Saturday, August 19, 2017

What I'm Reading: Symposium and Phaedrus

I had originally included these under the roundup, just below, but decided they deserve their own entry.

Symposium I've also reviewed other dialogues by Plato--the Republic and a collection of five dialogues related to the execution of Socrates.

First, let me address the question--"Oh, you're reading Plato. Isn't it hard to read?"

And the answer is, no, not at all, I know this is philosophy, but this isn't Kant or Hobbes or Schopenhauer or somebody like that. Plato writes dialogues, i.e., conversations. His main character is always Socrates, an immensely likable character (how much Plato's Socrates reflects the real historical man is a matter of endless debate among scholars) who has a knack for leading his friends and students in discussions of philosophical matters that feel totally natural and are pretty easy to follow.

The Symposium is one of Plato's most beloved works, mostly because it relates the events of a Greek drinking party. Socrates and several others have gotten together to celebrate because their friend Aristophanes, the famous Greek comedian, has won an award for presenting the best play that year. Before they start drinking, they decide each will give a speech in praise of Eros, the god of love, and at the end they'll judge who gave the best speech.

Each gives a speech in turn praising love, with Aristophanes in particular giving an odd and humorous account. At the end, Socrates gives a high-minded speech about how the best kind of love is philosophical love, which benefits all mankind, and you think that's the end.

But then the party is crashed by a very drunk, semi-belligerent Alcibiades, the notorious Greek playboy, who tells them all not to heed a word of Socrates, because he doesn't know a thing about love. Alcibiades gives a rambling but funny account of trying to seduce Socrates, which he thought would be easy because Socrates is an older man, only to find himself thwarted at every turn.

The party ends at dawn with everybody drunk and passed out. Only Socrates remains awake. He walks to town, performs his morning prayers, and goes about his day none the worse for wear, his rational nature completely unaffected by a night of drinking.

Phaedrus Okay, the book with the Symposium included this dialogue as a sort of bonus. It starts off a little lightweight as far as Plato's dialogues go, though charming, and by the end has reached unsuspected depths.

Socrates runs into his friend Phaedrus one morning on walk in the countryside, and they agree to walk together while Phaedrus explains a speech his friend Lysias gave him, trying to talk Phaedrus into sleeping with him even though they aren't in love with each other.

At a beautiful creek that they think must by the home to water nymphs, Socrates explains why Lysias's speech was foolish, point by point. He then goes further, elucidating why one should avoid sophistry like Lysias's speech and always tell the truth, with digressions on such things as the nature of the soul. At the end, Phaedrus and Socrates walk back to Athens.

Simple in some ways, but so profound I anticipate rereading this in the near future.

What I'm Reading: Roundup

It's been a while since I've written on here. I'll do a quick roundup of what I've been reading.

Fuzzy Mud A middle-grade novel by Louis Sachar, who some may know for writing Holes. We listened to this on our recent trip up to western Massachusetts and it managed a tricky feat--keeping the interest of the eight-year old girl, the twelve-year old boy, and the two adults in the car.

Fuzzy Mud has two parallel stories: the first follows three students at a private school in Pennsylvania--the third-grader Tamaya, a goody two-shoes who has to walk to school with her older neighbor Marshall, who in turn is bullied by his classmate Chad; the second story follows a scientist testifying before a Senate subcommittee on a type of one-celled organism he has developed that could provide an energy source superior to oil, but which has some very troubling side effects.

When Tamaya and Marshall are walking home from school on a shortcut through the woods one day, they meet Chad, and to keep Marshall from getting beat up, Tamaya throws a strange kind of fuzzy mud in Chad's face. It's here that the two stories meet in a heartbreaking way that I won't explain.

One of the reviews on Amazon describes this as an eco-disaster novel, and while accurate, I'm not sure that fully captures the book. This story definitely took some twists I did not foresee. It's probably a bit darker than a lot of middle-grade novels, but the characters are so well-drawn and sympathetic--even the bully Chad, once we learn a little of his backstory--that I imagine any middle-schooler will find this hard to put down. Any adult too, for that matter. I highly recommend this.

Unsound The most recent comic series by highly-prolific horror comics writer Cullen Bunn. I have previously reviewed Cullen Bunn's series Harrow County (which is ongoing, by the way, and remains one of the two or three best comics I read on a regular basis.)

Unsound is a four-issue mini-series following Ashli, who has just accepted a job as a nurse at a psychiatric hospital housed in a century-old building with quite an unpleasant history. By the end of the first issue, Ashli discovers she may have more in common with the patients than the rest of the staff, especially since she has some unresolved mental issues from her own past.

We're up the third issue of this, with the fourth issue due out in September. The series is more creepy than scary, with a number of really bizarre scenes. I have no idea where it's going, though more because the story is a freak-out than because it plays fair with genuine narrative twists. Still, fun for those who like scary things.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seventh Most Important Thing

Arthur, age 13, lives in Washington, DC, in 1963. When he picks up a brick and throws it at a black homeless man people call the Junk Man, everyone assumes it's racially motivated violence, and the judge is prepared to send him away to juvie for a long time.  But it wasn't race that motivated him. His father died three months ago, and he saw the Junk Man wearing his father's old motorcycle cap, not knowing his mother had thrown it away.

But at the hearing, the Junk Man, whose real name turns out to be James Hampton, asks the judge if instead of being sent to juvie, Arthur can be sentenced to help him with his work, since his arm is broken and he can't do it. The judge agrees to the unusual idea, ordering Arthur to work for Mr. Hampton for 120 hours of service. When Arthur shows up on a snowy day at the address the court gives him, he finds an old garage with the Junk Man's cart outside it. Taped to the cart is a sign on cardboard asking Arthur to collect the seven most important things: lightbulbs, foil, mirrors, pieces of wood, glass bottles, coffee cans, and cardboard.

What does the Junk Man do with these things? What's in the garage? Why, whenever he sees Arthur, does the Junk Man refer to him as St. Arthur, and to himself as St. James? And will Arthur be able to finish his sentence so he doesn't have to go to juvie?

An added bonus for me is that the book is set in Washington, DC, so there are references to local sights like the Smithsonian and the Washington Senators baseball team. But it takes place in a working-class neighborhood, so we get a glimpse of how real Washingtonians live. And the mystery of what James Hampton, the Junk Man, is working on, turns out to be tied to a real Washington location--although I won't reveal any more than that.

The Seventh Most Important Thing, a YA by Shelley Pearsall, would be good for any kid from 10 up to read, and many adults as well, I think. It's attention-grabbing from the first page, the characters are realistic and well-drawn, and despite offering some deep lessons, there's a lot of humor throughout. In fact, I think I'm going to go hand it to my own 12-year-old son to read tonight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ranking Wonder Woman

Went with my family to see Wonder Woman last weekend. It was a fun movie! I noticed my daughter wasn't bored at any parts, as she has been with other superhero movies. Is that because Wonder Woman is an especially good superhero movie, or because it has a female protagonist? Not sure...

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and the Man-Thing.

So we start off with Wonder Woman's origin story, who grows up as the child, Diana, on the hidden island of Themyscira. She is the daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a warrior race charged by Zeus with battling the god of war, Ares--only Ares has not appeared on Earth for millenia. As she gets older, Diana proves to be the fiercest warrior of all, skilled in every sort of athletic event, yet her mother never fully lets her take part, claiming she is not meant for war.

When World War I spy Steve Trevor crash lands on the island in a plane, Diana rescues him. He tells her of the war raging across the globe, unbeknownst to the sheltered woman of Themyscira. Diana immediately connects the World War with the return of Ares, and wishes to accompany Steve back to the outside world. Her mother is against it, and Diana sneaks away with Steve at night on a boat.

In 1910s London, Diana is horrified by the pollution, poverty, and and crime she witnesses in the city. She wishes to travel as soon as possible to the frontlines, assuming she'll easily find Ares there. Steve Trevor has to slow her down, even as he tries (mostly in vain) to make bold, naive Diana less obtrusive in Edwardian society. Eventually he is sent on a mission behind enemy lines, and takes Diana with him.

I won't say what happens after that, except that the adventure could rightly be described as rollicking, and there's a lot of good humor. This is one of the best DC movies in a long time, not quite excellent in my rating system but pretty close.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid


Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Finished Another One

The Love Machine, my latest novel, is done.

Well, at least the not-quite-final draft of it. I finished it this morning, fulfilling my 2017 New Year's goal of having it done by June. It took about 18 months.

Because I've been reading each chapter to my writers' group a few weeks after completing them, and then going back and polishing, the book should need very little work further work, I think. I'll take a week or so off, and then do a final read-through and polish.

My next goals?

1) I have two open short stories. I'll finish one of them. Should take 7-10 days.

2A) Polish query letter for The Love Machine.
2B) Send The Love Machine  out to agents. Maybe start in a month.

3A) Go back to novel #3, which I need to make one semi-major change to. May take a few weeks for that. Otherwise, I think this one is good to go.
3B) Novel #3 also needs a title! My various working titles (most recently, Out of Place) have not worked for me.

4) Start on novel #5. I have a really killer premise and am ready to start. Maybe after Labor Day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What I'm Reading: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Wow. I'm finally done with The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence, i.e., Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, these are his memoirs, upon which the famous movie is based, and I feel like I've been reading them for months. I have been reading them for months. Too good to put down, too intimidating to pick up for reading before bed, I've read it only when I've had an unbroken block of 30-60 minutes.

Lawrence had studied archeology in college, I think, and had spent time on digs of crusader castles in Syria, where he perfected his Arabic and spent much time traveling around, familiarizing himself with the land and its people. When World War I broke out, he was a perfect prospect for joining British intelligence in Egypt. The British thought it might help their cause to encourage a rebellion among the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords in Turkey, who were allied with Germany, and sent Lawrence for the job.

Lawrence's first task was identifying which of old, doddering King Hussein's three sons would be a good leader for a rebellion, and found the ideal man in Prince Feisal, a calm, fair-minded, Turkish-educated natural leader of men. Together Lawrence and Feisal led a motley collection of Bedouin tribesman and local Arab peasants from Jeddah on the Red Sea coast up to, eventually, Damascus and the ultimate defeat of the Turks in Arab lands.

Lawrence himself becomes a legend in Arabia through the course of the book, a strange blue-eyed figure, a non-Muslim and a clean-shaven man, both great rarities in the desert, yet acting as a sheik and a military leader, with the authority and white robes of Mecca, and a gold Meccan dagger presented him by Prince Feisal himself. When he arrives in an area where he hasn't been before, the locals all come to see this odd sight firsthand, though of course they already know him by reputation. And he strives to live up to their expectations, living the same hard life as a Bedouin, and even going out of his way to learn words in local dialects and details of local clans, so that he can greet a stranger and ask him of his family on first meeting. Quite an incredible man!

I'm naming this book as one of  my Shortcuts to Smartness, by which I mean a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas it's like a college class in and of itself. But in this case, I'm also including a caveat, which is that this book is so huge and mighty, and much of the knowledge provided so esoteric--the different types of sand in the desert, how to coax a she-camel to travel when she is mourning a lost calf, the difference in what the English and the Arabs conceive of as hunger, and on and on--that it takes a reader truly willing to accompany Lawrence on his journey, including all the immensely interesting, though often lengthy, digressions.

In fact, if you think the movie is long, it is only the thin outer layer of the fruit. I think my favorite part is learning about how to feast in the Bedouin tradition, with goat and camel meat roasted and presented steaming (rude to wait until it cools--too bad for your fingers!), and an elaborate hierarchy of who gets to eat from the common dishes first, who eats second after the best parts are taken, and who gets the bones and other remains.

Or maybe the history of Auda, the old desert warrior who becomes a general in the Arab army, who has killed more than 70 Arabs with his own hands in his life, and so many Turks he doesn't even know (because who counts Turks?), and who describes to all who will listen the adventures of his life in the most heroic terms.

But these are just two of the many, many interesting descriptions and stories--hundreds, not dozens--sprinkled throughout the main narrative. This book may not be for all, but if you have the will, the desire, most of all the time, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is worth your attention.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

James Bond: Movie Rankings by Category

Okay, here's a little project I've been working on for a while, based on my categories for each James Bond movie I've ranked (11 so far, reviewed herehereherehere, and here). So here's each category with the movies ranked in order by quality beneath:

Top 4
1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
2. Goldfinger
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
4. A View To a Kill

Top 8
5. Casino Royale
6. Skyfall
7. Spectre
8. Thunderball

Doesn't Rank
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun
Live and Let Die

Top 4
1. Casino Royale
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. Skyfall
4. On Her Majesty's Secret Service

Top 8
5. A View To a Kill
6. Die Another Day
7. Thunderball
8. Spectre

Doesn't Rank
Live and Let Die
The Man With the Golden Gun

Top 4
1. Goldfinger, Oddjob (Goldfinger)
2. Stromberg, Jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me)
3. Blofeld, Fraulein Bunt (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Raoul Silva (Skyfall)

Top 8
5. Le Chiffre (Casino Royale)
6. Blofeld (Spectre)
7. Scaramanga, Nick Nack (The Man With the Golden Gun)
8. Mr. Big, Baron Samedi (Live and Let Die)

Doesn't Rank
Zorin, Mayday (A View To a Kill)
Colonel Moon, Zao (Die Another Day)
Emilio Largo (Thunderball)

Top 4
The Spy Who Loved Me
Casino Royale
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
The Man With the Golden Gun
Top 8
Die Another Day
Live and Let Die
Doesn't Rank
A View to a Kill

Top 4
1. Goldfinger
2. The Spy Who Loved Me
3. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
4. Die Another Day

Top 8
5. The Man With the Golden Gun
6. Thunderball
7. Casino Royale
8. Live and Let Die

Doesn't Rank
A View to a Kill

Bond Girls
Top 4
1. Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me)
2. Solitaire, Rosie Carver (Live and Let Die)
3. Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty's Secret Service)
4. Vesper Lynd (Casino Royale)

Top 8
5. Jinx (Die Another Day)
6. Monica Belucci, Madeleine Swann (Spectre)
7. Fiona Volpe (Thunderball)
8. Mary Goodnight (Man With the Golden Gun)

Doesn't Rank

Severine, M (?) (Skyfall)
Pussy Galore (Goldfinger)
Stacey Sutton, May Day (A View To a Kill)

Musical Theme
Top 5
1. Goldfinger
2. A View to a Kill
3. Nobody Does it Better (The Spy Who Loved Me)
4. Live and Let Die
5. Skyfall

Doesn't Rank
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
Casino Royale
Die Another Day
The Man With the Golden Gun

And as a reminder, here are the overall movie rankings:
1) The Spy Who Loved Me (12 points)
2) Casino Royale (10 points)
3, 4) Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (tied with 9 points)
5) Skyfall (8 points)
6) Thunderball (6 points)
7, 8, 9) Live and Let Die, Spectre, The Man With the Golden Gun (5 points)
10, 11) Die Another Day, A View to a Kill (4 points)