23 February 2007

Making Lists of "good" books

Recently, I posted a list, a book meme that has been circulating, of 100 selected titles. I commented regarding the oddity of the list. There seemed to be no underlying pattern to the works selected. It contained both classics and popular fiction; high brow and low brow and everything in between. Several commented here or on their own blogs about how eclectic the list was (Anne, Pinky, Gayle, Sassy).

Then I came across Myrtias's blog with a listing from the Modern Library's identifying their picks for Best 100 Novels. (Danielle posted this list too.) At first I thought I could do the same thing, marking those I had read, those I was unfamiliar with, those that I wouldn't touch with a metaphoric literary 10-foot pole, those that I owned, as if their presence on my shelves accrued some additional value or meaning. I scanned the list and realized that the stats for my reading (or not reading) was similar for both lists. I had read a few more works on the 100 books meme (23 vs 35) , there were about a dozen works on the Modern Library list that I might want to read in the future (vs 9), those that I was unfamiliar with was about the same (11 vs 15) and there were 5 fewer works on the ML list in the keep at least 10-feet away category.

The more interesting thing, though, was to analyze these two lists, not what I had read. There were only 8 works in common (The Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, and Ulysses). The first list was dominated by women authors -- 42 works by 38 different authors; the Modern Library list had only 9 works by 8 female authors. 42% of the Modern Library list represents 17 authors, almost exclusively male. The ML list does not include works in translation; the first list does (e.g., Tolstoy, Garcia Marquez, Saint-Exupery, Hugo, Dostoyevsky).

Maybe the point is, it doesn't matter who compiles the list. Is the Modern Library list any less esoteric than the other? Like the other list, it reflects a certain perspective, a bias of the list-makers. One could argue endlessly about the makings of a literary canon and the gender biases (or ethnic, cultural, etc. ) of those who establish that canon. I think those discussions are important ones in terms of understanding the inherent biases, but it doesn't mean that such a list in invalid, only incomplete, or not in harmony with many people's experiences.

I prefer to read "good" works of fiction, but I don't know that I can define what that is. A trek through my bookshelves would certainly yield an interesting and esoteric list. Some of what I have read is good, some bad, some "trash" that I loved despite not having any lasting value beyond the fun of reading and the actual content of the work forgotten moments after closing the cover.

You will find The Modern Library's complete list posted here, along side the 100 Best Novels list by readers. The reader list has several works by Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged is ranked #1 on the Reader List), L. Ron Hubbard, Frank Herbert, along side Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. This explains the origins of the lists, developed in 1998. The goal of the "100 Best" project was to get people talking about great books. We succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings — more than 400,000 avid readers rushed online to cast votes for their favorite books...."

Perhaps it isn't possible to make a list without some controversy, with an unbiased perspective. But, if the goal is to talk about books, does it really matter? Does it matter if what I consider a good book is different from yours?

I don't think so.

19 February 2007

Yesterday it was where I write; today what I write with; tomorrow no more procrastionation!

Pens. A necessity, even in the age of computers. A utilitarian object, but for one as persnickety about pens as I am, a fine one can make all the difference when you need to write.

I used to work in a building with an office supply store downstairs. Whenever I needed a break from the stresses of my daily work, I'd wander downstairs to the shop to peruse pens. Spending a few dollars on a new pen added a little cheer to my day.

I've never been one to like unusual ink colors. Black for checks, bills, and documents. Blue for making notations on documents. Red on occasion, although even when I was a teacher, I avoided it when marking errors. I had colleagues at that time who thought you should use green ink. This seemed silly to me; a paper full of notes from teacher was still marked with failures regardless of the ink color.

There was a segment on the Today Show this morning discussing a special limited edition Mont Blanc pen that is being auctioned on EBay to raise funds for The National Archives. The first pen in the collection, honoring George Washington (a fitting promotion to launch on Presidents' Day), has an opening bid price of $27,000. The Mont Blanc spokesperson wore gloves when he held it. The pen was, as you might expect, beautiful. It is made of black lacquer, white gold inlays and a few (38!) diamonds and sapphires. I'd rush right over to the site and place a bid, since I like nice pens, and preserving historical records makes The Nat'l Archives a good choice, but I'm not in the market for a $27,000 diamond pen right now. At least not one that you need to wear gloves to hold. None of my pens are that special, but some of my favorite pens these days are below:

The black pen on the far left is a Waterman. The Waterman company perfected, and then patented, the first self-filling fountain pen, but lost it's market dominance when the era of ballpoint pens began. I like fountain pens, like the smooth flowing ink, like the light scratching sound made when nib touches paper, but I cannot write with one often for two reasons: 1) I hold the pen too tightly and always damage the nib; and 2) I must be an ink magnet because regardless of how careful I am, I always end up with ink on my fingers, hands, and arms. I typically like a fine point, but I use a medium point in the Waterman; it just seems to write better for my writing style (probably related to that heavy-handedness).

The pen next to the Waterman is a special pen. The blue thing that looks like it belongs in a cocktail glass: yes! that is a pen. It was made by The Glass Gem, the Wisconsin art studio of Martha Kauppi. This beautiful piece of art came in a blue velvet box with an accompanying note addressed to "Thoughtful writer". Difficult to resist something addressed to a thoughtful writer. This was a birthday present a few years ago. I don't use it much though, only occasionally when signing cards because I'm afraid I'll break the delicate nib. (see above re: fountain pens). But I love the design and the feel of it when I write. I love that it is blown glass, an art form that I someday hope to learn. And, of course, it's my favorite color. Kauppi has interesting pictures of her work on her website. Along with pens, she also makes glass knitting needles!

The other blue pen, the second from the right, was a Christmas present. It's from Levenger's. I like this pen a lot, although it seems a little too heavy when you place the cap on the end. I'm getting used to that, because I'm afraid I'll misplace the cap if I don't keep it with the pen while writing.

The other two pens (the one in the middle and the one on far right) are my favorite utilitarian pens. I love the clean, flowing lines of the Uni-ball Vision Elite. In my opinion, this is the perfect don't-care-if-I-lose-it pen. An inexpensive pen that writes similarly to an expensive one. The kind of pen that you won't get too bent out of shape if someone "borrows", then pockets it. The other pen was a promotional pen. It was sent to me by an unknown company wanting me to order pens as promotional give-aways. It has my name and a company engraved on it. They must have used an old mailing list: I hadn't worked for the company for two years when I received this in the mail. It's a click pen. It has an nice weight and a soft surface grip. Mostly, what I like about this pen is that the middle is slightly indented from the rest of the body, allowing you to move it with ease from a writing position, to balanced under your index finger, out of the way. This makes it ideal for holding while doing other things, like typing or reading, while keeping the pen handy for when you need to make a notation. None of my other pens work quite the same way.

18 February 2007

Where I Write

Update: Bloglily and I were definitely on the same blogging wavelength, as she made her previous post into a meme too. Same thing, except she has stated that if you don't post a picture, she'll come to your house to snap one for you. It's hardly a threat, as I'm sure she'd arrive with a nice cup of tea for a charming afternoon of conversation. Had I read her post first -- and didn't live ~1900 miles away -- I would not have posted the pictures below so that I could be so lucky as to have her knock on my back door.

Yesterday, the lovely BlogLily (I'm so glad you're back, BL) shared a photo of her writing space. When I saw it, I thought: "Of course, BlogLily would write at a wonderful wood table, with a tree blooming out her window. How lovely." You can see her writing space here.

Later, on a blog I recently discovered, Tea Reads, I found a link to articles in The Guardian where AS Byatt, David Hare, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Beryl Bainbridge, and Michael Frayn shared photos of their writing areas along with a description.

I had my inspiration: where I write. Perhaps you'll play along and describe your writing space as well.

My writing space is a sparsely furnished room with a fireplace I haven't used in years. It has a sturdy old desk of dark-stained oak. An obscure phone number is carved lightly into one side, a ghost of a previous owner. I rescued the desk from a garage sale, its owner claiming that she couldn't fit it through a door in her newly remodeled home. Years later, I realized that the heavy top is removable with some effort, allowing the desk to be tipped and slid through most doorways. Her loss was my gain. I love the desk's wide, deep, top that allows me space to write while leaving plenty of area for the detritus that lands on its top: books, magazines, bills, half-forgotten directions to craft projects, stationary.

Sometimes I will write at one of the other computers in my house. They are both on the main level of the house, so I am nearer to family activity. But, downstairs in my room, I can still hear life above me: footsteps, the faint drone of the television, doors opening and closing, the washing machine spinning. I don't need to be in the center to feel the house's pulse. The lower level room allows me to be nearby, but not in the thick of things.

My desk is positioned in front of a window. Right now, all I can see is snow drifts. The window is slightly above eye level when I'm seated, and only about 2 feet above grade. In the spring, I can see the waterside plants around my pond, but I cannot see the water or the fish. If I rise slightly, I can see the waterfall. I can always hear, though, the mesmerizing sound of the falls echoing off of the stone walls.

What I can see when I look out the window are the trees that hold up the hill behind my house. Nine months of the year, they mask the nearby neighbor's house. In the winter, they stand tall, bending gracefully in the wind, a few lone brown leaves still hanging onto branches. There are two giant ash trees that were destroyed by lightening years before I came to live on this wonderful little plot of earth. The previous owners chose not to remove the trees, opting instead to cut off the limbs, leaving 20-foot pole-like trunks. The decay of the trees has increased rapidly over the last five years. I know that soon I will need to have them removed, lest they tumble and land on a car or the house or crash down on the stone terrace that separates the pond from the drive. But, they provide a delightful perch for three different kinds of woodpeckers. Cardinals, robins, nuthatches, jays, and wrens also hop up and down the trunks, dining on a gourmet insect feast.

In about three or four weeks, the trees will begin to leaf out. All sorts of wildflowers, most unknown to me by their botanical names, will begin to peep out from beneath the viney carpet of ground cover. White, yellow, and purple stars will shine for a few days, then fade. In mid-April, the may apples will begin to grow. It is one of the oddest flowers I know, growing rapidly, looking like a green leafy mushroom. Soon it will begin to look like a collapsed beach umbrella. As if they were aware of our calendars, the umbrellas open up as soon as it is May, stretching out their leaf canopy until it is almost flat, then displaying one single blossom before settling in for the summer underneath the shadow of the trees.

So that is my writing space. Inside and out. If I'm not at my desk, I'm likely to set up my laptop elsewhere near a window -- a necessity both in terms of light and view -- looking out at the trees and birds and flowers, nature both my inspiration and a willing participant in any writing procrastination.

What about your writing space? Why do you like it? Describe it and its surroundings and share a photo on your blog. Then leave a link in the comments so that we can see where you write.

16 February 2007

I don't know why I do these....

...but I am fascinated by lists like this. As I went through this list (found at Imani's), I wondered what the list creator was thinking when s/he was developing this list. What are the inherent biases in this list? Were there some books that the she was thinking that everyone should have read? Some that no self-respecting reader would ever touch with a ten-foot pole? Are there some books on this list because of the list creator's age, books that only some generations would have read or known about?

Or maybe because of the list creator's career? I think that some of these books are suited for a YA audience. Does that mean that someone might assume from my list that I was young, or at least that it hadn't been that long ago that I left school? Or does it mean that I am a librarian or an educator and therefore have read many YA books? To be honest, some of the books on this list were popular among teachers when I took a YA Lit class many years ago, but I have no idea if they are still in vogue.

Did the list creator just hate, hate, hate chick-lit or Dickens, or Mitch Albom and throw those on the list to see what fool might claim to have read or owned them? Or worse, having been warned by others' list, still want to read them? Or, did the list creator love, love, love, these works and might be disappointed to find that not all agree?

Most of all, what do my responses say about me? What is missing from this list? The number of books I read in 2006 would equal about 2/3 of this list; this list is hardly representative of a life time of diverse reading. Still, I think that it probably indicates something about my reading, although it may not be the full story. As a researcher might conclude: there aren't enough data points to draw conclusions.

Below is the list with instructions for marking.

Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, put a cross (+) in front of the ones on your book shelf, and asterisk (*) the ones you’ve never heard of.

1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) (although some days I have to stave off a morbid curiosity to see if this is really as bad as most have told me. 'I was bored; there was nothing in English to read' was my teenager's excuse for this one.)
2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. +To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. *Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
10. *A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rowling)
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown) (reading group selection)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
14. +A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) (One of my favorite books of all time!)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. *Fall on Your Knees(Ann-Marie MacDonald)
18. The Stand (Stephen King)
19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban(Rowling)
20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) I think I read this.
21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie(Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) (or at least read enough of it 30+ yrs ago to know that the boy who convinced me to read it was a jerk for buying this hook, line, & stinker)
34. 1984 (Orwell)
35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
36. +The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. *The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
38. I Know This Much is True(Wally Lamb)
39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. +The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
45. +Bible (have read parts; not all)
46. +Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) (A favorite!)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. +Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
(Although I've read other Kingsolver books and enjoyed, this is one I've avoided).
52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
53. *Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. +The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. *The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) (What can I say? I was very young. sigh)
59. +The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
60. +The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrew Niffenegger)
61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
63. +War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. *Fifth Business (Robertson Davis)
66. +One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
(I think I'd need 100 yrs to get through this. I've tried several times without success)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
(I think I may have read this; not sure)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
(parts in French)
70. +The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. *The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. +The World According To Garp (John Irving)
79. *The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)
80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. *Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)
84. *Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)
85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down(Richard Adams)
87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. *The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
89. *Blindness (Jose Saramago)
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)
91. *In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)
92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth(Pearl S. Buck) (
may have read this when I was a child.)
94. +The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. +The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum) (
Are you kidding?)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton) (A wonderful YA book!)
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford)
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield) (ugh!)
100. Ulysses (James Joyce) (I gave up on ever finishing this one a long, long ago...)

14 February 2007

Saturday After 5 Days Gone

Saturday After 5 Days Gone

Blue bird on silvery black wing flies.
An aging sunbeam, having left
home just short light years ago,
strains to curve around the horizon
to glow through iced windows,
would-be enticement for any sleepy cat.
Red berries hang on cold brown bark.
White snow drifts slowly off the trees
onto the frozen ground, hiding
the secrets of spring of which
only the winter thrushes can sing.
Ice shifts, roof creaks. I move
deeper under the blankets soft,
to hear my lover's rhythmic breath,
to be near his beating heart
warming my soul.

12 February 2007

The non-fiction non-challenge (for me)

As I commented on Emily's blog the other day, I'm committed to not committing to any litblog challenges right now, mainly because, while I'm always eager to join, I rarely follow through. My reading goals for 3, 4, 5 months out aren't that defined and I like to keep it that way (apparently, even when I say that I will follow a plan).

But, when I read Emily's post about the Non-fiction five challenge last week, I was tempted. I've been reading mostly non-fiction lately. This would be an issue goal to accomplish (5 books in 5 months). I resisted the temptation -- so far, in a way.

Emily listed her selection of 5 books. Included in the list was Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. This book is a follow up, of sorts, to Ehrenreich's book Nickled and Dimed, in which she wrote about the plight of minimum wage workers (if you haven't read this book, read it now). In Bait and Switch, she writes about unemployed and underemployed professional workers squeezed by corporate downsizing.

I bought this book (now in soft cover) when it was first published, around the time that I was laid-off. It was a situation where I knew for weeks that my job would end, with parting gifts available if I stayed until "the end", but no guarantee of when that end would be. No severance pay if I left before the undefined time, a shoddily written contract (I'm not a lawyer, but even I recognized that it was contradictory, contained blanks, shouldn't have been signed) that may not have been enforceable, but I live in a 'right to work' state where the rights of employers almost always win out over the rights of the employee.

But I never read Ehrenreich's book. Unlike most people in similar situations, I was extremely lucky and landed in a new job within a few weeks, only to have that job end in a few months when a major cancelled contract left my employer with no funds to pay his staff. Two more long-term contract jobs and two years later, I'm finally in a permanent job. But I still haven't read Ehrenreich's book.

Now is the time. Emily and I have agreed to post on this book on April 4th. If you're interested in reading this book, join us in posting about it on that date. No further commitment needed.

Since publishing Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich has helped to form an organization for middle-class professionals, United Professionals. Ehrenreich also has a couple of blogs, Barbara's Blog, and Barbara's Guest Commentators. Always interesting reading. I'm also looking forward to her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, scheduled to be published in July, 2007.

BTW: For info on the official "Non-Fiction Five" challenge, go to Joy's site, Thoughts of Joy, for details. Emily found this challenge at Heather/Orange Blossom Goddess' blog, The Library Ladder.

11 February 2007

The Movie Was Better Than the Book

It isn't often that I can state that I saw a movie that was better than the book on which it was based. In many ways, it makes sense that this would be true; in a novel, even a short one, the writer has the means to present information in ways that are not possible in a movie. Narration in a book can change from one chapter to another. The point of view of different characters can be explored. Background information can be provided. Description can be given that allows the reader to create in his mind what a character looks or sounds like, to envision how a place looks, smells, feels.

In a movie, all of this information is given through more limited means: the camera and the words and actions of the character. I don't think that movie viewing necessarily is less interactive than reading, although I think in our media-saturated culture, it is easier to be less attentive to the manipulations of the camera, to be less aware of what might be happening that we aren't told and how that might influence our reactions, set us up for a surprise, convince us to sympathize with one character over another. Although film offers the discerning viewer the opportunity to enjoy or to analyze on various levels, such as the cinematography, movies can be enjoyed only on the action level, if that is only what the viewer chooses to give to her viewing. While there are books that are mainly plot-driven too, it is more likely that a movie will live or die by its plot.

To translate a book into a movie is difficult because of the length that is afforded the novelist. A screen writer must be more concise because of the medium. The interpretation that is offered is that of the director. Translations of short stories, because of the compactness of the narration may be more suited to film. An obvious example that comes to mind is Brokeback Mountain. All that is in Annie Proulx's compact but lush story was in Ang Lee's film. Only one additional scene in the movie is added to indicate the passage of years and to convey what directions the lives of the main characters took. There is little difference in the story-telling between the two forms of the tale; the chief difference between the two forms comes from the dazzling scenery of the mountains in the film. The length and compactness of the story aided the adaptation to film; a longer story or novel would have contained more and something would have had to have been omitted to fit the film format. In this case, however, the movie is truly a re-creation in a different medium of Proulx's short story.

It is because of the differences between a novel and a movie that I think that I almost always prefer the book to the movie adapted from the book. Too much needs to be cut out of most books, leaving the movie a sad empty shell, barely reminiscent of the book. Characters are eliminated or morphed into one. Places are changed. Details that serve as the glue to hold the book together are omitted. Overall, although I love the movies, I am almost always disappointed in an adaptation from a book, even if I read the book after I've seen the movie.

A few days ago, the Hobgoblin wrote a review of P.D. James' The Children of Men. Generally, he found that the characters were lacking and the book, overall, disappointing. I commented on his post that after seeing the movie, and having read 1/2 of the book, I was perplexed that anyone had read the book and even considered it for a movie. It isn't that the book is unfilmable; it is because the book, although it suggests some thought-provoking ideas, is just not that interesting as a novel. The characters are one dimensional and the ideas are not fully developed.

This is the first P.D. James' book I have ever read. I've always heard great things about her works, but who-dunnits are not my usual reading fare. Had I never heard of her, I'd be unlikely to read anything else by her. I have promised some of my James-loving acquaintances that I will still read one of her mysteries, but I did not like this book at all. Had I read it before I saw the movie, I wouldn't have seen the movie either. But, having experienced both the movie and the book, I will say that the movie was much better.

In the book, the author introduces many ideas that are not elaborated upon. Many of the characters are one-dimensional. Few serve a purpose other than to advance a small piece of the plot, and sometimes their behaviors are incongruent to the character previously introduced. The motivation of the main character Theo is not clear, whether it is in writing a diary describing what he sees as the last of his days on the planet even though he knows there will be no future generation to read his memoir, or his falling in love with the first woman on the planet to become pregnant in 25 years. Why does he love her? Is it because there is something remarkable about her other than her pregnancy? Is it because he is attracted to her physically or psychologically? Is it because she is fertile -- something that his character should be smart enough to realize but never does. Why does Theo dislike his cousin Xan, the dictator of England, so much? Why did Theo abandon his governmental post? Why is Xan his enemy -- or is he his enemy? Xan is portrayed as being devoid of feeling, only interested in power. But, is Theo much different? The reader never really knows.

P.D. James brings up many interesting ideas in this short novel. She depicts a world devoid of hope. She suggests that as a dying race there would be no interest in religion. For a book full of religious symbolism as well as a few outwardly religious characters, she does little to suggest that the people in her imagined world need religion. The faithful and the religious fanatics seem to not care much if others don't agree with them, even when they have changed religious practices such as christenings into social occasions for celebrating their pets, keeping a ritual that is suggestive of life, but which plays into the insanity of not having children to love and nurture. She suggests that the government is evil, yet its Stepford-wife citizenry seem not to care as long as they are safe and happy. But, when James suggests that the government is abusive and murderous, she does little to indicate why. There is a lengthy scene describing the state-sponsored suicide ritual. In this scene, one character, introduced earlier as someone who wouldn't willingly participate but now senile and probably incapable of such a decision, tries to abandon her suicide attempt. She is attacked by the state police and killed. But there is no reason why the government would do this. With a dying population not yet having exhausted its resources, there is no reason to kill its citizenry except to be brutal.

Initially Theo becomes involved with the radical group because he is politically convenient as the nearest relative to the dictator. But the group's goals change once there is a pregnancy. This change suggests the corruption of power, but the idea is never fully explored. That hope for the future doesn't die when the father of the child dies is not convincing. Theo's eventual triumph and conversion to faith and hope in the future is so foreshadowed that the predictable climax loses its power to be suspenseful and a fulfilling conclusion for the reader.

So why is the movie better? The same characters in the book are in the movie, although there are some significant differences. The character of Theo is still a cynic but his motivations for becoming involved are different; Julian is still a radical, although her character is less significant in the movie. The radical group, the Five Fishes, is still pivotal to the plot, but in a much different way. The self-absorbed Omegas, the last generation to be born, are hardly discussed in the movie. The world of the movie teeters on the brink of chaos as in the book. There is no hope in a world of a dying human race, little reason to plan ahead, many reasons to be suspicious.

But, where the narration of the book fails, the movie succeeds. By changing the world to be more recognizable as our own-- a future that could be 2008, not 25 years in the future as James' book was when published in the early 90's -- the world becomes believable. The nationalistic fervor that pervades England in the movie is frightfully understandable for any country struggling with culture wars taken to the extreme: anyone who is an outsider is to be feared; anyone who fights against governmental policies is a terrorist and should be hunted by the police and deported to the chaos outside the borders of the country. In the movie, the birth of the child is heralded in a refuge camp. In an unforgettable scene, warring factions stop fighting at the sound of a wailing baby. In the movie, the pregnant woman is little more than a child herself, both excited and fearful of giving birth. The corruption of politicians and the police is more believable; without family to care for, self-interest, whether expressed as pleasure or power, is paramount for most. In a polluted, toxic waste environment, cynicism is abundant. In the movie, Theo is a hero who abandons his self-absorbing cynicism when he realizes that he can make a difference in the world; in the book, although he becomes involved in life-altering activities, he never rises above his own self-interest to be considered a hero.

In the end, the movie is better than the book, but not because of the medium. It is better than the book because the plot is more coherent, the characters better crafted, the world depicted more believable. Sometimes, it is the writing after all, not the medium, that makes a work successful.

07 February 2007

Carrying books, scribbling stuff in notebooks

Between being knocked down and slapped hard by a nasty flu bug and near chaos at work as a big project nears its end, I haven't found much time for reading, excluding tech books which do not in any way count in my opinion. In scarce reading times, I enjoy catching a few minutes of reading short pieces -- essays, good magazine or journal articles, short stories, poems.

As I finished packing yesterday morning (or was it still Monday night -- it was still hours before daylight in most timezones), I had to make a decision about what books to stow in my suitcase. I always like to travel with little baggage -- in theory, anyway, able to carryon or gatecheck everything. That means one small rollerbag and the laptop case filled to the brim with books stuffed in around laptop, power cables, and presentation materials. And this is the problem: books are heavy and there is little space left after packing the necessities (although that forgotten tube of toothpaste didn't leave noticeable extra space -- what is the hotel going to charge me for that little tube?) .

Or is the problem really that I can never decide which one book to pack? Limiting to one book is tough. Maybe I'll be too tired to read something serious? Maybe the new book that I bought will be a real stinker and I'll have nothing else to read? Maybe I shouldn't bring that book I need to read because I committed to reviewing it; what if I would leave it on the plane? How would I right the review then? Somehow I managed to pack one non-fiction book I've been reading for a few weeks (Sach's The End of Poverty), a book of essays (2006 Best American Essays), and a novel I'm about 1/2 way through (P.D. James' Children of Men). I checked my bag yesterday, so I didnt' have anything but tech manuals on board. Flight time needed to be prep time. But when I finally arrived at the hotel after dinner last night, what did I read? Are you kidding? I fell asleep with the tv on and didn't wake up until the wakeup call this morning. Will I read anything on this trip? Maybe while waiting for my flight home Friday, a flight that has a ridiculous ranking like 20% on time. If I don't, can I consider it exercise having lugged back & forth across the country a few extra pounds in reading material?

Even if I don't read anything, I usually make lots of scribblings in my notebooks when I travel. Mostly observations. Sometimes things to write about here. It's about the only time that I write personal things in my work notebooks. Nothing is ever flushed out; just writing prompts for the future. Here is an example from yesterday:

As the sun rises and the earth lightens, the ground appears grey,
like a moonscape in some B sci-fi movie. As it gets lighter, I can
ell that it is snow. Looks like the color of the giant
frozen ice piles in the plowed mall parking lot 2 weeks after a
snowfall. Looking east, the light at the horizon is gorgeous, like a
watercolor by a madman. Not pastel, but on fire.
Firelight. Different than dawn when flying over the ocean.

How I wish I could really write about how wonderful the eastern light looked before the sun was on the horizon. Chances are, the above snippet is all that I'll write about it. But maybe one day it will show up in a poem or story.

Here is another scribbling from yesterday, this one more intentional, based on an actual work-related list I had been compiling:

A 2-Do List Jotted on an East Bound Plane

Jotted in my Notebook,
which is smooth black leather
with grey gridlined pages and
gives me much pleasure to use;
might as well be nice since
it is a necessity.

1. Email D re: schedules
2. Find a fix for brkn phone.
3. Email R suggestion for disc grp
4. Mail book to D.
5. Create outline for presentation.
6. Procur projector.
7. Watch jet streams swim by in early morning wake.
8. Be aware/at the ready for the moment light changes
enough to see snow covered ground.
9. Edit spreadsheet. Recalc budget numbers.
10.Worry teenager will not have coat in snowstorm at home. Worry about
the icy roads.
11. Rescheduled conf call.
12. Watch amazing orangered firelight on horizon. Be amazed.
13. Be awed. Be grateful.
14. Land safely (assign to pilot).
15. Be joyous.
16. Sleep.

04 February 2007

01 February 2007

Unproven Theorem

Let Y equal X be the given.
Make the sun revolve round the moon.
Send the clocks spinning backwards
halting the moment before the words
came crashing, cascading down into
unknown caverns in my heart. Go
back. Screech the brakes. Pull out
all the stops. Don't let it happen (again).
Let X equal Y be in a different
dimension on some far away plane
where lifelines can bend and twist.
Let Y equal X be a given
where pain equals laughter, dark
is light and sadness be joy.
Let Y equal X: the clanging
noise tuned to music, the
scribbling words writ poesy,
the ugliness blossom'd to art,
blending tears like watercolors.
Let Y be a constant like the stars
in their courses. Let X equal all things.
A fresh start, a return: light refracted anew.

For more poetic proofs, check out other contributors to this week's Poetry Thursday.