I took up a writing about reading challenge recently, and I ran into a question asking, "What is your favourite series?" I'd have thought this was an...moreI took up a writing about reading challenge recently, and I ran into a question asking, "What is your favourite series?" I'd have thought this was an easy topic to write about. How man good series can there be? Turns out quite a few.
Yet with all this choice, and all these series that I love (and more than a few that I've left unmentioned), there really is only one choice for me -- Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books -- so it turns out to be an easy question after all.
O'Brian wrote twenty books in the series, and died in the middle stages of his twenty-first. Twenty books about two men: Captain Jack Aubrey, the big, brash, reluctantly bellicose Captain of many ships (but most often the HMS Surprise), and his best friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, the half-Irish/half-Catalan natural philosopher with a talent for espionage and a dangerous temper. We get to know their characters in ways and depths that I've never experienced anywhere else, and O'Brian never strikes a false note. Not once. Everything his men do are exactly what these men would do and when they would do it and how and why. We get to know all the people they love, all the people they hate, all the things they believe in, but most of all we get to see two men love each other over decades. Two men for whom the most important person in the world is the other.
We see Jack save Stephen from torture at the hands of the French, and carry his best friend with the delicacy of a father carrying a newborn, fighting back his sorrow because he must remain a Captain in charge. We see Stephen buy Jack a ship when Jack's been ignominiously drummed out of the service, and somehow he manages to give the gift without wounding his friend's pride.
I came to this series quite late, just before my twins were born eight years ago, and already I am back to book five in my reread (though much slower this time than last). Meanwhile, I am listening to the original book, Master and Commander, with my son whenever we get a chance to sneak into my office, all wood panelled and candle-lit (like a small cabin on the Surprise herself), and lose ourselves in the earliest meetings of Aubrey and Maturin. I've even passed these books onto my non-reading father (despite our longstanding problems), and even he has become a fan (no surprise, really, considering his nautical background).
For sheer comfort there is no series like Aubrey/Maturin. I love spending time with them. I love the action when it comes; I love the women they love; I love the intrigue and political machinations and way the wind and the sea make them the most themselves. More authors need to dedicate themselves to characters the way O'Brian dedicated himself to his men (not to plots and tales, but to the characters themselves). The literary world would be a much richer place. (less)
Whenever I read Shakespeare, I always find myself longing to be back in Rome watching the assassination of Caesar. So I do just that.
I read Hamlet fo...moreWhenever I read Shakespeare, I always find myself longing to be back in Rome watching the assassination of Caesar. So I do just that.
I read Hamlet for class, and I immediately pick up Caesar. I read one of the plays I've been meaning to get to, and I immediately pick up Caesar. I catch a late night TV showing of Much Ado About Nothing or Othello, and I immediately pick up Ceasar. It feels like home to me.
It contains the elements that make Shakespeare's great plays great (at least to me). Death as the great equalizer. The corruption of power. Errors in judgement. The indecision that "goodness" necessitates. The supernatural as an inescapable motivator. The manipulative power of speech.
It's an old friend, is Julius Caesar. My son's middle name is Cesar, and at least part of the reason for that is my love of this play. It is always on my mind, even when I am not reading other Shakespeare. Yet I cannot watch the Brando/Mason film of the play (too daunting); and I've never actually seen it staged (when I wasn't involved).
I want to play Brutus some day soon. Then maybe Cassius before it's too late. And then Caesar when my hair is all grey. Maybe by then Milos Ernest Cesar can play Antony. Now that would be cool. (less)
there is no better way to kick off a semester of literature than a modest proposal. one smart ass student always tries to derail the conversation with...morethere is no better way to kick off a semester of literature than a modest proposal. one smart ass student always tries to derail the conversation with an early declaration of the proposal’s satire, but no one listens, and within moments i have a class of fifty - sixty students angry, frustrated, and sometimes rabid as i take swift’s ironic side and ask the students, with all the seriousness i can muster (which is quite a bit), if we shouldn’t give it a try? i follow that up with “why not?” after “why not?” then smack them upside the head with their universal humanist superiority complex, and force them to think. it’s so new to them they leave hating me or loving me. but they do leave thinking. poor bastards. except that one mormon in the front row. he never leaves thinking anything other than how superior he is. and what a dipshit i am.(less)
Your decade long run of Calvin and Hobbes was the greatest run of any comic strip in the history of comic strips, and you mad...moreAugust 7, 2011
Your decade long run of Calvin and Hobbes was the greatest run of any comic strip in the history of comic strips, and you made the right choice putting an end to it when you did. I can't believe it's been gone for 16 years now. Your precocious Calvin was what every kid with an overactive imagination is in their own heads, but you also gave us the view of what the rest of the world sees in these kids and does to try and beat the imagination out of them. There's implied sadness in the explicit joy you gave us, and it makes Calvin and Hobbes a true masterpiece.
I was fourteen when you started your opus, and I was close enough to my own hyper-imaginative childhood to connect at a visceral level. My youthful imaginary friends were still fresh in my mind, and my current imaginary friends were just taking hold, and your strip gave me something to relate to, someone to cheer for, a place where it was okay to turn dreary realties of the world into exciting fantasies and be proud of that ability all at the same time. It was also a fabulous way to relax my brain (though not too much) amidst all the literature I was devouring at a frightening rate.
But I have a request. Now that I am forty, and I have a precocious little Calvin of my own making explosive sounds with his mouth as he blows up his LEGO creations (as I write this, in fact), and my little Calvin’s twin sister, who happens to be a lot like Susie, I would love it if you came out of retirement and gave us just one year of Calvin and Hobbes and Son (or Daughter). I want to see where Calvin is now. I want to see Calvin as a Dad, and I want his son (or daughter) with a beaten up, super ratty, devilish-as-ever Hobbes. But I don't want this comic to be about the kids, I want it to be about Calvin. I want to see how well Calvin was able to fight off his indoctrination; I imagine he’s one of those rare folks who didn’t join the mainstream, who somehow continued to live on his own terms, but my imagination aside, I am dying to see what he became for you. Please, please, please come back, Bill. We could all use a bit of Calvin again.
I know that my request will never reach you, and that, if it did, you'd probably never even consider the possibility, but I know you could do the "parenting thing" better than all your peers, just as you did the "kid thing" better than anyone else.
So I'll just leave you with the firmest, most heartfelt thank you that I have in me: thank you for that little corner of joy you carved into my world. I’ll never forget it, and late at night, when I am dipping my peanut butter and jelly into my hot chocolate, I’ll have one of my Calvin and Hobbes books open so that I can stain the pages with the purple of some yummy Welch’s grape jelly. Just as Calvin would.
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to...moreSummerside, Prince Edward Island 29th August 2010
Dear Steven and Emma,
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to toe with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and won the battle for my attention (and that's saying something). I don't know how you did it, but I am so glad you did. THIS was one of the best reading experiences of my life. Where do I begin?
I want to begin with the form you chose. But I am going to hold off on that and talk about Hegel, Engels and Marx. Hegel, your unifying thread, was used in a way that I am sure he would approve of; he was the natural connection between your boys. Richard and James sparring over the Science of Logic while their lives are at their most uncertain was pure genius. Then you gave us Engels, but not Engels as an abstract ideologue whose impossible ideals inform the characters' actions but as a fully developed character whose realism is a fulcrum about which the novel's action necessarily turns. Then you add Karl Marx in a family man cameo that brings the great historical thinker down to the Earth of his family life. Again...genius.
But you weren't content with your brilliant invocation of historical figures. No. You wanted us to believe in your four main characters. No. More than that. You wanted us to love and pull for and fear for and cheer for your lead cast. And you succeeded. James Cobham, Susan Voight, Kitty Holbourn and Richard Cobham are the most completely realized characters I've read since Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Perdido Street Station (and speaking of Perdido, thanks to China Miéville for pointing me towards your marvelous book). They go beyond the page. They live and breathe. Their relationships feel true because they are true. They are petty and self-indulgent and unrelenting and selfish and cruel and spiteful and occasionally silly. But they're also heroic and outward looking and tractable and selfless and kind and mostly serious. They are people I want to know, and they're people I do know thanks to you two.
And now it is time to talk about your form, because the epistolary nature of Freedom & Necessity -- and your masterful execution -- makes all of this possible -- this and so much more. James, Susan, Kitty and Richard are given to us on their own terms because everything is shared with us through their journals and letters (and by the end I felt like one of their children reading the family's history, which I am sure you intended). We only know them through what they want to tell us and through what they need to say about and to one another, and there is no truer record of a life or lives than one's own correspondence coupled with the thoughts and epistles of others.
But even that wasn't enough for you. You had to create one of the most compelling adventure-intrigue-mystery-historical fictions ever written, and again the ultimate genius was in your choice of the epistolary form. I have never read an ending like that, Steven and Emma. You build and build and build towards the denouement, then you skip ahead a couple of days because that's when the players would be ready to write their thoughts, so we get fragments from Richard, nothing from Kitty and James, and the perfect recall of Susan (albeit from her limited perspective). You withhold and withhold and then deliver in dribs and drabs the final actions of your tale in a way that blows my mind. Druidic conspiracies mix with greedy grabs for property mix with labour disputes and revolution, and all of it is delivered from the perspective of our four correspondents. UTTERLY...FUCKING...BRILLIANT!
So thank you for your genius. I am going to read your solo books A.S.A.P, and I beg you, please, to come together and write another novel because Freedom & Necessity is damn near perfect. I want more.
Yours in humility,
p.s. thanks, Jacob, for giving me the final push to pluck this off my shelf and read it. I am forever indebted.(less)
When I first met Erika, for some long forgotten reason and situation, someone said, "Do you like my hat?"
I answered: "No. I do not." There was an awkw...moreWhen I first met Erika, for some long forgotten reason and situation, someone said, "Do you like my hat?"
I answered: "No. I do not." There was an awkward pause and I added, "Good-bye. Good-bye again," with some totally bizarre, guttural, kiddie voice. It became a fun inside joke for Erika and me, but for the life of us, we couldn't remember where it came from. It sounded familiar; it didn't sound me-invented, but we couldn't place it.
Then we had babes, and I picked up a bunch of board books -- and there it was.
"Do you like my hat?"
"I do not."
It wasn't quite how I remembered it, not quite the way my mind had twisted it over all those years, but we had finally found the source, and we were stoked.
5 years later my boy is reading it to me. It is a great book to foster reading , but even if I didn't have a prior bond with the book beyond learning to read, I would still love Go Dog. Go because of my son.
That was me, that is your humble commentator, sitting down to pass my glazzies over a book eemyaed A Clockwork Orange...more'What's it going to be then, eh?'
That was me, that is your humble commentator, sitting down to pass my glazzies over a book eemyaed A Clockwork Orange I'd sobirated from the biblio. I was ready to be tolchocked in my litso, to have my mozg pried out of my gulliver, to feel that sickening drop in the yarbles when falling from a great tower block; I expected to be preached to by that nadmenny veck A. Burgess in all his high goloss; I expected to loathe Alex and all his malenky malchick droogs. But by Bog or God I got something much more horrorshow.
I actually enjoyed A. Burgess's nadsat burble. I found veshches -- like all the ultra violence and razrezzing and oobivatting and twisted radosty -- to be oomily delivered. I ponied where little Alex was coming from and raged against the millicents and infintmins and prestoopniks and bolnoy sophistos that were arrayed against him. I actually guffed and smecked at like many veshches. But I nearly platched at how malenky little Alex saw the error of his ways and looked forward to a life of chai and a zheena and malenky vecks of his own.
But once I viddied the story like once I wanted rookerfuls, and I've returned again and again, both to A. Burgess's book and S. Kubrick's sinny.
A Clockwork Orange is one of the five or six true greats ever govoreeted. The nadsat isn't at all gimmicky. The lomticks of philosophy are compelling and grow in relevance with the passing of raz. And I for one, oh my brothers, will always "remember the little Alex that was. Amen. And all that cal."
Now he was a chelloveck of malevolently heroic proportions.(less)
Twenty-five years ago I'd have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. I came to Tolkien's masterpiece on my own, and that meant much...moreTwenty-five years ago I'd have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. I came to Tolkien's masterpiece on my own, and that meant much to me at twelve. The only books that had been reached by me alone were books on mythology and horror. Everything else I read, from DH Lawrence to Hemingway to Dickens to Shakespeare (and this also included Dracula and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde because they were "true" classics), was suggested and sanctioned by my mother (for which I will always owe her deeply).
It is easy to forget that The Lord of the Rings was not a pop culture phenomenon in the seventies and early eighties. It was a fringe book (at least in North America), something that was not yet considered a part of the canon, something that was not a name on every boy's lips (even if they were just getting to know D&D) let alone every child's lips. Sure it was respected and loved by those who knew it, but knowing it was not a foregone conclusion as it is today, and its audience was almost completely genre oriented. In my little community (my school and the blocks surrounding my home), I was the first kid to read it.
And that first reading was a revelation. Sure I'd read The Hobbit, but that didn't prepare me for the breadth and depth of The Lord of the Rings. Middle Earth in its grandest incarnation.
To create a fantasy world is one thing, but to breathe life into ages of that world, to keep all the pieces together with such magnificent detail and rigour, to create character after believable character and make us care about most of them, even poor Smeagol/Gollum, that is a literary labour of Hercules. And by pulling it off, Tolkien created the single most important manifestation of Fantasy that has ever and will ever be written. The Lord of the Rings has rightly been named a classic. It is part of the canon, and it deserves its place. It is entertaining, it is weighty, and it is loved by nearly all.
Aye...and there's the rub.
Its indisputable greatness has made it indisputable.
It has become dogma among fanboys and fangirls that the bastions of The Lord of the Rings are unassailable. Criticize Tolkien's work -- academically or otherwise -- and you put yourself in almost as much danger as a chatty atheist trying to engage in a theological discussion in a coliseum full of Jehovah's Witnesses (how many of those folks will make it into the afterlife? Isn't there a limit?).
Feminist critics point out the lack of women in The Lord of the Rings, and that those women who are present fulfill only the narrowest stereotypes. Éowyn's strength is dependent upon adopting male gender qualities, a typical stereotype of "powerful women in fantasy," and she is alone amongst the Rohirrim as a woman who can and will fight. All other women in her culture are present as a reason to fight rather than as integral parts of the struggle. Arwen's place (in the books, at least) as a maiden waiting for the hand of her king takes the "reason to fight" to even greater heights. And the only powerful female, Galadriel as the terrible, beautiful elven Queen, is too far removed from mortality and reality to be anything more than a mid-tale deus ex machina, thereby removing her from the realm of women and men and making her a pseudo-god whose power is allowed only because it is arcane and mysterious.
Post-Colonial critics have latched onto the racism inherent in The Lord of the Rings, pointing out the hierarchies between the races: from the "superiority" of the elves, to the "chosen" role of "European" Men of the West under the leadership of Aragorn, to the lesser races of Dwarves and Hobbits (the former are "lesser" because they are "too greedy" and the latter are "lesser" because they are children). Post-Colonialists look to the "orientalization" of Sauron's forces and the configuration of evil as an inherent quality of Orcs and "the dark folk." They point out Tolkien's family's history as a cog in the mechanism of English Imperialism, and his own birth in one of the most blatantly racist colonies of all, South Africa (while he did leave at three years old, his family's presence there at all suggests that some of the classic colonial opinions about the colonized "dark races" helped form the man who wrote these books), as possible reasons for this racism.
These criticisms further suggest, at least to me, that the archetypal source of all fantasy's entrenched racism -- even those books being written today -- is The Lord of the Rings. Those fantasy authors who have followed Tolkien consistently and inescapably embrace his configuration of the races (yes, even those like R.A. Salvatore who try and fail to derail this configuration) and the concepts of good and evil that go along with them, which leads to the stagnation and diminishment of their genre.
The fact is that these flaws do exist in The Lord of the Rings. They are present. They are easy to find. But few of Tolkien's rabid fans want to hear about them.
And even when the criticism is not necessarily suggesting a flaw in Tolkien's work but merely the presence of some subtext, the dogmatists react with rage and condemnation. A fine example of this is when Queer and Gender theorists point to the overwhelming relationships between men, and how the relationship between Frodo and Sam is homosocial, at least, and possibly even homosexual. The only true intimacy in the book occurs between the men, after all, and to ignore that fact is to ignore one of key components of why The Lord of the Rings is so emotionally satisfying, especially to young men.
Even faced with these ideas supported by convincing arguments, however, many fans either strive for ignorance or attack the messenger. This may have much to do with the worry -- unreasonable though it is -- that to admit that a flaw or something uncomfortable exists in any of these books, which so many people love so deeply, is to accept that The Lord of the Rings is neither great nor worthy of love.
But this is not the case.
I love The Lord of the Rings even though I subscribe completely to the post-colonial criticism, and see the merits in both the feminine and queer criticisms, not to mention the countless other criticisms and subtexts that are floating around.
The books are racist; they are sexist. They are not perfect. And I must criticize the elements of The Lord of the Rings that make me uncomfortable and deserve no praise. But my complaints and the complaints of critics make Tolkien's achievement no less great.
Tolkien created the most magnificent imaginary world ever conceived, and, for good or ill, Fantasy would be nothing today were it not for him. The Lord of the Rings is a triumph on countless levels, but it is not the word of God, nor should it be elevated to such heights.
I love The Lord of the Rings, but I love it with reservations. I love it because of its place in my personal mythology, its genuine originality, its creativity, its power, but I love it with my mind open to its flaws, and I refuse to make excuses for Tolkien or his work.
Twenty-five years ago I'd have given The Lord of the Rings my highest possible praise. Not today. But I am still willing to admit my love. (less)
Dallas was on TV, and my Mom was sitting in the kitchen doing her nails. I was in the living room with a blank Player Character Record Sheet, a new ba...moreDallas was on TV, and my Mom was sitting in the kitchen doing her nails. I was in the living room with a blank Player Character Record Sheet, a new bag of dice, a pencil, an eraser and Gygax's masterpiece.
Mom and I could still talk, even separated as we were by the full kitchen wall, and I could smell the mixture of her menthols, nail polish and nail polish remover from the other room. Our home was small and intimate: a great place to be on a Friday night when it was just the two of us hanging out with bad 80s TV, and our own devices. My little sister was in bed down the hall, and my Dad was off playing poker, so it was just me and my Mom and one of the biggest moments of my life.
It was a Friday night, and I was playing D&D with Robert S--- and his friends the next day. It was going to be my first time. Much to my Catholic father's dismay, and after long attempts by my mother to talk me out of it, I'd spent all the money I'd been saving from my paper route on D&D gear. I bought the Dungeon Master's Guide, The Monster Manual, dice, a couple of metal figures (I remember that one was a dwarf with an axe), a sheaf of PC Record Sheets, and the most magical item of them all The Player's Handbook.
I smelled the smell of my Mom's Friday ritual. I was repeatedly distracted by oil barons and their substance abusing wives. And I was totally stunned into paralysis by the giant fracking mess I'd gotten myself into. I had no idea how to make a character. I'd been reading and flipping and trying to figure things out, and I was lost. Each page made me feel more stupid, each page made me angrier, and I exploded, finally, into tears of frustration.
I was in grade seven at the time, and I was only months away from reading Lady Chatterley's Lover. I'd devoured the Scottish play. I'd spent the summer immersed in Middle Earth. I was a math whiz. I had big glasses. I was a geek extraordinaire, and I sat on our turquoise carpet beaten by THE role playing game before I'd even begun. And I just kept crying. Sobbing, more like.
But then my Mom was there.
She had even less clue than I did, but she didn't really need a clue. All she needed was to be there, to be my support, and she did that. She tried to wrestle with the things that were stumping me, and through her struggles I was able to figure out what I was missing. She played the dunski to my pre-teen pseudo-genius, and just the chance to bounce stuff off someone outside my head helped me unlock bonuses and percentages and thieving abilities and armor class, et al. I figured out the attributes, and I made myself a Halfling thief named Malachi (I know...it wasn't tremendously original, but the Halfling dexterity boost gave me an 18 dexterity, and that seemed wicked deadly to me back in those days).
By the time Falcon Crest was over and missed by both of us, with no chance of a rerun, I had created my first D&D character, and I was ready to sit by Lauren L---, the coolest girl in our class, in Robert S---'s super cold, harshly lit, linoleum floored basement.
It didn't take long for all the "cool" kids to leave D&D behind. Mike C---, Paul E---, Lauren L---, Robert S---, they all moved on to headbanging, and that left me, Jeff, and Mark to spend the rest of our Junior High days in a happy D&D oblivion, (I'm still friends with Jeff and Mark, by the way).
I wait patiently for Brontë & Miloš (and now Scout) to grow old enough for our first foray into D&D, and I hope I can be a worthy guide into the coolest worlds of their imagination.
And even though my Mom wasn't my guide, she was my protector that night twenty-six years ago. And she'll always be tied to The Player's Handbook for me.
Too bad she's gone now. I'd love for her to be here when her grand-kids make their first characters. I bet Të makes a magic-user and Loš makes a fighter, and I suppose I'll have to plan a NPC Cleric to keep them alive.
The Sea Change -- This story represents much that Hemingway is great at, distilled to its most fundamental.
He makes us feel his characters in a heart...moreThe Sea Change -- This story represents much that Hemingway is great at, distilled to its most fundamental.
He makes us feel his characters in a heart beat. The Sea Change is three and a half pages, yet we know almost everything we need to know about Phil and the Girl instantly, and Hemingway makes us care.
He also expresses setting so perfectly and sparingly that we feel we're in this tiny bar in Paris, yet the description of the bar is implied, mirrored in his descriptions of the couple and James the bartender. Who they are, how they look, how they behave, gives us most of the goods on the bar, and the two additional clients, with their brief interruption of proceedings, give us all the rest we need. The bar is airy and small and private. James is close to his clientele, a trusted barkeep in the traditional mode. There is rich wood throughout and a zinc bar with mirrors behind. Phil stares into those mirrors and sees the change that is in him.
Which is the other thing Hemingway does so well: he expresses the change in people, and the moments that change them, better than any other.
As Phil's Love asks his blessing to conduct an affair with the woman she loves, Phil feels himself responding as society prescribes. He is angry. He threatens violence. He is wounded and tries to wound her with guilt and recrimination. But he loves her too much, and the prescription is overthrown. He is accepting, quickly accepting, and therein lies The Sea Change. He is not the prescribed male he thought he was. His comfort is rocked, not by his Lover's infidelity (for what can that really mean in a world where love cannot be controlled?), but by his realization that he is not the man he tried to be. He looks in the mirror and his true self is revealed beneath the unchanged image that stares back.
It's a pretty powerful message in three and a half pages. I wish I could do that.(less)
Say! I love Green Eggs and Ham. I do! I love it Seuss-I-am.
So I will read it with Miloš Or he will read it cause he's precoš. And I will read it with...moreSay! I love Green Eggs and Ham. I do! I love it Seuss-I-am.
So I will read it with Miloš Or he will read it cause he's precoš. And I will read it with my Të And we will read it night and day. And I will read it to my Scout And she will love it, I have no doubt. And I will read it in the rain. And I will read it on the train. And I will read it in my socks. And I will read it with a fox. And I will read it in the shower. And I will read it every hour. And I will read it doing dishes. And I will read it with the fishes. I will read it here or there. Say! I will read it ANYWHERE!
I am a huge, unabashed fan of Ken. I love him. I have loved him for years. And this extremely early biography simply made me love him more. I love him...moreI am a huge, unabashed fan of Ken. I love him. I have loved him for years. And this extremely early biography simply made me love him more. I love him so much that if you ask me the question, "Emma or Ken?" My answer is Ken (though I love Emma too).
Beginning took much heat for being precipitous. It came out extremely early in Ken's career, just after his amazing triumph with Henry V, and everyone thought it was dreadfully narcissistic to write an autobiography when he was so damn young. They're probably right. But that arrogance, that self belief, the surprising humility beneath the arrogance, the recognition that it was too much, and the wonderful tale of a young life on the brink of a greatness that would fizzle and remain on the verge for years is just too beautiful to dismiss.
A good portion of the book is taken up with his production diary for Henry V (which is excellent, particularly for anyone interested in some day directing films), but the best parts of the book are the truly autobiographical chapters, which offer unforgettable anecdotes about all of Ken's heroes. These sections made me fall deeply in love with a couple of generations of amazing British actors, and I remain fans of them all to this day. Branagh's marathon runs with Brian Blessed, his awe over the Hamlet recall of Derek Jacobi (the man knows the ENTIRE play by heart), his love for Olivier and Gielgud, his crush on Judi Dench, all of it dazzles, and it is obvious that Branagh was -- and if one considers his body of work he must remain -- as big a fan as he is a colleague of these geniuses.
And you know what, apart from his appallingly shabby rendition of Frankenstein, I remain a massive fan of Branagh's body of work. I loved him most recently in Valkyrie (regardless of my general disappointment in the film) and Wallander, but I really can't think of anything else I've disliked. I know some find his Hamlet overwrought, but I love huge portions of it and like most of the rest (and casting Heston as the Player King is genius). I loved him as Gilderoy Lockhart. I still adore Dead Again. And I don't care what anyone thinks, I love his casting of Keanu as Denzel's brother in Much Ado About Nothing.
You can tell me he sucks. But I'll disagree. You can tell me I am a fool. And I will say you're probably right. But I love Ken. Nothing's going to change that. And I know, at least, that James has my back.
Kenneth Branagh is the King. I can't wait for The Mighty Thor!(less)
I have seen it twelve times in the theatre. It was the first VHS tape I owned, and I wore that tape out in my big clunky old VCR within five years. I worked as a night video store clerk for another five years and played it at least once during every shift. When I can't sleep at night, I watch the movie in my head. I know every line. I know every beat of music. When I am sad or need a pick up, I throw it in my DVD player and let it soothe me. I've used it in Composition classes to illustrate the potential for analyzing even the most unlikely texts.
Lawrence Kasdan's screenplay is a marvelous piece of screenwriting. Every line, every action, every single element is there to further the story. Kasdan makes potentially clunky exposition soar, implies the flaws of Indiana Jones (making him a truly complex hero, at least in this one installment) without beating us over the head, gives us a snazzy champagne villain in the mould of Claude Rains and seamlessly includes all the set pieces that tickled the fancy of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg without compromising quality.
It is a masterwork of screenwriting. And it is THE masterwork of action screenwriting.
My favourite line:
Belloq: I am a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.
So true, Belloq. So true.
If you are at all interested in giving a screenplay a chance, this is the place to start. (less)
The art is beautiful, GIRLS can be Pirates (how's that for crazy?!), the writing is perfectly suited to oral delivery, and there is NO violence. The closest we come is a big, bad Pirate Master threatening to sic his Mom on those who take his treasure.
It is wonderful. Read it to your kids, then have them read it to you. I guarantee (figuratively) that you will love it. (less)
I struggled with my star rating for Conan because, despite any mitigating factors, I really love the character of Conan, particularly i...moreAaaaah...Conan!
I struggled with my star rating for Conan because, despite any mitigating factors, I really love the character of Conan, particularly in the hands of his progenitor, Robert E. Howard.
Howard had a fiercely creative mind and a burning work ethic that enabled him to crank out some of the most amazing pulp heroes and anti-heroes, including Kull, El Borak, Solomon Kane, the humorous Breckinridge Ellis, and, of course, Conan before taking his own life at thirty years old.
It is an impressive run, and his characters continue to live and breathe for us almost seventy-five years after his suicide.
Rereading the first Conan book, an attempt by L. Sprague de Camp (Howard's flame holder) to bring together Conan's short tales in something resembling chronological order, was a real treat: a return to my teenage years of sword and sorcery roll playing, pulp comic book madness, and pubescent wish fulfillment that everything could be answered with a strong fist, righteous violence and that women would swoon for the man who could deliver those things.
But there are things that mitigate the quality of the Conan books today, and they are unavoidable. L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, the partners who filled in the gaps in the Conan saga, wrote their own chapters and finished Howard's tales from notes and partially written drafts, are nowhere near as talented as Howard, and their work, which appears in every Conan book of the original cycle, gets in the way.
It is also tough to swallow the sexism and racism underlying much of Howard's work. The former is blatant and Howard made no attempt to hide Conan's patriarchal proclivities; the latter is not as obvious but Howard himself may have been totally unaware of its presence. Howard was fairly forward thinking for his day, but he was writing pulp in 1930s Texas and we can't expect him to share our supposedly "enlightened" opinions or views of the world. Even so, some of Conan's behavior is tough to take.
But there is so much that is entertaining and excitingly creative about Howard's writing that I find myself swinging the other way on the pendulum almost as soon as something bothers me. It's so easy to get swept up in Zamoran intrigue or Nemedian murder mystery or Stygian black magic that all other concerns disappear.
Howard's finest achievement, and one that I have never seen discussed, was the way his Conan narrative unfolded with Conan's role constantly shifting. I'm not speaking about Conan's move from thief to adventurer to mercenary and back again. What I find fascinating is that Howard tells the story of Conan using countless short stories, but Conan isn't always the main character. Sometimes he's nothing more than a peripheral supporting character, yet each occasion of his presence tells us something more about Conan and furthers the chronicle of his life. "The God in the Bowl" and "Rogues in the House" are perfect examples of Conan's shifting narrative role, and these are stories unmuddied by the hands of Howard's followers. The technique of allowing a major character to have his story told through drips and drops is, I think, underused in literature today -- and Howard mastered it with Conan.
This time through I marveled at Howard's creative and narrative genius, cringed at his antiquated social outlook, and moved through my discomfort to simply enjoy what is -- no matter its flaws -- a classic of Fantasy literature. I love Conan, and I probably always will, but tainted as it is, and as a potential recommendation for others, I can't give it more than three stars -- even if its a five in my heart.(less)
Twenty winters ago I read Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire for the first time. I read it again just before Neil Jordan's film version came out,...moreTwenty winters ago I read Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire for the first time. I read it again just before Neil Jordan's film version came out, and then I let it slip into the recesses of my personal mythology, only letting the memory of it pop out once in a while for some wistful nostalgia and a vow to read it again.
This year's glut of filmed Vampire adaptations -- HBO's True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books, and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight -- got me longing for a good Vampire fix again, something well written, something weighty, something inventive, something that was targeted for an audience with literary tastes rather than your regular purveyor of pop culture.
The hunt was on.
My mind slipped straight through its familiar fondness for Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and dismissed her work as the wrong place to go to find my fix. After all, can you get more pop-culture than the Vampire Chronicles when you're talking about Vampires (besides the aforementioned)?
So I found myself going to the source of all great Vampire work -- Bram Stoker. I started peeking at Dracula late in the night when the rest of my day was done and the kids were in bed, or after True Blood was finished on the movie channel. Dracula was as excellent as I remembered, but it didn't come close to satisfying my craving.
Earlier this week, though, I found myself looking at my shelves and there, again, was Interview With the Vampire. This time, without a thought, without any hesitation, I picked it up and dove in.
It is not just a piece of pop culture fluff (although it certainly became a pop culture event after its publication). It is a surprisingly well written masterpiece of depth and feeling.
Anne Rice may have written some poor stories before and since Interview With the Vampire, but those stories don’t change the fact that she is a damn good writer (unlike Harris or Meyers who, despite their popularity and entertainment value, are mere hacks in comparison to Rice). Her prose is clear, clean and evocative of emotions and sensations, breathing undeniable life into the story of her undead hero, Louis.
She writes so beautifully about Louis that it is almost impossible not to find oneself believing his story is true. I want there to be a majestically handsome Creole vampire who consciously struggles with the cost of his immortality because of his human beliefs. I want there to be a tormented vampire whose visions of love transcend human morals and concerns, who can love a nihilistic child vampire, a seemingly sadistic master vampire and a brooding but gorgeous male vampire differently but with equal intensity.
And I want there to be a vampire so wrapped up in his own journey of undead discovery that the concerns of human history float past him like a stick sliding unnoticed under a bridge.
Louis feels the world, his world, so richly, loves humans so deeply, thirsts for human creation so intensely that he -- in his interview -- can convey nothing other than his lust for life and all that is living. And that is Rice’s gift to us: the declaration that living life intensely, whatever that life may consist of, is the most important thing we can do.
I think I might have received that message from her twenty years ago, and I’ve been trying to live it ever since. I hope I am alive in twenty more years to revisit Louis and test my living against his call to feel. I wonder how I will have done by then.(less)
I remember hearing a radio version of this when I was young, long before I eve...moreTo Build a Fire is one of the stories that made me want to be a writer.
I remember hearing a radio version of this when I was young, long before I ever read it. My Dad and I were on a camping trip in one of the provincial parks, and he'd brought along a little transistor radio. In the dark of our tent we picked up a radio station that played old radio shows, and that night the story was To Build a Fire. It was wonderful to listen to it in that setting. The old crackly radio hummed, the static mixed with the Yukon wind sound effects, the dog barked, the man talked to himself while he tried to get his fire lit, and all the while our canvas tent creaked in the warm night. It was a full immersion into London's story of Nature humbling man.
A while later, in school, I had to read To Build a Fire in a reading period; I was thrilled to be remembering the story as the words unfolded in front of me. I wanted to go to the Yukon (which I am finally doing this summer). I wanted to face Nature in a way that was smart. I wanted to do what the man failed to do. I wanted to avoid arrogance, swallow my natural hubris, and experience the cold and danger of a Yukon winter just so that I could show the man that he should have listened to the old man's advice and paid attention to his dog's uneasiness.
Now that I teach, I bring out To Build a Fire in any class that calls for short stories. It is one of the greatest short stories ever written, and it always leads to a lively discussion, especially today when so many students are concerned with the environment.
Some students find themselves cheering for the Yukon, some find themselves cheering for the dog, and a few find themselves cheering for the way the man never gives up. Then there are those who scoff at the man for his stupidity, for his lack of imagination, for his arrogance in the face of such raw, frigid power.
I find that, these days, my reaction to To Build a Fire depends on my mood. I can see every side; I can empathize with every perspective, which I am sure has everything to do with the brilliance of London's craftsmanship. This last time I found myself connecting most with the story of the dog. When I reach the Yukon this summer (boy am I glad that it won't be winter), I'm going to read it again. I think it's a pretty good bet who I'll side with in that reading. But one never knows. (less)
This review was written in the late nineties (just for myself), and it was buried in amongst my things until today, when I uncovered the journal it wa...moreThis review was written in the late nineties (just for myself), and it was buried in amongst my things until today, when I uncovered the journal it was written in. I have transcribed it verbatim from all those years ago (although square brackets indicate some additional information for the sake of readability). It is one of my lost reviews.
It's a feeling I can't quite place, a feeling I can't pinpoint, but I feel The Eye in the Door is a more enjoyable book, although less literary, than Regeneration. Still, I will try here to point out a few elements that stand out in my mind.
First, I love Prior's struggle with the dissociative state. His slipping into fugue states, and the resulting loss of memmory, adds a tinge of fear and menace to the story that makes me more emotionally involved. Second, I enjoy Barker's handling of betrayal in a torn society. Third is the wonderful way in which Barker deals with homosexuality in WWI-era Britain. Fourth, and maybe the most important, is the imagery of WWI warfare. When we hear Manning's story of the soldier slipping into the mud of a foxhole, it makes me feel weak and privileged in my relatively safe late 20th Century society.
This book challenges me, and I love being challenged. (less)
A long time ago in a city far, far away, the end of a friendship began over a disagreement about Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. D--- was so close to...moreA long time ago in a city far, far away, the end of a friendship began over a disagreement about Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. D--- was so close to the material, so desperate to relive the nostalgia of the original trilogy, so deeply invested, that when we left the theatre and I expressed not just my frustration but my rage at what I'd seen, he took it as a personal insult. A slag of his taste (or what he thought I must have been declaring was his lack thereof). A debate raged between us for days. I pointed to inconsistencies with the original trilogy, terrible acting, poor direction, silly errors of Sci-Fi thought (such as describing direction in space as North, South, East and West), etc., etc. He mostly denied the existence of these problems, and when he couldn't deny their existence he tried to rationalize them. What he didn't do, however, was simply embrace the fact that he loved the story because he WANTED to love the story.
I said, "Well you can love the stories all you want, just don't pretend they are good." I think that hurt him even more.
Since those days I have kept a weather eye open for cases when my own love of a movie or TV series or book could become an inadvertent source for personal pain and imagined insult. I’ve come across a couple of minor examples, both giving me an opportunity to re-evaluate, and in once case change, my opinion of the works in question. And because I was vigilant, I was quickly able to escape the negative feelings that came along with the disagreement.
A third instance appeared this month when I reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. I have long held off rereading this book, worried that it would diminish my love, but the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club was reading it for August, and I was sucked into being the discussion leader. My worries were unfounded. I loved it even more this time through. But it felt like I was the only one, and I endured a month of irrational frustration and hurt at the unwitting hands of my group friends.
In my head, I knew I shouldn’t be taking things personally, but I couldn’t help feeling angry, frustrated, sad, disappointed and insulted by the opinions of others. Hell, I was even hurt by the relative silence of people whose opinions I rate highly. I figured their silence must be tacit dislike of the book. Why else were they staying quiet? See. Irrational.
Everything was conspiring against me in that discussion, but through it all I tried to stay neutral and lead the discussion with as little interference or personal opinion as possible.
Now that that’s off my chest, I can get to Red Mars. My personal issues turned out to be a good thing in this case. I was reading criticism of one of my favourite books while I was rereading it, and that criticism made me open my mind to the possibility that my feelings about the book were entirely emotional rather than intellectual. I genuinely opened myself up to that possibility, and I can honestly say that my feelings come from both places. I love this book for personal reasons, but I also love this book because it is Sc-Fi of the highest order.
KSR does so many things right in Red Mars. His vision of the near future was and is believable (he even manages to look into post-Soviet Russian culture with a measure of accuracy). His science is excellent (albeit occasionally compressed or fudged to further the story). His new novella narrative is wonderfully effective, allowing us to look deeply into six of his main characters -- Frank Chalmers, MayaToitovna, Nadia Chernyshevski, Michel Duval, John Boone, and Ann Clayborne – as we follow the colonization of Mars from their perspectives. But this also allows us to dig more deeply into other important characters, like Arkady, Phyllis, Saxifrage, Coyote, Hiroko and Mars itself, giving us multiple perspectives on these important people from the very different perspectives of the people they love or hate. His descriptions of Mars are beautiful. His political and philosophical thought is engaging. And his vision for the potential colonization of Mars, and what that might mean for Earth, is totally plausible.
I can see how some – and maybe all – of these things could rub a reader the wrong way. I can see how someone could walk away not liking Red Mars. And I can accept that even if it hurts me (because I love all of those things), it is really not personal. But what I can’t accept is the assertion that KSR is a crappy author.
To my mind, this book proves his brilliance. I think I will stop now (can you tell that this review didn’t go at all the way I had planned?) (less)
The ultimate tale of the ultimate Victorian hero, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a true masterpiece of the mystery genre, and quite possibly remains...moreThe ultimate tale of the ultimate Victorian hero, The Hound of the Baskervilles is a true masterpiece of the mystery genre, and quite possibly remains the finest mystery novel ever produced -- even if its first appearance was serialized in Strand Magazine.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's unforgettable hero Sherlock Holmes matches his wits against what appears to be a centuries old curse and the ghostly hound that exacts vengeance on the Baskerville ancestors for Sir Hugo Baskerville's sadistic misdeeds in the time of Oliver Cromwell.
Of course, (I will try not to spoil it for anyone) the curse turns out to be a classic Victorian crime motivated by money and perpetrated with the application of science to prey on the superstitious nature of a people still getting used to the Industrial Revolution. Classic Victorian crime, indeed. But also classic Holmes.
And this is the best of Holmes.
The action is taut and well drawn, the mystery is compelling, Dr. Watson has a brief spell as the star while Holmes does some hidden work in the moors, the villain is an arrogant cad, and the supporting characters, from the unfortunate escaped convict, Bruce Seldon, to the suspicious Barrymores, round out the perfect population of Victorian archetypes (but it must be remembered that while these archetypes may seem cliche to us today, they would have been fresh and new when Doyle put pen to paper).
There may be better Holmes short stories (I'll always be partial to "A Scandal in Bohemia" and the lovely Irene Adler), but none of the Holmes stories can compete with The Hound of the Baskervilles' breadth and scope. It is the mystery book that all mystery writers aspire to match for greatness, and the mystery book that all mystery readers must read if they are to call themselves fans of the genre.
But let me put genre aside for a second and just say this: The Hound of the Baskervilles is a great mystery novel, yes. But it is also a great novel. One of the best ever written. Period.(less)