Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Review Club: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

(This is December 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click on the icon at the end of this review.)

One hundred and sixty-nine years ago this month, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. A few years ago (2008), Les Standiford published The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Standiford, a novelist and popular historian, fully acknowledges that much of what he has compiled in The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in other works and biographies. The beauty of this little book is the prism with which Standiford examines Dickens. It’s only about the Carol and how Dickens came to write it, the influences, where Dickens was in his life when the inspiration for Scrooge, Marley, and Tiny Tim struck his imagination, the immediate aftermath of the book’s publication, and its influence on western culture.

The book opens on 5 October 1843. Dickens, aged thirty-one, is on a Manchester stage, part of a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum. He is to speak but he is distracted. His current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not finding the dazzling sales figures of earlier novels like The Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop. Not a Dickens scholar I, this fact surprised me. I just assumed Dickens’s stardom, once attained, didn’t wane during his lifetime. It was up and down for Dickens and in October 1843, Dickens was down. With sales figures dropping, his own debt rising—including his parents’ debt which he took pains to absolve—and a new child, his fifth, due early in 1844, Dickens needed to do something extraordinary in order to get back on the financial horse.

After he gave his part of the fundraiser, Dickens walked the dark streets of Manchester and the germ of an idea planted itself in his mind. With the memories of a recent trip to a “ragged school”—a school for poor kids—fresh in his mind, Dickens did something fascinating: he examined himself, as an artist, a man, a husband, and found that he could improve his position. According to Standiford, “Perhaps he [Dickens] had let his disappointment with America in particular and with human nature in general overwhelm his powers of storytelling and characterization in his recent work—perhaps he had simply taken it for granted that an adoring public would sit still for whatever he offered it.” The Chuzzlewit sales and themes proved this to be true. He tried to beat his readers over the head with his earnestness and the readers let him know they didn’t like it. He needed a different method to convey what he wanted to convey. And he needed it to be entertaining.

A Christmas Carol was the result. We all know the story so I don’t need to retell it here. But what is utterly compelling when you stop to think about it is that Dickens went through a transformation not unlike Scrooge, just without the ghosts. At a time when he could have moved to Europe, contented himself with travel writing, and cleared his debts, he chose to challenge himself. To do so, he needed to change. So he changed how he approached this book and its publication. I wonder how many of us have the courage to do that in our own lives to say nothing of something as public as a novel.

With numerous quotes from Dickens’ own writings and those of his contemporaries, Standiford shows us how excited Dickens became at his “little Carol,” how it cheered him, made his cry, and, presumably, warmed his heart as the book has done these past 169 years for the rest of us. The haggling, the negotiations, the business of writing, producing, securing the artwork, and all the other minutia needed to publish a book in 1843 is captivating. You realize that, in many ways, it’s the same then as it is now. The most paradoxical thing I learned was Dickens’ decision to publish A Christmas Carol on his own. You what that means, don’t you? A Christmas Carol was a vanity book. A self-published book.

As far as the claim that Dickens “invented” Christmas (Prince Albert also had a hand with his Christmas trees), Standiford goes into some good detail on how the celebration of Christmas had devolved to a holiday that was barely celebrated. He needs to do this and lay out for the reader where Christmas was in 1843 in order for the reader to understand the profound impact the Carol had on society. Christmas, for Dickens had the same enchanting power over him that his story has over us. That’s ironic considering the humiliation of his childhood—of having a father in debtors’ prison and being forced to leave school and work in a factory to help the family—made Christmas for Dickens not the overabundant thing it is today. The season of Christmas “accounts in large part for his development as an artist.” As Dickens himself wrote, “Any iron ring let into stone is the entrance to a cave which only waits for the magician, and the little fire, and the necromancy, that will make the earth shake.” There is a certain magic during this time of year and Dickens captured it between pages. It’s no wonder the story has thrived.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a charming book, uncluttered with footnotes so it’s easy to read. (Standiford cites his sources at the back of the book.) The book contains just over 200 pages so it won’t take you many hours to read it. I recommend it for anyone with a little curiosity about how a great work of literature came about. It’ll remove the gauzy trappings that can sometimes surround a book—you know, the awe we writers and readers impose on great works of literature, how the author must’ve been touched by a literary god and the work just fell from the pen—and reveal a real man who experienced real worries but also created something special by means of his own imagination, sweat, determination, and perseverance. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For all you writers out there, think about this. Where we you this year on 5 October? Imagine not having a word written in a new work. Imagine, now, getting that idea and you burn the midnight oil—you still have a day job, don’t forget—and finish a manuscript by the end of November and the book you just wrote is published today. Think you could do it?


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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review Club: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon



(This is the November 2012 edition of Barrie Summy’s Book Review Club. For a complete list of the other titles, click the icon following this review.)

Generally, mystery writers don’t ask the historical question “what if.” Science fiction writers are the ones who ponder the questions of alternate history. What if the South won the Civil War? What if Rome never fell? What if Hitler won World War II? One of the few examples of “counterfactual history” in the mystery genre is Richard Harris’s Fatherland. In that novel, he deposits his detective in 1964 Berlin, in the days leading up to Hitler’s birthday. Aside from this major example, alternative history mysteries rarely exist.*

So it took a writer not usually associated with the mystery genre to ask another what if question. In The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon extrapolates an entire separate universe from a little-known event in our actual history. In 1939, as Hitler was rounding up European Jews, Harold Ickies, the Secretary of the Interior, floated an idea of allowing Jewish refugees to settle in part of what was the Alaskan Territory, Sitka. An influential Congressman killed the bill in committee and the resettle never materialized. In Chabon’s book, however, it is the Congressman who is killed, and the Federal Jewish District of Sikta, Alaska, is born. The looming shadow throughout the entire book, however, is Reversion. That is, at the end of 2007, the Sitka District, a federal district within the state of Alaska, reverts back to ownership by the state. As the story starts, Reversion is merely two months away.

For new writers—and not a few old ones—the directive has always been to write what you know. For a place that never existed, Jewish Alaska comes alive like a tourist brochure, complete with the cold, constant rain, and the salty smell of the surf mingled with cabbage. One of the first things a reader notices is the tense. Chabon used the present tense. That little nuance is one of the major aspects that helps to bring all the characters and this non-existent city to life. Had the author used the past tense like so many others do, the idea that Jewish Alaska could actually exist would be more difficult. Just like a reader who opens a book of ancient history, the past tense would have relegated Sitka to the past. Maybe it existing, maybe it could have existed, but not really. The present tense verbs (and flashbacks in the past tense), reinforces in the reader’s mind, with each passing sentence, the possibility that the Sitka District is real. Better go check the atlas or the internet just to be sure.

Chabon sets this story in 2007, the present day (it was the present day when I read this book the first time back in 2007). While echoing Chandler and other great mystery writers from the Golden Age, Chabon puts his characters in the 21st Century. Sure, the good folks of the District might speak Yiddish, but they have the internet, cell phones, and 24/7 cable news. They also have murder, conspiracy, terrorist, and a bureaucracy that can make James Ellroy’s LAPD proud.

The reader experiences Sitka through the eyes of Meyer Landsman, a down and out homicide detective (is there any other kind?) whose only true friend seems to be the bottle. Chabon is a fan of the stories of both Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe. The Holmes stories endure because of the atmosphere. We want to return to the late Victorian era London time and time again. Despite the protestations of my science fiction book club who said that this story didn’t have as much Alaska-ness to it, I got the definite sense of atmosphere to Jewish Sitka. From Marlowe, nearly a quintessential 20th Century example of a hardboiled detective, Chabon fashioned Landsman, almost Marlowe’s Jewish cousin. How both inspirations work together is fascinating to watch and read and the pages go by.

Like any good hardboiled detective novel, a murder is what sets this story going. One of the fellow residents in the down and out hotel (is there any other kind?) Landsman lives in turns up dead. The superintendent, knowing Landsman is a policeman, asks the shamus to have a look. Naturally, Landsman gets himself on the official case and wants to investigate the shooting. But, with Reversion on the horizon, his superior officer—who just happens to be his ex-wife—wants to close out all outstanding cases and doesn’t want to open a new one. Landsman objects, and begins conducting his own, unauthorized investigation, and it is here where we get the tour of the world of Jewish Alaska. We get glimpses of how the Jews interact with the Native Americans in the area, how all the sub-groups within Sitka interact or have power over each other, and how the Jews see themselves within the broader world. Utterly fascinating stuff. 

Now, the novel is not without its faults. Sometimes the plot plods along in fits and starts, lurching in one direction while stopping in other spots. But what carries it all along is Chabon’s prose. It is magnificent, magical, lyrical, and, as one of my fellow book club members said last night, remarkable how the author crafts interesting words into sentences and paragraphs heretofore unknown in the English language. Having been the only one of us four to have previously read Chabon (this counts as my third Chabon book this year), all of them are looking forward to reading more, despite their issues with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Having re-read this book, I can again attest to the joy I always have when I read a Michael Chabon novel.

*If you know of other alternate history mysteries, please let me know.


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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review Club: The Wrecker by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

(This is the October 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the icon following this review.)

The adventures of Isaac Bell came to me in a rather serendipitous way. On the one hand, I was in a grocery store last year and I saw a book on the shelf and admired the cover. The cover of The Race showed two planes, clearly early 20th Century vintage, engaged in a dogfight over a city. The image got me for numerous reasons, but, since the To Be Read pile is so large, I basically forgot about it. Cut to New Year’s Day 2012 when my cousin, an avid railroad enthusiast, told me about "this series about a detective who operates on railroads." Cool, I said, seeing as how I had created my own railroad detective and didn’t want to copy anyone else, what’s the title? The Chase by Clive Cussler. Well, image my wonder when, upon looking up The Chase, I discovered That Cover I had forgotten about. And, thus, I found my way not only to Clive Cussler (and Justin Scott, his co-author) but also to Detective Isaac Bell.

I read The Chase earlier this year and was completely entertained. The Wrecker maintains the excitement, the intrigue, and the chess-like machinations of the hero and the villain. The hero is Isaac Bell, a detective of the Van Dorn Detective agency. A tall man with blond hair and mustache, he is the imperturbable, stoic hero of many a story you've read before. What sets him apart isn't his good looks, skill with a gun, nor his hand-to-hand ability. It's that Bell actually gets beat up, dirty, and flummoxed throughout both books I've read so far. He's a bit like John McClain from Die Hard. He may win, but it'll exact a price.

The title character of The Wrecker is the villain. That nickname is the moniker given to the man blowing up various railroads of the Southern Pacific railway in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon, all in an attempt to bankrupt the company. The president of the railway hires the Van Dorn Detective Agency to stop it. Set in 1907, what follows is a wonderful cat-and-mouse game between Bell and the Wrecker.

By giving his villain a nickname, Cussler is able to hide the true identity of the Wrecker for more than half the book. Interestingly, once the identity is revealed, Cussler actually fluctuates between the actual name and the nickname. I found that a little odd. What really sets this book apart from your general thriller is the timeframe. The year 1907 is just modern and technological enough where you have the beginnings of automobiles, phones, and planes. At the same time, it's old enough to where railroads and telegraph are the primary means of transportation and communication. What this mix does for a reader in 2012 is build in some interesting tension. If a hero in 2012 needs to travel across the country from Oregon to New York, it's a plane ride of a few hours. Need to contact some allies across the country? Use the cell phone. Detective Bell can't do that. A trip across the continent takes days. At one point, he needs to contact associates in Oregon while he's in Los Angeles. With the telegraph lines cut, there is only one way to communicate information: in person. That means, take the train. All of this builds tension and the excitement increases.

I've only read three Cussler books, two in the last few months. They are so well choreographed that they just sweep you along. The history is always fascinating and the detail is accurate. If you are tired of the modern techno-thriller, try a historical thriller featuring Isaac Bell. Very good read.
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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Twenty Five Years

Twenty five. I'm such a fan of the band Chicago that, when I hear that number, I automatically say "or six to four." But that's not on my mind this weekend. You see, I'm in Austin, Texas, participating in Longhorn Alumni Band. And, for me, it's been an even twenty-five years since I first stepped foot on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin as a freshman.

Of all the time on the 40 Acres, my time in band shines brightest. It was in this group that I made solid friends, worked together for a common goal, got to play my sax all the time, and, yes, attend football games for free. Well, I had to work the game, but I never had to buy a ticket. 

It's been a dozen years since I last attended an alumni band weekend. The city has changed quite a bit in that span. For those of you who don't know what alumni band is, it's exactly like you think it sounds. We graduates from Longhorn Band return one home game a year to play our horns (or wave the flags), march up and down the field, and generally relive our college years in the span of a single day. It's fantastic and today, as I walked up to the band hall today, seeing those giant doors open, the sounds of conversation, laughter, and horns mingling together, the emotions swirling inside of me, I chided myself for not attending more. 

What got me here this weekend was a combination of two things. One, the obvious: it's been twenty-five years since I started in band. The quarter century mark is a good time to take stock. Most people mark their 25th birthday as a milestone. It is important, but I contend that 25 years after you graduate from high school is a bigger milestone. At age 25, you will have only been our of your parents' house for, at most, seven years. Throw in college and, chances are, you've only been on your own by age 25 roughly three years. 

Marking the anniversary of the 25th year since you left home is a more reasonable milestone. In this quarter century, I've had the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree. I've married a beautiful, intelligent woman, and we have a son. I've established a career for myself, and had a good time. Sure there were some ups and downs, but that's life. I regret none of the life experiences I've had, and I certainly don't regret the time I had with Longhorn Band. So it was that sentiment that pulled me here this weekend.

The other thing was the death of one of my fellow band members this past summer. Like me, this was his 25th summer since he graduated high school. Chris was one of the sax players with whom I joined band in the fall of 1987, and we experienced band life together. As can happen when folks move apart, it had been years since I spoke with Chris, but news of his passing struck me. As much as I claim that I've never grown up, that I'm an adult kid, the simple fact is that I *am* aging. I don't dwell on that fact because each day is a blessing of life, but those blessings add up. I live life with exuberance, relish, and a firm reality that each day that I wake up is a gift from God. Chris's death reminded me that I'm getting older and that I ought to do the things I want to do when I can because a day might arrive that I'm unable to do that which I want.

And, so, I'm marching tomorrow. It will commemorate my 25th anniversary of my first march to Memorial Stadium. I adore seeing all my fellow bandmates and sharing stories. I enjoy seeing the children of my friends as they stare at their parent(s) acting all goofy because, for one weekend a year, we can go back in time. And tomorrow, when we march on that field, with the stands full of Longhorn fans, I am going to cherish that particular joy I always got when I performed with the Longhorn Band. I will also say a prayer for Chris, as well, remembering how he looked as we marched together twenty five years ago. We miss you, and we'll never forget you. 

Hook 'em Horns!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review Club: Redshirts by John Scalzi

(This is the September 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list of other reviews, click the link at the end of this review.)

You need only know two things to sum up my thoughts on Redshirts by John Scalzi: while listening to the book, I laughed out loud and I cried. I don't often cry when reading books. The last time was the seventh Harry Potter book, but I expected to when I cracked that book. When I cued up the audiobook of Redshirts, I didn't even see it coming, which is, to be honest, better. So, if you want to stop reading this review right now, go ahead. If you want more details, read on.

Redshirts is John Scalzi's parody/love letter to Star Trek. After a funny yet unexpected prologue, the novel introduces Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the starship Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. (Think Enterprise) Dahl and his new group of friends start to get accustomed to their new duties and lives aboard the Intrepid but the seasoned crew members all act weird. It soon becomes apparent that the members of the Away Missions (off the ship for you non-Trekkies) always seem to face some heretofore alien presence. Said alien almost always inflicts bodily injury or death to a member of the away team, yet the senior command staff never suffer any harm. It's as if the lower staff members are jinxed to die if they go on the missions.

To put this in context of Star Trek, let me explain. In just about every single episode, Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, Doctor McCoy, and some member of the the crew, nameless until the first commercial break, wearing a red shirt, perishes. For the rest of the episode, the lead characters emote over the death, emerge victorious by the end, and live to trek on another day. If you ever wondered what it was like to be a member of the Enterprise crew who didn't have a job on the bridge, this is your book.

Where Scalzi provides the bulk of his humor, early on, is in the myriad ways the crew employ to avoid going on an away mission. Naturally, Dahl gets himself assigned to one and, while he is injured quite badly, he survives. The other crew member does not. As a long-time fan of Trek, I was laughing at all the obvious references to actions done in a 1960s-era television show for dramatic purposes and what really might have happened were all this stuff real. Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, provides the narration with just enough snark to truly bring out the best in Scalzi's prose. He reads the boisterous captain's lines with gusto, the science officer's lines with calm precision, and the rest of Dahl's friends with skepticism that borders on incredulity.

Now, the story turns on a plot device that I loved. In fact, as a seasoned crew member gathers Dahl and his friends to explain his theory as to why all these occur on Away Missions, I had a thought: what if Scalzi did This Thing? Well, cool as it is, he did. I will not give it away here because I want you to be surprised.

The full title of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. In short, these are three epilogues that resolve some of the more human aspects of the story and, for me, these are what gave this book its emotional depth. In the final two codas, I was listening while doing something else which is one of the best reasons to listen to audiobooks. As the second coda wound down, I paused and felt the tears sting my eyes. You know, I thought, if that coda got me this way, I knew I was in for it as soon as I learned the subject of the final coda. I had to get up and walk away from everyone as I listened to the last coda. It got me, and it got me good. It got me so good, in fact, that, later that day, I could barely get through a retelling of the story to my wife without breaking down. Not sure she's ever seen me that way over a book.

You know what? I haven't seen myself that way, either. I loved this book, both for the laughter and the tears. It moved me, and isn't that what a great story is supposed to do?


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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review: Brionne by Louis L'amour

I finished my first Louis L'amour novel last week, Brionne. My grandfather and father both read lots and lots of westerns, my granddad especially. In fact, I think the only thing he read was westerns with the occasional Perry Mason or Ellery Queen mystery. Most of my granddad's L'amour books are at my dad's house, but I've got a few. I can't say for sure why I felt the urge to read one of these books, but I'm glad I did.

Brionne is the story of Major James Brionne, a man who works for President Ulysses Grant. He's away the night the Allard brothers show up at his house with his wife and son alone. Brionne brought Dave Allard to trial and the guilty man swore that his kin would take vengeance on the lawman. That vengeance comes with a terrible price. Mat, the son, is told to hide by his mother, Anne. This stoic woman  defends her home defiantly and, seeing as there's no escape for her, takes her own life. Cotton Allard, Dave's brother, seeing his vengeance taken from him is angry, but impressed. Nonetheless, Cotten sets fire the Brionne home. Mat escapes and evades capture and Brionne finds him the next day.

Seeking a new opportunity for his son and himself, Brionne turns down President Grant's offer of employment and set out west with his boy. Traveling by train, Brionne is always keeping his eye towards his back, always fearing that Cotton or some member of his gang is tracking him. Along the way, Brionne meets some folks on the train, and through the shared comradeship of fighting a grassfire, the group comes together, including Miranda, a young woman after a lost silver mine.

This 1968 novel is brisk at only 151 pages. As such, the narrative never lags, but neither does the tension. I found myself, over the course of a few nights, eager to return to this book. It's clear, early on, that Brionne and his boy are being followed. Not giving anything away here. What kind of western would you have without the big finale? And, naturally, all the characters end up in roughly the same place. Again, not rocket science here. But it is good, effective storytelling.

L'amour's style is clean, straightforward, and without flair. What comes across is his narrative voice. This book reads like an old cowboy is telling the story. For example:

    There was something about such emergencies that lasted, Brionne thought. No matter what happened to them afterwards, the men on this train would never be strangers to each other again. They had something in common and there was now a warmth between them, a knowledge of readiness to rise to an emergency, and each one of them felt better within himself for this victory they had won together.

L'amour filters much of his narrative with the questions that Brionne--and, by extent, the reader--must answer. It's helpful, of course, but it's also an effective way to keep the momentum of the story going along. There are few chapters that end with cliffhangers, but more than a few that end on a question.

The best thing about reading and enjoying my first Louis L'amour western is the happy knowledge that there are over a hundred more novels to read. I'm looking forward to the journey.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The School Year as a New Beginning


A new school year, even if you are not in school, is an opportunity for a new beginning. In some ways, it’s like a second New Year’s Day. You can’t really escape its influence either. Walk into any store nowadays and you will see sales on school supplies, clothes, and all the other stuff kids need to attend school in 2012. As a person blessed with a school-aged child, it’s truly an exciting time.

One of my passions in life is music, both listening and playing. Last night was the first rehearsal for my church orchestra. We call it an orchestra but, aside from the violins, it’s basically a band, so there’s a particular “band-ness” associated with everyone. It’s a feeling and an attitude that I’ve experienced since the fall of 1980 (!) when, in sixth grade, I first picked up my saxophone to learn how to play it. You can watch the “American Pie” movies and chuckle at the “band camp” references but, like every sub-group in the world, there are certain attitudes and outlooks when you are a band member. And you can call us band geeks, band nerds, or whatever, but we really don’t care. The comradeship of bandmanship is a thing unto itself and I love it.

While it was great seeing everyone again for the first time since early June and asking about the summer activities and such, that rehearsal was marked by an absence. One of the most funny, most friendly members of our group passed away in June. Doug was a trombone player—and all band folk can fill in the blanks on that—and he was one of the guys who always made rehearsals fun. He was also in our big band, playing bass trombone and boy did he talk the talk, that special jazz talk spoken only by folks who have been playing jazz for a lifetime. He sat right behind me in the jazz band, his notes and playing helping me keep the beat. 

Many of us played at Doug’s funeral in June. Our director was out of town and, through our small network, we were able to arrive on time, rehearse, and then perform in Doug’s honor. It was a moving time, that morning in June, and we’ve heard nothing but praise from Doug’s family and friends. 

Life, like music, keeps going on and on. We all know that, we all live our days with that intrinsic knowledge. But as rehearsal finished last night and the director specifically addressed Doug’s absence, he opened up the floor for anyone to speak. Sitting across the room from the trombones, I had known that Doug wasn’t there the entire rehearsal. But, at that moment, the memories hit me, moved me, helped me remember just what a precious thing life is.

Every day is not a guarantee to be a good day, but it is a guaranteed day. And this new school year, even if you are not involved in school at all, is a great time to pull out that list of New Year’s resolutions and see where you stand. If you’ve faltered a bit, make a renewed commitment to finish one by 31 December 2012. It can’t hurt, and it will likely make the rest of your year rewarding.

Me? My resolution of one thing still stands. I’m not there yet, but I’m aiming for it, and I’m letting this new school year act as a new beginning for the home stretch of 2012.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Simplicity of Travel

In an ironic bit of serendipity, my fellow author, Joelle Charbonneau, wrote about the increasing difficultly in unplugging when traveling on vacation. I, too, had that topic in the hopper as a topic worthy of discussion, but hadn't got around to it until now.

A little over a week ago, my family and I took a little vacation to Camp Wood, Texas, a small (768!) town about 2 hours west of San Antonio along the Neuces River canyon. We wanted to cap off the summer and get us ready for the new school year. As a reader, one of my favorite things to do is decide what reading material I'll bring. In the past, in order to have on hand any book that I *might* want to read given the destination--I'm one of those weird folk who tailors his reading to the vacation location--I'd be hamstrung with bringing a backpack full of things. I'm not kidding here. We'd have the suitcases, the carry on bags, and then there'd be the "book bag." The wife was puzzled. I'd shrug my shoulders.

With my Nook and the iPad, that bag full of books now became two slim electronic devices. Couple my composition book (the marbled-looking kind) and my bluetooth keyboard (to link with the iPad), my reading and writing material was wonderfully self-contained. I could have packed them in the suitcase, but opted for a backpack that was basically not needed. And, because I simply cannot go on a vacation without at least one physical book of some sort, literally on the way out the door, I grabbed my copy of Merle Miller's Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry Truman.

While my wife and I have cell phones, they are not smart phones. Yes, I'd love to have an iPhone, but, as of now, I don't have one. The only place in Camp Wood that has wifi was the public library, but, since I had no reason to go there, and since the hours were not a regular 8-5, I knew going in that I would not have internet access. The little house in which we stayed had DirectTV but we were blessedly away for the evening national news most days. We would glance at the local 10pm news out of San Antonio so we knew basically what was going on, but we weren't real worried about stuff. It was a vacation, after all.

Now, Joelle is a published author while I am, to date, not, so, understandably, she has many more deadlines that I have. The ones I have are all internal, on my own clock. It's a tad easier for me to just unplug. Going into past vacations pre-iPad, I never took my laptop, even as I was writing my first book. I'd always take the comp book and "unplug" from the electronic devices, too. I gave in with the iPad/keyboard combo and it wasn't bad at all.

What was great about the trip, what was simple, was that "my stack" of stuff consisted of the iPad, the Nook, the keyboard that I keep in its original box, and the Truman biography. Stacked together, they measured less than six inches tall. Everything that I brought occupied a nice, small, compact space. I didn't have my shelves of books I have here at the house with their spines staring down at me, calling me like sirens. I didn't have the other long boxes of comics doing the same thing. I didn't have the internet to use to chase some odd tidbit down a rabbit hole (still my biggest time waster). I had only that which I wanted to read and two modes of creating text.

And that's all I really needed. It was such a simple few days. I rose early like I always do, put on the coffee, and read the Truman biography for about an hour. Miller's book is basically a bunch of transcripts of his interviews with President Truman and his associates conducted in 1962 for a television show that was never made. If you've always heard about Truman's outlook on the world and his particular way of saying things, you should give this book a read. In our digital age, I'd love for those actual tapes to be digitized and made available. After an hour or so with Truman, I'd fire up the iPad/keyboard and bust out an hour's worth of whatever before the rest of the family began to stir. It was so simple.

Then we returned home, with all the shelves, the comic boxes, the internet, all of them begging to slice away just a little of our day. I'm not saying that I want to rid myself of my stuff, but there's a nice simplicity when you travel and you end up taking that which you need. When I pared down my actual reading needs for those few days, all the clutter here at the house seems, well, too much. I've still spent my mornings with Truman and I've finished the novel (the three novella Derek Storm story by "Richard Castle") I started in Camp Wood, but I still see all the things I *could* be reading when I sit in my library and read something. I do tune them out, but they still stare at me.

That's why I like vacations and the simplicity of travel. It's a chance to par things down to the essentials and, upon returning home, gives you a chance to reevaluate some of the things that might be cluttering up your life, be they digital or physical.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review Club: The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

(This is the June 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon following this review.)

When summer rolls around, my reading habits, just like the style of movies released in theaters, change. Where the autumn and winter brings dense novels filled with allegory and nuance, the sunny days of summer demand more straight-forward, action-packed stories. For example, my two current fiction reads are Captain Blood and The Chase, the first historical Isaac Bell adventure by Clive Cussler.

The exception to this rule is history. Ever year, as my brain is basically blazing through adventure after adventure, I also look for the Big Book of History. Typically, I crack a thick biography of a president. In past years, I've read two David McCullough tomes (Truman, John Adams) and Robert Caro's Master of the Senate. It's a testament to the writing style of modern historical writers that these biographies, filled with stories I already know the ending to, read like novels. Dusty, dry, boring works these are not. They are engaging, insightful, and, heck, have a little bit of learning thrown in.

Imagine my happiness when my penchant for presidential biographical reading happened upon the new book by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity. Not only do you get one president, you get thirteen! The authors recount how, in the past sixty years, sitting presidents have asked for help from their predecessors. Naturally, and not surprisingly, it started with Harry Truman.

When he inherited the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt died, Truman was woefully under-informed on the demands of the office. His natural instincts and decisiveness enabled the man from Independence to maintain the country through the end of the war, but it was in the post-war world when he needed some help. A hunger crisis threatened Europe and, with it, a growing concern that the influence of Communist Russia would sweep through the battered continent. As partisan as Truman could be, he also knew that there was one man who not only knew what it was like to sit in the president's chair, but also grew to international fame as a humanitarian as he spearheaded the various hunger crises throughout Europe during World War I. It was this expertise Truman needed in 1946 and Hoover obliged.

With this bi-partisan union, the modern Presidents Club was born. Gibbs and Duffy, both of whom work for Time Magazine (she as the Executive Editor, he as the Washington Bureau Chief), bring all their gifts of journalistic writing to the exciting tale of this behind-the-scenes stories of the former presidents and what they've done on the public stage after they turned over the reigns of power. Along the way, they deliver a history of the past sixty  year through a unique prism. I know the general history of this era pretty well, but even I learned some great stuff.

  • For all of the help Hoover gave to Truman, Eisenhower was such a towering figure coming into the presidency that he felt no compunction to see the assistance of the former presidents.
  • Speaking of Eisenhower, I didn't realize how his influence extended to his two Democratic successors. JFK and LBJ both reached out to the former Republican president for his insight into the world situation and went out of their way to be seen conversing with Ike.
  • Ford and Carter didn't care for each other very much, but one thing linked them: their dislike of Nixon. But it wasn't until President Reagan sent all of his living predecessors (Nixon, Ford, Carter) to the funeral of the slain Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, that the two men were able to, without Nixon's presence (he stayed behind), bury the hatchet on the long plane ride back to America.
  • When George H. W. Bush lost in 1992, he was understandably bitter. The book details how he and Clinton ultimately reconciled and how the two men grew to respect and have genuine affection for each other.
  • Of all the scenes, however, for which I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall so that I could merely watch what unfolded, it has to be the one where Clinton gets lessons in how to salute the military officials from Reagan. Think about it and let it sink in.

There are so many little stories in this book that it makes for some highly entertaining reading. If anyone saw the congeniality last week when President Obama welcomed back George W. Bush for the unveiling of the former president's official portrait and were curious about all the smiles and laughter between the two men, I urge you to read this book and learn the secrets behind the Presidents Club. You will be surprised and you just might change your impressions on some of the men who have served as our presidents. I know I did.




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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Book Review Club: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez

(This is the May 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click the link following this review.)

I've been reading a lot of fun books during the early part of 2012. After a wonderfully engrossing reading of Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny, I charged into the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs with my SF book club. After a brief stop with Michael Chabon, I ended up with an author I've been wanting to read for two years now and, finally, came around to: A. Lee Martinez.

Martinez is a fellow Texan who clearly is inspired by all the over-the-top, fun SF and fantasy stories from the past. I'm thinking the John Carter stories, the Tarzan stories, as well as space opera that populated readers' imagination from Flash Gordon to Star Wars. I hesitate to use the word "fun"--a word often ascribed to Martinez's writings--but the word fits. The issue I have with "fun" is that other words are not far behind: light, humorous, cheesy, forgettable. Those other words do not really apply here, but "fun" really does.

Emperor Mollusk vs. the Sinister Brain is Martinez's latest novel and the one I read. First off, let's look at the title. That set of words conjures a 1950-era B movie, doesn't it? If that is the type of story you imagined, you are not far off the mark. In this universe, all nine planets of our solar system--yes, Pluto is a planet, thank you very much--are inhabited, including a few of the moons. Mollusk is a Neptunan who, being the scientific genius he is, set about to conquer the entire system. This he has done at some undefined time in the past and, as such, is now the "retired" Warlord of Terra. (Love the Burroughs reference there.) Bored in his retirement, he is almost happy when a group of assassins try to kill him.

Together with his "protector,"the Venusian lizard-warrioress, Zala, Mollusk must travel this unique universe to uncover who is behind the attempt and who just might want the former Warlord dead. Granted, the list is long and multifaceted: the Saturans (he nearly destroyed their planet); the Venusians, the Lunar folk, etc. The Terrans are a much more docile group, having had a brainwashing agent injected in the drinking water.

What makes this book so dang fun is old school plotting--it's a travelogue type of story where Zala, the reader's stand-in, gets to see the solar system the way Mollusk does. Moreover, this is pulp SF in the grand, old style: ray guns, amazing aliens and creatures, and over-the-top action. The throwaway lines are another fun aspect of this book. Martinez will just dash off some line--like the Gorilla Hitler, and how Mollusk defeated him--and keep moving. More than once, I burst out laughing.

The novel is written in first person, with Mollusk the narrator. Now, you'd think that this would be a problem, but, in fact, it isn't. He holds back on Zala, who is duty-bound to protect him, and, thus, the reader as well. I kept thinking that this is how a Sherlock Holmes novel would be if Holmes himself was the narrator.

I listened to the audio version, and it is hilarious. Read by Scott Aiello in a bored British accent, Mollusk comes alive with his churlishnes, wit, and, at times, bravado. Aiello livens the rest of the characters in such a way that I wondered if listening to Martinez books might be the way to go. (Sidenote: I immediately jumped to The Automatic Detective, another Martinez book, and firmly believe audio is the way.)

Lest you think this only a tale of battles and narrow escapes, there's some depth to this story, too, as long as you allow yourself to see it. Over and over, while Mollusk and Zala chase leads and escape the bad guys, that have a running discussion about life, honor, duty, and individual [human] nature. The actions Mollusk takes he takes because that is in his nature. He cannot sidestep that which he is basically predestined to do. Same for his enemies, even when the logical course of action would be something different. It's a fascinating dialogue, but, if you don't want to dig too deep, just revel in the ray guns.

Summer's coming and all those beach books will be hitting the shelves. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up, too. It's well worth your time, and it might even help you if you encounter the Comet Monster, Gorilla Hitler, or a disembodied brain.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book Review Club: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

(This is the April 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon following this review.)

For the past two months or so, I’ve been in an adventurous mood, reading-wise. Starting with the lead-up to the John Carter movie, I read (or, in some cases re-read) the first five books of the eleven-book series. As much fun as the Edgar Rice Burroughs books are, I decided to give myself a little break.

Taking a cue from one of the film’s co-writers, I segued over to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. Known for his literary, whimsical writing style, this short novel is his homage to adventure tales and swashbuckling stories of the past. He name drops Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Alexander Dumas, and George MacDonald Fraser as inspirations. Chabon’s story follows two partners in the 10th Century Caucasus Mountain region and their exploits along their circuitous journey.

Zelikman, a physician, is a "scarecrow" whose blond locks frame his thin, sallow face. His partner, Amram, is a giant African who towers over all he surveys and wields a battle-ax with the colorful name of Mother-Defiler. They are partners, they are thieves, and they have been known to swindle folks with their charades and rouses, all as a part of their shiftless wanderings.

As the story opens, their latest charade proved profitable in coin, but not in baggage. An old, one-eyed Persian saw through the act and has made the gentlemen of the road an outrageously lucrative offer: escort Filak, a young prince of the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, back to reclaim the throne taken by murder and expulsion. No sooner has the Persian made the offer than he is punctured by an arrow. The townspeople, now made aware of the scam perpetrated by the pair, chase Zelikman and Amram out of town. Unbeknownst to the pair, Filak has escaped with them.

Now, as charge of the young lad, the partners must make a decision: leave the stripling to his own affairs or return him to his kingdom. The choice proves challenging when they learn that the usurper, Buljan, is out to kill Filak. Knowing in their souls that they cannot abandon the young prince, Zelikman and Amram turn their faces to the treacherous task ahead: restore the young man to his throne.

Gentlemen of the Road is an interesting book, especially when placed in the bibliography of Chabon's work. A devotee of genre-based fiction growing up, Chabon grew to fame as a literary writer. With his 2001 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which took home the Pulitzer Prize, Chabon opened reveled in his love of genre. Gentlemen of the Road, along with his alternate history/mystery, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, are part of a string of tales in which Chabon writes the stories he used to love--and still does--to read.

Chabon has gone on record as lamenting how genre stories—-what, with their focus on simple things like, you know, plot and fun—-often get ostracized when compared to the more staid, “important” field of literary fiction. One of the obvious differences is writing style. When you pick up a Chandler detective novel or an Asimov space opera, you know very quickly what you are reading. In the same manner, if you pick up a literary novel, the word choice alone will indicate the type of book. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is a distinct difference.

One of the joys of literary writing is being able to luxuriate in the language, the word choice, the mere structure of the paragraphs. Reading a good story is a blast. Reading a good story told well is intoxicating.

But what about those books where the lines are blurred? Gentlemen of the Road has some action, sword fights, and other fun set pieces. Were this novel written by another person, the style and manner of telling would be quite different. But Chabon is the writer and, as such, you have a man whose natural tendency towards “literary” writing is actually crafting an action tale. Does it work?

For me, yes, partially. When the characters talk, they talk in the high style typical of a Chabon work or, to be honest, like Burroughs. Not necessarily all “thees” and “thous” but speech with flourish. Chabon’s style works great for this. Some of the action scenes, however, tend not to have the immediacy of a more dedicated genre writer. Where someone like Hammett would revert to shorter sentences to punch you in the gut with the visceral action, Chabon maintains his whimsical style. The language is still pretty, but the action is a bit hazy.

The characters themselves, Zelikman and Amram, are realistic, magical, and fantastical, all at the same time. While I have not (yet) read any of the Fritz Lieber Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, I suspect that Lieber's mismatched pair of heroes was a direct inspiration for Chabon. Zelikman's melancholy and longing to return to his homeland is contrasted well with Amram's adventurous spirit that is also darkened by a tragic past. These two men are fast friends and they have a genuine care for one another.

Where my re-reading of Burroughs' Martian tales has swept up the nostalgic feelings I had when I was ten, Gentlemen of the Road satisfies another aspect of myself. It enables the adult reader to relish is a good story told well, but in a style that befits an adult reader. Kids and teenagers can enjoy this novel, but the adult, especially the adult that has seen many sunrises and moonfalls, will likely find a kindred spirit in one of these two men, what with their longing for their past as well as the keen desire to know what is over the next hill. It is my fervent hope that Chabon brings these two adventurers back for another adventure.




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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Debut Albums

In honor of the 50th (!) anniversary of Bob Dylan's debut album, NPR Music has a list of 50 debut albums that failed to light a fire with the public. This is a list of artists who needed more than one record to become the musician(s) we know today. I would add Genesis, Amy Grant, Billy Joel, Chris Botti, and Peter Gabriel to that list.

But what about the artists who nailed it the first time out? Here are a few that strike me as having it all down on that first album.

Chicago Transit Authority (1969)

It might come as no surprise to anyone that my very favorite Chicago song is "Introduction," which is track 1 on side 1 of this debut double LP. Everything that Chicago had become in the bars around the midwest was present at the creation. Killer horn licks, smoldering guitar solo, and Terry Kath's vocals waiting over it all. It goes on from there. This is the album from which two concert staples emerged: "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It It?" and "Beginnings" Throw in "Questions 67 & 68," the Steve Winwood cover "I'm a Man," the underrated "Poem 58," the anti-war song "Someday," and the 14-minute "Liberation," this album pretty much told you all you needed to know about this band. Sure, they'd hone their artistic direction with Chicago II, their songwriting skills with Chicago V, and, yes, their pop sensibilities with Chicago 17, but all the elements were there on album #1.

KISS (1973)

While technically 1975's KISS: Alive! is the album that vaulted the foursome from concert oddity to stardom, all the basic elements can be heard on this debut. At least half of the album's 10 songs are still played regularly (Deuce, Cold Gin, Strutter, Nothin' to Lose, Firehouse, 100,000 Years) and that, in itself, should show you the heft of this album. Yes, the live versions of these songs are heavier and more propulsive, but the template was there on that first album.

Sting - Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)

You might call this a cheat since Mr. Sumner already had a debut with The Police back in 1978. But Sting's first solo album deserves separate mention. In nearly all ways, you'd be hard pressed to compare Outlandos d'Amour and Blue Turtles and say that the same brain made this music. Jazz rules on Blue Turtles and, if I'm being honest, I'd have to say that this album helped solidify the joy of jazz in my head. There was a time, there, when I stopped listening to my Police cassettes precisely because it was so unlike Blue Turtles. I have always been more of a Sting fan rather than a Police fan and it was Dream of the Blue Turtles that did it.


What are your favorite debut albums where the artist got it right from the start? Or other artists who needed a few albums to come into their own?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Defense of "John Carter"


“John Carter” is a very good film, not as bad as many critics have said, provided you know one thing: How To Have Fun.

To understand this essay, you have to understand where I come from and the type of viewer and reader I am. “A Princess of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Mars book—first book period (!)—and the basis for the new movie, is one of the very few things that can literally transport me back to that glorious time in my life in the late 70s halo of those immediate post-Star Wars years where I learned about science fiction. While I cannot say with certainty that the John Carter books were my first literary SF, they were among the first. I re-read “Princess” a couple of years ago and found that the tale still held sway over my imagination despite my more adult observations on the technical proficiency of ERB’s writing style. In preparation for the new movie, my SF book club agreed to read the first two novels of the series (the second being The Gods of Mars), watch the movie, and then retire to a nearby restaurant and discuss.

As to the type of reader and viewer I am, let’s just say that I thoroughly enjoy being entertained. When it comes to TV cop shows, I can enjoy “The Wire” and “CSI: Miami” for what each of them are. CSI: Miami will never win over critics the way The Wire has, but I often have more fun with Horatio Caine and company versus McNulty and his pals. I was completely engrossed by “The Dark Knight” back in 2008 but also really dug the animated “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” released the same year. For another example, I am a proud member of the Star Wars Generation, a kid when it was released. As an adult, I was jazzed to see the new movies, yet left the theater after Episode I and Episode II having to justify many aspects of those movies. Of the six Star Wars movies made, only one is great, one is very good, and the rest are all muddled together. All this is to say that, while I don’t often wear my critical hat every time a watch or read something, I am no drone for properties and characters and universes I enjoy.

Which brings me to John Carter. I read no spoilers ahead of time. The older I’ve gotten, the more I prefer to be surprised in the movie theater rather than a grainy YouTube video or geekboy script breakdown published somewhere on the web. I knew those in control of the subject matter, namely Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Disney, among others. Stanton’s work with Pixar is magnificent, Chabon’s novels and mastery of the English language are often sublime, and I love Disney stuff. That Chabon and Stanton grew up loving the Barsoom (i.e., Mars) books and were in charge of the story left me no worries that they would shepherd the film with loving detail. I trusted in them, and, frankly, they did not let me down.

But I am a different type of viewer than your average viewer. I knew the material. In fulfilling my obligation to my book club (read the first two novels), I became so engrossed in the characters and landscape of Burroughs’s imagination that I have, to date, completed the first four novels and am reading the fifth. I pulled my old issues of the 1970s-era John Carter comics published by Marvel and am re-reading them. I’ve even bought the new anthology edited by John Joseph Adams, Under the Moons of Mars, new stories inspired by Barsoom. Sure, the books are laced with wild coincidences, pulpy writing, and outlandish plot details. So? You could say the same about The Da Vinci Code and not a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories, too, and I liked them. A simple story told simply isn’t bad. What I wanted most to see was Burroughs’s imagination come alive on screen. And, in that, Stanton delivered more than I could ever have hoped for.

Burroughs populated his adventures with giant four-arms green fighting men (Tharks), giant ten-legged Martian “lions” (banths), giant flying crafts that “sail” the air (Barsoomian war ships), and giant, four-armed white apes. See a trend here? Burroughs’s world is over-sized, filled with wondrous creatures, fierce and noble races, vile villains, and amazing technology. The oft-used phrase “sensawonder,” an amalgamation of “sense of wonder,” permeates the very text of Burroughs’s books and comes alive in readers’ imaginations.

And they come truly to life in the new movie. The Tharks I had always pictured to be muscle-bound hulks, but in Stanton’s hands, they are aggressive yet elegant, beautiful almost. Gollem, in The Lord of the Rings, is my standard by which I measure how computer animated characters interact with human characters. The Tharks have joined him. I love the Tharks in this film! I always pictured the white apes to be vicious brutes, and in Stanton’s interpretation, they are larger and far worse than I’d thought possible. Woola, the calot, or Martian dog, was a ten-legged beast in the books with little personality other than loyalty. On screen, Woola is a joy to watch as he is both loyal and laugh-out-loud comic relief. The flying ships are large and graceful, but can pack enough firepower to destroy whole towns. Yes, they sound like ships from Star Wars: Episode I, but who cares. There are only so many ways you can make spaceships sound. I caught the reference, and then quickly moved it aside in my mind. I was having too much dang fun.

I’m very glad that Stanton and company kept the framing device. In both the book and the movie, a fictional version of Burroughs is entrusted with a manuscript written by Carter that tells of his exploits on Mars. From there, the epic of John Carter is revealed. One of my fellows thought the film should have begun with Carter waking up on Mars. I liked the back story (and the additions Stanton made, especially the ending) and considered it to give Carter a bit more emotional resonance. Where the literary Carter is a military man nearly incapable of *not* joining a fight, the film version of Carter is a qualified fighting man, buy one for whom violence has taken a toll. That still doesn’t mean it can’t be the butt of a joke. I was laughing out loud when I watched the scenes of Carter, on Earth, being captured by the Union cavalry.

For a century, certain images from the books have been stuck in the imaginations of readers. One of the dangers that a faces a film like “John Carter” boils down to this: will the filmmakers “see” the scene like the readers have seen it. From my point of view, they nailed it. More than once in the novels, Carter fights hoards of beasts, the carcasses piling up around him. Stanton got this pitch perfect. The flying ships are exotic yet real, steampunk-inspired, yet futuristic. Helium as a city is magnificent, regal, yet lived in, as befitting a dying planet. Sure, George Lucas made his Star Wars universe “lived in,”—a quality the newer films kind of lacked—but he was probably inspired by Barsoom.

The Acting

You don’t watch Star Wars for acting lessons. Ditto the Harry Potter films, the Twilight films, or any random superhero movie. True, great acting emerges, either in certain characters (Heath Ledger’s Joker), certain scenes (the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Cedric dies), over the course of a movie/series (Sean Astin’s Sam in The Lord of the Rings), and, occasionally, in a computer-generated character (Gollem, Wall E, or Anton Ego from Ratatouille). But, like a Michael Crichton novel, you often only need to let an actor say the lines that needs saying and propel the plot forward.

That doesn’t mean that the actors cannot embody their lines with life and verve. Here, however, is the tale of a man lost, a stranger in a strange world. How would *you* feel if you woke up on another planet? For me, I never saw Taylor Kitsch in anything until I saw him as John Carter. That’s a benefit for me, for I didn’t have his Friday Nights Lights character to influence how I perceived his portrayal of Carter. Ditto for Lynn Collins, the actress who plays Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars. They were tasked—burdened?—with bringing to life and personifying a century’s worth of reader imaginations, to say nothing of the scores of young men who dreamed that *they* welded Carter’s sword and rescued Dejah themselves. And they did a good job. Neither rose above the text and overpowered the film, but they were not subsumed by it either.

Of the two characters, Dejah got an update. When you read the original novels, you will note that, while Dejah did find herself in numerous instances of peril, she wasn’t some limp-wristed damsel who did nothing but scream. She helps Carter in more than one spot, paving the way for future heroines like Princess Leia and Ripley from “Alien.” In the new movie, Dejah is still a princess, but she’s also a scientist who is researching the ninth ray, the mystical ray that, could it only be harnessed, it could even the battlefield against Helium’s enemies. Oh, and she’s a great fighter, too. Oh, and she’s beautiful. The other members of my book club rolled their eyes over the fact that all three traits were rolled into one. I, frankly, had no problem with it. I like strong women. It leveled the playing field between Carter’s supernatural strength and Dejah’s brain.

The love story worked for me. As innumerable love stories on film have done, you have two opposing personalities discovering their love for each other but go to great pains to hide it. We knew, going in, that Carter would fall for Dejah. The fun in the movie, however, was how Dejah fell for Carter. Remember the movie version of The Bridges of Madison County (stay with me, here) and how Meryl Streep’s character kept stealing glances at Clint Eastwood? Same stuff here, but, for example, through the reflection of a Martian sword. Collins had her work cut out for her seeing that generations of young boys probably got quite excited when their imaginations filled in the figure of the mostly naked princess of Mars. She had to embody this famous heroine, give her brains and brawn, but also be beautiful at the same time. Pretty as she was, she won me over with her sly smiles at Carter’s fighting prowess and her growing respect, admiration, and the fact that she saw in Carter a kindred spirit. It is through her eyes that the loves manifests itself first, and it is in her heartbroken eyes we see Carter’s initial refusal to help. She did a great job. One reviewer commented that he’d like to see a movie featuring Dejah alone. While I would not go that far, I was thoroughly impressed by Collins and thought she carried more than her share of the film.

The Changes

Readers and critics could debate all day on the merits of filming all the events from A Princess of Mars. One critic who panned the film talked of Stanton’s slavish devotion to the source material. I think there is a fine line between slavishly creating something on the screen from printed material (Watchmen) or taking inspiration from a book and creating something that is, in effect, a hybrid. Readers in 1912 traveled with Carter throughout this basic travelogue of a book, having adventures along the way. In that year, the spectacle of Mars was pretty much enough to maintain interest. In 2012, we’ve sent spaceship to Mars itself, so we know the truth. We have a more sophisticated appreciation for storytelling and, frankly, expect more and different things from a movie. Stanton and Chabon, knowing this fact, reached the only logical conclusion: incorporate the best elements of the main book, throw in a few elements from the second, and make up some new stuff to satisfy the demands of the viewing public.

All in all, they succeeded. SPOILERS start here. The villains from The Gods of Mars—the Therns—are brought into this story. These immortal beings, lead by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) control the lives and events of mortal souls. They know the secret of the ninth ray on Mars—a source of great power—and give it to the human bad guy of the film (Dominic West’s Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga, the great rival of Dejah’s Helium) to help him rule. The Therns are shape-shifters, able to, in the blink of an eye, change form. Cool! This is not in the books, but it works here, and it enables Carter to do exactly what the first movie in a (potential) series needs to do: defeat the smaller bad guy but not the larger bad guy. Think about the end of the first Star Wars film: Vader lives, but the Death Star is destroyed. You know he’s going to bring back the big guns, but that’s in the next movie.

Teleportation. In the books, Carter uses astral projection to get to Mars. Here, in the movie, it’s a combination of that plus a technological component. His body remains here on Earth while a living, breathing copy of him emerges on Mars. This concept sets up the great epilogue, a point I’m not spoiling here. I really liked that it was a scientific means of getting Carter to Mars, and, by having to possess an actual artifact, gave Carter a nice MacGuffin to chase.

The Criticisms

Yes, I have some. Earlier I mentioned how Stanton and Chabon picked the best parts of the first two books and put them in this movie. It must have been a tremendously fun exercise, much like the fun Anthony Horowitz must have experienced when he penned the new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk (2011). Think about it: you get to assemble what amounts to a mix tape of your favorite scenes. The one problem I have is that they may have picked too many.

Take, for example, a hallmark of Burroughs’s tales: the arena fight. I’ve forgotten how many exist in the novels, but it’s a lot. Likely the writers knew that they wanted to include one in the film and chose a rather awkward time for it. Sure, it set up the Braveheart-like visuals of Carter splattered with blue blood, but even I kind of shifted in my seat when I realized that Carter was captured yet again. But, I quickly reminded myself of the books, where Carter and his friends always get captured. Then, of course, in the film, you get the arena scene and the giant apes. Yes, I thought of Star Wars: Episode II at the start of the scene (and Spartacus and Ben Hur and Gladiator)…and quickly put it out of my mind. Arena battles are numerous in films and mythology. There are only a few ways to do them. And the way Carter did it was thrilling. Dude, he swung a giant bolder and smashed the head of a giant white ape! Yeah!

The Voice of Barsoom. In the books, Carter learns the one language of Mars the old fashioned way: by hearing it and, bit by bit, understanding it. In the movie, there is a magical liquid that the Tharks give their young and that one of the Tharkian women in charge of Carter gives the Earthman. Lo and behold, he now speaks their language. It’s a simple and straightforward way to get all the characters speaking the same language in the blink of a scene, but it’s a little eye rolling.

There are other minor criticisms, but I’d be throwing pebbles at a boulder. Who cares, really? I had a blast with the film.

Summary

If I had to sum up my thoughts into one word, it might be “thankfulness.” I’m thankful that Stanton, Chabon, and everyone involved were devoted to making a fun, entertaining, fun, faithful, fun, and exciting movie experience. I’m thankful that they played it straight with their film, not like the cheesy Flash Gordon movie of 1980. I’m thankful that they reminded us that jaded, post-modern takes on historical or old ideas need not be the only way to update old material. I’m thankful that Stanton hired Michael Giacchino who composed a superb soundtrack that evoked not only the thrilling soundtracks of Hollywood’s days gone by with the bombast of fight scenes, but also the ethereal, otherworldly music that shines and yet lovingly caresses the actors on screen during the quieter moments. (I’m thinking of that final episode of “Lost” and the openings of “Star Trek” and “Up” where his music nearly single-handedly brought tears to my eyes. That gravitas is present here, too.) I’m thankful for Disney who put up the money to make a giant pet project that millions of readers and viewers adore, no matter the final financial outcome. I’m thankful that movies like this are still being made, movies that entertain and thrill with no other ulterior motive than that. I’m thankful that there are moments in this movie where I wanted to stand up and cheer, where chills coursed over my arms, where my jaw dropped at the sheer size of the spectacle before me, and whose closing scene had me grinning like the eleven year old that I still am when it comes to this material.

I loved this movie for what it is: the best dang movie experienced I’ve seen in a long, long time. There are formidable movies that have planted their flags and laid claim to moments in my life, from childhood to adulthood: Star Wars, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Amadeus, Back to the Future, Die Hard, Batman (1989), Dead Poet’s Society, When Harry Met Sally, The Fellowship of the Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Return of the King, Ratatouille, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. John Carter of Mars has landed with this company.

I loved this movie and I want to return to this universe. If, however, a sequel is never made, I will still cherish this film, these books, and this universe. If a movie sequel is never made, I implore Chabon and Stanton to write the novel. I want to know the next chapter in this new yet familiar story. It’s a long shot in these immediate days after the premiere, but there exists hope, and hope, according to John Carter, is enough.