Review: Another Kingdom

Despite it being a year where I’ve gone out less and stayed home more than any other year, I’m pretty far behind on this year’s Goodreads goal of 35 books.  About half of what I’ve read this year can be chalked up to Book Group Thing, my extremely technical name for the Hillsdaleian discussion group that has a video chat each month.

Normally I’m the last one finished, and have no time to spare for sharing my thoughts.  But this month’s book, Another Kingdom, by Andrew Klavan, went quickly enough and prompted enough musings that I figured I’d collect them.  Spoilers ahead, if you fear that sort of thing.

The premise of Another Kingdom is that Austin Lively, would-be scriptwriter in LA and actual script analyst, gets transported into another world by virtue of having read a certain book.  This transport happens when he passes through doorways, though not all doorways.  It somewhat resembles the Narnian wardrobe in its unexpectedness. 

Austin’s in danger in the world-through-the-book (Galiana) as well as in the ‘real’ world of LA; in Galiana, he’s accused of murder and nearly subjected to torture and execution, while in LA, he’s being pursued by a couple mysterious baddies.  He is just barely able to avoid being killed by virtue of switching worlds; he’s bathed and rested there, sewn up in a hospital here, rescued by magic there, and taught by YouTubes about swordfighting here.

As it continues, the storyline grows more coherent: Austin’s disinterested family turns out to be under the thumb of a billionaire maniac who wants to cheat death and take over the world; his black sheep sister really does appear to be on the trail of the maniac’s Evil Plan; the travel-between-worlds appears to be possible because of the queen’s magical plots. 

More importantly, as the story goes on, Austin gets somewhat less terrible.  For the first hundred pages or so, I hated him and most everyone around him; he’s self-centered, 2-dimensional, and describing other people in gross clichés.  Just listen to him:

“I followed the heartbreaking sway of her unobtainable backside across the white floor between the white tables past the diners all done up in sleek suits and spangly dresses specifically designed, it seemed, to make me feel ashamed.”

“She was full of magic yin, our Jane, and all I could think was what a shame it was, what a waste to spend that supernatural girl power on a spoiled movie star who wouldn’t even notice if her limo backed over her. A man of spirit, on the other hand, might live and die to make a girl like Jane proud and happy.”

He spends far too much time trying to convey the murderous Serafim’s androgyny, and never quite comes to terms with Maud’s appearance (despite her saving his life, guiding him, and spending enough time with him that he should really stop finding her so weird-looking).

Austin’s lucky enough to be set, briefly, against the backdrop of Sean Gunther, who loves hearing himself talk and regards women as essentially interchangeable.  This particular bit of absurdity makes it hard to regret Gunther getting shot shortly thereafter. 

I’m not quite certain I’d say Austin develops as a character.  The development happens to him: he is given the quest, given the armor and sword, led to the talisman – very much a Level 1 player who happens to get some good rolls.  The best thing you can say about him is that he keeps going. 

In the context of other books…I’ve begun rereading the Dresden Files, and Austin Lively’s descriptions of women are more cringe-inducing than Harry Dresden’s. Austin seems to be cut from the same cloth as A. Clarence Shandon, except that Galiana is not such a clear pastiche of literary settings like Silverlock’s Commonwealth is. Compared to the ladies of Spinning Silver (an earlier Book Group Thing selection that deserved a review more than this did, except I couldn’t quite summon up the wherewithal), Austin is both unskilled and passive. 

Overall, Another Kingdom started out as a two- or one-star read, but winds up at three (of five).  It takes a while to get moving and reach the part that Klavan’s really interested in: Austin when he’s developed enough to be at all believable as a hero, and when Galiana’s fleshed out enough to make a suitable backdrop. 

2019 in Books!

I’ve been trying to compose a retrospective post about 2019, despite it being three whole days into the new year, when old things are passed away and, largely, forgotten in the mists.

So whilst my mind sorts that out, I thought I’d follow a collection of prompts to tell y’all about this year’s reading.  Do share your own reading experiences as you like!!  Here’s to further work on our respective TBR piles throughout 2020.

  1. How many books did you read this year?   33!
  2. Did you reread anything? What? Curse of the Pharaohs (as I hope to continue the Amelia Peabody series, and had forgotten how this story went), As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (ditto, but re: the Flavia de Luce series), Good Omens (before watching the Amazon show’s depiction of it).
  3. What were your top five books of the year? Persuasion, A Gentleman in Moscow, The Stature of Waiting, Good Omens, and Thoughts on Creating Strong Towns.  The first 3 were beautiful, beneficial to the soul, and felt classic.  Good Omens remained hilarious, if blasphemous.  Strong Towns was so thought-provoking that I think it’s given me a bit of a paradigm shift in how I think about communities.

  4. Did you discover any new authors that you love this year? I definitely enjoyed Ted Chiang, what I’ve read of Amor Towles, and WH Vanstone.
  5. What genre did you read the most of? Mysteries – 7 of them (2 Amelia Peabody, 4 Flavia de Luce, 1 Sherlock pastiche).
  6. Was there anything you meant to read, but never got to? Oh, always.  Kristin Lavransdattir, Crazy Rich Asians, some things other friends lent me.  Still haven’t finished Benedict Option or A Gathering of Ravens.  At one point I had three copies of The Ode Less Traveled, but I had trouble on Exercise 4 so I haven’t finished the exercises therein yet.
  7. What was your average Goodreads rating? Does it seem accurate?  3.7, I guess, which sounds fair.  Just as I try not to go overboard on standing ovations, I try to save 1- or 2-star reviews for the truly terrible, and 4- or 5-star reviews for the truly edifying or life-changing.
  8. Did you meet any of your reading goals? Which ones? I read 30 books, which was my main goal.  There will always be a TBR pile, though. I tried giving up fanfiction, which would work for a month tops before I returned to old habits.
  9. Did you get into any new genres? No, I guess not, unless you count “Spanish baby books” as a genre.
  10. What was your favorite new release of the year? The only new release I read was, apparently, The Golden Tresses of the Dead.  So I guess that wins.
  11. What was your favorite book that has been out for a while, but you just now read?   The Stature of Waiting was originally published in 1982; A Month in the Country, 1980.  Oh, and Persuasion! 1818.  I’d seen the movie but hadn’t read it before.
  12. Any books that disappointed you? A Study in Sherlock.  It’s an anthology written in homage of Doyle’s canon, but several of the entries seemed to say “Look how much I’m into memorabilia and name-dropping!!” instead of “Hey, look, a well-composed story.”
  13. What were your least favorite books of the year?   Hmm.  Robinson’s Housekeeping was strange to me.  Olive Kitteridge was delicately written but so godless!  So depressing.  Bright Bazaar was a book I checked out in hopes that it could give me decorating ideas, but instead it just infuriated me – apparently bright colors are only possible for wealthy homeowners who are aggressive minimalists.  Ugh.
  14. What books do you want to finish before the year is over? I squeezed The Stature of Waiting in, and got started rereading The Buried Giant, which I haven’t finished yet.
  15. Did you read any books that were nominated for or won awards this year (Booker, Women’s Prize, National Book Award, Pulitzer, Hugo, etc.)? What did you think of them? …okay, possibly I did?  But also, who knows.  I don’t care enough to go look it up.
  16. What is the most over-hyped book you read this year? I dunno about ‘overhyped,’ but – I read 3 books by Jason Fung (The Obesity Code, The Complete Guide to Fasting, The Diabetes Code) and they could have/should have been edited down into one book.  I’m also surprised that Olive Kitteridge has been made into a show; it was so depressing that I’m not interested in learning more about the characters in it.
  17. Did any books surprise you with how good they were?   The Stature of Waiting did.  It was also surprising in terms of content – I don’t know that I’ve ever read a gloss of the Passion narrative like this.
  18. How many books did you buy? Seven, I think – 4 as gifts, 3 for me.  And I received at least 2 as gifts in return.
  19. Did you use your library? Oh, for sure.  This is part of why I’m an irresponsible reader: I check out everything that catches my eye, and then it sits and waits for me for ages.
  20. What was your most anticipated release? Did it meet your expectations?   Probably Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang?  Which.  I wanted to read it because Arrival made me cry a lot.  It was both what I expected and…not at all what I could have expected.
  21. Did you participate in or watch any booklr, booktube, or book twitter drama?  Nope.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.
  22. What’s the longest book you read? A Gentleman in Moscow, apparently – 396 pages.
  23. What’s the fastest time it took you to read a book? Probably an hour or two for a shorter book.
  24. Did you DNF anything? Why? I didn’t finish The Story of a Soul because someone else requested it from the library.  I didn’t finish Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story because it Just Wasn’t What I Expected; I honestly thought it was a story, not a philosophical enterprise.  Lastly, I checked out several Spanish children’s books in the expectation that they would suit my level of Spanish vocabulary.  Some (Nariz, Naricita; Besos for Baby; Los Sueños) were feasible; some (Cómo Esconder un León a la Abuela; El Príncipe de los Enredos; Rooster; Los Arboles Están Colgando del Cielo) were beyond me. 
  25. What reading goals do you have for next year?   To start with, I want to read at least 35 books.  I hope to read through my current library checkouts and not get out more than I can get through (even during the Summer Game)!  I want to finish The Ode Less Traveled and Studies in Words so I can, at long last, remove them from my “Currently Reading” tab.  I want to reread The Lord of the Rings.  I want to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, or at least, all those I haven’t read or watched before.

Tell me about your 2019 reading, or what you look forward to reading in 2020!

 

Pronunciation: Liszt

When I was 11, my teachers taught me to say ‘Dvorak’, ‘etude’, and ‘allargando’ to keep me from sounding like a yokel. I can tell you who my favorite pianist is, and it’s suitably obscure. I know where to find the unicorn musical direction ‘beklemmt. I know the story of the Shreveport Tosca. I can chat about modulation styles as they changed over the 19th century.  In other words, if I feel like it, I can use language to flash my in-crowd street-cred at any classical music event, anywhere. I can drop names, make inside jokes (I’m very proud of some of them) add meaningful trivia, and fight over chaconnes with the very best of them. I have a nemesis, though, something that can make me feel like I don’t and never will belong with the in crowd.

Franz Liszt

*stares into middle distance, displays hands conspicuously*

This is Franz Liszt. His name comes up from time to time.

How in Euterpe’s name should ‘Liszt’ be pronounced?

I do whatever has to be done to avoid saying Liszt. If I can’t get around it, I make a joke and get all crazy with the z. Liszzzzzzzzsst…zzzzz…st.

Time to stop all that. I met a Hungarian physicist a few weeks ago, and while we walked along a lake, he kindly, if amusedly, explained the rule.

In Hungarian, and Liszt, folks, is Hungarian,

S = shhhh, nice and harsh. As in “shit”. I’m just quoting my friend.
Z = zzzzz… they’re not total heathens.

SZ =….. sss. just s.

So go out there, and casually call him Franz ‘List’, and if anyone (hopefully your attractive date, but I can’t help you with that…) points it out, just tell them.

“Oh, in Hungarian, ‘sz’ just says ‘s’.”

A Thing Worth Doing

I must have heard the saying young. “A thing worth doing is worth doing well.” Being an average first born, full of rigid idealistic perfectionism, I thought this was an excellent saying, and strove mightily.

The trouble is, I got older, and met people who were better than me at everything. Well, no one person was better than me at everything I do. But there are better cooks. Better self-hair-do-ers. Better writers. Better violinists. Oh god. The violinists that are out there.

I was a violinist in training. I had huge aspirations. Confronted with so many violinists who were so much better than me, I quailed. I was doing a worthy thing, and I wasn’t doing it very well at all. I was solid, very solid, at a regional level. But I was at camps with internationally awesome rock star violin gods, and I lost my nerve.

A few years later, I quit. I  couldn’t play well enough to meet my own (semi-arbitrary) expectations. No matter that I had personal evidence that practice improves the situation. I didn’t have the guts to face the personal failure, so I quit.

But then I got older, had some kids, faced down the shocking levels of daily failure that motherhood brings. A lot of things worth doing weren’t getting done at all. So I started doing the worthy things halfway, half-assed, halfhearted. Sometimes, weeping.

But the worthy things are getting done. And that is better. So I say to you, a thing worth doing is worth doing badly. It’s worth doing with a tear and a sigh.

It’s worth failing.

A thing worth doing is a thing worth doing.

So yesterday, I opened my case, and apologized to my violin, and tried again. Godspeed in your journey, dear reader. Do the worthy thing.

 

Concert Review: A music school parody

Many times, in a studio class at music school, your peers are invited to comment on your performance. While this  encourages active listening and the ability to offer and receive criticism, the comments of fellow students frequently didn’t offer anything new, or that the teacher couldn’t say better. 

And mostly, you got confusion, and conflicting ideas, either contradicting your own preferences or another peer’s thoughts. My favorite peer comment, after a performance of mine: “Raise your stand. You look overly tall.” 

Perhaps your experience was better than mine; but even if it was, you can probably recall some hopeless peer comments and recognize the comedic potential for parody here. 

Last night, I went to a concert with the Seattle Chamber Music Society. I heard 4 groups of people play their hearts out, and what a wonderful job they did. It’s unsurprising; they’re all absolutely the bee’s knees, top of their game. But during the last piece, a Brahms Piano Trio with James Ehnes, my all time top favorite violinist ever… I remembered my studio classes. For your entertainment, here are some of the comments that group could have received from a room of their peers. Keep in mind, it was a spectacular performance and this is a parody. 

 

James, you’re so still Have more fun! Move around a bit!

Paul, hold stiller, your motions are distracting.

 

Guys, for real, don’t move your feet. 

I loved the way even your feet got involved when you got ready for big beats.

 

Alessio, I couldn’t hear you enough. Don’t forget you’re behind the cello. 

The piano was too loud, it covered up the cello in the tender moments.

 

Ummm like around measure 200, you nearly ran out of bow, so like, watch your bow distribution because like, Brahms? he’s like the hardest to not sound like you’re running out of breath. I mean, like, you really have to plan ahead, and like, not waste an inch? Yeah, so watch out for that. 

 

So, I didn’t love your choice of mute. Have you considered using a wooden one? I’ve found it offers a warmer tone than the rubber ones you’re using. 

 

I wondered how you’d handle the Presto non assai vs. Allegro Molto tempi. (tut) I think you played them both at exactly the same tempo. You should get together, and choose a metronome speed  and then practice with the metronome, until you have that all ironed out.

Review: Spiderman: Far From Home

[Warning: spoilers in abundance ahead!]

My friends and I went to see Spiderman: Far From Home yesterday.  The trailers showed me Peter Parker ignoring Nick Fury’s calls so he could go on a class trip and try to Make A Move on MJ; the trip involves a monstrous creature attacking various sites in Europe, while a mysterious caped fellow fights it with magical green smoke.

Thus far the trailer – but the real story and intrigue of Far From Home is a movie-within-a-movie about objective reality and how it can be framed or obscured.

Post-Endgame, post “Blip” (when half the population disappeared for 5 years, then returned as if no time had passed), Peter Parker’s hoping to take the summer off from Avenger duties so he can process his grief over Tony Stark’s death, as well as act on his crush in Venice and Paris.  Fury summons him to help fight the new threat of Elementals (“cyclones with faces,” which manifest in earth, water, air, or fire in their attacks), giving him Tony’s bequest of EDITH: a pair of glasses that grant access to an AI controlling Stark Enterprises databases and drones.  Uncertain of his place in a post-Tony world, Peter gives them to Quentin Beck, seeming fighter of Elementals from another dimension.EDITH glasses.jpg

Unfortunately, Beck is not what he seems.  As Aldrich Killian resented Tony in Iron Man III, as Adrian Toomes resented both Tony and the Department of Damage Control in Spiderman: Homecoming, so Quentin Beck and his crew of former Stark Industries

B.A.R.F

Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing: a disrespectful acronym from a disrespectful employer, I guess

employees resent Tony’s lack of appreciation for their intelligence and their labors.  Beck had developed the holographic projection technology Tony used solely for therapy, while maligning it and failing to understand or present its power and possibilities to the world.

It turns out that holographic projections can create the illusion of an “Avengers level” monster, as well as project a magical caped crusader to conquer it with green swirls of smoke.  Beck’s crew find it ridiculous that a mysterious fellow in a cape has more attention and clout than a number of scientists and engineers, but figure that they can use the power of visual illusion to craft their narrative, getting their revenge on Tony by proxy in the process: they’ll claim EDITH for their own, and kill Peter, along with any other inconvenient witnesses.

EDITH’s weaponized droids do a whole lot of damage to London before Peter is able to break them, reclaim control of EDITH, and witness Beck getting killed by a stray drone shot.  The dust settles, Peter and MJ kiss, things return to normal.

Except.

Beck died, but his crew haven’t.  They choreographed the cyclone monsters, and use footage from Beck’s final minutes to set Peter up – framed for Beck’s death and the drone attacks on London, and named on the news.  Good-bye, secret identity, and hello, trying to disseminate the truth when people believe the fake news they heard first.classmates

This is a fitting cap to all the moments throughout the film of characters trying to discern the truth: Ned telling Betty about what he saw on the news or the internet; Brad jumping to conclusions about what Peter’s up to, snapping a picture for evidence; Peter trying to communicate with Fury in a secure environment, only to be slammed into a bunch of holographic nightmares that taunt him with vertigo, MJ in danger, and Tony Stark’s desiccated corpse.

Watching these illusions and framed tales unfold as though they’re real, on a screen that can only ever show pictures, not reality: there’s something delicious about it.  Of course it is happening inside your head, dear viewer, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

One wonders how it felt to be a moviemaker working on a film wherein illusionists are crafting, choreographing, and displaying their fight scene to the world.  The filmmakers get their paycheck and whatever satisfaction comes from their creative work; what does Beck’s crew get, other than revenge and some slight satisfaction in filling a fraction of the gap Tony Stark left?  How long before the group would dissolve in in-fighting, or before they’d all pack up their scientific progress for Hollywood?

Perhaps we’ll find out in whatever Spiderman film comes next, as this group remains at large.  In the meantime, Far From Home was an interesting and amusing follow-up to Spiderman: Homecoming, and a necessary step back in scope from Endgame.  Watching it again should prove rewarding, if only to anticipate Beck’s moves (or to analyze how Fury behaves when he isn’t actually himself).  That said, the movie will probably provoke further thought than that, considering the extent to which visual and aural manipulation goes on in the external world.  The shadow of Orwellian oversight, the specter of Big Brother, and the threat of history being rewritten are familiar menaces, but no less foreboding for it.

Review: Late Night

Between Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, and the promise of late-night-TV laughter, Late Night seemed like a must-see movie for me.  Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, long-time host of a late-night show which has been on the decline for years.  Kaling plays Molly Patel, who is hired onto Katherine’s writing staff because she’s female rather than on account of her skill or experience in writing comedy.

Molly’s presence happens to bolster Katherine’s reputation at a crucial moment; however, Katherine is not able to shift gears on the show in quite the way she needs to, at least at first.  Having made a niche for herself as an intelligent woman who demands excellence in herself, her monologues, and her show’s guests, she struggles to be more accessible without scorning her guests or audience: she spurns the concept of solely interviewing attractive celebrities, or capitalizing on the virality of cute animals on social media.

talk show
(N.B. that this sort of thing is my sole experience with late night television.  I am one of those who only bothers with Colbert, Corden, Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers, et al. once they’ve already been shared on my news feeds multiple times, generally alongside an MCU actor, Justin Timberlake, or clouded leopard cubs.)

As part of her efforts on the writing team, Molly re-watches Katherine’s old shows – partly from real appreciation, partly to gauge her rhythm, her strengths, and what worked on the old shows that stopped working since.  She notes one sketch she’d connected with at a much younger age: Katherine’s take on life with depression, which made it seem okay that she, Molly, was experiencing similar feelings.

This Brene Brown approach of authenticity-via-vulnerability becomes one of Katherine’s methods for re-engaging her audience: to discuss her real self, even when that means addressing a scandal from years past, when Katherine’s husband was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  That authenticity (recognized and bolstered by Molly) wins both Katherine and Molly their continued employment.

Like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I think Late Night missed its chance to be tighter, snappier, and funnier.  Surely a room with so many comedic writers should be buzzing and zinging with jokes and one-liners, even if they ultimately get cut from Katherine’s monologues.  One of the funniest moments, for my money, was Molly quoting Yeats as she looks at the door to her new workplace (Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams), before the sad-trombone moment of getting hit by someone’s bag of fast food trash.

you are 6

It’s still an amusing film overall, poking lots of little fingers at while male privilege and those who are out-of-touch with current events. Katherine makes a point to a reporter partway through that comedy is a rare meritocracy – that funny people can succeed as comedians, no matter where they come from.  Given this claim, I don’t think we ever get any real unpacking of why she spent so long working solely with white men, buuut she stops doing that: the movie ends with Molly having ushered in a slew of new hires, many of them people of color and several of them female (but without having displaced the white male faces we recognize from before).  Presumably this more-diverse writing staff has more avenues to appeal to and entertain a wider variety of people; certainly it’s based on Mindy Kaling’s own experience with The Office.

Though it could have had more concentrated hilarity, Late Night was a worthwhile watch for me due to Emma Thompson (cold-hearted boss to bemused Boomer to lonesome Emmy winner to playful entertainer to penitent wife) and Mindy Kaling (earnestly insistent as ever on clinging to one’s seat at the table, speaking one’s mind, and learning from past mistakes).  Let me know if it earns the honor of your time.

Review of sorts: A Month in the Country

I’m currently staying with my friend the Mead, in the final few weeks before her family raises their tentpoles to head south and east.  This time lends itself to a bit of reflection on the times one’s had, the times one might have had, and what all might be lying ahead – both generally speaking, and where one’s bookshelf is concerned.

Our conversation, amid two years’ worth of catching-up, jumped from what we’ve read and enjoyed, to what waits on the TBR list, to books that were pretentious or unnecessarily depressing, to promising new possibilities.  My friend recommended a few titles to me, including this one by JL Carr.

I didn’t read the blurb on the back and had to unfold for myself that the narrator, Tom Birkin, back in England after fighting in World War I, has been hired by a church in Yorkshire to painstakingly uncover a medieval mural that had been whitewashed over some five centuries back.  His benefactress had also, by way of putting it in her will, hired a fellow to come make a diligent effort to search for her ancestor’s remains; according to records, said ancestor had been excommunicated and thus buried outside the churchyard.  

So Birkin spends the summer at work, on a scaffold amid limestone ashlar, hassocks, balusters, and an inscribed catafalque.

Telling you anything further about the plot feels like a sort of betrayal – not because I am afraid of spoiling the story for you, per se, but because the story is so much more than the sum of those discrete events.

There’s a few lines running throughout which could be pulled taut, to become lines of tension or of humor: a Londoner amid northern folk, Anglican Church versus nonconformist Chapel (and their different approaches to purchasing organs), Birkin’s financial straits, and changing relationships (friendship or romantic alike).

Birkin understands the significance and meaning of this sacred mural, even if the battles of Ypres and ensuing shell-shock have driven out his own belief in God, and looks on the painted figures doomed to hell with a bit more sympathy than the less-compelling righteous heading for heaven.

The period of clearing centuries of grime off a painting (and what a painting, what costly materials were used, what a master composed it!) provides some rest as he is engaged in his work, smooths out the twitch and stammer he was left by the war, and reminds him of the possibility of love in this northern community.

And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

It’s a quiet little book, threaded with the melancholy of autumn’s backward glance.

The first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.