The news of Donald O'Conner's death prompted me to have a 2 Blowhards kind of moment the other day. As everyone knows, O'Conner was one of the leads in the classic film Singing in the Rain, arguably the best musical Warner Brothers ever made. It's now clear that Singing in the Rain is an outstanding work of art--but that was far from clear to its creators when they made it. The movie was intended to be a sort of review--a retrospective of songs used in previous WB movies over the years, all wrapped up in a light-hearted romp. They did it for love, they had a good time, they pleased themselves--and somehow they created a work of art.
Much the same is true of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Chuck Jones makes it clear in Chuck Amuck that they weren't trying to create anything timeless. They had to produce a certain number of cartoons of a precise length to accompany the studio's live action releases. In general, Jones and his compatriots got little if any feedback on their cartoons. So they produced cartoons to suit themselves, and never worried much about how they'd be received. On the contrary--an edict come down from management that they were not to make cartoons about bullfights, because bullfights weren't funny. They immediately realized that bullfights must have untapped comic potential if management was agin' 'em, and made Bully for Bugs.
They never guessed how enduring and timeless their work would be...and yet the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons have been pretty much continuously on TV for my entire life. (The latest development is a new Duck Dodgers TV show featuring all new cartoons.) The best of these cartoons are clearly works of art. And again, that it's art was completely unintentional.
Works like Singing in the Rain and What's Opera Doc? are art by accident; and yet they are among the most charming, delightful, and timeless works of art of the 20th century.
What happened to elevate these works above their near-relatives? Why are they different? Was it luck? Was it the attitude--one might even say, the humility--of the creators? (I lean toward this view; An American in Paris has some fabulous moments, but overall it's a much weaker film than Singing in the Rain--and it's much more self-consciously arty). Did the fact that they were group efforts play a role?
What do you folks think?
This week: The Wrath of Basenis. Next week: The Thrilling Conclusion!
It's not kind to laugh at another man's terror, but Yahmdallah has posted a marvelous tale of his encounter with an absurdly large spider.
Ms. La Fetra, kindly just move along; there's nothing you want to see here.
Today being Saturday, it was time for David and I to do some more shooting on our movie. I do try to learn from my mistakes, and so things went much better this week right from the start. It was cooler, for one thing; we started at 9:30 in the morning instead of 1:30 in the afternoon, and the light was better in the parts of the yard I wanted to use.
I reshot one scene from last week, the one with Yellow the Snake coming down and around the corner as the sun-shade terminator moves noticeably; that spot is in complete (though not dim) shade during the morning, so I was able to get the shot without trouble. In fact, I ran through it twice, and not only did both versions come out well, they also dovetail perfectly. It looks like there are two snakes coming round the corner, one after the other. There are possibilities there I'll have to explore.
Next, I tried an experiment. I wanted a shot with a snake's-eye-view of the world. Trying to carry the camera smoothly at that level clearly wasn't going to work, not without a Steadicam, so that meant I needed to be creative. Enter the tricycle.
My kids' tricycle is colorful and made of an equal proportion of plastic and metal, but otherwise it's a lot like the one I had as a kid. In particular, there's a kind of plastic step that covers the axel between the rear wheels. The Sony TRV-22 fits onto that step quite nicely. Voila--I've got a mobile platform that's close to the ground. The camera points out the back of the tricycle, of course, so to move the camera forwards one just rolls the tricycle backwards.
Now, the section of ground where I wanted to shoot this is paved with bricks, and it's rather bumpy. I thought that shooting continuously while rolling the tricycle probably wasn't going to work very well, so I animated it, taking a few frames, moving the trike a few inches, taking a few more frames, and so on. I might as well not have wasted my time; the result was incredibly ugly.
Next I decide to try just shooting it live. I repositioned the tricycle, turned the camera on, and set it on the little shelf at the back, and just rolled the trike slowly along my desired path. The result was rather bumpy, more so than seemed natural, but much better than the animated version.
As I was setting up the next shot, I realized that I'd been shooting with the camera zoomed in a bit--no wonder the result was bumpier than I'd though it should be. The zoom was magnifying every motion of the camera. Consequently, I went back and did that shot three more times shooting full wide (twice rolling the camera forwards and once rolling it backwards--I can reverse the clip direction in iMovie), and had no trouble except that toward the end of the backwards shot the camera fell off of its shelf. It kept recording, though, video and audio, and I think it's a tribute to my years as a father that all I said was "Whoops!"
Ironically, the backwards shot is probably the smoothest, best looking shot, once I reversed it and cut out the bit where the camera fell down. Naturally, it's also the shortest. Go figure. But anyway, now I have four to choose from.
After that we went back to doing the stop action thing. We got a great shot of Yellow crawling out of the umbrella hole in the middle of our picnic table, and then I reshot Yellow going down the steps and around the corner as I described earlier. And it was about that time that David said, "Can Megatron be in the movie?" My first thought was to say, "No, this is a movie about snakes, not about robots"--but I reconsidered, and I'm glad I did. The song Attacked By Snakes is fully five minutes long, and scenes of Yellow crawling around the yard by himself are going to be diverting for maybe half that time. Clearly I needed some additional elements, and Megatron was a perfect choice.
For those of you not blessed with young boys, Megatron is a Transformer from the Transformers Armada TV show. He's a robot that transforms into a battle tank. I saw definite possibilities--and was not slow to give them a try. The results are truly delightful.
All in all, I got about 40 to 45 seconds of good animated video; I've posted about 30 seconds worth as a highly compressed Quicktime movie--it's about 368K bytes in size. If you downloaded last week's clip, be sure not to miss this week's; it's a lot more fun.
I first read this book as a kid--I inherited it from one or another of my siblings--and it was with fond memories that I bought a new copy some while back to read to my oldest boy. Fond but faded memories; all I could really remember about Pippi was that she lives all by herself, and is extremely unconventional, and her father is a sea-captain, and that in Pippi in the South Seas she and her friends Tommy and Annika go to visit her father on the tropical island where he's now a cannibal king. In short, most of my memories were from the other two Pippi books.
So given that, and given my recent unhappy experience with James and the Giant Peach, I opened this particular volume with some sense of trepidation. Having now re-read it, my feelings are mixed.
Pippi is undeniably a fun character, and her tall tales are easily the high point of the book:
Once my grandmother had a servant named Malin. She had chilblains on her feet, but otherwise there was nothing wrong with her. The only annoying thing was that as soon as company came she would rush at them and bite their legs. And bark! Oh, how she would bark! You could hear it all through the neighborhood, but it was only because she was playful. Only, of course, strangers didn't always understand that. The dean's wife, an elderly woman, came to see Grandmother once soon after Malin first came, and when Malin came dashing at her and bit her in the ankle, the dean's wife screamed so loudly that it scared Malin, so that her teeth clamped together and she couldn't get them apart. There she sat, stuck to the dean's wife's ankle until Friday. And Grandmother had to peel the potatoes herself. But at least it was well done. She peeled so well that when she was done there were no potatoes left--only peelings. But after that Friday the dean's wife never came to call on Grandmother again. She just never could take a joke.
Pippi's also outrageously strong, and in between her tall tales, Pippi occasionally gets to do something fun--like carry the policemen who've come to take her to an orphanage out of the house when she's tired of making them run after her. Apart from Pippi's stories, the humor is almost entirely slapstick.
So, yeah, there's some genuinely funny stuff here. David enjoyed it thoroughly, especially the bits I thought were a bit too silly.
But on the other hand, nothing much happens. It's not so much a story about Pippi as it is a collection of sketches in which she gets to perform, always in contrast to next-door neighbors Tommy and Annika, who are as colorless a pair of goody-two-shoes as you'd ever want to meet.
Since David enjoyed this one I'll no doubt be looking for the other two Pippi books--but I'm no longer so thrilled about the whole thing.
The ever informative Cecil Adams reveals that the familiar cliche, "The Butler Did It!", is in fact a vile canard. So far as Cecil's been able to determine, the Butler has only done it in earnest (as opposed to in satire) just once, in the 1930 novel The Door, by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
What, you say? You've never heard of Mary Roberts Rinehart? Sure you have--she's the Rinehart (well, one of them) in Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
(No, I hadn't heard of her either.)
Deb's review of the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad reminded me of a different translation I bought some years ago after hearing the translator interviewed on NPR. The fellow's name is Stanley Lombardo. He read selections from his translation on the air, and I was immediately hooked. His version was immediate, down to earth, and accessible, and seemed to me to capture the grumbling nature of a camp of war better than the more high-falutin translation I'd read in college (that would be the Lattimore translation, of course).
In my quest to find a copy I first bought the Fagles translation thinking it was what I had heard (I'd forgotten the translator's name), and then later the Lombardo translation, and consequently I now have them both to hand. I thought it would be interesting to post a few lines from each, just as a comparison.
Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon--
The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles
Try reading both of them aloud. Compare in particular this:
...hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, / great fighters' souls...
...pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades' dark,...
...made their bodies carrion, / feasts for the dogs and birds...
And left their bodies to rot as feasts / For dogs and birds
Now, you tell me--which one is more vivid? Which one gets the point across more clearly?
Fagles was handicapped, of course--he was aiming for something midway between the Greek text and the expectations of today's audience: "For the more literal approach would seem to be too little English, and the more literary seems too little Greek. I have tried to find a cross between the too, a modern English Homer."
Lombardo, on the other hand, had a different goal: a performable Homer: "...what we love is the poet's voice, and finding its tone, rhythym, and power is the heart of Homeric translation." "This requires loyalty to the essential qualities of Homeric poetry--its directness, immediacy, and effortless musicality..."
I tried reading both aloud to Jane. Fagles' version limped along, and I could tell Jane wasn't following all of it. Lombardo's version flowed effortlessly from my tongue, and though I had intended to read but a few lines (those quoted above) the story held both of us for several more pages before I reluctantly put it down.
It seems to me that the modern analog to The Illiad is the Western movie. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai; and war movies as well, like The Great Escape. I can just see a crowd of rowdy Greeks sitting around the fire listening to the Illiad, quaffing some fermented fluids, and nodding to each other after some particularly heroic feat, "He's one mean dude." "Yup. He bad." (Quaff.)
Lombardo has that kind of immediacy. Fagles tries, but he doesn't quite make it.
My brother gave me this book for my birthday. Subtitled "Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More!!!", it's a complete guide to how to be a villain. Topics range from "Getting Started With The Forces Of Mayhem" to "Thwarting The Forces Of Good" to "Making An Evil Plan". It leads you through an aptitude test to help you decide what kind of villain you wish to be, whether criminal mastermind, necromancer, corporate bastard, mad scientist, black knight, horror-movie villain, demonic avatar, or marketing executive.
I passed a mildly amusing hour with this book; but I suspect that the Evil Overlord list is better value for the money. (Take a look, if you haven't seen it.)
Steven Den Beste has marvelous post on the Galileo spacecraft which ended its mission at Jupiter last Sunday. He also has some nice things to say about NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which built and operated Galileo. I'm a JPLer myself, and I'd like to add my applause to his. It takes a huge team with diverse to make something like the Galileo happen mission happen, and all the folks involved need to be topnotch. My hat's off to them.
It has been my custom to try to learn something new every fall. One year I took a drawing class. Another year I learned to spin wool. This year for no particular reason except curiosity I decided to read Homer. I went out and got copies of the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad and The Odyssey and just for good measure tossed a copy of the Richard Lattimore edition of The Odyssey and a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses on the pile. I faintly remember reading excerpt of the last one in a college Classical Mythology course many, many years ago. My battered copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology has a nice little plot precis of both of Homer's stories so I read that first as a way of prepping myself. And then I started in.
First, I have to say, I don't usually read poetry. I like action and plot and characters in my reading and while poetry can be fascinating, it doesn't normally fulfill my desires for reading. However, if you completely forget that Homer or whoever the storyteller was that put together this story was doing it in meter and feet, it reads pretty much like an action novel. Actually, it reads like a really bloody action novel. There's a lot of hack and slash in this book. Eyes falling out, blood dripping down, brains splashing out the back of helmets etc etc. Not for the faint hearted. I skipped my way thru the long lists of guys being cut down in battle when one of the hero's went on a rampage after figuring out that most of those named don't play much of a part in the action except to die in some gruesome manner involving spears or swords.
What intrigued me were the similes included. Homer describes something that's happening on the battle field or over the campfire, and then, for the audience's visual sense, gives them a homey picture that looks something like it. So the Achaeans leaving the ships are likened to bees swarming out of hives and a hero slashing his way thru a line of men are likened to the reaper scything a field of grain only in much more detail and vivid language. He does this over and over in the text and the only reason I could come up with was to create a visual for his audience who may not have seen anything like it.
The second thing that intrigued me are the Homeric epithets. Not so much which ones but how they were used. This I got from reading Bernard Fox intro to this edition. There are usually several epithets assigned to each character or place. The ships of Troy are black, hollow, beaked etc. Hector is the breaker of horses, the great runner etc. And apparently this is so the storyteller has several choices of descriptive words that will scan into the line depending on where they are placed. And entire sections are repeated word for word, especially if a message is sent and given to someone. Apparently that was to give the storyteller mental time to think about what comes next. Fascinating.
I found I didn't much like Achilles. He was much too full of himself sitting there pouting because Agamemnon took away his girl. I thought Hector was the real hero of the story especially since he's out there sweating away in battle while Paris the wimp who started this all is hanging around inside the walls of Troy. And the parting scene between Andromache and Hector where he is going off and she stands there holding her infant son knowing Hector will never come back was incredibly moving. I did come away from it a little confused about the role of divine intervention vs. free will in the fate of men. It seemed like men had free will and then something would happen and the gods would come down and intervene, changing the course of events. I have to think about that a little more. I am curious to see if it comes thru again in The Odyssey.
Here's yet another delightful period piece from Ngaio Marsh. It's the height of the social season, and all London is awhirl with debutantes and their chaperones, Inspector Alleyn's niece among them. But all is not well under the surface: society matrons are being blackmailed, and "Bunchy" Gospell a well-beloved man-about-town and a personal friend of Alleyn's, has been making inquiries for him. Gospell is murdered. If Alleyn can find his murderer, he'll also find the blackmailer--if only he can persuade the society matrons to help him.
It's rare to read a mystery novel and genuinely feel sad when the victim is murdered, but in this case I'm really very sorry that "Bunchy" Gospell won't be showing up in the later books. He's a finely drawn character, and has that rare quality (rare both in books and real life) of being not only intelligent and observant but also thoroughly amiable, decent, and sympathetic. It's a pity.
I find it useful to take an occasional peek into the books my kids are reading. I gave up trying to keep up one-for-one with them, especially during the summer months when they are knocking off 5 and 6 books a week. However, books make good lead-ins to chats in the car or over dinner and it's amazing how much you can pry out of a normally reticent teenager, or worse, preteenager, by asking them about what they are reading.
So, in the interests of good parenting and mutual discussion, I read this one. My daughter is on a Spinelli kick lately and he gets a fair amount of good press from those "in the know" about what kids are reading. However, so do the Lemony Snicket books and I have yet to come up with any meaningful dialogue based on them. I read one and it bored me to tears. The nice thing about Spinelli books is that with adequate reading skills, you can read and digest one in about 2 hours. And this one, at least, gave me some fodder for discussion.
First of all, Maniac, the main character, is a homeless kid. His parents are dead and he's run away from his horrid Aunt and Uncle. Second, the themes in the book like bullying, racism, homelessness and the meaning of community are treated lightly enough to be manageable for children and completely enough to raise some thought provoking questions. I mentally made a list of all the ways things in the book are divided into pairs or separated and that alone could keep me chatting for quite awhile.
Is it deathless prose? No. But it is a pretty good read and it has a happy ending. That's always nice.
Scott Chaffin most courteously expressed an interest in seeing some of the bad footage I took of Yellow, my boy's stuffed snake--and he repeated it, so I know he's not just being polite. (You can go look, if you don't believe me.) "Me? Polite?" I can hear him say.
So I've exported a quick Quicktime movie of two of the bad scenes--the first one, where everything went wrong, and the one where the shadow is perceptibly moving. The quality is lousy, because it's compressed out the wazoo, but I think the problems are pretty obvious. You can even see the cars going by in the background. The file is about 350K in size.
So here ya go, Scott. Eat some brisket for me, will ya?
Ian says (among other things--go read his comments in their entirety):
30 seconds' footage for an hour and a half's work is actually pretty good for stop motion (although getting a full fifth of a second for each setup is cheating — it ought to be no more than a tenth of a second to look really good).
He's definitely correct about the frame rate--a fifth of a second is too long. In fact, it's rather shocking how long a fifth of a second really is. When watching the playback I can clearly see each individual setup.
I remember my brother and his friend doing stop-motion animation with a Super-8 camera when I was a kid. As I recall, they usually took two frames of each shot, which would be 1/12th of a second. In "Frame Rec" mode, the Sony TRV-22 always takes six frames, 1/5th of a second, so I'm stuck there...but I can fix that in "post-production" by speeding the footage up two or three times. (iMovie is still too cool for words.)
I did a short animation last week as well, and noticed the problem then, and I seriously thought about trying to do it that way for this movie. The trouble there is, it means I need to make even smaller changes between each setup than I have been, and each scene will take considerably longer to shoot. And as this is a cooperative venture with my six-year-old, boredom is a real danger.
As is back pain. I knew I wasn't in shape, but after an hour and a half of bending over and adjusting a snake every ten seconds, my back muscles are so stiff I can hardly move this morning.
But that's by the way. I'm still figuring out how much movement I can get away with between shots, and how that will correlate with apparent speed of movement in playback. On top of that, I'm still making horrible mistakes. Had I tried to go for real smooth motion, the footage would have taken twice as long to shoot--and after that first horrible scene I probably would have lost heart. That's a lot of work to do for nothing.
Also, I'd be completely unable to move this morning.
So, I'll try doing really smooth motion next time. Probably with something I animate on my desk, instead of out in the yard.
Ian also says,
It's rather fun to vicariously (re)learn filmmaking through these posts. Sounds like you're having a blast. :)
I'm definitely watching TV with new eyes, I can tell you that. I'm paying a lot more attention to the camera work, I can tell you that.
In today's issue, our heroes reach the Holy City of Basenis Basor!
David and I spent an hour or so this afternoon shooting footage for a short movie featuring James' stuffed python, Yellow. Yellow is about four feet long, and about two inches thick, and is covered with mottled orange and yellow plush.
Ostensibly, we were preparing to make a music video (a music video? Why not?) of the Aquabat's wonderful song, "Attacked by Snakes." In practice, we spent a long time learning What Not To Do.
The first seven shots turned out just fine: four and five second-long clips of Yellow in a variety of odd places; one-second clips of these will be inserted into the video at strategic points to underscore the music.
After that, things got hairy. See, stuffed yellow snakes don't move by themselves. And that means stop-motion animation, which is a long and tedious process. Fortunately, the Sony TRV-22 camera supports animation adequately well--it has what's called "frame rec" mode. Each time you push the Record button, it records six frames (1/5th of a second) and then stops. And fortunately, the Sony TRV-22 comes with a cordless remote, so that you don't jiggle the camera each time you record a few frames.
For our first animated scene, I set up the camera on a tripod looking down a long pathway, so that I could animate the snake coming up the path. It was a good idea, in principle, and I might redo the scene later. But there were many problems in practice.
The first, predictably, was the lighting. Most of the path was in bright sunlight, but the end nearest the camera was in shade. I'm still using the auto-exposure setting, and the camera took its cue from the shady part. So during the first half of the scene, the snake is completely washed out. But wait! There's more!
The snake started out about thirty feet from the camera. I did each individual shot in this way: I'd move the snake about five inches, then walk back up towards the camera and step off to one side, and then click the remote. Dave was sitting behind the camera the whole time watching on the viewfinder, and he was supposed to tell me whether I was in the picture or not. Alas, he didn't, most of the time, and a sizeable fraction of my person is in most of the shots. But we're still not through!
I had apparently not impressed upon David how important it is not to touch the camera, because over the course of the scene the view moves slowly but significantly to the right. It's just enough to look really bad, and not enough to get my belly out of the picture on the left. And not only that!
The long walkway looks down a driveway to a major street. And in the back ground of a few of the shots, we've got a car zooming by. 1/5th of a second is a remarkably long time.
So, four lessons for doing video animation:
I didn't make those mistakes again...but I did find some new ones.
The next scene had the snake slithering down some stone steps. This bit actually worked out very well, after a false start. It develops that the TRV-22 automatically turns off "Frame Rec" mode if you turn off the camera. So I shot about a minute's worth of footage of me positioning the snake and climbing out of the way again. This was not a good thing, as I'm not entirely a lovely object in shorts and a T-shirt, and particularly not while bending over.
I discovered yet another nuisance during this scene--the IR pickup for the remote control is on the front of the camera. It's hard to follow rule 2, above, and still use the remote.
The third scene had the snake going around the corner at the bottom of the stairs. I purposely had the snake slither through a patch of sunlight for effect. The scene actually came out fairly well, except for one thing: do you have any idea how fast the sun moves? Neither did I, until I watched that patch of sunlight slide along the ground on playback. It's really quite striking, and would be a neat effect if it didn't completely ruin the illusion that the snake is moving by itself.
The fourth scene has the snake moving through a shady area covered with flagstones. It's not too bad, except for the little bits of debris moving from placed to place in the background.
The fifth scene has the snake going down some more steps and around a corner. I positioned the camera carefully so that I wouldn't have problems with the sunlight--and damn that sun moves quickly. In just the few minutes I was shooting, a triangular patch of sunshine slid onto the piece of ground I was using just far enough to catch the shadow of my hand operating the remote. Sigh.
And when all's said and done I've got about thirty seconds of usable video to show for an hour-and-a-half of work.
But then, I've already admitted that I'm mad to have bought the camcorder to begin with.
A little while ago, while reviewing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I mentioned that one of the very few other comic books I was familiar with was Cerebus the Aardvark. Man, are you in for a treat.
I first heard tell of Cerebus when I was college, back in the early '80s. I worked on campus one summer, and one day happened to visit the college library. Honnold Library had a long lobby which was used for exhibitions of various kinds, and this time it happened to contain an exhibition on Cerebus the Aardvark. To this day, I have no idea why it was there, or what, at that early date, Cerebus was considered worthy of any kind of exhibition. But there were a number of pages on display, and I enjoyed them thoroughly.
Some background: Cerebus the Aardvark is a swords-and-sorcery themed comic book which started out as a spoof of Robert E. Howard's "Conan the Barbarian"--all of which I had read by that time. The book also spoofed Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné, albino, last king of a dying race, possessor of the evil black sword Stormbringer, as Elrod the Albino. Elrod's a bit of a blithering idiot, he's got a black rune sword of his own called Seersucker, and he talks just like Foghorn Leghorn. Elrod was also represented in this exhibition, and as I was reading a lot of Moorcock just then, I was enchanted. After all, what's not to like?
The possibility of my ever getting my hands on any of the Cerebus comic books seemed fairly slim, though--I wouldn't have known where to look, back then--and I moved along.
Some years later I was visiting a friend at Stanford University, and in nearby downtown Palo Alto I found a comic book shop. Good ol' Cerebus popped into my head, and there I found five intriguing books entitled Swords of Cerebus, volumes 2 through 6 (they didn't have volume 1). Each one collected four or five of the original comic books. I immediately bought volumes 2 and 3, and went back for 4, 5, and 6 before I went home. It was all lovely stuff, genuinely funny, with outstanding dialog, impeccable comic timing, and increasingly good artwork.
One of the highlights of these early books is that Dave Sim was learning how to write and draw a comic book in his own style--and each original issue is preceded by a lengthy introduction in which he talks about that. He explains his influences, and what he thinks did and didn't work; it's a fascinating introduction to comic book art.
So I read 'em, and then they sat on my shelf. Eventually, a friend of mine found me a copy of the first volume, and I read that, and re-read the others, and then they sat on my shelf. And, having mentioned them recently in this space they were on my mind and I happened to notice them on the shelf, and one evening when I was tired and wired and restless and needed something lighthearted and fun to read, I pulled Swords of Cerebus, Vol. 1 off of said shelf and sat down to read.
Rapture! Over the next week and a half, I went through the other five volumes, which I enjoyed (if possible) even more than the first time. They've only improved with age.
Now, when I bought these, Volume 6 was the most recent; there were no others. I had the notion that the comic book had continued publication after that; but I'd never seen any reason to think that more collections were available. (Granted, I hadn't been looking.) So I fired up Google, and went looking.
There are now approximately fifteen Cerebus the Aardvark collections in print--and the six Swords of Cerebus books I've got are equivalent to just the first of the fifteen. Clearly, ol' Cerebus has been successful beyond my wildest dreams--and I've got a lot of reading to do.
I picked up the second of the fifteen collections last night; it's called High Society. The first episode in the book was so funny I had to re-read it aloud to Jane. As for the rest, I'll keep you posted.
I was cleaning out a knitting basket the other day and rediscovered this little book at the bottom under the debris of the last couple of projects I had used it for. And of course, the first reaction to finding a lost treasure is to sit down and read it again, happily something that in this case didn’t really take all that much time.
It's a short book that wonderfully illustrates a construction technique using bias knit squares of knitting to build a garment. Essentially you knit a square from corner to corner increasing to the desired width and then decreasing off to the other corner. Then you pick up the stitches from one side and do the same with some more simple increase and decreases. Then add one onto it on the other side and keep going sort of like putting together a patchwork quilt. There are no seams since all stitches are picked up and decreased off to points so there is no tedious sewing at the end. There are some limits to the design variations since it uses the square as the basis for all the designs with half squares to make a straight edge when wanted but when combined with color, the possibilities become amazing. And, whatever you make can be designed to use up the odd balls in your stash.
One word about stash—all knitters who are true knitters have one. It's a room, closet, boxes under the bed, whatever, where you keep all that incredibly luscious yarn and fiber you have bought over the years. That you have no project exactly in mind for it has no bearing on whether you purchase it. And "Stash Reduction" is a serious topic. Some knitters I know, and I am not making this up, have agreements with friends to clean out their stash and find it a good home in the event of their untimely demise. Honest. It takes years to develop a good stash.
Anyway, because I tend to prefer what a friend calls "dirt colors" to knit with, I have a box full of all sorts of single balls in shades of cream, gray, and brown to almost black that are just crying to be made into something using this method. Maybe a reading shawl. With a pocket on it. And there is that half skein of lapis blue left over from The Husband's Christmas vest a couple years ago that I could toss in to pick out a little color once in a while. Hmmm……
A couple of years ago a correspondent suggested that I try some of Robert Barnard's mystery novels. I managed to find a couple at a local used bookstore, and indeed I enjoyed them, but I had little luck finding any more after that. That changed during my recent trip to Ann Arbor; at a used bookstore there, I found nine of his paperbacks at $2.50 each, and I nabbed them.
This is the first of the set, and it's a treat. It takes place in the Yorkshire town of Hexton-on-Weir. The ladies of Hexton are set in their ways, and when it comes to Divine Services their tastes are decidely low-church. Nothing Romish or papistical for them. But the long-time Anglican vicar has passed away, and the Bishop's appointee for the position is not only high-church (Heavens! He lights candles and wears a cassock!) but also celibate. This cannot be borne, for the ladies of Hexton are accustomed to running the town behind the scenes, and an unmarried vicar simply Will Not Do. How would they control him?
This is the kind of mystery in which the murder comes about halfway through, thus giving you two mysteries in one--first, who's going to die, and second, whodunnit. The details of village politics are delightfully petty without becoming farcical, and the ending is satisfyingly unpredictable. All in all, I give it two thumbs up, and I'm looking forward to the next one.
Here's another kids' book I read to myself rather than to David. It had been a tiring day, and I wanted a comfort book. This one filled the bill admirably. I don't intend to say much about it; I expect that most of my readers have already made up their minds about the Narnia books one way or another.
However, this book does illustrate one of the points I made in my recent post on The Two Churches: it shows how Christ (in the person of Aslan) meets us where we are--and then takes us further than we could have imagined, and often not in a direction we'd have been willing to go without his prompting.
What this book made abundantly clear to me is that I am almost totally ignorant of French history. That is something I intend to remedy before continuing the series. It would be nice to be able to at least place Richelieu in the correct century without looking him up.
This is a romance, a spy novel, a tale of male friendship and a character study of different temperaments. Actually, it reminded me more of a superhero tale than anything else. There's dashing about and derring do, really cool fight scenes, a little romance, a lovely queen to protect and a couple of merciless and totally evil bad folks. The heroes are courageous and clever and there's even loyal sidekicks to step in and help out them out.
Dumas occasionally gets a bit wordy, but then I have never had a problem skipping or breezing thru something if it bored me. I can always go back and reread if I miss something. I definitely plan on continuing the series, after brushing up on the actual history behind it.
If you're just here for the book reviews and the cute kid stories, feel free to skip this.
Some little while ago, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church met and confirmed a gay man, Gene Robinson, as Bishop; the Convention also determined that it should be up to individual bishops to allow or forbid the blessing of same-sex unions within their dioceses. These decisions were in all the newspapers, and have been widely commented on in the blogosphere.
What's largely been lost in most of the commentary I've read is how deeply split the Episcopal Church is on this issue--and how little, at base, the division has to do with sexual morality. Instead, it's the result of a disagreement about the basic meaning of the Christian faith. It is not an exaggeration to say that for many years now the Episcopal Church has in fact been two churches: one preaching the Gospel of Repentance, and one preaching the Gospel of Inclusion.
Katherine Kersten, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said this about General Convention:
Speakers who urged approval of homosexual unions did not use the vocabulary or categories of thought of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer. Instead, they appeared to embrace a new gospel, heavily influenced by America's secular, therapeutic culture. This gospel has two watchwords: inclusion and affirmation. Its message? Jesus came to make us feel good about ourselves.
While I doubt the speakers in question would agree with quite that formulation of their views, Kersten is more-or-less correct. She goes on,
Adherents of the gospel of inclusion offered arguments like this: "The church should bless same-sex partnerships so everyone feels included." "People will want to join this church if they see others being welcomed." "God is love. He doesn't care about the gender of the people we love."
This week's events in Minneapolis suggest that, in 2003, the three historic bulwarks of Episcopal Church doctrine--Scripture, tradition and reason--are crumbling in the face of the gospel of inclusion and affirmation.
To be sure, the new gospel's disciples do not generally jettison Scripture outright. Instead, they radically reinterpret it, using techniques imported from America's postmodern universities. Walter Brueggemann, a theologian quoted in a pro-same-sex-union Episcopal publication, put it like this: Scripture is "the chief authority when imaginatively construed in a certain interpretive trajectory." Approached this way, inconvenient passages can be dismissed as inconsistent with "Jesus' self-giving love."
Tradition fares no better at the hands of the gospel of inclusion. The Episcopal Church has always regarded marriage as the sacrament that sanctifies the "one flesh" union of man and woman. But the new gospel expands the notion of sacrament to include anything that "mediates" the grace or blessing of God and causes us to give thanks. As a result, the Rev. Gene Robinson can describe his relationship with his male partner as sacramental, because "in his unfailing and unquestioning love of me, I experience just a little bit of the kind of never-ending, never-failing love that God has for me."
In short, the Gospel of Inclusion says that God accepts us where ever and whoever we are, and loves us as we are, and that because he loves us we are OK as we are. The Gospel of Inclusion thus has little use for forgiveness of sins--achieving personal wholeness, instead, is the key. As Kersten points out, though, this view requires explaining away inconvenient Biblical passages. Now, the Good Lord knows there are many inconvenient Biblical passages I'd just as soon ignore--and that's generally a danger signal that I'd better pay close attention to them instead.
The Gospel of Repentance is the traditional view of Christianity. It says that yes, indeed, God loves us where ever and whoever we are, and that he calls each of us into a close relationship with Him. But He does not call us to remain as we are--He calls us to repent of everything in us that is incompatible with Heaven and to be transformed by His love.
The Gospel of Inclusion says that we are Holy because God loves us; the Gospel of Repentance says that because God loves us, He will endeavour to make us Holy. The central fact of Christianity, Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, is the prime act by which God so endeavours to make us Holy; thanks to Christ's sacrifice, we can be forgiven of our sins. But the Gospel of Inclusion, which says that we are Holy as we are, has little use for the crucifixion:
The gospel of inclusion has little place for repentance or transformation. Thus, it has little place for the central feature of Christianity: Christ's Cross, which brings redemption through suffering. This new gospel may be appealing, for it permits its adherents to "divinize" their own, largely secular agenda. But in a Christian church, it cannot easily coexist with the Gospel of Christ.
And, in fact, it does not. And this is why many conservative Episcopalians are so distressed and dismayed by the General Convention's recent actions: they are yet another sign that the Gospel of Christ is being jettisoned in favor of the Gospel of Inclusion. The Gospel that has the power to transform is being abandoned in favor of the Gospel that says, "There, there." I believe that the followers of the Gospel of Inclusion are genuinely motivated by a desire to share Christ's love with all people--but thanks to their theology, the people who come to the Episcopal Church thanks to their inclusiveness are being sold a sham--a "faith" that affirms them in their broken-ness and tells them that they are, thereby, whole, rather than a faith that can bring them to true wholeness. In the end, the inclusivists are short-changing the very people they hope to help.
Please note: during this essay I've said nothing one way or the other about homosexuality--following C.S. Lewis, I find it unwise to shoot my mouth off over temptations to which I'm not personally subject. More to the point, I'm not claiming that gays are any more broken than the population as a whole, nor that homosexuality is the chief sign of broken-ness in a gay person's life. In my experience, there's plenty of sin to go around and although Lust gets all the press the other six Deadly Sins--Pride, Envy, Sloth, and the rest--are generally more serious problems for most people.
So it's not the moral question that gets me riled; it's the attempt to make the teachings of Christianity conform to the spirit of the age, and the consequent rejection of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
So why do I bring this up? As I say, many conservative Episcopalians are distressed by these recent events, and are wondering what they should do. Some have proclaimed that the Episcopal Church is dead. Many--whole parishes, in some cases--are seriously planning to leave the Episcopal Church altogether. I think there's another way--but that's another post.
Coraline and her mother and father move into an old house that's been subdivided into flats. It's an intriguing place, with an overgrown old garden in back, two ladies who were once in the theater living downstairs, and an old man who claims to be training mice to perform on stage living upstairs. There's a lot to explore, which suits Coraline down to the ground. The most interesting thing is a door in the corner of the drawingroom, a door that used to lead to the other half of the floor but now goes nowhere because it's been bricked up on the other side.
And then one day it rains, and Coraline has to explore indoors. And though the old black door is locked, Coraline knows where the key is kept....
Coraline is supposedly a children's book, written for (I'd guess) intermediate readers; it's also a truly creepy little horror story. As always, Gaiman does a wonderful job of creating a tiny little world with its own surreal laws--what I think of as a pocket universe. The only author I can think of who has done it better is Sheri Tepper, and even she's done so only in her "Marianne" series, which is blessedly free of the heavy-handed Significance of her later books.
Being a Gaiman fan I bought it for myself, and while I might read it to Dave, I think I'll wait for a couple of years--too scary.
The other day David bought himself an SD Gundam action figure. SD Gundam is some kind of Japanese cartoon that he's seen on TV. The figure looks like a robot in bright white, red, and yellow samurai armor. We had the following conversation about it.
"I think I'll call him 'Ninjer'," says David.
"You mean 'Ninja'," I say.
"No, I mean 'Ninjer'," says David.
"But that sounds like he has a ninjury," I say.
David looks at me with withering scorn.
"Dad, you just don't get it."
Here's the timeline. Last Thursday evening, I received my new camcorder. By Saturday afternoon, I'd shot a bunch of footage of the kids, and just for fun a little animation of a couple of David's toys (An SD Gundam action figure, and a Lego Bionicle named Rakshi, if it matters to you). By the end of Sunday afternoon, I'd edited the rough footage into three short little movies totalling about five or six minutes of video, deleting infelicitous moments, tweaking the recorded audio, adding music, a few judicious transitions, and finally titles, and burned the whole thing onto DVD. We watched it on our TV before we had dinner.
And thanks to David Pogue and his book iMovie 3 and iDVD I even avoided the worst of the clueless newbie mistakes while shooting the footage. I held the camera steady; I didn't use the zoom while I was shooting; I shot a variety of close up, medium, and wide shots; and I didn't move the camera except to follow moving children. For these things, I can take a little credit--I might be clueless, but I'm teachable.
For the rest, I have to thank the folks at Sony and at Apple. It's amazing what you can do when you have the right tools.
Around Christmas last year I started working my way through my library, winnowing out the books that I no longer wanted. I thought it would be appropriate to keep a list of them for future reference, and for fun I posted a full list to this weblog, with reasons. And then I got involved in other things, and now, about nine months later, I'm finally getting back to it. So here it is, still more books I no longer want.
Generative Programming, by Czarnecki and Eisenecker
This guys wrote a book to persuade everyone that "generative programming" is going to be the next big thing. Now, generative programming isn't just one thing; they try to tie together a whole bunch of disparate stuff, including some really exciting research done by Charles Simonyi at Microsoft on something he calls "Intentional Programming." The authors really get quite excited about it. It's a pity that Microsoft pulled the plug on the research around the time the book was published.
The XML Companion, by Neil Bradley
By now, you either know what XML is or you don't care. I'm quite possibly in both camps.
Windows 98 Annoyances, by David A. Karp
Blissfully, I am no longer annoyed by Windows 98.
Manuscript Submission, by Scott Edelstein.
I picked this up second-hand some years ago when I still thought that submitting manuscripts was a good idea. Posting them on-line is easier, and it's more likely that somebody will read them. Life's too short to chase the publishing companies, unless one has no other choice.
Tcl/Tk Tools, by Mark Harrison et al.
A fine book, but it was published in 1997. There's been a lot of water under this particular bridge in the last six years.
Bloodwinter, by Tom Deitz
I went through a Tom Dietz phase some years ago; more recently I tried re-reading his books, and discovered that the phase had definitely passed. I bought this one (alas) shortly before I discovered this. It was on a different shelf, or it would have gone with the rest.
The Gryphon King, by Tom Deitz.
So was this one.
Man-Kzin Wars VII, by Benford and Martin.
This might be OK; but I tired of this franchise before I got to this book, and though I've had it since 1995 I've never been sufficiently interested to read it. Out it goes.
Guerrilla Guide to Great Graphics with The Gimp
I no longer use the Gimp, so I no longer need the book.
2000 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market
Yet another vestige of a dying past.
2000 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market.
Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler
This was one of my mom's books. I've read a little Anne Tyler, and I wasn't so thrilled that I felt the need to read more.
The Way of the Explorer, by Dr. Edgar Mitchell
My sister gave me this some long while back. It's written by one of the Apollo astronauts, and is subtitled "An Apollo Astronaut's Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds." As I work in the space biz, she thought I'd find it interesting. Alas, I find it rather appalling. Leafing through it I find such sentences as
In many religious traditions (including Christianity in its early years), subjective experience is believed to be carried forward by the reincarnation of souls into successive life experiences.
Whoops! Nope, sorry, unh-uh.
He ends up espousing some kind of weird pantheism based on the notion that the cosmos itself is conscious. Bad astronaut. No cookie.
The Hollowing, by Robert Holdstock
When Holdstock wrote Mythago Wood, I thought he was just amazing. I've since decided that there's less here than meets the eye.
The Children's Hour, by Jerry Pournelle and S.M Stirling
It was OK the first time, but that's enough.
Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer J. Adler
I bought this hoping that it would interesting and fun. Interesting, yes, somewhat, but deadly, deadly dry.
Python and Tkinter Programming, by John E. Grayson
Now, I'm a programming language junky. I like the language Python, though I've never had the opportunity to use it for anything important. I'm a big fan of the Tcl language, and its "Tk" GUI toolkit. So when this book came out, explaining how to do Tk GUI programming in Python, I grabbed it. And frankly, despite being an experience programmer, and despite knowing Tk pretty well already, I couldn't make heads or tails of it.
HTML: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Ed., by Musciano and Bill Kennedy
A fine book, but obsolete.
PalmPilot: The Ultimate Guide, by David Pogue
Perhaps once upon a time it was, but now it's garbage.
The pressure of having three kids in the house finally caused my brain to snap the other day, and I bought me a camcorder.
Actually, it was only partly the kids' fault; some of the blame rests on Steve Jobs, and that computer company of his--the one that ships digital video editing software with every computer they sell. I suddenly realized that not only can I shoot video footage of my winsome young'uns, I can edit out the dull bits, keep the cute bits, and put it all on DVD for my extended family to roundfile expeditiously.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. I've bought a camcorder, as if I had time for yet another expensive time-consuming hobby, and so clearly I've gone stark staring mad. Remember that as you read on.
The camcorder is a low-end Sony digital camcorder that uses MiniDV tapes and connects to my PowerBook via Firewire. It's a nice little unit, about the size of a mass-market paperback of Gone With The Wind. Or perhaps Les Miserables; we'll see. So far it appears to work quite nicely.
But the real star is iMovie, which as I say comes shipped with every Macintosh. iMovie knows how to talk to my camcorder; all I did was connect the camcorder with the PowerBook using a Firewire cable, and iMovie announced detected it immediately. I installed nary a driver, nor did OS X offer to install for me; it was true plug-n-play, right out of the box.
And then, iMovie effortlessly imports the video I've recorded, breaks it up into scenes automatically, and then allows me to view it, stretch it, chop it in pieces, run it through filters, add soundtracks and titles, and then export it back to tape, to a Quicktime Movie, or to DVD. I cannot express how much better even the goofiest home movie sounds with some decent music backing it up.
The iMovie interface, like most of Apple's recent software, is deceptively simple. There's definitely more there than meets the eye. Usually I like this, but in a few cases, they've made it a little too simple. For example, I added a title to a clip; later I wanted to get rid of it. I simply could not figure out how to do it! Finally I looked up the answer--you highlight the clip and press Delete. Silly me; I'd never have guessed that in a million years. I'd have thought--how stupid of me--that pressing delete would delete the clip altogether.
The book that came to my rescue is iMovie 3 and iDVD, by David Pogue; it's one of the generally excellent "Missing Manuals" series, and it's excellent. The book begins with three chapters on shooting digital video: what to look for in a camcorder; basic videography, including lighting and sound; and how to shoot specific kinds of things, including interviews, weddings, and so forth. How to use iMovie doesn't come in until the fourth chapter; and then the book ends with several chapters on how to use Apple's DVD authoring software, iDVD.
Now that I've got the camera and the software, I'm embarked on a special project that involves shooting video of the kids, turning various camera features on and off, and all the other things one does at a time like this; I'm calling it "The Usual Foolishness". It's sure to be the next big thing in home video.
This week: ascending the tiger!
Every year, my section at work has a big picnic in a local park. There are a hundred or so people in the section, divided into six or seven groups, and each year each group is supposed to devise some kind of entertaining game to be played at the picnic. Our group typically doesn't put a whole lot of thought into it; last year, we had a water balloon toss, and this year we provided a jar filled with M&Ms for people to guess the quantity of.
But there's one group that always outdoes the rest of us. Last year, they did their own version of Fear Factor; this year it was sumo wresting.
Yes, sumo wrestling. I neglected to bring my camera this year, and truly I am paying for it. Picture this: a large blue gym mat, about twenty feet square, with a red circle marked on it, and two big overstuffed flesh-colored sumo suits, complete with diapers.
The suits open down the back. You have to slide in feet first while lying on your stomach. Then helpful people do up the velcro and lift you to your feet, because heaven knows you can't get up on your own. And there you and your opponent stand, looking like Tenniel's illustration of Tweedledum and Tweedledee as they prepared to go into battle.
Small children ooh and ah as you rush at each other, flailing your arms and legs madly but achieving only a diffident wave of your hands and an astronaut-like hopping motion. You bang into each other--it's the clash of the titans! Eventually, one of you slips and falls out of the ring. It's best two falls out of three.
Finally, the match is over. Your helpers lay you down on your stomach, and undo the velcro, and you struggle to free yourself from the sumo suit. It's a miracle of nature, how the suit splits open and you emerge, moth-like, from your cocoon, dripping with sweat and tired in every bone.
Several of my co-workers tried it; one of them was still wobbly when we left, over an hour later.
Dearest Lord, this I ask:
For the victims of 9/11, and all victims of terror everywhere in the world, may they rest in your heavenly peace.
For the terrorists of 9/11, and all other terrorists who have killed themselves while murdering other people, may they be forgiven, though they have done great evil, for their leaders lied to them and trained them in wickedness.
For the leaders of al Quaida, Hamas, the PLO, and all other groups that teach their children to worship death, may they be led to repent of their wickedness and live their lives making restitution to the families of those they have killed.
And if they will not repent, may your judgement be swift and sure.
It would be hard to summarize the plot of this book adequately in a paragraph without completely butchering it since the text runs, in the Oxford World Classic Edition, to 1,095 pages without including the notes, the biographical information or the tedious and obligatory forward by a literature professor. I will try.
Essentially, it's a tale of revenge. Edmond Dantes is falsely accused of treason on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Catalan, Mercedes. I won't go into details about how or why. He ends up in the Chateau d'If, in solitary where he goes thru a cycle of confusion, anger and despair. The Abbe Faria tunnels his way into Dantes' cell and over the next ten years teaches him everything he knows. He also tells him the secret of the Isle of Monte Cristo, containing an enormous treasure. Dantes escapes from the prison, again, I won't say how, and finds the treasure. He then goes about exacting his revenge armed with unlimited wealth on everyone who had anything to do with his imprisonment, which actually comprises most of the book.
It's not light or easy reading. There is so much detail that sometimes the minute plot twists are not apparent. Read originally as a serial, which is how it was originally published, that may have been easier to deal with. However, I enjoyed it completely. I waffled from liking the Count and feeling sorry for him to thinking him a complete jerk, especially in the bits with Mercedes or Haydee. There were parts that were just a little too fantastic to be believable and I thought the end, which I am not going to divulge, just a bit too neat and tidy for a revenge novel. Overall, however, it was a rollicking good tale that I was sorry to finish.
So my four-year-old boy, James, just came downstairs for his bedtime story. More specifically, he came down the stairs head first, on his stomach, saying "Slith. Slith. Slith." as he slid from stair to stair.
Yes, that's right. He was slithering.
"I slithered down like a snake," he told me. "Do you know why, Daddy?"
"No, James, why?"
"Because it's fun, that's why."
Now this is just too silly for words--but it's all in good fun. Using a sophisticated geographical database and analysis software, a couple of P.G. Wodehouse fans claim to have identified the original of Blandings Castle.
Granted, this is like putting in a plug for the 2 Blowhards--is there really anybody who comes here who doesn't regularly go there as well?
But I digress. Terry Teachout is the arts critic for the Wall Street Journal, and he's recently started writing a daily blog which is a lot more fun that I'd have expected that a New York art critic's blog could be. Terry's got a down-to-earth style, delightfully lacking in jargon, and and while much of what he writes is of little interest to me (I don't live in New York) there's always something I find interesting.
He updates his blog every weekday. Go take a look.
Wonder of wonders, Iam Hamet has posted something after a two-week breather. Go, thou.
And right at the top of his post (in fact, I've not yet read the rest of it) is a link to this parody of Jane Eyre, which is very much worth your time--even if you've never read Jane Eyre, as I confess I haven't.
This week: the dangers of romance!
This is the second volume of Brust's epic The Viscount of Adrilankha, which (like The Lord of the Rings) is really a single novel in three volumes. It's just as delightful as its predecessor--in fact, it's better--and I'm eagerly awaiting the publication of the third volume in the set.
For those who came in late, Brust has long been working on a series of historical novels set in the same world as his Vlad Taltos books. Yes, I said historical novels; they are (supposedly) written by a citizen of that world, Sir Paarfi of Roundwood, a verbose and increasingly testy academic; by the time of the current volume, his books have become quite popular in Dragaera and one senses that he's letting it go to his head.
If you like fantasy, and you haven't read any books by Steven Brust, then you need to do something about that. This, however enjoyable, is not the book to start with. Not only is the middle third of a single novel, but The Viscount of Adrilanhka, taken altogether, is the third novel in a larger series which Brust has written as an homage to Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers saga. These books are by no means simple retellings of Dumas' classic works--the plots are entirely different--but there are decided and amusing parallels. You can go to our Steven Brust page to find the other books.
And then there are the Vlad Taltos novels; start with Jhereg, or the more recent omnibus edition, The Book of Jhereg, which groups the first three or so Vlad novels.
I've got an interesting history with this novel. If you go use the search box on my Ex Libris Reviews site, you'll see that a guest reviewer reviewed this book in the most glowing terms some years ago. A guest reviewer who never reviewed another book for me, whose initials were JB, and who, oddly, shares an e-mail address with John Blumenthal, the author of the book. I discovered this a few months ago, when Mr. Blumenthal sent me some e-mail asking if I'd like a review copy.
A digression: every so often, someone will contact me asking if I'd like a review copy of something or other. I almost always say no; life is too short to spend my time reading books I don't like, and if I accept a review copy I feel like I need to read it. I've gotten burned that way a couple of times, and now I'm fairly cautious.
Anyway, I called Mr. Blumenthal on his imposture, and he not only 'fessed up but did so so handsomely that I agreed to read his book and tell you all what I think of it. And now I've read it, and I'm at somewhat of a loss as to what to say about it, as it's really not my usual thing.
So let me tell you a little about it.
To begin with, it's a novel in the proper sense: it's about characters and how they change. Most of the fiction I read--indeed, most genre fiction in general--falls into the romance category: stories that are remote in place or time and concern adventure, heroism, mystery, and so forth. This, on the other hand, strikes me as more a Woody Allen/John Updike sort of thing. (That's not a compliment, by the way...the one time I tried to read an Updike novel, I failed.)
It's a novel about a screenwriter named Martin Dorfman. He's sold six scripts, none of which have managed to be filmed. He's trying to sell a seventh script. He's worried that his career is nearly over. And he's nauseated. Seriously, deeply, falling-down nauseated. He's sick. His doctor can't find anything wrong with him. The specialists can't find anything wrong with him. His doctor thinks that his trouble is all stress-induced. His father (a retired doctor) thinks it's neurological. Unless it's stomach cancer. The tests are all negative. He tries other doctors. He tries a variety of alternative medical regimens. Nothing works. He's getting no better, and neither is his career. Meanwhile, he's reminiscing about growing up with a father for whom death by bacillus lurks around every door.
I find it very difficult to judge this book. It's supposed to be funny, and in places I found it so--but Dorfman's upbringing and world are very different from mine. I suspect that I don't have the background to appreciate where he's exagerating and where he's telling the plain truth--and where for those in the know it's laugh or cry. (What can I say, I grew up in a functional family.) I suspect it would be funnier if I came from the right background.
So did I enjoy it? Yes, somewhat. It was mildly engaging, and I was genuinely curious to see how it came out--I have no quarrel with Mr. Blumenthal's story-telling skills. While the book necessarily included the discussion of a plethora of bodily functions and symptoms, it wasn't nearly as gross as I feared it would be. And I do have to congratulate Mr. Blumenthal on Martin's liaison with the Other Woman--his handling of it was delightfully refreshing (I can say no more with spoiling it).
Will I re-read it, ever? Probably not.
But if you're the sort who likes books about neurotic people struggling to overcome both their own neuroses and those they inherited from their parents, you might like this. It's not my cup of tea, so I suppose the fact that I found it mildly entertaining anyway can be taken as high praise.
From 1933 to 1951 Herman Charles Bosman wrote many short stories and essays about life in South Africa, and particularly about life in a region called the Marico Bushveld. Though of English descent, his characters and narrators are staunchly Boer, and though the stories are written in English they are filled with Boer words: veldshoen, voorkamer, predikant, mealies, and many others. This book is a collection of twenty-two of his best stories.
Bosman is pretty well unknown here in the States--at any rate, I'd never heard of him before, and his books certainly aren't in print here--but he's become a classic in South Africa. It so happens that I have a friend in South Africa; he enjoyed Bosman's tales as a kid and enjoys them still as an adult, and thought Jane and I would like them, so he sent us a set of Bosman books: this one, and another containing Bosman's best humourous stories.
After the first two stories, I was both fascinated and somewhat repelled--the first two in the book are both really depressing, though well-written. They were his earliest tales, though, and after that he developed a lighter (thought not necessarily less serious) hand. Bosman was a shrewd observer, and many of the stories are moving and hilarious by turns. I enjoyed them thoroughly over the period of about three weeks.
I think they might be hard-going for the average American reader, as they are set in a time and place very foreign to us: the South African veld. Many are concerned with the Boer War of a hundred years ago, distant now but not so distant then, and of the later veld of the 1930's and '40's. Even though I've read books about South Africa and the Boer war I still found much that was exotic, particularly the words in Afrikaans. On the other hand, there's much that's familiar--it's as though the Wild West had been settled by Dutchmen.
Fortunately, my friend Craig came to the rescue. I'd specifically asked him what "mealies" were. One of Bosman's characters talks about growing them, and the word had popped up in several of the history books I'd read, but I'd never seen a definition. Here's what Craig had to say:
You would call it corn!
While not indigenous to Africa, it has become the staple food of most Africans. Ground to a flour -- mealie-meal is used in most African diets. The Afrikaans for cooked mealie porridge is "pap" (now adopted into most indigenous languages) -- and the phrase "pap en vleis" (porridge and meat) is commonly understood in all South African languages.
Depending on what part of the country you come from, so your preference for how it is prepared differs. I'm from Zululand so we grew up on "krummel pap" (crumbly porridge). Up North I had to get used to "stywe pap" (stiff porridge). Most school hostels serve a runny version of the stuff - which you either love or hate. If eaten for breakfast, you usually add milk and sugar (yuk!), if with the main meal, it's usually eaten with a gravy (African equivalent of Yorkshire pudding, I suppose) -- although also with "morogo" -- a wild leafy vegetable that is boiled (closest equivalent is spinach). If you eat pap as a snack (as I often do - and now am in the mood for some) you make it crumbly with lots of butter and salt added !!!
Mealies are always eaten on the cob. Usually they are roasted over the fire, and then pulled off with the fingers as it is eaten. If you're doing this at a sit-down dinner, then they're usually boiled. Mealies (and pap) are common at a braai (BBQ).
There you go, more information than you ever asked for!!
Crumbly with lots of butter and salt...darn, it does sound good. Craig goes on to define a number of other terms of interest:
voorkamer: (literally, front room). Our equivalent of the sitting room or parlour. By contrast the 'agter-kamer' (back room) is more like the living room (nowadays, the family room) with access to the kitchen and bedrooms. The bathroom (if there is one) and toilet are outside.
The house I currently live didn't have power or running water when built (76 years ago) - the loo used to be in the corner of the garden. Thankfully, all that's changed!
commando: military units of civilian soldiers -- each providing his own horse and gun, and could come and go as he chose. Really came into their own in the Boer Wars - only now being disbanded under the current government. Very controversial.
veldkornet: cavalry officer with the commandos, but also functioned in a 'law and order' capacity -- more like a marshall than a policeman.
dominee or predikant: both refer to a minister of religion; the latter literally means 'preacher'. Usually in reference to ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. There's a lovely story (not sure if you have it) that explores religious bigotry re Reformed and Catholic.
kroes: the curly hair of indigenous African people. With the various liaisons of the early explorers and settlers, etc. attempts at dealing with people of mixed race gave birth to the whole Apartheid classification system -- in which "kroes" hair was a "sure sign" of an ancestor on the wrong side of the sheets (from a white perspective)!! School inspectors used the notorious "pencil test" to determine which school children should be going to. It's only since living in the Cape (where the first settlers settled) that I discover how preoccupied here people were (and are) about this, literally tracing mixed race to the sixteenth degree!! (4 generations). Now that our Apartheid legislation is scrapped, together with the racial clasifications, the new implementation of equity and preferment bills with affirmative action has made racial divisions more bitter than they used to be. It would be quite funny, if it wasn't so sad, how topsy turvy things have become -- especially as people who tried to claim white heritage are now trying to claim black heritage.
I'm holding off on the second Bosman book for a while; his stories are worth reading a little at a time, so as to make them last longer.
I've not read The Da Vinci Code, but Sandra Miesel has, and she pretty much takes it to pieces. Given the book's popularity, its revisionist view of history raises it to the stature of a Big Lie--and Sandra has the goods. I'm not an expert in the area, but I am a bit of a history buff, and so far as I can tell she's dead on in her criticisms.
(Via Eve Tushnet)
This is a mixed bag of Lewis' essays and other short pieces on the general topic of fiction, including nine pieces that have previously been collected and eleven that have not. It includes his original reviews of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, reviews of works by Charles Williams, H. Rider Haggard, and George Orwell, a tribute to Dorothy L. Sayers, and a variety of ruminations on the importance of story in fiction, the difference between novels and romances, and advice on Which Books Not To Review. As always, his words are a delight to read, and gave me much food for thought.
I could easily quote at length from any of the pieces in this book; I'll settle for his advice on Which Books Not To Review, because it's so topical. If you'll look back a month or so, the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix triggered a number of articles about how the popularity of Harry Potter was a sign of infantilism and bad judgement among the reading public. These essays were soundly fisked all around and about the Blogosphere at the time; and it was with a sense of wonder that I realized that all of those fiskings could have been replaced (and all the original articles prevented) by the following quote from Lewis' essay "On Science Fiction":
For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is "Ugh! I just can't bear this sort of thing," then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words--"arch", "facetious", "bogus", "adolescent", "immature", and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.