From the archives: October 2008

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Wednesday Book Club: The Dispossessed

Wednesday, 15 October 2008 — 3:29am | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In brief: A straight-up Cold War allegory constructed as an offshoot of an added twist—the arrival of a revolutionary theoretical physicist from an isolated anarcho-communist moon colony—makes for an outstanding novel of political philosophy that examines not only the relationship between the individual and the state, but also the effect of the state on the advancement of science. We often think of science fiction as an investigation of how science reshapes society; Le Guin’s opus begs us to consider the reverse.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Dispossessed, keep reading below.)

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Wednesday Book Club: Gravity Journal

Wednesday, 8 October 2008 — 11:22pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Gravity Journal (2008) by Gail Sidonie Sobat.

In brief: This perspicacious young adult novel about a self-mutilating anorexic teenager would be nothing special were it nothing more than a conventional three-step gambit (bait troubled teens into identifying with a main character who is every bit on their side; hook them with a well-told story of gradual treatment and rediscovered self-esteem; save a life). Instead, it goes a step further to reach out to all readers, offering a ground-level window into what the statistical chatter about BMIs, calories, and negative media images amount to in the human currency of communal responsibilities and individual lives.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Gravity Journal, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

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Wednesday Book Club: The War of the Worlds

Wednesday, 1 October 2008 — 11:24pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: The War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells.

In brief: The weakest ingredient of Wells’ prototypical alien invasion story is the one that has left the greatest cultural legacy, the image of bloodsucking Martians in giant war machines obliterating the core of civilization and reducing it to an anarchic ruin while panicked citizens scramble for their lives. Far more intriguing are the periodic dip into social philosophy and the speculation based on Victorian science; the latter remains astonishingly relevant over a century later, now that ecology is emerging as one of the dominant issues of world politics.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The War of the Worlds, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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