30 May 2011

Henry VI.

So, the reason I haven't posted anything in a few days is because I have been devouring Shakespeare's three-part epic, Henry VI. I am not kidding when I say "epic," here:  The plays have an incredibly high verse content -- such that I found myself unwittingly composing the next thing I would say in iambic pentameters -- and are each very long.

Of course, in the interests of honesty, I have to make a confession:  I read them because I couldn't -- and, for a few more days, at least, can't -- afford the fourth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. I have school to save for, you know? But this is pretty standard practice, for me. I read a pile of Shakespeare (six plays, as I recall) because I couldn't get my hands on The Sandman series. I read my classics for the wrong reasons, but still.

Henry VI -- all three of them -- forms the story of the profoundly troubled reign of the titular monarch, as one might expect. However, said monarch isn't in any of the plays all that much, and when he is, you wish he wasn't. He's regularly dismissed as being far too religiously inclined to be a king, and mostly is very bad at the job. (Incidentally, he comes off as far more concerned about the niceties of religious practice and doctrine than the Cardinal of Winchester, who has a private army and knows how to use it.) He's dull, and not very bright, and manages to escalate the War of the Roses by essentially saying, "Why do I care about your little symbols? I'm king." So... Rather a crap king.

However, he is surrounded by much more interesting characters, all scheming, though not all ill-intentioned:  In the first two plays, the Duke of Gloster (father of the better-known, more interesting one) is an excellent adviser; when he is shamed by his wife's ambition and witch-craft-dabbling, Henry's reign falls further down the tubes. On the other hand, he's got Somerset, who manages to arrange an utterly disastrous marriage with Margaret of Anjou, who, having cost Henry two crucial regions of France, proceeds to make up for it (kind of) by wearing the pants in the relationship. In spite of Somerset's hopes of controlling her, however, she soon gets shot of him, and she and Prince Edward, her son, kick some serious ass in the third part (witness, for example, this speech given by Margaret after her return from France with an army).

Of course, that is made more difficult by the arrival of my new favorite snarker, Richard, the future king. He appears in part two, and, by the end of the third part, the reader is thoroughly in his corner, as far as future kingship goes. Considering that -- in-universe, anyway -- he is described as having a withered hand, a hunched back, and legs that are two different lengths, the fact that he led a number of attacks in his father's name in the third part just makes him awesome. More awesome.

I could go on about the awesome characters (and I will take a minute to add that Joan of Arc is here portrayed as a demon-conjuring slut, which made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion). However, one of the most striking things about the Henry VI cycle is how very, very plot heavy it is. The edition in which I read the plays (one of a six-volume set of the Complete Shakespeare from the '30s, and mostly undistinguished) featured brief introductions to each of the plays, but these were mostly uncomplementary, and, in fact, complained about the plot-centric nature of the plays, calling the various kidnappings(!), imprisonments(!), intrigues(!) and battles(!!!) "tedious."

Needless to say, I thoroughly disagree. The quick pace and dense plot made the plays, for me, intensely readable, not to mention lots of fun. I couldn't have picked a better fix for court intrigue and armies of badasses, and, indeed, a certain element of fantasy -- demons are conjured, and duly appear, twice in the three plays, by Joan and by the Duchess of Gloster.

I'm not quite sure why the introductions to the plays were so thoroughly down on them. Sure, there aren't so many soliloquies as Hamlet, nor are the characters as closely-observed as in, say, Macbeth, but all three parts of Henry VI are very distinct from those two. Henry VI is, indeed, the work of a young man, and although it hints at similar themes -- compare the Duchess of Gloster's punishment with the madness of Lady Macbeth, and you'll find more than a little similarity -- it tells a different kind of story. For all the excellent characterization found in these plays, for all the excellent writing, this is storytelling at its finest.

Dense, complex plotting, rendered in language like monochrome brocade -- rich, but unobtrusive in its richness -- make all three parts of Henry VI well worth reading. (Also, I found Richard III really hard to follow, not having read these first.) If you, like me, are constantly broke, I highly recommend some Shakespeare to ease your pain.

Also, the always-awesome Micah Martin (for proof, see here) has begun posting what will, presumably, be a novel entitled Godhead of the Immortal Moth King. So far, he's got a great setting and some characters who look like they'll grow to be as fascinating as basilisks. Check it out, please.

18 May 2011

"Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover": An Object-Lesson

Remember that trip to Rennes I blogged about a while back? Remember how I said I bought some books while I was there, because it's a student town and there was a really cool second-hand book shop there?

Well, damn and blast if I didn't just get attacked with an old saw by one of those books.

The creature in question is The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce, by Mr. Paul Torday. Did you click on the link? Did you see that cover? Did you, too, think it might be kind of a Peter Mayle-ish deal, only in England? Did you read the blurb (which does absolutely nothing to dispel the illusion)? Did you see all the nice reviews from regular newspapers, not even especially literary ones, talking about how wonderful and poignant the book was? Okay, I'm not sure how much of this information, beyond the cover, actually appears on the Amazon page, but usually, if the Telegraph calls something a "good read," they mean, "suitable for your Grandma, and light and sweet enough for you to read on the train."

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not something I'd give to my Grandma. I wouldn't even give it to my mom. I wouldn't give it to anyone, for that matter, out of whom I didn't want to depress the Hell.

Because, at the beginning of the novel, we find Wilberforce, stumbling from a taxi and into a very expensive restaurant, buying and drinking all of two bottles of wine -- each of which cost 3000 pounds. He has, we discover in short order, already drunk three bottles of wine that day, and is eventually forced from the restaurant, or would have been had he not fallen into a three-day coma. (It gets worse and more awkward and more embarrassing from there.)

The novel, told in reverse chronological order (with sections titled "2006," "2004," "2003" and "2002"), is not an easy, nor a pleasant, nor even an enjoyable read. I couldn't finish the thing, mostly because -- as an inveterate end-reader -- I soon discovered that there would be no closure on the most recent part of the narrative. This annoyed me, and I almost stopped reading right then (i.e. around page 5). But I stuck it out -- for another two hundred pages, anyway -- and now, I'm annoyed.

Because the problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is not that it offers no solutions, no resolution and no ending. The problem with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce is that it's just so well written, so compelling in its voice and its narrative structure -- for the earlier part of the book, anyway -- that it was very difficult to put down. The first one hundred and fifty pages were ridiculously well-crafted. The narrator was so unstable and so unusual in the accuracy of his tone -- half whinging, half conspiratorial -- that the book might have been carried at least that far on the strength of that voice alone.

Unfortunately, the book flagged as the narrative went further into Wilberforce's past, and the reverse-chronological structure, it rapidly becomes apparent, was unnecessary. Maintaining the completely delusional voice of the first part of the book throughout its length would have been difficult, certainly, but Mr. Torday proved himself quite equal to the task in the most difficult part of the book -- i.e. the opening section -- that I feel annoyingly certain he could have kept it up. Revealing Wilberforce's through his degrading memory would have been far more interesting than showing us a train wreck in reverse. If Mr. Torday was truly wedded to the reverse-chronology thing, though, he really needed some kind of epilogue, afterward or whatever to tie up that most recent "vintage."

But seriously, also, don't judge this one by its cover.

In other reading news, I finished Richard III yesterday, and realized -- not for the first time -- that I read everything like fantasy. I really kept expecting Daenerys Targaryen to show up with some dragons, which I guess stands to reason since George R.R. Martin pulled from the Wars of the Roses, right down to -- if Shakespeare is to be believed -- the names.

Other than that, though, not much interesting. My distance learning courses are finished, and I am free to do nothing, except when I'm at work.

13 May 2011

Linky Dinks 2: Dreams Come True (and some review-ku)

In my ongoing series of blog-posts that-are-mostly-collections-of-links, here is one that starts off with cool news:  My review of Alasdair Paterson's On the Governing of Empires is up over at the Fortnightly Review! Such a wonderful collection of poems... I hope I was positive enough.

Also, since I've been watching a lot of movies lately, notice must be taken of the two most recent:  Breathless and Assassin in Love, a.k.a. The Baker.

In over-rated
Films, French people kill each other
While cameras dance.

Assassin in Love
Wales is too pretty,
But village silliness wins.
Michael Gambon, too.

I should probably mention, in connection with the latter, that it was very, very good, in spite of its crap title. Tight, funny and nicely shot (and featuring exploding sheep), it was well worth the watching. I highly recommend it. (Also, Michael Gambon, for whom I have quite a thing.) It reminded me a little of In Bruges, and, while not displacing that as one of my favorite movies, is certainly one I'll watch again.

Also, I have recently discovered the dubious joys of Esben and the Witch, and I would like to note that I say "dubious" in the sense of, "There's joy in those people?" Kind of ambient, pretty much all awesome, the band takes its name from a Danish fairy tale. Awesome as that is, it has nothing on the video for their lead single from the album Violet Cries, "Marching Song." Seriously, watch that thing. It's about as close to a film version of a Joe Abercrombie novel as you can get without just making a big damn movie of the First Law Trilogy.

That's about it, for now. Hopefully, more cool stuff will be showing up here. Who can say?

09 May 2011

Monks in the Movies.

Last night, I got to see Of Gods and Men, the French/Algerian production that's been winning all the awards, and which the French bishops (Catholic, bien sûr) have been urging their flocks to see. It was... erm...

Well, the story is that, at the Tibhirine Monastery in the mountains of Algeria, there are a double handful of monks, most of them older, but still very active in the community. They run the best hospital around, and the villagers help them out. Then the Algerian civil war kicks in, some terrorists start terrorizing both the locals and the monks, and the monks are urged to flee by both the Algerian military -- whose protection they refuse -- and the local mayor (I think). Instead, the monks stay, continuing to help the local people, and even treating some of the terrorists without question. When the head terrorist is killed, the abbot, Brother Christian (no, really) is called in to identify him. Eventually, all but two of the monks, who managed to hide, are abducted, held briefly for ransom from the French government and then beheaded.

As I say, the film's gotten lots of awards, and maybe it's better in the cinema. It's amazing that it's based on a true story (but then, aren't they all, these days?) but the technical problems of the film are myriad. In fact, it's a bit distressing that a film so poorly structured could win so many awards. Every shot went on for minutes at a time, it seemed. It didn't help that the film was shot like a horror movie and when there was a soundtrack, it was usually one or two guys chanting. This horror-movie-ish aspect leads the viewer to expect some kind of jump scene, some relief to the tension -- but tension, if it's poorly sustained over too long a period of time, just turns into boredom. The plot itself was so very slow moving, it was difficult, in places, to remember what had happened -- when, in fact, very little had in the first place.

The characters, also, were underdeveloped, and seriously, it took about an hour and forty-five minutes -- of a two-hour film -- to remember anyone but the abbot's name. Some of the characters themselves were interesting, but their role as characters was underplayed. Brother Luc, for example, the monastery's doctor -- an excellent character. According to the documentary included on the disc, he had joined that monastery some fifty years before the events of the film, and he had no intention of ever leaving. He was also, when he was allowed to open his mouth at all, very wry and full of good advice. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is one in which Brother Luc is giving advice to a young girl from the village who has sought his council. She's being married to a man she isn't especially interested in, but she approaches this in a very roundabout way, first asking the monk if he'd ever been in love. His responses are sweet and appropriate to a monk without being overbearing. Unfortunately, neither the subplot with the young girl -- who disappears midway through the film, never to return -- nor Brother Luc as a character are properly developed. He's memorable because he's interesting, but we never see his full potential.

Okay, so the plot was overextended and the characterization rough at best -- sounds par for the course. But more troubling, to me, was the ill-defined nature of the film's main idea. What precisely was Of Gods and Men trying to say? I still don't know. We learned a little about how the monks live their lives, but that wasn't point. There was some stuff about the Algerian civil war ('90s model), but that wasn't the point either.

The nail was, I think, stricken upon its head by my dear sister, who pointed out that everything the film said was exactly what everyone -- especially if "everyone" is French -- wants to hear. The Western -- or at least, non-Muslim -- way of life has value and beauty, but so does Islam and its followers. You can get along with terrorists (at least until they change leadership) by being nice and helping them when they're sick. The military is always bad. French girls shouldn't protest not being allowed to wear the veil in school if they want to -- girls in Algeria are (or were) getting killed for not wearing it in public. Essentially, it affirmed a lot of ideas that are not especially interesting, nor especially helpful, when dealing with religion. (Except the one about Islam and Christianity being of equal value and potential for good -- that stands, in my book.)

But if you're dead set on seeing a film about monks, just watch The Island, the Russian/French production that made the rounds a couple of years ago. It wasn't quite as recognized as Of Gods and Men, probably because the French episcopacy wasn't providing publicity for it, but it was much more thoughtful, its message was clearer -- and it was even funny.

08 May 2011

Hornets and Eagles

I spent the past weekend in Rennes, an old (settled by Romans) city in the middle of Brittany. I was there with my mom and sisters so my baby sister could take her SAT (on which I hope and pray that she did well). It's a beautiful, interesting, profoundly unusual kind of city, its heart a jumble of architectural styles that career wildly from Medieval half-timbered façades to 18th-century bourgeois to mid-20th-century brutality -- usually on the same block. The food was cheap but the clothes were expensive; the graffiti and the books were plentiful but it was a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the nearest grocery store. Weird place -- a made-up-seeming city.

But, more importantly (ha!) I saw two movies yesterday:  The Eagle and The Green Hornet.

Now, I have to admit that I've been kind of OD'ing on action comedy lately (mostly thanks to Burn Notice) and have been craving something more serious, more thoughtful. The Eagle provided me with that. I blogged about the book on which it's based, discussing the ambiguity of its position as a children's book, and some of its more interesting salient characteristics, including the status of its main character as a crippled action hero and the utter strangeness of the northern tribes.

I have to say, the film preserved the latter of these beautifully, using techniques both standard (seriously, does everyone who lives on a farm in Scotland squint suspiciously at all newcomers? Have they always done that?) and unusual (the Romans speak English with American accents; the northerners usually speak either old Gaelic of some variety, or English or Scots-accented English). The costuming was a lot of fun, especially on the few occasions when women were seen, and the landscape was beautifully rendered -- though most of the film was shot in Hungary, not Scotland/England as one might have hoped. Donald Sutherland put in an entertaining performance, but Jamie Bell and Channing Tatum both did fine work. Tatum's performance was a surprise to me -- since I knew him mostly from She's the Man, I was worried that he wouldn't be able to pull a character like Marcus off effectively. However, he did a very good job with both the script and the problems of acting in, y'know, short skirts and stuff.

The former salient quality -- Marcus' injury and its affect on his abilities -- was also well-handled. The film also emphasized his general helplessness north of the wall in a convincing manner. Not only was Marcus often in pain, sometimes outright limping and, towards the end, nearly unable to stand, but he was also completely at the mercy of his British slave, Esca, who may or may not be helping him. (Esca's moral position is actually more interesting than in the book in the film version -- we just don't know if he's trying to help Marcus or prevent him from doing what he's trying to do, and the confusion is much stronger than it ever was in the book.) Often, Marcus is seen to shout, "What is going on?" to Esca, who often just doesn't tell him. By the end of the film, of course, they're buddies -- fighting off blue-painted street punks-er, Seal People kind of does that -- but for the better part, Esca may or may not actively desire Marcus' death.

In many ways, The Eagle was an improvement on Sutcliff's novel. The plot was a great deal more satisfying in its conclusion, and the distinctly uncomfortable romantic element between Marcus and a thirteen-year-old girl(!) was dropped entirely. However, the film was remarkably close to the spirit of the book, in part through the filmmakers' use of a very paranoid, '70s style of filming and in part through the fact that, seriously, the northerners are wearing fur coats and no pants.

And then I came home, and saw The Green Hornet. All I can say is, the title could easily have been changed to Mystery Men 2:  Attack of the Idiot Playboy. However, like Mystery Men, The Green Hornet had some very sharp writing and ridiculously cool (emphasis on the "ridiculous," there) action sequences, as well as good performances all around. James Franco's uncredited cameo at the start of the film was very amusing, and Christoph Waltz stole pretty much every scene he was in.

However, I had singular difficulties with Seth Rogen's Britt Reid (a.k.a. the Green Hornet). The character was so thoroughly unpleasant and thoughtless that I really, really, really wanted Cato (or is it Kato -- anyway, Jay Chou's character) to punch him out for a week, and maybe kneecap him into the bargain. I just did not care about him at all. The performance was great -- but I'm not sure that that helped.

Anyway, long weekend. My shoulder is bruised; I have a bunch of stories in the submissions pipeline; I have maths homework to finish.

Coming soon:  Hopefully, a review of On the Governing of Empires by Alasdair Paterson in The Fortnightly Review.