Monday, October 31, 2011

The Walking Dead (Season 1)


I feel kinda bad--I wasn't as impressed by this as I'd expected to be.  I heard people talking this up for like a year, and everyone said it was so good . . . I guess maybe I had unrealistic expectations.

I will say, though, that the visuals are some of the best I've seen.  The zombies are gross, and there's a sufficiently icky amount of gore (but not so much that I was grossed out completely).  The cinematography is excellent--the pull back shots of zombie swarms or abandoned or overrun buildings, or the creative angles during action scenes really resonate with the viewer.  Unfortunately, the weakness here (and it's a big one) is the characters.  I didn't actually like many of the characters, or really care about them that much.  And that drastically lowers the stakes in any given zombie attack.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Invasion (C.H.A.O.S. Trilogy #1), by Jon S. Lewis


Improbably named surfer teen Colt McAlister learns the hard way that comic book monsters are real as he faces off against shape-shifting aliens. Evil, shape-shifting aliens with nefarious plans for the the human race. Aliens armed with mind control chips, flying motorcycles, alien minions, and robot bodyguards. Colt, his childhood friend/requisite hacker, and an ultra-buff and well-connected new buddy struggle to prevent world domination while trying to avenge the mysterious deaths of Colt's parents. Will they succeed? Do we care?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman


Pretty much an amazing book.  I realize I am way behind the times, and lots of folks discovered this gem years ago, but better late than never, right?  The only thing that could have made this book any better is if Postman had offered more in the way of solutions to the problem he so skillfully and persuasively describes.

Husbandry Spiritualized: or, The Heavenly Use of Earthly Things, by John Flavel (in Works of John Flavel, Volume 5)


An excellent and insightful study of the spiritual lessons we can learn from the world around us--particularly the world of farming and, to a lesser degree, nature.  Some of the analogies are a bit simplistic, but then Flavel is explicitly addressing the farming community, an audience he views as rather simplistic. 

Each discussion is between 4 and 8 pages of length (excellent for devotional use) and begins with a description of the natural phenomenon (sowing grain, for example), followed by an analysis of how that phenomenon is similar to a spiritual truth and application to Christian life.  Flavel then includes a series of reflections from varying points of view (i.e., a worldly person's reflections, a backsliding Christian's reflections, a lazy person's reflections, a discouraged Christian's reflections, etc.), and then closes with a poem.  I must confess, I found the poems rather underwhelming, but the application and reflections were quite good, and often convicting. 

Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck


Going into this book, I knew next to nothing about the emerging/emergent church, and this was a great resource for getting up to speed on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the movement.  The movement is notoriously difficult to pin down, as they eschew creeds and there is no ready definition of "emergent," so the authors pieced together what they could from the written works of some of the more popular authors/pastors who have self-identified as emergent.  The authors freely admit that the sources they consulted may not speak for the movement as a whole and that they may be misunderstanding the beliefs and attitudes of emergent Christians. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Grimm (Pilot)


Not a bad start.  Police detective Nick Burkhardt starts seeing unusual things and comes to find that he is one of the last remaining descendants of the Grimms and that, like them, he can see real-life fairy creatures for what they really are.  Also, he clearly wants to be Brandon Routh, though I'm not entirely sure why, since he shows more range in the pilot than I've seen from Routh in his last three or four projects (excluding his surprisingly entertaining turn in the delightful Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Information, impotence, and the information-action ratio

What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? Or the rates of inflation, crime, and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? [...] I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them.  You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can only do once every two to four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satsifying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a dessicated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into--what else?--another piece of news. Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.
~Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman

Hanna (2011)


This was my first encounter with current it-actress Saoirse Ronan, and I have to say, I was impressed.  She was quite possibly the best thing about this film.  

The plot here is Bourne Redux.  Hanna, a 16 year old girl, has no functional understanding of the modern world (having been raised in a cottage in the forest) and is being hunted by the CIA for reasons she doesn't really understand. (Ronan's fair complexion is played up to highlight the otherworldliness of her character.) The role of the sympathetic and helpful civilian is fulfilled here by fellow teenager Jessica, who is on vacation with her slightly kooky yet refreshingly normal family, who provide a much-needed glimmer of humor in an otherwise dark film.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Flight of the Conchords (Season 1)


Definitely an acquired taste.  Some viewers will find this gut-bustingly hilarious; to others it will seem merely stupid and pointless. I tend to fall into the first category, though I'll be the first to admit that I find some episodes and songs much more entertaining than others (the trippier sequences--"Prince of Parties" and "Boom", for example--were not as appealing to me, though I think Albi the Racist Dragon is pure genius).

In the vein of Arrested Development, Seinfeld, and The Office (UK version), the show follows our two intrepid (and possibly challenged) heroes, Bret and Jemaine, through their lives as novelty singers from New Zealand trying to make it in New York.  They are assisted (or more often hindered) by their ineffectual and oblivious manager-cum-consulate employee Murray Hewitt, and are perpetually stalked by die-hard fan Mel, while worldy wise (sort of) pawn shop owner Dave explains to them the vagaries of American culture and relationships. 

Many episodes feature, well, not much in the way of plot development and actual events (hence the Seinfeld comparison), and the audience is forced to endure a good deal of awkwardness along the way (as in the British Office).  The zany, ridiculous, off-the-wall nature of the humor is reminiscent of Arrested Development--so quirky, in fact, that a significant portion of the audience may not find it funny at all. 

For me, though, the true genius of the series is in the music.  I listened to the album long before I actually watched the show, and I knew right away I would be a fan--with such lyrical masterpieces as "Robots", "Business Time", "Not Crying", and "The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)", how could I not?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Boondock Saints (1999)


A darkly funny action film--not for the faint of heart (or stomach), but still enjoyable.  In a loving portrayal of the Irish stereotype, the McManus brothers stumble into a life of vigilante justice, and much violence ensues. Willem Dafoe is unsettling and over-the-top at times as the closeted FBI agent investigating the vigilante killings, but the brothers themselves are convincing and genuine in their pursuit of their "God-given" calling.  Billy Connelly is intimidating (as he should be).  This movie definitely earned its R rating (with boatloads of profanity, plenty of gore, and some nudity), but I still enjoyed it.  Vigilante violence is always an interesting subject if handled well.  The McManus brothers contain shades of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight--they aim to be boogeymen deterring violent crime in their hometown of Boston (and possibly beyond).  The movie is well acted, well written, and, in my opinion, well worth watching, if you aren't too disturbed by the profanity and bloodletting.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne


A fun and funny book about a bunch of Civil War era gunnery experts who are so bored with the post-war peace that they decide to build a cannon and shoot themselves to the moon.  Verne gets a bit bogged down in the details--there are pages and pages of discussion on the size and makeup of the cannon, the size of the projectile, the type of gunpowder or other substance used, the location of the cannon, etc.  You wouldn't think there would be time for such elaborate descriptions in such a short book (the version I read was only 74 pages long), but there you have it.  Fortunately, Verne has a great sense of humor and even these seemingly mundane details are interspersed with plenty of amusing touches (as well scientific ideas that are hilarious to the modern reader, whether or not they were intended to be).  I for one was pleasantly surprised to find so much humor in such an early work, as much modern science fiction is characterized by an almost unnaturally serious tone.

It's not as seamless as later entries in the science fiction genre, to be sure--the genre was still very nascent at this time, and a lot of the kinks had yet to be worked out.  But if you read it with a little indulgence and patience, I don't think you'll be disappointed. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Watership Down (1978)


An excellent adaptation of a brilliant book.  So excellent, in fact, that I'm not surprised that it has yet to be re-made (though Wikipedia informs me that a new screenplay is in the works).  The filmmakers clearly had an affection and respect for the book that led them to adhere to it quite faithfully.  There are changes, of course--the book clocks in at over 400 pages and the movie is a mere 90 minutes long, so obviously it's not a word-for-word adaptation.

The spirit of the book is there, as are the characters readers have come to know and love--most notably Bigwig and Hazel, though Fiver, Pipkin, Dandelion, Blackberry, Blackavar, and Hyzenthlay make their presence known.  Woundwort is terrifying, and Cowslip is eerie and unsettling.  The voice work--largely provided by British stage and television actors--is excellent, and the score is memorable (not least because of the number one hit "Bright Eyes", sung by Art Garfunkel).

The Dark Descent, Volume 2: The Medusa in the Shield, by David G. Hartwell (ed.)


Another collection of, by and large, excellent stories.  This volume highlights horror from a psychological perspective--the events are not objectively horrifying, but horrifying in their effect on the human psyche.  Here, fear is fear not because of what is outside, but because of how it is perceived by the human mind.  Even the seemingly mundane can thus be rendered horrific if viewed through the eyes of one who fears it.  And conversely, scary events lose their ability to terrify us if the characters in the story are utterly unaffected by the horrors that surround them.

The psychological focus is fodder for a much more highbrow treatment of horror, and the editor was able to pull from several authors who have garnered much more respect in the literary world.  Thus, in addition to entries by popular writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Richard Matheson (of the modern era) and Lovecraft and Le Fanu (from times past), Hartwell includes stories penned by such literary heavyweights as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allen Poe, and Henry James.

Somewhat surprisingly, these bigwigs of the writing world did not necessarily produce the best stories in the collection.  I was not terribly impressed by "The Fall of the House of Usher" (sorry, Poe--you know I love you, and I know this story is supposed to have been foundational for lots of other writers, but I didn't think it was a great story), and I had a heck of time slogging through "The Jolly Corner" (Henry James' credentials notwithstanding).  But there were some definite gems in here.  "The Roaches" was gross and creepy, "Bright Segment" was chilling, "Dread" was disturbing, "Good Country People" was depressing, and "The Monkey" was, if a little trite, still unsettling. 

I really enjoyed "The Rocking-horse Winner" and "Three Days", though I'm not sure why they qualify as horror as opposed to merely otherworldly.  Both stories had quite likable, even noble protagonists and were, in their way, sad and rather sweet. 

All in all, I continue to be impressed with the collection of stories Hartwell has amassed.  To the extent that his goal is to convince his readers that horror is a worthwhile and significant genre (and not just the stuff of insipid and talentless slasher films), he most definitely succeeds.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Priest (2011)


Not as good as I was hoping, but not terrible.  In this "western-fused, post apocalyptic thriller", humanity has been all but wiped out by weird alien-looking eyeless vampires.  The animated sequence that tells this grim backstory is probably the best part of the whole movie. In the midst of this horror, people turn en masse to the Church, which is conveniently able to offer protection in the form of the Priests--superpowered warriors who are able to kill the vampires.  Fast forward a few years and the remaining vampires are all in "reservations", the Priests are retired, and most people live in the gloomy, grimy Cities far away from the savage Wastelands beyond.  Until the family of one of the Priests--Paul Bettany as the Clint Eastwood character--is murdered and his niece is kidnapped.  The Church tells him it can't possibly be vampires, and forbids him to go a-looking for the killers/kidnappers.  You can guess how well that goes.  Much carnage ensues.

The casting here is surprisingly good--Christopher Plummer as the head-in-the-sand Church leader (along with Alan Dale of O.C. fame as his more reasonable counterpart), Maggie Q as the Priestess "secretly" in love with Paul Bettany, vampire heartthrob Cam Gigandet as the kidnapped girl's love interest, Madchen Amick and Stephen Moyer as the murdered brother and sister in law and parents of the kidnapped girl, Brad Dourif as a skeezy salesman selling anti-vampire tonic, and Karl Urban as the creepy villain (subtly referred to as "Black Hat").  And of course Paul Bettany is an excellent actor, though I think he is best when he has a twinkle in his eye and mischief in his heart, and he is far too busy being stoic and long-suffering and put-upon in this film to let any of that shine through.  Indeed, the script does not call for much (any) humor.  It is serious business, hunting the vampires who kidnapped the daughter of your former lover.

A minor nitpick--in a few scenes, the sound of the wind whipping through the desert dust was so loud as to be distracting from the dialogue (pointless though it was).  Perhaps this was an attempt at realism, but I found it distracting.  

Also, I was never completely sure how the Priests were able to defeat the heretofore undefeatable vampires--there was no discussion of the vampire mythology or any weakness or vulnerability apart from sunlight, which was "not enough" to save humans before the Priests came along.  It almost seemed as if the Priests' success was based solely on increased strength and speed. Which makes sense, I suppose, but that would mean vampires could theoretically be killed by conventional means--knives, guns, etc.  Part of the appeal of vampires is creating unusual ways for them to die.  Decapitation, death-by-stake, holy water, crosses . . . vampires who don't have these weaknesses are much less exciting.

All in all, it was just ok.  The backstory was fairly creative--a western-themed world ruled by the Church, menaced by vampires, and protected by superpowered Priests.  Unfortunately, the dialogue was lackluster and in no way memorable, and the characters were fairly bland (Bettany's usual raging charisma notwithstanding).  With a little more humor and a script with some zing, this could have been something.  As it is, it just . . . is.

Monday, October 17, 2011

His and hers

[M]y biggest beef with gender-inclusive Bibles is that they lack doctrinal precision. If you mess with the words, you mess with the meaning. [...]
Notwithstanding the doctrinal imprecision and blatant politically-correct translating agenda, there are additional reasons why I dislike gender inclusive Bibles. Undoubtedly the publishers had good intentions, and genuinely wanted to help women, but in my mind, a gender-inclusive Bible is BAD for women. [...] Here are ten reasons why:

The Good Guys (Season 1)


An extremely entertaining show. The antics of police detectives Jack Bailey and Dan Stark as they investigate property crimes in the greater Dallas area may be highly improbable (every two-bit crime ends up leading them to more substantial bad guys), but they are most definitely hilarious. 

Bradley Whitford (who I've never much liked, on account of he always plays such jerky characters) seems to be having an absolute blast as he fully embodies seventies throwback Dan Stark, complete with 'stache, shades, Trans Am, and an Airstream trailer he affectionately dubs the "aluminum love cradle."  Colin Hanks is shaping up to be a decent actor, and his intelligent, by-the-book cop is an excellent foil for Whitford's insane stunts. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate, by Jerry Bridges


A decent, unobjectionable little book.  The book opens with a clear presentation of the gospel, and all the sins discusses are viewed through the lens of that gospel.  Bridges addresses thirteen different types of "respectable" sin, and with that many topics to cover, the chapters are quite short and easily digestible.  Indeed, I often found myself wishing the book contained a more thorough exposition of the various sins and more advice on how to address them in my own life.  I suspect, too, that I mistook Bridges' purpose in writing this book.  To my mind, the reader of a book entitled Respectable Sins is already in agreement that such sins are prevalent in the church and that they should not be.  But Bridges takes several pages in the opening chapters to convince his readers that respectable sins exist, that they matter, and that they should be eradicated.  He seems to think that his readers not only recognize these sins as "respectable" but are quite content to continue tolerating them, whereas I tend to think that his audience will necessarily be largely made up of those who wish to excise these respectable sins from their own lives.  And this theme was repeated in the chapters on each particular respectable sin--Bridges would take time to persuade the reader, from Scripture, that the behavior or attitude he addressed was actually sin.  Which is by no means a bad thing, but with chapters so concise as to be bordering on brusque, I wasn't sure it was the best use of Bridges' time and space, as it further limited his discussion of the nature of and solution to the sin at issue. ("X sin is bad.  Scripture says so.  That means you should not do it. The end.")

Still, he was spot on in most of his discussion of the various sins.  As far as I could tell, he didn't say anything wrong--I just wish he'd said more.  And with a discussion of 14 separate respectable sins, plus several opening chapters dedicated to the presentation of the gospel and a concluding chapter, Bridges would have been perfectly justified in expanding this book beyond its slender 181 pages.  Then again, no one can claim that this book is too intimidating or too complex to be read and understood.  So there's that.

Bottom line:  Solid book, just not quite as helpful as I was hoping it would be.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem, by Robert D. Jones


Extremely practical and theologically sound.  Jones centers his approach on the gospel, and combines this focus with helpful and insightful advice for those seeking to address anger issues in their own lives (or in the lives of those they love).  He offers counsel for those inclined to lash out in anger (anger 'revealers') and those inclined to internalize their anger (anger 'concealers'), as well as those who are angry at God and those whose anger is directed at themselves.

I was impressed with the quality of the writing, too--it's no masterpiece, but it's much better than I'm used to seeing in books like this.  The trade off seems to be that the better writers lack solid theology, and those with solid theology produce lackluster writing.  Jones is no Lewis (who is?), but the writing does not detract from the substance, and the substance is excellent. 

I had hoped that he would address those whose anger is triggered by and focused on circumstances rather than people--I myself get far angrier at my computer than I ever get at other people--but he focuses exclusively on relational anger (that is, anger directed at a person, whether self, God, or others).  Still, he identifies the root causes of anger with a fair amount of insight, and views anger through the lens of scripture.

I particularly appreciated his depiction of anger as sitting in judgment of a person or circumstance--a role that ultimately belongs to God, the usurpation of which reveals an unbiblical attitude of entitlement and a faulty understanding of grace.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who struggles with anger or wants to know how to help the angry people in his or her life.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams


Man, I forgot how amazing this book is. The writing is fantastic, the story is compelling and suspenseful, the characters are incredibly empathetic and likeable, and Adams makes the reader really feel the terror of circumstances which, while hardly remarkable to humans, would undoubtedly be incredibly frightening and utterly overwhelming to rabbits.  The characters face adventure and violence with courage, fear, ingenuity, and determination.  It is always surprising a simple story about a bunch of rabbits can suck the reader in so thoroughly--and so quickly.  I find myself immersed in the story and invested in the characters almost from the opening page.  Even though the book is on the longish side (and includes several smaller story arcs), it is very readable and accessible to those at a variety of reading levels.

And the characters are amazingly well-developed and clearly differentiated. Hazel is quite possibly one of the best leaders in literature--he cares deeply about his followers and knows and uses their strengths with remarkable insight.  And each makes a unique (and necessary) contribution to the adventure. Bigwig is a perfect picture of brusque yet reliable, big-hearted courage--a true soldier.  Blackberry saves the rabbits time and again with his cleverness, Dandelion boosts their spirits with his stories, and Fiver guides their steps. Strawberry's knowledge of structure and design, Holly's discipline and patrolling prowess, even Pipkin's loyalty and trust--each rabbit is distinct and appreciated as such.

I must also confess a fondness for any book that bothers to include a unique linguistic element, and Adams 'lapine' language delights me.  His language is nowhere hear as fully developed as those in Tolkien or Lewis, but he still creates a linguistically consistent vocabulary for his characters.  Then, too, his rabbit mythology--again not as complex as Tolkien--is still intriguing and quite entertaining.

For those who find reading a chore, the 1978 film is actually an excellent adaptation of this classic (and Art Garfunkel does wonders with the music), but parents' should not be mislead by the animation--this is not a film for young children.  Animation was simply the best medium for telling the story. And the filmmakers tell it well--the animation is quite good, the story is faithfully told, and the voice work is fantastic.

The recent audiobook edition is also quite good, though it was a little jarring to hear Kehaar voiced as vaguely Swedish (I grew up hearing Zero Mostel's voicework from the animated film, which had  much more German/Polish/Eastern European flavor), though I don't know that one accent is more correct than another.  I was, however, struck by the similarities between the film Bigwig and Bigwig as voiced on the audiobook. 

In his introduction, Adams discusses the challenges of finding a publisher for this sort of in-between novel--it is a little complex for children (and includes some more mature themes), and publishers were worried that adults would not be willing to read a 500-plus page book about rabbits.  I am so grateful that a publisher finally saw this gem for what it is--one of the best books of the 20th century.  Love.

Bottom line:  This book rocks. Read it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Tick (Season 1)


What a fun show!  Such a pity it's only nine episodes long.  I can see why it didn't quite catch with audiences though.  One critic noted that "It was too smart. Too funny. Too weird. So of course it failed."  I can't say that he's wrong.  In that sense, it's sort of like Arrested Development.  You either get it or you don't; it's either hilarious or just sort of dumb--and it won't take long to discover into which camp you fall.  Just take a gander at these quotes:

"But someone's gotta stand the heat and stay in the kitchen. Someone's gotta don the oven mitts of all that's right and strangle the red-hot throat of all that's wrong. This is that someone's story." (Pilot)

"Armless bandit! Empty your bladder of that bitter black urine men call coffee! It has its price and that price has been paid!" (Pilot)

"Gravity... is a harsh mistress." (Pilot)

"Don't be an Adolf Quitler!" (The Terror)

"I'll fold you into my wallet and spend you on a whore!" (The Terror)

"When you get in bed with evil incarnate, it always steals the covers." (The Terror)

"We have a fiendishly clever commode. It's already taken the bathtub as an ally in its porcelain war against us." (Arthur, Interrupted)

"You're on a first-name basis with lucidity, little friend. I have to call it Mister Lucidity... and that's no good in a pinch." (Couples)

"This is nothing more than a salty slab of justice jerky — cut and dried!" (The Tick vs. Justice)
That's all I've got.  If you think these quotes are or could be funny (especially when delivered by a delicious earnest Partick Warburton in a big blue suit), if you appreciate puns, literalized idioms, and tortured, overextended metaphors (and don't mind a bit of innuendo), then this may be the show for you.  I certainly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris



Another chaotic and disorganized assortment of plotlines--including a fair amount of recycled material and a rather depressing lack of character continuity.  Someone named Pelt is trying to kill Sookie!  Again!  The portal to Faery that Niall closed in Dead and Gone isn't really closed!  Eric's boss continues to be a threat!  Eric continues to be lame!  Sookie's telepathic nephew Hunter makes a brief appearance for no discernible reason! Tara is having twins! Sookie, having apparently forgotten her previous discussions with Niall in From Dead to Worse, "discovers" that her grandmother cheated on her grandfather with a half-fairy!  Sookie also discovers a magic compact that grants wishes!  Eric's dead maker promised him as husband to the vampire queen of Oklahoma!  Sookie breaks the blood bond with Eric--will she still love him (and vice versa)?  Alcide tries to seduce Sookie (again)!  Faeries are gathering for unspecified reasons!  Everyone has the hots for Sookie!  There are no unattractive people in Bon Temps, Monroe, or Shreveport!  (Unless you count members of the police force.)  Bubba is back! 

In addition to all the plot noise, there are some disturbingly uncharacteristic moments.  After breaking the blood bond with Eric, everyone goes on and on about how important it is that no one be told about it, because Sookie is much more vulnerable without the bond alerting Eric to any threats.  Not that this stops Amelia--who knows what's the what from their previous adventures--from running off to a werewolf bar to tell Alcide that Sookie is up for grabs and then bringing him back to Sookie's house (!) and letting him into her bedroom (!!) where he undresses (!!!), gets into her bed (!!!!), and hamhandedly tries to seduce her.  Sookie is of course incensed, and proceeds to (rightly) rake down all involved in this ridiculous and inappropriate situation.  However, her admonishment to Amelia--who just blabbed her newly vulnerable state to God only knows how many people--is based only on her "interference" with and "manipulation" of Sookie's love life.  There is no mention of the huge danger resulting from Amelia's carelessness.  That whole sequence was just beyond implausible.  And the idea that it was all part of Jannalyn's plot to "get" Sookie by . . . well, it's not exactly clear how this affect Sookie other than by annoying her.  As plots go, it's rather ineffective and nonsensical.  Much like this book.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Jane Eyre (2006)


Sooooo much better than the 2011 film version.  Here, the viewers are permitted to see Jane's thought life--to see that she even has a thought life.  She has intelligence, imagination, courage, self-confidence, curiosity, and passion--qualities kept well-hidden in the newest adaptation.  She reads books about exotic places, and delights in hearing Rochester's descriptions of his travels.   The two actually seem to enjoy one another's company, which makes their romance much more believable.  We get to see Jane's reaction to this her first real adult friend--we see her delight in his company and her turmoil when he dances attendance on another.  We see Jane truly engage with Rochester and stand up to him as few have done.  We see her absorb and react to unusual and frightening circumstances with calm efficiency.  And we get to see the strength of her resolve and her deep desire to act rightly in any given situation.

As a result, we are not completely surprised to discover that Rochester has fallen in love with her.  Speaking of Rochester, he is less the swooning poet of the film version and more the brusque grouch of the novel.  He is still a bit too attractive and effeminate to be the "perfect" Rochester, but he is undoubtedly a vast improvement.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Season 3)


I'm not sure whether this qualifies as the best season overall, but the Mayor is by far the best "big bad" Buffy encounters.  And there are certainly some great standalone episodes as well--"The Wish", "Band Candy", "Homecoming", and "The Zeppo", just to name a few.  Some story arcs (particularly those involving relational infidelity) are less than welcome, and this is, of course, Angel's last season as an regular cast member (Angel premiered during season 4 of Buffy).  Season 3 also introduces future cast members/Whedonverse regulars Faith, Anya, and Wesley Wyndam-Price (though he relocated to the Angel set).

As for the rest of the gang, Buffy is still a great crier, and she sells her (frequent) emotional turmoil quite convincingly.  Angel and Faith are a little rockier in the "convincing acting" department, and Xander and Willow are not at their best in this particular season (though that is more the fault of the writers than the actors).

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco


Man, what a slog.  This book clocks in at 536 pages (including author's postscript).  The story itself could be told in about 200 pages, maybe less.  The rest of the book is pretty much just detailed descriptions, accounts of dreams, and soliloquies on various religious topics.  I never thought a bunch of Benedictine monks--supposedly dedicated to silence--could spend so much time speechifying.  Then again, perhaps I ought to have expected a fair amount of pontificating in a story so focused on the tensions between Rome and Avignon.  (Etymological rimshot!)

I realize that these extended periods of discussion and description were a stylistic choice.  Eco, a semiologist, is using the novel to showcase his expertise using the medieval opera-buffa structure with its "long recitatives and elaborate arias."  (See Author's Postscript).  However, the knowledge of the artistic intent does not make these sections any easier--or more entertaining--to read. 

But perhaps I am not being fair.  I am admittedly not in the best position to appreciate this novel.  First of all, having heard it billed as "Sherlock Holmes in a medieval monastery", I was undoubtedly expecting something more akin to Doyle's terse, plot-heavy, and action-packed writing.  Which this is most assuredly not.  Second, a novel this stylistic and slow-moving is clearly meant to be ingested at a leisurely pace, possibly in a large overstuffed armchair.  With a snifter of brandy (or a mug of something hot).  In a dimly lit room.  With a crackling fire.  In the dead of winter.  I used it as a commuter book, reading snatches of it on the way to and from the office or during breaks, and I tend to get restless when my commuter books take too long to read, so I was ready to be done with this book long before I reached the end.

Speaking of endings, I have to say I was quite underwhelmed by the "big reveal."  The forbidden secret did not, in my opinion, live up to the hype.  The evils encountered on the journey were far more exciting than the final destination.  Especially since the "moral" arrived at by the book seems to be "enough of this 'truth' business already." 

Still, the action sequences, such as they were, were quite enjoyable and even compelling.  And the seemingly interminable discussions of poverty, dreams, books, heresy, and laughter were well-written, even if I didn't particularly enjoy reading them.  So while I might rate this only a two star book based on my personal enjoyment level, it gets three stars because it is well-written. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A little (much needed) perspective

[M]ost of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences—things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train? No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. [...I]n the case of all such annoyances, as I have said, everything depends upon the emotional point of view. You can safely apply the test to almost every one of the things that are currently talked of as the typical nuisance of daily life.
For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one's hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind? Not merely because it is running, and running exhausts one. The same people run much faster in games and sports.[...]

Now a man could, if he felt rightly in the matter, run after his hat with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy. He might regard himself as a jolly huntsman pursuing a wild animal, for certainly no animal could be wilder.[...]

The same principle can be applied to every other typical domestic worry. A gentleman trying to get a fly out of the milk or a piece of cork out of his glass of wine often imagines himself to be irritated. Let him think for a moment of the patience of anglers sitting by dark pools, and let his soul be immediately irradiated with gratification and repose. Again, I have known some people of very modern views driven by their distress to the use of theological terms to which they attached no doctrinal significance, merely because a drawer was jammed tight and they could not pull it out. A friend of mine was particularly afflicted in this way. Every day his drawer was jammed, and every day in consequence it was something else that rhymes to it. But I pointed out to him that this sense of wrong was really subjective and relative [..."I]f," I said, "you picture to yourself that you are pulling against some powerful and oppressive enemy, the struggle will become merely exciting and not exasperating." [...] I have no doubt that every day of his life he hangs on to the handle of that drawer with a flushed face and eyes bright with battle, uttering encouraging shouts to himself, and seeming to hear all round him the roar of an applauding ring.

[I]nconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.
~All Things Considered, by G.K. Chesterton (essay entitled "On Running After One's Hat")

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Here is matter of unspeakable comfort...

[...] though the flesh say, Ego deficiam, I will fail thee; though the world say, Ego decipiem, I will deceive thee; though the devil say, Ego eripiam, I will snatch thee away; yet as long as Christ saith, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee, thy graces are secure in the midst of all these enemies.

[...] Desponding, trembling soul! lift up thine eyes and look upon the fields; the corn lives still and grows up, though birds have watched to devour it; snows have covered it, beasts have cropped it, weeds have almost [choked] it, yet it is preserved. And hath not God more care of that precious seed of his own spirit in thee, than any husbandman hath in his corn? Hath he not said, "That having begun the good work in thee, he will perfect it to the day of Christ?" Hath he not said, "I give unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish." [...] Well then, be not discouraged, for thou dost not run as one uncertain, nor fight as one that beats the air. But "the foundation of God stands sure, having this seal--the Lord knows who are his." Though thy grace be weak, thy God is strong; though the stream seem sometimes to fail, yet it is fed by an overflowing fountain.
~Husbandry Spiritualized: Or the Heavenly Use of Earthly Things, by John Flavel (Chapter 13, "Upon the dangers incident to the corn from seedtime to harvest")

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Inferno, by Dante Alighieri


There's a reason it's a classic.  As with most non-English works, a lot depends on the translation you get and the quality of the annotations.  Near as I can tell, Ciardi does a great job capturing the feel of the original--he even makes it rhyme! 

Dante clearly had a very creative mind.  Many of the punishments he envisions are not only painfully disturbing, but quite ironic as well.   I particularly appreciated Ciardi's translations of some of the cruder and bawdier passages, as the striking change in tone is a very effective literary device.  It is also worth noting that Dante's heirarchy of sin does not resemble the popular view of wrongdoing as demonstrated in the judicial or social consequences meted out upon the perpetrators.  For example, betrayal and fraud are treated as worse than mere violence.  Dante's interpretations and conclusions are not always biblically sound, but they certainly provide ample food for thought. 

The imagery is quite vivid, but I found myself longing for a capable artistic rendering of the scenes Dante conjurs.  The text simply begs to be illustrated, and I'm told that Gustave Doré's engravings are quite moving. Indeed, the poem should really be a multi-media affair--it works quite well when read aloud, and I suspect there are many quality audiobook versions available. The Cantos are short enough to be easily digestible, even for those less inclined to appreciate long passages of epic poetry (such as myself).

A caveat to the reader:  The book is chock full of cultural and historical references, most of which will likely be unfamiliar to the average lay reader (again, such as myself)--for this reason, it is essential to find a well-annotated version that will explain the identities and significance of the various persons Dante encounters in Hell, as well as the places and events to which he refers.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sherlock (Season 1)


An outstanding and creative update of the classic detective stories.  Unlike every other version of Sherlock Holmes ever, this iteration features a Watson who is every bit as interesting as Holmes--if not more so.  Martin Freeman is an inspired choice, and plays Watson's incredulous everyman with humor and wit.  Benedict Cumberbatch (!) is no slouch, either--his Holmes is rude, oblivious, arrogant, and clever.  Moriarity, introduced in the final installment, is unnervingly psychotic, and much more menacing--and interesting--than the supervillain of the books.

The writers, too, deserve praise for their masterful update of the original material.  Holmes no longer relies on hats and canes and ashes to tell him stories; now he relies on smartphones and jewelry and credit card receipts.  Watson, who was injured in Afghanistan (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, indeed), has been promoted to official blogger, and Holmes himself maintains a website on the art of deduction.  Indeed, Holmes seems to have embraced technological advances with enthusiasm, as he is prone to communicating via abrupt or cryptic texts (an extremely believable habit) and relies on the internet as a valuable source of information.  The allusions to the source material are clever, tasteful, and frequent--it would appear that this series was created by someone with a genuine love and respect for Doyle's work.  Two of the more notable references:
  • Upon discovering the word "Rache" clawed into the floor by a poisoned woman, a forensic investigator suggests that it is the German word for "revenge"--as suggestion that Holmes immediately derides, as the victim was clearly trying to write "Rachel". (The reverse conversation--with the police suggesting the name "Rachel" and Holmes cleverly deducing the German meaning--took place in A Study in Scarlet).
  • Moriarity's big "game"--requiring Holmes to solve 5 different cases in a matter of days--was heralded by five Greenwich "pips", an allusion to The Five Orange Pips
All in all, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  As much as I love Robert Downey, Jr. (and Guy Ritchie) I think this latest adaption is loads better than the 2009 movie, and a vast improvement over Rupert Everett's overly sexualized 2004 television movie.  I don't know that Cumberbatch is quite up to the standard set by Jeremy Brett's Holmes in the 1980s, and a modernized take is unlikely to live up to the original, but Freeman's Watson is enough to push this into a close second.  Too bad I have to wait until 2012 for the next series of episodes.

The Wrath of Mulgarath (The Spiderwick Chronicles #5), by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi


After escaping from various and sundry kidnappings, the Grace children must finally effect the ultimate rescue: their mother. With the assistance of a cowardly hobgoblin, a dangerous griffin, a dwarf-made sword, and a long lost relative, Jared, Simon, and Mallory take on "big bad" ogre Mulgarath. Jared, ever the hero, still struggles with his anger--a nice touch of continuity that is likely to resonate with young viewers, but the authors never offer any resolution or lesson on that issue. And Simon takes uncharacteristic action in defense of the fantastical creatures he loves. Sadly, Mulgarath is a bit disappointing, as villains go. While his actions were nefarious enough to be genuinely menacing, his evil intentions were rather vague. I was left with the distinct impression that the Grace children had to fight something, and an ogre seemed like an acceptable choice. Still, it's a fun series, and there are lots of fun, smaller-scale adventures along the way; it's only when the authors try to create a larger conflict arc that the story falters. And who knows--perhaps they will do better next time, as the ending leaves the door wide open for future installments.

Oh, and kudos to Mark Hamill for the delightful narration.

The Ironwood Tree (The Spiderwick Chronicles #4), by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi


After encountering brownies, goblins (both hob- and regular), griffins, sprites, and elves in previous volumes, the Grace children are now ready to take on new fantastical creatures: dwarves, ogres, and mechanical dogs. Jared's disciplinary difficulties increase exponentially when he is caught pulling a (pocket)knife on a younger student, Mallory goes missing, and a sneaky shapeshifter temporarily tranforms the Grace twins into triplets. The "big bad" gets bigger and badder, and the Grace children decide that some adult involvement may be required. Mark Hamill continues his excellent narration, and I continue to be entertained.

Lucinda's Secret (The Spiderwick Chronicles #3), by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi


Another perfectly acceptable entry in the series. The Grace children learn that they have an actual "big bad" enemy (as opposed to the previous scattershot danger), there is much discussion about the fate of the "Field Guide," and Jared struggles with his temper and uses his wits to save his siblings and himself. Also, we meet crazy Aunt Lucinda, who is awesome. Also, having a twin can be convenient. Also, the "Field Guide" goes missing. Also, Mark Hamill is a pretty darn capable narrator. It's a bit surprising that the authors waited until the third entry in the series before introducing the actual scary villain, and may not have been the best choice, since he ends up feeling a bit tacked-on. Still, definitely not a bad way to spend an hour or two.