Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: 77 Shadow Street by Dean Koontz

I've been a fan of Dean Koontz since I started reading "adult" books. I remember his early works keeping me on the edge of my seat, and he remains one of only two authors who've written a book that unnerved me as I read it. Over the years, my enthusiasm has waned a little bit. Sometimes the old Koontz seems to be at the computer, other times it's the guy who often seems to be repeating himself in his choice of themes and characters. The Odd Thomas books, for example, have all been good reads so far. 77 Shadow Street, on the other hand, was not.

I wanted to like this one, and let me say right now that it's not a bad book. If this is the first Koontz book you've ever picked up, it's probably pretty good. The problem for me was, it wasn't even close to being the first. And page after page, character after character, I found myself thinking, "I've read these people before." Different setting, slightly different problem, but the characters were stock Koontz characters. The only thing missing was the dog. Without getting into spoilers, either, the fates of these characters unfold pretty much the way you expect them to. I could tell within two paragraphs of meeting a character, especially as the book progressed and more people were introduced, whether they would live or die.

It was a good premise. I like the idea of the apartment building over the space-time rip. But that, too, was problematic, because Koontz lets the readers know way too early on what's causing all the weird things. Worse, this is done through a first-person narrative that is the most cliched and over-the-top Lovecraftian-esque narration I've read in a long, long time. It was bad. Bad enough that I found myself skipping those chapters the moment I say the italicized text. I'd have much preferred not knowing the cause behind it all until much later, as that not knowing added to the suspense and intrigue. Once that was gone, I was left with nothing but the predictable characters.

There are books where character, not premise, drives the story, and this seemed like it wanted to be one of those and just had the wrong characters to do it with. There were also too many characters, and two sets of them were practically interchangeable. (Again, this is a result of Koontz dipping into his well of stock characters.) It became difficult sometimes after putting the book down to remember who was who when I picked it up again.

Unlike past Koontz works, this was one I found myself putting down a lot.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Muses and Estellas

Most of us know about muses, even if we can't name all nine of the original Greek muses, or what they were muses of. (Did you know there is a muse for astronomy? Or that there were five different muses in charge of the various aspects of poetry?) Modern muses come in different guises. Some constantly inspire, while others may drive us to attempt things we've never done before. Then there's the kind that mostly sits in the background and kicks ideas in our general direction every once in a while in a resigned effort to remind us that yes, we are creative people.

Okay, that last one may just be mine.

Lots have been written on muses - you don't get to hang around for a few thousand years without people consistently talking about you - and I'm sure I've expounded on that subject once or twice  myself. This, however, is not about muses, but about their counterparts, the Estellas.

Before I get too far, while this is a post about metaphorical, literary-minded Estellas, the concept of an Estella can be applied to actual people as well. So if by the end of this you're wondering whether there is an actual, flesh and blood Estella that might have inspired this, well, isn't there always?

(The wanna-be noir writer in me was tempted to write, "There's always a woman," but it occurs to me that sounds somewhat sexist. Even if I can hear Bogie saying it while he puts on his fedora.)

If you don't know what an Estella is, then you aren't familiar with Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. In which case, go out and rent the 1998 film with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Do not read the book. Trust me on this. It is not a great film and I won't pretend it is. Good, yes; great, no. However, the film captures all you need to know about the book - for right now - without having to sit through the novel's wordy prose and somewhat absurd machinations and melodrama.

My feelings on Dickens are also a subject on which I have expounded before. Possibly even preached or heresied, depending on where you stand on Dickens.

(My spellchecker is insisting I can't turn heresy into a verb, but I am refusing to acknowledge this.)

By way of quick summary, Estella is the great love of our hero, Pip - Finn in the movie, because who the heck names their kid Pip in this day and age? - and the two of them meet through the manipulations of a cold, malicious spinster who does her best to encourage Pip to love Estella, and Estella to scorn Pip. There are other plot elements, including an escaped criminal and a mysterious fortune, but that's about the gist of it.

I like the movie version in part because it makes Estella's influence on Pip/Finn much more explicit than it is in the book. Pip/Finn is clearly smitten with Estella, and just as clearly knows it's a bad idea. He's an artist, and while she isn't directly his muse in the conventional sense, despite the "draw me like one of your French girls" Titanic-esque scene, I think it's safe to say she inspires him, both directly and indirectly, throughout the film.

Yet she is bad news, and he knows it. And still he chases her anyway. She floats into his life at various moments, wraps him up, discombobulates him, and sends him spinning before cruelly stepping out of reach. Multiple times. Each time she comes to him, he falls back into his enthrallment with her, knowing how it's going to end, and willingly playing it out anyway because he can't help himself. He is, after all, entirely in love with her.

Some ideas are like this. They come to us, we fall for them, we think we're onto something that could be really spectacular. Briefly, it is. There are sparks, there are longing glances and stolen caresses and for a moment, just a moment, we let ourselves ignore the obstacles. Muses do this, too, of course, but where the promise of the muse is ultimately fulfillment of the idea, the promise of the Estella is familiar heartbreak when, once again, it doesn't go anywhere.

And like Estella, these ideas are ones we just can't shake, just can't put down or relegate to that dusty bin where unworkable ideas go to fade away. They come back to us, we dance with them again, knowing deep inside it's not going to work any better this time, and ignoring that inner voice of caution because the idea itself has enough power over us to make us willfully forget. Part of us wants to dance again, after all, wants to cling to the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it's going to work out, that we're going to figure out that missing element that will let it all come together.

So we go around the floor again, even though we ought to send it packing.

There are two endings to the original novel. The first, the original, was bleak and bitter because hey, it's Dickens, and especially it's late Dickens. He was asked to do a second, slightly more hopeful ending, which no surprise is the one I like much better. The movie uses the second one.

I like that ending better in part because it ends the story in the ruins of that old spinster's estate, and that seems far more poetic to me. I also like it better because, while not precisely hopeful (the movie is a bit vaguer on this than the book), there is the sense that the potential for a better ending is there this time. That this time, with Pip/Finn a little more worldly, a little wiser, and Estella a little less harsh around the edges, they might find a way to make it work.

Or they might not, because it is, after all, Estella.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Upstairs Book, Downstairs Book

I need to be reading more. Heck, you need to be reading more. You know you do. Unless you're this person. In which case you're one of the reasons the rest of us need to be reading more. Or at least most of us, as I probably shouldn't speak for everyone. Come to think on it, I probably shouldn't speak for anyone else but me, because having taken a moment to think on it, I'm sure you're all reading more than I am lately. Which brings me back to:

I need to be reading more.

This is not a new revelation on my part. I've been thinking this for a while. I used to read a lot. As in, A LOT. Remember those college applications that asked you to list the books you'd read in the past year? There was never enough space. I have always suspected they didn't really want to know the full extent of anyone's reading, and were skimming the lists looking for things by the likes of Faulkner or Joyce. Of the two, I have read one, and it isn't the reportedly indecipherable Irishman. (Of whom it may be said that Martin Sheen does an excellent impression, but if you don't listen to public radio on the weekend you probably don't know that.) But the likes of those two were not the kinds of books that filled my list and bled well beyond the confines of those few meager lines the application doled out.

I don't wish to give the impression I'm not reading, or that I haven't read quite a few books this year. I have. But in terms of just numbers, the bulk of those are the YA or MG books I read to my daughter via Skype each night. While entertaining, and remarkably sophisticated, it's not the same thing as sitting down with a novel of my own.

In an effort to fix this, and because I also have at least a dozen or so books on my shelves that I have been meaning to read - often for years - I am adopting a two-part strategy. It is a strategy that will also save me the trouble of having to go either upstairs or downstairs when I am in the opposite location from where I last left my book. Laziness in the pursuit of literacy. It's a gift, really.

I have put one book downstairs in the kitchen. I do not get a paper, and having a book to read serves much the same purpose. In this case, I'm opting to make my downstairs books the poetry, history, philosophy, politics, religion, or other various non-fiction books I own that I have not yet read. Not all of which I expect to be great, but when that turns out to be the case I'll simply reshelve it. I have long since worked past the compulsion to finish every book I pick up, no matter how good it is. Life's too short to waste on a poorly written book.

Then, in part two of this brilliant yet lazy scheme, I have a book upstairs in the bedroom. This is a library book, something light and fluffy, which I have found makes for better bedtime reading. Not that the other kinds don't work as well, but I usually don't need the help sleeping that large historical or philosophical tomes provide. Plus, they usually require a little more mental energy to properly take in anyway. Unlike something by King or Gibson or even Roth. (Although sometimes Roth provides a different kind of bedtime reading, but that's another post entirely.)

So far, it's working out pretty well. I've made more headway in my reading in the past couple of weeks than I have in a while. Which, I must admit, feels pretty darn good. For reasons that even I'm not fully sure I understand, I had let one of life's best pleasures slip away from me, and it's nice to get it back.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Starting from Scratch

I had the chance to go see The Avengers this weekend as it came back into theaters. I haven't, yet, for no real reason other than my annual quota of one summer movie was taken up with Pixar's Brave. I ended up not going to see The Avengers, still, in part because of where it was showing in my home town, and in part because today was really the only convenient day I had to go see it.

And instead I went to the library. Which is not quite as geeky as it sounds, given that I had books that were due, and where the library is versus where the theater is in relation to where I work. Also, the books were the ones I read to my eight-year-old, so this was much less of a contest than it may sound at first.

All of the superhero films coming out this summer got me thinking: is it really necessary to revisit the origin story of a superhero every time the franchise gets rebooted? I realize it's not a novel idea, yet as I am a bit of a comics geek I figure I ought to be able to throw my two cents in.

For starters, I can think of at least two .... okay, one and a half superhero movies that did not feel the need to spend the bulk of two hours telling the story of how the hero came to be. One of those was a decidedly non-superhero film that only tangentially could be put into that genre, so it's probably out. The other featured a brief backstory flashback that lasted about fifteen minutes. And having typed this, I thought of one more that fits that description. So two and a half. Out of a lot over the past few years.

For the most part, these origin stories seem completely unnecessary. Batman Begins is perhaps the exception because it trod over mostly newish ground, in a way that hadn't been done before on film. but Spider-Man? I question not only the more recent version, but the former version from several years ago. Is there anyone out there, anyone at all, who would see this movie and not know Spider-man's basic backstory?

Or Superman's? Or, yes, Batman's? Does anyone out there at all not know the basic origin story?

Let's face it, these origin films are mainly about establishing character for "new" fans. But if you aren't into comics, what's the draw then? Star power? Possibly. But if that's the case, do you still need to retread familiar ground? Women are often cited as the demographic that is brought in by focusing on "character aspects" - i.e. the hero's tortured beginning and what not. I'm not a woman, but I have to say, if I wasn't a Green Lantern fan, then I'm probably going for Ryan Reynolds, and anything beyond that is just extra padding.

Green Lantern was an especially egregious example of an unnecessary origin story. It wasn't all that important, and slowed the film down. That is a cardinal sin, because amid all the tights and capes and powers, superheroes are supposed to be escapist fantasy and above all fun. Fail in that, and no one wants to read/watch them. (Look at all the failed titles from the "Dark Age" of comics in the 1990's.)

There is a long literary tradition of starting things in media res. (That's your Latin for the day.) Superhero movies could learn from this. Just jump in, in the middle of the car chase or some other action bit. Hook the audience, and then how he got the powers or what deep dark angst he's harboring inside won't really matter.

These are already established characters anyway, for the most part, so there really isn't a need to build the backstory. Look at James Bond. James Bond does not get an origin story; James Bond does not need an origin story. (Casino Royale does not count, and if you think it does, answer me this: what do we know about his personal life? Yeah, that's right: zilch. He just is Bond. After shooting that guy behind the desk, of course.)

Neither do established superheroes.