Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Neil Gaiman has been referred to as a "rockstar of the literary world". People call his stories "remarkable". If you've spent much time perusing the fantasy section of your local bookstore or Amazon.com you're sure to have come across at least a few of his titles.

I decided to sample one of his books a few years back with his well-reviewed American Gods. But it didn't work out so well. I was working as a pizza delivery driver at the time, and I was pretty fond of listening to books on tape during my deliveries.

The trouble with listening to audiobooks while delivering pizza is that there are too many interruptions that get in the way of listening to the book- you know, the whole part about giving the pizza to the customer.

American Gods
is a novel that demands a reader's attention- a lot more attention than I was able to give while trying to locate the homes of hungry pizza eaters in North Ogden. I couldn't follow what was going on well enough to really get interested in it.

Also, American Gods is marketed as a fantasy novel, but the fantasy genre is an enormous place with room for all kinds of subgenres and sub-subgenres, and at the time I had a hankering for standard "high fantasy" fantasy. High fantasy American Gods is not.

So I stopped reading, er, listening to it.

But I kept hearing good things about Mr. Gaiman's stories. And I watched Mirror Mask and liked it. And I watched Stardust and loved that. And I kept hearing more good things about Gaiman. Until one day I read a bucket-load of great reviews about Gaiman's newest young adult book, The Graveyard Book. It seemed like everyone who had anything to say about the book couldn't help falling all over themselves to heap praises on it. So I decided I had to go out and buy a copy.

I stopped at Barnes & Noble on the way home from work one day and went straight to the children's section where I knew I could find a copy. Except they didn't have one. They were all out. But sitting right next to where The Graveyard Book should have been was a copy of Gaiman's young adult novella Coraline. I remembered hearing good things about that book too, so I bought it instead.

Some people have compared Coraline to the story of Alice in Wonderland, and I guess it's a comparison that works, to an extent. I'm really not qualified to talk much about Alice in Wonderland, since my only exposure to it is by way of the Disney animated version. But where Alice's wonderland is strange and unusual, the world that Coraline discovers is sinister and creepy and populated with many characters who do not want good things to happen to Coraline, or to anyone else but themselves for that matter.

But it's a small world, both in terms of physical size and, more importantly, in the amount that we, as readers, are permitted to explore it, learn about it, live in it. Not that I would actually want to live in that world- it's a miserable place. But isn't that why we read fantasy- to discover new places and imagine what the world would be like if the natural order of things were a little, or a lot, different?

Some readers have said they became enamored with the protagonist's personality. They thought Coraline was plucky and determined and they liked her for it. While there's no question that the story couldn't have been the story it was without her possessing those qualities, it felt unrealistic to me for a ten year old girl to show so much resolve and fearlessness when faced with the kind of danger that Coraline encounters. Then again, I haven't known that many ten year old girls, and the ones I have known have never been forced to risk their lives in order to save the lives of those they love.

I can't help comparing this book to the other young adult novels I've read recently. In doing so there's no question that this one left more of an impression on me than any of the others. I think that's because of the primal reactions I repeatedly had while reading the story. Did I love it? No- the story was too simplistic and the main character was too hard to sympathize with. Should you read it? Sure, if you're inclined to. If not, skip it. Will your kids like it? Seems pretty likely. But I must warn you- even though it's not violent or gory, it is without question very creepy. So don't blame me if they wake you up in the middle of the night because of scary dreams.

Friday, September 26, 2008


I can’t get Fred off my mind. Not because I think he’s as funny as his legions of ten-year-old fans do, but because he, or rather Lucas Cruikshank- the 14-year-old boy who created him- has enough raw flimmaking talent and understanding of how to entertain his peers that his short movies have attracted literally nearly a hundred million viewers.

Who’s Fred? Have a look:

Charming, isn't he? But once you look past the fact that he creates his films on a nonexistent budget, and that his character has a personality that is about as pleasant as underwear made out of sandpaper, you can’t help but notice that young Mr. Cruikshank has a good understanding of how to build a movie that speaks to its intended audience in a way that keeps them coming back for more.

Yes, the core of his appeal (to his fans, of course) is slapstick. But that’s not the only tool in Cruikshank’s toolbox. Besides the swimming-with-clothes-on antics, or the squeakier-than-a-chipmunk voice, or the nearly uncomfortable looking facial expressions, he manages to address a range of topics that are a big deal in the life of an average 12 year old. And his over-the-top comedic treatment of these themes, combined with his on-camera confidence and knack for tight, rapid fire editing, creates an end product that works well. Don't believe me? Then consider the fact that the Fred YouTube channel has over 500,000 subscribers. That's 500,000 people who are clamoring for Lucas Cruikshank to keep sending them more Fred videos.

Whether you or I think his films are worth watching is irrelevant. There are enough people (admittedly they’re under the age of 14) that do want to watch them that he’s caught the attention of major Hollywood corporate types. Why? Because he has managed to do what has been so elusive for the film and television industry- create a successful product that is brought to market exclusively online. And if you don’t think his films fit the definition of successful, consider what the LA times had to say about him-

"Hollywood, ever hungry for tween eyeballs, has predictably caught the scent. Cruikshank recently signed with James Dolin, an L.A. business manager at Sonesta Entertainment. Along with the product placements -- for which he's being paid "generously," Moizel said -- he's also appeared in a commercial for the ZipIt (instant messaging device) that aired on Nickelodeon, ABC Family and MTV." "Once Fred's videos are released, they rocket into the YouTube exosphere, generating 4 and even 5 million views a pop -- repeat viewership numbers that are unmatched anywhere on the Internet. Fred's most-viewed episode, "Fred Loses His Meds," would've been the top-rated show on cable last week."

Lucas Cruikshank and others like him are turning the concept of mass entertainment on its ear. They're proving that attracting large, loyal audiences doesn't require the use of big Hollywood studios and big Hollywood budgets, and that the internet can be used as an exclusive means of product distribution.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Pork, Beans, and Free Music

Is anyone else enjoying the Weezer renaissance that's currently playing itself out online? Apparently so, judging by the nearly 13 million views of their new Pork and Beans video on YouTube.

The video is clever and funny. Except, that is, if you're unfamiliar with the micro-celebrities of the YouTube universe. (I wish I could take credit for that clever term.) It pays tribute to them by incorporating parodies of their videos into the Weezer video. But these aren't typical parodies. Weezer managed to convince the actual YouTube-elebrities (that one is mine, thanks) to reperform their skits with members of the band. The results are really fun to watch, especially the ones with Tay Zonday.

Wait a second-- incorporating isn't really the right word, since the Weezer video consists entirely, in one form or another, of these parodies.

Anyway, if you haven't seen any of the original clips that the music video uses, then it will seem like a bunch of nonsense. If you fall into this category and this post has still managed to catch your interest then you'd do well to watch a few of these before moving on to the Weezer video. Please keep in mind that a few of them contain language and/or situations that some people might find offensive. In my ongoing efforts to maintain harmony and goodwill among the faithful readers of this blog I've excluded the more flagrant offenders from this list:

Casting Kung-Fu
Dramatic Gopher
Chocolate Rain by Tay Zonday
Guiness Record for Most T-Shirts Worn at One Time
Miss Teen South Carolina
Korean Pachelbel
Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment
Charlie the Unicorn
Charlie the Unicorn Part 2
Daft Hands
Daft Bodies
Ryan vs Dorkman
All Your Base Are Belong to Us
Numa Numa Kid
Evolution of Dance

And if you enjoyed Tay Zonday as much as I do, then you won't want to miss this accoustic version of him performing Pork and Beans with Weezer member Brian Bell. And while I'm at it, here's another Tay Zonday spoof, just for good measure.


As long as I'm on the topic of music I may as well share with you what has recently become my new favorite website. Magnatune.com's slogan is "We're not evil"- the idea being that we, the users, get to decide how much we'll pay for the songs we download from the site in addition to deciding which file format we download the songs in and how many computers we save them on. That's right, none of the "Digital Rights Management" nonsense that you have to put up with from the more popular online music vendors. All this, and the artists get a 50% cut each time they sell a song.

But none of that is what makes me like the site so much. The reason I keep coming back to Magnatune is that they let me stream entire albums. Yeah- I can log on to the site at work, choose an album on their site and listen to it, for free, while I'm working. Their primary reason for doing this is so that potential purchasers can know exactly what their getting when they purchase and album or a song. But the handy side effect is that even if you're not planning on buying the music, you can still listen to it.

Of course, when you stream the music online there's a little blurb at the end of each track that reminds you that you're listening to Magnatune.com and kind of interupts the flow of the album. But when you're listening for free you haven't got a lot of room to complain.

They don't carry big name artists- no Weezer here; and a lot of what they do have just doesn't interest me. But I've managed to find enough music that I do like that I find myself bringing up the site over and over at home and at work. In no particular order, here are a few of my favorites:

Lines Build Walls- Ehren Starks
The Depths of a Year- Ehren Starks
Woods of Choas- Rob Costlow
Dry Fig Trees- Gerard Satamian
24 Preluds for Solo Piano- Jan Hanford

And no, I will not force you to choose between listening to them or muting the volume on your computer just because you decided to visit my blog.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Gifts and Derelict

The books in this review came to me by way of my Uncle Orson. A War of Gifts he authored, Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton, he recommended.

You might think that someone my age would have enough experience to be somewhat wary of reading a book that was recommended largely on sentimental value. But there it was, in a list of Uncle Orson's favorite books, along with a description of how it did such a great job of creating a sense of wonder by transporting the reader to intriguing new worlds. (I like exploring intriguing new worlds. Isn't that half the reason we read speculative fiction?)

So when I saw Galactic Derelict sitting on the shelf at my local used book store, I couldn't pass it up-- after all, its an old book and likely hard to find. So at $2.95 I felt like I was getting a steal of a deal.

A couple years later I finally got around to reading the book and it was, in a word, boring.

I'm not an expert on the evolution of science fiction. But I've learned enough about it to know that 1959 was a time when sci-fi authors were concerned almost entirely with ideas, as opposed to character development and motivation, and story, and relationships between characters and... you get the idea.

The characters in this book are one step shy of meaningless. The only reason they exist in the story at all is so that it has some way of moving forward. Norton's primary interest here is taking the reader to alien worlds.

The story begins in a future where the secret to time travel has been discovered. Also discovered is the fact that sometime during earth's prehistory an alien race visited our planet and left some of their spaceships behind. The people who posses the technology for time travel decided that more could be learned from these spaceships if they were to go back in time and retrieve them in their original state, rather than examinig the ships in their decrepit condition, 15,000 years later in their own era.

So the first alien world that Norton examines in the book is prehistoric earth, where she brings her characters face-to-face with the likes of wooly mamoths and sabre-tooth cats and well-muscled hunter-gatherers.

They don't stick around in the stone-age for long though. The process of transporting the spaceship through time to the future causes it to active and launch, with the main characters aboard. The remainder of the story consists of those characters experiencing the alien environments of the different worlds the ship takes them to as it carries out its pre-programmed flight plan.

I can absolutely understand why Orson Scott Card found this to be a fascinating book as a seventh grader, and therefor, why it would maintain so much sentimental value for him. I agree that for a middle-grade reader who hasn't had a lot of exposure to science fiction, this could definately be a worthwhile book. (I intend to keep it around for that very reason.) But for anyone who's read any sci-fi that's somewhat more engaging, this book will seem quaint at best, and probably more like just plain dull.

(Oh yeah, and just in case you were wondering about the goofy snake-beast on the cover-- it doesn't even make an appearance in the book. I suppose it was just part of some misguided marketing effort from the 1970s... "Sabre-tooth tigers? No one will read a spaceship story with a sabre-tooth tiger on the cover. Why don't we throw something else on there to liven it up a little-- some kind of snake-beast alien... with tyranosaur claws, and mean-looking fangs. Yeah, that should do the trick!")

Card's A War of Gifts, on the other hand, was delightful. Fans of any of the Ender series will not want to miss this story as it examines the Battle School, and the bugger war in general, through the eyes of a new character, Zeck Morgan. And yes, Ender Wiggin is featured in this story as a secondary character, albeit one who plays a pivot role.

The book is brief- only 128 pages- and with such a short story it's hard to reveal much of the details without spoiling significant parts of the story. The crux of the story is centered around a small rebellion among the Battle School students as they decide to break the rules about religious observation and give each other Christmas gifts.

Or is it? That's where the story's title comes from. But what was more interesting for me was the moral journey experienced by the main character as he redefines his views of religion and morality, helped out, of course, by the young Mr. Wiggin himself.

See, I told you I couldn't reveal anything about the story without spoiling it. Oh well, it's still definately worth reading, even after I've gone and spoiled it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Legend and DaVinci's Code

There are certain kinds of movies my wife won’t watch. Horror flicks, films that revel in violence, movies whose stories focus primarily on adultery, films that appear to have a generally dark feel to them- these are almost always fastidiously avoided by my wife. Occasionally though, there are films that find their way into this category that I do want to see. This is unfortunate because I almost never watch movies without my wife sitting next to me. (I still haven’t seen Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense for this very reason.) But this weekend, with my wife gone to her parent’s house, I did manage to watch two such films- I Am Legend and The DaVinci Code.

Too bad for The DaVinci Code that I watched it right after I Am Legend. Comparing the two leaves the Code severely lacking for want of anything meaningful related to the human condition.

I Am Legend offers a tale that shows us, with stark beauty, just how capable we humans are of selflessness, and of doing what is right now matter how inconvenient, even dangerous, it may be. The Code, on the other hand, seemed more interested in wrapping itself in a bland veneer of cynicism, self preservation, and the “inherent” evils of organized religion.

Where Will Smith’s performance was spellbinding because of his ability to portray the many facets of emotion that his character experienced during the trial of his self-imposed exile in an abandoned Manhattan, that of Tom Hanks seemed merely adequate.

Indeed, what Smith brought to Legend took the story from being good, to becoming a masterful portrait of human virtue. (Spoiler) The vision in my mind’s eye, for example, of the deluge of raw, conflicting emotions that he poured onto the screen when his character was forced to kill the only companion and friend left in his life still manages to stir up a cacophony of emotion inside me as I write this. (End of spoiler.)

In Hanks defense though, it’s only fair to point out that he really wasn’t given much to work with in the emotion department. As far as I could tell, the only real interest his character had was staying alive long enough to prove himself innocent of committing murder.

The story told in Legend is simple enough. In the near future someone has genetically engineered a virus that will cure cancer. Initially the cure works and its developer is hailed as a hero. Then things go terribly wrong.

Those who have been subjected to the viral treatment begin exhibiting symptoms similar to rabies and eventually degenerate to a point where they no longer are capable of anything except to carry out the most basic of survival instincts. They become lethally violent in their cannibalistic search for food, killing and eating anything and anyone that isn’t able to defend itself. To top it off, all their hair falls out and their skin turns pale, giving them a rather grotesque appearance. Oh yeah, and they’re no longer able to expose themselves to UV rays without dire consequences- sort of like genetically engineered modern vampires, sans widow’s peaks and fake eastern-european accents.

In an attempt to stop the airborne spread of the virus, the federal government puts Manhattan island under quarantine. Those who don’t display any symptoms are allowed to leave. Anyone with symptoms is forced to stay on the island. Dr. Robert Neville, a virologist and Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army, voluntarily stays on the island, even as his wife and daughter are evacuated. He feels that he has a duty to find a cure for those who have been afflicted with the virus. This act gives us our first glimpse of Dr. Neville’s selflessness.

Within three years the quarantined island of Manhattan has become an urban wasteland. The only people left on the island that we are aware of are the bloodthirsty virus victims and the immune Dr. Neville. He spends his days quixotically searching for anyone who, like himself, may have avoided infection, and harvesting food from his urban garden and the now abundant herds of deer that inhabit the island. His evenings are spent in his underground, bombproof laboratory, searching for a cure for the virus.

There are scenes and images in this film that some people will find disturbing. I, for one, found myself experiencing a mixture of revulsion and dread when, early in the film Dr. Neville chases his dog into a dark building and discovers a nest of virus victims shown sleeping while standing up and breathing heavily and rapidly. The combination of their grotesque appearance with this entirely inhuman behavior is exactly the sort of thing that would make my wife turn off the movie in disgust.

But, it also worked perfectly to demonstrate just what Dr. Neville’s decision to remain on the island really meant. My emotion at seeing these un-humans was mirrored and magnified in the primal fear portrayed by Will Smith on the screen. His character lives with this fear as a constant backdrop in his life. And yet, he persists in his efforts to save the very creatures who fill him with dread. He recognizes their humanity and wants to help them.

Need I mention that Dr. Neville’s visit to the victim’s lair awakens several of them, followed by much gunfire and bloodshed? But he kills out of self-defense, not rage or fear of that which is different. Later in the film, when his own safety is no longer threatened, he displays compassion toward a female victim who he has managed to sedate and bring to his lab in order to test possible vaccines.

(Spoilers) Until the film’s climax, however, we can’t be entirely sure of Dr. Neville’s altruism. Are his efforts really driven by a sense of charity toward fellow men, or is he, like so many people in the real world, driven by the more selfish prospect of overcoming a difficult challenge and achieving the resulting success? When the film reaches its climax, however, we’re left with no doubt as to how great a sacrifice Dr. Neville is willing to make in order to save humanity from the terror wrought by the virus. He gives his own life to ensure that the cure he has discovered will reach those who can put it in into effect. (End of Spoilers.)

And therein lies the beauty of this film. There’s no denying the fact that this movie absolutely does make use of the scary-monster hook and the action/shoot-‘em-up hook to attract the big bucks from the testosterone crowd. But those elements are not what makes it great. The reason this story is so good is because of the way it portrays the triumph of the human spirit, through one man’s ultimate sacrifice, over the adversity that can be found assailing against it in a bleak and horrifying world.

I Am Legend kept me pinned to the edge of my seat and left me sobbing like a child when it was over. I barely managed to stay awake all the way through The DaVinci Code.