Thursday, November 19, 2009

Social Hyperbole--The Worst Thing Ever

Recently, I've noticed a lot of social hyperbole in both pop culture and (big surprise) politics.

I find the most nauseating source of social hyperbole in commentary on Twilight. It's consistently compared to Harry Potter, and today I even read a comparison to the Beatles in my university's newspaper. Twilight is NOT the new Harry Potter. For one thing, the last Harry Potter book had the largest first printing of any book in the history of ever. New Moon may have broken a record for Fandango's opening day pre-sales, but that might say more about the growing trend to purchase tickets online than it does about wide-spread excitement. Also, how well a movie does on its opening day has everything to do with marketing, and actually very little to do with the film itself, and how well it will do as time goes on. Look at Napoleon Dynamite.

Furthermore, the Twilight series does not approach Rowling's works in terms of quality. The latter explores and expands the monomyth, asks and answers serious questions about society, prejudice, morality and the human experience.

Stephenie Meyer writes about hormones. Her books are an entirely physical experience, and to further that argument, I call her as my witness. In a recent interview, she said that the biggest problem in adapting her books to film was casting Edward. Why was that such a problem? Because, what human could possibly look that good? Yeah, that's the depth of your book right there. Nobody is as hot as my vampire.

It really reminds me of Faulkner's Nobel Acceptance Speech. He expressed his fear of what the future author would become:

"He writes not of love but of lust....Not of the heart, but of the glands."

Change the pronouns to "she," and you've got yourself a rather eloquent and concise indictment against the Complete Works of Stephenie Meyer.

I predict that in no more than ten years from now, the pop-culture consciousness will wake up with a headache, chuckle and say, "Man, can you believe we took those books seriously?"

Harry Potter, on the other hand, will last for centuries.

And the Beatles? Really? I mean, Twilight definitely has a fan base, but come on.

Another social hyperbole that (like the Beatles comparison) hardly requires refutation, is the constant comparison of this recession to The Great Depression. Sorry kids. That's a no contest.

Twilight (The Twilight Saga)
Twilight (The Twilight Saga)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Autumn in Provo

So, I'm not entirely emo. We wrote two poems for class based on the style of may ayim, who was a suicidal African/German woman.

orion roams the sky too early
for this time of year
autumn had just painted the trees
and already winter has come
with her dusty self
to cover her sister’s masterpiece

how to spell winter


the letters don’t fit together
too wide
too tall
too low

the blankets of white at first seem charming
welcome as a distant uncle
then dreary
they stay too long

thank God
for Christmas

and carols


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I groaned. I thought the idea of turning this brief picture book into a full-length movie was irredeemably dumb. It just didn't seem like the material was there.

I was wrong. So very, very wrong. In no way did this movie lack material.

I thought Spike Jonez did such an excellent job projecting the spirit and imagery of the book onto a fleshed-out, adult retelling of the story. And be not mistaken. This is a movie for adults. Unlike Up, where children and parents are almost guaranteed to adore the movie equally, if not for different reasons, children may not like this movie at all. It's at times a remarkably harsh look at loneliness, anger, the need to be loved and acknowledged, jealousy and down right terror.

Seriously, the DVD should include a pamphlet summarizing Kierkegaard's "The Anxiety of Lowliness." When the tagline says "There's one in all of us," it doesn't mean so much that there's a zany fuzzy thing inside all of us that loves to dance. It means there's a facet of our personality that is cripplingly insecure, jealous, exclusive or hateful. The main question of the movie is how do we maintain happiness in a society full of broken individuals. Good question. Although there's hope for it on the shattered island of Wild Things, there isn't a clear resolution. But although the resolution is absent, the answer is clear: love (as we're told in the end by a smashingly good song by Karen O and the Kids).

I forgot to mention that the movie is hilarious. I had several uncontrollable laugh-out-loud moments. Keep an eye out for Bob and Terry.

And now a word about the technical aspect of the movie. CG is employed to a minimum, and I love that. To me, computer effects almost always look cheap, and they date way too fast. I was floored just like everybody else when I saw Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy five years ago, but he already looks like a relic from the neolithic age. The Wild Things are actors in suits, and I honestly don't know how they did it. They had those things moving so fast and flying into each other and into wood huts and all kinds of other crazy stuff I would never dream of doing in a huge suit like that. They had some serious momentum.

In conclusion, this is a great, great movie. It rewards serious analysis, it's funny and it just looks so good. I don't think taking a kid to see this is necessarily a bad idea. Frankly, there are some scary sequences with the Wild Things which younger kids may not be able to take. But it depends on the kid. I honestly don't know what I would have thought of this movie as a child. I sure do love it now, though.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Solving Life's Mysteries

So, I've come to the realization that if everyone wrote everything in minimalist syntactic trees, there would be no more structural ambiguity, and English teachers would never again have to take off points for "misplaced modifiers."

Here's an example of a confusing sentence:

"The agitated cow killed the farmer with the axe."

As it stands, it's ambiguous. Did the cow use an axe to kill a farmer, or did the cow kill a farmer who happened to have an axe? Well, if it had just been written in a syntactic tree, there'd be no ambiguity. Ex:

Here, the farmer with the axe met his end by means of a cow. You can tell because "with the axe" is clearly an adjunct of "farmer." The other meaning, where a cow hacked the poor farmer to pieces, would be illustrated with the prepositional adjunct belonging to the verb phrase, "killed." Here you go:

For some reason, I put "enraged" instead of "agitated, but the point is the same.

So yeah, I think any important text (newspapers, novels, etc.) should now be published in syntax-tree-format to eliminate future confusion.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Report to the Academy Concerning the Trainer of Kafka’s Ape

I wrote this as an assignment for my German 340 class. We were supposed to do a creative assignment based on Franz Kafka's short story "A Report to an Academy." I fleshed out an anonymous character from the story and filled in the missing details.

Here you go:

My esteemed colleagues, it is with the greatest of honor that I accept both your grant and your challenge to observe, study and research the final, and perhaps, most fascinating trainer in a long line of men who successfully attempted to humanize the specimen in question. To be invited not only to stand in your august company, but also to present my findings is most humbling indeed. Truly I feel that I am among giants.

It is with deepest regrets, then, that I must inform you that a full analysis of my data is not yet complete. Therefore, I have prepared a transcript of the interview which I hope will be of interest to this body of scholars. I have by no means abandoned the project, but I must remove myself from it temporarily so as to gain a better perspective. I have found, as I am sure we all have, that on occasion when one spends too much energy and time observing a problem too closely, one loses focus entirely.

I will now proceed to play the interview I conducted with Dr. Hartmut Barras. I remind you that he was the last to recover from the effects of the training, and although it has been decades since the occurrence, he is perhaps, regrettably, too fragile to be of any empirical use. Please feel free to follow along with the transcript:

I: Herr Dr. Prof. Barras,—
HB: You call me Hartmut.
I: Pardon. Hartmut—
HB: Yes?
I: What was your profession before you worked with the specimen?
HB: I taught literature.
I: You were a professor, correct?
HB: I taught literature at a University.
I: And how long did you fill that position?
HB: I taught for 12 years before I was asked to assist in…the specimen’s training.
I: Were you surprised at the offer.
HB: Naturally.
I: And what, exactly, did they ask you to train the specimen to do?
HB: I was to teach him how to read and write.
I: How long were you his trainer?
HB: I can’t recall clearly. A lot happened very fast.
I: Other sources say it was approximately fifteen minutes.
HB: No. Much longer.
I: Hm, well. How long has it been since you resigned?
HB: Can you really call that resigning?
I: Well, how long has it been?
HB: Years. I try not to think about it often.
I: So can you still remember your first impressions of the specimen.
HB: Oh, clearly.
I: Would you share them?
HB: Must I?
I: Well, none of this is obligatory, but it would certainly be of great help to us.
I: I suppose we can move on—
HB: No. Just…. I tell you this because someone must know—but please—for the love of God, man—don’t tell more people than you must. It is something I’m not proud of. [pause] When I first met…him. I thought him an ape.
I: Yes?
HB: What do you mean ‘yes?’
I: You thought him an ape, and…?
HB : Don’t you understand? There was no and! I thought him an ape. A banana-loving, tree-swinging ape. Nothing more.
I: I see.
HB: Do you?
I: What did you observe about the specimen’s behavior?
HB: Ha! His behavior. You talk about him like he’s a plant or a storm cloud or an amoeba. What did I observe about the specimen’s behavior? I’ll tell you. He is definitively not an ape—if there is such a thing.
I: Would you care to elaborate? Or perhaps you could just explain the training process.
HB: There was no process—sorry, what’s your name?
I: Dr. Schneider.
HB: No, you fool. What’s your name?
I: My first name?
HB: Yes, of course.
I: Adam.
HB: There was no process, Adam. I saw the papers he had written under the previous trainers and was horrified. That was the process.
I: I have actually read those training papers. Forgive me if I sound insensitive in my query, but what in them did you find frightening?
HB: Perhaps, perhaps by only reading them you cannot grasp the magnitude of that individual. But to be there! To see the desperation in his eyes as he tried to assimilate me—and do not mistake it for a bestial desperation. It was a caged struggle to be sure, but one not of simply trying to escape into the abyss. It was the desperation you hear in Michael’s voice as Goethe has him try to clothe God’s gentle movement of the day in words. Angelic, yes, that’s what it was. And so far beyond what I am! How it seared my soul to be consumed by a greater being—to see him look into my spirit and find it not worthy of assimilating.
I: He attacked you?
HB: Idiot! Do you listen? He pierced me only with those great black eyes. He absorbed who I was and found me wanting. I became so adrift in his…his horrible being that I lost myself entirely. Until at last I found myself in the abyss, and found myself shouting from the depths of eternity, ‘I am!’ I was the beast in the center of nothingness.
I: Yes. Thank you. How would you say he responded to traditional pedagogy?
HB: Get out.
I: Pardon?
HB: Get. Out.
I: Have I offended you sir? Or if you feel uncomfortable describing the encounter we can pause for a while.
HB: Adam. You have offended everything that I am. Leave.
I: Thank you for your time, Doctor.
HB: Hartmut.

I will now devote the rest of my presentation to questions from the body of scholars. Yes, Dr. Roberts.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

If I had to say succinctly what made this such a monumentally frustrating film, it would have to be that they do an excellent job bringing to life things of minor importance, but botch the core of the story.

This review will make no attempts to steer away from spoilers in the sixth and seventh books, so if you haven’t already read them, I’m sorry. It’s not like you haven’t had enough time.

David Yates, the name of your movie is Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. So, why didn’t we see more of the Half Blood Prince? If you’re already paying Alan Rickman, the only man in the history of time who could do Snape justice, why on earth, why in the world would you not give him every line he has in the book? Why would you invent these insipid escapades with Bellatrix and Diet-Fenrir, but hack to pieces the two great scenes with Snape at the beginning and end of the novel? Why, David Yates? Why?!

I cannot think of a movie where a titular character is given less screen time. Even Big freaking Fish.

Snape is the tragic hero of the series, and I feel that the books are just as much about him as they are Harry. He is, by a long shot, the richest character. After making a series of horrible mistakes, he is pulled away from evil’s seduction because of the death of the woman he loved, who couldn’t love him because of his choices, but instead married the man he hated most in all the world. So he spends and gives his life for the protection of their son—the son of his greatest enemy and only love. And the tragedy lies not in his death, but that he could never see that Harry was so much greater than his father. That Harry was not the pompous, cruel bully Snape found in James. And had he been able to see past that, he could have been a father to Lilly’s son. What better vengeance against James?

But just as tragically, this latest flick is absolutely devoid of any of that depth. Not once does Snape say anything about James Potter, including and especially the scene when he’s fleeing to the forest. That was what really did me in. Snape loses it there in the book. Rowling describes his face as “demented” and “inhuman” and being “full of rage,” because Harry is unknowingly using not only the spells that Snape invented against him, but the spells that James stole, and then used to torment him. I wanted so badly to see Rickman act that scene out. I have been waiting for it for four years. And I will never see it.

But enough about the titular character.

Another big problem is that they tried oh-so-very-hard to keep it a PG movie when they should have let it run its course into PG-13. Now, understand that I’m not one for gore. I cannot watch it. But a huge problem with the otherwise masterful scene where Harry and Malfoy are dueling, is that when Harry uses the Sectumsempra curse (and he doesn’t know what it does before he casts it), Malfoy just gets what look like two holes in his shirt and he starts to bleed into the surrounding water.

In the book he’s sliced open. Twice. In the face. The problem lies in that the result in the movie is what we were expecting to happen at the end of a shoot-out—somebody winds up bleeding on the floor. The horror and magnitude of the curse are missing.

Also, if it had to be PG, they should have cut Fenrir out of the movie completely. He served no purpose, and I don’t think anyone even knew he was supposed to be a werewolf. Optimally, it would have been PG-13, and he would have attacked Bill (who wasn’t in the movie), and we would have had that great scene in the hospital wing with Bill & Fleur (also not featured) and Tonks & Lupin.

I was amazed at the end of the movie how, although they wrote Ginny into so many extra scenes, we didn’t see one atom of her personality from the book. There is a reason why Harry is in love with her—a reason that is hopelessly absent in the movie.

That leads me to my next point. Harry is decidedly not a player. They constantly manufacture lines and scenes to make him out to be a womanizer, but he was only ever interested in two girls: Cho and Ginny. For reasons as epic as they were catastrophic, it just did not work out for him and Cho.

I still think the movie, as it stands, should be rated PG-13. Although the Inferi looked like rejected Gollum prototypes, they were plenty frightening. I also have to give props where they’re due to the scene where the girl touches the cursed necklace. That was deliciously terrifying, but as an eight-year-old I could not have handled it.

And since I’m admitting that there were things I liked about this movie, I think it was Dumbledore’s best performance, and I’m not just talking about the scenes with the zombies and his death. (They make a terribly stupid call in the latter scene, by the way.) Throughout the whole movie, he does a much better job with the character than he did with any of the previous films.

But J.K. needs to teach Yates the Imperius curse so he can keep Helena Bonham Carter under control. Ugh. I hate her. Bellatrix is supposed to be a cold, murderous aristocrat, not a flighty, giggling maniac.

And I can’t stand Emma Watson. Tell me with a straight face that this is Hermione.

Nicholas Hooper did a better job with the score than he did last time. There was a fantastically solid and haunting harp solo about mid-movie. But, I really wish they still had either Patrick Doyle or John Williams working on the score. We of course have to give reverence to Williams for writing the original themes, but Doyle wrote some breathtaking strings pieces for the fourth movie, and did a dazzling variation on the original theme that Hooper has yet to match.

I never say this, because I have invested a lot of money and time in them, but Hollywood really ruined a great story here. They take the focus off of what made the characters so compelling, and instead devoted SO MUCH TIME to the (romance is too grand a word for it) high school drama. And it’s in the book. It’s there. It’s even part of the driving force behind the plot. But a bit of snogging does not a story make. (I’m looking at you, Twilight.) Here’s a chief example: Not two minutes after they’re mourning over Dumbledore’s still warm body, Hermione is giving Harry the green-light to make out with Ginny. And Hamlet threw a tissy over his mom waiting only two months.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Gentle Movement of the Day

Verse poem I wrote for class. The title is from a translation of Faust.

"The Gentle Movement of the Day"

Old Man Time mumbles in his whicker chair
about ingratitude from those he serves.
He says, as he scratches his hoary hair,
“It’s clear that they want more than they deserve.

“At birth I give to each and all one Day,
what’s then the short sum of their existence.
But Week, then Month and Years go on their way,
and short Day loses his significance.

“Yet still a few days come which stand alone—
those wild days which chart the depth of life,
full of pathos, that marrow to the bone,
which fills a life with ecstasy and grief.”

Old Man Time, get you now quickly to bed!
Short Day is ebbing, and soon will be dead.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Roger Ebert Quote du Jour

"To say that George Lucas cannot write a love scene is an understatement; greeting cards have expressed more passion."

--From his review of Star Wars: Episode III

Thursday, June 11, 2009

By Any Other Name

This is a free-verse poem I had to write for class:

"By Any Other Name"

I think
it was best for Romeo
to die.
He spared himself a catastrophe
of epiphany.
Could he distinguish between Rosaline
and Juliet,
or were they just two ticks
in the same twitching of the glands?
How tragic to reach the end of life
only to find that he could not see,
and therefore, love
that all women were one
projection of Plato's perfections.
Is it not better to briefly gambol
in the shallows
than drown in the depths?
I am unfair.
Have not all youth
succumbed to capricious
Only from the mad spinning
of the potter’s wheel
can clayish-man take shape
and stand resolute.
Perhaps after Rosaline
and Juliet
and even a Margaret
or Thelma,
he would meet a Mary,
whose gentle grace
would shatter the Platonic.
And her vivid flutter of being
and eyes and heart
would force an impression of
to make him blush
at “Rosaline”
or “Capulet.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Stream of Consciousness Summer Cinema 2009

It's that time of year again! My annual film festival is about to kick into action. This is the tentative list of films. I start with one movie, and then pick someone who worked in it and move on to another movie with that same person. A schedule will follow in the coming weeks.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Person of interest: Patrick Doyle

Henry V
Person of interest: Paul Scofield

A Man for All Seasons
Person of interest: Orson Wells

Citizen Kane
Person of interest: Agnes Moorehead

Charlotte’s Web
Person of interest: Richard M. Sherman

The Lion King
Person of interest: Robert Guillame

Big Fish
Person of interest: Albert Finney

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Person of interest: Sean Connery

The Hunt for Red October
Person of interest: James Earl Jones

The Sand Lot
Person of interest: Karen Allen

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Person of interest: John Rhys-Davies

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Person of interest: Christopher Lee

Treasure Island (1990)
Person of interest: Christian Bale

Howl’s Moving Castle
Person of interest: Miyazaki

Spirited Away
Person of interest: John Ratzenberger
Person of interest: Sigourney Weaver

The Village
Person of interest: Brendan Gleeson

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Person of interest: Alan Rickman

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Person of interest: John Malkovich

Person of interest: Patrick Doyle


Yeah, we wound up not watching Second Hand Lions or Eragon. We went from Hitchhiker's Guide to The Italian Job, where it died. I think next year I'm going to do the thing either in pairs (sets of duo actors in two films) or pick one person that worked in all the movies.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Electoral College

Here's an opinion piece I wrote for my American Heritage class:

I am against the Electoral College. I understand the reasoning behind its creation—that the people need a filter for their voice in who will hold the executive power in this country. But I will argue that an imposed filter is not only unnecessary, but destructive.

The framers of the Constitution wisely put filters on public opinion for those who would serve in the federal government. The most genius of these is a filter surrounding the Supreme Court. The judicial branch must, by definition, be the most disinterested party in the government. The moment they fear their judgments will enflame public opinion and therefore remove them from office is the moment they have failed the people of this nation. They must be as firm and steady as the Constitution itself in their rulings, and just as the framers drafted the Constitution beyond the reach of lobbyists, so must the Supreme Court sit behind several protective barriers from the fickle flame of public opinion.

That said, the role of the President of the United States is substantially different. He himself is to be the voice of the people. He is a living, breathing filter. Of any of the governmental branches, he needs most to represent the people at large, and it’s as safe as it is necessary for him to do so. He cannot declare war. He cannot create laws. He cannot, by himself, fill the Supreme Court. Congress holds the ultimate power in all of these actions.

Furthermore, there is already a natural filter “for the people, by the people, of the people.” Here it is: less than two thirds of eligible Americans vote in presidential elections.[1] The least informed, the least interested and the least qualified citizens don’t make a difference in presidential elections, because they simply don’t vote. What better filter could we possibly devise? Adam Smith’s laissez-faire sentiments could and should be liberally applied to the economy of election.

Now, some may think that I am too consumed with rhetoric and idealism. I think most people believe that the Electoral College is a non-issue. I would invite those critics to cast their view back to what has become the crux of contemporary history—September 11th, 2001. Just a scant year before that cataclysmic event the American people raised their voice to choose their Commander in Chief.

As we are all aware, the man who won the popular votes of the people was denied entrance to the White House by the Electoral College. Without going into a discussion of the past president’s administration, I would just like to ask, at what point in modern memory would we have wanted more to be heard? When would we have wanted our vote to matter most? A discussion of what would have been different is impossible. But the point is, after the bulk of informed, interested Americans exercised their right to democratic action, an archaic institution denied them their voice. That should never happen again.

[1] This is according to a study by Penn State:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I wish for a more perfect More Perfect Union

This is not the worst movie I have ever seen. That said, it was awful. Rarely do I find myself laughing at a drama, but I can point out at least six times when I erupted into cackles. This film is about as subtle as a billboard.First of all, the acting is SO forced and overdone (with the one grand exception of Ben Franklin, who has no idea what he's doing). James Madison is such an unstable cry-baby that one solid "Yo' Mamma is so fat" joke from Roger Sherman would have had him weeping all the way back to Virginia. In the music scene in the garden, I wanted so desperately for General Washington to say, "You know Jimmy, most men have been weened by your age...."

A huge problem with the film is that the main drama swirls around if the Senate should be represented based on the population of the state or if each state should have an equal voice. Call me crazy, but I never had a problem with the way congress is set up. I remember being a fourth grader in Ms. Pinder's class and thinking it was fantastically brilliant. So unfortunately, lines like "History will never forgive us for this" ("this" meaning equal representation in the senate) uttered by the protagonist seem WAY over the top and ridiculous.

As a connoisseur of Mormon movies, I got a huge kick out of the casting. There were so many times when I was like, "Who IS that guy? Oh..... He's Pilate, from the 'Lamb of God.'" My personal favorite was how Doubting Thomas from "Finding Faith in Christ" plays a doubting Thomas. In fact there were so many actors from "The Lamb of God" and "Finding Faith in Christ" that I half expected the titular character of both films to walk on at any moment and hand them the Constitution.

Now let's talk about accents. The one pro-slavery southerner was the laziest accent actor I have ever seen. His idea of a drawl was clipping is -ing's into -in's. And he left it at that. Or how about the dude at the end who reads the constitution? He had a HORRIBLE Utah valley accent. (The fortunate thing about Utah-valley-dwellers is that they are totally unaware that they speak a variant form of English, so most of the people watching the film will be clueless on this point.) Also, a personal note to Kurt Bestor: I expected much, MUCH more from you, sir. That score was like being hit with an ironing board. We know 15 seconds in advance before anyone says anything important because there's always an oh-so-subtle orchestra crash.

But I have to admit, as heavy handed as the script is on civic and theological points, it really has its moments. The tragedy is that each of those moments meets a massacre from the director and cast. Ben Franklin was SOOOOOO bad. I got the feeling he didn't really understand his lines--like he was ESL or something. I hated him before he was even on camera in the scene where Washington knocks on his gate and he fumbles on an otherwise funny line about women.

Or how about the concluding American Agrarian Montage? Look at us in our cute little montage! We're so American and agrarian! Heck, we're even equestrian!

So in conclusion, I loved the heck out of this movie in none of the ways it intended. It's horrible, and for that reason I would buy it in an instant if I could. BYU is capable of producing a great historical film, by the way. I recommend watching "Truth and Conviction" as soon as you're done with "A More Perfect Union" for a potent reminder as to why the institution is still accredited after producing such a piece of doo-doo.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Roger Ebert Quote du Jour

I took this from Roger Ebert's Blog:

Heidegger: If Ebert could think creatively and analytically (properly) he wouldn't be an unproductive clod or a critic for that matter. Putting a French saying in your emotionally stunted critique of an obviously unpleasant, uncompromising film doesn't prove Ebert's "artsy-critic" cred. Ebert seems to despise art. He's a glut for pop-culture, which by definition rules out anything that is intellectually/emotionally challenging with the slightest bit of depth. That's his job. He speaks for the common man who watches films simply for the escapism and to see "cool stuff" on a big screen.

He makes smart-ass remarks about films like Wild At Heart while saccharine fluff like Transformers is just "goofy fun" ya'll!

If you like to be challenged and enriched by art (on film or any other medium) stop paying attention to this shill for the lowest common denominator, he writes reviews for the same folks that love monster truck shows and actually pay to see Larry the Cable guy live (and not to throw rocks at his hollowed out melon head).

Ebert: I hope you enjoy my reviews when you begin reading them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Chow Yun-Fat and the Art of the Cello

My relationship with the cello began with a Kung Fu movie. I was about 14, and a new martial arts epic had just been released in the US with a score by Tan Dun. I went to go see it with my grandmother, of all people. I don’t remember the opening shot, but I will never be able to forget the opening three notes. Tonic, dominant, submediant. Do, Sol, La.

In those days, I didn’t know much about music. I knew the instrument I was hearing was too low to be a violin, but I didn’t think it was a bass. It wasn’t until the end of the film that the revealing “Cello Solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma” hit the screen. I now knew the name of my new-found love, as well as a new icon to follow. As my grandmother and I walked out of the theater, she said, “Wow.”

Wow was right. I had gone to the cinema that day to see entertaining trash and was fully unprepared for what followed. The film set a new standard for “action scenes” in a Kung Fu movie in that there really weren’t any—at least nothing that looked remotely realistic. Instead, the actors chased each other up stalks of towering bamboo. They literally flew from roof to roof in a nocturnal foot chase. It was a seamless synthesis of battle and ballet.

That lens of exaltation is at the core of art. No one goes to an opera to see how people on the streets really walk, dress, speak or sing. We go to operas and to ballets and to galleries to witness extracted beauty—to hear words spoken outside the realm of speech. Even photography is hopelessly unrealistic. Eternal moments do not exist in the natural universe.

After I got home from the movie, I announced to my parents that I wanted to learn to play the cello. They told me that in order to play a bowed instrument, like the cello or violin, I had to have perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the almost super-human ability to name a pitch when hearing it, or to produce a certain pitch on command. It is a rare gift, even among professional musicians. I was irritated. I did not have perfect pitch, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. I resolved to train myself by sitting at the piano, closing my eyes and randomly striking a note. Then I would open my eyes and check my hypothesis.

Day after day for over a year I sat at the piano and hammered out miniscule success. Like most life lessons, I didn’t appreciate it as it happened. But rarely do we know we’ve enrolled in the school of hard knocks. Mostly we just feel the pain of tuition. I will admit that training your ear is not the most grievous of burdens, but it was a serious obstacle to certain bliss.

At length, I mastered all the white keys. I doubt my dad remembers the day I called him into the front room to test my accuracy. I stood with my back to the piano while he sat down facing it. He banged out a note. “C. Come on! Give me a hard one. E. B. G….” I have housed that day in my temple of personal accomplishments, and sure enough, it was sufficient evidence for my parents to see that I was serious about the cello.

I was 16 by the time I started renting my first cello. My parents had picked it out from Mississippi Music, and it was propped against the piano when I got back from school that day. I opened up the nylon case to see for the first time the cello I would later purchase and name Guastus. Guastus had a glossy dark stain and black finger board. His endpin had a hard rubber stop at the end that wound up being worthless at keeping the instrument stable on hard floors. I sat with Guastus for about an hour, having no clue how to hold a cello or the bow.

It was like a first kiss—I had only a vague idea of what I was supposed to be doing, but I just gloried in the basics. I scraped the bow across the strings and wrapped myself in those low, magnanimous tones. My favorite string was the second lowest. I think it was Bach’s too, because he starts his legendary cello suites with that open G pulsing at the beginning of the introductory measures. I think it’s fitting that my first experiments with the cello and the instrument’s most famous piece started out the same way. But of course, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was only conscious of the resonance between the strings and my chest cavity. In those first moments, ignorance really was bliss.

But that was resolved by Sue Yoo. Sue Yoo was an Asian woman half the size of her cello with the soft voice and sharp glance of an assassin. She was cello teacher #1. Upon meeting her I told her that I had been working on acquiring perfect pitch, but hadn’t quite reached it. “I know it’s required to play the cello,” I said, happy that I could demonstrate some knowledge of the instrument. She quickly told me I was wrong, and it was unnecessary. Never again will rage and relief find so perfect a union.

Once I forgot to bring my bow with me to a lesson, so we did drills plucking the strings for half an hour. Subsequently, the fingers on my right hand were covered in blisters. Sue Yoo terrified me. She always wore massive stilettos with her black jeans. One night she broke into my room through the window while I was lying in bed and kicked me in the neck with those spikes. I was coughing and spattering blood everywhere right before I woke up and realized there was no escape from Sue Yoo, even in dreams.

But eventually I got a job at McDonald’s, which disrupted my cello lessons. I said goodbye to Ms. Yoo, but not to Guastus. We stuck with it, and I attempted to teach myself for the next year and a half, despite working 30-35 hour weeks my senior year of high school.

After my McDonald’s experience, I lost my tolerance for people who are too busy. When someone tells me they don’t have time for something, I stop listening. We all have 24 hours every day to spend on whatever we want. What you actually mean when you say, “I’m too busy for _____,” is “I don’t want to do _____.” The things we want to do most become our priorities, and we do them. When I got home from school, I practiced with Guastus because I wanted to master the cello more than I wanted to read a book or watch TV or play a video game or relax. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally indulge in something else, but I always made time for the cello.

When I’m in the midst of indulgent trash-TV and watching a talk show, I see something similar. “Baby, I love you more than anything in the world, but I just can’t stop _____.” The moment the “but” enters the sentence, I know the person is deceiving himself. No. You love smoking pot or sleeping around or eating to the point of morbid obesity more than you love your girlfriend or mom or wife. How do I know? Because you consistently obtain the one at the risk of losing the other. It’s a matter of priorities.

One of my priorities was to get a new bow. Mine was artificial, and it made Guastus sound more like an ecstatic Rosanne Barr than the typical James Earl Jones timbre for which cellos are famous. I ordered the new bow online. It was made from brasilwood and genuine horse hair. It turned out to be a good investment. I was playing at church a few weeks later when a woman approached me with the proposal to play at a relative’s wedding, which then covered the cost of the bow.

After I actually made money with the cello, I had a new confidence. I started by chasing after Bach’s second solo suite. To this day I’m overcome by that first movement. What Oscar Wilde’s character said of playing Chopin applied to me and Bach, “I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Hamlet was in that same dimension when he puzzled over a staged lament for the mythological Queen Hecuba, and perhaps, had he not broken the trance, he could have found either the peace or the determination to resolve his inner conflict. We need art for reflective moments like those. The sublime makes us want to be better. It’s true of the best music, drama and art.

Towards the end of my last year of High School, I had a moment when I witnessed something truly sublime. I saw—in the flesh—Yo-Yo Ma perform the Dvorak cello concerto. It was in Alabama, of all places, and the Saenger Theatre was packed. My friends and I were clear in the back balcony, but I could hear every note with unmatched clarity. At the climax of the first movement, I was astonished to find myself weeping. I wasn’t just “getting misty.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Yo-Yo Ma had surpassed my understanding of perfection, and I didn’t know what to do with myself besides be better.

By the time I reached college, I was much better than when I first strolled into Sue Yoo’s studio. Now that I wasn’t working and had a university at my disposal, I figured it was a great time to renew a more structured approach to the cello. To start off my first lesson with Megan, she asked me to play something. I started playing a Bach piece. She stopped me and said she had never heard anything played so well with such awful technique. In the following semesters I unlearned everything I had taught myself, and began anew.

That can happen with people, too. On a few occasions I have been abroad for several months or years and had only limited contact with my friends and family. Every time I’ve come back I’ve been shocked at how different they are from how I thought they were. Each time I embarrass myself. Each time I have to start from the beginning. I’ve wondered about Odysseus in that regard. What did he think of Penelope in the weeks following his return? Did he ever stumble on his words and say the wrong thing? Did he ever feel like he was staring at a stranger?

In addition to re-learning the technique, I met a new instrument. I can’t remember why I went to a music store that day, but I decided to walk into the cello room. The sales clerk indulged me in letting me play a few of the new instruments. They were nice, but they just didn’t feel like they’d been broken-in.

Then in the back corner, I saw Eudora. Eudora is a blonde Italian, and she’s about 90 years old. I sat down with her and started to play. She was totally unique, and I say that without hyperbole. For one, the people who sculpted and repaired her had completely unorthodox approaches, leading to a ridge in the fingerboard and pegs connecting the neck to the back. I found out quickly that she had a capacity totally beyond Guastus. She could roar and shriek or hum and sing. But most amazing was her ability to play low notes so gently, and resonate so profoundly that my heart melted. I knew then that she was my cello. Guastus had been a good friend, and I haven’t sold him, but he needed to make way for my true love.

Eudora and I are still going steady. We’ve played for hundreds of people in various settings. One of my favorite and most recent venues was the local elementary school. I volunteered to do a lesson to several classes about the instrument and to play a Gabriel Fauré piece for them. I was hoping to surprise them. I was hoping to dazzle them with beauty the way the Kung Fu movie had me, and change a life. In some cases, I succeeded. I saw their little eyes widen and their jaws hang low as Eudora began to sing the soul-crushing strains of Fauré’s “Elegie.” I watched their conception of “pretty music” collapse.

That’s key in life—revelations and roadblocks unexpectedly shattering our expectations. What we have to do is use those opportunities to assess what’s really most dear to us, and then cling to that. And that’s why every society needs great art, because we use art to educate our yearning and our love. If we choose wisely, invariably, those cherished things will shock us again and again with their beauty, and we will find ourselves becoming more like the ideals we cherish.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

O Fortuna

In my world today, the global economy is on life support and we are under a flu attack from the swine. I’m not apathetic; I’m just ignorant. I want to help people have jobs and money, and I want to subdue the swine, but I don’t know how. Economists say that spending more will stimulate the economy. But I don’t trust economists. Didn’t over-spending cause this recession? From what I can see, economists get in their offices, sit down at their desks, open their drawers and pull out their Ouija boards. Perhaps if Avian Flu is the order of the day, they’ll sprinkle some chicken blood, but if not, I’m sure some other voodoo will do.

My distrust for them is perhaps the only tangible product of their sooth saying. What other professionals with equally rigorous education consistently produce such catastrophic results? When was the last time all the patients of the nation’s hospitals spontaneously combusted because the doctors had been pumping kerosene instead of blood through their veins? But I guess they're just human.

O Fortuna,
Velut luna
Statu veriabilis!

So begins the opening lament of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana—that fortune, like the moon, is in a state of constant change. It’s true. I believe it. I’ve never known anyone whose life was all tiramisu and no SPAM, or vice versa. I concede that that principle must also inevitably apply to economists. Certainly they benefit us at times. Like the old cliché goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

But a problem with the anonymous monk who penned Orff’s lyrics and with almost everyone is that we focus too much not only on the downward swing, but on Lady Fortuna and her wheel in general. This idea of shifting fortune is essentially a law of nature. Do we also need cantatas for all the laws of thermodynamics? Yes, the economy is bad, but it will get better. Why? Because that’s what economies do.

Much more important than noting the obvious turns of fortune’s wheel is to maintain our balance and dignity throughout all phases of its cycle. A critical thought to cherish while at the bottom of the wheel, for instance, is that we’re human. I like humans, and I’ve found that very few species outside of our own will tolerate me. The Norse said correctly that “man is the joy of man.” We are a race of divine fetuses rolling on our big blue orb. Granted, some will grow to be as irresponsible and promiscuous as Zeus, or as destructive as Shiva, but we also have the potential of Loki’s wit and even Jesus’ grace.

Likewise, while riding the crest of prosperity’s wave we need also remember that we are humans. Unfortunately, we have a terrible capacity for greed and poor form. Others will find us easy to forgive if, in the depths of deprivation, we forget to mind or manners. They will not be so forgiving, if, however, with belching sensuality, we flaunt our advantages in the faces of the poor, and with outrageous self-indulgence, rob our children of economic stability.

So. Stay balanced. Stay temperate. And remember, “What a piece of work is man!”

Monday, May 4, 2009


My university's campus is immaculate. Anyone who's been there knows that. The scattered cigarette butts and gums wrappers which plague most other campuses are totally absent. Tulips and pansies sit proudly in their well tended beds, and the trees themselves offer a friendly palate of colors ranging from the deepest greens to the most somber of reds. Every day after classes, I begin my hike down from campus. Usually I'm leaving from the proximity of the Humanities building. It's a magnificent glass and stone structure, rising like a titan of scholarship, complete with a stunning rocky fountain. As I continue walking, the Maeser building is not far off, the home to the Honors Program. There, a bronze Karl G. Maeser stands watching over the university, reminding us that the institution is not just one of mind, but of soul--that a graduate from this university is not expected to develop only a rigorous passion for learning, but a character fit to match the mountains which surround it.

And then I leave Karl and start my descent down the hill. Happy co-eds sit on their balconies smiling, conversing and strumming guitars. I smile and walk on. I come to a cross walk with bright orange safety flags for crossing. You're supposed to pick one up and signal with it as you walk, depositing it on the other side. I have never seen anyone use them. If I could do a cartwheel or juggle, that is how I would cross the street every time, and the only conditions under which I would use those flags.

But then as I move even further south, I see something that relentlessly irritates me. Dandelions. Entire rainforests of dandelions cover the many shabby yards of the many shabby houses. It's a long walk back from campus, and I encounter the dandelions in the very last leg of the journey. It puts me in such a foul mood that when I see my apartment, I can think of nothing more than how much I want to go inside. It is a tragedy that just a few blocks south of such a well kept campus are so many weeds.

Today as I was coming back from a film on campus, I saw a portly woman about my age cutting her lawn right by my home. She was one of the worst dandelion offenders, and I was glad to see her striking the fiends down, despite my knowledge that simply cutting them down will not get rid of them, but will only help them spread there seeds. I thought about offering to help her cut her yard, seeing as how she was a lady and I a gentleman, but then I saw that she was almost done, and might feel embarrassed by the offer, or worse yet, think that I might be judging her and her work. So I smiled and walked on.

And then I noticed something in my lawn that I never had before. Like a writhing den of diabolical serpents lay hundreds of twisting, turning, disgusting dandelions.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Soloist

I had been anticipating this film for months. I play the cello, and I thought that Joe Wright did such a fantastic job with Pride & Prejudice that this certainly could not be a miss.

The premise is on this wise: Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist, is injured in a bike accident, and while he's moping around L.A., he runs into a Julliard-trained homeless cellist, Nathaniel Ayers.

Let's first talk about what is great in the film. Wright delivers some truly powerful scenes--the most memorable of which is when the young Nathaniel is lit by flames, playing a fiery passage from Beethoven's Eroica symphony in his family's basement.

It also does a fantastic job cluing the rest of us in on how bad the homeless situation is in L.A. I had no idea there were 80,000 people living on the streets of that city. That's more than twice the size of my university. And the film shows that it's not just the number that's distressing, but the quality of life--the non-existence they endure flooded with drugs and violence and loss of self. It was startling.

So many times I was stunned at a particularly poignant shot, or impressed at how the funeral march from the Eroica matched so perfectly contemporary California. Also, the two leads do a fantastic job (aside from what I'm about to rag on Foxx for).

But here come the blunders. Jamie Foxx does not even try to do a convincing job on the cello. His fingers always move in the wrong direction. And in the scene when he plays ith the Julliard orchestra, his ignorance is most visible because he's entirely out of sync with the rest of the cellists. You would think that with his salary he would be expected to learn a little about the instrument--just enough to fake it. Also, how could anyone get into Julliard on the cello without learning Bach's 6 suites for cello? It would be like making it into Harvard's graduate divinity program without having heard of Genesis. After I was separated from my cello for two years, the first thing I played was Bach's suites. Also, Nathaniel's teacher shouts out entirely the wrong notes during their lesson when they introduce the suites. This paragraph may seem totally anal to some, but seriously. Obviously this movie will attract cellists, and I promise that it will annoy every single cellist who sees it.

And then there's a scene where they go to a rehearsal of the Eroica symphony. We watch the orchestra for a moment, and it's splendid. I love the way the camera soars over the conductor and musicians. And then.... I'm not sure what happened. We started watching a visualisation from Windows Media Player. I have to ask, what was the motivation behind that decision? Was it laziness? Had they exhausted their creativity with the opening shots of the orchestra? Or did they think that Americans were too lazy and ADD to watch an orchestra play for two solid minutes? I also didn't care for the CG pigeons soaring above the city.

But the heart of the movie suffered the most because there is no real conclusion. There's no redemption for either Lopez or Ayers. At the end of the movie, the screen flashes to tell us that Lopez is still writing his columns (although in real life, Lopez is happily married. So that's nice. The movie doesn't tell you that.), and Ayers is still insane, playing in tunnels, but lives in that apartment.

But what did we expect? Thousands of people have graduated with degrees from Julliard, and for the most part, they live lives of anonymity. Just because he did two years at a prestigious college does not mean he could have a noticeable career, or even play exceptionally well. There was certainly no performance in the movie to suggest he was any better than any cello performance major anywhere in the country. Although stunning, the opening strains of Beethoven's third symphony are not difficult. If he had any career at all, it would be one of spectacle, not performance. We would watch him and wonder how one so cripplingly insane could pull a bow over the strings. But he would never rival Isserlis or Yo-Yo Ma.

What the film does best is depict the awful state of homelessness in Los Angeles.

So what did this movie do for me? I listened to Beethoven's 3rd symphony for the first time in several months, and I watched the visualisations on Windows Media Player for the first time in years.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Life of Pi

I just read a series of professional reviews on for Life of Pi. Of course, no reviewer is ready to commit to a serious superlative, so they say meaningless things like, "The book's middle section might be the most gripping 200 pages in recent Canadian fiction," or "If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel is surely a contender." Because I don't have a career as a critic on the line, I will say what they really wanted to say. I will employ those risky superlatives.

I cannot think of a better novel. I've certainly never read better. I loved every sentence. I have never, and I mean never been so astounded with the totality of a novel after having read it. I finished it around midnight last night and could not go to sleep. Bengal Tigers and vicious sailors haunted my dreams. I woke up every half hour wondering if other people were awake so I could talk to them about it. I spent all night trying to figure it out and what my stance would be on this book. Did I still like it after an ending like that? Whose side would I take? What part of this work of fiction was true?

If you have not read the book, and want it to be a surprise, then stop reading after this paragraph. I want you to know as little about the plot as I did when I read it. I did not even know the premise. I knew it had something to do with animals, India and religion. Leave it at that.

If you haven't stopped reading now, this sentence is your last out.

Life of Pi creates a laboratory controlled crisis of faith. It tells you one story "with animals" that is impossibly hard to believe. Perhaps the most unbelievable part besides that Pi survives being stranded over 220 days at sea with the sole companion of a 450 pound Bengal Tiger is that he happens upon a literal forest-island of man-eating algae and aquatic lemurs. He recounts his story to the officials who do not believe him. They keep prying him for more information, which he supplies, but they still are not satisfied. Then he asks if they would like a story "without animals," and they respond that they would like that very much. He then tells a story of horrendous human brutality and cannibalism which is simpler than the previous telling, but (to me at least) equally unbelievable.

And here comes the crisis. Which do you believe? Do you believe the one you've been told from the beginning, despite its fantastical elements, or do you believe this tale of human depravity, which, if you look closely is no more believable than the first?

I believe the first for all the same reasons I believe in God, and with all the same difficulties, but on a lower level. To prefer the second to the first because it is more "reasonable" is a mistake. There were definitely inexplicable lemur skeletons in his life boat when he got to Mexico--proof of his visit to the algae-island. And the second story is also unbelievable for several reasons. As unlikely as it was that he would randomly collide with an adrift Frenchman in the middle of the ocean, isn't it just as unlikely that only he and his mother would be in the lifeboat? They just left the father and son? And if he really had been so dependant on the Frenchman, would he really have survived so long without him? In either telling, it seems impossible that he could have survived so long, but to me the first at least explains the "hows."

Likewise, there are certainly rational reasons for believing in God. On several different occasions I have had miraculous answers to prayers. Also, a thorough studying of the doctrines reveals an intricacy and beauty and logic that I simply do not believe is manufactured sensationalism. But none of that alone would be enough to give someone the kind of faith required to last a lifetime. Like everything, faith is ultimately a choice. That's something people don't get. And to me, my religion "is positively 'brim' with answers to the 'why' queries concerning human purpose." (Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Yet Thou Art There’,” Ensign, Nov 1987, 30)

And if one were to think that it is the more adult and sensible thing to pick the second over the first because it's not shying away from the sad and brutal in nature, that would also be a mistake. The first is full of misery and brutality. I would not sign up for or survive Pi's ordeal, and as he poignantly reminds the Japanese officials, his family dies in both.

It reminds me of C.S. Lewis' observation on the nature of Aslan/Christ: He is not a tame lion. God is not a chump, and the story with animals is not an easy way out. But it is a story with hope and triumph.

At the beginning of the book an Indian promises the author he will tell him a story that will make him believe in God. Throughout the entire work I waited for the punchline. I waited for the miracle. But the real miracle is what happens to the reader when presented with the two versions. We are thrust into the valley of decision. Do we believe that 16 year-old Piscine Molitor Patel conquered the lord of the animal kingdom in a forsaken lifeboat, or do we believe that he survived because of the terrible tutelage of a cannibalistic sage?

I gratefully turn to a profound remark I heard as a freshman from Dr. Terryl Givens:

I believe that we are—as reflective, thinking, pondering seekers—much like the proverbial ass of Buridan. If you remember, the beast starved to death because he was faced with two equally desirable and equally accessible piles of hay. Having no determinative reason to choose one over the other, he perished in indecision. In the case of us mortals, men and women are confronted with a world in which there are appealing arguments for God as a childish projection, for modern prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for modern scriptures as so much fabulous fiction. But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious divinity presides over the cosmos, that God calls and anoints prophets, and that His word and will are made manifest through a sacred canon that is never definitively closed. There is, as with the ass of Buridan, nothing to compel an individual’s preference for one over the other. But in the case of us mortals, there is something to tip the scale. There is something to predispose us to a life of faith or a life of unbelief. There is a heart that in these conditions of equilibrium and balance—and only in these conditions of equilibrium and balance, equally “enticed by the one or the other” (2 Nephi 2:16)—is truly free to choose belief or cynicism, faith or faithlessness.

I'm certain that Martel would have been pleased that I had to ponder over whether or not I liked his book. I'm positive he would thrill that I was disturbed by the crisis forced upon me, and that I doubted the value of the first story, which I now love all the more. It was he who pointed out that there must be an allowance for some degree of doubt, citing Christ in the Garden and on the Cross as an example. I agree with him that Jesus' pleas for the cup to be removed and the anguished cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" were the truest of petitions and inquiries. But as he also explains, the worst possible thing is to build a cabin in that valley of decision. To spend a life in indecision and doubts of doubts is to be a burden on everyone, including and especially self. Jesus himself said "I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." (Rev. 3:15-16)

And so I return to my review of the reviewers. Decide for yourselves. Is it a great book, or is it a good example of the latter half of the first decade of the new century's central-Canadian oceanic-survivalist fiction involving a Tiger? I think my stance is clear.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

By the way, when I was done with the first Sally Lockhart book, I quickly went online to order the last three. Each costs eight bucks on Amazon. When I went to check out, I was surprised that $24 doesn't merit free shipping. The minimum is $25. So I Decided I'd add another book for the price of shipping and a little more. But, Amazon was running a 4 for 3 deal, so not only did I get free shipping, I also got a free book, and because of another phantom discount I wound up paying only $23 dollars for the whole bundle.

Go Amazon!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philip Pullman Revisited

From the very first chapter of The Golden Compass I had admired Pullman as a writer. After the very last page of The Amber Spyglass, I cackled and hurled the book across my bedroom. To me, it ruined the series. I saw the whole thing as a cheap vehicle for his bitter atheist indoctrination. (It always bothered me that he could put sentences and paragraphs and chapters together so well, but botch the end product. Somehow the whole doesn't equal its parts.)

And so I, just like everyone else, inevitably began to consider his work in relation to C.S. Lewis and his children's series. I like the Chronicles of Narnia, which was also, in a large sense, a vehicle for his religious convictions. But why did I love Narnia and look down on His Dark Materials? I honestly don't think it was simply because I sided with Lewis. I feel that I'm advanced enough in my studies to where I can entertain and enjoy a viewpoint I disagree with. But I had serious problems pin-pointing what made me love one and hate the other.

The plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not as good as The Golden Compass. It has a simple set up and development, it's not as inventive or imaginative as Pullman's world, the characters aren't as engaging, and it ends with a literal deus ex machina. Despite some real gems along the way, in terms of composition and theory it's not that much to get excited about. But its overarching themes of betrayal and forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption, victory and loss are so much greater than Pullman's. Lewis pulls all of what is best from Christianity--recovering what was lost, mending what was thought forever broken, and redeeming and transforming humanity into something greater than it ever was--and sets up a play with talking animals with that as its main theme. Pullman takes his thesis of "I abhor all of that as an institution," and projects it onto a dark, yet compelling world (or, to be more precise, universe) of fantasy and wonder.

Despite its undeniable suspense and charm, with His Dark Materials, I felt a heavy dose of what Faulkner warned about. He said, speaking of the modern author, "[he must leave] no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."

At the end of the third book, I felt that it was a victory without hope. When Lyra's parents sacrificed themselves I felt no sense of loss, because they were such awful people and their death seemed wholly meaningless. No one had gained anything. No one became better.

And probably my biggest complaint with the series is that he builds up an entity at the very end of a book, which before was insignificant (Lyra's friend, whose name I can't recall; the Texan; and Lyra and Will's romantic relationship) and then kills it for emotional effect. It's what my freshman writing teacher calls a "dead dog" trick. (And don't even get me started on all the ways that Lyra and Will could have stayed together. That had more holes in it than their sliced up universe.)

But still, after all that, it reads much better than Lewis.

So who wrote the better series, Lewis or Pullman?

All of the above reflections were prompted by a visit to a Barnes & Nobles in Metairie. I decided to give a great book with a bad name a chance: The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery by Philip Pullman. I give it my full and most heartfelt endorsement. None of what I complained about in the previous paragraphs is present in this book. It shows the breadth and depth of human motivations and spirit. It's full of unforgettable characters and a twist that is so much more than a plot device. It really is a perfectly crafted novel full of everything that makes reading good. Read it!