Monday, July 30, 2012

Sabriel: Not QUITE as good as the first what I would say if I remembered the first time.

When I saw this book cover, it triggered instant nostalgia. I vaguely recollected loving it when I was a teenager, so I bought it to see if I would still love it now that I'm a stuffy old grownup. I was expecting some moment of recognition as I read . . . but it never came. I remembered NOTHING about this book except, apparently, that I liked it? At some point? Curse my unreliable memory!

Anyway, Sabriel is the daughter of a powerful necromancer, Abhorsen. But instead of bringing the dead back to life like some OTHER necromancers are wont to do (naughty necromancers), Abhorsen travels around the kingdom putting the dead to rest. So whenever something slips through the gate between life and death and sets about terrorizing the living (which happens quite frequently, it seems), Abhorsen sweeps in dramatically and jangles one of his special bells to send the dead thing back to death for good.

He also sometimes pokes the dead thing with his magical sword.

The Old Kingdom is where magic still runs rampant, and Ancelstierre, on the other side of a fortified wall, is where magic DOESN'T happen . . . and Abhorsen has sent Sabriel to school in nonmagical Ancelstierre, for some reason. BUT he's still trained her in the art of necromancy, and she's still taken magic classes at school. And this is good, because something goes awry with her father and she has to travel over the wall into the Old Kingdom to save him. And then she has an adventure . . . with MAGIC.

Sabriel is a strong female character, but she does have a lot of I-can't-believe-how-little-I-know-about-anything moments, which I suppose is a pretty common setup: girl who is being groomed for greatness is called upon to use her skills before she's fully ready and has to learn as she goes. Fair enough. No complaints there, really.

The romance is a little . . . odd. It's not instalove, thank GOODNESS, but it feels a little contrived, nonetheless. He's like, "Oh, hey . . . I've just realized that this person I've been traveling and fighting with for several weeks is a pretty girl, and I'm in love with her. I just decided that just now." And she's like, "This boy is very cute, but I don't have time for boys right now. I have to save the world. Just kidding. I love him." Actually . . . that's exactly what it is. I basically just quoted the book there.

I think this is the first YA novel I've read that uses words I've never seen before. I don't know how I feel about this. Well, no . . . I definitely don't like it. What the hell is a revetment? And bitumen? And a revenant? *consults dictionary* For the LOVE, Garth Nix! Why couldn't you just say wall, asphalt, and ghost? Someone should confiscate your thesaurus.

The little details are what make the book, I think. The seven bells with very specific purposes in dealing with the dead. The way the necromancers' physical bodies ice over when their spirits travel into death on an errand. The way objects are imbued with magic in the form of Charter marks coursing through and over them like living things made of light. But my faaaavorite favorite part about this book is a character called Mogget. He's a crazy-powerful Free Magic being that has served Sabriel's family for thousands of years. Normally, he's evil and all made of crackly light, but he's been enslaved in the form of a fluffy white kitty. He's clever and sarcastic and old and does cat things even though he's quite above all that, thank you.

"Where's the section on defeating members of the Greater Dead?"

Now watch as I wantonly compare this book to other things. All I've really got as far as a comparison is the fact that Mogget's snarky attitude and confining physical form remind me a LOT of Calcifer from Howl's Moving Castle.

Calcifer: fearsome fire demon
Calcifer: Sassy hearth fire

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: Geekery Edition

I frequently venture from Nerdtown to Geekdom (the path between them is paved with Skittles), and I have something to show you that falls in Geek Jurisdiction. Come . . . let us sally forth together!

I don't consider myself a gamer (of the video or table-top variety), but I pretty much approve of everything Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day do. I would follow them into the bowels of Mordor. I would carry their cloaks while they captured a rogue Qunari mage. I would completely humiliate myself on my own blog.

So that's how I ended up a frequent visitor of Geek & Sundry. And the website has a new feature called "Written by a Kid" that is . . . just delightful. It's KIND of like Drunk History, except instead of grad students recounting history stories under the influence of LOTS of alcohol, it's adorable children telling made-up stories under the influence of their crazy imaginations. And then famous people act them out.

There's only one video up so far, but it features Joss Whedon battling a one-eyed monster while shimmying around in a permanent squat. And I brought it here for you. Because I love you THAT much.

UPDATE: A second episode of "Written by a Kid" just went up! It has a goth stepdad. Of course it does.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: Broken Dreams Edition

It's been almost 4 years since I last set foot in a newsroom or any tangential journalistic structure, so when I heard the Los Angeles Times was offering a free tour of its Olympic printing plant I was allllll over it.

Brace yourselves, friends. The nerd fumes in here are about to get more potent than usual.

The Olympic Plant is the largest newspaper printing facility in the country (the pressroom alone is 55,700 square feet).

ECHO . . . ECHo . . . ECho . . . Echo . . . echo

But here's where the sads come in for anyone who was, is, or aspires to be in the newspaper business: WHERE ARE ALL THE HUMANS?

We were here from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. That falls right in peak production hours, because all the papers going out the next morning are printed the night before. And, yeah, newspapers WERE flying by on all sides. But all this action was overseen by a skeleton crew. I asked our tour guide later that night if the production side of the business had experienced as many layoffs as the editorial side in recent years, and he said this production facility in particular has only about 200 staff left . . . out of 500.

OK. Time for something happy now. And what could be happier than ROBOTS? Robots that shuttle 2,400-pound rolls of paper around (a job that humans probably used to do, but let's not think about that right now). YAY, ROBOTS!

Staff: "Oh noes! We're almost out of paper."

"Here I come still."

The printing presses burn through about 300 gigantor rolls of paper in a 24-hour period. So WHERE do they keep all that paper?

Jenny found it! Thanks, Jenny!

Each roll of recycled paper costs the Times $600.

This is the machine that makes all those tidy columns.

It's gone rogue! NO ONE IS SAFE.

At one point, we were all herded into a freight elevator. And just when Jenny and I were looking at each other and thinking, "This is the part where we find out the tour was just an elaborate excuse to get us here so they can harvest our organs," we saw THIS on the wall:

Not to worry. The freight elevator was just taking us to the printing presses.

Now, I've been watching a lot of Firefly lately, AND our guide called the printing plant the Death Star of News at the very start of the tour . . . so it's only natural that I should pretend to be in a spaceship for the duration. And THIS part was the most spaceshippy of all.

Can't you picture River Tam tucked up against the railing?

Only three of the people in this picture work here. Don't get too excited.

We ended the tour in the distribution center and were once again reminded that barely any humans are employed here.


Automated machines as far as the eye can see.

So next month is the tour of the editorial building in Downtown Los Angeles. Those pictures are certain to feature lots and lots of empty desks. So look forward to THAT.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How Neverwhere made a Gaiman fan out of me

After a fairly disappointing first encounter with Neil Gaiman's work (*cough*American Gods*cough*), I reluctantly proceeded on to Neverwhere.

Welllllll OK.

And I MUST say, I was pleasantly surprised.

Right away, I could tell I was gonna like this one much better, and I will tell you why: It's set in London, and it's WRITTEN like it's set in London. And now we all know how Anglocentric I am when it comes to Neil Gaiman. *sips Earl Grey haughtily*

After getting through the entirety of American Gods with only one phrase underlined (and it was about the smell of ghost cookies, so it hardly counts), I was relieved to read this on the first page of Neverwhere:
"Inside the pub, Richard's friends continued to celebrate his forthcoming departure with an enthusiasm that, to Richard, was beginning to border on the sinister." (p. 1)
OK, so it's not the most noteworthy sentence ever written, but it made me smile. And then I was free to kick off my booties of reluctance and march onward with hopes hoisted high.

So Richard has moved from Scotland to London (don't worry, Laura . . . no Scottish accents to endure) and is working in [insert generic, sufficiently lucrative career field here]. He is engaged to an ambitious and beautiful woman who goes by Jessica (NEVER Jess). She's the kind of woman who's always trying to improve her man, and poor Richard just holds her purse in Harrods and toddles behind her through art galleries and wears the clothes she picks out and pretends to read the motivational self-help books she buys.

But that all changes when a mysterious young girl literally falls in his path and involves him (kind of accidentally) in her very personal quest, which takes them through London tunnels populated by all the people who have slipped between the cracks . . . a city beneath the city.

And, guys, there's MAGIC. And people who talk to rats. And people who live in secret subway cars. And a Floating Market. And I giant pig-monster. And some TRULY nefarious villains who are somehow simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. And the Marquis de Carabas, a shady yet lovable character who, as far as I'm concerned, looks like this:

Don't mind if I DO.
**UPDATE OF SOME IMPORTANCE: Concerned individuals are pointing out that the Marquis de Carabas is black. Thank you, concerned individuals. I cherish you. But I can't make myself picture him any differently, and I hope that doesn't make me a bad person. Let's blame Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. (And, yes, I KNOW that picture up there isn't from Abraham Lincoln, but I couldn't find any good ones of Mr. Cooper, and I just . . . be nice to me, guys. I just got cream cheese on my keyboard.)**

Even the most secondary of secondary characters are fully fleshed out, sometimes eliciting disgust and sometimes making your heart squeeze a little.
"Hammersmith enveloped Richard's hand in one several sizes up. His handshake was enthusiastic, but very gentle, as if he had, in the past, had a number of accidents shaking hands and had practiced it until he got it right." (p. 271)
And the setting in London Below is borderline steampunk-tastic, and there's no irritating forced romance between the protagonists (other than my ongoing love affair with the Marquis, but that's neither here nor there and not at ALL forced no matter what you've heard). And, frankly, I didn't want to return to the surface when the story was over.

Now watch as I wantonly compare this book to other things. We have some serious Labyrinth parallels here. And I mean that in the best way possible (but how else CAN you mean a Labyrinth comparison?). Richard is practically a male Sarah: the regular-old boring human thrown into a world of mystery and magic and fantastical characters. The underground tunnels are pretty maze-like already, and then there's an ACTUAL labyrinth at one point. There's even a character similar to Jareth . . . but I'll let you figure out which one it is.

Just try to resist reading it NOW.
SOURCE: Gaiman, Neil. (1996). Neverwhere. New York: HarperCollins.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm: The Not-Actually-Wednesday Edition

So it's 2 a.m., and that means it's officially Thursday. We are over the hump and have now begun our descent. Wednesday came and went with nary a Nerdgasm.

But listen here, you lot . . . I have nerdy things to say EVERY day of the week, and I won't be silenced just because it's Thursday or because my brain has switched into hibernation mode or because I'm inexplicably craving Ramen right now!


I really don't have much to say, as it turns out. But I suppose I could show you pictures from my latest excursion to the Last Bookstore?

A group of us went Monday with the intention of spectating the open mic night, but then we made the mistake of entering the $1-book labyrinth . . . never to be heard from again. *ominous tubas*

I haven't been able to get any decent pictures of this labyrinth of books, but my friend Jon has a fancy iPhone and some kind of fancy photo editor app that's available only on fancy iPhones, and what I'm leading up to is that he posted the pictures on Facebook and I thieved them. (Jon, if you're reading this, can I use these pictures I'm already using? I'll take your silence as consent.)



Ridiculous, yes? And those are only from the FIRST room. The shelves wind on and on and-on-and-on-and-on.

So I decided to let myself buy five books. I was holding Anansi Boys, Sophie's Choice, In Cold Blood, and Cider House Rules and looking for a fifth when another friend flashed this before my eyes:

Space cowboys with shenanigans included.
So I put all those books back (*scoff* Books. Who needs 'em?).

But THEN I strayed farther into the labyrinth and found two books that promised to be the key to my escape, and I really had no choice but to take them or face an eternity trapped in a room with millions of books (the HORROR).

I've been meaning to read A Prayer for Owen Meany for the LONGEST. And I'm hoping a reread of Redwall will revive the golden reading days of my youth. Plus, I'm curious if the feasting scenes will still give me the jonesies for a hunk of bread and a block of cheese (I'll keep you posted on that).

So that's what I left with that day the next day when I went BACK . . . because on Monday night my card was declined and I had to ask the nice people at the desk to hold my treasure until I could return with sufficient funds.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hump Day Nerdgasm, July 4th Edition: Let's kick the tires and light the fires!

So my husband and I have this tradition. Every year for the past 6 years, we've watched Independence Day in three parts, starting on July 2 and ending (MOST triumphantly) on July 4.

Every July 2, we feel sorry for Randy Quaid (seriously, he got NONE of the good genes in that family, poor guy). We fall in love all over again with Julius "Jewish Dad" Levinson. I inevitably point out that David Levinson perfected the sexy-hipster-nerd look.

We usually end the day wondering whether our dogs would obediently follow us if we had to run for our lives to escape a fire-cloud . . . or if they would take off in some other direction entirely (the latter is generally deemed most likely to occur).

Every July 3, we laugh at how un-Jayne-like Adam Baldwin is in his cute little military uniform with his Business Face and his "yes, sir/no, sir."

You go GET that alien, mister. *pinches cheeks*
I say, "That's Data, right? From Star Trek?" and my husband looks at me like I'm stupid.

It totally IS Data. WHO'S STUPID NOW?
Then the president's daughter asks, "Is mommy sleeping now?" . . . and my husband cries (and maybe me, too, a little).

Husband: "Damn kid." *weeps*
But on July 4, all the sads are washed away with a refreshing wave of Will Smith/Jeff Goldblum banter (the best KIND of banter, if you ask me) and a computer virus that saves the day. (Side note: Please refrain from criticizing in any forum the plausibility of such a virus. THIS MOVIE HAS ALIENS.)

Who DARES QUESTION our saving-the-world methods?
And let's not forget the most important part of EVERY July 4: the Speech with a capital S, delivered by THE best make-believe president of all time (this is not up for debate).

GOOOOOOO HUMANS! Now let's eat things.

Also, here's this HelloGiggles article: Everything I Need to Know, I Learned From Independence Day.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Death Be Not Proud: "Death always brings one suddenly face to face with life"

I just turned the last page in this book, and, friends, there are no GIFs for the particular kind of sads I have right now.

Just kidding . . . there are always GIFs.
John Gunther Jr. was 17 when he died of a malignant brain tumor. This book is the story of the 15 months that passed between his diagnosis and his death in 1947, as told by his father.
"Such a book could easily have become an understandable but embarrassing statement of grief, or a father's equally embarrassing eulogy. This one is neither. . . . Without fuss, in simple, almost conversational style, he expresses the love and comradeship he felt for his son, gives a step-by-step account of cancer's inexorable victory. In so doing, Gunther arouses in the reader an almost deliberate passion to help find the dark enemy and destroy it." (anonymous reviewer, Time magazine, 1949)
I couldn't have said it better myself, anonymous reviewer.

John Gunther was a seasoned journalist, and it shows in his ability to detach himself somewhat from the emotional aspects of his account. He's not cold or unfeeling as he writes; he's simply attempting to report events as they occurred. At points, the narrative does get a bit dry, usually when Gunther is explaining the ins and outs of the treatment methods they pursued throughout Johnny's illness, but every detail he provides is relevant to the objective: "to tell, however fumblingly and inadequately, . . . the story of a gallant fight for life, against the most hopeless odds" (p. 5).

And Johnny is someone I wish I could have known (although I would first need to forgive his disliking of George Eliot) . . . and I kind of feel that I DO know him.

The only picture of him on the WHOLE Internet.
He was a boy who discussed transmigration of souls with his parents on a typical drive home. (After much consideration, he decided he wanted to come back as a sperm whale.)

He was a boy who, 12 days after undergoing major brain surgery, demanded to write a letter to Albert Einstein regarding the dimensions of the universe. And Einstein replied.

He was a boy who made up 1 1/2 years of missed schoolwork (with half a brain!) and walked down the aisle—with a bandaged head and decreasing motor function on the left side of his body—to accept his diploma with the rest of his class.

He was a boy with a sense of humor.
"Miss Gerson's little girl, aged about six, was fascinated by Johnny, and often came in to see him. He was polite, but bored. Girls of six were really not his dish. Once the little girl tiptoed in and asked if it were all right to stay. Johnny replied, 'Okay, if you don't compromise me. Keep the door ajar.'" (p. 76)
He was a boy who cared about how his illness affected others.
"Johnny was frighteningly tired. He started to cough again at about five in the morning. Mrs. Seeley crept into his room, and he whispered to her, 'I'm afraid I'm being too much trouble.' She replied with a cheery 'Don't worry about me!' whereupon he considered for a moment and then said, 'Somebody's got to worry over you.'" (p. 75)
Quite frankly, it's a little hard to believe such a person as Johnny Gunther ever existed. But I'm perfectly willing to believe it, all the same.

Because of where *I* am in life, the angle of "Johnny as exceptional person under extraordinarily difficult circumstances" stands out for me the most. A parent would probably latch onto something entirely different. And someone coping with a serious illness or that of a loved one would likely relate on an even deeper level. My point is that the themes and topics are so universal, it's impossible NOT to identify in some way. And maybe that's why this book has never been out of print since its first publication in 1949.

A few excerpts from Johnny's journal . . . because I like to hear how HE tells it:

But first, some background from Johnny's mother: "It was only after his death, from his brief simple diaries, written as directly as he wrote out his beloved chemical experiments, that we learned he had known all along how grave was his illness, and that even as we had gaily pretended with him that all was well and he was completely recovering, he was pretending with us, and bearing our burden with the spirit, the élan, of a singing soldier or a laughing saint" (p. 189).

November 11th
Ask parents what you can do to make them happy.

November 12, 1946
Talk. Give. Work.
Here is a prayer I thought of last spring at Medical Center.
Live while you live, then die and be done with.

November 16th
Resolved to ask Father about divorce. [His parents divorced when Johnny was 14.]

November 17th
Got Father's and Mother's sides of divorce all straightened out. What wonderful parents.

November 22nd, 1946
Philosophy: "Get yourself off your Hands." Happiness is in Love. Accept disappointments. Relieve oneself by confession of sins. I am growing up at last.

January 1, 1947
Yesterday I cleared up the whole matter of the Jews with parents.

January 8th
Yesterday I discussed fears of death with Mother.
For years I have had a lack of confidence in myself, fears about ultimate reality.
Accept death with detachment.
Take more pleasure in life for its own sake.

January 16th
Recontent with the universe. Discontent with the world.

February 3rd
Sometimes I wish I was as cheerful to myself as to others---nonsense!!

Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1947, A.D.
A little amnesia today.
I think that I realize and accept the "goodness of life." I should not need to "hang on to" chemical brainstorms, self-abnegation, etc.

Back to Neurological Institute! A second operation. They shave off all my hair again! Damn it.
But I can eat again! Steak, ice cream! Cream of mushroom soup!
Oh! How good it is.

SOURCE: Gunther, John. (1949). Death Be Not Proud. New York: HarperCollins. (Title quote from p. 187.)