Monday, December 31, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

When this book was originally published in May, I was planning to get a copy from my employer and read it relatively quickly. And that shows what happens to plans...

I haven't read any of Chabon's previous novels, but I certainly know about him. (I've had Kavalier & Clay on the to-be-read shelves for several years now, for example.) The interesting thing to me about Chabon's career is that he still sees himself as a literary writer semi-slumming in genre fields (with Kavalier being about comics, Yiddish an alternate history detective novel, the YA fantasy Summerland, the detective novella The Final Solution and the new Michael Moorcock homage The Gentlemen of the Road). I see someone whose last "mainstream" book was a decade ago and who hasn't quite come out to himself yet.

The Yiddish Policeman's Union's flap copy tries to make the book sound larger and encompassing many genres -- it even throws in "love story," in its desperate attempt to keep it from seeming like an identifiably genre book -- but it's really not that complicated. It's a Chandleresque detective story (though shorn of most of Chandler's reflexive sexism) set in an alternate history that Chabon means to be taken seriously. Chabon's Federal District of Sitka is no joke, metafictional or otherwise; it's a living, breathing place and the real home of his characters. He's constructed it carefully, thinking through the implications and possibilities with real skill and verve -- worldbuilding as a true artist can, when he has a world worth building. At the same time, Chabon never stoops to explaining his world to the reader -- he steeps us in it, makes us live there alongside his characters, so we come to know it in bits and pieces, as we know our own world.

The Federal District of Sitka, Alaska exists because Israel failed -- the war of 1948 had a different outcome in this world, and most if not all of the Jews living there at the time were slaughtered. (But there are hints that this was not the changepoint; this world was different from our own from at least 1941.) The US provided a "temporary" refuge for millions of displaced Jews (mostly German, it seems) in Alaska -- with a sixty-year lease. Yiddish Policemen's Union takes place at the end of 2007, mere months before the District goes back into the hands of the local Tlingits. (Who have their own decades-long history of border disputes and flashpoints with the Sitkaniks by this point.)

Meyer Landsman is a cop, a homicide detective told to clear up all of the open cases -- one way or another -- in the next six weeks. But he's just discovered another dead man, a former chess prodigy and current heroin addict living under an assumed name in the same shabby hotel as Landsman. Since this is that kind of book, and Landsman is that kind of cop, he can't help but follow the case. He can't help but shove his nose where he shouldn't, follow threads better left alone, and connect things that those in power would prefer to be unconnected.

The ending doesn't entirely work; it falls halfway between a bleak literary ending and a traditional detective-story's catharsis, as if Chabon either couldn't decide or was trying to have it both ways. But the novel works; it pulls us into Landsman's head and his world, and holds us there from first page to last. Unlike many alternate histories, Landsman's world isn't clearly worse (or better) than our own -- it's muddled, and full of problems, but still a world, still a place to live in and make a life. Some points of the worldbuilding see Chabon making particular contemporary parallels, but he's still enough of a literary writer to keep one eye on the judgement of fifty-years-hence, which keeps him from getting too strident.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is one of the better SF novels of the year; I wouldn't be surprised to see it on the Hugo or Nebula shortlists. (Assuming the Nebulas manage to get a shortlist together at all.) I don't think it's quite as impressive within the larger sphere of novels full stop, but it's still a damn good book. I should probably read me some more Chabon.

The Belated Annual Lego-in-the-Bag Post

Just like last year, my brother and I had a build-a-Lego-in-the-bag race this Christmas morning. And, since my mother just e-mailed me her pictures, I can show off the fact that I won.

As before, my brother can get his own blog to show off his photos.

And I will note that I dressed much better for Christmas this year than last. Probably won't become a habit, though, so don't get used to it...

Out of 2007

My last ComicMix review of 2007 is for Out of Picture, a collections of comics stories by the animators of Blue Sky Studios.

What To Do? Why Not Skidoo?

Mark Evanier has been talking about the upcoming Turner Classic Movies showing of Otto Preminger's bizarre movie Skiddo for some time, but there's no reason for me to think that all of you read his blog. (I mean, I think you should, since he's thoughtful and interesting, particularly about Hollywood, animation, the WGA strike, and various permutations thereof. But that doesn't mean you will.)

So here's the link to his most recent post, and his banner to remind you.

For myself -- since I am one of the other people in North America (Ghu knows how many of us there are) who have seen Skidoo -- let me just say that this is a movie that you don't want to miss. It's not good, no. Not in any sense of the word. It's a gangster movie about LSD, made in 1968 when the studios were clearly in an absolute panic about what "the kids" wanted to see. It's a musical,too. It's bizarre and weird and hasn't been available officially for nearly forty years. And it has Groucho Marx playing a mobster named God. The end credits are all sung by Harry Nilsson. Really, it's a movie that you need to see for yourself, just so you can be the one telling your friends how weird it is.

And, I mean, if you can't get interested in a movie by a major director like Preminger, starring Carol Channing, Jackie Gleason, and Frankie Avalon, and with probably a dozen other name actors in it, that has never been available on video, there's really something wrong with you. (And it's something different than what's wrong with Skidoo.)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Incoming Books, Week of 12/29

From a comic-shop trip: ACME Novelty Library No. 18, the third book of Andi Watson's Glister (and, of course, once I break down and decide to buy it, I can't find the first two), and Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, which I must have looked at half-a-dozen times before.

In the mail: yet another book from Yen Press.

As a gift: nothing at all; my family has learned that trying to get me a book as a gift is a thankless task.

Movie Log: Batman Begins

I finally caught up with Batman Begins tonight. It's overlong and massively enamored of its own melodrama, but undeniably stylish. Since everyone else in the world saw it two years ago, I'm not going to bother with anything like a real review. You get some random thoughts instead.

Christian Bale whispers a hell of a lot, and gives enough headbutts to make his crazy behavior semi-plausible.

There are apparently no security cameras in the visiting rooms at Gotham's prison. Sure, it's a poor town, but it makes me wonder what decade this is set in. (Of course, it does feel like the '70s much of the time, which could explain things.)

And why on earth does rich doctor Thomas Wayne walk out the side exit of the opera house into what is so, so obviously the scuzziest alley in a massively scuzzy town? Are the elder Waynes supposed to seem like idiots who would have died sooner or later anyway?

The plot is one part '70s Denny O'Neil Batman, and one part Batman: Year One. It generally meshes well, but I can't help missing a real Year One adaptation. And there's no chance we'll ever get one now.

This movie really does have too many characters for its own good.

And it's very much in the big-blockbuster mode, down to the "funny" throw-away lines and shots.

Why does Batman drive his tank by hiding under the dashboard?

This is possibly the worst case of the Talking Killer I've ever seen.

They sure do run their Els high up in Gotham.

At last, a reason for an action movie to have a climax sheathed in steam!

Sure is fun watching five guys in black suits hit each other in close-up. Gosh, I can almost tell who is who.

Gosh, it's too bad the water system doesn't have any controls or valves in it anywhere. Nobody's ever needed to turn water off anywhere before.

And once again the Rule of Character Scarcity comes into play: a Big Name actor needs to have something Big to do.

It's kind of sad to see a Ras al Ghul pronounced incorrectly, without the Lazarus Pit, and generally tamed. And he never even calls Batman "Detective" that I can remember.

The movie doesn't really understand how corporate governance works, but hardly any movies ever do.

Hm. It didn't have opening credits, did it?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Movie Log: Once

Continuing a movie-a-day pace for no obvious reason, The Wife and I saw Once on Sunday night. It's a movie which repeatedly seems like it's going to turn into a romance, but never quite does (at least it doesn't in the way one would expect it to).

Once is a movie about music -- a thirtysomething man (Glenn Hansard, an Irish musician) works in his father's vacuum-cleaner shop by day and busks the streets of Dublin by night, and runs into a young classically-trained pianist (Marketa Irglova, also a musician), who turns out to be a Czech immigrant. They bond as musicians and songwriters, and the movie has an amazing number of songs in it. It's all emotional, relationship-oriented singer-songwriter stuff, so if you can't stand that kind of music, stay far away from Once.

But these are two excellent musicians who can also act, and the music is exceptionally good of its kind. I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I've already ordered the soundtrack -- if that means anything.

Bryan Talbot and a Mammoth

Yesterday I had another review up at ComicMix: The Art of Bryan Talbot.

Today sees the return of Manga Friday, covering The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga 2.

Tomorrow, you're on your own.

Quote of the Week

"As a matter of fact, I never feel comfortable going to stay at houses under my own name. It doesn't seem sporting."
- Frederick, Earl of Ickenham, p.111, Uncle Dynamite (by P.G. Wodehouse)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bad Publicity?

This started off to be a comment on Jay Lake's LiveJournal, on this post, but it's overflowed its bonds, so I'm posting it here as well. Some days I am just incapable of writing something sort.

I'm a bit befuddled by the people slagging on this writer. Maybe I'm missing something, but, as far as I can see, the sum total of his "lying" were the two words "Alan Chase" at the bottom of a press release.

According to the linked article, he didn't send his work to an agent or to a publisher; S&S approached him after a reading. So complaining that he didn't "do the work" of targeting dozens of agents is beside the point -- he wasn't trying to get an agent in the first place. (And, as far as we can tell from the article, he doesn't have one now.)

He wrote the book, he published it himself, he publicized it himself. He was smart enough to know that signing the author's name to a press release is the kiss of death. I've seen plenty of authors use their spouses (or just their spouses' names) on press releases, or have them sent by their employers -- all to avoid the stigma of sending out one's own press release.

The release still had to be compelling; it still had to grab interest. Signing "Alan Chase" just kept it from being thrown away immediately; nothing more. Press releases are a dime a dozen; just writing one doesn't get anyone anywhere. Reading between the lines of the story, he set up at least one "event" that impressed this nameless person from S&S to call him. This is a guy doing everything right.

Self-publishing really only works for insanely energetic self-promoters (preferably with a mission) -- this guy fits that profile perfectly, and that's one major reason why he's a success. He's the kind of guy who makes himself a success. If his example makes a dozen other young writers put their energy into publishing and publicizing their own books instead of trying to get them placed with major houses, I don't see how that's a bad thing.

Big Publishing does have certain major advantages, but it's not the only business in town. And a writer who has a message, or is otherwise trying to do something more than just tell good (fictional) stories, might just do better as a self-publisher than by spending the next two years going hat-in-hand to a succession of agents. It's a bad, bad option for most people, yes, but, for those real Type A writers, it can work.

So I can't see him as a horrible example. Would-be writers who are smart and reasonable will know their own capacities; they'll be able to figure out if this model would work for them at all. And the ones who are neither smart nor reasonable will never succeed, no matter which model they use.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Just a Flesh Wound

Today I reviewed Rutu Modan's graphic novel Exit Wounds at ComicMix. Aren't you all proud of me? (Yeah, I thought so.)

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

I should start off with the consumer notice, knowing my usual readership: there are two writers named Steve(n) Eri(c)kson. Steven Erikson is the pen-name of the Canadian writer Steve Rune Lundin; he writes the "Malazan Book of the Fallen," which started in 1999. This book is by Steve Erickson, one of the great American writers of our time, whose first novel was Days Between Stations in 1985.

Zeroville is being called Erickson's most accessible novel, which is an odd back-handed complement. His previous book, 2005's Our Ecstatic Days, had a formal element that made it difficult for some readers, but his work in general is as open and immediate as the American road. Things might not always make perfect sense in an Erickson novel, but that's only one of the many ways they're like life itself. Erickson is a lot like one the current critical darlings, Haruki Murakami (another one of my favorite writers) -- they both mix fantastic with mundane elements into the semi-apocalyptic landscapes of their own homelands.

Zeroville opens in 1969, as a young man who will soon start calling himself Vikar comes to Los Angeles. He has a frame from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his bald head, a troubled childhood behind him, and the world of the movies ahead of him. Erickson never explains Vikar, but we come to understand him over the course of the novel, especially as we notice that his opinions (particularly about the movies) are all second-hand, all quotes from someone else. He drifts into the Hollywood sphere through his oddly violent passivity, becoming a set builder, then set designer, then editor, and eventually having the chance to direct a movie. Along the way, a host of other characters pass through his life -- most of them are famous names of the '70s, but Erickson rarely refers to any of them by name, so the reader has to try to figure out who they are. (If Erickson weren't such a mesmerizing writer, this could be annoying, but his style has always been to explain through inference and dialogue. Erickson's people tell us more than his narrative voice does.)

I expect Zeroville would be an even more impressive achievement for a reader who really knows the movies of the '70s -- I don't; I was only a kid at the time, and have only seen scattered stuff since then. Zeroville embodies the '70s strain of American moviemaking as Vikar, and then sets him loose in Hollywood, to mirror back the dreams and hatreds, the hopes and fear of that tumultuous decade and its most successful artform. Zeroville is one of the best novels of 2007, and a major landmark in Erickson's stop-and-start career, and, even more than that, it's a wonderfully readable novel about our American lives.

Movie Log: The Simpsons Movie

The boys wanted to see The Simpsons Movie in the summer -- they've become fans of the show this year, watching reruns and DVDs -- but I thought it was best to wait for video. Besides, why pay to see something I can see for free on TV?

So we watched it Saturday afternoon, over lunch, in the middle of a day of errands. It starts off as an overgrown episode of the show -- "overgrown" mostly because of production quality, since otherwise it's very much like one of the better episodes of the show in its heyday. But it turns into a more conventional movie-plot (including obvious acts and big emotional arcs), and becomes somewhat less interesting (and funny) in the process.

Maybe a normal Simpsons TV plot couldn't stretch to fit a 90-minute movie; maybe the writers had to appropriate a standard movie plot to make it all work. But it didn't have to be quite as conventional as it ended up being. On the other hand, you do get what's essentially a good Simpsons episode to start off, and then about an hour of not-quite-as-good (but intermittently very good) stuff afterward. So, if you're not paying movie-theater prices, it's well worth it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rapture by Susan Minot

I was in the mood for some short books when I last went to the library, and that's why I grabbed this and Stewart O'Nan's Last Night at the Lobster. (And the other reason I got this book will become clear shortly.)

Rapture is one of those books arranged around a conceit, like most of Nicholson Baker's novels. It's set during a defined period of time, and focuses intently on the thoughts of the characters at that moment. It's the kind of thing that can lead to tours de force, or to massive failures, depending on the writer. (This, I'd say, is neither -- it's interesting and well-done, but doesn't quite reach that breakthrough point.)

I'm two paragraphs in, and have been quite boring so far, so I guess I can give away the great titillation factor of Rapture: it's the story of one illicit relationship, told through the thoughts of the two participants during one afternoon act of oral sex, well after the relationship ended. I don't believe these two people talk to each other in the "now" of the novel, though the bulk of the short book is flashbacks, from one point of view or the other, to various points in their relationship. So, to be crude, Rapture is the story of one blowjob.

Since Rapture takes place entirely in these two people's heads -- and they don't particularly communicate with each other during the course of what I hope you'll forgive me for calling the novel's action -- it relies heavily on their psychological portrayals being true and believable. They're both believable people, and their lives are interesting enough to sustain a short book (especially one with some tastefully literary prurient interest as well). But Minot is a well-known literary writer, and this book made a stir when it was published a few years back, so no one needs me to tell them it's good.

Monday, December 24, 2007

iTunes Question

So I'm still poking round on my new computer, which has so far provided happy moments (dashboard widgets!) and cursing moments (it corrupted my ID!) in equal measure.

But I just came across something that seems to be really annoying: in iTunes 7.5, I don't seem to be able to edit the comments field of any tracks -- at all.

I use the comments to drive a lot of my playlists, so this is a big problem -- anyone else have anything like this happen, or know any solutions?

Update: Suck on this, iTunes! I fixed the problem, which actually had to do with my music library being on an external hard drive. (I had to find and edit the permissions.) All better now.

Hornswoggling My Way Through 2007

Just like I did last year, here are the first sentences of each month, as reported here at Antick Musings. Since I've seen other people do a first-and-last this year, I figured I'd try that as well, so here are the sentences that began and ended months at Hornswoggler Central for 2007:

"I did this last year, and it was an interesting exercise, so I'm doing it again: here are my favorite books for each month of this past year, with some runners-up where necessary."
"I'm impressed."

"As I was replying to Molly Moloney's comment on my Harry Potter post, and looking again at The Tensor's replies to the SF Book Meme, I realized that there's a third kind of thing that could be called Urban Fantasy. "
"OK, those are mine. What are yours?"

"Yet another silly meme, which I noticed when Keith R.A. DeCandido did it:"
"I may need to become a bit pickier..."

"Instead of doing an "Also Read in March" post, I've decided to do one listing everything, with links to the ones I've talked about already and a line or two about the books that didn't get their own posts."

"My opinions on cover art are pretty well known by now, so I'll refrain from any commentary. But I think you can imagine what I'd say..."

"The top story in the "Local" section of my paper this morning was about Joseph DeStefano, who had just plead guilty to shooting an auto shop owner in 1992."
"He has my personal best wishes as well."

"The support and kind words from a whole lot of people -- many of whom don't even know me -- about my current situation have been very helpful and gratifying and more than a little surprising."
"(I've already lopped a good two feet off of the top of one of them, this month.)"

"Pure Ducky Goodness is the first collection of the Sheldon strip -- which, if I've got things correctly, started as a newspaper strip but has recently transitioned to web-only. "
"What a slacker I've become!"

"Nicholas Sica, the Art Director for the Science Fiction Book Club for the last several years, was nominated for a Chelsey Award this year in the "Best Art Director" category."
"I'm not saying that Estleman needs to completely break away from that paradigm, but...Walker has been around for nearly thirty years and twenty books, so it's high time for him to have something in his life besides the latest murder."

"This is the third in the massive eight-volume series retelling the history of Siddhartha, who is given the title "Buddha" on the second-to-last page of this book."
"But it's still very funny, and a great example of what a good cartoonist can achieve without words."

"The second treasury collection of the Pearls Before Swine newspaper strip continues the commentary on the strips (introduced in the first treasury, Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic) by the creator, Stephan Pastis."
"So this is Emily Litella saying 'Never mind.'"

"I neglected to make a "I'm heading off to WFC" post, so this is my "I've made it to WFC" post."
" could use this here handy-dandy box, and send those nickels to me. Y'know, if you were going to buy something anyway."


"I'm flying to New Orleans later today, and my kids are demanding lunch, so I think I'm out of here for now."

And the last sentence for December is not yet written, so I'll have to end there.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

They're All Quitters

Ed Champion is a quitter.

M. John Harrison is a quitter.

Jonathan McCalmont is a quitter.

Me? I'm still here, and I'm going to stay here. The more other bloggers quit, the better it is for those of us ornery enough to stick it out -- and I think you all know by now that I'm ornery enough for any five men. I've got a long-gestating review of the excellent Zeroville (it's harder to say nice things than nasty ones) to go up by the end of the year, and several more snarls, I'm sure.

My pledge to you: I won't quit as long as Itzkoff is still out there to be mocked. Can those other blogs say the same?

Your Irregularly Scheduled ComicMix Update

There are some ComicMix reviews that I don't seem to have linked to yet:
With luck, there will be more this week -- maybe not tomorrow, since I haven't gotten anything organized yet, and definitely not Tuesday, but...maybe later.

Movie Log: Stardust

Matthew Vaughan, who directed Stardust into a pleasant but clearly dumbed-down version of Neil Gaiman's book, appears to have been shopping at the discount Lord of the Rings store. He bought some off-the-rack circling helicopter shots of people trekking across green hilltops, muscled a loud and obtrusive "stirring" score into his shopping cart, and invested heavily in the kind of fantasy-land scenery that shows no sign of human habitation.

It's that last bit that ended up annoying me the most -- the other two were amusing (especially on a small screen, where the awe factor is low). Once Stardust moves into the kingdom of Stormhold, human civilization consists of:
  • one market town, near the wall
  • the witches' palace, in a crater far away from anything else
  • the King's palace/city, on the top of a ridiculously pointy mountain, also in what seems to be a crater, amid many more sharp and pointy mountains
  • one (1) farmhouse
  • the office of a guy who buys and sells various stuff to keep the plot running
  • and various cart tracks connecting these disparate locations.
Missing entirely is any sign of serious agriculture, such as that which would be required to support all of the people we seen in the movie's penultimate scene. This is the true meaning of "fantasy movie," that the world is empty and green, serving only as a backdrop to the epic story of the Movie People. I could just about buy it in the Lord of the Rings movies, since most of that landscape was supposed to be empty (though Tolkien was well aware that Minas Tirith would require extensive fields around it, and put them in). But Stardust just seems to take place in an empty world.

I haven't read Stardust-the-novel in some years, but my general impression is that every element in Stardust-the-movie is a simplified, movie-ized version of the book element. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did take a little gem of an illustrated novel and turn it into a big-budget Fantasy Extravaganza, not particularly to its benefit. There are even times when the vast sums of money spent immediately undermine the story itself, such as when the ruby thrown by the King flies into space -- we see the real Earth, we see the stone rise from an identifiable England, and we see it run into something in low Earth orbit, and then fall back down. So the "falling star" is no longer the fairy-tale element it was in the book; we now have to think of Yvaine as a real star, in a SFnal sense, since that's how the movie showed her. (Similarly, when we see two stars in the sky and are meant to go "awwww," I instead thought "What are they, a couple of thousand light-years apart?")

Another example: Robert De Niro is pleasant and personable as that giant whoopsie Captain Shakespeare, but the audience isn't able to forget for a second that they're watching De Niro pretending to be a gay pirate. A lot of the movie is like that, actually -- perfectly nice but ultimately distracting from what a movie is supposed to do: create an alternate world into which we can fall and which we completely believe.

Should I explain the plot? Does anyone who might possibly be reading this not know it? Oh, all right: in mid-Victorian England, a young man manages to get across the wall that separates his town (also named Wall) from the lands of Faerie. He knocks up a captive princess, and finds his son on his doorstep nine months later. Eighteen years after that -- when it's still, apparently, exactly just as mid-Victorian as it was before -- his son Tristan (Charlie Cox) decides to cross the wall himself, to get a falling star for the local girl he thinks he loves. The star is actually a pretty girl, Yvaine (Claire Daines), knocked out of the sky by a magical ruby tossed by the dying King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole). She's chased by both an evil witch, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the remnants of the King's seven sons (squabbling as they go, since the one who returns with the ruby will rule). Tristan of course finds her, and of course eventually falls in love with her on the journey.

That much is basically the same as the book, but the movie slowly but inexorably separates itself from the novel's story as it goes, choosing a blander, more obvious path in every point where the book had something more interesting or nuanced. The ending in particular is pure Hollywood, the bastard child of a thousand mediocre movies.

Stardust stays resolutely a movie, an entertainment projected up onto a big screen in front of us; there's no moment in which we enter into it. (Unlike the book.) As a post-Lord of the Rings fantasy movie, it's a solid movie. As a film of the Gaiman-Vess book, it's a major disappointment. That fairy-tale tone is very fragile, agreed, and maybe there was no real chance that it could have been transferred to the screen undamaged. Gaiman's prose is supple, quietly powerful, hinting of even more than it reveals; even the greatest filmmaker would have had trouble turning it into celluloid. But I wish Vaughan had made more of an effort than this.

Incoming Books, Week of 12/22

Another light load this week: I bought the new "Pearls Before Swine" collection, The Sopratos; got what looks like a very politically incorrect sex comedy manga, Sundome, in the mail for review; and grabbed two things from the library, an older Stewart O'Nan novel called The Speed Queen and the hardcover of the Neil Gaiman Eternals series.

So, he said brightly, that means I'll be able to catch up a lot during the days off over the next week!

(Leaving aside the fact that I've already been reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union for a week -- it's pleasant, but I don't have a burning desire to speed to the end -- and that I've spent much of the last three days setting up this new computer and moving the kids' TV area to the other side of the basement. But I'll have lots of free time to spend along reading on Christmas, right?)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan

Sometimes in life you just want a short, thoughtful book about the manager of a Red Lobster in Connecticut, trying to get through the last day -- snowstorm and all -- before Corporate closes it down. If that time has come to you, the book you need is Last Night at the Lobster.

I've never read Stewart O'Nan before, so I can't tell you how this compares with his other books. But I can say that there's a depth of feeling and a knowledge of character in this slim book that's rare in books of any length.

There isn't a whole lot of of plot here: we follow the manager, Manny, from the moment he arrives in the morning until he leaves the Lobster that evening, and there are no huge events, nothing out of the blue. Last Night at the Lobster is an honest book, and a quiet one. I found it wonderfully true, and I'll be looking for more of O'Nan's books.

Quote of the Week

"He doesn't know the meaning of the word 'fear.' In fact, I just saw his grades and he doesn't know the meaning of a lot of words."
- Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden on linebacker Reggie Herring

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I've generally avoided writing about music here, thinking that indulging myself about books and movies was indulgence enough, but sometimes a man just can not be silent. I discovered a wonderful music blog about six months ago, which has introduced me to probably dozens of new artist.

That blog is Fingertips, which posts once a week: every Monday, there's one post, with links to three songs available for free and legal download. I've discovered a massive amount of music I liked through Fingertips, and I think others could do the same.

So these are my top 10 favorite Fingertips songs (from bands I'd never heard of before), with links right to where I downloaded them. I think they all work now, but -- if you're reading this in the future -- they probably won't work forever:
OK, that's more than I'll just leave you with one last song for the season, another one by Over the Rhine (my new favorite band, maybe) -- "Darlin' (Christmas Is Coming)". Hope you find some stuff you like through Fingertips as well.

The Rejection Collection, Vol. 2 edited by Mathew Diffee

The New Yorker is the pinnacle of single-panel cartoons: they pay the best, and claim to only print the best. (Some might argue the latter point.) And, because of that, they recieve vastly more submissions than they could ever print. Dozens of cartoonists send in their "batch" weekly to Bob Makoff, the New Yorker's cartoon editor, and he whittles that huge stack (over 500 a week) down to a smaller stack that goes to the New Yorker's editor, David Remnick. And so about twenty cartoons are chosen a week, leaving hundreds rejected each and every week.

Matthew Diffee, himself a New Yorker cartoonist, wanted to find a home for the "orphan" cartoons, so last year he edited The Rejection Collection. (And I can only imagine what it was like for all of the cartoons that were rejected for the book of rejected cartoons.)

It was a success, so he's back again with a sequel -- more cartoons the New Yorker didn't want, from cartoonists like S. Gross (who did the cover), Gahan Wilson, Roz Chast, Sidney Harris, and Jack Ziegler. As in the first book, each cartoonist provided three or five cartoons, filled out a two-page questionnaire for Diffee, and took a number of pictures (face, feet, writing utensil, work-space, and refrigerator) for the title page of his/her section.

The questionnaires get repetitive, though they're all amusing. The cartoons are the point, though, and what they mostly turn out to be are New Yorker cartoons on non-New Yorker subjects (bathroom humor, sex, general tastelessness). If you miss the cartoons from the '70s National Lampoon, this is as close as you're going to get this century.

Movie Log: Superbad

This might be a movie that it's best to see with a large (and possibly half-drunk) audience; I watched it at home with The Wife and we found the main characters more and more annoying as the movie went on. Superbad does have its good points, and it's a solid comedy, but it's not as wonderful as some of the reviews I've seem would tend to indicate.

Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) aren't that bad to begin with, but they have a lot of screen time, and Seth's abrasive assholishness and Ethan's world-class passive-aggressive streak only get more and more grating the more time the movie spends with them. Particularly Seth. There have been plenty of movies about teenage boys wanting to get laid, but the trick lies in making the viewer sympathize with them -- we have to want them to get laid. By the midpoint of Superbad, I was still on the fence about Evan, but I was adamant that Seth should die a virgin at the age of a hundred and seven.

Luckily, there's Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who -- along with a couple of cops played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen -- saves the movie. Fogell is The Geek, hallowed in film and TV. And, in similar time-honored fashion, he's the one to get a fake ID and set off to buy booze for a party (since Seth assumes -- and I agree with him -- that the only way to get a sane human female to sleep with him would be if she were on the verge of alcohol poisoning). Fogell, for his own deranged reasons, gets that ID in the name of "McLovin," and that's where Superbad really takes off.

My own biased opinion is that teen comedies work best when they're the least plausible -- cops who go drinking with a 17-year-old, "I can't believe I gave my panties to a geek," filling a teacher's house with popcorn via an orbital laser. If you do a movie about most high school kid's real lives, you're not going to have a comedy; it'll be some manner of drama, from melo- to kitchen sink. So the closer a comedy tries to get to "real," the less funny it gets. Superbad is a great example for my theory, since Seth and Evan are rarely funny and "McLovin" is always funny.

Superbad is a bit too long, and a bit too full of itself, and spends too much time on the progressively-less-likable main characters. But it does have a lot of good humor in it. And the female characters seem like they could have actually been real human beings (and not simply lust objects) if they had been given more than two minutes of screen time each. On the other hand, I don't see Superbad as a movie for female human beings in the first place -- it's close to being a two-hour long dick joke -- so the fact that the girls aren't simply pneumatic cheerleader sex-dolls is a major point in its favor. All in all, Superbad is an "Eh" movie. (Especially the point where the filmmakers realize that they're ninety minutes in and they haven't set up any tension, so some characters act very differently for a while to drive the plot in the right direction.) It's worth seeing, but not worth paying for -- I'm glad I didn't see it in the theater.

Movie Log: The Player

Yeah, I'm running a little late on seeing The Player, but I finally did. And I'm running even later on blogging about it, so this will be short and unspecific.

I was actually hoping for a nastier movie than the one I got -- the ending is wonderful (from the screening room scene on), but I was expecting something more subversive in the middle. Maybe I thought that Tim Robbins's character would become better at his job, more shark-like and successful, after inadvertently murdering the writer. But that's not what happens; the movie is much more conventional than that. (That could be the secret to its modest success -- it gave Hollywood back the image of itself it loves to hate: big, rich, tough-minded, utterly focused on success and in the end immensely successful.)

I also found the famous very long tracking shot that opens the movie to be obtrusive and annoying; it called attention to itself when a couple of elegant cuts would have told the story better. Other than that, I didn't notice the camerawork, which is generally a good thing.

Every actor that Hollywood had ever heard of and was alive in 1991 is in this movie. Boy howdy, a lot of people wander through the background. And that was generally done well -- they don't overpower the main plot, but show that this is the world this movie is taking place in.

The world needs more black comedies, but I often find that they're not black enough for me. (Donald Westlake's novel The Ax is up at the top of my list of comedies that are sufficiently black, which may give you an idea of my stance on this issue.) The Player gets a bit dark at times, but it's a mainstream end-of-the-century Hollywood movie, so it never gets into anything I'd call really black. (Robbins's character is a bit of a jerk, and does some bad things, but he's always kept as the audience-identification character.) Really, if Hollywood wants to make a black comedy that's dark enough for me, they should try a faithful adaptation of Martin Amis's Money.

I don't really care about the redemptive power of film the way some people do, which may be why my reaction to The Player was lukewarm; it's a good movie, but I don't think it's a great one.

Reading "The Hobbit"

You've all probably by now seen the announcement that New Line Pictures has come to an agreement with Peter Jackson (and Fran Walsh) for the latter to produce two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit for the former.

A lot of people don't seem to have read that announcement, because they're speculating loudly online about how The Hobbit will be divided into two movies.

According to the press release, it won't be: there will be one movie based on The Hobbit, and one "sequel," which will be shot simultaneously starting in 2009. (Of course, that's assuming there's a script in time -- someone needs to write these movies, and the WGA is on strike at the moment.)

I assume that there's some manner of "treatment" for the two movies in play -- though it may be outdated (written before the strike) or a purely verbal pitch. But I haven't seen anything that looks official about what this "sequel" will be about. (Some are speculating it will be the "Young Aragorn Chronicles" movie.)

Things probably won't become any clearer until there actually is a script for the two movies, and that might take quite some time. (There's that strike again.) But for all of the people jumping up and down and squealing in glee, I have two things to keep in mind:
  • Jackson doesn't have the time to direct this; it will be done by someone else. He's Executive Producing, which means he probably won't be on-set much, if at all.
  • Think of the new element that you least liked about Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies. Now imagine that blown up to a three-hour movie of its own. That might just be the "sequel"....

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Men Call Them...The Film Crew!

I had a long post here mostly written, including a lot of background about MST3K and its various offshoots, but my laptop ate it. (There's some key combination that suddenly highlights everything in the Blogger editing box, and I hit it by accident now and again on the laptop. Because the universe hates me, whenever I accidentally hit those keys, I then type a space to delete everything and then Blogger chooses that moment to save -- inevitably. And there's no undo, unfortunately. For whatever reason, this never happens on a desktop.) So I'm not going to go into that again.

But I should explain a bit -- I've seen three of the four movies with "commentary tracks" by The Film Crew recently, and mostly enjoyed them. The Film Crew are Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy -- the final main voice cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. And so, except for the lack of silhouettes on screen during the movies, The Film Crew videos are very much like late MST3K. So, for those of us who have missed MST3K, The Film Crew is a decent replacement.

Of the "Film Crew" movies, I first saw Wild Women of Wongo, probably two months ago now. It's one of those very vaguely exploitative movies from the '50s, which probably seemed terribly racy to some people at the time, but which are ridiculously tame now. In an unspecified prehistoric land, there's a village with gorgeous women and homely men, and another which is vice-versa. As you would expect, they meet, and predictable problems ensue. (There's also a priestess in that odd Florida tourist-trap made of huge hunks of carved coral, and a mangy alligator, but that pretty much sums up the characters and plot.) The commentary gets good in spots, but the movie is so dull in its outdated prurience that it rarely gets up much speed. The whole package is OK, but a bit disappointing.

Killers From Space should be even more tedious, since it has, if anything, less plot. (Test pilot Peter Graves is thought dead in a plane crash, reappears with amnesia at the edge of town, and then weird aliens appear.) But these guys have an odd Peter Graves comedy fetish, and his appearance always ups their game -- though they do rely on a lot of Biography jokes during this one. So the movie itself is deeply tedious, with long scenes of Graves running through the aliens' underground base, but the commentary is excellent during those scenes, which makes the whole package very enjoyable. (The film also jumps to random close-ups for no good reason, which the commentators get some mileage out of.)

And the "Film Crew" movie I liked best was Hollywood After Dark, a dull "this town will eat your soul" movie featuring a somewhat younger Rue McClanahan as the ingenue (and as a stripper, I warn you now). Again, the movie itself is absolutely tedious and dull, in often inane ways -- there's a fifteen-minute caper sequence where the soundtrack goes completely silent, for one thing, plus the usual issue of not having enough plot for the length of film -- but that leads to very funny commentary.

There could be a general rule of riffing there: the more inept a movie is -- badly done on the fundamental levels of lighting, framing, sound synchronization, and just plain aiming the camera at the right thing -- the better fodder it is for making fun of. There are plenty of movies with plot problems, so jokes about logical holes can only go so far. But if the things you see on screen just don't work, that's rarer, and thus more funny. (Call it the "Torgo" theory of bad movies.) Unfortunately, that theory does not explain why Mitchell is so damn funny, since it's very technically professional. Perhaps there's an additional Joe Don Baker effect?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movie Log: Waitress

What with the trip to New Orleans last week, I hadn't seen a movie in a while, and the Netflix envelopes were gathering dust on top of the TV. So The Wife and I pulled down Waitress and watched it on Saturday night.

(And then I wrote that right after seeing the movie and let it sit another week. Life is busy right now)

This is the movie by the female filmmaker (Adrienne Shelly) who was killed soon after it was completed and before it opened -- you probably heard about it. Keri Russell plays a small-town waitress/pie-baker, married to a horrible creep, who discovers she's pregnant and finds herself falling into an affair with her new OB/GYN. It's mostly been called a comedy, but the tone of the movie shifts radically back and forth from scene to scene -- the evil husband, in particular, casts a pall over many of the romantic or comedic scenes, since the audience (OK, maybe just me) keeps expecting him to pop up and do something nasty.

(It is a comedy in the broadest sense, considering the ending. I'll say that much.)

This was Shelly's first film, and, in the normal course of things, we'd focus on the good points (of which there are many) and assume she'd smooth out the clumsy bits in her future movies. Sadly, that's not going to happen. So the fact that Waitress is promising but off-balance looms larger than it otherwise might. It's worth seeing, particularly for Russell's energy and charm, but it's not the movie it could have been.

My Mind Has Been Melded

SF Signal has a new feature, "Mind Meld," in which they ask the same question of a number of peoples and combine all the various answers into one long post.

The Meld this week is about Internet book sales, and I was one of the Minds.

Monday, December 17, 2007

My Son Does Not Appreciate Me

Tonight, at bedtime, as I was on my way out Thing 2's door -- we'd done the book-reading, and teeth-brushing, and pyjama-putting-on, and writing-about-the-book-in-his-school-notebook, so he had about twenty minutes to play before his real bedtime -- I remembered to feed his fish.

And, as I fed the fish (the one survivor of three or four we got a couple of months ago), I asked the boy if we'd remembered to name that fish. He said no; the fish didn't have a name.

So I said, "How about Mr. Von Dingle-Dangle-Dungle-son?" (Which I thought was quite good on the the spur of the moment.)

He gave me a pitying look and said something about not wanting a silly name.

Well, that put me in my place, so I just went downstairs.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Very Itzkoff Christmas

Our hard-working New York Times SF correspondent, the renowned Dave Itzkoff, has a new column in this week's Book Review. Sadly, I haven't seen it in print, because my carrier decided not to deliver my paper yesterday.

But I have, through the modern miracle of the Internet, read that column, and I can now continue my relentless program of Itzkofff watching.

Once again, Itzkoff manages to file a column without actually reading any new SF books, though he does get a few points for being intermittently amusing. This column proposes SFnal books and stories that all of the major candidates for US President in 2008 (and a few others) should read, for mostly snarky reasons. I like snark, but this belongs on the op-ed page, not in the Book Review. It particularly doesn't belong when one realizes the last time Itzkoff filed an "Across the Universe" column was on June 24th (when he reviewed the Library of America Philip K. Dick volume, Four Novels of the 1960s, a book that more cynical commentators might suggest Itzkoff did not even have to read to review).

Blowing off half a year and then not doing the reading is what a layabout does at a minor state college, not the expected behavior of a columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Itzkoff has always been embarrassing, but this is his worst behavior so far.

Itzkoff is now worse than no SF reviewer for the Times; he's taking space that could otherwise be used for better purposes. Even a blank white page would be more useful than an Itzkoff SF "review." It's time for the man to admit he knows nothing about modern SF, and concentrate on writing about music, which he actually does seem to understand. And it's time for Sam Tannenhaus to either can the "Around the Universe" column entirely, or find someone who is more qualified to write it. That shouldn't be hard; I must know two dozen people personally who could do a better job than Itzkoff.

How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard

There is room in the bookstores for a small, humorous book with that title, presumably sarcastic in tone. Sadly, this book was written by a Frenchman, so, even as it attempts to say that actually knowing things is unnecessary, it builds a terribly detailed intellectual edifice to support that view.

It's amusing to note that Bayard creates long, convoluted theories about not reading, and buttresses his argument with many long quotes, from books that he has presumably read enough of to get those quotes. A true book devoted to talking about books one hasn't read would not require any outside reading on the part of the author, either. How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read implicitly assumes that reading certain books -- and you can guess which ones -- is terribly important, and that conversations among interesting people will revolve around those books. Perhaps I run with the wrong crowd, but I haven't found that to be the case.

Parts of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read are amusing, but it's like one long cocktail party full of snobbish literary types, who all want to be thought intelligent and knowledgeable about things they all think each other know. For those of us who read books because we like them, there's very little point.

How do you talk about a book you haven't read? There are many ways, and Bayard only enumerates the most pretentious, snobbish, and boring ones. If you run with a crowd that only cares about "high art," this book may be useful. But new friends would be even more useful; anyone who could use the advice in this book is profoundly mixed up to begin with.

The Best of Bizarro, Volume II by Dan Piraro

This isn't exactly a time capsule from the early '90s -- Piraro's cartoons didn't ever have all that much to do with the real world -- but parts of it did feel a bit outdated, as if they were from a world that isn't around anymore.

Bizarro is of course still running, and is still a post-Far Side single panel with a skewed sense of humor, but this particular book comes from 1994, and collects cartoons from the five years or so before that. It seems to be out of print now, but that doesn't mean much these days -- nearly anything is findable though the on-line OP booksellers these days, and it's just a matter of being willing to pay the price. (And, in most cases, that price is pretty low.)

I have a well-noted weakness for books of cartoons, both single-panel and strip, so I was happy to find this for $5 at a local bookstore a month or so ago and even happier to poke through it over a week or two afterward. (Books of cartoons are better when you don't read them straight through, since each cartoon should have an individual impact.)

Incoming Books, Week of 12/15

Five books came in this past week, all for review, including Volume 2s in two manga series where I haven't read the first volume, Dark Wraith of Shannara, an art book by Bryan Talbot, and another "bunch of animation artists put together a graphic anthology" project.

I've been slow on reading the past couple of weeks, and even slower to catch up in writing about those books here. But I don't think anything is going on next week, and then I'll have some time off around the holidays, so maybe I can catch up...

Friday, December 14, 2007

On the OTW

The controversy of the week:
For myself, I'm afraid I have to come down on Scalzi's side, even though I do have some sympathy for the general sense that copyright terms are now too long and IP law in general is too cumbersome, too strong, and too all-encompassing.

The OTW's argument (especially once the fans start to come out in droves to comment) seems to boil down to saying that fanfiction is a special unique snowflake that must be protected and allowed to thrive because of its inherent snowflake-ness. Even if that were true -- and I don't agree with it --that's not a legal argument, and legal arguments are what's needed here.

Scalzi's proposal -- for a Creative Commons-style release on the part of the original creators -- is easy and legal and could be done immediately. However, I bet the fanfic community would hate that, since it would limit them to specific works, and special unique snowflakes have to be left to fly free and roam where they will. A special unique snowflake that can only flutter over a defined list of works is not so special or unique anymore.

Another option would be to advocate for a major change in copyright law, making non-commercial derivative works legitimate so long as they remained non-commercial. That would, I suspect, be much more difficult than I'm making it sound -- it would be hard to craft language that would define it precisely, and the idea would have hordes of deep-pocketed enemies fighting hard to shoot it down. Still, it's plausible, and that's where I'd suggest the OTW focus its effort, if it's serious about creating a protected space for fanfic.

For myself, I don't see a problem with the current situation. Fanfic is like jaywalking, sodomy (in some jurisdictions), and ripping CDs for one's own use -- technically illegal but generally not prosecuted unless something larger is going on. Fanficcers apparently don't like that, but, really, that's their problem -- they're the ones breaking laws in public. They may justify it with blather about female spaces and gift economies, but lots of people justify breaking laws they don't want to follow.

The main problem with the OTW, as I see it, is that it's set up to defend activities that are generally considered illegal. That's not unknown -- there are various organizations to advocate for sexworkers, for example -- but it may cause problems with the OTW attaining non-profit status.

(And the manifesto's language is the worst kind of self-congratulatory in-group hoo-hah, going on and on about how wonderful and nurturing and special they all are -- it makes we want to either vomit or reach for my revolver. Note specifically that they admire "real person fiction," the vile habit of telling lies "fictions" about actual people. And they seem to think the repeated invocation of the word "fan" will be a sufficient legal shield, which strikes me as yet another manifestation of the "but I didn't mean to do any harm" defense.)

I'd prefer not to see non-commercial derivative works attacked by the various rights-holders, but I don't think the OTW is going about things in the right way. (They are certainly doing it the fannish way, though, which is what one would expect.)

Manga Friday Is Only Tangentally Manga This Week

Every Friday, I review some manga books at ComicMix for "Manga Friday." (And you, the reader, can either be slightly enlightened by my slight knowledge or point and laugh if you know more than I do.)

This week, I reviewed the first two books of a four-book series by Mark "Akiko" Crilley. The series is Miki Falls, and the books are Spring and Summer.

That is all.

Quote of the Week

"It is plain to see that writers who aren't writers have it all over writers who are writers. In the first place, there is the saving in time. I have often had to spend several hours a day on writing while being a writer. If I had only kept myself busy at something else, such labor would have been unnecessary. Some other occupation, plus the consequent success in writing, is more profitable, besides. It is uphill work for a writer to sell his writings with only the narrow appeal of his own name as a writer, but if he were engaged in doing something quite different, he could be assured of a respectful audience. The surefire way to achieve success as a writer is to be a celebrity in any other line. The opportunities in other fields are so numerous, in fact, that the real difficulty lies in making a choice. A hasty glance through the publishers' lists will give a fascinating view of the range of occupations that really do lead to success in writing."
- Ruth Suckow, "How to Achieve Success in Writing," from The New Yorker, 1936

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming by Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket's first non-"Unfortunate Events" project is an arch retelling of the story of the Gingerbread Man, translated into a Jewish holiday fable.

It has a bit too much text to really work as a picture book, but it's the wrong size for that in the first place -- so it's clear that this isn't a "real" picture book, for actual kids, but a faux picture book, for somewhat older people. (Given that it is written under the Snicket name, though, it's not exactly aimed at adults -- just smart-alec teenagers.) So what it really is is an impulse point-of-purchase item, just another one of those little books in racks by the cash register.

If you know the story of the Gingerbread Man -- and, if not, how is that hermit lifestyle working out for you? -- you'll know the plot: latke is born, latke runs, latke is eaten. There's some amusing Christmas vs. Hanukkah stuff as well, which is likely to particularly please those who are Jewish and get annoyed this time every year.

It's not wonderful, but it's pleasant enough, and has an attractive little package -- which is important for your cheap impulse-buy items. If you're a big Snicket fan, or take great pride in your Jewishness, you'll probably enjoy this.