Monday, July 31, 2006

Book-A-Day #15 (7/31): Odyssey by Jack McDevitt

And now I have finished reading it. It's not publishing until November (and I read it under my SFBC hat), so no plot details from me.

I'll just note that SFBC Editor-in-Chief Ellen Asher and I seem to have, without planning it that way, divided Jack's books between us: I read the Priscilla Hutchins novels (of which this is one) and she reads the Alex Benedict books. So this is my first McDevitt novel in a couple of years; it's good to be back.

I Have Just Voted for the Hugos

So I've safeguarded my right to complain.

(Though it won't be about the novel category, if I do -- they're all OK, but I'm not passionate about any of them this year.)

Movie Log: Unbreakable

The Wife and I watched this last night, which means I'm, for once, caught up on my movie posts. Why did no one warn me about this movie?

M. Night Shamalyan might just be the most self-satisfied filmmaker in the history of the world, and I say that having just seen one and only one of his more minor movies. Unbreakable has some of the most obvious, the most cliched, and the most intrusive camera moves I have ever seen. I don't think there's a single shot in this movie that is allowed to just exist; everything is framed and juxtaposed, with curtains wafting in front and heavenly light streaming in back. He's also far-too-fond of the Muddy Scene With One Character In a Bright Color -- the repetition of that trick four times in a row in the Grand Central scene led me to call out, "I get it -- people who wear bright colors are evil!" (And, really, it's not that foggy inside Grand Central.)

Oh boy is this one a mess. Bruce Willis plays the nearly wordless David, who, on the evidence of this movie, majored in College Stadium Security and immediately went to work in his chosen field (at the amazing University Stadium, which has at least two college football games a week, one during the middle of a weekday!). I am amazed that roving security guard at a college football stadium is a full-time, all-year job, but apparently it is in Shamalyan's world. Oh, and David is also the sole survivor of the train wreck that is this movie in the opening credits. (He survived both that and a flashback car-crash without a scratch on his person, proving that he has a John-Byrne-Superman force-field to protect his clothes.) Samuel L. Jackson is his new-found best friend, the amazing Elijah, who runs a comics art gallery at which he refuses to sell a crappy piece of original art to Unnamed Yuppie 1 for his 4-year-old, but lives in an apartment where all of his presumably-valuable comics are displayed on shelves carefully placed to maximize the damage done to them by the sun. Elijah believes David needs to use his powers for good, though he doesn't quite put it that way. And Elijah is just as fragile as David is...dare I say it?...unbreakable, with bones that shatter if you look at them sideways. (Subtlety, I'm beginning to guess, is not one of Shamalyan's strong points.)

David is having Unspecified Marital Trouble with his long-suffering wife -- oh, and, they seem to live in a very large, nice house on his stadium security drone salary (yes, he's salaried, rather than working on an hourly wage -- this is a plot point!), perhaps enhanced by the money wifey makes as a physical therapist. (Maybe that's not so unlikely; Unbreakable is set in Philadelphia, where housing prices aren't all that high, comparatively). That's one of the major problems of Unbreakable -- far too much of it is unspecified. Everybody's backstory is vague, and nobody talks about anything interesting, useful, or on-topic. (David is practically mute, the wife says the same things over and over again, and Elijah just rants in a very un-geekly nonspecific manner about comics.)

I haven't even mentioned the part where Elijah triumphantly declares that David's superhero weakness is water -- and the movie takes it seriously! Really, this film is just a parade of unbelievable things loosely held together by moody cinematography. I'd vaguely wanted to see this movie for five years for the comic-book connection, but it was not worth it. It's probably a good movie to make fun of, though...

Book-A-Day #14 (7/30): The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby by Dav Pilkey

I read this to Thing 2 at bedtime over the last two nights -- it's a comic-strip format book, supposedly written and illustrated by the heroes of the "Captain Underpants" series. So it's a short, middle-grades book, and a sidebar to an existing series. It's fun for Captain Underpants fans, but I don't think anyone else would be interested.

I wouldn't normally have listed it (since I've read it to one of the boys at least twice before), but I didn't manage to finish Odyssey yesterday, and I want to keep up the book-a-day pace. (And it is a book which I did finish yesterday.)

Oh, and no one reading this outside my household will care, but: the long-awaited eighth "Captain Underpants" book is coming out two weeks from tomorrow! The boys are beside themselves with joy, and I'm vaguely happy myself (not quite as happy as I am by the fact that the new Haruki Murakami short-story collection is coming out the same day, but happy enough).

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/23

This week the magic number is nine, and these are the book I was reading this week in 1997:
  • Iain M. Banks, Consider Phlebas (7/16)
    I remember that I bought my copy in Phoenix Books in Lambertville, NJ -- a great used-book store just across the Delaware river from New Hope, PA, where The Wife and I took lots of vacations in those pre-kid days. We usually went in October, which means it took me most of a year to get around to Consider Phlebas; that sounds about right for a long book on my to-be-read stacks. The book itself I remember reasonably well; it was the first of the Culture novels (though about the fourth one I read), and a quite good piece of modern space opera, if not the best of the series.
  • Jack Vance, Galactic Effectuator (7/17)
    A fix-up of several (I want to say three) stories about some kind of private-eye type in Vance's typical medium-future universe. (I think there are officially set in the Gaean Reach, but I'm not sure.)
  • Phil Farrand, The Nitpicker's Guide for X-Philes (7/17)
    I was very fond of this series -- Farrand did three or four guides to the errors, flubs, miscues, and other things that didn't quite make sense in various Star Trek shows, and then did this one. (And then disappeared, apparently.) They were very entertaining, Farrand was exacting in his criticism without being a jerk about it, and the books sold very well for the SFBC. The X-Philes guide was the last one, and I haven't seen Farrand's name for close to a decade now. I wonder what he's doing now?
  • Terry Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb (7/19)
    Third in the "Johnny Maxwell Trilogy," proof yet again that any three books with the same main character automatically become a trilogy whether the author intended it or not. All three are excellent YA novels, quite suitable for adults as well, and possibly of interest to readers who haven't tried Pratchett yet because Discworld looks too much like epic fantasy. (If so, I'd suggest trying the middle Johnny Maxwell book, Johnny and the Dead, which I consider the best of the three.)
  • Greg Bear, Dinosaur Summer (7/19)
    A boy goes off to a (plateau? island? I forget exactly) place where dinosaurs still exist, along with his father (I think), who was doing something professional there (probably an expedition). I found this slow-moving and a bit dull at the time, which might be why I don't remember the details. Did it have illustrations? I have a vague feeling it did. Anyway, I didn't think it was one of Bear's best books.
  • David Brin, The Postman (7/20)
    I read it because the movie was coming, and we've found that movies do great things for the original books in the SFBC. (Even really bad movies -- we sold a lot of copies of this and Starship Troopers in the late '90s.) I liked the book, and thought it would make a good movie (especially if the filmmakers didn't get too ambitious and just made a movie of the first novella in this fix-up -- that story is just about the right size for a movie). I never saw the film, and I don't intend to, but it looks like they didn't do what I hoped.
  • The Best of Fritz Leiber (7/22)
    This was one of the first books I caused to be published (re-published, in this case) in the SFBC, back in 1991, but I'd never actually read it. (Though I had read most of the stories, at one time or another.) Six years later, I finally remedied that.
  • Jon A. Jackson, Dead Folks (7/23)
    I read the first several "Det. Sgt. Fang Mulheisen" novels, and liked them, but I think this was the point where I started backing off -- Mulheisen, who had been the viewpoint character for the series, was replaced (partially or completed) by a mobster named Joe (something-or-other), who wasn't terribly interesting. I read a book or two that were mostly about Joe and his schemes, and I bailed on the series. I'm not sure where this book is in that progression, but I think it was pretty Joe-heavy.
Oh, I'm exceptionally late this week -- as a matter of fact, it's already next week. Maybe I can get the next one out tomorrow, and speed things up...

Movie Log: Peter Pan (2003)

This week, for "Boys' Movie Saturday" (in which my two sons and I try to avoid having a completely aimless day -- while my wife is at work -- by at least watching a movie we haven't seen before, or at least not seen at home), I finally got the boys to watch the recent live-action Peter Pan, which Thing 1 had seen with the wife and I in the theater when it came out. (I think it was a bit much for him at the time, since he was mildly against seeing it again, up until the point I turned it on this afternoon.)

I don't have much to say about it; I think this is one of the most nearly perfect translations of a work from another form into film. (And, yes, the filmmakers did make some large changes, such as eliminating the Never Bird and giving Hook an unexpectedly more active role in the big end fight scene. But all of those changes work exceptionally well; they make this Peter Pan both a movie rather than a filmed version of a stage play and a modern version of the story rather than a deliberately retro one.) Just casting Peter as a boy -- as he always should be -- is a major step.

But, sometime before I die, I hope cloning or other bio-technology has reached such a state that Peter can finally be done correctly. Peter Pan should be a much younger boy than he appears in this movie (where he's on the edge of puberty -- presumably frozen there); he's described in the novel as still having all of his milk teeth and as being smaller than the other Lost Boys. But, obviously, there's no chance of getting the right performance out of a boy that young. So, what I hope to see in about 2050 is a good adult actor in the body of about a five-year-old as Pan -- it would also be particularly interesting if the same actor (in another body) doubled Hook as well...

Hugo Voting Deadline is Tonight

The deadline for your Hugo ballots is tonight at midnight, Pacific Daylight Time -- just about 18 hours away as I type this.

It's too late for mail delivery, but you can still vote online if you're a member of LA Con IV. Please do so; I don't want to hear any complaining about the results by people who didn't vote this year.

Movie Log: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was supposed to be the Boys' Movie Saturday movie for last Saturday, but the usually-dependable USPS took an extra two days to get the movie to us, so we ended up watching it a week ago Tuesday.

The most notable thing is that I did not realize this movie was rated PG-13 until about half an hour in, when, a bit surprised by a few scenes of (relatively tasteful) body-part-chopping and by the use of the word "brothel," I got up and checked the Netflix sleeve. (So shame on me for not thinking of that sooner.) By that point, Thing 1 had fled for the first time (because, I hasten to add, he was worried about boring girly stuff -- he loved the body-part-chopping) and Thing 2 had fled for good (he was a little tired and just not that interested). Thing 1 eventually watched most of the movie with me, and got quite upset when, for a little while, he thought there might not be a happy ending. (He's only eight, and still believes fervently that all stories have happy endings, but he was very worried for a while.)

So I am a bad father, though I think I got away with it this time. I did mention the PG-13ness to the boys afterward, which I think will help shield me from their demands to see other PG-13 movies -- they're still at the age (or are of the type, maybe) where they're happy within their own limits.

The movie itself was quite good, though I was distracted from it now and then by managing Thing 1's reactions to it. I still like Spirited Away better (out of the Miyazaki movies I've seen), and this felt in parts like the Greatest Hits version of a Miyazaki movie -- young boy and girl thrown into danger and falling in love from Castle in the Sky, a strong ecological message from Nausicaa, and so on.

It's also now a week later, so I don't have anything very coherent to say about the plot and characters -- anything I might have wanted to say has slipped away by now. I'll want to see it again at some point, but I think I'll be seeing My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle first.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

I Am Shirking My Responsibilities

I seem to have posted four times on a Saturday, which is very unusual for me.

How did I do it, you ask?

By nearly completely neglecting what I should be doing -- reading Odyssey by Jack McDevitt. (And I really like Jack's books; I just keep finding myself doing other things today.)

Tomorrow, I must mow the lawn before it spawns an intelligent race of grass that conquers the house, and I must also make the long drive out to a bookstore that has my final special-ordered book. But I will finish Odyssey -- just see if I don't.

Book-A-Day #13 (7/29): Short Strokes, Volume Two by Richard Moore

Moore is the author/illustrator of the excellent humorous-adventure-with-horror-characters comic Boneyard, which I heartily recommend. He's also done a weird western graphic novel called Far West, which is also quite good. Both of those books feature a certain amount of PG-13 sexual suggestiveness, as part of the overall story.

But Moore also does outright NC-17 porno comics, and Short Strokes is the series title of the collections of that work. I read the second collection today, and I think that's all I'm going to say about it; there's not much I feel comfortable talking about on a porn book. (His drawing is as good as in any of his other work, with anatomical models -- these are fantasy stories, after all, in several sense of the word. And his dialogue is better than most porn comics; these aren't as good as Phil Foglio's wonderful Xxxenophile books, but they're close.) I probably wouldn't have mentioned it at all if I weren't doing the Book-A-Day thing; I neglected to mention that I bought it at the comics shop yesterday out of a fit of embarrassment.

Book-A-Day #12 (7/28): Old Man's War by John Scalzi

The last novel I had to read for Hugo voting -- which is good, since the deadline is Monday. (Everybody go vote now!)

Short version: I liked this a lot better than Spin, but I'm not sure if it's Hugo-worthy.

Longer Version: Old Man's War is one of those books that are actually exactly like the cliche -- it's easier to just keep reading to the end as quickly as possible than to put it down and do anything else. (And I appreciate that in a book.) It's written in first-person, which helps with the immediacy, and also aids in suspension of disbelief, since the background has a few things that would be hard to swallow if they were stated flatly by an omniscient narrator. (But when they're what our narrator is told, there's a much better chance that it's not the entire story.)

This is the book that starts with the hero spending his seventy-fifth birthday visiting his wife's grave and then joining the army. It's one of the great attention-grabbing openings of our time, right up there with "'In five years, the penis will be obsolete,' the salesman said." And it goes on from there at a fine clip; this is a novel that knows how to move along, and doesn't waste any time. It's not rushed, though; it just moves at an appropriately zippy pace.

I don't have much else to say about this novel (there often isn't much to say about a good piece of adventure fiction), except that I hope the background isn't precisely as it is presented to John Perry (our protagonist) in this book. Apparently, humanity discovered (on its own) an interstellar drive about two hundred years previously, and then expanded outward into a galaxy filled with a myriad alien races battling over every inhabitable planet.

Possible problems with this:
  • If the competition is so cut-throat, how come Earth had been left alone previously?
  • And how come there were nearby inhabitable planets for us to colonize in the first place?
  • Isn't it massively unlikely that all of these races are close enough to military/technological parity that ground wars for planetary surfaces are even plausible?
  • I also have to wonder about the apparent lack of planet-killer (or even star-killer) weapons.
All in all, it looks like the Old Man universe should be vastly more dangerous than it is (with that level of pugnaciousness, I'd expect a few alien races both willing and very able to wipe out a species like humanity without much trouble), so I'm interested to see if Scalzi deals with those issues in future books.

Did I enjoy it? Hell yes. As a matter of fact, I've already ordered a copy of the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, from the SFBC warehouse (one of the perks of being an editor). And that's quite rare these days. The last time I was this excited about a new SF writer, it was James Alan Gardner's Expendable (which also had background problems, though, in Gardner's case, those loomed larger and larger as the series went on -- I hope that doesn't happen with Scalzi).

But it's not an obviously "big" book, so I don't know if it's the front-runner for my Hugo vote. I've now read all the novels, and they're all good books, but I have serious problems with all of them. Oh, well -- who was it that defined a novel as "a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it"?

Book-A-Day #11 (7/27): Billy Hazelnuts by Tony Millionaire

A short graphic novel by Millionaire, whose art style I still love but whose stories I'm not always crazy about. This time, a bunch of rats (in the requisite Victorian Millionaire house) build a little man out of suet and other garbage as a champion for their interests in the house, but he's taken in by the little girl of the house, who changes out his flies-for-eyes with less painful hazelnuts. They have a variety of odd adventures, mostly involving a super-inventor boy who loves the girl and his various clockwork robots.

It all sounds awfully surreal, but Millionaire's very detailed, early-20th century strip-cartoon style grounds the story, and it seems to make sense as it goes along. Millionaire is a little like Richard Sala that way, but I find Sala's stories read like fever dreams (or rococo, overheated versions of old pulp stories), and are familiar because of it. Millionaire's stories don't have any obvious antecedents to me, and so they come across like comics translated from some race with very different thinking processes than humans. That's not bad, exactly, but I don't connect with the stories the way I keep thinking I should.

Incoming Comics: 7/28

As usual, there are two chunks -- one for my two sons (Thing 1 and Thing 2) and one for me. I should start giving the boys allowances so that they can buy their own comics...

For them:
  • Teen Titans Go! Vol. 5: Ready for Action
  • Kingdom Hearts Vol. 3
  • Sonic the Hedgehog #164
  • Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius: Super Summer Special
  • Teen Titans Go! #33
  • Sonic X #11
For me:
  • Fables Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Black Flame
  • Hate Annual #6
  • Astro City: Samaritan Special
  • Castle Waiting Vol. II #1
  • Gumby #1
    which the boys may read at some point, but it's by Bob Burden and Rick Geary, so I bought it for me.
That's a lot of stuff -- at least the kids' books are all cheap.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Movie Log: Shall We Dance? (1995)

I saw Shall We Dance? on Monday night, and, by all rights, I should carefully compare and contrast it with the 2004 US remake (with the immortal J. Lo in the role of Dance Instructor With a Big Butt). But it would take the Clockwork Orange treatment to get me to see the remake, so you're on your own there.

I saw the original Japanese movie; that's all one man can do.

And I'm afraid I didn't pay as much attention to it as I should; this occasionally happens when I watch movies in a foreign language alone -- I get a bit distracted and start missing things. (When I watch a movie alone, I'm in the basement, with all of my books, the computer, the laundry, and other potential distracting things.) So I enjoyed this movie, but I don't feel like I really immersed myself in it.

Oh, well. It's a nice low-key character piece, but (since it's subtitled) you do need to watch the screen the entire time or else (like me) you'll end up with the feeling that you didn't really see it.

Quote of the Week

Two for the price of one this week, on the same subject (and to essentially the same end).

"Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few."
- George Bernard Shaw

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time."
- E.B. White

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Book-A-Day #10 (7/26): Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

I read Spin as part of a general preparation for Hugo voting -- I'm in the middle of Old Man's War now, and I have a few short pieces to get through as well.

Spin came to me heavily hyped, and it might have suffered for that. I settled into the beginning of it easily, and thought something like, "Yes, this is a really good novel. I can see why everyone was raving about it." But that feeling slowly ebbed away: it's a low-key book, and, I thought, an oddly colorless one. I didn't mind reading it, but it was an easy book to put down, and I never felt any urgency to pick it back up.

Half-way through, I figured out what it was about Spin that was nagging in the back of my head: it's a J.G. Ballard novel as written by Isaac Asimov.

I'm serious: a young, male doctor is tugged along in the wake of a rich woman and man -- brother and sister -- whose wealth and power he both wants and dislikes; the rich man is a visionary with plans to remake the world, and the protagonist, almost without knowing it, aids him every inch of the way. He's sexually obsessed by the woman, and has her in the end, after the rich man is dead of his own hubris. If the "Big House" had a drained swimming pool, Ballard could have sued...

The Asimov-ness is more of a general regular-skiffy tone to the prose; Wilson is a good writer, but he's not a fine writer -- you don't go to Wilson for fancy metaphors or virtuoso passages. This is a Real SF novel, and so everyone in it is just a bit more like an engineer than real people actually are: they all explain things just a bit more clearly, and they all do what they say they will do, and they're nearly always rational (even the religious loonies are exceptionally rational religious loonies). Similarly, the main character, Tyler Dupree, is a cipher even though he narrates the entire book.

That's something else again -- the name Tyler Dupree. It seems to be an echo of Fight Club's Tyler Durden, which (especially given Spin's Tyler's relationship with his rich friend) would imply a rich stew of psychological issues. But that doesn't seem to be the case; in the end, I decided the names were just a very unfortunate parallel.

I see I haven't said anything about the skiffy plot: unknown aliens enclose the earth in a geostationary-height membrane that blocks out the moon and stars, while making time pass within at a rate of 100,000,000 to 1. The book occasionally seems to be about that membrane, but Tyler's personal life is always central; the skiffy stuff always remains subservient to the character story. That would be fine, if the character story didn't feel just a bit creaky and old-fashioned.

In the end, I liked Spin but I couldn't love it. It's relentlessly safe and rational, and I kept wanting it to go crazy. On the one hand, I'd have loved to see more wild SF speculation, with Big Unlikely Science Stuff -- but Wilson keeps the science low-key and plausible (which is to say, borderline boring). But even more, I'd have loved to see some serious fine writing, and I wanted Tyler Dupree to open up psychologically and have some real emotion. In short, I really wished Ballard had written this book. That's probably my fault rather than the book's, but I kept putting my foot down, expecting another step -- and that step was never there. Spin's stairs always stopped about a foot lower than I thought they should.

All in all, there's something a bit too Canadian in Wilson to do the end of the world right. Spin has a lot of good qualities, but it was just too in-between to really engage me. But I am just coming off a giant pile of quite literary WFA reading; it's possibly my literature detectors are set much too high for everyday use right now.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Not At All Political, Really

I'm fascinated by objects that contradict themselves -- it's like having a living Zen koan out in the world. The most recent one I saw, about a week ago, was the words "No War for Oil!" prominently displayed on a bumper sticker -- attached, as is usual, to a car.

I guess this is the geopolitical equivalent of those medical tags that say "No Heroic Measures;" in both cases, the person is saying "You know, I'd prefer to keep going on the way I am, but, really, don't go to any trouble on my account."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Incoming Books: 25 July

Brought home four books today (one manuscript, one bound galley, and two actual books), but they're all to be read for SFBC, so I'll leave off listing them until I actually read them.

This is the first bunch; I was counting this afternoon and I found at least eight books I need to read for the club before Worldcon. (And that's if I like and want to buy all of them.)

Book-A-Day #9 (7/25): Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, illustrated by Racquel Jaramillo

Insert here a great scream of anguish, as Firefox crashed just as I was spell-checking the first version of this post. I think this is the first substantial post I've lost, which is no consolation.

Anyway, I've been reading this to Thing 1 and Thing 2 at bedtime, one chapter a night, for just over two weeks, and we just finished tonight.

I need to jump on my usual hobby-horse first off: Peter Pan is the title of the play. Peter and Wendy is the title of the novel. The fact that the novel has generally been published under the wrong title for eighty years does not make it right. End of sermon.

The edition we read is a very nice, large-format lap book from Simon & Schuster, with very handsome and colorful photo-illustrations by Jaramillo, whom I'd never heard of but whom the flap copy says is an art director for an unnamed major publishing company.

(Now I have to try to re-create what I said the first time.)

I've discovered that reading a book out loud to two squirming boys is not at all the same experience as reading that same book in one's own head; some books just don't work well out loud, and some work better than they do when read silently. (We read Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth just before Peter Pan, and it went over OK, though I think the boys were just a bit too young to really get it. On the other hand, I spent much of 2005 reading the first three "Harry Potter" books out loud to Thing 1, and those read beautifully.)

I'd read Peter Pan a couple of years back, as part of a general Pan-frenzy (I read the play, the novel, and even Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was written before the play and features a somewhat different Peter), and I enjoyed it a lot.

But this time, reading aloud, I discovered that what Barrie had done was to take an excellent play and turn it into a mediocre novel, not by adding incidents, dialogue, detail or anything else of interest, but instead by laying on the Victorian drivel with a trowel. There are several interminable pages where the deadly Jas. Hook obsesses about "bad form" until the boys have run out of the room and the reader is nearly comatose; I will never get those half-hours of my life back. There are wonderful ideas and turns of phrase in the novel, but they're all from the play, and they're all smothered in treacle. This is a heavily, heavily narrated book, and the voice is extremely embedded in the world of 1906, and so may strike many readers as sexist, possibly racist, definitely full of himself, and always, always, as full of bloviation and interminable sentimental piffle.

As I say, anyone reading this alone might not notice that much, since it's a short book and it zips by pretty fast if you're not reading it out loud. But, if you are thinking about reading it out loud, take this warning to heart. I do think this would be appreciated far more by girls than boys these days, since it loads up the maudlin sentimentality to such a level that even that old softy Thing 1 wasn't interested. Peter Pan is stuck in its time, and that time is a very foreign country to most of today's kids.

(And, if any sentences of phrases in this post are less than felicitous, I will claim with a clear conscience that the first version was much cleaner, smoother, and altogether a finer reading experience.)

Book-A-Day #8 (7/24): A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Case of Madeleine Smith by Rick Geary

Rick Geary has been quietly producing slim, attractive little comics accounts of ghastly 19th century murders on a regular basis for over a decade now -- Jack the Ripper came out in 1995, and there have been five books in between, each covering one scandalous and horrifying crime (not to mention the earlier miscellaneous Treasury of Victorian Murder, Vol. 1).

This is the newest one, and the story isn't as spectacular or appalling as some of the others, but Geary's wonderful pen-and-ink work is always pleasing. (I do miss the wilder caricatures and facial expressions of his earlier work, though; he's settled down a bit with age, and that's not always for the best.)

For readers who haven't read Geary before, I'd recommend The Borden Tragedy or The Beast of Chicago (or perhaps, for those who want a wider look at his very varied comics work, Housebound with Rick Geary, if you can find it). Madeleine Smith is nice, but not one of his best, so it's not a great first Geary book.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Incoming Books: 24 July

Just a couple of things lying around the office -- well, they were lying around the office, but now they'll be cluttering up the house:
  • Abadazad: The Road to Inconceivable by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog
  • Abadazad: The Dream Thief by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog
  • The Pedant's Revolt by Andrea Barham
    Wasn't the Pedant's Revolt led by Which Tyler in 1381?
  • Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe
    This one is a bound galley, which gives me a few months' head start to read it. I haven't missed a Wolfe novel yet (though I'm now two short-story collections behind), so that's my encouragement -- I hate to give up a streak.

Book-A-Day #7 (7/23): A Taste of Magic by Andre Norton & Jean Rabe

This is:
  • the last book Andre Norton worked on before her death (not to be confused with the last book she finished, which was Three Hands for Scorpio)
  • somehow related to Norton's 1999 novel A Scent of Magic, but I didn't read Scent, so I can't quite say how
  • a book I read for SFBC in typescript, so I shouldn't say anything more

I Am A Bad Man

Today's proof: I laughed, out loud, at this Andy Capp cartoon.

This is also a good time to point out that I've just added another couple of dozen comics to the "Comics, Online" links section to the right -- I won't pretend it's anything like a comprehensive list (it's what I find vaguely interesting to read and isn't in my local paper), but there's now a lot of stuff there, and I expect most of you would find some subset of it amusing.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/16

I've been going back to the mid-90s a lot lately, so I decided to mix it up this week and just use two dice -- and I got a 3, so let's see what books I was reading this week in 2003:
  • Jason Lutes, Berlin Vol. 1: City of Stones (7/9)
    The first collection of a slow-moving comics series (I don't believe the second volume has popped out yet) that's enjoyable but ominous: it's set in Berlin in the 1930s, so the assumption is that Bad Things will happen to and around these characters before everything is done. As of this point, not a lot has happened yet; it's still mostly character stuff -- good character stuff, true, but I have a sense that several big shoes will be dropping eventually.
  • Rob Maish & various artists, Confessions of a Cereal Eater, Vol. 2 (7/10)
    The first book got glowing reviews in the comics trade, so, when the second one wandered into the SFBC offices, I read it. Eh. Maish was a fairly typical middle-aged fanboy, with the usual life trajectory and assortment of humorous true stories -- I suspect Cereal Eater was mostly liked because his experiences were very similar to those of the reviewers. It's not bad, but as pictures from the life of a child of the '60s it's very minor, and far outclassed by a large pile of prose works.
  • Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (7/11)
    Bryson's attempt to explain the entire universe to the people who enjoyed his travelogues. It's a valiant attempt, but he bit off far more than he could chew. I think he's best at more specific topics; he could have taken the things he wanted to research for this book and spread them out among four or five shorter but moire in-depth books. It's still a pleasant read, but it's the least sprightly of Bryson's books.
  • Jaime Hernandez, Locas in Love (7/12)
    One of the later Love and Rockets collections from the Hernandez brother with the cleaner art style. I just stuck my head into it again to remind me of it, and what stuck me was how realistic (and simultaneously un-like most comics) the lives of his main characters are. At this point, we've been following the lives of Maggie, Hopie and their friends for over twenty years, and they've grown from being teenage punks to middle-aged wage slaves. Hernandez neither kept them locked into their original ages (which would have been quite popular), nor gave them wish-fulfillment lives. They win some and lose some, but keep moving forward. That's very rare in comics, and should be celebrated.
  • Harry Turtledove, In the Presence of Mine Enemies (7/13)
    This is his what-if-Nazi-Germany-lasted-long-enough-to-hit-glastnost book; set more-or-less in the present day of an alternate world. As usual, Turtledove is a solid writer and good with his characters (though they sometimes are more like types than individuals), and, also as usual, he loads up the historical parallels a little higher than feels quite right to me. (As I recall, we get someone on top of a tank in front of the Reichstag near the conclusion.) Still, Turtledove's standalones are generally his best work, and this is no exception.
  • Joe Sacco, Notes from a Defeatist (7/14)
    The collected shorter comics stories of the only major investigative comics foreign reporter (author of Palestine and Safe Area Gorajde); as usual with minor early work collected after an author has had a big success, it's a mixed bag, and much of it is derivative of people like Peter Bagge and (of course) R. Crumb. Not bad, but not as good as his more mature works.
  • Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand (7/15)
    First in the absolutely brilliant "Bartimaeus Trilogy," which is not just the best YA fantasy series of the decade so far, but one of the towering achievements in modern fantasy period.
  • P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (7/16)
    This is the one with Madeline ("the stars are God's daisy-chain") Basset, Roderick "Eulalie" Spode, Stiffy Byng, Stinker Pinker, and the silver cow-creamer -- which is to say, it's one of the better novels in a wonderful series and thus one of the pure sources of joy in our fallen world. Everyone capable of laughter should read it.
It's now Sunday afternoon, which means I'll be typing up the next week's list of "Reading Into the Past" in just a few hours. Perhaps not being on vacation next week will help speed me up...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Yet Another Meme About Sharing Too Much

Once again we learn that the blog world (I will never use that one-word term that ends in -sphere) is just like high school, only with even more inappropriate sharing. But, since I like to occasionally have entries here that aren't purely navel-gazing essays on books or movies, I figured I'd give this one (which I saw Keith R.A. DeCandido filling out) a whirl.

1. Elaborate on your default icon.
And this is how I can tell immediately that this quiz is aimed at LiveJournal types. One of the reasons I'm on Blogger is so I don't have to worry about things like "default icons."

2. What's your current relationship status?
A: I'm not sure that's any of your business.
B: Fair to middling.
C: 85% complete, and on target for rollout in the early fall.
Pick whichever answer you find most amusing and/or informative.

3. Ever have a near-death experience?

4. Name an obvious quality you have.
To paraphrase the immortal Olive Oyl, I am large.

5. What's the name of the song that's stuck in your head right now?
After that last question, I'm afraid it's now "He's Large."

6. Any celeb you would marry?
In theory, yes. But I'm married at the moment, and bigamy is still (sadly) illegal, so I'll leave it at that.

7. Who will cut and paste this first?
No one at all, I imagine. I'm doing it mostly to amuse myself.

8. Name someone with the same birthday as you.
How about two? Gorilla Monsoon and Socrates.

9. Do you have a crush on someone?

10. Have you ever vandalized someone's private property?
Not that I can recall. Way back in high school, when drunk, I was part of an aborted plot to tip over someone's VW Bug, but nothing ever came of that. (See the word "drunk," above.)

11. Have you ever been in a fight?
Yes, but not since graduating high school in 1986. So perhaps I'm due...

12. Have you ever sung in front of a large audience?
Yes, but not since graduating high school. (I was part of a Madrigal group, and, before that, sang in my church choir.)

13. What's the first thing you notice about the OPPOSITE sex?
Whether she's a redhead or not.

14. What do you usually order from Starbucks?
I've been in a Starbucks only two or three times that I can recall. (I don't drink coffee.) I think I had a regular tea the last time I was there.

15. Have you ever hurt yourself on purpose?
No. Accidentally, though -- that I do all of the time.

16. Say something totally random about yourself.
My name is Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht.

17. Has anyone ever said you looked like a celebrity?
Does "the character of Dante Hicks in Clerks" count? If not, no.

18. Do you wear a watch? What kind?
Swiss Army something-or-other (found it: it's this thing). I'm actually on my second one; the first lasted eight or nine years, and I forget why I had to replace it. (I've also replaced the band several times as well.)

19. Do you have anything pierced?
No. And it's probably too late to start now.

20. Do you have any tattoos?
No. Ditto about being too late. I used to say I was going to get a Demonstar (from GrimJack) on my left shoulder, and, if I did ever get a tattoo, that would probably be it.

21. Do you like pain?
That question makes very little sense -- pain is that which is unpleasant. That's how it's defined. If you like it, it's not pain.

22. Do you like to shop?
For some things, yes. The usual meaning of that phrase, though, generally means "for clothes," and that I'm not too thrilled with.

23. What was the last thing you paid for with cash?
Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon cards for my two sons, at a garage sale this morning.

24. What was the last thing you paid for with a credit card?
Groceries at the A&P, also this morning.

25. Who was the last person you spoke to on the phone?
My wife.

26. What is on your desktop background?
A stitched-together photograph of the entire earth at night. (This is basically it, though the one I have is cropped differently.)

27. What is the background on your cell phone?
I have an old-fashioned cell phone (it must be three years old now), which doesn't have a color screen. The background is a vaguely greenish-gray.

28. Do you like redheads?
More than is good for me.

29. Do you know any twins?
No. This is beginning to sound like a dating service quiz.

30. Do you have any weird relatives?
My great-aunt is generally regarded as the loopy one in the family, but that might just be because she's the great-aunt, and it's a requirement of the position. I suspect that I'm the weird relative to my wife's family.

31. What was the last movie you watched?
Mrs. Dalloway, on Wednesday night. (It would have been Princess Mononoke, but the USPS failed to get it to me in today's mail delivery.) By this time tomorrow, it will be the original version of Shall We Dance.

32. What was the last book you read?
The Fate of the Artist
by Eddie Campbell. Not counting comics: A Heckuva Job by Calvin Trillin. Last substantial work of fiction: The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 2006: Nineteenth Annual Collection edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant.

Book-A-Day #6 (7/22): The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell

This is the newest (and long-awaited; his last new original stuff was about three years ago) graphic novel from a comics writer/artists I always think of as the creator of Bacchus, but who is probably best known as "the guy who did the pictures for Alan Moore's From Hell."

It's been billed as something of a sequel to his semi-autobiographical "Alec" books (The King Canute Crowd, Three Piece Suit, How To Be an Artist and After the Snooter), but this is less coherent than those books and it's explicitly about "Eddie Campbell," not "Alec MacGarry."

It's also not as good as the Alec books; the idea here is that "Eddie Campbell" has disappeared, and his family is being interviewed by an (unnamed, as far as I can tell, and definitely un-drawn) policeman. It's interesting visually and from a design sense: there are all-text pages, fumetti (photo comics), faux early-20th century newspaper comics strips, and other similar interesting tricky versions of the comics-page form.

Unfortunately, like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, there's no there there. The bits are amusing, but they don't, in the end, add up to a whole. Campbell fans will want this one -- even if he's not at the top of his form, this is still a lot of fun, and we've been waiting a while for it. But those who haven't tried Campbell before would be better off trying either the first "Alec" book, The King Canute Crowd (if they're more indy-autobiographical comics types) or the first "Bacchus" collection, Immortality Isn't Forever (if they're coming from mainstream punch-'em-up comics).

Friday, July 21, 2006

Movie Log: Mrs. Dalloway

This is the 1997 movie, adapting the Virginia Woolf novel, which I watched with The Wife on Wednesday night; it took me this long to get to it for the simple reason that I had no idea it existed before The Wife found it and put it on the top of her Netflix queue.

Mrs. Dalloway was one of the novels I'd connected with best in college; I usually had one or two books per class each semester that I really loved, which made up for the others, which I often loathed. (I am a man of strong opinions, as you might have noticed.) Mrs. Dalloway was right up there with The Warden and As I Lay Dying and McTeague among the novels that hit me like two-by-fours and reaffirmed my conviction that the English-major thing was exactly what I wanted to do.

So my feelings were a bit mixed about this movie: I wanted it to be really good, to live up to the novel, but I suspected it wasn't, since if it had been that good, I probably would have heard of it. I was more-or-less right: Mrs. Dalloway doesn't start quite right, and it wobbles a bit as it goes along, but it ends very well, so I forgave it its flaws along the way.

Vanessa Redgrave plays the "present-day" (1923) Clarissa Dalloway, with Natascha McElhone handling the young Clarissa in the flash-back sequences. Redgrave also narrates a lot of the movie, in an attempt to get the book's stream-of-consciousness feeling. This mostly works, but Redgrave has a very languid tone, especially early on, and her often repeated "flowers for my party" hovers very close to self-parody. (I expect that viewers who are not already familiar with the novel, or sympathetic to Clarissa, will lose interest entirely.) As in the book, the movie is the story of one day in Clarissa's life, as she prepares for and then gives a party in her home. Interwoven with that are her memories of an earlier time in her life (I'd estimate about forty years before, when she was in her late teens), at a country house -- from internal evidence, probably a visit of about a week or two.

Clarissa's story intersects that of Septimus Warren-Smith, a young man who served with distinction in the war but who has had a very debilitating case of shell-shock come over him in the past few months. Septimus and Clarissa never actually meet, but their stories intertwine around each other -- the movie shows this well, and is good at switching from one story to the other. (The only place where this doesn't work, I thought, was in the choice of starting the movie with a short scene of Septimus in the trenches -- this is Mrs. Dalloway, not Sgt. Warren-Smith.)

As I said, the ending is particularly fine (reminiscent of John Huston's magnificent The Dead, I thought), though the movie feels longer than its ninety-seven minutes, so some viewers might not have the patience to make it that far. It's probably mostly a movie for fans of the novel -- or of slow-paced movies about emotional states and personal interactions in general -- but it's quite good of its kind. I'm now seriously thinking of re-reading the novel, which is some kind of recommendation for the movie.

Incoming Books: 21 July

Yes, another serious book-shopping trip. I do have two good excuses: I'm on vacation, so it's easy to do it now, and I was being good during my World Fantasy reading frenzy and trying not to buy anything then. So now I have to make up for it:
  • A User's Guide to the Millennium by J.G. Ballard
    I found a nice first edition hardcover to replace my battered bound galley, so this goes directly onto the real book shelves.
  • Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
    One of the famous surrealist/sexual/oh-so-French/modernist novels, and which I was happy to see is actually quite short, so I might get to it soon.
  • We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light by John Baxter
    I saw a good review/appreciation/something-or-other of this book somewhere recently, and I read and enjoyed his book A Pound of Paper.
  • Sweet Women Lie by Loren D. Estleman
    One of the middle "Amos Walker" mysteries that I'm missing. Just two more, I think, and I'll be able to put them in order and read a bunch of them. (I don't like to read series mysteries out of order if I can help it.)
  • Killing Yourself To Live by Chuck Klosterman
    I've picked this book up the last three times I've been in a bookstore, so I finally bought it. Klosterman is supposedly the great rock 'n' roll writer of our time, and this is a book about his roadtrip to the scenes of a whole bunch of famous rock-star deaths.
  • Memoirs of a Mangy Lover by Groucho Marx
    I read and enjoyed Groucho and Me a few years back, so when I saw this for seven bucks (in a like-new trade paperback), I had to pick it up.
  • Enough's Enough by Calvin Trillin
    A hardcover replacement for my actually quite nice trade paperback; I'm upgrading all of my Trillin books to hardcover as I can. The title essay of this book is one of my favorites of his work (even more now that I have kids of my own) -- let me give you just two sentences as a teaser:
    A lot of people don't think a phrase like "Tone of voice" can be a rule; most rules would include a verb, for instance. People who don't think "Tone of voice" can be a rule are people who don't have children.
  • The Coming of Bill; Very Good, Jeeves! and Do Butlers Burgle Banks? by P.G. Wodehouse
    Three of the most recent batch of four Wodehouse hardcovers in the sublime Overlook hardcover editions. (The fourth is The Little Nugget, and it didn't come in with the rest of my special order -- but I expect it soon.) The reader who does not appreciate the humor of Wodehouse is a very dangerous character indeed, and should be watched closely (or perhaps avoided strenuously -- one or the other). I wish Overlook continued luck with this program -- Wodehouse wrote about a hundred volumes (depending on how you count things) and they've now reprinted forty-two of them, so they are well underway, but still have a lot to get through.
Tomorrow I need to start a book for SFBC, and I'll spend at least part of next week catching up on my Hugo reading, but then I hope I can dive into one of these books. (Or maybe one of the several hundred others that have accumulated, unread, all around me.)

Book-A-Day #5 (7/21): Bizarro World edited by (probably) Joey Cavalieri

This is a thematic sequel to 2001's Bizarro Comics, in which a gaggle of the least-likely alternative comics creators were allowed to do just about whatever they wanted to DC's biggest icons (or the already-bizarre sidebar characters), and it was all loosely shoehorned into a thin over-arching story.

Since then, a lot of "alternative" folks have been doing quite a bit of work for DC (and Marvel), so just having their names on a spandex book is no longer new and shocking. I'm also afraid that most of this book didn't thrill me. Bizarro Comics had a few low spots, but it was generally funny and anarchic; Bizarro World feels much more reined-in, as if these folks had already said the one crazy thing they'd wanted to say about long-underwear types or (perhaps) DC was pushing down more heavily with the editorial thumb this time.

Still, it was pleasant to read, though I am happy I waited for the paperback. Anyone who really liked Bizarro Comics should at least flip through it in a store (and will probably end up buying it), but those who are just intrigued by the idea should go get Bizarro Comics first.

I also have to tweak DC's nose a bit about book design. The book opens with a nice half-title page, and then a decent two-page table of contents (no front ad card or real title page, but I can forgive that), but then their copyright page is filled up with a list of DC's High Muckety-Mucks, for no apparent reason other than that fact that they like seeing their own names in print. Pssst, DC: real book publishers don't do that. Real book publishers credit the people who actually worked on the book (such as the actual editor of this volume -- I think it's Joey Cavalieri, but it's hard to tell), but not their entire corporate structure. I mean: I'm sure Cheryl Rubin is a wonderful person and a joy to work with, but there's really no reason to credit the Senior VP-Brand Management in your books. Credit the real editor, credit the book designer, credit the people whose work is included -- then you're done.

Quote of the Week

"I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart."
--Jerome K. Jerome

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Book-A-Day #4 (7/20): On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

I'd wanted to read this for quite some time, especially since I kept seeing it on bestseller lists. However, I never actually saw it in a bookstore, so, last week when I was at a library with my boys, I looked it up in the catalog and found it sitting on the shelf.

And I discovered why I'd never seen it in a bookstore: it's tiny. The trim size is roughly 4" x 6", and it contains 67 small pages with not over-many words on each. Even if I'd been looking directly at it in a store, it would have been hard to spot.

A book that short is finished almost before it's started, so of course I took it. And now I've read it.

Sadly, it's not that good. It's yet another in the endless line of supposedly shocking books by smart, credentialed people (Frankfurt is a Princeton philosophy professor) on unlikely subjects. And it's terribly dull; Frankfurt feels compelled to footnote all of his not-very-entertaining quotes in a book on bullshit. It's also windy and tedious; Frankfurt is mostly embarking on a survey of the literature of bullshit -- which seems to be whatever is under that heading in the OED and what he can dredge out of his own brain. The style is High Academic, and the meat is a half-serious attempt to delineate the territory between bullshit and lies.

Avoid this book; if you're looking for a short, funny look at something unlikely, may I instead recommend Chuck Yerby's The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes?

Book-A-Day #3 (7/19): La Perdida by Jessica Abel

This is the first book-length comic strip by Abel, who did a comic book called Artbabe for most of the '90s. (I don't think I ever read an issue; I also think it was one of those mostly autobiographical things.)

La Perdida is fiction; it really does feel like a novel with pictures (it has chapters and everything), and it's generally enjoyable. It tells the story of a young (and exceptionally naive and easily led) woman named Carla who moves to Mexico City (in 1998, if I'm getting the sequence right) to get in touch with a side of her history that she's previously avoided. She also apparently has some sort of interest in art, though we don't see her doing any kind of art, or even complaining that she never does art anymore (which is far more common with young wanna-bes who don't know what they want). And, probably most of all, she wants to be real, to be authentic, to be part of something and feel important. (Yes, I know this feeling is supposedly common in young people, but I insist it only shows up if they're ridiculously spoiled, and there's an easy cure for that.)

In her quest for authenticity, she quickly leaves her initial circle of expatriate Americans, whom she fell in with because they're the friends of her ex-boyfriend (whom she moved in with, basically trading sex for room and board). Her new circle of friends are real Mexicans, which of course means that they're radical leftists and mostly minor criminals. (Oh, did I mention that she can't even speak half-decent conversational Spanish at this point? It's a tribute to Abel's storytelling abilities that I only half wanted to strangle Carla; she's the kind of person who, when faced with a decision, invariably chooses the worst possible outcome.)

Since you might conceivably read this book, I won't tell any more of the plot. But Carla's bad choices keep adding up -- and, even more, her bad avoiding of choices adds up. And a plot twist the reader will have seen coming thirty pages before takes her completely by surprise -- again, I'll give Abel the benefit of the doubt, but I'd really like to find an interview with her when she admits Carla is not only thicker than two short planks but also the poster-woman for Bad Choices Anonymous.

The ending didn't entirely work for me, since Carla is wallowing in sadness and the reader is presumably supposed to wallow with her -- but she hasn't learned anything! She still sounds like the same bone-deep-stupid girl she was on the first page, and I'd bet it's only a matter of time before she accidentally opens a door on an airplane or otherwise Darwin-Awards her ass out of existence.

As I said above, I wish the narrative showed more clearly that Abel knows that Carla is an idiot; I'm pretty sure she does, but I have a lurking suspicion that Abel thinks Carla's story is romantic and inspiring, rather than an occasion for repeated head-slapping. (This may be because I've seen and read far too many stories about tortured young bohemians who do stupid things and then expect to be rewarded for it.)

One artistic note: Abel generally uses a cartoony style for faces, which serves her well (except when she has two characters in the same scene with the same major differentiating markers in common), but she sometimes drops in one face in a hyper-detailed mode, when a character is facing directly outward from the page. The big change is the eyes: they're generally dots, but the hyper-real style has fully rendered pupils and eyelashes. This is odd and distracting; it doesn't look like the same person when the style changes so radically.

All in all, this is an impressive work for, essentially, a first-time novelist. The fact that Carla is such a real character to me shows Abel has great skill. I just wish she'd put that skill to work depicting someone with slightly more common sense. I do recommend La Perdida; in my experience, most people are not bugged by character stupidity as much as I am.

Movie Log: Pom Poko

This is the saddest movie appropriate for kids that I have ever seen. (And, yes, I do seem to spend my life paraphrasing Ford Madox Ford -- I'm not sure why.)

It's a Studio Ghibli movie, but not one by Hayao Miyazaki -- I'm expanding out slightly since all of the Miyazaki movies the boys and I have seen over the past few months have been great, and I've heard good things about Ghibli in general. I picked this movie for last week's "Boys' Movie Saturday" (which my two sons and I do pretty much every week) because it looked a bit more whimsical and less dark than Princess Mononoke, which would be our next Miyazaki movie. (In retrospect, perhaps I should have noticed that Isao Takahata, who directed Pom Poko, is best known for the single most depressing animated movie of all time, Grave of the Fireflies.)

Pom Poko is the story of a community of tanuki (translated into English as "raccoons," since they not only fill that ecological niche, but they look almost exactly like North American raccoons) whose home in the Tama Hills is being developed by humans as a new Tokyo suburb. The movie tracks their reactions to the development, from initially fighting among each other, through various ways of trying to stop the development, until their final failure. In an American movie, of course, they would succeed in some heartwarming way, but this movie is set in the '60s and is about a specific real place -- the Tama Hills development was completed, so the original Japanese audience must have known that all of these raccoons would eventually be displaced or killed.

There's lots of humor in the movie, but there's also lots of anger (directed at humans in general), and it's probably not appropriate for younger kids. (My younger son is five, and that's possibly younger than is ideal for this movie.) This really isn't a "kids' movie" -- it's a family movie. Several tanuki die onscreen (including at least one major named character, and one whom we see after he was hit by a car), and their emotional life is not the usual flattened one typically seen in movies for children.

It's a heavily narrated movie, since it covers several years -- the narrator covers months of events in a couple of sentences, and the first quarter of the movie goes by before we really focus on any of the characters as people. (Though that changes after that point.) Having the English-language narrator be Maurice LeMarche, the voice of "the Brain," added another level of distance for me -- there's something cynical and pessimistic for me in that voice to begin with, a feeling that all plans will come to nothing and that the world will eventually crush our heroes.

Seeing this movie not too long after Over the Hedge, an extruded American-animation product with a similar idea, really brought home what good work Studio Ghibli has done. Pom Poko is a bit preachy (it seems to exist mostly to shame the Japanese people about their post-war building boom), but it's generally honest, and it has real emotional power and force. We ended up watching it twice over the weekend (though I didn't pay as much attention to it the second time through), and it is a movie worth watching twice in quick succession.

But I will need to be more careful the next time I try to find a nice, light movie to watch with the boys...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Movie Log: Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic

I wanted to see this movie after seeing a trailer for it before (and Sarah Silverman's segment during) The Aristocrats last summer, and my brother and I had vaguely made plans to see it together. But life intervened, the movie had a very short theatrical run, and I finally caught up with it last week at home.

Maybe it would have played better in a theatre (I know The Aristocrats would have fallen flat alone at home, but was screamingly funny with a good crowd), but Jesus Is Magic just didn't impress me very much. It's essentially an overgrown HBO special -- barely more than an hour long, even with twenty minutes or so of mostly non-funny off-stage stuff.

There's a very thin frame story -- the movie opens with Silverman sitting and talking with two friends, who both have great things going on, comedy-career-wise, so she lies and says she's filming a "show" that night. That show, dear viewer, is then the one we see. Unfortunately, the frame story is a boring way to start the movie, and the "Gotta Write a Show/Who'll Be My Star" song is the least appealing, and least funny, of all of the songs in the movie. (The others are mostly pretty good.) So it takes a while to get back all of the momentum squandered up front.

Silverman's comedy also doesn't seem quite ready for an hour-long movie -- she has a number of killer bits, but she doesn't really have a routine -- bits don't flow into each other all that well (which gets papered over in the movie with songs and other extraneous junk). Yes, her good stuff is almost all going to be offensive to someone, but I'm of the school that believes "it's funny" is the only defense necessary, so I liked it (since it was generally funny).

So this is a mixed bag -- as a movie, it doesn't really stand up. As the record of a pretty funny stand-up routine, it's much better. But it would have been stronger if it had been edited to fit a one-hour timeslot and had ended up on HBO in the first place.

Book-A-Day #2 (July 18): A Heckuva Job by Calvin Trillin

A long, essay-like post about Calvin Trillin has been gestating in the depths of my brain for several months now, and may yet emerge -- but this won't be it.

A Heckuva Job is subtitled "More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme," making this a sequel to 2004's Obliviously On He Sails. As a professional editor of SF and Fantasy, I am of course one of the world's top experts on sequels.

As usual with sequels, this continues very obviously in the vein of the original book -- both are collections of topical poetry (originally appearing mostly in The Nation), and both are mostly concerned with making fun of the foibles of the Bush administration. Unfortunately for me as a Republican (but fortunately for me as a reader), the Bushies have a lot of make fun of. This collection covers the 2004 election, more or less, and other events like Hurricane Katrina, but it's usually more general than that. Trillin's lines are mostly doggerel, but then that's exactly what this kind of poetry calls for, and his rhymes and near-rhymes are clever (which is the main point).

There is obviously a certain amount of partisan politics here, but I find Trillin is mostly picking on Bush and his cohorts for good reasons -- and doing it humorously -- so I didn't find myself wanting to rebut each poem in turn. (Although I do find myself sharing Trillin's longing for the much saner and mature administration of George H.W. Bush.)

These days, most people who call themselves Republicans are so quick-tempered and ready to find offense that I'd hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who doesn't already loathe the current US president. But Trillin is a good light poet, and this is a pleasant time-waster for those who can stand to hear bad things said about the guy.

Book-A-Day #1 (July 17): You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons by Mo Willems

World Fantasy-ishness being basically done, I decided to throw myself into another reading project. But this time it would be a pointless reading project, and one completely under my control. So I'm going to try to read one book a day from now as long as I can; the goal is to hit the end of the year. See my How To Read a Book a Day post, back in February, for all of the tricks I use to make this happen.

I'm in good shape for it: my unread piles are overflowing, and the unread piles of comics/graphic novels/strip cartoons are particularly fertile ground for making sure I can finish a book every single day. I'm also on vacation this week, and trying to catch up on magazines that I put aside while in WFA-mania mode. So I'm starting with easy, quick books this week, and will probably also be laying as many books of cartoons aside, mostly finished, for those difficult days to come.

I started yesterday, with You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons, Mo Willem's cartoon diary of a year-long trip around the world in 1990-91, right after he graduated from college. (At exactly the same time I did; I've already noted that I hate him.) There's no indication in the book that he re-drew or cleaned up any of the cartoons here, and his linework is fluid and lively. His people in particular are quite caricatured and individual -- now I have to hate him for his skill as well as his opportunities. Willems is best known currently as a childrens' book author (he's won the Caldecott twice in less than a decade in the field), and has also written for kids' TV. He's very talented, this book is a lot of fun to read, and I still hate him.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Incoming Books: 16 July

Yesterday I took a trip out to my usual bookstore to pick up a few special-order books, and happened to buy some other things while I was there. And so I brought home:
  • Hit Parade by Lawrence Block
    Third in the "Keller's Greatest Hits" series of fix-up novels.
  • Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey
    I've read one or two of his novels, and was vaguely interested in this travel book anyway -- then I saw an immaculate used copy for half-price, so I couldn't resist.
  • Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
    I wasn't thrilled by Sons and Lovers when I read that in college, but I figured I'd give him another chance -- if I don't like this one, there's no reason to read any more Lawrence.
  • Gullible's Travels by Cash Peters
    A book of travel essays by a "Bad Taste Tourist."
  • Somewhere in America by Mark Singer
    New Yorker reportage, human-interest division.
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
    Random essays, as far as I know.
  • Book One: Work 1986-2006 by Chip Kidd
    A monograph by the most famous book designer in the world.
  • The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
    No one got it for me for Christmas or my birthday, so I bought my own.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Who Is This Hornswoggler, Anyway?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed -- and possibly even puzzled over, if they're particularly bored -- the fact that this blog has a person's name in its title, and that name is not mine. And yet (he said, giving up on an already-far-too-long sentence) my name is featured prominently on the blog, and it's even got a picture of my grinning mug up near the top there. So I'm clearly not trying to be anonymous, as Evil Editor or Miss Snark are.

I said, very early on (in my second-ever post, the Collector's-Item Mission Statement) that "G.B.H. Hornswoggler" was a name I made up some years ago for videogame high scores -- and that is true. However, both the name itself and the long-winded blog title call up certain connotations, and those are not unintended. (I won't claim I have any grand scheme in mind, but I do have some half-baked thoughts I'm trying to shop around.) Whatever images The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent. calls up in your heads are probably similar to the ones I intended to place there. Probably. Unless you're really weird or something.

All this is circling around one thought: this blog is written as by "G.B.H. Hornwoggler," who is not the same person as "Andrew Wheeler." Well, that's not quite true, either. The Hornswoggler isn't even as separate from my everyday self as Jeff VanderMeer's Evil Monkey; he lives in my head and types with my fingers and he says the things I want to say. Hornswoggler, though, is more flamboyant, quicker to pick a fight, and devastatingly witty. (At least, he thinks he is.) The Hornswoggler is a way of saying things, a verbose (and, I expect, occasionally tedious) old scalawag who puts into far too many words the ideas that Wheeler would normally just let drift off into the ether.

This probably all adds up to a warning: if you want me in always-coherent, on-message mode, you'd be better served at SFBC's blog (which might have a real spiffy name of its own sometime soon, if the domain name search goes well). What you'll find here is likely to be less coherent, and -- as I keep having to emphasize -- completely personal, and not endorsed or authorized in any way by my employer, family, friends or fraternal organizations. I hope you do stick around (and maybe even comment once in a while), but Antick Musings is about as far for an official anything as you can get -- and I like it that way.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Reading Into the Past: Week of 7/9

For the benefit of those for whom this may be a confusing ritual, a brief recap: every Sunday night, I roll some dice, count backwards however many years the dice tell me, and look up in my reading notebooks the books I was reading around this time that year. Then I type 'em all up and try to remember anything interesting or worthwhile about those books. In theory, this all happens on Sunday, but, in practice, I type up the list of books on the Sunday night, and the comments sometime before (but not much before) the next Sunday night.

This week the dice read 11, and so we return to the summer of 1995, when the Internet was a geeky toy, Ross Perot was a major political force, and everyone's girlfriend was listening to Alanis Morissette:
  • Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda (7/2)
    This is the one "flashback" Miles Vorkosigan novel, written out of internal chronological sequence. It's one of the lighter-weight entries in the series, and depends less on knowledge of the other books, but it was also written fairly late in the sequence -- all that makes it an excellent first Vorkosigan novel, if there's anyone out there looking to start the series. (Bujold is a bit like Terry Pratchett -- their earliest books aren't bad, but they're not as strong as the series later became, and so can give new readers the wrong impression.)
  • Mercedes Lackey, The Fire Rose (7/4)
    At the time, I thought this was easily her best novel, and I think it's probably still up there. (The main competition would be the "Elemental Masters" semi-series, which takes the time period and concepts of magic from this book but aren't otherwise related to it.) The characters in those books felt more like adults than many of the Valdemar folks (who often seem like immature grad students, no matter how old they're supposed to be). Oh, the story? It's a retelling of "Beauty and the Beast," set just before and during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake/Fire. I don't think it has a villain in it, which is good, because Lackey's villains tend a little too often to wringing their hands and declaiming how evil they are. But she's always a tremendously engaging writer, one whose books are fun to wallow in, and I've said before that she's been one of my main guilty pleasures for over a decade now -- so she's obviously doing something right.
  • Philip K. Dick, Martian Time-Slip (7/5)
    Oh, please don't ask me to remember specific PKD novels a decade later. This one is set on Mars, and I think it's the one with Perky Pat (or one of the ones). It's filed in my head as one of the better Dick books, if that helps.
  • Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (7/7)
    His canonically great novel, and the novel in which he was throwing the most literary juju around. It's probably also his best and most important book -- and everyone who cares at all about British literature in the first half of the 20th century needs to read it -- but I still persist in saying The Loved One is more fun to read. Still, this is one of those books that thrills you as you read it and leaves you with the sense that you now understand great swathes of the English character and how it really was to live through those times.
  • Diane Duane, Spider-Man: The Lizard Sanction (7/8)
    A tie-in novel that I read at great speed. I think it was part of a trilogy, in which some villain three two other less intelligent villains at Spidey to further a greater nefarious plot. This might also be the one with some scenes set at NYU (New York University), which I enjoyed greatly because my brother had just graduated from there. But maybe I'm wrong; I try not to devote too many brain cells to books like this.
  • Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights: Heirs of the Force (7/8)
  • Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights: Shadow Academy (7/8)
  • Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Star Wars: Young Jedi Knights: The Lost Ones (7/9)
    I think these were the first three books in the "Young Jedi Knights" series (young adult novels about the adventures of a bunch of young Jedi-in-training, particularly the teenaged twins of Han Solo and ex-Princess Leia), but I could have them mixed up. I did eventually read fourteen books in this series, so they've blurred a bit over time. The first six books were one plot arc, about the evil "Shadow Academy." (The SFBC stuck them into an omnibus under the title The Rise of the Shadow Academy.) The next five were about the evil "Diversity Alliance." (Yes, this was Contract With America time, and, no, I have no idea if it was a secret political message on anybody's part. Oh, and this is slightly amusing -- the SFBC titled our omnibus of the second sequence The Fall of the Diversity Alliance and someone -- I think it was an Ace editor, but it could have been a Lucasfilm contact -- said that the title was OK with them, but wanted to make sure we didn't mind giving away in the title that the bad guys lost. As if it would ever be otherwise in a space opera!) Then the last three books were about the even more evil, but more quickly defeated because the contract was running out, Black Sun criminal organization. That omnibus I wanted to call Under a Black Sun, but Lucasfilm vetoed it, saying that organization never took an indefinite article. I protested that it was a metaphorical usage, but they stood their ground, and Under Black Sun the book became. (Which was still fine, but I thought my version had slightly more gravitas and was a better title.)
It's only Saturday, and I'm finished. Whee! That counts as early, these days...

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Bastille Day!

If you're near a horrible prison run by an oppressive monarchy, this is the day to riot and free the prisoners therein.

Or, y'know, if you're French, you could just take the day off from work and have a big party, because you took care of that two hundred and seventeen years ago.

However you choose to celebrate this day, please revolt responsibly and be sure to name a designated leader of the Terror.

In Which I Apologize

Yes, there have been few posts this week, and those have been short. I've spent a lot of hours doing World Fantasy judging stuff (and, no, I can't tell you anything about it -- watch for the nominees list next month) and, of course, the actual job thing.

So I was hoping for a nice mindless meme for a Friday, to help make a nice long post. Unfortunately, the one running around the LJ/blog world right now (no links; if you're reading this you've probably seen it at least three times by now) is about TV shows.

Now, I'm not a TV snob, really. But I really don't watch very much of it, and haven't for ages now. And posting a long list of TV shows in roman type doesn't strike me as terribly useful. So I'll keep looking for something to babble about. (Maybe it's time to drag out the aborted post about editors' lies? No, I think that one needs to wait until I'll be incommunicado for a week or so -- maybe Worldcon time.)

Quote of the Week

"If nobody said anything unless he knew what he was talking about, a ghastly silence would descend upon the earth."
--Sir Alan Herbert

Thursday, July 13, 2006

In Which I Think I'm Funnier Than The Onion

We all know The Onion, right? Satirical newspaper -- occasionally brilliant and usually incisive in an unexpected way?

Well, this week's issue purports to be from 1996, for reasons I don't know. Maybe it's just a re-run of an actual ten-year-old issue, but last week's paper was supposedly from 1906, so that couldn't have been a rerun. Perhaps this is vacation time for the staff, and they can do an issue like this ahead of time?

(Further research seems to show that this is an actual reprinted ten-year-old issue. Reasons are still unknown, but vacation is still my guess.)

Anyway, I was reading this article, about a straw space shuttle burning up on the launch pad, and I realized it ended in the wrong way. (You need to go read it first, to understand what I'm saying. I'll wait while you do...) What this story needed was something like this:
NASA spokesman Roger Laurenzi said that the space agency planned to continue with the scheduled December 19th launch of shuttle Excelsior II, which is being assembled entirely of sticks.
See? Isn't that better?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Movie Log: Gregory's Girl and My Favorite Year

Probably the last double-shot of '80s comedy for a while; coming from Netflix today is Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic and I'll probably go in a different direction after that. So let us mourn for the lost glories of youth.

"It's hard work being in love, eh? Especially when you don't know which girl it is."

It's hard to describe exactly why that's my favorite movie quote, or exactly how Gregory's Girl helped me get through my own adolescence, but it is and it did. As I recall, Gregory's Girl was shown a lot on HBO (or maybe Cinemax; they blur together in memory) a lot in the early '80s, and I watched at least part of it every time I flipped past it. It was one of those movies that seemed to open a window into a brighter, more vibrant world, and I wanted to jump through that window, or at least figure out how they lived their lives so interestingly.

So I was more than a little apprehensive to see it again. I wanted to see it, but I desperately wanted it to be that wonderful movie that made me think life would be fun, if not necessarily comprehensible -- and made me want to be Scottish, too. Luckily, it was still a wonderful movie; it was nearly exactly the way I'd remembered it. (I had completely forgotten the gratuitous nudity that starts the film, though -- you'd think the thirteen-year-old boy I was then would have focused more on that.)

It's such a low-key movie, so focused on its characters in their day-to-day life, that it's hard to talk about. There's this teenage boy, Gregory, and he's just falling in love (as far as he can tell) with the girl who just took his place on the football (soccer) team and relegated him to goalie. His story is central, but all around him are other people who aren't just there to support him; even the characters with only a line or two become completely rounded figures with their own lives and thoughts. It's one of those few movies daring enough to just stop and watch people as they are, and let their stories unfold. I wish there were a million more movies like this. And I'm now thinking I should get my own copy; twenty years is too long to go between viewings.

"Ladies are unwell, Stone. Gentlemen vomit."

My Favorite Year isn't that good, but it's still very entertaining. And it's one of those movies where nearly every character creates a oh-isn't-it-that-guy! moment; everybody in it has been in lots of other movies and TV shows. It's the very thinly veiled story of how not-Errol Flynn went on non-Your Show of Shows, while, meanwhile, not-Sid Caesar gets in trouble with a mobster (who's probably not-somebody, but I don't know who). Meanwhile, a young writer (whom I'd always thought was not-Mel Brooks, but it's probably not-the actual screenwriter of the movie) on the show finally wears down the girl he loves and gets her to go out with him.

Peter O'Toole is of course wonderful, and sinks his teeth into the scenery, as he's supposed to. It might not be a great movie (as I think Gregory's Girl is), but its a good one, and a pleasant way to spend about ninety minutes.

Incoming Books: 12 July

A small pile of books followed me home from work today; I think I'll keep them. They're mostly to be read for pleasure -- at least, that's my intention -- but most of them are in the genre, and, at this point in my life, I find that everything I read in SFF turns into work somewhere along the line, somehow.

Anyway, World Fantasy is nearly done, so soon I might actually be able to read:
  • Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. by Alex Boese
  • The Healthy Dead by Steven Erikson
    Of course, I probably should get and read Blood Follows before jumping into this one.
  • The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison
  • Lurker in the Lobby: A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft by Andrew Migliore and John Strysik
  • Dark Mondays by Kage Baker
But, now, I really need to finish reading every fantasy story published last year I can get my hands on...