Sunday, March 27, 2011

Many Worlds Have Come Crashing Down.

I feel as if I've lost something significant. One of my favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones, British author recently passed away. Anything you read will tell you that she was a creative, fun woman who was adored by many. She fought a long hard battle against cancer, and lost, and it's heartbreaking that we've lost another person to this disease. In addition to that tragedy, it is heartbreaking to remember that Diana Wynne Jones was a very prolific author, and she wrote imaginative, fascinating books, and she is no longer around to write them. Not only has a wonderful human being left this earth, but I feel as if many, many worlds have come crashing down.

My father gave me my first Diana Wynne Jones book Charmed Life many years ago, and I was swept into a world of the unforgettable enchanter Chestomanci, creative magic, unexpected plot twists, and one girl who I still think of as one of the most insidious villains I've ever read about. Chrestomanci was the standout character for me, and I think Ms. Jones liked him too. He figured in several more books over the years: a debonair, dry witted enchanter who knew how to dress, and could pull off a vague, absent minded persona to disarm his enemies. Many of Ms. Jones' books featured Chrestomanci as a primary or secondary character. Besides him, what I treasured most were the elements in the books which brought to light the inner life of this character. It's something akin to being a fan of a celebrity or historical figure and eagerly tallying up all the fascinating details of their lives because they interest you so much. Great authors create characters like that. Part of my sadness stems from the fact that we won't be learning more about Chrestomanci, his family and his friends any more. Sure other authors may write and speculate, but Ms. Jones' vision is the true one for me, and it's gone with her. Forever.

The only small comfort fans may draw from this is that Ms. Jones' passing may introduce her books to people who've never read her before. That's one of the joys of reading and discussing with fellow readers isn't it? Will other people new to Jones think she's just as good or better than J.K. Rowling. (I think she's better, more engaging and mind boggling with her creativity.) Will others be looking out for the cats in her stories? (It's almost inevitable that a cat will figure in Jones' stories, often as an important part of the plot. Even if you don't like cats, you can end up being fascinated like me at how well she captures "catty" personalities.) Will others fall in love with Howl's Moving Castle? (One of her most popular novels from what I see. It was made into a well received film by acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, a fact which delights me when I think of how imagination and creativity can reach out and link people across cultures.)

One thing I am sure of is that new readers and fans will be disappointed that Jones is no longer around to build her worlds and develop them. This fact will always sadden me, but I will try to keep in mind that like all authors she left her works behind her, and this means that they will never disappear forever nor can they be destroyed. She was able to achieve what all writers long for: immortality through her work. I hope that this can bring some small comfort to her family and friends. I know none of my small, shallow feelings about her passing can even come close to their sensations at her loss. We will all miss you terribly Ms. Diana Wynne Jones, each in our own way.

Check out her bibliography if you want to get to know her too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

World's Greatest Author Turns 75!

She was going to be kissed. On one side of a kiss ws childhood, sunshine, innocence, toys and, on the other, people embracing, darkness, passion and the admittance of a person who, no matter how loved, must always have the quality of otherness, not only to her confidence but somehow inside her sealing skin. ~ The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance - Margaret Mahy

I was eleven years old when I found my favourite book. Not everyone is as lucky to find this at such an early age, but when you do it is the most amazing experience: the type that makes you realize you've been changed forever. Margaret Mahy, is a celebrated writer from New Zealand, who is not well enough known in other countries which is a fact that saddens my heart. She wrote my favourite book and of course became my favourite author in the process.

I don't know what made me grasp a copy of The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance at the old library with no air conditioning all those years ago, but I think of this moment as one of the high points of my reading life. Do not let the pleasant looking woman in the photograph above spark off misconceptions in your minds. Mahy writes charged, dark, beautiful, erotic prose. I remember reading her descriptions of complex emotions and thinking, "That's exactly how I feel? How does she know that?" Her turns of phrase fill me with admiration and hopeless envy. I've read books and thought I could do better. It's humbling, awe-inspiring and...sad to read a book and think that there's no way you could achieve this level of skill and talent.

The Changeover delivered everything its title promised. It features my favourite hero, a troubled, sexy yet vulnerable young man who happens to be a witch. The heroine is sharp, very, very real and difficult to dislike, and she holds her own in a terrifying situation with courage. The adventure they encounter together is chilling. No typical horror movie set up can be found here. The story literally goes deeply into the psyche and into fairy tales with vivid, unusual images which are hard to skim over. Yet it's all firmly grounded in reality so things like tomato sandwiches, telephones and oil drums in a construction site can remind us that we are in a real world where extraordinary things are happening. Mahy does an excellent and realistic portrayal of family life in this book as well, and if you go on to read her other ones, you'll see that that's one of her hallmarks. She's often praised for it with good reason.

I have such a strong, all abiding love for The Changeover that it is not surprising that I don't love her other books as much. By this of course, I do not mean that they are not excellent. It's just that I expect every book to be like this one, and this is unfair, and my problem not hers. Her other books boast of the same jealousy-inducing prose. Family relationships are explored and presented in ways that astonish you because it feels so familar (particularly in The Tricksters). Supernatural occurrences are unique, surprising and astonishing, and her romance is delicious and engrossing (like in her Catalogue of the Universe).

I've never read Mahy's children's books, but I should probably take a look at them next shouldn't I? They've been described as delightful, and they must be quirky with names like The Chewing Gum Rescue and the Man Who's Mother Was A Pirate. No wonder she was given the Hans Christian Anderson award in recognition for her "lasting contribution to children's literature".

Mahy herself seems to be a kindred spirit. Years ago, I decided I must write to her, and I sent a letter to her publisher with the vague hope that she would receive it though not expecting a response. What an amazing and wonderful delightful experience it was to get a reply! It was truly one of the greatest letters I've ever received, filled with Mahy's charm and originality. I treasure it. Her interviews seem to reflect that. She's said of her readers, "I hope they have the same sort of relationship [with her books] that I had with the ones I read as a child." I don't think that she needs to fear that in my case. She seems to reflect my own feelings about her books as well. She's stated, "I still read them, and they sort of become part of your life." See? A kindred spirit indeed.

No wonder I can't wait to see what she's writing next. Apparently she's "edging" her way to the end of another book. Since I'm "edging" in my own writing, I can understand this, and after years of so much excellent work I won't press her. She's been doing this for 75 years, and I think she's proved her method is flawless.

What's your favourite book/author? What book do you just want to share with the world? Have you ever written to someone you admire and received an answer? Tell me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel Made Me A Movie Snob and Why I Love Them For It


I love movie reviews. I can't remember how long I've been reading them, but to this day as soon as a movie is out, I start scrolling for reviews. Once I've seen a movie, I'm sure to seek out more reviews whether professional ones or everyday people spouting out their opinions. It's kind of a sadistic tendency because I feel almost hurt if someone trashes a movie that has left me in ectasies, but I also get the pleasure of nodding smugly in agreement when someone expresses the same views I had. Yes, I am a movie snob, and I make no apologies about it.

So it's not surprising to me that I started watching At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I'm not sure when I first caught it or how I managed to keep watching it. It aired early in the morning. I had to remember to get up in time to see it, so I often slept through it. Sometimes it did not air at all. Sometimes they changed the time completely. I hated missing it. How would I know what movies were coming out and what were the best ones to watch?

I have this theory that when you're little you watch anything. As long as it's on television, you're happy to view it, and there's no discernment between good and bad. It's television: it's all good. As you grow older, there's a point when you get a revelation. One day, you look at the show you've watched religiously every Thursday and realize it's awful, that it's boring, that it's generally unpleasant, and (gasp!) you just don't have to waste your time watching this profound dreck. This is what happened to me anyway, and I suspect it's happened to a lot of us.

Memories are hazy, but I believe I discovered Ebert and Siskel at about the time when my taste in movies and television began to become more refined. The show's format had them both giving their reviews of a movie, and debating over their opinions. They were a joy to watch, an example of intelligent spirited debate on a topic I keep close to my heart. Whether they agreed or disagreed, it was always fascinating to ponder what they said. And they left me with a lot to think about. I'm not sure if I would have considered watching foreign language films if it wasn't for them. (Imagine I might never have seen Amelie.) I remember listening in fascination while they discussed how choppy and fast paced certain films were and how filmmakers increasingly don't depend on long, lingering shots anymore. (I agree with the former. Not sure if I'm mature enough to appreciate the latter.) Most importantly, they made me more aware of the "smaller" movies out there. The ones that often did not get much attention but could give the most payoff when it came to plot, acting and after impressions.

This is why I tend to consider myself a movie snob. It's me accepting the perception I sense from some people when I am critical of a movie, and I get the eye rolling or the heated admonishment that I shouldn't overthink films. I admit that the overanalyzing can take away from a movie experience. Maybe I am too quick to pick up on faults or inconsistencies or to point out that something just wasn't funny. But I comfort myself that I'll never be so clever that I am above liking silliness. I enjoy many a work of nonsense, and I am sure Siskel and Ebert appreciated those as well. And since I am discerning about what I watch now, I feel that I have often avoided much agony by recognizing that a certain movie might be an assault on my tiny brain before I watch it. Fortunately when I am wrong, there are reviews out there to tell me different. When I am right, I get the pleasure of....being right, and once more I thank Gene and Robert for that.

When Gene Siskel died some years ago, I was very sorry. A very intelligent human being was gone, and I miss his reviews. It's good to know that Roger Ebert, despite numerous health issues, is still around writing his reviews though he no longer expresses them on television. He remains extremely prolific on his website, his blog, his twitter, you name it.

He is still one of my favourite reviewers. He's not as grandiose as the writers in Entertainment Weekly for instance. They're another of my favourite sources for reviews, but their comments often go over my head, and I feel that I am reading the comments of film students, and far greater film snobs than I, and I'll never be up to those standards. Ebert's reviews are very intelligent, but they are clear and well thought out and understandable to amateurs like me. I'm never in doubt of what he feels about a particular film, and I like his way of expressing himself even when I don't agree with him. I'm glad he's still around because who else will guide me in my movie watching journey? I'll always appreciate him and Gene Siskel cause they expanded my view of movies and taught me to value them in ways I might never have considered. I'm eternally grateful.

Here's a sample of Siskel and Ebert on their show.

*Siskel and Ebert talking with fellow reviewers Telly Monster and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Oscar cleverly and hilariously goaded them into an argument as to whether a movie could deserve a "Thumbs Sideways" rating. Wonderful.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

March 2 is the birthday of the great Theodore Geisel who you all have heard of. Or at least, you know him if you've ever read or heard of "The Cat in the Hat", or wondered if you like "Green Eggs and Ham" or if you've called someone a Grinch. Mr. Geisel, or as you know him Dr. Seuss, truly left a lasting impression on the world. I consider him the king of writing amazing children's books and even more astonishingly of children's books that adults enjoy. If you don't agree, just try reading "Green Eggs and Ham" or "The Butter Battle Book" out loud without having fun. I dare you. I can't believe Dr. Seuss has been gone for twenty years now. I'm grateful for his creativity, for his cleverness and for his unlimited imagination.

Take a look at the tribute I wrote to the great Doctor a few years ago in honor of his birthday.

Oh the Places He Took Us

Here's an extra bonus: Rachel Ray reading the full text of "Green Eggs and Ham" complete with Dr. Seuss' incomparable and quirky illustrations. Ray reads with enthusiasm and joy though I don't think she's perfect. However, it's almost impossible not to enjoy the adventures of Sam-I-Am and his finicky friend. Try it, try it, you will see.