Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Serenity: Those Left Behind, Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad

Serenity: Those Left Behind
Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad

Get out your email clients and send me all the "you're a total fanboy" messages you want, but I will contend it isn't entirely true. Yes, I like Firefly and Serenity, and yes I've purchased some of the related extra material available. But that doesn't make me a total dweeb. Or so I will continue to claim.

Here's a way to divide people into four groups:
  1. People who don't know about Firefly and Serenity. If you're a part of this group and like science fiction at all, you owe it to yourself to borrow or Netflix the Firefly and Serenity DVDs (in that order) and catch up.
  2. People who don't 't like Firefly and Serenity. I can't help you. Sorry.
  3. People who caught on early and saw Firefly when it was being broadcast.
  4. People (like me) who found out about these things too late, when the show had been canceled. In my case it was even after the movie had come and gone. But I live under a very large rock that keeps out most of the popular media.
If you were in group 3 and never saw the DVD release of the TV show for some reason, you might have seen the movie and said something like: "Wait a minute. Why are Inara and Book not on the crew anymore? What happened to them?"

Those of you who've seen the DVDs of Firefly will know the beginning of the answer to that question, but not all of it. This short, graphic novel provides more of the answer, and goes beyond that to introduce the opponent that features so strongly in the movie Serenity.

It amounts to another episode of Firefly in comic book form. And it's nice, with good art and a typical story line that could never have happened in Star Trek. We see Badger again, and former agent Dobson. (Yes, I thought he was dead too. Apparently not, as you'll see if you read it.)

If I have a gripe it's that there's not enough here. I can't compare this format to a TV script, so I don't know if what's here could have made another hour long episode of the show, but it's probably close. And that's part of what made Firefly so much fun. It's well written and believable (within the world it creates), so an episode never lasts long enough. I always finish an episode wanting more. (I feel the same way about Red Dwarf and Monty Python's Flying Circus, by the way.)

I won't call this great literature. It's science fiction, and it's fun, but it's not likely to change someone's life in any particularly critical way. If the genre appeals to you, particularly if you've seen the TV show or the movie and wanted more, then this book needs to get added to your collection. It won't end world hunger. It won't even explain all the loose ends in the series, but it will give you another dose of Firefly and that's a good thing.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

So, I hear you wonder, what the heck is Jeff doing reading a James Bond book? Consider it research. I wanted to understand how different the original book (first published in 1953) is from the relatively recent movie of the same name. Someday I want to do some serious writing, and this was a chance to consider the script writer's art in a particular way.

I enjoyed the movie. In my opinion it is the best Bond flick created so far, but I have a taste for realism, and most of them are so far over the top that all I can do is laugh. Don't get me wrong, this one was over the top as well, but it didn't ever get so crazy that my willing suspension of disbelief shut down all on it's own. The rest of the Bond flicks I've seen have that effect on me.

For its time, the book is reasonable, but as you can guess from that statement, it's also pretty dated. The enemy is communism and the Soviet Union, for example, and some of it just sounds silly to my ears, 55 years later. It's a quick read, but it suffers from a couple of plot holes, an odd slowness to the pacing, and a division into two parts that keeps the story from flowing well in my opinion. It was his first novel, though, and Fleming was probably still getting the writing business figured out. I'll cut him some slack. After all, he's published and I'm not.

For those who are curious about the differences between the novel and the movie, they are pretty significant, but it's not like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner. The entire opening sequence in the movie where Bond earns his double-zero status is not in the novel, nor is the chase scene where he eventually catches the bomber in the embassy. Obviously there's nothing about cellular phones in the book either.

The setting has changed - the book is set in France - and as previously mentioned the bad guys are Soviet instead of more modern money suppliers, guerrilla leaders, and thugs. Even the high stakes game is changed, from Baccarat in the novel to some flavor of poker in the movie. (Doug can no doubt tell me exactly what flavor of poker was used in the movie. That's not one of my specialties.)

But moving to what is the same, there is a symmetry to the overall plot that is still present. The character names are all there. The leading lady is reasonably independent for a woman in the 1950's, though she's a bit of a wall flower in some ways as well. The relationship between her and Bond is still complicated, and yes, she's still a double agent. Oh, and the torture sequence is still there as well. (Are all of the men reading this now doubled over, protectively? Smile. )

In all, the book and movie clearly are related. It's an interesting exercise to note the similarities and differences, however.

Overall I'd have to say that the book hasn't aged all that well. It's OK, but I wouldn't go out of your way to read it, and you probably won't see me review another Bond book. If, however, you're researching something specific that's different. I'm not all that serious about script writing, but my wife has this unpublished novel that I keep seeing pictures for in my head. I may have to adapt her unfinished work into a script for the heck of it one of these days. Who knows.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea
Mark Dunn

Back in 2007 I read Doug's review of Ella Minnow Pea and thought it sounded fun. I was right, and I thank Doug for pointing it out.

This little gem of a book will keep you reading from start to finish, probably without stopping. It's light hearted fun with a serious message as well, about authority and conformity.

In more detail, Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolic book - one written as a series of letters between the characters - about the island nation of Nollop, just off the eastern coast of he US. The citizens there owe a debt to Nevin Nollop, who created the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." And you know what that's famous for, right?

In the main town (named Nollopton, naturally) a statue of Nevin Nollop and his famous sentence begins to drop letters on the ground, and as it does so, the governing council decrees that those letters may no longer be used. At all. Anywhere. Those who do are punished severely.

The inhabitants of Nollop are a literate bunch, but they suffer from normal, human foibles. Some support the new order while others oppose it. Some of those work against it quietly, others go out in a blaze of linguistic glory. The novel is entirely composed of their correspondence, and it gets progressively funnier as letters continue to be deleted from the language. By the end I was sounding out words out loud to figure out what was going on, and I loved it!

This book made me laugh out loud many times. I read it in just a few hours, on a day that I also spent time at the DMV, something we all love so much. It's sweet reading after the horror that was The Satanic Verses. I will hand it off to my wife next, and I have a couple of friends who need to read it as well. Maybe my mom too.

Read it if you can. Highly recommended!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie

For weeks now I've been clawing my way through The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. For those only interested in the short and sweet, summary review, here it is:
I don't know nearly enough about India or Islam to have a clue about this book. I found it almost entirely unintelligible and nearly unreadable. At some level I'm sorry I took the time to finish it. I'm sure, however, that this says a lot more about me than it does about the book itself or its author.
With that out of the way, I'll give it the longer review it deserves.

For starters, I'd always wondered what caused the fatwa against Rushdie. Why all the fuss? And I'd heard glowing reviews of the book itself. That combination put it on my list of things to read "someday". Then, two reviews appeared in Doug's book review site:
  • Eisworth's review from December 2005, which increased my interest.
  • galactic_dev's review from February 2008, in which he says he didn't finish it. That didn't change my interest, but by then I already owned a copy of the book and was planning on reading it soon.
Well I've read it now. All 547 pages.

I should have known I was in trouble when the copy of the book I got came from someone I know who told me she couldn't finish it. She reads the way fish swim, so her statement should have set off alarm bells in my head. Live and learn, I guess.

Doug has some wonderful reviews of painful books in his Top 100 Novels review page. (This isn't that far off topic. Just bear with me for a moment.) You might enjoy his review of Ulysses, for example. His review of The Ambassadors is also relevant, as is his review of The Adventures of Augie March. These reviews give some insight into what it is like to read, from cover to cover, including every stinking word, a book you despise. I have not read Ulysses, The Ambassadors, or The Adventures of Augie March, so I can't really compare The Satanic Verses with them in any way, but I can say I feel Doug's pain much, much more clearly now that I've read it.

So what's it actually about? Well, two guys are in an airplane flying from London to India when it is blown up. However, instead of dying like everyone else, they are saved by some supernatural entity. In the process they are changed. One takes on the persona of an angel, the other a devil. Eventually there's a confrontation of sorts. Oh, and there are some dream sequences as well, that are probably in the mind of the angelic character. There are also some brief points where the author (I think) speaks to the reader directly. Very odd.

But that's a lousy description because it makes it sound like things actually happen. It's true, we do get a plane exploding in flight and the characters are saved. But after that, we have a LOT of pages of nothing going on. 500 pages - give or take - of nothing, that don't advance the plot (such as it is) in any way. Sentences - if you can call them that - sometimes go on for an entire page without saying anything useful or meaningful. I regularly had to back up - searching, possibly through several paragraph shaped objects - for the start of a sentence to see if I could figure out what it was about again.

And I'm sad to say the prose itself - even those bits that weren't formed of absurdly long sentences - wasn't that good. It really did border on unintelligible at times, and even when it wasn't quite that bad it was florid and meandering. Rushdie needed a visit from John Belushi as the Samurai editor in the worst possible way.

I did some additional research after finishing the book. I read a few reviews on and googled it as well, finding some good articles (or at least, I think they're good) on Wikipedia and elsewhere. I did this because despite the fact that I read every single sleep-inducing word on every single wasted page, I still didn't understand what was going on. Some of the dream sequences were hard to place in time, and their contents didn't mean much to me as a non-Indian, non-Muslim. I was, frankly, lost in a sea of text. And nothing explained the fatwa either.

It was only from that external reading that I learned some small bit about why some Muslims are so offended by the book. (Mind you, I think the fatwa is wrong on any number of levels, but I'm an atheist with little tolerance for religious zealotry, so that's not exactly a surprise.) The Wikipedia article about The Satanic Verses controversy is quite good, actually, and helped a lot.

But even though thirty minutes of outside reading had clarified what four weeks of banging my head against the brick wall that is this book left obscure, I'd still like to have the last month's reading time back. At various points I seriously considered dropping this thing and reading something - anything! - else, but then I'd fall back on my odd native optimism. I'd keep hoping something would give me an "aha!" moment. Just maybe something would leap out at me and I'd understand why Muslims hated it, or why critics liked it, or just what was going on. Alas, the book left me without any of that knowledge, as if I'd never read it at all, and it was Wikipedia that eventually explained it. I should have started there.

In conclusion, I must admit to being a poorly read buffoon. I lack the literary and cultural background to understand much of "Great Literature" - including The Satanic Verses - and my criticisms thereof are worth exactly nothing. Slogging through - and reviewing - this book has only reinforced that point, even for me. Oh well. If The Satanic Verses is an example of Great Literature - with or without the capital letters - then I'll happily keep on reading my lowbrow trash instead.