Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Into the West

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 0
I'm actually glad that the fourth episode of Into the West won't be airing this weekend. It'll give me the chance to completely catch up before the miniseries completely resumes the week after next. Into the West is a multi-generational miniseries following two families in the mid 1800's as America begins to grow and settle the West. The first family is the Wheeler family. The Wheelers are Virginia wheelmakers and the youngest son, Jacob, has dreams of seeing what "no white man has seen before" and sets off to join Jedidiah Smith and other mountain men. The other family is of the Lakota tribe as they have to deal with the white men coming onto their land and beginning to change their way of life.

Thus far I've only watched the first two episodes with the third on my DVR. These are each 2 hour episodes, so Into the West is a time commitment, but I think the level of quality is there so its worth it. While it seems at times that the Wheelers are getting a little bit more air time than the Lakota, there are serious storylines going on with the Lakota tribe with Dog Star and Loved by Buffaloes.

I think this show really shows some of the hardships that life contained back then and how difficult American expansion was for all. On episode two there was a wagon train to the West and lives were lost fording a river, during a bad storm when they were out on the plains, and by cholera...which on one hand seems like a lot for one wagon train to endure, but from what I remember from history class and the focus on the West it really isn't far from reality for many who tried to go West. Many lives were lost. The show also shows the struggle of the Natives to accept white ways or hold on to their own and the struggle includes how rifles changed everything.

Very interesting show. If you mix this with Ken Burn's documentary The West, you get a very large portrait of the era. Education through entertainment.

But the bottom line is that I do find Into the West to be an interesting program and that the stories are compelling. This is a well made show and I hope there are more like it.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Harry Potter and David McCullough

Friday, June 24, 2005 0
After reading the two most recent Harry Potter books this week to refresh myself for the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince I was reminded just how good and captivating these books really are. I haven't read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix since the weekend which it came out. I remember thinking at the time that it started a little slow and ended a little quick, but this time around it felt just right. Harry is a pompous ass during Year 5, quick to anger and snap at friends and teachers and is always suspicious that the world is out to get him. In other words, a typical fifteen year old. I think that was part of my problem reading this the first time around because I was tired of reading about Harry whining and so much could be avoided if he would just shut up for a second and realize that Hermoine is always right and that people really are looking out for him for a reason. But Rowling's choice here makes sense and the book is probably better off because of it.

I also forgot just how dark the book goes. Bad things are happening at Hogwarts with Professor Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic making things very difficult for Harry and Dumbledore since they don't believe Voldemort is back. In previous books, Hogwarts was a haven for Harry even with Malfoy and Snape there. It was harmless. Now school is just as dangerous and nasty as any other location.

Another thing that I really liked is that some side characters are getting further development. Ginny Weasley is more than the youngest sister with a crush on Harry. Neville Longbottom becomes a stronger character in each book and here we get more of his family's background (talk about brutal, his parents were tortured into insanity by Voldemort's followers, that's why he was raised by his grandmother), and even Fred and George Weasley get a little more time to shine here.

Now I'm really looking forward to Book 6 coming out in a few weeks!

There is no good way to make this segue, so I'm not even going to try...

Powells.com has a nice interview with historian David McCullough. McCullough is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the biographies of John Adams and Truman. It is very interesting to read about McCullough's motivations and interests in researching the books that he writes and why his new book 1776 is more about the military campaign of that year than anything political. I've read reviews that found the political aspects of the book lacking, but it seems that was the point and not what McCullough wanted to focus on. Should be an interesting book, I have it on reserve at the library (which means I should expect it in November).

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elizabethtown pictures

Thursday, June 23, 2005 0
I don't know what Elizabethtown is about, but is written and directed by Cameron Crowe and that front page picture looks beautiful. Really, it doesn't matter so much what the movie is about because it is Cameron Crowe and he's made some excellent movies: Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Say Anything; a very interesting miss: Vanilla Sky; and one movie I can't seem to place: Singles.

The bottom line is that if it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe it's a movie I want to see.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Recapping The Wheel of Time

Wednesday, June 22, 2005 1
With Book Eleven: The Knife of Dreams coming out this fall I have a couple choices how to go into the newest Wheel of Time novel. I could re-read the other ten volumes in the series and spend the rest of my summer and fall reading Robert Jordan and probably be tired of the whole thing when the book comes out. I could read nothing and not remember a lot of plot threads. Or, I can find some recaps of the action that has gone before. I remember the big things (cleansing saidin), but not the little ones (Egwene's plan for Tar Valon).

But when I was poking around on Dragonmount, I found this recap. It gives general information of the actions and whereabouts of each of the characters leading into the new book. It is useful because I remember very little about Crossroads of Twilight except that for 4/5 of the book everyone was wondering what that odd source of power was which was Rand at the end of Winter's Heart. Urg.

There is also another timeline which is more of a chronology. There is a lot of info here.

This all should help me get ready for the new book without having to read another ten books just to know what's going on.

Now if Jordan will only wrap this series up...

Monday, June 20, 2005

Kevin Smith

Monday, June 20, 2005 0
This weekend, in between running a marathon, I read Silent Bob Speaks: The Collected Writing of Kevin Smith. It is exactly what the title says it is, a collection of Smith's essays and articles that have been printed and posted on various websites, including his own. Whether or not you like this book is almost certainly going to depend on whether or not you like Kevin Smith and his movies. Between his films and the commentary tracks he records for the DVDs, I got a good sense the Smith is a wise cracking, funny, and very likeable guy. He is very regular, like your buddy from high school, you know the funny guy who smoked too much but made everyone laugh. That's the feeling I have of Smith and because of this, and the dialogue and humor in his movies, I am probably more inclined to like his work even if it is being bashed everywhere else.

With that said, I really liked this book. Much of what is included can be found somewhere else for free and those who are obsessive about Smith have likely already read it...so in that sense there is nothing new here except for maybe one article that wasn't published but was supposed to be. But I haven't read any of these (except for the Jersey Girl production diary), so it's all new to me.

It's funny, honest (brutally at times), and like his movies and commentary tracks (as well as how he comes off in An Evening With Kevin Smith), I think that Smith's personality comes off very well here. And yes, Smith is as full of praise for Ben Affleck as he always is, only this time you get just a little bit more of a reason and how Affleck is a very decent man (no matter what one thinks of his movies, and to be honest, I don't mind Affleck, though I prefer Damon).

It's almost a book that reviews itself because if you don't like Kevin Smith you won't like the book and if you do, you probably will and already plan on reading it.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Elantris

Friday, June 17, 2005 0
“Elantris” is the debut novel from Brandon Sanderson. Blurbs on the cover from Orson Scott Card and David Farland say this book is “the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years” and “one of the finest debuts I’ve seen in years.” When I read a novel I generally do not pay attention to when it was written and I know that I haven’t read all of the debut fantasy novels which have come out in the past several years. I do know when I’ve read a very good book, however, and “Elantris” is certainly that.

The prologue to the novel was all of five paragraphs but it gave all of the information needed to understand the background of what the story would be. It tells of a beautiful city named Elantris which glowed like magic and where amazing magics were possible and commonplace. Elantris was populated by godlike beings who could wield these powers as I might use a pen. But these beings were once regular humans, soldiers and serfs, princes and beggers and merchants. When something called the Shaod came upon them they were transformed into Elantrians and into a newer, greater existence. But ten years ago something happened.

That something is that the blessing turned into a curse and Elantris and its population started to rot away. The city now abandoned except for the poor souls still called by the Shaod is covered in slime and muck and the Elantrians are the cursed, neither dead nor truly alive.

This was a beautiful set up and pulled me right in from the start. Sanderson introduces Raoden, a prince and heir to the throne of Arelon. The city of Kae lies in the shadow of Elantris and the glory of Arelon has fallen with Elantris. Raoden is a man who gives his people hope, but when he is called by the Shaod he is doomed. His father, the king, does not reveal what happened to Raoden, but rather holds a funeral for his not beloved son. Meanwhile, Sarene, a princess from another country has arrived to marry Raoden not knowing what has happened. Her marriage contract considers her married upon the betrothal and even continues after Raoden’s death, so she remains in Kae. But Raoden must find a way to survive, such as it is, in Elantris. Sarene is the only one who sees the coming doom from the religion of Darethi and an invasion from Fjordell.

Brandon Sanderson has done something remarkable here. He has created an incredibly original work and unlike so many other works of fantasy this novel is complete in itself. It is not, as I understand it, the first volume of a trilogy or larger series. It is an epic work of fantasy in one self contained novel. It’s one of the better fantasies that I have read. Sanderson does a good job in making all of the primary characters understandable, and sympathetic…even the “bad guys”. The motivations are explained well and the characters are well developed and revealed. Simply put, with one novel Sanderson has made a fan of me. I was surprised by just how good this book was. If Sanderson writes another, I will definitely read it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Thursday, June 16, 2005 1
With the very mixed reviews I had seen for "Mr and Mrs Smith" I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, except for some sort of mindless summer action movie that may or may not be any good. That's not much to go on, but the director is good (Doug Liman, "The Bourne Identity") and the premise was interesting.

The premise of this movie has Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as John and Jane Smith in a marriage of five or six years and whatever passion there once was has long since disappeared. They are bored with each other and with their relationship. But each harbors a secret: Mr. and Mrs. Smith are assassins working for competing firms and neither knows this secret of the other. The trailers suggest that they will be given a contract to take out the other and it is only in the middle of the mission that they realize who they are hired to kill. That isn't exactly how things play out. Rather than the two Smiths being given missions to take out the other, the Smiths are each set to target someone I’ll call “The Hostage”. When attempting to eliminate “The Hostage” Jane Smith sees that there is somebody else around and with a weapon. She shoots, he shoots back. It was Mr. Smith, but at the time this isn’t known. Each only knows that there was a competing player on the scene and only later learns that it is the spouse that was the other player. This is the big set up for the Smiths to finally talk about their marriage and deal with all that was simmering under the surface…all the while trying to kill each other and stay alive themselves.

What results is a surprisingly entertaining movie. There is plenty of action, at which Doug Liman excels, and it is easy to see that the movie started out with a wide comedic tone. Pitt and Jolie are both believable (as far as it goes) in their roles and their chemistry is very real. I expected the action from Liman and from the film trailer, but this was a very funny movie as well. It isn’t played as a broad comedy in which we might find a younger Adam Sandler, but rather as very scene appropriate humor but it was enough that the audience was laughing. I certainly was, as was my wife.

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is not some grand examination of marriage as has been suggested from time to time, but it is far better than most “Summer Action Movies” in which category I would place movies like “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX”. There is plenty of action and humor, but it is very well done and the fairly empty plot seems to be deeper than it is just because of the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie. That’s really what sells this movie is how well Pitt and Jolie play off each other. That, and the fact that we believe that Angelina Jolie really could kick some serious butt.

By no means is this a perfect movie, but Liman mixes the action, humor, and the marriage on the rocks portions of the movie with great skill. While the plot is fairly weak and excuse for the actors to play, it works just well enough to give the summer a fun action movie and one which is better than most.

Grade: B

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Movie Poll

Sunday, June 12, 2005 0
Courtesy of Wendy.

Total Number of films I own on dvd:
127: Movies I own, including documentary and music dvds
17: DVD sets of television shows
38: Movies my wife owns, including TV on DVD
My DVD collection can be seen here

The last film I bought:
This is a tough one for me because I really haven't been buying many DVDs recently. Maybe when I win the lottery this will change. The last one I can remember buying is the Seventh Season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was on sale at Target for $17. I couldn't pass it up. I still haven't watched it.

The last film I watched:
On DVD: Dumbo: The Sixtieth Anniversary Edition
In the theatre: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Five films I watch a lot or that mean a lot to me:
The Sandlot
The Princess Bride
The Godfather
Fried Green Tomatoes
The Spitfire Grill

I don't think I'm going to "tag" or "ping" or whatever it is to suggest that other people should do the same, though anyone can feel free.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Being Julia

Friday, June 10, 2005 0
“Being Julia” is really only notable as a film because it is the movie which garnered Annette Bening an Oscar nominee to once again pit her against Hilary Swank in the category of Best Actress in something of a rematch of the 1999 Academy Awards when Swank won the Oscar for her performance in “Boys Don’t Cry”. Once again Bening was nominated against Swank and once again Swank won, this time for “Million Dollar Baby”. This time Bening was nominated, I think, as much for her performance as for the fact that Bening was playing her own age. As an actress this seems to be fairly rare in a lead performance. Julia Lambert (Bening) is an aging star of the theatre in 1930’s London. She is concerned that she is starting to look old because she is certainly feeling it. She is tired, ready for a vacation, but a star can’t just shut down a show and take a vacation. Her husband and theatre manager Michael (Jeremy Irons) says that he will try to shut down the show if possible, but also introduces her to a young American named Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans).

Julia and Tom have an affair and it is like Julia is coming to life again. She has more passion in her acting and feels no need of a vacation. For this movie to have any sort of conflict, of course, things do not go smoothly and Julia’s reactions are of course that of an actress. I think this is part of the joy of Bening’s performance and part of the reason she picked up the nomination. She delightfully and perfectly overacts as Julia Lambert. I’m not sure that I buy the climax scene near the end of the picture, but Bening is so perfect in just barely overplaying the role that the humor in the situation comes clear and out into the open.

As the movie progressed I was more and more impressed with Annette Bening. I’ve always liked her as an actress, but this was just delightful. Hilary Swank still deserved the Academy Award over Bening for this role, but Bening was just charming and devious as Julia. The funny thing, though, is that I find myself talking more about Bening and her performance than I am about the movie. There’s a reason for that. As a movie, as a film telling a story it is completely ordinary and if not for Bening this movie would be forgotten even quicker than I suspect it already will be.

The other bit of performance of note is Michael Gambon. Gambon, in a role which he also seems to overact just a little bit (but again, in a perfectly delightful way), is wonderful here. Exactly why his character is in the movie should come clear deeper into the movie, but I looked forward to Gambon as much as Bening.

The bottom line is that the movie itself is not very impressing, but Bening and Gambon are worth watching the movie for. After a while the plot, which is rather silly, faded to the background with the star, Annette Bening standing front and center. I think that was the point here and it worked.

Grade: B (B for Bening).

who writes what i like to read

After seeing this list on a blog of a friend of Jerry's, I was inspired (more or less) to put together my own list of my favorite books and authors: or, who I like to read. I think that I'm going to keep the format and talk about the authors first, and then move on to the books which were not written by one of my favorite authors. This post will just be the authors and later I'll update again with the books.

Authors:

Louise Erdrich: I couldn't possibly begin this list without mentioning Louise Erdrich. Her first novel Love Medicine was on a course syllabus for American Literature when I was in college and that was the year I was ambitious and read all of the novels in the summer before class started. Good thing because we never got to this book during class and it remainds one of my favorites. From the opening scene with a woman walking out into a snow storm it has remained with me. Other novels of note include Tracks and The Last Reports on the Miracle at Little No Horse.

Alison McGhee: McGhee, like Erdrich is another Minnesotan. That fact is completely coincidental to the reality that these two authors are my favorite two authors. Another thing both Erdrich and McGhee share is that their first novels use the multiple narrator format. McGhee's debut, Rainlight, is one of those rare novels that I not only like, but fall in love with. It introduced the small town of Sterns in the Adirondack Mountains where her other novels have been set, and I've been hooked ever since.

Ann Patchett: When Bel Canto was published it became something of a sensation. I believe it was on the best sellers list and won a few awards and a couple years later I actually read it. Patchett has this gentleness to her writing but it is so persuasive that she sucks the reader in and it is only hours later that you realize you've been totally immersed in the story. The other book of Patchett's was her debut The Patron Saint of Liars, which along with having a fantastic title is an excellent graceful book.

Don DeLillo: Another author I discovered in that American Lit class. In this instance the book we were reading was his second novel (of 13) End Zone. DeLillo is a different sort of writer than the three writers listed above. He is the post modern writer. While there comes a point after reading so many of his novels that his characters all start to talk and act the same, it is what the characters are saying that is so interesting. Novels of note include White Noise, The Names, Libra, and Underworld.

Kathleen Norris: Changing styles here, Kathleen Norris not a novelist like the previous four authors, but writes non-fiction. Her books are contemplative in nature and deal with faith, having faith, what it means to have faith, and how she has come to faith. Her best two books (to me) are The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Barbara Kingsolver: Best known, perhaps, for The Poisonwood Bible which was a selection on Oprah's Book Club, Kingsolver is a favorite of mine...at least with her fiction. The fiction is excellent with novels that have something of an environmental theme/bend to them but generally not heavy handed.

Philip Roth: With a career spanning decades it is only the recent work which I have read and which has captures my attention. The Human Stain, American Pastoral, and The Plot Against America are all excellent and The Human Stain especially was fantastic.

There are numerous authors of fantasy and science fiction which I will read on a drop of the hat, but I think that is for another posting.

Karen Traviss, Star Wars

Good news for fans of Star Wars and of author Karen Traviss. Coming in Spring 2006, Traviss is writing a sequel to her Star Wars novel Republic Commando: Hard Contact. This one will be titled Republic Commando: Triple Zero. The novel is set in the timeline of the Clone Wars (so before Episode Three) and while I read Star Wars books there are few that I actually have any sort of anticipation for. Karen Traviss is one of the authors who I actually look forward to her contributions, out of the 30 or 40 Star Wars novels I have read so far, she is one of the best authors writing in the Extended Universe.

Apparently Ms Traviss has also blogged about this, so I'm a little behind in the news. It's cool how excited Traviss seems about this.

I've been meaning to read her first novel, City of Pearl, for some time now.

Robin Hobb's website

From time to time I make the rounds of the author websites I have bookmarked. Some of them I don't go to very often because I know they don't get updated with any sort of frequency and also that I know what they have coming out in the near future. But I decided to check out the website of Robin Hobb, author of the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders, and the Tawny Man Trilogy. I knew that her new book, Shaman's Crossing, was coming out this summer/fall, but it's been a while since she's had a website update.

She has, and has she ever!

Her previous website was a simple text page that she designed herself with one or two links to other information. But it was pretty simple and basic, much what you'd expect when an author designs her own website. No shame in that, since her business is writing.

Well, it's undergone a complete redesign, and I think she's had some help. Now rather than just simple text it is sort of a treasure hunt to find the info you are looking at. On the front page is a floor plan with various rooms labeled and you click onto each room to see a photograph and you can then click various images in the photograph. It's pretty interesting and was entertaining. I suppose after that you'd just remember which has the info you'd like to revisit in the future. It's not too complex, but just a little different.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Oprah's Book Club

Wednesday, June 08, 2005 0
So the new selection in Oprah's Book Club is a collection of three novels by William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August. I like how recently she has been going to some of the classics and perhaps getting people to read these books. I've read As I Lay Dying and thought it was excellent.

I was flipping through some of the Amazon.com reviews of this three book set and some reviewers were complainging that Oprah should be supporting new writers and not dead authors that everyone has heard of. While I sort of understand this sentiment because the publishing business is awfully tough and some good writers could use the extra exposure, I don't think it is entirely fair.

Many readers may have heart of Faulkner and John Steinbeck, Garica Marquez, and Pearl Buck, but this doesn't mean that these readers have read the authors. Out of the six books chosen so far for Oprah's new book club, I have read just the one by Faulkner. I have a degree in English and focused my classes on Literature and American Lit when available (small college, it might have been different in a larger university). I've read other novels by Steinbeck, and Garcia Marquez. I don't believe I've read Pearl Buck. But despite the large amount of fantasy and science fiction that I read, I think I would still consider myself moderately well read.

So, I think Oprah's focus on the classics is a very good thing. It is a reminder that I should go back and read some of these books for the first time. If they can be rightfully considered classics, then it shouldn't matter that attention is being given to these books outside the high school or college classroom. That attention should be given.

Since these books aren't really "news" anymore compared to the next Dan Brown or Harry Potter book (both of which I am looking forward to), I think that they are being brought back into the public attention can only be a good thing. In theory, they are classics for a reason and while everyone has different taste in books sometimes books that should be read are books you want to read.

Now where did I put that copy of East of Eden?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Penguins

Tuesday, June 07, 2005 2
I really can't say that I have any desire to see Madagascar. The whole animated talking animals thing just doesn't do a whole lot for me, at least when the trailer doesn't seem to suggest there is any heart in the movie. Unlike, say, The Lion King. The only thing here that catches my interest is the penguins. There is something I find inherently funny about sociopathic penguins all scheming and plotting. I don't suppose there will be an edited version of the movie with just the penguin scenes. I'd go see that.

I think the only reasonable solution to this is to see (in the theatre if possible, more likely on DVD) The March of the Penguins. This is a documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman along the lines of a Winged Migration. It's a chance to see penguins do what penguins do. I'll just have to pretend that they are plotting to hijack the camera crew.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Ship of Magic

Thursday, June 02, 2005 2
“Ship of Magic” is the first book of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy. It is set in the same world as her previous trilogy: The Farseer, but deals with another aspect of the world and this first book, at least, is almost completely separate with only occasional mentions of a “war up north” which was a major plot point of the Farseer. “Ship of Magic”, unlike the Farseer, is told in the third person point of view rather than the first person of FizChivalry (The Farseer Trilogy). The focus here is on multiple characters and multiple storylines which are initially separate but start to slowly come together.

Althea Vestrit is the daughter of Captain Vestrit, owner of the Liveship Vivacia. A Liveship is not merely made of wood and sailed by the talent of the crew, but it is a ship that is actually alive, it has personality and can think and is so prized that Trader families would put their families generations into debt because of how valued and important these ships are to Bingtown and to the Traders. The Liveships are faster and sail better than any other ship on the water. When her father dies, and he is near death, Althea expects to inherit Vivacia and eventually learn to be her captain. But when he does die the ship is left to the husband of her sister, and Kyle Haven thinks Althea is no proper lady and has no place on a ship. After a very big argument and fight with her family, and with Kyle, Althea leaves Bingtown with the intent to eventually working her way back to be able to own Vivacia in her own right.

There is also a pirate captain, Kennit, who seeks to be ruler of the pirates and also to capture a liveship of his own. At least a third of “Ship of Magic” is about Kennit and his adventures and piracy and his dreams of a better, different life. The final third of the book is focuses on Kyle Haven’s son, Wintrow. Wintrow is Kyle’s only son, but was promised to be a priest of Sa. But when Kyle finally gains control of Vivacia, he also commands Wintrow to join him as a sailor with the intent the Wintrow become a man and eventually take over Vivacia. But Wintrow is not the son that Kyle wants him to be, nor is he the man that Kyle considers a man.

“Ship of Magic” is a slow moving novel with more focus on the characters and their development than about swiftly moving a plot along. By the end of this novel there is quite a bit of plot development, but with the pacing and the characterization it is almost a wonder that Hobb moved the story along at all. It is almost as if the reader were a ship floating along in the ocean of the novel. But while the pacing may be an issue for some readers, if the reader is familiar with her earlier work, this will not be a surprise and Robin Hobb does such a good job of slowly pulling the reader into her world that by the end we are looking for the next book in the series.

Since this book is not directly related to the Farseer Trilogy there is no problem with reading this book first, but I do recommend reading the books in publication order (starting with Assassin’s Apprentice). Either way, this is a different sort of a fantasy novel, but one which I find to be a treat. There is much magic here, but it is in the storytelling rather than in a wizard waving a wand.
 
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