John Grisham’s Calico Joe

I finished up reading John Grisham’s Calico Joe last night. It was a very quick read.

Was it good? Yeah, it was pretty good. But what struck me is that it was just so goddamn *readable*. I bought the book because I had a flat tire on Sunday, and I desperately needed something to read in Canadian Tire while I waited for them to replace the wheel, after I’d hobbled in on the spare. Normally, I’d have no desire to read a book featuring baseball, but at Shopper’s I didn’t have a lot of options. Yet Calico Joe was actually very difficult to put down.

If I describe Grisham as *eminently readable,* am I plagiarizing something? I don’t know, but boy, Grisham sure is eminently readable. I had the same reaction reading Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, though, ironically, I actually didn’t finish that one. I think I will now, and I might even try his really popular books (The Firm, The Pelican Brief, etc., y’know, the ones that feature “lawyers and stuff,” and were made into movies), even though, again, the genre is not my cup of tea. At all. But I still want to read more, because I respect that skill.

It’s easy to slot Grisham in with various other airplane fiction fluff (Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, et al.). But actually writing a good book that’s impossible to put down is a skill to be respected. And I think Grisham does it better, if only because — of the books I’ve read — he doesn’t rely on traditional suspense techniques. Calico Joe is hard to put down, but there is no global conspiracy, no promise of either riches combined with dire risks of death for the protagonists, and no traditional McGuffin. You keep reading because you want to see Joe and Warren Tracey meet. That’s the hook. And by itself, who cares? Two fake baseball players meeting? Boring. But the novel itself makes the hook what it is. And I did care. That ain’t easy.

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The Grey (dir. Joe Carnahan)

The Grey (2012) is far better than I would have thought. The quote on the DVD box — “Terrifically exciting! Hold on tight! It’s a true call of the wild!” — really doesn’t do justice to the film. You know how when you finally get around to seeing the original Rocky (1976), and you discover that it’s actually a really somber, thoughtful film? The Grey is kind of like that, only along with being somber and thoughtful, somehow it’s also extremely ****ing tense, with explosions of violence and fear spread throughout.

If I had to sum it up (I don’t have to, but I will, I guess), I’d say it’s about how we deal with death: our own inevitable death and what we’ll leave behind, the death of loved ones, the death of those we barely know, and what death is, itself, as a concept. And a movie about death is, by definition, going to be a movie about life.

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Holden Caulfield Offers Some Random Thoughts About Battlestar Galactica

  • All those Cylons, they’re just a bunch of phonies. What’s their “plan,” anyways, for God’s sake? They don’t have a plan.
  • Every time the pilots walk in and out of the ready room they touch this black and white photo of a viper pilot on his goddamn knees or something. It’s funny, you know, but it’s also kind of sad.
  • I’d like to get real sexy with Number Six, I really would. I’m not oversexed or anything, but I can see why Gaius Baltar really likes her. Old Baltar, he’s a real sexy bastard.
  • Christ, I think I know how Lee and old Adama feel about Zak, Lee’s dead brother. I had a brother who died named Allie. Allie was a wizard. Allie never would have failed flight school, like Zak did. Boy, what do you do when you find out something like that about your dead brother, though, and that that’s why he died? Christ.
  • You know what I love? How all the corners of all the pieces of paper in the show are cut off. Every single one of them. That kills me. What’s the goddamn point of that, anyway? It kills me, it really does.
  • Sometimes when there’s a bad episode, and the writers know it’s bad, they’ll present everything in reverse order. They’ll show you an exciting scene right from the goddamn climax, and then jump back twenty-four hours or two days or something, as if that creates a bunch of extra tension. It’s so phony. I bet that’s what D.B. is doing in Hollywood right now. D.B.’s my brother. He’s out there prostituting himself, writing a bunch of television shows backwards.
  • I just watched the episode where Lee and Kara finally sleep with each other. In the movies, you’re always supposed to feel sexy when the two actors finally get together, like when Clark Gable finally gets with Carole Lombard. But I didn’t feel very sexy when Lee and Kara got together on New Caprica. I felt much more depressed than sexy, really.
  • Jeez, this fourth season, it depresses the hell out of me. Old Bill Adama, he’s just depressing. He’s not a bad guy or anything, but you don’t have to be a bad guy to be depressing. All you have to do to depress somebody is go from being the hardest, sternest and most dependable old guy in the fleet to puking all over yourself in your own goddamn bathroom right before you start crying. That’s depressing, it really is.
  • When Adama sat on that hill in the series finale, and Roslin had finally passed away because of her cancer, and you knew Adama and Roslin wouldn’t be able to live in that cabin together, I realized I was crying. I really was. But then after that scene there was this goddamn bit with Head-Six and Head-Baltar and some dancing robots for Chrissake! It was all really stupid and phony, so I got up and turned off the DVD, but I was still sort of crying. I swear to God I was. I don’t know why, but I was.
  • Everyone’s been asking me about the ending, especially this one literary academic guy who focuses in psychoanalysis. Even D.B. keeps asking me about it, but I don’t know what the hell to say to anybody. I sort of miss the show, now that it’s over. Even old “Black Market” and “The Woman King,” for instance. I think I even miss all those goddamn episodes that were edited backwards. It’s funny. You think you don’t care about a show during its final seasons, but then you start writing about it, and you start missing everything about the show all over again.
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Stargate SG-1: It’s a sitcom

I’ve been binging through Stargate SG-1 recently, and my theory is that the show is secretly a sitcom.

The sci-fi ideas in the show are not that innovative; some of the plot lines are quite bad; the effects are definitely not anything to write home about; the villains are just plain silly. But (but!) the show is occasionally very self-aware, and at the end of the day, you’re really just hanging out with some cool, amiable dudes explorin’ other planets (i.e., the forest just outside Vancouver). That’s it. That’s the heart of the show.

Do you want to watch Richard Dean Anderson chill out with his friends? Sure you do. The very best episodes are just O’Neill and the recurring character, Maybourne, going on wacky adventures around town, riffin’ on each other. There aren’t any stakes, no real danger. Oh, sure, Maybourne says he does lots of *bad stuff* and kind of hints towards some of the secret organizations he’s involved with, and for most episodes there is some lip-service paid to the end of the world or the threat of the Goa’uld or something, but we don’t really care. O’Neill and Maybourne might as well be trying to get to White Castle, since no one actually cares about whatever random MacGuffin they’re supposedly looking for (random ancient Egyptian artifact #56), and we don’t actually believe the earth is about to be invaded or destroyed in the middle of the season. (I should add, though, that we’re at a point now in television where I could imagine a show that would be able to make me believe this, which is pretty awesome, when you think about it.)

Mostly, it’s not O’Neill and Maybourne, unfortunately, but O’Neill and the rest of the SG-1 team: Carter, Daniel Jackson, and Teal’c. But the structure of the show is the same, and we watch for the same reasons. Sometimes the show tries to get serious for an episode, and sometimes it does indeed aim to pull on the heart strings. And it’s not always unsuccessful. But it earns those moments (when it does earn them) only via a bunch of episodes of banter between some friends that we learn to care about.

I haven’t watched Stargate: Atlantis of Stargate: Universe, and I’m debating whether to bother. I’ve heard that SGU gets a bit dark, relative to the rest of the franchise, but that it actually finds its own feet and gets pretty good in its second season, only to be cancelled. So, uh, I dunno.

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Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

I liked this movie. (Maybe from now on I’ll just post “hey, here’s a thing I liked.” Huzzah for low-content posts.)

This was my favourite exchange:

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Benicio (Kaden Leos) are watching cartoons while Irene (Carey Mulligan) gets ready.

The Driver:  Is he a bad guy?

Benicio: Yeah.

The Driver: How can you tell?

Benicio: Cuz. He… he’s a shark.

The Driver: There’s no good sharks?

Benicio: No. I mean, just look at him. Does he look like a good guy to you?

(The Driver doesn’t respond.)

Roger Ebert’s review of the movie has a pretty nice final line that sums things up well: “‘Drive’ looks like one kind of movie in the ads, and it is that kind of movie. It is also a rebuke to most of the movies it looks like. “

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Hey, so David Mitchell is really ****ing good

Yeah, that’s all, really.

I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet awhile back, and it was excellent. And then everyone I talked to about it said, “Have you read Cloud Atlas?? Read Cloud Atlas next! Do it! Read Cloud Atlas!” (By “everyone” I mean four people. But I think four people is actually kind of a large number of people to unanimously have the same “oh-you-like-this-author? Read-this-next!” recommendation.)

And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, okay, whatever.” And then I didn’t read Cloud Atlas. Or I didn’t, until I did, just this week, and it was also really good (read: excellent), and now I’m blogging about it and reading Ghostwritten (which is also excellent so far).

So that’s my opinion, Internet.

Oh, also: word on the street is they’re making a Cloud Atlas movie. That’ll be somethin’.

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The Passage by Justin Cronin

I am not a fan of the vampire craze in today’s media, because I think that vampires are being horribly misused. Being bitten by a vampire should be a very bad thing, not simply the means by which one gets a fun superpower. If you want to write about vampires, you can do whatever the hell you want, really, as long as you think about why it is that you’re doing it. Vampires can be beautiful or they can look like monsters; they can have super-strength or they can turn into bats. None of that matters as long as some forethought is put into what these choices mean for the story and the ideas that are being written about.

So, with that said, I enjoyed Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Vampires clearly constitute a major part of the novel, but the book is not just a collection of worn out tropes from vampire fiction. The Passage explains the various aspects of its vampires (pseudo) scientifically, in a way somewhat similar to Richard Matheson’s treatment of vampires in I Am Legend. That’s not necessary to a good vampire story, but it can be fun if handled well. And I’m not saying The Passage is even all that realistic (it’s not), but the book sets up the laws of its own universe and then it obeys those laws, which is good enough for me. Along with the scientific explanation behind the vampires, there are also things in the book that can’t rationally be explained and are actually very supernatural. There’s a nice mix, actually, of science and the supernatural.

What I think is most important is that the book is not a rehashing (or even a subverting) of the traditional tropes and clichés associated with vampires. The book uses the idea of vampires to tell the story it needs to tell, and in doing so it takes things in a unique direction, without lingering on the fact that it is doing so.

The novel is ambitious in its scope, chronicling both the fall of our world and the rise of a new one. This might cause a few readers to feel disappointed when familiar settings and characters are established only to be abandoned, but that is pretty central to what Cronin is doing. Once we “jump” suddenly to the post-apocalyptic world, there is a real sense that we’ve lost something. The world we know — the one established in the first section of the novel, with references to familiar brands like Walmart and McDonald’s —is very clearly gone. If Cronin had started the novel after the world had already ended, the effect would not be the same. In other words, yes, it sucks and it’s jarring that the world that was established is completley gone: that’s the point.

If there is one weakness in the novel it definitely lies in its pacing. In the middle third of the book things… just… slow down. There are about a half dozen events and excursions that could easily have been compressed into two or three. Thankfully, things do pick back up a bit towards the end. Some people seem to dislike the ending more than I do, but I thought it was pretty satisfying. It did not wrap up every question, but it did have a certain degree of closure for the present adventure. Since there are two more books in the trilogy (or whatever it is — I’ve heard the books might not be strictly chronological) it remains to be seen what the significance will be of some of those seemingly unnecessary events in those middle sections.

Each section of the novel (there are twelve: eleven plus a postscript, which makes for a significant number in this particular story) begins with a quotation from Shakespeare or Wordsworth or some other Western literary giant. One could debate whether the quotations are appropriate or empty ostentation (I think they’re appropriate), but it is clear that Cronin is dealing with many of the same themes as these writers. I mean, yeah, obviously Cronin ain’t no Shakespeare. This isn’t the best novel of our time or the decade or the year. But the metaphors and literary devices in The Passage are not just added in after the fact (which, according to On Writing, is basically Stephen King’s modus operandi). They’ve been carefully worked into the story right from the start and they are essential to it.

The questions and themes I’m referring to are ones relating to life and death, the certain degree of isolation inherent in human experience, as well as the possibility for human connection and sympathy. They may seem like obvious themes, especially for a genre that deals explicitly with life, death, and “the undead,” but it is still very rare for a work in the genre to deal with these questions in an intelligent, mature, or original manner (which is why most works in the genre are rubbish). But The Passage actually does deal with those questions, and it actually does so relatively intelligently. I’m hoping that the future installments in the trilogy (or series, or whatever it is) are equally up to the task of expanding on those questions and thinking about them in new ways.

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Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion)

“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in the lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do no work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothens and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” (Keats to Fanny in a lesson on poetry.)

Bright Star (2009) asks us to luxuriate, through our senses, in the experience of being in the film. The philosophy of accepting mystery and enjoying our time while we are “inside” the poem is reminiscent of John Keats’ actual theory of negative capability, but also to his “Ode to a Nightingale,” which Keats composes and narrates at one point about halfway through the movie. In “Ode to a Nightingale‚” the poet uses his imagination and the “wings of Poesy‚” (33) to temporarily enjoy being in a world of something better, higher, something not of our regular earthly existence, where “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies‚” (26). Later on in his experience, the word “Forlorn” brings the poet back to his more earthly senses, and the poem ends.

This betBright Starter, higher world is the one inhabited and embodied by Keats in Bright Star, and our experience with him is only brief. At the beginning of the film, we are concerned with the death of Keats’s brother (the youth in the Ode who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies‚”). Briefly, we experience the courtship between Keats and Fanny, and their somewhat idealized love. Keats, attempting to describe his feelings to Fanny, says, ‚”I want a brighter word than bright, fairer word than fair.” The end of the film brings us back to reality: Keats is often abroad, unreachable, while Fanny is forlorn. Keats grows sick and dies.

Fellow poet Brown recognizes that Keats is the better writer. But Keats is also a better man, who lives up to a higher ideal. While Keats refuses to breach the walls of propriety with Fanny, Brown impregnates a maid. “With what ease you help yourself,” Keats notes, not angry, but genuinely perplexed. Later in the film, Brown too will realize that the difference between the two men goes beyond their skill in poetry.

The film touches only briefly on the agony and depression that Keats suffered, and their effects upon his mental health. Its focus is on the beauty of his life. The imagery is often of the English countryside; gentles breezes coming in through open windows cause white curtains to flutter carelessly, like the butterflies that Fanny and her sisters start collecting. The soundtrack makes you want to close your eyes and luxuriate in the music, as Keats does when he listens to the singing nightingale and composes his ode.

Keats died at the age of 25 (a horrible, long suffering death), yet he became one of the great English poets, on only a small body of work. Keats wrote “Bright Star” about Fanny, but the title of the film might equally apply to either Fanny or Keats, or simply to their experience together. Percy Shelley’s famous elegy for Keats ends: “The soul of Adonais, like a star, / Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are‚” (495-496). We look back on the short life of Keats, and see in him the embodiment of a Romantic ideal, a bright star. Whether that is at all fair to the man that Keats really was, I’m not sure.

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