May 25, 2006

Review of Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman

When the thick manila envelope containing a pre-release copy of Jeremy Blachman's Anonymous Lawyer arrived at my apartment the day before graduation, I have to admit to both excitement and nervousness. On the one hand, no one had ever asked me for a review before, certainly not a pre-release one, so I felt a bit puffed-up in the chest. On the other hand, unlike some of my friends, I never really got into Anonymous Lawyer the Blog.

I'd wander over to the website every so often whenever a classmate would chirp, "You should see what AL is saying." And yet the blog never made my sidebar and I was never a daily reader. Sure, AL was a villain, and I like villains, but to enjoy reading about one I have to have some way of feeling sympathy for the character. I never found that hook with Anonymous Lawyer. The writing was funny more than occasionally, but the online persona seemed unrelievedly grim: a fifty-something sadist with the maturity of a pampered eight-year-old recounting either his sorrows or how he would take them out on those less powerful than he. [1] After reading a few entries, any form of empathy became impossible.

There was also the anonymity thing. As my readers know, I distrust anonymity in bloggers. Yet when Anonymous Lawyer was the hot thing online, the mystery surrounding the author's identity attracted as much attention as anything he said. Was he really a partner at a firm? A frustrated associate? As everyone now knows it was in fact law student Jeremy Blachman, and as his name is right on the cover in big grey letters, the novel doesn't exactly make that a secret.

Having now read Anonymous Lawyer as a novel, I'm happy to say that it made a fantastic transition to the page. My concerns about writing a good review had re-emerged after the first fifteen pages or so, as the opening blog entries were pretty much what pushed me away from the online version: nasty little scrawls about how the tax partner is anti-social, the Anonymous Wife only spends money, or the Anonymous Children remain destined for failure. But Jeremy made the excellent decision to scatter emails between AL and several other characters in between the blog entries. At first, he's talking to his niece about her upcoming graduation and entry into Yale Law School, and then the setup of the blog itself. As the novel progresses, a few more people discover just who is behind the blog--while a lot of other emails reveal mistaken identity--and the cast of characters widens.

These emails nicely humanize Anonymous Lawyer. His character blossoms in the spaces between the impersonal blog entries and the private correspondence. Occasional missives provide the backstory for a later post. Sometimes he berates a poor associate, while other times he smooth-talks his niece. These little glimpses of his "personal" life make the reader care about the jackass buying $180 meals for his family or throwing a tantrum when the Chairman only shows for fifteen minutes at his backyard barbeque. The forces that drive him are only really revealed when he half-seduces/half-justifies his lifestyle to his niece.

Once you can care for him, and even cheer for him a little, the trials and tribulations of the Anonymous Lawyer are fantastic fun. He and his rival ("the Jerk") spend most of the novel competing for the last brass ring they can ever hope to have: the chairmanship of the firm. Vile as AL is, the Jerk comes across worse: a Harvard snob willing to turn everything into a competition with his Michigan rival. Of course, it's impossible to tell if the Jerk really deserves such scorn, or if he's a hobgoblin of the Anonymous Imagination.

Anonymous Lawyer is a fun book, a clever book and a book worth reading even if you've already followed the blog. My fears about writing this review completely evaporated when I reached around page fifty, and by the end I was skipping forward to read the email exchanges and find out what was happening in the "real" world. Better yet, I'm enthusiastically awaiting whatever Jeremy's next project might be. To be honest, the best parts of Anonymous Lawyer are the parts that aren't blogged. I can't wait to see what he does without those shackles.

[1]: A slight digression. Several centuries before its time, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon stands out as a kind of prototypical blog: a diary kept by a lady in waiting, the book was obviously meant for a public audience and reveals the character of the author as she sets down little vignettes. Sei Shonagon at times comes across as a conniving, brooding, paranoid and oversensitive bitch, and in this sense she and AL have a lot in common. But unlike the AL blog, every so often she scribbles down something that twists your perceptions and lets you see the flesh underneath the robes. I doubt I would have liked her, though I think AL might have.

At one point in the novel, one of AL' correspondents remarks that what he writes seems more honest. It never seemed that way to me. Rather, AL's blog never gets much beyond being one more mask--albeit probably a thinner than his office face--that he uses to address the world. As a character, AL abuses his readers no less than he does his associates. When I would follow the website, there was a definite sense that the readers were there for his pleasure, rather than the other way around.

In any event, I frequently take my copy of Sei Shonagon of the shelf, while as I said, I only wander to the AL blog.

January 19, 2006

Why I Love Wal-Mart

George Will today decries what the Post called "a legislative mugging masquerading as an act of benevolent social engineering," Maryland's decision to pass a health care statute that just so happens to apply to only one of the state's employers: Wal-Mart. It's no secret that many liberals despise Sam Walton's big box store, complaining about its obsessively low prices, a dearth of union employees, and its threat to the small-town city center. But this loathing has a broad base: aesthetic revulsion to WalMart has a deep well even among the wine-drinking conservative set:

Outside the most heavily urbanized areas, Wal-Mart typically builds on the edge of town, putting up a huge (and butt-ugly) big box building surrounded by acres of bare concrete parking lots. There are few sights in the American scene less attractive or appealing to the eye.

Now, I'm not about to say that Sam Walton birthed a beautiful baby. On the other hand, I always find it a bit rich when people with expensive tastes lecture me on how much Wal-Mart is a plague on the traditional small town. Maybe it is, but (a) why do they not want small town citizens to have access to even a fraction of the consumer goods they so love, and (b) where are these idyllic hamlets they champion?

I spent two of my adolescent years in the sleepy little college town of Big Rapids, Michigan. In those days, our biggest brand stores were a small J.C. Penney outlet and a decrepit KMart. We had three or four small grocery stores, a number of folksy gift shops, a sporting goods store and a couple of pharmacists who also functioned as the town's best source of new literature. Charming? Sure, although less so in the freezing Michigan winters. You could stock up on country crafts and hard candies at the Emporium, spend a bunch of your paycheck on low-quality overpriced vegetables, and make the choice between overpriced sneakers at the local sporting goods store or the hour and change drive to Grand Rapids and its malls.

Ah, life without Wal-Mart! It was a Rouseauesque wonderland--and about as pleasant as you'd expect such an Erewhon when it met gritty reality. Is Wal-Mart butt-ugly? Yep. But I'm willing to bet that most of the Wal-Haters didn't learn to love science fiction because the widest source of good books--better than the drug-store potboilers--was the used bookstore and comic shop. Wal-Mart is hardly cosmopolitan, but if it merely stocks the latest from Oprah's book club, Toni Morrison comes in worlds above the non-scifi literature of my youth. [1] Or to appeal to Prof. Bainbridge's preferences: if he'd lived next door to me, where exactly was he going to buy his wines? Before Wal-Mart's big-box competitor Meijer, a couple of package shops that mostly catered to college students were the major source of vino. This may not be the preferred choice of the exquisitely educated pallate, but it did increase the quality and variety of locally available wine and encourage the other shops to improve their game.

Were I growing up these days, I don't suppose I'd miss Wal-Mart that much. Now that Amazon has become the online equivalent of a box store, just about any American with a mailbox and a credit card can tap into the vast mainstream of American consumerism. (Then again, not all Americans have access to these, and one suspects Wal-Mart helps them some.) But whatever the case, I'll always think of The Scourge of Progressive Capitalism not as some horrible invader that ruined my community, but the place that gave my old hometown a reasonable place to shop. Nostalgiaville always seems prettiest to those who didn't live there.

[1]: I'm probably undercutting my own argument here. Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon remains in a dead heat with Tess of the D'Urbervilles for Most Boring Volume of Piffle Forced on Me in High School English Class. Still, it would have been nice to have the option to reject it in favor of something better.

December 18, 2005

Brokeback Mountain: A Retread With Bad Accents and Too Much Camera

I can't write a full review of Brokeback Mountain less than twenty-four hours before my bankruptcy exam. Given that most of my blogroll has mentioned it, however, I'd like to pause to make a few brief points and hope I can come back to it later.

  • More than anything else, I urge those who liked Brokeback to see The Wedding Banquet. Same director, same issues, but less preachy and a much better film.
  • The review that is closest (though not all that close) to my view comes from Jeremy Reff at Crescat, at least with regards to the cinematography. ("has there ever been a less chromatic use of color?" "...just a profitable pretension.") The frequent moniker "gay cowboy movie" is misleading in the extreme: almost all of the scenes worth watching occur indoors. Brokeback Mountain is a good 90-minute love story spread out over 134 minutes of insufferable attempts at arthouse scenery.
  • The storyline is emotionally affecting, of course, but the story (originally from the New Yorker, and available here via Google cache) takes less time to read and is generally better executed. If you want to chat at the watercooler without having to stare at the screen for a couple of hours, just do your reading and imagine an Australian hunk as an improbable stand-in for the lead character.
  • Said hunk brings me to the real suspension of disbelief problem. Heath Ledger has been in some good films and some real stinkers, but why does he keep getting cast in such unsuitable roles? OK, the slow-speaking shepherd Ennis Del Mar has few lines, and Ledger's got the perfect "stare into space like you're ignoring an unpleasant smell in an elevator" gaze for long, drawn-out shots of emotional angst. But I couldn't buy the accent. Every time he opened his mouth, there emerged the subtle annoying echo of Home and Away. I wonder if Brits watching A Knight's Tale had the same creepy feeling?
  • Finally, you might want to wait for video if you live in New York. I'll admit that my opinion of the movie might be unfavorably colored by the fact that I saw it in a packed Chelsea cinema, and I brought with me my own peculiar curse.

    After over a dozen outings, I have yet to take a trip to a theater in New York that hasn't featured a couple in the row behind me giving their own color commentary in the manner of a lobotomized Siskel & Ebert.[1] There are films for which this is acceptable, of course. Rarely can back-seat narration do anything but improve such absolute divel as Highlander 2. But when Mr. Ledger delivers the relatively poignant line, "You know I ain't queer," it doesn't help to have some overenthusiastic nitwit behind you loudly adding, "Yeah, right."

Bottom line: the film is worth seeing, but don't believe the gushing of critics who want this film to be a masterpiece so that they can indict red-state America with homophobia when they don't turn out at the box office. (See Althouse on Frank Rich, who is now behind Times Select's Wall of Irrelevance.) Designed to create the perfect media storm, it's closer in quality to The Hulk than Crouching Tiger. If you want to see Ang Lee handle issues regarding tradition and homosexual relationships with more skill and aplomb (and considerably more ethical complexity), you'd be better off renting The Wedding Banquet. Lee did much better than Brokeback a decade ago.

[Actually, I should admit that the first version of this review was considerably more positive, and only changed after I remembered that Ang Lee was behind The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. Maybe it's unfair to judge the film by Lee's prior work rather than on its own merits. Nevertheless, I remember walking out of the Ultimate Picture Palace in my undergraduate days, my chest bursting and my throat sore with laughter after watching The Wedding Banquet. By comparison, Brokeback just seems a trite and expected Hollywood vision, politically-correct pablum.]

[1]: Yes, Siskel's dead. I'm of the age where it will always be Siskel & Ebert, no matter who else is in the balcony. I liked Siskel, and firmly believe that even from beyond the grave he could do a better job than the morons who end up sitting behind me. (As an added plus, Ouija boards aren't that disturbing during a feature film.)

December 12, 2005

Self-Defeating Old Economy Dinosaurs

What are the executives at Warner Chappelle thinking? I don't know precisely, but this London Telegraph article suggests that they're not thinking much:

The internet download wars hotted up this week with one of the world's biggest music companies, Warner Chappell, leading a crackdown on websites that offer free song lyrics, scores and guitar licks.

Someone translate this into terms that a five year old, or your average record label executive, can understand: the market has changed. You can pay a bundle of very expensive lawyers a lot of money to shut down a service like pearLyrics, or you can use such services to boost your profits.

This week I've bought four songs off iTunes. I watch TV programs (sometimes on the Warner-Chappell associated WB, if the channel flips right), and twice this week I've heard a catchy tune that I wanted to buy. Sadly, I didn't know what the song was, so what did I do?

That's right, I typed the lyrics into Google, found the artist at a lyrics site and exercised my right as an impulse-driven consumer to put a buck in Daddy Warnerbuck's pockets through iTunes.

I haven't bought a whole album in over a year. The folder of CDs in my corner? The dust bunnies roam freely over its fake leather exterior. Those useless, scratchable CDs have all been ripped into iTunes and copied to the iPod, making the media itself little more than a waste of shelf space. And before the record execs in my readership start crying "Napster," I don't download illegally. I pay my $.99 to Napster and Musicmatch like a good little boy.

First, Sony feels it can hijack my computer when I rip a CD. Now, Warner Chappell not only failed to make even a half-assed digital distribution system before being beaten to the punch by Steve Jobs, but it's trying to shut down an easy, effective service that I can use to put money in Warner pockets.

Here's a hint, WB Head Honchos: for a fraction of what you'll pay your lawyers trying to shut down every lyrics site on the net, you could send a team of programmers over to Pearworks. They could help the author to make sure that when a user searches for your lyrics, your site comes up as the first and most definitive source for your artist. Most lyrics sites, after all, are bare-bones operations crowded with irrelevant popups, while you could give users not only lyrics but the background of their soon-to-be-new-favorite band. And you could cross-market to your little heart's content. (I know you know how to do this. Every WB teen drama now pushes its (WB) Song of the Week no matter how improbable or ill-connected to the show. It's even easier to cross-market online, WBster!.)

Instead, you're going to frustrate listeners by taking away something that makes it easier for them to find you. I've heard it said that lawyers are the most-despised occupation in American society. Record company executives are obviously jealous and jockeying for position.

(via the Conspiracy)

Searching for an Atheist C. S. Lewis

Professor Volokh posts two pieces today showing a concern that Americans hold a negative view of atheists. He focuses on a July 2005 Roper poll in which 50% of respondents view atheists unfavorably (as opposed to 25% for Muslims and 19% for evangelicals, both of whom make out worse than Jews (7%) or Catholics (14%)). I don't have access to the poll itself, but it strikes me that the animosity about which Prof. Volokh is concerned is more a matter of PR than substance.

Take, for instance, two atheists who I read regularly for one reason or another, Prof. Leiter and Pharyngula. The former has his infamous Texas Taliban alerts, the latter is sometimes rhetorically more restrained but has no problem linking to those who are not. Neither blog is designed to make an opponent view the author in a favorable light. Both men are, presumably, talented in their chosen professions. On the other hand, I defy any reader to wander through their archives and derive some bit of joy out of the experience.

That's not to say that the blogs aren't possibly enjoyable. I read through both, after all, to see what has enraged the atheist fringe, and I'd suspect that those who hold athiest opinions find the Leiter Reports to be a sustaining source of agreeable opinion. [1] Nothing agreeable comes through in the tone of the rather perpetual rants, however, with nary a post free of insult or disregard. If these blogs hold a sense of wonderment at the universe, or some sense of brotherhood towards all men (regardless of view), it's hidden rather deeply.

The authors that drew me to conservatism were a different breed. P. J. O'Rourke has a sharp tongue sometimes--especially towards fundamentalists of all stripes--but liberals and conservatives can laugh at him. In a roundabout way through O'Rourke I got to Senator Moynihan (a liberal but a Catholic), a smart observer of culture but still a wit. From there I came to Chesterton, and from Chesterton I rediscovered C. S. Lewis.

These writers shared at least two traits. The first is at least a toleration of religion. The second is a very genuine sense of wonder at the world, a wonder that precedes laughter. I would love to have been at a debate between Chesterton and G. B. Shaw, if only because while I might find the latter more convincing, the former is less curmudgeonly and more fun. But the atheist view seems ever more inclined towards Shaw's path, and ever less inclined towards a happy ending, in a somewhat predictable fashion.

Which leads me to wonder: is there an atheist apologist, a happy atheist author? I have some spare reading time over the holidays, and if anyone can point me towards a Doubting Lewis, I'd greatly appreciate it.

[1]: I can't resist pointing out that the Leiterlings are still waiting for Bush to start a draft with the full backing of Congressman Rangel, but apparently the "reality based community" is quite patient. I never fault anyone for playing the long game, but in this case I think Prof. Leiter may be playing it very long. Like waiting for President Jenna and Gulf War III, by which time I may well be in my grave.

December 08, 2005

Conflicted on Narnia

The first of the new Narnia movies premiered yesterday in London. I admit I'm a bit scared to see the films, because while Tilda Swinton as the White Witch intrigues me, I agree slightly less profanely with Wings and Vodka that it's likely to be awful. I can't see how one can get the beloved books to the big screen.

On the other hand, the religious/political gnashing of teeth over the movie is a bit too incredible to believe. A typical example from one Jewish website:

Rabbi Judah Dardik was hooked on “Lion” when he read it years ago as a day-school student. He borrowed the entire series from his older sister and devoured them.

It was only years later that he was told it was steeped in Christian allegories. He was “surprised and embarrassed I hadn’t realized. I felt duped,” Dardik said.[1]

Duped? You have got to be kidding me. The allegorical inferences in Narnia aren't carefully hidden like some M. Night Shyamalan twist. Sure, Lewis claimed he wasn't writing allegory, but the end of the first book should strike a cord with the Easter tale. [2] An author doesn't dupe someone by drawing upon one of the world's most well-known stories simply because that person doesn't connect the dots. (Imagine: "I saw Clueless and loved it. Then I learned it was actually based on Emma! Hollywood made me watch early 19th Century chick lit! I felt duped!")

Of course, many don't see or make the connection at once, but that's part of the fun of allegory. Even a non-believer should recognize that the Easter tale is itself gripping. Religious stories strong enough to survive centuries hold narrative power, from whatever faith they spring. Those who read the Narnia series and yet never got the connection needn't feel ashamed, but should instead re-examine the source material to see why it's so appealing. Don't gripe that the author "duped" you.

Read this article, and many like it, one gets the idea that Narnia is some kind of Anschutz-brand theological crack, the first few hits of which are meant to woo young non-Christians into quick and easy Lewis addiction. Presumably it's a gateway to less innocent fantasies like The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce for teens, and then in the last stages of addiction, the hard stuff: Mere Christianity.

Yes, Lewis wrote some books that are Christian allegory and are also a smashing good read. A Christian story should be able to hit the big screen--and anyone should be able to enjoy the idea of seeing it--without every other faith (or non-faith) scowling and acting affronted.

That said, I repeat my worry that the movie may be horrible on the merits, though the New York Times liked it (and similarly dismiss the controversy). . . .

[1]: Obviously, the "wily Christian allegory" stories aren't coming solely from Jewish sites, I just picked this as an example. I remember seeing a particularly silly article in Newsweek, from which this was in a sidebar, but I can't find the story online now.

[2]: Before someone leaves the obvious comment, yes, I do think that a young Jewish boy--or any other American kid--should be expected to know the outline of the Easter story. Certainly this doesn't come from any strong religious roots as a child. I was rarely taken to church (only with friends to their services after Saturday sleepovers), and my pre-Lewis Christian education consisted of little more than a "Bible Stories for Kids" illustrated book given no more prominence in the playroom than Curious George. Yet even without weekly observance, both my parents and my primary schooling ensured I knew the basic stories of Christmas (through the annual pageant if nothing else) and Easter, as well as the story of Hanukkah, and even some knowledge of Islam. If we didn't believe such things, it was still good practice to know them. Cultural literacy means one need not fear being "duped" by possibly the most well-known Christian apologist of the 20th century.

December 04, 2005

Well, At Least We Know Where the Brains Are in Washington. BRRRAAAAAAAIIIINNS!

Sadly, we can never seem to put liberal fantasies about politics in their well-deserved graves. First Commander in Chief gets picked up for a full season, then a small blog-flurry has erupted over reviews in the Village Voice and on Slate. These bits of unintentional humor cover the upcoming zombie-flick Homecoming by director Joe Dante, showing this month on Showtime (motto: programming not smart enough for HBO).

Homecoming's premise: Iraq-war casualties burst from their flag-draped coffins and take to the streets seeking suffrage opportunities, specifically the chance to vote for anyone who will stop the war. (They wish to vote Democrat, which turns on its head Chesterton's claim that tradition is the democracy of the dead.) Of interest to zombie-flick afficionados will be the Monkey's Paw mechanism by which the uprising takes place. According to the Voice, the redivivus brigade begins its march after a right-wing political consultant tells the mother of a fallen soldier that he couldn't wish for anything more than her boy to come back and tell her the importance of the conflict.

I don't have a TV, much less cable, so if anyone's seen this I'd welcome their review. It strikes me that it's possible, if only barely, that this won't suck. After all, Dante is responsible for Gremlins and the Twilight Zone movie's remake of "It's a Good Life," both of which had didactic subtexts and yet were good fun for schlock films. I'd only be the nine-thousandth commentator to mention that political overtones are fairly common in the zombie-flick genre. Perhaps Dante pulls it off again.

The tone of the reviews, however, suggest this will be not much more than a dull polemic, sure to appeal to those who feel they've not been getting their message out. Says the Voice:

At once galvanic and cathartic, Dante's film uncorks the rage that despondent progressives promptly suppressed after last year's election and that has only recently been allowed to color mainstream coverage of presidential untruths and debacles.

If what we've had from progressives since 2004 has been suppression, I can only suggest that hospitals stock up on their stores of sedatives.

Thankfully for Mr. Dante, his movie is being shown on a second-rate cable network as part of a series of productions with little or no executive control. He himself points out the typical problem with films like Homecoming:

Somebody has to start making this kind of movie, this kind of statement. But everybody's afraid—it's uncommercial, people are going to be upset. Good, let them be upset. Why aren't people upset?

Sermons by their very nature are vulnerable to two things: they upset the audience by telling them that the behavior they enjoy is actually a sin; and they inspire those less interested to fidget in the pews. The first goal is laudable, but movies are more likely to fall into the second trap.

Sadly, I won't get to see this unless I break my vows and start using Bittorrent. Did anyone find it funny? How about anyone who doesn't find Michael Moore to be a masterful political wit? I can imagine Ann Coulter as a zombie snack being a pretty good study break if it were handled with a light touch and genuine humor.

November 05, 2005

Remember, Remember

Given what day it is, I want to throw a link to V for Vendetta, the latest of Alan Moore's comics to be translated to screen. As I pointed out the last time I discussed this movie, it comes at a very interesting time indeed. On the one hand, the main character V is undoubtedly a terrorist; on the other hand, he's confronting an obviously fascist society. While even in the trailer you can see the great lengthsto which the costume designers have gone in order to create an association with fascism of the Nazi variety, the original work was less compromising: after being left mostly unscathed after a nuclear war, Britain descends into fascism quite well on its own. (Rumor has it that the alternate history plot of the movie involves a Nazi victory in WWII.)

As the Wachovski Bros. have their part in the film, there should be no shortage of action. I wonder, however, at the degree to which the screenwriters will go to make it "relevant" to current political events. Whoever is doing the marketing isn't being coy in the trailer: there's not entirely unsubtle associations available when the chief inspector asks, "If our government is responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand people, do you really want to know?" That could actually be quite exciting to see in the film if V retains its moral ambiguity, and V himself is not rewritten to be a completely sympathetic character. Given the present trends in Hollywood, this is possible, even if I'm not keeping my hopes up. On the other hand, given the number of people willing to label the present Bush administration "fascist" (and the accusations of wanting to govern by fear, etc.), there remains the strong possibility that the film descends into a dreadful polemic.

In any event, pity they couldn't get it ready by the fifth of November.

September 29, 2005

Conservative Fantasy

Everywhere you turn, there's a sign in New York telling you that "This fall, a woman will be president." No one who's sane will bet that the Republicans will take the White House on the West Wing. It seems that in Hollywood fantasyland, the Democrats are always smarter, more popular, and more in touch with the national psyche. What's a conservative to do?

Ironically, I suggest turning to the BBC.

Republicans looking for their political fix could do worse than investing in the House of Cards trilogy, a political melodrama that makes The West Wing look like Romper Room. Talk about political fantasy: in this series, the prime minister who replaced Margaret Thatcher is a scheming, traditionalist member of the Scottish aristocracy, quick on his feet, exciting in debate, and with a keen eye towards the polls. Unlike the feckless John Major, Francis Urquhart is easily remembered a few years after he left "office."

(If you're a Netflix customer, you can reserve it here.)

September 27, 2005

For One Season, A Woman Will Be President

Commander in Chief premieres tonight and opens to mixed reviews. This tale of a VPOTUS-turned-POTUS gets kinder-than-deserved treatment from The New York Times ("a political fantasy, a feminist-twist on The West Wing") and a predictable downer from National Review (which points out that as lefty fantasies go, it proves a lot: the word "Republican" is mentioned for every villain, but "Democrat" not once in the pilot). Slate calls it "The West Wing with extra cheese." Thankfully, my television still gets horrible reception, so I won't have to see Geena Davis ruin a role that would be perfect for a movie sequel. For those of you in similar despair, I offer fives reasons why Speechless II would be better than Commander in Chief.

  1. In Speechless, Geena Davis is a real Democrat, not a fake one.
  2. If it's as stereotypical as it looks, CiC will have its Republicans in evil-looking black limos. Michael Keaton drove a cute red Morgan.
  3. Bonnie Bedalia as a not-so-evil ex-wife beats Donald Sutherland as an evil senator any day of the week. [1]
  4. Speechless II would be based on the plausible concept that a slightly fluffier version of Karl Rove could get his politically-motivated Democratic wife elected. Commander in Chief assumes that a Republican couldn't put a popular and conservative woman on the ticket.
  5. Speechless II might actually be funny.

[1]: UPDATE--Now that I think of it, if the CiC writers had any kind of real guts, they'd have switched gender expectations on boths sides. Bonnie Bedalia as an evil right-wing Senate Majority Leader would have been a fantastic choice with intriguing storytelling oppotunities. Come to think of it, even a second-rate comic book can push the boundaries far enough to have a major character be a pro-life Democrat.

UPDATE II: There's an old joke about Rupert Murdoch launching Fox News to address an underserved niche market--half of America. As television planners are desperately trying to get viewership back from the internet, I'm befuddled by their strategy. On the one hand, we now have two shows with Democratic Presidents (ok, one "independent") to satisfy political wish-fulfillment. Meanwhile, a thoroughly moderately-written, not particularly exciting drama that takes religion seriously--WB's 7th Heaven--is starting its 10th season. That's not just the longest-running family drama ever, but it's got more legs than Buffy and its spawn and unless I remember incorrectly The X-Files, and is getting towards the age of Murder, She Wrote. Looking at other 1996 shows, I see that Wikipedia lists Spin City and Everybody Loves Raymond. Am I just reading my demographic tea leaves incorrectly, or is there some ad space waiting to be sold here?

September 19, 2005

Called Out

Carey rightfully calls me out: despite what I have in the sidebar at the right, I'm not currently reading Neil Gaiman's new novel Anansi Boys. It would be more accurate to say that I am re-reading Out and waiting impatiently for Anansi Boys to get here. I'd love to say I had a prerelease copy, but sadly I don't know how I'd get hold of one.

I'll admit to some trepidation. On the one hand, Anansi Boys draws its inspiration from the trickster god of African folk lore, and I've always had a fondness for stories of trickster gods. For a few years there's been a trend towards the little rascals of mythology making their way into popular culture. For a while there was a small boomlet in Kokopelli jewelry, for instance, although it seems to have died out. With a new edition of the Principia Discordia out ten years ago, Eris made a bit of a comeback. But if I'm really lucky, Gaiman might do some justice for Anansi and he'll get a little place in the spotlight.

I wish I could find the book that first introduced me to these West African tales. It's one of those books I can still see, a cloth-bound volume that, at least if memory serves, bridged the gap between child and adult fare. I doubt I could still tell you the stories themselves, though I remember they involved weaving webs across the sky and encountering magic sticks. I can remember they were written with a fantastic cadence: they were some of the first books that showed me what language could do. They were also tremendous fun to read out loud.

And the main character! Anansi was at once cunning and yet managed to keep getting himself in trouble. I never knew quite where I was with him. As with most tricksters, he didn't seem entirely malicious, but instead a bit greedy and somewhat mischevious and in love with his own cleverness. I'm sure there are versions of the tales that are darker and less kid-centric. (Certainly Kokopelli's role as seducer doesn't get as much play in children's books as it does in more adult fare.) In any event, I read and reread that book, a volume in an elementary library that I must have checked out a dozen times, and I still have a soft spot for the spider god.

So I worry a bit as to whether I'll like Anansi Boys. I wasn't that convinced by Gaiman's previous modern-mythology novel, American Gods. But hope springs eternal, and if nothing else, it's served to remind me of something I once enjoyed a very great deal. If anyone happens to know a more "adult" telling of Anansi stories, I'd appreciate the recommendation.

September 09, 2005

Watch This Space

While browsing around Amazon, I was happy to notice that the U.S. site now has a listing for Fly By Night, the first book to be published by a good friend of mine from my college days. Sadly, no U.S. release date is listed, but the UK site gives the following description:

In a fractured Realm, struggling to maintain an uneasy peace after years of civil war and religious tyranny, a 12-year-old orphan and a homicidal goose become the accidental heroes of a revolution.

There's reasons I really miss Oxford. Every once in a while here at Columbia, I'll say something a bit odd and I'll have to remember to pull myself back to "place where discussing revolutionary geese doesn't sound quite reasonable" mode.

It's out in October, so just about the time things are getting stressful I should have a good piece of children's fiction arriving. Worth putting on your list if you've got one, or you can order the UK version here.
Fly by Night

(I'd recommend the book more strongly to Heidi, but I don't know how she feels about making heroes of non-linear birds.)

August 07, 2005

Big Charlie and the Corpse Factory

I've just been to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Not altogether bad: sweet mental candyfloss with impressive performances from the kids and enough going onscreen to make it interesting. If you see it, go to a theatre with good acoustics, or you'll never be able to understand the songs when the music starts thumping.

Is it just me, though, or has Tim Burton gotten to be so much of a brand experience that you could mix scenes from any of his films with one another and end up with pretty much the same thing: you'd have some incomplete father-son relationship (Big Fish, Batman, Edward Scissorhands), Johnny Depp (The Corpse Bride, Ed), an aging British actor as father figure (Edward (Vincent Price), Charlie (Christopher Lee)) and frenetic music by Danny Elfman (no way I'm doing that list)...

June 18, 2005

A British Accent is the New Black

Just saw Batman Begins. Passable summer stuff, and definitely better than any Batman film since Burton left the director's chair. My only real comment, sadly, is a spoiler, so it's below the cut:

Update: Above the cut, since it's not relevant to the spoiler below, let me just say that I disagree with Ann Althouse's review (or rather, her favorable quote of another one). On the one hand, it gets a few things right: the fight scenes are shot too close and too quick, and some of the dialogue--mostly what was given to Katie Holmes--is wooden in the extreme. But Batman Begins seems to be an attempt to restart the franchise, to put the horrible George Clowny years behind, and thank goodness. Althouse apparently approves of the idea that "the filmmakers haven’t developed an adequate villain for [Batman] to go up against." Thank goodness the filmmakers didn't follow such advice: one breath of fresh air in this film comes from the fact that it is about the hero. I can't sort out the names of the other Batman films, but remember them by their villains. This one I won't have to.

As for Althouse's assertion that "crazy-making steam" would be a good plot-line for a B-movie, she was aware she was going to see a Batman movie that had the Scarecrow as the main villain, right? Scarecrow's a one-trick pony, and "crazy-making steam" was practically a given.

Update 2: Actually, I see that Althouse has written her own review:

I noticed a right-wing edge to some key statements: "Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding." Take that, you Gitmo critics! And it was quite clear that we were supposed to think about the criminals as al-Qaeda. Here was this "League of Shadows," based in Asia, bent on destroying "Gotham." We were nudged constantly to make this connection.

OK, look, can I make a deal with folks like Prof. Althouse? If we leave things like the First Amendment in their bailiwick, can they please not drag their politics into our comic books?

Ra's al Ghul started off as a Batman villain in the early '70s, long before anyone had even considered something called al-Qaeda. And far from shoving an al-Qaeda riff down our throats, the movie does everything it can to move the film away from anything vaguely Islamic. He's played by Ken Watanabe, for crying out loud. The scenes with him in it (or, see spoiler below) seem to be set in Nepal instead of Arabia. And the "Society of Shadows"--a fanatical organization devoted to his will--is part of the character of Ra's and has been, so far as I know, since his creation.

Frankly, Ra's had all the attributes that Althouse complains of as "nudging" her towards al-Qaeda in the early seventies, and far from shoving the connection down our throats, the scriptwriters seem to have done everything humanly possible to remove the character from such associations, going to the strange length of making him a Japanese ninjitsu expert. (As I recall the character, he was more of an Arab version of an evil Sherlock Holmes, or maybe a Moriarty.)

Maybe Althouse is saying that Christopher Nolan specifically chose al Ghul as the villain in order to make right-wing points, but Occam's Razor suggests that Joel Schumacher ran through all the A-list villains in his run on the franchise, and when good ol' R.A.G. was next in line, they bent over backwards to make the connection as weak as possible. It's not the writer's fault that the character of Ra's has a lot in common with another ideological maniac, and certainly I made it through the whole film without once making the connection.

(Incidentally: that line about criminals functioning on the indulgence of society is actually a bit of a right-wing drift to the character, but not in the way that Althouse suggests. In the film, al Ghul seems obsessed with cleansing society of villainy and injustice, whereas the original character was, to put it bluntly, an ecoterrorist who approved of saving the earth through the death of humanity. Both are omlette/eggs worldviews, but the latter is not normally a part of right-wing politics.)

Continue reading "A British Accent is the New Black" »

May 24, 2005

Quick Book Review and Thoughts on a Culture of Life

This summer started in much the same way as the last one, in that I left New York with a book given to me by a young lady, the idea being to pass the hours on an international flight. In this case, I was given Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. Sadly, the book is impossible to properly comment upon or review without giving away the entire novel. It's an enjoyable, if somewhat frustrating book, so if you normally like the kind of reading that I do, I'll spare you the spoilers by putting the review in the full entry.

Continue reading "Quick Book Review and Thoughts on a Culture of Life" »

May 16, 2005

Outgeeking Bainbridge

Now, I'd never take on Professor Bainbridge when it comes to wine: I haven't the taste buds. And on corporate law? More fool me to challenge the guy who authors textbooks. But outgeeking? There we're on more equal ground. And I'm afraid that his accusation that George Lucas has sold the soul of Star Wars to the Democrats just rings hollow.

Basically, the good Professor is upset because:

...Lucas betrayed the basic story arc of the Star Wars mythology in order to score these cheap political points. In the original trilogy, Luke struggled against the absolutism of Obi-Wan and Yoda. It was Luke who insisted that there was still good in Vader, which Yoda and Obi-Wan rejected.

The betrayal in question is in having Obi-Wan say to Anakin, after the latter has muttered some you're-for-me-or-against-me line, "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes."

Now, I've not seen the movie yet, and to the best of my knowledge, neither has Prof. Bainbridge, but to my mind his internal critique doesn't hold up. Bainbridge spends a great deal of time talking about how an older (presumably wiser) Obi-Wan was still doctrinaire and absolutist in his consideration of the Force. But if we consider this Obi-Wan to be less mature than Alec Guinness (and who wouldn't), then the plot still hangs together. Obi-wan may just be full of it. And there's no "betrayal" for "cheap political points" so long as the elder Jedi isn't doing anything more than the lightsaber equivalent of Godwin's Law: you know the conversation's over (and someone's limbs are about to go) when somebody mentions the Sith.

So why are so many assuming that Old Kenobi needs to be taken seriously? It seems that the New York Times found political meaning in the film:

"This is how liberty dies - to thunderous applause," Padmé observes as senators, their fears and dreams of glory deftly manipulated by Palpatine, vote to give him sweeping new powers. "Revenge of the Sith" is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." You may applaud this editorializing, or you may find it overwrought, but give Mr. Lucas his due. For decades he has been blamed (unjustly) for helping to lead American movies away from their early-70's engagement with political matters, and he deserves credit for trying to bring them back.

Dear goodness, we can only hope. I mean, if Democrats can't do better than Lucas's tin-ear for dialogue for their political bumper stickers, then I suspect the Republicans will get the geek vote. But now the New York Times has done the impossible: it's made me curious about the final Star Wars film.

Let's face it: Lucas is about as subtle as a chainsaw running through a screen door, at least when it comes to dialogue. I'd expect that even if Chewbacca were mouthing Bush-lite rhetoric, you wouldn't need to be Han Solo to figure out the reference. On the other hand, the New York Times could probably scan Beowulf and find hidden anti-Bush meanings.

So who is it? Is George L. taking on George B.? Or is this all a figment of the Times' fevered fantasies? Sadly, I'll have to see the film to find out, because when it comes to a conflict between the Lucas lack of subtext and the Greying Lady's determination to find same, we reach a level of difficulty almost equal to that of the Great Sci Fi Paradox: What happens when a bunch of clueless red-shirts, guaranteed to survive less than three minutes after a beamdown, meets a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers, who can't hit a barn from inside it?

April 24, 2005

New York Times Wrong Again. Anyone Surprised?

Over in the New York Times, A. O. Scott is making hay about how derivative Sin City is, especially in its reliance upon Tarantino:

The structure of "Sin City" - three loosely linked tales told out of chronological order, one of them starring an exhausted-looking Bruce Willis - owes an obvious debt to "Pulp Fiction," just as the garish, jokey mayhem of "Kung Fu Hustle" could fit comfortably between the two volumes of "Kill Bill."

I know, it's no surprise anymore when the New York Times doesn't do much research, but they could at least have made some effort here. Sin City was almost fetishistically faithful to Frank Miller's source material, to the point of annoyance. The stories already used loosely-linked tales told out of chronological order. (Indeed, to the extent that That Yellow Bastard both begins and ends the movie, the movie becomes more chronological than its source.) But Miller's stories were published between 1991 and 1996 (with the interweaving beginning in the first two books) while Tarantino's Pulp Fiction doesn't come on the scene until 1994.

Indeed, given Tarantino's known likes and reading habits, it's not entirely impossible that Miller was an influence on him in making Pulp Fiction.

Ah well, it's the Times. You wouldn't expect to get the full story, would you?

April 10, 2005

Sin City Review (Warning, Spoilers)

Only a week after it opened, I finally got to see Sin City. After the rubbishy mess that was Constantine, I would have settled for a reasonably faithful translation from spot-colored comic to celluloid fantasy. The movie easily exceeded those expectations, even if it's not a perfect movie.

First, the positive: for those who liked Frank Miller's starkly minimalist style, the bold, dark contrasts of the film don't disappoint. I knew the plot of all four stories [1] (and let's face it, Miller's Sin City plots were always pretty thin) well before I bought the tickets, so I could sit back and admire what they'd done with the camera. For once, a comic translation felt like it was drawn, not filmed, with the actors standing out as "real" focal points in a world of flat panels. Elijah Wood as the freakishly-calm Kevin and Rutger Hauer as Cardinal Roark manage the effect particularly well: somehow, they make realistic bodies contort in animated motions. Even two hours into the film, when the effect had begun to wear thin, a few shots still startled me: "Oh, so that's how they're going to do that scene."

But while the visuals are beautiful, the timing is a problem. As other reviews have complained, the film drags, particularly in the middle. Most of this derives from the near-inexplicable decision to sandwich The Big Fat Kill between The Hard Goodbye and That Yellow Bastard. The Big Fat Kill never had much of a plot to speak of: it develops Old Town and lets Miller feature Miho, the typical annoying character that the author clearly loves. But the book was only useful in developing Sin City as a setting: Dwight's real story is told in A Dame to Kill For, which like The Hard Goodbye and That Yellow Bastard is at heart about a flawed man, his relationship with a unique woman, and resulting trouble. Whatever the other attractions of The Big Fat Kill, it's a political story with little human interest.

As a result, Clive Owen gets to look pretty, but neither he nor Rosario Dawson can make the audience give a damn about their respective characters. Indeed, some of the lines barely make sense if you don't know the backstory: when Dwight goes on about his new face and having killed a cop, you almost wish Miller could have annotated the film. And without some kind of human element, the whole Old Town storyline just gets silly: it's broads in lingerie carrying improbably amounts of military grade hardware with absolutely nowhere to carry the ammunition.

Which leads to the second flaw: the violence. Many negative reviews have blamed Roderiguez for not restraining Miller by beefing up the script and toning down the violence. I actually felt the opposite: Sin City's fight scenes remind me of Roderiguez's miserable Once Upon A Time in Mexico (or Tarantino's Kill Bill), where violence is lovingly and pointlessly fetishized. While Miller's graphic novels are brutally violent, the savagery comes in short, quick frames that one glances over as you move through the plot. [2] The final fight between Marv (Mickey Rourke) and Kevin (Elijah Wood) comes closest to the feeling of the books: sharp, edgy, loud, tense. Cut about half the frames from the other scenes and it would be just about right.

In short, it wasn't a bad film for a comic buff. The Tarantino-style violence didn't bother me too much, and if you know where it's coming from, you can ignore The Big Fat Kill's rather hollow plot and just enjoy seeing how Miller filmed Old Town and the Pits. [3] Meanwhile, just as I didn't read Sin City for the storyline--Mickey Spillane is still in print, you know--I watched the movie for the visuals, a treat right to the last snowy frames outside The Farm. But if you've not read Miller's comics, I'd recommend you pick them up before you see the movie, at the very least A Dame to Kill For. This is definitely one where you get out of it what you brought into it, and without context I'd imagine it's two hours of torture.

[1]: Besides the main three stories, the film opens with The Babe Wore Red.

[2]: Again, The Big Fat Kill stands as an exception, one more reason its inclusion in the film seems so odd.

[3]:Given Will Baude's love of Gilmore Girls, he might enjoy seeing Alexis Bledel in a less-innocent role. Actually, she does fairly well as Becky, though one almost wishes they'd left the blue eyes for... well, Blue Eyes. Actually, that might be an explanation for choosing The Big Fat Kill over A Dame to Kill For: if you're trying for an ensemble cast, it's got a lot of characters with considerable screen time.

March 14, 2005

Now Reading

After a very fine dinner to celebrate a friend's birthday, I capped a day blissfully productivity-free with a trip to the bookstore. On checking out, I realized how spoiled I've become by Amazon's low prices. Buying four books caused quite a sticker shock. Nevertheless, I'll have some spring break reading material to enjoy in between attempts at catching up in Corporations and Professional Responsibility.

First on the list is Fragrant Harbor, which finally won out over many suggestions for the Hong Kong novel to read before I start summer employment there. I chose it mainly because, unlike some other options, it focuses mainly on Hong Kong as opposed to China as a whole, and covers most of the 20th and 21st centuries. It seems to be a sparkling read.

I'm only a few chapters into it, but John Lanchester has a gifted vocabulary and, so far at least, a talent for drawing out entertaining characters. Just reading it is breeding butterflies in my stomach: soon I'll be working in the environment he's writing about. I keep telling myself it won't be any different from any other foreign posting I've managed in the past, but then, I felt nervous before I started those as well.

Besides Fragrant Harbour, I also picked up a book of short stories, A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye. So far I've enjoyed the first of five stories, and look forward to the rest. I think I've stumbled onto an author who I should have been reading for quite a long time.

I'm finding that Byatt, like Chesterton, Endo, or Bruce Sterling, is one of those authors who stirs up old itches to write a novel of my own, an urge that I suspect will last for days after I put her work down. I've been told in 3L year I'll have a bit more free time. Perhaps I'll join Ambimb in his annual National Novel Writing Month challenge. I've had a pretty good story in my head involving work in a law firm: maybe I can spin that out after I've had a little first-hand experience. Not "write about my work" of course--that would be an invasion of my employer, my clients, and just generally unwise--but it's difficult to write about a character until you've somehow walked a mile in his shoes. It just doesn't seem real otherwise.

cover cover

February 17, 2005

Books and Such

I've finished both of the books I ordered from Amazon, Murakami's Kafka on the Shore and Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. So now I need something else to read.

I know almost nothing about Hong Kong, actually, even though I'll be there in a few months. This scares me a little: I'm used to having some knowledge of the countries in which I'm living. I don't suppose anyone has any good histories of Hong Kong or China, or even novels involving them, that they'd recommend?

August 28, 2004

The Fiction of Belief

Some may note that I've been writing of matters religious more than usual of late. The inspiration for these conversations has come from finishing James Morrow's trilogy about the death and subsequent disposal of God, starting with the magnificent Towing Jehovah. This is the latest in a genre of books I've always loved: religious fantasies.

While I remain an agnostic, I've found myself drawn towards the allegory, myth, and storytelling of religious authors ever since I received a full set of C. S. Lewis' Narnia series in my childhood. One reason I've drifted away from the harsh skepticism of many of the more vocal atheists I've known has been their seeming inability to recognize the beauty that's come from mankinds' religions, and especially from Christianity. There's some kind of compulsion in atheist circles to engage in a kind of metaphysical bookkeeping, to declare that the suffering of the Crusades or the fervor of the Inquisition (or nowadays, the existence of paedophile priests) cancel out the glory of a cathedral or the beauty of a well-written allegory. I can't think of a work, an ideal, or even an emotion that has sat in the minds of men which wouldn't go bankrupt on that kind of ledger, be it the heights of faith, the passion of love, or the relentless inexorable compulsions of logic. Nonetheless, these atheist accountants only ever seem to audit the faithful.

In any event, religious fiction has always held a particularly special place in my heart, and it has been through this that I've learned what little smatterings of theology that I've come to study. The nature of evil? First got introduced by Faulkner's A Light in August. [1] The problem of pain? Hadn't seriously considered it until I'd read through The Man Who Was Thursday. Theodicy? Didn't even know where to start looking until I finished Blameless in Abaddon.

I'd highly recommend learning from fiction, particularly for those who are already strong in their faith (be that a faith in God or his non-existence). For one thing, these books are quite good in their own right. But they also draw from the wells of the world's faiths, the works of men and women who have spent their time considering the most important of problems. The roots of these novels are thus often deeper than first appears. For those interested, here are some of my favorites. And for those of you who can suggest further reading, the comments are always open.

The Faithful
I'll admit, my reading in this area is primarily limited to two authors, Lewis and Chesterton.

coverThe Man Who Was Thursday: As prolific as he is optimistic, Chesterton's fiction applies his paradoxical humor to quite serious questions. He denied that The Man Who Was Thursday was in any way an allegory, but it's certainly fooled a few critics. Thursday deals with the infiltration of a circle of anarchist terrorists by Gabriel Syme, a member of a new police squad formed to combat the evils of anarchism and nihilism. The premise is both delightfully absurd and yet terribly noble: the anarchist who could condemn him is bound only by his word not to do so, and this conspiracy of the faithless by the end of the story numbers in the positively legion. A conspiracy of gentlemen masterminded by the sinister and enigmatic Sunday.

coverThe Napoleon of Notting Hill: Only peripherally religious, and more a social satire, The Napoleon of Notting Hill chronicles the rebirth of romance in a world drained dry by rationality. Auberon Quin, who is picked as the ceremonial King of England, shocks his nation when he begins to rule as an old-style monarch. But even he is confounded when Adam Wayne accepts the joke at face value. Soon the suburbs of London are waging war with one another, as two men's madness infects the city.

coverThe Chronicles of Narnia: More recent, and infinitely more well-known, The Chronicles of Narnia are straightforward allegory. Indeed, this is probably the first allegory that most children read, and the amazing thing about Lewis' writing is how well it translates into adulthood. As PG noted recently, Lewis wasn't afraid to draw from other traditions when he felt like it, and the influence of Greek mythology is pretty easy to see in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whilst I always felt The Silver Chair had a vague feel of Taliesin about it.
The Skeptics
Of course, it's not just the religious that write religious fantasy. Some of the most convincing and talented skeptics have written some spectacular religious fantasy.

coverAlmost Anything By James Morrow: If Chesterton's arguments for religion are more powerful because of his optimism and humor, James Morrow might be a modern Chesterton. Most of his religious satires, however skewering, at least reserve equal silliness for fanatics on both sides. (Like many in this section, I couldn't tell you Morrow's actual beliefs, but the books at the very least distrust organized religion, with particular criticism for the Catholic Church.) He's probably best known for Only Begotten Daughter (winner of a World Fantasy Award), which deals with the second coming of the messiah as a woman. However, it is his Corpus Dei trilogy which best showcases his balance of fanaticisms. The series begins with Towing Jehovah, in which the former captain of a Valdez-like oil tanker is hired by the Vatican to tow the dead body of God to a resting place in the North Pole. Curiously, while the Vatican doesn't wish mankind to know their creator has passed on, neither do the world's atheists. After all, atheism becomes a bit of a dead letter in the face of a two-mile corpse. After this particular misadventure, Blameless in Abaddon details how God's body becomes the central attraction of a Baptist theme park in Florida, and is later tried for crimes against humanity in the Hague. The trial itself is a fair introduction to theodicy ("the justification of divine attributes... in respect to the existence of evil." OED) Finally, the death of God excites a plague of nihilism in The Eternal Footman, when each individual's death takes on a particular and very personal form.
coverGood Omens: I'm not sure if it's fair to lump Gaiman or Pratchett in this category, as their religious position isn't immediately obvious. Nonetheless, the book is vaguely heretical, and posits a kind of mini-revolution against both God and the Devil. When the Anti-Christ is born and Crowley (a demon who didn't fall so much as saunter vaguely downwards) is responsible for swapping him into the family of the American ambassador to England, the first of a long series of mistakes results in a very curious Armageddon. Satanic nuns, the last of the English Witchfinder Generals, and the four other horsemen of the apocalypse are only some of the characters of this comedy. Probably the least serious of the books in this section, but well worth a read.
coverScepticism, Inc.: Just as funny as Good Omens, Bo Fowler's novel much more clearly belongs in the skeptic category. It also has the distinction of being the only novel ever narrated by an intelligent shopping trolley. This unlikely storyteller narrates the life and times of Edgar Malroy, proprietor of a chain of metaphysical betting shops. Malroy's schtick is to challenge believers to 'put their money where their metaphysics are,' and will only take bets upon subjects which cannot ever be fundamentally proven (e.g. the existence of God). Pretty soon this strange show of faith has captivated the world, driving many of the world's major religions into insolvency. A satire on some of the absurdity of organized religion, it's also a magnificent comedy.
coverHis Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass): The atheist's answer to The Chronicles of Narnia, Philip Pullman does no less exploration of the soul, the structure of creation, or the relationship between religion and society. Nonetheless, he reaches almost antithetical conclusions to Lewis. The novels focus upon heroes and heroines in an alternate Oxford, in which every individual has a 'daemon,' a sort of physical manifestation of their soul in the form of an animal. This universe, as well as ours, is a created one, but unlike the world of Narnia, the forces of creation, or indeed the society thus created, are neither cuddly nor benign. In case you've been avoiding children's books since the hype over J. K. Rowling, it's worth noting that Pullman's a much better author, with tighter prose and a better control over plot.

These are just a few of the books I could list here. And I've not even considered one more souce of perspective on religious fantasy: Japanese comics and anime. Just as American authors have picked, chosen, and mangled Shinto or Buddhist tradition to flavor their writings with a feel of the 'other,' Japanese fantasy has begun to adopt almost random bits of Christian theology as part of their plotlines. From the mutant Angels of NeoGenesis Evangelion to their more prosaic counterparts in Haibane Renei, anime seems spun through with ideas pulled from the common stories and symbolism of Christianity. While some of the adaptation is superficial, some shows that the authors have spent a good deal of time researching Christian thought. Some is worth watching just to see the outside perspective in the midst of cultural transfer.


[1]: OK, Faulkner's a bit of a stretch here, because he didn't write religious fantasy, but it's an example of a fictional work that sent me off to learn about non-fictional metaphysics.

August 20, 2004

Not So Much About Adultery, But...

As some bloggers have taken to recording some favorite poems in their blogs and I'd been writing about adultery, I figured I'd mention one of those great sad works of e. e. cummings. For a man who wrote such free verse, I always wondered why he chose the more formal sonnet structure for such a sad poem:

it may not always be so;and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another's,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;
if on another's face your sweet hair lay
in such a silence as i know,or such
great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be,i say if this should be---
you of my heart,send me a little word;
that i may go to him,and take his hands,
saying,Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

In any event, my life heralds no such romances at present: instead, there's seven interviews tomorrow, and I had best get sleep. More this weekend, I promise, and I'm sorry for my lack of words of late.

February 20, 2004

No More National Party

My favorite authors have a tendency to be those who see the world just a bit cockeyed, folks who when presented with two hostile parties come up with a 'third way' that isn't just stealing one or another set of clothing. Chesterton, Bierce, Lewis, Swift--I'm partial to authors who are just a bit crazy.

(I've known people to quote Chesterton as being against tradition, without remembering the context of the phrase "Tradition is the democracy of the dead." People sometimes forget that he was not entirely unserious when he said:

"Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.")

By way of this, I've always been fond of Georgia's ex-governor Zell Miller. He's a bit of an oddball, one of the last of the Southern conservative Democrats who wouldn't defect, no matter what. And he's got that folksy homespun humor that is to the South what Chesterton is to England. I've been reading his A National Party No More, and while a lot of it is just aggressive justification of his past legislative successes, it's still an enjoyable read. Not on my top-ten list, but worth a look if you've got a chance:
There will be those who as, "What is this all about, The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat?" I can hear the liberal Washington crowd right now. Gold medalists in the Sneering Olympics, hissing, "In the first place, Miller's no Democrat." On the other hand, there are some die-hard Republicans back in Georgia who will break out their choicest cuss words and swear, "He's no conservative." And you can bet that some old drinking buddies from many years ago will slap their knees and hoot, "What conscience?"

A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat

August 05, 2003

An Idiot Texas Governor with Folksy Sayings, Strong Religious Impulses, and a Tin Ear for Politics

My father decided that since I'm leaving soon, we'd watch a film with some legal themes in it, and chose The Life of David Gale. It's got a great cast, superb acting, and a complex plot, even if some of the directing and cinematography is pretentious in the extreme.

But it's a death-penalty film, and while not completely predictable, it's trite in one particularly annoying way. For a bit of full disclosure, I'm pro-death penalty, but I'm willing to be convinced. On the other hand, I find most death penalty advocates won't convince me. This is mostly because they have no problem with legislating through the courts, through clemency, through anything except actually convincing their fellow human beings of the rightness of their cause and carrying it through a legislature. Whatever the value of the death penalty one way or the other, the value I place on legislatures and democracy means I'm unlikely to find common cause with them.

And here's where Gale falls down. Throughout the film, there is no well-informed argument in favor of the death penalty, though there are plenty of arguments (some well-informed, some pure passion) against it. Those who support capital punishment are presented as purely vengeful maniacs, ambitious politicians, or other morally reprehensible characters. It is just as in The West Wing: it's an uncommon Republican who hasn't got horns and a tail, or who has sense to pour piss out of a boot with instructions on the heel.

For a film that is, for all intents and purposes, a walking polemic, this is a pretty serious failing. It makes it impossible to take any of the (fairly flawed) main characters seriously in their opinions. Those who wonder what conservatives mean when they speak of a 'liberal bias in the media' should remember that it's not just news media that is being pondered. It's amazing how many people I know get their information from sources that are purely 'entertainment.'

Of course, it's the old saw about Hollywood Republicans: the only thing good about being a Hollywood Republican is that one out of four of them get to be president. (And who knows, maybe two out of four of them will become governor of California.)

Giving The Devil His Due

Review of Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman (1)
Synonymous Lawyer wrote: A fair and balanced review. Nice. ... [more]

Why I Love Wal-Mart (0)
Brokeback Mountain: A Retread With Bad Accents and Too Much Camera (2)
Bemac wrote: Highlander 2? A bad movie that sta... [more]

Self-Defeating Old Economy Dinosaurs (3)
PG wrote: There's also the problem that many ... [more]

Searching for an Atheist C. S. Lewis (4)
mike wrote: vonnegut?... [more]

Conflicted on Narnia (12)
Martin wrote: Hrmph. Lets put this in context. I ... [more]

Well, At Least We Know Where the Brains Are in Washington. BRRRAAAAAAAIIIINNS! (0)
Remember, Remember (0)
Conservative Fantasy (1)
michael wrote: I just watched this recently for a ... [more]

For One Season, A Woman Will Be President (0)
Called Out (0)
Watch This Space (1)
Heidi wrote: I'm generally in favor of farm anim... [more]

Big Charlie and the Corpse Factory (3)
Tony the Pony wrote: Wasn't there some press around the ... [more]

A British Accent is the New Black (7)
elbr wrote: Ireland is part of the British isle... [more]

Quick Book Review and Thoughts on a Culture of Life (2)
arbitrary aardvark wrote: The Farm, by Harlan Ellison, collec... [more]

Outgeeking Bainbridge (9)
Anthony wrote: If you notice, Dave, the above isn'... [more]

New York Times Wrong Again. Anyone Surprised? (2)
R wrote: The Times's original review of Sin ... [more]

Sin City Review (Warning, Spoilers) (0)
Now Reading (0)
Books and Such (3)
Steve wrote: I'm sure you're familiar with James... [more]

The Fiction of Belief (2)
bryce main wrote: Enjoyed reading your thoughts. Sadl... [more]

Not So Much About Adultery, But... (0)
No More National Party (2)
Alex wrote: Ask Zell Miller about the son he ab... [more]

An Idiot Texas Governor with Folksy Sayings, Strong Religious Impulses, and a Tin Ear for Politics (6)
yo wrote: this is a bad page... [more]

Choose Stylesheet

What I'm Reading

D.C. Noir

My city. But darker.
A Clockwork Orange

About time I read this...


Projects I've Been Involved With

A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care (A new round-the-world travel blog, co-written with my wife)
Parents for Inclusive Education (From my Clinic)

Syndicated from other sites

The Columbia Continuum
Other Blogs by CLS students

De Novo
Theory and Practice
Liberal Federalism?
Good News, No Foolin'

Nancy Pelosi covers her head and visits the head of John the Baptist.
Vlogging in from Austin.
Omikase/"American Idol"

Jeremy Blachman's Weblog: 2007
Happy Passover
Looking for Advice re: LA
Google Books

Stay of Execution
What I've Learned From This Blog, or My Yellow Underpants
The End
Mid Thirties

Legal Theory Blog
Program Announcement: Summer Programs on the Constitution at George Washington
Book Announement: Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy by Whittington
Entry Level Hiring Report

The Volokh Conspiracy
Making the Daily Show:
Civil unions pass New Hampshire House:
Profile of Yale Law Dean Harold Koh:

Crescat Sententia
Hillary II
Politics and Principal/Agents

Law Dork
Election Approaches
Following Lewis
New Jersey High Court: 'Same Rights and Benefits'

Surveying the revival
Birds of paradise

Half the Sins of Mankind
Cheney Has Spoken Religious conservatives who may ...
Does Ahmadinejad Know Christianity Better Than MSN...
Borders as Genocide In discussions of climate chan...
For lovers of garden gnomes...and any China-freaks out there
We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

Does SOX explain the flight from NY?
More Litvak on SOX effect on cross-listed firms
What did the market learn from internal controls reporting?

The Yin Blog
Iowa City = Riyadh
Jeffrey Rosen's "The Supreme Court"
Geek alert -- who would win between Battlestar Galactica and the U.S.S. Enterprise?

Letters of Marque
And there we are

Signing Off

Dark Bilious Vapors
Jim (The Waco Kid): Where you headed, cowboy?
Bart: Nowhere special.
Jim: Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there.
Bart: Come on.
--"Blazing Saddles"

Technical Difficulties... please stand by....
The Onion should have gotten a patent first....

Legal Ethics Forum
Interesting new Expert DQ case
Decency, Due Care, and The Yoo-Delahunty Memorandum
Thinking About the Fired U.S. Attorneys

Ex Post
Student Symposium- Chicago!
More Hmong - Now at Law School
Good Samaritan Laws: Good For America?

Appellate Law & Practice
Those turned over documents
CA1: courts can’t help people acquitted of crimes purge the taint of acquitted conduct
CA1: restrictions on chain liquor stores in Rhode Island are STILL okay

the imbroglio
High schoolers turn in plagiarism screeners for copyright infringement
Paris to offer 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations to rent by the end of the year

The Republic of T.
The Secret of the Snack Attack
links for 2007-04-04
Where You Link is What You Get

Distractions for stressed law students

The Other Side: Twisted AnimationsSomething Positive, a truly good webcomic

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