Friday, July 31, 2009

Movie Log: Lost in Austen

A week or so ago, The Wife and I were watching previews before some movie or another, and one came up for Lost in Austen. When the preview ended, my wife whipped her head right around to look at me and said forcefully, "We have to get that one." And so we did.

Amanda Price is a modern young woman; she lives in a Hammersmith flat with her obligatory black (and slightly predatory) roommate Pirhana, has an only moderately loutish boyfriend, and does something for a bank that requires dealing with the public. But what she really cares about, this movie tells us, is re-re-re-reading Pride and Prejudice all of the time.

And that comes in handy -- though not as much as it could have; she apparently has never looked at the scholarly apparatus in her Penguin Classics edition or had a moment's thought about the social setup of Regency England -- when Elizabeth Bennett slips through a hidden door in her bathroom. Soon Amanda finds herself in Pride and Prejudice, and unable to go back home.

She then bumbles around for a while, gawking at all of the characters that she recognizes, and making comments about how she expects the story to go, until, by her presence (essentially in place of Elizabeth, who has stayed on the 21st century side of the door, doing what we do not know) she changes everything.

Amanda has definite elements of the Mary Sue; nearly all of the men want to marry her at one point or another, and all of them admire her much more than they should. (She's rough, uncouth, almost completely unmannered by their standards, criminally ignorant of everything, and her conversation is elliptical when it's not full of non sequiturs.)

But eventually -- and it's a long eventually, since this was originally a BBC ITV miniseries; eventually takes almost three hours to come -- all is put right, if not precisely the way Austen put it to begin with. (One can guess what happens to Amanda, particularly if I re-emphasize that she's there in place of Elizabeth.)

The writing is quite good, particular for the P&P characters; their dialogue sounded to me like Austenite speech even when it was original. And the acting is quite good, too. But the character of Amanda is so much of a bull in a china shop that I found it hard to believe in her -- surely a woman who has devoted so much of her life to reading this one novel would have some clue about the society it depicts? Surely she can't be that thoughtless and dull?

There are a number of places the plot seems about to jump into a more interesting track -- one character felt like another potential person from the 21st century, but nothing came of that; Elizabeth's adventures in our world are left to the imagination; and the possibility of the P&P characters discovering the copy of the book that Amanda brought in and altering their behavior because of that comes to one tear-jerkingly "dramatic" confrontation scene -- but it never quite does. Lost in Austen stays always in the safe BBC costume drama mode, enlivened only by casting a slightly more intelligent and less clumsy Bridget Jones at its center.

It will be enjoyed most by groups of women, particularly those who have not yet gotten over the sight of Colin Firth in a pond. (Mr. Firth makes no appearance in this production, but his spirit pervades it.)

Listening to: Dish - Chase My Ghost
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week

"Remember, if you smoke after sex you're doing it too fast."
- Woody Allen

Thursday, July 30, 2009

James Bond Daily: Moonraker

The third James Bond novel, Moonraker, was the Fleming novel that took the longest to be turned into a movie, and so the movie of the same title (from 1979) bears only the very slightest resemblance to the novel (from 1955).

The main points of congruence are in the villain, Hugo Drax, who is a British aerospace magnate planning a mass murder unbeknownst to the world. In the novel, he's testing the Moonraker rocket, which will be Britain's homegrown nuclear deterrent. (And this places Moonraker firmly in period; it's set before ICBMs and a whole lot of the NATO nuclear-weaponry infrastructure.)

Bond meets Drax because Drax belongs to the same club as M, Blades, and the head of that club has confided in M that he believes Drax cheats at cards. (Some things about England -- particularly male, moneyed England -- never change.) So Bond goes along with M to Blades on a Monday evening, detects Drax's cheating, and cheats back at him to teach him a lesson.

On the Friday of that same week, the Moonraker is to be tested -- supposedly to be shot into the North Sea from the coast near Dover. Of course, Drax has a more nefarious plan than that, and Bond eventually discovers and foils it, with the aid of Miss Gala Brand, an agent of Scotland Yard's Special Branch inserted as Drax's secretary a year before to keep an eye on him.

As usual, the Bond novels are strongest in their focus on real spycraft: how agents operate, who they talk to, how different government agencies dance around each other, each protecting their own turf and trying not to impinge on others. Moonraker has no exotic locations, no unlikely gadgets -- just the detective work of two well-trained professionals who will never get full public recognition for what they've done.

And Miss Brand -- who doesn't even come close to sleeping with Bond, and only kisses him once -- goes off at the end to marry her fiance. Fleming's Bond is much less happy with himself than any of the movie Bonds (even Daniel Craig at his scowlingest only comes close), and inhabits a much more dangerous world. But we knew that already, didn't we?

Hey! Did'ja Notice the Eisner Awards Were Given Out a Few Days Ago?

I've been on vacation, so I sort-of missed it. But here's the complete list. I was one of the judges this year, which means -- in the case of the Eisners -- that the other judges and I decided on the shortlist, but the eligible voters (comics professionals of nearly all kinds) did the actual voting.

Since, in many cases, they picked the creators and projects I would have, I hereby declare that the Eisner voting public, this year, is pretty darn cool. And congratulations to all of the winners and nominees; 2008 was a great year with a lot of wonderful work.

Listening to: Richard Thompson - Ça Plane pour Moi [Live 2003]
via FoxyTunes

Movie Log: Watchmen

It would be very instructional for some film-school class -- or just a group of interested fannish types -- to carefully compare and contrast the directorial choices made by Peter Jackson with the three Lord of the Rings movies and by Zack Snyder with Watchmen. Both are quite faithful translations of a difficult work from another medium to film, both had fanatical fans who had to be wooed (and, as with everything, some of both were utterly convinced and some were utterly horrified), and both were at least moderately successful (artistically and commercially).

The difference is that when Jackson made some clunky moves -- which is inevitable; much like the old definition of a novel, a film is a long series of flickering images with at least one major thing wrong with it -- he made them by departing from the source material, but Snyder's mistakes are entirely those of being too faithful to the source material. Actually, I should qualify that: Snyder was intensely faithful to one strand of the Moore-Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen, the most obvious and noisy part of that book, and his slavishness in replicating moments, and particularly images, from that plot, turn his movie into something like a "greatest-hits" version of the comic, sparking lots of recognition but not nearly enough engagement.

His one major change to that strand -- the precise nature of the "villain's" plan at the end -- actually makes the plot work slightly better; it ties up something that was a loose end in the Moore-Gibbons graphic novel. But the reason that change was necessary is that the graphic novel's giant maguffin was tied into the other subplots -- to the pirates and the secondary characters, the missing scientists and artists and everything else that Alan Moore used to define his fictional world. Without all of that, Snyder's Watchmen is basically just our world with underwear perverts in it. (And the whole stop-motion credits montage just underlines that -- yes, it's visually exciting, but it doesn't add up to a world that's all that different from how Moore saw the real 1985.)

I can't say how Watchmen looks to someone who doesn't know the source material; it must be an utterly different movie depending on whether one knows the story already or not. But it is amazingly -- ridiculously, even -- faithful to Moore's words and Gibbon's images, with dozens of shots that look like comics panels even to a reader who hasn't looked at Watchmen in years. (Perhaps Snyder really did use the Gibbons art, or large portions of it, as his storyboards.)

There's no dramatic tension for a reader of the original graphic novel; this Watchmen hits its marks and punches its lines, but it's like watching yet another production of Hamlet, without the benefit of actually having the catharsis of a real tragedy or the power of Shakespeare's words. (Moore is good, but he's no Shakespeare.)

And the movie of Watchmen forces the viewer to remember that the plot of the graphic novel didn't entirely make sense, that the ending was stronger in theme than in story, and that even the ultimate superhero story, on screen, turns into unpleasant scenes of grown men in skin-tight leather hitting each other with overly-choreographed moves that never quite convince.

This is quite possibly as good as any single-movie version of Watchmen ever could have been, but that's still just mediocre.
Listening to: The Arrogants - Future Classic
via FoxyTunes

Incoming Books: 30 July

In my house, vacation time means many things. But one of the most important is that I get some serious book-shopping time in. And so today, while The Wife was at work -- since retail never ends -- I took my two sons to the Montclair Book Center, the best new/used bookstore I know in New Jersey, for an extended stroll through their wares. The boys came out with one Gundam manga volume (Thing 1), two Junie B. Jones novels (Thing 2), and four assorted Garfield books (both).

And I got:

Lawrence Block's recent memoir/meditation on running, Step by Step, which I've already read, since it was available at the library one day I happened to be there. And now, since it happened to be in the book store the day I was there, I own my own copy.

I haven't yet read Christopher Buckley's memoir Losing Mum and Pup, though not through lack of trying -- I've been searching for it at the library for the last several months, without luck. So I bought it.

Has Roddy Doyle had a novel since Paula Spencer? It took me three years to get a copy of this one -- and I hope it doesn't take me that much longer to finally read it -- but I have the sense that I'm only this one book behind on him. (Literary writers can be nice that way; one book every three or four years is easy to keep up with.) This one is the sequel to his decade-old novel The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

I have a weakness -- shared, one way or another, with a lot of the book-buying population -- for books of funny snippets, easy to read and easy to put down. One of those is Leland Gregory's Idiots at Work: Chronicles of Workplace Stupidity. I'd never heard of it before I saw it at the store, but I bought it.

I've had Lisa Lutz's The Spellman Files -- first in what I think will be a series of humorous family/mystery novels; there's already a sequel -- on my list of books to read for a while, but I've never quite gotten to it in the library. Maybe having a copy in my own house will mean I'll actually pick it up and read it; it looks good.

Another book I've actually picked up and looked at in the library -- but ended up buying in a store -- is Alberto Manguel's A Reading Diary. Manguel is the co-author of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, and a couple of other things that I think I've read, and this is a book about the books he was reading one year. I suspect his reading was aggressively highbrow, and that his musings on those books will be the same, but I love books about books, so I want to encourage them.

Merrill Markoe wrote some very funny TV for David Letterman's first late-night incarnation, and several equally funny books of essays. She also wrote at least one novel, It's My F---ing Birthday, which I hadn't known existed until approximately 11:15 this morning. It's a novel in seven monologues, or letters to herself, from a woman on seven birthdays in her life. I like funny novels, I like the way Markoe writes, and I'm a sucker for books with interesting structures, so I grabbed it.

The Book of Vice is subtitled "Very Naughty Things (and How to Do Them)," which all by itself is a good enough reason to buy it. (The way that it vaguely mocks the mid-90s Bill Bennett The Book of Virtues is pretty good, too.) It's by Peter Sagal, who seems to be another one of those people with much, much more interesting and fulfilling careers than I do (broadcaster, playwright, screenwriter, writer for New York Times Magazine).

The American Future
goes on my Simon Schama pile -- with the three volumes of A History of Britain and with Rembrandt's Eyes, as well as three or four other books in various other places around here. There was a point at which I was reading Schama's books more quickly than he was writing them, but that time ended about a decade ago. Perhaps my mental image of myself as a man who reads Simon Schama books is in error?

I grabbed Mark Stein's How the States Got Their Shapes because I liked the title, and because I'm enjoying working my way (slowly) through State by State. As far as I can see, this book is exactly what it says it is.

I read Thy Neighbor's Wife -- the classic Gay Talese examination of the landscape of the sexual revolution of the '70s -- furtively as a young teenager, twenty-five or so years ago. I'd thought about it occasionally since then, but never expected to re-read it. But I saw this new HarperPerennial edition -- with updates from Talese and a foreword by Katie Roiphe -- and decided it was time to look at it again, and see what (if anything) of it I remembered.

And last for me was Donald E. Westlake's last Dortmunder novel, Get Real. It's a damn shame he's gone, but at least there's this one last book (and the upcoming, long-lost Memory) to remember him with.
Listening to: Cracker - Hand Me My Inhaler
via FoxyTunes

The Hornswoggler Family Hershey Park Leader Board

The family spent the front half of the week at Hershey Park, which I suppose is our favorite theme park (since we go there more than anywhere else). We had a lot of fun, got very tired, and only suffered slightly from the sun and crowds.

Most importantly, Hershey has eleven roller coasters, and my two sons -- Thing 1, eleven years old and about 5'4", and Thing 2, eight years old and a little shy of five feet -- were all tall enough to go on all of the thrill rides there.

And so the final tally was:
  • Thing 2, with a perfect 11 rollercoasters
  • (tie) Thing 1, with 10 (missing the newest, most "extreme" coaster, Fahrenheit, since he did it last year)
  • (tie) G.B.H. himself, with 10 (missing the Roller Soaker, a lousy "water roller coaster" with huge lines and minimal thrills)
  • The Wife, who was enticed to go on one coaster, and regretted it the rest of the day
By next year, the boys may not need me at all. And I'm not sure if I'll be looking forward to that, or regretting it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

James Bond Daily: 007 Dislikes Facial Hair

From pp.113-114 of Moonraker, originally published in 1955:
With the exception of Drax they all wore the same tight nylon overalls fastened with plastic zips. There was nowhere a hint of metal and none wore spectacles. As in the case of Walter and Krebs their heads were close-shaved, presumably, Bond would have thought, to prevent a loose hair falling into the mechanism. And yet, and this struck Bond as a most bizarre characteristic of the team, each man sported a luxuriant moustache to whose culture it was clear that a great deal of attention had been devoted. They were in all shapes and tints: fair or mousy or dark; handlebar, walrus, Kaiser, Hitler -- each face bore its own hairy badge amongst which the rank, reddish growth of Drax's facial hair blazed like the official stamp of their paramount chief.

Why, wondered Bond, should every man on the site wear a moustache? He had never liked the things, but combined with these shaven heads, there was something positively obscene about this crop of hairy tufts. It would have been just bearable if they had all been cut to the same patter, but this range of individual fashions, this riot of personalized growth, had something particularly horrible about it against the background of naked round heads.
Listening to: The Mummers - Wonderland (Edit)
via FoxyTunes

Movie Log: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

The family hadn't been to see a movie in the theater together in a while, so we wandered off to the local four-plex on Friday evening to eat overpriced popcorn from a gigantic vat and watch the three-quel Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

The short version: it's no better, and no worse, than the first two movies; it's amusing and doesn't actively stumble, but it's dumb, derivative, and incredibly obvious.

As is required with American mass-marketed sequels, the major theme is "how can friends stay together when things change in their lives" and at least one new, "zany" character must be added -- in this case, Simon Pegg as a crazy subterranean weasel. Also, since one of the subplots is about pregnancy, the male parent-to-be must be a frantic ninny whenever required for humor.

Given all of the constraints on it, Ice Age 3 isn't bad -- like the first two movies, it's a solid piece of all-American cheese, aimed right down the middle of American culture. These movies neither aim for the aggressively "hip" cultural references of DreamWork's animated movies, nor do they have any deep understanding of story and character like the folks at Pixar. Blue Sky is the Baby Bear of American animation -- neither Too Smart nor Too Dumb for Joe Sixpack, which makes them Just Right. There's no reason to see this movie unless you have children of a certain age, but -- if you do -- it will not be painful. (As long as you don't get any of that popcorn stuck in a difficult-to-reach place.)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Message from the Management

We're sorry, but Antick Musings is temporarily unavailable due to an oversupply of frivolity and merrymaking. Please try again tomorrow.

Monday, July 27, 2009

James Bond Daily: A Day in the Life

From pp. 008-009 of 1955's Moonraker, in which Bond goes to the office:
Bond sighed and sat down at his desk, pulling towards him the tray of brown folders bearing the top-secret red star, And what about 0011? It was two months since he had vanished into the 'Dirty Half-mile' in Singapore. Not a word since. While he, Bond, the senior of the three men in the Service who had earned the double 0 number, sat at his comfortable desk doing paper-work and flirting with their secretary.

He shrugged his shoulders and resolutely opened the top folder. Inside there was a detailed map of south Poland and north-eastern German. Its feature was a straggling red line connecting Warsaw and Berlin., There was also a long typewritten memorandum headed Mainline: a well-established Escape Route from East to West.

Bond took out his black gunmetal cigarette-box and his black-oxidized Ronson lighter and pout them on the desk beside him. He lit a cigarette, one of the Macedonian blend with the three gold rings round the butt that Morlands of Grosvenor Street made for him, then he settled himself forward in the padded swivel chair and began to read.

It was the beginning of a typical routine day for Bond. It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant -- elastic office hours from about ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends, or at Crockford's; or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London.

He took no holidays, but was generally given a fortnight's leave at the end of each assignment -- in addition to any sick-leave that might be necessary. He earned £1500 a year, the salary of a Principal Officer in the Civil Service, and he had a thousand a year free of tax of his own. When he was on a job he could spend as much as he liked, so for the other months of the year he could live very well on his £2000 a year net.

He had a small but comfortable flat off the King's Road, an elderly Scottish housekeeper -- a treasure called May -- and a 1930 4½-liter Bentley coupé, supercharged, which he kept expertly tuned so that he could do a hundred when he wanted to.

On these things he spent all his money and it was his ambition to have as little as possible in his banking account when he was killed, as when he was depressed, he knew he would be, before the statutory age of forty-five.

Eight years to go before he was automatically taken off the 00 list and given a staff job at Headquarters. At least eight tough assignments. Probably sixteen. Perhaps twenty-four. Too many.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 7/25

Here's another week's worth of the mail -- all of these are books that I received for review, and I do hope to review many of them. But, just to cover them all, here's what I know or can tell about them without reading them.

First is Why Does E=mc2?: (and why should we care?) by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, a popular science book by two noted particle physicists and professors about exactly what Einstein's famous equation means -- each element of it and in whole. It was published this month by Da Capo Press in hardcover.

And then, from a completely different kind of publishing plan, there's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty by Raymond Benson. It's the sequel to Benson's first novel based on the video game -- that one was just called Metal Gear Solid -- and it has more adventures of Solid Snake and similar deeply characterized individuals. And it will be published by Del Rey in trade paperback in November.

W.W. Norton's program of reprinting Will Eisner's graphic novels continues this month with three books Eisner created in the '90s:
  • Life on Another Planet (originally published as Signal from Space), about the discovery of a mysterious radio signal of alien origin, was originally published in 1995.
  • 1998's A Family Matter is one of Eisner's family melodramas, with a family gathering to celebrate their patriarch's 90th birthday -- and that, of course, is not nearly as happy and conflict-free as it might be.
  • And Minor Miracles, published for the first time in 2000, sees Eisner look back to his childhood for inspiration one more time, as he "explores the everyday miracles of our lives."
And last for this week is a new collection of the first two years of the classic humor strip Bringing Up Father, by George McManus. When I say "classic," I mean it -- this is the real deal, from 1913-1914. NBM published this collection in July, and -- from those of us who have been hearing about Maggie & Jiggs for years, without having more than scattered strips to read -- I hope this is as good as I've been hearing it is, and that they are successful enough to continue reprinting it.

And, with that, I have to give the last word to Josh Ritter...

Listening to: Josh Ritter - Me & Jiggs
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vacation Notes

Right at this very moment, I am on vacation. And I had been hoping that said vacation would mean that I'd have time to catch up on the posts I wanted to make here (reviewing 8 books and covering 2 movies) and for ComicMix (7 books that should turn into 4-6 reviews). Sadly, it looks like that won't be the case; I'm busy.

Yesterday was the big Cub Scout camp-out and picnic, so I had to drag my two sons (the elder of whom has graduated from Cub Scouts and has no intention of becoming a Boy Scout, but he's stuck) out into the woods for an afternoon of barbecue, hearty outdoor games, and repeated questions of when it would be over. Eventually, The Wife arrived for the sleepover portion of the event -- I'll be damned if I'm sleeping in the woods on purpose as long as I have a perfectly good roof and bed -- and stayed there with the still dewey-eyed and camp-happy younger son, Thing 2.

Thing 1 and I decamped to my mother's house for a dinner with my brother -- visiting from Oregon for the weekend -- and then finally got home about nine. I then watched about two-thirds of Watchmen (how am I liking it so far? Well, the fact that I could stop in the middle should be a clue) and then went to bed.

Today Thing 1 and I ran back up to the campsite, fresh bagels in hand, to help with pack-out. We brought everything home, spread it all out to dry in the yard, and had a short pause before I took the two boys back to my mother's for another meal with my brother (so Thing 2 could get some uncle time in). And then, around 3:30, I drove said brother to JFK for his flight back to Portland. Coming back, I got caught in a nasty, hail-filled downpour -- and also ended up going twenty or thirty miles out of my way, trying a different way back from the airport -- and finally got back here around 7:30.

So I've already lost two days that I could have been blogging, or lazing on a couch, or something.

Tomorrow we head off to Hershey Park, land of rollercoasters and chocolate-coded rides, which will eat up another two and a half days. More activities are planned for the back half of the week...and then next Monday will see me, bright and early, on a hotel function room floor in a Wiley booth at the awe-inspiring American Accounting Association show. Luckily, it's in New York this year, so I can do it from home, but it's still going to be a tough week to come back.

And then I'm off to Worldcon that weekend. (And the week after Worldcon is the company's thrice-yearly Sales Meeting -- luckily, this is one of the ones in New Jersey.)

It's beginning to look like I have the vacation at the wrong end of the month.

Anyway, I still do hope to catch up on all that typing stuff this week, but I'm less clear on when I'll have time to do it. Content may be light here for a week or three, and my reviews at ComicMix may become less dependable again. But, as always, We'll See what really happens.

Listening to: Talking Heads - Life During Wartime
via FoxyTunes

Dateline: Afghanistan, 1986

On Friday and over at the ComicMix, I reviewed a book by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier called The Photographer, which mixed photojournalist Lefevre's real photos and art by Lemercier and Guibert to tell the story of Lefevre's first trip to Afghanistan -- then under Russian occupation -- with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.

Listening to: Randy Newman - Short People
via FoxyTunes

James Bond Daily: Sexual Ennui

From p.149 of Casino Royale:
With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affair, The conventional parabola -- sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the final bitterness was to him shameful and hypocritical. Even more he shunned the mise en scene for each of those acts in the play -- the meeting at a party, the restaurant, the taxi, his flat, her flat, then the week-end by the sea, then the flats again, then the furtive alibis and the final angry farewell on some doorstep in the rain.

Movie Log: The Great Buck Howard

The Great Buck Howard is a movie that feels like it's missing a reel -- well, not one whole reel, but it does feel like it should have a few more scenes to pull everything together and make it all cohere.

It's a pleasant movie that can't decide who its main character is. It starts with a young man, Troy (Colin Hanks), who isn't quite sure what he wants to do with life but has just become sure that law school isn't what he wants. Troy wanders to LA in a vague attempt to "write," then -- when he realizes that he actually needs a job to keep him going -- answers an ad to become the road manager and general factotum for "The Great Buck Howard" (John Malkovich). And then Howard mostly takes over the movie -- though it's not his story at all, since he doesn't change, and his arc is pretty flat. But he dominates the scenes between the two of them -- as would be expected -- and also the scenes he isn't in. And Troy's voice and presence isn't strong enough to overcome the Buck-ization of the movie.

Howard is a moderately veiled version of the The Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist who used to be reasonably big -- lots of appearances on The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson days; long stints in Vegas; the usual -- but has settled into a routine of half-empty halls in third-rate cities, doing the same corny act night after night across the country. He's demanding and finicky, but Troy learns how to handle him. There are the usual small triumphs and set-backs leading up to the huge triumph and set-back (or vice versa); the structure of The Great Buck Howard could have come right out of a screenwriting seminar.

So The Great Buck Howard is nearly a road-show My Favorite Year, down to the new love the young man finds along the way. But both the movie and Troy are less focused; Troy's ambitions aren't clearly defined -- does he want to become a screenwriter? is this the movie that he wrote about his life? -- and Buck Howard has a mostly episodic structure, with episodes of unfortunately very different lengths. It should be a movie about how Troy turned into whoever it is that he's going to turn into, but it's more about how he hung out with this weird old guy for a while and came to like him.

There are lots and lots of solid actors in secondary roles -- you can see a line of them on the box cover, though none of those guys share a scene with each other, or with much of anyone but Hanks Jr. and Malkovich -- and the whole movie is pleasant and professional. But, like Oakland, when you reach the end, there really wasn't a there there.

Listening to: Midwest Dilemma - Damage Is Done
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, July 25, 2009

James Bond Daily: Bond & M Are Not Quite As Racist As You'd Expect

From pp.016-017 of Live and Let Die, originally published in 1954:
'I don't think I've ever heard of a great Negro criminal before,' said Bond. Chinamen, of course, the men behind the opium trade. There've been some big-time Japs, mostly in pearls and drugs. Plenty of negroes mixed up in diamonds and gold in Africa, but always in a small way. They don't seem to take to big business. Pretty law-abiding chaps I should have thought, except when they've drunk too much.'

'Our man's a bit of an exception,' said M. He's not pure negro. Born in Haiti. Good dose of French blood. Trained in Moscow, too, as you'll see from the file. And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all the professions -- scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal. After all, there are 250,000,000 of them in the world. Nearly a third of the white population. They've got plenty of brains and ability and guts. And now Moscow's taught one of them the technique.'

Friday, July 24, 2009

James Bond Daily: Live and Let Die

This second James Bond novel was published in 1954, barely a year after the first -- and the Bond books would continue to appear every year until Fleming's death in 1964, and even thereafter, with the last (possibly unpolished) novel The Man With the Golden Gun in '65 and the last few stories scraped up into Octopussy and The Living Daylights in '66.

From the movies, we have an image of Bond in one world -- the '60s, if we're a fan of Connery's straightforward toughness, or the '70s, if we prefer the baroque complexities of Moore. But Fleming's Bond is a creature of the post-war era, of the '50s. He lived and worked when the Cold War was quite warm indeed, when detente wasn't even a joking possibility. His backstory reaches solidly into World War II, and in particular the quiet, darker corners of that war. Fleming's Bond is a man of sniper rifles and knives in the back, of dark alleys and darker actions. The Double-O number doesn't signify elitism or status, as it does in the movies, but is instead a label for a man who has gone too far to get back, an explanation for why he is what he is.

All of the Bond novels take place in a dead era -- one that some of us remember, but none of us have lived in for a generation -- and Live and Let Die is particularly dated, with its voodoo plot and black "Mr. Big" villain. (Though Mr. Big is genuinely nasty and as terrifying as any other villain in the Bond novels; Fleming makes it quite clear that he, and his characters, don't consider blacks essentially inferior, which is an unexpected touch. He also explicitly out-thinks Bond several times; Fleming portrays him as startlingly smart and foresighted.) The dangerous, deadly black men Bond faces here are nearly a decade prior to the Black Panthers and mid-'60s riots; Fleming might turn their dialect into something very ugly on the page -- and he does; rendering much of the dialogue in Harlem nearly incomprehensible -- but he does certainly allow them agency and strength.

This novel has somewhat more plot than Casino Royale did; M sets Bond on the trail of Mr. Big, who has somehow found and is smuggling a four hundred-year-old treasure of gold coins, hidden by Henry Morgan somewhere on Jamaica, to finance his own criminal empire and his Russian backers. "The Big Man" is also, explicitly, a trained agent of SMERSH, that Soviet agency of terror and the policing of spies that Bond has made it his mission to wipe out as thoroughly as he can. And so Bond meets up with his CIA counterpart Felix Leiter -- whom he'd met in Casino -- to start with Big's Harlem base and work their way back, through Fort Lauderdale, to Jamaica.

But Big is more dangerous and smart than they'd expected, and he stays ahead of them for most of the book. Leiter is nearly killed, and Bond survives several times due mostly to luck and his own hypertrophied survival instincts. In the end, Bond gets the girl -- Big's captive (white) fortune-teller Solitaire -- and Big gets killed, but it's in large part due to luck (and another large part due to Bond's planning).

Bond's world is nihilistic; he does believe that he's better than the monsters he fights, but he's not all that much better -- and he knows that. And each monster takes something out of him -- even though he doesn't have all that much to begin with. I'm not claiming these books are great literature -- clearly they're not -- but they are very good, tough-minded novels of violence and conflict, exemplary thrillers of the Cold War.

Quote of the Week

"In our age if a boy or girl is untalented, the odds are in favor of their thinking they want to write."
- W.H. Auden

Thursday, July 23, 2009

James Bond Daily: Not a Good Flight

From pp.159-160 of Live and Let Die, describing an airplane in a storm in 1954:
He looked at the racks of magazine and thought: they won't help much when the steel tires at fifteen thousand feet, nor will the eau-de-cologne in the washroom, nor the personalized meals, the free razor, the 'orchid for your lady' now trembling in the ice-box. Least of all the safety-belts and the life-jackets with the whistle that the steward demonstrates will really blow, nor the cute little rescue-lamp that glows red.

No, when the stresses are too great for the tired metal, when the ground mechanic who checks the de-icing equipment is crossed in love and skimps his job, way back in London, Idlewild, Gander, Montreal; when those or many things happen, then the little warm room with propellers in front falls straight down out of the sky into the sea or on to the land, heavier than air, fallible, vain. And the forty little heavier-than-air people, fallible within the plane's fallibility, vain within its larger vanity, fall down with it and make little holes in the land or little splashes in the sea. Which is anyway their destiny, so why worry? You are linked to the ground mechanic's careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on, for the first and last time, while you are motoring quietly home from some private sin. There's nothing to do about it. You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother's womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. Perhaps they'll even let you get to Jamaica tonight. Can't you hear those cheerful voices in the control tower that have said quietly all day long, 'Come in BOAC. Come in Panam. Come in KLM?' Can't you hear them calling you down too: 'Come in Transcarib. Come in Transcarib'? Don't lose faith in your stars. Remember that hot stitch of time when you faced death from The Robber's gun last night. You're still alive, aren't you? There, we're out of it already. It was just to remind you that being quick with a gun doesn't mean you're really tough. Just don't forget it. This happy landing at Paliadoes Airport comes to your courtesy of your stars. Better thank them.

Bond unfastened his seat-belt and wiped the sweat off his face.

To hell with it, he thought, as he stepped down out of the huge strong plane.

A Rising Tide Lifts More Than One Boat

Recently, Eric of Pimp My Novel (who works in sales at a major house) wrote a post that argued that the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol, will take sales from other books rather than increase the total number of books sold when it's published. He had several reasons, which he enumerated.

I believe Eric is wrong. I could list a similar set of reasons, but I decided to use numbers instead. So I looked up sales for the last major blockbuster release, Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn. (I'm using the usual sales-tracking system for the book industry, and giving round figures and percentages to avoid revealing proprietary information. Those of you who also have access to that system can check my work, if you wish.)

Breaking Dawn was published August 2, 2008 (a Friday), and sold more than three-quarters of a million copies for the week ending August 3rd. (But not vastly more; it was less than a full million.) Total universe of book sales that week was between fifteen and sixteen million, closer to sixteen.

The previous week -- a week without Breaking Dawn -- total sales were a bit under fourteen million. Those sales were 13% below those of Breaking Dawn's debut week, and sales of frontlist books (new ones) jumped up 22% to the week with Breaking Dawn.

Breaking Dawn was responsible, all by itself, for only 44% of the sales increase. Therefore, 56% of that increase -- slightly less than a million units total -- was in sales of other books.

But sometimes a particular week is strong, no matter what the year, so I also looked back at that same week (31, for those following at home) in 2007 -- those sales were actually a bit lower than week 30 in 2008, and 14% below week 31 in 2008.

So: this is only one example, but I believe it's the usual pattern. Breaking Dawn's release caused an increase of 13% in all book sales from the previous week -- or a 14% increase from the same week a year before -- and it only accounted for 44% of the increase itself.

This is the common wisdom in publishing; that big books sell more books. Event books bring customers in to the store and predispose them to buy, and those customers do not, on average and contrary to Eric's assumptions, just walk out with that single book.

Therefore, big books are good for the business; they increase sales of books in general. If the Breaking Dawn pattern holds true for The Last Symbol, the week it's published should see an increase of nearly a million copies sold of entirely different books.

Listening to: Richard Thompson - Nobody's Wedding [Live]
via FoxyTunes

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger and Other Oddities by Lucy A. Snyder

If you've ever read Charles Stross's "Laundry" novels, or his magnificently chilly story "A Colder War," and thought to yourself, "this is really great, but I wish it was shorter and done for laughs," then Lucy Snyder is the writer you have been looking for.

Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (And Other Oddities) collects twelve stories, all of them humorous, and most of them in a post-Onion neo-non-fiction style. Touchstones include zombie movies, H.P. Lovecraft, and geeky culture in general.

This is a short book, and it's mostly made up of complicated jokes for geeks, so I'm not going to get into detailed story notes. Snyder does create something like a world in these short pieces, though -- she rings changes on the same concepts through several stories (or barefacedly repeats her own best ideas over and over again, if you prefer) that collectively add up to a slacker's-eye view of a somewhat more interesting (in the "ancient Chinese proverb" sense) world than our own.

This is a short book (barely a hundred pages), and difficult to find; it was published by a micro press and probably isn't available many places. (On the other hand, I just looked it up on BookScan, and discovered that there's plenty of stock in one of Ingram's warehouses, so anybody's local store could easily order it.) But, if the idea of creating a zombie badger through Linux is already making you giggle, you know that you already want this book.

Listening to: Bess Rogers - Bulldozer
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Mike and Lamar Show!

For no good reason, I reviewed two comics-as-books today, both published by AdHouse, for ComicMix, under the rubric "post-genre superheroes." I have no explanations for my actions.

Those two books were Mike Dawson's Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms and Lamar Abrams's Remake.

The culprit is still at large.

Listening to: The Monolators - I Must Be Dreaming
via FoxyTunes

Blogging and Publishing Cynicism

I was just writing a comment on this post at OF Blog of the Fallen, and it got away from me. I'm not sure it entirely makes sense without Larry's original post -- so go read that -- but I'll stick it here as well, just because.

First, the fact that not all copies of a manufactured commodity are eventually sold is not at all unusual. What's different about the book/magazine industry is the ability of retailers to return unsold product; most retailers just have to eat unsalable goods. There's no such thing as "returns" in consumer electronics or evening wear, but there definitely is a percentage of unsold and unsalable goods on every single consumer product. Many are marked down in place, but many more are destroyed.

(And, yes, a book is a consumer product. It may be other things, but a consumer good it always is.)

Second, this is not cynicism; it's realism. Newspapers and magazines are vastly reducing their coverage of books; they were even before the economic crisis, and it's gotten much worse. Publicists and marketers are trying to get their books into the hands of people who will talk about them to a reasonable audience, and bloggers are such people. This might not be business to you, but it's business to them -- you're getting that book because The Ann Arbor News went under, and those marketers and publicists would really like someone to see and appreciate their books.

Also, unless your numbers are much higher than I suspect, or your response rates are vastly through the roof, any one (non-superstar) blog will probably move a dozen or so copies of a novel, at best. But, then again, The Ann Arbor News probably didn't move more books than that, either.

And those now out-of-work newspaper people were just as passionate about books as any of us. Sure, they were usually paid (badly), and we aren't, but otherwise it's mostly a different of format and preferred genres.

(Also, what Charles said -- I won't repeat it, but it's all true.)

James Bond Daily: The Very First Talking Killer

From page 114 of Casino Royale:
'Perhaps I should explain,' said Le Chiffre. 'I intend to continue attacking the sensitive parts of your body until you answer my question. I am without mercy and there will be no relenting. There is no one to stage a last-minute rescue and there is no possibility of escape for you. This is not a romantic adventure story in which the villain is finally routed and the hero is given a medal and marries the girl. Unfortunately these things don't happen in real life. If you continue to be obstinate, you will be tortured to the edge of madness and then the girl will be brought in and we will set about her in front of you. If that is still not enough, you will both be painfully killed and I shall reluctantly leave your bodies and make my way abroad to a comfortable house which is waiting for me. There I shall take up a useful and profitable career and live to a ripe and peaceful old age in the bosom of the family I shall doubtless create. So you see, my dear boy, that I stand to lose nothing. If you hand the money over, so much the better. If not, I shall shrug my shoulders and be on my way.'

Adam Roberts Hates Your Hugo Vote

In case you didn't know, Adam Roberts has better taste than you do.

So stop fooling your silly little head with the idea that you know what you like to read, and what's of interest to you. Just do what he says in future, and he won't have to whine at you a second time. Read the books he tells you to, and then vote for them when award time comes. You clearly aren't competent to judge what you enjoy and want to honor.

After all, Roberts teaches at a university, and that makes him unimpeachable. Remember: the thing to do is to listen to experts on literary matters, and avoid things that they consider mediocre or sub-literary. That's how SF got to where it is today, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

James Bond Daily: Casino Royale

The first James Bond novel was published in 1953; it was Ian Fleming's first book. (And I looked at it just a few years ago.)

I don't know if I have much more to say about it than I did in 2006; the book's Bond is very different from the movie Bond -- even the supposedly "tough" ones, like early Connery and parkour-happy Craig -- but I want to think about those differences more, as I read more of the books.

Another thing I'll want to think about is the shape of the series -- Bond is seriously injured in the middle of Casino Royale, at the hands of an enemy, escapes through no action of his own, seriously considers resigning from the service, and is nursed back to health by Vesper Lynd, who turns out -- as so many Bond girls do -- to not be quite as true and trustworthy as she appears. And, as I recall, something quite similar happens in You Only Live Twice, the last novel to be published when Fleming was alive.

Casino Royale is a tough novel of applied spycraft; it's definitely sensationalized -- I doubt any real-world spy ever set out to ruin his opposite number at the baccarat table -- but it's solidly set in the real Cold War '50s, with many references to the events and names of the day that would affect a spy like Bond. Fleming was surpassed in psychological realism by many later writers of spy novels, but Bond is still a fascinatingly spiky character, deeply damaged and re-healed broken like a badly set leg. And we do have to remember that his world is not ours -- doubly so, since his world is nearly sixty years in the past now, and the feral world of the Cold War practitioners (or of any similar agents, now or ever) is very different from the world of law most of us live in.

Movie Log: He's Just Not That Into You

I told The Wife that I'd be perfectly happy to watch He's Just Not That Into You with her on Saturday night -- as long as the sometimes-buggy wireless Internet was working, so I could do it with my laptop at hand and the movie with only about half of my attention. It was, so I did.

I've seen this movie described as a somewhat dumbed-down American version of Love, Actually (one of our favorite movies), and that's vaguely true -- it's a collection of loosely-linked plotlines, all basically in the romantic-comedy genre.

As with Love, Actually, having a whole bunch -- four or five, depending on how you count -- of romantic plots means that He's Just Not That Into You doesn't need to spin out stupid complications and silliness from any one of them; it can jump back and forth, and just give us good scenes from each plot. (Of course, any movie can just give us the good, important scenes, but it's never actually that easy.)

There's also a Greek-chorus effect several times, particularly early on in the movie, as unnamed other women -- this is a movie aimed squarely at women, in case you didn't notice that -- comment on men, their own love lives, and similar topics. It's a nice effect, and makes He's Just Not That Into You somewhat more interesting and sprightly than it would otherwise be.

This is not a great movie, but it's a decent one; it has a solid cast of nice-looking people who can act and mostly do. I won't run through all of the separate plots, since they're all fairly standard, even if they don't all end happily, which is rare for Hollywood. This is an excellent movie for a bunch of women to see together -- one might even say it was designed for that, which it probably was -- but men of even average tolerance for chick flicks will make it to the end without cringing much and probably even with some enjoyment. (And not just of Scarlett Johansson's naked swimming scene.)

Listening to: State Shirt - Hospital Hill
via FoxyTunes