Saturday, December 18, 2004

Book: Holes
Author: Louis Sachar
Original Release: 1998

This is a cool book.

I've liked Louis Sachar for a long time. His Sideways Stories from Wayside School is a classic of screwball grade-school humor. But when I set Holes down, I said, "Shit, this man can write."

Twelve-year-old Stanley Yelnats (IV) comes from a long line of guys who just can't win. They blame the famous Yelnats bad luck on the dirty rotten no-good pig-stealing Stanley Yelnats the first, who incurred a gypsy's wrath just before leaving the old country. Now, wrongfully accused of stealing a pair of famous shoes from charity, our Stanley gets sent to Camp Green Lake, where bad boys get turned into good boys by means of digging holes.

There's no lake.

For that matter, there's no green.

There are, however, a lot of holes. Along with a Warden who puts rattlesnake venom in her nail polish, a sadistic guard called Mr. Sir, the fatally poisonous yellow-spotted lizards, and fellow campers who put Stanley right at the bottom of the pecking order. Welcome to the next eighteen months, Stanley.

From these very basic beginnings, Sachar spins a story where three different storylines tangle like creeper vines. The first storyline is the tale of Stanley Yelnats the first's exit from the old country, and just what he did to make that gypsy mad. The second is the tale of Green Lake at the end of the 19th century, and how it came to be neither green nor lakey. The third, of course, is our own Stanley's experiences at Camp Green Lake, and how his actions put right the wounds of the past, whether he knows it or not.

There's an element of magical realism to this story that I wasn't expecting but enjoyed quite a bit. Also, the guys in Stanley's cabin aren't misunderstood puppy dogs. They're as hard as rock, and you have to watch to catch any hint of vulnerability. Sachar doesn't fall into the trap of making them all reform into model citizens, even though they're affected by Stanley as much as he is by them. Stanley's one friendship, with the silent and mysterious Zero, isn't cemented in an instant, but is a believable process.

Pick this up for a memorable, truthful, funny story.

Movie: "Holes"
Director: Andrew Davis
Original Release: 2003

My motto (or one of them, at least) is "the book is always better." That being said, there are a few movies that come close to matching the book. "Holes" is one of them. It helps that they got Louis Sachar to write the screenplay, so he knew what to leave in and what to take out.

I don't need to recap the plot (I hope!). While Disney went with big (or at least respected) names for their adult actors, they were smart enough to use relative unknowns for the kids' roles. Possibly the most famous (relatively speaking) is Shia LaBeouf, who's been on the Disney TV show "Even Stevens" for several years.

Sigourney Weaver (the Warden) and Jon Voight (Mr. Sir) make great, slightly loopy villains. LaBeouf brings out Stanley's shy awkwardness without it becoming too annoying, and the interaction between him and Khleo Thomas (Zero) makes their characters' evolving friendship believable. While the jumps between past and present take some getting used to, once you sort it out, it works pretty much as in the book. The sweet (and doomed) romance in the Green-Lake's-past storyline especially got to me, but you all know how much a sucker I am for that stuff.

Possibly my largest gripe is that they completely changed Stanley's physical type. In the book, he was very overweight, and while he lost some, he certainly didn't slim down to the toothpick proportions of LaBeouf. The official reasoning was that a severely overweight actor would have too much difficulty with the physical portions of the acting, especially during the high-temps on-location shoots for Camp Green Lake. Hmmm. Anyway. I still liked it. A good idea is probably to read the book first, though, or you might have a hard time sorting out who is who with all the different storylines.

Merry Christmas, y'all! Or whatever holiday of your choosing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

So I've been a real mystery woman lately, but tonight I will change all that!! Momentarily anyway. Sigh. It's been a busy semester.

*shrug* Busy semester notwithstanding, I've been reading some kickass books and watching some kickass stuff, and I'll just share a couple with y'all tonight.

Television Series: Firefly
Creator: Joss Whedon (also known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and various feature film scripts including Toy Story
Airdates: 2002 only

The story of Firefly is conclusive evidence that networks are on crack. This is a show with great writing, great acting, original and carefully crafted background, and real entertainment value. So naturally it was cancelled after 15 episodes. Sheesh!

I'll admit it; the thing that first attracted me to Firefly was the quotes on IMDb. I love Joss Whedon's dialogue. The man and the writers he hires play with language like it's silly putty. They take stock dialogue and go to town on it. Check out this sample:

[standing over his wounded opponent, refusing to kill him]
Mal : You know, they say mercy is the mark of a great man.
[stabs the man]
Mal : Guess I'm just a good man.
[stabs him again]
Mal : Well, I'm all right.

They also take stock stereotypes and turn them inside out. Mal, the captain and arguably main character, has that ol' tragic past . . . on the losing side of a civil war, he now has to live under the rule of the Alliance he once fought. He has lost all the beliefs and ideals that drove him throughout the war and now has what can best be described as a nihilistic outlook on life. Instead of pouting and brooding all around Serenity like a big ol' anchor, he is often the driving force behind the plots, as well as having some of the best lines, and is doing his utomost to live his life the best way he knows how.

Every character seems to be a stock sci-fi character with some unexpected twist that humanizes them. Zoe, the stone-faced second mate, is married to the court-jester pilot, Wash, who plays with toy dinosaurs and can do things with the wheel that make the Blue Angels look like chumps. Kaylee is the brilliant mechanic who likes teddy bears, flowers, and ruffles. Book is the ship's chaplain who knows an unsettling amount about guns and crime. Jayne is the thuggish mercenary who names his guns and sends money home to his mom. Inara is a highly respected, classy, and ladylike prostitute . . . who actually likes her job. Simon is the spoiled rich boy doctor who will go to the ends of the universe for someone in pain and through hell itself for his baby sister. River is the psychic genius who has at best a waving acquaintance with sanity.

This isn't a shiny glossy techno-cool sci-fi universe, either. It's gritty, run-down, dangerous, and with a western-frontier ethos that is an unexpected but completely believable touch.

The show also has the classic Whedon touch of strong character-based stories, and constantly asking questions about ethics, morality, and humanity that can't be tidily answered in one hour minus commercials. I really, really wish they hadn't cancelled this show. Oh well . . . the movie's coming out next April, and the DVD's are available now. If you have RealPlayer and plenty of hard drive space, check out this page for rough'n'ready versions of the episodes: Hello Cowgirl

I recommend "Serenity" or "The Train Job" for a neophyte, since they're both pilot-type episodes (after viewing "Serenity," FOX asked for a more action-packed, shorter pilot. Again with the crack.) Anyway, they're good introductions to the world and the characters.

Book: Weetzie Bat
Author: Francesca Lia Block
Original Release: 1989

This is a special and unusual book, and not for everyone. If you're very conservative, very grounded in reality, and get annoyed by lavish and poetical prose, don't read this. If you're just the opposite, run don't walk.

This book doesn't have a terribly cohesive plot, but I'll try to nutshell it. Teenaged Weetzie Bat (and that is her real name) loves L.A., and is looking for someone that will love it with her. Her best friend, Dirk, is also looking for a good man to love. Three wishes from a magic lamp bring them Duck for Dirk and My Secret Agent Lover Man for Weetzie. But now Weetzie wants a baby . . .

Like I say, this is not your run-of-the-mill teenage story. It creates its own logic, and you find yourself going along with it. Weetzie's sweetness and optimism are occasionally too light and bright for me, but Block's later books feature somewhat darker characters. In the end, Weetzie Bat is a story about the families we create and the life we make for ourselves from day to day. "I don't know about happily ever after," Weetzie says, "but I know about happily."

Hookay, folks, that's it for tonight. Hopefully I'll be able to post something new soon.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hey all! I’ve got an unprecedented three--count ‘em, three--items for y’all today. So let’s get started, shall we?

By the bye, I’ve given up on the “Genre” classification. I never know what to write.

Book: The Arm of the Starfish
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Original Publishing Date: 1965

You probably know Madeleine L’Engle best from A Wrinkle in Time, and that may well get blogged one of these days too; it’s an old favorite. This book actually has as minor characters Calvin O’Keefe and Meg Murray . . . although they’re adults, and married (yes, to each other), with a veritable stable of offspring. But they’re not the real focus of the book.

The main character, Adam Eddington, is another old favorite, mostly because of the next book down. In this one, he’s a sixteen-year-old student looking forward to a summer working for a famous marine biologist before heading off to college. Exciting? Yep. A huge chance to learn? You bet. Dangerous?

Oh yeah.

To poor Adam’s astonishment, he is tossed willy-nilly into a world of international intrigue that he has no clue how to deal with . . . except he has to, because from the moment he meets gorgeous Carolyn “Kali” Cutter in the airport, he’s in a game that doesn’t have a back door out. And he has to decide what side he’s on, because another thing this game doesn’t have is a fence to sit on.

This isn’t my favorite Madeleine book, because Adam’s initial waffling annoys me. Maybe it was because I know who the bad guys were right from the off. I don’t know if that’s because I knew them from another book, or if it’s just that obvious. But Adam is genuinely confused, and he genuinely does his best to work things out and do the right thing. He starts out the book feeling arrogantly grown-up and cosmopolitan, (he’s going to Berkeley after the summer; apparently a wunderkind. Cripes, remember when people could still do that?) and discovers in the course of the book, that being grown-up has way more duties and responsibilities than maybe anyone is prepared for. (Preach it, sistah Madeleine. This grown-up thing sucks.)

One last note: if you’re expecting more visits to Camazotz and tessering, forget about it. This is a book rooted firmly in our world, which is dangerous and terrifying enough for anybody.

Book: A Ring of Endless Light
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Original Publishing Date: 1980

This is a deeply special book to me, because whenever someone in my life dies, I re-read it to get a handle on death. Because that’s exactly what Vicky Austin, the main character, is struggling to do. The book starts out with the funeral for the sudden death of a family friend, and it goes from there. Vicky feels surrounded by death every day, from news of horrendous accidents in the paper to her own grandfather’s slow death of leukemia to a sorta-kinda-ex-flame who’s just attempted suicide. (More on Zachary Gray later.)

The huge story question--and it is a huge one--is, can Vicky come to understand and accept death, and still be able to celebrate life?

To really confuse her (like she wasn’t already), she’s suddenly got three guys to juggle. Leo, the son of the family friend who died, makes it pretty clear he wants to be more than a friend. Unfortunately for him, he’s nobody’s Prince Charming, least of all Vicky’s. She describes him as a basset hound at one point (not unkindly), and that pretty much sums it up. Then there’s Zachary Gray, who is sophisticated, gorgeous, and more than a little bipolar. As noted above, he’s recovering from an attempt at suicide, and over and over again tells Vicky that she’s the only thing keeping him wanting to live. Which is a horrible thing to tell anyone. And then there’s Adam Eddington, back again, one summer after the events of The Arm of the Starfish. On the outside, he seems way steadier than Zachary. But even he’s messed up in his own quiet way, still struggling with the events of the earlier book, and pushing Vicky away every time things start to get more than friendly.

The only place Vicky feels at peace and in control is with the dolphins. They’re Adam’s special project (marine biology, remember?) and he’s exploring human/dolphin communication. He recruits unscientific Vicky to help him out, and she succeeds beyond his wildest expectations--and hers. Playing and working with them, she’s able to forget about the confusion and difficulties in the rest of her life.

But death lurks in the background, and it’s not going to go away.

As noted above, this is a special book to me. Vicky’s romantic, poetic nature echoes my own in some ways, and her horror over death and struggle to fit it into life have helped me to come to terms with things in my own life. It’s not a typically plotted book--sometimes it seems to meander--but that’s because the story question is so amorphous and philosophical. It’s not a terribly light read. Sit down with this one for the first time.

Oh, and DO NOT--repeat, DO NOT--watch the horrible Disney adaptation. Quite aside from the fact that they have Mischa Barton as Vicky (arggh! Did they not read the book? Vicky is a normal girl!), they absolutely butchered the story. With a hacksaw. They made it about the dolphins. Jeezus christ!

And neither Adam nor Zachary are remotely as cute as they should be, unless you really go in for that middle-school look. Eurgh. Did they even read it???

Movie: O Brother Where Art Thou
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Original Release Date: 2000

I first wanted to watch this movie because it’s based on Homer’s Odyssey and I’m a gigantic dork. But I fell in love with its random humor, its fascinating sepia-toned photography that evokes the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, and most of all, the music. I’m still a bluegrass lover.

Slick-talkin’ Ulysses Everett McGill has four days to get to his family home before a flood washes away the treasure he’s got stashed. He takes with him his chain-mates, hard-edged Pete and sweet-hearted Delmar, and they bumble their way across 1930’s Mississippi, going through about fifteen cars, lots of money, and meeting some of the strangest people you’ll ever be privileged to view on screen, including a crew of white-sheeted Christians on their way to be saved in the river, another crew of white-sheeted Christians performing a lynch-mob, some “sy-renes” washing their scanties in a creek, a guitar player who’s sold his soul to the devil, and a one-eyed Bible salesman.

Joel and Ethan Coen use both the sepia photography and the bluegrass music to evoke the Great Depression. Unlike musicals, where the characters burst into song for no apparent reason, these characters (usually) have a fairly good and logical reason for gettin’ tuneful. Most if not all of the songs are traditional bluegrass spiritual songs (even “A Man of Constant Sorrow”, which I could have sworn had been written for this because it fits so well). As my friend and I reminded each other so often during the movie, don’t look for logic. Just go with the story, which creates its own logic.

By the way, how much do I love it that the only people Ulysses McGill can’t outtalk are his own wife and daughters?

Suggested drinking game: take a slug for every time you recognize a reference to the Odyssey, Homer, or the ancient world. Unless you’ve got a really hard head, you’ll be under the table by the time Ulysses refers to himself as “the damn paterfamilias.”

Wow! That's it for today, folks. I got books to read and movies to watch. And there's this rumor about homework . . . I'm hoping it turns out false.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Hellooooooooo everyone! I've been busy lately . . . started my graduate program, and am wading through roughly 1,296,088 pages of theoretical crud. This means I can't read as much good stuff, worthy of posting here. Also that I have no time or energy.

However, I promised myself that I would blog this book.

Book: Sunshine by Robin McKinley
Genre: Erm. Horror? Except . . . not.
Original Publishing Date: 2003 (fittingly enough, in October!)

I love Robin McKinley. She just writes whatever story comes out, and other people categorize it. She won the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown and an Honor for The Blue Sword. Her Spindle's End is my favorite ever version of Sleeping Beauty. But enough gushing over past books . . . let's have a look at this one.

Rae "Sunshine" Seddon thinks she has a pretty weird life. She gets up at four in the morning, gets home at insane hours, and all her friends come from one place. Don't get weirded out yet--she's no Queen of the Night, just the Queen of the Kitchen at her stepfather's coffee house. It's a life that works for her, though, so she's reasonably content.

Until the night the vampires got her.

No, actually, it wasn't so bad when the vampires got her. It was when she got away that she started to worry about herself. Because, you see, nobody gets away from vampires. And nobody--nobody--helps a vampire to do the same.

All of a sudden, Sunshine is hip-deep in a world of vampire gang wars, Special Other Forces (think demon police, and you won't be too far wrong), and the unsettling realization that magical abilities from her father's side and a possible drop of demon blood from her mother's are gonna make things really interesting for her from now on. Not to mention her strange connection to the vampire she saved, Constantine, who's reminescent of Buffy's Angel, only not as chatty. (Actually, there's a lot about this book that may remind you of Buffy. Heck, Amber Benson, who acted on the show for a couple of seasons, even wrote a rec for the cover!)

And there are still cinnamon rolls to be made at four in the morning.

McKinley sets her story in a sort of alternate Earth, where things that go bump in the night are very real, and very dangerous. She has a slight tendancy to go off on tangents whose story purpose I never did figure out, but I can ignore that for the atmosphere and the experience of R McK writing. She doesn't pull any punches when it comes to gory details, although she doesn't go overboard with them either. The end is unsettling, and more than a little pessimistic, but I still want to read it again.

Signing off now . . . happy reading!

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Hello, all my three readers! Do I even have that many? Ah well.

Just a movie for tonight, folks. It's late.

Movie: Kill Bill, Vol. 1
Genre: Drama? Comedy? Blood-splattering? Martial arts? Can't honestly say. Erm, okay, Action would be my best guess.
Original Release Date: 2003

I watched this last night on DVD, and I really liked it. Yes, 450 gallons of fake blood were used. Yes, there is a scene where she rips out a man’s tongue with her teeth. (Not shown, but implied, thankfully.) However, it’s also morbidly funny, beautiful to look at, and very powerfully written. Also, apparently, it’s jam-packed with homages to kung fu films that I’ve never seen, so that element was lost on me, but I still enjoyed it. Hard to pull off. The anime section especially was really neat.

I’ve seen one other Tarantino film, Pulp Fiction, and I found that I liked the same things in both--the characters, the plotting, and the visual style. So Tarantino has become an admired filmmaker for me.

I especially like the way Tarantino does characters. This could very easily have been just a gore-splatter-fest without any real element to keep us interested. However, he gives even the villains (the main ones she fights in this movie at any rate) a background and a fullness of character that I have to admire. The Bride skates close to the edge of being someone you hate, but there are a couple of moments that save her. Good thing, cuz it’s her story and there are precious few other characters to root for. (Buck who likes to f*ck? Or maybe the sheriff who calls her a c*cksucker as she lies mostly dead and beaten all to hell at his feet. Eh. Maybe we pull for the Bride because she’s the closest thing we have to a hero in the entire movie.)

The purity of her revenge quest reminds me of a Greek tragedy . . . the Oresteia coming to mind. That marvelously intellectual remark being made, I’ll say it wasn’t my idea. I read the liner notes. However, it rings true. The Bride has one aim in life, and one only--to make them pay. Not terribly complex, but powerful enough to pull us through the movie and bring us back to see “Kill Bill Vol. 2.”

Which I haven’t yet. I will.

Monday, August 02, 2004

This blog has been in the Blog Protection Program. Its name has been changed to protect the innocent.

Okay, I'm lying. The truth is, after I got home from England, the original purpose was pretty much hollowed out, and I had other things on my mind, like leaving home and spreading my wings. (Fly, my pretty! FLY!!) So now, my wings being spread wide and not having hit the ground yet (well, a couple of times, but I bounce real good) I decided to start this up again.

One of my favorite parts of the Bloody Yank blog was my Book of the Day. This should surprise no one who knows me; I was an English major and am studying to be a librarian. I just love a good book. Hell, I love a good story, period. So this blog will be a record of everything I read or watch.

My tastes are . . . eclectic. I read kiddie books all the way up to adult, but I'm kinda narrow where genres are concerned. Don't do the horror thing, for one. I watch very little TV, so you won't see much of that on here. I love a good movie, but I also love escapism, so you're probably not gonna see this year's Oscar contenders on here.

If you don't like what I'm reading or watching, bear in mind I'm not saying YOU have to read or watch it. I think you should, especially if you like the sound of it. But don't anybody flame me and say, "Why are you recommending this, it sounds so stupid." I'll smack you with a trout, then tell you to use proper punctuation. We all have different tastes.

That little caveat being noted, I shall proceed.

Book: Taming Natasha Nora Roberts
Genre: Romance
Original Publishing Date: 1990

I love Nora Roberts, and I love this book in particular. Part of it is nostalgia--I very clearly remember buying it at about the age of thirteen from a used-book store. Part of it is because it's just a damn fine story. Spence, a single father and music professor, and Natasha, an ex-dancer who now owns a toy store, feel the sparks from moment one, but the scars on their hearts from disastrous relationships make the trip a little bumpy. This is not a book with high external drama, though. The most hair-raising episode is probably a six-year-old with chicken pox--which is plenty hair-raising for her daddy. Near the end of the book, one character says something that rings true for the entire book. "With you it isn't dreams and knights and princes. With you, it's real and solid. Day-to-day. Ordinary--ordinary in the most beautiful way." Sigh!!

The original is somewhat hard to find, but they're churning out reprints of all Nora's old stuff like crazy. One of the reprints should be easy enough to find, probably packaged together with a related story.

Movie:A Night at the Opera
Genre: Comedy
Premiere Date: 1935

Yeah, buddy, it's the Marx brothers! Woohoo!

If you haven't experienced the random lunacy of the Marx Brothers yet, I'd start with A Night at the Opera. I did, about ten years ago, and I laughed as loudly then as I did last night. Duck Soup may be more famous, but for my money, ANatO is the better movie.

The plot is practically peripheral, but here goes. Rosa, an opera singer, performs opposite a real jerk (whose name is quite frankly not worth remembering), when she would rather be singing with Ricardo. (If she's smart, she's doing more than singing--Allen Jones, who plays Ricardo, is not hard on the eyes.) But how to replace the jerk with the hunk? That's the plot in a nutshell.

Wait, who do the Marx Brothers play? Basically themselves. Groucho is a wheeling, dealing con man who wangles the deal to get Ricardo onstage opposite Rosa, and Chico and Harpo are the two bumbling helpers. Don't worry about the plot holes. They're basically there for the Marx Brothers to drive through.

Favorite bits: the stateroom skit, wherein fifteen people fit in a "stateroom" the approximate size of a flea's studio apartment, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the middle of Verdi, complete with peanut vendor, and the contract scene.

Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho): It's all right, that's in every contract. that's what they call a sanity clause.

Firoello (Chico): Ha ha ha ha ha ha... you can't fool me. There ain't no Sanity Clause.

That's it for tonight, chickies!