Monday, October 29, 2007

Ghoulish Scenes for Halloween

On our walk in the bitter wind by the bay yesterday, Ickie and I discussed scary scenes from movies and books with relish. I dislike gore and horror flicks, but even as a child I had a slightly morbid sense of humor. When my dad would ask me to choose a bedtime story from our big children's bible, I always asked for Sodom and Gomorrah because it had the most action (I know, sick, but there you are.). I'm leaving our favorite scary movie scenes for Ickie to review, if it pleases him, and I'm going to mention my favorite written ones.

Jane Eyre: There are myriad reasons I love Jane Eyre, but one is for the gothic creepfest that is Mrs. Rochester. In the spookiest scene, Jane is in her bedroom at night, hears breathing through the keyhole, then fingernails scratching down her door. She realizes it's unlocked, quickly reaches to lock it, and immediately afterwards the would-be intruder violently rattles her doorknob and laughs maniacally in the passageway.

The Fellowship of the Ring: My dad agrees with me that although there are many scary parts of The Lord of the Rings series, the one that gives us the shudders is when Frodo and the other hobbits are being pursued through The Shire by the Black Riders (and their intent is still somewhat vague), and at one point Frodo hides in the woods with the road in sight. A Black Rider appears on the road, stops his horse, climbs stealthily off, and the hooded character creeps along the ground as though smelling the hobbits' tracks. In spite of the other scenes fraught with death and doom, it's the insidious presence of the Riders in the heretofore secure Shire that troubles me most.

The Golem's Eye: This book is the second and best book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, and it contains the one scene in the entire series that really won me over. In Westminster Abbey late at night, Kitty and her friends break into the crypt and unwittingly awake an insane afrit (an evil spirit animating a skeleton). Everyone flees, most of them are killed, but Kitty pauses by the abbey doors when she hears the voice of her friend echoing inside the dark church. She knows her friend is dead, and she knows the monster is mimicing his voice to trap and murder her. However, in a split second Kitty decides it would be morally wrong to abandon her friend's call for help and returns inside knowing it will mean her death. I find Westminster Abbey deliciously macabre even in the daytime, so it's a setting that easily affects me, but the moral dilemma raises it above an ordinary ghost story.

The Eyre Affair: Though the Thursday Next series is primarily comic, Acheron Hades is a villian who gives me the chills in a big way. Early in this first book, Thursday is responding to a crime scene. As an old woman flees the scene, Thursday suddenly remembers that Acheron's mind control abilities can make him appear as someone else. She watches as the old woman steps in a puddle and leaves a man's footprint, then turns her gun on the criminal. (Unfortunately, Acheron is impervious to bullets.)

Outside Over There: This picture book by Maurice Sendak is one I loved as a child, and the most horrifying scene is when Ida finds a ghastly foundling child carved of ice in the cradle and realizes her baby sister has been kidnapped by goblins.

The Book of Lost Things: The protagonist is confronted by a bloodthirsty wolf who stands on his hind legs and talks like a man, and you realize the creature is half and half, and a cannibal of both species. At the end of the book, the revelation of who the trickster character is also terrifying, but I won't give it away.

Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell: The Man with the Thistledown Hair. Enough said.

Also wonderfully frightening: "Mr. Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" (a short story from Susanna Clarke's collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu), The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix (I would have put this on this list but couldn't narrow it down to one scene), anything by Edward Gorey in which the Black Doll appears.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Travels Through the Wardrobe

When I was in the eighth grade, Mr. Whitney told us, "If you are assigned a book you've already read, don't mention it to the teacher. Read it again; you'll always find something new." Mr. Whitney was probably my most influential English teacher, whom I had in the sixth and eighth grades. He had a book shelf of classic novels (which he had bought), and we could choose one every two weeks to read and report on. He read out loud to us often, wrote as many helpful comments on as we wrote words in our writing assignments, and introduced us to Messrs. Strunk and White. He loved baseball, Thomas Jefferson, and good books, and he was definitely right about the rereading thing.

Generally, as soon as I've read a book, I know whether I'll reread it, and that drives me to purchase my own copy. I'm currently rereading The Chronicles of Narnia. I have two of the old paperback sets from 1970. You know them: The cover art is tacky, but I won't upgrade because they are in the proper order. I know some of you will disagree with me on this, but the magic starts in the wardrobe (I wrote my senior thesis partly on that, so I've devoted plenty of thought to the matter). When Ickie nags me about having two sets, I always answer, "One is mine, and one is for the children." (I think he assumes he'll have to share the second set with our fictional children.) I've reread these books more often and for longer than any others (since I was in the third grade), and they always fill me with joy and make me cry. Here are a few snippets I've enjoyed this time around.

A New Discovery: The Bastables are mentioned on the very first page of Magician's Nephew. The last time I read these, I wasn't yet familiar with Nesbit's Bastable children.
"In those days...the Bastables were looking for treasure in the Lewisham Road."

Droll Asides: I adore the way Lewis speaks directly to the reader to add in his own snide opinions. There are many instances, but my favorite one is in Dawn Treader.
"...when the Pevensie children had returned to Narnia last time for their second visit, it was (for the Narnians) as if King Arthur came back to Britain as some people say he will. And I say the sooner the better."

Residual Damage: If you've read Lewis's autobiography, you know that as a timid, bookish little fellow he was tormented by bullies at public school (boarding school). Ickie and I always appreciate his scathing description of Experiment House in Silver Chair. However, I don't recall noticing before how he attributes some of Edmund's behavior to public schooling in LW&W.
"When at last she [Lucy] was free to come back to Edmund she found him standing on his feet and not only healed of his wounds but looking better than she had seen him look--oh, for ages; in fact ever since his first term at that horrid school which was where he had begun to go wrong. He had become his real old self again and could look you in the face."
It makes me feel sorry for poor little Jack.

Close Encounters: I suppose if I can't get into Narnia myself, a trip to England must suffice.
"...just on this side of the stream lay the Lion. It lay with its head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square."
The Trafalgar Aslan is the right size too, unlike the too-small one in the movie.

Views on Marriage: Lewis's little summing up of mutual attraction at the end of Horse and His Boy cracks me up.
"Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I'm afraid even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently."

Happy Endings: Like Tolkien, Lewis is adept at tying adventures up in that tidy, charming English manner. Here's an example from Silver Chair:

"In the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled. After that, the Head's friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn't much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.
Eustace buried his fine clothes secretly one night in the school grounds, but Jill smuggled hers home and wore them at a fancy dress ball next holidays. And from that day forth things changed for the better at Experiment House, and it became quite a good school. And Jill and Eustace were always friends.
But far off in Narnia, King Rilian buried his father, Caspian the Navigator, Tenth of the name, and mourned for him. He himself ruled Narnia well and the land was happy in his days, though Puddlegum often pointed out that bright mornings brought on wet afternoons, and that you couldn't expect good times the last. The opening into the hillside was left open, and often in hot summer days the Narnians go in there with ships and lanterns and down to the water and sail to and fro, singing, on the cool, dark underground sea, telling each other stories of the cities that lie fathoms deep below. If ever you have the luck to go to Narnia yourself, do not forget to have a look at those caves."

(I really think he's mocking me with that last bit.)

Friday, October 19, 2007

Today's Grammar "Lesson"

In my short-lived job at the little local town newspaper, I spent a lot of my time deleting unnecessary quotation marks from submitted articles. So you can imagine how much I appreciate my new discovery: The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks.

If you are a grammar nerd like myself or even if you just enjoy misused quotation marks, you'll find some real gems here. Some of my favorites include: a sarcastic welcome to a business park, a birthday card recipient whose parents love him ironically, and a meditation on the nature of the Divine.

It bothers me that the blogger incorrectly places her end quotation marks inside commas and periods, but I've been trained to nitpick. We all make grammatical errors, some are just more hilarious than others.

Other fun sites mocking grammar errors: (I actually own one of their mouse pads and a shirt with an Engrish quote), Apostrophism, Why A Tittle?, Literally, A Web Log.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Green is Gold

The trees in our front yard are looking exceptional these days. Bravo, Nature, good show and all that.

Excerpt from To Autumn, James Thomson:

But see the fading many-colour’d Woods,
Shade deepening over Shade, the Country round
Imbrown; a crouded Umbrage, dusk, and dun,
Of every Hue, from wan declining Green
Too sooty Dark. These now the lonesome Muse,
Low—whispering, lead into their leaf-strown Walks,
And give the Season in its latest View.

Mean-time, light-shadowing all, a sober Calm
Fleeces unbounded Ether; whose least Wave
Stands tremulous, uncertain where to turn
The gentle Current; while, illumin’d wide,
The dewy-skirted Clouds imbibe the Sun,
And thro’ their lucid Veil his soften’d Force
Shed o’er the peaceful World. Then is the Time,
For those whom Wisdom and whom Nature charm,
To steal themselves from the degenerate Croud,
And soar above this little Scene of Things;
To tread low-thoughted Vice beneath their Feet;
To soothe the throbbing Passions into Peace;
And wooe lone Quiet in her silent Walks.

The pale descending Year, yet pleasing still,
A gentler Mood inspires; for now the Leaf
Incessant rustles from the mournful Grove,
Oft startling such as studious, walk below,
And slowly circles thro’ the waving Air.
But should a quicker Breeze amid the Boughs
Sob, O’er the Sky the leafy Deluge streams;
Till choak’d, and matted with the dreary Shower,
The Forest-Walks, at every rising Gale,
Roll wide the wither’d Waste, and whistle bleak.
Fled is the blasted Verdure of the fields;
And, shrunk into their Beds, the flowery Race
Their sunny Robes resign. Even what remain’d
Of bolder fruits falls from the naked Tree;
And Woods, Fields, Garden, Orchards, all around
The desolated Prospect thrills the Soul.

He comes! he comes! in every Breeze the Power
Of philosophic Melancholy comes!
His near Approach the sudden-starting Tear,
The soften’d Feature, and the beating Heart,
Pierc’d deep with many a virtuous Pang, declare.
O’er all the Soul his sacred Influence breathes;
Inflames Imagination; thro’ the Breast
Infuses every Tenderness; and far
Beyond dim Earth exalts the swelling Thought.
Ten thousand thousand fleet Ideas, such
As never mingled with the vulgar Dream,
Croud fast into the Mind’s creative Eye.

O, Curly-Tailed Muse, Tell Me a Tale of ... you know, stuff

Here's a great premise: After Circe transforms Odysseus's crew into pigs and back, one man is left in pig form. He's a pig with a destiny, and it's not herding sheep.

Paul Shipton's The Pig Scrolls is quite simply hilarious. Shipton uses sloppy American slang and British panache to toy with the conventions of epic poetry and Greek mythology. He instills the porcine Gryllus with a general aversion to adventure, monsters, the Olympians (who mostly act like petulant teens), and physical activity. He's your average lazy pig/guy: Often a coward (with thinly veiled but entertaining excuses for avoiding danger), he greets his doom in its manifold forms with snide comments and ridicule. His interview with the Sphinx is especially memorable, as is his attempt at stand-up comedy to a crowd of ancient Greek rednecks in a greasy kebab joint.

After soaking up several Wodehouse books chock full of masterful metaphors and banter, I continued to enjoy Gryllus's comically weak similies and scathing invectives. Here are just a few examples:

"'That kid brother o' mine reckons you speaks the Greek good as us, pig.' On present evidence, I spoke 'the Greek' considerably better, but before I had a chance to point this out, the man went on: 'Betwixt you and me, he ain't the brightest button on the tunic. But...if you does speak and you wants to save that pigskin o' yours, speak now, eh.' I couldn't help noticing that this voice lacked the warmth that is the hallmark of most successful first meetings."

"The mountain was majestic and awe-inspiring and all that stuff, but most of all it was big."

"By now Sibyl's patience had worn as thin as a flamingo's leggings."

"The giant hooded figure took a step forward. Its echoing footfall sounded like the executioner's ax connecting with bone. Or...well, I don't know what it sounded like, do I? Like NOT GOOD NEWS."

"She spoke softly, but her voice seemed loud in the silence that lay over the entire place, not like a nice warm blanket of silence but more like a funeral shroud or something equally creepy."

I found Scrolls in the children's section, but much of the linguistic and literary humor would probably go over a child's head (unless she has been immersed in the classics, and even then...let's just say this seems more geared toward teens and adults). The sequel is The Pig Who Saved the World, which I'm looking forward to reading as soon as I get my hands on a copy.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

If I Were Rich, I Know Where I'd Spend It

Yesterday we took an afternoon road trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to see The Darjeeling Limited and then loiter around Harvard Square. We spent a good amount of time in two excellent bookstores. The first was Curious George, a children's bookstore with an inspired selection and creative toys. The second was the Harvard COOP, a four-story giant filling two buildings and most of a city block. The new building is attractive inside with winding staircases and balconies lined with extensive inventory. Our time in book paradise started us reminiscing about some of our favorite bookstores across the world, and we made a long list. Here are just a few of those.

Beckham's, New Orleans: The first bookstore I visited that taught me how great a bookstore can be. I recall sitting in the aisle by the tall windows up on the second floor, perusing their C.S. Lewis offerings.

The Book House, St. Louis: We frequented many excellent bookstores in St. Louis, including another favorite, Left Bank, but upon my first visit to The Book House, I was charmed to discover the Poetry Nook upstairs, a tiny shelf-lined room with a dormer window and rocking chair. They also had several lazy cats in residence (my favorite was a fat, amiable Siamese named Chaucer) and a ghost (who was friendly, the owners were always quick to point out).

Blackwell's, Oxford, UK: Blackwell's is another enormous bookstore with a grand selection, including used copies on the top floor. For me, their strongest points are: 1. they are in Oxford, and 2. they offer literary tours of Oxford, including an Inklings Tour.

Schuler, Grand Rapids: Our favorite place to wile away the hours on a winter evening in Michigan, Schuler's looked a bit like a Border's but had more character, including snug leather chairs by a fireplace in the art section.

The Tattered Cover, Denver: This is the best bookshop name ever, although Ickie might argue in favor of L.A.'s Storyopolis. Either way, I visited The Tattered Cover on a snowy October day, and this warm old building with cozy chairs scattered about was so inviting.

City Lights, San Francisco: Not only a great bookstore, this is a historic site of the Beat movement. Although I always feel I'm not hip enough to be in here, I enjoy it nonetheless.

Book Soup, Los Angeles: This store seems too romantic for Beverly Hills, crammed close with shelves at odd angles. We found many many reading ideas here, and I appreciated that they let you climb the ladders to the upper shelves on your own.

Unnamed bookstore, Katoomba, Australia: I saved the best for last...if only I could remember its name! I spent a damp, cold, foggy day in the Blue Mountains of Australia, but wandering into this bookshop was an instant elixir. A genial, gray-bearded man greeted me with "Come right in! Look around." Tweedily clad, he was seated in a shabby armchair with his pipe in front of the fire. Only about half of his musty leather-bound books fit on the shelves; the rest were stacked helter-skelter around the small shop, where I wandered around exploring and feeling dreamy. This is how I'd always imagined the ideal bookshop.

There are many not included on this list, such as the manifold stores on Charing Cross Road in London. I haven't yet spent enough time in New York or Chicago to discover their best bookstores, and I've always heard that Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border is a Mecca for literary fiends, so my list needs expansion. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Coffee in a Bowl and Other Little Details

On Sunday, seated in a cozy booth by the window in a creperie in Quebec City, I was served a toothsome concoction of coffee, hot chocolate, whipped cream, and cinnamon in a white porcelain bowl. "I've never seen anyone drink coffee from a bowl before," said Ickie, as I sipped my Viennese coffee with a euphoric grin. "Yes, you have," I responded airily. "In The Bourne Identity, when they hide out at Marie's ex-boyfriend's country house, in the morning I am pretty sure you see the ex drinking coffee from a bowl."

Nevermind there is a brooding, bespectacled Clive Owen in a nearby field with his rifle trained on them, these are the kinds of details on which I fixate, only to reveal them unwittingly at a later time and embarrass myself in polite company.

I once had an argument that spanned several weeks with a close high school friend about which dress she wore to our eighth grade Christmas cotillion. Why was I interested in this? In the same vein, I'm still obsessed with a comment Angela from The Office made on the show two weeks ago when she deduced that Dwight had euthanized her cat, Sprinkles:

"Then why were there claw marks on ALL my bags of frozen french fries?"

There was a distinct emphasis on the all that suggests Angela has hundreds of bags of frozen french fries in her freezer. Why does she have so many frozen french fries? Why? For some reason this question keeps creeping back into my consciousness. I find it intriguingly ridiculous.

With that in mind, there is another reason a coffee-in-bowl reference lept to my mind. Ever since various decorative catalogs began featuring these footed bowls in delicate eggshell shades, I have been romanced by the image of drinking milky coffee out of a bowl early in the a.m. like a simple French peasant. This is the type of aesthetic that so adds to my enjoyment of things (be it food, books, church, etc.)--the inclusion of an object which carries with it a narrative scene in which I can imagine myself--this heightens my emotion. My coffee is comparatively humdrum in a regular mug or [shudder] a styrofoam cup. I can't imagine myself anywhere exciting with a styrofoam cup.

Quebec City was packed with charming details this weekend. It's thrilling to think we live just a half-day's drive from a medievally walled French town.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Love, Murder, Magic, and Pie

I am positively charmed by the new show Pushing Daisies. I didn't bother watching the pilot in real time this week because I thought the previews looked overly quirky and a bit silly. Heavens, was I ever wrong! Thanks to an alert from Jackamo, I went to ABC's website and watched the pilot in streaming video today, and I just love it.

Basically, the premise is that Ned (Lee Pace, the adorably snarky brother from Wonderfalls) can bring people back to life with a touch. If he touches this resurrected person again, they'll be dead for good. To complicate matters, if the second touch doesn't occur within a minute's time, someone else in proximity dies. Ridiculous? I know. But it works because it's a fairy tale.

Ned is a piemaker by trade. (He owns a bakery called "The Pie Hole," which is actually an idea I came up with about 6 years ago and failed to trademark. Boo.) He brings fruit back to life with a touch, which makes for killer pies, and the displays of radiant pastries are bliss for me, an obsessive pie-lover. He has a partnership on the side with a P.I. wherein he questions the recently deceased about their murderers and they collect the reward. The plot thickens when his childhood sweetheart, "Chuck," turns up murdered, and Ned can't bring himself to send her back to death.

The dialogue is well timed and amusing, and Lee Pace is earnest and funny as a lonely young man with a well-founded phobia of touching people. He and Chuck are endearing star-crossed lovers. They ache simply to hold hands, let alone kiss each other, a dynamic which not only adds tension to their romance but suggests the show has the option of staying pretty clean. (I'm looking forward to when he *hopefully* bakes her a pie in lieu of the embrace, a la the sensual meals in Like Water for Chocolate.)

The colors are so vivid. The jovial narrator and light-heartedly morbid humor are straight out of a Tim Burton tale, and the narrator's habit of referring to Ned as The Piemaker adds to the fairytale feel. The fantastical composition of scenes is strongly reminiscent of Burton's Big Fish (not to mention the circus performers), and rooms are decorated with an attention to detail not unlike Wes Anderson. There's a bit of the murder mystery thrown in, with a grouchy P.I. and Chuck clad in stylish trench coats. As you know from some of my other posts, I love it when a story can mix genres successfully.

I'm writing this with the hope that anyone who reads it will watch the show! Granted, I've only seen the pilot, but it has started off so well, and I'd hate to see it canceled due to low viewership. If you enjoy Tim Burton or the short-lived series Wonderfalls (from the same creator) or are just looking for something creative and out of the ordianary to watch on Wednesday nights, check it out. If you have high speed internet access, you can watch the pilot via streaming video on for free.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

In My Defense

I continually have to defend my decision to never watch Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations. People, I will never watch them. Stop looking at me incredulously and trying to convince me otherwise. When they were in preproduction, I watched the casting and hoped for the best, but at the same time I didn't want to see the movies because I didn't want Hollywood's images competing with the superior images I have in my head when I read my favorite trilogy. For those of you who think the on-screen version does justice to or surpasses your mental images, then for you I am sorry. I have seen enough clips to know. I wish I could invite you to hang out inside my brain while I'm reading them.

The second part of my argument is the one you hear me harp about all the time: Literature offers a different artistic medium than film, and Tolkien's is perfect as it is. It's too rich to translate. It offends me deeply when Hollywood thinks it can cut out all the history, linguistics, and poetry; delete or change parts of the plot; and manipulate characters, and somehow improve upon LOTR. Sometimes Hollywood gets it right, but this isn't one of those cases.

Anyhoo, I underwent that debate. Ickie and Jackamo, among other committed LOTR fans, saw The Fellowship of the Ring and brought back fairly positive reports with some reservations. Then they both came back with angry, disappointed reports about the 2nd movie. Ickie said the 3rd movie was the worst--ultimately boring for him; Jackie didn't even bother to see it in the theater. I trust these folks more than movie critics, and I feel utterly vindicated regarding my decision not to see them. Others (Hambone, my dad) also saw the movies and ultimately agreed I had made the right decision not to see them, at least for someone who is as voracious a fan as I.

Besides the reactions of my friends and family members, I remember being amused when the third movie came out and a critic (I can't recall who) described Elijah Wood (playing Frodo) as a "spoiled princess in a curly wig" and "a turd in the middle of a beautiful angel food cake." Tonight I read another excellent summation of the movies in an article listing several movies nominated for Oscars which should have won over those that did.

"The Return of the King skated right over [the deep places of the soul], trading the spare, almost tender, way that Tolkien crafted his characters for a slick, overly produced, ham-fisted drama that’s about as subtle as being struck in the back of the head by an actual copy of The Lord of the Rings."

Hear that, naysayers? "Ham-fisted." I rest my case.

Also, I think there could be a subtle allusion to this fight scene in The Bourne Ultimatum in there (a film series that greatly improves upon its source).

P.S. I did see the first Narnia movie two years ago, and it too was a disappointment. Aslan wasn't even close to big enough. I had none of the magical tingles I get when I read those books (especially when I read them for the first time in elementary school).