Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Review: The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian edited and introduction by Richard Schickel

I don’t normally read essay collections but I decided to take a look at The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian in hopes that it would assist me in my pursuit of all things Charles Chaplin and that it would provide intriguing insight into the silent film comedian.

Schickel gathered a notable series of nearly thirty essays on Chaplin’s work, life, and art from a veritable who’s who of film critics and Chaplin’s contemporaries such as Alistair Cooke, Robert E. Sherwood, Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, and James Agee. The book was also sprinkled with quotes from several other notables, such as Sigmund Freud and Robert Benchley, which I found quite intriguing.

This is a smart book, one profoundly taking an interesting and intellectual view of an actor whose work was based off of the instinctual slapstick comedy of an uncommon man of (and for) the people. Schickel’s introduction was highly intelligent and took an analytical look at Chaplin as both a fan and as a non-partisan critic – something that I am sure is quite challenging to pull off. While he was successful in his attempt to provide an even tone within the book, one could not help but get a whiff of intellectual superiority in Schickel’s tone when describing Chaplin’s attempt at literary and social illumination during his adult years. However, despite that notable blip this does not dampen the obvious affection he does have for the actor nor does it flavor the rest of the book.

For such a proudly intelligent collection, I was disappointed in the amount of misspelled words and typos. The book appeared to have been checked with a spellchecker and at least once in each essay there was a contextually-inappropriate but correctly spelled word. It was an annoying interruption to try to decode what the writer meant only to realize that it was actually just a typo.

The Essential Chaplin is a great source for those who are interested in Chaplin’s work as well as the film industry. Not only does it illustrate the difficulties of how film was received as an art form, but the theoretical challenges of fame facing the first world-famous man. It also provides a revue of the criticisms Chaplin faced not just in his work and art, but in his life and interests. This book is a must-have for Chaplin enthusiasts as well as those looking for an excellent example of the in-depth analysis a collection of essays can provide.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Best

A Thursday meme:
What, in your opinion, is the best book that you haven’t liked? Mind you, I don’t mean your most-hated book–oh, no. I mean the most accomplished, skilled, well-written, impressive book that you just simply didn’t like.

That one was easy, I have two: Dicken's The Tale of Two Cities. I'm not sure if it was how it was presented at school, or the fact that the French Revolution held no interest for me, but I just could not get myself to enjoy it.

The other is Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. I found the narration slow and incredibly dull and while I cannot deny that it is a great book, I just found myself not liking it.

To be fair, I was forced to read these books for school. They are also the only two books where I have tossed it down mid-way and started thinking about alternative ways to get the story. It was not that they were too difficult to read, they weren't...it was that I found they were to boring. It has always been a guilty regret that I've never enjoyed these particular books while I continue to enjoy other classics...even from the same authors. (Loved Great Expectations and David Copperfield...as for Steinbeck, I liked East of Eden...but not much else.)

Really, I should give them another chance now that I'm older. However, my experience in wading through both of these books has left such a lasting aftertaste that it will probably require a concerted effort to pick them up again.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History of Outrageous Trends and Their Untimely Demise by Kate Hahn

I love humor and while I may not look like my clothes are from the runway and I don’t have a subscription to any of the current fashion magazines, I do have a healthy interest in fashion. If for nothing else, I find that some trends can serve as a way to gauge the social climate by observing clues in the fashion trends. Haven’t you heard the theory that skirt hemlines creep up as consumer confidence increases?

Fun and beautifully illustrated, Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History of Outrageous Trends and Their Untimely Demise captures the tone and style of the time periods it describes (from 1903-2005), which helps reinforce the satire but also reflects the author’s understanding and interest in popular culture in modern history.

The story of the ice-beaded dress of the 1920s comes to mind as it is describes both the frivolity and disposable nature of both the dress and the trends followed by the rich and young during the roaring twenties before the depression. The way consumerism and a high value of large-ticket items like cars and washer machines in the late 1950s is illustrated by the story of an artist, his muse, and his dresses inspired by these same applieces, most notably, an Amana fridge. Such parallels run rampant through the book, heightening both its satire on the ever-changing climate of popular culture.

This was an easy book to pick up and flip through. It was created as a series of independent articles and could be read from the beginning or you could skip around. For those searching for a fun book on popular culture that you can pick up and read at your leisure, Forgotten Fashion is a good choice.

Not only were the tales imaginative in their frivolity, they also were plausible, even in the face of (or perhaps because of) absurdity. One would only have to look at the runway to see impractical and absurd fashion statements and you can actually visualize some of the trends in this book. Hell, I think I saw someone wearing the “ponchette” on the train this morning!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Booking through Thursday: Well, that was different!

A Thursday meme:
What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?
And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

I tend to have broad interests in general but I suppose the book most outside my norm was The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century by Carlo Ginzburg. It was a book that my husband recommended to me (he's a medievalist) because of my interest in social culture and history as well as the Inquisition and the subject of witchcraft during the medieval period. I was hesitant because it was one of his schoolbooks and it was my experience that I had trouble staying awake in previous attempts. However, I was intrigued and interested in some new research for a book I was writing (I'm still in the midst of a second re-write) so I picked it up.

I found that the subject was intriguing! The book was not nearly as dry as some of the other books clunking around the house and I probably put more sticky notes in its pages than my husband did when he read it for class. It's definitely one of my favorite academic history books...of course it's the first one I've made an effort of reading outside of school, I am pretty sure it won't be the last.

I thought that the question would have been easier to answer if I had read the type of paperback romance novel that had a long-haired, tanned man with an open shirt embracing some woman in a corset with a "heaving bosom." That is definitely outside my comfort level.

A few summers ago, I figured I was lacking experience in reading romantic fiction of the paperback kind so I marched myself over to the library. My plan: to find one with a cover that I just described...perhaps with a pirate! Pirates are cool and could somehow negate the uneasiness I felt about reading a book with a lurid cover. (Not that I am at all prude...I think I just would be a little embarrassed to read a, excuse me for saying this, trashy romance novel.)

Of course, when I got there, I couldn't get the nerve to approach the little wire rack with the hot pink fluorescent sign marked "Romance." It was full of books with all sorts of covers...each one something that I felt kinda shamed looking at. I passed the rack each time looking for the elusive trashy pirate romance but each time completely chickening out. I swear it felt like being a teenager trying to buy condoms at the grocery store.

It's silly, because millions of people love these novels. And it's not like I haven't read other mass-market books...I've definitely read a ton of trashy fantasy books. I am awed at those who read them...I am not as courageous! Perhaps though in the future, I will break through the barrier and find a suitable romance novel and work my way up. I just have to accept that I am not ready or prepared for the elusive pirate-romance.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes

I have watched Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock series grow for years now as a popular series in Australia. The first book, Hal Spacejock is now undergoing a third printing, according to the website it is available as an import to the US. Now you can experience the first book for free as a downloadable ebook here: http://www.spacejock.com.au/Hal1Download.html

Armed with a sense of humor and imagination, Haynes’ Hal Spacejock has just the right humor to entertain in a colorful sci-fi setting. Those who enjoy sci-fi humor will enjoy this as the irreverent tone and settings are akin to Hitchhiker’s Guide, Red Dwarf, Futurama, Discworld, Planetfall, and Sierra’s SpaceQuest.

Hal Spacejock, a not-too-bright or ambitious pilot of a run-down space freighter is desperate for a job. When faced with a very real threat on his life from loan sharks he embarks on a sketchy pick up and delivery job with only a robot companion, Clunk, to assist him when it all goes from bad to worse.

The story is fun and fast-paced, a great book for a quick read or for a younger reader who can appreciate humor, slight cursing, and poop jokes. While it lacks depth, it makes no qualms that it is there for your amusement and tries to please.

The dialogue was its strong point and the witty repartée between Spacejock and the various characters he encounters smoothes over any of the bumps in pacing. Some of my favorite moments are with the ship computer, Navicom, especially when it finds itself copied onto another ship.

It’s an entertaining read, and I recommend it for anyone who loves deadpan narration and a few hours of frivolous fun in a science fiction world. You may want to download it while still available and check it out for yourself!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Autumn Reading

A Thursday meme:
Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

I don't have kids so school doesn't really affect my reading habits. However, there is something in the crunch of the leaves, the coming chill in the wind, and the explosion of pumpkin-sightings that really gets me in the mood to sit with a good book and sip hot chocolate in a park. Autumn's my favorite time of year and strangely shedding the summer stuff does change my reading habits. I tend to read more history and classic literature and less epic adventure and light and fluffy items. A little Voltaire on a crisp autumn morning on a park bench decked out in an oversize scarf and hand warmers is probably an ideal scene for me. How about you?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I have a particular weakness for irreverent humor, satire, and surreality, so when I was recommended to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman I was agreeable. I had loved Sandman and his joint-venture with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. However, I was surprised and found myself eagerly devouring this novel because it was unique, not many books are able incorporate mythology, satire, and humor so successfully.

As always, Gaiman brings together an adventure that matches wit and fantasy with mythological themes and contemporary storytelling. In the heartlands of America, its settlers and immigrants brought with them the beliefs and myths of their homelands. Those gods and other mystical creatures from folklore and mythology are now living amongst us, getting by and dealing with the day-to-day issues all mortals face...mortgages, money, death, and taxes.

It is this world to which an ex-con, Shadow, is slowly introduced as he takes employment with a mysterious man named, Mr. Wednesday. Here he meets a drunk leprechaun, talking animals from old folk stories, and a cacophony of deities as he helps his employer gather up the old gods in a defensive bid against the rise of the new gods of modern America such as the internet, credit cards, and media, Shadow finds himself a pawn in a very dangerous game.

This book was a particularly good fit for me because I have often wondered what the gods would be doing after their worshippers have moved on. Are there laundromats on Mt. Olympus? What about child support and parking tickets? Some situations were exactly what I would have pictured if you were immortal and accustomed to performing particular tasks. For instance, if you were to deal with and judge the dead, like the Ibis and Jackal, what other profession would you turn to but running a funeral home?

On the whole the novel progressed smoothly through the plot. Only a few chapters interrupted the flow. These occasional interruptions were origin tales describing an Old World god’s introduction to America. On their own, they were intelligent and gripping, I would have loved to learn more about Odin, or the woman who brought the Little Folk with her from Ireland. As part of a whole, they simply broke my immersion in Shadow’s story and served no clear narrative purpose. You would be reading along minding your own business and then a new chapter would be come up and it would feel as if was a completely different story tucked in the middle. Perhaps if they were presented in a different way it wouldn’t have felt so out of place.

Gaiman's tale was easily read and pulled you along an engaging adventure. To see these once-great beings acting just like regular people down on their luck gave the book just the right amount of irony and humor without it being preachy, corny, or even religious. I was pleased that American Gods features increasingly odd and surreal moments that made me eagerly turn each page to see what happens next. Ultimately, what won me over was that the characters were created in such a vivid way and with such unique personalities that despite the possibility of being conned, robbed, killed, or blessed, I would love the chance to meet any of them on the street one day. I would just watch my wallet and perhaps how much everyone’s been drinking!