Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Californication Review -- 1x03, "The Whore of Babylon"

I picked up the Heroes DVDs today, yay! They were only $47.99 at Borders and I'm excited to watch the last half of the season that I didn't get around to watching before NBC took them off its website. I can't review the extras or anything yet because I don't want to be spoiled, but I'll say that: A) I like the stylish design, B) the chapter menus are clunky and there's no scene selection that I can find, which sucks, and C) Peter Petrelli and Officer Matt are my new TV boyfriends.

Anyway, onto last night's Californication...

"But Magnums... wow. Did you have a growth spurt?"

Californication Official Site

In the third episode of Showtime's cute little comedy-that's-not-so-much-comedy-as-soft-core, Hank finds himself in jail after an embarrassing altercation with the director who made his book into the loathed movie -- a scene in which I actually found myself praying that the trend of opening each episode with a ridiculous dream scene was continuing, only to find myself sadly convinced that yes, this was actually happening. (There's a dream bit later, of course, brief and Ally McBeal-esque, which isn't necessarily a good thing.) Hank then proceeds to seduce Meredith, the unfortunate victim of his blind-date etiquette from the pilot, after a (hopefully) heart-felt apology. He even seems to fall for her, and by the end of the episode it's decided that they are "maybe, possibly" dating.

Meredith is an attorney, who's been sleeping with a married man for the past five years. She's quite pissed at Hank when she runs into him, but forgives him far too easily and even seems to be falling for him in return. I like the way her character's being handled: she is smart and beautiful and outwardly acts rather tough, which explains why Hank falls for her... but has low self-esteem and is continually ready to excuse members of the opposite sex for their poor behavior, which explains her liking Hank.

But other than the introduction of a character I can actually root for, in this episode there's a titty-twisting scene that, I'm sorry, exposes a childishness in Hank that goes well beyond unattractive and into the realm of the pathological; there's a wrap-up blog entry by Hank that ditches last week's self-satisfied rant on pubic hair and Hank's prowess in the sack for an overwritten, sappy meditation on fatherhood that's even worse; and there's a really weird side plot with Hank's agent and his hot, masochistic assistant that I don't really care to summarize because it managed to be both extreme and still somehow boring.

Not enough scenes with the daughter, too many ridiculous actions by Hank, not enough jokes. This episode was a definite fall-off for Californication in terms of snappiness and watchability. I've referred to it as "brain candy" but this time it felt kind of like brain poison.

In Summary: I hate dropping shows after I've picked them up, but my goodwill for Californication is slowly eroding.

Related Posts
8/16/07: Californication Review -- 1x01, "Pilot"
8/23/07: Californication Review -- 1x02, "Hell-A Woman"

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow (Orson Scott Card)

"He drank the creamy liquid. Immediately he began to inflate and rise like a balloon. The Giant laughed."

Ender's Game on Google Books / Ender's Game on Amazon
Ender's Shadow on Google Books / Ender's Shadow on Amazon

I know that the award-winning sf novel Ender's Game has had a lot of power for many of the sensitive and intelligent boys in my life. Reading it finally, I understand why. Brilliant young (very young: six years old) Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is recruited for Battle School by a futuristic society preparing for war against a race of alien "Buggers." Because of his intelligence and also his native leadership qualities, including an instinctive empathy but also a thousand other skills that interact to add up to a good leader, he is promoted quickly and a lot of responsibility lands on his shoulders.

Ender is not just your typical precocious character. He's not really a child, or at least not the way we think of children. His thinking is nuanced and precise, and he instinctively or consciously grasps a lot about human nature -- both the irrational, emotional side and the rational, calculating, manipulative side. In his introduction, Orson Scott Card defends himself against accusations that "children don't behave like this," saying that small children hide their rationality and understanding from adults. I don't know if this is true. Certainly I felt rational and understanding as a precocious little six-year-old myself, but do I believe that kids that age have as advanced an understanding of human nature as the characters in the book? Well... not really. I've read too many Newsweek articles about the development of the frontal lobe and what-have-you.

But that controversy, while Card takes it very seriously and passionately, is somewhat irrelevant to my enjoyment of the book, which was complete and absorbing. The "game" of the title (one of the games, anyway) is a simulation of war, and the book's discussion of strategies is simply fascinating. In addition there's Ender's own sense of burden and weariness as he gets more and more of humanity's hopes pinned on him. The characterizations are deeply felt and deeply human, while the action all takes place within a well-crafted, well-paced plot.

Ender's Shadow takes place over almost the exact same time-frame -- it follows the experience of Bean, who's even younger than Ender and possibly even smarter, making up in intelligence for what he lacks in the human understanding Ender is so remarkable for. It's interesting as a character study and provides a new perspective on a lot of Ender's experiences in the first book -- I read the two only days apart and it was quite the submersion experience. But it's not as affecting, because Bean, though fully-realized and extremely brilliant, doesn't have the same epic-hero quality as Ender does, and also perhaps because its pacing is a bit too sprawling -- it's significantly longer than Game.

I feel like I finished this book a better person. I'm not at all a fan of didacticism in books, but in this case I was living through a riveting, sometimes harrowing educational experience with Ender. And I feel very privileged to have done so.

In summary: Recommended, even if you're not a boy (I'm not), even if you're not into epics (I'm not), even if you're not into sf (despite the BSG obsession, I'm not).

PS. I was going to go into a whole rant about the paucity of female characters, but I'm too tired to write about it with much nuance. Let's just say it made me a bit cranky but didn't really spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Californication Review -- 1x02, "Hell-A Woman"

"I'm a writer. Non-practicing."

Californication official site

Dear Writers,

Opening your entire series with a dream sequence was a bad move for a show that purports to be darker and less cheesy than typical TV fare, but we all got past it because as dream sequences go, it was pretty dark and kinda funny. I mean, it's a cheap shot to have a blow-job-giving nun, but it's irreverent and you got points for that.

But why would you do the same opening schtick for two episodes in a row, and make this one into a sappy daydream? Is this going to be like, a recurring pattern? See House for a show that does the patterned opening scene well -- aka, not with a dream -- or Battlestar: Galactica for one of very few shows in which a dream sequence was used as more than a cheap, obvious insight into the character's mindset. See Dawson's Creek for shows where dreams are used to explain character thoughts when the writers aren't sure you'll get it from subtext. Which show do you want to be? Hmm?


OK, whew. Now that that's out of my system, here's a summary of last night's episode: Hank's daughter Becca forgives him for embarrassing her at a party last week, while Hank's ex's future stepdaughter Mia, whom he accidentally slept with last week, keeps flirting with him. Karen sets Hank up with a recently-divorced Scientologist, which backfires when the two get high together, fall off the bed during sex, and then puke all over Karen's bed and painting. Whoops.

I liked this episode a lot better. Some of the jokes were cheap or obvious, but at least they made me laugh out loud. And yes, the puke scene was funny, if painful. Hank did a lot of things to embarrass himself in "Hell-A Woman" -- making fun of Scientologists and then discovering his dinner companion to be one was certainly a highlight. And his bemused reaction to the concept of vaginal rejuvenation surgery was actually somewhat endearing.

Californication definitely got sexier this week -- well, there was less actual sex, but what there was made more sense in the plot, rather than seeming to shout desperately, "See? This show is daring! And, and original!" Because we've seen it all before, dudes, so I'm glad you got over yourselves and had some fun with this episode. As mentioned before it got funnier, and I enjoyed getting to see more of Hank with his young daughter, who has a great scene where she tells a tableful of her parents' friends and dates the unabridged story of their first meeting.

It remains to be seen how much more awkward the Mia situation can get, and how interesting the show can manage to make the inevitable split of Karen from her current fiance (who's obviously doomed when Karen answers the "how's-the-sex" question with downcast eyes and "Yeah, it's different, you know...").

In Summary: A fun, solid episode that builds on and improves from the pilot.

8/16/07 Californication Review -- 1x01, "Pilot"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Notes from the Cash Register at a Failing Video Store

The subtitle of this post could be, "Why I was too tired last night to watch and/or write up last night's Californication and Superbad, which by the way was awesome."

Customer: So where's that booklet you used to have telling me which movies are coming out?
Me: We're not getting new movies in anymore because we're closing the store, so we don't need the booklet.
Customer: Oh. Well it sure would be nice to know what movies are coming out.

(Customer spies a poster on the wall labeled "ATTENTION PARENTS," listing the movie ratings and explaining what each of them mean for your kid. You know, "G: take your kids," "NC-17: hire a sitter," that kind of thing.)

Customer: Is that a poster about the new movies coming out?
Me: That one on the wall? Um... it's a ratings poster.
Customer: Oh. 'Ratings.' So... is that a new movie about to come out?

Yeah, I... don't know. Then we spent an hour and a half giving advice to a coked-up 40-year-old about what movies to buy. He ended up buying 50 -- including A Cinderella Story, as in the Hilary Duff vehicle -- like, dude, don't you need that money for your other hobby?

Look for Californication, Superbad, and possibly a post on Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow in the next day or two.

Damages 1x05 "A Regular Earl Anthony" Summary & Review

"I keep thinking baby, someday I'll just, I'll wake up and I'll realize something's missing, but right now, shit...you know? I turn to this one, and I say baby, pinch my dick."

Damages Official Site

In "A Regular Earl Anthony," the current-day plotline squeezes out a tiny bit of information about what's going on: Ellen insists that someone tried to kill her, and that the body is in Patty Hewes' apartment -- but when the police show up, the apartment is suspiciously clean... Meanwhile, the flashbacks, which now hover at 4 months ago, feature Donal Logue as Tom's jogging buddy (and speaker of my line of the week, above). Encouraged by aforementioned Donal Logue, Tom quits, and the clients in the Frobisher case follow him. Tom eventually persuades Patty to give him nearly everything he wants, for his return -- except a name on the door.

There are also some dullish maneuvers with the settlement figure, resulting in no real change, and a little bit of drama between Ellen and David and Katie -- Ellen and Katie are mad at each other, Davidbot tries to mediate, nothing changes. (See a trend?) The major case-related development of this episode: Greg Malina sold his stock on the same day as Frobisher, and he gets beaten up for wanting out of the situation.

I'm going to go ahead and wish that this episode had taken us further, plotwise. It was clear that Tom would never leave Patty, so the A-plot was lame. It was equally predictable that he'd take an unsuccessful shot at bringing Ellen with him, and that cracks were going to start appearing in David and Ellen's relationship. Not enough happened in the present-day plotline, and little changed in the flashbacks.

Nevertheless, it's a pleasure to watch Glenn Close playing Patty's cards close to the vest. When Tom quits, Hewes responds in classic manipulator fashion by pretending not to care, and she does so with majestic, consummate skill. But when Patty tells Tom that he's a "born second," and that's his limitation, it's almost a meta-statement. Tom's character makes a good complement to Patty's, but as the center of his own episode, he just isn't enough.

Another great character moment: Hewes and her personal trainer doing weights. It's amusing to watch her growl, and interesting to be reminded that though she was born strong of will, there are things she has to work at. My other interest is listening to all the bullshit justifications people trot out for their actions. Characters want to convince others, and sometimes themselves, that they're in this for the good of the clients, or their children, or some other noble motive. Rarely do they admit how much ambition and power hunger has to do with it.

In Summary: A filler episode, though still as good as any top-notch episode of most other shows.

08/15/07: Damages Ep 4: Tastes Like a Ho Ho
08/04/07: Damages Review (Warning: Slightly Spoilery

Monday, August 20, 2007

Premonition (2007)

"Wednesday: JIM DIES."

Premonition on IMDB

So like, what's up with Sandra Bullock's script choices? Because this is her second project in recent memory (see The Lake House) that completely ignored common sense in its timeline tomfoolery. Time travel is one thing. Ridiculous plotlines that mess with time in ways that make no sense and have illogical consequences? Totally another.

As I post more on this blog, it will probably become clear that I would watch Sandra Bullock in literally anything, because I have had a borderline-unhealthy girlcrush on her since I saw While You Were Sleeping when I was about nine. I would watch her in a sequel to Jersey Girl. I would watch her in a third season to Summerland. Hell, I would watch her in an infomercial for milk-carton spouts. But I fell asleep TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW trying to watch this movie all the way through and didn't finish it till the third night.

Anyway, I had heard very mixed things about this movie -- many said it was terrible, some disagreed -- but I'm pitching my tent in the this-sucked camp. It had its strengths, like the fact that it was set in a family situation that was both touching and realistic in its portrayal of a troubled marriage, and its weaknesses, like the fact that the plot didn't make sense at all and the lovely Miss Bullock herself seemed to be kind of phoning it in half the time anyway. Probably because she was too confused about what was going on to do any whole-hearted acting.

The ending was hilarious, so that made the whole experience much more entertaining. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be hilarious, but isn't accidental comedy the best kind?

In Summary: Just don't. You're better off with The Lake House -- it's funnier.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Enduring Love (Ian McEwan)

"I had fallen into a life in which another man could be saying to me, We can't talk about it like this, and, My own feelings are not important."

Enduring Love on Amazon

In Ian McEwan's lightweight 1997 novel, which was apparently made into a film of the same name in 2004 with Daniel Craig, a man in a happy heterosexual relationship acquires a fanatically religious male stalker after a tragic freak accident briefly unites them.

It all plays out sort of how it sounds. Ian McEwan has a lovely, languid prose style that slows what could be a thriller-paced plot down to an almost meditative pace. He also has a keen eye for the emotionally grotesque that made the stalking itself quite amusing.

But I had high expectations that were somewhat disappointed: the only other book I've read of McEwan's is Atonement. And where that seemed to me a work of art, this is kind of just a book. It was fun to read because it was exciting, story-wise, but didn't stick with me.

What I did get out of it was a sense of, not skepticism exactly, but interrogation of the established idea of romantic love. What do we share with the other person? How much of it is mere projection?

In Summary: Insightful, but not extraordinary.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sportswriter (Richard Ford)

"When you look very closely, the more everybody seems just alike--unsurprising and factual."

The Sportswriter on Amazon
$11.16 :: Vintage :: 1995 :: 384 pp.

There's a genre of novel that I have outlined in my head -- I call it the Wonder Boys genre, and it's one of my favorites. It stars a hapless middle-aged man going through (or heading towards, or coming out of) a mid-life crisis, and the action takes place over a period of only a few days, during which the patches Mid-Life-Crisis Guy has sewn over the holes in his life start to fray and expose the inherent inadequacy of his coping mechanisms. There's usually at least two women in the picture: a woman close to the guy's age, weary of his antics and beginning to think she deserves better, and often also a pretty young thing. There's a child or a child substitute as well, who also deserves a better role model.

Richard Ford's The Sportswriter takes its place in this genre along with Wonder Boys and Nobody's Fool and others. Frank Bascombe is a sportswriter whose marriage to "X" failed when they lost their son, Ralph. He's now seeing Vicki, a pert young Texan, and meeting regularly with a Divorced Men's Club of which he says, "even though I cannot say we like each other, I definitely can say that we don't dislike each other," and "perhaps the only reason we have not quit is that we can't think of a compelling reason to." By the end of the book, expect upheavals in all these areas of his life.

One of the coolest things about this book is that despite the casual, witty, warm male narrator, the protagonist isn't a cliche. He is extremely sanguine and has a distanced, almost alienated outlook on life that he refers to as his "dreaminess"; he's also far more functional than the typical mid-life-crisis antihero. He's more okay with things than most of us, and frankly after awhile it does get weird, but I liked trying to get inside the head of such an oddly unworried character. The present-tense, flexible style encompasses both the humor and the philosophy of his life experience.

I liked the character of Vicki, the young girlfriend, as well. The dialect she speaks in can get totally annoying, but she is very real, so alive she brings warmth to the page. And in X you can see a sad, brave, vulnerable, confused woman, a bereaved mother, an appealing embodiment of the One Who Got Away. In general Ford does great with characterization. The plot wasn't a weak point so much as a moot point, since Frank Bascombe just doesn't have a lot invested in the outer trappings of his life; but the book was still an exciting read.

In Summary: Mid-life-crisis city, and Richard Ford makes it a fun visit.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Californication Review -- 1x01, "Pilot"

"I'm having what you might call a crisis of faith. I mean, put it simply, I can't write, which really kind of sucks because I'm supposed to be a writer..."

Californication Official Site

In the pilot of Showtime's new David Duchovny vehicle, whose subject matter is probably obvious, we're introduced to Hank via a time-honored (read: cliched) tradition, the Freudian dream. We find out that he is a writer, struggling to put words to paper, drunk more often than sober, and still in love with his ex and the father of his 12-year-old daughter. The ex, Karen (played by Natascha McElhone), is now engaged. Oh, and Hank? Enjoys Teh Sex.

And any audience member who doesn't will probably find herself pretty damn bored during this pilot, whose sex scenes I lost count of halfway through. And I want to note that those expecting "edgy" sex might want to look elsewhere as well. There's nothing shocking here.

The thing is, I found myself on Google afterwards trying to figure out what, exactly, this show was. I'd been under the impression that it was a sitcom, but... and maybe I'm just used to having laugh tracks to tell me what's funny... there weren't that many, what's the word, funny parts. But Hank has his moments of snark and sarcasm, enough to make him seem both clever and unpleasant.

Genre-bending aside, though, I thought Californication was pretty damn cool. Hank is a huge asshole (a scene where he dresses down a blind date is almost unwatchable in its cruelty), the show makes no bones about that, and it's pretty hard to like him. Still, it's also hard to stop watching, because trainwrecks are interesting. McElhone's Karen is suitably mature and conflicted to complement his immaturity and pig-headedness.

The show will have to strike a balance, I think, between maintaining the essence of Hank's character (as noted above, horniness and assholery) and making him someone we can root for. Making the punishment worse than the crime is a good way to make you sympathize with a character, and the bleakness and hopelessness of Hank's personal life might just outweigh his personal failings. I'm happy to watch a show, though, where I don't really root for the character. It's true to life, or at least to a certain vision of life; far truer than the television convention of trying to justify everyone all the time. Perhaps some Nielsen families will feel the same.

I'm having trouble figuring out whether I recommend this show. It's certainly not what I thought it would be, not as smart or funny or innovative, but a strong lead character is a big asset, and Hank is that. I think if every episode is destined to be like this one -- a procession of sex and booze and kind-of-obvious emotional revelations about Hank -- it's not going to be worth watching, but the fact that this is a mini-series means it might make real progress with character development after this. And, I'll admit it, I never thought so before but David Duchovny is pretty great.

In Summary: Jury's out!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Damages Ep 4: "Tastes Like a Ho Ho"

"Trust no one."

Damages official site

Wait, really, Patty? Trust no one? Hey, ouch. That frying pan is starting to hurt my head a little.

Damages was true to form last night with fantastic Glenn Close, fun twisty backstabbings and lies (although those were somewhat more predictable than in previous weeks), and did I mention Glenn Close and her awesomeness?

The episode is named after an exchange I wanted to use for my headline quotation on this entry, till I realized it was the name of the episode and I didn't want to repeat. Ellen has a snack in the office; Patty takes it and asks what it is; Ellen shamefacedly says, "It's a Ding Dong"; Patty answers with surprise that "It tastes like a Ho-Ho." Ellen laughs (and she has a charming laugh that we don't see much of), and so do I, and it's a clear winner for line of the week because, essentially, it's the only funny one.

That's the thing about a show like Damages, the funny bits are few and far between. I'm a girl who likes a show that doesn't take itself too seriously -- even if it aspires to greatness, as I believe this one does. Like Jack Bauer, these characters unfortunately just don't seem to have a lot of time to be funny.

I've already noted a slight dissatisfaction with Ellen's fiance as a character, and I don't want to repeat myself, but I do desperately want to talk about how bad an actor Noah Bean, who plays him, is. Because, oh my God. Especially during the supposedly climactic scene when he yells at Ellen, where his delivery of "I never wanted her involved in this" is so bad it undermines any impact the fight could have had.

Hewes as a parent is a wonder to behold. How would the Most Powerful Lawyer Ever deal with a rebellious son? She's totally Machiavellian, but totally lost too; you can see it in certain casts of her eyes, an uncertainty that she's not used to. Be glad you did not grow up under Patty Hewes.

#1 thing I was most glad about in this episode: Rose Byrne's telegenic face. She's quite beautiful, sure, but she also has an interesting mix of softness/innocence and a harder edge. As an actress she's winning me over (partly because after a scene with Bean even Mischa Barton would look pretty good).

In Summary: Damages stays golden, and also, TRUST NO ONE. Did you catch that? Seriously, did you?

08/04/07: Damages Review (warning: slightly spoilery)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Shardik (Richard Adams)

“A sword passed through me, I am changed for ever.”

Shardik on Amazon

I remember being so excited to buy this book when I first saw it. I’d read the fantastic Watership Down by the same author about ten times. In fact, someone once asked me, if there was just one book that I could make everyone in the world read, what it would be, and I answered Watership Down. For those who haven’t been lucky enough to read it, it’s a gripping epic about rabbits (seriously) who leave their traditional rabbit society and strike out for new ground.

This week, after several attempts over the past few years to get through Shardik, I made a concerted effort over five or six days without Tivo and internet to read the entire book. I’m not sure my life has been improved for it, though.

Shardik is different. Possibly, it’s harder to grasp; certainly, it’s the kind of book I should read more than once before making any judgments about just how much substance it contains. The essence of the plot is that a hunter named Kelderek finds a huge bear and becomes convinced that it’s a divine resurrection of the power of God, Shardik. His people decide to use the divine bear to recapture the power they once had, and six hundred pages of blathering about the power of Shardik commence. It gets repetitive, and despite the depth of Adams’ treatment of this concept, which I won’t deny, I was slogging through, rather than devouring.

Also, the epic simile thing just gets ridiculous. You know, the way Vergil used to do it, “And just as the ants carry their food back to their anthill, each one knowing his place, blah blah blah, [ten lines later] so did Aeneas and his buddies carry their burdens…” Or, you know, whatever. Richard Adams decides to resurrect something better left for the more-patient classicists (and don’t feel obliged to read this whole excerpt):

“As when villagers have taken away the calf from a strong cow she bellows with rage, breaks the rails of the stockade and tramples her way through the village, afraid of none and filled only with distress and anger at the wrong she has suffered; the villagers fly before her and in her fury she smashes through the mud wall of a hut, so that her head and shoulders appear suddenly, to those within, as a grotesque, frightening source of destruction and fear—so Shardik burst through the tall weeds…”

Etc, etc. The wordiness, particularly in these uselessly long similes, padded the book by at least a third. Then there was a lack of character development that was disconcerting, although I often feel dissatisfied with character depth when I read fantasy (which is infrequently; it’s not my genre). There’s a “romance,” in particular, that’s based on barely more than a man’s infatuation with a woman’s beauty.

The idea of exploring faith through this particular setup with the bear was actually pretty intriguing. I think Richard Adams did some cool things with it, but it got buried under flowery, oppressively wordy writing. There’s a really interesting part towards the end, if you make it that far, where Kelderek experiences a period of intense suffering; much of the beginning is somewhat slow and we aren't at first given much reason to care about this huge panoply of characters and their bear cult.

In Summary: Not recommended, except to the most patient of readers. Read Watership Down instead!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Lucy Gayheart (Willa Cather)

"In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart..."

Lucy Gayheart on Amazon

I rarely give myself the chance to reread old favorites, because the reading goals I set for myself in terms of new books are challenging enough. But this week, because I was on vacation, I picked up Willa Cather's ethereally tragic Lucy Gayheart, an old favorite from my early teens that I haven't read in at least five years.

The title character is, like many of Cather's heroines, a beautiful, fascinating girl from a small prairie town. Lucy is a talented pianist and the beloved younger daughter of a watchmaker, who sends her off to Chicago to study piano. Her third summer there, she is recruited as a substitute accompanist for famous, aging, burning-out singer Clement Sebastian, and romance kindles.

And Lucy is one of my favorite heroines of all time: she is so young, in the golden, desperate way that you just know can't last forever. I had that sense of tragedy when I last read it, but it was certainly easier to see now. She throws herself into everything, she dreams, she cares deeply, she is easily moved by small moments. On the first page, townspeople reminisce about Lucy Gayheart's way of walking through the snow, "not shrinking, but giving her body to the wind, as if she were catching step with it." Later, Lucy herself walks around on a cold night:

"...anyway, she was not afraid of the cold. She rather liked the excitement of winding a soft, light cloak abou ther bare arms and shoulders and running out into a glacial cold through which one could hear the hammer-strokes of the workmen who were thawing out switches down on the freight tracks with gasoline torches. The thing to do was to make an overcoat of the ocld; to feel one's self warm and awake at the heart of it, one's blood coursing unchilled in an air where roses froze instantly."

I always think of that passage when I have to walk around in the cold.

Lucy is a much more readable novel than My Antonia, the one so many of us had to read in high school. The third-person narration stays close to Lucy's point of view, except during sections when it draws close to her hometown suitor Harry Gordon or her bitter older sister Pauline. And it's short, at 195 pages. ...But it carries a lot of heft: the split of Lucy's heart between town and country, the chilling effect of Sebastian on her youth, the loneliness of city life and the crowding, caring intimacy of small-town life.

It's funny, I feel unqualified to write much about the novel because I've read it so many times, and my summary sounds like the trite sort of thing I'd dash off for an English class. This book is so familiar that it's like part of me, so hopefully the passage I quoted above recommends it more highly than this somewhat stilted post.

In summary: A favorite. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Jamie Bamber Flies with the Blue Angels

There's a brief article in this week's TV Guide on Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica's Lee) flying with the Blue Angels. There's an adorable picture of him in the plane; he plays an asshole so well on BSG that it's endearing to see him acting like a nice, boyish, regular guy.

Leaving y'all with a scan of the article (check out the call sign he used, how cute is that!), I'm off on vacation for a week, but I'll likely be posting about my vacation reading in a few days once I'm at a hotel with internet.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Damages Review (warning: slightly spoilery)

"Love is nothing. Love's easy. It's what you do after that, that's the hard part."

Damages: official site
Hewes Associates (a cool tie-in site, via Geeks of Doom)

A quick Googling told me that I wasn't the first to come up with a sentiment along the lines of, "It's like The Devil Wears Prada, but with lawyers." So I'm fresh out of cute opening lines and I guess I'll just get to the review.

Damages stars Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, a high-stakes litigator who never loses, and Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, her newest wide-eyed young protege. Tate Donovan also appears, first as Glenn Close's trusted associate, and then -- well, things change. The first two episodes alternate between a present-day timeline and flashbacks in which the bulk of the story so far has taken place; we see Ellen fresh and idealistic, but we see it from the perspective of a very different situation six months later, when everything is ... hate to say it, but damaged. Ruined, actually, and to explain more would give too much away, even though you'll totally see it coming. There are double-crossings and lies and half-truths galore; everyone's hiding something, and every scene is loaded with subtext that as of yet I have no idea how to interpret. It's exhilarating.

Perhaps because this is only a thirteen-part series, Damages plays more like a long, very complicated movie than a TV show. Rather than having a sense that anything could happen and the story could expand forever, the way you normally feel when you watch a great pilot, I get the feeling that, like a season of 24, there are going to be answers and a tightly-plotted season arc. (Um, by "a season of 24," I obviously mean "an early season of 24"!)

The great thing about Damages is that the characters -- particularly Patty -- are so crafty and dishonest, and the show so well-written, that it's totally unclear what those answers will be. All morality is undercut by the world in which Ellen finds herself. Doing the right thing is almost irrelevant to most of the characters. But there's a certain ethos of strength and vision. Patty Hewes is power-hungry and thick-skinned, low on compassion and high in cold, calculating insight. (Though Glenn Close's performance has a lot of nuance and moments of great humanity, she does give the character a fantastically icy exterior.) But Hewes is great. Weaker, she'd be doomed to mediocrity; ruthless, she's an example of how greatness can coexist with moral ambiguity or even corruptness. That's what makes an interesting contrast with another character, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), whose corruptness is self-serving and slimy, and whose moral qualms are puny and almost snivelling.

Rose Byrne is an okay actress, but her only interesting scenes are the ones in which she plays off Glenn Close. They have some really fantastic moments together, where there's a mentor-mentee vibe completely laced with distrust and tension. Ellen's character has a lot of potential for development since she's been thrown into a totally foreign environment, and I'm looking forward to how the show will show her changing -- whether for better or worse.

Oh, but Ellen's boyfriend, whose name I can't even recall right now? So. Boring. Bland-looking, bland-personality dude who's basically a cardboard stand-in for the Happiness and Security that Ellen Parson's life supposedly has at the beginning of the show -- we all know the type -- or possibly just a pawn of a plot that requires his sister to actually, you know, do things.

Damages is on FX, Tuesday nights at 10 PM, and about eighty other "encore" times during the week.

In Summary: Watch it! Hooray, strong female characters! Oh, and it's cable, so hooray extra-graphic violence!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguire)

"You are too young to know how women must collaborate or perish..."

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister on Amazon

Gregory Maguire reimagines another old fairy tale, this one in 17th-century Holland, from the point of view of Iris, a plain-looking girl with aspirations to be a painter. Her mother, Margarethe, schemes to improve the lots of Iris and her silent, simple-minded older sister Ruth, finishing a brief stint with a painting master to become first the housekeeper and then the second wife of a flower merchant. His beautiful daughter, Clara, "Cinderella," retreats into the kitchen to avoid the challenges of the outside world. She thinks of herself as a changeling, turned by outside forces from a willful, strong child into a spoiled, terribly docile, contradictory young woman -- the ultimate Feminine, trapped in her beauty.

One of the major -- and believe me, I mean major; Maguire has about as much subtlety with his themes as Marilyn Manson with a stick of eyeliner -- motifs is the portrait that Schoonmaker, the painter, completes of Clara. It's so beautiful that everyone involved with it is torn between awed love and anxious resentment. Schoonmaker himself, though proud of his accomplishment, fears that after a work so beautiful, he will never be able to complete a better one. I wonder if Maguire felt the same way about Wicked; that was a fantastic book, and this feels at certain points like a pressured follow-up. Character development sometimes seems sacrificed, especially near the end, for the purposes of the plot. Even the text seems to admit it: "[Iris] thinks she may never again be sure of why she does anything--but it seems the only thing to do." It's almost like these characters no longer fit well enough into the Cinderella story to do what is required of them, but damned if they aren't going to be forced into it anyway.

Awkwardness with character choices and slight anviliciousness aside, though, this was a totally absorbing read. I couldn't put it down after I hit the halfway point, and Iris was an extremely sympathetic character with a lot of heart, but marked by her perceived "ugliness" in ways that I found really interesting. The prose has this weird quality of right-ness to it; even though sentence by sentence I knew the style was a little stilted and affected, as a whole I thought it was fitting for the story Maguire was telling.

There's some really interesting stuff going on here with regard to beauty. Clara is shaped by it, Iris is shaped by her lack of it; men stand around watching and desiring and owning Clara's beauty with their eyes, and Iris is free to discover love on her own without becoming a commodity. All that is pretty basic stuff, but the way it happens in the novel makes it, I think, more complex because the state of every character is so constantly in flux. Margarethe tries to change her social status, Clara her beauty, etc. Although I could have done without the constant heavy-handed meditations on the role of art, I could sit around all day analyzing what this novel does with femininity.

In Summary: Recommended, but if you only have time for one deconstructed fairy tale, read Wicked instead.