Today I bought:
A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan 1841-42 by Lady Florentia Sale.
As may be known from The Flashman Papers, Lady Sale was a formidable memsahib living in Kabul when the First Afghan War erupted. Elphinstone, the British army's aged commander, instigated a forced retreat from the Afghan capital as hostile tribesmen pressed in on all sides, eventually resulting in the annihilation of the entire army. Only a handful of people survived and one of these was Lady Sale, who kept a diary of the entire experience. I've always wanted to read this - Lady Sale sounds like one of the truly unique characters of the Victorian era and this first-person account of both monumental stupidity and heroism has always sounded like a fascinating read.
The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid
I can't remember who was talking about this book (was it Colleen Coover?), but it's been sat in my Amazon cart for ages, so I finally got around to reading it. It's had great reviews, (see here), so I figured I'd give it a try.
The Man with Two Brains DVD
From back when Steve Martin was ball-achingly funny.
I have vaguely eclectic tastes.
In other news, apparently Ewan McGregor and Jim Carey's new gay cell-mate rom-com I Love You Phillip Morris won't be released in the USA, despite drawing some great reviews. What the heck is wrong with you, America?
It's by the writer/director team of Bad Santa, so obviously I want to see it. I love that movie. And, of course, Ewan McGregor is awesomesauce.
It's said that history is always written from the point of view of the winners and Caesar is usually one of those most glorified. What makes this so fascinating is that it's written from the perspective of those who opposed him, who fought for the Republic. Caesar, here, is not a sympathetic character, but shown as a political mastermind, cold-blooded would-be dictator, ruthless in his pursuit of power.
But it's Cicero who is the central figure, although it is his constant clashes with Caesar and his allies that form the heart of this novel. While Imperium dealt with Cicero's unexpected rise to power, from humble beginnings to voice of the people, this novel deals with both his successes and his failures. Cicero nearly single-handedly saved the Roman empire from armed rebellion and civil war, but made powerful enemies in the process.
Unlike many novels set in Rome, however, this does not deal with the military victories, nor the lusty excesses, except in passing, but deals more in politics and legal drama. It's a success of Harris' focus that he deals with the affairs of the senate and the people and avoids sensationalism, instead bringing the well-known persona to life with deft, human touches and an eye for character rather than dealing in archetypes. Once again the book is written from the viewpoint of Cicero's slave Tiro, inventor of shorthand, and it's that voice that allows the great and the famous to be brought down to human levels - for example, his first, and main recollection of Mark Antony is his terrible acne.
Unlike his recent political thrill The Ghost, Harris once again triumphs by returning to historical events rather than attempting to be contemporary. The life of Cicero is a fascinating one and it's made even more fascinating by Harris' prose, lifting details and dialogue from Cicero's surviving writings, but also imbuing the semi-mythical figures with much humanity as they weave their political webs.
Firstly, the book doesn't disappoint in many ways. It's as readable as the rest of the series, more so than some, the pace picks up considerably and builds to a climax that, while not flawless, is generally satisfying and certainly not disappointing. But the book's definitely not without flaws and as such is representative of the series as a whole.
The major issue is, as expected, another problem with pacing. It's once again horribly uneven. The book's action packed, wonderfully so, but suffers simply because, after two books of barely any developments, suddenly there's masses to pack into the final volume. As usual, there's the problems of drawn out chapters filled with unnecessary exposition or stumbling around one forest or another killing any pace, but then the action sequences kick in and it's all hunkydory again. But by trying to pack not one, but two quests into the final volume - both for the Horcruxes and the hitherto unmentioned Deathly Hallows - along with trying to build in an ultimately satisfying ending, it's too much for one book to contain. No wonder the movie makers decided to split things over two films. Trying to pack both quests into one book seemed a step too far - as I said in the last review, the quest for the Horcruxes deserved a novel of its own and shuffling around the previous two volumes could easily have solved that issue.
( More spoilery stuff under the cut. )
And the main problem I have with J.K. Rowling is the way she constantly builds things up over the course of a novel and then immediately deflates them. It's happened a lot over the last couple of novels. For example, in the Order of the Phoenix, the whole weighty novel builds around Voldemort trying to get his hands on a prophesy about him and Harry. The whole novel. And when it's destroyed, it's suddenly revealed that Dumbledore knew what was in it all the time. Not only that, but in this novel it's revealed Voldemort does too, since Snape overheard and told him. And then there's the fact that when Harry reveals the prophesy to his friends there's literally the line from Hermione saying "Yes, we thought it would be something like that." Well, if everyone bloody knew or guessed, why was it a big chuffing deal?
Similarly in this novel, there's the whole deal of Slughorn's missing memory. This is built up as being of utmost importance. Dumbledore insists that Harry discover what was in it, proclaiming it to be the most important mission Harry can have. When he discovers about the Horcruxes and reveals it to Dumbledore instead of the grand revelation, the rug's immediately pulled out from under the plot. "Oh yeah," says Dumbledore. "Multiple Horcruxes? I knew that already. Figured it out from that diary. Oh, and I've spent the last few months hunting them down and already found two, so, y'know, bit of a waste of your time, really."
It's frustrating because it basically negates vast swathes of the last couple of novels. The prophesy's not really important since Dumbledore and Voldemort already knew all about it. The two thirds of the novel that Harry spends trying to get the missing memory from Slughorn seems like a waste of bloody time. It's these plotting issues that really kill it for me. There's plenty of good in the books, but again, a hell of a lot of filler and then what plot there is is negated by pointless reasons for keeping Harry in the dark and sending him to discover what most of the characters already knew or had figured out. And the whole "mystery" of the identity of the Half Blood Prince, which is barely even a plot point, despite being the title.
That said, there's some good here - the Draco plotline's solid, there's plenty of dark and thrilling moments, the climax exciting, Slughorn's intriguing, the early chapters are atmospheric - but then it all seems to dwindle away. In a situation where Voldemort is murdering people daily, the danger is raised considerably, the bulk of the novel being about who wins which quidditch matches, who's dating who and other rather trite distraction is genuinely bewildering. Possibly not as bewildering as where the hell the sudden romances between Hermione and Ron and Harry and Ginny (who hitherto had the character development of a cardboard cutout) came from, but bewildering nevertheless.
I can sympathise with JK Rowling though. What she delivered in this novel was basically the same sort of stuff as previously. But expectations for the series seemed to be through the roof - far more than anyone can deliver or, in my opinion, than the series has ever delivered. There's some entertaining bits for sure, but the expectation that things would be kicked up a gear with the penultimate novel certainly aren't met. It doesn't work as a stand alone novel, like the early books did, and aside from the last fifth of the novel, it doesn't add anything much to the over-arching plot either.
And bad show for having all of my personal ship Luna and Neville's kick-assery happening off camera. Again. Would it have killed to have them appear properly as characters and not just mentioned in passing? I love those crazy kids and would certainly have enjoyed a page or two devoted to their battles alongside the Order of the Phoenix over another page of Won Wons.
I've been hitting a few new releases over the past week or so - I've finished Terry Pratchett's latest and am onto the new Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy novel. But first about the Pratchett.
Unseen Academicals is the latest Discworld novel and, like Making Money, The Truth and Going Postal other recent entries in the series, it focuses on the idea of taking a modern concept - in this case, football - into the Discworld setting.
The trouble is that it becomes clear very early on that the book doesn't really know what it wants to do. Is it an intelligent comment on individuality vs tribalism? Is it a funny book about the wizards attempting to learn football? Is it a romance story? Is it an introspective on being the best you can be, no matter where you came from? The answer is: probably.
And the trouble with trying to be so many things is that it ends up not being anything much. Oh, it's funny enough, but with too many characters and plotlines fighting for attention - it starts off being about the wizards and they soon end up being more like cameos by the end of the book with their plotline forgotten as the new (and, frankly, blander) characters take over. The new characters, Glenda, Juliet and Mr Nutt and so forth are from the same stable that brought forth Moist, Christine and Pteppic and a number of other characters that strike me as being equally unmemorable. There's loose ends that never get resolved, details that don't quite ring true to characters/scenarios from previous books, and stray bits of story that just don't fit in anywhere.
Then there are the cameos, be they the Librarian, Rincewind, Sam Vimes or whoever, who circle into the story's orbit without contributing much, often act vaguely out of character and don't appear to be there for any reason other than being there. Vetinari's appearance is worth the price of admission for the scene where he gets drunk but I'm not sure when he got to be so chatty and gregarious.
Although the book is enjoyable, Pratchett doesn't really seek to break the mold or take things to the next level, like he did with Nation. It was a book I found all too easy to put down - while usually I'd finish a Pratchett novel in a couple of days, this took almost a week to get through. It's not bad, it's just not that great either - sadly, part of the course for recent Pratchett.
Where the movie succeeded was streamlining the action sequences into a rapidly moving plotline. In the novel, the action sequences are less fully realized and thrilling and also interspersed with, I felt, unnecessary subplots and diversions. At least a third of the book, all the distractions of Hermione's interest in House Elves that went nowhere, for example, and the Rita Skeeter stuff, could have been cut entirely and the book would lose nothing. In fact it would be improved since these, and the subplot with Ron sulking at Harry for far too long or Hermione and Ron's bitching were irritations more than thrilling. I find Dobby to be an annoying character anyway and an entire subplot of the book focused on the House Elves which then just meanders off into nothing both feels like filler and saddles the readers with more bloody Dobby.
In fact, it's only the last 50 or so pages which are pivotal and even then, they're pretty much pure exposition to explain the previous 600 or so pages and stuff that's happened to Voldemort since killing Harry's parents. At which point it starts reading more like a text book than a novel. Lord Voldemort doesn't really come across as a compelling or interesting villain because he spends about five sold pages barely pausing for breath in his Bond-villainesque explanation of his past and future plans. And then when he does fight Harry, once again a random magical incident (IE a fluke with no build up and minimal explanation) is what allows Harry to escape, smacking of those magical swords in hats and phoenix tears that acted as deus ex machina in previous volumes. While the mysteries wrought throughout the book are nicely tied up, these instant fixes are an irritation.
It's funny that so much of the book is filler when the one character who deserved to get some fleshing out, namely Cedric, never was. It made the emotional impact of the climax weaker when instead we'd had graphic descriptions of Ron sulking for 50 pages or a blow by blow account of the Quidditch world cup.
Other than that, the character work does, at least, ring true this time around. The main three are childish, irritating to the point of wanting to bang their heads together when they've had yet another falling out over nothing and mostly immature with occasional flashes of acting like adults - in other words, more like the 14 year olds they're supposed to be. Unlike when the characters were supposed to be 11 and acting far older. The only flaw in making the characters act their ages is that, frankly, teenage kids are as irritating all all get out and there's limited appeal in reading about yet another sulk one of them's got into.
However, the formula's starting to get a bit tired now and it seems like this is the book where Rowling started to believe her own hype and was left freedom to roam without an editor's pruning shears cutting away the dead wood. As another review puts it nicely: "It's as if one were making chocolate chip cookies and doubled the recipe for dough but put in the same amount of chips as for one batch".
The enriching of the Potter universe was certainly welcomed. Adding layers to the framework established in the first two books and dealing with the story of Harry's parents deaths, the story dealing with betrayal and murder felt a lot more epic than the rather lightweight plots of the previous outings. The addition of macabre elements such as the Dementors and the concept that good guys aren't always that good (in the case of Black, the Dementors, Harry's father, even Harry himself) helped with the maturing tone.
After the ridiculousness of Lockhart in the last book, the calm pleasantness of Lupin and the rage of Sirius Black were far more believable, although the divination teacher Professor Trelawney veered towards being another over-the-top and unsympathetic addition to the book. (Again, it's another of those characters who I felt came across better on-screen than in the novel.) Snape gets some layers too, which is welcome after the cardboard cutout version in the first two books which never seemed to justify his importance in the series.
I'm still not particularly enamored with the character of Harry himself - although he wasn't given everything on a plate in this book and had to actually work at being heroic and making the right decisions. He came off a lot better although, frankly, his and Ron's attitude towards Hermione for most of the book made them look like enormous arseholes to the point where I was hoping that Black would get the little buggers.
The plot's the strong thing here, though. A real page turner and, though once again a deus ex machina pops up at the end to help resolve things, it's not quite as neat or happy as the previous books. The numerous plot threads do weave together nicely, however, and reach a satisfying, if sad, conclusion. Better in plot, better in characterisation, better in twists and worldbuilding, it's certainly a step up from the previous books.
A mixed bag in Chamber of Secrets. I think it helped that I'd seen the film before, which I felt was better in some regards. Kenneth Branagh's overdone hamminess was so over-the-top in the movie it became silly enough to be entertaining - in the book the character of Gilderoy Lockhart was so obviously incompetent, it's hard to believe Dumbledore wasn't being given his marching orders for hiring him and without the visuals of Branagh's performance to add some fun, the character seemed pointless. Lockhart, in the end, contributed nothing, not even accidentally, to the climax of the story. It almost felt like the book was written with the intent of having some pay off with the character at the end - perhaps his memory spells holding the key to defeating the villain - but that never came. In the end, I was left wondering quite what the character added to the book.
It felt particularly jarring given all the work to get Lockhart on scene in the climax and then to pluck a bunch of magical fixes from nowhere to help defeating the villain. Be it phoenixes springing from nowhere, magic swords appearing literally at the drop of a hat, magically healing tears, poison teeth - it felt like Rowling couldn't settle on one way to defeat the villain and so just threw everything in. Which could have made for an impressive climax, but just means, instead, everything's tossed into the two or three pages it takes to defeat the villain. It's all deeply unsatisfying when the revealed villain is a great twist - too much focus on that, perhaps, and not enough thought given on how to defeat the monster from the Chamber of Secrets.
Then there's the issue of Harry and friends refusing to trust anyone who previously they had been given reason to trust. The logic behind lying to Dumbledore, for example, is lost on me and the sudden distrust of Harry's friends and classmates on the flimsiest of pretexts gets very old very quickly. In fact, with all the lying and stealing done throughout the book, I'm
And then there was Dobby the bloody House bloody Elf who was just as annoying in the book as onscreen. Can't stand the little bugger.
So that's the bad. The good? Harry certainly came across as more sympathetic this time around and less of a jock. That was a definite improvement and likewise the supporting cast, Lockhart aside, are nicely handled. My one issue was with the character of Ginny, who's barely sketched out and when she becomes the focus of the villain's plot, the concern's there more from her association from the central characters than any sympathy for her as a character. That aside, Dumbledore does get some good moments and some decent cod philosophy and the trio of central characters are more likable as well as Hagrid getting his back story.
The reveal of the villain is a great twist and nicely handled and ties into the history of Hogwarts, which starts to feel more unique this time around. The school and history start to get fleshed out more, less reliant on recycled ideas this time around and that creates a richer world. The decent set pieces help too - the scene with Aragog and family for example - standing out nicely against a mystery plot that bubbles along.
In all, a decent enough read. I'm still hard pressed to see why these books captured the imaginations of kids and adults quite as much as they have, but this book with its richer language, does go a step towards explaining it.
If every bugger that gets put in Slytherin house turns out to be an evil little git, why do they teach them anything in the first place?
I mean, if it was me, the minute the Leslie Phillips hat had announced "SLYTHERIN!" I'd be packing the little blighters back home to mummy and daddy with a note stating "Sorry, your kid's a douche."
Instead it's "Hi Slytherins! Today's first lesson! How to curse people and turn your enemies into a radish!"
Presumably I found it enjoyable enough, as I've now started on the second. So, thoughts.
In all honesty, it probably fitted my expectations, which weren't that high for the first book - I was expecting a kid friendly, entertaining book and got it. What I don't get is why the book set the world alight. I mean, it's certainly okay, but it's not startling to the level that I could get uber excited about it.
The Roald Dahlisms started to fade after the first chapter or so, but there was still plenty that smacked of his style of prose, but Harry Potter himself certainly isn't a Roald Dahl type hero. Compare Harry to James or Charlie - surrounded by monstrous characters but they wouldn't wish harm on them. In fact, Charlie was the kind of lad who expressed concern even for the monstrous brats he was having adventures with. Not so Harry Potter, who seems to spend most of the book wishing harm on people - be it Malfoy, Snape or Dudley, he always seems to be looking for a fight. While Charlie might have seemed too saintly, Harry comes across as rather aggressive and with a mean streak - literally his first line on being told he'll be able to do magic is not to express the desire to do something wonderful, but to curse his cousin.
Harry in the movie was a much more sympathetic character than he came across in the book for me. In the movies he comes across as shy and self doubting. In this first book, more obnoxious and jock-like than anything, good at sport, quick with a smart-ass remark, ready to pick fights, nursing grudges. It's funny because his in-book personality comes across slightly at odds with how twee and sickly sweet a lot of the rest of the book is. It's all very jolly hockeysticks, Enid Blyton (and at best a wannabe Tom Brown's Schooldays) in a way that's too sympathetic to be properly spoofing the public school genre. And I'd have given my right arm for there to be a decent Flashman type character instead of just Malfoy, who's fairly obnoxious, but hardly enough to justify the worst enemy *fistshakes* attitude from the central character. He's just a git and a fairly limp one at that.
Of course, the plot's fairly slight and it's mostly just a set up novel to introduce readers to the fantasy world of the character and in that it succeeds well. There's not really a whole lot that's original in the setting though - it seems more a lumping of cliches together, be they magical or public-school based, along with a generic big bad looming over everything. It all seemed rather derivative, but at least Rowling
And that's a little where the book falls down - it's brief for the benefit of children, but rather relies on the readers knowing about dragons and ghosts and what mystical castles look like without much descriptive prose. I rather like a wordy description to aid the imagination myself, but so I would have rather liked a better idea of what something like Diagon Alley looked like, but on the other hand, encouraging a healthy imagination is to be encouraged too.
It's interesting to see how the book compares to the movies, though. It's clear certain casting was inspired, other roles an improvement on how they're written in the book (despite Rowling's claim that she "always had Maggie Smith in mind" for McGonagall, that doesn't tie in with the physical description of her in the book at all, but the movie version is an improvement) and it's clearly that Michael Gambon's boisterous take on Dumbledore is a lot closer to how I read him in this book that Richard Harris' subdued version.
I'm still bemused by the decision to rename the book in the US though. The Philosopher's Stone is an actual alchemic concept, the US title's just generic.
Anyway, a harmless enough read, but I'm hoping for more from later books in the series. At the moment I'm hard pressed to see what the fuss is about.
Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.
1. The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
Probably the first epic novel I read - well above the reading levels of my friends at the time and it opened up the genre of fantasy to me.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
I didn't read this until later in life but it's now one of my favourite books. There's nothing not to like in this tale of racial tension in 1930s Alabama.
3. The Bottoms - Joe R. Lansdale
Like the previous book, The Bottoms is the tale of a young boy in depression era rural America confronting racism, but in this case with the addition of a terrifying serial killer.
( More books under the cut. )
I may have to resort to torrenting some of my pull list, because I don't really want to be a month behind. (Of course, I'll buy the titles when I get to the store anyway, so I fail as a filthy pirate.)
Also, going out was a bad move. I should have just stayed in bed. I feel awful again now.
However, I have now successfully infected my family, friends and random strangers with "swine flu", so I get to appreciate the joy of sharing.
Oh, and I feel unclean. I bought a Harry Potter book. I may even attempt reading it.
EDIT: While I'm on the subject, Maxim have apparently done a Girls of Harry Potter spread, which makes me facepalm so hard. But I can't really totally hate them, because somehow they sidestep my extreme distaste and take the sting out of it by including Dame Maggie Smith on the list.
I finally finished reading "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" by Michael Chabon. (Although quite a quick read, it's also quite a wordy one, so I've been dipping in and out of it.) The novel deals with two cousins from very different backgrounds meeting in pre-war America and tapping into the ethos of the age to create their comic character "The Escapist".
It's a blend of a tale about the golden era of comics, a tale of intolerance, social change and conflict in the period and particularly the tale of Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, and his cousin new York raised and sexually conflicted Sam Clay.
Like The Wonder Boys and The Yiddish Policemen's Union, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel demonstrates an exquisite turn-of-phrase and richness of language that's a strength of the rest of Chabon's work. Like those novels the plot's meandering and designed to explore the richness of the characters within set pieces rather than provide a solid, cohesive narrative. It holds together but the differences between the beginning, middle and end sections to the story can be jarring.
( Read more... )
"On that particular Friday afternoon, last February, I was reading a story to my Advanced Writers' Workshop by one James Leer, Junior Lit major and sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag."
So starts Wonder Boys, the movie, the adaptation of the book by Michael Chabon. A man who is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. While I was away I picked up the Wonder Boys and it's taken me a little time to read it, but mostly because I've dwelt over the wonderful lyrical language of the prose. There's a delightful turn of phrase to much of the narrative of the book and I've not wanted to miss a single sentence.
I read the novel first and I've just sat down and watched the movie and both have their high points. The novel concerns an incident packed weekend in the life of a dissolute, womanizing, pharmaceutically dependent college English teacher, Grady Tripp. The particular weekend sees Wordfest, a writers festival at the university he teaches at coinciding with the departure of his third wife, a bombshell from the Chancellor of the college, with whom he his having an affair, and the arrival of his editor, Terry Crabtree, a partner in crime since his own college years whose own debaucheries are oft hinted at. ("I was relieved not to have interrupted them in the act of exploring each other's lunar surfaces, or engaging in some other Crabtreevian activity that would have obliged ..... to speak to Officer Pupcik whilst dangling from the ceiling by his ankles, dressed as an owl.") Crabtree is there to read Grady's latest novel, an opus eight years in the making and nowhere near completion, a fact that has sent Grady into pot-addled hystronics.
What follows descends into a farce as dead dogs, a boa constrictor, a tuba, a stolen car, a Passover meal and Marilyn Monroe's coat all signal the collapse of Grady's life around him. Narrated in the first person, there's a delicious sense of Grady's life unraveling around him, but also a strong sense of his own character and history and the relationships he has with those around him. As he takes the strange young student James Leer under his wing, he's not so much offering support, but pulling him down with him, but you do understand the lack of maliciousness in Grady's misjudged stupidity which brings his life crashing down around him. He's a fool but a sympathetic fool.
What's delightful is the flawed nature of all the characters - no one's beyond reproach, but equally no-one is beyond redemption, even the predatory Crabtree.
The movie doesn't allow for the subtle use of descriptive prose to tell the tale, but Michael Douglas as Grady equits himself admirably, even if he doesn't quite capture the protagonist's nack for self-inflicted misadventure. With a supporting cast including Rip Torn, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes and Frances McDormand it's certainly got the pedigree, but it's Robert Downey Jr. as Crabtree who seems tailor made for the role, portraying just the right blend of wide-eyed depravity and occasional flashes of humanity.
The delightfuly perverse farcical elements remain intact from the novel and, while a lot of the interpersonal play is sadly jettisoned for clarity, it still manages to have that air of desperation, but optimism from the novel, even as things fall apart. Douglas manages to be nicely subdued and avoids playing what could have been a farcical role too much the way of cheap comedy, offering the pathos of the novel over out and out slapstick, even when the temptation is there. In fact cinematography, acting, scripting, soundtrack all combine to create an "whole" movie where failure can be celebrated. In addition, the screenplay maintains much of Chabon's wicked, sharp-tongued and devious humor. Witness:
Grady Tripp: Besides, I'm not sure if he's, uh...
Terry Crabtree: He is, I'm sure, take my word for it. I see myself in him.
Grady Tripp: Oh, I'm sure you do.
In retrospect I wish I'd seen the movie first, then read the novel as that would have allowed me to see the characters and situations of the movie expanded on in Chabon's delicious prose rather than boiled down, but either way, both are a delight.