Saturday, July 28, 2012

Going for the True Gold

The Olympics tell us... Be a part of positive things. You need not tear down or destroy in order to compete. No one must be wrong or evil for you to be your best. The spot of highest honor cannot hold all of us, but by trying, you place yourself in the company of champions. Human beings are beautiful.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Few Words About Government

Let's get something straight. Government is a pain in the ass.

It's burdensome, it's frequently inefficient, it gets things wrong as often as it gets them right. Decent people are correct to wonder why they have to be saddled with the irritations of being governed. But intelligent people all know the reason for government: not everyone is decent. Some people are unreasonably selfish, some are careless or negligent, and some are just plain evil.

We have government because we have those people.

And if there's something about government that you don't like, your first step in rectifying the matter is to acknowledge that government is the natural solution for the existence of people who refuse to regulate themselves. "Let's get rid of government" ultimately equates to "Let's allow all the bad self-regulators to ruin everything for everyone." Once you acknowledge that some level of regulation is necessary, all interested parties can then make their case for whether particular regulations are useful and proper or intrusive and counterproductive. But if you just go around complaining that the problem is "too much government," what you're really doing is giving those faulty self-regulators cover to clear away regulations they don't like along with the ones that you don't like.

The problem is never "government" -- it is always specific pieces of legislation, specific executive-branch policies, or specific judicial decisions. If you try to deal with the problem of "government" instead of trying to deal with those specifics, you're inviting people with a fondness for abuse of power to walk all over you.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Cover Tweaking

I was looking at my covers today and found they looked really murky. So I tried to see if I could fix them with some contrast tweaks.

Better like this...



Or better like this ... ?


(I'm deliberately not saying which are the newer files.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers and the Writer's Curse

I spent large chunks of "The Avengers" geeking out over scenes I've waited my whole life to see on the big screen. A partial list (including mild spoilers): The SHIELD Heli-carrier, Thor and Hulk going toe-to-toe, Hawkeye using his grappling-hook arrows, and, of course, the Black Widow constantly kicking all kinds of ass.

I also spent large chunks of the movie admiring Joss Whedon's abilities as a screenwriter -- including the way he managed to (1) include the old Marvel trope of heroes constantly getting into fights with each other while (2) avoiding the film super-hero trope of people being needlessly stupid to advance the plot. The characters sometimes react (or over-react) impulsively based on their emotions, but whenever they're given time to think, they use their brains effectively. The dialogue was razor sharp in virtually every scene, and also included moments of genuine emotion and character development that came across as fresh and new, in spite of the fact that these characters have appeared in thousands of comic-book issues over the last 50 years. Whedon understands the fundamental pathos of Bruce Banner, the absolute conviction of Steve Rogers, the constant tension between Tony Stark's self-absorption, personal drive, and sense of conscience. He also gets the fact that (another spoiler) Natasha Romanov is such a good spy that she can allow herself to be manipulated in a way that manipulates the person who is manipulating her. And he knows that the relationship between Loki and Thor is an archetype of familial love too strong to be broken regardless of the depths of betrayal to which one of the brothers might sink.

But here is where the writer's curse arrives for me. What Joss Whedon understands about Hawkeye is ... that Hawkeye can shoot arrows really well.

You know, it's not every super-hero movie that manages to present a compelling version of even a single super-hero. In "The Avengers," Joss Whedon pulls off five out of six -- or six out of seven if you count Nick Fury. Or maybe even 9 out of 10 if you count various SHIELD agents and Pepper Potts.

But I still end up stuck on the fact that I wasn't satisfied with Hawkeye.

And what is it that dissatisfies me?

Hawkeye didn't get the chance to be The Hero.

The fact of the matter is, for me, Hawkeye IS the Avengers. In the stretch of the comic that I read from the late '70s into the '80s, Hawkeye was pretty much the only Avenger who stayed in the roster the whole time. At various points, he was the leader of the team, if only because his dogged insistence on sticking to the group gave him seniority. Here was a guy who really was just a guy. No super-soldier serum, no suit of invincible armor, no magical hammer, no gamma-ray-induced strength. He had a few gizmo arrows, his brains, a whole lot of skill, and an absolute, never-quit determination.

Hawkeye was the ultimate Avenger.

So what happens to him in this movie? (FYI: here come the biggest spoilers of the post.) He gets zapped into being Loki's puppet for most of the film, and then in the final action he gets to play about the least important role of any team member. He's not unimportant -- he just doesn't get to shine as brightly as most of the others.

And that's a shame, because if he'd been given a chance to redeem himself from Loki's puppeteering, the climax of the film could have had a lot more emotional resonance.

Imagine if, instead of Hulk being the one to take Loki down, Hawkeye appears on the balcony of Stark Tower, an arrow pointed straight at Loki's heart. Loki just laughs and says, "We've already seen how pitifully inadequate your little arrows are against me." He sends a bolt of energy to blast Hawkeye -- but it goes right through the archer, revealing him to be a hologram projected by a gizmo arrow lodged in the balcony railing. At the same moment, the real Hawkeye shoots Loki from behind, badly injuring him and making him drop his scepter. Now the Hulk can show up and prevent Loki from retrieving the scepter, and with Loki out of the way, Hawkeye (not the Black Widow) can be the one to close the portal. For good measure, you could have the energy shield around the Tesseract send nasty tendrils of energy up Hawkeye's arms while he's shutting it down, giving us a very clear understanding of how much grit it takes to pull the action off.

That ending redeems Hawkeye and also gives Loki an ironic comeuppance for his earlier bragging about always being able to trick Thor with illusions. It does require you to find something else for the Black Widow to do during the finale, but come on. She's the Black Widow, and she's already run away with the movie at several points earlier on, so that shouldn't be too big a deal.

Because I'm a writer, I can't help but see these things and think about them and then be frustrated at the fact that the actual screenwriter didn't think of them. It's all the more frustrating because I think of Joss Whedon as a much better writer than I am, and if I could come up with this stuff, why couldn't he?

The writer's curse.

Even so, "The Avengers" was a pretty damn fine film. Go see it, if you haven't already!


Sunday, April 15, 2012

GIANT SPOILER ALERT! UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU READ THIS POST BEFORE SEEING "THE CABIN IN THE WOODS"!!!

Seriously? Are you still reading this even though you haven't seen the movie? Well, stop reading and go to the theater (or the video store or RedBox, if you're reading this after it's left the theater).

I mean it. Right now.

Why?

Because although it's not obvious on the surface, "The Cabin in the Woods" is an important movie that says something of world-changing magnitude. Unless you simply detest horror movies, you will be massively entertained by it, and because of the nature of the movie, you may be entertained even if you normally detest the genre. But once you look past the entertainment, this movie offers us a key to shackles that have imprisoned humanity since the dawn of civilization -- or even longer.

Go see it. This is your last chance to leave this blog before I proceed to discuss the ending of the film and what it means. Read any further, and you're going to cheat yourself out of something terrific. You have been warned!

Okay, so to everybody who's seen the film -- and to you, that guy who's ignoring everything I wrote above! -- knowing how "The Cabin in the Woods" ends, we are now faced with a choice about our lives.

Are we the Young in the cabin, or are we the Old in the bunker? Do we fight, and try, and keep trying, and refuse to give in even at the absolute final end? Or do we say, this is how the world is, and we need omelets, so eggs will simply have to be broken.

Because "The Cabin in the Woods" is so entertaining, and because it seems to show us, relatively early on, that there is no hope whatsoever of a happy ending, it would be very easy to just sit back and enjoy it and go away thinking, "Well, that was a delightfully fun movie with an amusingly cynical ending, and now I'm going to go get some ice cream."

But if we do, we'll be just as bad as the lab workers gleefully clamoring for their picks in the betting pool. Those scenes are hilarious, and anyone who's ever held a job that required her to do something distasteful can probably empathize with that betting pool in addition to laughing at it. Yet we all know, while watching that money changing hands, that what we're seeing is not just a little bit wrong but deeply diseased.

Did anyone leave the theater without a little glow in his heart at that circle of Japanese schoolgirls banishing the evil spirit with their song? Did anyone not feel a certain thrill of triumph at monitor after monitor showing "FAIL" for every sacrifice station around the world? Was anyone sad when the Virgin failed to kill the Fool, and did anyone disagree with her apology to him as the two of them sat waiting for the Ancient Ones to rise and destroy the world?

In our hearts, we know the Young are right to fight and not give up. In our hearts, we want to believe that the Young can, in fact, produce a solid string of failures for the wicked factories of malevolence that are at work around the entire world to destroy them. And this movie tells us that they can.

Why does it end with the triumph of evil? Not because the Young failed, but because the Old set up a system in which the power and certainty and beauty of Youth are stamped down in order to perpetuate a hanging-on-by-the-fingertips existence in which no attempt is ever made to eradicate Evil -- only to just barely contain it.

Where would the story have gone if, instead of working so hard to keep the Young from succeeding against the small horrors, the people in the bunker had, years or centuries ago, enlisted their aid to defeat the Ancient Ones?

In every generation, we "grow up" and "realize" that you can't fight the system, can't stay true to all of your ideals, can't make the world a better place. "The Cabin in the Woods" shows us where that "realization" takes us.

So we can listen to what its allegory is telling us, or we can laugh and move on with our lives and accept the world's ghastly side because we haven't the energy for anything beyond the mundane strife of daily existence.

It's our choice. If we stay in the lab, maybe we'll get by. But if we all go to the cabin, then maybe, just maybe, we can make a real difference.



Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why I Miss Childhood

When I was seven, we lived in Sulphur Springs, Texas, maybe half a mile or less from my grandparents' house. And because it was the early 1970s, it was okay for my parents to leave me and my nine-year-old brother alone by ourselves for hours at a time. We could be trusted alone by ourselves -- heck, when my dad was that age, he was out hunting in the woods with a .22 on his own, and he hardly ever shot and field-dressed any of the neighbors.

So one time while by ourselves, my brother and I decided to walk to our grandfolks' house. But we didn't want to walk along the road, we wanted to walk along the railroad tracks. We hopped the barbed-wire fence and hiked across whatever pasture or field lay between our yard and the tracks, and we spent what seemed like ages hiking the gravel embankment, jumping from one wood tie to the next, balancing on the iron rails -- having an awesome adventure in the hot Texas sun.

We found railroad spikes.

That's right, we each found some rusty-ass, dirt-encrusted iron railroad spikes lying in the gravel or the weeds by the tracks, and we picked them up and took them with us like they were solid gold.

Naturally, when our parents found out about this, there was hell to pay. We could have gotten hit by a train! (My parents apparently hadn't noticed how flat that part of Texas is and how dead quiet the day had been and how even a daydreaming seven-year-old would have spotted and heard a train from miles off.) We'd taken someone else's property! (Technically true, but it's not like we'd pulled the spikes loose from the joins of the tracks and set in motion a horrific disaster sure to kill everyone on board the next train except for Bruce Willis. They were just going to sit there and rust away to nothing, so who cares that someone else owned them?) We could have been killed and eaten by hobos! (This one we had no answer for. You couldn't grow up in the 1970s watching old black-and-white films on Saturday morning without understanding that hobos were everywhere, and while I'd never seen a movie about a cannibal hobo, I knew that some hobos were clowns or, worse, mimes, and therefore f---ing scary.)

But even though we got in trouble, we came out of it unscathed, and they let us keep the railroad spikes (the least filthy of them, anyway), and for a couple of hours (or maybe half an hour, since time is so much different for a kid), we'd been Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, on our own with only the wild life of the rails to tell us where to go or what to do.

That's the amazing thing about being a kid. Finding an oxidized chunk of metal that leaves horrible red crap all over your hands is almost as good as chasing along beside a speeding boxcar, grabbing desperately for the door handle so that you can swing yourself up and inside and escape the posse/indians/robber gang pursuing you on horseback. In fact, in your seven-year-old mind, it's exactly the same.

Kids are easily bored. But they are also convinced that there is an escape from boredom, and that it lies within or perhaps just beyond their grasp. As adults, we lose that conviction with frightening ease.

But maybe we ought to go walk the railroad tracks once in a while to find it again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What I Watched Today

A world-weary thumbs-down to the movie version of "The Lorax," and a generally pleased but non-effusive thumbs-up to "In Time."

Dr. Seuss's original story was a heart-wrenching tragedy whose single ray of hope depended on the reader's willingness to commit to the cause Seuss put forward. The only reason to change its apocalyptic ending would be a steely-eyed desire to rake in a bigger box-office take. Next up from the filmmakers: a version of "The Giving Tree" with an up-tempo song number for the ending.

On the other hand, "In Time" had moments of formulaic action-flick sloppiness, but created a solidly imagined future society and delivered compelling performances and a harder-hitting element of social commentary.

I'd recommend skipping "The Lorax" and giving "In Time" a shot.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter: Two Reviews

John Carter: The What-If-I-Hadn’t-Read-The-Books Review

Despite being based on one of my most beloved childhood reading experiences, John Carter is a movie, not a book, and well deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than on its merits as an interpretation. With that in mind, I decided to write two reviews: one taking the movie for what it is, and another comparing it to what it isn’t. Here’s the first of those reviews.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

When Hollywood makes science fiction and fantasy action-adventure films, it very often plays things safe. Science usually gets short shrift, and complex or unconventional concepts are usually avoided. Aliens may look very different from human beings, but they usually have cultures little different from our own, or else lack culture entirely and are simply malevolent invaders. Plots tend to be straightforward and spelled out in the clearest possible terms.

In one way or another, Disney’s adaptation of John Carter violates almost all of those expectations. It’s a science fiction film, set on an alien planet – yet it’s also a period piece that takes place in the 1800s. It makes liberal use of flashbacks – in fact, because the bulk of the story is a flashback in the form of a manuscript being read by young Edgar Rice Burroughs, it has flashbacks within a flashback. It introduces but does not clearly explain several weird pieces of Martian (Barsoomian) technology, expecting the audience to put two and two together.

This is not to suggest that it’s some kind of brainy, highly intellectualized film. But it is a film that differs markedly from typical Hollywood fare in a number of ways.

The film opens with narration explaining some of the political dynamics on Mars, and introduces the principal villain, Sab Than, as he’s granted a weapon of unusual power by several figures whose motives are ambiguous, but don’t seem good. We then cut to Earth in 1881, where John Carter sends Edgar Rice Burroughs a telegram and then appears to die under mysterious circumstances. Burroughs is given an odd manuscript as part of his inheritance, and when he opens it, the story proper begins.

Quickly and efficiently, the narrative establishes Carter as an intense, capable, and determined man, hinting that tragic experiences in the Civil War have hardened him into a cynic and even a bit of a hermit. When army officers in the Arizona territory try to impress him into service to fight Apaches, he escapes and ends up cornered in a cave, where he encounters a piece of Martian technology that transports him across space to a war-torn planet.

So far, the movie has given us Mars, then 19th Century New York, then the Wild West and now Mars again, all in the space of about 15 minutes. While some viewers may be disoriented, no one can accuse the film of being predictable or tame in its opening. And with the action moving to Mars, we almost immediately get a new set of surprises.

One of these is a bit silly: a prolonged sequence in which Carter has to figure out how to walk in the lower Martian gravity, which is played for humor and didn’t strike me as all that well visualized. But once he gets his outlandish leaps under control, he has his first alien encounter, stumbling across a hatchery of the green Martian Tharks, and then being surrounded by the Tharks themselves.

In the Tharks, this movie does what science fiction films almost never do. It presents aliens who have their own set of cultural values and mores. Viewers who don’t look closely may consider the Tharks just another savage warrior race along the lines of the Klingons, prizing combat and bravery and daring deeds. But the movie goes beyond those tropes, showing Thark customs of child-rearing and family, legal proceedings and punishments, and attitudes toward entertainment, animals, and religion. We see only bits and pieces of these subjects, as this is an action film, not a cultural documentary. But enough small details are there to make the Tharks feel real and distinct, and despite this being Disney, many of the details are brutal and stark.

Next into the mix comes Dejah Thoris, beautiful and brilliant princess of Helium, who arrives at the Thark encampment as she flees Sab Than. Dejah is the whole package, as proficient with a sword as with all the knowledge of Barsoomian science and as brave as she is gorgeous. The film does a fine job of showing us who Dejah is, and if there’s a complaint to be made about her it’s that the relationship that develops between her and John Carter is such a foregone conclusion. Carter is the greatest fighter on the planet, and Dejah is its most beautiful woman, so of course they’re going to end up together. It would have been nice to see the results build up in the form of personal chemistry between Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, but the screenplay and the direction don’t really give them many opportunities to achieve a mutual smolder.

Together, John Carter and Dejah Thoris escape the Tharks and pursue the mysterious source of Sab Than’s power – Carter because he wants to return to Earth and Dejah because she wants to save her people. Naturally, they end up falling for one another, and eventually Carter must decide between returning to Earth to the hollow existence he was living before, or interceding in the age-old wars of Mars in order to save Dejah Thoris and her people. You can undoubtedly guess how that’s going to go, but there’s some great spectacle to be had in watching it unfold – including a truly magnificent scene that intercuts the best action sequence of the movie with the most emotional moment of the whole film, in which John Carter’s backstory is at last fully revealed.

The film is not perfect by any means – at least one of the plot twists is a baffling head-scratcher that really tested my suspension of disbelief. But for the most part, the fantastic nature of the visuals, the setting, and the story held together in a way that made all the preposterous elements enjoyable.

In the end, we return to Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs, where there’s a very fun and satisfying twist to close out the framing narrative. The good guys triumph, the bad guys get their just desserts, and the nefarious manipulators who gave Sab Than his weapon escape with much of their mystery intact, presumably to make more trouble in the eventual sequels.

So: on its own, as a 21st century action adventure flick, John Carter gets three and a half or four stars from me. Not the very top of its genre, but interesting and unusual and well worth seeing.

John Carter: The No-Series-of-Books-Made-a-Bigger-Impression-on-My-Childhood-Than-This-One Review

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the John Carter books. I’m guessing I devoured the entire eleven-book series at least two or three times in my youth, and I got through the first five or six books a couple of years ago and then reread the first one just last week. So these books have been a vivid part of my mental landscape for my entire adult life, and almost any film adaptation was guaranteed to fall short for me.

Despite the fact that I knew that going into it, John Carter contained three major sources of disappointment to me and many minor ones.

(Major spoilers ahead.)

Let me be clear that I am not criticizing the film simply because it departs from the books. Everyone on Mars is telepathic in the novels, a fact that makes no sense and that Edgar Rice Burroughs conveniently forgets over and over again when it’s necessary for his good guys or bad guys to get away with lying. In a similar vein, on the literary Barsoom, no one is subject to the aging process. Dejah Thoris’ age is never mentioned, but for all we know, she’s 300 years old when John Carter meets her. Her father and grandfather are still around, and don’t look any older than she does. The movie ditches these elements entirely, and also adds a radically different backstory for John Carter that provides him with a personal growth story arc entirely lacking from the books – I thought those were all good moves.

But there are certain elements in the books that surely deserved to carry over into the movie – things which fundamentally alter the meaning of the story if omitted or altered. The three big ones are:

1) Extraordinary heroic honor. All of our heroes in the novels are cut from a striking cloth. In A Princess of Mars, Helium is indeed besieged by Zodanga. But it does not happen because Sab Than gains a super-weapon; it happens because Sab Than demands to marry Dejah Thoris, and the entire population of Helium would rather die than submit their princess to such a fate. Far from pushing his daughter toward a union she detests, the Tardos Mors of the novels is ready to sacrifice his whole people on principle, and they are willing to go along because that is the nature of their honor-bound culture. And Dejah Thoris, rather than fleeing the situation as she does in the film, agrees to marry Sab Than because she would rather give up her own happiness than allow her people’s honor to destroy them. Furthermore, while providing her with accomplishments as a scientist and prowess as a warrior, the film completely ignores Dejah Thoris’ leadership qualities from the books, where she is physically weak and unimposing, yet still possesses the bravery and diplomatic gifts to almost win over the entire Thark horde through the force of her personality. Even Tars Tarkas is greatly lessened in the movie. Instead of starting off as a lesser chief and eventually triumphing over the hideous Tal Hajus, he starts off in charge and is deposed by Tal, who ends up being defeated by John Carter in a rather anticlimactic fashion instead of the rich moment of justice that occurs in the book.

2) Bold statements against racism, superstition, and abuses of political power. In the books, the red men of Mars are explicitly a blended race, mixed long ago from pure-blooded white, black and yellow Martians. The principle villains of the first three books are either cynical opportunists like Sab Than or racial purists and religious fanatics who have worked for millennia in secret conspiracies to control and manipulate everyone else. Considering the time in which it was written, the series is astonishingly progressive, laying bare the absolute foolishness of racism and dogmatism, and showing clearly the price societies can pay for following malevolent leaders. But there’s very little sense of any socially conscious message in John Carter at all. Certainly, some of this follows naturally as a consequence of the great strides we’ve made since Burroughs’ day. Yet we have not defeated these evils even a hundred years after Burroughs took up his pen against them, and it’s sad to see the movie sidestep still-relevant issues. Burroughs managed to include these themes without the least bit of preachiness; I would have thought Andrew Stanton and John Lassetter capable of following his lead.

3) True Love. In A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs asks us to buy into what Disney has spent decades putting onto celluloid: love as an overwhelming, instantaneous, wondrous and electrifying phenomenon that, once it takes hold, becomes the entire focus of a person’s life, a miracle with the power to change the world. The romantic relationship that evolves onscreen in John Carter is a pale shadow of that, shying away from the na├»ve but heartfelt emotional idealism of the book and not really replacing it with anything more mature or believable. It works perfectly fine as formula romance, but left me wanting something so much greater.

Granted, the film does an excellent job translating many of the visuals from the books into motion. The Tharks and their animals are terrific (although Woola the calot was a bit too cutely designed for my tastes), the ruined cities are spot-on, the airships are cool looking, and the battles and arena scenes really capture Burroughs’ visceral savagery.

Ultimately, then, John Carter was to me a film that got the basic look and feel and tone of the books more or less right, but somehow missed the most profound substance of the series. I think I would still give it about three stars as a sincere effort. But when the source material hands you five stars worth of ideas, making a three-star picture isn’t exactly a triumph.

Still, I would encourage anyone interested in entertaining pulp adventure stories to go see this movie, and to take my grudging attitude toward it more as a recommendation for the books than a true chastisement of the film.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I Promise To Return And Finish What I've Begun

We went to see The Phantom Menace in 3-D today. Apparently, my brain adjusts to 3-D after about 20 minutes, because I didn't even notice the 3-D effects in the last 80% of the movie.

Aside from that, though I was struck by the fact that TPM is not a mediocre movie riddled with unforgivable flaws, but an awesome movie dragged down into apparent mediocrity by two main repetitive sins.

First and foremost, George Lucas miscast Anakin and failed to insist on verisimilitude from his bit players. I count this as a single sin, because the woodenness of Anakin and of the minor cast members is all of a piece.

Second, but almost as crucial, John Williams delivered a score that runs contrary to the storyline in the great majority of the slow, talky scenes. Don't get me wrong -- there's a lot of great music in TPM, especially during the duel at the end. But large chunks of the film are rendered annoying by background music that seems to be saying, "Look how whimsical and delightful all of this is" -- even when the scenes aren't particularly whimsical or delightful, because the characters are actually discussing serious issues. In the heavy dialogue scenes, the soundtrack gives us generic and meaningless fluff instead of matching up with what the characters are saying.

I remember how much I hated the "What are midichlorians" scene the first time I saw it -- in fact, every time I saw it before today. I thought it an awful, thoroughly misconceived scene that completely upended the spirituality of the films in the most ham-handed way. I was convinced that the dialogue was a travesty -- unnatural and amateurish. But watching it today, I realized that a tremendous part of its problem is that Jake Lloyd is terrible in that scene, and John Williams' music spends the entire scene telling us, "You're watching filler material right now." If Anakin's lines had been delivered plausibly, and if the music had struck an ethereal, mysterious tone, the scene would have been entirely tolerable. It wouldn't have been great, but it wouldn't have been offensive either.

With the exception of Jar-Jar and the general silliness of the Gungans, almost all of the wince factor in TPM would have been covered over completely by better acting and better music. No, the dialogue is not on a par with that in A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, but it's worse by inches, not by miles, and mainly because none of the characters are quipsters like Han Solo. And if the cringe-worthy delivery and background music had been fixed in the rest of the scenes, I think even Jar-Jar would have been easier to take.

At any rate, once I recognized the profound drag on the movie of the minor casting and the music, I saw with fresh eyes a wealth of other things:

First, Qui-Gon Jinn is astonishing. He is not as engaging or lovable or wise as Ben Kenobi in Episode IV, but in some respects he's a much richer character, because he's got clear and obvious flaws. He's repeatedly dishonest, bending the truth and breaking rules in pursuit of what he views as the right course of action -- even though we the audience know he's way off-base in thinking that training Anakin is a good idea. He embodies many of the flaws that end up bringing down the Jedi order: an arrogant assumption of his own correctness, a willingness to tolerate mundane evils like slavery, a paternalism toward those he considers inferior (Jar-Jar), and a denial of the importance of family, evidenced by the fact that he could easily promise to return and buy Shmi Skywalker out of slavery for her son's sake, but instead leaves her behind without so much as a shrug. And yet he's also wise and courageous and clever, as when wishing it were true that "no one can kill a Jedi" or when maneuvering Watto through the application of wit once he realizes he can't manipulate him with the Force.

Shmi is also terrific, exhibiting a quiet strength in all of her scenes and showing us exactly what Anakin needs in a parent figure -- compassion, morality, and genuine devotion instead of the abstract pursuit of intellectualized ideals.

If every performance in the film had been as truthful as those two, and if all the music had been as appropriate to its storytelling purpose as the "Duel of Fates" theme, I doubt there would be much debate over The Phantom Menace's rightful place in the Star Wars saga. The lightsaber duel at the finale is astonishing, Queen Amidala (though not Padme) is fascinating and magnetic, R2-D2 kicks butt repeatedly, the tension between Anakin-the-kid and Anakin-the-future-Darth-Vader is palpable at many points, Darth Maul is terrifying, and Senator Palpatine schmoozes and schemes with such apparent sincerity and charm that his ascendancy to power is as entirely believable as it is chilling.

I left the theater on opening night in 1999 thinking, "Well, that kind of sucked." But I left the theater this evening hoping very much that this re-release does well enough for the other movies to follow, and soon.

If Lucas brings them back out, I'll be there for every one.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Foreknowledge

Coldly focused on the approach of death
the man built walls
to keep others out
to block from his view
the light
and warmth
all around
that he knew would soon be denied to him
forever

and for days
and weeks
and months
and years
he kept watch for the Reaper
never suspecting
a misdiagnosis

55

Friday, February 3, 2012

In the Temple of Aphrodite

In the temple of Aphrodite he asked,
"What is the secret
of true and lasting love?"
Priests passed without answering. Statues and altars
loomed mutely.
The fragrant heat of candles and incense
coiled to heaven
carrying their wisdom with them.

At last
an old woman scrubbing the floor
said
softly,
simply:

"Want what you have."

55

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What's Up?

Periodically, I become aware that I'm stewing in negativity. I have long known that there are several cures for negativity: doing things, reading a good book that engages my brain, and of course trying to focus on positive thoughts instead of negative ones. But unless I can maintain at least a moderate habit of the last one, mustering the will to engage in the others can be difficult. After all, without the positive expectation that reading will improve my mood, why would I bother to read? Without the positive belief that action will distract me from gloom, why would I bother to act?

So the first step in getting out of the doldrums is always the same: mustering enough positivity to believe that what I do will make a difference in how I feel.

It's basically a decision -- the decision not to maunder and mope. Curiously, it can be a hard decision, even though maundering and moping are completely unpleasant activities. Why on earth they are so absorbing, I really can't say. But I constantly have to make the decision to avoid them, or there they will be, malingering about my shoulders, moaning grim and bitter thoughts into my ears.

What's up? Quite simply, it is the decision not to be down.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Man, We Were Good Kids

In my day, it was 12 or 15 hours to my grandparents' house, with the kids three across in the back seat, no video equipment or personal electronics, and all three of us subject to car sickness so that even books were out of the question.

Today, I can barely survive 6 hours to Plano even with iPods, Nintendo DSes, and enough elbow room in our minivan for everyone to do the Macarena.

On the other hand, maybe my siblings and I weren't all that much better than my kids. Maybe it was just that my dad reached his breaking point at an early age and taught us all to sing, "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wishing Bad Luck on People From Afar

Sometimes when I'm out for a jog, I'll look up at the sky and find Orion's belt, and then look to his shoulder where the sullen red star Betelgeuse hangs waiting to explode. Despite being younger than our sun, Betelgeuse is old and near death. This is because high-mass stars have much shorter lives than little dwarves like the one that lights our Earthly days.

Once it exhausts the fuel in its core, Betelgeuse will go supernova, becoming brighter than the full moon for several weeks and easily visible during the day.

It's been my habit, since I learned of this, to occasionally cross my fingers that Betelgeuse lights up at the close end of astronomers' estimates (any day now) rather than the far one (a million years in the future). But earlier this week, while glancing over my shoulder at the faintly scarlet star, it occurred to me how selfish this wish was.

Since Betelgeuse is only about ten million years old, it hasn't had time to develop any advanced life on whatever planets might orbit it. And it's too far away to pose any danger to Earth. So at a glance, its death seems to be a guaranteed spectacle for us and no threat to anyone.

But there could be dozens or hundreds (or even thousands) of other solar systems within lethal range of the radiation Betelgeuse will emit when it explodes, and as a result, I can't be certain that in wishing for its death, I'm not also wishing for the deaths of billions or trillions of living people on planets we will never know of.

That's rather a high price for me to receive a pretty light show.

So from now on, when out for my jog, I intend to look up at that bright star, red and gleaming, and hope that it does not enliven the night anytime soon. Or that if it does, any civilizations within its danger zone have found a means to protect themselves from its nuclear fury.

In the meantime, I can be pleased to know that its brightness and crimson hue tell me about a star so large it would reach almost to Jupiter if placed where our own sun sits. A titan living fast and enormously, blasting out energy on a scale ordinary mortals cannot imagine.

That's a beautiful sight too, and does no one any harm.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Visionary Quote

I went to the optometrist today, because I started seeing two of everything shortly after getting my last pair of glasses. On her wall, she had a quote, which Google tells me is by Leo Buscaglia:

What you are is God's gift to you
What you make of yourself is your gift to God

Though I'm not traditionally religious, I found this to be a terrific thought. Why? Because it seems to discard dogmatic notions of religious duty and moral obligation in favor of a simple principle: the value of giving.

My optometrist gave me a new prescription, and in a few days, I hope to be seeing the world in a more unified image, one which will not give me splitting headaches. I don't know that I gave her much of anything back, other than saying, "Thank you." I didn't even let her know that I liked the quote on her wall. (To tell the truth, I was somewhat nervous she might tell me the double vision meant I had a brain cloud.)

But perhaps by sharing it here, I'm giving something forward, and perhaps when I go back to get my new lenses next week, I'll remember to tell her about that as well.

Perhaps, too, I'll figure out some small way in which I can make more of myself.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Better World

My friend Kelly postulated on Facebook that everything would be just a little bit better if Jake Lloyd hadn't been cast as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace. Of course, my brain immediately took that on as a challenge. I won't bore you with how this would have changed the outcomes of various elections and prevented numerous catastrophes, partly because I've made a New Year's Resolution to avoid politics and partly because it just wouldn't be funny. But here's how the world would be a better place in a Lloydless Phantom Menace Alternate Timeline.

(1) So let's set our stage: instead of casting a wooden, talentless waif indistinguishable from a zillion other playground-hollering little snots, George Lucas finds someone who could plausibly grow up to one day sound like James Earl Jones.

(2) Spending day after day on-set with an elementary-school kid who projects gravitas beyond his years, the rest of TPM's cast has no choice but to up their acting game and project real intensity into every scene.

(3) Even George Lucas isn't crass and shallow enough to put Jar-Jar Binks onscreen beside this razor-eyed tyke. Or maybe he keeps Jar-Jar, but dubs him into alien-speak and runs subtitles under all his dialogue. Either way, a massive improvement.

(4) From that, it naturally follows that moviegoers sit spellbound through TPM thinking, This is a hell of a movie, and Holy crap, this kid's gonna turn into Darth Vader! (As opposed to thinking, didn't this kid dent my car door when his effing razor scooter got away from him?)

(5) Encouraged by the enthusiastic response to Episode I, Lucas proceeds to Episode II with more focus and a dedication to maintaining quality. Despite his natural inclination to let actors get away with shoddy performances, he chooses instead to repeatedly slap Hayden Christensen around during the course of production, saying, "Christ, the ten-year-old was scarier than that in the last movie. Do better, or I'll have Frank Oz stick his hand up your ass and work your mouth for you -- Yoda's CGI in this film, so Frank's got the time to do it, too!"

(6) Attack of the Clones is heralded as cementing the return of Star Wars' greatness. It dominates the box office through the summer of 2002.

(7) Eager to ride the renewed bandwagon of space-based sci-fi, FOX promotes Joss Whedon's Firefly sensibly and runs the episodes in correct order in a good time-slot. Time magazine puts Nathan Fillion on its cover back-to-back with a Han Solo cardboard cutout, over the headline, "Better than Star Wars?"

(8) Faced with sudden competition and also riding the heady wave of two acclaimed Star Wars films in a row, George Lucas works night and day to make Revenge of the Sith the most intense and effective of all the Star Wars movies. This in and of itself might mean nothing, except that Lucas concedes he can't possibly outdo Whedon without help, and actually takes advice from people who know how to write throughout the creative process for Episode III.

(9) Paramount finally recognizes that it can no longer blame the poor ratings for "Enterprise" on some kind of flagging interest in sci-fi. The entire writing staff and all the producers are fired, and replaced with a new creative team focused on good storytelling and exciting plots.

(10) With Firefly and Enterprise duking it out on the small screen and Battlestar Galactica debuting during production as well, Lucas continues to seek all possible collaborative input into making Revenge of the Sith the greatest science fiction movie ever made. It wins Best Picture for 2005, and lands acting Oscars for Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, and Ewan MacGregor. Hayden Christensen good-naturedly jokes that he'll get his nomination for Episode VII.

(11) Having had so much fun and finally achieved critical acclaim as great as his box office success, Lucas announces his third trilogy will soon go into production, but that he intends to take it easy, letting Ron Moore produce and Ridley Scott direct. Moore is giddy about the project, saying, "When I saw how George wrapped up Episode III, it gave me the balls to avoid ending Galactica with some kind of ambiguous, chicken-sh*t cop-out. I'm certainly not going to let him down now!" Scott is more reserved, but does remark that he'll be pleased to work with Harrison Ford again.

(12) Aglow with optimism and delight at the prospect of a future full of quality Star Wars films, the world has no time for economic downturns, and the allegorical fate of the Trade Federation has scared most of the Bernie Madoffs of the world into hiding anyway, leading to an endless housing boom and a world economy bustling enough to more than support Episode VII's $1 billion budget.

(13) During production of the final Star Wars trilogy, Industrial Light and Magic literally invents magic, and nothing bad ever happens in the world again.

Now admit it, does any of that really sound so far-fetched?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I've Added My Twitter Feed To The Sidebar

Now you can see how unclever I can be in 140 characters or less even if you're not on Twitter!

Friday, January 20, 2012

55 Topical Words

“Sir, the newspapers say you admitted to your housekeeper that you burned your house down for the insurance because your wife ran up your credit cards just before divorcing you for cheating on her with transvestites. Is this true?”

“That story is false!” he expostulated righteously, thinking, I never told the housekeeper they were transvestites!

55

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Place, A Person, A Life In Few Words

I'm in the middle of Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making right now -- or really not so much the middle as the beginning. I just read Chapter V last night, and it was such a perfect chapter that I couldn't read further.

I've read plenty of good chapters in plenty of good books over the years, and it's not at all uncommon to encounter one so good that I just have to keep reading into the next. And of course it happens much too often that a chapter is so humdrum as to leave me unwilling to put any more energy into reading further, so I set the book aside for later.

But Chapter V of this book struck me as too beautiful to disrespect by rushing on past it. Valente has a marvelous skill throughout the book of putting something deeply moving or wise on almost every page. But she outdid herself in this chapter, with a setting full of wist and heartache and grace, the introduction of a sympathetic and striking minor character, glimpses into the history of Fairyland, intimations of the challenges that our titular protagonist may have ahead of her ...

As a narrative unit, the chapter achieved a real perfection, combining mood and movement and meaning into something much larger than the narrow frame of its pages. And having read such perfection, I had to stop -- in part because I feared that the next chapter might not be as wondrous, but also in part because I did not wish to rush away from that place, which Valente painted with such finesse that it set a hook into my heart and begged me to stay.

Monday, January 16, 2012

\m/

video
This is one of my Garageband songs. I've been working on it bit by bit since Thanksgiving, and while it could probably use some more fiddling, I'm pretty happy with how it's turned out. I don't mean fiddling fiddling, because Garageband doesn't have a fiddle, and it's not really a fiddle kind of song. I mean the other kind of fiddling.

I'll be the first to admit that I don't hear this song rocking a giant stadium full of headbangers ... more like the kind of song you hear on a local auto parts store's radio commercial and think, "Hey, that's kind of catchy."

If you disagree and think I'm embarrassing myself, please feel free to let me know!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Monster Jam and Twitter

This morning I signed up for Twitter. This afternoon, I took the boys to Monster Jam. While on the surface these might seem as dissimilar as two very dissimilar things in a pod, they share a common trait: a swirling, cacophonous, disorienting overload of sensation.

With Twitter, you get your hand held through just enough of the process to lull you into a state of total unpreparedness so that you're completely aghast when they drop the step-by-step signup procedure and thrust you precipitously from the plank into the raging sea of tweets that is Twitter.

With Monster Jam, you find yourself buffeted by crowds, noise, and the physical vibrations of the roaring truck engines deep in your gut.

Both of these forums provide you the opportunity to see humanity in all of its most brazen, daring, exhibitionistic and voyeuristic glory/depravity/genius/insanity.

My Twitter handle is @HerbMallette. I don't have a Monster Jam handle yet -- I'll let you know if and when I acquire a competition-ready truck.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Garageband Approach To Life

A little before Thanksgiving this year, I got Garageband for my iPad. The Macintosh version came standard on my computer two years ago, and I played around with it a bit at first but eventually gave up because nothing productive seemed to be resulting. But a video I saw of the iPad version just looked too alluring, so I went to the app store and bought it.

The brilliance of Garageband on the iPad is this: the app seems to have been designed specifically for people who know just enough about constructing music to be dangerous.

All of the instruments have "smart" options, which is to say that the user has the option to let the instrument be the smart one, in case the user's musical smarts are lacking. You can play a traditional keyboard or use a guitar fretboard via the touch-screen, but you can also select versions of the keyboards that are divided up by chord: C, F, G, A-minor, etc. So I can start a bass track by playing two bars on the G chord notes, one each on the C and F chord notes, and return to the G chord notes to finish up. Then I can go to the keyboard and have it do a G arpeggio, a run of C and F notes, and another G arpeggio. Then I can chunk in some rhythm guitar using the same chords, and noodle around on another guitar until I find a lead melody that fits with my backing tracks. When I have one eight-bar section done, I can move on and create another one, copying the bass line forward if I want to reuse it, and looping repeating elements so that I don't have to play them over and over again.

Most importantly, I can do all of this at a tempo of 60 beats per minute, and when I'm done I can dial it up to 130 bpm. The result is a fast-paced song with no dissonance, nothing off-key, and a whole lot of musical density, without even that much investment of time.

What I need now are some apps that let me do this with the rest of my life: block it into manageable chunks, make sure the chunks line up without clashing or conflicting, and run the whole thing at a speed that's easy to deal with.

Any day now, I'll be a virtuoso!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Betsy Carson Rupe

My friend and coworker Betsy Rupe died last night after a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that she was battling cancer for the first year and a half, and simply refused to die for a year after the doctors told her the cancer had won.

Six weeks ago, Betsy wrote this in her online journal: "It seems that Mom was a bit optimistic in promising an update. I'm sorry if that's worried anyone." She went on to describe a rough week recovering from her latest surgery, and then went on from there to describe how pleased she had been to spend Thanksgiving with her family, and how much she had to be thankful for.

That's the kind of person Betsy was. Having been terminal for almost a year, with death now staring her very plainly in the face, her first concern was still for the people around her. She felt bad that her lag in communicating might have caused anyone to be anxious. So she rectified the situation by bringing us up to date on her surgery, and how they'd tunneled through her jugular as part of it -- and then she made sure to close by letting us all know how blessed and lucky she felt.

I was glad to see that her mother, in posting the awful but entirely expected news, said that Betsy had died, not that she had "passed." I'm pretty sure that no matter how peacefully Betsy went, she did not "pass," but was taken from us. If she managed to avoid kicking and screaming at the time, it was because she did not want to traumatize those who were present.

My life is a greater thing for having included her. I hope that when my own end comes, I can provide even half the example of strength and courage that she did.

Safe travels, Betsy. If there is anything beyond this life, I know that right now you are exploring it with eyes full of wonder, an intellect as great as any I ever encountered, and a heart of compassion.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I've Started Another Blog!

But don't worry, I'm not giving up on this one.

My new endeavor is Page 82 Reviews, a wonderful site that I intend to use to become a prolific book reviewer, despite my complete lack of time to read lots of books.

My gimmick is that I'm only going to review page 82 out of any given book. I figure, if it's a really good book, then even a page chosen more or less at random ought to be worth reading. And conversely, if it's a terrible book, one page should tell me all I need to know.

Whatever's going on in a book, it ought to be in full swing by page 82, right?

Anyway, head on over to check out my review of page 82 of The Fellowship of the Rings. Then use the voting buttons to say whether you think it's a great page 82 or not.

What could be simpler?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rediscovering One Of My Favorite Albums

After not hearing Jill Sobule's self-titled CD for several years, I put it on my iPod because it resurfaced while we were cleaning out our computer hutch. Over two nights of jogging, I revisited it, and found myself amazed all over again. There's not a bad song on this album, and most of the tracks are terrific. But there are two standouts that deserved to be mammoth, test-of-time hits, and it's a shame that hasn't happened: "I Kissed a Girl" and "Vrbana Bridge."

"I Kissed a Girl" gets pigeonholed as a novelty song because it is so catchy, funny, and upbeat. But this isn't just a playful tune about casual, flighty experimentation. It's a celebration of self-recognition: a song about the triumph of internal honesty that happens when one finally admits to and acts on a long-repressed truth. (Curiously, the Katy Perry song of the same title may be about exactly the same thing; it's just that Sobule's truth is a more beautiful, decent, and interesting one than Perry's.) The fleeting, knowing pause between "She took off her overcoat" and the first refrain is one of the most beautiful caesuras in lyrics that I know of. And the guitar solo, roaring and joyous, ought to let anyone with ears know that this song means to say something that goes beyond mere words.

Near the end of the album (and thank heavens it's not the last song) comes "Vrbana Bridge," an exquisitely heartbreaking story about the power of love to change us. If you can listen to this song without wanting to cry, then I congratulate you, because you're apparently invulnerable to any kind of hurt. And yet even in its absolutely rending tragedy, it lights a flame of hope and beauty. Truly one of the most remarkable songs I've ever heard.

Sobule's voice, songwriting, satire, musicianship, and sense of artistry are all beyond compare on this CD. It is astonishing that she is not as wealthy and famous as any female singer today.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Goodreads Review of The Sourtoe Cocktail Club

The Sourtoe Cocktail Club: The Yukon Odyssey of a Father and Son in Search of a Mummified Human Toe ... and Everything ElseThe Sourtoe Cocktail Club: The Yukon Odyssey of a Father and Son in Search of a Mummified Human Toe ... and Everything Else by Ron Franscell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A good travel book allows you to experience something vicariously -- a place, a time, a people. A well-written memoir gives you a sense of someone, intrigues and entertains you with the personality of the subject, catches you up in the events of a life. A clever humor book buoys your mood with laughter; a sensible self-help book makes you think you might be able to better yourself; an ingenious mystery keeps you guessing what the twist at the very end will be.

A great book transcends all of those accomplishments and turns a mirror upon your soul to make you feel alive with understanding.

The Sourtoe Cocktail Club is a great book.

If you enjoy confessional autobiographies, this is a book for you. If you hate confessional autobiographies but get a kick out of a good adventure story, this is a book for you. If you are fascinated by people, journeys, and exotic locales, if you are in need of a true and heartfelt laugh, if you hunger for the awesome beauty of some spectacular wilderness, if you have ever been a father or a son, or had a father or a son, or needed a father or a son -- if you more than anything want, from your head to your toes, for life to mean something, this is a book for you.

Ron Franscell took a journey and wrote about it. But he didn’t write about it so that you would understand his journey. He wrote about it so that you would understand that your journey is before you.

This book is a true accomplishment -- a rarity, a treasure.


View all my reviews

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Two Types of Writers

There are, of course, as many different types of writers as there are individuals who call themselves writers. No two of us are drafted in exactly the same style. But there are a couple of very common varieties to our basic outlines, and I want to write about those for a bit.

Just as readers may read for escapism or for enlightenment, so too do writers write from those motives. It's not really an either/or thing; I think every writer has some degree of escapist in her heart, and some desire in his soul to feel wise and to express that wisdom.

But ultimately, this boils down to one of two main drives urging the writer on. Either he wishes to control the world, or she wishes to understand it.

On the one hand, people who've been hurt or frustrated by reality -- or who are simply bored with it -- can dodge away from the harsh truths of their lives, or else turn the tables on those truths and create new ones of their own by writing. A writer of thrillers or mysteries or war tales may inflict any brutality or revenge he likes upon any conceivable individual he dislikes, at least within the pages of the story. A fantasist or an author of science fiction may flee from our world altogether, journeying to realms limited only by the breadth of her imagination. Fiction (or even non-fiction in some cases) allows these writers to master that which is otherwise beyond their control -- to find freedom where they feel constrained, power where they feel helpless.

If sufficiently talented, such writers may create worlds and tales that are attractive, alluring, even delightful -- and yet in real life they may turn out to be surprisingly unpleasant people. This is true because individuals motivated by a powerful desire to escape or control reality are often going to be very self-centered, inward-looking people.

In contrast, the other end of the spectrum is home to the writer who writes out of a need to understand. This may also be someone who has been antagonized, pained, or bored by existence -- but instead of seeking to deny reality its hold on his or her life, this sort of writer insists that there must be some sort of reason or meaning or purpose to all the suffering, all the grief. Where the other sort of writer wishes to grasp sources of happiness by writing them into her own reality, this sort of writer seeks to measure joy against horror and love against revulsion, in order to find the explanation that makes them all a part of the wonder that is Living.

And here's the most important divider between these two types of writers: the second type is doomed to inevitable failure if he does not possess empathy. The world cannot be understood if one has no talent for absorbing other perspectives, no feeling of kinship for those whose attitudes, ideas, and experiences are fresh and different and even contrary to the writer's own. To accomplish the goal of finding truth, you must take other people into account. In failing to do so, you can paint only delusions.

Unfortunately, not all writers know which sort they are. A great many escapists fancy themselves as seekers instead, imagining that they write Truths instead of crafting mere fiction. Then too, there are explorers who stumble upon their true direction only inadvertently as they try to flee into a realm of fantasy.

None of this is cut-and-dried, separable by way of some dichotomous key that lets us categorize writers and their works cleanly into one of two camps. But it does, I think, help explain why some writers can craft amazing stories about fascinating and virtuous characters engaged in escapades of adventure and romance, and yet remain rather sour and distasteful human beings in their own lives.

If you write because you want to know the world, then you probably also want to know people. And it's hard to really know people without then wanting to be nice to them. (Well ... most of them.)

So the next time you're reading a book, you might try to notice whether the author seems more interested in figuring things out, or in forcing them to do his bidding. A clue is that the escapist will often try to convince you that she is right, while the seeker will generally leave you to your own conclusions.

Conversely, the next time you're reading a book, you might want to forget about this post altogether.

There is, after all, a certain worth in just having fun and not thinking too hard about things.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

So Far In 2012...

I've sold 2 copies of The Last Tragedy and 7 of The Sharp Edge of Memory. I'm crossing my fingers that this means that the 1,000 or so copies of The Last Tragedy that were downloaded in December are starting to be read, and that those readers are immediately seeking out the sequel!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Reviews

I'm up to four reviews on Amazon now for The Last Tragedy. They're all very complimentary and very gratifying, but I will say, the moment I saw the first one from a complete stranger, I felt an entirely different sense of accomplishment.

I've had relatively disinterested parties read my books and react positively to them, so I'm aware that the evidence suggests that my writing is objectively good (to the extent that any writing can be considered objectively anything). But there has always been some thread of personal connection to inject the possibility of bias into those responses. So to see the book getting high marks from that first unknown person, that first individual who had nothing at stake except the time spent reading the book -- it couldn't help but feel like a threshold being crossed.

Every review will be its own thing for a while now. Sooner or later I'll get my first review on The Sharp Edge of Memory. I'll get my first review on Amazon.co.uk, or my first verbose review (I've written plenty of those myself, but all the ones I've received to date have been pretty succinct).

And of course, there will be my first bad review. It'll be interesting to see how that feels, although I'm certainly not in any rush to find out.

Eventually, with any luck or persistence on my part, I'll accumulate enough reviews that some of them start to blur together, or enough that I no longer find each individual review a noteworthy event.

But I hope it takes a lot of them to get to that point.

Paydirt! (On Yesterday's Entry, Not On Anything Important)

Well, I still woke up at 4 a.m., but I did remember a dream. I was telling somebody about a college class I once took, for which I had to write a computer simulation based on the old Traveller role-playing game. (And that was actually the assignment -- I didn't choose to make it about Traveller.)

To my surprise, the other person had just enrolled in the current version of the same class, and was very enthused about the fact that the Traveller simulation assignment was still on the syllabus. The dream ended with me offering to share an old novella I wrote based on my program, only to discover that I'd written a note on the last page of my manuscript that was innocent at the time but seemed highly embarrassing out of context.

As is usual with dreams, none of this seemed the least bit implausible while it was happening. I just thought it was marvelous fortune to run into someone else who enjoyed Traveller. Only with waking retrospect did I feel sorry for the hundreds or thousands of students who must have taken that professor's class over the decades without the benefit of having played Traveller beforehand.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In Need of Sleep and Dreams

I've been sleeping a bit poorly of late, waking up several times a night and then not always able to fall back asleep at once. What's made this even worse than it sounds is the fact that I haven't been remembering very many dreams out of it.

Usually, if something disturbs my sleep, it does so mid-dream, and I wake up still holding wisps of dream-stuff and dream-story in my head. Whether they're good dreams or bad, that experience is always interesting to me. Once in a while, I'll pop awake with an original tune in my head, a melody that my brain composed while unconscious. That's extremely cool when it happens, although it always makes me wish I had a better memory for melodies, so that I could actually recall the notes later and do something with it. (I did once manage to keep a tune long enough to write a song out of it, though I've never gotten around to arranging more than the vocal part.)

At any rate, dreams are fertile and fascinating, and if I'm going to be turned out of my comfortable night's rest, it would at least be nice to remember the dreams. But lately, I've had little such luck.

I would also settle for a good, solid night's sleep that would leave me feeling rested and ready to take on the next day, instead of grumbling and groaning at having to crawl from beneath the covers when my alarm clock goes off.

But that, I think, is even less probable.

Good night and sweet dreams to all!

Monday, January 2, 2012

More Cover Shenanigans

Following up on my post from a few days ago, I've been monkeying with the cover of The Last Tragedy, trying to achieve a more current design sensibility. I've also been in contact with a very talented artist I know to discuss the possibilities of having him do some or all of the covers for the series.

I think the redesign is a distinct improvement (although I was kind of fond of the dated aesthetic of the original).

Feel free to let me know what you think!

Back to Work!

Well, the holidays officially wrap up for me today, and tomorrow it's back to the daily grind. And it's back to no excuses about making daily progress on my current novel. And I now have this blog to keep up with as well.

And I've got to figure out how to best promote the books I've already published and get the next two out as well.

It's shaping up to be a busy year ... I sure hope it turns out the Mayans were wrong, because if I do all this work and then the world ends, I'm going to be ticked!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Minor Correction That Needs To Be Made To Our Holiday Calendar

It's very nice that Christmas and New Year's are spaced an easy week apart, creating a holiday season that extends for a good chunk of time. But I think that they're arranged in the wrong order.

Because Christmas comes first, and involves so much decoration, there's an inevitable need to clear out all the Christmas paraphernalia at the end of the holiday season. At our house, that's likely to be today or tomorrow.

But what kind of way is it to start off the new year by packing away all the tidings of joy and goodwill that we just finished celebrating?

Wouldn't it be better to toast the arrival of the new year one week, bask in its implications of change and futurity, and then follow that the next week with the holiday that's all about giving and forgiveness? Wouldn't it be better to pause at the very beginning of the new year in order to recognize the power of redemption and open-heartedness, rather than using the occasion to box up and store the trappings of our spiritual generosity?

Sure, we'd have to change the date of the second-most important holiday of one of our major religions, but it seems like a good idea to me. Maybe I should talk to the Pope.