Saturday, February 28, 2009

Movie Log: The Baxter

A couple of nights ago, I told The Wife my new preference in movies. "Short and funny," I said; I wanted them to be barely 90 minutes long and with at least one moment that makes me laugh. The Baxter was the first test of the new regime, and it passed with flying colors; this obscure mid-00s romantic comedy is both honestly funny and doesn't outstay its welcome.

It's a vehicle for Michael Showalter (the large dweeb on the box cover), who wrote, directed, and starred as Eliot Sherman, the king of the "Baxters." A Baxter is the nice, dependable guy in a romantic comedy -- the one the heroine is planning to marry, but doesn't, because she gets swept off her feet by the romantic male lead (who is usually, in Elliot's experience, a man from her past). There's an entertaining sequence about halfway through the movie where he's seen being the Baxter to four different women, all of whom dumped him to be with the love of their lives.

The Baxter opens at Elliot's wedding to Caroline (Elizabeth Banks), which of course is interrupted by her old high school boyfriend Bradley (Justin Theroux) bursting in to declare his undying love for Caroline. The movie then flashes back to Elliot's first meeting with Caroline...and, immediately before that, with Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams).

Caroline is gorgeous, yes. And Elliot falls for her quickly, which is understandable. (It's not as clear what she sees in him, unless she's settling for a nice, dependable guy.) But it's immediately obvious that Cecil is perfect for him -- she shows definite signs of being the female equivalent of a Baxter.

But the plot has to have somewhere to go, so, once we're all clear on the eventual end of the movie, it dives back into the current day, about two weeks before Elliot and Caroline's (still-unplanned, which is insane) wedding. Bradley -- dark, mysterious, scientific, rich, sensitive -- comes back into Caroline's life unexpectedly, and Elliot is sure that his Baxter luck is going to strike again.

As his and Caroline's relationship unravels, there are a lot of good scenes with a whole lot of solid actors -- I'll mention only Peter Dinklage as Benson Hedges the wedding planner, because Dinklage runs away with his scene (mostly through subtle facial expressions and eye gestures). The Wife and I expressed a willingness to see any movie with Peter Dinklage once The Baxter was over; he's amazingly good and amazingly funny and probably would have grossed ten billion dollars at the box office by now if he was eight or nine inches taller. (And, who knows? He still might -- he's that good. Watching him act, you forget how short he is and only see his character.)

Anyway, the first scene tells you how the movie ends -- though The Baxter is one of those movies where you practically forget that first scene until you get back to it, and then get reminded, suddenly, that you already know what happens at the wedding. But there is a happy ending for Elliot, as there had to be...though, even there, it means someone else gets to be the Baxter this time.

The Baxter has some minor failures of logic, and Elliot is just a bit too dweeby and stiff most of the time -- he's a comedian's caricature to get laughs rather than a rounded character at least some of the time. But, that said, it's a very enjoyable movie, with a bunch of funny scenes, and Michelle Williams is a real cutie here, fulfilling the most important role in a rom-com: being the person that you look at and say "Of course the main character should be with her!"

Friday, February 27, 2009

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

One of the greatest things a novel can do is present a perfect voice, to show the world precisely as one character -- and only that one character -- perceives it. I won't say that When We Were Romans is perfect -- what novel is? -- but it does capture that one voice with a focus and a power that's rare.

The voice belongs to Lawrence, a nine-year-old British boy. He's the man in the house since his mother, Hannah, divorced his unnamed father and took herself, Lawrence, and little sister Jemima away from Glasgow to live somewhere dreary in England. When We Were Romans opens with a lightning trip to Tesco's, quick and quiet because that estranged, unnamed father may be lurking. And the tone is set then: it's Hannah and her kids against the world, no matter what happens. Though the world seems to be getting in more than its share of hits these days.

Impetuously -- it's obvious almost immediately that word describes Hannah most of the time -- the mother decides to take the kids and run off to Rome, where she met their father, the last place she remembers being happy. It'll be an adventure, she says. And so they pack up as many of their things as they can cram into their little car and drive, almost as soon as she thinks of it.

The trip is an adventure, and so is Rome at first, full of Hannah's old friends, who are all happy to see her again. Lawrence thinks of them all as different animals in his head -- rabbits and bears and giraffes, some good and some not. The family stays with one friend, then another and another, as Hannah begins to complain to Lawrence about the ones they've just left. Everyone seems helpful and open-hearted when they meet Lawrence and his family, but things just don't quite go right. And has Lawrence's father followed them?

Lawrence is, by necessity, an unreliable narrator: he doesn't understand the adult world yet, and he's still at the age when he believes what he's told. But he describes events even when he doesn't understand them, and the reader begins to doubt some parts of his story.

I've seen reviews that complain that the ending of When We Were Romans descends into melodrama, but -- coming from the fields of genre fiction as I do -- I found it utterly believable and even a bit understated. It is a novel that depends on the voice of the narrator -- and I admit that I am often a sucker for first-person narrators, particularly unreliable ones -- but I found When We Were Romans utterly compelling, and nearly heartbreaking at the end.

Special Auxiliary Mid-Afternoon Quote

"Say Barnes & Noble signed a deal to sell the next Twilight book at a huge discount. But with a catch—the book would be published in invisible ink, and in order to read it you'd need to buy a special Barnes & Noble black light. This is ludicrous, of course, and no bookstore would ever attempt such a deal. But what's the Kindle other than a fancy digital decoder ring?"
- Farhad Manjoo, "Fear the Kindle,"Slate 2/26/09

Quote of the Week

"I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."
- Groucho Marx

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Matters of the Flesh

Today, for your friendly neighborhood ComicMix, I reviewed Koren Shadmi's debut comics collection In the Flesh.

Movie Log: Stiff Upper Lips

The Wife and I saw Stiff Upper Lips last night; we'd previously not known of its existence. (Or else a woman who loves costume dramas so much would have seen it already.) It's a mild parody of Merchant-Ivory movies, with occasional jabs at other, similar things (like Chariots of Fire and Brideshead Revisited), and a strong emphasis on the obligatory sexual awakening plot. It's also just over a decade old at this point, and fairly obscure.

It's primarily a extended riff on A Room With a View, with some A Passage to India (mostly just the fact of being in India) bolted on and a central triangle reminiscent of Brideshead. Young virgin Emily (Georgina Cates) meets her younger brother Edward's (Samuel West) best college chum Cedric (Robert Portal), but doesn't want to marry him, even though she is 22 and has already turned down the local vicar for having eyebrows twice as bushy as is acceptable.

Meanwhile, there's a sturdy peasant (George, played by Sean Pertwee) lurking about, who saves Emily from drowning when Cedric can only call for help in Latin. Emily at first dislikes the crass and common George, but falls for his rough charms once her Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales) relocates the whole group to Italy for no particular reason. (Later, they all go to India, because it's "more English," and Agnes herself falls for tea-planter Horace, played by Peter Ustinov.)

Some of the best parts are when the movie drags the underlying class conflicts up into dialogue, or otherwise makes the subtext (meant or unmeant) of all those slow, stately Merchant-Ivory movies very clear text. George's father Eric (Brian Glover) repeatedly insists that he and his son are "the scum of the earth," which is also the name of the local pub. Cedric mentions how he hates common people when the butler dies carrying their luggage at the train station. And so on -- Stiff Upper Lips doesn't mock its forebears directly, but generally takes what they hinted at and makes it explicit.

And that's quite funny. It's not as sexy a movie as I think it wanted to be, since the only women in it are Georgina Cates and Prunella Scales, but it's wry and very humorous. And hardly anyone seems to know it exists.

So Sick: An iTuned Life

I know I've done this meme, or a version of it, at least once before, but I like doing iTunes memes, so I'll do it again. (This time I got it from Gwenda Bond.)

1. Put your iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc. on shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.
4&5. Deleted the part about tagging people, so just do it if you like.
6. Have Fun!

"It'll Be the Same Without You" by The Mendoza Line
Which means, I suppose, "If you want to continue to be allowed to talk to me -- or perhaps to live -- confine your conversation to pleasantries."

"To the Rain" by French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson
With non sequiturs, I guess. I seem to be a quite obnoxious person, according to this meme.

"Black Wings" by Tom Waits
It's true; I can't get enough of chicks with big dark-feathered appendages sprouting from their backs.

"Take My Life" by Black Helicopter
Possibly, but more in the Henny Youngman sense rather than the Wristy McSlashalot sense.


"(We Workers Do Not Understand) Modern Art" by Camper Van Beethoven
It's true; they don't. So my purpose is complete!

"Skin & Bone" by The Kinks
Anyone who's ever seen me will laugh at that one.

"12345678" by The Hard Lessons
They do think that I can count, and I thank them for that.

"The Dream" by The Cure
They still dream that I'll become rich & famous and enwrap them in luxury, perhaps.

"Josie and the Pussycats" by Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donnelly
It's futile of me to deny it...

"Born to Run" by Cowboy Mouth
I'm not sure I have a best friend, and if I did, it would be either my wife or my brother. But I do think that undefined person is born to run. (Though I certainly do want Wendy to let me in and be her friend -- I certainly will guard her dreams and visions.)

"So What" by The Cure
Quite appropriate, actually. But two Cure songs that quickly?

"Darkness" by The Police
Not bad, since I am already grown up.

"Valentine's Day" by The Dollyrots
Only if I kill myself because my boyfriend jilted me on V-Day, I think. And even then, only if I'm about sixteen. Still, it's a great song.

"My Main Attraction" by The Lime Spiders
Recursion, I guess.

"Under Control" by Soft Targets
Oh, yes, I greatly fear being under control. And don't throw me in that brier patch, either.

"Shade" by Portugal. The Man
That I'm sitting in the shade, or that I already am a shade? I'll never say.

"Baby Don't You Do It" by The Who
More like the reverse, I'd say.

"It Goes On" by The Psychedelic Furs
I just can't get rid of them.

"So Sick" by Tracy Shedd
And so I will.

And, like I did last time, here's a widget with as many of those songs as I can get. (And that's barely half; I'm surprised at how many of these aren't available.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Movie Log: Prince Caspian

So anyone reading this probably knows that Prince Caspian is the second of the Narnia movies, from the second (and don't get me started on that argument again) of C.S. Lewis's novels.

The movie is a fairly blatant attempt to create a Christianized Lord of the Rings -- the book had a more complicated genesis, but Christian evangelism was definitely in the mix there. But since the god-figure in Narnia is a giant talking lion named Aslan with Liam Neeson's voice -- who never claims to be a god, nor is called that by anyone else -- it causes a certain tension and occasional lack of coherence, as when some of the characters whine to others that they should all just sit down and wait quietly for Aslan to come along and save them all.

(The theology of Prince Caspian is more than slightly muddy -- the first attempt at salvation through good works doesn't go well at all, but simply waiting for Aslan would have been useless, too. As usual with religion and other abusive relationships, the point is to internalize what the powerful being wants, so that no one has to think or talk about it, just to do it before he even asks. But since that powerful being remarks repeatedly in this movie that nothing ever happens the same way twice, it's impossible to use the past as a guide to future behavior -- the Aslan-supplicant must remain preternaturally wary, looking for the slightest sign, and be willing to do anything if it looks like that's what the big CGI lion wants.)

I haven't re-read the Narnia books since I was a teenager, and I doubt I'll go back now -- I poked about a bit in the book Prince Caspian during delays of the movie, and found it twee, archaic, and full of that horrible now-I'm-going-to-tell-you-something-jolly tone that's thankfully been mostly eradicated from books for young people now. The movie substitutes borrowed portentousness and a desire to be the PG-rated (and bargain-priced) Lord of the Rings instead. There's an awful lot of wandering around the scenery, as if the filmmakers thought that was what people liked about LotR. And the last-minute saves and hairsbreadth escapes have the feel of E. Nesbit about them; they're all pretty safe.

Prince Caspian is not at all a bad movie, but it's a difficult one to take seriously. Its cozy world bears little resemblance to the modern day, or such competing fantasy-film franchises as Harry Potter (or the supposed WW II of its real-world scenes, or Lord of the Rings, or any number of other reasonable comparisons). That's probably why it was such a disappointment to its producers and releasing company; the audience can tell when it's being talked down to and having its head patted. I imagine it was more impressive in the theater, but it finds its level on a TV screen -- well-meaning and virtuous, but tasting of an odd mix of treacle and twice-boiled spinach.

Automotive Part Finder Widget!

I've mentioned before that I love widgets. A large part of that love is just the word. Widget. Widget! It's a great word, a noun that sounds like it should be a verb. And widgets themselves can be fun, too.

Amazon has a new widget that seems simultaneously useful and unlikely to me -- it lets you find car parts instantaneously for a particular vehicle year, make, and model...but then you'd have to buy it via the Internet. Seems to me that, if you need a specific car part, you probably need it now. If not, please use this widget.

Or just say "widget" a lot. That's what I'm doing. WidgetwidgetWIDGET!!!

Philip Jose Farmer, 1918-2009

Philip Jose Farmer's hometown paper, the Journal-Star, reports that he died this morning at the age of 91.

Like so much of SF, PJF was a curate's egg -- his best work (like "The Lovers" and To Your Scattered Bodies Go) was as good as anyone's, his worst (I'll refrain from naming any here) were similarly comparable to anyone's, and his oddities (all of those versions of Tarzan, for one thing) were much odder than anyone's. But that all matters much more in the hurly-burly of a career lived than it does after the fact; with a bit of luck, the best of PJF will be remembered for years to come, and the worst will be quietly forgotten.

I expect to see a lot of tributes over the next days and weeks; for now, here's his Wikipedia page, which has a solid overview of his career.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sad Little Robots

Yesterday, I reviewed Felix Tannenbaum's Xeric Award-winning Chronicles of Some Made for ComicMix.

(And I should be writing a review for ComicMix right now, as well.)

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I just re-read Coraline today, inspired by the movie. I'd originally read it for the SFBC, back before it was published -- so sometime in late 2001 or early 2002. (I probably was the editor who bought it for the club; I don't remember definitively, now.)

It's a very short book -- it won the Hugo as a novella, and it is one, by length -- but it has the shape and feel of a novel, and it's long enough to keep the bookcovers from slamming together, which is all one can ask.

I don't intend to do anything like a full "review" of it here, seven years after it was published -- it's a Hugo-winner, one of the better books of a top-rank fantasist, and the subject of a million book reports and blog posts already. But comparing it to the movie is an interesting exercise, so I might do a bit of that.

Everything is quieter in the book Coraline -- she's less demonstrative herself, her real parents are less dismissive and more distracted, the secondary characters are smaller and less present, the set-pieces are smaller or nonexistent. The mouse circus never actually appears in the book, and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible's show is much less impressive. Whybe isn't in the book, either, and both the Other Father and the nameless cat seem to speak less. It's focused more tightly on Coraline and her Other Mother -- but even the Other Mother is secondary; it's Coraline's story. The dangers are there, but less emphasized -- Coraline is on top of events much more in the book than the movie, and there's less tension as a result. In most ways, the movie Coraline is a retuned and tauter version of the story: hitting the same emotional and plot beats, but doing nearly all of them more strongly and clearly. (The confrontation with the Other Father, though, is much creepier in the book -- if filmed in line with the rest of the book, it would have launched a million nightmares.) The movie also definitely makes things more difficult for Coraline; instead of one gun-on-the-mantelpiece snow globe, there are dozens, and the Other Mother fights back more strongly. (Though, on the other hand, that's the most "Hollywood" and least original part of the movie, in its choice of imagery and action-movie events.)

Now I need to see the movie again, to do a reverse comparison -- though I think I'm missing my window to see it again in 3D. (And I expect to read the comics adaptation by P. Craig Russell soon as well, to add yet a third layer.)

And I'll end by quoting a long passage, from pages 118-120 of the hardcover:
It was a bedroom, and the other crazy old man upstairs sat at the far end of the room, in the near darkness, bundled up in his coat and hat. As Coraline entered he began to talk. "Nothing's changed, little girl," he said, his voice sounding like the noise dry leaves make as they rustle across a pavement. "And what if you do everything you swore you would? What then? Nothing's changed. You'll go home. You'll be bored. You'll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You're too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don't even get your name right.

"Stay here with us," said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. "We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one that went before. Remember the toy box? How much better would a world be built just like that, and all for you?"

"And will there be gray, wet days where I just don't know what to do and there's nothing to read or to watch and nowhere to go and he day drags on forever?" asked Coraline.

From the shadows, the man said, "Never."

"And will there be awful meals, with food made from recipes, with garlic and tarragon and broad beans in?" asked Coraline.

"Every meal will be a thing of joy," whispered the voice from under the old man's hat. "Nothing will pass your lips that does not entirely delight you."

"And could I have Day-Glo green gloves to wear, and yellow Wellington boots in the shape of frogs?" asked Coraline.

"Frogs, ducks, rhinos, octopuses -- whatever you desire. The world will be built new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want."

Coraline sighed. "You really don't understand, do you?" she said. "I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?"
If Coraline has a lesson, that's it: "I don't want whatever I want." Do any of us?

The Apotheosis of Suburbia

This evening, while coming out of the Wal*Mart parking lot -- yes, I know -- I was behind a minivan of a soccer mom. I knew she was a soccer mom because she had decals on the back of the van, two of soccer balls and one of a cheerleader. Those decals also had the names of her children.

And those children are Caitlyn, Tyler, and Madison.

Why then, this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Viz Media Restructures

Details are still thin, particularly as to how many people are being let go, but Viz Media, the largest publisher of manga in North America, has announced that it will be restructuring its operations.

Viz's new Haikasoru imprint, for Japanese genre fiction in translation, does not appear to be affected; Haikasoru editor Nick Mamatas noted yesterday that he's "still working."

IcV2 has as many details as are available.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Publishing

I've toyed recently with the idea of asking if there are any questions about publishing that people out there want me to answer. (And, if there are, stick 'em in comments or send me an e-mail, and I'll try to get to them.)

But I've been lapped by Editorial Anonymous, a children's book editor whose blog I've managed to miss for far too long. This editor is currently running an amazingly informative series of posts called "Definitions for the Perplexed." They tend to the 4-color, children's side of the business, as one would expect, but things are more complicated there to begin with -- so it's a great resource. (I've even learned a thing or two, such as how the check digit in ISBNs is calculated.)

If you ever wanted to know what a F&G is (or are; I've always referred to them in the plural), what the differences between the different proofs are, or what CMYK means, go there now.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/21

As I say every week: I like to list everything I see for review, with at least some comments, since I know I won't get to read everything. On top of that, the books I like aren't necessarily the ones everyone else will -- though, if the world had better taste, this wouldn't be true -- so there's also an aspect of "somebody will like this thing, even if it isn't me."

This time around, it's the big monthly package from Yen Press, plus a few other things. I think I've reviewed earlier books in many of these series, so this may be a short 'un this week. We'll see...

Atsuki Ohkubo's B. Ichi, Vol. 2 leads off the Yen pack -- it's a January 2009 book. And I reviewed the first volume for ComicMix back in October, so I'll direct you there for more details of the plot and style. (Though I will note, looking at the cover, that this is yet another fictional manga world where young women struggle with the heartbreak of No-Nose Syndrome.)

Also from Yen, but not hitting stores until March, is Lily Hoshino's Mr. Flower Bride, which looks to be a standalone story. As you might guess from the title, this is a yaoi romance, with the usual unlikely set-up: Shinji is from one of those ridiculously traditional families so common in manga (the ones with traditions that no one else in the world has ever heard of, which they are absolutely wedded to), and the tradition in this one is that if the eldest brother's first child is a boy, his younger brothers must marry men rather then women. (Yes, that makes very little sense; the whole point of yaoi -- of huge swaths of romance manga, actually -- is to force the protagonist to do things he doesn't want to do. It's the cultural version of bondage, I guess.)

Also in March from Yen is Very! Very! Sweet, Vol. 3 by JiSang Shin and Geo. I reviewed the first volume of this series for ComicMix last year.

Another March Yen book is the seventh volume of Lee Eun's The Antique Gift Shop, which I also haven't read. My impression is that it's a fairly dark version of the "magical store" idea, and that each volume is about a different group of characters -- with the shop staff in supporting roles throughout. This one has a thief just getting out of prison, breaking into his older brother the policeman's house, calling his cop brother on the phone to taunt him, and thus making the cop run out into traffic and get killed. And then the plot really starts, with a weird girl who was living with the cop and refuses to be kicked out of his home. I don't entirely get it, but this is volume seven.

March also brings the sixth and last volume of Hissing, a series by Kang EunYoung. I haven't read or reviewed any of the previous books, but it appears to be a Korean romance comic (heterosexual division) about two people named Da-Eh and Sun-Nam. (I do my best not to make fun of Korean names, since I'm sure my name would sound silly to many people around the world, but the style of two hyphenated syllables does always ring very weirdly in my ear, almost like barbarians in a minor epic fantasy series. The problem is clearly mine.)

Another March title from Yen is An Ideal World by Chao Peng and Weidong Chen, a single-volume color comic from China that has a more European sensibility in its panel layouts and denser text. It's about a young man who chases a mysterious rabbit in his dreams night after night -- until, one day, his dull life is turned upside down.

And the last March Yen Press title I have this week is With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child, Vol. 4, by Keiko Tobe as always. I reviewed the first two volumes for ComicMix nearly a year ago, but I didn't see the fourth volume. It's the fictionalized story of one autistic boy in modern Japan, as told by his mother and very closely based on actual cases.

Switching to something very different, I also have Dandelion Fire, the second book in the middle-grade fantasy series "100 Cupboards" by N.D. Wilson. I didn't see the first book (which was 100 Cupboards), but the set-up seems easy enough to understand: young Henry York was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, and discovered a set of cupboards in his room -- a hundred of them, to be precise -- which were actually portals to other worlds. In this book, Henry learns that he's got powers he didn't expect, and that he needs to rescue his family from one of those many worlds. Dandelion Fire will be published tomorrow in hardcover by Random House.

Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days collects all of the stories related to his 2004 novel River of Gods, including the Hugo-winning "The Djinn's Wife" and the new story "Vishnu at the Cat Circus." There are only seven stories here, but several of them are pretty long -- the new story is a long novella at that. And River of Gods is one of the major SF novels of this decade. So Cyberabad Days is a welcome collection -- it's coming from Pyr, and is officially published in trade paperback tomorrow.

Last for this week is the first part of the new "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" series from Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill: Century #1 "1910" will be available from Top Shelf in April. There will be three parts to this new story, each a eighty-page full-color squarebound book and each taking place in a different year of the twentieth century. Top Shelf is also publishing new editions of Moore's only prose novel, Voice of the Fire (as a trade paperback in April) and his controversial erotic graphic novel, Lost Girls (with artist Melinda Gebbie, as a single-volume hardcover at less than half the price of the previous edition.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Saturday Is Bond Day #2: From Russia With Love

After missing last week, the boys and I caught up with James Bond Movie #2, From Russia With Love, this afternoon over lunch. (Yesterday was entirely taken up with preparing for and having the annual Cub Scout Blue & Gold Dinner.) And I found that I remembered very little of the movie -- the fact that there was a train in it was about all that was familiar. It is a good spy movie, but most of the boy-appeal action is at the very end. (Which led to some fidgeting, though they both insisted that they really liked it. I bet they'll be much happier next week, when we get to Goldfinger.)

The first two acts, to speak pretentiously, do have some action sequences, but they're all part of a detailed plot by the evil organization SPECTRE to maneuver the British and Russian secret service organizations to fight and damage each other, while SPECTRE cleans up along the way. So the plot brings Bond to Istanbul, where a gorgeous young Russian signals officer is going to defect -- but only to him, since she's fallen in love with his file photo. (As an example of how sophisticated big adventure movies used to be, this is immediately assumed by everyone to be a trap, and a particularly obvious one.) The big blonde killer from SPECTRE sneaks around killing people, and getting Russians and British to kill each other. And then, eventually, Bond gets the girl (and a Russian Lektor encoding machine, which is the real coup) and heads off on the Orient Express. From there, we get more talking -- which made my boys restless but is gripping to those of us who were following the plot, a great hand-to-hand fight on the train, a helicopter explosion, and a boat chase. In the end, Bond is victorious, heading back to England with the "girl" who expects him to stay with her. (The first of many.)

This is also the movie that introduced the cliche of the evil mastermind whose face is never seen, only his hands petting a longhaired white cat. (This is, of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, whose name I'm not certain is actually mentioned during the movie.) From reading various things online, I've learned that the SPECTRE bits are original to the movie; the book was a purely us-versus-them Cold War thriller -- and the SPECTRE plot does seem overlaid, involving scenes mostly with a different cast in different locations.

I'm watching the reactions of Thing 1 to the sex-plots of the Bond movies with interest, since he's nearly eleven and has been showing a marked interest in buxom blondes. (Thing 2 is only 8, and seems to care much less about the boy-girl stuff at this point -- but he's also less demonstrative, so it's harder to tell.) Thing 1 ostentatiously hides his eyes during kissing scenes -- so does Thing 2, usually, but doesn't make as big a deal of it -- but was also really happy to see the opening credits (projected onto a bikini-clad gyrating dancer), a belly-dancer in mid-movie, and other semi-clad women. I'm pretty sure he doesn't yet know why he's interested, but he's definitely starting to be interested. Kids grow up so quickly!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

BBC Book List Meme

This came to me from Facebook via Aislinge Kellogg, but I've modified it slightly to use it in a format that allows HTML. (The original had a lot of "add an X to the end of this category, and include a hash to mean thus-and-such," which is too difficult to read.) I expect I'll make comments along the way; I usually do.

Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here.
1) Bold those you have read most or all of.

2) Italicize those you've read only pieces of

3) Add a '#' to those you were supposed to have read in school, but didn't
. (I don't have any of these; I didn't waste my education that way.)
4) Underline the ones you LOVE.

5) Set small those you plan on reading.

6) Set large those you did not read, but saw the movie!

7) Strikethrough
those you really didn't like.
8) Tally your total at the bottom.

  • 1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  • 2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
  • 3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (three times! all for classes)
  • 4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
  • 5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
  • 6 The Bible (who hasn't?)
  • 7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  • 8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell (at least twice)
  • 9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (read the first book so far)
  • 10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
  • 11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
  • 12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
  • 13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller (at least twice)
  • 14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
  • 15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
  • 16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
  • 17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
  • 18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
  • 19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
  • 20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
  • 21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
  • 22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
  • 23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
  • 24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
  • 25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
  • 26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  • 27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • 28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
  • 29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
  • 30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
  • 31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
  • 32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
  • 33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
  • 34 Emma - Jane Austen
  • 35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
  • 36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (this, I see, is another one of those badly compiled lists, including the same works twice)
  • 37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
  • 38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
  • 39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
  • 40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
  • 41 Animal Farm - George Orwell (several times)
  • 42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
  • 43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • 44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
  • 45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
  • 46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
  • 47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
  • 48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
  • 49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
  • 50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
  • 51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel (gave up in boredom about 75 pages in)
  • 52 Dune - Frank Herbert
  • 53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
  • 54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
  • 55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
  • 56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • 57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens (Dickens is a wonderful writer, but this is a tedious, turgid mess. His short books are generally his worst.)
  • 58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
  • 59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
  • 60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • 61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
  • 62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
  • 63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
  • 64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
  • 65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
  • 66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac (I think so, but it was back in high school, and I don't remember it at all.)
  • 67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
  • 68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
  • 69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
  • 70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
  • 71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
  • 72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
  • 73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • 74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
  • 75 Ulysses - James Joyce
  • 76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
  • 77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
  • 78 Germinal - Emile Zola
  • 79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
  • 80 Possession - AS Byatt
  • 81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
  • 82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
  • 83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
  • 84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
  • 85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
  • 86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
  • 87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
  • 88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
  • 89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • 90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
  • 91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
  • 92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  • 93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
  • 94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
  • 95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
  • 96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
  • 97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
  • 98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
  • 99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
  • 100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo (well, the Broadway show, but close enough)
Total Read Completely: 45
Total Read Partially: 3
Total Supposed to Read, but Didn't: 0
Total Loved: 12
Total Want to Read: 10 (these are all things I own copies of, which, at this point, is my definition of "want to read")
Total Just-the-Movie: 6
Total Read But Hated: 2

So I've seen as many movies as the BBC thinks I've read books, and read nearly eight times as much as they expect. I may perhaps be a bit older than they expect, though, and I'm definitely more interested in books than the norm.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Up Your Amazon With Toys!

The Christmas season is long past us, and it was terribly disappointing to begin with. One result -- or at least I assume so -- is the groaning Toys Outlet section on Amazon, with piles and piles of things for the young 'uns (and older 'uns who still play with toys) at discounted prices.

Amazon would like to sell off some of this stuff -- who wouldn't? -- and so they've asked me to entice you with this fancy banner:

See the banner! Witness its shiny allure! Click the banner and buy many discounted toys!

How To Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

I didn't notice anyone actually looking askance at me on the train while I read How to Ditch Your Fairy, but I wouldn't be surprised if it attracted a few surprised glances. It has a quite girly and teen-looking cover -- though that's very appropriate, since this is a book primarily for teenage girls, about a teenage girl. I doubt many men my age will be reading it, but that's their problem, not mine.

How to Ditch is Justine Larbalestier's fourth novel and first standalone book, after the "Magic or Madness" trilogy. (And, just for full disclosure: I don't know Justine well, but we have met a couple of times, I did buy that trilogy for my old employer the book club, and we once saw a Mets game together with a mutual friend.) She's also a very active blogger, where she's sprightly and charming enough to almost get me interested when she starts running on about cricket.

How to Ditch, like her first trilogy, is written in first person -- a very common strategy for YA novels, since it makes the book immediate and grounded when done well. And it's done very well here: the narrator is fourteen-year-old budding sports fanatic Charlie (short for Charlotte, which is mentioned possibly twice the the entire novel), a freshman in New Avalon Sports High, a highly competitive school governed by a thousand picky rules in the most self-important city in a country that is neither the USA nor Australia but a little of both. And her life, and her desires, drive the story from the first page.

In this unnamed country, everyone has a fairy -- they're invisible but obvious, giving each person a specific kind of luck all the time. Some people have good hair fairies, so they always look perfect. Charlie's best friend has a shopping fairy, so she always finds perfect things at amazing prices. But Charlie -- fourteen-year-old athletic Charlie, living in a big city -- has a parking fairy; cars always find the perfect spot when she's in them. She can't stand her fairy, and has been trying to dump it for most of her life.

As How to Ditch Your Fairy opens, Charlie has been walking everywhere for two months straight. No one completely knows how to get rid of a fairy, but "starving" it is a popular method, and works some of the time. But all that walking makes Charlie continually late and tired, so the demerits in her very rule-obsessed school are starting to pile up. And once demerits get too high, the only way to expunge them is public service -- doing more work, after an already long and physically grueling schoolday, which means being even more late and even more tired and having even less time to do schoolwork...which is likely to lead to more demerits. (New Avalon Sports High is clearly built on the concept of testing to destruction; they believe that the best are the ones left when everyone else falls down.)

On top of her general hatred of her fairy, Charlie has three problems: there's a new boy, Steffi, who she's crazy about. She wants to start dating him, or be good friends with him, or, at the very least, not see a girl she hates kissing him. There's another boy, a single-mindedly dull but fantastically gifted athlete she calls Danders Anders, who demands that she ride in his car to get him parking spots all the time, and backs up his demands by grabbing her bodily. She wants to avoid him at all costs. And Fiorenza, another girl in her class, who has an All-the-Boys-Love-You fairy -- which means all the girls hate her -- seems to want to be her friend. Charlie is pretty sure she wants to stay as far away from Fiorenza as she can. (But she's been wrong before.)

How to Ditch rolls out from that premise, driven forward by Charlie's tough, can-do voice and her utter determination to get rid of her fairy. Larbaliestier also uses a Bridget Jones-esque running tally at the beginning of each chapter, with numbers of current demerits, conversations with Steffi, attempted kidnappings, near-death experiences, and various other plot complications, to both keep the stakes up -- the reader is kept reminded of the escalating demerits and other problems -- and to add a humorous note. It's not a heavily plotted book, but that's just fine -- it's driven by Charlie's voice and her obsession with getting rid of her fairy, so too much plot would only make it overcomplicated.

(Although it could have used just a bit more plot -- the Danders Anders subplot leaves a number of questions in midair as the novel ends.)

How to Ditch Your Fairy is a fizzy concoction of a book, bubbling up in your head as you read it and leaving you grinning and just slightly drunk on the force of Charlie's personality. It just might be the great Australian feminist monkey knife-fighting cricket Elvis mangosteen fairy novel. (Though it could have used just a bit more monkey knife-fighting, and I think I missed Elvis entirely.)

This Year's Crop of Odd Titles

All of us in publishing could use some cheering up, so it's great to see that it's time for the annual Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, with six nominees chosen by Horace Bent of the UK trade journal The Bookseller.

There's a full explanation of the award on The Bookseller, and those nominees are:
The winner will be chosen by a popular vote on the home page of The Bookseller; go and vote right now, if you like.

Borders Cuts Another 136 Home Office Jobs

Borders Group announced yesterday a 12% reduction in staff at their headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, totaling 136 positions. This followed the layoffs of 16 top executives earlier this month.

A Cartoon Conundrum

Today's Chuck Asay cartoon -- yes, I know, I haven't picked on him in a while, and it felt like I was missing something -- seems to be attempting to make a point that Evil Future Socialized Medicine will deny health care to sick people.

That would, indeed, be sad. But would it be sadder than Evil Contemporary For-Profit Medicine denying health care to very similar people for the same reasons?

And does anyone honestly think that health care providers won't have access to the records of their patients? Does anyone want health care providers not to know the details of their patients' health?

(As is far too often true, the real point of the cartoon seems to be to throw in an abortion reference as red meat for "the base." If Asay had found a way to indicate the nasty receptionist was gay-married, the wingers would love it even more.)

Chuck Asay
Creators Syndicate Inc.
Feb 20, 2009

Quote of the Week

"America's first modern central bank was established in 1913, in the teeth of strong populist suspicion of bankers. The men who conceived it were worried about the perception that they were forming a cabal, and so did what you naturally do when you're worried about that: they travelled by private train, under pseudonyms, to a top-secret meeting at a private island off the coast of Georgia."
- John Lanchester, "Heroes and Zeroes," a review of Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, on p.71 of the 2/2/09 New Yorker

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Pirate's Life For Me!

On Tuesday, I reviewed Chris Schweizer's Crogan's Vengeance for ComicMix.

(Reviews have been light lately because I'm playing a lot of Mario Super Sluggers with Thing 2 in the evenings, and that means I don't even get to e-mail until after 8 -- leaving a lot less time to get anything done, like relaxing. Dunno when it will change, but video-game baseball with my son wins over pontificating about comics any day.)

Movie Log: Tropic Thunder

There's a lot of swearing in Tropic Thunder -- too much for my wife, I think. But it's a parody -- and comedy for adults tends to the salty these days -- of a Vietnam movie, and those are famously full of cursing. So, for the five people who haven't seen it yet, keep that in mind.

Ben Stiller here reverts back to his older, less popular style of comedy -- the kind that's caviar for the general, usually; like his old TV show, which I and about a half-dozen other people loved at the time -- it's situational and allusional rather than being filled with obvious punch lines. It's not a movie with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments, but it is funny nevertheless. The whole point is that it's exaggerated...but done so straight that it doesn't feel exaggerated, most of the time; the viewer can easily believe that people just like these populate Hollywood, and act just like that.

Tropic Thunder pretends to tell the story of the making of a Vietnam movie, with the usual array of movie stereotypes: the new, in-over-his-head British director (Steve Coogan); the action star on the downhill side of a career (Stiller); the gross-out comedian (Jack Black); the Serious Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.); and more. They're somewhere in Southeast Asia, and the actors are out of control -- so the director decides to do some guerrilla filmmaking, deep in the jungle, just him and the main cast. And then things go bad...but these guys are actors, and take a long, long time to realize (or decide, or admit) that they're not on camera.

The end product, as I said, is very funny -- but not the kind of funny that makes you laugh out loud. (At least, not for me.) And, if there's anything that offends you on any kind of a regular basis -- no matter what that is -- it's a sure bet that this movie will offend, as well. If you've ever laughed and then said "that's not funny," avoid Tropic Thunder. You'd hate yourself in the morning. But I have no shame; I liked it a lot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Movie Log: L'Auberge Espagnole

The Wife and I know so little of any other languages that our initial attempts to translate L'Auberge Espagnole came out to "something about an eggplant." Needless to say, that was wrong -- the title actually translates as The Spanish Apartment.

It's another one of those "bunch of young people finding their way in the world" stories, beloved by other young people since time immemorial. The story follows a young Frenchman, Xavier, who is going to Barcelona for a semester-abroad sort of deal, and he ends up taking a room in an apartment with several other students, each carefully from a different country: English Wendy, German Lars, Belgian Isabelle, Spanish Soledad, and Tobias, whose nationality I didn't catch.

And then not a lot of plot happens: they're all young, they're all living in the same apartment, so they talk and eat and drink and run around the city. Xavier has a girlfriend back home, Martine, but he also lusts after his female roommates and carries on an affair with a married woman. (After getting how-to-seduce-a-woman lessons from the experienced and lesbian Isabelle.) There are romantic subplots among the supporting cast as well, and some comic relief from Wendy's loutish younger brother, who comes for an extended visit.

It looks like an ensemble cast, but Xavier is in nearly every shot and probably every scene -- this is clearly his story, and the point of the Spanish Apartment is that it inspires him, once he graduates to what looks like a great fonctionnaire position in one of those huge French government bureaucracies, to chuck it all and try to become a novelist (living either on the good graces of his mother or the French state; the movie is smart enough not to specify).

And who doesn't love a movie about being young and free and unencumbered, attractive and living with a bunch of other attractive people, some of whom you might even get a chance to sleep with? I found L'Auberge Espagnole to be charming, if a bit obvious, and I probably would have liked it better if I'd been able to have the volume turned up higher. (We had it turned down, assuming that it was a foreign-language movie, because our sons were going to sleep. But it's a multiple-language movie, and in English more often than not, which meant the subtitles kept cutting out in the middle of complicated dialogue -- and this movie is all about dialogue.) So, if you're going to see it, make sure you're ready to both read and listen to get the full effect.

By the way, the current box cover overstates Audrey Tatou's role -- she's the girlfriend back in Paris. She's in and out of the movie -- it is an important part -- but more out than it, by screen time. The guy peeking over her right shoulder on the cover is our hero Xavier, the woman behind him is Isabelle, and the two on her other side are Lars and Wendy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eisner Hall of Fame Voting Open

I've mentioned, once or twice, that I'm one of the judges for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards this year -- if not; well, I am. I'm finding it less taxing, so far, than being a World Fantasy judge was; the books all have pictures as well as words, and the stacks haven't gotten as high yet. (Though I'm told that there's a whole hotel ballroom of books waiting for us on our judging weekend at the end of March -- and anything we haven't read before then, we'll need to get through quickly then.)

Our first task is now done; we've selected two Judges' Picks for the Hall of Fame -- Harold Gray and Graham Ingles -- and decided on the list from which Eisner voters will choose the other Hall of Fame winners this year.

The whole details are here -- and, if you're a professional working in the comics industry (either as a creator, publisher, editor, or retailer), you're eligible to vote. And, as always, I urge those eligible to vote for awards to actually do so.

Bipartisanship in Our Time

According to editorial cartoonist Mike Lester, liking our new president (or, perhaps, simple optimism) is the equivalent to mass-murder and religious fanaticism.

Um, not to be all "reality-based" or anything here, but which major American political party is more associated with religious fanatics, again?

Mike Lester
Rome News Tribune
Feb 17, 2009

Movie Log: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I've been a fan of Mike Mignola's Hellboy comics for more than a decade now -- though I missed the first movie, mostly because I was avoiding comic-book movies on principle for a while -- but I knew that Hellboy 2: The Golden Army was hooey even before the opening credits started. (Exceptionally entertaining, all-out-fun hooey, yes. Hooey with inventive and imaginative creatures and real strangeness to it, true. But hooey none the less.)

There's a voiceover at the beginning, explaining some events, long millennia or eons ago, when humans and elves battled and eventually came to a truce -- after which elves would get the woods and rural lands, while humans would stay in the "cities."

Hear that? It's the sound of me, and every other viewer with the slightest historical knowledge, spitting out our 96-ounce Cokes in unison. Right now, at this very second, only barely more than half of the world's human population lives in cities. In the cod-medieval world of Hellboy II's prologue, well more than 90% of the humans would have lived on farms -- in exactly the places this "pact" supposedly ceded to the elves.

So, unfortunately, I had a bad taste of bullshit in my mouth even before Hellboy II began. Yes, the opening animation under that voiceover was lovely and evocative, and, for a summer movie's backstory, the "humans will stay in cities" idea is only mildly stupid, but, still.

Anyway, the movie goes on from there, with a hotheaded young elf-lord deciding that humans are breaking the pact by living ever more compactly and tightly in cities. (Well, that's not what he says, because the script is resolutely stupid and politically correct on that point -- he's violently annoyed about pollution and global warming and loss of biodiversity, like an unholy cross between Al Gore and Elric.) So he decides it's time to kill all the humans, and tries to find the three pieces of the control mechanism for the elfin doomsday weapon of the title.

Hellboy and his fellow members of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense are called in after the first uncanny event, and a number of fight scenes ensue. They're all quite good fight scenes, obviously done practically as much as possible, since the figures have real mass and weight as they stalk around each other. There's also an excellent visit to a fairy marketplace in search of clues, with an amazing array of grotesqueries. And, in the end, Hellboy and not-Elric battle for the fate of the world, deep beneath an Irish hillside, and I'm sure you know who wins.

It saddens me to think of the Hellboy movie that Guillermo del Toro could have made if it didn't have to be a summer tentpole: he has an eye for freakish creatures (and a sympathy for them) that's a perfect match for Mignola's sensibilities. This could have been a much smarter movie, and equally stylish. I suspect that Hellboy II was "too weird" for a big swath of the summer-movie audience, but, really, it's not quite weird enough. Even the relationships among the characters have been simplified and turned into cliches -- Hellboy and Abe Sapien (the fish-guy) both get girlfriends in this version, for Christ's sake.

I hear this one was better than the first movie, so I'm not sure if I should go back or just ignore its existence entirely. Hellboy II is an entertaining dark fantasy movie, but the director of Pan's Labyrinth could have made it so much better than he did.