Monday, September 28, 2009

September Cavalcade of Whimsy

Miscellaneous thoughts.  Assume a "mini spoilers" heading under each category.


I LOVED the ending of last season.  From checking reviews and such afterwards, I found that I was in the minority, but I thought it was amazing.  In my opinion, House's best moments are the shows that mainly ignore the body and focus on the mind: anything that deals with hallucination, memory, reality, or whatever, is generally an order of magnitude cooler than the (still decent) procedural shows that make up the bulk of each season.

Which is why I was so thrilled at how last season ended.  Sending House to an insane asylum?  The possibilities seem endless!  The show's creators have shown a huge willingness before to radically shake up the show's structure and keep it from growing stale.  I expected that House would eventually return to the hospital - they can't change the basic premise of the show, after all - but I figured we'd get a good four to six episodes of House's recovery in the asylum, probably intercut with his team back home trying to make its way without him (or, possibly, by consulting with a raving lunatic over the phone - even better!).  I was a little bummed when I realized that we'd only get the equivalent of two episodes in the asylum, and of that, less than five minutes of House actively being crazy.

Once I got over my disappointment, though, I thought it was a good episode.  They got off to a bang by playing "No Surprises" over the opening credits.  I would have thought that I'd howl with rage if they ever touched "Teardop," but they lucked out and picked one of the few bands who I deem worthy to succeed Massive Attack.  I'm curious if this was a special one-time thing or not... I kind of imagine that we'll be back to the standard opening for the rest of the season.  I'll see soon.

The new characters were good.  It's a tough balancing act... you want to make them complex enough to be interesting, but at the same time, you have less than two hours in which to do everything you will ever do with them.  The overall structure of the premiere really felt like a benign version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest... their Nurse Ratchet is infinitely nicer, of course, but still, you have House as the generally rebellious person who's basically sane and superior to the other inmates, a staff who opposes him, and then an assortment of colorful but ultimately harmless supporting characters. 

Random note: I enjoyed House's reaction to the piano in the common room.  After the show, I was wondering why House didn't play the piano for the talent show (other than the obvious reason that he didn't want to be in the talent show).  After all, he's really good.  Then it struck me: I don't think we're EVER seen House play the piano for another person.  He has one in his apartment, and it's clearly important to him, but he never shares it with anyone, not even Wilson.  I thought that was really sad.  Having a gift for music, and keeping it all to yourself, seems... well, maybe not pointless, but like you're depriving both yourself and the world of something precious.

Anyways.  All in all, it was good.  I still would have enjoyed seeing an edgier and more drawn-out asylum sequence, but for what it was, they did a good job.  My biggest concern now is that House will be too "cured."  After all, the entire show after the first couple of minutes isn't about making House sane, it's about making him into a good human being.  And good human beings are a wonderful thing to become, but they make for lousy television.


Boy, did this one ever sneak up past my radar.  I hadn't realized that it was starting so soon.  First of all: HOORAY! I was half afraid that Fox would change their mind and yank it after all.  Secondly: What the hell?  (Skip this if you haven't seen the unaired final episode from Season 1.)  When I first saw that Season 2, Episode 1 was available, my immediate thought was, "Oh, this will probably just be the unaired episode.  I'll just verify that, and then get ready to keep watching next week when they start the real Season 2."  Nope!  It's a totally new episode - and, it follows the aired finale, not the DVD bombshell.

So, again: what the hell?  Mainly, I'm curious if we've gotten a sneak peak into the future continuity of the series, OR if that was intended as a non-canon exercise.  If it's the first case, then fine, that works... they can drop in the reboot any time the show gets stuck in a rut and switch over to an awesome new story.  The only downside is that it makes things a bit anti-climactic, since we know what's coming; and, if they try to work any of that plot thread into the main story line, we know how helpless they are to prevent it from happening.

If it's not canon, then I just have to say "Boo!"  Shame on Whedon for getting my hopes up.  But in that case, I'd also have to agree that Fox absolutely did the right thing in deciding not to show the episode, which stunned me at the time.

That aside: I enjoyed the opener.  Topher is now solidly my favorite character.  It was kinda cool to see a mini BG reunion when Lee and Helo fought.  (Those actors must know that they will probably never outgrow those characters - I really hope they're OK with it.)  The nested engagement thing was pretty cool... it does seem a little weird and petty that Helo would have used Echo like that to chase down an arms dealer, especially when his own plan obviously causes him so much pain.  With Echo's skills, there are plenty of other ways he could have brought him in.  That said, what makes sense isn't always what's dramatically satisfying, and I'm glad they did it the way they did.

What else... oh, everything was good.  Whiskey coming to terms with her identity, the new head of security settling into his role, even the tiny moments we got with the other Actives.


Does anyone have them?  What do you think?  My contract with AT&T is up, and I'm considering jumping.  I've wanted to for a while... T-Mobile has a great reputation for being a reasonable carrier to work with, and I like their plans more than the other carriers'.  They also have some phones I'm interested in - originally the Android line, but now I'm salivating at the thought of an N900.  I skipped T-Mobile when I was first looking at phones two years ago because at the time they didn't advertise coverage at my apartment; it looks like they've since fixed that, and I'm now able to make calls fine from there.

The main things I'm curious about is how good their 3G network is, and how good their customer service is.  Honestly, I don't deal with customer service and hope not to, so I hope that they just set things up nicely and don't make mistakes.


I bought the Orange Box!  I see why everyone's so excited about Portal!  I think it's possibly the best designed game I've ever played... that's probably overly enthusiastic, so wait until I'm more than a week removed from the amazing finale for a more measured judgment.  Still, though: I'm hard pressed to think of another game that's just so tightly constructed, with such a consistently high level of quality.  I feel like every single minute that I was playing that game, I was doing something awesome.  There was no dumb repetition, no leveling up, no clearing the fourth identical room of bad people.  Just relentlessly challenging and varied puzzles, a really subtle and dark side plot that eventually overwhelms the main storyline, and the most amazing villain I've come across for a while.

There's a ton I could write about Portal.  Right now I'll confine myself to one thing: the computer is identical to and nothing like SHODAN.  Comparing it to SHODAN would be one of the highest compliments possible - SHODAN is in the running for best villain EVER.  If you list their qualities, they sound identical: "Insane computer with a female voice encourages a human to progress through a futuristic environment and then seeks to exterminate them."  But still, everything about them feels completely different. SHODAN is... like an evil goddess, I guess.  She's all-powerful, all-knowing, She is supremely confident in her own superiority, and believes that the insect-like mass of humanity are beneath her notice.  GLaDOS, on the other hand, is endlessly quirky.  She's a little insecure, while still being supremely powerful.  She wants to be trusted, even when she admits that she's fundamentally dishonest yet.  ("Have I lied to you yet?  I mean, in this room?")  She steers you to your doom while speaking words of encouragement.  Ultimately, GLaDOS is more insane, or maybe just a different kind of insane... I guess you could simplify a little and say that GLaDOS is psychotic and SHODAN is a psychopath.

Either way, they're both fun!  GLaDOS is way funnier.  SHODAN is way scarier.


Did I mention that I got the Orange Box?  I'm working my way through HL2 now.  It's a great deal of fun.  It blows my mind that I was playing Half Life 1 exactly ten years ago.  That feels like forever!  It's also pretty incredible that HL2 has been out for five years; the graphics still look top-notch, at least to my eyes.  (Granted, I hardly ever play FPS games and never have a top-of-the-line graphics card.)

This game is reminding me what I loved so much about HL1.  It's an action game, sure, but it has a plot, and it's at least as much about solving puzzles as about shooting big guns.  HL2 adds some amazing environments to the mix.  Not that HL1 was any slouch in that department - I was blown away at the time by just how huge the game was, and how the vast underground environments were broken up with occasional jaunts to the surface and that final weird coda in Xen - but HL2 takes it to another level.  I've already experienced a war-torn Eastern European city, a wonderfully creepy horror-movie-style city filled with pseudo-undead, and a gorgeous seaside road that reminds me of California's coastal Highway 1.  I'm in awe of the designers who came up with all this.


Dexter.  I was a bit underwhelmed by the third season - still, how could you possibly top the first two?  I'll keep the third season in mind this time around and hopefully have my expectations surpassed.

Dragon Age.  A Bioware RPG is the only game, other than Civilization, for which I will upgrade my PC.  DA is coming out for all platforms, and at first I was thinking I might skip the upgrade and just grab the PS3 version.  Then I remembered - oh, yeah, mods!  Baldur's Gate 2 is one of the most perfect games I've ever played, and it exceeded perfection thanks to the amazing mods people put out for it.  I never really got into NWN - never even beat the main game, and didn't play any expansion, although I hear that the expansions are better.  Anyways.  I've deliberately been avoiding reading about DA, but now that we're about 6 weeks out, I'm finally letting myself dive into the lore a bit.  It looks really promising.  I doubt I'll buy it on launch (unless there are REALLY GOOD pre-order specials), but it's the sort of thing where I expect that reviews will be good, and I'll pick it up soon after.

Venture Brothers.  For some reason I thought we had to wait until November.  But nope, it starts in October!  Hooray!  Just about three weeks to go.  I have a friend who's really into this show, and she's been re-watching them to try and figure out the third season.  There's a plot twist at the end which doesn't seem to make much sense.  It'll be interesting to see if the creators address this head-on, sweep it under the rug, or pull one of their great switcheroos that changes everything.

That'll do for now, though there's still plenty more to come.  Whee!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Isn't It Good?

Hard on the heels of a Murakami collection, let's take a look at a Murakami novel!

"Norwegian Wood" is kind of a watershed Murakami book, for a variety of reasons.  It's a return to a more conventional story structure from his earlier books; there are no omniscient sheep, no INKlings, no unicorn skulls.  It was his first major successful book as well, and partly as a result of that success, Murakami lived in self-imposed exile from Japan for many years after.

There is a certain dreamlike quality to the book, but it doesn't follow dream logic in the way that most of his works do.  Rather, because the book is told as a first-person retrospective, it's almost more like a daydream: the narrator remembers particular events from his past, lingers on his actions and feelings, ponders the decisions he made.  It's an interesting story, but it doesn't race ahead at all.


Norwegian Wood is set in the late 1960's, and the tumult of those times lay the backdrop for much of what happens in the book: student radicals, campus protests, sexual liberation, and so on.  However, the backdrop always remains backdrop.  The student protests exist mainly so Watanabe and Midori can talk about how they feel about student activists; they don't directly affect the characters' actions.  There's a similar lack of agency even with the hugely important events that take place, like Kizuki's suicide.  It casts a long shadow on what happens in the book, but at the same time, it's purposely incomprehensible and insensible.  There never seems to be any reason behind it, anything that someone could have done.

One thing that is not unusual about this book is its inclusion of really weird sex scenes.  Those have been missing from the last few Murakami books I've read, and I'd forgotten just how surprising he can be when he goes there.  I guess they're technically more conventional than what you get in his other novels, but at the same time they're a great deal more explicit.  It all fits, though, and doesn't feel superfluous... Watanabe ALWAYS thinks a lot about what he's doing, what it means, and how it affects the other person.  His sexual encounters form major plot developments in ways that the larger political scene does not.

Watanabe is a really fascinating character... I can't think of anyone else quite like him in the Haruki canon.  He is much more assertive than his typical male protagonists... well, still not assertive by conventional American standards, but he does take initiative and pursue things he wants in a way that, say, the narrator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does not.  I liked him, and found him growing on me even more the more I read.  He has a particular gift for empathy... he manages to be extremely nice while never seeming boring.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of typical Murakami digressions.  These are almost always delivered in narrative form, and don't directly impact Watanabe's story at all, but instead help flesh out the world and show new dimensions to secondary characters.  Reiko's two-part story about her mental illness, recovery, and subsequent relapse was very moving, especially the chilly climax she experiences with a despicable student.

Oh, and once again I was reminded about the excellent taste Murakami has in music.  The catalog here goes far beyond Norwegian Wood, although The Beatles are very well represented throughout.  In keeping with the times, this book is heavier on the rock references, although jazz and classical still put in solid appearances.


Honestly, I have to say that Norwegian Wood is among my least favorite Murakami novels, but I still really enjoyed it.  It's peaceful, reflective, and almost tender.  (Remind you of anything else?)  It doesn't grab me and pry my brain open and pour strange things inside, but y'know, that's okay.  I can always go back to Kafka on the Shore when I need that to happen again.

The Rule of Novels

Few things give me greater pause than a lent book.  I have a really high success rate when it comes to picking books that I enjoy - there's a reason why almost all the "reviews" on this blog are positive; life is too short to spend it reading crummy books, so I tend to stick to authors, topics, and genres that I know I enjoy.

When someone else picks the book for me, though, the success rate slips.  It's still above 50% - people tend to know me well, so they aren't going to give me a romance novel or Food Network cookbook.  As everyone knows, though, gifts and suggestions tend to be more about the giver than the recipient.  When someone says, "I think you'll enjoy this," what they really mean is, "I enjoyed this, and I hope you will too."  (I am emphatically not exempt from this tendency; I'd never dream of giving someone else a book that I didn't like myself.)

On the other hand, though, outside gifts are far and away the best opportunity for me to make new discoveries.  I wouldn't have gotten into Dave Eggers if not for gifts from my sister, wouldn't have started A Song of Ice and Fire without gifts from my brother, and wouldn't have gotten nearly as deep into George Saunders as I have without gifts from my other brother.  So, I've learned to ignore pointed recommendations at my own peril.  In the worst case, I'll spend a few days reading a sub-par book, but in the best case, I'll open up a whole new realm of good reading.

I recently received a book called "The Rule of Four" from a colleague.  He had heard that I did a lot of reading on the train, and pressed the book on me, saying that it would help me pass the time.  I didn't have the heart to tell him that my problem isn't a lack of reading materials, in fact quite the opposite.  After finishing off a few inter-library loan books, I cracked it open.

I haven't read "The Da Vinci Code," and after reading TRoF, I feel like I don't have to.  From what I know of Dan Brown's book, this story has a lot of similarities.  It's set in the modern day, and focuses on coded messages left behind in a Renaissance-era work.  I don't have much desire to read TDaVC, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which perfectly played on several weaknesses of mine: a love of conspiracy theories, a love of English literature and analysis, and a love of the university as an institution.

The book is hardly globe-trotting; the action takes place entirely on the campus of Princeton University.  And it's an incredibly well-realized portrait of that campus; I've never been there, but after finishing the book, I feel like I know it.  The physical layout of the campus and particular buildings are well described without ever feeling like you're reading a campus tour manual.  I suspect that the authors may have taken liberties with certain details, particularly the steam tunnels that form a set of secret passages which conveniently connect the major locations on campus.  In general, though, the physical layout is entirely believable.  The same goes for the sense of tradition and student life.  Having spent four years at Wash U, I'm well aware of the many rituals and practices that can accumulate over 150 years of institutional progress.  Imagine how many more you get at one of the oldest schools in the nation!  Some authors' notes at the end describe the liberties that they took with Princeton lore.  I was surprised both by what they had invented (Jonathan Edwards' Easter traditions) and what they had not (the naked run through the first snowfall).

The characters are also very well realized.  The book centers on four friends and roommates, as well as significant persons from the narrator Tom's personal life: his mother, father, and girlfriend.  The main action of the novel takes place in a very compressed amount of time, just a couple of days during Easter weekend, but the authors judiciously include flashbacks (both brief and extended) that expand the story with more context for the characters' relationships.  Those relationships are complex, my favorite kind.  Some look at first glance to be stereotypes - the nerdy antisocial over-achiever, the moneyed preppie - but over time you get the feeling that these are real people, with all the depth and interest that you would expect - the "nerd" joins the most exclusive dining club on campus, and the preppie is a devoted prankster and one of the most dependable friends in the group.


And then there's the book.  I think this was one of my favorite aspects of the novel... the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is really the main character of the story.  It is described in various ways, almost always anthropomorphized: it is deadly, alluring, cunning, haughty, aloof. 

In the novel's backstory, scholars have spent their careers trying to make sense of this impenetrable story.  Within the novel, Tom and Paul manage to determine the "code," and spend years working to unlock its mysteries.  The book's description of this process is a lot of fun, mainly for the way that it both resembles and yet is wholly unlike what you would do in an English lit class.  It's kind of a literal form of literary analysis... they look at the text, try to decide what it's saying, look at both the explicit and the implicit meaning, find out what doesn't make sense, and then try to determine why the author made those decisions.  The difference is that in a "real" book this process will lead you to a deeper understanding of the author's art and their message; in TRoF, the process leads them to a deeper understanding of the author's motivation and his coded message.  So, really, there isn't that big of a difference.  Anyways, I'm not sure if everyone will get as big a kick out of this as I did, but I thought it was great fun.


One slight failing of the novel is that, thanks to its abbreviated cast of characters, there isn't that much opportunity to create mystery.  When the murder occurs, there are really only two possible suspects: Curry and Taft.  Taft is the obvious choice, so I immediately assumed that it was Curry, and was proven right.

There are a few details that don't exactly add up.  These wouldn't even bother me, except that so much of the rest of the book is tightly constructed, so the gaps are more obvious.  The most obvious is the absurdity of Paul chasing down codes over a weekend so he can finish his senior thesis.  I just can't accept that anyone, especially someone as bright as Paul, would wait until the final day to come up with the basic argument of his thesis... it's stunningly unbelievable.  Anyone at all would have written up what they already had, even if they kept on researching afterward with an eye towards their Masters or for personal curiosity.  Time and time again it's made abundantly clear that Paul has more than enough material to eclipse all previously published research, so this is a transparent plot device that wears thin.

In a similar vein, after spending the whole novel building up the care and intricacy that went into producing the Hypner*, it's a serious MacGuffin to say that the portmaster's diary is an integral part of solving the riddle.  They try to address this within the book by saying that Francesco just forgot to put the final directions into the book, but seriously, come on... that's the entire POINT of writing the book in the first place!  If the book had ANYTHING in it, it should have had the directions.

Um... that might be it for serious criticism.  Other than that, I was generally really pleased with how the plot developed.  There's a great amount of action and drama given the compressed time-frame and limited number of characters.  I thought of some particular scenes as being almost like set-pieces: the naked run, the Ivy ball, the flight through the steam tunnels.  They were very well realized and executed.


Good book!  I tend not to do a lot from the adventure/thriller genre, and this was a great example of a keeper.  It's an impressive achievement for authors who are this young, and I hope we see more from them in the future.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rattle Halberd

One summer tradition here that I especially enjoy is going to see Shady Shakespeare.  Erik, one of my former colleagues, often has parts in these plays, and it has been fun to see him in a non-software context, and also to just enjoy the atmosphere.  Picnicking in a good park, followed by a show where the audience is enthusiastic and the actors having a great time, held under a forest canopy that gradually grows darker as the night progresses... it's a grand time.

Every year Shady Shakespeare has two plays.  There doesn't seem to be a strong principle at play for what plays they choose; they do both the best-known and slightly more obscure plays, and while some years they will pair a comedy with a tragedy, other years they may do two comedies.  This particular year was As You Like It and Richard III, neither of which I had seen or read before.  More on that in a minute.

As You Like It is a comedy.  It was fun, even though (as I keep on harping) I don't care for his comedies all that much.  This one seemed to combine all the typical elements in his comedies: you had mistaken identity, gender-bending cross-dressing, deposed royalty, jesters, animals, rural bumpkins, etc.  So even though I hadn't encountered it before, I felt like I was on solid ground watching it.

The next week was Richard III.  At least, it was supposed to be.  When we arrived at Sanborn Park we learned that a power line was down and nobody could enter the park.  Well, it wasn't exactly "down."  It was more that a tree was leaning against it.  Or at least against the pole that held the line.  In any case: DANGEROUS!  We elected to eat our picnic at a convenient spot by a creek on the outskirts of the park, far away from the dreaded killer elevated power line.  Craig had brought some amazing homemade creme limoncello and fried chicken.  Others brought an assortment of tasty Whole Foods offerings.  I brought homemade oatmeal cookies and whole-wheat no-knead bread.  We had a GREAT couple of hours.  Eventually the PG&E truck arrived, then fled.  The show was canceled.  We resolved to try again later.

Several weeks after, we made a second trek back in.  This time we had sausage (sweet and hot Italian), more Whole Foods goodies (pasta, couscous, etc.), an astonishing assortment of cookies (in addition to my peanut butter, also many delicious store-bought), Pad Thai, and so on.  I believe there may have been some wine as well.  We had a GREAT hour.

Eventually we made our way over to the stage.  We sat in the front row, so as to maximize the possibility of embarrassing Erik.  People were still a little rowdy from supper, and so I missed a crucial announcement before the show started: the lead actor's father had died, and he had gone to the funeral; there was no understudy, so a volunteer from the company had been elected to play the part of Richard.  Several other, smaller parts were also missing their primary actors.

And so, I was a little bewildered.  I heard a voice boom, "Now is the winter of our discontent."  I looked around, and saw a man dressed in black at the back of the seating area... holding a script.  He limped his way through the crowd onto the stage, still reading from the script.  Reading very well, mind you, but... obviously reading.  Gradually, other actors came onto the stage as their parts began; Richard would look at them while they were talking, then his eyes would return to the script when he replied.

Not realizing what was going on, I tried to make sense of it.  "Of course!" I thought.  "Richard is supposed to be an incredibly hated character.  He has traditionally been portrayed as being hunchbacked, limping, with a shriveled arm.  Well, in the context of theater, what's the biggest handicap a person can have?  A script, of course!  This must be a clever way of making the audience hate Richard.  It's obvious that he's the only actor who is using this 'crutch,' further separating him from those around him.  It's post-modern and brilliant!"

I began to suspect that something was afoot sometime after intermission, when Richard missed a cue.  One of the actors said something like, "But hark!  Richard draws near!"  He looked expectantly towards a door.  Nothing happened.  He waited a few more seconds.  Nothing.  He turned aside to the audience, grinned, and said, "... eventually."  Huge laugh - people were waiting for an excuse to chuckle.  He turned back, and eventually, Richard came through - no longer carrying his sheaf of pages, but a honking huge binder with the entire play in it.  "Hmmm, that doesn't seem normal," I thought. 

All in all, considering the huge issues they were facing, they did a really impressive job with the play.  I thought that the best part was Richard's line-reading.  Obviously he didn't have the lines memorized, but he still managed to nail the delivery: I didn't detect any missed inflection, fumbled lines, or mispronunciations.  With Shakespeare, that's darn impressive.  (One possible flub - I realized at the end that I never heard the most famous line from the play: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"  Not sure if that was missed, or if they actually dropped it from this adaptation, which would be a very peculiar move.)

At the end of every Shady Shakespeare play, some of the actors come out with their hats to collect donations from the audience.  This time, one of the men bellowed, "Come back tomorrow night!  Who knows - perhaps YOU will get to play Richard!"  Again, a big laugh.  As I remarked to the others, you would have thought that we had gone to see Macbeth, given everything that went wrong.

Now, a little background.  I read my first Shakespeare play in... hm, sometime in junior high.  I'm sure that the first time a full play was assigned in class it would have been "Romeo & Juliet," but the first one I read on my own direction was "Taming of the Shrew" (also for a class, but in that case we got to choose).  Like every person raised in an English-speaking country, of course, I had a broader exposure to Shakespeare outside of reading his plays.  In my case that included disparate influences like reading James Thurber's account of a King Lear production ("Get Ready!  Get Ready!  The WORLD is coming to an END!")

I didn't really become a fan of Shakespeare until high school.  We did a few plays in Mr. Harris's English class Sophomore year, and I was just entranced.  In Julius Caesar, I became obsessed with the character of Cassius.  Macbeth was really gripping too.  Both were worlds better than R&J... they were exciting, dark, and endlessly fascinating.  I loved the ambiguities in the plays, and began to see why people continue to perform these plays hundreds of years after they were written.  For example, we watched several interpretations of "Macbeth", including Akira Kurosawa's stunning adaptation "Throne of Blood."  I saw how two performances could both follow the exact same text, and yet leave you with completely opposite impressions of the story.  In "Macbeth," the biggest question is the agency of Macbeth.  Is he a player or a pawn?  Does he seize on prophecies as an excuse to take what he's always wanted; or, is he manipulated by supernatural forces into pursuing his doom?  Any director will need to make a few decisions: when Macbeth asks, "Is this a dagger I see before me," do you actually show a dagger to the audience?  Is Macbeth crazy, or can he see real spiritual forces at work?

Ahem... sorry, got a little carried away.  You get the idea; I moved from being fairly indifferent to Shakespeare to being a big, big fan.

I enjoyed all the other Shakespeare I read throughout high school and college.  Some more than others, of course... "A Winter's Tale" didn't really do much for me, though all its faults are forgiven in exchange for the immortal stage direction, "Exit, pursued by a bear."  In addition to reading, I also had the pleasure of watching some really phenomenal film adaptations.  I became enamored of Kenneth Branagh's work... I still think that his "Hamlet" is just about the best interpretation I have seen.  I also took particular pleasure in watching the plays performed live.  I eventually came to a realization, though.  In my Shakespeare-loving way, and living as a child of the digital age, I had read nearly all of Shakespeare's greatest plays or seen a movie version prior to having watched the live play.  This bothered me, and it bothered me more the longer I thought about it.  After all, Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen the performances as the first and only definitive version.  Furthermore, the live dramatic tradition was the true legacy that had been carried down through the ages; annotated English readers and special-effects-laden Hollywood films were recent inventions.

And so, I made a decision.  By this time I had read nearly every Shakespeare play that I considered great, except for one: Richard III.  Even before I became a Shakespeare fan, I had known the story of Richard, and grown mildly obsessed with it.  Looking back, I'm not totally clear on the reason why, but as a teenager I was extremely enthusiastic about manipulators and the diplomatically treacherous.  I was fascinated by Machiavelli, Cassius, Richard... all people who, at least by popular reputation, did not acquire power through force of arms, but rather through cleverness, trickery, and manipulation.  I didn't really see myself as the same personality type - I'm about as far as you can get from a silver-tongued orator, and have no patience for deception in my personal life - but I was continually drawn to these sorts of characters.

And so, despite the fact that I wanted to read and watch Richard III more than any other of the plays I hadn't yet read, I resolved to wait until I had had the opportunity to watch it in person.

That day came.  I can't say that it was exactly what I expected, but hey - it was an experience!  And, I decided that it should count in terms of fulfilling that promise.  And so, about a week after seeing the play, I did something that I'd wanted to do for over a decade: watch Ian McKellan's film version of Richard III.

Long before I knew McKellan would play Gandalf in my beloved Lord of the Rings, I had been intrigued by the little I'd heard of this movie.  Finally watching it, I learned that it matched my memory of the buzz.  Richard III tells the story of the play, using all the original words, but transporting the setting to more modern times.  It looks to be the early part of the 20th century: there are tanks, airplanes, and model trains, but the models look old-fashioned.  The setting is still England, as it has to be, given the play's content, but it's an England that we were spared.  When Richard takes power, he rides a wave of fascism.  A military man long in his brother's shadow, Richard has conspired to unit the military and political elite behind him in his grab for power.  There's a pretty stunning scene when Richard is crowned in Westminster Abbey, as giant red banners with a black boar sigil drop down from the ceiling.  Black-uniformed British soldiers hail him.  The look on his face is incredible: it's a rare flash of pure pleasure from this pained man.

One of the many intriguing things about Richard III is the way that he directly addresses the audience.  I didn't get this quite as much from the Shady Shakespeare play, where Richard generally seemed to be talking to himself thanks to having his eyes on the script, but I suspect that most performances will play it like McKellan.  The protagonist seduces the audience in the same way he seduces his wife: speaking directly to us, sharing his thoughts, playing for our sympathy.  It's a little thrilling; it's like Shakespeare allows us to vicariously experience evil through Richard as our proxy.  He does the things we would never do, wouldn't want to do... yet maybe sometimes, in our blackest dreams, might wonder about.

The movie has aged very well.  The pyrotechnics are convincing, and though I'm guessing it would be twice as loud and twice as flashy if it were made today, it's great fun.  The movie moves really well, too, coming in at well under 2 hours long.  The edits are modest and well-chosen.  He cuts most of the old Queen's scenes from the first half of the movie, including the curses she provides.  Many minor characters are excised altogether; when Richard woos Anne, it's just the two of them, without her attendants.  I think that a lot of the diplomatic scenes were trimmed to just include the beginning or the ending.  As a result some of the intricate nuances are lost, but you can still definitely follow the main thrust: you don't see as much of the lords, for example, but still recognize what's happening when they are murdered.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see some big names in it.  Robert Downey Jr. has a great, if abbreviated, turn as Lord Rivers.  He's just in a few scenes, but totally stamps the character: in his interpretation, Rivers is kind of a sexually aggressive dandy.  Maggie Smith also makes an appearance, as does Jim Broadbent as the callow Lord Buckingham. 

Watching the play for a second time, I was struck again by how interesting the progression of characters is.  More so than most other plays, Shakespeare doles out his introductions, waiting until they're needed.  James Tyrol is a fascinating character, the one person possibly more evil than Richard himself, and doesn't even appear until Richard is almost on the throne.  Richmond becomes the hero of the play, and doesn't do much of anything until after the coronation.  (As an aside: I think that Richmond's role in Richard III is almost perfectly analogous to that of Macduff in Macbeth.  COINCIDENCE?!?!  What is it with antiheroes that makes their opponents share the first half of their name?)

So I can breathe a contented sigh, put my feet up, and know that while I have now technically experienced all of the "best" Shakespeare out there, the well will never run dry.  Each performance is a new play, each movie a different experience.  I'll always be ready for more.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Elephant Returns

Yay Murakami!  I've plunged back into the canon with "The Elephant Vanishes."  I think this may be my favorite of his collections that I've read so far

The stories span the years when Murakami was becoming known abroad (though still well before he "broke through" with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), and as a result, two translators are represented here.  Alfred Birnbaum translated many of his earlier books into English; I think he's the one who did "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."  Jay Rubin has translated all of Murakami's more recent books.  Both seem to be good, though obviously I can't compare either one's output to the original Japanese.

The stories generally feel more personal than I've encountered in other Murakami short fiction.  You still get plenty of alienation, but there are some close relationships on display as well.  One is told from the perspective of a shiftless man in his late twenties who lives with his sister.  The sister has started dating a man, an engineer, and the story shows how she is maturing and how that maturity is leading to clashes with the brother.  It's a wonderfully complex picture.  She still deeply, fundamentally loves the brother, but at the same time, all of his jokes and such have been rubbing her raw.  The engineer is named Noboru Watanabe, a name that Murakami seems to love - I believe it's also the name of the brother-villain in "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle."  Anyways, Noboru isn't a bad guy, but the narrator still doesn't like him... because of his taste in clothes, because of the motorcycle he rides, because of his soldering iron... ultimately, one suspects, because he's new and different and shaking up his relationship with his sister.

That's just one example, but it's a telling one.  No otherworldly activities, no unexplainable phenomenon.  Characters actually talk with one another and discuss their feelings.  Doesn't sound much like Murakami, but it's excellent.

One of my favorite stories here was "The Second Bakery Attack."  If you were to plot the stories here along a continuum from "Realistic" to "Bizarre," this one would land near the middle: nothing supernatural happens, but it's still rather unbelievable, wonderfully so.


The story opens with a severe hunger attack that strikes a husband and wife in the middle of the night.  Their fridge only has onions, salad dressing, and beer.  As they drink the beer in a futile attempt to sate their hunger, the husband describes a bakery attack he staged when he was at college.  A friend and he decided to attack a bakery: not to steal money, but to steal bread.  The attack didn't exactly fail, but it didn't exactly succeed, either.  The owner of the bakery offered an exchange instead: if they would listen to an entire LP of... I think it was Beethoven, then he would give them all the bread in the bakery.  No need for violence.  They discuss it and agree.  They listen to the music, the owner keeps his word, and they live on the bread for several weeks.  Gradually, the narrator realizes, his life changes.  He never again does something so wild or irresponsible.  He gets married, and settles down to a calm life.

The wife, having heard all this, declares that there must have been a curse, and that she is now also under the curse by marrying him.  The solution is clear: they must attack another bakery.  She grabs a shotgun, they both find ski masks, and they begin cruising the Tokyo streets at 2AM looking for an open bakery.  After a long time, they compromise and decide to attack a McDonald's instead.  They threaten the employees, get 50 hamburgers to go, and then pay for two sodas.  (The bread in the hamburgers count as a bakery item, so they're stolen; the sodas aren't part of the attack, so they are paid for.)  And that's pretty much it.  Fun stuff.

Also in the realistic side: "Meeting the 100% Perfect Girl."  This is a sweet short story-within-a-story.  A young man is smitten by a stranger he passes in the street; it's love at first sight, and he knows that she's the best girl he'll ever meet.  But he can't think of what to say, and the moment passes.  Later, he thinks of a story he should have told her.  It's sad and touching.

"Slow Boat to China" is another good one that doesn't bear the trademarks of Murakami oddness.  The narrator reminisces about various Chinese people he has met throughout his life, from school and at work.  Like the story with the brother and sister, this one has some really touching looks at moments when people connect and touch one anothers' lives.  Which is kind of unusual, in that the encounters he describes are quite brief, but they have made a long impression on him.

On to the strange: the opening book is "The Wind-up Bird," and it's basically the first chapter of "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle."  Which I love, so I didn't mind reading it again.  It's been a long time since I've read the novel; I don't remember there being any significant differences between the novel and what happens here, so I can't judge if anything has changed, and if so, how.  All the weirdness is intact: the passageway with no entrance or exit; the mysterious phone call; the husband's extreme disconnectedness.

One other story I've heard before is "Little Green Monster."  I heard this one when I went to hear Murakami at Berkeley.  I doubt I'll ever forget it.  It's one of his shortest stories, and also one of the most remarkable.  In just a couple of pages it manages to pull you twisting through a wide range of emotions: shock, then horror, then disgust, then curiosity, then pity, then alarm.  I still have no idea what we're supposed to think of the monster itself.  I can't really blame the woman for doing what she does, but at the same time, it does feel a little cruel.  I doubt that anyone who has been emotionally rejected can read this story without wincing a little.

The title story "The Elephant Vanishes" is on the gently surreal side.  The setting is realistic, but the actual vanishing of the elephant is utterly inexplicable.  Another elephant-related story that I liked even more was... I think "The Dancing Dwarf?"  This one actually felt a little bit like "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" in that it takes place in an imagined land, one that is obviously not Japan or America.  Which is quite unusual for Murakami - wherever his books may go thematically, they usually are very rooted physically.  Anyways, this was just brimming with wonderful oddities.   The first scene in the story has a dream with a dwarf who dances better than anyone in the world.  The narrator works in an elephant factory, where they manufacture elephants out of elephant parts.  There's a forest, and a king, and a revolution.  All wonderful stuff.


Great collection here.  It was great fun to see a wider range of Murakami's talents on display.  I do tend to like his work more the more bizarre it gets, but it's wonderful to see that he's fully capable of writing a "normal" story when he wants to, and to do it well.  The mixture should keep everyone engaged and pleased.