Sunday, December 29, 2013

By my troth! A tour de force.

Shakespeare's Star Wars with Death Star tea infuser. Photo by Alli.

 This is a book that sounds like it should be horribly bad and, fortunately, isn't. Ian Doescher did an amazing job of pulling Star Wars into Shakespeare and vice versa. The language is mostly spot on for both pools of source material, though there are some concessions made for modern readers and older verb forms are mostly abandoned, and periodically a great line from the film will suffer for the sake of meter.

I'm going to assume that everyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar with both Shakespeare and Star Wars. This is a book that smashes A New Hope into Hamlet with a healthy helping of Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III. It giggles while it does so and drags you along, laughing, for the ride. Lucas has admitted that most of Star Wars is archetypal, but that won't make sense to young readers until you see how many of those archetypes litter the story and are wonderfully highlighted by Doescher's delightful verse.

C3PO and R2 are not only the pompous scholar and they wise fool, they're also the classic bickering couple (as are Han and Leia). Luke is a perfect young hero, orphaned twice and then losing his old mentor character in Obi Wan. Vader is brilliantly made out as a tortured torturer, and the storm troopers are the perfect comedy foil, sharing elements with Shakespeare's gravediggers, incompetent murderers, and drunken uncles.

There's not much to be said for the story - it's the story that you already know - but there's a lot to be said for the insight that Doescher gives to the characters; it seems like every character gets at least one soliloquy that reaches beyond A New Hope and into the deeper well of the Star Wars universe. If you haven't seen the films (seriously, who the hell are you? everyone has seen these movies) this book would give you a more complete picture of each character than the first film does. Some of the book feels a little slap-dash, but that's only to be expected when you're reading a space battle written for the stage.

My dad got this book for me (along with the Death Star tea infuser my sister gave me) for Christmas, and I have to say it's a perfect gift for a Star Wars/Shakespeare geek - if you happen to have a lit nerd in your life who was also raised on SciFi, or if you happen to be one of those yourself, this book is completely worth reading. Also, please go buy it because it is Doescher's first book and I really want to encourage him to do the rest of the series and to write other things, because this guy really gets it - here's hoping he makes it as an author and gives us lots to read for the rest of his hopefully very long and productive live.

Doescher, Ian. William Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. Quirk Books.
     Philadelphia: Pennsylvania. 2013.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

I want to go to Iceland now.

Let us start by accepting the idea that Danny Kaye was an essentially perfect performer, and that the man who played Derek Zoolander was realistic enough to understand that there is absolutely nothing that he can do that Kaye couldn't do a thousand times better while also tap-dancing and reciting tongue-twisters.

In spite of the fact that Danny Kaye was better at everything than almost anyone still living, Ben Stiller's re-imagining of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a charming, engaging, and beautiful film that is well worth seeing.

The visual aspect of the movie is the most impressive part of the whole - there are stunning shots of oceans and mountains, beautiful framing of the actors to make everyone appear at their best, gorgeous use of light throughout, and startling visual juxtapositions that pop out and make you want to look at a scene three or four times to make sure that you saw all the details. The writing seems secondary to the visuals and that isn't really a bad thing - the characters are fairly quiet and unassuming while still being well-rounded and likeable (or unlikeable as the case may be) and it seems like this quiet bunch really doesn't need all that much dialogue to help them walk through the majority of the film. There isn't a ton of talking, and most of what needs to be said to drive the film is said by a leather wallet with the Life Magazine credo stamped inside of it: "to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to, to draw closer, to see and be amazed," is the goal of this film and its titular character.

There is also a delightful, if only expected, element of magic realism in the movie; I love magic realism and seek it out in literature but do not often find it in movies. In order to appreciate this movie you can't question the logic of it - don't ask how you get cell signal in the Himalayas, don't worry about the speed you need to escape a volcanic eruption, just accept the extraordinary as possible and enjoy the everyday magic that all humans are capable of - hope.

I'm pretty much okay with any movie that makes me want to be a better person, that reminds me who who I used to want to be and compare that would-be person to what I am. That's the real accomplishment of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It is not a great film, but it is a film which aspires to greatness and makes you want to try for greatness too.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Farewell to Holmes

Holmes with carved elephant. Photo by Alli.

"I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary. One likes to think that there is some fantastic limbo for the children of the imagination, some strange, impossible place where the beaux of Fielding may still make love to the belles of Richardson, where Scott's heroes still may strut, Dickens's delightful Cockneys still raise a laugh, and Thackeray's worldlings continue to carry on their reprehensible careers. Perhaps in some humble corner of such a Valhalla, Holmes and his Watson may for a time find a place, while some more astute sleuth with some even less astute comrade may fill the stage which they have vacated." - Arthur Conan Doyle from the Preface to The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.

"The Adventure of the Illustrious Client"
Holmes sends Watson out to confront a fiend who threatens a young girl of a good family by his hold over her - Detective, Doctor, and Dubious Baron find themselves subject to an intrigue beyond even the scheming of homes. A rousing story, and an exceptional case in which one of Holmes' helpers turns out to have some teeth.

"The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier"
The first story of a very few which Sherlock tells about himself - it's a funny little mystery and the insight into the preening character of Holmes through his own words and thoughts is hilarious and worthwhile all on its own.

"The Adventure of the Marazin Stone"
A cute little robbery of a famous gem which Holmes solves in his living room in a single sitting. Fast-paced, short, and somewhat ridiculous, this story is still well worth reading since it does so much in such a compact space.

"The Adventure of the Three Gables"
This story is only somewhat interesting and feels very incomplete; a man wronged, a woman scorned, Holmes drawling sardonically about the whole thing and so on and so forth. Startling evidence of turn-of-the-century attitudes about race are present in the first few pages of the story, and as much as I'd like to think it was because Doyle was trying to make his readers hate the character of whom the author was so thoroughly sick, I think the sad truth is that this book was written almost a hundred years ago, and back then even decent people could be just utterly awful about race.

"The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire"
Watson and Holmes get drawn into a mystery with supernatural overtones and a mundane solution - Holmes has a solution before he even arrives on scene and we are given a very interesting portrait of a very diverse family.

"The Adventure of the Three Garridebs"
A funny little problem with some interesting deductions and an eccentric client shows us one of the more moving moments between the Detective and the Doctor - Holmes does care for Watson, even if it takes a flesh wound for him to show it.

"The Problem of Thor Bridge"
An obnoxious millionaire calls Holmes to a cold scene hoping to exonerate an innocent girl. This story is fairly prosaic, but quick and inoffensive.

"The Adventure of the Creeping Man"
This is not a problem of a dog that didn't bark, but one that did bite. Holmes points out again and again that the smallest of signs may lead to a solution. Contains one of the best communiques from Sherlock to Watson: "Come at once if convenient - if not convenient come all the same."

"The Adventure of the Lion's Mane"
This is a wonderful little story for a number of reasons - Holmes is once again our narrator, the story takes place during his retirement, there is a sweet little love triangle, and the good detective faces a foe the likes of which he's never seen.

"The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger"
Sherlock plays father confessor to a maimed circus performer; there is no real mystery here, just the sad story of one woman's life, love, and losses told to a man who can not understand but who will not judge nonetheless.

"The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place"
What do a whining spaniel, an ignored horse, a charred bone, and an indebted playboy mean to Holmes? That the game is afoot! Holmes and Watson step on the shady side of the law to investigate the strange, changed behaviors of a disabled widow and her trouble-maker brother.

"The Adventure of the Retired Colourman"
A cunning criminal and irksome client irritate Watson as Holmes tries to solve the mystery of a missing bride and her chess-playing beau. Holmes is at his mischievous best and solid, stable Watson is left holding the short end of the stick with a miser in the countryside.

These little stories are fun and fast paced; they are frequently silly and infrequently serious, but when they are serious there is a maturity to them that was lacking in some of the earlier Holmes stories. "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," for instance, shows a sympathy in Holmes that is rarely evident and plucks at the heart-strings of dear old Watson. Sherlock is aware of his age and its failings in "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" and Watson is struck by the changes he shows to an old friend in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire." It's clear that Arthur Conan Doyle was tired of his original-becoming-stock characters by the time this collection was published, but it is also clear that he loved them no less for letting familiarity breed at least a little contempt.

This is now the fourth Holmes book I've read in as many weeks, and I don't mind saying that it's past time to leave him alone for a little while (in particular I'm quite excited not to have to photograph this cover again until I reread the series); so I'll wrap up with the final lines of Doyle's preface to his final writings on the Irregulars: "And so, reader, farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only be found in the fairy kingom of romance."

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete  
     Novels And Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New York:
     New York. 2003. (Originally Published 1927).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

General info on dogs with only minimal complete bullshit

Secret Lives of Dogs and Puzzles under the couch. Photo by Alli.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, and I especially don't read a lot of project-based books; the Dummies books don't appeal to me at all, anything with "Beginner's Guide" that's longer than 10 pages probably isn't worth the effort, and how-to especially aggravate the hell out of me.

The Secret Lives of Dogs isn't as bad as most self-help, how-to, factoid heavy books as I've seen in the past; there is a lot of good, factual information about dogs and how to care for them and why they act the way they do. In spite of that, two things really, really stood out to me as a reason not to recommend this book.

The first one is based on a purely personal preference - scattered through the book are "Puppy Dog Tales," heralded by an orange side bar and a twee cartoon of a dog reading a book. They're cute little stories about individual dogs and their problems with the issues addressed in the book. They remind me of the Dog-Gone Funny stories that run alongside Sunday issues of Marmaduke in large newspapers, almost offensively banal and degrading to good content that surrounds the insipid little commentary. Please, please, if you're considering writing any kind of informative book, don't include adorable little anecdotes with pun-based sidebars. It makes me so angry because it's like the author is admitting that the don't have enough faith in their audience to read an entire book full of words and facts without a story about a goofy dog or a crazy cat. Really, it's insane how much this makes me want to set this mostly inoffensive little book on fire.

The second problem that I had is the occasional bizarre references to acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal medicine. Acupuncture doesn't work for people. It doesn't work for dogs. Acupressure is nothing more than massage, which is pleasant primarily because of physical contact - something which humans and dogs both enjoy even without vague mystical trappings. Herbal medicines are questionable at best for humans (though you are welcome to your camomile if you think it helps you go to sleep) but dogs aren't humans and feeding them some of the nostrums that humans use to ease their aches and pains will kill them. You should NEVER use anything to medicate your dog that has not been specifically recommended by your vet, and you shouldn't use herbal remedies over medical remedies if only because drugs are regulated and herbs are not. You are going to feel AWFUL if you accidentally give your dog liver damage instead of calming him down during a thunderstorm. Please, please, please, please talk to your family vet before you try to give your dog any treatment, "natural" or otherwise.

If you already know a fair amount about dogs and are able to accurately parse fact from bullshit, this book has some interesting information and is probably harmless. If you are unfamiliar with dogs and dealing with a new puppy, go to reliable sources like the ASPCA to learn about you pet, and make sure you vaccinate and spay or neuter your dog to prevent disease and overpopulation.

I didn't mean to go into a screed against pseudoscientific tripe in this blog, but then I didn't expect to find several references to potentially dangerous practices in a little book about the silly things that dogs do.

Murphy, Jana. The Secret Lives of Dogs: The real Reasons Behind 52 Mysterious 
     Canine Behaviors. MJF Books. New York: New York. 2000.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A book-lover's DIY Christmas

Photos by Alli Kirkham
Left to Right: Free as I found it, Cleaned and with shelves removed, Laid down for 
painting, Painted, Dried and re-shelved, and finally with books in place.

It's a week before Christmas and I'm well aware that you're not supposed to buy anything for yourself around this time to keep from stepping on gift-givers' toes. I've been pretty good this holiday season, mostly limiting purchases to things I need, like underwear, and not things that I want, like bookshelves for every single square foot of wall space in my house.

But sometimes the universe gives you a present that you just can't ignore.

I was driving around on Saturday after finishing up my Christmas shopping at Barnes and Noble (I was almost unbelievably good, buying only a single book for myself when I usually leave book stores lugging a third of my own weight in novels and comics and notebooks) when I saw a sign that called out to my sometimes-frugal eye: "Free". Even better, the sign was attached to a book shelf, something that I've been lusting after for a few months now. I live with my in-laws, around the corner from my parents, and when I moved in two years ago I never brought over my books or book shelves since it seemed like so much e- as I gradually accumulated a new collection in my new abode the house grew a scurf of books, books on top of dressers, books wedged double-depth in small shelves, books in the garage, books in the bathroom, books on the ottoman, books in the woodbin (we live in SoCal, we never actually need a fire), books in baskets, books in bags, books on the night table, books under the bed. Basically, books were everywhere because they didn't belong anywhere.

So I circled the block and examined the shelf on the street. It was a slightly-beat-up, cheap, stained, fiberboard book shelf with white laminate, about six feet tall and a foot wide and deep. As bad as it may have been superficially, it would hold books and that was what I cared about. Into my truck it went!

When I got it home, I pulled it into the yard and started yanking out shelves. Most of the stains were coffee or some other water-based liquid and wiped off easily. There was, however, a long streak down the cardboard backing where the white paper layer had worn away after some liquid had been spilled on it. I looked at the ugly streak and thought for a minute. Only the week before I had been watching Dexter, and I remembered how much I had liked the character Hannah's book shelves - the fronts painted white with the backs and sides painted pink. I had a can of a lovely orange spray-paint in the garage and a plan.

Since it is Christmas I have plenty of wrapping paper around and laid it down to protect from overspray. The shelf went down on its back and I began to rattle my can. A few minutes and a lot of paint fumes later, the interior of the shelf had a rich orange coat and I had a nice little buzz going. I stood the case back up and let it cure for 24 hours.

After letting the paint dry I brought it into the garage, cleaned the shelves, and reassembled the whole thing. A little bit of orange paint had flecked over the front so I took some white acrylic paint and dabbed over the orange areas, not fully blending with the other white to give the front a nice shabby chic look.

Then it was off to the races - I gathered books from all over the house, grabbed them out of my car, ferreted them out of hiding places I didn't remember sticking them in, and started shelving. Unfortunately there wasn't enough space between the shelves to properly organize the books by author, so they're just sort of piled in by height, but almost all of the books I have at my in-laws' house (78 so far - I counted) fit on to the shelves with room for me to double stack when I need to, which will undoubtedly happen soon.

It was a fun and unexpected project that had three features which I highly recommend to everyone at every opportunity: it was useful, free, and gave me a great opportunity to get creative even in a mundane household task.

So keep an eye on the side of the road - you never know what sort of wonderful gifts the universe is leaving out all around you.

     - Alli

The best bits in one book

His Last Bow with pen, ink, and cardboard box. Photo by Alli Kirkham.

"The friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes will be glad o learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism."

Arthur Conan Doyle had intended His Last Bow to be the very last collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. Since The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published afterwards, Doyle's intentions were all for naught on that score. But in some ways it might have been better if we had less Holmes, or if we had more of it, all of it was of the same shining quality seen in His Last Bow. While many of the mysteries in the novel are of a small, quiet type rather than the sweeping problems of a nation they are neatly and tidily handled by Holmes, giving us the opportunity to read about the master at work and chuckle fondly over the evidence we are given of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, two strong men clucking over one another like chickens and bickering like an old married couple (something which I will never find not adorable when it comes to these two characters).

"The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge"
A stuffy client introduces Holmes and Co. to a fantastic mystery involving international criminals, a bloodthirsty warlord, and a damsel in distress - there's a lot going on in this short story, and some of it is really difficult to read in 2013 and not cringe at (anything having to do with British attitudes about tropical British holdings is repugnant), but overall it's a good quick romp into international intrigue, though it does get frustrating when you realize that Conan Doyle never gives you all of the pieces to his puzzles - Holmes, Lestrade, and Watson may be up on the scandals of fictional imperialistic dictators but the readers aren't so sometimes the solutions to the mysteries have a whiff of deus ex machina.

"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box"
Probably one of my favorite Holmes short stories, "Cardboard Box" is a pathetic, sordid, and very human little story. Holmes figures out the whole action of the piece with a couple of astute deductions after a grotesque delivery is made to a kindly spinster, but the story allows for the individuals to tell their tales without Holmes asserting himself over every aspect of the piece.

"The Adventure of the Red Circle"
A singular little work with a wonderful group of characters; we're given a mystery wrapped in an enigma, surrounded by a squawking landlady for a short, sweet, and to-the-point story that has all the best bits of a Holmes story with very little else to distract from the master detective.

"The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans"
Holmes is once again indispensable to the nation, though this story isn't an essential for your collection - action and antagonist feel plucked from thin air on an even thinner pretext.

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective"
"Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long-suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. On the other hand, his payments were princely."
Here we have a delightful portrait of the relationship shared by the Detective and the Doctor - care and companionship are obvious, and Watson's concern for his dear friend is touching through the whole of this tense, page-turning story.

"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax"
Fascinating if for no other reason than to read Holmes admitting that he missed something; and it's always wonderful to read about Watson on an adventure without Holmes cramping his much simpler style.

"The Adventure of the Devil's Foot"
Doyle does like to play with his audience; this story tantalizes with hints of supernatural fear and a spooky title, all calmly sneered away by a convalescing Holmes. The ending of the story serves as a reminder that Holmes works at his pleasure, not under the auspices of English law - which always has an interesting outcome.

"His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes"
"It was nine o'clock at night upon the second of August - the most terrible August in the history of the world."
It is remarkable to me that Holmes survived as long as he did, beating Moriarty and escaping from villains of all types to fight for King and Country at the dawn of the Great War. There is a great sense of melancholy hanging around the pages of this story; the world is moving on from the carriages and footpads of late Victorian London to the rushing machines and spy games of the early 20th century. Holmes and Watson are old and they are aware of the years and miles between the active young men they used to be and the men they have become, still of use but too old to weather the coming storm unaffected.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "His Last Bow." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels And 
     Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New York: New York.
     2003. (Originally Published 1917).

Friday, December 13, 2013

A little book turned into a lot of movie

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When I first saw Sin City I was struck by how bad a movie could be while completely adhering to the source material. Books and comic books frequently have images and moments that don't hold up well to being filmed. In Sin City it's mostly a dialogue problem - characters say things which work really well on the starkly fantastic pages of the comic book, but which sound hilariously implausible when spoken by an actual human being. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the song is the problem. You know which song I'm talking about. The one with the acrobatic plate-flinging. The Hobbit is a significantly more childish book than The Lord of the Rings, and does include some very silly songs and funny narrative commentary, but a lot of that comes out looking ridiculous in the movie when you're looking at serious actors preparing to embark on a dangerous, three-movie adventure.

The song is just the first of some really odd choices in a movie that's looking for a genre. The Hobbit badly wants to be a LotR film, but it also wants to be a children's movie, and a character piece for Bilbo Baggins. Peter Jackson tried to do all of this and unfortunately it just didn't come out very well. The choice to include the cups and plates song, but not to include the jolly singing elves is confusing. The decision to add a comedy beat at the end of the goblin chase is perplexing when you've spent 10 minutes watching the weird sexual tension between Galadriel and Gandalf as they argue with Elrond and Saruman in the slowest scene in the film. What is so frustrating is that you can't make an argument that this is the result of Jackson being a Tolkien purist - the inclusion of Azog and Thorin's back story is neat, but it's only one line in the original novel. It's great to see Radagast on screen, but nowhere in the books is there any suggestion that he's the 'head we see in the movie (and it's really frustrating to see a character who's written as a St. Francis of Assisi analogue played for laughs like he's in a Cheech and Chong bit).

I also noticed an irritating plot hole when I rewatched this last night - Radagast mentions to Gandalf that a shadow has fallen over the forest, and that "some have even come to call it the Mirkwood"; I'm going to be a pedantic geek here - if Gandalf went to Dol Guldur in the 2063rd year of the Third Age (the same time as our quest) then Greenwood the Great had been know as Mirkwood for over a thousand years. In LotR Legolas uses the name Mirkwood for his home forest - and since elves are stubborn and stuck in their ways and calling it Mirkwood long after the Necromancer has been driven out, it is unlikely that Radagast would have to reveal with horror to Gandalf that men are calling the forest Mirkwood and to have him do so just so they get to throw in a line about how creepy the forest has gotten is an idiotic reason to mess with the plumbing of the universe.

All of that being said, there are some truly wonderful things about the film. Martin Freeman's Bilbo is effortlessly delightful, and the tensions between him and the dwarves are not only accurate to the novel but interesting to watch and powerfully moving. Andy Serkis reprises his role as Gollum (and steps in as Second Unit Director) before the trials of Mordor; he is creepy and pathetic, and incredibly compelling. The relationship between Bilbo and Thorin is developed at just the right pace and with just the right pathos. And, of course, Peter Jackson films Middle Earth like it's his lover.

Which brings us to another problem - it seems like technology might finally be getting too good to be true. When the LotR came out, no one had anything but compliments for the CGI; when The Hobbit first premiered not only was the CGI criticized, the whole film was criticized - high frame rates served to make all the animation look cheap and all the actors look terrifying; only the beautiful landscapes and backgrounds of Middle Earth saved the visuals of the film. Seeing it last night in IMAX 3D only made it worse - the high frame rate is jarring and makes what I'm sure were very expensive visual effects look very cheap (hint: if the series you're filming involves a dragon, you don't want to do ANYTHING to make your CGI fire look cheesy).

The long and short of it is that I very badly want to like this move, there are large parts of it that I do like, and a second viewing has improved my opinion of it, but due to some strange choices I don't think that I'll ever enjoy it the same way I enjoy The Two Towers (immensely, and every chance I get) or even the way that I enjoy the Rankin/Bass 1977 cartoon (with fond nostalgia and a vague need to buy the DVD). Maybe I'll watch this move once in a while, but I don't think that I'll feel the need to immerse myself in it regularly, which is sad because that IS something that I feel for the book, as well as for the LotR films.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(Spoilers Below! I guess? It's an old book. I'm not sure I believe in spoilers for books this old.)

There's a huge problem with being an obsessive geek - I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, but I kept thinking "but that's not how it happened in the book!" because I am a jerk and I don't like change.

There aren't a ton of problems with the changes that they made; the introduction of Bard works really well, truncating the Mirkwood experience is probably necessary, singing at the spiders might come off as ridiculous (even thought I wanted to see that SO BAD) so I guess it was safe to leave out, and showing us Gandalf's timeline does a good deal to increase tension and provide a sometimes-needed break from the 13 dwarves.

But some of the changes from book to movie really, really bothered me. I'll limit myself to one example, but it's a big one: only Bilbo should interact with Smaug. That's something that I think is key to the story - Bilbo faces the dragon alone and the dwarves are less interested in a tête-à-tête for the sake of vengeance than they are with letting Bilbo burgle. Smaug isn't completely right when he tries to convince Bilbo that the dwarves are letting him take all the risk while they get all the money, but he's not far wrong either. Tolkien wanted to emphasize that contrast - dwarves aren't human, dwarves aren't elvish, and dwarves aren't wizards - dwarves are dwarvish and have a different way of doing things, a way that is sometimes harsh but usually pragmatic; but you don't get the contrast if you have the dwarves fight Smaug for a quarter of the film. In the book, dwarves are kind of assholes - these movie dwarves are a bit too cuddly and broad-minded, which concerns me because some of the action coming in the next segment of the story relies on dwarves being assholes.

It's pretty typical of me to worry about things that haven't happened yet, so I'll leave off speculating as to whether or not the dwarves are big enough jerks and move on to other things.

Someone save us from high frame rate and the renaissance of 3D. I don't like it, it's incredibly distracting, and it detracts from my enjoyment of the film. This time the animators got it right and Smaug is probably the best looking thing in the movie, which is pretty sad because we're talking about a movie filmed in New Zealand - every exterior scene should be ball-crushingly beautiful, but it's not because you can't really see it because your eyes are overwhelmed with the hyperclarity of the high frame rate. It makes everything look flat and dull and too bright at the same time. This is a Peter Jackson Middle Earth movie with a huge budget, but high frame rate makes it look like a cross between a basic-cable daytime special and an overproduced videogame. There's a sequence that takes place in a river; it looks like it was filmed on a GoPro - this isn't Middle Earth, this is the over saturated video your drunk brother shot while kayaking. The images jump from having no depth of field to having a vertiginous, fathomless depth in seconds. It is dizzying and it literally made my eyes hurt. (This could be a problem with my eyes since I have very little depth perception in the real world, which is part of why I like movies so much - someone else is doing the focusing for me).

For all my bitching, though, I did really enjoy the film. Last year when Unexpected Journey came out I walked out of the theater saying "I don't know how I feel about what just happened." Last night I walked out of the theater and said, "yeah, it has some issues but that was rad! Wanna see it again?" I do think that I'll see if again, but I think I'll try to find a 2D 24fps version so that I can give my eyes a break and really take it in without having to blink hard every few seconds.

One final note: my dad and sister are convinced that Peter O'Toole would be the perfect person to voice Smaug, and I don't disagree with them, but any concerns about Benedict Cumberbatch were totally groundless - he has a TERRIFYING voice and it's fantastic for the chiefest and greatest of calamities.

So, you should check it out, and after 5 hours of late-night Middle Earth, I should take a nap.

     - Alli

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A notable absence of an interesting Irregular

Holmes and Dumbbell. Photo by Alli Kirkham

"'I am inclined to think - ' said I.
"'I should do so,' Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
"I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. 'Really, Holmes,' said I severely, 'you are a little trying at times.'"

I really do love the universe in which 221b Baker Street has a share, but I would be remiss in my criticism if I didn't admit that Holmes stories can be a bit formulaic. This is nowhere as apparent as it is in The Valley of Fear; last week I discussed the fact that The Hound of the Baskervilles is unique because it all takes place in England and under the gaze of the good detective. Baskervilles is also unique because it manages to escape the unhappy accident of holding a dime novel between its pages.

The back-stories to Valley of Fear, A Study in Scarlet, and to a lesser extent The Sign of the Four, are tedious and trite. The tales are cheap and uninteresting because they were so common at the time that they've become ingrained in the collective literary unconscious. And worse, we don't get to hear from Holmes and Watson for a significant portion of each novel.

Sherlock Holmes as a collected body of work is only still fascinating, and only remains relevant because of the titular character. I know Aurthur Conan Doyle was frustrated with Holmes for a large part of his career, and wrote outside of Holmes to keep himself interested in his novels, but reading the longer works in the series feels like dues-paying. If you read Holmes you want to have read all of Holmes and so you read through these novels as a nod to the canon, not because they're compelling stories.

Even in the short stories there is ample evidence of reliance on formulas to move the action, and quite a few of the stories are depressingly predictable once you've gotten the pattern down. There are gems in each collection of stories, though, and the interactions between Holmes, Watson, and the other regulars are charming and make for worthwhile reading.

But as to the longer novels, well, in The Valley of Fear the introductory paragraphs (shown at the top of this post) are significantly more entertaining than most of the rest of the novel.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Valley of Fear." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels And 
     Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New York: New York.
     2003. (Originally Published 1914).

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Of hobbits and humanity

The Hobbit with brass buttons. Photo by Alli Kirkham
"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole,  and that means comfort."

My copy of The Hobbit comes to me third-hand; first it belonged to the Alhambra High School Library, then to my father who bought it when the school library had a book sale, and then to me (with a library checkout card still glued neatly inside the front cover. It is the first book I remember having read to me at bedtime, the first story I really connected to. My dad would read a few pages to my sister and I every night - the three of us would sit on my bed (my sister and I snuggling under the covers, much warmer than poor Bilbo for most of his adventure) and for half an hour or so each day we were all transported to Middle Earth, finally settling down to sleep dreaming of elves and dwarfs and roads untold.

I adore Tolkien. I have a Tolkien-based tattoo. I went to the midnight premieres of each Lord of the Rings film in full hobbit regalia. I have watched the Ralph Bakshi LotR films a few times and the Rankin/Bass Hobbit film innumerable times. But for me it all comes back to this little orange paperback book with yellowing pages and a fading cover illustration - this is the book my dad read to me, this is the first real book that I remember reading.

The Hobbit is, at its core, a children's book. It is the story of a wonderful adventure with unlikely beginnings and an even more unlikely hero. The language is simple, fresh, and surprisingly funny through the whole length of the novel. The book introduces you to a delightful array of characters, with its troop of dwarfs and hordes of goblins; this is where we meet the Bagginses and Gandalf and Gollum, where we first encounter Elrond and start to have the great names of this universe laid out for us.

It is not an introduction to Lord of the Rings, not a simple post-script to The Silmarillion. This is an amazing, complete, moving novel all on its own. The depth and complexity of The Hobbit is, like so many things within the story itself, unexpected. It is a deeply human book in spite of the fact that the race of Men is so frequently absent from its pages.

What struck my mind most on this rereading was the discussion of war; not the Battle of Five Armies, which is the only war that happens in the story, but the tensions before the battle - when good folk lose sight of their goodness for a while. The Hobbit has much to say human frailty, and about those things that divide even the best of us from our better nature. Heady stuff for a children's book but lessons worth learning, and worth learning young.

There is magic in all stories, and particularly strong magic in good stories. It can change who you are and who you want to be. The Hobbit is full of the best kind of magic; it makes you long for adventure, teaches you to fight for what is right, and, once you have read it and known its lands and people, becomes a part of you forever.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Stick to the road, stay off the moors.

Homes, boots, and Union Jack. Photo by Alli Kirkham

"Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table."

I can't believe that I hadn't read any Sherlock Holmes until only a year or two ago. It's so easy to understand how people become attracted to the world that Doyle describes - is brimming with soot and mystery and humor. Dr. Watson is a kindly guide, sympathizing with the reader and leading you along the path of Sherlock's mad deductions, pouting as his own suppositions are unceremoniously bounced aside by the unconventional irregular but sticking with his friend nonetheless.

I don't know that I've ever read any series that is as character driven as the Holmes stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles is actually somewhat unique in this, with the titular Sherlock missing for a significant portion of the novel. In spite of his absence from the pages, though, the detective's guiding influence is felt through Watson's thoughtful narration.

Holmes novels are fascinating because one can generally read in each of them a pet conceit of the author - which leads me to ask what Doyle wanted to defile in Baskervilles. In A Study in Scarlet we are given Doyle's unfettered opinion of Mormons; The Valley of Fear presents the reader with a bleak picture of racketeering and gang activity in the US; The Sign of the Four is constructed around the exploitation of the British East India Company. Only in The Hound of the Baskervilles does the carrying action of the story occur entirely in England (rather than in the lawless wilderness in America or in an English-controlled backwater). Perhaps Baskervilles is Doyle's criticism of the wilderness of the romantic novel; the setting is quite similar to Catherine and Heathcliff's love-lorn moor, there are two romantic beauties tormented by a beast of a man, peasants are terrified by the supernatural, nobody's marriage ends well, and there are even a couple of jabs the English legal system and its unfair malleability, all of which can be read as attacks on the overwrought romanticism and contrived obstacles found in Wuthering Heights. Or perhaps I'm simply projecting my dislike of the star-crossed loathers onto Doyle's deconstruction of a ghost story.

Whatever criticisms of other texts may be present in Baskervilles, it's a great read. The moors are mournful, even when Doyle is writing them lightly, and the story is one of Holmes's spookier mysteries. And it's hard to walk away from when you're caught up in the action, wanting to know what happens next and hoping Watson and Holmes solve the mystery with their skins intact, in time to make it home to a cheery fire and share a pipe together.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete 
     Novels And Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New
     York: New York. 2003. (Originally Published 1902).

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Christmas movie for sad goth kids

Everyone should watch Edward Scissorhands. If you haven't seen it already, now's a good time - it's not really a Christmas/Holiday film but it does have a lot of the dark holiday feel that showed up in The Nightmare Before Christmas a few years later.

Edward Scissorhands is a great Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp starring as a lovably odd outsider, something that wasn't a tired cliche for Burton or Depp when the movie was first released. The movie is beautiful, full of over-saturated colors and insane art direction and robots that are clearly exact reproductions from Burton's notebooks, but there is an underlying surreality that makes each scene stand out clearly in your memory even when it has been a few years between viewings. It isn't an overtly funny film, but the prosaic suburban setting becomes sort of a silent slapstick character as its tacky wall-hangings and eye-scorching stuccoes underscore the weird action.

The effervescence of the movie is intoxicating - it's hard not to get sucked in by the stunning visuals (which include remarkably stupid haircuts, otherworldly topiaries, and impossible ice sculptures), the wonderful acting (Dianne Wiest is particularly wonderful, perfectly balancing on the middle ground between cheer and frustration), or the star-crossed lovers plot. So don't fight it; let yourself get sucked in and enjoy it - don't question the premise, don't worry about what Edward really is - suspend disbelief and let yourself exist in this odd little world for a while.

It really is a delightful film, but it does seem to be targeted squarely in the direction of the goths in the world. Edward stands out, he knows he is different, and there's nothing he can do but "be [his] own sweet self" and try to ride out the wave. In some ways this technique doesn't work for him, but it does work in the one way that matters - the openness of his heart, the sincerity of his kindness, and the honesty of his soul bring him wonderful friends and the love that he so badly needs, at least for a while.

As an interesting note for burgeoning film buffs, Edward Scissorhands (aside from being wonderful for its own sake) was made much stronger by brief appearances from Vincent Price as The Inventor, Edward's father. It was, sadly, Price's final film and it is a bit sad to sit through his screen time, watching his eyes and his joy and knowing that this was the last film to capture that wry spirit.

All in all, though, Edward Scissorhands remains an excellent choice for an evening of casual viewing; it is family friendly (except for some sexuality and a single utterance of "shit"), has a good story, and will probably be enjoyed by everyone you know - no matter how "normal" someone is, there's a little Edward in all of us, and all of us can share in his struggles.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Season's Greetings

"There's a guy like me in every state and federal prison in America, I guess - I'm the guy who can get it for you."

The Shawshank Redemption is a startlingly good film to have originated in the mind of Stephen King, an author whose works have been turned into such absurd constructions as Maximum Overdrive and Cat's Eye. So many people think of King as nothing more than a banal horror writer, and sneer when his work comes up in conversation. What is even more startling is that a writer as good as Stephen King has long been thought of as a producer of popular trash and nothing else.

I'm torn as to whether King does his best work in his insanely long novels or in his short stories, but what I do know is that he shines in his novellas. Different Seasons is a collection with four wildly different novellas between its covers. "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" is the first of these four, bright and hopeful and bursting with quiet joy. The story is told by Red, a long-timer in a drab prison telling the story of an innocent inmate, and is a wonder of cadence and rhythm. The brilliance of the story is in its narration - Red is a flawed man, a bad man in some ways, and a deeply fractured man, but you come to love him and his quiet, unassuming voice as it ushers you through the pages of his story. You can really hear him as you read; King never breaks in to do his King thing, he just lets Red take his pen over for a while and tell you about a man he once knew.

The plot of the novella is perhaps a bit trite, the characters include some standard prison-story staples, but none of that matters because King has set you up with a hearth and home to hear a story - his casual, sad, scared narrator puts a comforting hand on your shoulder and ushers you through each sentence with charming familiarity. Your sunshine is his sunshine, and you can still feel it on your face with every rereading, no matter how well you know the story.

"He looked like the total all-American kid as he pedaled his twenty-six-inch Schwinn with the apehanger handlebars up the residential suburban street, and that's just what he was; Todd Bowden, thirteen years old, five-feet-eight and a healthy one hundred and forty pounds, hair the color of ripe corn, blue eyes, white even teeth, lightly tanned skin marred by not even the first shadow of adolescent acne."

"Apt Pupil" is in the "Summer of Corruption" season of Different Seasons (Red tells his story from behind the title"Hope Springs Eternal"). The narration is firmly back in Stephen King's hands, with his side-shifting parentheticals making a few appearances as characters crack and criss-cross moral and personal boundaries. It is one of my favorite kinds of Stephen King stories - a supremely creepy story with nothing supernatural. In fact, it reads a lot like one of the Bachman Books - thrillers penned by King under the pseudonym Richard Bachman from 1977 to 1982, nearly all of which completely eschew the supernatural - and is all the more creepy because it seems like something that could really happen. It is the story of a young monster and an old monster meeting up in suburbia, each poisoning the other quietly under the noses of unsuspecting spectators.

There are two passing and incredibly minor references in the story to Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" (actually the same reference made twice). It is my suspicion that "Apt Pupil" grew, as many books do, organically out of another story; that one day Stephen King found himself thinking about the old man of Hemingway's, wondering how he came to be quiet and alone in a cafe late at night, what he went home to, what his history was, where his friends were. Because it was King writing the story we are presented with a long, chilling examination of depravity and the ability that depravity has to take root in anyone - the thought that not all men are mad but what men are mad are infectious.

"The most important things are the hardest things to say."

"The Body" ("Fall From Innocence" chapter of Different Seasons) is a profoundly sad story about boys becoming men. It is haunted by an aching nostalgia and humming with the muted joy of memory as it follows four boys on the path to find a body in the last days of summer.

Nobody writes about 20th century boyhood as well as Stephen King does, and if not for Twain I'd say that nobody has ever written as well about boyhood in any century. The effortless way he gets the sun to shine in your memory, the dust to blow through the streets of your mind, and the heat to shimmer over invisible pavement while you feel a Coke in your hand and hear Roy Orbison on a nonexistent jukebox is just a little scary. Every time King writes about kids I feel like I'm wearing old jeans and new Keds, holding 50 cents in my pocket and standing on top of the world.

This is another novella with a strong narrative voice, but one where King shines through his speaker. Gordie Lachance has a lot in common with King, primarily that he is a writer, and offered up a nice opportunity for a couple stories-within-a-story, one of which was probably written as a throwaway for the novella ("Chico"), while the other ("The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan") may have been a fantastic opportunity for King to publish a short, hilarious story that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.

Reading "The Body," you're just another kid walking along the railroad tracks, slapping skin, being afraid of the dark and of the wide world you're just starting to understand is out past the horizon. You feel the timelessness of childhood wrapped up in the weight of mortality.

"I dressed a bit more speedily than normal on that snowy, windy, bitter night - I admit."

The problem with frame stories is that you never know which story is the real one. I've read "The Breathing Method" (Season - "A Winter's Tale") at least four times before this and only now am I realizing exactly how creepy the club that frames the story is.

"The Breathing Method" is probably the weakest novella in the collection (it is also the shortest by far). It is more truly a horror story than any of the other stories, and has more supernatural weirdness rubbed up on it than the others do. The construction of the framing club and its strange environs are much more compelling than the admittedly spooky subject matter at the heart of the story.

It stands out from the other novellas, not quite making sense as it rubs shoulders with them. The only thing it has in common with the other seasons is the thing that all of the seasons have in common - a ripe thread of nostalgia binding them together as tightly as the glue in my paperback copy is holding the pages together. The nostalgia in the final novella has thinner lips and sharper teeth than the warm memory of "The Body" or the thin hope of "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" or even the drunken recall felt throughout "Apt Pupil, but it is there nonetheless. No matter what may be said of the stories in this collection, they do all have some wistfulness and whimsy; they all shine a light through the dust of mental attics and seem to say "I remember when..."

King talks to his readers. It's a well-known trait of his, sometimes popping up in the actual text of his novels, most frequently observed in fore- and afterwords addressed to his Constant Reader. King has quite a lot to say to about Different Seasons, his first collection of novellas (though not the last, as time would tell), explaining how he shopped the idea to his publisher, when the stories were written, how he felt about being typecast, but more than that he had this to say: "I've  been in love with each of these stories, too, and part of me always will be in love with them, I guess. I hope that you liked them, Reader; that they did for you what any good story should do - make you forget the real stuff weighing on your mind for a little while and take you away to a place you've never been. It's the most amiable sort of magic I know" (Afterword, 506). If there is a better reason for reading or writing a story, I've never heard it. Maybe that's why King has become such a staggeringly successful author; he know what it is to want to disappear.

     - Alli

King, Stephen. Different Seasons. Signet. New York: New York. 1983. (Originally published 1982.)