31 October 2017

Return to Oz: The Marvelous Land of Oz by Eric Shanower & Skottie Young

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010)

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
The Marvelous Land of Oz
Adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum 

Writer: Eric Shanower
Artist: Skottie Young
Colorist: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry

Like I said in my review of Eric Shanower and Skottie Young's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the pleasure of these Marvel Oz adaptations is in getting the familiar and the new all at once: the L. Frank Baum plots I remember from childhood, coupled with dynamic new Skottie Young illustrations. In that regard, The Marvelous Land of Oz is probably the most successful of all the Marvel Oz comics. Marvelous Land has a decent plot, less meandering than some of Baum's travel narratives, with a real antagonist (or pair of antagonists, General Jinjur and Mombi) and set of goals for our heroes (restore the throne of Oz). Tip is a fun protagonist, too, an easygoing young boy with a good fairytale backstory (oppressed servant of an evil witch, though of course it turns out to be more complicated than that). There's some random traveling, too, of course (the bit where they end up flying over the desert has always seemed a bit arbitrary to me), but moreso than many other Oz novels, this one is about overcoming a specific problem.

What Marvelous Land has in spades are visually interesting characters: the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman return, of course, and then Baum adds Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, the Gump, and H. M. Wogglebug T.E. Each of these gives Young something to work with-- I love, for example, the way he draws the Sawhorse, as a sleek single piece of wood with these deep eyes and slightly ajar mouth that make him look like a loyal dog:
from The Marvelous Land of Oz #2

The weirdness of its characters is fundamental to my enjoyment of the Oz books:
from The Marvelous Land of Oz #6

These are books where the weird and misfits are the exalted and the clever, and in none of them is that better depicted than in Marvelous Land, and Skottie Young captures that perfectly. (Plus I love the way he draws Mombi.)

from The Marvelous Land of Oz #8
Next Week: Dorothy returns to Oz and meets a whole new crew of weirdos in Ozma of Oz!

30 October 2017

Review: Smax by Alan Moore, Zander Cannon, and Andrew Currie

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2004 (contents: 2003-04)

Acquired and read October 2016
Writer: Alan Moore
Artist: Zander Cannon
Inkers: Andrew Currie, Richard Friend
Coloring: Ben Dimagmaliw
Lettering, Logo and Design: Todd Klein

This is the last Top 10 spin-off (at least, the last one collected in trade paperback format). This takes Top 10 cop Jeff Smax back to his home dimension, a parallel Earth governed by the rules of fantasy stories, not superhero stories, accompanied by his partner, Toybox. Unlike Top 10, which smashes superhero stories and cop dramas together, this isn't really about genre collision; it's mostly an affectionate riff on the conventions of fantasy fiction, especially the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings/Dungeons & Dragons-based quest stuff. Smax finds out that the only dragon he ever ran away from is still rampaging, and Toybox guilts him into confronting his responsibilities.

Two things I like at once: jokes at the expense of Tolkien lineages, and jokes at the expense of the socially clueless.
from Smax #2 (art by Zander Cannon & Andrew Currie)

There's no deep insight into the fantasy genre, but there are good jokes: I appreciated the "politically correct" take on fantasy races, the idea of a bureau to authorize quests, Smax's inability to read emotions and utter conviction that he is reading emotions, the tedious dwarf funeral, and the fact that dwarves play RPGs based on being in middle management. And of course, I have to love any page that has jokes based on both Victorian poetry and Homestar Runner:
To be honest, it's a pretty high references-per-panel ratio throughout. It's interesting that Moore's post-Watchmen attempts to return to genres earnestly still do so self-consciously. Having deconstructed genre, can he only perform genre via reconstruction?
from Smax #3 (art by Zander Cannon & Andrew Currie)

I do wish that Smax played a bigger role in the resolution of his own story-- the ending is probably the only part of this that didn't work for me, as Smax is outshone by Toybox, and the romance subplot is resolved in a pretty rushed way, too. This isn't as good as Moore's work on Top 10 proper, but it's an entertaining diversion with a couple of its key characters.

27 October 2017

Listening to James Bond at the BBC (Part I)

As of this writing, the BBC has produced seven radio plays based on the James Bond novels. Following a 1990 one-off starring Michael Jayston (Doctor Who's the Valeyard!), ones starring Toby Stephens (Mr. Rochester in the 2006 Jane Eyre) have come out every two years or so since 2008. They seem to be doing the Stephens ones in the same order as the film versions, though they did Thunderball out of sequence (rights reasons? the legal tangle is pretty infamous) and skipped You Only Live Twice (because that's the one they already did with Jayston?). That seems kind of a weird choice to me. The plays are still set in the same order as the books, though; the opening of From Russia, with Love references the end of Diamonds are Forever, even though From Russia was made first!

In any case, I decided I'd listen to each radio play following the relevant book and film, so thus far I've heard Diamonds are Forever, From Russia, with Love, Dr. No, and Goldfinger. What follows are some general thoughts on the overall format and performances of the Toby Stephens stories (I haven't heard the Jayston one yet, and won't for some time), and then some on the specific plays I've heard.

The Format

The stories are produced by Rosalind Ayres and directed Martin Jarvis, a wife-and-husband duo who are also actors. Jarvis has been in Doctor Who on TV a couple times, but I primarily know the duo from their appearance as a husband and wife in the excellent Doctor Who audio drama Jubilee by Rob Shearman. Jarvis also appears in the stories as Ian Fleming, which basically means he voices third-person narration when it's called for-- there's not a ton of it, but it's used to set up very visual moments and smooth over some transitions. Jarvis has an excellent voice, and I kinda wish his narration was used a little bit more. There's occasionally in-scene first-person narration from Stephens as Bond, which I like less. He sort of growls it, and at first I took it for very awkward talking-to-himself-to-explain-actions-on-radio, until about halfway through Diamonds are Forever, when he was talking in a situation where that made no sense. I could do less with of this.

All the stories I've heard are pretty straight adaptations of the original novels-- incidents are trimmed for time, but nothing is changed very dramatically.
  • Toby Stephens as James Bond. Stephens is a pretty grim-sounding James Bond. I like the performance, but it's not quite the Bond I imagine from the books: he's a little more upper-class than I picture, coming across as more snobby. Of course, the Bond of the books is kind of snobby, but I feel as though he's acting snob; he's a brute playing at civilization. Without that the access to his interiority afforded by prose (or a visual performance by Daniel Craig, who captures this aspect of the character best), he comes across more like an actual snob. Which, I should say, works-- it's just a different version of the character, a more cultured, less studied one. Stephens has a good tough-guy act, and does well at the banter and stuff; I think he's less successful at the love scenes and other parts showing emotional investment, where I think he is a little too sharp. I had a hard time buying he had any real interest in Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever, for example, and the same went for Tania in From Russia, with Love. He came across as more tender toward Honey in Dr. No, however-- not sure why.
  • John Standing as M. Standing appeared in one Doctor Who audio drama (Gods and Monsters), but I didn't think much of him there. Other than that, I know he's appeared in stuff I've watched, but nothing that's made much of an impression. Anyway, I really enjoyed him as M: suitably British, crusty, and unamused, which is exactly what the part (which really is a small one) calls for. He especially shines in his couple scenes in From Russia, with Love and the opening of Dr. No.
  • Julian Sands as Q. Didn't really leave much of an impression, to be honest. Just kind of there. On the other hand...
  • Peter Capaldi as Q. The twelfth Doctor Who played Q in just Dr. No (the first recorded, but the third chronologically), and he is great. Properly scathing and dismissive of Bond's ladylike firearms. Too bad he never appeared again.
  • Josh Stamberg as Felix Leiter. He actually is an American, and he sounds like he came out of a 1950s crime film. Which, given that in Diamonds are Forever, Felix is a private eye working for the Pinkertons, is exactly right. That said, he wasn't the original:
  • Lloyd Owen as Felix Leiter. Owen played Felix in just one production, Goldfinger, and he is not an American. Let's just say I'm very glad Felix was recast for later stories.
  • John Sessions as Rene Mathis. I really like John Sessions' audio work I've heard (mostly, of course, Doctor Who stuff), so it was a pleasure to hear him in these, though Mathis doesn't really do a whole lot in From Russia, with Love. Hopefully we get Casino Royale someday.
  • Janie Dee as Moneypenny. I don't think I know the actress from anything else, but like John Standing, she's great in a very small part. She sounds very young and very flirty, which is in line with how I imagine the character, though the writing here probably owes more to the films than the actual novels.

Diamonds are Forever by Archie Scottney (2015)

I didn't like the book a whole lot, as I said, but Scottney's adaptation thankfully cuts out some of the more unpleasant parts, like Bond's joke about "jiggers" and Wint and Kidd being homosexual. I actually think the whole thing comes to life a little bit more on audio-- Bond being up against American gangs in the 1950s means all the bad guys are doing 1950s American gangster voices, which 1) didn't occur to me when reading the book, and 2) is actually pretty fun, making the audio more lively than the often dull book. Still, there's not a whole lot to be done with the fact that it's way too easy for Bond to work his way up the diamond-smuggling pipeline, and I'm not sure about the choice to play the master villain, Seraffimo Spang, with a flamboyant "gay" voice.

From Russia, with Love by Archie Scottney (2012)

The adaptation here is almost too straightforward, cutting out most of the parts while Bond is in Istanbul reveals that a little bit too much of the novel is Bond waiting for something to happen! In this case, the film is surprisingly more faithful by including the Gypsy catfight, while the audio does not. The audio wisely makes the flight on the Orient Express the bulk of its story-- it's a setting and situation well-suited to audio. The real highlight of this one is the big-name casting: Nathaniel Parker (Inspector Lynley), Tim Pigott-Smith, Mark Gatiss(!), John Sessions in two roles, and Eileen Atkins as Klebb! Gatiss, Sessions, and Atkins all do excellent jobs as various villains, though I was disappointed by Parker as "Red" Grant, who wasn't quite as innately menacing as I imagined when reading the book. Olga Fedori was very good as Tatiana Romanova, as well. The strong performances really carried me through this, though it has its moments. I particularly liked the very ending, where it seems like Bond might be dying from Klebb's poison. I also enjoyed the music (there's a lot of guitar), which didn't really stand out to me in the other installments.

Dr. No by Hugh Whitemore (2008)

The only one of these to be written by Whitemore, Dr. No is probably the best of them thus far. Partially this is down to the source material, I think, as the novel has exactly the right amount of plot to sustain a ninety-minute story. As it's a pretty down-the-line adaptation, the real pleasure is in the performances, which are overall quality. In addition to the aforementioned Capaldi as Q, David Suchet (TV's Poirot) plays Dr. No himself-- I was a little skeptical of his strange voice at first, but once I adjusted, I really liked it. The dinner scene between Bond and No is the highlight of this story, as Doctor No relates his dismal backstory. Clarke Peters is also charmingly likeable as Quarrel (I hope they bring him back if they ever get around to doing Live and Let Die), and I enjoyed the small cameos of the husband-and-wife duo of Simon Williams (Counter Measures's Gilmore) and Lucy Fleming (Survivors's Jenny and, I just learned, niece of Ian Fleming).

The adaptation dials back some of the racial elements of the novel (there are no "Chigroes" here), but keeps others (Bond's instantaneous distrust of a character upon realizing they're Chinese), and adds new ones (some of the Chinese characters are played by white women). The only big downside of this adaptation is the decision to have Bond narrate the centipede sequence in the first person-- probably no one could save this, but Toby Stephens certainly doesn't. The music is spooky, but the whole sequence is just undercut by Bond's "fearful" gasps and shouts as the centipede marches across him.

Goldfinger by Archie Scottney (2010)

Goldfinger was a so-so novel, and it makes for a so-so radio play. In the book, Bond runs into Goldfinger playing cards at a resort, playing golf at a club, and at his own house for dinner; like the film, the radio version streamlines this by cutting out the visit to Goldfinger's home and going straight to when Bond pursues Goldfinger across Europe to Switzerland, and the golf is thankfully less boring on audio than in prose. But moving the story to the audio medium reveals how little it is that Bond does through the whole middle of the story: on film you can see him lurking, and in prose you get his thoughts on everything, but on audio he may as well not be there a lot of the time, and his intervention in the whole affair comes across as even smaller than on audio.

What I should have predicted would really let it down are the accents, since much of Goldfinger takes place in America. The group of gangsters Goldfinger assembles range from ridiculous to awful (especially since some are actors doubling up, so they are required to depict two different American accents apiece), and getting Rosamund Pike in to play Pussy Galore was surely a bit of a coup... but I didn't care for her Southern accent at all. (Plus there's so little interplay between her and Bond that her falling for him at the end comes across as nonsensical.) The BBC haven't done Live and Let Die yet, but maybe I should be thankful for that. That said, Ian McKellen plays Goldfinger, which is great casting even if it contradicts the story's statement that Goldfinger doesn't sound English!

26 October 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: The Hero and the Crown (1984)

Trade paperback, 246 pages
Published 2002 (originally 1984)
Previously read July 2010
Acquired November 2016

Reread February 2017
The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

I have loved The Hero and the Crown since I first read it in junior high, and I was excited to teach it, but I recognize that it is an odd book. Aerin embraces her magical destiny and falls in love with the immortal Luthe-- but puts that love to sleep so "that she might love her country and her husband" (246). One of my students was excited at what she saw as the embrace of polyamory, but I don't think that's quite what's happening here. In addition, you get the really surreal stuff when Aerin goes to confront her evil uncle Agsded. This is the part of the book that's stuck with me the most since childhood. The tower Aerin climbs to confront Agsded is nearly infinite: "She had been climbing forever; she would be climbing forever. She would be a new god: the God That Climbs" (182). Then, when Aerin defeats Agsded, she falls almost as long and ends up in a strange place. What had been a tower in a wasteland is now rubble in the middle of a jungle. She sees people there, and is then jerked back to where she had been, the desolate plateau from which the tower had risen, and Luthe explains to her that she had traveled "a few hundred years" into the future until he pulled her back (200). Aerin then returns to her native land of Damar and defeats the remnants of the evil that threatens it before marrying Tor, the new king.

What's going on here? I have a friend who strongly reacts against Aerin's double marriage, and some of my students definitely considered the whole tower battle and journey into the future extremely weird. I think that looking at The Hero and the Crown's place in both the fantasy genre and the young adult genre helps provide an answer to this.

In her excellent monograph Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008), Farah Mendlesohn divides the fantasy genre up into a number of different approaches, based on the relative positions of the reader, the protagonist, and the fantastic. In the portal-quest fantasy, the protagonist "leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place" (1): The Wizard of Oz, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone are all prototypical examples of the form. The immersive fantasy, however, "presents the fantastic without comment as the norm for both the protagonist and for the reader: we sit on the protagonist's shoulder and [...] we are not provided with an explanatory narrative" (xx), for "the point of view characters of an immersive fantasy must take for granted the fantastic elements with which they are surrounded" (xxi). Then there's the intrusion fantasy, where the fantastic breaks into a "normal" world (xxii). (Mendlesohn also has the liminal fantasy and the "irregulars," but those are less relevant to my purposes here.)

On first glance we might see The Hero and the Crown as an immersive fantasy: it takes place in a magical land, different from our own, from the beginning. However, as you dig into both it and Mendlesohn, you start to realize that's it's not so simple. (Genre never is, except when it gets, well, generic.) The novels bears traces of the intrusion fantasy as well. The threat to Damar is an external one; the dragons that Aerin battles throughout the novel might be in Damar, but they are not from it. They are magical creatures from beyond. Furthermore, the book is extremely reminiscent of the portal-quest fantasy, and we should note when using the term that though portal-quest fantasies depart from a real world, they do not have to depart from our real world. One of Mendlesohn's prototypical portal-quest fantasies is, after all, The Lord of the Rings, which starts itself in a magical land, the Shire, but she argues that Tolkien makes the Shire real so that it can frame an adventure into a fantastic land, that of the rest of Middle Earth (2, 31).

Something similar is happening in The Hero and the Crown.  It incorporates many of the typical features of the portal-quest fantasy: quests (well, duh); an alliance of perspective between reader and protagonist, both of whom are naïve; portals that transition between places and times; exploration of an unknown land; a thinned land that requires restoration by the story's end; a connection between the king and the well-being of the land (when the right monarch is in place, the land itself is also right); and the existence of a moral universe (good and evil are objective qualities). The reason Aerin's journey to Luthe's land (where she also experiences some temporal dislocation) and Agsded's tower are so surreal is that McKinley has to mark them as fantasy worlds within the context of what seems to us a fantasy world. Aerin is used to the magics of Damar; she is not used to the magics of these other worlds that she has passed to.

Okay, but so what? Something we should always keep in mind when discussing genre, is that genres have not just features (characteristics) but projects (things they do). Mendlesohn mentions that "the classic portal tale is much more common in children's fantasy than in that ostensibly written for the adult market" (1) and she also says that portals "mark[ ] the transition between this world and another; from our time to another time; from youth to adulthood" (1, emphasis mine). So why is this the case? I think it's because of portal-quest fantasy's commitment to a moral universe: Mendlesohn says that "a quest is a process, in which the object sought may or may not be a mere token of rewards. The real reward is moral growth and/or admission into the kingdom, or redemption" (4). Young adult literature is often about teaching readers moral lessons, for better or for worse, and so the form of portal-quest fantasy is well-suited to it. The reader and the protagonist are positioned together, and so when the protagonist accomplishes moral growth, so too does the reader. Aerin accomplishes a lot of moral growth in The Hero and the Crown: she learns how to take responsibility for herself, learns how to channel her anger appropriately, learns how to set a long-term goal for herself and work toward it, learns how to coexist with those who dislike or resent her, learns how to bridge the gap between aristocracy and commoners, learns to like education and reading, learns how handle romantic and sexual feelings, and probably learns other things I'm forgetting.

So I think there's a couple things going on with the weird doubling effect at the end of the novel. Partially, there's a recognition that childhood remains when you pass into adulthood. Aerin may have crossed the portal from reality to fantasy, from childhood to adulthood, but childhood never goes away, you always carry both worlds within you, and so does Aerin.

Additionally, Aerin has to move from her immortal life back to her mortal one in order to implement the moral lessons she's learned-- because if the protagonist does not implement them, how can the reader? We're explicitly told that "it was her love for Luthe that made her recognize her love for Tor" (207). If fantasy worlds exists to teach the reader how to behave in the real world, we have that literalized in The Hero and the Crown, hence both worlds must persist. But unlike in Narnia or (to bring up another portal-quest fantasy) Susan Cooper's The Silver on the Tree, Aerin does not need to give up her fantasy life. In what surely is a fantasy (in the imagining-you-have-obtained-an-unobtainable-thing sense) she can have both lives.

24 October 2017

Return to Oz: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Eric Shanower & Skottie Young

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2008-09) 

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum 

Writer: Eric Shanower
Artist: Skottie Young
Colorist: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry

I got this to write a paper about it a few years ago, but never sat down and read it properly until I was recovering from surgery last year-- it was a good choice for that. It's a really interesting kind of adaptation, and one you can only do in comics, in that it is simultaneously completely faithful to the original and wildly divergent. The marketing material and Shanower's preface and afterword explain how the adaptation honors the original text, and indeed it does, down to including (a shortened version of) Baum's own introduction to the novel before the story begins properly:

This establishes the book firmly as the work of L. Frank Baum from the first page, as does the cover, which privileges his name significantly over those of the two people who actually made it!

23 October 2017

Review: The Merritt Parkway by Laurie Heiss & Jill Smyth

Trade paperback, 158 pages
Published 2014

Acquired July 2015
Read October 2016
The Merritt Parkway: The Road That Shaped a Region
by Laurie Heiss & Jill Smyth

I lived in Connecticut some years before I discovered the Merritt Parkway, a section of CT-15. I lived in the state's "Quiet Corner" in the northeast; the Merritt runs through the southwest part of the state, a place I tended not to go. I think I discovered it when Google sent me that way on a trip to New Jersey: Merritt Parkway to the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Tappan Zee Bridge to swing a wide loop around New York City and its traffic. I was, however, instantly struck by its uniqueness. The Merritt is set away from the towns it runs through by trees, so you don't see any suburban sprawl, just forest. It's only two lanes in each direction, but no trucks are allowed on it, so traffic is never that bad. And it has a number of distinctive features: cute wooden guard rails, a unique typeface and visual design for road signs, and, most importantly, the forty-something bridges that run over it, each of them entirely unique in design, most in an art deco style, but also many others. It's my favorite limited-access highway, and I was always happy to have an excuse to drive upon it.

So I was quite pleased when a friend gave me this book, a history of the Merritt from its inception in the 1930s to the present day. Heiss & Smyth chart the development and design of the Merritt, discussing the politics and other issues that impacted it over the years. Sometimes I got a little lost in the names, but overall you get a sense of the personalities and priorities that have driven it. We think about highways very differently now than we did in the 1930s, and the Merritt has gone from a cutting-edge new way of making highways to a very old one that needs to be fought for to maintain what makes it special. It's one of just a few highways on the National Register of Historic Places, and changes to the Merritt have to be approved by the state legislature, unlike any other road in Connecticut. Heiss & Smyth do a great job telling the Merritt's story, supplementing with photos, architectural drawings, newspaper clippings, and maps. A book surely aimed at a limited audience, but if you're in that audience, it's indispensable.

20 October 2017

"Beckons you to enter his web of sin but don't go in": Goldfinger

The early James Bond films are pretty faithful to the books upon which they were based, whereas many of the later ones are only very loosely inspired by their novels. (In what I've watched so far, for example, Dr. No and From Russia with Love are relatively straight, whereas Live and Let Die is pretty loose, and Moonraker is of course just effing nuts.) Of the more accurate adaptations, the changes are usually to the benefit of the film as a film: both Dr. No and From Russia add content that heightens the sense of threat and streamlines the plot.

But Goldfinger is in a weird sort of uncanny valley: enough like the book that the differences are just flat-out perplexing at times. Most prominent is that in the novel, Goldfinger brings together all of the American crime lords to help him in his plan, as he needs their manpower to load the gold from Fort Knox. In the film, Bond cheekily points out that the maths of that plan don't add up, as it would take days to load up that much gold. But the crime lords still turn up... and Goldfinger kills them all, including the ones who seemed like they were going along with his plan. Why? I don't know. It pushes belief that these guys would come unaccompanied and be killed so easy (fun though the death-by-car-compcator is), and Goldfinger doesn't actually need their resources for anything, as he takes down Fort Knox with about a dozen Chinese men. Is he just too cheap to pay them for services rendered? Why built the elaborate Fort Knox model for the benefit of a bunch of guys he's going to kill?

On the other hand, some changes work in the film's favor, like Goldfinger keeping Bond along because Bond's presence keeps MI6 or the CIA from making a move. (That said, Felix Leiter is kind of an indulgent old man in this one, who smirks at all of James Bond's sex hijinks, and he get fooled by some pretty pathetic tricks. He's not exactly convincing as Bond's American equal.) Also the film kills Tilly off earlier, which given the distasteful way Fleming kills her off in the novel, is a good call. I'm undecided if robbing Fort Knox or nuking Fort Knox is the better villain plot. The latter has a certain maniacal joy to it, but the former seems more in-character for the avaricious Auric Goldfinger.

I'm certain that rotating colored wheels are a key component of nuclear bombs.

Sean Connery is, of course, effortless, and this is definitely him at the peak of his powers. The pre-titles sequence has a great bit where after destroying some kind of villain compound (I didn't really pick up what this was), he goes to have sex with a woman... only to see an assassin charging him reflected in her eyes! He knocks out the woman and electrocutes the assassin in pretty brutal fashion. Casual sex and casual violence: that's the coolness of James Bond. His interplay with Tilly-- unwooed by his charms-- was also quite good I thought. He's just so goddamn smug. It's not quite what Fleming is doing with Bond in the novels (Daniel Craig comes the closest to that, I think), but it's magnetic and captivating.

The face of a man who knows he's cooler than the rest of us can even dream of being.

The prominent "Bond girl" in this one is Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore: the film at least has the good sense to signpost that her name is horrific with Bond's exclamation that he must be dreaming upon hearing it. I primarily know Honor Blackman from her role in parts nine through twelve of Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord, which was over twenty years after this. Like all the better Bond girls, she convinces as having her own life and competencies, but she's also flirtatious and sexual as needed-- the scene where Bond seduces Pussy in a barn is a bit ridiculous, but the chemistry of the two makes it work. (What a sudden face-heel turn, though!)

For some reason the film takes out the bit where she was a lesbian until she met Bond.

When we finished this movie, my wife declared it was stupid. On the other hand, I know a lot of people put it in the top tier of Bond films, and it's easy to see how it provided the template for so many of the ones that came after it. For me, it's solidly middle-of-the-road. Mostly fun, more grounded than some of the later films, with some nice humor, but sometimes a little too goofy for its own good (like with Felix's incompetence, or the climactic bit on the airplane).

Other Notes:
I think that in the actual film, they always shoot Shirley
Eaton so that you can't actually see the bikini bottom.
  • In the book, Bond is just told that Jill is killed by being painted in gold; of course, he sees this on screen in the film.
  • That said, Bond has to be knocked out for this to happen, and overall, Bond has the kibosh put on him a depressing number of times.
  • Although, after Bond tricks a guard to escape from his cell in Goldfinger's compound, there's a a delightful bit where 1) Goldfinger isn't even bothered that he got out, and 2) next time you see him in his cell, there's six guards.
  • Bond's relationship with Miss Moneypenny is less salacious than in From Russia with Love: he just gives her a peck on the cheek and weasels out of a date with her. M gets a nice comedy moment in this scene.
  • In our weirdly ordered marathon, this is probably Q's best showing thus far: just one scene, but what a scene. Desmond Llewelyn is great at treating the ridiculous gadgets the Q Branch devises with utter seriousness.
  • The thing from the books about how Bond is a total snob about food and drink isn't usually carried into the films, but there's a bit (incomprehensible to me) where Bond and the Chancellor of the Exchequer can tell that some brandy is subpar, but M is baffled. Poor M.
  • Also Bond hates the Beatles!

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. Goldfinger
  5. Moonraker
  6. Live and Let Die 
  7. Diamonds Are Forever

19 October 2017

Review: The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

Trade paperback, 306 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1910-11)
Acquired and read January 2013
The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton
With Introduction and Notes by Martin Gardner

When I was reading for my Ph.D. exams way back when, one of my committee members suggested I read some Father Brown stories: if I was reading Sherlock Holmes to see how a detective applied seeing like a scientist to solving crimes, then maybe it would be helpful to contrast a non-scientific way of solving crimes. Martin Gardner's introduction emphasizes that this is Father Brown's modus operandi, quoting a speech by Father Brown from the later The Secret of Father Brown (1927): "what do those men mean, nine times out of ten, when [...] they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect; in what they would call a dry impartial light; in what I should call a dead and dehumanised light. They mean getting a long way off him, as if he were a distant prehistoric monster; staring at the shape of his 'criminal skull' as if it were a sort of eerie growth like the horn of a rhinoceros's nose" (9). To me, this feels like a rebuttal of the practices of actual scientific criminologists, like Cesare Lombroso and Francis Galton, and even though it evokes Holmes's comparison of himself to the paleontologist Cuvier,* I don't think it really matches up with how Holmes actually works. Holmes investigates the external, of course, but reveals the internal by doing so, and though I would agree he works in a "dry impartial light," I would never call his approach "dead and dehumanised."

If Chesterton subtracted Doyle's scientific and logical approach from detective fiction, I'm not convinced he replaced it with anything of particular interest. Chesterton writes well, but I found these were mostly unsatisfying as mysteries, relying too much on obscure leaps of deduction. Father Brown may claim he gets into people's heads more than other detectives, but I didn't find that borne out by the actual stories in question. I might enjoy reading them for fun, but I found little of interest in Father Brown.

* "As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after." (from "The Five Orange Pips")

17 October 2017

Review: Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 354 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1959)
Acquired and read June 2017
Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

It's okay if a James Bond adventure starts with a low-key escapade where Bond discovers the villain cheats at cards-- even if Fleming already pulled this one in Moonraker, he's good at it. It's also okay if a James Bond adventure starts with a low-key escapade where Bond discovers the villain cheats at golf-- though even Fleming struggles to make golf exciting. What's not okay is having 143 pages of your 354-page novel taken up by Bond rooting out cheaters. It's decidedly low stakes stuff, like the old Superman story where he stops someone from fixing up Ivy League football matches. I guess it oughtn't surprise me, though, because this James Bond novel is more about Bond versus people who violate English social norms than most: in addition to people who cheat at gentlemanly pursuits, this book is Fleming's most racist yet, with some really awful stuff about Koreans, plus Bond "cures" a lesbian, and Bond blames the death of one woman (in this book, two "Bond girls" die which seems a pretty poor showing; actually are they the first women to die in the series since Vesper?) on the fact that she wouldn't listen to him, and the fact that she wouldn't listen to him on the women's suffrage, which masculinized women and feminized men.

I found this to be a less satisfying Bond novel on the whole; in addition to the languid opening, Bond feels like a bystander for too much of the story, even if we do learn that behind the scenes, something he did caused contingencies to be put into motion that saved the day. The best part of the novel is the long car chase where Bond tales Goldfinger from England to Switzerland; as he usually does, Fleming makes something that could be dull in other hands quite tense through his explication of minute details. If the rest of the book had been this good, it would have been great. As it is, alas. I am still looking forward to the film.

(I was surprised that the story's most famous image, death by gold paint, doesn't actually appear on the page; Bond is just told it has happened by the victim's sister. It's on the cover and of course in the movie regardless.)

Next Week: I'm all caught up on James Bond novels, so I'm cycling onward to another reading project. Join me for three months of a return to Oz!

Book Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr No
  3. Moonraker
  4. From Russia with Love
  5. Live and Let Die
  6. Goldfinger
  7. Diamonds are Forever

16 October 2017

Review: Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours by David Mack

I have some reviews of the first three releases of 2017's Fourth Doctor Adventures up at USF: The Beast of Kravenos (the Doctor, Romana, and K9 meet Jago and Litefoot), The Eternal Battle (the Doctor, Romana and K9 meet the Sontarans), and The Silent Scream (the Doctor, Romana, and K9 meet a silent film star). One of them is good.

Trade paperback, 368 pages
Published 2017

Acquired September 2017
Read October 2017
Star Trek: Discovery: Desperate Hours
by David Mack

The first Discovery tie-in novel is a prequel, set one year prior to the events of the Discovery pilot, "The Vulcan Hello." It has a neat concept courtesy of series co-creator Bryan Fuller, one which will probably never be done on screen: the Shenzhou meeting the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike, which means that Michael Burnham meets her foster brother, a young Lieutenant Spock.

The plot is honestly pretty perfunctory: a mysterious alien ship threatens a Federation colony, so the Shenzhou and the Enterprise are sent to stop it. Captain Pike is ready to follow orders to destroy the ship with minimal investigation, while Georgiou favors a more scientific and diplomatic approach. It's in its characterization of Pike where the book falters the most: I never felt like I was reading about the thoughtful man played on screen by either Jeffrey Hunter or Bruce Greenwood. Pike here is too violent and too by-the-book.

Better was the characterization of Burnham and Spock. A young Spock is tricky-- there are points where he's more Data-esque-- but I liked these two characters together: mirrors of one another, both human-Vulcan outcasts in their way. I didn't always exactly get where Burnham was coming from, but that's consistent with her characterization on the television program (I finished the book after watching episode four), where she's very rash but says she's logical and focused, and where her attitude towards ends and means fluctuates. Burnham and Spock solving puzzles together on an alien ship was okay, but the part near the end of the novel where each has to confront what it means to live as the other, was excellent, some really sharp character-based writing from David Mack. Alas that we will never get to see Sonequa Martin-Green and Zachary Quinto do this on screen.

The best part of the book is Saru. On screen he's probably my favorite character. I didn't like the implausibly unprofessional bickering he and Burnham participate in, but that's an accurate reflection of the television series, unfortunately. (I feel like you could write a rivalry that wasn't so immature-- its brazenness reflects poorly on both captain characters for not quashing it.) What Desperate Hours lets us do that Discovery itself has not yet done is let us see those parts of Saru that have nothing to do with Burnham; since the show is mostly told from her perspective, so far we've only seen Saru interacting with her. Here, we get Saru running his science lab on the Shenzhou, Saru contributing ideas that help save the day, Saru interacting with the Enterprise's Number One (who he kind of falls for, as she's the first human he's met who doesn't act like a predator), and Saru ruminating on his past (he was rescued from his planet, where his people lived in caves, by a Starfleet crew). I really liked the way the book handled Saru.

Number One was characterized well, though I was mildly grumpy that Mack calls her "Una"; however, I understand that originates from a Greg Cox novel. I know it's hard to work with an anonymous character like this in prose, but it just seems wrong, like translating Chewbacca's dialogue directly in print. I was a little sad to get almost none of the other Pike's Enterprise crew: Boyce has one scene, and Tyler, Garison, and Pitcairn make tiny contributions, but there's no Colt (who's my favorite), and the only "expanded universe" Pike crewmember I noticed was Caitlin Barry from the 1980s/90s novels by D. C. Fontana and Peter David. Give me some Mohindas or Burnstein or Dabisch or Nano or Moves-with-Burning-Grace or Carlotti! You shouldn't really take this complaint seriously, though, because ultimately this isn't a Pike's Enterprise novel, it's a Discovery (Shenzhou) one, and the focus is in the right place. I just really like Pike's crew.

I do wish we'd seen more of the various Shenzhou crew, though. Mack wrote biographies for them all, and named many of them (including Kayla Detmer, the only one to make the transition to the Discovery other than Burnham and Saru), but there's not much in the book to make you care about them: I want previous adventures for Danby Connor that make me even more sad when he bites it at the Battle of the Binary Stars!

Anyway, on the whole this was an enjoyable book. I like the way CBS and Simon & Schuster seem to be handling the Discovery novels: rather than so-so outings slotted in between television episodes like how Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise all started out in prose, they're being used to flesh out the universe of the new show and connect it to the world of the old ones.

13 October 2017

"When we get marry we make them grow": Dr. No

Having started my Bond film odyssey with Casino Royale, I've finally made it back to the first film, Dr. No. Like a lot of the earlier films, this one mirrors its book pretty closely in terms of plot, with relatively minor tweaks (in the novel, for example, Dr. No is a guano miner, while in the film, he's mining radioactive materials for a nuclear reactor). The biggest is probably that more overt danger is introduced: a lot of Fleming's novels really go for the slow build in a way that probably wouldn't work on film, so the movie introduces a number of extra attempts on Bond's life to the earlier parts of the story, at a point where in the original novel it's not yet clear that foul play is even at work on Jamaica.

Strike that: Sean Connery himself is the biggest change in the film. Obviously I've four more Sean Connery performances to go, included the oft-praised Goldfinger, but of the three Connery movies I've seen thus far, this is definitely the best. In the early novels, especially Casino Royale and Moonraker, I maintain that Bond is a callous brute playing at civilization. Connery captures that in Dr. No, with one important twist: his James Bond is cool. This is driven home to us right in his first scene, where he iconically shows so little interest in Sylvia Trench that she falls for him right away. Connery makes Bond seem casual and effortless; he's just above everything that happens to him, whether it's wrestling his chauffeur or having sex with a suspicious secretary to draw out the bad guys. The predominant attitude that Connery projects is that 1) he's having fun, and 2) he doesn't care. Sometimes this becomes poor quippery (his one about the people who died chasing him being on their way to a funeral was a groaner), but most of the time it works really well. Connery's Bond doesn't have the sensitive side that Daniel Craig's would demonstrate, or that we see in books like Casino Royale or From Russia with Love, but Dr. No doesn't call on him to demonstrate it. (Hence why I think Dr. No is a superior film to From Russia, even though From Russia is a better novel.)

A man who will sleep with you, then send you to jail.

In this film, Connery's Bond is brutal when he needs to be, and without the goofy humor that would undermine later Bond films. He drowns a guy right in front of Honey Ryder and there's another scene where we see him strangle a guy to get a radiation suit. Perhaps the harshest is the scene where he lies in wait for Professor Dent, a geologist secretly working for Dr. No. Bond sets things up to make it look like he's sleeping in bed, then sits by the door playing solitaire. When Dent comes in, he empties six bullets into what he thinks is Bond's sleeping form (actually pillows), before Bond reveals his presence, forcing Dent to drop his gun. They talk a bit, and then Dent goes for his gun... only it's empty. Bond points that his gun only had six bullets to begin with, and then shoots and kills Dent-- and then shoots him again for good measure. Then he just unscrews the silencer from his gun and sits there. Look, I don't glamorize violence, but when I finished this scene, I was like, "how cool is James Bond?" He's just so casual about it that it becomes art, the best scene in an overall strong film.

And a man who doesn't like to lose... not even at solitaire.

What I like about these early Bond films of the 1960s is that they fundamentally take themselves seriously in a way that the ones of the 1970s don't. There are quips and humor and ridiculousness, but the world is real, and the danger feels real. (I haven't talked about Joseph Wiseman, but he does a great job as Dr. No.) When people get hurt, it really does hurt, as opposed to the comic violence of Diamonds Are Forever, and that's what makes Dr. No one of the better Bond films thus far.

Other Notes:
  • Since this is the first film, there are a number of recurring elements yet to be worked out. There is no big title song like there would be in later films, for example-- "Under the Mango Tree," which is performed in a bar, heard on a record, and sung by Honey, is as close as it gets. The visually distinct opening credits are here, but they're not as salacious as some later ones, being evenly divided between abstract dots, dancing women, and Jamaican assassins.
  • Even though it was the first film, there are still some elements that pick up on previous novels, unchanged from the books, most notably that Bond switches guns at the beginning. Fleming needed to do this in the books, but the films could have just started him out with a different gun to begin with! Peter Burton fails to make an impact as proto-Q.
  • Dr. No is linked in with SPECTRE, who we've already seen in From Russia with Love and Diamonds Are Forever in the film series. They've yet to appear in the books.
  • The film is very tied into some contemporary events, like the moonshot (which replaces a guided missile test in the novel) and the theft of Goya's portrait of the Duke of Wellington (Bond does a double-take upon finding it in Dr. No's base).
  • Some reviews call her a "marine biologist,"
    which seems to be overselling her qualifications somewhat.
  • Honey Ryder's backstory is simplified from that in the novel. However, the way Bond listens to her tell the story of how she got revenge on her rapist with a poisonous spider (it took him five days to die) is hilarious. "Well, it wouldn't do to make a habit of it."
  • Jack Lord turns up as the first of the many incarnations of Felix Leiter. He's not in the book.
  • Bond flirts with a woman in a club at the beginning of the film, and his famous way of introducing himself is actually in imitation of how she introduces herself: "Trench, Sylvia Trench." I didn't realize it until I looked it up on Wikipedia, but Trench actually reappears in From Russia with Love, where Bond is once again called away on a mission during a date with her.
  • Poor Quarrel.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. Moonraker
  5. Live and Let Die 
  6. Diamonds Are Forever

12 October 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Forever... (1975)

Trade paperback, 209 pages
Published 2014 (originally 1975)
Acquired December 2016

Read January 2017
Forever... by Judy Blume

The great paradox of young adult literature is that it was created to communicate a genuine young adult voice, yet that purpose was immediately co-opted by adults. S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was a teenager herself in 1967 and created a whole new market-- yet not even ten years later, the mid-thirties Judy Blume was cranking out YA novel after YA novel. Mike Cadden of Missouri Western University touched on this in his article, "The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel" (2000). As he says, "Novels constructed by adults to simulate an authentic adolescent's voice are inherently ironic because the so-called adolescent voice is never-- and can never be-- truly authentic. [...] [T]he YA novelist often intentionally communicates to the immature reader a single and limited awareness of the world that the novelist knows to be incomplete and insufficient. It is a sophisticated representation of a lack of sophistication; it is an artful depiction of artlessness" (146).

Where Cadden goes with this is to classify YA novels into three different narrative strategies, based on the extent to which the YA reader is made aware of the inherent irony: is the reader taught that the viewpoint of the novel of "incomplete and insufficient"? It's a useful classification system; where Cadden ends the article is to promote a model for "ethical fiction": Cadden argues that YA novels ought to make clear the limited viewpoints of their narratives, and that authors ought to "help[ ] young readers detect and cope with irony, complexity, and contingency so rich in the world they hope so desperately to know" (153). This fascinates me because one of Hinton's purposes in The Outsiders was expressly anti-didactic, she was tired of novels for teens that delivered pat morals on how to liver properly. But Cadden sees an educational purpose for YA lit, and of the books I taught in my young adult literature course, surely none was more educational than Forever..., which is basically a 200-page brochure on sex for teens. It covers both the logistics and the emotions of it: Katherine visits Planned Parenthood for birth control in a scene that seems like it comes straight out of a brochure, but she also learns about how your first time might not be amazing as you dreamed, and how you might think your first love will last "forever..." but it definitely will not.

I would probably peg Forever... as what Cadden calls "Single-voicedness and Character Narration": "Each text provides a single voice that is so highly confident that it is ultimately unassailable within the text. These books and speakers provide only one argument or position on a matter, and most important, they fail to provide within the text the tools necessary to reveal the contestability of these immature perspective to the equally immature reader" (148). Indeed, Katherine is confident throughout Forever... in her love for her boyfriend Michael, and her belief that is meant to be and will always be. For the adult reader, at least, her wrongness is clear, and Cadden does allow that hyperbole is a tool for revealing what he calls "debilitating world views" (153): "Hyperbole [...] is harder to detect than either the contradiction provided by multiple perspectives or the doubt suggested by a more self-conscious narrator" (149).

But I think that despite the unassailability of Katherine's voice (her parents disagree with her, of course, but the narrative itself doesn't provide the kind of tools that would cause Cadden to classify a book as "Double-voicedness and Character Narration"), Forever... provides a different way of leading to questioning world views: plot and story. Katherine might think she is completely right, but the actual events of the book show that she is wrong, even if the narrative doesn't acknowledge this in a double-voiced way.

The thing is, though, that Forever... is terrible. Katherine's narrative voice lacks any of the spark of Ponyboy's in The Outsiders, or of later first-person narrators like Titus in Feed or Briony in Chime. She is plainly and obviously a way for Blume to disseminate information to the reader about teenage sex, and this makes the book unable to engage an adult reader in the way that most YA fiction can. My students weren't fans, but I didn't expect them to be: I taught this book because its purpose is so unlike that of The Outsiders, despite The Outsiders creating the very genre in which Forever... operates.

What really fascinated me about the book was how much my students reacted against it. I mean, I didn't like it very much, but they took particular exception to Michael, who they saw as violating Katherine's consent. Not that he rapes her or anything, but the pressure he applies to Katherine (at one point he accuses her of being a tease) is uncomfortable, moreso to a group of millennials in 2017 raised on discourses around consent and rape culture that I just don't think were there in 1975. Blume appended a preface to the novel at some point (I'm not sure when exactly, but it's in my 2014 edition and contains a web address, so that provides something of a range) indicating that the book doesn't say as much about STIs as it ought, but I think the pressure that Michael puts on Katherine, and Katherine seems to accept as normal, has dated far worse. Not to accuse my students of inconsistency (because the different viewpoints may have actually been held by different people), but after lambasting the book for how didactic it was, and also agreeing that one of the good things about The Outsiders was its lack of moralizing, they also thought it hadn't taught something it ought to have taught, they there was a "debilitating world view" that had gone unaddressed. I'm not sure what to make of this inconsistency in our expectations for young adult literature, one that would recur throughout the semester.

10 October 2017

Review: Dr No by Ian Fleming

Mass market paperback, 309 pages
Published 2006 (originally 1958)
Acquired January 2017
Read February 2017
Dr No by Ian Fleming

I'm often impressed by how much Ian Fleming does with how little. The Bond films are often globetrotting epics with multiple high-stakes fights. Dr No shows that you can get a lot out of a man trying to sit still while a centipede crawls over his face-- somehow one of the most intense scenes in these novels thus far! Bond doesn't do a whole lot here, but Fleming's Bond is human, and thus he struggles for every little thing he does do. When Bond, Quarrel, and Honey Rider have to hide from Dr No's forces on Crab Key, it's riveting; Fleming's attention to detail always serves him well in scenes like this. Honey herself is probably one of the most fascinating female characters in this series yet, and Dr No a strangely Gothic villain. Unfortunately, Dr No works better as an offstage premise; I enjoyed the bits where Bond and Rider and trapped in his weird hotel, but once he's revealed as contrivedly part of the Cold War and Bond turns the tables on him, the book deflates somewhat, as Fleming hasn't come up with a plan that matches sufficiently to the uniqueness of the character he's created. Still, one of the more enjoyable of these books-- Fleming's love of Jamaica always serves him well.

Next Week: He's the man, the man with the Midas touch: James Bond meets Goldfinger!

09 October 2017

Review: The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett

In other news, I have a review up at Unreality SF, of the H. G. Wells Big Finish Classic audio adaptation of The Shape of Things to Come. I would have never tried to bring this book to audio, but it's probably the best of Big Finish's Wells adaptations!

Hardcover, 275 pages
Published 2013 (originally 2011)

Acquired December 2016
Read April 2017
The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett

Barnett traces the history of gin, mostly in the Anglophone world, from its introduction to the present day. He's particularly interested in what you might call the moral status of gin: it is the center of various moral panics at first, but gradually over time become a drink with a higher class status. It's a little on the dry side, but it's pretty interesting, filling in a lot I didn't know. It's even a surprisingly useful social history of eighteenth-century England in general.

06 October 2017

"my tongue-tied young pride would not let my love for you show": From Russia with Love

Gotta get those cat-fighting women on there.
Is that really an authentic Gypsy cultural practice?
From Russia with Love continues our reverse James Bond journey, supplanting Diamonds Are Forever as the earliest Bond film we've watched thus far. Of all the Bond films, this might be the most accurate-to-the-book adaptation yet. Moonraker and Diamonds Are Forever just went nuts, Live and Let Die was a sort of weird mish-mash, and Casino Royale is pretty accurate once they get to the book, but there's over sixty minutes of prelude tacked on to the beginning. From Russia with Love, however, apes the structure of the book very closely, down to starting with plotting bad guys rather than Bond himself (though there's a great pre-credits fakeout), and just lots of small details, like the woman giving a massage to Grant when his superiors turn up to brief him, and Kerim Bey's periscope installed in the Russian embassy in Istanbul.

The big change is that instead of Bond being ensnared by a SMERSH plot (SMERSH being the Soviet counterintelligence organization), it's instead a SPECTRE plot (SPECTRE being the nonaligned international terrorist organization). This works really well, actually, because it makes the obvious trap that is a Russian cipher clerk saying she's in love with James Bond and will give a decoding machine to the British a tad more complicated. MI6 knows there's something afoot, but they can't figure out what SMERSH's game is-- that's because SMERSH has no game, and they're as baffled by what's going on as MI6 is. SPECTRE plays the two organizations off each other, and Bond doesn't even have an inkling SPECTRE are involved until very later in the game. In the novel, there's a lot of time-biding going on, but in the film the same events acquire new significance as you know that Bond is being manipulated by SPECTRE (to the extent that SPECTRE agent Grant actually helps Bond at a couple key points in Istanbul).

Watch out, old man.

This is one of the best James Bond films I've watched so far-- not as good as Casino Royale, but the gap between it and the nearest contender, Moonraker, is astronomical. I'd say that's because it's a fundamentally serious film with moments of levity, whereas all the lower-ranked films are just goofy romps with no serious foundation. The scenes with Blofeld briefing his SPECTRE subordinates have a real sense of danger to them. (And I actually don't think Blofeld was called Blofeld, except in the end credits, only "Number One." The actor playing Blofeld was credited only as "?", but Eric Pohlmann did the voice and was really excellent: great, deep menace.)

The scene where Number One delivers a lecture on fighting fish and then feeds one to his cat is amazing. The Bond wiki pointed out to me that though Blofeld becomes associated with the Nehru jacket later on, here he's just got a normal suit.

The highlight of the film is a sequence where Bond and the female defector, Tanya Romanova, flee west on the Orient Express. When their contact is killed, things suddenly start to feel very claustrophobic-- when you're on a train, after all, there's nothing you can do to speed up or change direction. Unbeknownst to Bond, Grant is on the train with him, and Terence Young directs some really creepy sequences of Grant monitoring Bond's actions. Like in the Istanbul scenes, the fact that the audience knows what Bond does not is used to good effect. The stakes are kind of low, but that's good. When Bond films attempt to escalate the stakes, that's usually where things go wrong, with Blofeld suddenly cackling about a space laser or whatever. This feels like a real spy film, albeit one with quips.

The quips are mostly dumb, by the way (the "one of our airplanes is missing" reference is particularly weak), but you can ignore them pretty easily. The humor does work when it arises more naturally from the characters, like when M stops playing a recording by Bond to send Miss Moneypenny out of the room because it seems like 007 is about to reveal a sexual exploit-- and then Moneypenny just listens in with the intercom anyway.

Apparently Daniela Bianchi's voice was dubbed by an English actress because her Italian accent was too strong. I did not notice at all!

If there's a flaw in the film, it's that one doesn't believe that Bond actually cares for Tanya. In the novel, SMERSH is exploiting Bond's predilection for falling in love with vulnerable women, and though Bond never stays in love with them, Fleming depicts Bond as truly in love with the woman in each novel while the relationship lasts. In the film, though, Sean Connery never plays Bond's interest in Tanya as anything beyond 1) sexual and 2) desire to get the decoding device from her. This is probably most driven home when Bond and Bey snigger over Bond's sexual exploits. I don't know if this was a deliberate choice by the screenwriter/director/actors, or if it's just something they failed to communicate fully, but it does make it pretty impossible to invest in the Bond/Tanya relationship as the film draws to a close.

It feels weird to say that Ian Fleming cares about a woman's interiority, but he definitely cares more than the filmmakers.

Other Notes:
  • This is the first appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as the character who would come to be known as Q, but here he's just said to be the head of Q Branch. (I guess in the end credits he is dubbed "Boothroyd," but I didn't notice.)
  • The relationship between Miss Moneypenny and Bond is downright salacious here; they're rubbing their faces against each other and seconds from making out when M calls Bond on the intercom and interrupts them. Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny in the first fourteen Bond films (I think she's the recurring character to last the longest without recasting), and this is a far cry from the very dowdy look she had in Moonraker.
  • John Barry's score is super in love with Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme," playing it again and again, even over really mundane scenes like Bond checking into his hotel and riding the elevator.
Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. From Russia with Love
  3. Moonraker
  4. Live and Let Die 
  5. Diamonds Are Forever  

05 October 2017

Review: The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

Trade paperback, 183 pages
Published 1991 (originally 1881-82)
Acquired December 2012
Read January 2013
The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope

Now we would look back at this book and call it science fiction; at the time it was published, it was considered a sort of utopian satire, like Erewhon or The Coming Race. It's weird to think that Anthony Trollope wrote science fiction, and there's nothing about his literary fiction that leaves me thinking he'd be particularly good at it. (George Eliot and Charles Dickens, though, I think would be capable of writing smashing sf novels for very different reasons.) I read it for the same reason I always pick up a nineteenth-century novel: it features a scientist. The narrator of The Fixed Period is John Neverbend, a social scientist and reformer who's worked out that if you euthanize everyone when they turn 67, society will be better off. As it is, one-third of the population contributes nothing! But as the death of the first man approaches in 1980, folks start to think that what seemed great in the abstract when the law was passed back in 1950 might not be so awesome when it's your friend or dad or neighbor who's got to be killed.

It's kind of a dull book, but where Trollope succeeds is in writing a narrator completely sure of his own righteousness. Neverbend just sees the world differently than other people, through the lens of rationality and statistics and the national interest. (The novel takes place on the independent former British colony of Britannula, which I think is in the vicinity of Australia and New Zealand.) Neverbend's plan is overturned, both by the people of Britannula and the British government, but he never sees why. Up until the very end, he is comparing himself to people like Galileo and Socrates, as scientific reformers who people didn't understand in their own age. Neverbend just doesn't get it, and he never will; his way of thinking is incommensurable with everyone else's, and in keeping this stubborn man (mostly) sympathetic throughout is where The Fixed Period's greatest success lies. You understand why Neverbend thinks what he does, even as you understand what he cannot: why everyone else thinks as they do.