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Movie review: Dracula (1931)

November 6, 2009 2:41 pm

dracula1931posterWe don’t get trick-or-treaters here at the apartment, so we had another quiet Halloween at Casa de Pug. I wanted to do something in the spirit of the evening but I don’t generally care for thrillers or horror movies, so what we wound up renting was the 1931 Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi.

Pop culture is such a weird beast. It’s hard to begin to list the places where I might have heard or seen bits of this film. (A print in a catalog? A clip in a PBS documentary?) But somehow Dracula says “Children of the night — what music they make,” and you know it’s a famous line, an iconic delivery. The vampire seductresses come in through the mist in their trailing white gowns and shot is inescapably familiar. I was surprised by how many tiny moments like that the film held.

On the other hand, other things caught me entirely by surprise, despite knowing the book fairly well. Who would guess that Harker and Renfield could be conflated like that? (Anyone, obviously, who’s seen the movie in the seventy-plus years since it was made, yes.) That amused me quite a bit, as it’s a thoroughly pragmatic move. No need for Harker’s long captivity, escape, and illness, and the audience is already clued in to what’s going on with Renfield. On the other hand, it leaves movie-Harker a flimsy, two-dimensional character who has nothing to do but pick fights with Dr. Seward as they try to protect Mina — here, Seward’s daughter, as the Hollywood broom sweeps away subplots and minor characters.

Mina’s transformation from book to movie is even more sweeping. A character Van Helsing praises as the paragon of womanhood becomes a petulant girl who can’t be reasoned with. That was easily my least favorite aspect of the movie, and I’m tempted to tag it as a very early-Hollywood sort of move, but I don’t begin to have the data to support that. I know that the complete lack of incidental music is typical of the period, though. Interesting how that changes the pace of a film! Without it, scenes with little dialogue seem rather slower.

It doesn’t seem fair to make fun of special effects from the ’30s, but I have to admit that we did chuckle at their giant bat flapping on the end of its string. It made me think of the Count’s bats on Sesame Street. One bat! Two bats! Three bats, ah-ah-ah-ah! On the other hand, I love what you can do with mist and shadow on black and white film — so evocative, so pleasantly creepy. Where scenes between the human characters often tended toward high camp, the vampires were fabulous. Vamps belong in a world of black and white, I think.

Book log: Prisoner of Trebekistan and
The Thirteenth Tale

November 2, 2009 10:10 pm

At first glance, a more unlikely pair of re-reads would be hard to find.

The Thirteenth Tale is very much a reader’s story, a book for people who love books — and in this case, old books in particular.  It’s the sort of tale in which you know your heroes by how much they love to read.  The narrator, Margaret Lea, lives above the antiquarian bookstore that she and her father run.  An amateur biographer, she is prevailed upon to write the life story of a famous novelist called Vida Winter.

trebekistanPrisoner of Trebekistan, as the cover makes immediately clear, is about Jeopardy.  And while it includes a range of tips and tricks for memorizing anything from books by Daniel Defoe to Secretaries General of the U.N., it’s more a memoir than anything else.  Bob Harris writes about the role Jeopardy has played in his life and the games he has played on the show.  But in between “Who is Henry James?” and “What is Avignon?” Trebekistan develops into a book about Harris’s life and the people in it, the joy of learning and how full the world is of unexpected connections.

That’s what he means by Trebekistan, actually: a wold view that sees how bits of seeming trivia connect because of a shared location or time in history or an unexpected acquaintance between two famous dead people.  It’s Six Degrees of Separation played with a liberal arts curriculum.  And if that starts to sound a little weighty, let me tell you that Harris is a comedian.  This one I borrowed it from my brother in September and read it on the plane.  It’s been sitting on my desk since then, so inevitably I picked it back up.  I’ve skimmed some of the memory trick paragraphs this time, but otherwise it’s entirely re-readable.  This is a clever, funny, heartwarming book.

Perhaps it was Trebekistan‘s light cheerfulness that sent me back to the shelf for The Thirteenth Tale.  With Halloween approaching I felt the need for a book of ghost stories, or perhaps Dad’s collection of classic tales of suspense.  Short of Hamlet and Nearly Headless Nick, I didn’t see any ghosts in our bookcases, but I did remember that The Thirteenth Tale was full of an atmospheric creepiness.  Vida Winter’s bizarre biography contains obsession, madness, and an understaffed Gothic mansion in which a few survivors rattle around — possibly with the company of a ghost.  Intent on proving that the unreliable Miss Winter is telling the truth, Margaret delves into these mysteries while also trying to reconcile her own personal tragedy.  As it takes place in November and December, the setting is very bleak midwinter-y and it made a great read for a quiet Halloween weekend.  Better still, since I’d read it only once, a couple of years ago, I didn’t remember all of the plot twists — but it would have been worth re-reading even if I had, as the prose is just beautiful.

The point of comparison that jumped out after reading these books at the same time was the way they deal with the passage of time, foreshadowing, and generally jumping ahead of the story.  Harris makes an art of jumping from his story to his childhood to his present self, writing in a coffee shop, to a mention of something later in the story.  “But I’m getting ahead of myself,” he says, carefully parceling out just enough to leave a few hints.  He introduces his friends before he meets them, sometimes, noting that they’ll become important later on.  Sometimes an anecdote that happened later the perfect introduction to something the reader ought to know sooner (what to call the buzzer is a particularly good one).  And eventually he lets us know that we’re at last getting very close to meeting his very best friend properly, someone he’s mentioned off and on since page 21.  It’s a handy device for a memoirist to have in his pocket, and Harris is conscious enough of it to turn jokes around it.  It’s fun, and it’s exactly the sort of thing Vida Winter doesn’t want anything to do with in The Thirteenth Tale.

A dying woman haunted by her past, Miss Winter wants to tell her story straight through, from beginning to end.  Margaret agrees, but insists on first getting three facts she can check through public records, something to insure that Miss Winters isn’t giving her the sort of fairy tale biography she gave reporters throughout her career.  And of course it’s in the checking of those facts that Margaret gets the  hints that help her piece together what Vida Winters isn’t telling her, and even what Vida Winter doesn’t know.

And if The Thirteenth Tale is haunted, then Trebekistan contains an Easter Egg hunt — with the slight irony that Harris jokes about being unable to slip a DVD-style Easter Egg into a book, yet after a fashion, that’s exactly what he does.

From her first appearance on page 21, Harris drops hints about the woman he refers to simply as Jane.  Jobs she once held, shows she used to write for.  The Hugo she won.  And when he introduces her properly, Whedon fans will have no trouble figuring out exactly who she is, why I discovered this book through a blog I used to read, and by extension why there’s a blurb from Joss on the back cover.

Book log: On Agate Hill

August 11, 2009 6:11 pm

OnAgateHill Here’s one of my crazy ideas about books. Some books grab you by the throat and say “Read me NOW!” But other books simply eye you and say, “I would be the perfect read for June.” Or October. Or January.

January — that was Bleak House, although it wasn’t wholly accurate. Lots of the book takes place in summer, on sunny country estates. But then, Arizona Januarys aren’t known for being dark or frigid, and at any rate, Dickens can be counted on to plunge back into the London fog sooner or later.

On Agate Hill gave me a lazy glance and said “August.” I can’t really explain why, to be honest.

Regardless, it’s August now, and the book is fantastic. If you like Civil War-era history, or historical fiction about strong women, or stories told in letters and diary entries, I recommend On Agate Hill.

The book follows the life of Molly Petree, an observant, stubborn, spitfire kind of woman. We meet her as an orphan living on a dying plantation in the middle of Reconstruction. In her young memory, as many of the estate’s inhabitants have died or left Agate Hill as are still living there, and, feeling that she doesn’t really belong anywhere in the picture, she thinks of herself as a sort of ghost, too.

One of the things that comes across in Molly’s diary of this period is how severely the old social system of the South has gotten shaken up. It isn’t something she talks about directly, it’s there all the same. As one example, the marriage of convenience between a working class tenant woman and her Uncle Junius, who owns the plantation, is developed at length and illustrates the point nicely.

When she gets a little older, Molly becomes determined not to be a ghost during her own lifetime, an idea that she carries for the rest of the book. She remains vibrant, a force for life, despite the prevalence of death throughout the book.

Lee Smith is an author I hadn’t been familiar with, but she’s one I’ll look for in future. Her writing is beautiful, and none of her handful of narrators could possibly be mistaken for any of the others. That always impresses me.

Her neatest trick, though, is to present the story as found history, and she’s very deliberate about including only documents that can be accounted for through her frame story. It’s very minimal, as frame stories go, only a handful of short letters, but they account for everything else.

Except, that is, for when they don’t: Lee Smith deliberately leaves holes. What ever happened to Mary White? What darkness lurked in Mariah Snow’s past? What did she write on the page she tore out of her journal? What happened to the Snow children, and who shot the first bullet? The reader learns enough to make guesses, but as with real historical records, some things can’t be proved. Perhaps we don’t have any more letters from Mary White because she died, but perhaps those letters just weren’t saved, or burnt up in the fire, or perhaps, they’re waiting: still hidden in someone’s attic.

Movie review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

August 2, 2009 1:42 am

hp6-posterBy the time I saw the latest Harry Potter flick last weekend, I had already heard mutters of disappointment from various friends and other reviewers, so I went in forewarned and had a good time. But the mutters were right: Like the previous Potter movies, this one moved retained the least possible amount of detail in order to tell the story. Not only were some favorite scenes cut, but it was only several days later before I remembered that yes, some of those moments were from this book.

What I’m really referring to is Harry’s chat with new Minister of Magic Rufus Scrimgeour, in which he calmly gets to the heart of what Scrimgeour is slyly asking for, responding that he is “Dumbledore’s man, through and through.” (It’s a very adult moment, especially compared to the throes of teenage angst we see in the previous book.)

The gradual development of wizard politics throughout the book is a strength of Rowling’s storytelling. The reader’s understanding of what’s going on outside Hogwarts follows that of Harry and his friends as they begin to pay closer attention to politics — which I think is an honest depiction of being a teenager. But like many subplots, wizard politics don’t show up on the big screen.

Half-Blood Prince sticks to the bare bones of the Dumbledore plot, the Draco acting suspiciously plot, and the romance plot; one we see pretty much in full, one is severely cut, and one is actually expanded past what we get in the book.

Not surprisingly (since it involves a great deal of exposition), Harry and Dumbledore’s exploration of Voldemort’s past gets chopped down to two memories: the one at the orphanage that was in all the previews, and the vital but edited memory of Slughorn’s. I also say “not surprisingly” because many of their other excursions down memory lane serve not to further the plot of this book so much as to set up the next one: what sort of objects would Voldemort turn into Horcruxes? Presumably this knowledge will be hand-wavingly imparted to our protagonists in the next movie.

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Book log: Pride and Prejudice… and Zombies

June 20, 2009 12:34 pm


Pride and Prejudice
and Zombies

by Jane Austen
and Seth Grahame-Smith

Even the cover design reflects Grahame-Smith’s general method. The copyright page attributes the portrait of a young lady to the Bridgeman Art Library, but also credits the book designer for “cover zombification.”

Clearly, the cut-throat marriage market of Regency England needed more literal throat cutting.

As the book’s first line now reads, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”  And so it goes.  Seth Grahame-Smith (author of several odd-looking books — seriously, check Amazon) has opened Jane Austen’s text and brought in an army of the undead.  Ever wondered why Netherfield was vacant in the first place and ready for Mr. Bingley to move in?  Zombies.  Obviously.

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Book log: Of Harps and Rings

June 13, 2009 1:16 pm

Wrede-harp Here’s the disclaimer, folks:  this is me blathering about a couple of lesser-known books by one of my long-time favorite fantasy authors.  I first picked up some of Patricia C. Wrede’s books some time in middle school, and have been lending them to all my friends ever since.  (Seriously.  Was there anyone who didn’t borrow the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in high school?)  Hell, as Carmen can tell you, I even made friends through those books.  That makes them magic.  I also adore her Regency-England-but-with-magic books.  As far as I’m concerned, Wrede is one of the masters of YA fantasy.  (And as long as it’s well-written, I see no reason ever to grow out of YA books entirely.)

Wrede-ringSome of Wrede’s earliest books are set in a secondary world called Lyra, and it’s two of these that have been hanging out on my shelf for a few years now:  The Harp of Imach Thyssel and The Raven Ring.  For whatever reason, I hadn’t read them until last week — or at least, I hadn’t read Harp.  I think Elf also has a copy of Ring and let me borrow it once in high school, but I remembered only the barest shadow of the story.  Like the cereal ad used to say, taste it again, for the first time.  (Ahh, brain sludge.)

Although the two books share the same fantasy world, each stands completely on its own, set in different parts of the world and with no characters in common.  They’re also separated by almost ten years of real world time (during which Wrede was writing many of the books we all enjoyed).  If you read them back to back, it’s easy to see how much Wrede improves as a writer between Harp (1985) and Ring (1994).

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Movie review: Watchmen

June 5, 2009 12:23 am

watchmen_posterPug and I discovered this week that we have a dollar theater across the street.  (For a loose definition of “across the street,” but you know, whatever.)  It’s in the same complex as our neighborhood Target and a former mall that’s now a private school (yes, weird).  For months, we’ve been driving past the sign for this place, but all it ever tells us is that Rocky Horror Picture Show is playing Saturday evening.

But Pug ran across the theater’s web site earlier this week, and sure enough, they’re a second-run theater, and they play all sorts of things beyond Rocky Horror.  And this week they were playing Watchmen, which we hadn’t seen yet, so we went.

The theater is an empty place on a Tuesday night, the lobby dark and cavernous.  Walls plastered up and down with old movie posters.  You could have a long game of “I spy the poster for such-and-so” in that lobby.  You’d be sitting on fat red sofas and armchairs scattered around the lobby, or maybe perched on the stairs leading up to… the projection rooms, I assume.  I don’t know why the staircase was in the middle of the lobby.  There were signs apologizing for air conditioning problems in some of the theaters — from the fan in the back of ours, we assumed we were in one of the afflicted rooms.  But there were few enough people there, it didn’t even get unpleasant.

And the movie itself?  Read on…

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Movie review: Star Trek
(or, What’s old is new again)

May 8, 2009 2:43 pm

startrek-poster Pug and I went to see the new Star Trek movie last night, and I am declaring it a Good One.

And I’d say the Trek community was overdue for a Good One, so thank you, Great Bird of the Galaxy.

My biggest worry about this film was that the characters would seem like strangers.  That it wouldn’t feel like Star Trek and that the whole effect would be laughable.  But while there were a few moments when my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little far (space diving?  magic unfolding sword?), on the whole, I couldn’t be more pleased.

All our old friends were recognizable, despite having new faces, and they acted and spoke the way one expected them to.  Kirk is a reckless adventurer.  Spock is logical, conflicted, and is quickly developing a martyr complex.  McCoy doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with space travel.  And so forth.  The instant – but not unconditional – bond between Kirk and McCoy worked, and the gradual development of their relationship with Spock unfolded well.  None of it, mind you, quite the way I pictured it, but it worked and was consistent with the characters, and I liked it.

And I always love it when the other recurring characters get to come out of the shadows a bit.  Uhura got to show her chops at xenolinguistics.  Chekov has apparently become a boy genius – not too much of a stretch, since in the original series, he sometimes fills in for Spock at the science station.  (Although… I do want to know what a seventeen-year-old who isn’t Wesley Crusher is doing on the bridge of a starship.)  And Simon Pegg’s Scotty was a lot of fun, though I had trouble looking at him and thinking “Scotty” instead of “Simon Pegg.”

Some of the accents were a little… interesting.  Simon Pegg and Anton Yelchin probably had more authentic accents as Scotty and Chekov than their predecessors ever did, and though Chekov’s was a little strong, I thought the effect was charming.  McCoy’s accent seemed to come and go and never sounded quite right to me, but given that Karl Urban is a New Zealander, and was otherwise wonderful, I’m willing to give that a pass.

For those who would prefer to avoid spoilers, I’ll hide everything else behind the cut, but I do recommend reviews of the film from NPR and the New York Times, neither of which give away anything you won’t have gleaned from the trailers already.

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The Ides of March, remember?

March 15, 2009 5:09 pm

Remember March, the Ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?
What villain touch’d his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What! shall one of us,
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers,–shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes
And sell the mighty space of our large honours
For so much trash as may be grasped thus?
I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,
Than such a Roman.

– Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, IV iii

Hope you all had a pleasant Pi Day yesterday!  Real news coming soon-ish someday.

News, thoughts, and updates

February 2, 2009 9:37 pm

The biggest news of the day is that Pug’s sister-in-law gave birth this morning to a baby boy who, coincidentally, is going to share a first name with my youngest brother.  We got to go visit this evening and hold the baby!  Everyone is doing fine, and the baby is beautiful.

*          *          *

Pug and I spent Saturday putting wedding invitations together.  Short of making the paper (haha) we’ve done pretty much everything ourselves.  I designed everything (becaue I have InDesign and I know how to use it!), and though we were going to have things printed at Kinko’s, that didn’t pan out.  Their straight-through black and white printers aren’t able to handle half-sheet size paper.  The color printer could, funnily enough, but then you have to pay color prices (i.e., five times as much), when you’re just using black.  Which is ridiculous.

So rather than doing the research to find other print shops, we decided we could handle them ourselves.  The only issue was that, since we don’t have a straight-through printer, the sheets came out with a decided curl, but that’s nothing a bit of ironing can’t solve.  Um, yes, you read that correctly.  We ironed our invitations.  Hey, whatever works, right?  We set up our little assembly line, Pug printed return address labels while I addressed envelopes, and it all got done with a quickness.  They’ll go in the mail on Tuesday.  And after sitting in the envelopes for a couple days, they’re actually lying quite flat.  Ha-ha!

*          *          *

I’ve decided that the easiest way to handle Poke’s and my allergies with regard to wedding cake is what I call the Two Cake Solution (sort of like the two state solution, but less fighting and more sugar).  We’ll get a big, traditional wedding cake for our guests (Pug gets to be Chief Cake Taster, obviously), and I’m going to make a smaller, allergy-safe cake for those of us who need it (and anyone else who wants to snag a slice). Obviously, this creates the very important decision of finding the right cake recipe.  And obviously, this creates the absolute necessity of trying a variety of recipes.  Which obviously leads to eating cake.  Oh darn. Brides are supposed to obsess about dieting, you say?  Psssh.  Silly you.

Thus far, my two attempts have been tasty, but not winners, but I have high hopes for Number Three.  And if they start coming out pretty, I might even take pictures.  I haven’t yet bought proper cake pans with removable bottoms, so getting the cakes out of the pans has so far been a bit of a mess.

*          *          *

I’m about three-quarters of the way through Bleak House, and I’ve been enjoying it.  I recommend it so far, but know that it isn’t a book where things happen quickly.  It’s a book that brings you into its world, shows you around, introduces you to a wide variety of people, brings them together in different groupings, and lets you see what happens.  A leisurely, a few chapters here, a few chapters there, a few pages before bed sort of a read.