Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Essential Doctor Strange

I read tons of Marvel comics as a kid, but never really connected with Dr. Strange. I think by that time, artists other than Steve Ditko had come on board and I just wasn't too jazzed about the artwork. (It was always the artwork with me back then. Of course it could be that the first time I picked up one of my brother's comics I hadn't yet learned to read.)

Anyway, a couple of months ago I read Blake Bell's excellent Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and really got into his work on Dr. Strange. Shortly after, I found The Essential Doctor Strange on sale at an outlet mall and bought it.

This large (over 600 pages) volume includes all of the Dr. Strange stories from Strange Tales from issues 110, 111 and 114-168. (Albeit in black and white)

If you only know Ditko through his work on The Amazing Spider-Man, you haven't seen his best stuff. Ditko's Dr. Strange is so wacked out (even for the 1960s) you can't even describe it. There's so much weird stuff floating around, dimensions within dimensions, worlds within worlds, out-of-body name it. Ditko drew Dr. Strange in Strange Tales through issue #146. After that, the stories were bounced around to a variety of other artists, none of whom had anything close to Ditko's vision.

The stories themselves are nothing to write home about. Strange throws a few spells at his arch-enemy Baron Mordo, then tricks him with some spell Mordo forgot about, etc. Pretty thin stuff, but the artwork is amazing. I haven't come close to reading all of the Dr. Strange stories beyond this volume, but I can't imagine that any other artist has come close to matching Ditko's standard. If you're into Silver Age artwork, pick up this one.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscars 2009


1. I watch the Oscars just about every year. I usually stay up for the entire thing, even if I have to work the next day.

2. I could care less who's wearing what or who's seen with whom.

3. I yell at the TV the same way I do when I'm watching football or baseball.

4. I read a book during the boring parts.

With that in mind, I thought Hugh Jackman did a great job, especially at the show's clever, entertaining, recession-conscious opening. Best of all, he didn't get in the way.

Other random thoughts:

At first I really liked the previous actor/actress winners speaking brief tributes to the nominees, but it really got old when we got to the Best Actress nominations. But it was better than seeing the same old clips of the nominees we've been seeing for the past several weeks.

I also liked not hearing, "This is Joe Blow's seventeenth nomination and first win." You want to know that stuff, look it up.

Aside from Heath Ledger's universally acknowledged Oscar-deserving performance, the comic book guys mostly got snubbed. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button really had better effects than The Dark Knight or Iron Man? Really?

Just my opinion: Ben Stiller is not funny. Never has been. I won't say he never will be. There's always hope.

The films I most want to see are in the Foreign Language category.

Anne Hathaway is gorgeous.

I am very happy for Slumdog Millionaire. It deserved everything it won.

Sean Penn is a gifted actor. I just don't want to listen to him (or anyone) stand up there and talk politics. Accept the award, be gracious, thank the people you need to thank, sit down and then make another movie. I haven't seen The Wrestler, so I don't know if Mickey Rourke got robbed. (But if he did, I wouldn't want to be Sean Penn in a dark alley alone with Rourke.)

I saw Kate Winslet in The Reader and was underwhelmed. (Again, sorry, Dr. Phil.) I think the main problem perhaps wasn't so much with her, but that I thought the film was ordinary at best. Which brings me to Meryl Streep:

Let me say this as clearly as I can. Meryl Streep is not of this world. Her talent is immeasurable. She could (and perhaps should) win the Oscar every time she steps in front of a camera. She has won the Oscar before, a Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer and a Best Actress for Sophie's Choice, twenty-seven years ago. The fact that she's still competing twenty-seven years after her last Oscar is tremendous.

The Best Actress category is often the toughest place to be on Oscar night. A brief look at who Streep has been up against:

In 1981, Streep's performance in The French Lieutenant's Woman blew Katherine Hepburn (On Golden Pond) out of the water, but for sentimental reasons (including the ill health of Hepburn's co-star Henry Fonda), Hepburn won.

Streep (Silkwood) lost to Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment), a very good performance by both ladies. In 1985, Streep (Out of Africa) lost to Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful. I loved Bountiful, much more than I enjoyed Africa, but you could make a case for either actress that year.

1987 - Streep (Ironweed) loses to Cher (Moonstruck)

1988 - A Cry in the Dark, loses to Jodie Foster (in the mostly forgettable The Accussed)

1990 - Postcards from the Edge, loses to Kathy Bates (Misery)

1995 - The Bridges of Madison County, loses to Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking)

1998 - One True Thing, loses to Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love)

1999 - Music of the Heart, loses to Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry)

2006 - The Devil Wears Prada, to Helen Mirren (The Queen)

(Streep was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1978 for The Deer Hunter and in 2002 for Adaptation.)

The thing is, for most of the last several years, Streep has been nominated for films that just weren't that good. Most of the roles she takes are not commensurate with her talent. She elevates each of her roles, even in the bad films, but how much can you do when you're in The Bridges of Madison County?

Streep will win again, I'm convinced of it. I haven't yet seen Doubt, so I can't say with any degree of assurance that she should have won this year. But I have my suspicions.

I felt bad that Charlton Heston got so little applause when his name and pictures appeared in the "In Memoriam" portion of the show. Again, forget the man's politics and give him his credit for starring in some great films.

All in all, not a bad show. I think I'll have that extra cup of coffee now.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Geeking Every Minute of It

Okay, I'm a geek. I love the World Almanac. This past Thursday, each graduate of LATI (Library Associate Training Institute) received a copy of the almanac, which made me as happy as a greyhound chasing a slobber-soaked tennis ball. I mean I am in complete nerd mode.

Where else can you find great stuff like this?:

Americans paid an average of 24.5% of their total income in Social Security and income tax payments in 2007; Germans paid 42.8%.

Mozart beat out Beethoven as the most performed composer in 2006-2007, 425 to 391.

The population of New Orleans in 2000 was 484,674. In 2007? 239,124.

The best-selling magazine for 2007? Take a guess. Go ahead.
Answer: AARP The Magazine with a paid circulation of 24,444,293
(Second place - AARP Bulletin - 23,815,128. Oprah lagged woefully behind at a mere 2,405,177.)

Good stuff, man. Geek out!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009 least for now.

The third draft of my YA novel Fortress is finished. I'd like to say this is going to be the final draft, but I know it won't be. I'm going to have at least one librarian and a few teenagers read it and get their feedback, then take it from there.

So, you ask, "What was the road to the novel?" It started as an expansion of a short story I wrote to get into Clarion in 2004. I left the story alone for two years, going over the instructor feedback and finally deciding it was a bigger story than a few thousand words. I wrote the first draft (about 60,000 words), then revised it a few months later.

In 2007 I sent it to a contest with the Maryland Writers' Association and won second place in the sf/speculative category.

I pretty much sat on it for a year, then decided to revise it again. I actually finished it on Monday and tonight printed it out. It came out -

24 chapters

370 pages

75,000 words

Many Diet Cokes

Even more coffee

So now, how's about some short stories, huh?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Deadville (YA 2008) - Ron Koertge

Ron Koertge’s Deadville is one of those quiet little novels that could easily slip off the radar into oblivion. It certainly doesn’t deserve such a fate. What the novel lacks in action and adventure, it more than makes up for in humanity and self-discovery.

Since his sister died of cancer two years earlier, Ryan has been pretty much sleepwalking through high school and life, listening to his iPod and/or getting stoned most of his waking hours. When Charlotte, the most popular girl in school, has an accident and falls into a coma, Ryan feels compelled to visit her hospital room every day. He hardly knows her and she’s way out of his league, but he shows up like clockwork anyway.

Just when you think the novel is coming dangerously close to displaying the typical YA stereotypes (the distanced parents, the school bullies, the unapproachable girl, etc.), Koertge does something wonderful and/or beautiful. This is one of those rare novels that contains plenty of teenage humor without sacrificing humanity. Ryan does go through a personal transformation, but it’s not one of startling revelations coming on the heels of dangerous confrontations. His transformation happens so slowly that less careful readers may not even be aware of what’s happened. But something has happened. It’s not often that I read any YA novel and tell myself, “I’d like to read that again,” but it sure happened with Deadville.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'm All Over This

I'm in the habit of checking the Amazon Top 100 bestselling books at least a couple of times a week and saw that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!, not even slated to be published until May 13, 2009, was already at #93. (It has since, alas, slipped to #126.)

According to this video, the book's publication date may be moved up to April. April, May...heck, sign me up!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Clarion 2009

Hard to believe it's been almost five years since I went to Clarion. I can't tell you how much I gained from those six weeks. It's something you just have to experience. But I can tell you that if you're serious about writing sf, fantasy (or really anything, although you really should write mainly sf and f while you're there), you should apply.

Know that there are sacrifices involved. Big ones. Yes, it's costly and times are tough. Yes, it's six weeks out of your life. But it's worth it.

Ah, but you may say, "Well I could learn how to be a better writer without spending $3,000 and six weeks of my life."

Maybe. But I doubt you could do so in an atmosphere that focuses on making you a better writer right now with top-notch instructors, surrounded by other people like you who have a passion for writing. I should clarify: You won't immediately become a better writer at Clarion, but it sure speeds things up. You'll discover things that would've taken you months, maybe years to discover on your own. It gives you the tools you need, the support you need, and that kick in the butt you need when you haven't turned in a story all week.

I wouldn't trade my Clarion experience for anything. Many of the folks I attended with are friends I still keep in touch with regularly. And if you're serious about your writing and are open-minded and willing to grow, I can't think of a better place to spend six weeks.

(You can read my famously incomplete Clarion journal to get an idea of what it's like. Or Google someone else's Clarion journal. There's tons of 'em out there.)

Instructors for 2009:

Holly Black
Larissa Lai
Robert Crais
Kim Stanley Robinson
Elizabeth Hand
Paul Park

The application period ends March 1. Check it out. Don't put it off until next year. Do it now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Great Books 2009

I'm really looking forward to the Great Books Celebration in Baltimore in a few weeks. It'll be my first time attending. Great Books is a celebration and discussion of the best books for youth published in 2008. Participants can choose to read from three areas: PIcture Books, Books for Kids and Teen Reads.

Participants sign up for three groupings of books to read and discuss. (You're expected to read all the books in each group before the event.) You can mix and match: the three groups can be one from all three areas if you want. I'm staying in the Teen area. Specifically, I'm reading: (Titles in bold I've already finished.)

Hooper, Mary - Newes from the Dead
Koertge, Ron - Deadville
Valentine, Jenny - Me, the Missing and the Dead
Waters, Dan - Generation Dead

Doctorow, Cory - Little Brother
Dowd, Siobhan - Bog Child
Li, Moying - Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the
Cultural Revolution (NF)
Myers, Walter Dean - Sunrise over Fallujah

Collins, Suzanne - The Hunger Games
Kuklin, Susan - No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on
Death Row (NF)
Pearson, Mary - Adoration of Jenna Fox
Scott, Elizabeth - Living Dead Girl

So for the next few weeks, my reading is gonna be heavy on the YA side. But so far it's been pretty good.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Classical Dylan?

This morning I was poking around to see who won Grammy awards last night. (I always watch the Oscars, but never the Grammys.) I didn't really care about much of what I saw until I ran across the Grammy for Classical Contemporary Composition: Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, - John Corigliano

What? You gotta be kidding me. Hadn't heard about this.

The album also won a Grammy for Classical Vocal Performance: Hila Plitmann, soprano.

Here's the story from composer John Corigliano:

A colleague suggested that I look into the poetry of the songs of Bob Dylan. Having not yet listened to the songs, I decided to send away for the texts only … and found many of them to be every bit as beautiful and as immediate as I had heard – and surprisingly well-suited to my own musical language … these would be in no way arrangements, or variations, or in any way derivations of the music of the original songs, which I decided to not hear before the cycle was complete … I intended to treat the Dylan lyrics as the poems I found them to be. Nor would their settings make any attempt at pop or rock writing. I wanted to take poetry I knew to be strongly associated with popular art and readdress it in terms of concert art – crossover in the opposite direction, one might say. Dylan granted his permission, and I set to work.

I'm listening to it now for the first time. (The album is on the Naxos label, which is great since our library allows us streaming music access to almost all of the Naxos titles for free. Maybe your library does also. Check and see.) It's just my first listen, but it's pretty amazing how Corigliano has tapped into the intensity and power of Dylan's lyrics without ever having heard the music. If you're not a classical/art music fan, this may not be your thing. Then again, it could introduce you into a whole new universe of music.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Cindy and I decided to venture out to The Book Thing yesterday, mainly because Cindy needed some books to take on tour, books she could pass on to someone else when she's through with them or just leave them in the hotel room (if they're really lousy).

I also managed to find a few books (Imagine that....) pictured here. Many of these I already own and will probably give away to people whom I think might enjoy them. For my own reading, I thought The Devil of Nanking looked interesting. Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce? Hey, it's Elmore Leonard. And it's free. Same with James Crumley's Bordersnakes. Crumley + free = no brainer.

The books on film? I've been wanting to do some reading/study on film lately, so here we go. Sure the books are somewhat dated, but so what? THEY'RE FREE!

Same with the Time Almanac. It'll do until I can find the preferable World Almanac 2009.

Best of all, since I didn't pay anything for them, they can't really go into the Books Bought category!

Love that Book Thing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Stephen King on Stephenie Meyer

Care to hear what Stephen King thinks of the Twilight series? Read this.

January Books Read

Not a bad way to start off 2009 - eleven books. Here we go with a minimum of commentary...

Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America (NF 2008) - Thomas L. Friedman
Interesting, thought-provoking, but a little long and a bit repetitive.

Last Evenings on Earth: Stories (2006 translation) - Roberto Bolano
Excellent short story collection by the late Chilean writer.

Mansfield Park (1814) - Jane Austen
You really should read Jane. Really.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (2009) - Charlie Huston
Funny. Violent. Loaded with f-bombs. Good read.

The Hour I First Believed (2008) - Wally Lamb
Yes, it's a fictionalized account of the Columbine massacre, but it's much, much more. In fact, it was too much more, at least for me. I really wanted to love this novel... Maybe if it had been 200 pages less.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing (NF 1984) - Larry W. Phillips, ed.
Interesting, sometimes fascinating look at Hemingway's thoughts on writing. A slim volume you can read in one sitting.

The Truth About Celia (2003) - Kevin Brockmeier
My favorite read from last month. Talked about it a little bit in an earlier post.

Indemnity Only (1982) - Sara Paretsky
The first in the V.I. Warshawski series. Pretty good, but I thought it would be grittier.

Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1964) - Philip K. Dick
The one novel from this month that I'd most like to read again soon. A wild ride with lots to think about. Read the Amazon description. It's far too much to go into here.

What I Saw and How I Lied (YA 2008) - Judy Blundell
It's entirely possible that this novel could singlehandedly change teens' minds about reading historical fiction. Winner of the National Book Award, which I didn't discover until after I'd finished the book.

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (YA 2007) - Sherman Alexie
Not a perfect novel, but one that really connected with me. Some find parts of it inappropriate for teens, but I loved it.

That's it for January. Now go and read something.

Monday, February 02, 2009

January Books Bought

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy

My library co-worker T. convinced me that I should read some Thomas Hardy. T. started this conversation by asking me if I'd seen Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I said, "The one with Nastassja Kinski?" and T. said "Who?" I had to explain who Nastassja Kinski was/is and that the only reason I watched it then was because I thought Kinski was so hot.

"Well, you have to read Thomas Hardy," T. said.

"I don't know," I said. "Other than Kinski, Tess seemed pretty boring."

"Okay," T. said, "then you've got to read Jude the Obscure. It was Hardy's last novel and it was scandalous! He could never write anything after it."

Okay. What the heck.

Mass Market Paperback; Price = $.25

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Okay, I'll admit I've never read a syllable of Proust, but when I saw this book advertised on Amazon a couple of years ago, I knew I'd want to at least give it a glance. Author Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development, examines how we visually and intellectually convert all those little lines and squiggles into actual ideas and how we comprehend them.

I'm concerned that Washington Post writer Michael Dirda experienced frustrations with the book, but found it interesting. If Dirda has trouble with it, it'll probably look like Sanskrit to me. But for the price, I figured it was worth a shot.

Hardcover; Price = $1.99

Deep Justice in a Broken World: Helping Your Kids Serve Others and Right the Wrongs around Them - Chap Clark and Kara Powell

Clark's Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers was such an incredible book, it didn't take much convincing for me to pick up this one.

Trade Paperback; Price = $5.99

An Abundance of Katherines - John Green

I recently attended a seminar on YA literature that mentioned this book. I'd seen Green's Looking for Alaska and had heard good things about it, but this one stirred my interest: a guy who has been dumped by nineteen different girls, all named Katherine. I think I was dumped by a few girls named Susan, but not nineteen of them. At least I don't think so....

Hardcover; Price = $3.99

Total Book Expenditures for January = $12.22