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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
02/06/04 -- Vol. 22, No. 32
Table of Contents
MISSION OF GRAVITY Discussion (announcement):
There will be a discussion of Hal Clement's MISSION OF GRAVITY at the Holmdel (NJ) Barnes & Noble on Friday, February 20, at 7:30 PM.
Philcon Convention Report (announcement by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My Philcon 2003 convention report is now available at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper/phil03.htm
Nominations (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
In this time of Oscar nominations, it's worth remembering that it's an honor just to be nominated, and that even so, the best works don't necessarily win, or even make the ballot. In the spring drama competition in 431 B.C.E., Euripides's "Medea" won only third place. (Euphorion, a son of Aeschylus, won first prize and Sophocles second. No record of which plays won. None of Euphorion's, and only seven of Sophocles's plays, survive.)
Las Vegas (more comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I was talking about how Las Vegas does all sorts of odd things to bring gamblers in.
But there is something intriguing about Las Vegas that I was not expecting. This is a place where private enterprise has gone manic. There is apparently big money in being the casino that attracts the greatest number of gamblers. There must be at least decent money in being the casino that attracts at least some gamblers. But you see fabulous buildings being built in the hopes that when they are opened, they will be THE PLACE TO GAMBLE. And if they make it to the top they seem to be on top for only about six months. Then someone else's fabulous casino hotel is opened and the one that was opened six months before is demoted to being just another one of the biggees. When it stops earning it is torn down, usually with a spectacular dynamite detonation, and another giant casino hotel is built in its place. It is like private enterprise gone time lapse. Every time you come to Las Vegas it is a different town from what it was the last time. Things happen fast here. Come back in a year and the town will be noticeably changed.
I commented in my Japan trip log that Japan is to the United States as the United States is to Canada. Actually it might be better to say as the United States is to Western Europe as Western Europe is to Eastern Europe. Japan is vibrant, exciting, changing. People are anxious to try out the new. The United States is a little more laid-back and casual. But at least in the 20th Century the United States was more vibrant than Western Europe. Newt Gingrich as a boy spent time in France and was surprised to see buildings that were still, as he was told, "damaged from the war." He was even more surprised to find out that they were talking not about World War II but about World War I. In America those buildings would be repaired or gone in less than a year. In Tokyo it might be even faster.
Japan is more vibrant than the United States in general, but Las Vegas beats Japan. That may be why you see so many Japanese tourists in Las Vegas. Or there may be another reason. Casino complexes are really big in just the way that very few buildings in Japan are. Things in Japan are very compact and cramped. In Europe the standard for showing opulence in a building is putting gold all over it. I think the French are in love with gold leaf. In Japan opulence is shown by space. The grounds of the Emperor's palace are big and spacious, but the average Japanese lives in a well designed but confined little space. The big corporations in Japan have big buildings with big open spaces in them in Shinjuku and all that space is to show off their wealth. The Las Vegas casinos are huge. A walk to a different part of the same casino complex can take twenty minutes or even more if you don't stop to look around. The rooms may be at one end of the casino and the shops at the other end. If at all possible to walk from one to another takes a long walk past hundreds of gambling machines. To Americans this design merely looks sumptuous. I would guess that to the Japanese it looks really magnificent.
Some of these casinos are so big they can build a full-sized roller coaster on top of them. One casino must have started that but apparently many others followed suit. You can be standing laughing at the garishness of some new casino and suddenly you hear a roar over head. Over the top of the casino comes thundering a roller coaster with people screaming. It may be totally out of place with the decor of the building, but there it is. Take the casino New York, York. I don't think that New York is particularly associated with roller coasters the way it is with the Statue of Liberty but there is a roller coaster over the whole affair. Maybe it is supposed to be evocative of Coney Island, but I doubt it I think it is important to attract younger gamblers. There are not that many middle-aged gamblers using the amusement park rides, but they probably bring in the kids. Get the kids gambling early. Casinos try to outdo each other. The Stratosphere has two roller coasters; Circus Circus has one; the Boardwalk and the Sahara each has one. I might guess that the Las Vegas Strip has the greatest concentration of roller coasters of any place in the world.
Next week I will talk a little about the tourist bargains I have found in Las Vegas. [-mrl]
BIG FISH (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: Tim Burton directs this study of a troubled father-son relationship. The dying father's fairy tale stories of the significant events of his life have always been a major barrier between himself and his son. The story has long fantasy sequences that pull the viewer into the stories studded with giants, werewolves, circuses, huge fish, Siamese twins, and more. The subject is really the upside and the downside of a strong imagination. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) has not spoken to his father Edward (Albert Finney) for three years. Everybody loves Edward for the outlandish stories he tells at the drop of a hat. But Will never really got to know his father because of those same stories. Dad will never get serious and talk about his life. Instead, he makes up these absurd tall tales and uses them as a barrier to keep other people at a distance. Edward would rather live in his fantasy world than to get serious. Now Edward has had a stroke and is probably dying. Will leaves his job as a reporter in Paris and returns to his Alabama home to be with his father and perhaps to get some final understanding between the two of them. The last thing that he wants is to hear more of his father's whoppers, but that is really what his father wants to give him. And the stories start coming. Dad tells about how he tamed a giant and how he visited a strange magical hidden little town called Spectre.
Tim Burton is no stranger to themes of our real world sitting beside and blending into a magical one. In EDWARD SCISSORHANDS he has a magical castle overlooking suburbia. BATMAN RETURNS and BEETLEJUICE both have juxtapositions of a fantasy world with ours. Where the script of BIG FISH perhaps falls down is that the stories are imaginative but not really enthralling. The young version of Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor, who almost looks like he could be a young Albert Finney) spends time in the magical town of Spectre, but what he does there simply does not make for a good story. Further, the story of the wild storyteller and the skeptic is not dissimilar from the plot of the recent SECONDHAND LIONS. The timing of these two films coming out so close to each other is an unfortunate coincidence. (And the title could conceivably cause some confusion with FINDING NEMO, another timing problem.)
Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who filmed HOPE AND GLORY and DANGEROUS LIAISONS, did the visual work which is perhaps a bit too unsubtle with scenes in the real world having a cold, washed-out look and fantasy scenes having richer color. But somehow the fantasy images have a decided Americana feel to them. In the scenes where this American fantasy works it is effective and has a different flavor from the fantasy that Burton has put on the screen in the past. His character becomes a sort of Southern Baron Munchausen. Tim Burton has assembled a notable cast even for lessor roles including Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Robert Guillaume, Steve Buscemi, and Danny DeVito.
This is a brand of fantasy that will not appeal to everybody, particularly sitting as it does cheek-by-jowl with a more serious story. This film does not argue for the need for fantasy as some films do, but for tolerance for those who need fantasy to survive. As such it is Tim Burton's answer to HARVEY. I rate it a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10. [-mrl]
A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS (and cataloguing) (book review and comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Nicholas A. Basbanes has finished his trilogy of books on books, following A GENTLE MADNESS and PATIENCE & FORTITUDE with A SPLENDOR OF LETTERS: THE PERMANENCE OF BOOKS IN AN IMPERMANENT WORLD. This last (as the subtitle indicates) is primarily about the survival of books and the destruction of books (which includes both the destruction of libraries as acts of war and the "de- accessioning" of books and periodicals by libraries). (Basbanes has another book, AMONG THE GENTLY MAD, which is apparently not considered part of this series, being about book collectors rather than about books.)
As part of his discussion of how it is not just the primary content of a book that is important, but all the other aspects, such as dust jacket and title page, Basbanes gives the example he gives is DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol. If one looks at the first (Russian) edition of the book, the title page says in very small print at the top "Chichikov's Adventures", then underneath that in the smallest possible italics the word "or", then under that "Dead Souls" in big, bold letters. Why? Well, the Russian censor, a devout Christian, objected to the implication that immortal souls could die. When Gogol said that the title referred to serfs who had died, the censor decided it was an attack on the serfdom system and didn't like that either. But Gogol was a well- respected author, the censor compromised by saying Gogol could keep "Dead Souls" but only as a secondary title. Even if the full title is kept on an edition these days, the fact that "Chichikov's Adventures" was in very small print is probably not.
I was quite surprised that in all his discussion, Basbanes did not mention the National Yiddish Book Center, which has been rescuing Yiddish books for about twenty years now. They have rescued well over a million volumes and are redistributing many of them to libraries around the world. They are also digitizing them for both print-on-demand and on-line access, and deal with a lot of the issues Basbanes talks about, such as the need to destroy a book by cutting off the spine in order to scan the book in, or the question of what to do about ephemera (e.g., ticket stubs found in books, Yiddish playbills, or old letters).
I found the discussion of books on various media particularly relevant, as I am currently in a "cataloguing crisis." Well, crisis is perhaps too strong a word. But it is confusing. It used to be that a book was a book, a magazine was a magazine ("New Destinies" notwithstanding), and as far as text went, that was it. Oh, there was the occasional "spoken word" LP, but most people didn't have to worry about that.
Of course, we had lots of spoken word cassettes, but those were all old-time radio shows.
Now I find myself trying to figure out if the 23-CD unabridged audiobook of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" should be catalogued in our book catalog, or with the radio shows. And what about the CD of an abridged version of "Middlemarch" I got in England a couple of years ago? Now to mention the CD-ROM of the 1993 Hugo nominees, or an episode of a radio show included as an extra on a DVD, or a CD-ROM bound into a book, ... well, you get the idea. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Of interest to science fiction fans and film fans is John Baxter's A POUND OF PAPER: CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK ADDICT. (Yes, this is John Baxter, the film critic.) The publisher has decided to give it a Dewey Decimal classification in "Book collecting" rather than "Biography", but it is more the latter, and talks at length about Baxter's growing up in Australia, how he first discovered books, and films, and science fiction, and science fiction fandom. Baxter relates how he got started writing for the pulps, and how his attempts to craft a writer's life in Australia that matched what he saw in Hollywood films were less than entirely successful. (As he put it, "My career as Australia's answer to Noel Coward didn't last.") Baxter has all the same interests as I (and many science fiction fans) have, and I heartily recommend this book.
On the other hand, a lot of "classics" are not going to get stirring recommendations from me. I've been reading books from the high school summer reading lists. First, let me explain what these are, in case you are not familiar with them. Apparently, many school districts assign students to read over summer vacation one (or more) books from a list of approved books. Now, I never had assigned summer reading, probably because I was an "Air Force brat" and so always lived in a town and went to a school where there was a large turnover between June and September. (This never stopped me from reading books over summer vacation, of course. :-) )
Anyway, our book discussion groups are having problems rounding up enough library copies of the books we choose, so we decided to try some on the summer reading lists, since the library has at least a dozen copies of each. Some we had already read (e.g. Daniel Keyes's FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, Homer Hickam's ROCKET BOYS). Some I had read and was comfortable recommending (or disputing). But I decided to read a few with an eye towards their suitability.
One was Ernest Hemingway's THE SUN ALSO RISES. It is a classic. I did not like it. Simple declarative sentences are fine, but they get boring after a while. One longs for a dependent clause, but one doesn't find one. All the people are obnoxious. The narrator was injured in the war, but Hemingway cannot say how. Who cares?
Another "modern classic" was Sandra Cisneros's THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. I suppose it can be useful as a view into a different ethnic group for most students, but at that level it seems aimed maybe too much at a juvenile level for an adult discussion group.
Mitch Albom's TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE is the story of the author's visits with his old college professor, who is dying of ALS. I suspect it was chosen for high school students because it does deal with old age, and serious illness, and death. The advice his professor gives is good, but hardly new, and the work is too overly sentimental for me. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers. -- Anthony Robbins
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