Monday, September 24, 2007

But What About Me?

I'm a little out of the loop, so I just found out that Robert Jordan died, leaving his interminable monumental Wheel of Time series unfinished.

I am, of course, very sorry that Jordan died at such a young age, after suffering a long, debilitating illness. But frankly I'm also mad that after the approximately 10,000 pages I've invested in this saga so far, I may never know what's supposed to happen to Rand al'Thor, Matt Cauthon, Perrin Aybara, and the rest.

It's some comfort to know that Jordan was working on the last volume and confided the major plot points to his family before he died. I suppose that somebody at some point will produce the final book to give his fans the illusion of closure. But the problem with books finished by people who are not the original authors is that, even if they are fine books in their own right, they are inevitably not the same book the author would have produced. For example, Jane Austen's Sanditon, completed by Another Lady, turns Austen's gentle humor into broad satire. Cherry Wilder's The Wanderer, finished by Katya Reiman, captures Wilder's style admirably, but is shamefully devoid of plot resolution. So while the book that gets published as The Memory of Light will be an ending, it won't be the ending.

I have very mixed feelings about the Wheel of Time as a whole. For years I had seen the books on the shelves without feeling any particular desire to buy one. Then one day my father, as is his wont, picked up one of them as well as one book by David Eddings (which, ditto) for a quarter each at the local library's deacquisition table. I read maybe a chapter of the Eddings and threw it aside (flat dialog, insufferable characters). I started the Jordan (it happened to be the third in the series, The Dragon Reborn) with no greater expectations, but I soon found myself caught up in it. Rand's journey toward the Stone of Tear and the ambiguity of its outcome -- would he take up the sword? would that be a good thing or a bad thing? -- was suspenseful and captivating. I wanted to know more about Rand and the rest of the Two Rivers gang, and I plowed my way through the rest of the extant series (I think they had been published up to #9, Winter's Heart) over one long summer.

Despite justified accusations of being too derivative (his first book, The Eye of the World, steals whole cloth from Tolkien; his Aiel are C. J. Cherryh's mri to the life), Jordan had a definite storytelling gift. The first five or so books are as entertaining and engaging as any series I've ever read. I liked the ties among the six young heroes. I sympathized with Rand's reluctance to accept his deadly gifts, as well as Perrin's denial of the abilities that would mark him as a freak and an outcast. I found the relationship between Nynaeve and Lan touching and romantic. I liked the epic scope of the action, with travels to all points of the wide continent.

But along about book six the series begins to drag . . . and drag . . . and drag . . . . If I'm not mistaken, that must be the point at which Jordan became a huge international best-seller and decided to ride the gravy train as long as he could. So our heroes find the Bowl of the Winds, then it takes them two more books to use it. They keep having the same conversation about the game that can't be won unless you cheat without putting it together with what they know about the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn, much less applying it to what happened to Moiraine. Plot points are telegraphed so far in advance that when they finally happen there's less of an "aha!" and more of a "finally!" The viewpoint characters have multiplied while the secondary and tertiary characters have proliferated like tribbles in a bin full of quadrotriticale.

And that's not even to mention some of Jordan's writing tics that become more and more annoying the longer the series has continued. The way all women express disapproval by sniffing and clutching their skirts. The way men and women universally regard each other as different species, frequently starting sentences with "Women always" and "Men never." The way we get a complete description of every outfit worn by every character in almost every scene. The way that silk is supposed to be a rare and expensive luxury, yet everyone is swathed in it from head to toe. The way the whole continent is supposed to be torn apart by unnatural weather, invasion, monsters, and civil war, yet there's no famine or disease. The way that, beyond a few vague references to prayers and characters exclaiming "By the Light!", there's no religious structure or theology. The way no character except Perrin ever exhibits the slightest self-knowledge. And so on.

Yet I've stuck with this series until now, way past the point where most people I know have given up, because I was taken with the power of Jordan's original idea and I want to see how it comes out. I want to know that the many hours, days, weeks of my life I have devoted to this project have been, in the end, well spent. And now, I won't ever have that satisfaction.

I'm sorry you're gone, Robert Jordan. But I may never forgive you for writing that prequel instead of finishing the job at hand.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Just Like a Real Reviewer

Well, so far I haven't received any free books from the folks at LibraryThing (although they promise that October will bring more opportunities than ever before), but I did get one from the First Look book club at Barnes and Noble. Truthfully, I had forgotten that I signed up for that, so I was puzzled, then delighted to open my copy of The Monsters of Templeton, by first-time novelist Lauren Groff. It's an Advanced Reading Copy, or ARC as they say in the reviewing biz, in the form of a trade paperback with very rough-cut pages.

The cover is beautiful and has already generated much buzz on the discussion group site. It's done in black and white with red accents, some parts of it embossed; the style reminded one of the artists I work with of a German papercutting folk art called scherenschnitte. I stopped periodically while I was reading to look at it; the more I read, the more I saw.

I devoured the book in about 3 days. I'm still considering my full review, and will probably go back and reread part or all of it before I write. But I'll say for now that Groff's prose style is mature and gorgeous at times, the characters are for the most part well realized, the situation is interesting; but I had some problems with the construction of the story and I thought it went off the rails toward the end.

Nevertheless, I have to say that getting this book thrilled me down to my toes. It's just as though somebody really cared what I had to say.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

BookMooch: It's a Beautiful Thing

My love for BookMooch continues to grow. Yesterday, I received a book printed in England, mailed by a Finnish woman living in Beijing. She included a nice note and a couple of cloisonne magnets. That's the kind of connection you can't get from a used bookstore, even if you can find the books you want.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Quiz Me on the '30s, Why Dontcha?

76%The Movie Quiz - Movie Reviews

Shoutout to Richard Koehler for hooking me up with the quiz.

They're Horny, That's the Trouble!

August was a busy month, and I didn't have much time or inclination for this here postifyin', but I hope to get back with the program now. To kick things off, I offer you a look at this parody, which combines two of the better things in life: Edward Gorey and Star Trek.

The Trouble with Tribbles: A Television Adaptation by Edward Gorey

This just warmed the cockles of my tired, old-school Trekkie heart (and no, I won't get into any Trekkie/Trekker arguments, so forget about it). Don't you just love the panel "On Saturday, there was an altercation with some Klingons"? To me, it perfectly captures the spare, wacky quality of Gorey's artwork while delving beneath the surface of the show to the underlying truth.

Seeing this reminded me that, back in the early '70s, I received a detailed, personally typed-on-a-typewriter, signed, and doodled response to a fan letter I'd sent to David Gerrold. I'd give a lot to know where that is right now.

(And thanks to Abigail Nusbaum for sharing the laugh.)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Movie Diary August 2007

Movies seen for the first time are in green.

  1. The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Anthony Asquith. Creaky, mannered vehicle manages to suck most of the juice out of Oscar Wilde's witty play, but Joan Greenwood as Gwendolen and Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell contrive to inject a little fun into the proceedings.
  2. Becket (1964), Peter Glenville. I missed the first hour, when Becket (Richard Burton) was still a libertine; maybe that part was more fun. But the part I saw was dull and (literally) reverent. It hardly matters that the script was so completely unfair to Eleanor of Aquitaine, because the real love story is between Becket and Henry II (an almost demonically beautiful Peter O'Toole); by the time Henry's mother says that the king's obsession with his friend is unholy and unnatural, I was only surprised that someone said it aloud.
  3. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), David Lean. More entertaining than I thought it would be, but somewhere along the way I lost the thread, because I was completely bewildered by the ending. Alec Guinness's performance as the Col. Blimpish Nicholson was impeccable. William Holden gives a watered-down version of his lovable heel routine, which as you know I prefer to his saintly hero routine.
  4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Frank Capra. See post to come.
  5. Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Otto Preminger. Slow-moving, fairly realistic story of a murder trial. Mostly remarkable for how often the characters get to say "rape" and "panties" in probably the least sexy way ever. Lee Remick is good as the bored wife who likes to get her husband's motor revving with a little infidelity and George C. Scott contributes some much-needed intensity as a prosecutor.
  6. The Outlaw (1943), Howard Hughes. Damn, you can cut the homosociality with a knife in this interminable version of the Billy the Kid story. Dewy young Billy (Jack Buetel) takes Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) away from lifelong pal Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell), who goes off after the newly inseparable pair like a lover scorned implacable vengeance. Billy and Holliday trade quips, a horse, and girlfriend Rio (Jane Russell); with her pouty lips and cantilevered rack, Rio comes in a far distant second to the horse in the men's priorities. Overall a snooze, but I did really like the S&M glint in Buetel's eyes as he banters with Russell after she betrays him, half threat and half foreplay.
  7. Macao (1952), Josef von Sternberg. Glossy, enjoyable, meaningless noir about a drifter (Robert Mitchum) and a chanteuse (Jane Russell) in the shady Orient. Gloria Grahame should have worn a big sign saying "Plot Device," since her actions make no sense whatever.
  8. Libeled Lady (1936), Jack Conway. Spencer Tracy is at his most irritatingly pugnacious as newspaper editor Warren Haggerty, who is being sued by heiress Myrna Loy. William Powell as a Don Juanish reporter and Jean Harlow as Haggerty's long-suffering fiance round out the all-star cast. Harlow has the most thankless role; I keep hoping at the end that she'll ditch the emotionally stunted and controlling Haggerty, but she always goes back to him.
  9. Love Crazy (1941), Jack Conway. Delightful screwball comedy pairing Myrna Loy and William Powell and with a terrific supporting cast including Jack Carson, Gail Patrick, and Florence Bates. Hijinx in the second half, including Powell in drag, go on a little too long.
  10. The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cheesy inside-Hollywood story. Seems impossible to believe that the rabid Hollywood press wouldn't find out about that little penchant Maria (Ava Gardner) has for rough trade. Also the product of an era where a man wouldn't tell his wife he was impotent until after the wedding (even for a Catholic, even in the '50s, I'm pretty sure that was grounds for annulment); also, other forms of sex besides penetration hadn't been invented yet. What was Humphrey Bogart doing in this mess?
  11. Lili (1953), Charles Walters. See, here's the thing: I hate how Leslie Caron participates in yet another movie that inappropriately sexualizes a teenage girl while pretending everything is delightful and wholesome; I hate how the bitter puppeteer (Mel Ferrer) can't express his feelings, yet gets mad when Lili can't read his mind; and I hate how all the men in Lili's life think they have the right to control her sexuality (maybe if they sent her to school to learn a decent trade, it wouldn't be such a freaking issue!). But the story makes me cry like a sap. What are ya gonna do?
  12. Whispering Smith (1948), Leslie Fenton. Fairly dull Western about a railroad detective (Alan Ladd). Robert Preston is hammy fun as Ladd's best friend, romantic rival, and eventual quarry.
  13. Ordeal by Innocence (2007), Mystery! Another badly adapted Miss Marple mystery that can't live up to its star-studded cast or expensive production values. Seems like the absent-minded professor Dr. Calgary must have been the detective in the original story, because there's no other reason for him to stick around the way he does. Revelation of the murderer, though predictable, is truly creepy. Also, my money still says that Hester needs lots of therapy and Philip can walk.
  14. My Sister Eileen (1942), Alexander Hall. Unwatchably bad "comedy" about two sisters from the sticks who move to New York, where wacky neighbors and hijinks ensue. Ugh.
  15. The Westerner (1940), William Wyler. Improbably entertaining story of a charming cowhand (Gary Cooper) who pals up with, then faces off against the notorious Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). Enjoyed the unconventional romance between Cooper and spunky homesteader Doris Davenport.
  16. Reveille with Beverly (1943), Charles Barton. Ann Miller is very fresh and pretty in this slight story of a female DJ during WWII, mostly notable for the full-length musical numbers by the likes of Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra (I hate him, but the guy can sing "Night and Day").
  17. Born Yesterday (1950), George Cukor. Despite Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford's performances, I've never cared for this picture. Unlike the freshness and earnestness of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, its patriotism seems forced and mawkish. Also, this is the type of role I hate William Holden in -- so starchy with righteousness he can barely walk.
  18. All the King's Men (1949), Robert Rossen. Interesting but melodramatic film based on the award-winning Robert Penn Warren novel. Mercedes McCambridge and Anne Seymour stand out as two of the women in Willie Stark's (Broderick Crawford) life. How does he get all those women? I know power is an aphrodisiac, but Willie never had that much power.
  19. Ace in the Hole (1951), Billy Wilder. I wanted to see this because I recently read an interesting review on, but Kirk Douglas's relentless overacting sucked all the oxygen out of the room and I was forced to turn it off. It's now official: I hate Kirk Douglas. In other hands, might have been a fascinating, and still timely, commentary on the press and its role in our society.