Thursday, April 26, 2007

Rejection! And a busy story-submitting season...

Fantasy Magazine sent a standard "we'll pass" rejection e-mail for "Golden Opportunity." My back-up plan, to try to send it to Cicada, isn't set to work out because several magazines I've checked out - such as Cicada, and Challenging Destiny - have closed themselves to submissions to deal with their backlogs. I guess that makes sense - it's April, University's out, and people are filling up their empty days with writing. Ah well - that means I'll just try different magazines.

Flytrap, however, is open to submissions until May 31, so I sent them "Parasite: A Love Story," and we'll just have to wait and see how they feel about that one.

Today and tomorrow will also probably be the last day that I post for about a week - I'm set to go on tour with the UAMC on Saturday and I won't be back until the 6th of May. It also means I'm going to miss the premiere of Spider-Man 3 (nooooo!) but have no fear - I will see it the week after!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Movie Review: Prince of Egypt (1998)

Well, contrary to my review of The Swan Princess and my repeated bitchings about how awful and cheap Quest for Camelot was, there actually are animated films not made by Disney that, on occasion, can be top-notch. One is Cats Don't Dance - but that's not what I'm reviewing here. No - I'm going with Prince of Egypt.

It's the standard Biblical story of Moses, but with a few changes of artistic license - one example is that in the film he's adopted by the Pharaoh's wife, not daughter, and I'm hard-pressed to explain which version is less realistic - that the king of Egypt would allow his wife to take up a baby she found in the freakin' river (she doesn't even know where it's been!) and raise him as a Prince of Egypt, or that he would allow his (presumably) unmarried daughter to do so. Either way, a bit of suspension of disbelief is required.

Another change is the cut made to Moses' mother's involvement in her son's upbringing. In the Bible, she's permitted to be Moses' nurse until he's weaned, and then he goes and lives with the princess. In the film, there's a very sad, teary, and musical (natch) moment where the mother weeps as she watches her baby's basket float into the current, because she knows that although he'll now be free of the Pharaoh's order to kill all baby Hebrew boys, she'll never see him again. In the movie, she never does - although Moses gets a glimpse of her in a cool hieroglyph-designed dream. I'm not sure whether, in the Biblical version, Moses was aware of his Hebrew heritage or not, although I assume his adopted father and other family members would know about it.

In Prince, however, he has no idea. AT ALL. After a fantastic opening musical number in which the Hebrews' plight and Moses's adoption/destiny are colourfully explained ("Deliver Us"), we open on a scene in which Moses (Val Kilmer) and his older brother Ramses (Ralph Fiennes, in another role as The Fellow Who Is Not Fond of the Those Jewish People [see Schindler's List]) destroy a temple and a construction site in a reckless chariot race. Moses is depicted as a pretty jolly type, cheerful, mischievous and easy-going. As a Prince of Egypt, he's accustomed to luxury, but as the second son he conveniently escapes the you-are-destined-to-rule-after-me-so-please-try-not-to-destroy-3000
-years-of-history pressure heaped upon Ramses by their father (Patrick Stewart). Basically, he gets away with a lot more - but he still claims responsibility for the damage he causes, and he and Ramses are shown as having a very affectionate relationship.

After taking pity on a captured desert woman (Tzipporah, played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and helping her escape, Moses runs into Miriam and Aaron - his actual siblings. Here's where there's another difference from the source material. In the film, Moses and Miriam (Sandra Bullock)share the closer relationship, whereas Aaron (Jeff Goldblum) is a bit of a dick. In the Bible, Moses meets Aaron first (and this is after he runs away, too), whereas Miriam gets leprosy. Anyway - Miriam jumps the gun, assumes Moses knows his heritage, and starts gabbling away about freeing the slaves and all that jazz. Moses, realistically, has harboured no urges to free the slaves, and is offended when Miriam suggests they're related, going so far as to assault her. Miriam responds by singing the same tune their mother sang when she gave Moses to the river, and Moses comes to an appalling realization when he recognises it.

Cue shift of world-views! In painfully quick succession, Moses learns he's Jewish, that his "father" ordered the drownings of thousands of babies, and that, like, y'know, the slaves actually suffer. Unhinged, he snaps and kills an abusive slave-driver, flees, meets Tzipporah, marries Tzipporah, cue burning bush, magic staff, bloody water, bugs, boils, and more dead babies.

Let me just say first off that the animation is amazing. Dreamworks seems to have switched to CG after the crash-and-burn of Sinbad was paired with the green-cash-cow success of Shrek, but the imagery here is just breathtaking. I love hand-drawn animation, but it seems now that my favourite visuals are when the film is primarily two-dimensional, but supported by "invisible" computer-animated segments. For instance - The Hunchback of Notre Dame used CG people in its crowd scenes and for the enormous bells, and Beauty and the Beast had that famous swooping-in-on-the-ballroom scene which is gorgeous. Well, they use that to pretty nifty effect in Prince.

Also, in keeping with the subject matter, the film was pretty serious. It had some moments of humour, of course, and the comic relief characters (Steve Martin and Martin Short play Ramses' sneaky court magicians, and get their own music number: "Playing with the Big Boys Now"), but for the most part the film is pretty respectful. No goofy sidekicks, no singing hairbrushes, and most important of all - no talking animal sidekicks. I mean, if every frog that rained from the sky had something to say, the film would be days long, and a raining-frog-musical-number might not have been appropriate for the film's tone. That's not to say I'm opposed to talking animals/inanimate objects, but there is a time and place for a tap-dancing mirror, and that's not when first-born Egyptians are dying in the streets.

I really enjoyed the character dynamic the movie set up between Moses and Ramses. I mean, they start out as the lazy second son with no responsibility, and his stressed-out heir brother, but by the second half of the movie their positions are switched: Moses is the one with his people's burden, and Ramses is the pampered Pharaoh who doesn't give a crap about his slaves' lives. Despite the brothers' former affection, the narrative ably explains Ramses' refusal to simply give his brother what he wants - the first half of the film tells us pretty clearly that Ramses is terribly insecure about his place in his father's dynasty, so much so that he feels he can't take the risk of freeing the slaves and dealing with the inevitable social/political/economic fallout that would result. And holy crap, what a fallout - lots and lots of animation work apparently went into the rain of fire, the locusts, the cool evil-cloud mojo of the Angel of Death - and the parting of the Red Sea. One of the best images of the movie is when the Hebrews, walking along the Red Sea, see the shadows of whales and sharks following them. Cool!

Anyway, along with gorgeous animation, there were cool songs, too. The music was composed by Hans Zimmer (who also composed the score for The Lion King), and the songs are grand - I mean that in the positive way, and in the, well, big way - they're catered to an epic style, which fits with the movie perfectly. They're great tunes, they serve the tone, and they have great lyrics ("By the might of Horus/ you will kneel before us!"). So you have great songs, fantastic visuals, good story, and fairly decent voice-acting. Plus, there's God and stuff. Apparently, Disney doesn't have a monopoly on fantastic hand-drawn films, although they own most of the shares. ^_^

Crush du Jour Rating:

Topher says: Let those people go! (Translation: "Involving. Pretty. Cool songs. A.")

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie Review: The Swan Princess (1994)

Seeing as I've watched pretty much all the animated musical Disney films of the 90s lately, I've moved on to the animated musicals that other companies made in a bid to cash in on the Golden Age of Animation Disney briefly revived. One of those was The Swan Princess, based on the story of Swan Lake, naturally.

Now, I could complain about the visuals, and how the facial expressions on the human characters looked kind of weird or they moved oddly, but let's face it, I've watched a lot of animated films and the only ones who've managed to make humans move realistically are Disney, Dreamworks, Warner Brothers (with The Iron Giant - the only animated movie they made), and Don Bluth (and Don Bluth is borderline). Also - in a film whose hand-drawn water- and light- animation effects were actually fairly decent, the Swan Princess folk inexplicably switched to CG to portray the rippling of the lake, but only for the last five minutes of the film. ANYWAY...

There's no question of Prince Derek and Princess Odette being made for each other - the movie explains how they've been forced to spend every summer together because their ambitious parents hope to unite their two kingdoms through matrimony. Of course, the parents aren't quite ambitious enough to force them to marry if they don't want to, which seems a bit wishy washy. "What if Odette's not for the merger?" her dad asks in the catchy opening tune "This Is My Idea." Derek's suspiciously elderly-looking mother replies, "URGE HER!"

For most of these enforced summers, Derek and Odette have not gotten along, and the accompanying musical number accords the bad feeling to Derek's childhood fear of cooties and adolescent discomfort with losing at cards to a girl. Magically enough, on the last summer, when they are both (presumably) of age, they take one look at each other, the hormones (belatedly) kick in, and Derek says, "You're hot, let's hook up," and Odette says, "Like, yeah, okay." Sadly, Odette realizes that Derek, for all his hotness, still possesses one fatal flaw: he is as DUMB AS A POST. She asks, "Yes, I'm beautiful - but what else?" and Derek, with royal aplomb, replies (and I'm accurately quoting here), "Well, what else is there?" Which makes sense in a way - since they've probably spent more than ten summers determinedly avoiding each other, it stands to reason the only thing that made Derek perk up this year was the fact that Odette grew boobs and blond hair during the interim.

As one might expect, the wedding is promptly called off and Odette leaves in a huff. It is at this point that the film's villain, an evil sorcerer named Rothbart (played with whispery camp by Jack Palance), whose previous attempt at a coup on Odette's kingdom was foiled, swoops down on Odette's carriage, whisks her off, and puts her under a spell that changes her into a swan by sunlight and a human by moonlight in order to persuade her to marry him. Yes, that's right - he wants to marry her because he's too lazy to try to take the kingdom by force. Anyway, since he used magic to do the kidnapping, all Odette's father can say under questioning was that Odette was attacked "by a great animal" (Rothbart in disguise, natch).

Naturally, Derek hears the cryptic witness statements "great animal," "not what it seems," and "Odette gone," and is determined to use all of his intellectual powers, however woefully limited, to get Odette back and thus prove that he doesn't only love her boobs, he loves the heart underneath her boobs, which he bet he would have been able to say if Odette hadn't interrupted him with that unlady-like snit-fit. He and his friend Bromley (a chap with an interchangeably British-Australian accent who's a dead-ringer for Beauty and the Beast's evil sidekick Lafou) spend a few humorous slapstick scenes practicing archery, before Derek comes up with the lamebrained idea that a "great animal" that is "not what it seems" can only be a transforming animal, so his entire plan is to head off into the forest and literally shoot anything that moves. Bromley agrees. Their friendship seems primarily based on the fact that Bromley is the only character who's more of an idiot than Derek is, so this isn't surprising.

Guess who he almost shoots? That's right - Odette, in swan-form. Odette, having had a few days (weeks?) to get accustomed to her spell (and its cure: kiss a dude and have him make an everlasting vow of love and prove it to the world), comes to the conclusion that Derek is a dude, and seems to like her, so she might as well call him her soulmate and have a whole drippy song number about how they're meant to be ("Longer than Forever") despite the fact that she already established that she really didn't want anything to do with him only a few days (weeks?) before. But seeing as how the spell is really crimping her style, I guess she figures Derek'll do.

And let's not forget her new talking-animal friends: being stuck on a lake, naturally her new buds are all aquatic creatures - Speedy the turtle, Jean-Bob the frog (played by John Cleese in a hilarious French accent), and some kind of Scottish puffin with a penchant for military catchphrases - they are present for the requisite song-and-dance numbers and comic relief, but aren't all that memorable past the silly but rather sweet subplot that Jean-Bob believes he's really a prince who needs a kiss to break his own spell.

Well, these creatures help Odette lure Derek to her lake, where she turns back into a girl in time for Derek to NOT shoot her. She relays the whole story to Derek, who comes up with an idea: the next night his mother's planned a "There's Plenty More Fish In the Sea" ball for Derek to find a new wife, so if Odette shows up then, he can make the vow in front of a crowd of people, which should meet the "prove to the world" condition as well. Unfortunately, they forget about the new moon the next night, which means she's stuck as a swan, so Rothbart (not handling Odette's constant rejection very well) uses a spell to change his maid into Odette's doppelganger to go in her place, adding a not-before-mentioned plot point that if Derek swears his love to another girl, Odette will die. How convenient...

Derek, having evidently been hit on the head as a child, is easily fooled. Odette collapses, Derek screams a few Darth-Vader style "NOOOOOOO"s, kills Rothbart with his manly prince fighting powers, and that, apparently, breaks the spell and revives Odette. Happy endings are had by all.

Not quite. Twitchy visuals aside, the movie's not all that bad (and certainly better than Quest for Camelot), partially because on many levels it knows it's silly, so it just runs with it for the most part. The setting is quasi-medieval and vaguely European, and no real names or time periods are mentioned, so they can have an excuse to have arrows and horsies and ball gowns everyday. The comic setpiece where Derek hunts the musicians is pretty funny, as well as the "This is My Idea" musical number, and the character of Rogers, as Derek's sarcastic valet, brightens up the pace considerably.

But...The main characters are borderline unbearable. Odette's nice, but we don't get to know her very well - she spends much of the movie giggling, giving cheering advice, or crying her eyes out because Rothbart's a meanie. I mean, at the end, when Derek tries to revive her, he says "It wasn't just your beauty, it was your kindness and your courage," etc. etc. - I kept wondering: "Derek, you are mentally challenged - how could you realize something that even I didn't get?" To describe Derek, I'll have to quote Disney villain Scar, in that "the lights are not all on upstairs." Dude is stupid, man. Really - and he's going to end up as KING of TWO kingdoms - how's that going to work out?

And as for the songs, there's one catchy number ("This is My Idea"), a silly-but-pleasant one ("No More Mister Nice Guy" - Rothbart's jazzy explanation of how he's going to go apeshit on Odette's kingdom once he takes over), one song that is annoying in how memorable it is ("Longer than Forever" - I keep humming the refrain, dammit, despite not remembering anything else) and a few that are simply awful in their tackiness (like "No Fear" - the one song they stuck with in the lame sequels).

I think one of reasons I didn't like the songs much in this film is because they didn't seem to segue smoothly into the narrative. In most animated musicals, the song arises out of, or is inspired by something the characters are already doing. But in Swan Princess, it's the other way around - it's like they wrote the songs first and had to write the story around THEM, so what happens is that the characters will suddenly suggest a half-assed special event (let's steal a map! Let's have a beauty pageant! Let's hunt musicians for sport!) that really isn't relevant to the story at all, that then transforms into a cheesy number ("No Fear," "Princesses on Parade," and "Practice," respectively). Interestingly enough, the lyricist for the tunes was Dave Zippel, who if memory serves went on to pen the lyrics for Disney's Hercules, which were pretty good.

Still, despite some good-natured humour, the songs are cheesy, the main characters unsympathetic, and the animation is distracting. Really, it's not that bad (even stupid people deserve to fall in love), but it's not that good either.

Crush du Jour Rating:
Ron is reasonably amused. (Translation: "M'eh.")

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Yes, it really IS neat!

While eventually recovered from the blow of not getting the Little Mermaid solo in choir, and having to listen to someone else sing at the concerts that will end up on the CD, I've still felt fairly melancoly, for the purely childish, selfish reason that it should be me up there. Mum suggested that maybe I lost the solo for Lent, to learn a little humility. I suppose that makes sense - I've always had a big head about my big voice, and it was confident, bordering on certain, that I was going to win the Little Mermaid solo.

Well, I guess it turns out Mum was right - the choir rehearsal right after Easter (and the last one before we go on tour on the 28th), the choir director came and gave me a Good News - Bad News - Good News announcement (his words).

Good News: The soloist got her dream job to work as a nurse at a children's hospital.

Bad News: Because of that job, she can't go on tour.

Good News: As the understudy, I GET TO SING THE SOLO ON TOUR! Me me me! As one of my friends pointed out, "That's, like, nine performances to that other girl's two!" I mean, how lucky am I? How often does the understudy get that lucky?

Of course, I let it go to my head pretty quickly, so God took it on Himself to remind me that pride is a sin: I got up to sing on the last rehearsal, and FORGOT ALL THE WORDS TO THE SONG I'VE SUNG SINCE I WAS THREE. So embarrassing, but at least I got it out of my system before we go on tour so I have time to straighten out my jitters and adjust myself to the slower tempo. Now, I could quibble over the minor details - like how the other girl's on the CD, and how she shouldn't have been able to sing the solo in the first place if she wasn't able to go on tour, but there's no point, really, is there?

Besides - my parents have hinted that if the first performance isn't a huge drive from our city, they might come to see me anyways - and if they don't, one of the social conveners for the tour usually films some of the performances, so I might be able to finagle a copy with my solo on it.

I'm so excited! So excited!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Book Review: "Practical Magic" by Alice Hoffman

I've read books that have eventually been turned into movies, and I've watched movies and then gone and read the original books (The Hunchback of Notre Dame is actually at the top of my TBR pile now. Seriously.). For the most part, while some of the movies have been fun, the books have been buttloads better, if for nothing else, than because there is more space for the goodness that a two-hour movie just doesn't have time for.

So, let's just say I had some high hopes for Practical Magic. I'd read Alice Hoffman's The Ice Queen and adored it, and I'd seen the film Practical Magic and while on the whole I didn't quite like it, there were certain scenes and themes that were pretty interesting - so I figured the book had to be about a million times better, right?

Well, no. In the book, two orphaned sisters are raised by a crotchety pair of spinster aunts after their parents die in a fire. Sally, the eldest, is determined to be good, sensible, helpful, and logical because she's secretly afraid the aunts will cast her out if they aren't pleased with her. Gillian, the younger, grows up into a gorgeous, devil-may-care wild child who eventually runs away, promising never to come within a hundred feet of the aunts ever again.

Their aunts aren't explicitly labelled as witches until the end of the book, but it's obvious pretty early on that they are considered to have special powers. They (and by extension, the sisters) are ostracized by the superstitious, but women will still come to the aunts' back door begging for love potions. The experience of spying on the aunts' customers scares the two girls about love - the customers are portrayed as pathetic, selfish, troubled women who have no idea what they're asking for and are ultimately betrayed by their own wishes. Both girls decide never to be cornered that way.

However, both sisters end up, against all odds, trapped and severely hurt by love. Sally falls in love with a hardware salesclerk named Michael, but after he's killed in a fated accident she has a nervous breakdown for about a year, and spends all her time thereafter devoting her life to her own daughters instead of serving herself. Gillain, meanwhile, flits about with a number of men, but unwisely falls for an abusive drug-dealer named Jimmy. After he inadvertantly dies, Gillian returns to stay with Sally, and the reunited sisters, along with Sally's daughters Kylie and Antonia, eventually rediscover all the good things that come with the heartbreak of true love.

Practical Magic is one of Alice Hoffman's earlier books, and while I'm glad to say her style improved by the time she wrote The Ice Queen, the storytelling in this book left a lot to be desired. Here, Hoffman does an enormous amount of telling over showing. We're told that Sally is the responsible, logical one who refuses to believe in fate and magic and love, and we're told that Gillian is the insecure wild one who thinks she's isn't worthy of true love. How we are told is through rather blunt internal musing and a large number of lists. Hoffman lists things like a madwoman in this book. To evoke a bizarre childhood, instead of focusing descriptively on a few special scenes, she creates a grocery list of barely-described, mundane actions - and she does it all the time. Lists of Sally's accomplishments, Kylie's insecurities, the sisters' cherished memories, common superstitions, chores, fears, recipes -- on and on and on. It is such a frequent narrative habit that it becomes quickly tiresome, and gives the details a shallow quality.

The pacing of this book also has a disturbingly random, out-of-the-blue element to it. Every single person - I am not making this up - every single man who falls in love with Gillian, Sally, or her daughters does so instantaneously, with one glance followed by flash-of-lightning-certainty that renders them virtual slaves to the girls' will. This leaves us with an uncomfortable lack of romantic build-up, which in turn explains very little about why Sally and Gillian are so attractive. I can imagine it happening once, but four times? Also, each character seems confined to a set amount of emotional triggers, where if one is accidently tripped, it can send the character over the deep end or provoke a certain unexpected action, which is convenient for the narrative but appears pretty sudden and unrealistic to me.

However, like The Ice Queen, the magical elements of the book are restrained and subtle. For all her telling and her lists, Hoffman never comes out and says: "Hey, the aunts are WITCHES - so maybe THE GIRLS ARE TOO." Instead, she uses descriptions, scenery, and setting to demonstrate the aunts' otherworldliness, letting the magical occurances build up slowly so that by the time a Big Magic happens (somewhere near the middle, concerning Gillian's dead boyfriend), it fits in smoothly with the tone of the novel and gives it a consistency while easing the suspension of disbelief.

In many ways, the novel has a fairy-tale quality to it, probably intentional. It explains the frequent hairpin turns in character and narrative development, the frequency of love-at-first-sight, and the intense and sudden changes that occur around Sally and her family. While I love fairy-tales, Practical Magic demonstrates how some elements of folktales and myth just aren't suited to a long-format story. The ritualization of the formula, that fits a shorter tale, is repetitive when stretched over more than three hundred pages.

This might have explained why I found the movie more enjoyable - except that the movie uses very little of the material from the book. In the movie, for instance, there is a curse that is supposed to kill the true love of every woman in the aunts' family, the aunts are more present (they're little more than bookends in the novel), Sally's girls remain children (they're teenagers at the end of the book), and Sally ends up moving back into the aunts' house when her husband dies - which does not happen in the novel, in which Sally makes a point of leaving the aunts' house when she's widowed, in order for her kids to have what she believes is a "normal" life.

In the movie, I particularly liked that the Gary Hallet (Aidan Quinn) character turns out to be the "perfect man" that Sally wished for as a child - with one blue eye and one green eye, who can flip perfect pancakes, and ride a horse backwards and forwards - but that particular cute tidbit was invented, apparently, by the screenwriter (Robin Swicord), and Gary and Sally's true relationship is, like nearly every other relationship in the novel, instantly set in stone.

Neither interpretation of the story was completely engaging - while cute, the film occasionally verges into the "too cute" realm of Bewitched, and isn't nearly as subtle with the magical element (another change: in the book Sally and Gillian never use any magic of their own - but they each have specific magical powers in the film) and although Alice Hoffman's language is as poetic and beautiful as ever, the narrative is unfocused and all over the place so there wasn't a lot to hold my interest.

Crush du Jour Rating:
Topher is disappointed. ("I kinda liked the movie better...")

Book Review: "Bet Me," by Jennifer Crusie

As you can probably guess, I've been backed up with my book reviews, so I'm getting them all done while I can.

This was the first book I read after I finished my University reading - and let me tell you, what a palate-cleanser it was! This is, by the way, the first official romance novel I've ever read - and I have the lovely Bitches over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels to thank for that. I'd been lurking over at their blog for quite a while, but I'd never had the chance to get any romance novels, because I had books to review for University, and books to read for my parents/grandparents, and of course, the towering pile of sci-fi/fantasy books I bought for myself but haven't had the time to read yet!

I'm kind of a stickler for reading books in the order I've acquired them (since I still have the three books I bought at Coles/Chapters when I was fired - last summer - and they still haven't been read yet), but after all the heavy "thinking" books I had to pore through for English (Cosmopolis? Like, gag me with a spoon!), I said "Screw it!" and picked up Bet Me, which had been languishing somewhere near the bottom of my TBR pile.

The book opens on our protagonist Min (short for Minerva - because her mother wants her to be a goddess - kill me now), who is having an extraordinarily bad day. First, David, her boyfriend of about three months, breaks up with her because she won't have sex with him. Second, this break-up means she will be dateless to her sister's wedding, and her calorie-counting-appearance-is-everything-Harpy-QUEEN of a mother is going to hold that against her and probably link her failure to her weight, which is ample, but not unhealthily so. Third, she overhears her spineless ex-boyfriend make a bet with another man, Cal, that he won't be able to get Min into bed within a month.

Inconveniently, she doesn't hear all that clearly: Cal, not being the oblivious ass that David is, refuses the bet, but not wanting to offend David (who is a client) he deflects it with another bet: that he can take Min to dinner. He succeeds, but only because Min decides to string Cal along for a month to revenge herself AND have a conveniently HAWT date for her sister's wedding (she justifies her behaviour because her friends inform her that Cal has a reputation for being incredibly commitment-phobic). The date proceeds horribly, and Cal and Min decide never to see each other again - but Fate (or Chance, given the book's theme) seems determined to keep throwing them together.

There's so much about this book to love. First of all - the characters. Cal and Min are by no means perfect, or similar, but their differences and personal problems and despicable families (seriously - they both lucked out and missed the asshat gene that claimed most of their relatives) complement each other in delightful ways. Min, in particular, is very concerned with her weight - she's not obese, but she's definitely not thin, and her hateful mother is convinced that "all men are visual" and that if she and her daughters aren't Barbie-perfect, their men are bound to cheat on and leave them. Cal responds to this with flat-out denial. Crusie is brilliant at describing how attracted Cal is to Min, especially while she's enjoying good food. There's one scene in the book that is just perfect: Min, after enjoying chicken marsala at a local restaurant, tries to improvise a low-fat version and fails miserably - Cal simply says that some food, and some people, are just meant to have a little butter and oil in them to be delicious. This is the part where I swoon, people.

Cal and Min are both backed up by a hilarious bevy of friends, each of whom is fully-drawn and contributes something meaningful to the story while still remaining a distinct personality. Crusie masterfully depicts how these groups of people become more and more integrated as Cal and Min become closer, until they become one lively, cohesive bunch of friends.

The closeness of the friends also emphasises the complete and utter wrongness of the novel's villains: David, of course, is not only determined to have Min back, but doesn't want to pay off the bet should Cal succeed: he still thinks Cal accepted the bet, a bet David put ten thousand dollars on. David is aided in his plans to break Cal and Min up by Cynthia, Cal's ex-girlfriend, a gorgeous couples therapist Cal broke up with when she proposed marriage. She got famous preaching all these four-step plans to love so often she believes it herself, and knows that her career is pretty much dunzo if she and Cal don't tie the knot. Her textbook referrals to behavioural patterns are pretty funny, especially when she puts her theories into action, but in the end she knows Cal just as little as David knows Min.

Crusie also has a wicked sense of humour, particularly in dialogue. I could practically hear the zings as Min and Cal verbally spar, break up, find an understanding, spar again, fight again, end up closer together, and then go back to bickering. The pacing is also, for the most part, fast and even, although it drags a little in the third act. The amazing and wonderful thing about the writing is that it isn't only funny, and heartfelt, and sexy (I can never look at chocolate donuts the same way the book and you'll know what I mean), but it's intelligent. The characters are all smart in their own way, and while they are prone to their own mistakes and prejudices, Crusie describes their motivations in a way that allows the reader to relate to them, even when they're being stubborn or wrong-headed. Especially Min - what a wonderful heroine! I'm no twig either, and I've had my share of humiliations whenever I go to a clothing store and the pretty tops won't fit or the pants are too small - but she comforts herself in a way that I do, by collecting funky accessories that aren't affected by size. She collects gorgeous shoes (like the pair on the cover!) whereas I like dangly earrings.

Hot damn, this book is Romantic with a capital R, but the writing allows it to be such without having unnecessary sex scenes. In fact, there is only one, near the end, that I shan't describe because you have to read it for yourself to truly enjoy how yummy it is. Crusie builds up love and affection and attraction through action and dialogue - she doesn't rely on the out-of-the-blue-OMG-HAWT-SECKS scene as a crutch. This is definitely a Keeper book - and not just a Keeper book, but a Comfort-Reading-Break-the-Spine-Reading-It-A-Million-Times Keeper book.

Crush du Jour Rating:
Hugh is in love! (Translation: "Fantastic!")

Friday, April 06, 2007

Book Review: "On Beauty," by Zadie Smith

Sorry about this - I'm still fiddling with the perfect format for my reviews. Anyway - wow, I have to say, wow. I wonder how I might have read this book had I not read Howard's End first? I read about a chapter in and my strongest thought was: "I am reading a re-make." That astounded me. I've seen remakes of movies, re-adapations of Shakespeare places, covers of songs - but I didn't think people were, well, allowed to remake books.

Yes, eventually On Beauty meanders off in its own particular direction, but the first few chapters are pretty darn close to those of Howard's End. Howard Belsey, the white, British professor of art history at fictional American university Wellington, flies to London to see his son, Jerome, when his kid e-mails that he's engaged. Just like the previous book, Howard shows up just in time for the two stupid kids to call it off. Again, similar to the previous book the Belseys (multiracial, radically liberal, intellectual) do not get along with Jerome's ex-intended's family, the Kipps (black, viciously conservative, religious), but nevertheless Howard's overweight, African-American wife Kiki quickly befriends the ailing Mrs. Kipps, so much so that when Mrs. Kipps kicks the bucket, she leaves a handwritten note leaving Kiki a priceless painting that outrages her family.

Smith deals with a great many characters, and I guess it's to her credit that they aren't all pretentious, oblivious, spoiled elitists like those in Howard's End. Most of them are, but not all of them. Howard, the de facto protagonist, is a boorish, controlling pig who, while claiming to be trying to get back into his wife's graces after a disastrous affair, continues to do ridiculously idiotic and selfish things. His daughter, Zora, feels unattractive and socially awkward, but is nevertheless willing to scheme and manipulate to get her own way. Youngest son Levi has a few sweet moments, but his overflowing idealism combined with a complete ignorance of the "street" he claims to belong to do not bode well for his fate. And while Forster was more charitable towards the Wilcoxes in Howard's End, Smith does not place very much focus on the Kipps at all, preferring to portray them as hypocritical, homophobic, and cruel bigots. At least Forster gave the rival family a little depth.

Anyway, though, there are a few characters to root for. While I found it hard to believe Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox could ever get along, I found no trouble believing Kiki and Mrs. Kipp's relationship. Kiki is an astonishingly colourful, warm, and well-rounded character, so much so that it only increased my hatred of those characters who treated her badly - that is, nearly every other character. Smith evocatively portrays her humiliation at Howard not only sleeping with another woman, but with a skinny, white woman who also happens to be a family friend.

In many ways, it's more interesting than Howard's End, because most of the theorizing takes place in dialogue that is more or less dynamic, rather than the stifling dull internal exposition that Forster uses. It still isn't enough to save this book - I found myself out of my depth among people who were so interested in discussing the theory of art (is this a painting for painting's sake? Or is this a painting for all paintings? etc.), and the theory of love and the theory of justice, beauty, etc, that they never have time to see or do any of it in practice. I felt detached from all of the characters except Kiki, so in truth I had no interest in seeing how their petty, narrow lives would turn out.

Crush du Jour Rating:
Patrick is sympathetic. (Translation: "Nice try, really, but it still wasn't all that good.")

Book Review: "Howard's End," by E.M. Forster

Crush Du Jour Rating: Patrick is confused! (Translation: "Um...didn't get it.")

I know, thanks to school and stuff I've been pretty lax with the book reviews, but they're coming, they're coming...I received this book from my grandmother for Christmas, along with Zadie Smith's On Beauty, which shall be reviewed pretty soon after this one. Apparently the two are connected - Smith intended her book to be an homage to this one, which she considered to be one of the best books ever written.

I have to disagree. Generally speaking, the plot is this - two families, the wealthy and liberal Schlegels, and the middle-class-but-still-well-off conservative Wilcoxes, are brought together when young Helen Schlegel and Paul Wilcox announce, and then just as swiftly terminate, a harebrained engagement. Helen and Paul recover fairly quickly, but Margaret, Helen's older sister, strikes up a friendship with Paul's mother, Mrs. Wilcox. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, with only a rough pencil-written note that leaves Howard's End, her country estate, to Margaret instead of her family, the tension only builds, even after the Wilcoxes unanimously decide to destroy the note without telling Margaret.

Things proceed on from there at a rather muddled and tiresome pace. Forster does a lot, and I mean a lot, of telling instead of showing, with Margaret and Helen and the others going on about the nature of love and marriage and decision-making and hayfever and what have you, with a great deal of philosophizing that I either didn't understand or didn't care about. I realize I may sound a bit immature, and maybe I might enjoy this book when I'm older, but as it was it simply could not hold my interest. The narrative has this annoying habit of leading a reader in one direction, only to make a sudden turn that has no bearing on the story at all. In this manner the book ends on a fairly large deus ex machina, and I left it feeling unsatisfied. For instance, Mrs Wilcox dies, the book spends several pages demonstrating that Mr Wilcox is a) mourning his wife, and b) an awful pig-man, but then a few pages later he up and proposes to Margaret! Who accepts, of all things!

For another thing, the characters are all uniformly unsympathetic and poorly developed. Helen is irrational, selfish, and thoughtless. Margaret is easily bored, haughty, and disturbingly pleased with the unearned quality of her wealth. Mr. Wilcox and his children are even worse. I couldn't find one character in which I could relate to anything, since both families are composed of snobs who really don't give a damn about anyone but themselves. And their characters have no bearing on how they actually react to things, which while it might have made the book more unpredictable, also removed any ounce of sense from the narrative. There was really no point to the whole thing, and I couldn't for the life of me guess how any of the characters had progressed from the beginning of the novel to the end. They all seemed more or less the same to me.

The point is, basically, the story was about well-off people who disagree with and make catty remarks about other well-off people, while a few not-so-well-off people show up here and there to throw a monkeywrench in things. Margaret may lecture on at length about love, but as someone who kept herself on a pedestal thanks to her money and had nothing to do with men, what experience does she have on the subject? Yes, yes, I might understand it better when I'm older, but there really isn't that much incentive in this book to ever get it a try ever again.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

It finally came!

Yesterday, I went to get the mail, just as I had for the last two weeks, and found three enormous packages, all addressed to me. One was a book from Green Man Review, one contained two books from Ballantine, and one contained what I had been ripping my hair out waiting for: my contributor's copies from Cicada. My beautiful, beautiful issues were here!

We're going to have to order more copies. Everyone in my family wants one, and six just isn't enough. *lol* It was amazing - my story was mentioned in the Editor's Letter at the beginning of the issue, and it had fabulous illustrations - of Paulie, of his sister, and of his mother Jeannie. They were surprising and original but ultimately I felt that they fit the story perfectly.

And my name - believe me, I know my own name, and I've occasionally seen it in print - in The Gateway, at the Green Man Review, but there's just something about it here - seeing my name in a literary magazine, with pages like a book's pages, with my name at the top of every other page just like a novel's - it just seems like a different name, an author's name, it looks different. I can't really explain it, but it's a really cool feeling.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Full-Blown Obsession Time

This week's obsession? Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney. Animation, to be more precise. I'll even take Pixar.

I want to watch animated Disney movies, I want to listen to their music, hell, I want to write for Disney (I've got lots of ideas!). I mean, since January I've started watching all the movies, and I've worked my way through Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Toy Story (which was partially written by Buffy's Joss Whedon! Imagine that!).

Now I'm seriously considering watching the older films - those I've tended to shy away from, because I'm more a fan of the Alan Menken musicals, but hey, I can't afford to be picky. It takes four years to make an animated feature, and the next best thing, Disney's Enchanted, isn't out until November and I'm going to have to wait until 2009 for The Frog Princess. I've never even seen Sleeping Beauty. Or The Black Cauldron, though I'm a little iffy about watching that one because I'm quite attached to Lloyd Alexander's books and Disney's live-action "adaptation" of Ella Enchanted had me spitting blood.

Still...I just finished watching the Making-Of featurettes on The Little Mermaid DVD, and I was fascinated by the process that brought Little Mermaid into being. Did you know that Ursula was originally intended to be King Triton's sister? How does that work? Let me imagine:

Seahorse OB/GYN: Congratulations, it's a girl!

King Triton's Mom: Honey, I can explain...

King Triton's Dad: She has tentacles.

Triton's Mom: I don't think it's such a big deal...

Triton's Dad: Tentacles, woman! With suckers!

Triton's Mom: You know, when she grows up I'm certain it'll be a very sensative issue for her so...

Triton's Dad: Since when has anyone in my family had tentacles?

Triton's Mom: I'm really starting to object to your tone, mister!


Triton's Mom: You mean squid.

Triton's Dad: ....

Triton's Mom: Cause, she has, y'know, six tentacles, not eight...but...oh crap.

Triton's Dad: But, but, our gardener is a squid.

Triton's Mom: I'm pretty sure my great-great-uncle's step cousin was a squid, it could be a recessive gene...

Triton's Dad: I WANT A DIVORCE.

Triton's Mom: I GET HALF.



Triton's Dad: Those crabs were personal friends of mine! And they were finally acquitted of those date-rape charges!

Triton's Mom: FINE.

Triton's Dad: FINE. (You get the kids.)

Triton's Mom: What?!

Triton's Dad: Dibs out! *exit Ocean left*

Baby Triton: *sniff* I really hope my little sister doesn't try to overthrow me...

Anyway, another nice surprise on the Little Mermaid DVD was the animated short The Little Matchgirl. It was one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Short. Seven minutes long, traditionally hand-drawn with some CG touches, completely silent, it kept perfectly to the Hans Christian Andersen Story. At the last minute, I was afraid they would change the tragic ending (since the fact that the real Little Mermaid died didn't really go over all that well with the makers of that Disney adaptation), but they didn't. I absolutely cried my eyes out. I kid you not. I've heard that story about a million times, but this particular animated version had me runny-nosed and bawling. So sad, so wonderful - see, that's why when Disney gets it right, they really get it right. That's why I'd kill to write movies for them.