Vulcan’s Peak

Archive for the 'books' category

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.

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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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.

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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.

Good bookwormy television

January 17, 2009 1:53 pm

Looks to me that Masterpiece Theater is going to be good for the foreseeable future.

They’ve been doing Tess of the D’Urbervilles the last two weeks, which I missed, though apparently they’re now putting the episodes online, in a limited-time-only kind of way.  So that one is still available, though it’s also four hours long.  I read Tess a few years ago, in the quiet evenings of my summer in New Hampshire.  I remember being captivated by it, and then somewhat frustrated by the ending.

This week and next are Wuthering Heights (clocking in at a total of a mere two and a half hours).  That was one of my big reads this summer, so I’m interested to see what they did with it.  I’m a little confused about how the book makes it onto lists of “greatest love stories of all time” when the main characters seem to resist all attempts at being made likable.  He’s a brute, she’s neurotic, everyone’s miserable.  Amusingly, in some ways it was the inverse of Tess, in that I liked the way it ended.

After that, MT is running the Sense and Sensibility that they used as part of the Jane Austen love fest of last year.  My preferred adaptation is still the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet one, but this one’s good too.

And we’re getting Dickens adaptations for the rest of the spring!  Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and The Old Curiosity Shop.  I’ve seen Oliver! (the movie musical) and I’ve been to the “Old Curiosity Shop,” but otherwise this is all new to me.

Looks like when the show turns back into Mystery! for the summer, we’re getting a few more Miss Marple stories, too.  I always enjoy those — the little old lady sleuth is so delightfully unexpected.

Catching up

January 14, 2009 4:56 pm

Well, a happy new year to you all!  Pug and I were fortunate in that we were able to spend a nice long time at home over the holidays and got to spend time with many of you!  (…she says, having only a vague idea of who might actually be reading this.)  And having been sufficiently poked about having not posted here since Halloween, here we go again!

It’s sunny and gorgeous here in the lovely southwest — cool enough to pull out jackets and maybe some sweaters, but warm enough to enjoy the outdoors.  This is great.  I love cute jackets.

Since late September, I’ve had a freelance writing/editing gig going with a company that produces vacation planning materials.  I’m still hoping for a local, full-time publishing niche to open up, but having this for the time being is very nice.  It keeps me from sitting here bored, it keeps me from getting rusty, and of course the pay is appreciated as well.

Wedding planning is moving along smoothly.  In addition to the ceremony location and the reception location, we now also have a minister and a pair of classical guitarists to play at the ceremony.  I have my dress, shoes, and veil in my closet, and Poke even has her bridesmaid dress.  (We settled on a shade of burgundy that the dressmaker decided to call “wine.”  It’s pretty.)  Next up are tux rentals and invitations, and after that, we’ll get to flowers and cake.

Pug and I are continuing our leisurely re-watch of the ever genius Babylon 5, in which we’re ready to start season 3.  We’ve also been watching the season 1 DVDs of The Big Bang Theory, which were a Christmas gift — his parents’ way of insisting that he really would enjoy it (and, of course, he does).  And one of these days I’m going to get him caught up on the current season of How I Met Your Mother.  I’m not usually much for sitcoms, but those two I like a lot.

Speaking of which, I have been “moonlighting on another blog,” as Courtney sneakily pointed out on my last post.  Courtney, my Boston roommate, has been keeping a TV review blog called Raked for about a year and a half, and I sometimes get in on the fun through ridiculously long comments on the Heroes posts and guest-blogging about How I Met Your Mother.  We enjoy it, and apparently other people out there read it too!  Amazing. I don’t use the same handles I use here, but you’d recognize me.

On the literary front, once I finished the pile of various vampire books, I moved into a category of “other people’s extra copies” — many thanks to the generosity of my friends!  I finally went back to Dune, which I  started (barely) months ago, read on the plane at Christmas time, and finally finished shortly after getting back.  It’s a neat book and I enjoyed it a great deal, but the story didn’t really start to move for me until Stilgar and his group find Paul and Jessica in the desert.  From there to the end, I was hooked.   I would ask those of you who’ve read the book, though: is it just my preference for micro over macro, or did you find Herbert’s descriptions of hand-to-hand combat more effective than his large battle scenes?  It was clear to me from the first description of training exercises in the early chapters that Herbert could write a duel, and I thought the later, higher stakes ones were captivating. Regardless, I enjoyed the subtle machinations throughout, and was very impressed by the …unique-ness of the world Herbert created.

After Dune, I flew through The Eyre Affair, a book-lover’s sci-fi mystery madness, if there ever was one!  Set in the England of an alternate universe in which the Crimean War has lasted over 130 years and French revisionists seem to be altering not just the history but the actual past, a woman named Thursday Next works for a branch of detectives who solve literary crimes and briefly gets trapped inside the story of Jane Eyre.  Hilariously good fun! I figured out the parallel between an aspect of Thursday’s life and of Jane’s well before Thursday did, which I enjoyed.  Perhaps the only weak spot in the book is that the bad guys (an unsophisticated term, but utterly appropriate) are far less intersting than the good guys.

My next read is Bleak House, by Dickens, because January seems the right time of year to read it.  (I intended to last year, but there was the whole grad school plus full-time job madness going on at the time.)  I picked up a second-hand copy a couple of years ago and it’s been calling to me to read it…  I haven’t read any Dickens except for picking up A Tale of Two Cities in high school (I’ve never even actually read A Christmas Carol) so it’s high time I started filling in some of those gaps.

Happy Halloween

October 31, 2008 7:22 pm

It’s a quiet one for me this year.  We carved pumpkins last weekend with Pug’s brother and sister-in-law, but our jacks were unceremoniously moved outside Wednesday morning when I noticed that they were leaning a little more than they had been.  Pug’s now looks like it’s melting! — so it’s off to the dumpster with them in the morning.

So the plan is to hand out candy — assuming we get trick-or-treaters, which we haven’t so far, but it’s possible — and read vampire books.  Which I seem to be reading a lot of lately — and some very different vampire books at that.

After a conversation at lunch several weeks ago, my almost-brother-in-law loaned me the first two of Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books (of which I’ve so far read one).  Hamilton knows how to spin a story and how to write action, so it’s a fast read.  She tries to keep it very dark and noir-ish — large quantities of world-weary sarcasm — which would start to weigh on you except that the book moves so quickly.  Her real strength is how she handles the basic premise: that vampires and other undead are not only accepted as real, but have been granted citizenship.  It’s a clever reason for a police liaison to be tangled up in vampire business, and she makes the legal detail move the plot forward.

I hadn’t really planned to, but I’ve also started reading Twilight after A. found my weakness by using the line “I’d be interested to hear what you think.”  (She was reading it because a friend at work was enjoying them, and was curious about what sort of vampire book it could be, given who the author is and who had recommended it to her.)  I’m almost 400 pages in and I’ve finally found something resembling a plot (of the “run, the baddies are chasing us!” variety).  Teen romance is not usually my cup of tea (and undoubtedly IS where this book should be shelved), and this is, I’m afraid, no exception.  Also, Meyer needed a better editor (as evidenced by 375 pages of plotlessness and flimsy character development).  I thought Little, Brown was a decent house, but now I wonder if I should get to work, because I could totally write this book.  And whatever talents I may hope to have, that’s not really a good thing.

To round out this assortment of books with fangs, my former roommate, C., and I are attempting to continue our long-distance book club by reading Dracula.  I’ve read it before via the DracuBlog, which isn’t actually running this year, but for the past several years a Drac fan has undertaken to blog the novel — which is written as letters, diary entries, etc. — chronologically.  Partly it’s just just fun, but it also really gives you a sense of the time in which things happen (you check the blog and — geez, is Jonathan Harker still in Transylvania?).  It’s interesting to me to read the book as Bram Stoker arranged it, though, because at least in one instance, the action isn’t chronological:  for the first four chapters all you get is Harker writing his diary in Transylvania.  After that, Stoker takes you back to England and you catch up on what other characters have been doing during his absence, and you really do get a sense of the world having opened up — a contrast between the isolation of rural Transylvania and the more cosmopolitan West.

Happy hauntings to you all!

Rapidly aging nerd news

August 31, 2008 5:30 pm

That’s the news doing the rapid aging, not the nerds, in case you were wondering.

Harry Potter is also aging, though — the first book came out in the States ten years ago this September.  To wring a few more rubles out of the franchise celebrate, Scholastic is issuing an anniversary edition with a new cover.

UK bookstore Waterstones has been putting together a book of stories so short, they can fit on a large index card.  Most entries, apparently were gathered through a competition, but they also invited entries from well-known authors — including J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Tom Stoppard, and Margaret Atwood.  The JKR card was a snippet of a story about James and Sirius.  As the original has now been sold (proceeds to charity) for massive amounts of money, you can read the text here.

Warner Bros. continues to be over-protective of HP.  Seriously, guys.

Another story with castles (but no wizards):  California man from the Netherlands builds his own.