Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Confessions of a Computer Junkie

I am an internet addict.  I once used the internet as a tool, but now spending time on the computer visiting the same sites repeatedly has become my primary form of entertainment.  Frankly, it’s not very entertaining.  I’m not reading books or watching movies the way I did before.  So, in order to break out of this bad habit, I’ve made a Lenten vow to cut the time I spend on the internet in half.  I’m not counting my work in photoshop, because that’s usually creative.  I’m also not reducing the time I spend writing, whether it’s for posts here or messages to friends.  These are too important and too satisfying.  It’s just not productive to check my visitor stats three times an hour, or twitter or facebook or email or ebay or YouTube.  So far, it’s working out okay.  I’ve read half a book in the last two days, and I’m even enjoying my time on the computer more than before.  I’m hoping that the time I spend away will result in more interesting blog posts, since the quality of what entertains me is reflected here.

I have another confession to make.  I spend way too much time on the internet correcting mistakes and submitting complaints.  I’m constantly removing my hands from the keyboard and telling myself, “You are not the internet police.  This is not your job!”  Here’s a good example.  Tonight my book club is discussing Willa Cather’s Death Comes For The Archbishop.  I got the book out of the library over the summer, kept it for nine weeks, and never got past page fifty.  We have a very good rule at book club—you can come if you haven’t read the book, but you can’t join in the discussion.  If I don’t go to enjoy the company, not to mention all the wine and snacks, then I’ll just sit at home browsing the internet again.  This morning I went to cliffsnotes.com (oh, the horror!) to read the summary in order to follow tonight’s discussion. There was a sloppy error in the synopsis, obvious even to someone who hasn’t read the book, so of course I had to submit a correction to the site.  Yesterday I complained to iTunes because I had to enter my credit card number and mailing address just to use the “like” button on an album page.  It’s bad enough that you have to waste time downloading an entire software package just to browse their store.  Spending less time on the computer will not reduce my urge to correct and complain, but I won’t have as much time to follow through.

I know I need to stay off ebay, but at least I rarely spend money there.  I have become fascinated by the selling of cancelled checks as “authenticated autographs.”  Seriously.  People are auctioning bank checks, either written to or by celebrities.  When they’re written to a celebrity, it’s the endorsement on the back that is the valued autograph.  Woe to any collector whose favorite celebrity had an accountant that used a rubber stamp!  My favorite so far is a check written by Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) to a Hollywood grocery store in 1974.  It is the amount that intrigues me.  Back in 1974, you could buy an awful lot of groceries for $560.  Was she having a party?  Somebody has already purchased this gem, but not to worry.  There are two other checks written by Montgomery that are still for sale.  I can’t help wondering about the more recent checks, with account numbers, addresses, and driver’s license numbers on them.  They haven’t been blacked out and can be seen clearly in the images posted on the internet.  There really isn’t any privacy anymore.  Of course, with paypal and online banking, handwritten checks themselves will soon become antiques from another age.

The other night, I tweeted my intention to spend less time on the internet.  I woke up to find a whole bunch of new people following me on twitter.  Is this supposed to be an affirmation or a temptation?!

Update:  I got a friendly note from the webmaster at cliffsnotes.com thanking me for my correction.  ITunes sent a customer service survey asking me for my opinion of the response I never received about my complaint!

Books on Kindle

This week, I have been forced to stop ignoring the Kindle.  I’ve resisted electronic book readers for several reasons:

1. I can drop a book from any height onto any surface, and it still won’t break.

2. I can loan a book to a friend after I’ve read it.

3. I like page numbers.  It’s not the same knowing I’ve read 37% of a book.

Reason number 4 used to be that I couldn’t use a Kindle for library books, but that’s no longer true here in San Francisco.  I don’t understand why I still have to be on a wait list for an ebook, but that’s a discussion for later!

I finally decided to give the Kindle a try, so I borrowed one from a friend to read Dragon Solstice by Nance Crawford.  Now, my friend’s Kindle is really old.  I think it’s one of the first ones, so perhaps it’s not fair to judge all electronic readers based on this version.  I don’t like how often I have to hit the ‘next page’ button, even after setting the font as small as I can comfortably read.  I also don’t like how the screen goes black while the page reloads, which is hard on my eyes.  Perhaps these problems have been fixed in newer versions.  I’m hoping someone here will fill me in.

In spite of my issues with the Kindle, I really enjoyed Dragon Solstice.  It’s a fairy tale adventure about a misunderstood dragon and a feisty little girl who get a bit lost in the forest and end up…no, sorry, I don’t do plot spoilers.  It’s a charming story, suitable for children but with plenty of wry humor for older readers.  It would make a good bedtime story read in chapters, since it’s not scary or violent.  At least, I think it would, since I don’t have any kids to try it out on.  If I did have children, I wouldn’t stop reading to them after they graduated from picture books.  I have great memories of my mother reading us books we could have read by ourselves, especially Roald Dahl’s James and The Giant Peach.  It would have given me the creepy-crawlies on my own, but having my mother read it made it tolerable.  I still love a good adventure, but I definitely prefer friendly dragons to giant bugs.  Dragon Solstice is at Amazon for Kindle and in paperback, and you can visit the author at www.NanceCrawford.com.

The Chatto & Windus hardback and the Vintage paperback

the Chatto & Windus hardback and the Vintage paperback

While I was browsing books at Amazon this morning, I decided to check the listing for 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields.  It was written by my uncle, Dennis Severs, and I did the photography (not the illustrations—Amazon has that wrong).  It’s been out of print for years, so I occasionally look at the prices on used copies.  Today I found a copy of the Vintage paperback selling for $999.00.  The real surprise was discovering that the book is now available in a Kindle edition.  Nobody told me!  Hopefully the color photographs will look okay on an electronic screen.

sorting slides at Random House

sorting slides at Random House

I still find myself wishing I hadn’t been so naive when I submitted my collection of slides to the publishers.  I assumed that the photos that I thought were the best would be the ones they would pick.  Instead, a number of dark, fuzzy photos were chosen along with some of my favorites.  An experienced photographer would have known to leave out the not-so-good ones.  Once I turned in my photographs and signed the contract, I didn’t have anything to do with the publishing process.  The editor sent me proofs and sample covers, so I did get to see how the book was progressing.  Just visiting Random House UK was amazing.  Everyone I met there was delightful, starting with Jeanette in reception.  The best part?  Visiting the editors and leaving with as many free books as I could carry.  All I had to do was gaze longingly at the shelves of new titles, and they’d invite me to take some.  It was a book lover’s heaven.

Should you download 18 Folgate Street to your Kindle¹?  I’ll be honest.  There are some wonderful things in the book, but it’s quirky.  My uncle’s strong personality comes through in his writing.  He was a born storyteller who avoided the written word due to severe dyslexia, until he decided to write his book.  He worked for years writing and revising, trying to find the best way to express his ideas on paper.  Sadly, he died before the book was published.  I think his prologue is the best chapter.  As for my photographs, some of them are terrific.  Some of them are not.  One of them is a complete mystery to me.  The color image on page 24 (firewood in baskets with a broom on the stairs) is a flash photograph, and it’s not mine.  All my photographs were taken using available light.  I don’t know where that one came from, and it’s been bugging me for ten years.  It’s great having my own blog, so I can get that off my chest!

To read more about my uncle and see photos of him and his house, click on his name in the category cloud or in the tags above.

¹Or iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, PC or Mac

Celebrity Encounters at Borders Books

I worked at the largest Borders Books in San Francisco from 2002 to 2006.  I started as a Christmas temp, hoping to be offered a permanent bookseller position.  I moved into store security instead, and I was simply the worst.  I never caught a single shoplifter.  Fortunately, before my self-esteem was completely shot, a bookseller position opened up.  I was assigned to the children and teen section, my favorite, and I was finally where I belonged.

Through the course of a working shift, we would be rotated around the store every hour.  The store took up four floors, so we did an awful lot of running up and down the escalators.  We’d staff the cash registers, the various information desks, and then organize our own sections.  There were frequent book signings and special in-store performances, and I was often recruited to assist the special events coordinator.   Because the store was located in Union Square, surrounded by big hotels and expensive department stores, we often had celebrity shoppers.  Word would spread quickly through the store when one arrived, especially in my last year, when we wore radio headsets.  Authors would come in to sign their books, even if they had no scheduled book event at the store.  When we were at an information desk and somebody walked up, we’d never know if they were a reader or a writer.  It kept us on our toes!

Eddie Izzard DVD Dress to KillThe first big celebrity store event I experienced was a visit from Eddie Izzard, who came to sign his Dress to Kill DVD.  I was very excited to meet him.  All the employees on break or starting their shifts got to spend a little time with him in the basement employee area, before he went upstairs to do his signing.  He was very cool, and I got an autographed DVD.  Just before I left Borders four years later, Eddie Izzard came back for another signing.  He was obviously more tired this time, probably at the end of a long public appearance tour.  He was just as cool, though, and even more famous.  I enjoyed meeting singers Dar Williams and Joan Baez.  When Jane Fonda came for a book signing, I helped mind her dog.  There were a few times when the events coordinator was busy at another store, so I was put in charge of events with author Laurell K. Hamilton and Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue.

It was fine for us to get autographs when a celebrity came in for a signing, but it was not cool to ask for one from a customer.  Too bad, because my collection would be awesome.  I was still working store security when Alex Rodriguez came in to browse.  I was at my usual position by the door, where he stopped and looked outside, clearly annoyed at the rabid baseball fans who were waiting with their binders full of memorabilia to sign.  I only knew who he was because of the store grapevine, and I’m no baseball fan.  Still, I nodded at him and tried to appear sympathetic.  He was handsome, he seemed a little arrogant, and I could tell his watch was very expensive.  That’s really all I had time to observe before he walked out to be mobbed.

One of the nicest people I helped as a bookseller was actor F. Murray Abraham.  He was energetic and friendly, and I was determined to find something for him.  I took him to three different floors, trying to find a book in stock that he’d find interesting.  It was one of those days when we seemed to be sold out of every title I looked up.  Still, he was full of good humor, and I may have surprised him when I said I enjoyed his performance in the miniseries Dead Man’s Walk.  Maybe he gets tired of hearing about Amadeus.  I had good luck with actors.  I was delighted to find Bill Irwin in the children’s section one day, and we had a quick chat.  I’d worked with him in 1985 at the La Jolla Playhouse, and I’d recently met him again at the stage door after a performance of his stage show Fool Moon.  He’s got to be one of the sweetest people in show business.

The Pursuit of Happyness was filmed in San Francisco, and lots of locals had encounters with the Smith family.  Will Smith came in one evening with an entourage and bodyguards.  I walked right up and asked him if I could help him find a book.  We wandered around two floors, where I made some recommendations and he asked to see some titles.  In the end, he chose The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene as a gift for a relative.  Will Smith was very extroverted, and I could tell he was used to being the center of his universe.  That’s not criticism, just an observation.  A few days later, Jada Pinkett Smith came in to shop, and I brought a book down to the ground floor for her.  Our contact was very brief.  I didn’t get to meet Jaden Smith, but my brother watched him film a scene for the movie.  The author of the book, Chris Gardner, dropped by the store more than once, and I have an autographed copy of his book.  I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I still haven’t read the book or seen the movie!

Simon Cowell was in San Francisco for American Idol auditions, and when I heard he was in the store, I rushed to the ground floor to say hello.  I told him I enjoyed his book I Don’t Mean To Be Rude, But…  He thanked me politely, and I repeated myself, saying I really enjoyed it.  Then he really smiled and told me I’d made his day.  Standing next to him felt strange, until I realized it was because we’re used to seeing him seated behind a table or desk.

British actor Damian Lewis came to the information desk, and I mentioned his miniseries Warriors.  I went on to gush about his co-star, Ioan Gruffudd.  I don’t think that impressed him very much.  Of course, he’s got a wry face, so it was hard to tell.  When David Sedaris was at the desk signing a stack of his books, I told him I was sorry I couldn’t make it to the event he was doing at a local theatre.  He just smirked and said the event was sold out.  At least his personality matches his writing style!  Then there was the author of new-age spirituality books who refused to ride the elevator with us lowly store employees, so she’s now banned permanently from my reading list.

I often ate lunch at a fifties diner across the street from the store, and one time at the counter I sat next to actor Chad Lowe.  I tried not to stare, but once I finished my meal, I said hello.  He was another genuinely nice guy.  Of course, I had to tell him how great he was in Life Goes On, and he told me he was in San Francisco to option a story from author Ethan Canin.  I told him I worked at Borders and encouraged him to drop by.  He said he would try.  Of course, I warned everyone back at work to watch for him, and he came in later, after I’d gone home.

Many of our celebrity sightings were just that.  We’d see them in passing, but that was all.  This was the case for me with Matthew Perry, Nicole Richie, and Rachael Ray.  I walked up and said hello to actor Paul Dooley and he shook my hand, but that’s all there is to tell.  I met Darren Hayes of Savage Garden a second time, as he passed me on his way to the music floor.  (My first encounter with Hayes is included in my last post.)

Some of the authors I met include Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, Temple Grandin, Bret Easton Ellis, Walter Mosely, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Phillipa Gregory, Robin Cook, Cara Black, James Patterson, Tom Wolfe, Gregory Maguire, Peter Robinson, Lawrence Block, Nuala O’Faolain, and Yann Martel.  Martel was there to sign his book, but also to insert a small strip of paper at page 317, containing some sentences that had been left out of the first edition paperback.  I’m sure he was relieved when his book went into another printing!  We discussed the different ways Life of Pi could be interpreted, and he wrote in my book, “May you always believe the better story.”

I left Borders when I could no longer cope with the physical demands of the job, and now the store is closed.  It’s sad that the big bookstores killed the small independents, and now the big stores are mostly gone.  Kindles and ipods are great, but I can’t help wondering, how do you get a kindle edition or an mp3 download autographed?  I guess you just take a photo with your cell phone.

Update: Wow, ask the universe a question, and sometimes you get an answer.  Now there is the kindlegraph, modern technology’s answer to the autograph.

2012: What I’m Excited About

Here’s a random list of some of the stuff I’m hoping will entertain me in the new year:

Books:  I’m on a long library waiting list for PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley.  It’s a murder mystery featuring the characters from Pride & Prejudice.  Mr Wickham gets bumped off, and I’m sure everybody is a suspect.  It fascinates me that the reviewers at Amazon are equally split between rating this book brilliant and awful.  I myself have tried many P & P sequels and failed to finish them.   I’m also looking forward to a book that’s coming out in spring, but I don’t even know the title or author.  All I know is that the cover photo will be one of my images of Ireland, posted last year at the beginning of January.

Television:  Downton Abbey Series Two begins a week from today.  Also this month, Ian Tracey guest stars on Supernatural (January 6th) and in the pilot for the new Fox series Alcatraz (January 16th or 23rd, or perhaps both?).   A friend just told me there’s a new Doc Martin series coming later in the year, as well as Sherlock, Great Expectations, Wallander, Endeavor, and Inspector Lewis.  Finally, The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary at the Royal Albert will get a PBS airing.

Movies:  2012 will be a countdown to The Hobbit and the movie version of Les Misérables.  While waiting for next Christmas, I am curious about The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, both actors I enjoy watching.  For March, I have a hugely expensive ticket to the silent masterpiece Abel Gance’s Napoleon, restored by Kevin Brownlow.  It will be shown on a triptych of three screens with a full orchestra.  This five hour epic at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre includes a dinner break!

DVDs:  February brings The Phantom of the Opera to the US, months after the folks in the UK got their DVDs.  I’m looking forward to The Help, since I missed it in the theatre.  Of course, that’s true for most of the other good movies in 2011.

Theatre:  The touring productions of Les Misérables and War Horse are coming to San Francisco.  I’ve got to get tickets, which means being more careful with my entertainment budget.  Damn you, Amazon and ebay!  No more impulse buying!

More New Year’s Resolutions:

1.  Keep better notes for next year’s Wrap Up.

2.  Read more, surf less.  (I’ve been on the computer way too much lately.)

3.  Get out to see more films in the cinema.

4.  You may have noticed a change in how I’m posting photographs here.  I’ve switched to slideshows in a effort to save on scrolling, but it also makes it harder for people to steal my images.  My goal is to take more photographs in 2012 and to see less of them posted on other sites without credit.

This is my 200th post at The Ugly Bug Ball!  I’m not planning to post more often in 2012, but I do hope to keep things going steadily along, with lots of new topics and not too much repetition.  Suggestions are always welcome.

Please share some of your resolutions and anticipations for 2012!

My Year End Wrap Up 2011

Another year comes to a close, so now it’s time to reflect back over what entertained me in 2011.  I just looked at the wrap up from last year, to get an idea of how far I’ve come in twelve months.  It’s clear that my focus has shifted in two directions.   I spent a large part of this year with my head in London, after watching the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables in March.  I also headed back to the past in a big way, once I started watching RetroTV and MeTV during a summer of unbearable television on the big networks.   These two obsessions have a major influence on my best and worst list of 2011.

Best Books:  Most of the novels I liked this year were written for children and teens.  I particularly enjoyed Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (the 2011 Newbery Award winner) and Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John.  Guitar Boy by MJ Auch and Countdown by Deborah Wiles weren’t perfect, but they each stayed with me long after reading.  My favorite non-fiction book was The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, which managed to make the periodic table interesting to someone who barely paid attention to science in high school.  The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan was a little book filled with some gems, and it goes into the “hard to categorize” category.  The funniest books were Demitri Martin’s This is A Book, and Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz & David Hayward.  The biggest disappointments were The Sherlockian by Graham Moore and The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz.  The lesson here is to give up on Sherlock Holmes in books and stick to the BBC.

Best Television:  The Big Bang Theory remains my favorite sitcom, just for being consistently funny.  The best line: “Let’s hurry up and watch this Star Wars blu-ray before George Lucas changes it again!” (Sorry for the paraphrase.)  NCIS consistently underwhelmed me, and I’m can’t help wondering if I’ll give up on it soon.  In spite of my declaration to boycott Masterpiece on PBS, I still watched and enjoyed Downton Abbey, Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen, Jason Isaac as Jackson Brodie, and the Inspector Lewis mysteries.  I spent my summer wrapped up in the old series Da Vinci’s Inquest, and my winter has been dominated by reruns of The Rifleman.  Overall, the television program with the biggest impact this year was the Les Mis concert on PBS.

Best Twitter:  Last year, Matthew Gray Gubler was my favorite tweeter.  He’s still whimsical and original, but now most of his tweets are links to his tumblr page.  I hate tumbr, so this is a big strike against him.  Sorry, Gube.  West End performer Hadley Fraser can be great on twitter, but he goes quiet for long stretches.  Ramin Karimloo tweets with sincerity, but all those tattoo photos freak me out!  Matt Lucas, Josh Groban and Yigit Pura have been consistently entertaining, and Shah Rukh Khan’s twitter feed has a good balance of the personal and professional.

Best Movies:  I did slightly better than last year getting out to see new films on the big screen.  I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class, The Descendants, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.   I’m not sure The Phantom of The Opera 25th Anniversary simulcast even counts in this category!  At the Frameline Film Festival, I enjoyed Kawa and Spork.  I have many more late 2011 films to see on DVD when they’re released in 2012.

Best DVDs:  I watched a lot of bad DVDs this year, just because they featured actors that I liked.  I really need to get over this habit!  While not necessarily bad, I endured a lot of fighting and CGI in movies like Thor, Captain America, and Centurion, just so I could see actors Tom Hiddleston, Chris Hemsworth, JJ Feild, and Michael Fassbender.  I tried to watch all ten Best Picture Oscar nominees on DVD, but I faltered at 7½.  I did love The King’s Speech.  I hate to admit it, but I think my most entertaining DVD experience this year was re-watching JJ Abrams’ Star Trek with a friend.

Best StreamingDa Vinci’s Inquest and The Rifleman on hulu were great, even though I was also watching these series on broadcast television.  The worst: when Netflix split their charges for DVDs by mail versus streaming.  I tried a month of streaming only.  It was a disaster.  Nothing I wanted to watch would play without long pauses to reload.  Now that I’m getting DVDs only, the Netflix site doesn’t tell me what is available streaming only.  Netflix, you’ve got a long way to go before you win back my trust.  One free DVD rental for Christmas isn’t enough.

Best TheatreLes Mis and The Phantom of the Opera, obviously, even though I didn’t see either show live in an actual theatre.  I had some fun at San Francisco’s BATS Improv, especially seeing their Spontaneous Broadway.

Best Music:  I’ve spent most of my time listening to Josh Groban, Hadley Fraser, Sheytoons (Hadley Fraser and Ramin Karimloo), and Johnny Crawford.   Another favorite is the song Electricity from Billy Elliot (the stage musical).  Still, nothing beats Hadley Fraser singing Again.  The worst music this year?  Whatever was playing in the trailer for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Gack.

Best Music Video:  It really doesn’t count, but I can’t help it.  I love Josh Groban Sings Kanye West Tweets.

Best Entertainment News:  Following the news from London about West End performers from the Les Mis concert has entertained me at least as much as the concert itself.  It brought me new friendships with fellow fans from all over, and it kicked off the practice of having guest bloggers here at The Ugly Bug Ball.  If I’m blogging less about the West End, it’s only because things are pretty quiet right now.  2012 promises some guest reviews of Ramin Karimloo as Valjean.

Entertainer of The Year:  Last year was easy.  This year, it’s difficult to choose.  Johnny Crawford is great, but he came along late, at the end of November.  I blogged the most often about Hadley Fraser.  He provided me with a rich variety of entertainment, between the Les Mis and Phantom of the Opera performances, the online news and tweets, the music recordings and the YouTube videos.  Still, Ian Tracey beats Fraser out for sheer volume.  Tracey has been working steadily since he was a teenager, and even without an online presence (no tweets, fansites, or facebook page) he provided me with the most hours of entertainment.  I’m going to have to declare a tie between Hadley Fraser and Ian Tracey.  Congratulations, guys.  There’s no prize, but you get my sincere thanks.  I’m sorry I can’t promise you my exclusive loyalty, because there’s always going to be a Johnny-Come-Lately waiting in the wings!

Hadley Fraser and Ian Tracey

Hadley Fraser as Grantaire in the Les Mis concert; Ian Tracey as Adam Worth in Sanctuary

Next: What I’m excited about in 2012.  Happy New Year, everyone!

What I’m Thankful For

I’m stunned that Thanksgiving is here already, but there’s nothing I can do to turn back the clock.  Here are a few of the things I’m thankful for this year:

  • For Anthony Horowitz, because he finally wrapped up the Alex Rider series before Alex got too morose to hang with anymore, and for writing a new Sherlock Holmes mystery.  Will I feel grateful after I’ve read Scorpia Rising and The House of Silk?  We’ll see.
  • For Phil Rickman, because he published another installment of the Merrily Watkins mysteries. Now if it would just become available on kindle in the US…
  • For the end of my addiction to General Hospital.   My boss is even more thankful.
  • For DVDVideoSoft, for allowing me to put some new music on my mp3 player on a tight budget.
  • For Shah Rukh Khan, because he’s in two movies this year instead of the usual one.
  • For RetroTV and MeTV, because with all the bad new TV shows on the major networks, I can still be entertained by the classics.
  • For YouTube and twitter, although a little less of both during work hours might be a bigger blessing.
  • For Da Vinci’s Inquest reruns, but also for having watched every episode already, because now I can go to bed earlier.
  • For the two Redbox machines around the corner, saving me from the long Netflix queues for new releases.
  • For Alan Cumming, because his introductions to Masterpiece Mystery always make me think he’s enjoying himself more than we are.
  • For Josh Groban, because I enjoy his music, but also because he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  His “Kanye West Tweets” video started the year off, and it still cracks me up as the year ends.
  • For Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Raj, Penny, Amy and Bernadette.  The Big Bang Theory consistently makes me laugh, and I’m especially grateful for this joke (paraphrased, I’m sure): “Let’s watch Star Wars on blu-ray before George Lucas changes it again!”
  • For Hadley Fraser and Ramin Karimloo, because of the music and videos and tweets, but mostly because of the new friends I’ve made this year through following them.
  • For the community at St Agnes, who have become a part of my family, and who continually remind me that there’s more to life than entertainment.
  • For my boss, because she trades book recommendations with me, tolerates my endless chatter, and is always willing to watch a good movie—or even a bad one, as long as there are good snacks.
  • For my friends, because without them to share it all with, it just wouldn’t be any fun.
  • For my family, because they make me laugh a lot.  Besides, they’re stuck with me, and they rarely complain about it.

I wish everyone a peaceful, uplifting, delicious Thanksgiving.  May your teams win, your in-laws get along, and your holidays be blessed.

Armistice Day 2011

Today is Veterans Day, and as I explained last year, I always focus my attention on the end of World War I.  November 11, 1918, was the official ceasefire of The War to End All Wars, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  My fascination with WWI is not with battle strategies, but with the individual soldiers and the horrific conditions they endured in the trenches.  I struggle to imagine coping with the fear, the noise, the cold, the wet, the mud, the gas, the hunger, the monotony—and then going over the top to run into machine gun fire and shells and barbed wire, just to gain a few yards of ground which would be lost in the next skirmish.

Last year, I posted World War I art with some devastating facts and statistics.  This year, I am discussing some films about WWI, because it is through them that I’ve gained so much insight into what the war was like for the soldiers we honor today.   It’s also timely because one of the big Christmas movies next month is War Horse.  Like War Horse, many of these films were novels first.  There’s a 51 year gap between the films I discuss, jumping from 1930 to 1981.  I hope readers can fill this gap by telling me some WWI movies made during these years.

Wings with Buddy Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen

Wings (1927)

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) Here’s a video of Winsor McCay’s animated film depicting the sinking of the Lusitania by German torpedoes in May, 1915.  The anti-German sentiments expressed in the intertitles are intense, but the comments under this video show that these feelings haven’t gone away.

J’Accuse (1919 and 1938)  Abel Gance used actual soldiers just returning from the front in his 1919 anti-war film.  It had a huge impact in Europe, where it was shown just five months after Armistice.  The US version was drastically re-cut to have a happy ending, and the anti-war message was changed to a patriotic one.  Critics who saw the original version were appalled, and the film was not a success in the States.  Gance later re-made the film in 1938.  It’s really hard to find good copies of either the original or the remake, but a new restoration of the 1919 film was shown at a recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so I’m hoping it will become available on DVD soon.

The Big Parade (1925)  This silent film by King Vidor was one of the big hits of the silent era.  It stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée.  It hasn’t yet been released on DVD, which doesn’t make any sense to me.  I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s on my wish list.

Wings (1927)  Since this was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, you’d think it would be readily available.  It’s the only Best Picture not available on DVD in the US.  I met the director’s son last year, and we discussed our mutual frustration about this.  William A. Wellman directed feisty Clara Bow, stalwart Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper, and Mary Pickford’s future husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, in this WWI epic about fighter pilots and the girl next door who becomes an ambulance driver.

All Quiet on the Western Front (film: 1930)  Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 book was made into the film starring Lew Ayres.  It was re-made in 1979 with Richard Thomas, but I have not seen that version.  The final scene of soldier Paul Baumer reaching for a butterfly is still devastating.  Lew Aryes was deeply affected by the movie’s message.  He was a pacifist who became a conscientious objector in WWII.  This had a negative impact on his career, even though his service in the Medical Corps earned him three battle stars.

Gallipoli (1981)  Often included in lists of Best Australian Films, Peter Weir directed this story of two young Australian soldiers who lose their innocence fighting in Turkey.  This film is very powerful but has some serious historical inaccuracies.  The disastrous charge at the Battle of the Nek was ordered by an Australian officer, not a British one.  I love the fact that half of the skilled horse riders used in the film were women disguised as men.

Legends of the Fall (film: 1994)  I saw this brutally violent film several times in the theatre because of the beautiful cinematography and the hunky Brad Pitt.  It’s amusing to count how many times Pitt is filmed with a glowing halo of backlight around his blonde head.  It’s not subtle.  When his younger brother enlists and goes to France, Brad Pitt’s character joins up to keep his brother safe.  There’s plenty of gas and barbed wire, not to mention scalpings.  While not a “war film,” this was one of the first movies I saw with WWI scenes, so they had an impact on me.

A Little Princess (1995 film)  The original story is about an English girl whose father is fighting in the Boer Wars.  In this 1995 film version starring Liesel Matthews, Sara Crewe is a girl with an English father and an American mother.  The boarding school is moved to New York, and her father goes to fight in France in WWI.  I love this version, so it’s one of the rare times I don’t mind the Americanizing, and the story still works just fine.  There are several realistic trench scenes with Sara’s father.  Even though Liesel Matthews is an heiress to the Hyatt fortune and worth millions, don’t hold it against her.  She’s a great Sara.

A Little Princess (1995)

A Little Princess (1995)

Regeneration/Behind the Lines (film: 1997)  The first book of Pat Barker’s excellent Regeneration Trilogy was made into a fine film starring Jonathan Pryce, Jonny Lee Miller, and James Wilby.  James McAvoy is credited, but his role is so tiny it’s almost impossible to spot him.  It’s about several characters at a psychiatric hospital in Scotland during WWI, including poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  Pryce plays a psychiatrist trying to help his shell-shocked patients.  Sassoon has been sent to the hospital instead of a court martial after he publishes a letter speaking out against the war.  This film is hard to find on a US DVD, where it was renamed Behind The Lines, and even in the UK the DVD is a Dutch import.  I hope this changes soon.

The Trench (1999)  Paul Nicholls and Daniel Craig star in this wrenching drama about young British soldiers on the eve of the battle of the Somme.  Craig is excellent, and the young soldiers are played by young actors, conveying the inexperience of many of the troops who didn’t survive the first hours of their first battle.

Deathwatch (2002)  I can’t recommend this strange horror film about British soldiers who stumble into a trench containing a deadly supernatural being.  I only watched it because of the cast, which includes Jamie Bell, Matthew Rhys, Laurence Fox and Andy Serkis.  I suffered through it, but you don’t have to, unless you really like muddy horror films.

A Very Long Engagement (film: 2004)  This is one of my favorite WWI movies.  It’s long, complicated, in French with subtitles, and you really have to pay attention to keep track of the characters.  Maybe it’s just me, but put a group of men in mustaches and they all look the same.  This film has a lot mustaches!  It’s about a determined young woman (Audrey Tatou) who can’t accept that her fiancé (Gaspard Ulliel) has been killed in WWI.  She searches for clues to what really happened to him and four other soldiers condemned for self-mutilation.  It’s a war film, a mystery, and a love story.  Marion Cotillard is wonderful in a supporting role, and even Jodie Foster shows up to show off her French.

A Bear Named Winnie (2004)  A family film telling the true story of a Canadian soldier who adopts a black bear cub, smuggles him to England, and leaves him in a zoo when he goes to France.  Winnie the Bear, named after Winnipeg, becomes a beloved zoo attraction and inspires AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories.  The film stars Michael Fassbender, Gil Bellows,  Jonathon Young, David Suchet, and Stephen Fry.  There’s only one war scene, still pretty intense for younger viewers, while the rest of the film focuses on the antics of the cub.  The film has a leisurely pace, and Fassbender and the bear have great chemistry.

Joyeux Noel (2005)  One of the most remarkable events of WWI was the 1914 Christmas truce, depicted in this French film, when unofficial ceasefires in some regions during Christmas led to football games, carol singing, and gift exchanges between enemy soldiers.  Joyeux Noel was praised by critics and viewers, and I still need see it.

Passchendaele (2008) Canadian Paul Gross wrote, directed, and stars in this film using details from his grandfather’s life.  I was expecting the focus to be on the battle of Passchendaele, but most of the movie takes place off the battlefield.  That’s not a complaint.  I don’t think the movie teaches an uninformed viewer much about the actual battle, but it’s not supposed to be a documentary.

War Horse ( film: 2011)  Opening this Christmas, War Horse is based on Michael Morpurgo’s book for older children.  The play won the Tony Award last spring.  I read the book this summer, and it was 160 pages of pure grief.  Any parent giving their child this book should read it first to judge whether their kid is mature enough to handle it.  I don’t think I’m there yet.  I hope parents are also careful about taking children to see the film.  I will be reading the reviews to see if parents are cautioned.  The trailer promises a beautiful film and the cast features some favorites, but I’m taking plenty of tissues.

Birdsong (film due 2012)  One of my favorite WWI novels by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong has been filmed in the UK as a TV movie due in 2012.  That usually translates into an eventual airing on PBS Masterpiece.  The film stars Matthew Goode and Eddie Redmayne, and I can’t wait.

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Chemin des Dames Assault 1917 by Luc Albert Moreau

Chemin des Dames Assault 1917 by Luc Albert Moreau

“And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish—and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest—their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly.  Those millions of mothers and their millions of gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps, with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for death’s amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war.   — from A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

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