1.25.2009

The Wounded Hawk, by Sara Douglass

The Wounded Hawk
The Wounded Hawk
The Wounded Hawk is the sequel to The Nameless Day. Unlike most middle books in a trilogy, this one has it's own plot. It doesn't read like it's the first half of the last book; it does have an end. This book continues the story of Thomas Neville, former Dominican friar and now secretary to Hal Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). Thomas is still overcoming his training as a Church man and coming to grips with the idea that maybe the way things are aren't all they're cracked up to be, and that there is a better way of doing things, even if it means rejecting the Catholic church. I can see the Renaissance and humanism starting to develop. And, again, Douglass does a fantastic job of putting you in this medieval world and making it make sense.

In this book, Thomas helps to overthrow Richard II and establish Henry as king. He also realize the truth about the demons and angels, that the demons are the children of the angels and that he (Thomas) has been lied to for most of his quest. He also discovers that not is his wife one of these angel children, but so is Henry. And so was Christ. Remarkably, considering his behavior during the first book, Thomas only broods on this for a little while. Instead, he decides that the angel who started him on his quest was wrong. The problem is that he's not too sure of the alternative: Henry and his band of brothers introducing science and secularism, new freedoms for the lower class, essentially the beginnings of the best parts of the Renaissance. Of course, I'm all for the science and secularism and sometimes, I really want to smack Thomas around make him see sense.

At least Thomas starts to realize that woman are not cesspits of sin waiting to happen. (Sure, Eve ate the apple first, but Adam decided to have a nibble as well.) One of my favorite parts in the book is when Thomas finally gets his hands on de Worde's casket (de Worde was Thomas's predecessor in the whole angels versus demons war), and reads de Worde's thoughts about women, he is utterly disgusted. Not only that, but he's ashamed of himself for once having similar thoughts. This whole women as temptress thing was one of the hardest things about the medieval mindset for me to get my head around. Blaming women for being so tempting that men can't be expected to control themselves strikes me as spiteful and stupid. I'm not a child of the 60s and I was too young (actually not yet born) for women's lib. But I've grown up with the benefits of what women's lib achieved. In my mind, women should be legally and socially equal to men.

I have started the next book, The Crippled Angel, but I think I need to take a little break. A lot of the beginning of Angel is meant to catch people up. So, I need to forget some plot details before I start again.

1.17.2009

Sundance 2009

There won’t be a book review this Sunday as usual, because I wasn’t able to actually finish a book this week. One of the reasons is the fact that I spent 18 hours at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday. It was an absolutely fantastic day, even if I did have to get up at 6:00 AM and didn’t get home until after 1:00 in the morning. I went with the Media Librarian at the university I work at, and I’m sure my Sundance trip would not have been as fun without her.

So, here’s what I did on Friday:

Got up very early in the morning to get to Park City around 8:00, when the main box office opened. We already had tickets to three movies that day, but we were hoping to see more. (Who wouldn’t?) The line was absolutely huge, and we decided that we’d just go see the movies we had tickets for rather than queue for a very long time in the hopes that the shows we wanted to see weren’t sold out. We hopped on one of the city buses—there were buses all over the place—and rode out to our first show: Mary and Max.

Mary and Max is an Australian claymation feature, created by an Academy Award winning animator. (He won for an animated short. So now I can say that I’ve been in the same room as an Oscar winner. Granted it was a 1500 seat auditorium, but that’s not the point.) A lot of people, myself included, often think that animated films are for kids. This one is not. It’s about psychology, coping with Asbergers and anxiety, self-esteem, suicide, life, and alcoholism. Mary is an Australian girl who, out of curiosity, writes to an American at random to ask where babies come from in America. (She’s been told that, in Australia, babies are found at the bottom of beer glasses.) Max is a New Yorker who has Asbergers. Since the film is set in the mid-1970s, his condition is not yet recognized. As the story progresses, Mary and Max learn from each other. It’s a story that you can’t predict. I love those, because so often when I watch a movie, I know where it’s going to go. There aren’t many (if any) surprises. Very enjoyable movie. I think it’ll come up at Oscar time.

After Mary and Max, we had a lot of time to kill. So we spent the time wandering around Park City. We had a good lunch at Spencer’s Grill. (Burger good, fries kind of crappy). We looked at the hilariously overpriced objets d’artes in the many, many galleries. We visited a combination bookstore and chocolate shop that had a friendly store cat.At mid-afternoon, we headed over to watch our second movie of the day: Toe to Toe.

Toe to Toe wasn’t on my list of movies that I wanted to see. I saw lacrosse in the film description and thought, eh. But I’m glad I got to go. Lacrosse was incidental to the story. Toe to Toe is, according to the writer/director Emily Abt, a race film. A black student who is working very, very hard to get a scholarship to Princeton attends an, I assume, private school in a rich area in or around Baltimore. (The movie is a little fuzzy on the details.) During lacrosse tryouts, Tosha meets a white girl named Jessie, who decides that Tosha will be her new friend. When she goes home, Tosha rides the bus into a bad neighborhood in Baltimore, where she is frequently harassed by a group of black teens. We get to see her family—a mother who works the graveyard shift and is kind of absent from her daughter’s life, a brother who has a young daughter and no job, and a grandmother who is always pushing Tosha towards Princeton.

Jessie, the other main character, is, at first glance, your average spoiled little rich girl who lives in a lovely, huge, empty home. Her mother is frequently criss-crossing the globe to attend humanitarian and economic conferences. The maid, Fadima, proves Jessie with meals and affection. Jessie treats her like a combination of friend and substitute mother. As I watched this movie, I could clearly see the racial themes that Abt wanted to discuss, but this really struck me as a gender film and I was much more interested in what Abt was saying about the roles that the females in the movie were portraying. Jessie is revealed to be the class wild child and slut. Tosha is a virginal over-achiever. Tosha’s grandmother is the proud black woman who, in the end, wants to reclaim the word bitch the way some people want to reclaim the n word. We’re also given three different visions of what it can mean to be mother. (The third is the mother of Tosha’s niece.) The men in the movie are not very well fleshed out except for Rashid, an aspiring dj who is attracted to Tosha but who sleeps with Jessie. He claims to be a good Muslim boy, but when he’s away from his family, he conveniently forgets that Islam prohibits drinking alcohol and sleeping with a girl who isn’t your wife.

After the movie, Abt and the major actors went up on stage for a Q and A. I got to ask a question about the prominence of the gender issues in the movie, and Abt answered that she was more interested in race than gender when she wrote it. There are a lot of things that I liked about this movie. The dialog was superb—nothing felt forced, the lines rang true. The story was absolutely believable. Abt neatly avoided a lot of stereotypes with subtlety. It’s a bold, wonderful movie, and I hope it finds a distributor.

After Toe to Toe, we had some time to kill, so we headed back to Main Street and scouted out a good place for dinner. We went to the Wasatch Brew Pub, where they make Polygamy Porter. I tried out a raspberry wheat beer (tasty) and a brat with sauerkraut and strong Polygamy Porter brown mustard (a spicy sinus clearer). Good food. If I go back to Park City, I will definitely go to that pub again. We had a nice long dinner, and headed back out to Main again. We visited the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory to pick up some truffles and things. Since we were going to meet some people up at the movie, we headed back towards one of the many bus stops. I had a lot of fun crowd watching, trying to guess who was really somebody and who just though they were. There were a bunch of odd type there, too. For some reason, there were some guys outside a store who had hawks and falcons they actually used to hunt things.  Petting one of the falcons (I think it was a prairie falcon) was a highlight of the day.

The last movie we saw was Rudo y Cursi, which starred Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and was written and directed by Carlos Cuaron. This was the high point of the day because Bernal, Carlos and Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo del Toro were there to introduce the “bittersweet comedy,” which was making its international debut. All day we sat in the front left corner of the theater, which meant that we had really good views of the people up on stage. It also meant that we were in front of the reserved section, where the famous people and special pass holders sat. I swear I saw Anna Wintour sitting back there. If it wasn’t her, Wintour has a doppelganger.

Rudo (Tough/Rude) y Cursi (Corny/Sweet) is about two brothers, played by Luna and Bernal, respectively, who are spotted by a talent scout while playing soccer. It’s a story about sibling rivalry, really, so there actually isn’t much soccer in it. Rudo is the older brother, with a wife and children and a serious gambling addiction. He plays goalie. Cursi is younger and unmarried, and really, really wants to be a singer in spite of the fact that he’s not very good. The talent scout can only take on one of the brothers, so Rudo suggests a penalty kick. If he blocks it, he goes. If Cursi gets past him, Cursi goes. Rudo tells Cursi to aim to the right, so that he can block it and go with the scout. Cursi kicks right, and Rudo dodges right. Unfortunately, Cursi was kicking to his right and Rudo was dodging to his right and totally misses.

The rest of this fantastic story is about the brothers’ rise to fame as soccer players and how they lose it all. One of the best parts of the movie is watching Cursi trying to launch a singing career. He gets to record a Spanish version of “I want you to want me” and a hilarious music video of the same. During the Q and A, I got to ask why Carlos picked that song and if that really was Bernal singing. So, in a sense, I got to talk to Gael Garcia Bernal. And I didn’t stutter or anything. I could feel my coolness quotient rise.

The Cuarons, Bernal, and del Toro were hilarious during the introduction and the Q & A. While Bernal was speaking about working with Luna and making apologies for his absence, del Toro interrupted him. This is the conversation, as well as I remember it:

Del Toro: He's here, he's passed out in back.

Bernal: [turns to face the wings] Diego!

[General laughter]

During the Q & A, an audience member asked if the female lead, Jessica Mas, was present. Here's the conversation, to the best of my recollection:

Bernal: Don't you think she'd be out here, too? You can see her from a thousand miles.

One of the Cuarons: We brought Guillermo, instead.

[Laughter. Laughter gets louder when del Toro opens his coat a bit to show off his T-shirt and jeans and does a little dance step.]

Del Toro: You can see me from a thousand miles, too. Someone asks you where the hotel is and you point and say, see that fat fucker? It's behind him.

Bloody, fantastic day.

The librarian I went with had the camera, so I’ll post pictures as soon as I get copies from her.

1.12.2009

The Nameless Day, by Sara Douglass

The Nameless Day
The Nameless Day
I've had The Nameless Day by Sara Douglass on my shelf for a while, but I haven't read up until now. Not sure what made me pick it up this time, but I'm glad I did. According to the introduction, this novel takes place in a world that's pretty much like ours--except the historical events are somewhat compressed. But isn't that kind of true of just about every historical novel? I'm not totally sure why the intro was included, actually. At any rate, the plot of this story is set against the background of the Hundred Years' War and the beginnings of the Wars of the Roses.

The protagonist, Thomas Neville, is involved in a war between Good and Evil, angels and demons, and he has no idea what he's doing. The person he inherited the fight from died thirty years before he got involved, during the Black Death. There are demons crawling all over Europe. Wat Tyler, John Wycliffe, and John Ball are spreading "dangerous" ideas of social change and Reformation. The English and the French have just fought the Battle of Poitiers (see Hundred Years' War). And Thomas, a Dominican friar, starts seeing visions of St. Michael. (He's not the only one. Joan of Arc is also starting her adventure.) Because is this is the first book in one of those trilogies, this is just the beginning of the story and nothing much is resolved.

But after the first couple of chapters, after I decided that this wasn't Christian fiction in disguise, I was hooked. So hooked, in fact, that I'm having a hard time waiting for the library to be open tomorrow. I want to head down to the Barnes and Noble and get the next two books in the series.

What kept me hooked on this story was how incredibly vivid Douglass made the Europe of the 1340s and 1370s. I know my history (pretty much), but surprisingly, this book brought home the mindset. I knew the people of the time were raised to believe in the Catholic Church, that heaven was their reward for a life of suffering, that challenges to feudalism were an affront to God and the natural order of things, women were born to suffer and atone for Eve's sin, etc. etc. But this book really helped me understand what that meant. And now I think I really understand the Reformation.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was when some one like Tyler or Wycliffe got to talk about the changes they thought their society needed, things like an end to the feudal system, translating the Bible into languages that people actually spoke, not needing priests in order to read the Bible for themselves, the Catholic Church surrendering a lot of its worldly wealth and get back to its original mission of tending to the spiritual health of the population. (Etc. etc.) As I read, I remember thinking, hey, this stuff makes sense to me. If I had lived at the time, I probably world have jumped on the band wagon, too. (Though if my medieval self had any foresight, she wouldn't jump on the band wagon until after 1517, and she wouldn't do it in France, Italy, or Spain. Especially, not Spain.)

All of this made it hard to be sympathetic to the main character, Thomas, who defends the status quo at just about every opportunity. As the story progresses, though, and as Thomas sees more of the way things really are, he softens and starts to see the other side's point of view. While he's no where near ready to join the revolution, he starts to realize that the old order is wrong, too. Very intriguing read.

And now, I'm off to see if the Barnes and Noble is still open.

1.08.2009

Stephen Fry on Language

BoingBoing pointed me in the direction of this wonderful podcast by Stephen Fry, in which he talks about the glories of the English language and why pedantic grammar types should stop whining when people commit linguistic errors. Apart from the fact that I agree with him, I just love listening to Fry's speech. No one I've ever heard uses English the way he does. It's as if he's trying to to use the largest number of unique adjectives in every paragraph.

1.06.2009

The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman

The Accidental
Time Machine
Every now and then, I run across a book that I think of as an idea book. It's a novel that's not really about plot or character, but is an opportunity for an author to play around with cool concepts. Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is once of these (as you could probably guess after that intro). It's a short novel that lets Haldeman extrapolate what human society might turn into at various points in our future.

The main character, Matt Fuller, discovers a time machine that will only transport him into the future. After he gets caught in bad circumstances, he starts jumping into the future in exponential intervals. At fifteen years in the future, Matt feels out of touch, even though the people he knew were still alive. At 170+ years, the world has undergone technological and religious revolutions. At nearly 3,000 years, the world had reached a long slide into ennui. Unlike in Wells' The Time Machine, humanity doesn't evolve into Morlocks and Eloi. Their grammar gets worse, but otherwise Homo sapiens as a species doesn't change much.

In this novel, the visits in the future are sociological experiments. The one that interested me most was the 170+ years in the future, when a group of fundamentalists and an AI disguised as Jesus take over a significant chunk of the eastern seaboard and set up their own little theocracy. Since he comes from a very secular world, Matt has a really hard time not getting into trouble. Little details like closed stacks in the MIT library and the T standing for theosophy instead of technology (and technology becoming a word so dirty that you can't say it out loud). When I first came across this part of the book, I was afraid that I had managed to pick up Christian science fiction. Fortunately, with Fuller rebutting religious arguments with reason and science, that didn't last long.

The ending of this very interesting book was a bit of a disappointment. All through the novel, Fuller and the graduate assistant that he picks up at the Massachusetts Institute of Theosophy, are traveling forward to a time when time travel back to the past is possible. However, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer people and no one else seems to have figured out the time travel thing. So it all comes down to a deus ex machina ending and a quick wrap up that reads like an epilogue.

1.04.2009

Cell, by Stephen King

Cell
Cell
The quest for another great zombie novel continues. Ever since I read World War Z, I've been looking out for novels that had a similar mix of terror and sociology. I've picked up Cell before, but got sidetracked by another book and haven't gotten back to it for months. The premise was intriguing. Cell phone users get blasted with some kind of electronic signal that turns then into homicidal maniacs. But after the firs few chapters, the zombie factor gets replaced by some kind of sci-fi spoonbending stuff. And once the characters are no longer in constant danger for the lives, all the tension went out of the book and I had a hard time paying attention.

But what really bugged me most about this book was the dialogue. I've never seen this before in a King novel, because for the most part his dialogue is very naturalistic and snappy. As I read, I had a hard time caring about the characters because they didn't sound like real people. I kept thinking over and over that people just don't talk this way. There were too many cute little bits of wit and cultural references. Too many bon mots. There was only one character that triggered my pet peeve of speaking in paragraphs. I could forgive that one because he was an academic. But all the other characters...yeesh. Not even sit com characters are this pat.

I read King every now and then because I loved The Stand and Carrie. They were fantastic--terrifying and thought-provoking. So I give King a chance every now and then. I think I will still tackle the Dark Tower series one of these days. But King misses as often as he hits. I still haven't made it all the way through 'Salem's Lot because of what King did to it, and I hated the ending of Dreamcatcher where King pulled a Shyamalan. I really don't like it when an author takes a really good idea and messes it up.