Book Review: The First American

Title: The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

Author: H. W. Brands

Genre: Biography

Read: Jan 25-Feb 10, 2011

Summary: Big solid Bio of a VERY interesting man

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While I’m waiting for the last bits of line editing on my almost-finished novel, The Darkening Dream, I’ve been researching and outlining the  next. Given that it’s me, the new novel features both the historical and the fantastic. As to the historical: enter Ben Franklin. Who was one cool dude.

There’s a reason why he’s on the hundred dollar bill.

Now to reviewing this biography (I’ll call it TFA). It’s very well written, and easy enough to read. It’s also LONG (800 dense pages). Now, Ben lived 84 years, from 1706 to 1790, and he was perhaps the best known and most highly diversified American of his era. So there’s a lot to cover. As a printer/writer Ben left us a lot of his thoughts, and the book does a tremendous job capturing these, with long tracks of his writing embedded in the text. Lest you think this might be dry, he’s a surprisingly witty and modern voice. Eerily so. The book could have used a little bit of trimming here and there — but no more than 5-10%. It marches along steadily from Ben’s parents to his death and legacy, covering everything in between. This is not a history of the Revolutionary War, but covers more Ben’s role than the conflict itself. Good thing since that would’ve doubled the size. TFA does a good job characterizing the era, and particularly the politics of both Pennsylvania and London, and to a lesser extent Paris. It does a great job characterizing Ben.

Overall, I would give the book a 8/10 on the biography scale. That’s independent of it being Ben, but just in managing the job of conveying an important life in a different era. It’s not quite as good as Caesar: Life of a Colossus, Alexander of Macedon, or the Rise/Reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, but it’s pretty close.

But it’s worth talking about Ben. He was a pretty amazing guy, as influential in his own wry was as those three aforementioned titans. And he didn’t kill thousands or conquer nations doing it. Ben was a man of rare genius. Observant as to causes and effects, be it weather, electricity, ocean currents, politics, or business. And he’s depicted here with all his very human faults. But fundamentally he was a spirit of curiosity, optimism, energy, and general good intentions. He wasn’t the best husband or general, but he sures seems to have been one hell of a human being.

Book Review: XVI (read sexteen)

Title: XVI

Author: Julia Karr

Genre: YA Dystopian Fiction

Read: Jan 16-19, 2011

Summary: Good premise, tried hard, fell flat.

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I really wanted to like this book more than I did. The premise is fine, set in a dystopian 2150 where teens are branded at 16 as”legal for sex.” Nina is almost 16, and is dealing with not only the stress of this oncoming rite of passage, but boys, the death of her mother, and a bigger conspiracy.

But where to begin with the problems. The protagonist is okay, and there isn’t anything wrong with the prose, but fundamentally this book stands out as an example of premise over plot. Plot, we are told is how the characters in a story deal with or overcome the premise. A good one sells the premise in an engrossing and personal manner. The plot just felt weak, and the characters reactions to it rushed and forced. People keep popping up out of nowhere. Dramatic events — like the narrator’s mom dying — blink by. They live in Chicago, yet everyone seems to know everyone. The villain tattles his villainy while playing hide and seek with the heroine — so very Scooby Doo.

And the Science Fiction is pretty darn mediocre. This is 150 years from now and music and films are stored on “chips!” There won’t even be physical media in 15-20 years. There is no mention of a net or internet — nary a computer. They still have magazines! Video playing machines that play films on chips (like a DVD player). People have phone numbers (also on the way out already). There are no substantial tech improvements. Some “transports” that maybe fly. Mention of moon and mars settlement, but no matching tech on earth. No new biotech, no new computer tech.

150 years ago is 1860 and the civil war!

I didn’t hate the book, in fact wanted to like it, but it just fell flat.

Short Story: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

Title: The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

Author: Ted Chiang

Genre: Historical Time Travel

Read: Jan 10, 2011

Summary: Awesome and lyrical.

 

This 60 page short story is so up my alley. A story of time travel, set in medieval Baghdad, what could be better? If it were written in a lyrical style reminiscent of the Arabian nights! This is a gold and gem encrusted little dagger of a story. Mimicking prose style AND story telling conventions of its chosen era. It manages to demonstrate its time travel device and constraints in a manner so clear even an Abbasid merchant could understand.

It won both the Hugo and Nebula Novellette awards. Good show. Read it. Ali ibn Hammud al-Nasir (the villan from my own novel) commands that you do so. And he’s been known to make tea from the ground bones of those who refuse him.

It’s for sale standalone (very expensive), and in this anthology (cheap).

Book Review: Lost It

Title: Lost It

Author: Kristen Tracy

Genre: YA Romance

Read: Jan 3, 2011

Summary: Forever 2007.

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This is a very likable teen romance about an Idaho girl’s first real relationship and of course… how she lost her virginity. I read this in my continued meandering quest to find out just how edgy and racy YA can actually be. I hope someone points me to another answer, but I’m thinking… not very. If you know anything really edgy, please put it in a comment. Lost It is pretty reminiscent of Judy Blume‘s Forever (my review HERE), and it’s gone backwards in the sexual explicitness department big time. Really there’s barely any.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a good book, and it stands on its own. It’s just not racy. But I really did like the voice. Using the standard first person past you are immediately and tightly drawn into protagonist Tess’s head. She’s pretty funny too, and not your totally typical teen girl. There is a lot of interior monologue, but it doesn’t suffer from the “too much tell” problems that this often entails. Like, for example, the Indy book Switched (my review HERE) I read the previous day. With Lost It, I actually laughed a number of times aloud — or at least chuckled. Like all these books, the narrator is what drives the whole thing, and the book delivers 100% in that regard.

Many of the other characters are good. The best friend, the boyfriend, and the grandmother all felt unique and real. The parents less so. Tracy doesn’t have the effortless ability to make every character totally and completely believable like Judy Blume, but who does? Nevertheless, she gives it the good old college try and the results are very good.

But the tameness bothered me. In our era of hyper shock factor, it would be nice if an honest book like this was a bit more honest and open about its central topic. Sex. Forever certainly has the edge there, and it’s more than 35 years old. It’s also worth noting that the two books have almost the same cover. I guess publisher marketing departments all think alike. Observe to the right!

I don’t know what it is, but at the same time the internet has opened the door to vastly more sexual material than my 70s or 80s brain could have ever conceived, popular media has less and less. But more violence. Somehow this seems pretty twisted — at least the more violence less love thing.

Anyway, Lost It, is a good book. Refreshing actually because I didn’t have to force myself to finish it. It’s all character driven, and when well done that’s a very good thing.

Book Review: Switched

Title: Switched

Author: Amanda Hocking

Genre: Paranormal Romance

Read: Jan 2, 2010

Summary: Easy read, but needs editing badly.

 

I’ve been doing research on publishing for the last year. I’ll have to write a separate post about the changing nature of the biz, it’s relationship to other publishing businesses (like video games), and the rise of the self published ebook author. But in any case, I stumbled upon this independent and self published author who is selling very well (mostly on Amazon) with no prior print history. I figured I’d check one out. Switched appears to be her best seller and she says on her blog that it’s her favorite.

This is a funny little paranormal romance about a girl whose mother hates her and thinks she’s a changeling — but she is. In fact she’s a troll. She’s then dragged off to her real mother. The first 25% is slightly “high school novel,” and the later 75% “fish out of water.”

Overall, I’m not sure what to make of the book. The first person voice was strangely engaging and I pounded through it easy in an afternoon. Still, it felt like a first (or maybe second draft), and it’s full of flaws.

According to her website the author has roughly ten novels, mostly written in 2010 and she pounds out the first drafts 2-4 weeks! I consider myself fast at 2,500-4,000 words a day of first draft, but I have to admire that kind of lightning pace. The book was short. Maybe 50-60k words and it could perhaps be classified as “engaging” but could’ve been “really fun read” with some real editing.

There is a crazy amount of “tell,” in this book. A lot of it buried in the overzealous volume of interior monologue. Characters are constantly attributed characteristics directly, without them being shown. Often, these characteristics are never shown. The protagonist gives the straight dope on things as she sees it, but this often feels more like how the author wants the reader to see it than how it really is. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of “show” in the book at all.

The author is a solid writer. The sentences themselves are well formed, but a lot of them needed to come out, or be trimmed down. Conversations are redundant. Dialog points are redundant. The author loves the words creepy and foxy. Really loves creepy. The important scenes feel drained of emotion as the excessive interior monologue and somewhat forced dialog rob the moments of any real drama. The more casual conversations feel better than the important ones. When there’s action it’s awkwardly blocked, so that you have to go back and reread lines sometimes to figure out what happened physically. The overall plot is pretty straightforward. The end was abrupt and unsatisfying too.

But still. I can’t say it didn’t have a certain charm. I enjoyed reading it, more than many published POCs (like for instance Personal Demons). The fantasy concept is decent and didn’t bug me.

Of course the novel only cost 99 cents! The writing is probably on par with Twilight (see my review HERE). Not that that’s high praise. It just needs a lot of revision. Some plot changes to increase drama, character tune-ups, and most of all line editing (see my detailed post on that HERE).

This is an Indy book. It’s professional, but it’s also the novel equivalent of a B movie. Written quickly, revised quickly, and sold cheaply. The author has enough talent to shoot higher.

Satyrs and Maenads, Oh My!

On Friday, Nov 19, 2010 we went to a special event at the Getty Villa.

The Making of a Satyr Play
Villa Education presents a workshop on Sophocles‘ play Trackers, the second most completely preserved script of a satyr play, featured in the exhibition. Michael Hackett, chair of the UCLA theater department, directs UCLA theater students and graduates in this presentation, accompanied by an introduction to satyr plays and a visit to the exhibition lead by curator Mary Louise Hart.

This was a very interesting event. Most of you probably don’t know that there was a third type of Greek Theatre besides comedy and tragedy: The Satyr play. At the theatre festival dedicated to Dionysus (as all theater inherently was — Dionysus being the god to which theater, masks, and acting was sacred) a day consisted of three tragedies and a satyr play all written by the same playwright/poet and performed by the same amateur troop. The satyr play is a kind of tragedy which is somewhat funny (but not a comedy), and which generally involves some mythological theme into which satyrs have been inserted. If you insert satyrs anywhere, things get inheriently funny.

Case in point to the left here. Satyrs are the sacred disciples of Dionysus, and befitting the god of madness, intoxication, and altered states are hybridizations of male nature with beasts, specifically horses. Some might even argue that this is in fact the natural state of men, and doesn’t require a mythical race. In any case, satyrs inherit the tail, ears, and oversized member from their equine parent.

Back to satyr plays. We know little about them, as there are only 1.5 in existence. That’s right, dozens, possibly hundreds were written and performed, but beside a few scraps we only have the text of “Cyclops” by Euripides and half of  Sophocles’ “Trackers,” which was performed at this event. Ancient texts pretty much needed to be copied to survive, and well, monks weren’t that fond of satyrs.

The Trackers is the story of how Hermes steals Apollo’s sacred cows and builds the first Lyre, which eventually he trades to Apollo. So it could be thought of as the origin story of Apollo’s Lyre, which is one of the sun god’s primary attributes. Amusingly, and highly appropriate to satyrs, the tracking of the cattle involves detailed inspection of cow patties. Satyrs love a good shit joke, and this play has a veritable butt-load of them. The translation was brilliant, rendering them in meter and rhyme. It can’t be easy to translate poetic scatological humor from Greek to English.

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m an ancient history “amateur“, and how I’m particularly partial to death and resurrection gods like Dionysus and Osiris. So this was a brilliant and rare opportunity to see/hear some of this stuff in real life. They did some demonstrations of actor chorus interchange in Greek which I found fascinating. Then they paired this with reconstructed dance and limited music. You just don’t get to see/hear this very often. I know intellectually that Greek theatre was all written in meter, but it’s very different to hear it, even for someone who doesn’t (unfortunately) speak Greek. It gave me goosebumps. The UCLA students and professor who did the performance did an amazing job reconstructing the movements of the actors as well. Most of our visual information on Greek society comes from vase painting, and theatre (like drinking) is a favorite subject. To the right you can see an actor dressed as Hercules (left) and as Papa Silenus (right — father of the satyrs). Notice how the Silenus costume is basically a “furry body suit,” very cool. The actor holds the craggy old satyr faced mask up. As I learned yesterday, mask and “in character” are the same word in Greek. I love that, as I love masks and their Dionysian associations. My personal corporation is after all Mascherato, which is just Italian for masquerade. Back to the production. They did a really interesting job translating the postures and poses of satyrs and actors playing satyrs. You can see one of those in the upper right hand corner, recognizable by the fact that he is holding the head, actually a mask, of a satyr, and wearing special hairy “satyr pants.” These pants are the differentiating factor between real satyrs, like the one on the left “playing” with his wine vessel (real) and the upper right one (actor in satyr costume). It’s hard to explain in writing how they managed to copy the depicted mannerisms of satyrs, but they did.

The pairing of this often complicated motion, not so disimilar in some ways from modern dance, with the rhythm of the play’s dialog and the beat of the drum was very intriguing, and entertaining. One can totally see how these were exciting performances, and I think you could make a truly awesome modern ballet version of a satyr play. Perhaps with the satyrs and maenads preparing for the arrival of Dionysus. If I had a time machine I’d produce it, getting Stravinsky to write the music. Awesome! I guess you could do a production of The Rite of Spring with satyrs — as more or less was its intent — but I had in mind music that was somewhat more ancient in composition and instrumentation. The cult of Dionysus is not some happy go lucky party thing, but is essentially bound up with madness, chaos, and ecstatic murder. In other words, it’s pretty badass.


It’s worth mentioning our own little homage to the spirit of Dionysus, representing as it does an essential aspect of human nature. Our 2006 “Empires of the Ancient World Ball.” This was one of a series of black tie costume balls we hosted. This one included not only guests dressed as ancient characters and gods, but ancient music, theatre, and my personal favorite touch: A menu constructed entirely by recipes we selected from Apicius, the greatest of ancient chefs. The amazing Celestino Drago was kind enough to humor us by recreating these selections from an Italian version of the Latin cookbook. I should maybe blog separately about Apicius, but the flavor profiles of Roman cooking were in a lot of ways similar to watching this bit of ancient theatre: an exotic taste of the past. Both remind us that despite the passage of twenty five centuries, humans remain human, and interests, be they arts, food, politics, power, love, wealth or family, all remain at their core, the same.

Book and Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Title: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Author: J.K. Rowling

Genre: YA Fantasy

Read: 21 July 2007, Watched (part 1): 20 Nov, 2010

Summary: Satisfying but obligatory conclusion to the epic series.

 

Retarded title aside, this is a pretty good film. Caveats, however, abound. If you haven’t seen all the previous installments, or at least the last several — forget it. The film just roles right into the action, with nary an attempt to explain past events, or even to introduce the rather vast array of characters, some of whom die after only a few moments of screen time. This reliance on the previous chunks of the story I find perfectly reasonable, to do anything else would be difficult and boring.

What is odd, however, is that I’m not sure this film series would make a whole lot of sense to the fifty people on earth who haven’t read the books. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t. I know a few of those people, and they seem to be universally baffled by the films, and don’t particularly enjoy them. Now I enjoyed my 2.8 hours, but I’ve read all the books, and seen each film at least once (as they came out in almost all cases). The books and films enjoy an peculiar symbiotic relationship. The films rely on the books completely for the sense of the rhythm of Hogwarts (not present in DH part 1 anyway), true understanding of the complexity of the plot, anything beyond names and faces for the secondary characters, etc. They just don’t have time to include it. The movies, on the other hand, prop up the visual world of the series. Now I first read the first four books BEFORE any of the films came out, but when I went back to reread book one this year (it’s still great) I realized how little description is actually in the novel, and how I now visualized exactly the lush and detailed visual world of the films. Most of the viewers in the theatre weren’t even old enough for it to have been possible for them to have read before being exposed to the film imagery. It also seems a bit odd that the films aren’t really made to stand on their own. To the non reader they offer up characters that they never explain. I guess the gravitational pull of the source material is too strong.

Back to DH part 1. Like the book it has an entirely different feel than the rest of the series. Particularly, given how the writers have split it. There’s no Hogwarts at all. No teachers (except a brief glimpse of Snape). Almost none of the other students (Draco and Luna only). It’s a movie about Harry, Ron, and Hermione. That isn’t bad, but it’s different. It’s also a film about Voldemort, because we see a lot more of him — or at least of the CG that completely hides Fiennes. The decision to split the film — beside making the studios et all an extra billion dollars — has given them five hours to work with instead of three. This means that this film is the most faithful to the book since number 3 (my favorite). It feels less rushed, darker and more deliberate. But even having read and seen everything, I had the feeling several times that I just had to take the logical leaps for granted. There still isn’t enough time to really explain the byzantine backstory.

Ron continues to be the weakest of the three core actors, with Harry being fine, and Emma Watson shining as Hermione. I want to see what she can do in a totally different role. Helena Bonham Carter is too over the top. The opening scene with the council of baddies was kinda cheesy, and the death of Dobby felt forced and lacked proper emotional weight. Draco just stands around and looks like he doesn’t know his lines. Hardly anyone else matters. As I said, it’s basically the gang of three in the tent vs the world.

But hell, on top it felt pretty satisfying, and now we have to wait for the last one.

Book Review: Dead Beautiful

Title: Dead Beautiful

Author: Yvonne Woon

Genre: YA Supernatural

Read: Nov 5, 2010

Summary: Great YA, gripping voice pulls you right through.

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I found this via one of my writer blogs. A lot of recent YA is frankly, trash, but this was a very well written book. Superficially it might seem very Hogwarts, a young girl’s parents die suddenly, and then she is bundled by her mysterious grandfather off to a creepy gothic prep school in Maine. But it’s anything but derivative. First of all the first person voice is great. Smart, but not forced or full of attitude it pulls you seamlessly through the entire novel — and it’s 500+ pages. I literally read it in one sitting.

I’m not going to give away the major premise, but the school setting is often an enjoyable one when done right, and this one certainly is. The characters seem real enough, particularly the protagonist, and there is a unique creepy feel to the whole world. Intellectual, but not heavy. The supernatural is fairly subtle, and about 75% of the way through there is the “big reveal” as to what the deal is with certain things. As is usual with this sort of thing the book was better before the reveal, but it still held up afterwards, even coming to an emotional finish.

Fantastic debut novel, and I eagerly await the author’s next book.

Book and Movie Review: The Road

The RoadTitle: The Road (movie)

Author: Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Literary Sci-Fi Horror

Read: Oct 29-30, 2010

Summary: Evocative.

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At the suggestion of my friend Peter (in comments on my review of The Passage) I picked up The Road. I’d seen the movie a couple months ago. This novel is a relative oddity, being both literary and Sci-Fi post apocalyptic.

The prose: We have to speak first about the prose. At first, as with other McCarthy books, I found it jaring. He writes long sentences without much punctuation. He uses nouns and adjectives as verbs (like Shakespeare). For example, “The man glassed the horizon” (meaning he looked with binoculars) or “The white fog paled the trees.” These long sentences are interrupted with short burps in counterpoint. The dialog, what littler there is, has no quotations (remember he doesn’t like punctuation), and precious few tags. There’re no chapters, but scene breaks occur with startling rapidity. Many scenes are just description, slashes of images. McCarthy employs vocabulary the likes of “vermiculate,” (covered in worm like lines) or verbs like “hove” (past tense of heave). I found myself needing to use the kindle app’s built in dictionary feature. Still, after 15-20 pages I stopped noticing — well I didn’t stop entirely, but it grew comfortable. This very specific and personal voice is wonderfully evocative. Haunting, and spare, but with elegant and precise use of words and word parings does a good job of sketching the bleak setting. I’m not sure how the casual reader would react, but I certainly appreciate his skill with words. No awkward Stephenie Meyer style constructions here.

The book: Not a whole lot happens in the book. Basically “The man” and “the boy” wander through this post post apocalyptic landscape where nothing but an occasional hostile person moves. The world has burned and been all used up. There is no hope, absolutely none. Not a plant or animal lives. It’s just a matter of delaying the inevitable — perhaps avoiding being eaten by cannibals along the way. This bleakness is well conveyed. Still, I had issues with the overall setup. What the hell would kill EVERYTHING but humans? Every plant, bug, animal, but just leave the people? I don’t know, but we have the same biology as the other animals. I could see everything getting obliterated, or LOTS, but not every single thing but people. That being said, if that did happen, and you waited until really few were left, it might be this bleak. But I’d think that basic items like shoes would be easier to find. With 5 billion less people to wear them, they should be in decent supply. Overall I found it very evocative, and depressing, but there are only two characters, and the dialog felt staccato and stilted. Hard to follow, and not much reason to do so. I’m a plot and character reader first and formost, so I had mixed opinions. I enjoyed reading it, I liked the deft literary sketch work, and the book is the right length (short), but I can’t say that I absolutely loved it.

The movie: I did like the book better than the movie. I’m a Viggo fan (who couldn’t be after Lord of the Rings and Eastern Promises). The boy was very good too (he also stars in Let Me In, and does a great job there too). The film is surprisingly faithful. A few little adjusts, but the only big thing they changed was adding the flashbacks with the man’s wife. There’s one brief one in the book, but it’s more developed in the film. They didn’t need this. The film captures the bleak qualities, but without the energetic prose it’s just grim on grim. I found watching to be almost punishing. The unrelenting hopelessness, the fear of being eaten. It was much scarier than the book, but also harder to stomach. It’s certainly not a fun watch, although very well made.

Book Review: Forever

ForeverTitle: Forever

Author: Judy Blume

Genre: YA drama

Read: Mid October 2010

Summary: Loved it.

 

Everyone should read. Okay. I admit I read a ton of Judy Blume back in Elementary School, but it’s been a long time. I found this because I was trying to find out how edgy YA books really get, particularly with regard to sex. Incredibly, a quick googling seems to indicate that 1975’s Forever is still about as much sex as YA gets. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong (and link me to some books) because I really want to answer the question as to how extreme (when well done) is appropriate for YA books today. In any case, somehow I had missed Forever in the 70’s — probably because I stopped reading Judy Blume at 10 or 11. I shouldn’t have. It’s great, and holds up perfectly well as an adult novel. After reading so many recently published and truly mediocre YA books (I’ll get around to reviewing some of them) this was like a breath of fresh air. First of all, I’m in awe at Blume’s skill at holding your attention with nothing but normal life. Mostly through dialog and a bit of interior monologue she paints incredibly real people effortlessly. I’ve now read a couple other books recently, and all her characters are always distinctive and real. In Forever she writes in a tight first person present. This drops you nicely inside the head of the narrator, but she doesn’t overdo the interior monologue (which I find tedious). There is none of the snarky-boy-crazy quality of so many current voices, just a very real teenager. Also, having grown up in the 70’s, I loved the subtle nostalgic flavor of suburban 70’s life. The book is never preachy, and despite the fact that absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happens, holds your interest through every word. The sex is frank and quite funny, using a clever device to soften it. You’ll know when you meet Ralph. Basically it just sticks your head right into this little slice of life, particular person, time and place, and holds it there for about two hours.