Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Books in 2013: #22 Life After Death by Damien Echols

In 1996, my university buddy and I went to the Bloor Cinema to see a documentary called Paradise Lost. We knew absolutely nothing about the film going in, but this was our Masters year of university, and when we weren't sitting in the library, we were sitting in the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. Two hours later, we came out of that theatre, changed forever.

Paradise Lost is a documentary about the murder of three young boys in West Memphis in 1993 — Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. (Warning for anyone watching the movie: they show video of the corpses the way the police found them, and that image is forever seared onto my brain.) The police were under a LOT of pressure to put away the killers, and so they immediately pinned it on three teenagers who were known to listen to heavy metal music and wear Goth clothing (they HAD to be the perpetrators, right?) Jessie Misskelley Jr. was the outsider of the three, a young man with a very low IQ who the cops took into a separate room, grilling him for hours and hours with no food or water until he was so confused and upset he confessed to everything and agreed that the other two young men — Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin — had been involved. It didn't matter that he barely knew them, or that Echols and Baldwin weren't even in the vicinity at the time, or that witnesses had never seen them in the area, or that other people had stepped forward to mention who they HAD seen in the area. Damien Echols was the kid in long black hair, trenchcoat, Doc Martens, and pentangle etched onto the back of his hand who listened to The Cure and Metallica. (In other words, fitting the description of most of the guys I hung around with in high school.) Jason Baldwin had the mullet and Metallica shirt, and was Echols' best friend. The trial was swift, and the boys were convicted: Baldwin and Misskelley were given life in prison, and Echols was sentenced to death.

And then the documentary came out, and outrage was immediate. It showed the trial, and the ineptitude of the police force. After I saw it, I became obsessed with the case of the West Memphis Three, as they were now known. I came home late that night from the film and went onto the website, reading everything I could about what had happened since the events of the film had taken place and there was SO much more to the story already. I was eager to know more about Damien Echols, the most charismatic of the bunch, who had been given the death penalty. Within days I contacted their supporters through the website, and they wrote me back. I donated money to the fund to have the case reopened. I bought a shirt that said "Free the West Memphis Three" and wore it all the time, constantly telling people about the case and how they could help. I didn't, for a second, believe these young men had done it. Three little boys died that day, molested, mutilated, and brutally murdered, and their killer was walking free while these three young men were sitting in jail.

The second documentary was released, wherein the documentary filmmakers shone a spotlight on the stepfather of Christopher Byers, making him look like a lunatic and a possible suspect. Byers, who had been an outspoken advocate for the conviction of the West Memphis Three (in the first movie, he's batshit insane, and in the second he's worse) suddenly realized what it felt like to be wrongly accused, and by the third movie he'd changed his tune and was advocating for the release of the men. Only near the end of that one did they suddenly suggest perhaps it was the stepfather of another of the boys who had done it, and to this day he looks like the most likely, but of course the case can't be reopened.

Here's the catch: in the state of Arkansas, they have never, EVER overturned a conviction on the basis that they were wrong. Ever. So, after so much public outcry and the obvious wrongfulness of the conviction, the state of Arkansas approached the West Memphis Three and gave them an out: if you admit that you were guilty and did it, we can put on paper that you admitted to the crime, and we'll let you go.

It was over 18 years after these men had been put in prison. Their late teens, entirety of their twenties, and majority of their thirties had been spent in prison. Jason Baldwin was studying to be a lawyer, and was hoping to have the charge overturned, which would allow him to actually practice so he was reluctant to do this. Jessie Misskelley was basically willing to go with whatever the other two did. And Damien Echols, the poet, the philosopher, the most famous of the bunch, watched his execution date loom and begged Jason to change his mind. Jason did, they admitted to it, and Damien, who had been in a closed cell for over a decade, never being allowed outside, saw the sun for the first time in 10 years.

But they'll never truly be free. Their best years were taken from them. Celebrities who had taken on the case like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder and the members of Metallica and Marilyn Manson were now buddies with Echols, but it was going to take a long time for him to find any sort of peace. (A woman who saw the 1996 documentary began writing to him in prison, and they were married three years later; she eventually became the main supporter of the three men, and it's mostly due to her efforts that they were freed.) Jason is hoping to do pro bono legal work for the wrongfully accused, but because of his conviction and official admission of guilt it likely won't happen. And Jessie Misskelley is holed up in a house with no phone and has no contact with the outside world. They destroyed him. In a way, they destroyed all of them.

And those three little boys, who would now be in their early twenties, are still dead. And their killer walks free.

I've read a book on the case (called Devil's Knot), and every article I could get my hands on. And finally, Damien Echols wrote his own memoir on it, which brings us (FINALLY) to the 22nd book I've read this year, the aptly titled, Life After Death. This book is Damien's account of his very troubled upbringing, the abject poverty he and his family encountered, his struggles to find normalcy in a distant family that showed him very little love and affection, and how he was pinpointed as the fall-guy for this horrible crime. The section of the book covering his time in prison is often written in the present tense because they're taken from his actual diaries kept while in there, so they are raw, angry, and truly painful to read. There are times when the writing is a little laboured (where as an editor I could see where his publisher had asked him to create a segue that wasn't originally there), but his passion comes through, and the book is formatted beautifully, in a non-linear style that jumps back and forth between his time in prison, and looking back on the years that led up to his incarceration. Every once in a while he writes something that is so pure, so beautiful, it cuts right to the core. Such as when he talks about the difference between the first place he was incarcerated and the second: "Jail is preschool. Prison is for those earning a Ph.D. in brutality."

Or this devastating answer to the oft-asked question when he was still locked up, "What do you miss the most?"

...a hundred things flash through my mind—the memories giving me that free-fall feeling in the pit of my stomach. I miss the rain. I miss standing beneath the sky and looking up at the moon and stars. I miss the wind. I miss cats and dogs. I miss wearing real clothes, having a real toothbrush, using a real pen, drinking iced tea, eating ice cream, and going for walks.
            I’m tempted to say the thing I miss most is fruit. I haven’t had a piece of fresh fruit in about eight years, and before that I only got it once a year. The prison used to give everyone two apples and two oranges on Christmas, but then they stopped, said it was a “threat to security,” along with tea bags and dental floss. So I haven’t had any in nearly a decade now. They prevent scurvy by giving everyone a cup of watered-down orange juice for breakfast. It doesn’t have much taste, but enough vitamin C to keep your teeth from falling out.
            In the end, it’s not the fruit I miss most, though if you rolled all the deprivations into one thing, it would be this: I miss being treated like a human being.

This is an incredible account of one man who has been so wronged, but who never gave up on those who never gave up on him, and his struggle to maintain his sanity and hope for almost 20 years. It's uplifting and forces the reader to stop taking their lives for granted, to look around and be happy that they have what they have. Very highly recommended. (I also highly recommend the Paradise Lost trilogy, and the Amy Berg film that was done with Echols' cooperation after he was let out of prison, West of Memphis.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Things I Loved This Week

1. After a brutally hot week where the temperatures got up to 45 on a couple of days (that's 113 in American), this week the humidity went away and temperatures got back to a normal summer heat, and not one that made me go, "Oh, uuuugggghhhh" every time I stepped outside (which, the week before, I did EVERY TIME). I much prefer having the windows open all day. I'm not a big fan of A/C.

2. I was working out on the back deck one morning, editing, when I heard a rustling in the woods in my backyard. I looked up, and was staring right at a deer, who was staring right at me. I didn't move, she didn't move... and then I noticed another movement, and looked over to the right of her, and there was our resident backyard rabbit. As soon as I could think, "Oh my god, I'm in Bambi," the deer bounded away.

3. And... welcome to the real-time edition of this blog. As I typed #1, it started to pour rain. And as I typed #2, the sun came out brighter than it's shone all day, as the rain continued. That always means one thing, so I went out to my front step and this is what I saw:

One rainbow is remarkable enough, but the second one above it is just majestic.

4. Today I went down to the beach with my cousin and his wife and three kids, and my aunt and uncle, and my parents, and we all headed over to see the tall ships that had come into the harbour. It was nice to just spend an afternoon with all of them and catch up when it wasn't Thanksgiving or Christmas.

5. My husband is a golf writer who has been working all week for Global Television as their golf analyst for the Canadian Open. While I haven't seen him much at all, I've been able to flip on the TV and my kids delight in seeing Daddy on TV. Today at my aunt's house we all sat around the TV watching his analysis of the day's events, and it was fun to see everyone so impressed with something I probably take for granted too often.

6. He DID come home on Friday night, and while I was tired from taking my kids to golf camp at 8 am every morning and he was tired from being at the golf course at 8:30 am, we managed to get to dinner (my parents had the kids) and it was nice to have one night of adult conversation after a week of mostly just having two small children to converse with. Then, of course, we ditched plans to go see a movie and just came home and crashed early.

7. As many of you know, I tend to read multiple books at once (right now I'm worse than usual, in the midst of seven of them), and I just started reading George Saunders' Tenth of December collection of short stories, and the second one, "Sticks," is just over one page long, and might be the most perfect short story I've ever read. In one page he makes you care about a family, and with the last line he makes you gasp and feel true sorrow and loss.

8. On Tuesday, I took the kids to the beach and we went bike-riding down some bike trails behind the beach, and I haven't been on a bike in so many years I honestly couldn't say how long it's been without a LOT of embarrassment, and I'd forgotten how fun and free and wonderful it was. Later, on the beach, I sat there with my parents watching this giant black cloud move across the water. No lightning or thunder, so I wasn't particularly worried, but after a while of just watching this awesome-looking weather system coming towards us, I glanced down the beach and noticed a wall of water coming our way. The adults packed up chairs and towels quickly, I yelled for the kids to come, and they looked up from their sandcastles and tore across the beach towards me. We ran all the way to the van, squealing and screaming with delight the entire time, and got in the van just in time for the torrential downpour, which is always far more fun when you're not in it.

9. It's the last week of t-ball, soccer, and twice-weekly baseball games. Cue the "Hallelujah Chorus."

10. Speaking of baseball games, I mentioned a while back that my daughter had tried pitching for her softball team and on her very first pitch, she threw a strike. I mentioned that after that, of course, she walked the next couple of girls but hey, that strike was still amazing. This week, several weeks later, she and her teammates have been working very hard, and she stepped up to the mound to face the team's chief rival... and struck out all three girls at bat. It was GLORIOUS!!! I was up in the metal bleachers jumping up and down and cheering. Whatta girl.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Books in 2013: #20 & 21: All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Red Son by Mark Millar

Almost two months ago, I posted on here that I'd finished my first full-fledged superhero comic book. I said it in the midst of talking about other things, but most of the comments I got after that post were along the lines of, "What book?!" And I didn't want to say, because it would spoil this post. ;) However, as I was writing up my book reviews I realized I'd already read Marvel 1602, which is also a superhero comic, so maybe it wasn't quite my first. But it was my first Superman comic, so that made me happy. And since, as I've said, I'm behind on writing up these book reviews (but quickly catching up!!) I read these right before going to see Man of Steel, which gave me an interesting perspective on the film. (By the way, I should mention that in my graphic novel book club, the June book was to read anything associated with Superman, so these were my two picks.)

All-Star Superman is written by Grant Morrison, the author of the previously mentioned Supergods, which I'd completed just a couple of weeks before. The basic premise is that Superman flew too close to the sun and was poisoned by radiation so bad that his cells are dying, and he has a limited time left in which he must complete 12 labours. Each book in the collected omnibus follows him completing one of these tasks.

The book basically reads as every Superman fan's biggest highlights. Dress up Lois in a Superwoman suit and have her fly along with him. Go to the Bizarro world and stop them trying to take over Earth (by, of course, telling them to do exactly that).  Save Kandor, that tiny little version of Krypton that he's accidentally trapped in a bottle.

But it also moves on to bigger things: If we really had a Superman who could do anything, what would we want him to do as his final task? Cure cancer. Create life. Make the sun indestructible. And not die.

I thought the book was a lot of fun, and it's easy to follow even if you're not someone who grew up reading the Superman comics. I knew enough of it just from knowing the lore, and I enjoyed it a lot.

However, I liked Mark Millar's Red Son even more. The premise is simple: what if Kal-El had landed in Russia instead of Kansas, and grew up to be a stalwart of Communism rather than a saviour of capitalist US of A? It's a brilliant concept, and one that manages to explore the different Superman who emerges without casting any judgement on either side. It's a brilliant alternative universe story, one where Lex Luthor, a scientific genius in the US, sees the emergence of "the Superman" as the not-so-secret weapon of Russia (in Russia, Kal doesn't have to create the Clark Kent secret identity, and is used instead as a government weapon), and thinks to himself, "Dammit, if only the Superman had landed here instead, I have no doubt we'd have been great friends!" Ha!

Beautifully illustrated (I really liked the artwork in All-Star Superman but loved it in Red Son), this is the one I'd recommend more, although both books were a lot of fun to read.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Books in 2013: #19 Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

After a short run of books that I read of my own accord, we now return to another book club pick. I wasn't sure what to think of this book after the first chapter, but somehow in chapter two it grabbed me, and didn't let go until the end.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is a book about an autistic boy named Max. Sort of. It's told from the point of view of Budo, Max's imaginary friend. Budo can only be seen by Max, so when Max sleeps, the world is Budo's to walk around in, completely invisible and unseen by others. He can neither interact with nor affect the environment around him, so he must watch as things happen, without being able to intervene.

When Max is suddenly kidnapped from school one day and everyone goes into a tizzy trying to find him (especially his parents, who disagree on the severity of Max's autism and have been having some troubles in their relationship) only Budo knows where he's gone, but he's unable to tell anyone.

This book is extraordinary. In the beginning, my hesitation lay in the fact that if you step back and think of the actual construct of Budo, it doesn't make sense. For example, Budo can interact with other imaginary friends, each of whom has powers that their person has imagined them to have. Budo can walk through walls, for example, while other imaginary friends look like giant dolls and can fly. Budo's existence is entirely limited by Max's imagination, and he can only be, do, or say whatever Max has imagined him to do. Yet every night he walks down to the local gas station and listens to the conversations of people inside the place. How could he even experience something like that, if it's entirely outside of Max's own imagination and experience? His entire existence should be beholden to whatever is inside Max's brain.

But I quickly shook off those thoughts, and just enjoyed the book for what it was, because I found by reasoning with things too much, it was really taking away from my enjoyment of it. In the end, Budo worries that his existence depends on Budo thinking he's real, but in order to save Max, he'll have to force Max to take matters into his own hands, and admit that Budo isn't real. And then, if he no longer believes in him... does he just disappear? Budo's fear of "dying," or worse, never having existed at all, is the driving force behind much of the narrative, which makes it poignant and heartbreaking at times.

This is probably the book I've recommended to more people I know (who read traditional fiction)
, than any other book I've read this year. I had one major issue with it, which I'll mention below in a spoiler section (please don't read unless you've read the book), but otherwise I thought it was fantastic.

SPOILER (highlight the section below with your mouse to see the hidden spoiler):
If I'd been the editor of this book, I would have tried very hard to convince Dicks to remove the epilogue. What I loved so much about this book is the exploration of the meaning of life and existence, and what constitutes both: do you exist because you knew you existed, or do you exist only because someone remembered you did? And when we die, what happens? No one knows, and there's some discussion of the possibility of heaven and hell, but Budo believes he exists outside the belief system anyway. What that did is open the argument to everyone reading the book, whether atheist, agnostic, or someone with faith. BUT... the epilogue changed that. When Budo looks at Max, who no longer believes in him, on the last page of the book and says goodbye wordlessly, his last thoughts in this world filled with the love he has for this little boy, I was overwhelmed with sadness and joy at such a perfect ending. So when I turned the page to see an epilogue, I could already feel my heart sink a little. And when the epilogue consisted of Budo waking up in heaven and realizing it does exist and that's where he went, my heart sank a LOT. Way to be so inclusive of every belief system throughout the book, and then come down firmly on one side in the final three paragraphs. Because of those final three paragraphs, I can only recommend this book with the caveat that it's an amazing book, but I disagreed with the final three paragraphs. Without those, it's great, and so maybe I'll just pretend those paragraphs were, like Budo, something that someone imagined, and never really existed. ;) 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Royal Baby Carseat SCANDAL!!!

I joked on FB the other day that among my predictions on the royal baby is that I'd try to maintain an ironic distance, but wouldn't be able to, and within a week I'd be sick of it. The first prediction has already come true, and I have no doubt the second one will as well.

That said, being a mom (and I suspect even if I weren't one), I love new babies, and watching the new parents as they struggle through this new part of their life, because it's still the most vivid and emotional part of my life. Having a new baby is at once beautiful and a complete nightmare.

And I didn't have to do it with a billion people watching.

Yesterday I checked Facebook near the end of the day and oh look! There they are, coming out of the hospital, with Kate in perfect pumps looking absolutely fabulous with her hair recently did. So... that part didn't match my experience one iota.

And there she is with a huge grin on her face holding a baby, looking like she doesn't quite know whether to rock it or pat it, and the husband awkwardly reaching over to take the baby from her as she tentatively puts the baby into his arms, looking the entire time like she's scared she'll break it, while he looks exactly the same. Yep, THAT part mirrors my experience pretty much exactly.

And then, this morning, this photo popped up on my newsfeed:

"Good god, man, this is NOT how you strap a baby into a carseat!!" 
I hope you are all sitting down, especially all you mothers and fathers. Because OH MY GOD that baby is not only not strapped in properly, he's freakin' swaddled in there!!!

Sigh. OK, how about before we all get into a tizzy, we stop and remember our own experiences.

Now I'll take you back to that moment in the hospital where we are about to leave, and the nurse enters the room and says we can't leave until we can prove we know how to properly strap a baby into a carseat. My husband grabbed the little carseat and sat it on the bed. He loosened all the straps and got it ready, just like we'd practiced with the doll. Remember the doll? The one that won't break no matter how many times you drop it on its head, the one that never moves or fights or struggles or cries? That one that is EXACTLY like a real baby? Yeah, that one.

So then I set the REAL baby in there, so gently, and she immediately began moving all over the place, struggling and crying this new high-pitched cry that it took our ears several days to get used to. He tried getting the straps over the shoulders and it didn't work. Then I moved in and pulled up the harness from between her legs, and got it positioned on her lap, and we somehow pulled her tiny arms into the arm straps. And then it was time to tighten it, and... okay, how the hell do you tighten this thing? Is it... OK, if you pull up on this part, then... no, that just loosened it more. Oh for god's sakes, here, get the baby out, let's try flipping the seat over.

The nurse stood there, looking like she was trying to hide her amusement. "Do you know how you tighten it?" my husband asked. "I do, but I can't tell you because you need to do this yourself and I won't be at your house to help you later."

My husband stood up taller. "No, but if you tell me once, I think I can remember it. I'm not asking you to put her in, I'm asking for your help." She just smiled and apologized, and said she couldn't.

Back to the drawing board. Now the baby's getting fussy, and hungry, and while my husband started fooling around with the back of the thing, I had to go off to a corner to try to nurse the baby, something I still didn't quite know how to do. It took a while, he finally figured out that if you lift this thing in the back it'll allow you to pull them through the front, and then you tighten it using that strap there at the bottom.

Twenty minutes later, baby is calmed down, back in she goes. And the screaming begins again, and I grab one shoulder strap and he grabs the other, and we pull it quickly around the tiny flailing arms and pull it down, snap it into the three-point harness et voila, baby is in!!!

"Nope, try again," says the nurse.

What? The baby is in, we did it!

"It can't be loose like that. Tighten it." So my husband tightened it by about a millimetre. Any tighter than that and we'll seriously hurt the baby, right? "No, it needs to be tight. You should only be able to tightly fit a finger between the baby and the strap." Oh my GOD that's horrible! The baby was just born yesterday and you want us to strap it in so tight it can't move at all?! "That's... the point." Her amusement is giving away to frustration. (By the way, she hasn't been standing there the whole time, she's in and out of the room and often we have to pause to wait for her to come back.)

My husband started slowly pulling on the strap, I kept my hands at the top holding the shoulder straps on her tiny shoulders, and together we slowly tightened them, and as soon as it was snug, the baby calmed right down (they love the feeling of being snug, hence the success of swaddling).

One hour after we'd begun, our baby was in her carseat.

And, oh yeah, we didn't have a billion people watching us, unlike Kate and Will.
And we were driving a little faster than 10km all the way home, unlike Kate and Will (15km, yes, but not 10).
And we didn't have an entourage of security vehicles, ensuring there was no way in hell we were getting into an accident on the way home, unlike Kate and Will.

Kate and Will aren't stupid; they know that where every single parent has had to put up with judgement from every single other parent and non-parent, that the judgement thrown at them is going to be a thousandfold. But they got their baby in the carseat with the world watching, and that's quite remarkable considering what everyone else has gone through doing exactly the same thing. And Kate could have climbed in the car still holding the baby in her arms in the front seat and it still would have had zero chance of dying on the way from the hospital to their house, considering their transport entourage.

No one is watching them or looking at that picture and saying, "OH!! I didn't know I could swaddle the baby and just loosely put him in the seat and drive around like that! That is what I shall do from now on." Absolutely no one. And if they are, then there are bigger issues at hand here.

Kate and Will are doing just fine, and are being brilliant under pressure. I'm not a fan of the royals, but I can't help but like Kate and Will immensely. And I'm the daughter of a royalty fanatic, and therefore watched the Di/Charles royal wedding at 5 in the morning, and remember watching the TV to watch Di and Charles walk out onto the steps of the hospital with William in their arms.

I'm not going to say, "So let's just lay off them, and let them struggle through this wonderful time in their lives," because that's just not going to happen. But as long as I can watch them put their baby in the carseat all wrong and just tilt my head to one side and say, "Aw, bless, they're trying their best, and they'll get the hang of it," then that's one less person judging them today. And it's a start.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Books in 2013: #18 The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr

As I've mentioned recently on this blog, I've always been a huge fan of silent movies. As a very young child, I watched Charlie Chaplin movies all the time. When I was slightly older, probably eight or nine, my dad started showing me Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd. When I was 14, PBS did a fantastic documentary on Buster Keaton called A Hard Act to Follow, and suddenly my dear Charlie Chaplin had found a rival for my affections. I went out as Chaplin on Halloween, complete with the weird walk and little cane, and developed a huge crush on Buster Keaton in my teens.

Every time a silent movie is on TV, I pause, watch it for a bit, and realize an hour later I still haven't turned the channel. And yet I feel like I know very little about the lives of these men and women. Years ago I read a gorgeous biography of (Canadian-born) Mary Pickford, called Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, by Eileen Whitfield, and it was amazing. But I'd never read a really solid book on the era. For years I've tried to figure out, what's the definitive Chaplin bio? Keaton bio? Look on websites and of course, as with all fandom, the true fans nitpick every single book on either subject... with the exception of one book: The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr. Despite the fact this book came out in 1975, it's still considered by many to be THE definitive book on the silent comics. I looked it up in my local library, and lo and behold, they had a copy. So I took it out. (I can't actually link to it on Amazon, because it's no longer available. However, there are copies at abebooks.)

This book is HUGE. It's large, probably an 8x10 format, with 350 pages of thick, glossy paper, which makes it really heavy (working in publishing like I do, I was trying to imagine the costs of shipping this thing out for review). The print is small, in two columns, like a textbook. But I heaved it up onto the table, opened it, and started reading. And I was hooked.

First, it's fascinating to read a book written in 1975 about popular culture. It doesn't seem that long ago, and yet Kerr, the theatre critic for the New York Times when he wrote this, was in his early 60s at the time, and referred to going to the theatre to watch silent films as a kid in the early 1920s. The age of anyone writing about the same topic in that way these days is almost gone; the writer would have to be at least 100 years old. At one point he talks about all the films that had been lost and may never be seen again, yet a few of them were ones I've actually seen, and with the advent of YouTube — where you can watch just about any silent film you'd ever want to, in its feature length — many long-forgotten films are popping up there, being found in all sorts of places. Part of me longed to be able to go back in time and reassure Kerr that many of his lost favourites would, indeed, be found.

His three favourites are Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. We get the backgrounds of each one of them, largely culled through their own autobiographies (Chaplin's is still in print, but the other two are not, sadly), interviews they'd conducted, and other book-length analyses written on them, and while I knew a lot about Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd's story was mostly knew to me. I had no idea, for example, that during an early film Lloyd had a bomb "prop" detonate while he was holding it, resulting in the loss of his thumb and index finger, and that he wore a prosthetic glove on that hand to try to hide it (those in the know say it's obvious when you see it, but when you're not looking for it, it's not obvious!) That makes all those high-suspense action sequences he revelled in, where he's scaling buildings and scaffolding, even more impressive. Kerr pauses to relate the main plots and little things you may or may not have noticed in various films, which in some cases jogged my memory to films I'd seen in the past, and in other cases served to stand in for the films I haven't seen, allowing me to understand the context for his analysis to follow.

He also devotes a few chapters to the lesser-known Harry Langdon, the baby-faced clown of several pictures, and talks about the rise and fall of Langdon. Moving into territory that, for me, had largely been covered by films such as Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, he then talks about the shift to the talkies, and why some careers ended, while others continued. The shift happens rather abruptly in 1929, with almost everything before then being silent, and everything after that moment being a talkie, and while we tend to think of Chaplin as a silent movie actor, he certainly did a lot of films after that (think of The Great Dictator for one). I'd always thought of Keaton as having been one of the ones who didn't make it, although Kerr makes a case for Keaton having done better than many others in the talkies, and the fault wasn't of his voice, which is what I'd heard was his downfall, but a bad deal where he was moved to a different studio that simply shelved him, so to speak, like he was no longer important. And he collected dust on that shelf for a while before quietly going away.

What is most extraordinary about all of these men is how much they shouldered at the time. They had the ideas for the films, often acting as lead actor, director, writer, and producer. It was up to them to find the rest of the cast, and the studios just sat back and watched the big money roll in. Compared to today, where George Clooney is lauded for producing so many films, or Brad Pitt is put on a pedestal for having the wherewithal to option World War Z and produce and star in it, Chaplin and Keaton make both of them look like slackers.

He doesn't devote a lot of time to Mary Pickford, which I thought was a bit of a shame, considering she was both a successful silent film actor and a comic one, but the book is very male-centric (you'd think the only females in Hollywood during the silent film era were the difficult wives of the male clowns or the women who acted as their love interests in the pictures). Ditto for Clara Bow, the It Girl for whom I've always had a soft spot, but he barely mentions.

So perhaps the lack of mention of women is a downfall of the book, but knowing that his major focus would be on Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, I wasn't expecting much in that department anyway. For what it is, this is an extraordinary look at a time gone by, and made me even more determined to find an excellent biography on each of the three men featured in the book. I've just picked up Chaplin's autobiography, which I've heard is excellent, and I look forward to reading more in my continuing search for more information on this vibrant and wonderful era in American cinema.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Books in 2013: #17 Supergods by Grant Morrison

As I've joked on here before, despite spending the last 15+ years writing about fandom, and several years before that engaged in it, I've always seen three major obstacles to me obtaining my full Geek Cred card. (They have cards, right?)

1. I didn't know all 11 Doctors in Doctor Who.
2. I don't know how to play Dungeons & Dragons, and despite seeing it played on many TV shows, have never watched a live game, nor do I understand it. (Does the Dungeon Master stay up for several weeks ahead of time writing an entire story for everyone else to act out?)
3. I don't know a lot about superheroes other than the dozens of movies and TV shows I've watched. OK, let me rephrase that: I don't know a lot about the original comic-book versions of the superheroes that I know so well through the movies and TV shows I've seen.

Last year, I dealt with #1 and can now name my favourite Doctors from one to 11. (But because of the hatred that would be thrown my way if I actually did that, I will refrain.) Still don't have #2, though I now have offers to come and watch a game. And as for #3, I'm working on rectifying that.

Supergods, by comic book writer Grant Morrison, goes a long way to helping me, and it's the reason I bought the book a year ago. This is one I've read slowly this year, starting it in January and reading it through til May, taking it in slowly so I'd remember more of it. This was my first exposure to Grant Morrison, though while I was reading it I'd occasionally mention it to a comic book fan, and the reactions ranged from, "Take everything he says with a grain of salt" to "Yeah... Morrison? I'd find a second book to back up that one" to "I LOVE Grant Morrison, have you read Arkham Asylum?" to "Wow, that book sounds great!" I was glad to get all of those reactions while I was reading it, because it made me read it with a more critical eye.

I think many people believe he's pretty self-centred, and reading this book won't help to assuage that, but there's a reason the book reads the way it does: Morrison was asked to write his autobiography, so he started. Along the way, however, he began researching old comics to make sure he was remembering his discovery of comics correctly, and as he did that, he got caught up in the history of them. Having written the outline of his memoir, he now decided to weave the history of comics throughout, so you get the complete picture: the start of the rise of comics in the 1930s, and him first discovering them in the 1960s, and from that point on the back-and-forth between the two. What he felt about them as a kid, and where the ideas were coming from historically. What you get is a rich story of the 20th century as reflected through its comics. Yes, Morrison has some kooky ideas, but I found them fascinating and amusing. And yes, there's a section in there where he goes on a vision quest and it's totally fucking insane, but when you get past that you have this at times uproariously hilarious retelling of the history of comic books ("Perhaps there remains to be written the great gay Batman story where he and Robin, and potentially Alfred too, are going at it like trip hammers between Batmobile cruising scenes..."), both American and British, and the story of how one boy who loved comics grew into a man who began working in the industry, eventually becoming one of the bestselling comic book authors of all time. I loved Morrison's writing style, and thought it was funny, breezy, and academic all rolled into one. It's an easy read, but a high-brow one, where you get not just the major DC and Marvel characters explained, but many of the small one-offs that perhaps caught a young Morrison's eye as a boy.

This is a fantastic book, and perhaps my favourite part comes right at the end, when he talks about how comic books are an accurate depiction of their times. Look at world events happening at the time, and you'll see why comics are either dreary or trippy or profound or sad or dark and desperate or tongue-in-cheek and joyful. Comics are a product of their times, and visualize what is happening around us. Morrison takes that idea and goes back through the 20th century and into the 21st, bringing the two together. And, when it was time to read the Superman comics for my June graphic novel book club, I felt better armed to understand who the character is, his background, and how he became a reflection of the time in which he was written. (See books 21 and 22, to come.)

Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Books in 2013: #16 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Just a warning: we're heading into a long run of books that I absolutely LOVED. Starting with Let the Right One In.

Years ago, I saw the Swedish film that was based on this book, about a young boy living in a Swedish town who discovers a young girl who seems much older than she appears, who has a strange smell, and who likes him, but keeps her distance. And the older man who lives with her, but who doesn't appear to be a father figure. The movie was fantastic: harsh, cold, the story of a vampire who finds no joy in her existence, who uses the older man to obtain food for her while encouraging and teasing his pedophilic tendencies. Twilight, this was not.

I immediately asked for the book for my birthday, which was around the corner, and my brother bought it for me. And then, like I usually do, I put it on the shelf, determined to read it IMMEDIATELY.

Immediately turned into several years, and after having to read the entire Twilight series last year for an academic paper, and revisiting Buffy two years ago through the Rewatch, and discovering Vampire Diaries, and tiring of True Blood, and rereading my 30 Days of Night graphic novel, it was time to read this. And wow... it's easily my favourite vampire book of all time.

I don't want to say too much, but if you've seen the Swedish film it's an excellent adaptation of the book. Some characters are more major in the book than in the movie, and they alter a few storylines, but as I read it, the movie started coming back to me more and more. I haven't seen the American version, although I've heard it's quite good. My only beef with that (not having seen it) is that they changed the title to the more banal Let Me In. The actual title, as the author shows in an epigraph near the end, comes from a Morrissey song, which eerily explains why he titled the book the way he did

Let the right one in Let the old dreams die Let the wrong ones go They cannot They cannot They cannot do what you want them to do 

By changing it, you remove that reference, which is unfortunate.

If you haven't had the pleasure of reading this book, please do so. It's incredible, thrilling, suspenseful, and a quick page-turner. And the best, harshest vampire story I've ever read.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Books in 2013: #15 The Last Girlfriend on Earth by Simon Rich

A few months ago one of my favourite writers (who I think is one of the funniest writers on the planet) emailed me and said OMG, you must read this book called The Last Girlfriend on Earth. At this point he'd only read a single story from it, but he swore it was the funniest short story he'd ever read. I flipped over to Goodreads to check it out, and people were raving about how hilarious it was. I was sold. I LOVE FUNNY. I checked the library, no copies (oh, dear library, you almost never let me down so I'll forgive you this one!), so I just ordered it online and had it in two days. And then I read it over the next couple of days.

And wow, he was right. The opening story is a tale that is so funny I had to keep putting the book down, I was laughing so hard. It's the story of a guy's really sad love life... told from the point of view of the condom that's lived in his wallet for more years than the young man would like anyone to know. The next is a parody of the Narnia stories, where a half-man/half-goat creature meets a little English girl and whisks her away to a magical world filled with wonder and adventure... and then when he moves in for a kiss, she backs away, holds her hands up and wants to know what the bloody hell you think you are doing, mister! "Oh... I... thought it was going in that direction?" he stammers back. Amazing.

What I loved about Simon Rich's collection is that the stories are all quirky, many of them are parodies of stories, or completely off-the-wall surrealist stuff about Hitler or fictional characters dating and being turned down. But that's also the drawback. After a while, the stories start to feel the same. Oh look, he's going to take a clever character and pop him into a sad love story and something hilariously awful will happen and that's the end.

What these stories suffer from is being in a collection together. The condom was the funniest story in the book, followed by the Narnia story. But if I'd started with Hitler, would that have been the funniest one because it was the first? What about the one about the guy dating the last girl on earth, and how much it sucks that EVERY OTHER GUY ON EARTH wants to be with her? A great story, but coming after so many other sad-sack romances, it felt a little samey.

I really enjoyed this book a lot, but I wish I'd read a story, waited a week, read another story, waited a week, etc. I highly recommend this book to anyone, but I believe it needs to be read in small doses, not drunk all at once. If taken slowly, each story will feel new, fresh, and exciting, which is what I believe Simon Rich's writing really is. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pacific Rim: Plot? No. But who cares?!

I still remember going to see Independence Day. The trailer was awesome, and it was one of the first movies I remember to open early in the week, on a Wednesday, and run into the weekend rather than opening Friday night. My boyfriend and I went to see it at midnight on Wednesday, lining up in advance... and at 2:30 am we walked out of there, disappointed and wishing we'd just gone to sleep like normal people.

The plot was terrible. The acting... was terrible. Sure, it was a visual spectacle, but that wasn't enough.

Fastforward to... whatever year Avatar came out (not feeling like hittin' the Google today). ;) It was just before Christmas, shortly after it had come out, the kids were at daycare for the day and we sneaked out to go to a glorious matinee. 3D, high price, ENTERTAIN ME... and three hours later we came out thinking that was the biggest disappointment since... well, since Independence Day. During the movie, I enjoyed it. It was like a rollercoaster ride, a spectacular-looking film unlike anything I'd ever seen. But after? We tried to retrace the plot and realized that James Cameron had actually spent 20 years imagining what the blue people would look like, and probably hastily wrote out the script on a paper napkin the night before production began and they just went with it.

He is the king of the world, after all.

Like I said, it was a rollercoaster ride, but when you get off the ride, you say, "Well, that was fun," and think nothing more of it. And that's pretty much Avatar. I had no desire to ever see it again.

Now... fastforward to last weekend. My husband and I went to see Pacific Rim. I'd heard good things about this, even from people who hated Avatar. It was co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who made one of my favourite movies of all time, Pan's Labyrinth. And it had Jax Teller and Stringer Bell in it. Nuff said.

I know my standards haven't lowered; if anything, I'm tougher on movies and books and TV shows now than I've ever been. And this movie had plot holes in it so big you could drive a kaiju through them.

But OH MY GOD I loved it. Loved loved loved it. The fights in the Pacific Ocean, the awesomeness of the jaegers (and despite a certain British professor friend of mine always telling me that I overuse that word, "awesome" could be correctly used to describe nearly every minute of this movie), the terrifying look of the kaiju, the pounding music... I just loved it.

Even during the movie there were questions that flitted across my mind: why are the two people in the jaegers talking out loud if they've mind-melded and can read each other's thoughts?... Why did they open the movie with such a long explanation of the rise of the kaiju and the origin of the jaeger program when that would have made an incredible film all on its own?... Is Idris Elba supposed to be British or American?... In order to determine which two people can accurately 'drift' together, shouldn't they be doing some sort of mind tests rather than martial arts?... If the kaiju have been rising for 15 years now out of the Pacific, why haven't the civilians all moved inland and leave the Pacific coast as a military state?... Why are they worried about killing those five people in a boat when they just went on land and trampled hundreds of people to death?... How can I get my hairdresser to go see this movie so I can tell her I want Mako's hairstyle, right down to the blue streaks on the side?!

But then there would be a fight, or the jaegers would get flown out to the ocean by the helicopters (if the jaegers weigh several hundred tons, how are four helicopters flying them through the air?!), or the kaiju would rise up, or Jax would get into a fight with Sean Slater from EastEnders, or Idris would just just speak, and I would just forget every question. The fights were mindblowing, the visuals were AMAZING, and I loved it. Every single second of it.

And I walked out, and I still loved it. And my husband and I discussed the plot holes as we walked down the street, and I still loved it. And I thought about it more the next day, and I still loved it. And I want to go see it again. And then I found this excellent writeup by my Game of Thrones co-author, Christopher Lockett, who pretty much asked every question I had, and then some, and then talked about it at length (seriously, go read it, it's hilarious and amazing) and even HE said despite all this, he loved it.

What is it about this movie that makes us love it so much that we're willing to forgive everything wrong with it? Maybe it's Guillermo, that fan favourite director that we all adore for Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth and Cronos (OMG remember Cronos??) and somehow forgive him for Hellboy 2 and Blade 2. Maybe it's because Ron Perlman is in this and is SO FREAKIN' HILARIOUS in every scene. Or that I recognized the Scarborough Bluffs in the scene where the jaeger lands on the beach near the beginning and that reminded me that he was filming a lot of it out in the Beach in Toronto last summer and then I began spotting Toronto landmarks all over the place.

Yes, it has plot holes in it. But Independence Day was too overblown and "USA!! USA!!", and pretty much the reason Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the Team America theme song (The audio is NSFW if anyone unwittingly clicks on that song). And Avatar was done by James Cameron, a 20-year pet project that just felt like the director did it because he could.

But Pacific Rim is smarter than all of that. It actually had me thinking at one point, "Wow, what would we do if this actually happened?!" What?! Why was I thinking that? Because it was so real, and the devastation so giant. It was fun, a LOT of fun, and you had to follow the origins of the war, the alien technology being used; there were goofy scientists played by Owen Harper from Torchwood and Charlie from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and you had to follow their research. This wasn't about America coming to save the day, but about the world coming together to stop an invasion from underneath, not above as with every other alien film. And frankly, in just about every scene I was on the edge of my seat, my palms were sweaty from anticipation, and I couldn't wait for the next scene to happen.

I loved it. Loved loved loved it. Plot holes be damned.