Monday, August 31, 2009

In Which I Become Syncopated

Over at the ComicMix, today I reviewed a new anthology of comics nonfiction -- Syncopated, which was edited by Brendan Burford. It's got a very low-key, serious package, but it's full of good, interesting comics, so I hope it doesn't get overlooked in favor of flashier competition.
Listening to: The Brunettes - B-A-B-Y
via FoxyTunes

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi

This is the expanded and revised edition, published in hardcover in 2000 -- it sat on my shelves for several years, and then I've been reading it, an entry here and there, for the past two years. (It was my bathroom book, actually -- I may have an odd sense of what makes a good bathroom book.)

Manguel and Guadalupi have combed the literature of dozens of countries and thousands of years to find thousands of countries, continents, and cities that only ever existed in imagination -- from Abaton to Zuy, from Narnia to Ruritania, from Lilliput to Utopia. Each place has an entry, with some fictional worlds -- such as those created by J.R.R. Tolkien, Tove Jansson, and Godfrey Sweven -- having many separate entries for different places, and others having only a single entry. The stories covered here run the gamut, from utopias to fantasies to travellers' tales, including many places that were originally intended to be believed along with the more fanciful locales.

It's all presented in a quiet gazetteer style, with some very deeply buried winking, but mostly presented straight, as if all of these places shared the same world. (In an introduction, Manguel notes that they chose only places that had a direct connection to the real Earth -- secret continents, lost lands, forgotten ancient legends, and even some portal fantasies like Narnia were included, but specifically alien worlds were not.)

Dictionary of Imaginary Places also has maps, as any self-respecting book of fantastic geography must. They're all excellent, and all in the same style, further adding to the sense that all of these lands are accessible from each other. Where else will you find a book with maps of Islandia, Arkham, Middle-earth, and Standard Island?

As I get older and grumpier, I find that I'm questioning the assumptions of the books I read more and more. (Though not my own assumptions, I'm sure.) And this book led to a lot of cranky internal dialogues, since it's packed with the utopian thought of several centuries -- a huge number of the societies depicted here seem to have started from a thought something like "Life would be just perfect if we could only stop the peasants from drinking and make them work even harder" or "wouldn't the world be so much better without all those lousy Protestants in it?" The utopias all seemed to me to be based on thoughts like that, on wanting to control humanity so tightly that finally everything would work out perfectly for once. Those do get tedious after a while, so I recommend reading this as I did -- a little bit a day over a long period of time, possibly then running off to read some of the primary sources as the interest strikes you.

But at least half of the places listed here have no connection at all to any utopian urge -- they were built for other reasons, as the background for a particular story, for plausible deniability, as part of an intellectual game, or just because. And Dictionary of Imaginary Places is a wonderful and unique reference work for the lands of the imagination; there's nothing else like it, and it does its work splendidly.

James Bond Daily: The Law of the Quantum of Solace

From the story of the same name, on pp.092-093 of For Your Eyes Only:
The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: 'You're not married, but I think it's the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn't care if the other is alive or dead, then it's just no good. That particular insult to the ego -- worse, to the instinct of self-preservation -- can never be forgiven. I've noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I've seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I've seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster -- all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I've thought about this and I've invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.'
Listening to: Moonbabies - Forever Changes Everything Now
via FoxyTunes

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/29

To reiterate what I say every week: I love getting books to review in the mail, but I feel guilty about it as well, since I know I'll never manage to read all of the books I see, let alone write anything coherent about them afterward. So, to make sure I can give everything at least a little attention, I do weekly round-up posts of the books that have just arrived at La Casa Hornswoggler.

I haven't read any of these yet -- with one notable exception this week -- but there are things I can glean from the packaging and my knowledge of the field, so I'll tell you what I do know, or guess, in hopes that it will help lead people to books they will enjoy.

This week I have a lucky thirteen books to mention, starting with the second book in a fantasy series by our most recent Campbell winner: David Anthony Durham's The Other Lands. I didn't read the first book (Acacia), though several people whose opinion I respect liked it a lot have praised it highly. (I haven't started any new epic fantasy series since I left the old job, though -- I may have burned out on the subgenre for a few years.) Other Lands will be published in hardcover by Doubleday on September 15th.

To switch gears immediately, the next book on the pile -- this week, I didn't reorganize it, for once, so I'm just running through things in the reverse order that they came in the mail -- is a manga volume from Del Rey, by Hosana Tanaka, called Ninja Girls, Vol. 1. It's the usual lost-heir stuff -- common to both Westerners and Easterners -- with the typical manga fillips that this lost heir can be told by the small horn in the middle of his head, and that a group of "beautiful ninja girls" are going to try to restore him to the throne. I can say nothing against a book called Ninja Girls; this hit stores August 11th.

Also from Del Rey manga, but published last week, is Wataru Mizukami's Four-Eyed Prince, Vol. 1. It's a highschool love story, in which the heroine has just declared her love for an older boy at school, and had him reject her...and then goes to live with her long-estranged mother, and learned that the dreamy boy is actually her older brother. (Well, half-brother. No, wait! He's actually the son of mom's first ex-husband, so he's no blood relation at all! Whew!) Manga love to traffic in near-incestual relationships, for reasons I won't try to characterize, and this is yet another one of those. I also note from the back cover that the heroine has seaweed-green hair, which matches her eyes.

Red Snow is another translation of Japanese comics, but it comes from the other end of that tradition -- it's a collection of short stories by Susumu Katsumata, who was part of the gekiga movement for realist and adult themes and has published extensively in the seminal avant-garde magazine Garo. Red Snow collects stories of rural Japan, based on Katamata's childhood, and it won the Japanese Cartoonists Association Grand Prize in 2006. Drawn & Quarterly will publish Red Snow in September in hardcover.

And then there's Dawnthief, another book in James Barclay's heroic fantasy series "Chronicles of the Raven." (That Raven being, as I never tire of quoting, "six men and an elf," which sounds more and more like a World of Warcraft-themed porno the more I think about it.) It was originally published in the UK in 1999, but it's only making its way across the Atlantic now, with this spiffy trade paperback from Pyr, which will be in stores September 15th.

My eternal suspicion that my mailman reads some of my mail -- fueled by the fact that I've occasionally gotten two issues of The New Yorker the same day, one of them a week late -- has been aroused again by the arrival of Kim Dong Hwa's The Color of Water, second in the graphic novel trilogy about the coming of age of a young Korean woman about a century ago. I blame my mailman, because I saw the third book, The Color of Heaven, about three weeks ago, and Water was publishing earlier (in September). So, if you happen to be reading this and are my mailman, know this: I'm watching you.) Also, see my review of the first book, The Color of Earth.

Those who get hissy-fits at "spoilers" shouldn't even look at the title of David Wong's John Dies at the End, a webserial-turned-small-published-book-turned-big-published-book (and in the process of turning into a movie, too) coming on October 2nd from Thomas Dunne Books. From what I've heard -- I haven't read any of the iterations of this story so far -- it's one of those comic horror stories that all the kids love these days. (I'm getting old enough now to say that ironically, right?)

I also got a box of books from a SFnal small press that I hadn't previously known about, Fantastic Books. (I believe this is the Fantastic Books that's run by Warren Lapine and is part of his Wilder Publications print-on-demand operation -- as described in this io9 article -- but the books don't mention Wilder, so I'll leave that as in informed guess.) The interiors of these books are nearly up to professional level -- they have real running heads, decent gutters, square bindings, and frontmatter that's 95% of the way there. There are some elements that could have used a bit of tweaking by a book designer -- such as the text of a book starting on a left-hand page, and sections generally starting higher on the page than would be preferable -- but the insides are cleanly readable, and only look POD to the careful eye. The covers are more obviously POD, though -- generally simple type on the front, and images that are pretty simple as well. The back covers are even more obviously unstyled, and the spines just have the title and author in large letters -- no indication of the publisher at all.

These Fantastic Books are all reprints of existing material, but are mostly new collections of stories, which is always good to see. Those books are:
  • Uncle Bones, collecting four novellas (originally published in 2009, 1982, 1980, and 1964) by Damien Broderick.
  • Human Voices, a collection of fourteen stories by James Gunn, originally published between 1972 and 2001 (mostly in the '70s and '80s). This is probably identical to the 2002 Five Star collection by the same name.
  • Judgment Day and Other Dreams, which collects fifteen stories by T. Jackson King, mostly from the early '90s.
  • and This Fortress World, James Gunn's first novel, originally published in 1955.
I saw Kate Elliott's Traitors' Gate -- finale of the Crossroads Trilogy -- back in May in bound-galley form, and don't really have anything new to say about it now. It's a Tor hardcover that published last week.

And last for this week is the paperback of Marisa Acocella Marchetto's Cancer Vixen, a graphic-novel memoir of her falling in love and getting breast cancer. I thought I'd done a full-fledged review of it, but I'd misremembered -- I just mentioned it briefly in this monthly round-up last February. Marchetto is a real character -- she portrays herself as very much the thin NYC fashionista, but with a wink -- and she tells her story with a cartoonist's eye for the telling details and for dialogue. This paperback edition will be published by Pantheon on September 29th.
Listening to: My Education - Sluts & Maniacs
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Movie Log: Adventureland

I was a teenager in the '80s myself -- though I never worked at an amusement park -- so I was pre-disposed to like Adventureland, in which Jesse Eisenberg (whom The Wife and I just saw in his far more obscure movie Roger Dodger earlier in the week; it's truly an odd and random world) plays the Michael Cera character: young, earnest, tongue-tied, sexually inexperienced and naive, and amazingly good-natured.

Eisenberg's character, James Brennan, graduates from an unspecified college in the opening scenes, but quickly learns that his plans to spend the summer in Europe, tramping around with his rich college friends, won't happen; his father has been transferred to a worse job, and he'll need to get a job himself to help pay for his grad school in the fall. (Eisenberg is actually 26, but he looks and acts more like 18 in this movie, so there was some befuddlement for a while in our viewing location about the fact that he's supposed to be a college graduate who's still that young-seeming, innocent, and so forth. He feels much more like a high school graduate, or he went to a really, really academically-focused college and did nothing else for four years.)

So James gets a job at Adventureland, the local mediocre amusement park, partly because his ex-friend Frigo (a jerk who is always punching James in the balls and otherwise abusing him, which James never retaliates....because he's an utter "nice guy" wimp) can give him rides to work. And, once there, he quickly falls for co-worker Em (Kristen Stewart), who is also having a secret affair with the older married maintenance man Mike (Ryan Reynolds).

And things amble on from there, through a fairly large cast, including a number of young park workers, two or three sets of parents and the couple that run Adventureland. The center is the James-Em relationship, though James is such a puppy dog that he doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve, he actually has it in his outstretched hand all day long, and so he tells anyone he's having a conversation with that he's in love with Em, nearly from the moment he meets her. (Did this boy even date in college?) All of the youngsters have various parent problems, and they also have each other problems. There's a sexy girl -- Margarita Levieta as Lisa P. -- who might like James for his puppy-dog-ness, but that never comes into focus, though they do have a "date."

Actually, Adventureland is an amiable collection of subplots that don't reach much resolution. James and Em do date, more or less, for a while over the summer -- or, rather, they have a series of scenes together -- and then things go wrong, leading to a muted version of the Big Romantic Gesture at the end. It's a pleasant movie, but I suspect it relies too much on the actual memories and history of the screenwriter and not enough on invention and craft; it could have used a bit more focus. (For one thing, we don't learn that this park is outside Pittsburgh until the end credits.)

Listening to: Moonbabies - Summer Kids Go
via FoxyTunes

Amazon Again Clears Its Throat and Softly Vocalizes "Snow Leopard"

If you're a Mac user, like me most of the time (there are three desktops in my house, and all of those are Macs, but my needs-to-interface-with-the-day-job laptop is a PC), you may be interested in the new OS upgrade, called "Snow Leopard" as part of Apple's tedious current big-cat naming system.

Sadly, gigantic and massively profitable software companies didn't get that way by giving away their wares for free -- something bloggers like myself should probably take to heart -- and so, if you want a Snow Leopard, you'll have to pay for it.

Amazon will be more than happy to sell you a copy, and they instructed me to inform you that you can do so by clicking on the below box and following the usual e-commerce path. (They assume that, being Mac users, you're smart enough to know how to buy something online.)

James Bond Daily: You Only Live Twice

Bond is a broken man as You Only Live Twice begins, the one thing he cared about in life (however clumsily Fleming had set that thing up in the previous novel, One Her Majesty's Secret Service) taken from him. He's fumbled two missions in a row, and this time he's not amusing himself with writing mental resignation letters -- he's beginning to expect M to demand his resignation, for cause, at any time.

You Only Live Twice is the Bond novel I remembered most clearly from when I read them all about twenty-five years ago, and it's probably the best book in the series. (And that must be gratifying to the shade of Fleming, since this is the last book he finished and saw published.) Series novels often have trouble making credible threats to their heroes, but Live Twice starts out with Bond still in shock from an event that happened eight months before, has his obituary prominently featured, and ends with him walking unknowingly into the worst possible danger for a man in his line of work. And that doesn't even include what happens to him at the Castle of Death -- a refurbished medieval pile on a rocky Kyushu cliff, filled with the deadliest flora and fauna of six continents and its own indigenous volcanic fumaroles -- or at the hands of its mysterious master.

You Only Live Twice is a "you've got one last chance" novel -- I believe that wasn't nearly the cop-movie cliche in 1964 that it became in subsequent decades -- in which Bond's boss M sends him to Japan on a secret diplomatic mission: to ingratiate himself with Tiger Tanaka, head of the Japanese secret service, and to get the British access to the Japanese sources of Soviet intelligence. (At the moment, those are heading directly to the USA, which is not inclined to share with a country they're more and more considering a very junior partner.) So it is grounded in the specifics of that moment in the Cold War, like the best Bond stories -- tied strongly to the geopolitics of two large blocs facing each other, and elbowing sharply within the ranks on each side.

Bond spends some time with Tiger, and the two become something like friends -- across a gulf of cultures that Fleming portrays well, if in the terminology (and with the unexamined biases) of his time. And Tiger decides that he'll give Bond what he wants...if Bond does a mission for him.

And that's where the Castle of Death, owned by an eccentric Swiss biologist, comes in. The Japanese government is concerned by the ever-growing number of suicides that the Castle is attracting, but has no aboveboard reason to expel him and can't be seen to move against him directly. So Tiger tells Bond to kill the man, shut down his bizarre garden of death, and then all will be well. It doesn't go that smoothly, even with the aid of Kissy Suzuki, a gorgeous young Ama shellfish diver from a nearby village; the secretive lord of the Castle of Death is an old enemy of Bond's. The last fifty pages of Live Twice are a series of attacks on Bond -- mentally, physically, and emotionally -- and nearly all of them strike home, and most of them do permanent damage.

You Only Live Twice is a doom-laden book, filled with death, decay, and the promise of mortality. It's easily the best of the Bond novels, folding the by-now-familiar spycraft and smirking, self-satisfied villain into a larger context and making a world in which Bond is no longer larger-than-life, just a damaged man who's no longer even as good at the one thing that used to distinguish him. I'm unsure if it works quite as well out of the context of the other novels, but it's well worth reading, even for readers who have no interest in working through the rest of Fleming.
Listening to: Laura Cantrell - Love Vigilantes
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, August 29, 2009

There's a Hunter at ComicMix

I should be clearer: not a hunter, The Hunter -- Darwyn Cooke's graphic novel adaptation of the classic noir novel, with the full title Richard Stark's Parker, Book One: The Hunter.

And I reviewed it yesterday for ComicMix.
Listening to: The Mendoza Line - Morbid Craving
via FoxyTunes

James Bond Daily: A Nice Girl Like You...

A kindly police detective tries to explain the ways of the world to Vivienne Michel, who, the previous evening, was saved, loved, and left by a familiar British secret agent, on p.162 of The Spy Who Loved Me:
'This underground war I was talking about, this crime battle that's always going on -- whether it's being fought between cops and robbers or between spies and counter-spies. This is a private battle between two trained armies, one fighting on the side of law and of what his own country thinks is right, and one belonging to the enemies of these things.' Captain Stonor was now talking to himself. I imagined that he was reciting something -- something he felt very strongly about -- perhaps had said in speeches or in an article in some police magazine. 'But in the higher ranks of these forces, among the toughest of the professionals, there's a deadly quality in the persons involved which is common to both -- to both friends and enemies.' The captain's closed fist came softly down on the wooden table-top for emphasis, and his inward-looking eyes burned with a dedicated, private anger. 'The top gangsters, the top FBI operatives, the top spies and the top counter-spies are cold-hearted, cold-blooded, ruthless, tough, killers, Miss Michel. Yes, even the "friends" as opposed to the "enemies". They have to be. They wouldn't survive if they weren't. Do you get me?" Captain Stonor's eyes came back into focus, Now they held mine with a friendly urgency that touched my feelings -- but not, I'm ashamed to say, my heart. 'So the message I want to leave with you, my dear -- and I've talked with Washington and I've learned something about Commander Bond's outstanding record in his particular line of business -- is this. Keep away from all these men. They are not for you, whether they're called James Bond or Sluggsy Morant. Both these men, and others like them, belong to a private jungle into which you've strayed for a few hours and from which you've escaped. So don't go and get sweet dreams about the one or nightmares from the other. They're just different people from the likes of you -- a different species.'
Listening to: Rilo Kiley - More Adventurous
via FoxyTunes

Friday, August 28, 2009

James Bond Daily: On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is implicitly the second book of a trilogy; it follows Thunderball and precedes You Only Live Twice in what I'm sure someone has called "the SPECTRE trilogy." This time, Bond actually comes face to face with his supposed nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, though Blofeld doesn't really stack up well against Doctor No and Goldfinger, or even Hugo Drax from Moonraker.

SPECTRE doesn't seem all that dangerous, either -- it popped up out of nowhere in Thunderball and was smashed at the end of that book, with Blofeld himself fleeing ignominiously (though entirely offstage) a few steps ahead of the world's gendarmes. In this book, he's got a new scheme, but we don't see it from his point of view, and SPECTRE is never officially revived. For Bond's supposed nemesis, Blofeld and his organization are pretty darn wimpy.

And their plot -- which isn't revealed until late in this book, so I won't spoil it -- is fairly thin as well, particularly after the nuclear terrorism of Thunderball. The fact that he may be doing it all to make a killing on currency arbitrage, as M suggests at one point, also makes Blofeld smaller and less exciting, like some overgrown swinging-dick bond trader. The movies did many things to the Bond stories, good and bad, but they definitely succeeded in making Blofeld more interesting, important, and dangerous.

As Secret Service opens, Bond has been chasing Blofeld -- without having any real leads, and to the exclusion of any other work -- for nearly a year, and is so sick of it that he's drafting resignation letters in his head. But then he meets La Comtesse Teresa di Vicenzo on the road to the Casino in Royale-les-Eaux, and is captivated by how willful, self-destructive, and damaged she is. (Royale, as Fleming makes sure to mention on p.15, is where Bond fell in love with Vesper Lynd, who betrayed him and died for it.) Bond falls for "Tracy" for insufficient reasons in insufficient time -- or, at least, Fleming declares that Bond falls in love rather than going to the trouble of dramatizing it -- but he sees her very little in this novel.

Tracy's father, Marc-Ange, is the Capu of the Union Corse -- the tight fraternity of Corsican criminals who are the dominant force in French organized crime. (This gives Fleming an opportunity to drag out his racial theories, which are creaky to a 21st century reader but relatively progressive for a grumpy Englishman born in 1908.) Marc-Ange wants Bond to marry his daughter -- on the evidence of their one semi-forced night together -- but Bond begs off, getting merely a lead to Blofeld's location.

Secret Service ambles on amiably from there, not picking up much momentum until Bond finally has to flee Blofeld's Swiss mountaintop ski chalet/allergy clinic/fortified camp at night on skis. Then there's another period of lassitude, while various boffins explain to each other and the reader what, precisely, Blofeld is trying to do.

Finally, there's a flurry of activity, back on that Swiss mountain, and Bond is left free to marry Tracy. The last chapter of Secret Service takes place right after their wedding, and it's the best part of the novel, and one of Fleming's most touching scenes. But it's not really earned by the preceding novel: again, Bond seems to marry Tracy on a lark. (And she seems flightier and less stable than most of the women he's attracted up to this point...unless that's what made him choose to marry her.)

Secret Service is a solid entry in the series, but it can't help but be disappointing. Tracy is thinly characterized and mostly offstage, making her a poor Great Love of Bond's life. Blofeld is not particularly menacing, and the Bond of this novel has no particular monomania in chasing him. (In a replay of the "Letters from Fred" in Thunderball, Bond grumps about the first couple of chapters, wishing he was playing cat-and-mouse with his real enemies, the Soviets.) Secret Service is entertaining, but it's only middling Bond.
Listening to: Rilo Kiley - Always
via FoxyTunes

Movie Log: Shorts

My sons love Robert Rodriguez's movies. Oh, sure, they only know his stuff for kids -- the three Spy Kids movies and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl -- but they really like those movies. That's not to say that they even realize that one guy directed all those movies, because I don't think they do know that. But they know what they like, and they like Rodriguez movies for kids. So they've been bugging The Wife and I about Shorts for as long as the previews and ads have been running, and I took them to see it this Saturday afternoon, after the rain and general bad weather put the kibosh on our planned trip into NYC.

It's a very boyish movie, telling a series of linked stories -- in a fun back-and-forth, no-wait-I-should-have-told-you-this-story-first series of "shorts" -- set in a small Texas town where all of the parents work for Black Box, a company that makes an all-in-one gizmo made of smaller, endlessly reconfigurable black boxes. (It looks like sugarcube-size nanotech, to be honest.) The CEO of Black Box is mercurial and demanding, and living in this town is contingent -- for both working spouses and their families -- on continuing to keep him happy and the Black Box rolling out ever newer permutations. Into the pressure cooker of the development of version X (which has a very Mac-ish logo; one might wonder if James Spader, as the CEO, is meant to resemble Steve Jobs) drops a rainbow-colored stone that grants wishes. As the movie makes clear near the end (in an unfortunately heavy-handed way -- Rodriguez doesn't let his young audience get it themselves), the wishing stone is what the Black Box wants to be, and what everyone really wants.

And so there are a series of stories, told somewhat out of chronological order, in which various kids -- mostly boys -- find the stone, use it to make unfortunate or badly-thought-through wishes, and then only just barely manage to make it through the subsequent adventures. Our main hero kid -- who has braces, no friends as the movie begins, and a bully problem in the form of the CEO's very Wednesday Addams-esque daughter -- holds the whole thing together, through his narration and his instinct, almost alone among the kids, of wanting to keep the stone safe and not do ridiculous things with it.

There are a number of lessons near the end, and I'm afraid they become a bit obvious. (They're nice lessons, and I hope my boys take them to heart, but they thud down strongly.) Rodriguez has done this with most of his movies for kids -- he's great at the action and the adventure, but he always has his characters talk far too much at the end about what they've learned, when he should leave it more to inference.

Shorts may have parents rolling their eyes in the end, and probably will be less appealing to the female half of the human race (of whatever age), but it has a lot of fun as it goes along and it did not disappoint a number of boys who were very eager to see it (my own, and many others in the theater). So I have to count it as a success on its own merits.
Listening to: Cracker - James River (live)
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week

"There's nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex."
- Billy Joel

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Movie Log: Roger Dodger

Campbell Scott is one of those actors you recognize from his face rather than from his name; he works a lot -- and he has a type of character he plays regularly -- but he doesn't generally headline movies. Roger Dodger, for whatever reason, is the story of a Campbell Scott character, and he's as caustic and demanding in each one of these hundred-odd minutes as he usually is in his typical three-to-five minute scene in a more normal movie.

Scott is often a petty tyrant, an obstacle in other people's stories; here, his character Roger Swanson is his own obstacle, a full-on prick of an advertising copywriter whose more-hard-boiled-than-thou act long ago hardened into a shell of nasty fast talk surrounding...well, we have no idea, actually. Scott's Roger is a man obsessed with women -- with pulling women, to use the notch-on-the-bedpost term that's most appropriate. Roger doesn't respect women, but, then again, he doesn't respect other men, and he probably doesn't even respect himself.

Roger Dodger is mostly Scott-as-Roger talking his way through a series of long scenes, over the course of two days and nights, as his office affair (with his boss, a very nice-looking Isabella Rosselini) is ended by her unilaterally and his college-bound nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg, looking like the pre-coming of Michael Cera in this 2002 movie) turns up to tag along with him.

Roger tries to teach Nick his heartless woman-getting method, which doesn't entirely succeed; it doesn't fit with Nick's puppy-dog demeanor in the first place, of course. Roger's style is predicated on his being an utter bastard, working -- and that style does work pretty often, for whatever reason -- from his hyper-verbalism, his alpha-male assumptions, and his rugged good looks.

I watched Roger Dodger thinking it would fit into the "short and funny" regime. But it's not particularly funny, after the opening scene, and the long scenes make it feel longer than it is. The shaky Steadicam work also adds a layer of tediousness to the movie. There's some interesting stuff here -- Scott is worth watching, and it's nice to see Jennifer Beals as one of the women Roger and Nick try to pick up -- but, in the end, Roger Dodger is the portrait of a prick who doesn't learn better, which is less than enthralling.
Listening to: Hallelujah The Hills - It's All Been Downhill Since The Talkies Started To Sing
via FoxyTunes

James Bond Daily: Those Damnable Women Drivers

007 slanders the driving abilities of half the human race, from p.115 of Thunderball:
Women are often meticulous and safe drivers, but they are very seldom first-class. In general Bond regarded them as a mild hazard and he always gave them plenty of road and was ready for the unpredictable. Four women in a car he regarded as the highest potential danger, and two women nearly as lethal. Women together cannot keep silent in a car, and when women talk they have to look into each other's faces. An exchange of words in not enough. They have to see the other person's expression, perhaps in order to read behind the other's words or to analyse the reaction to their own. So two women in the front seat of a car constantly distract each other's attention from the road ahead and four women are more than double dangerous, for the driver not only has to hear, and see, what her companion is saying, but also, for women are like that, what the two behind are talking about.

But this girl [Domino] drove like a man. She was entirely focused on the road ahead and on what was going on in her driving mirror, an accessory rarely used by women except for making up their faces. And, equally rare in a woman, she took a man's pleasure in the feel of her machine, in the timing of her gear changes, and the use of her brakes.
Listening to: Kate Tucker & The Sons Of Sweden - Faster Than Cars Drive
via FoxyTunes

B.P.R.D. in the Mix

Just before running off to Chicago on Sunday -- did I mention that I was in Chicago for two days this week? -- I pushed through a review to ComicMix, of the most recent collection of a Hellboy-universe story. The book is B.P.R.D., Vol. 10: The Warning, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis.

The week's nearly over, and I haven't had any other reviews there -- maybe tomorrow, if I manage to write something tonight. Watch this space for detail

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Backlist Books Are Never Times Bestsellers...Unless They Are

The prima donna (and I mean that in both senses) of the bestseller lists, The New York Times Book Review, is proudly crowing all over the book media that its upcoming weekly list will feature Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the #1 slot of their odiously and ramblingly titled "Advice, How-to & Miscellaneous" list.

This is very nice for the now-deceased Child, and for Knopf, her publisher. It might even be nice for all of the people who, inspired by the movie Julie & Julia, are going to try to cook French meals that take six hours, a hundred ingredients, a dozen pieces of special equipment, and the patience of a mountain.

But the Times has repeatedly said that "evergreen" books are not included in their lists, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a 1961 book. In what sense is it not "evergreen?"

Or is the real lesson here the one that I've been saying for years: that the Times will, and does, willfully gerrymander their lists all of the time, to keep books that they personally dislike off the lists (or push them to "lesser" lists) and to elevate books that they do like. And until such a time as they clearly explain their rules for "placing" books on the list -- note well that verb they use, and how very active it is -- we should not take it seriously at all.

Movie Log: Dick

Dick is an absolute hoot, and I don't know how I managed not to see it for the last ten years. It's a secret history movie -- one in which what we all think really happened during some period in the past didn't really happen that way -- in which two bubble-headed teenage girls were responsible for the downfall of Richard Nixon.

These two girls happened to be at the Watergate the night of the break-in -- one of them lives there, and the other is her best friend -- so they saw G. Gordon Liddy in the stairwell. The next day, their class had a field trip to the White House, and things just spiral weirdly from there. At first, they like Nixon -- one of the girls develops a crush on him -- but, before too long, they are disillusioned with "Dick." (One of the more obvious jokes in Dick -- repeated a couple of times -- is their talking about Nixon in public, as "Dick", and then suddenly the ambient noise is much quieter, so everyone else thinks they mean the other kind of dick, ho ho ho.)

There are piles of very funny people jammed in all sides of this movie -- from Will Ferrell (yes, I know, but he's fine here) and Bruce McCullough as the eternally squabbling Woodward & Bernstein to Dave Foley as Bob Haldeman and Harry Shearer as Liddy.

It's funnier the more you know about Watergate; I found myself laughing out loud and then quickly giving background to The Wife, who's not one to dwell on forty-year-old politics. But if you know the names and the vague outlines, it's very funny. (It doesn't get too insider-y about Watergate; I don't think Jeb Magruder is even mentioned.)

I'm still trying to watch short and funny movies a lot of the time, and this was another attempt, which succeeded better than I expected. It's short (though not too short), and very funny. And Kirsten Dunst is darn cute, too, though she was borderline jailbait at the time. If you managed to miss this movie for the last decade, too, you just might want to take a look at it.
Listening to: Ingrid Michaelson - Overboard
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James Bond Daily: The Spy Who Loved Me

This is the real oddity among the Bond novels: it's much shorter than the others, and is the only one of the books told in the first person. Even more oddly, it's not in Bond's voice, and he only shows up about two-thirds of the way through this slim novel.

The Spy Who Loved Me is the story of Vivienne Michel, a young Canadian woman (educated in England and only recently returned from there to North America, on a long slow tour south through the USA) who starts off far too bubbly, in that Fleming female voice that I hope seemed more authentic at the time, but luckily settles down a bit as the book goes on. The action of the novel takes place entirely at Dreamy Pines Motor Court, a minor motel in the Adirondacks where Viv is working for a couple of days -- to close up the place, at the tail end of the season in mid-October -- before heading back on the road on her scooter.

But first she has to flash us back through her past -- the oh-so-proper English girls picked on poor-Viv-the-colonial at her upper-crust London school, her first serious boyfriend was only interested until he got what he wanted (which is what all young men want in stories from the '50s and early '60s), and her next serious boyfriend/boss sent her to Switzerland to pay for her abortion with her severance pay when she whimpered to him that he'd gotten her pregnant -- to establish that she's just as damaged as any of the Bond Girls, and to get her to Dreamy Pines.

The main action of Spy Who Loved Me takes place over one evening and night, as two nasty thugs arrive, from the owner, to close up Dreamy Pines for good. They, of course, make threats to Viv and attempt to manhandle her, but she's spunky, which helps her only a little. And then, when all seems bleakest, James Bond shows up unexpectedly, since his car got a flat tire while driving through the area. Bond battles the thugs (and the fire they set to destroy the motel), and beds Viv before he leaves, very early the next morning and before she wakes up.

The idea of telling a Bond story from a secondary POV is a good one, but it would have been more interesting, and more substantial, if the girl (and she is a girl, for all that she's in her mid-twenties and has been self-supporting for many years) had been less of a ninny and had had more to do with the actual plot. It also would have been far better if Viv had been caught up in one of Bond's actual missions, and not just a bit of crime he stumbled into.

Come to think of it, Spy Who Loves Me seems to be the intersection of two stylistic tricks: telling a series story from the POV of a secondary character, and showing how the hero affects the lives of a person he meets only briefly.

It's the slightest and least of the Bond novels to this point, but one does have to give Fleming marks for trying something new; he clearly wasn't content to push out a variation on the same thing year after year. But Spy Who Loved Me will always be a very minor Fleming novel, and his attempts at an authentic female voice will not endear him to 21st century audiences. (Though I'm sure there were young women very much like this back in the early '60s -- probably many more than there are now, and I wouldn't bet on the type having been extinguished.)
Listening to: Harvey Danger - Little Round Mirrors
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

James Bond Daily: 007 Dreams of a Passing Motorist

The sight of a pretty girl can always set Bond to woolgathering, as here on pp.140-141 of Goldfinger:
There was the blur of a pretty face hidden by white motoring goggles with dark blue lenses. Although Bond only saw the edge of a profile -- a slash of red mouth and the fluttering edge of black hair under a pink handkerchief with white spots, he knew she was pretty from the way she held her head. There was the authority of someone who is used to being admired, combined with the self-consciousness of a girl driving alone and passing a man in a smart car.

Bond thought: That would happen today! The Loiure is dressed for just that -- chasing the girl until you run her to ground at lunch-time, the contact at the empty restaurant by the river, out in the garden under the vine trellis. The friture and the ice-cold Vouvray, the cautious sniffing at each other and then the two cars motoring on in convoy until that evening, well down to the South, there would be the place they had agreed upon at lunch -- olive trees, crickets singing in the indigo dusk, the discovery that they liked each other and that their destinations could wait. Then, next day ('No, not tonight. I don't know you well enough, and besides I'm tired') they would leave her car in the hotel garage and go off in his at a tangent, slowly, knowing there was no hurry for anything, driving to the west, away from the big roads. What was that place he had always wanted to go to, simply because of the name? Yes, Entre Deux Seins, a village near Les Baux. Perhaps there wasn't even an inn there. Well, then they would go on to Las Baux itself, at the Bouches du Rhone on the edge of the Camargue. There they would take adjoining rooms (not a double room, it would be too early for that) in the fabulous Baumaniere, the only hotel-restaurant in France with Michelin's supreme accolade. They would eat the gratin de langouste and perhaps, because it was traditional on such a night, drink champagne. And then....

Bond smiled at his story and at the dots that ended it. Not today. Today you're working. Today is for Goldfinger, not for love.
Listening to: Cracker - We All Shine A Light
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Movie Log: Sita Sings the Blues

We've hit the point where it's possible for one person to make a movie -- except for voices, Nina Paley was entirely responsible for Sita Sings the Blues.

It's an animated movie, probably mostly done with Flash, that intertwines the story of the Ramayana with Paley's own recent break-up, giving it all a soundtrack of blues songs sung in the '20s by Annette Hanshaw. It's narrated by three youngish-sounding Indians -- who don't entirely agree, or precisely remember, the story of the Ramayana -- and it's absolutely wonderful.

It's a movie that is even better the less you know about it; I tried not to explain it to The Wife just before we watched it, and I think it was better for that. (And it's hard to describe to begin with; it has a non-linear structure and the three major elements seem like they shouldn't go together.)

To be blunt, if you like movies, you should find the time to see Sita Sings the Blues. It quite possibly will be the first big signpost for a major, exciting new direction for movies, and it's just really, really well done.
Listening to: The Loom - Song For The Winter Sun
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Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Log: Flash Gordon

We've given up on the last decade or two of Bond movies, at least for now, but we're still watching movies as a family just about every Saturday night. Last week was Ponyo, before that was Ghostbusters, and this week we saw a massive wedge of cheese The Wife and I hadn't looked at for nearly thirty years: Flash Gordon.

There's a peculiar acting calculus going on in this movie -- Sam J. Jones (Flash) can't act at all, which is a negative. As if to counteract that, nearly all of the other roles are filled with the hammiest overactors possible, from Topol (Dr. Hans Zarkov) to Max von Sydow (Ming the Merciless) to Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin) and finally, at the height, to the irrepressible Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen). It's as if the filmmakers thought that if they put enough acting around Jones, some of it would affect him, or at least bring the average level of acting in the movie up to par. Sadly, Jones is so flat that not even Blessed can counteract him. Oh, sure, Blessed is marvelous here -- his every line is a thing of joy, and his speeches during the final battle had my sons calling them out immediately afterward with glee -- but even he can't make Jones any more than a stiff.

And that's really a pity, since Flash Gordon is enormous fun if you can ignore the giant slab of useless beefcake at its heart. The sets are gorgeous, the costumes even more so, and the spaceship designs are a marvelous '30s-esque rococo. Even the far-too-synthesizer-dependent soundtrack from Queen is fun in its own deeply silly way. (And Flash Gordon doesn't take itself too seriously -- it's not jokey, but it's light-hearted, in the old style, so silliness is just fine.)

The story is the usual one, retold a dozen times: Ming is the evil Emperor, and he's taken notice of Earth. Genius scientist Hans Zarkoff knows something is causing trouble for Earth, and has built a spaceship to go investigate. His unlikely co-pilots are Flash (in this version, a quarterback for the New York Jets football team) and the gorgeous Dale Arden (a travel agent (?!) played by Melody Anderson). They arrive on Mongo, are captured and mistreated by Ming, and eventually unite the warring princes under Ming to overthrow him and bring peace to Mongo.

It's still not a good movie, of course -- time will never improve Flash that way -- but it's an entertaining hunk of cheese that looks very good (particularly Anderson and Ornelli Muti in a succession of ridiculously over-the-top gowns with more fabric in their hair than on their bodies) and is reliably entertaining. Blessed is the biggest highlight, especially the way he caresses the word "Dive!" about a dozen times near the end and gives his every line with a huge grin that manages to stay in character.

James Bond Daily: Thunderball

Thunderball is to the Bond novels what For Your Eyes Only would later be to the movies -- a moment where the series steps back from cartoonish excesses, integrating some of the new baroque elements and dropping others to return to the strengths of earlier works.

In the case of the novel, it hearkens back to From Russia With Love, before the double supervillain exercises of Doctor No and Goldfinger. The stakes are still high -- the evil, and previously unknown, criminal organization SPECTRE has hijacked two nuclear weapons and is demanding a huge ransom from the US and UK -- but there's no larger-than-life supervillain chortling at Bond during the climax and explaining his evil schemes, just a nasty but realistic criminal bureaucrat carrying out his orders with intelligence and care.

If the reader didn't know that Fleming had a house in Jamaica, she might begin to suspect something of the sort by this point in the Bond series. For a sequence of novels about international espionage at the height of the Cold War, they take place surprisingly often in Caribbean paradises (and secondarily in the USA), and hardly ever in the real war zone of Europe. In Thunderball, Bond even notes to himself that he'd rather have had the "Iron Curtain beat," assuming that the real action would be closer to the Soviets (whom he half-suspects is really behind the plot).

That's only one of several "Signals from Fred," which could be conscious or unconscious on Fleming's part, but that all tend to call attention to themselves and seem to act as special pleading. (Another is when Felix Leiter -- Bond's CIA friend from Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever, who has been dragged back into the shop for this situation -- repeatedly points out that supervillain-style plots, including the one he and Bond are trying to track down, don't actually happen in real life.) Given that Thunderball is notably more grounded than the previous two books, it feels like Fleming's conscience nagging him about the kind of books it thinks he should be writing.

In any case, there really is a plot against the free world, Bond really is in the right place to foil it, and he and Leiter do so, with the aid of an American nuclear submarine. (Which could be taken as realistic or not, as you wish: it's a big, shiny piece of war hardware put at their disposal with very little care for the chain of command, but it's also one of the newest, and most deadly, tools of the Cold War -- and the literary Bond is entirely a creature of the Cold War.)

Thunderball is slightly disappointing, in the end -- SPECTRE is more mysterious than SMERSH, and Bond doesn't have any strong reason to hate it, and Emilio Largo isn't terribly exciting as a villain -- but it's clear that Fleming thought that the Cold War was settling down, and possibly going away, leaving Bond and men like him to cast around for other things to do. It falls between the two stools of Bond -- it's not a Cold War thriller like From Russia With Love or Casino Royale, but it's not as over-the-top as Doctor No or Goldfinger. It's still very entertaining, and Bond himself is as compelling as ever, but this reader wished that nuclear blackmail would have been a bit more exciting than this.
Listening to: The Deathray Davies - She Can Play Me Like A Drum Machine
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Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/21

First, the obligatory explanation: since I review books, publishers send me books to review. I appreciate that, and -- particularly since I'm a book marketer myself, though for things much drier and useful than fiction and comics -- I want to do what I can to help those books find the readers that will enjoy them. But I know that I won't manage to review them all -- and I'll certainly dislike, even loathe, some of those books, so they wouldn't all get positive reviews.

But I can mention them all as they come in, which is what I do. These Monday-morning posts list what I saw the previous week, with as much as I can figure out (or already know) about them from a cursory glance. Some will get real reviews eventually; others will not. Only time will tell.

This week's list is short, which is good, because I will/did fly to Chicago at 4:00 PM tomorrow/yesterday -- tenses are difficult when you're writing something on Saturday to be posted on Monday morning -- and I should be packing now. In other words: if you're reading this on the day I posted it, I'm currently in Chicago, engaged in high-level, nail-biting meetings about the future of accountancy itself! (Or something like that.)

Anyway, first is X-Men: Misfits, Vol. 1, an attempt to turn the very popular American superhero property X-Men into something like the very popular Japanese manga format and style. It's written by Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman (both of whom are cartoonists in their own right), with authentically Japanese art by Anzu and her studio. (There's the usual manga page in the back, where Anzu introduces her helpers, apologizes for missing her deadlines, promises to do better in the future, and all the rest.) In this version of the X-Men, the focus is on teenage Kitty Pryde, who's enrolling in a special school for people with extraordinary powers -- so far, so very similar to many manga, right?. But this school, before she got there, was all-boys -- another very manga-style concept -- which I take to mean that Phoenix, Storm, Rogue, et. al. don't exist in this continuity. I know just enough of the X-Men basics to be interested in this very different version, and have been out of the loop long enough that I doubt I'll care (or necessarily notice) the things Telgemeier and Roman have changed. So this looks like fun to me. Del Rey Manga published it, in the usual manga format, on August 18th.

Next is something very unlikely; the 11th book in a series I've never read and never had any thought I would read -- Babymouse: Dragonslayer. (If my children wre girls instead of boys, I'm sure I'd know this series well -- but they're not, so I don't.) As I understand it, Babymouse is a very popular character with tween girls (I may be overstating the age of the target audience, actually), and her graphic novel adventures have led to various other products with her image on them. This book is one part fantasy quest -- all in Babymouse's head, as far as I can tell -- and one part math-is-tough-but-worth-it school story. It's by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm -- the brother-and-sister team that created the character and did the previous ten books -- and will be officially published tomorrow by Random House.

I reviewed Jack O'Connell's The Resurrectionist when it was published in hardcover last summer; it's now coming out in a trade paperback edition this September 22nd from Algonquin. I didn't entirely like the book, but it's full of interesting bits, and plenty of other smart readers liked it much better than I did.

And last this time out is the third book in the debut trilogy by that reclusive, "off the grid" pseudonym John Twelve Hawks, The Golden City. The first book, The Traveler, came into the SFBC back when I still worked there, but my boss (World Fantasy Life Achievement Award-designate and upcoming Worldcon Guest of Honor Ellen Asher) read it instead. And that's fine -- it's a metaphysical thriller set in the modern world and a secondary one, which isn't usually my thing. But it does mean I can't say much about this one. It is the big finish to the series, which presumably means that the heroes will win and the villains will be defeated -- that's what makes it fiction -- but I don't really know who either of those groups are. Anyway, this is a big book for Doubleday, coming in hardcover on September 8th, and they really hope that you, or someone like you, will go out and buy it.
Listening to: The Rosewood Thieves - Los Angeles
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