Saturday, September 18, 2010
Over the last year, Fourth-day Universe has grown from a place to post the occasional writing tip or update on my literary efforts to a receptacle for reviews of movies, conventions, and other sci-fi/fantasy "events". It's become a full website, in fact, that you can visit at FourthdayUniverse.com.
Why sci-fi, particularly? Isn't that just for "freaks and geeks"? As I've posted before, science-fiction is an extremely versatile genre. The avenues of exploration, whether personal, interpersonal, societal, or otherwise, that fiction writers strive to create are greatly expanded when the boundaries of "reality" are crossed. We're given the opportunity to examine a whole host of issues in new and exciting ways. That's why Fourth-day Universe will continue to highlight the fantastical, whether in romance, mystery, horror, adventure, drama, comedy, or whatever other theme may be used.
We'll have plenty of reviews for you to read. Movies such as M. Night Shyamalan's "Devil" and Daniel Stamm's "The Last Exorcism" have already been reviewed on the site, as has this year's Dragon*Con in Atlanta, the largest sci-fi convention in North America. In the coming months, we'll have interviews with such prolific sci-fi authors as Michael Stackpole, Gail Z. Martin, and Jennifer St. Giles. And when the site's Bookstore opens for business, you'll even be able to read original works of fiction written by Fourth-day contributors, such as myself.
Fourth-day will also branch out into other areas of the online community. We already have a Twitter account, updates of which can be read on this blog, or you can simply Follow us on Twitter @4thdayU. We have a YouTube account as well, where we will post short video reviews of some select book, TV, and movie titles. We'll host forum discussions from our site for fans of sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal fiction, alternate realities, and graphic lit. And, while you wait to check out original fiction and other products by Fourth-day's collection of authors, artists, actors, and other contributors, you can check out our Zazzle store for all kinds of merchandise.
So head over to our new site, and see if you can find the answer to the question "what happens on the fourth day?"
Make a personalized gift at Zazzle.
Friday, August 13, 2010
That brings us to the Scott Pilgrim series. The first volume was released six years ago, and the last (volume six) just came out last month. Yes, the movie finished shooting before the series had issued its final chapter. They accomplished this by having Bryan Lee O'Malley, the series creator, working closely with the director, Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz"), on the whole project; which is something every director should do when adapting someone else's work (again, reference "Watchmen"). Though the comic series and the movie both feature plenty of eye (and ear) candy for the video game/comic book/battling rock bands crowd, its base appeal is something far more profound than I think most movie reviewers even noticed.
I thank Linda Holmes of NPR for compiling a list of pretentious reviewers who not only miss the point entirely, but do a pretty good job of underestimating (and insulting) the fans in the process. One actually complained that the movie made the audience laugh too much. *rolls eyes* (You can read the list here.)
Anyway, what those reviewers all seem to miss is something that I missed when watching a highly-editted version of "The Breakfast Club" as a kid: that the movie is about the characters themselves. Where they are and what they're doing is (almost) incidental. First, of course, there's Scott Pilgrim, a dorky, depressed, delusional bass player in a band. When the movie begins, we learn that Scott, age 22, is dating a high schooler, Knives, age 17 ("and she's Chinese"). Scott's not trying to take advantage of her or anything ("We haven't even held hands"); he just likes hanging out with her, playing arcade games, and letting her listen while his band practices. It's a pretty nice arrangement (except for the fact that Knives is falling in love with Scott).
One day, Scott meets the girl of his dreams (literally). Her name's Ramona Flowers ("She's got battle scars"). Miracle of miracles, she seems to like him, too. Unfortunately, before they can live happily ever after, Scott needs to defeat Ramona's seven evil exes. It won't be easy; especially since Superman (Brandon Routh) and the Human Torch (Chris Evans) are playing two of her exes. Also, how will Knives react to Scott's leaving her? (Spoiler alert: not well.) Scott's band, of course, tries to be supportive, but they have their own lives (and the future of the band itself, of course) to consider. And then there's Scott's gay roommate Wallace Wells (played by the scene-stealing Kieran Culkin) who offers Scott sometimes-sage advice in between his own ... pursuits.
Okay, so it's not exactly "The Breakfast Club" with video game effects (although the fact that everyone Scott beats turns into coins is pretty awesome by itself). But neither is it "Mortal Kombat" with more laughs. The difficulty in adapting the graphic novel series is the same with adapting anything: knowing what to cut, what to add, and what to change. There are some backstory elements to both Scott's and Ramona's lives that can't be included because of time constraints, and others that seem out of place because, well, they are. At just under two hours, there's neither time nor room for the movie to take the sometimes leisurely pace the graphic novels take, and so the storylines dealing with the characters and their personal conflicts can feel a little rushed or canned at times.
That doesn't make it any less enjoyable, though; or any less insightful. The video game elements are a perfect metaphor for Scott's struggle; and it's a familiar struggle, one for both love and self-respect. Even Ramona has to decide how she wants her life to unfold, and whether, after accumulating seven "evil" exes, she's even capable of having a good relationship. It's a parable; maybe not the kind of which Shakespeare or Chaucer wrote, but it's still profound. I'd encourage anyone to both watch the movie and read the books (not necessarily in that order).
(Read the original review here.)
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
When Aang is revived by a young Waterbender named Katara and her older brother Sokka, he sees what his absence has done to the world. He resolves finally to fulfill his destiny and balance the elements once more. To do this, he must complete his training and master the three remaining disciplines. Katara and Sokka join him in his quest, and along the way they help to free other tribes and villages from the Fire Nation's oppression.
It's an epic fantasy in every sense, and when the movie adaptation was announced (especially with award-winning director M. Night Shyamalan at the helm), it caused no small amount of excitement among fans of the series. However, when the movie was released, it caused no small amount of disappointment. Critical and fan reviews alike have been unsparing in criticism, and I cannot disagree. Aside from stunning visuals and spectacular fight scenes, the film doesn't have much to offer viewers.
You can't take six half-hour TV episodes, put them back to back, and call it a movie. Unfortunately, that seems to be what Mr. Shyamalan has done. When adapting a TV show into a movie, you often are forced to package a ridiculous amount of exposition into the screenplay, depending on how long the show has been running. If the show is still on the air, then you are further forced to keep the movie in the same vein as the show without interrupting the continuity. If it's been cancelled, then your film is generally the capstone, the sequel or "final episode" that everyone really wanted to see.
That's not what you get with "The Last Airbender". It is, in short, a recap of the "most important" moments from the first season of the show. There was no great or noticeable deviation from the storyline, and nothing exciting or new was added. The film was merely a live-action version of the cartoon series. It was a wasted effort, in my opinion. By picking and choosing what information and scenes from the cartoon to adapt into the film, much of the richness of plot and character development was left behind. At just under ninety minutes, even actors like Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaires") and Jackson Rathbone (the Twilight saga) don't have much time to bring their respective characters of Prince Zuko and Sokka to life in the way their cartoon counterparts were able to. Newcomers Noah Ringer and Nicola Peltz gave good performances, but even they did not have the life or likeability that cartoon Aang and Katara had.
It wasn't a bad movie; not as bad as most think, at least. I'd recommend it for anyone who hasn't seen the TV series (though I'd recommend they choose the TV series instead); but for anyone who has seen Nickelodeon's "Airbender", you'll get nothing from this adaptation, and you even may find that you've lost something in the process. In my opinion, this will be the last Airbender movie.
(Read the original review here.)
Leonardo DiCaprio headlines as Cobb, a con man who specializes in stealing people's secrets from within their very minds. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock from the Sun") gives a remarkable performance as his partner in crime. Tom Hardy ("Star Trek: Nemesis"), Dileep Rao ("Avatar"), and Ellen Page ("Juno") round out a team of highly talented "intrusion experts". They are hired by Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai") to do the impossible: rather than steal an idea from their target's (Cillian Murphy, "28 Days Later ...") mind, they are to plant an idea through a process called "inception".
There are many words to describe this movie. "Crime drama", "sci-fi thriller", "international intrigue", and "mind-bending masterpiece" all would certainly be on the list. Nolan keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very last second, barely giving you time to breathe as you try to peel the layers and decide what is real and what is illusion. There are many questions to answer as you follow the characters ever deeper into the world of dreams. The greatest questions, however, surround Cobb himself and his motives.
Cobb is not your typical thief taking on "one last job". While his partner believes Cobb is just hoping to complete the job so he can see his children again, Page's character begins to suspect that he is seeking something more. She soon learns that Cobb is haunted by the memory of his dead wife, played by Marion Cotillard ("Public Enemies"), who does far more than simply distract him from his duties. After all, in the world of the subconscious, even the smallest distraction can take you in directions you never expected to go.
Like the layers of the dream worlds the team constructs for their marks, this movie is crafted to convey one story; one single point that comes delivered wrapped in marvelous visual effects, pulse-pounding action sequences, intelligent dialogue, and even a fair amount of humor. That single point, the two words I would use to describe this movie, is "love story". The great mystery of "Inception" is the story of Cobb and his family, his wife and children, what he has done to them, and how far he will go to recover them. While most reviewers may focus on the spectacular special effects or the unique storytelling elements, I believe the central theme of "Inception" is the unraveling of Cobb's character. Everything else is a vehicle for this storyline.
As a writer, I think this is one of the finest examples of good storytelling I've seen. As a moviegoer, I can't think of a better way to spend my money. I would recommend "Inception" to anyone, be they seeking an action movie, an art film, a mystery thriller, or a science-fiction wonder ride. For me, it is all those things and more; but at its heart, it is a poignant love story.
(Read the original review here.)
Saturday, June 26, 2010
Hollywood Hates Westerns. Or, Why Clint Eastwood Should Have Been Cast as Jonah Hex ... 30 Years Ago
While no one expected him to be as famous as some of his counterparts in the DC Universe, such as Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, there can be little doubt as to the devotion of the following he has earned for himself. The original Hex was a simple bounty hunter in the Old West, with a horribly scarred face and a ruthlessness that would shock even the Dark Knight. He would have made a great classic-styled Western movie hero; except that Hollywood doesn't seem all that interested in making classic Westerns anymore. Instead of facing cattle rustlers and train robbers, Hex's nemesis is Quentin Turnbull, a "terrorista" bent on stealing an 1800's era weapon of mass destruction. Hex is recruited by the U.S. government to act as Jack Bauer, basically; which at least helps preserve his basic character.
Most comic book heroes are one of two kinds: the straightforward good versus evil type, or the morally ambiguous thought-provoking types. Hex is a third kind. He's one of the first anti-heroes in comic literature, and one of the few to survive as such over the decades. Bounty hunters in general aren't seen as being that heroic. "They'll do the right thing, if the price is right" is the attitude with which they're regarded.
Jonah Hex, especially the Hex of the movie, fits that mold. While he may have acted bravely during the Civil War, refusing orders from Turnbull (his commanding officer at the time) to slaughter innocent lives, his descent from heroism is complete by the time the Union Army enlists him to find and stop his former commander. It is only the prospect of revenge against the man who killed his family, burned his face, and left him for dead that entices the murderous Hex to assist the Army in stopping Turnbull's plot to destroy America on the very night of its centennial.
Attempts are made to humanize Hex. Flashbacks to his days as a family man, his rescue by the Indians which led to his supernatural abilities (not present in the original comics), and even his friendship with Turnbull's son are meant to show the audience the man he was. In the end, though, we're left with the man he is.
Megan Fox gives a decent performance as Lilah, the frontierswoman who attempts to draw Hex away from the life he's built for himself. Her character, though, is clumsily patched on to the Hex universe (she's also absent from the comics), and her scenes feel accordingly out of step with the rest of the movie. Her character could easily have been written out of the film.
Some have wondered what the problem was with writing a straightforward Western-style script for Jonah Hex's first introduction to the big screen. As I mentioned before, the answer is most likely in Hollywood's attitude towards Westerns. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is the only one in the last decade that comes to mind, and I'm certain they only made that movie because of the success of the novel. Jonah Hex, on the other hand, is a "superhero" story, even if it is about one that didn't have superpowers. Westerns used to be gritty, with leading men like Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and even Yul Brynner. That would have been the perfect era for a Jonah Hex movie, without a single mention of superpowers, terrorists, or weapons of mass destruction.
(Read the original review here.)
Friday, April 2, 2010
Remakes, you could say, comprise a large portion of the movies Hollywood produces year after year. Add in sequels and adaptations of books, TV shows, comics, games, and of course classical mythology, and you might think Hollywood had no imagination anymore. Not so fast, there.
This latest offering, for example, has been and is being met with skepticism from fans of the original masterpiece by legendary producer and special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. From the 50s all the way to early 80s, Harryhausen was responsible for the creature effects of such epic films as "Jason and the Argonauts", "The 3 Worlds of Gulliver", several "Sinbad" movies, and of course, the 1981 version of "Clash of the Titans". The comment I've heard/read most often is they expect the new movie to be all special effects and no real plot. That's funny to me; and not funny "ha ha". In my own humble opinion, the same criticism could very well apply to the original movie.
That's not to suggest the first "Clash" lacked a plot, mind you. In the style of classic Greek myths, it featured a hero, the classic Greek hero Perseus, the mortal son of the King of the Gods, Zeus. Perseus embarks on a quest to save the princess Andromeda and her home city from a fearsome sea monster. Along his way, he faces gigantic scorpions, a trio of hideous witches, a rejected beast of a man named Calibos, and the cursed creature Medusa. It's an interesting enough plot, and one that the new movie emulates to a degree; but the pacing of the original movie and the unfolding of the plot were both rather ... haphazard.
Perseus' presence in the city is the doing of the sea goddess Thetis, who is jealous of the fact that Zeus' son is blessed with everything her son, Calibos, is not; including, apparently, the love of the princess. Thetis transports Perseus to the city, apparently on a whim, where he learns of Calibos' efforts to ruin Andromeda's happiness and the city's future. When he intervenes and frees Andromeda of the deformed man's influence, and when Andromeda's mother Cassiopeia suggests that her daughter is more beautiful than any goddess, Thetis places a curse on the city which can only be lifted if Andromeda is sacrificed to the dreaded Kraken.
There's nothing wrong with a hero traveling from here to there, rescuing cities, slaying monsters, and marrying princesses; in fact, it's kind of the entire job description. On the other hand, it's not very imaginative. Harry Hamlin, who plays Perseus in the 1981 version, goes from scene to scene with all the intensity of a teenager on a scavenger hunt. Sam Worthington, on the other hand, adds something Hamlin's Perseus was lacking: motivation. Worthington's Perseus didn't arrive in Andromeda's city by chance; his adopted family were caught in the crossfire of a rebellion between Men and Gods, and only his own divine heritage kept him from dying with them. His quest is fueled by a desire to avenge their deaths on the God Hades, who stole their lives and (in this version) called for Andromeda's sacrifice.
As a writer, there's nothing I can stand less than when a character does something, anything, without a "good reason". Worthington's Perseus had good reason to hate the gods, or at least be suspicious of them. His love of his adopted family and grief over their deaths at the hands of a god led him to reject any connection to the gods, even his father Zeus. Played in the 2010 version by screen great Liam Neeson, Zeus is sympathetic to the plight of humanity. However, his anger at the rebellion, which culminated in a group of soldiers tumbling a colossal statue of him into the sea, led him to allow his brother Hades to remind mankind "of the order of things". Nevertheless, he does try to help his son on his quest. There are overtones of an almost Christian relationship between Zeus, Perseus, and humanity at large in this remake.
A few of the more obvious differences between the original and the remake include Perseus' companions in his quest. Originally, most of the soldiers who accompanied him had neither names nor much character development. Now, Perseus follows the soldiers, rather than leading them. They all have names, backgrounds, and their own personal feelings about a "demi-god" joining them in their efforts to save their home.
Another character who is "between" Men and Gods is the immortal Io, played by lovely British actress Gemma Arterton. Cursed to stay young while those she loves grow old and die, her extended lifetime of acquired wisdom and knowledge makes her an invaluable guide for Perseus. She fills two roles from the original movie: the wise mentor, originally filled by Ammon, played by film legend Burgess Meredith; and the love interest, originally filled by Princess Andromeda herself.
I must say, that second revision came as somewhat of a relief to me. Perseus had hardly any time (or reason) to become as heavily invested in Andromeda as he did in the first movie. Certainly, when you save someone's life, it's expected that a bond will form between you; but for Hamlin's Perseus, it was apparently love at first sight. I'm romantic enough to let that slide (usually), but Worthington's onscreen romance with Arterton was much more believable, in both my mind and my heart.
Now, let's tackle the "purist" objections. It's usually my position that, in the case of sequels at least, you should adhere to the source material as closely as possible. Remakes, however, are supposed to stray where it is reasonable to do so. Did Perseus and Io have a relationship in the previous movie, or even in the original Greek myths? No. On the other hand, Perseus didn't ride Pegasus, the winged horse, in the original Greek myth, as he did in both movies; he wore winged shoes given to him by the gods. The thrilling line "Release the Kraken!", delivered by Zeus in both movies, was never uttered by classical Zeus, simply because the Kraken wasn't a creature from Greek myth. Was Hades ever an actual villain, as he is so often portrayed in film? No; he was simply the God of the Underworld, a position he was never "tricked" into accepting.
It's called artistic license. If remakes were supposed to be "faithful", then we wouldn't need them, would we? We'd just watch the original again, which I did before watching this one. With all due respect to Ray Harryhausen, I prefer the remade "Clash of the Titans". Director Louis Leterrier did a fine job diagnosing what worked from the original film and what didn't, cutting scenes here and amending them there. What he ultimately produced may fit the label of a "rock 'n roll epic", but it also fits the label of a "classic epic", one with a believable hero, courageous companions, and pulse-pounding adventure. More than just an action flick, it is a portrait of one man's journey to discover his true heritage.
(Read the original review here.)
Monday, March 8, 2010
Burton wanted more structure, though. I don't actually blame him. He created a very good movie, after all. Apart from the visual effects, which were stunning in some cases, he also had an excellent cast to bring his movie to life: newcomer Mia Wasikowska as the grown-up but still childlike Alice; Johnny Depp, as mad as any hatter could be; the lovely Anne Hathaway as the White Queen; Helena Bonham Carter as the threatening but vaguely sympathetic Red Queen; and the inestimable Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat. With this ensemble, Burton was able to present an adventure story that I believe Lewis Carroll might actually enjoy. And it isn't as if any previous incarnation was or could have been entirely faithful to the source material.
The purist in me wanted to hate the movie before it was even completed; but, when in Wonderland, you must be willing to let go of everything you know and embrace what you see. And so, as Alice herself did, I'll list the six impossible things I can believe.
***Warning: May Contain Spoilers***
The first is Alice herself. She's no longer a little girl, but a grown woman who needs to decide what direction to follow in life. The adventures of her childhood, she's now convinced, were simply dreams. Now, when the White Rabbit leads her down to Wonderland, it is no chance encounter. The narrative woven by Tim Burton is one of a chosen protector, a champion whose intervention will free the inhabitants of Wonderland from the dominion of a tyrant. That champion, of course, is Alice.
The sixth impossible thing is how much I actually liked this movie. Despite the changes made, the end product is quite a good story. Several characters from the books and previous movies didn't quite make the cut, of course. The Walrus and the Carpenter, the Duchess and the Cook, the Griffin and the Mock Turtle, and the Lion and the Unicorn all were left off the guest list. One character I would have really liked to see would have been the White Knight from Looking-Glass Land, who was Alice's escort for part of her journey and would have been more believable in the role filled by the Mad Hatter. I also would've liked the angle I proposed earlier, with the Red Queen appearing completely as the Queen of Hearts and facing Suits rather than the White Army in the end. It would have made more sense to me.
But this is Wonderland; a world of adventure, not logic; of madness, not sanity; of childlike wonder, not cynical criticism. Some say this movie lacked heart; I say the heart is where this movie's strength truly rested. I came close to walking into the movie with my mind made-up, having already decided what it had done "wrong" and how it "should" be. In that sense, I was a little like Alice, falling into a world she had visited before, facing a host of changes, firmly convinced that she would wake up at any moment to what she "knew" was right. I decided not to be that way; not to lose, in the words of the Hatter, my "muchness".
So, if you want to be like Alice, constantly trying to make sense of the madness in this movie, then that's up to you; but I recommend, instead of falling into the rabbithole, you jump in with both feet.
- Stephen Monteith
Thursday, March 4, 2010
In the old days (and I mean really old, like Henry Kuttner old), it was called "speculative fiction"; meaning, more than just regular made-up stuff, the type of fiction that asked "what if the world worked differently than it does?" That's why you'll see science-fiction and fantasy on the same shelves together; because they both deal with worlds that operate differently than ours does. The classic sci-fi series "Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" explored any number of possible avenues for "alternate reality"; but speculative fiction has far deeper roots than television.
The original science-fiction novel is "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. There have been other, earlier stories of magic, monsters, demons, ghosts, and gods; but while other mythological creatures and characters endure because of cultural forces, "Frankenstein" from its inception was accepted as a work of fiction (and art) and has endured as such for almost two centuries, spawning any number of sequels, spin-offs, spoofs, and adaptations.
In its wake came a host of sci-fi/fantasy novels, including "Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, and of course, Bram Stoker's "Dracula". These and other novels have fueled our imagination at almost every level, appealing to everything from our childlike sense of wonder to our appetite for adventure to our deepest fears and desires. Parables like Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" force us to look inward to see who we really are. It's a bit of introspection that every great author inspires, but that sci-fi authors can address in unique ways.
They also have greater width for conceiving and creating adventure stories. "The Lord of the Rings", widely considered the greatest modern epic, is fantastical at every level, even to the point of taking place on another world, another earth. The same is true of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and just about every major epic fantasy to follow. More recently, popular series like "Harry Potter" have blended fantastical worlds with our own.
Television, of course, has always had its space operas. When James Kirk captained the Enterprise on "Star Trek", his mission was "to seek out new life and new civilizations". The human race has always sought the next horizon, whether it was across the ocean, from sea to shining sea, or among the stars themselves. I love a good biopic on Christopher Columbus as much as the next blogger, but to see the same voyage wrapped in a good space battle? Who can resist that?
Science-fiction is a pretty subtle, pretty savvy poker player. It holds adventure, drama, comedy, horror, and romance in its hand; but it bluffs you with a geeky exterior, a loser persona that wears rumpled t-shirts and glasses held together with superglue. It learned from the best; classical masters like Ray Bradbury and Orson Welles, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, as well as a few modern ones like Joss Whedon and James Cameron. It'll slow-play you with a splashy galaxy quest, and then sneak in with piratical precision. Go ahead; take another look at your favorite flicks, your newest novel. Any appearances by aliens, or traveling through time? Some magic with your mayhem, or a bit of technology out of place? Yes, it may be funny or pulse-pounding, romantic or very scary; but it's more than just plain old fiction.
Monday, March 1, 2010
There once was a man who lived on a street
Two blocks and a half from a good place to eat.
He jogged every morning, six days of the week.
He ate with his family, friends, and his threek.
Now what is a threek, you may say to yourself.
A threek is a creature who lives on a shelf
And who feeds on the dust that collects in the corners
And reads to the children and also the horners.
And what are the horners, you ask yourself next.
They love to learn lessons right out of the text.
Lessons like adding, subtracting, and such,
But they themselves cannot read anything much.
They see all things backwards, so nothing is straight.
They're nothing at all like the Snagglethorphate.
She listens intently to everything said
And plainly remembers all things in her head.
The Snagglethorphate is not nearly as bright
As a Tippenthroe out on a full-moonlit night.
For the Tippenthroe's mind is unleashed by the moon
And knows anything, everything, at least until noon.
Then at noon, the Tippenthroe seeks out a bed.
He takes one vacated by a Simmolothedde
Who wakes and who rises at noon everyday
And who, without thinking will go where he may
But will always return just in time to dine
With threeks, snorks, and snoozles at twenty to nine.
Before he retires, he jogs down the street
Like the man who lives down from the good place to eat.
- Stephen Monteith
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Best-selling author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz recently wrote an essay on the Commonwealth of Virginia for the book "State by State". Meant to provide a "portrait" of the United States, this book features authors, celebrities, even a chef or two who all contribute chapters on every state in the union.
My verdict? If the chapter on Virginia is typical of the entire book, then every copy of it should be dumped in a pile and burned.
This is a copy of the letter I sent to Mr. Horwitz, copied to one of the book's editors, Matt Weiland.
Dear Mr. Horwitz,
My name is Stephen Monteith. I work at a Barnes & Noble in Virginia Beach, VA, and recently discovered the book "State by State". Fascinated by a book that purports to portray "the beauty, the kitsch, the unexpected and the quintessential things that make each state distinctive", and having lived in Virginia my whole life, I first turned to your essay on the Commonwealth to see what was written.
Mr. Horwitz, I am deeply disappointed at the tone your essay takes, the picture it paints of one of the earliest states of the union. In eight and a half pages, you have rarely a good word to say about Virginia, its history, its culture, and most especially its residents. Like the fourth-graders you almost apologetically mention in your opening, you see, and report, only a "charnel house", one "steeped in gore".
You talk of the Civil War battles throughout much of your essay and the "evil" and "carnage" perpetrated therein; but you never once mention the Revolutionary War, in which so many Virginians took up the charge issued by our first governor Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!" You omit almost any references to the eight presidents who came from Virginia, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, choosing instead to highlight William Henry Harrison, and him only because of his relation to a slave-owning ancestor of his. You spend an entire page and more detailing our involvement in the persecution, death, and "ghoulish afterlife" of Nat Turner, but you do not mention even once Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black governor.
Mr. Horwitz, I have no doubt that your time in Bosnia, Iraq and the Sudan was served with distinction; but perhaps spending so much time in those "history-haunted lands" has left you with a black-lensed perspective of the rest of the world. I don't expect or desire anyone to turn a blind eye to Virginia's dark periods; but in an essay meant to "reveal a state’s beauty marks and moles", I do expect to find much greater balance. This was the first chapter I read from the book, and after reading it, I put it down in disgust; and partially in fear of discovering that every state had received similar treatment. On the other hand, if ever I felt the argument needed to be made that Virginia was a wretched place to be, then you would be the man I would choose to make that argument.
UPDATE - Mr. Horwitz's response, and mine in turn:
Stephen, thanks for your note and think I've been to that B and N one one of my visits to SE Va. I'm sorry you felt that way about my essay, and all I'll say in defense is that I'm not responsible for the marketing you quote, and regret that you opened the book looking for balanced or comprehensive approach to each state. My assignment, if you can call it that, was to try and find a personal and perhaps quirky take on Virginia. Since I'm a history nerd, with somewhat of an eye for the dark underside of history, this seemed a way to frame the piece and I just dove in after a few false starts in other directions (I tried writing about my love of the Blue Ridge since childhood, but am not very good at nature). If I could do it again, I guess I'd convey that I do love Virginia--in part for the history I outlined in the piece. Obviously, we don't share a common approach to or view of the past. I go there looking for great stories, tragedy, humor, irony and what I feel is the truth. If it makes me feel good about my country, great, but I'm not seeking that. And if I were there and we could debate this over a beer, I'd argue that the whole "liberty or death" line is pretty hollow given that one fifth of the nation was enslaved. Anyway, if you can bear to read a different take on Virginia that you might find more loving, at least at times, I wrote a book called "Confederates in the Attic" that gets into Wilder and other aspects of Virginia's healthy contemporary response and debate on racial and other matters. All the best, Tony
I appreciate your reply to my letter last week. I realize you had nothing to do with how it was marketed, but still, with only eight pages or so to give people a snapshot of the Commonwealth, I had hoped you would have taken a somewhat lighter tone, at least.
I took your advice and have begun reading "Confederates in the Attic". It is an interesting read, going farther in depth, of course, than your contribution to "State by State", and written with more apparent affection. I look forward to finishing it.
I apologize, Mr. Horwitz, if my first letter to you seemed overly defensive or confrontational. With the recent death of Howard Zinn, there's been a lot of discussion of just how much we need to peel back the covers of history. No one, I'm sure, wants to review the past with any parts omitted, no matter how ugly; but at the same time, we can't ignore how exceptional, how extraordinary, and how inspiring our forebears were, their faults notwithstanding.
In particular, I've grown rather protective of Virginia in light of the national attention we've received with our recent elections. The written word is more powerful than the spoken word, as I'm sure you know; and though newspapers and magazines can and frequently do print retractions, books are harder to revise once they are on the shelves, and even harder to dispute. I suppose, when I read your chapter, I felt it was my duty to respond. Perhaps I've grown too sensitive.
Again, I appreciate you taking the time to answer my letter. I look forward to reading more of your work.
UPDATE: Tony gets the last word
Don't worry, your letter wasn't confrontational, it was polite and thoughtful, certainly as compared to most I receive, always happy to have honest criticism and disagreement. I've never been a big fan of Zinn, and certainly don't endorse a knee-jerk rejection of everything American, but again, I guess I don't go searching in our history for great moral lessons, pro or con. To me, what's fascinating is how someone--to take the obvious example, Jefferson--can be brilliant, visionary, and yes, inspirational, while also being a terrible hypocrite etc. Saints, if they
exist, aren't very interesting to me, nor are unalloyed villains. Or rather, forget if they're interesting, I just don't think seeing things in black and white is true to history or the human condition. Can't one love Virginia in the same way one loves family? Can't John Smith or Jefferson or Stonewall Jackson be seen as critical figures in our history, worthy of
study, without glossing over their (in our eyes) faults? Are those faults in some sense inseparable from their greatness? Anyway, no one could ever accuse Virginia of being boring. Best, Tony
Sunday, January 31, 2010
This is a short reading I've done of a conversation between Seffin and a man who isn't quite what he seems. (Please excuse the quality of the reading, by the way. I'm a writer, not an actor.)