Friday, December 31, 2010

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: BAD WRITING Trailer

Here's the listings of screenings of Bad Writing, which looks awesome.   Unfortunately for me, the closest it's coming to Houston is Austin (although who's surprised about that, really?).

The Preponderance of Plot Devices

plot de*vice: (noun) an object or character in a story whose sole purpose is to advance the plot of the story, or alternatively to overcome some difficulty in the plot.  (Wikipedia)

Here's the thing: I have no problem with well-done plot devices in film.  When Indiana Jones' dad got shot in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, forcing Indy into the death trap in search of the Holy Grail, I didn't and still don't bat an eyelash.  Even if it were weak (which some might argue the plethora of Nazis was), it would still only be one weak plot device in an otherwise kickass movie.

Not so with Knight and Day, which I made the mistake of watching recently.  This movie stunk-with-a-capital-S, due, surprisingly enough, not to Diaz's horrible acting but instead to the lousy writing and absolute dependence on recurring lame plot devices.  (SPOILER WARNING, although I doubt anything could spoil a movie that is already the worst movie I've seen since Gothic.)  

THE THIRD WORST PLOT DEVICE I'VE EVER SEEN: Is Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) a bad guy or isn't he?  Follow along with June Havens (Cameron Diaz) as she tries to find out!  (Well, all right, I can't complain about this too much since it played a part in my beloved Princess Bride, but if you're going to go this route, the rest of the movie should be as yummy as Cary Elwes' bare chest in the Pit of Despair.)

THE SECOND WORST PLOT DEVICE I'VE EVER SEEN: In the second half of the movie, June suddenly develops some kind of skill at hand-to-hand fighting (which she's never even hinted at before) in order that she can roll around with Roy in what were undoubtedly meant to be sexual tension-laden scenes but instead induced only near-fatal eye rollings.

THE WORST PLOT DEVICE I'VE EVER SEEN:  Finally, what was unforgivable even to this "please let me suspend disbelief" junkie, throughout the film, Roy Miller drugs June Havens in an effort to (a) move the plot to another continent in a short period of time, and (b) to show brief flickers of dangerous situations without the high cost of special effects.  It came off as lame and cliche, not wry and ironic.

I guess my point is, if you're a Hollywood screenwriter, go easy on the plot devices.  And if you're not a Hollywood screenwriter, don't ever watch Knight and Day.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Not-So-"Literary" But Still Totally Awesome: Sir Ian McKellen on Acting

Review: What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, by Malcolm Gladwell

When I first picked up Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, I wasn't entirely aware that it was a collection of some of his pieces written for The New Yorker--all I knew was that I had enjoyed Outliers and the woman who worked at the Barnes and Noble said that What the Dog Saw was very popular... note, she didn't say that it was good, she said it was purchased a lot, presumably by people who hadn't yet read it.

That isn't to say that it wasn't good, but as it was a collection of stand-alone pieces over the course of several years, it was a little less organized from a big-picture point of view than I would have liked.  While several of the pieces stood out as particulary interesting (most notably, from my point of view, "Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?" and "Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?"), there was little in the way of an overarching theme that encompassed every piece in the book, and the So what? factor was lacking.  In addition, I think that the essays in the final section of the book would have served better as an introduction to some of the ideas discussed in the essays in the first section, so that a different order may have been a little more coherent to a reader who was not yet exposed to some of the issues he was discussing.

On the other hand, What the Dog Saw would make excellent airport reading, as each piece stands alone, and the book can be picked up and put down fairly easily with little commitment.  Therefore, depending on what you're hoping to get from your book reading experience, What the Dog Saw will either prove to be perfect or slightly lacking. 

500 Posts!

While 500 posts sounds like a lot of work (and actually is, if you figure at least five minutes a post), what I find interesting about all of this are the top Not-So-Gentle posts of all time:
  1. Friday Featured Comic: The Bronte Sisters: viewed 860 times.

    Say, what?  My top post is a comic by Kate Beaton?  Talk about demeaning.

  2. A Feminist Reading of Cormac McArthy's The Road: viewed 537 times.

    Well, that's a little bit better, especially since this was a post I struggled to write and actually sweated bullets of intellect over.

  3. Review: The Magus, by John Fowles: viewed 348 times.

    I think this goes to show that there isn't really enough out there about The Magus... because I really didn't say anything earth shattering about it.

  4. Killing Time Online: Hot Guys Reading: viewed 161 times.

    Um... yeah.

  5. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: viewed 150 times.

    And... I contributed nothing to this.  Nothing.
I guess these 2057 page views act as a lesson for all of us about page views: mainly, that you can't guarantee that something that is well-written will get you as many page views as putting "dude watching" or "hot guys" in the subject line. Sigh.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: The Illustrated Communist Manifesto

Hey, you commie bastards, check out the comic book trailer for the Illustrated Communist Manifesto.  It is appropriately dramatic and proletariat, comrades.

A Long-Winded Support of Long Sentences

I guess there's something to be said for very long sentences, for complex thoughts and musings in the manner of Victor Hugo or James Joyce, for a stream-of-consciousness type of communication that allows for something more than the "I just pooped" mentality of the modern Tweet, for a way of artistically sculpting the concentration of the reader rather than whipping it to attention in a series of bullet points and numbered and sub-numbered addendums that allow for nothing more than the transmittal of facts and information (much like the scrolling banner at the bottom of the screen that lists dates and numbers while the talking head of whichever corporate media channel you happen to be watching spews punditry and bias based on what the share holders want to hear--but never in sentences longer than seven or nine words, because the average American is at an eighth grade reading level, so God only knows what listening level we're all at) because, as you know or as you should know, facts and information are not at all the same thing as knowledge and understanding, and I really think that School House Rock should have been just a bit more specific when telling American youth that knowledge is power without defining either knowledge or power, so that we watch TV and get statistics from forwarded emails and feel superior and smarter for having "learned" something, when actually all we've done is memorized something from a dubious source; in fact, I bet that most statistics are made up anyway, but I can't cite a source for that, it's just a gut hunch that is probably true (and I trust my gut hunches far more than I do statistics from the news any day of the week and twice on Sundays), and although I'll admit that a long sentence generally forms a formidable block of text that is probably intimidating to someone with an eighth grade reading level, there's something so limiting and final to a period, as though there's nothing more to be added to the sentence (which, as I'm sure you know is defined as "a grammatical unit of one or more words, bearing minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it, often preceded and followed in speech by pauses, having one of a small number of characteristic intonation patterns, and typically expressing an independent statement, question, request, command, etc.," and has no maximum number of words or characters to be defined as a sentence in the first place, which is really a good thing for Thomas Hardy and Mary Shelley, although it is interesting that it is "followed in speech by pauses," which is really what periods are meant to suggest anyway--they're a pause for breath in between thoughts and musings, not an end to the first thought with the second beginning with a capital letter, with no real connection between them, although anyone who's taken English Comp knows that there has to some kind of flow between them, it's just a matter of determining how much flow (and how strong of a pause for mental breath) there should be, of how much thought should fit between the pauses, and of how much you want your reader to remember... because when faced with six hundred words in a single sentence, the only thing your reader is likely to remember is thinking, "Uh oh."

Wednesday Dog Ears

This week's Dog Ears feature a crowdsourcing project I might actually be able to get behind, as well as yet another example of a book deal gone horribly wrong:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Killing Time Online: Gladwell.com

A-ha!  I should have known Malcolm Gladwell would have blog.  I looooove the internet.

The Myth of Genius and Youth

As some of you may know, I find the cultural assumptions surrounding the idea of genius to be fascinating--what we think about the appearance of genius, what we assume about it, and who we think has it.  Therefore, I was predisposed to enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's "Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?"

Gladwell explores the difference between early-onset genius and late blooming genius, noting,  "Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity--doing something truly creative, we're inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance of youth."  When we think of genius, we imagine Beethoven publishing his first composition at 13, or John Keats, whose poetry was published at age 21. 

Gladwell, however, points out that this is just one type of "genius,"   referencing David Galenson's work, a University of Chicago economist, who polled literary scholars to find out which poems were, in their opinions, most important to American literary canon.  Galenson then traced how old the poets were when those poems were created.  He found no connection between the "best" poems and youth, instead defining two types of creativity: conceptual (in which a person immediately finds his or her own particular brand of genius) and experimental (in which a person experiments for years and years before finally "discovering" this genius).

What gives me (and probably anyone else who has ever aspired to create something new and fresh) both hope and a bit of consternation, however, is this: "On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revisiting and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all."  It is only by putting in years of hard work that one can discover he or she is just spinning the wheels of creativity, or whether discovery is just around the corner.

It kind of makes me wish I was still working on my various novels.  I'm never going to discover my genius without them.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hardback Laptops

Hey, you!  Want a cool book cover for your MacBook or iPad ?  Here you go.

(Unfortunately I'm not hip enough to own a MacBook, but I'm sorely tempted to get one for my Vaio, despite the lack of a guarantee.)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Verily...

It's not often you find Chaucer-era jokes in today's culture of reality TV and plastic surgery, so even though this isn't technically literary, I'm still stealing it.

Google Analytics is a Girl's Best Friend, Part II

Just for shits and giggles, here are some of the search engine keywords which have brought viewers to Not-So-Gentle Reader over the last month, in no particular order.  I think stuff like this is so interesting...
1)  "dickens galveston disappointed steampunk"

You mean I'm not the only one who was disappointed in Dickens on the Strand this year?  What a shocker.

2) "feynman diagram of geeks and nerds"

Unfortunately for whoever performed this search, I've written about both Feynman and geeks and nerds, but never in the same post...until now.  (If that person searches again, s/he is bound to get doubly irritated now.)

3) "gentle drinking game"

If that person was really looking for a "gentle" drinking game, s/he was probably a little put-off by the not-so-gentle rules s/he found here.

4) "review the servant james hunter"

I hope to God this was James C. Hunter googling himself, because he can suck it.

5)  "prose hos"

I never did have much to say about this, but I think the urban dictionary definition is kind of funny: "The choice of the written word over the lowliest ho."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Review: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde

I was intrigued when I stumbled across Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World  the other day; it sounded like just my cup of tea, and the blurbs by David Foster Wallace and Margaret Atwood on the front cover were even more alluring.

The book started off strongly, telling me what it would tell me and promising to explore the relationship between the creation of art and the world of commerce--as well as, more aptly in my case, the creation of art that is not appreciated by the world of commerce.

Unfortunately, the book never quite measured up to how awesome I thought it should be--Lewis completely drops the thesis of "art vs. commerce, eros vs. logos" and instead explores the ideas of gifts throughout world cultures, using folklore and fairy tales as his primary source of citation.  While this may be interesting in its own right, I was in no mood to read about usury in the Old Testament and eventually skipped straight to the second half of the book.

The introduction to the second half hinted at what I wanted to read about, and provided some good food-for-thought, but then jumped into an entire chapter on Walt Whitman, followed by a chapter on Ezra Pound, diving, in my opinion, too deep into these two artists' views on the subject and not spending enough time on the views of other writers and artists. 

The conclusion of the novel loops back around and ties back into the ideas that initially attracted to me, but by this point I was so fed up with Lewis' teasing that I had given up all hope for the novel.  I am incredibly disappointed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Shameless Shilling of Product Placement in Novels (and Literary Blogs)

I may be the only person in North America and Europe who hasn't yet read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I wasn't previously aware of how heavily Apple product placement featured in Stieg Larsen's series--in fact, I had never heard of product placement in novels before a couple of days ago.  Seriously, what the hell is this:
"Unsurprisingly she set her sights on the best available alternative: the new Apple PowerBook G4/1.0 GHz in an aluminum case with a PowerPC 7451 processor with an AltiVec Velocity Engine, 960 MB RAM and a 60 GB hard drive. It had BlueTooth and built-in CD and DVD burners.
Best of all, it had the first 17-inch screen in the laptop world with NVIDIA graphics and a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels, which shook the PC advocates and outranked everything else on the market.
In terms of hardware, it was the Rolls-Royce of portable computers, but what really triggered Salander’s need to have it was the simple feature that the keyboard was equipped with backlighting, so that she could see the letters even if it was pitch dark. So simple. Why had no-one thought of that before?
It was love at first sight."
Am I the only person who is completely turned off by this crap?  Yes?  Then expect more of it in the future from yours truly.  I need to make some moolah.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesday Dog Ears

For some reason, this week's Dog Ears are kind of depressing me.  Of course, that could be because this is the last week before I fly home for Christmas and it's draaaaaagging.

Killing Time Online: Spelling Fails

Bored?  Then check out Spelling Fails and get the opportunity to feel superior, which is one of my favorite feelings in the world.

I kid, I kid.  But seriously.  Check it out.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

'Tis the Season to Write a Shitload of Lists

Happy Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, (late) Hanukkah, and New Year! 

It's that time of year again when respected publications like The New York Times and NPR spit out lists about the best books of the year, and readers like me (and maybe even you) look over their numbers and feel inadequate because I (and maybe you) never quite got around to reading any of them.

Here's the list of problems I've decided I have with lists like these:
  • In order for me to believe them, they have to be written by someone who has read every book that came out this year, which I find difficult to believe;
  • The lists don't define what "best" means, which is frustrating for those of us who haven't read any of them and maybe haven't even heard of some of them and are trying to decide which one of them to pick up;
  • Too often the list includes fiction and nonfiction, which is like comparing apples and oranges; and
  • They annoy me.
I won't be writing any more Not-So-Gentle Reader  lists anytime soon.  I do so hate to annoy people.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I Don't Read Mystery Novels

"You've tricked and fooled your readers for years. You've tortured us all with surprise endings that made no sense. You've introduced characters in the last five pages that were never in the book before. You've withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it." 
                    --Lionel Twain, Murder by Death (1976)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: Angela's Ashes (1999)

"When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how my brothers and I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood. The happy childhood is hardly worth telling. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. And worse still is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

The interesting thing about Alan Parker's adaptation of Angela's Ashes is that, while it manages to stay incredibly true to Frank McCourt's autobiography, it isn't nearly as depressing. 

The film is beautiful and the actors are awesome, so let me get that out of the way right now.  What I was particularly interested in was the difference in the general tone of the movie.  When reading the book, one of the things that struck me most was an overwhelming sense of isolation--Frankie was different than the kids around him, smart and driven in a way that his schoolmates didn't seem to be,  He started work at 13, a heavy burden for a prepubescent, and he left his mother's house to move in with an uncle who had no food to spare.  Maybe I was reading too much into it, but the whole book seemed to me to be incredibly lonely.

Not so with the film.  It captures the same too-many-kids, too-little-money problems, but Frankie is anything but alone.  Throughout the film, he is generally surrounded by friends or schoolmates, as well as his younger brother Malachy.  If anything, there are too many people rather than too few, and Frankie's differences make him stand out from the crowd rather than being singled out more than anyone else. 

With this tapestry as the background, then, the myriad deaths and illnesses appear more to be obstacles to be surmounted rather than God smacking Frank around, which was how I read it in the book.  The movie somehow manages to be about survival and is ultimately uplifting.   Add that to McCourt's lyrical language (which comes across superbly on film), and this is a movie I would highly recommend.  It was so good that now I want to go back and re-read the novel, something six months ago I would have sworn I would never do.

You should watch this.

The State of Current Affairs in the State of Texas

I have one word for you: aaaaaaaah!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Thousand Words is Worth a Picture


This is what happens when it takes you a year to read a book because it's 700 pages long and you carry it with you everywhere you go. 

Note: I have never trashed a book before, and I hope to never again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Cult of Jane Austen

This weekend, I finally got around to watching The Jane Austen Book Club, a 2007 film based on the 2004 novel of the same name.  Let me preface this by saying my expectations weren't high--from what I remembered of the trailers, the movie promised to be chicklit desperately clinging to Jane Austen's pettycoats.  I regret to report that this is exactly what it was.

I love reading Jane Austen.  I have marked up my copies of Persuasion and Sene and Sensibility, and there's something so comforting about watching Colin Firth play Mr. Darcy on a rainy afternoon.  However... I find it hard to believe that every conversation these women had over the course of six months revolved around Jane Austen's novels.  I could not suspend disbelief long enough to tolerate the idea of Persuasion saving a doomed marriage.  I shuddered when the words "What Would Jane Do?" flashed across the screen in an epiphany for one of the characters.

"What Would Jane Do?"  Really?

The Complete Works of Jane Austen is not the Bible.  While the novels do provide a certain guidance on appropriate behavior for women, they do not impart deep life lessons.  I've often argued that Austen includes more social commentary than many would give her credit for, but I have never even thought that a person should base all of his or her decisions on Emma or Mansfield Park.  Why not?  Because that's not the point or her work.

To me, reading Jane Austen is like eating organic apple sauce.  It tastes good without being too sweet, it's good for me, and I could eat it all day.  It is not, however, Holy Communion.  Why can't there be a middle ground when we talk about this stuff?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Litvlog Sing Along: To a Sky-Lark

Here's the newest of Not-So-Gentle Reader's litvlog sing alongs, this one inspired by the Shelley's Ghost video competition.  If you want to make your own video entry, the competition will be open until March.

Needless to say, I didn't write the lyrics to this one.


Review: Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

My brother recommended this book to me, and while I was a little hesitant to pick it up (because fiction is much more my style, generally), I can't say enough good things about this book.  Seriously.  Speaking as someone who is finding herself having to read "professional" nonfiction, Gladwell is an excellent writer with the uncanny ability to tie statistics to stories to make an easy and interesting read.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell seeks to understand why some people are successful.  Americans have long bought into the rags-to-riches story of personal success, i.e. "I worked hard and made it in the real world."  While Gladwell doesn't discount the idea of hard work = success, he does find that all too often, it is the set of circumstances behind a person that has just as much of an influence on his/her success in a given field.

For example, Bill Gates is brilliant and worked hard and is now a zillionaire.  No one would argue with that.  What some poeple might not realize, however, is that Gates had an early exposure to software development that paved the way for him to become an expert at programming when he was still a teenager, an exposure that had as much to do with his success as his work ethic and brains. 

The book is filled with examples of how circumstances dictate success--the old, "Luck is opportunity meeting preparation" adage springs often to mind.  The only (minor) complaint I have about Outliers is about the "so what" factor.  From what I understand, a log of Gladwell's other work is psychological in nature with a dash of self-help.  Outliers is much more political in nature, pointing out that where kids go to school can have everything to do with their success in life--but it stops just short of being a manifesto.  He doesn't call for reformation so much as point out that inadequacies exist, and some might say he's just giving fodder to those chip-on-the-shoulder individuals who might read it.

Still, it's an excellent read, even for those of you who, like me, generally prefer fiction.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Short Short Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Did I mention that I finally finished Middlemarch?  Probably not, because I was waiting until I had something valuable to say about it, but it's been two months and I still have nothing to add other than thank God that's over.  I've written before about how long it was taking me to read it, and that was over a year ago. 

Awesome book, but it really could have been trimmed significantly.  Hence the fireworks:

Litvlog Sing Alongs: historyteachers on youtube

A-ha!  I have at last found another example of litvlog singalongs online.  Check out the youtube channel for historyteachers, which has 48 different music videos exploring different parts of history, which they describe as being "Music videos we made to make teaching history more fun."  (Obviously not all of them are literary, but enough of them are to be well worth checking out even if you're not a history buff.)

What makes them noteworthy, though, is that (a) the videos are incredibly well made; and (b) the videos are all pretty different from each other.

I freaking love this kind of stuff. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ye Olde Wednesday Dog Ears

For old times' sake (and by "old times," I mean like six months ago,) here are Ye Olde Dog Ears:

  • The New York Times reports that researchers at George Mason University are "Analyzing [Victorian] Literature by Words and Numbers."  What I found most interesting about the article (apart from some of the findings, of course) was that the two researchers in question are historians of science--it's yet another example of science leading to history leading to literature leading to computer programming leading to awesome!
  • I know the Romantics =/= Victorian, but there's a really cool virtual exhibition of Shelley's Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, an exhibition at the Bodleian Library (collaborating with the New York Public Library).  So jealous I can't go to the real exhibit, because I would be able to die happy on the spot, but the site does an excellent job tracing the relationships of Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley.
  • Finally, here's part one of one of my favorite Victorian Christmas specials ever, Blackadder's Christmas Carol, in which the nicest man in all of England receives ghostly visitations that convince him that it's ultimately better to be naughty:

Monday, December 6, 2010

Dickens on the Strand: The Most Disappointing Victorian-Themed Festival I've Ever Been To

... all right, so it's the only Victorian-themed festival I've ever been to, but this weekend's Dickens on the Strand in Galveston was so much less than I thought it would be in so many ways.

I've never been that much a Dickens fan, anyway, having always considered myself a Hardy Girl.  (Pun intended, Hardy har har.  Oh, and that one was intended too.)  When I heard that there would be a two-day festival in Galveston, though, I was intrigued despite myself and talked a friend into going with me.

The "festival," if it can be called that, was basically a bunch of vendors from the Renaissance Faire (and I mean straight from the Renaissance Faire, down to the dragon necklaces) interspersed between vendors from the carnival (and I mean straight from the carnival, down to the funnel cakes).  While there were some people in costume, about a third of them were in costumes from an entirely different era in history--the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for the most part. 

The Confederate army (including tents and horses) was there recruiting for God knows what battle reenactment,(correct time period, wrong continent).  There were cowboys and pirates that made the Steampunk section look positively historically accurate, to the point that I had to wonder how many people at the Dickens fair actually knew anything about the man of the hour. 

The only redeeming factor of the day was when we wandered into an antique store and I found a used book on Byron and Shelley's time in Pisa... and, yes, I know that Charles Dickens was only about seven years old in 1819 so even that wasn't particularly Victorian.  However, I comfort myself with the fact that, had he been there, C.L. Cline (author of Byron, Shelley, and Their Pisan Circle) would probably have been complaining about the historical inaccuracies right along side of me... because I'm sure I annoyed my hapless friend, who probably regretted his decision to come in the first place.
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