratheon, who is an awful King; seriously, folks, when a King cuts off virtually every discussion of some matter of statecraft with something like "Enough of this, let's go hunting/whoring/have a tournament!", you're not dealing with a good King.

Joffrey? He's a brutal bully, and that's all. He's stupid as a post and acts with no agency of his own...but then, he's not really supposed to. Cersei? She's a very lethal blend of stupid and shrewd, able to play Ned and Sansa like cheap violins but also sanctioning governing decisions after Robert's death that even her own family members judge to be awful notions. Sansa?

Ah, now Sansa is a special case. I remember hating her when I first read the book, but this time through, I didn't dislike her nearly as much. Again, part of this is probably sympathy from knowing just how disastrous her dream-life is about to become, but also, it's partly because I can understand her blissful naivete. The only thing I'm not sure of is how her blissful naivete even exists in the first place; Winterfell does not strike me as a place conducive to the raising of children who harbor deep illusions about the coldness of the world. No, I don't dislike Sansa now nearly as much as I did.

But Catelyn? Not nearly as fond of her now as I remember being. I find her attitude toward Jon to be deeply ugly, and her indulgence of her instincts as soon as Tyrion practically drops into her lap is the event that pretty much causes the entire state of the world to ride off the rails. True, she does come to her senses later on, but after the damage is done. I remember Catelyn as being more likeable than she came off on this re-read. Maybe I'm misremembering, though. Catelyn is one of the book's most three-dimensional characters, though.

I've heard praise of the worldbuilding of A Song of Ice and Fire for years, but to be honest, I just don't see it. Westeros is your basic northern European-style realm, with frozen wastes to the north, warmer climes to the south, important strongholds in various places, lands that are often trampled by war, et cetera and so forth. No mechanism at all is posited to explain seasons of varying length, magic and religion exist but aren't explained much at all, and so on. No, the strength of A Song of Ice and Fire is not in the worldbuilding; it's in the people that inhabit it. And I'm fine with that. I'm also fine with all the foreshadowing that goes on, and the fact that knowing a lot of what comes, I can see now how Martin sets a lot of it up. Now, I rather doubt that Martin really plans for what seems like a throwaway detail in Game of Thrones to come back as a fairly major point in, say, A Storm of Swords; but it's to his credit that he clearly knows his world and the history he's creating enough to be able to use stuff he's done earlier to good effect later. Even with things like the afore-mentioned plot contrivances, I never get a feeling of Martin not being in control. (This, I fear, is yet to come.)

Next up, obviously, will be A Clash of Kings. After I read Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny (and a few graphic novels, to be determined).

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Things I thought while watching "St Elmo's Fire"

I decided to watch St. Elmo's Fire, the coming-of-age flick from 1985 starring quite a bit of that group of actors known as "the Brat Pack". I vaguely remember watching the movie way, way, way back in the late 80s or maybe early 90s. And by 'watching', I mean, 'being in the room reading comic books while the movie was on the teevee'. So my recollection is, shall we say, rather hazy.

Turns out I shouldn't have investigated those memories, because...well, that movie is Crap On Toast. Seriously. What garbage. I decided to try to make it bearable by mocking it on Facebook. Here are the things I posted:

So I'm watching "St Elmo's Fire", which I may well have never seen in its entirety. I'm about half an hour in. My plan is to watch until I encounter a character who isn't an asshole. I'm gonna have to watch the whole movie, aren't I?

(This was answered almost immediately by two friends saying, 'Yes'. Ouch.)

Oh god...a scene with a welfare queen. This isn't a movie about actual young people in the 80s, it's about what William F. Buckley thought young people in the 80s were like.

(Few things have the ability to INSTANTLY piss me off like the whole 'Welfare Queen' stereotype, and this was it, in spades. A white woman with her five kids with her, all of different races, who keeps responding to her case worker's attempts to interest her in job training with "Just gimme my check.")

Obviously my memories of the 80s may not be entirely reliable, but I don't recall women dressing either like streetwalkers or underneath at least four layers and buttoned up to the lower lip.

(Seriously, just look at the Mare Winningham character. She dresses like an cast extra on Little House: The Ever More Chaste Edition.)

If ever there was a person who just can't wear an earring, it's Rob Lowe.

(It's an awful earring.)

Rob Lowe tries to get his hand under her (the Mare Winningham character) skirt...but he has to pull up about eight yards of fabric to get there!

(This just cracked me up. He literally has to move his hand back down like three times to get the skirt far enough up that he can get a hand under there. It's like she has to walk around on stilts, just so her skirt isn't dragging on the ground. And this is seconds after she reacts to Rob touching her breast as though he's just zapped her with a cattle prod.)

Sweaty Rob Lowe is faking the hell out of that sax solo, I tell you! I keep waiting for CJ to walk up to him and say, "Sam, get your ass back to the office. Toby's pissed at you."

(A Georgetown bar is full of people rocking out to Rob Lowe on the sax as though he's Kenny G Van Halen or something.)

This movie is dragging my lifelong crush on Ally Sheedy outside, where it plans to beat my poor crush to death with a tire iron.

(Every time Sheedy was onscreen, I was reminded of Harrison Ford's great line from Working Girl, which he says to Melanie Griffith when she shows up at a function in a gorgeous dress: "You're the first woman I've seen at one of these things who dressed like a woman, not how a woman thinks a man would dress if he were a woman.")

Ahhh, the 80s...when eyeglasses were large enough to cover the vision span of four people!

(Holy shit, this movie has the Biggest Eyeglasses EVER.)

I have to think that anybody who has ever seen, oh, any movies at all takes one look at the city block that St Elmo's Bar is on and immediately yelps out, "Hey! The Universal backlot!"

(Ayup. This really broke the illusion for me. All that location shooting, and they couldn't do a couple of establishing shots someplace real?!)

Rob gets fired from his lucrative bar gig. Probably shouldn't have attacked the guy who showed up with his wife.

But it's all good, because he lets out a massive rant outside, gets kicked to the ground, and is well on his way to make-up sex within thirty seconds! Yay, him!

(This scene made no sense.)

Clearly the place to have a heart-to-heart with your friend is at the homeless shelter where she's doing volunteer work. WHILE she's doing volunteer work.

(Another really odd scene, with Demi Moore and Ally Sheedy showing up at Mare Winningham's homeless shelter to give her life advice, which is basically, 'Give in and make love to your boyfriend.' OK then. Winningham is wearing a long skirt with a bib and shoulder straps, not unlike overalls, over a button-down shirt which is over a turtleneck. Were the entire 80s a study in layers?)

In this scene, Ally Sheedy is wearing a frilly bow tie under the incredibly frilly collar of a blouse that is in turn under a jacket that has a really frilly collar. Were the 80s the frill decade?

Rob's having sex in a hot tub. Or at least he was. House owner got home early. Whoops. Hate when that happens.

(I thought that the producers had cast a Latino actor, named Mario Machado, as an Asian character. Turns out he's of Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. So I was wrong.)

Emilio Estevez apparently believes, as do all movie men, that turning up the collar of their suit jacket has the same effect as opening an umbrella.

(I never understand this.)

Stalking Andie MacDowell is creepy on two levels. Because it's stalking, and because it's Andie MacDowell.

(Cheap shot, I know, but there's just always been something about Andie MacDowell that's just a bit 'off' for me. I have a terrible time with Four Weddings and a Funeral on that basis.

Wow...as Emilio goes in to confront Andie, we get the "Person who shot JR" POV shot, complete with people stopping and staring at him! Every movie should include a shot like that.

(Here's what I'm talking about. This seemed a very odd stylistic choice for this movie.)

And for this she lets him go home with her?!

(I guess obsessive stalking wasn't deemed creepy until that guy killed Rebecca Schaefer.)

Rob is starting to realize what a loser he is. Took him half the movie. Took me thirty seconds of the movie. Yay, me!

THIS is Emilio's plan to win the heart of Andie MacDowell? Pretending to be rich?! Did we wander into a "Three's Company" episode?

(Apparently she's also stupid and will think that he's become rich overnight. Great plan, this.)

I'd forgotten how in the 80s, all men wore neckties, but the men who weren't to be taken seriously wore their ties so loose that the knot is eight inches below their collar.

(I hate neckties. They're stupid.)

Ooh, I gotta stop. This movie is terrible. Ye Gods. I'm just gonna read the WikiPedia plot summary and call it a night on this one.

For the record, I gave up just after the party scene where Ally Sheedy accuses Judd Nelson of cheating on her. I just couldn't even muster up enough emotional investment to make fun of the thing any more after that.

I really don't have anything insightful to add about St. Elmo's Fire. It just isn't good. It's annoying 80s fluff, the kind of thing that makes me wonder why so many people seem to fetishize that decade. I do like that title song and the synthesizer love theme, though. That's good. But the movie? The Breakfast Club it ain't.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wolfgang at 256

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born this day, in 1756. His thirty-five years encompassed one of the finest creative lives in the history of our species. Mozart forever!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Something for Thursday

I'm feeling like some Wagner, so here's some Wagner. The Prelude from Lohengrin.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Everybody's starving, and those shifty Wilder boys are feasting on pancakes?!

After reading a wonderful book called The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure, I feel the need to make a literary confession: I've never finished reading the Little House on the Prairie books. For me, fourth grade was the Laura Ingalls Wilder year. After that, it was pretty much over, aside from reruns of the Little House on the Prairie teevee show.

My teacher that year, Mrs. Pies, decided that the Little House books would comprise our "reading aloud" activity for the entire year, where each day she would read a bit of one of the books to us, for maybe twenty minutes to half an hour. We did the books in order, starting with Little House in the Big Woods and getting as far as By the Shores of Silver Lake. Over the next summer I read The Long Winter, and then...well, I started Little Town on the Prairie, but by then, I think I'd petered out.

There'd been a kind of communal experiencing of the books, my classmates and I, as Mrs. Pies read them aloud, and yeah, I liked The Long Winter. But my enthusiasm was flagging by then, we'd moved across the country so I'd never be able to discuss any of that stuff with those kids again, I was discovering fantasy by way of Lloyd Alexander. I have never gone back and finished the series; nor have I re-read them, even. I don't really remember a whole lot about the books. I remember the teevee show somewhat better, since that aired in reruns every day after school, and I knew enough to note the differences between the show and the books (where the heck did adopted son Albert come from?!).

My memories of the books, then, are a bit on the vague side. For instance, I remember being rather baffled by Farmer Boy -- after two books with Laura and Mary and Pa and Ma and company, what the heck were we doing talking about some kid named Almanzo? What was with that highly odd bit about the bullies in the one-room schoolhouse who had literally beaten the last teacher to death, and their defeat by a guy who'd borrowed father's bullwhip? And the long lecture Almanzo received when he asked his father for a penny or something so he could buy a lemonade, a request that resulted in a lecture on the Sanctity of Work and Almanzo's gift of a silver dollar and his decision to go buy himself a "good suckling pig"? That whole book just seemed strange.

(Here's something odd that's stuck in my mind for thirty-plus years: the "Almanzo gets a lecture on work" chapter wasn't read by Mrs. Pies, but by a substitute who was an older lady with a gravely, two-packs-a-day voice who tended to speak really loudly. I remember when she got to the end of that chapter, when Almanzo says, "I'm going to buy a good suckling pig!", this teacher read that last sentence in a Very. Loud. Staccato. Delivery! Before she slapped the book down on the desk. Really weird.)

And then there was the transition from On the Banks of Plum Creek to By the Shores of Silver Lake. The previous book had ended on a typically plucky and upbeat note, but Silver Lake starts off, basically, with "Mary had gone blind and the family had to move. And on the day they moved, Laura went out to get the dog but found him dead." Yeesh! But Mary was really a goody-two-shoes, wasn't she? I remember one incident (don't recall which book) in which Ma suggests that the girls put away something they've been looking forward to having – not sure what it was – and Mary says something along the lines of, "Yes, we should put it away, Laura. It will help us to learn self-denial." Yeesh, again. Self-denial? Sign me up!

The book I remember best is The Long Winter, which is probably because it's the one I read myself. The fact that I remember it as well as I do probably indicates something positive about Wilder's writing, since, as I noted above, I've never re-read it. But I recall the book opening on a very hot day, with Laura taking sugar water out to Pa in the fields; I remember the Indian who gives the town the warning about the coming winter (and Ma's reaction, "Indian? What Indian?!" to which Wilder notes, "Ma despised Indians"). I remember Almanzo and his brother hiding their seed wheat from the starving town, and his reasons for doing so (for which he gets atonement anyway when he ventures out with a friend into danger to try and find a farmer who had a good wheat crop). And so on and so forth. But after that book, I'm sorry to say that I honestly lost interest in the ongoing adventures and fates of the Ingallses and the Wilders. Not even the fact that by this time we were living in Allegany, NY – just fifteen miles or so down the road from Cuba, NY, birthplace of Charles Ingalls – could rekindle my interest. I guess I'd moved on. I had new friends, new places to explore, and that same summer I'd discovered Lloyd Alexander, and with him, epic fantasy. (Not that I was done with Kid-Lit Westerns: a year later I'd be introduced to John D. Fitzgerald and The Great Brain. Now those, I read in their entirety.)

So anyway, I didn't have much of a "Wilder Life". Not so Wendy McClure, who has been a big fan of the books for all her life, and who decided to make a series of pilgrimages to the actual, physical sites in which the books took place: her "Laura experience", as it were. McClure travels all over the mid-United States, seeking out what evidence is left in various locales from the books that the iconic literary events happened there. Thus she travels to Pepin, WI, to seek out the Big Woods (which, after I look at the map, I realize were located not far from La Crosse, which is where we lived when I was in kindergarten). She travels to Plum Creek, where she takes off her shoes and goes wading. She goes to De Smet, South Dakota – the Little Town on the Prairie – and to nearly every other location of significance in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Each time she goes to one of these places, McClure seems a bit disappointed...or maybe that's not the right word. But the tangible connection to the books and to Laura Ingalls Wilder herself eludes McClure, for the most part, and instead she finds herself interacting with people who love the books or the "Little House" phenomenon but not in the same way. There are fundamentalist Christians who believe that we are living in the End Times and who think the "Little House" books serve as a good functional blueprint for the way Christians are supposed to live; there are other families who are far more well-versed in the teevee show than in the books themselves. (Reading about folks like this, one wonders if they are surprised to learn that the citizens of Walnut Grove actually didn't dynamite their town.)

I was interested to read about McClure's uneasy relationship with Farmer Boy, the book in which the Ingallses disappear so we can learn about Almanzo Wilder's youth. Even in fourth grade, Farmer Boy seemed like a 'weird cousin' of a book, and thinking back, I do realize that McClure's main complaint – that everything in the book turns out well for the Wilder family and they pretty much fail at nothing – is not without merit. McClure posits that Farmer Boy was Laura Ingalls Wilder's own idealization of the world of her youth, just as for many today, the "Little House" books themselves are the same thing. They certainly are for McClure, who goes to great lengths to experience what Laura experienced. All the way to churning her own butter, which she describes thusly:

I would come to learn several things about buying a butter churn on eBay:

1. Most of the churns are not actually for churning. I'd thought I was in luck when I saw dozens of listings for charming wooden churns come up on the Search Results page. That was before I realized they were all four inches high and used to hold toothpicks. It turns out that on eBay, churns are far more common as an empty signifier than as signified object, with an alarming number of churn-shaped things used to hold plants, cookies, paper towels, and toilet paper. The idea that you might actually want an old-fashioned churn to do the task for which it was named starts to seem kind of strange.

2. Newer dash churns seem to exist, but nobody wants to admit it. Apparently every dash churn is an antique, even when it's listed as 'never used'. How is this possible? Was churn hoarding a popular hobby back in the day? Maybe people received multiple churns as wedding presents and just stuck the extra in closets, the way we do today with stick blenders? It's a mystery!

3. When talking to friends about buying a dash churn, one must be careful when making hand gestures. Do not simulate holding the dash in your hands and pumping it up and down, lest it appear you are talking about hand jobs. (Let's not talk about how I learned this lesson.)

4. The cost of shipping and handling for a dash churn with two-gallon stoneware crock will surprise you. I think it was enough to pay for one of Mary's semesters at Iowa College for the Blind.

You have to admire that level of dedication to finding out what things were like in the Big Woods and on the Prairie. I can honestly say that I have never felt the slightest inclination to churn my own butter.

Reading McClure's book fills in some of the blanks for me, as far as Laura Ingalls Wilder's life goes. It's interesting to read about the things she left out of the books, and the ways she 'corrected' the chronologies so as to make for better novels. I was actually surprised to learn that there actually was a baby Charles, in between Carrie and Grace, who died in infancy; I always figured that the teevee show made that up in order to give Laura a chance to blame herself and run away from home so she could find the highest mountain in the area in order to get closer to God so she could bargain for her baby brother's return but to find guidance from a guy who looks suspiciously like Ernest Borgnine but who may actually be an angel. (Whew. I'm not making that up – and seriously, if you want to watch something that will jerk your tears and jerk them hard, get a hold of that two-part episode. Boy Howdy. It's one of those things that can make me tear up if I just think about it enough.)

I know that as a kid, we stopped by one or more of the various Little House sites on our trips across the country, but my memories of these are very vague. No, I never had much of a "Wilder Life", and the Little House books are, for me, books I read and not a whole lot more. They're in the backdrop of my literary life, but not a major part of it. I'm glad to have read McClure's book, though; reading about someone's enthusiastic passion is always a joy, no matter whether the passion is shared, as long as the book is well-written. And this one is. Long Live Laura!

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Assuming that you have not visited all 48 of the 'lower' or 'Continiguous' states, of the ones you haven't visited, which one would you most like to see and why? (I specify the 'lower 48' because Hawaii and Alaska are too obvious. Everybody wants to see those!)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Pile of Doorstops?

A Pile of Doorstops

So this year I'm re-reading all of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (which, when I piled all the books in my arms, I realized should be retitled A Dirge of Back Pain and Eye Strain). I've been meaning to do this for a while, and I figure with A Dance with Dragons sitting on my shelf still un-read, it's time to take the whole series on again. A big reason for this is the long time it took Martin to get this last book out; it's been so long that I simply don't remember a lot of the finer details of the series, so I think I might miss out on something if I don't do the refresher work. I remember reading A Game of Thrones for the first time way back when we'd first moved into our very first apartment in Buffalo, which would have been late 2000, so it's nearly twelve years since I read that one; a similar period. Wow, this series has been going on for a long time!

I'm reading Game of Thrones right now, actually, and just last night passed the halfway mark. As readable as these books are -- the first two, at least -- they're so long that reaching halfway feels like an accomplishment. These are the kinds of books where you sit down, read fifty or sixty pages, and not really feel all that much closer to the end. It takes a lot of reading before the part of the book in my right hand starts to feel noticeably smaller, you know?

I will, of course, post thoughts on each book as I finish them. It's interesting to me right now, though, that my favorite characters are still my favorite characters, and also that a few characters I didn't like so much the first time through are more palatable now, which I suppose is partly because I have some idea of where their respective stories are going. I'm also keenly interested to see how my impressions of the books stand up: my recollection is that there is a distinct diminishing of returns with each successive novel; Game is great, Clash is really good, Storm starts to verge on the reading equivalent of sensory overload, and Feast is pretty much of a slog. Is this the way of it? We'll find out!

Oh, and I'm not re-reading all this straight through. No, I'll be alternating these books with something else each time. I really don't want to spend that long of an uninterrupted time in Westeros. That way, madness lies! But anyway, that's what's happening. Winter is coming; dark wings, dark words; A Lannister always pays his debts; yada yada yada!

Monday, January 23, 2012

My retail heaven!

Rip-Proof Overalls in Colfax, WA, originally uploaded by pasa47.

A bookstore? Overalls? In the same place?! Oh that I have not been given leave to live in such a Shangri-la!

2012 Classics Challenge: "Heart of Darkness"

I'm actually doing a reading challenge in 2012, called the "Classics Challenge", and hosted by the blog November's Autumn. The idea is to read seven works of classic literature, of which only two can be re-reads. (You can peruse my list of books here.) Then, on the fourth of every month, November's Autumn will post a series of prompt questions (first month here) to encourage people to post about their books.

(Side note: I'm seeing a lot of 'challenges' like this around Blogistan suddenly. Maybe next year I'll host one – a F&SF reading challenge, maybe? Something to think about...and I've got time!)

So, I decided to start my reading with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Why this one? Well, among other things...it's short. I chose a mixture of book lengths for my list; there are a couple of short works mixed amongst a couple of doorstops. But why did I choose Heart of Darkness for my list, to begin with? Well...uhh...here's an embarrassing admission.

I thought I was choosing a different book.

I actually wanted to read that book where a bunch of kids end up stranded out in a jungle or someplace in the wild, and lacking adult supervision, they end up forming a kind of savage society. And I knew that Heart of Darkness dealt with folks who revert to savagery when they spend time in remote wilderness, so I briefly thought that they were the same book. I started Heart of Darkness on New Year's Day, and got about twenty pages into it before I realized that what I'd really intended to read was Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Oh well. I was twenty pages into a short (93 pages) novel, so I wasn't going to stop. Heart of Darkness it was.

And I finished it three days later. One book down, six to go, and I'm only four days into the new year as I write this! Huzzah!!

So anyway, on to Heart of Darkness.

Joseph Conrad lived from 1857 to 1924 and wrote in English, despite the fact that he was a native of the Polish Ukraine and did not speak English until his twenties. Looking into Conrad's life, I was confused by this – but the history of the national borders of Europe is a messy one. The city of Conrad's birth is in the present-day Ukraine, but apparently at the time it was considered a part of Poland.

From what I read, Conrad tends to write his stories and novels in nautical settings, and Heart of Darkness is nautical as well, although the chief motif is not the sea but rather the river as seen from the sea, as a pathway leading inland, into a heart or sorts. Heart of Darkness tells a fairly simple story, plot-wise; four men wait on a boat at the mouth of the Thames for the turning of the tide, so they can sail back upriver. While they wait, they listen to one of their number, a man named Marlow, tell about another time he had to sail upriver: years before when he had been contracted by a Belgian trading company to go up a river into the heart of the Congo in search of another company representative, a man named Kurtz, from whom little has been heard.

Marlow's story is grim. He tells of the travails of getting a boat up that river, whilst contending with the savagery of the local population, savagery which it later turns out has been joined by Kurtz himself. Marlow encounters severe mechanical troubles, uncooperative trade company representatives, attacks by the locals, and the like until he finally reaches Kurtz, finding the man in failing health living in a camp surrounded literally by heads on spikes. Kurtz dies on the way back down the river, and Marlow must journey back to England and tell Kurtz's fiancee what has happened. She demands to know Kurtz's last words, and even though they were "The horror! The horror!", Marlow tells her that her name was the last thing he pronounced.

Heart of Darkness, for all its brevity, was a fairly tough slog. It consists of long, dense paragraphs of description of a dark, dank, muddy, hot place that is unpleasant in nearly all its particulars, and the small cast of characters consists of a largely unsavory lot. There really doesn't seem to be any mystery as to why Kurtz regressed to savagery; Conrad's answer seems to be that it is inevitable when one is so solidly sequestered in a place as dark, as grim, as the Congo. I found it difficult reading a book that treats the aboriginal peoples of Africa as nothing more than savages whose only function, storywise, is to provide a contrast to the civilized whites and illustrate the depths to which they can descend.

However, I'm not entirely sure that Conrad totally intended this. As the book closes, Marlow comments that the mouth of the Thames also seems to lead into a heart of darkness. So on the one hand, perhaps his racism is partly forgivable given the time in which he wrote; on the other, perhaps he doesn't see savagery as inherent in certain peoples of Africa but as something that lurks within all people. Certainly Marlow seems wary of the darkness that lies within his own country, and the darkness that he mind find there, lurking within his own heart.

One other thing I plan to do during this Challenge in 2012 is check out filmed adaptations of the books I read (inasmuch as I can find relevant ones). The go-to film for Heart of Darkness is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which transports the book to the Viet Nam war. I'll be posting about that something later this month (or early next).

I close with a quote:

Droll thing life it – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be. I was within a hair's breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say. This is the reason why I affirm that Kurtz was a remarkable man. He had something to say. He said it. Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.

Images via.

My next book in the 2012 Classics Challenge is The Arabian Nights.

Sentential Links

We'll have some linkage...but first, here's Peter Dinklage!

OK, now the linkage!

:: The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but the traffic on that road is governed by the law of unintended consequences. (I know, SOPA is going nowhere, but this is still an excellent post on the subject.)

:: You won’t hear me saying this much, but I agree with Santorum. (I do, too. What's the world coming to!)

:: Etta James is most often associated with the song "At Last," which has become a standard at weddings and was so memorably significant at President Obama's inaugural ball, and for that record's sound, she is often thought of as a jazz singer. But she was far more than that. In her time, she performed pop standards, traditional blues, '60s soul, and even a cover of Guns 'n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" on her final album. It is her work from the '50s and '60s that I enjoy most, though. Like so much from that era, it's just plain good music. As I said, it makes me happy for no reason... and need we ask anything more of our music?

:: It’s very simple. If a woman acts like they’re your friend, says they’re your friend, and behave like they’re your friend…then they’re your friend. This doesn’t mean you can’t want more, but their emotional consistency is not a personal slight against you. Suck it up, deal with it…and that doesn’t mean stop being their friend. What nine out of ten Nice Guys need is a female friend that they know they have no chance with, just so they can figure out that it’s not the end of the world if you hang out with a woman just because you enjoy each other’s company and not as some sort of secretive platonic dating gambit.

:: Romney has a problem: People don't like him. Not only that, but the more people see him, the more they dislike him. The panel on MSNBC was particularly keen on pointing out, as the results came in, that Newt Gingrich's unfavorability ratings in this country at large are whopping, and indeed they are. But Willard's unlikability is of a different sort. It is chronic and general. Gingrich, at least, for the several moments when he goes into highest dudgeon and starts raving about "elites" and Saul Alinsky, can give you a few seconds of pure entertainment for which you might briefly wish to thank him.

:: One thing I think everyone can agree on is that Velveeta considered to be the equivalent of Satanism. The antithesis of cheese, yet a cheese in and of itself, worshipped only by those who rebuke the whole concept of flavor itself. Hail Velveeta, the eternal and undying one! (The Wife makes a chicken casserole in which Velveeta is a prominent ingredient. I actually like the casserole...but Ye Gods, Velveeta is not cheese.)

:: Love them or hate them, the Star Wars prequels will not being going anywhere anytime soon. (You bet your ass, they aren't!)

More next week!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!!!

::  Seventy-five years ago, a whole bunch of special beer was brewed in Britain on the occasion of the coronation of King Edward VII. But that coronation never took place, because the King abdicated so he could marry the woman he loved (thus bringing a stutterer to the throne...note to self: write blog post about The King's Speech). So the beer was left in a cellar and forgotten...until now.

::  In Siberia, a diesel truck ended up in a river. The river was deep enough to completely submerge pretty much the entire truck except for the cab and the engine compartment. The truck won.

One of the YouTube comments dubs the truck "Truck Norris". I find it hard to disagree.

:: Nick Mamatas doesn't think too highly of some common bits of writing advice. I tend to pretty much ignore all of it myself, by this point, and simply try to do the very best that I can on the story that I want to tell. Of course, I'm still an unpublished schlub, so who cares what I think, right?

More next week!

All Things Pie

Pie on the brain lately!

::  Beth Howard, who has become one of my favorite bloggers, has been working on a book called Making Piece, which is about how she dealt with awful grief (her husband passed away suddenly at a terribly young age) by, among other things, throwing herself into pie-baking and from there to pie evangelism. Her book is now available for pre-order. I'll definitely be getting a copy. I've found that learning new things, and becoming a bit obsessive about them, is a good way to (at least partially) deal with grief.

::  On the making of pie...I do love a good pot pie, although I hadn't made one in quite a long time until last week, when I did what pot pies are for and made one as a way to use up some leftover meats. In this case I used leftover ham from New Year's and leftover smoked beef sausage. The result was like this:

Ham and Sausage Pie

I thickened some beef broth with a roux and added some onion and sauteed mushrooms, in addition to the meats. The crust? Well...I really need to start making my own. This was a store-bought crust, one of those ones you unroll. The resulting pie was tasty, but a bit on the salty side. I'll be revisiting the pot pie concept again soon, though -- next week I intend to make some pulled pork, which I think would make an interesting pot pie!

Part of my problem with making pie crust is that we only really have one spot in the kitchen area suitable to the rolling out of a dough, and that's our dining room table, which isn't always free of obstruction. (Translation: we tend to pile an awful lot of clutter on our table.) Not that clearing the table takes very long, but it's just a whole extra step, you know?

:: Speaking of baking pie, I wonder if this gizmo, which Roger Green e-mailed to me, actually works? It seems...well, it seems odd. Why not just bake two pies? How strange!

::  My favorite pie for eating has always been apple, which cries out for a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and some caramel sauce drizzled on top:

Pie: Not just for my face!

I just can't get behind that whole "cheddar cheese on apple pie" thing, though. Cheddar cheese and sliced raw apples are great together, but...I can't make the leap from there to cheese-on-apple-pie. Sorry!

:: Roger also e-mailed me a while back a couple of posts by Mark Evanier, on the subject of pies as comedic props (i.e., pies for forceful application to people's faces). It makes for interesting reading, as Evanier spells out some techniques (here and here) for what he considers 'proper' pie-throwing. Basically he says that pies for throwing should consist of a crust outside of the tin or pan, filled with shaving cream. I suppose he may have a point, if your pie-throwing is part of some kind of performed skit of stage show or something like that. Quick clean-up and the lack of any souring-milk aromas are certainly desirable factors. But as for myself, well...I'm not a stage actor, and I sure don't want to get hit with something that tastes like soap because it basically is soap! Nope, if it's going in my face, I want the real thing.

::  Finally, some funny behind-the-scenes photos. Here's Natalie Wood on the set of The Great Race, whilst shooting that film's pie fight:

(EDIT: I couldn't remember where I got that photo from...but now I do. And contrary to Mr. Evanier, it turns out that all those pies in that pie fight were real! No shaving cream at all!

And here is actress Mia Sara, on the set of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. For some reason she's getting pied. No idea why.

That about covers it. Pie is awesome!

Splat! The meeting of Pie and Face

A pie in the face is a wonderful thing!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

'We can't repel odor of that magnitude!'

I'm really glad I wasn't drinking coffee yet this morning when George Takei posted this on Facebook, because I would likely have spit the coffee out all over the place.

Well, folks, with my embrace of poop jokes, I can safely say that this blog's journey towards the Dark Side may be complete!

Saturday Centus - The Return!

OK, folks, we're now far enough into January that life is settling back down in a quasi-normal kind of thing. The Holiday season just past was a wonderful one, but it was also abnormally busy, even by my standards -- the Holidays are always busy, but this time it was "Wow, what a whirlwind!" I eventually just had to put some things on the back burner, such as regular features of this blog -- the Centus among them. Well, now I'm ready to jump back in again, so here we go...only, this week's prompt assumes that I've done the last two prompts. This, therefore, means that I need to resort to trickery and skulduggery. In short...I am going to cheat, and do all three prompts in one.

Prompt the first was to write a cliffhanger; prompt the second was to resolve it; prompt the third is to give it an epilogue. OK? OK! So, I now offer a haiku. Line one is the cliffhanger, line two is the resolution, and line three, the epilogue.

Will he or won’t he?
He thinks and chooses, “I will!”
And therefore, he did.

A belated Happy New Year to all Centusians, and it's good to see you all again!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Onward and Upward!

Onward and Upward!, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

I haven't updated my progress on Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title) in a while, so here's where things stand. In the two months since my last word count update here, I've produced an additional 21,000 words, which is a nice total. That's a bit off the pace of 500 words a day that I've been trying to maintain, but there were extenuating circumstances. (Sigh...aren't there always?)

First, of course, the last update came a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, so I had to get through the Holiday season, with all its distractions and demands on time, which all conspired to produce more days where I didn't produce a single word than I would have liked.

More demanding, however, was my realization a few weeks back that I needed to do some backtracking. I don't like to backtrack or edit as I go; it's my firm belief that "This way, madness lies". I'm the kind of person who can get totally bogged down in my own editing, and I could lose myself in trying to make fifty or a hundred pages totally perfect in favor of getting the story told. And even with this bit of revision work, I really had to discipline myself to not get sucked into too much sentence-fixing.

So why the revision? As I noted at the time, I came to realize that a part of my backstory wasn't as solid as it could have been, which meant that there were times when certain characters' actions felt forced and contrived instead of something a person might actually do in that particular circumstance. So I had to suspend "forward progress" and retreat a bit into the narrative, doing some fixing work and strengthening some things and removing others.

Now, there are things that I know will have to be changed when I go back and do the real editing, and in most cases I just make a notation in a file I helpfully call "Notations for editing", to which I will refer when I go back to fix things. In a lot of cases I can just set the changes in my mind and write from a certain point as if the changes are in effect. But this time, the changes were too involved to do that. I had to backtrack.

And now I'm done backtracking, with the helpful side effect that this work has helped the rest of the story crystallize in my brain a bit. That's a very welcome development!

So at this point, I'm just about ready to start the final third of the book. Allegiances are revealed! Traitors are unmasked! Loves are declared! Spaceships are flown! Princesses are rescued and do some rescuing! And the Universe will never be the same! Until next time...Excelsior!!!

(So, how was my Stan Lee impersonation?)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Teevee Notes

Some random thoughts on teevee:

:: I just post this on Facebook:

Some of you might be tempted to dismiss the new Rob Schneider sitcom as total crap that appeals to the lowest denominator. Some of you might just assume, without watching it, that it's a typically awful sitcom with cookie-cutter plots, ethnic stereotypes substituted for wit, and shrill characters who think that you overcome an awful punchline by shouting it. Some of you might assume these things...and you'd all be right!

Seriously, this show is bad.

:: The last couple episodes of Big Bang Theory have really brought the funny. Here's my current working hypothesis on Sheldon Cooper: what makes him a great character isn't just his neuroses that allow him to clash with other characters over anything at all. It's that sometimes he's right, and the social conventions he genuinely doesn't understand really are pretty goofy, when you think of it.

:: Oh, Castle...you know I love you. Really. But the "Beckett's mother" thing really needs to end, and I'm starting to worry that instead of moving things toward conclusion, you're ratcheting it up...and that's not good. Now we have Castle having shadowy meetings in parking garages with unnamed contacts whose allegiances we don't know? And that this guy is manipulating things so that Castle will remain able to assist the NYPD and thus protect Beckett? Geez. I just don't know about this...especially since it's obviously being set up so that at some point Castle will have to steer Beckett in the wrong direction, thus driving another wedge between them. Be careful here, Castle. You can do this well...but even the greatest players drop the ball once in a while.

:: The recent dearth of new episodes of House is getting annoying.

:: A few weeks back, GLEE did a song called "Red Solo Cup", which is a country song by Toby Keith. If you haven't heard this song, I suppose it's worth a listen as what it is: a mildly-amusing novelty song. Second time, though, it stinks. What does this have to do with GLEE? Not much, except it's a terrible show. Moving on:

:: I kind of like The Finder.

:: Shows I'm sitting on until a time when there aren't new episodes of anything: Once Upon a Time and Alcatraz.

That's about it for now....

Something for Thursday

I've been watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos series lately (one episode a week, usually on Sundays -- I'm up to Episode 6, 'Travelers' Tales'), and as always, I'm enchanted by the music of the series. Here is one of my favorite selections from the show, "Entends-tu les chiens aboyer?" by Vangelis.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Would I be able to write this blog in a world where the Internet is governed by SOPA? I honestly don't know. I strongly suspect that I would, but it would be a lot less interesting. I also strongly suspect that a good many posts here wouldn't be possible, and that a good many things I've done in this space would result in this blog being 'blacked out' because of dreaded 'piracy'.

Stop this bill. The Web is too important to be hobbled in this way. We've already burned the Library of Alexandria once. Let's not do anything like that again!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why cats will never rule the world

Lazy bums. All of 'em., originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

Not that I disagree entirely with their approach to things....

A lifetime of sitting in the dark

I was nine years old, and I wandered into the living room to find my mother watching some show on PBS. It was a show about movies – there would be a clip of a new movie that was out, and these two guys would then talk a bit about whether the movie was any good or not. One of these guys was a thin, lanky guy. The other was a squat, fat guy. The thin guy was named Gene. The fat guy was named Roger.

"What's this?" I asked.

"It's called Sneak Previews," my mother answered. "Those two men are film critics. They tell us if movies are good or not."


And I watched the thing. I didn't know anything about movies, but these two guys were interesting to watch. Another year or two later, their show was off PBS, which struck me as a bummer...but they turned up again, in a syndicated show that was on, like many syndicated shows, at whatever time some station or other felt like putting it on. No matter, it was fun seeing these two guys, Gene and Roger – who worked for newspapers in Chicago – talk about movies.

So I watched Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for years, off and on, right up until Siskel's deeply saddening death in 1998. Then I watched Ebert and Richard Roeper (a good enough fellow, but no substitute for Siskel) for a few more years, until we no longer had cable and thus the show was beyond my grasp. And then, a few years after that, Ebert himself started to have health issues, which eventually resulted in unsuccessful surgeries that have famously left him unable to speak or eat (he takes meals through a G-tube, which is something I understand all too well, thanks to Little Quinn).

Siskel and Ebert were, in my view, one of the great duos in the history of anything. Those two had such astonishing chemistry together, that it was a joy to watch them agree positively on a movie, an even bigger joy to see them agree negatively on a movie (seriously, watching the two of them tag-team on a bad movie was always great), and the biggest joy of all when they disagreed. Then you could see some fireworks. I remember Ebert being astonished at Siskel's thumbs-down review of Scorsese's Casino; "Thumbs down?!" Ebert yelped. And there was another time – I can't remember the movie – where Ebert liked it and Siskel did not, and Ebert said something like "I don't think you wanted to like this movie", a suggestion that seemed to physically hurt the usually more acerbic Siskel. "I love to like pictures!" he protested.

One time on Late Night with David Letterman, there was a segment that had Mujibur and Sirajul, the two Indian owners of a local store, reporting to Dave from somewhere in the country. And Dave says, "If you two are out there, who's watching the store? Can we send a cameraman to see who's in charge at the store?" So a cameraman goes into the store, to reveal a very stern-looking Siskel and Ebert. OK, I guess you had to be there.

Anyway, Ebert has been writing about the movies for decades now, and he is, by nearly any measure, the critic whose work I find the most illuminating and the most evocative. I've been reading him nearly almost as long as I've been watching him on teevee, and for a number of years, his annual review collections were required book purchasing of mine. Now he has produced a memoir, which he has titled Life Itself.

Ebert's health struggles in recent years are well-known, and it's been truly fascinating to watch him take to blogging in the wake of the loss of his physical voice, a medium he had initially viewed with suspicion but which allowed his authorial voice to finally blossom to its greatest strength. Ebert has always been a fine writer, but oddly, his disability-due-to-cancer has, for many, made him even better. Maybe it's similar to that old saw about how when you lose one sense, the others somehow make substantial gains in acuity.

Reading his blog, I've mostly been struck by Ebert's ongoing zest for life, even when there were occasional posts that took an especially elegiac tone that made me wonder if he was preparing for his own departure from this world. Ebert is still with us, though, and now we have Life Itself.

The book is more a series of vignettes than a straight telling of Ebert's life. The vignettes are more or less in chronological order, but Ebert seems to be more exploring various themes in his life than the chronology of events. The book is something of a memory album that gives an impression of a life, which seems to me a good way to structure a biography. Sometimes when I read biographies, I get a sense of "plot" that couldn't possibly be there. Ebert is well aware that life is plotless, and that many of the things that shape the paths of our lives for good or ill are often accidental, a function of our coming into the circle of this person instead of that person, or even something so prosaic as taking this flight instead of that one.

It's telling that the book gives more of a sense of his development as a writer than as a critic; I suspect that Ebert believes that he would have been a writer no matter what, and it was just an accident of various circumstances that led to him writing about movies for the last forty years. There's no "Through all my life the cinema has grounded my being" or anything like that; Ebert grew up as a talented kid who liked going to movies with his buddies on Saturdays. I love when he recounts his first reviews of avant garde films; finding himself in confusion as to what the films were about, he took the approach of simply recounting his experience in watching the film. This is an approach that has gone on to inform his entire approach to movie reviewing and film criticism.

Sometimes, in the course of his blogging over the last few years, a tone has crept into Ebert's writing – that he seems to deny whenever it is pointed out, but it is there – that he is, in long form, saying goodbye to his life. I deeply hope that this is not the case. Ebert is, for me, to film as Carl Sagan is to science, and he'll be missed by me in equal measure when he is gone.

Here are some excerpts from Life Itself.

On Mike Royko:

At about six p.m. On New Year's Day of 1967, only two lights on the fourth floor were burning – mine and Mike Royko's. It was too early for the graveyard shift to come in. Royko walked over to the Sun-Times to see who else was working. A historic snowstorm was beginning. He asked me how I was getting home. I said I'd take the train. He said he had his old man's Checker car and would drop me at the L station. He had to make a stop at a twenty-four hour drug store right where the L crossed North Avenue.

Royko at thirty-five was already the city's most famous newspaperman, known for compelx emoitons evoked with unadorned prose in short paragraphs. Growing up as the son of a saloon keeper, he knew how the city worked from the precinct level up, and had first attracted attention while covering city hall. He was ten years older than me and had started at the old City News Bureau, the copperative supported by all the dailies that provided front-line coverage of the police and fire departments. Underpaid and overworked kids worked under the hand of its editor, Arnold Dornfeld, who sat beneath a sign reading: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. When I met him he'd been writing his Daily News column for two years. It was his writing about Mayor Richard J. Daley that took the city hall word clout and made it national. He chainsmoked Pall Malls and spoke in a gravelly poker player's voice. He drank too much, which to me was an accomplishment.

That snowy night the all-night drugstore was crowded. "Come on, kid," he said. "Let's have a drink at the eye-opener place." He told me what an eye-opener was. "This place opens early. The working guys around here, they stop in for a quick shot on their way to the L." It was a bar under the tracks so tiny that the bartender could serve everyone without leaving his stool. "Two blackberry brandies and short beers," he said. He told me, "Blackberry brandy is good for hangovers. You never get charged for a beer chaser." I sipped the brandy, and a warm glow filled my stomach. It may have been the first straight shot of anything I'd ever tasted. I'd been in Chicago four months and I was sitting under the L tracks with Mike Royko in the eye-opener place. I was a newspaperman. A blackhawks game was playing on WGN radio. The team scored, and again, and again. This at last was life.

"Jeez, they're scoring like crazy!" I said, after the third goal in less than a minute.

"Where you from, kid?"

"Urbana," I said.

"Ever seen a hockey game?"


"That's what I thought, you asshole. Those are the game highlights."

On books:

Chaz [Ebert's wife] and I have lived for twenty years in a commodious Chicago town house. This house is not empty. Chaz and I have added, I dunno, maybe three or four thousand books, untold numbers of movies and albums, lots of art, rows of photographs, rooms full of comfortable furniture, a Buddha from Thailand, exercise equipment, carved elephants from India, African chairs and statues, and who knows what else. Of course I cannot do without a single one of these possessions, including more or less every book I have owned since I was seven, starting with Huckleberry Finn. I still have all the Penrod books, and every time I look at them, I'm reminded of Tarkington's inventory of Penrod's pants pockets. After reading it a third time, as a boy, I jammed my pockets with a pocketknife, a Yo-Yo, marbles, a compass, a stapler, an oddly-shaped rock, a hardball, a ball of rubber bands, and three jawbreakers. These, in an ostensible search for a nickel, I emptied out on the counter of Henry Rusk's grocery, so that Harry Rusk could see that I was a Real Boy.

My books are a subject of much discussion. They pour from shelves onto tables, chairs, and the floor, and Chaz observes that I haven't read many of them and I never will. You just never know. One day I may nee to read Finnegans Wake, the Icelandic sagas, Churchill's history of the Second World War, the complete Tintin in French, forty-seven novels by Simenon, and By Love Possessed. That 1957 bestseller by James Gould Cozzens was eviscerated in a famous essay by Dwight Macdonald, who read through that year's list of fiction bestsellers and surface with a scowl. I remember reading the novel late into the night when I was fourteen, stirring restlessly with the desire to be possessed by love.

I cannot throw out these books. Some are enchanted because I have personally turned all their pages and read every word. They're shrines to my past hours. Perhaps half were new when they came to my life, but most were used, and I remember where I found every one. The set of Kipling at the Book Nook on Green Street in Champaign. The scandalous The English Governess in a shady bookstore on the Left Bank in 1965 (two dollars, today ninety-one). The Shaw plays from Cranford's on Long Street in Cape Twon, where Irving Freeman claimed he had half a million books. Like an alcoholic trying to walk past a bar, you should see me trying to walk past a used bookstore. Other books I can't throw away because, well, they're books, and you can't throw away a book. Not even a cookbook from which we have prepared only a single recipe, for it is a meal preserved, in printed form. The very sight of Quick and Easy Chinese Cooking by Kenneth H.C. Lo quickens my pulse. Its pages are stained by broth, sherry, soy sauce, and chicken fat, and so thoroughly did I master it that I once sought out Ken Lo's Memories of China on Ebury Street in London and laid eyes on the great man himself, dining alone in a little room near the entrance. A book like that, you're not gonna throw away.

On his wife:

I sense from the first that Chaz was the woman I would marry, and I know after twenty years that my feelings were true. She had been with me in sickness and in health, certainly far more sickness than we could have anticipated. I will be with her, strengthened by her example. She continues to make my life possible, and her presence fills me with love and a deep security. That's what a marriage is for. Now I know.

On Siskel:

One of the things I miss about Gene Siskel is that he's not around to make jokes about my current condition. He would instinctively know that at this point I wouldn't be sensitive, having accepted and grown comfortable with my maimed appearance. He wouldn't have started joking too soon. His jokes would have the saving grace of being funny. Here's one I'm pretty sure he would have come up with: "Well, there's one good thing about Roger's surgery. At least he no longer needs a bookmark to find his chin."

On movies:

I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind. There is no such thing as an old film. There is a sense in which old movies are cut free from time. I look at silent movies sometimes and do not feel I am looking at old films; I feel I am looking at a Now that has been captured. Time in a bottle. When I first looked at silent films, the performers seemed quaint and dated. Now they seem more contemporary. The main thing wrong with a movie that is ten years old is that it isn't thirty years old. After the hairstyles and the costumes stop being dated and start being history, we can tell if the movie itself is timeless.

What kinds of movies do I like the best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn't matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn't matter if the characters win or lose. The only true ending is death. Any other movie ending is arbitrary. If a movie ends with a kiss, we're supposed to be happy. But then if a piano falls on the kissing couple, or a taxi mows them down, we're supposed to be sad. What difference does it make? The best movies aren't about what happens to the characters. They're about the example that they set.

Casablanca is about people who do the right thing. The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result. The secret of The Silence of the Lambs is buried so deeply that you may have to give this some thought, but its secret is that Hannibal Lecter is a Good Person. He is the helpless victim of his unspeakable depravities, yes, but to the limited degree that he can act independently of them, he tries to do the right thing.


What I miss, though, is the wonder. People my age can remember walking into a movie palace where the ceiling was far overhead, and balconies and mezzanines reached away into the shadows. We remember the sound of a thousand people laughing all at once. And screens the size of billboards, so every seat in the house was a good seat. "I lost it at the movies," Pauline Kael said, and we all knew just what she meant.

When you go to the movies every day, it sometimes seems as if the movies are more mediocre than ever, more craven and cowardly, more skilfully manufactured to pander to the lowest tastes instead of educating them. Then you see something absolutely miraculous, and on your way out you look distracted, as if you had just experienced some kind of a vision.

May Ebert's spot in the balcony remain reserved for years to come.