Friday, June 23, 2017

Better than the Book: How to Train your Dragon

You guys read this book? It's by Cressida Cowell, and it's not bad. It's just not all that great, either. I never connected emotionally with Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III. I never really felt like anything of vital import was going to happen in the novel. Maybe that's because I read it when I was already about 35 years old. My son read it, and he liked it okay, but hasn't felt the need to read the rest of the series.

But the movie...the movie has music. Of course I have to bring that up, because the score is triumphant and inspiring. The whole score is worthwhile, but check out this part:

John Powell.

For whatever reason, after Hiccup's dragon Toothless has been revealed and Stoic has sailed off with it on his foolish errand, and Hiccup and Astrid are standing on the cliff and Astrid asks him what he's going to do, and he tries to dodge the question because he doesn't know, and Astrid won't let him because she wants to hear what he has to say, I get a little choked up. It's  because she trusts him, even more than he trusts himself.

Hiccup's a different sort of hero, and I appreciate that. Cerebral rather than physical, which is kind of the whole point of the movie. My kids love it because of the dragons--I don't think I've ever heard them talk about Hiccup at all, but they really get into the different types of dragons in the movies and shows. But I love it because there's something worthwhile in the human relationships. I would never have cared about that level of trust when I was a kid, but as an adult, as someone who feels like he's in that kind of relationship, I see it as laying the groundwork for understanding each other in my own children. Sometimes we need someone else to say that what we're doing is important, and that it can change the world, even just for a small group of people.

That said, I do think they missed an opportunity in the second movie when they didn't make Astrid the new chief.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Best Stories in the World: Pierre Menard

There's a guy, I think he's French but I won't hold it against him...his name's Pierre Menard, and he gets this idea to write the Quixote. The thing of it is, Cervantes already wrote it. Menard doesn't let that stop him, of course, or there would be no story.

And what a story it is. I think. Is it a story?

Menard is, apparently, deceased. He was a novelist and left behind a body of work appreciated by the narrator, who provides us with a list of those works publicly known (for example, a "handwritten list of lines of poetry that owe their excellence to punctuation" [which I absolutely love]). Of more interest to the narrator, however, is Menard's unpublished work; namely, Menard's Quixote.

Not Cervantes. That part's important. Menard didn't set out to recreate or copy Cervantes's work. He intended to write Don Quixote as himself. In other words, it's a story about context. The narrator isn't so much presented in the best light. He's kind of petty. Though, in the end, he declares that "Menard has (perhaps unwittingly) enriched the slow and rudimentary art of reading by means of a new technique--the technique of deliberate anachronism and fallacious attribution...This technique fills the calmest book with adventure. Attributing the Imitatio Christi to Louise Ferdinand Celine or James Joyce--is that not sufficient renovation of those faint spiritual admonitions?"

This summary really doesn't do it justice. 

Is "Pierre Menard" a story? There's no plot, per se. It's a sketch, fiction masquerading as non-fiction in the form of a description of a guy and his work, especially Menard's "Quixote," which Menard saw as not inevitable, like certain other works of Poe or Coleridge. Instead, it was contingent. Menard thinks of his recollection of Quixote not as a memory, but as "the equivalent of the vague foreshadowing of a yet unwritten book."

Here's what led up to this story: On Christmas Eve 1938, Borges was moving quickly up a flight of stairs. At this time his eyesight was already failing, and he hit his head on an open window, shattering the glass and gouging his head. The wound got infected, Borges was diagnosed with septicemia,  subsequently hospitalized, and spent a few weeks convalescing. During this time, he developed a fever and sort of hallucinated. He began to doubt his sanity. Up to this point, Borges had written poetry and reviews of books and movies, for the most part. He'd penned a few short stories, biographies, and a short review of a book that didn't exist ("The Approach to al-Mu'tasim"). He hadn't really become internationally famous yet, and his career wasn't certain.

After recovering from septicemia, Borges wanted to know if he could still sustain concentration enough to write, and during his convalescence, he figured he should write stories. He wanted to try something new and unfamiliar to him so that, should it fail, he could blame his failure on its novelty to him. "Pierre Menard" was his first attempt. It was followed by "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," which takes the form of an entry from an encyclopedia that doesn't exist.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? You've got to read it to fully understand. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Heroes, Super and Otherwise

I've been busy. Here are some interesting articles about Superman and Wonder Woman and Captain America.

From Polygon, by Tara Marie: Would Superman Punch a Nazi? 

The simple answer is yeah, Superman would punch a Nazi, and so would almost all of the creators of our favorite comic characters, most especially Jack “the King” Kirby. Despite this being a somewhat common sense answer, it’s caused a lot of contention.

Most of that trickles down from director Zack Snyder, the primary architect of the DCEU. In his two Superman outings, Snyder struggles with the idea of basic human decency. In fact, it seems to be utterly mystifying to him. Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent spent most of his screen time in Man of Steel trying to convince Clark not to be Superman, to the point that he was willing to die so his son wouldn’t have to be a hero. He lets himself get picked up in a tornado instead of letting actual Superman carry him to safety, based only on the assumption that there would be witnesses and that Clark would then become a public figure.

 I've been interested lately in the scope of Superman references out there. Here are a few that caught my attention.

First, Forbes, which decided five years ago to cover Superman's day job. Deborah Burns uses the comic book version of Superman as a springboard to discuss ways to quit your job in the most graceful manner and how to write for a blog:

But this will be a huge transition — even for a superhero. He will need to find health insurance and learn how to make money without a job. Not having a steady paycheck, he may also need to be more frugal.

So obviously, Superman is not really Superman.  {What?  You thought that picture above was the real deal? :) I dug that out of Superman's files from his college graduation like six or seven years ago. I think he used it for his grad announcement.}  But he is my Superman and I absolutely love him with all my heart.  I considered never showing a picture of him to keep it all mysterious {you know, like that neighbor guy whose face you never see in Home Improvement?} but I thought better of it.  Superman is such a huge part of my life, how could I not show him?  He's an awesome husband and father and he's my favorite and best friend. 

Finally, a runner who is called the Autism Superman.

This is all pretty great.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Superman Link

I haven't been combing the internet for Superman material much lately. Still, every once in a while something comes across the comb, so to speak.

Like this essay, by Stephen Lovely at Portalist.

Superman struggles with as many internal motivations and priorities as any other superhero, or any other person. He is an orphan, an immigrant, and an alien. He is feared and loved. He is in a love triangle with two women (Lois Lane and Lana Lang); he is in another love triangle with himself (Lois Lane, Superman, and Clark Kent).

These aren’t simple issues, and they can’t be easily resolved despite Superman’s ultimate morality. Superman always strives to do ‘the right thing’, but the questions he faces in each story ought to be tough enough to match his intellect and his drive for goodness. With the right conflict, a Superman story is more than a superhero story, and Superman’s true value shines through.

It's a response to the occasional statement that Superman is boring, and I tend to agree with Lovely's argument, even if I would put it in a different way. Anyway, good stuff that I might revisit soon.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Miracle Monday

I missed Miracle Monday, didn't I? Oh, well. I'll blame it on my son's tonsilectomy happening that day, my ghostwriting gig, my editing work, proofreading, and having  to index my Superman book. A while back I actually did write a post about Miracle Monday, so might as well  post it belatedly.

For whatever reason, nobody published novelizations of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. However, Elliott S. Maggin wrote a couple of novels around the same timeframe, published by Warner Books, that were photographically, if not narratively, tied in with the movies. By that I mean that there are pictures of Reeve on the cover and a section of photos from Superman II in the middle.

The plot is fairly straightforward: A demon named C.W. Saturn is tasked with taking Superman's soul. He tries to get it--and it must be done in a fair manner, i.e., Superman has to agree or commit some heinous sin--by wearing down the hero to the point that Superman would commit murder just to make things stop. So Saturn takes over the body of a young woman (who just so happens to be a time traveler from the future who's trying to figure out exactly what happened on Miracle Monday) and causes all sorts of havoc all around the world, starting with revealing Superman's secret identity. Superman's got to stop him, which is both an act of will and a superheroic feat. He does stop Saturn, of course, by not giving in to exhaustion and despair.

It's a pretty good little novel. Maggin knows Superman better than just about everybody, and it's on display. Including Jimmy Olsen and Perry White seems almost perfunctory, but in a story about Superman's secret identity being exposed, it's also obligatory. I did like the conversation between Lois and Clark after she finds out.

Miracle Monday is an artifact of its time--back when Clark Kent was a television news anchor (which just doesn't seem to work for him, no matter the rationale behind it).

The time travel works as a framing device, with the travelers going back in time to find out why people started celebrating Miracle Monday in the first place. It's a holiday in which everybody is just happy to be alive, with Superman as it's patron saint. So as we learn about the holiday, the fact that everybody's memory of the events leading up to it will be erased becomes clear. As if it wasn't already obvious when Saturn exposes Superman's secret identity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

French Sources of Mystery

One reason I haven't been posting much lately is that I've been combing through a bunch of old French books. Particularly, the Lettres Edifiantes et Curieuses to which Borges refers in "Fauna of Mirrors."

Let's review: The "Fauna of Mirrors" story opens as follows:

In one of the volumes of the Lettres edifiantes et curieuses that appeared in Paris during the first half of the eighteenth century, Father Fontecchio of the Society of Jesus planned a study of the superstitions and misinformation of the common people of Canton; in the preliminary outline he noted that the Fish was a shifting and shining creature that nobody had ever caught but that manysaid they had glimpsed in the depths of mirrors. Father Fontecchio died in 1736, and the work begun by his pen remained unfinished; some 150 years later Herbert Allen Giles took up the interrupted task. According to Giles, belief in the Fish is part of a larger myth that goes back to the legendary times of the Yellow Emperor.

I've gone through most of Giles's work (already mentioned here) and now I've gone through all but one volume of the Lettres. In the thirty-some I've gotten access to, there is no mention of a Father Fontecchio, or of fish being in mirrors and attacking our world.

I say all but one volume: I haven't been able to get number 31 yet.

Keep in mind a few things. First, my French is pretty rusty. Second, this is eighteenth-century French. Still, I think I've been pretty thorough. All the volumes of the Lettres are available on-line in searchable formats. I used the same terms for each volume search: miroir, Fontecchio, Zallinger, poisson, superstition.

I used to be certain that Fontecchio was a real guy, though I can't recall why and have no source for that. Zallinger is equally obscure. Let's see, there's reference to Zallinger (as Zallinger, P.) on the University of Pittsburgh's Borges Center site, but nothing on Fontecchio. They publish a journal devoted to Borges.

So what's the next step? I dunno.  

Friday, April 28, 2017


Here's another Matrix video that popped up yesterday. This time, on the craft that went into its production and post-production.

Thursday, April 27, 2017


I remember going to see The Matrix when it came out in 1999. One of the best parts of that was going in with no expectations. Everything was a surprise. A couple of web series (A History of Violence and Really that Good?) revisited The Matrix this month, and they're worth checking out.

Tom Briehan's essays on action films in A History of Violence:

More than any movie before or since, The Matrix made Keanu Reeves part of the action-star pantheon. Reeves, who’d been enough of a cowboy to do stunt work in Point Break and Speed, took things to a new level, setting new standards in Hollywood action-star diligence. And more importantly, he didn’t just give an athletic performance; he meant it. Reeves’ kung-fu poses never looked goofy; he sold them through commitment and sincerity. And the dazed sweetness that had always been his movie-star calling card also showed through. Reeves always used to get shit for being a terrible actor, but he sold bewilderment like nobody else. When he muttered “whoa” at the sight of Morpheus taking to the air, he was speaking for the audience. And you won’t find too many iconic badass moments more iconic than the one in the subway station, when he decides not to run from Agent Smith and turns to fight him instead.

Moviebob's in-depth look at some of the most popular films in Really that Good?:

Moviebob also digs into the Matrix sequels a bit, which is worthwhile. If you like that video, check out the Really that Good? entry on Ghostbusters, too.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mystery: Norman Thomas di Giovanni

I don't have a lot of time to dig into the mystery--which is what I have been calling the origin and authenticity of the story called, variously, "The Fauna of Mirrors," "Animals in the Mirror," and "Animales del Mirro" by Jorge Luis Borges...and maybe Margarita Guerrero. Less than an hour per week, maybe. Not much time, really.

So today I wanted to devote my few minutes to Norman Thomas di Giovanni. I found this. di Giovanni worked directly with Borges on translations of Borges's work into English. As things progressed, after Borges passed away, di Giovanni found himself being deprived of the results of that work. Publishers and Borges's widow had begun releasing newly translated versions of Borges's Spanish editions, without di Giovanni's contributions at all. He writes:

Behind my back, I was being ushered out of the door (if such a mixed metaphor is permissable) and at the same time was being airbrushed out of history, out of Borges's existence. All of my volumes of his work - work to which he contributed and gave a unique voice - were deliberately allowed to go out of print. No publisher, no editor, no agent, no executor of any estate ever wrote to me to explain any of this. New translations appeared. Viking-Penguin had bought up E.P. Dutton, and unilaterally, without a single word to me, they nullified my contracts, an act which experts in the law have told me was illegal. So ruthless was Viking that they even commissioned a new edition of Borges's poems, stealing from my edition, without permission, without payment, a considerable body of my work.

This is all very depressing.

I learned all this when I was looking up di Giovanni with the hopes of contacting him about the mystery. He passed away in February of 2017.

Norman Thomas di Giovanni will be remembered by friends in Buenos Aires for his wit and for his brash manner in all that he set out to do. He must also be remembered for his brilliant literary training, his high quality as a translator and his capacity to move from his hard-knocks managerial style to his kindness as a friend to all of his friends and for his often excessive generosity. Di Giovanni wanted to help the whole world. He was a sponge for attention and affection from all those he befriended or was close to at any one time.
However, Di Giovanni would probably want to be remembered simply as the best translator that Jorge Luis Borges ever had.

Friday, April 14, 2017


I've been thinking about American National Character a lot lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about stories we tell about large-scale conflict. This sort of thing has been on my mind for a while now, ever since I was teaching a myth course when the movie Troy came out. Some students in this myth class liked the film, particularly the parts in which Achilles talks about how the Greeks weren't portrayed in the best light. Their sympathies lay with Hector and Troy.

Now, I think lots of people today have the same sympathy. This is interesting because the Greeks of Homer's time probably didn't share it.

Back to stories of large-scale conflict. I'm referring to alien invasions and the like. Independence Day, Star Wars, Avengers, all that. Stories of underdogs. Overwhelming odds being beaten by a small group of heroes.

Here's where you've got to follow me: America's fascination for underdog stories stems from the perception of the country's origin as the result of the actions of just such a team of underdogs, often referred to as The Founding Fathers.

Take this premise through time, and we see that our most popular stories have at their core the same themes already present in our myth of national origin. So of course people see in Star Wars a version of US-England conflict--never mind its references to Vietnam.

Here's where history becomes important. The US had no chance to defeat England, or rather would have had no chance if England hadn't been embroiled across the globe in conflicts with France and Spain. England didn't have the opportunity to employ its full military might to stop the colonial uprising. Yes, France gave aid to the colonial rebellion, but myth has downplayed that. I remember seeing that movie The Patriot when it came out, with Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. There's maybe one French guy in it (or more; honestly, I don't remember much about that movie).

Yet our national myth has erased that very detail of history, that England had lots of things going on. The Empire in Star Wars didn't also have to battle The Other Empire while facing the Rebellion. Or the Other Other Empire. I haven't seen the Independence Day sequel, so maybe that one's about the aliens conquering earth because they finally defeated the competing conquistadors from the Crab Nebula. Yeah, my astronomy knowledge is pretty thin.

There's a book to be written about this topic, I think. Drawing mostly on movies as the texts of the myth, but also on children's school books on history,

These movies have one thing in common: once something small about the enemy is destroyed, the whole Empire falls. More or less. I mean, Iron Man blows up that thing in the space hole in Avengers and the whole alien army falls down dead. Luke shoots the exhaust vent in the Death Star and the movie's done (yeah yeah yeah sequels and stuff, but even at the end of Jedi they win by the same sort of move, only with Lando and Nien Nunb and Wedge taking the shots; and sure, the expanded universe stuff expanded the defeat of the Empire, but still...). Even the movie of Starship Troopers does pretty much this same thing. Essentially, if you want to defeat an apparently unstoppable enemy empire or civilization, all you've got to do is find the weak spot.

So, what was the British Empire's weak spot? I mean, we all realize that it's not very realistic for the plucky underdogs to really beat the evil empire by finding their way inside to learn about the exhaust port vulnerability, or uploading a computer virus to the mother ship, or teaching Hugh about individuality, or tossing the ring into the cracks of doom. And do we consider it more realistic when Jon Snow's rag taggers are saved only by the arrival of Little Finger and a new army? How about how Katniss and her buddies finally overthrew Panem? Does that one fit? (haven't seen those movies, and though I read the books I don't really remember how they won--did they win? they must have won, right?)

I've sort of lost my train of thought. Let's recap: as Americans, we're predisposed to like stories about the triumph of underdogs because our national myth presents our origins in those terms. This elides several key factors of actual history that are ignored by reimaginings of those myths, such as hugely popular movies. The British Empire's weak spot wasn't an exhaust port or vulnerability to infiltration. It was that it had too many enemies.

What movies complicate this reading of myth and history? Probably every movie about actual wars fought in the twentieth century, especially the two world wars. I don't really know.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

All We Fiddlers

From Edgar Lee Masters, in the Spoon River Anthology poem "Blind Jack." This is the storytellers' heaven:

There's a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The plot thinnens

So there's this weird thing with the name of the writer who first introduced the Mirror Fish to the western world. di Giovanni uses Fontecchio. Hurley uses Zallinger. So I dug up a pdf of the Spanish publication of Book of Imaginary Beings. El Libros de los Seres Imaginarios. "Animales de los Espejos" is the title of the chapter in question. The original text uses the name Zallinger. So where did Fontecchio come from?

Both Zallinger and Fontecchio were part of the La Compañía de Jesús, which is...okay, I'm just going to admit that I don't know Spanish. Anyway, La Compañía de Jesús, is Society of Jesus in English.

Updates as they arise.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Quote: The Einstein Intersection

I've been reading Samuel R. Delany's The Einstein Intersection, and I'm really enjoying it. He does things with words that I didn't think were possible. It reminds me a little of Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. But different. Also Gene Wolfe stories,. particularly the Book of the New Sun novels.

Here's something interesting, starting on page 20 of the 1992 printing:

"Let's talk about mythology, Lobey. Or let's you listen. We've had quite a time assuming the rationale of this world. The irrational presents just as much of a problem. You remember the legend of the Beatles? You remember the Beatle Ringo left his Maureen love even through she treated him tender. He was the one Beatle who did not sing, so the earliest forms of the legend go. After a hard day's night he and the rest of the Beatles were torn apart by screaming girls, and he and the other Beatles returned, finally at one, with the great rock and the great roll." I put my head in La Dire's lap. She went on. "Well, that myth is a version of a much older story that is not so well known. There are no 45's or 33's from the time of this older story. there are only a few written versions, and reading is rapidly losing its interest for the young. In the older story Ringo was called Orpheus. He too was torn apart by screaming girls. But the details are different. He lost his love--in this version Eurydice--and she went straight to the great rock and the great roll, where Orpheus had to go to get her back. He went singing, for in this version Orpheus was the greatest singer, instead of the silent one. In myths things always turn into their opposites as one version supersedes the next."


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lois Lane: Fallout

Anybody read these novels about Lois Lane by Gwenda Bond? I've gotten through the first one, and I liked it quite a bit, despite being about as far from the target market as you can be.

Fallout starts with Lois, sixteen years old, arriving for her first day of school in Metropolis. Since her father's a general, she's moved around a lot up to this point. She feels a lot of pressure in this new situation since she wants to fit in, but she can't help being herself--someone who does her thing regardless of consequences because her thing is what she believes is right. Now that's an awkward sentence, but being sixteen is an awkward time.

Lois gets into trouble almost immediately upon entering her new school. She finds someone who needs help and helps her, thereby putting herself and a few others in all sorts of danger. This book had the odd effect of making me worried about the characters on every page, even when that page lacked impending danger. Sure, the stakes were high in the plot, but that almost wasn't the point. The point, I guess, is that Lois is figuring out how to become the character we all know and love, the kind of woman whom gods would fall in love with.

One of the reasons I picked up this book is because of the Mark Waid/Leinil Yu version in Brithright. See, one of the challenges of Superman is for a writer to convince us that Superman and Lois Lane would fall in love. Perhaps the biggest flaw in All-Star Superman is the way Grant Morrison dodged this question. Why Lois? Well, according to Morrison, Superman just can't help it. Not a lot of substance there. Waid, on the other hand, shows us a Lois whose personality dominates the panel, the page, the whole twelve issue series. Her words and demeanor elicit a "Wow" from Clark Kent the first time he sees her.

Gwenda Bond's Lois Lane is everything you'd want her to be.