Monday, January 31, 2011

Year End Round-up

Current Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl.

Inspirational Quote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," -- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

My third annual year in review is a month late. Why? Um... okay, so here's the thing. You know how, when the new millennium began on Jan 1, 2000, many people were of the opinion (rightly so) that the millennium didn't actually begin until Jan 1, 2001 because Jan 1, year 1 was actually one year after the calendar started counting?

Yeah, like that. So Feb 1, 2011 is actually the first day of the new year. Sure. That's the ticket...


Best Movie I've Seen: Despicable Me. It's a 3D computer animated kid's movie that's just a lot of fun and silliness without ever sinking into stupidity.
Worst: The Last Airbender. The cartoon had so much going for it: the rich world, entertaining characters, and a plot that gripped right up to the end. It's hard to believe that a director who has given us such good films as The 6th Sense and Unbreakable could take that kind of material and deliver a film as empty of quality as this.

Best Book I've Read: Tough call. There have been some great ones. Time-Traveller's Wife, Mainspring, Coyote Horizon... but I'm going to have to go with Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. 'Tis a tale told by a dog, full of soul and fury, signifying a great deal, actually.

Best Song I've Heard: I've really been enjoying Ash Koley's Brighter at Night. Their music is upbeat and catchy. Coldplay is still entertaining me as well.
Worst: Eminem's Recovery album. I get that he's had some tough times, and I'm glad he's making it through. I just don't need him screaming obscenities at me through my speakers while he's telling me about it. My sons love him. I think he should spend some time in Somalia, or Ethiopia, the slums of Calcutta or Mexico City in order to get a little perspective.

Best Television Show I've Seen: I'm not actually watching much. I'm watching "The Cape," which is super hero stuff a couple of silly-steps more serious than the 60's Batman TV series, so I guess that'll have to qualify. Doctor Who is better, though.
Worst: Any "reality" television show. Vacuous instant celebrities trying to make me believe for an hour that their problems are somehow important. What a waste of the E-M spectrum.

Best News I've Heard: Chevrolet's Volt is a battery-powered car that actually looks practical.
Worst News: Publishing's dire straits has me looking at the Magnus Somnium and wondering if there's much point in finishing it.

Personal Stuff:
Best Thing that Happened: My cat's going to live. According to the vet, you'd never know he'd been sick.
Worst: The Republicans gained control of the senate by appealing to the stupid and mean-spirited among the electorate. How can one not be disappointed by that?

Most Fun Thing I've Done: Walked every conservation area in the local river valley with Cassandra. Beautiful scenery and some GREAT company.
Least: Tried to enforce some kind of homework discipline on two teenage boys. It's like pulling their teeth, but I feel the pain.

Most Surprising Occurrence: Again, the readership here. 23 of you now.

New Year's Resolution: Same as last year, which ought to depress me, but... huh. To finish the new book, finish "final" (yeah right) edits on the Magnus Somnium, and begin querying agents.

I hope your 2011 is off to a good start. Mine is, for all kinds of reasons.
Truly, every day is a good day.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Means to Meaning

Current Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Inspirational Quote: "We breathe. We pulse. We regenerate. Our hearts beat. Our minds create. Our souls ingest. 37 seconds, well used, is a lifetime." -- Edward Magorium, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium (written by Zach Helm)

Words aren't worth much. They're about the only things you can still buy at a few cents a pop. And if you look at the straight economics, you'll see that supply greatly exceeds demand.

So why are there so many words? Why do we go through so much trouble to find the right ones when, really, the right ones are worth pretty much exactly the same as the wrong ones?

Because words are priceless, really. They are one of the most eloquent ways we connect to each other, they are the way we convey experience and knowledge and insight and all those things that raise us above the level of animals, that mark us as unique individuals.

The right word in the right place can change a mind. The right word at the right time can fortify a heart and turn despair into hope. We produce so many words in the belief that somewhere in all that verbiage is a collection of them with the power to affect another human being.

"Although the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. For words offer a means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth." -- V, from "V for Vendetta," written by Alan Moore.

I've never heard (sorry, I've only ever seen the movie) the point made more beautifully than that. Words have the ability to inspire, to open the mind to the vistas of the possible, to reorder our perspective and make us see new things in new ways.

So, in a celebration of that, I present a handful of movie clips that contain words I've found inspiring. If you've come across clips, passages or other collections of words that have stirred your blood, please leave them in the comments.

William Wallace's speech stirring the pride of his countrymen in Braveheart...

Henry V giving courage to his men before the battle of Agincourt. Although the filmed version is dramatic and moving, it is an edited version of the one that appears in the play.

I stumbled across this recently, from the movie Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately, I can't embed it, however, the link is worth following. "Life is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."

And, last for no particular reason, Red's words from the Shawshank Redemption...

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get busy livin'.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Report: I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

As should be obvious by now, I'm a huge fan of Terry Pratchett's work and await each new book with the anticipation and impatience that most people normally associate with Christmas. Coincidentally, I got this one for Christmas, so there's some synchronicity here.

This is the latest entry in the Tiffany Aching cycle, a series for middle-grade readers that includes Wee Free Men, Hatful of Sky and Wintersmith. As you'll see from the sidebar, if you go back far enough, I loved these books and reread them on occasion. In fact, to "prepare" myself for this book, I skimmed through Wee and Sky, and read Wintersmith through before settling down to I Shall Wear Midnight.

The book contains much of the trademark Pratchett wit, but it incorporates an unaccustomed darkness that has informed a great deal of his later work. I suspect this has a great deal to do with his prognosis, but it is not a welcome incorporation for this reader. And as I neared the end of the book, I had to face the realization that I held in my hands a Pratchett I could not love. There are so many things to love about this book: the characters and humor, the wit, the writing... that I'm a little disappointed by myself.

The story concerns Tiffany, who is trying to get over being replaced in the affections of the Baron of the Chalk and dealing with how much of a witch's life is given over to altruistic service. As it progresses, one-time friends grow increasingly hostile and she finds herself encountering again and again a revenant in the form of a long-dead priest with a fanatic desire to see her dead. At one point, things seem hopeless for Tiffany as the revenant seems to inspire foaming-at-the-mouth witch hatred in everyone around it. At points, the narrative comes close to horror in its bleak outlook.

I could not love the book because the obstacles are overcome with little difficulty and hardly any tension. The anti-witch sentiment is resolved about 2/3 of the way through the book and proves to have quite a different source than the specter. Likewise, Tiffany disposes of the ghost, who is built up to be a challenge for even Granny Weatherwax, the Discworld's greatest witch, within a handful of pages. There follows an overlong epilogue in which Tiffany is allowed to dole out rewards to the deserving, and finds a new object for her affection.

I felt that the character and the situation required more drama than that which unfolded in the pages.

In all, this book feels like a swansong, a last tying up of threads, even to the point where Eskarina Smith, the heroine of Equal Rites (the first Discworld book featuring Granny Weatherwax) makes a cameo to bring closure to Tiffany's story. Understandable, given Pratchett's situation, but I have been spoiled by the high quality of books like Mort, Wee Free Men, Thud, Interesting Times and Small Gods (one of my favorites), and I don't feel this one belongs in their number.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I Enjoyed This

Monday, January 17, 2011

Christmas Stress

Current Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Inspirational Quote: (to the tune of "Jingle Bells")
Christmas bills, Christmas bills, piled on the floor,
Everyday the mailman comes to bring a dozen more, oh!
Christmas bills, Christmas bills, I'll go broke and then,
When next Christmas rolls around I'll do it all again.

Dashing off the cheques, all in great amounts,
Mailing them today, knowing they will bounce!
Bill collectors come, notify my boss,
Now they've got my salary, my life's a total loss!

[Repeat chorus]

-- From a Mad Magazine I read as a kid.

Studies have shown that Christmas is one of the most consistently stressful times of year. I can understand why. Although my present-buying chores are quite restricted (I only need to ensure Penelope has something to open Christmas morning. She handles gift selection for everyone else), I'm lousy at coming up with good ideas for things to give. This is compounded by her birthday, which falls only a few days before Christmas, and forces me to double-up on my gift-seeking angst. Every year, I tell myself I'm going to get her the perfect present, one that tells her “I love you,” and “You're amazing,” and all those other things that sound so true when they're inside my head, but always sound so trite when they finally make their way out. Every year, I scour the stores and the ads and the internet for the apex of perfection.

Every year she gets a book and some clothes.

She accepts them with grace and enthusiasm such as only can be displayed by someone who genuinely feels that way, or by a woman who's had years to perfect her acting skills. So we have a situation where reality collides with unrequited desire and results in tension: stress. Although she never seems to be let down by my choices, I always am, and vow to do better next year.

Of course, after 21 years, if she doesn't know how I feel about her, I doubt very much that wrapping up the entire contents of the jewelry store would make the point.
Thus I perpetuate the equation of happiness to material possession, and feed the cycle of consumerism.

Yay me.