Friday, June 30, 2006

Recent Movie Roundup 2

Haven't done one of these in a while. Mostly because, if you go through the AtWQ archives and dig up the three or four posts I've written about films in the last six months, you'll have a pretty good record of my movie-going activities. Seriously, is it just me or are there less and less reasons to go to the movies these days? It's been months since I walked into, or out of, a movie theatre feeling that my time and money were well-spent. This particular roundup incorporates rented films and even one that I caught on TV, but I can't say that it whets my appetite for more of the artform (which is not to say, of course, that I don't have appointments for Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and Superman Returns. I'm a good little sheep in that respect).
  1. Casanova (2005) - I really wasn't expecting great things from this movie. The trailer makes it look like yet another attempt at clunky historical revisionism, plus that old chestnut, the rake reformed by a progressive woman. And let's be honest, 'from the director of Chocolat' isn't exactly a phrase that inspires confidence. But to my very great surprise, Casanova is a frothy delight. The film revels in its own ridiculousness, and does a very good job of imitating the period farce, complete with several cases of mistaken identity, the requisite scene in which our hero arrives at the ball with two dates, and everyone paired up at the end. Heath Ledger is charming and ebullient as the lead, and Sienna Miller is really quite appealing given that her character--a feminist in 18th century Venice whose primary purpose seems to be to show the hero the error of his ways--could easily have become a hectoring shrew. The film sadly falls apart in its climactic scene, where instead of buckling his swash and swinging off chandeliers, our hero stands aside with a baffled expression while he is rescued by others, and even the camera seems to forget where he is (also, although the set and costume design are appropriately lavish, one can't help but wish that the effects budget had been a little bit higher, not to mention that some money had been spent on a better stunt coordinator). In spite of this flaw, Casanova makes for a very enjoyable entertainment, and is well worth a rental.

  2. X-Men III: The Last Stand (2006) - The consensus on this film is that the cure plotline was quite interesting but underdeveloped, and that the Phoenix plotline was criminally underused. I agree on both counts, but I will add that I appreciated the way that both sides of the mutant divide were clearly non-homogeneous in their opinions. Among the good guys, we have Rogue leaping at the opportunity at a normal life, and Storm thoughtlessly pronouncing that no mutant needs to be cured of their mutation. Magneto may coldly turn his back on Mystique once she's been cured, but Pyro is clearly uncomfortable with that decision. This disagreement even among compatriots gave the division between mutants an extra dimension, and helped make their predicament a believable one. Which was sadly necessary as, much like the two films that preceded it, X-Men III failed to convince me of what is arguably the crux of its plot--that humans are disgusted and terrified by mutation. The scene in which Angel first unfurls his wings is a study in dissonance between the audience and the characters. How can we accept that anyone would look on those beautiful white wings with disgust? I think this is a problem with the central concept of the X-Men story--the mutants are far too cool. With the core of the story absent, I had very little to hold onto, and of course the characters didn't offer much on that front. In terms of quality, X-Men III is largely of a piece with the first two films--very pretty and at times stirring and exciting, but with a great big hole where its heart should be.

  3. Ghost Ship (2002) - Yet another failed attempt at the 'ragged crew are picked off one by one by unseen menace' formula, and yet another demonstration of how important plotting is to shlocky action and horror flicks. It take great skill to convey backstory and character traits in throwaway lines, and to effectively establish the history of the menace that's killing off our heroes, but far too many writers don't even make the attempt, trusting that a few pulse-pounding sequences will be enough to sustain the film even without a coherent plot. Ghost Ship is a masterful demonstration of why this attitude fails. It seems to be missing its second act--the story transitions directly from 'characters arrive at spooky location and some of them die' to 'last survivor makes valiant attempt to defeat the evil menace' without passing through increasing tension or the slow revelation of the menace's identity. Even the deaths of main characters are rushed through and given very little significance. It is, however, worth noting two exceptionally stylish and well-made scenes in which we learn what transpired on the ship, one at the beginning of the film and one near its end. They can't save the film, but they are effectively horrifying, and go some way towards assuaging the suspicion that one has wasted 90 minutes of one's life by sitting down to watch.

  4. Bee Season (2005) - I was dubious, shading into disdainful, about this film when I watched the trailer a few months ago. I have to admit, having seen the film, that the trailer misrepresents it--the movie is neither as heartwarming nor as benevolent as it suggests, and the Jewish aspects of the story have not been excised. That said, Bee Season simply doesn't work. The novel, in which 11 year old Eliza's ascent to the national spelling bee corresponds with her family's disintegration, takes place primarily inside its characters' heads. The film deals with this issue in the mother's case by using awkward and slightly embarrassing voiceovers and flashbacks, and in the case of the other characters by simply ignoring their inner life. This is a particular problem when it comes to Eliza, who is the novel's main character but in the film is nothing but a catalyst for the other characters' problems. Finally, although the film doesn't shy away from the damage inflicted on Eliza's family, its ending strongly suggests that that damage can be repaired, in a complete reversal of the novel's conclusion (or, at least, I think that's what it's saying. I found the film's ending nearly inscrutable).

  5. Happy Endings (2005) - Don Roos's latest film bills itself as a comedy, but it is actually at its weakest when trying to be funny. Especially in its middle segment, the film devolves into an embarrassing and uncomfortable farce, in which previously rounded and fully-human characters are reduced to caricatures in the service of a quick laugh. Happily, these comedic segments don't last very long, and surrounding them are three touching and melancholy stories about love and lies. The film's promise to resolve all of these stories happily is a sly wink at the viewers, and as the stories progress we come to understand that it isn't the happy endings that we should be watching for but the unhappy, and sometimes simply mundane, middles. Happy Endings is a more soulful film than Roos's The Opposite of Sex, and its large cast is more uniform in its abilities. Lisa Kudrow is, of course, one of the standouts, but it's Maggie Gyllenhaal who comes to dominate the film. Her character is amoral and thoughtless, but at her most unlikable moments, she suddenly exhibits a compelling strength, and even a sort of integrity, that transform her into the film's heroine.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Good News, Everyone!

It's finally official:
Comedy Central has resurrected the former Fox animated series from "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening and David X. Cohen. At least 13 new episodes will be produced -- the first since the series' original run from 1999-2003.

The new batch is part of a deal the cable network made with 20th Century Fox Television last year to pick up syndicated rights to the existing "Futurama" library of 72 episodes. Comedy Central also had an option to air any new episodes produced.

New and old episodes will begin airing in 2008 on Comedy Central. Actors Billy West, Katey Sagal and John DiMaggio have agreed to return as voices for "Futurama."
So, what's next on the list of beloved, unfairly-cancelled series whose names start with an F?

UPDATE: Something to tide us over until 2008: A Terrifying Message From Al Gore.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Graduated

Abigail Nussbaum, Bachelor of Sciences in Computer Science.

That is all.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Don't Plan Anything For the Next Couple of Hours--I've Got Some Reading For You

Those of you with LJ accounts may have noticed the increasing references, this past week, to Charlotte Lennox's (an assumed name) The Ms. Scribe Story: An Unauthorized Fandom Biography. If you've passed on reading this riveting, meticulously researched and extremely well-written account of lies, cruelty and manipulation within Harry Potter fandom because you're not a fan of the series or involved with that particular community, I urge you to give it another look. Lennox's document isn't simply an account of one fandom's descent into madness. It is a vital study of group behavior, and of how the online medium accelerates and exacerbates (but by no means causes) the worst impulses of those groups. If you've ever been a member of an online community, no matter how diffuse and ill-defined, if you've ever given any thought to the ways in which the internet redefines the communal experience, you owe it to yourself to read this document.

This is too obscure a topic for me to track down the exact post, but John Scalzi once put forward the theory that an online community's tendency to explode into acrimony and flame wars stands in direct correlation to the narrowness of that community's topic or area of interest. (It's a theory that, I believe, holds true for physical communities as well.) A narrower field of interest makes it all the more likely that a community will get caught up in minutiae, divide along objectively meaningless lines, and inevitably devolve into a self-perpetuating argument for argument's sake, with the original topic of discussion all but forgotten.

It's the dark reflection, if you will, of the charming group dynamic described in the most recent Doctor Who episode, "Love & Monsters", in which several amiable misfits parlay their shared obsession with the Doctor into an all-purpose social club.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

At the Risk of Offending Ursula K. Le Guin and Studio Ghibli Fans...

...neither of which I personally am*, can I just ask why, in light of the furor that met the Sci Fi Channel's decision to cast their version of Earthsea with white leads, hasn't there been a similar uproar at Studio Ghibli's decision to do the same?

I mean, hell, even the Sci Fi Channel cast Danny Glover as Ogion.

* For, interestingly enough, roughly the same reasons. I admire the craftsmanship in both Le Guin's novels and Hayao Miyazki's films, but find both sadly lacking in humor, appealing characters, or a coherent plot. Both novels and films are very beautiful, but offer me nothing to hold on to.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Betrayals by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser's novels keep improving on me. His first and probably best-known work, 1989's The Quincunx, is a dense Victorian pastiche, recalling Dickens and Collins as it charts the rising and falling (but mostly falling) fortunes of an innocent boy and his rather foolish mother as they become entangled in a decades-old conspiracy of hidden wills, secret paternities, shady financial schemes and the occasional murder. The Quincunx is an accomplished novel but also a rather chilly one. Palliser's period recreation is pitch-perfect, but he takes far too much pleasure in educating his readers. A good half of The Quincunx's generous page-count is given over to (admittedly fascinating) lectures about the inner workings of some obscure aspect of life in England in the 19th century--the secret society of sewer-combers, who make their living by sifting offal for discarded cash and valuables; the intricate pecking order that governs the downstairs sections of a grand house; the brutal, almost murderous conditions inflicted on unwanted, illegitimate, or inconvenient children dumped in so-called 'boarding schools' by heartless guardians. More problematic than the frequent info-dumps, however, was Palliser's characterization, or lack thereof. My first reaction when I finished the novel last year was that, having worked so hard to come up with an intricate, fascinating plot, Palliser had quite forgotten to invent interesting characters for it to happen to. The reactions of The Quincunx's narrator to the injustices he witnesses and is subjected to are intriguingly realistic (especially given the novels Palliser is mimicking, which usually feature improbably perfect and saintly protagonists)--he is often selfish, unthinking, and impatient with the frailty of others--but he never exhibits a personality beyond this reactive one. Having done away with the Dickensian stereotype of the scrupulous, decent, affable young hero, Palliser doesn't develop his character beyond establishing his humanity.

All that said, there were some promising hints in The Quincunx of what Palliser might achieve later in his career--primarily in his eagerness to mix the stylistic conventions of the 19th century mystery with a more sophisticated and realistic understanding of human psychology, and with a healthy dollop of moral relativism. My second foray into Palliser's bibliography, his fourth and latest novel, The Unburied, confirmed my suspicions that Palliser was worth a second look. It is a tighter and more elegant mystery than The Quincunx, and pays closer attention to characterization (it also features a touching and thoughtful sub-plot about the lives of homosexuals in the 19th century). In between these two novels, Palliser wrote Betrayals (there's also a second novel, The Sensationalist, which I have yet to read), a playful and puzzling work, and for a while there one of the most delightful novels I had read in quite some time.

Betrayals opens with the obituary of a Scottish physician and expert on poisons. It then segues into a Christie-esque tale about a murder that takes place when a passenger train is halted by a snow-storm. From there we move on to a book review, and then to the bitter rantings of the cast-out former disciple of a half-mad philosopher. The diary of a madman, the letters of a self-important author, the confession of an entirely unrepentant politician-cum-novelist--all in all, ten interlinked stories, each touching on the central theme of betrayal but also on the telling of tales within tales, a satire of the British publishing establishment, literary theory, the rift between 'commercial' and 'artistic' authors, and the intersection between fiction and reality. The latter, in particular, seems to be Palliser's focus--the very human, and very dangerous, tendency to transform real life into fiction, and then to turn around and mistake fiction for the real thing.

Our narrators, naturally enough, are highly unreliable--covering their own tracks, influenced by personal or political considerations, outright lying or downright mad--but through their omissions, slips of tongue and inadvertent truths, we can make some progress towards solving the novel's mysteries. And there are mysteries--who led poor Mrs. Armitage to her death when she was separated from her fellow passengers? Who murdered prostitutes in Glasgow in the 1970s? Was Graham Speculand's attacker acting on behalf of Speculand's former mentor, Henri Galvanauskas, and was that attack related to other assaults on University of Glasgow professors at around the same time?--interspersed between the literary theory and literary satire and literary pastiche that make up the bulk of the novel. Each chapter--and even the appendix and the index of characters--sheds some partial light on the mysteries of the others while also obfuscating other mysteries which may have seemed solved. Betrayals is a puzzle, one whose solution is left largely to the readers to decipher.

In that respect, Palliser's novel puts me very strongly in mind of Mark Z. Danieleski's House of Leaves, a similarly puzzling and experimental novel published in 2000. In its essentials, House of Leaves is a classic ghost story--an estranged couple move into a house in the county with their two children, hoping that the new environment will help heal their marriage. Soon their marital problems are overshadowed by strange occurrences within the house--strange sounds, rooms that appear out of nowhere, moving walls. So far, so simple, but the father in this family is a photojournalist who was chronicling his family's move into their new house, and eventually cut the footage into a film. What we read is a commentary on the film written by a blind old man (assuming that the film ever existed in the first place). Or rather, we read the old man's commentary plus the notes of the man who finds and becomes consumed by the commentary after the old man's death (assuming that the old man ever existed in the first place) plus the notes of the man's editors (assuming that the man ever existed in the first place). Add a boatload of footnotes, and footnotes to some of the footnotes, and bizarre typographic games, and you get a weird, weird, weird book. And, of course, no solution to the central mystery of what, exactly, was in the house, and what happened to the novel's other narrators, the old man and the younger one. As Palliser does in Betrayals, Danielewski leaves the final unraveling of his mystery to his readers, and peppers his narrative with clues that only the most attentive, observant, and obsessed of them will understand or even notice.

It's not at all surprising to discover that House of Leaves has developed a cult following, and that a vibrant online community exists to discuss the novel's themes, ferret out clues and suggest solutions to its mystery. Everyone loves a mystery, and everyone loves being the person who solves the mystery. The emotional kick we get out of advancing even one step closer to a solution outweighs the almost certain knowledge that that solution probably doesn't exist--that Danielewski was more interested in creating the illusion of profundity than in paying off his elaborate setup. Danieleski's chosen genre, however, allows him to play these sorts of games with his readers--the most horrifying revelation possible is, after all, the discovery that there is going to be no revelation. At the core of horror is the recognition that it is possible for ordinary people to stumble obliviously into the middle of some terrible and ancient drama, become inextricably embroiled in it, suffer terribly and perhaps even lose their lives, and never find out why it happened or what it was all about. Terrible things can happen to us for no reason and there is nothing we can do to prevent or stop them--what could be more horrifying than this simple truth?

Betrayals, however, is written as a mystery--several mysteries, as I have said. The rules of this genre are different--almost diametrically opposed to the rules of horror. In mystery fiction, there has to be a reason and a solution. Palliser plays a very dangerous game with Betrayals, undermining his readers' expectations of logical solutions and tied-up loose ends after first building up those very expectations by writing within the conventions of the genre. And as for asking the readers to be their own detectives, while obviously the degree to which one is willing to do so is highly subjective, I think Palliser goes too far. Most readers will eventually be frustrated by the investigation they must complete in order for the novel to come together--if, indeed, such a coming-together is even possible (obviously, I'm writing from personal experience. I came a certain distance towards solving Betrayals' mysteries and then stopped, unwilling to commit more of my time and energy to a task that, I suspect, is not finite. If anyone reading this review has come further and has insights they'd like to share, I would be only too pleased to read them).

Like Kate Atkinson's Case Histories, Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, or the second season of Veronica Mars, Betrayals uses the outer trappings of the mystery genre to do something that is not entirely related to that genre. And like those other works, it is only partially successful. Perhaps more than any other genre, mystery is boxed in by its rules and conventions, and I have yet to encounter a work that managed to break those rules and still succeed as a genre piece. Which may very well be Palliser's topic, and his compensation for readers left without a solution at the novel's end. Those parts of the novel not concerned with laying out mysteries or offering hints towards their solution are for the most part engaged in the discussion of two dichotomies--the rift between commercial and literary fiction, and the difference between mysteries in real life and mysteries in fiction. The former is obviously addressed by the fact that the novel's playful and experimental structure encompasses the most obvious pastiche of early 20th century mystery writers (in both this respect and in the connections that it draws between its disparate chapters, Betrayals is highly reminiscent of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, although again, I think the comparison highlights why combining this style with a mystery story might not be a good idea), the latter by the novel's longest chapter. The chapter is narrated in diary form by Sholto McTweed, a bookstore clerk who doesn't understand why anyone would want to read about something that didn't really happen, and who truly believes that the characters in a television cop show are being murdered in front of him. Sholto strikes up an unlikely friendship with philosophy professor Horatio Quaife, who grades real-life murders based on their literary merit, and objects to the use of poison because Sayers and Christie have done it to death. In the background, a serial murderer is terrorizing Glasgow, and at least two television shows have ongoing mystery plots which Sholto and Horatio try to solve. The point, apparently, is that real-life murders are at the same time more complicated and less elaborate than fictional ones.

It's a point that Palliser makes well and with subtlety, but it is not, in itself, a particularly clever, interesting, or satisfying one. It's all very well to say that a realistic, or a literary (two terms that mean completely different, and often diametrically opposed, things) mystery can't have a plain solution, but once you've made that point, what's left of your novel? In the end, one can't help but wonder whether it is Palliser who is the traitor, although he seems to be betraying himself as well as his readers--in its desire to step out of the bounds of genre, his fiction becomes self-immolating, and after an exciting beginning made up of several cracking good yarns, the novel starts dragging toward the middle and sadly never quite recovers itself. Which is probably a strange preamble to saying that I genuinely enjoyed reading Betrayals, and that I do recommend it. Whether or not the solution exists, Palliser has clearly grasped the key to creating a successful illusion of its existence--there are enough fun details in the novel to at least partially obscure the fact that it doesn't work as a whole. Betrayals is an imperfectly executed but fascinating experiment, and one that I think would benefit from a greater readership (although I wouldn't be surprised to discover that as many readers despise it as love it). There is a small sub-class of novels that work best as a topic of communal discussion. House of Leaves is one of them, and I think Betrayals might be one too (it is the novel's misfortune to have been published in the days of the internet's infancy). In the meantime, I'll keep looking for a novel that truly achieves a blend between the rules of mystery writing and the wider world of literary experimentation, and keep Veronica Mars' first season on hand to keep me company while I look.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Self-Promotion 8

My review of Geoff Ryman's latest novel, The King's Last Song, appears in today's Strange Horizons.

SH's reviews editor, Niall Harrison, is also the new co-editor of the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal, Vector, and along with fellow editor Geneva Melzack has recently launched Torque Control, a Vector blog which is well-worth a bookmark. Today he posts an edited version of a conversation he and I had after I turned in my review of The King's Last Song, which I think makes an interesting accompaniment to my review, and also to Niall's review of the novel, which will hopefully be appearing on an online venue near you sometime in the near future.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Galactica's Shadow Season Will Have to Wait For Another Day

SciFi.com has made available the deleted scenes from Battlestar Galactica's winter season (second item on 6/6/06). Now we too can watch such vital segments as Lee's first meeting with Shevon from "Black Market", or an extra two seconds of dialogue from "Scar" (there are also some cut scenes from "The Captain's Hand", but the new interface--something called SciFi Pulse--is quite dreadful. It crashed Safari on every single attempt I made at it, and I eventually gave up with most of the deleted scenes unwatched. Windows users might have a better time of it). There's no sign, of course, of the season's more vital deleted scenes, which kept showing up in the 'previously on Battlestar Galatica' segment--Kara pitching a Caprican rescue mission, or Baltar and Gina's meeting in "Lay Down Your Burdens I".

Strangely enough, I'm relieved by the absence of these scenes. They indicate that Galactica's producers are capable of a well-deserved humility. For three months they served up a substandard product while constantly offering tantalizing hints of the superior show that might have existed had they not chosen otherwise, and seemed to feel no shame for doing so. To now offer up these vital scenes as an extra special treat for the viewers (and this might be a good time to commend Galactica's production staff and SciFi.com for their rare and admirable willingness to acknowledge that offering free goodies--deleted scenes, episode commentaries, entire episodes--for online download is a good way to get viewers interested in and committed to their shows) would demonstrate a breathtaking lack of self-awareness. To put it simply, I'd like to believe that the folks at the Galactica office are a little embarrassed at how the winter season turned out, and aren't willing to draw attention, yet again, to its deficiencies.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Dear David Milch: A Deadwood Wish List

Hopefully this doesn't shatter anyone's illusions, but a lot of the early pieces on this blog were reworked versions of essays I had written months, and sometimes even years, before it came into existence. Not having a forum for them, I put them aside, satisfied that I had at least gotten what I wanted to say out of my system. After AtWQ came into being, I found myself going back to my archives and digging out some of these old essays in order to repost them here. This piece is the very last one of them--based, albeit quite loosely, on a wish list I wrote nearly a year ago, at the end of Deadwood's second season. Happily, just as the show's third (and apparently not-quite-final) season is about to get started, some of my online friends have begun watching and writing about the first two--check out Dan Hartland's essays about the first and second seasons, and the discussion that arose when Niall Harrison expressed his dissatisfaction with the show--which helped reshape this essay. To be perfectly honest, in spite of the fact that it was clearly inferior to the first, a lot of my complaints about the second season leave me uneasy--I can't help but wonder whether, rather than criticizing the show as it is, I am criticizing it for not being the show I'd like it to be.

In its first season, Deadwood focused on exploding the conventions of two myths--the genre of the Western, with its laconic, uncomplicated characters, starkly divided between shining white good and deep black evil, in which problems were swiftly and decisively resolved by the quickest draw, and the myth of American expansion into the Wild West, which forms a substantial part of the American self-definition, with its focus on individuality, self-actualization, the value of tenacity and hard work, and the notion of civilization and the rule of law creeping, ever so slowly, across the American continent. It is that second myth in particular that is countered by the juxtaposition of Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen, two nearly-allegorical characters. Bullock, a man of law, finds himself frequently overcome by an impulse towards violence that is no less terrifying for being grounded in a desire for justice. Decent and kind, he is also quick-tempered, unfriendly, and socially inept. Swearengen, a man capable of brutal violence even towards those he cares about, is also an enthusiastic student of human nature, and capable of an effortless geniality. He has a nearly-joyous understanding of, and appreciation for, humanity's frailty and tenacity, and a deep belief in a man's right to stake out his own claim and fight for it against interests greater and more powerful than he is. Al sees the world as a place of struggle, with no room for the false niceties of law and civilization, but perversely enough this viewpoint is the least cruel and most hopeful aspect of his personality--even within his games of power and control, he holds out the hope that the weak might, through some miracle of determination or intelligence or luck, triumph over the strong. The first season saw these two characters struggle with each other even as they came to the understanding that both were necessary for Deadwood's survival--Bullock's staunch moralism and Al's pragmatic cruelty--and, if we return for a moment to realm of allegory, to the creation of a viable, civilized society.

The second season added a new level of complication by ending Deadwood's isolation from the world, and introducing outside interests both financial and political. In contrast to Al's benevolent, all-but-idealistic form of capitalism, there came the Hearst corporation, representing a grasping, mindless, perpetually unsatisfied thirst for wealth, as exploitative of its workers as any Victorian factory (in a neat contrast to the first season's emphasis on individual endeavor, which also forms an integral part of the American myth). As storylines proliferated and became more complicated, and as Deadwood began taking on a life of its own, the notion of writing the show as a deliberate perversion of the Western genre became untenable, and the writers were forced to abandon it. Even in its exploded form, however, that genre had imbued Deadwood with a certain structure, and having lost that aspect of itself, the show's second season veered towards shapelessness. To be perfectly honest, I preferred the show as a relatively simple yet fundamentally confused tale of good and evil working both with and against each other, and found the second season's tangled storylines unsatisfying. As Dan Hartland argues in his essay on the second season, however, this change was in many ways a necessary and organic one--Deadwood is growing, and can't be kept in its pristine, isolated condition--and I believe I might have come to accept it, had the writers done a better job with the second season's plot and character development.

Representing the Hearst corporation for most of the second season was Francis Wolcott, a clever, self-important, deeply demented man, who, several episodes into the season works out his sexual dysfunction by slitting the throats of three whores. Stripped of Garret Dillahunt's chilling performance and the writers' intelligent, affecting dialogue, Wolcott the character, and the storyline he was given, wouldn't have been out of place in a John Grisham novel--the corporate officer so twisted that the only form of self-expression available to him (on those rare occasions when he allows himself to be anything other than the representative of powerful financial interests) is monstrous. At the end of the season (and, according to the previews*, continuing into the third season) Wolcott was relieved by his employer, George Hearst, to whom the news of Wolcott's depravity came as a disturbing distraction from his one consuming interest--'finding the color'. A man who has sublimated his humanity, and another who may never have possessed it--these are the representatives of capitalism in Deadwood's second season, and although to a certain extent this is an understandable choice on the writers' part, there's no denying that by focusing on these flat characters and on a sensational, overwrought plotline, the writers cheapen their show.

But of course, neither Wolcott nor Hearst hold a candle to Cy Tolliver when it comes to flat characterization. At the very top of my wish list last year was the fervent desire that the knife wound inflicted on Cy at the end of last season prove fatal. Even at the time, I knew this was probably too much to ask for, and Powers Boothe's return to the show was indeed swiftly confirmed. Cy's introduction in the first season was obviously meant to free Al up from the demands of being the camp's chief bad guy. Al was allowed to have nuance, but Cy seemed to have walked off the set of Stagecoach, or any other of the Westerns that Deadwood was supposed to be a response to. In the second season, Cy took center stage as the town's premier mover and shaker, but as a character he was even further flattened, until he became nothing more than a boogeyman, whose appearance heralds overwrought speeches and almost certain violence. Cy is an entirely predictable character--his emotional palette is limited to 'subtly sinister' and 'overtly threatening', and by the end of the second season, we can more or less write his scenes for him, so obvious and simplistic is his thought process. It baffles me when television writers and viewers refer to characters of Cy's ilk--characters made up of nothing but exaggerated mannerisms and inhuman emotional reactions--as 'fun'. In small doses, maybe, but when Cy sucks up the air, and the airtime, from actual people, I cease to enjoy myself.

One can't escape the impression that, in its second season, Deadwood came dangerously close to becoming another Rome--a show so entranced by the neatness of its premise that it neglects to do anything interesting with it, giving itself over to the sensational and the unsubtle. Plotlines in the second season were for the most part dull (Al's attempts to get Deadwood annexed by South Dakota), bizarrely pointless (Miss Isringhausen), or maudlin (William's death, the murder of the whores). Interesting, established first season characters were either ignored or made part of less interesting second season storylines--Jane and Charlie are folded into Joanie's problems with Wolcott (and I do remember a rumor a few months back about a possible lesbian relationship between Jane and Joanie in the third season); Doc Cochran is trotted out briefly to recoil at Cy's treatment of the Chinese sex slaves.

Even the main characters spend the second season concerned almost exclusively with domestic, soap-opera storylines. Instead of a character torn between the demands of justice and those of the law, Seth Bullock became a character torn between his wife and his pregnant ex-mistress. There was a certain pathos in the show's treatment of this dilemma early in the second season, when it mirrored what must be the central question of Bullock's existence--whether to do as he likes or as he knows to be right--but as a protracted storyline, it left the character with nothing to do except look pained. The death of Bullock's adopted son only further entangles the character in the domestic and leaves him oblivious to political machinations that should be his business. Politically, Bullock goes from Al's equal and opposite to his flunky, who acts in accordance to Al's wishes but does so almost in a haze, too preoccupied with his personal problems to care about his role as a representative of law.**

Which brings us, of course, to Al, and in his case I think the rot was already setting in halfway through the first season, when Cy, and not Al, killed the two young grifters in a storyline that obviously should have gone to Swearengen. It's been a long time since Al hurt anyone we actually cared about, or didn't think deserved to be hurt, and as a result the character has steadily progressed from villain to anti-hero to lovable rogue to genial elder statesman. The man who stepped on Trixie's throat for daring to shoot a customer who beat her is now pushing her towards a better life. The man who mocked Bullock for his affair with Mrs. Garret (out of a peevish exasperation with what he perceived--perhaps quite accurately--as Bullock's hypocrisy) later urges him silently to leave Mrs. Garret alone and go home to his wife. The man who ran opium and employed robbers (the men who murdered Sophia's family) now spends most of his time playing politics and talking to a head in a box. For all that Deadwood's writers try to make us believe it, Al Swearengen hasn't been dangerous in a long time, and the show suffers for this simplification of his character.

So, if I have a wish list for Deadwood's third season, it is that its main characters return to form--that Bullock become again a player in the town's politics, that Al demonstrate the capacity and the willingness to hurt even those who might not deserve it, that Cy be marginalized, and that Hearst prove a more interesting, more believable character than Wolcott. Which, to a certain extent, is asking that the show turn back the clock, go back to the forms of the first season instead of moving forward, and therefore a little unfair. But it is also asking for good, thought-provoking television instead of a 19th century soap opera. Deadwood's first season proved that the writers had this show in them--let the third season take us forward into the story, but back to that show.



* If you haven't done so already, be sure to check out the third season previews on HBO's official site. Apart from the fact that they are fantastically well-made--I swear to God, the HBO promo department is gunning for the creation of a new Emmy category--they offer an interesting commentary on the show's central theme. It is, of course, exceedingly amusing to juxtapose scenes from the third season with a voiceover of the characters reading passages from scripture, but what are we to make of the choice of passages? Are the promo people being particularly ironic when they have Al Swearengen tell us that 'you cannot drink the chalice of the lord and the chalice of devils', or 'blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God', or are they suggesting that, even in Deadwood, there exists a distinction between good and evil?

** The only upside to this emasculation of Bullock's character is that it gave Alma Garret a chance to shine, and to quickly become the most interesting character in the cast. The first and second season were essentially a sped-up process of maturation for Mrs. Garret, as she went from a drugged, dependent child to a powerful woman whose intelligence and determination shine through the carefully applied mannerisms of a Victorian lady. She's by no means a good person--she is often imperious, self-willed, and brusque, especially when her desires go ungratified--but she recognizes that propensity towards selfishness in herself, and in the second season in particular we saw her act to combat it, even accepting Ellsworth's marriage proposal as a way of sparing the grieving Bullocks the humiliating sight of her pregnancy.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Desperate Cry For Help or, Your Host Asks for Book Recommendations

You know what's worse than a reading slump? Being able to read just about anything and not enjoying any of it. And that's where I've been for most of this year. I've read about 30 books since January (which is actually a bit low for me) and of them, perhaps four or five were genuinely enjoyable reads, books that captured my attention as opposed to just being a way to get through spare time. Truly joyous reading experiences, which used to be a staple of my life, have become vanishingly rare.

Which is where you, faithful AtWQ readers, come in: I want book recommendations. And not just good books. Not interesting or entertaining or diverting books. I want fantastic books. I want the books that made you grateful for their existence, the books that kept you up until 3 AM and made you late for work, the books you pressed into the hands of all your reading friends the moment you turned the last page. I want your all-time favorite books. Any genre, any style, any length, old or brand new. I'm in the mood for fun and plotty, but not so much so that there's nothing else to the book. I want something well-written, with interesting characters, and hopefully something to say--a few peas of meaning hidden under the french fries of plot. In short, I want a really good book.

So, if you would be so kind as to leave a comment (preferably with a bit more than a title--tell me what the book is about and why you love it as much as you do) I would truly appreciate it. And, lest I be accused of taking without giving, here's a recommendation of my own:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

What's it about: Two Jewish cousins in 1940s New York who invent a successful comic book character. Also magicians, escapist acts, the Holocaust, true love, homosexuality, the history of comic books in America, radio serials in the late 30s and early 40s, New York's bohemian art scene at around the same time, and Antarctica.

Why it's one of my all-time favorite books: Because Chabon achieves a near-perfect blend of rollicking adventure (and his ability to turn something as mundane as two young people meeting at a party into an adventure is nearly magical) and intense character exploration. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a novel about escape, which is sometimes necessary and sometimes destructive, and Chabon makes an exhaustive, fascinating study of this theme. It's also funny, romantic, and a heartfelt an ode to comic books and their history that managed to capture the heart of even this reluctant comic book reader.

OK, your turn.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 6

Look, it's the sixth recent reading roundup, posted on 6/6/06. That's kind of neat, right? No? Well, I thought it was.
  1. Affinity and Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters - in retrospect, I think it was a mistake to move backwards through Sarah Waters' bibliography--first her superb third novel, Fingersmith; then her mediocre second, Affinity, and finally her embarrassingly bad first, Tipping the Velvet. Not only has Waters made great strides in terms of her facility with plot, character, dialogue and voice, but in her earlier novels, Tipping the Velvet in particular, she has yet to strike a balance between the demands of plot and the sensationalism of her premise. To put it simply, Waters doesn't really have anything to say about lesbianism in general, and beyond the fact that she was made her readers aware of their existence, she doesn't seem to have much to say about Victorian lesbians either. This wasn't a problem in Fingersmith, in which the main characters' lesbianism was incidental to the novel's twisty plot and to the intricate web of deceit and betrayal that entangled the two girls. The fact that they were lesbians--and that they fell in love with each other--was an unexpected miracle which saved them from what would otherwise have been their doom.

    To a certain extent, this is also true of Affinity. The novel's narrator, Margaret, is a well-to-do young woman recovering from a nervous breakdown who is invited to visit inmates at a women's prison. There she meets Selina, a former medium who seduces Margaret with promises of a life together, a heretofore undreamed-of happiness. The fact that Margaret is gay drives the plot--it is her despair and loneliness that allow Selina to prey on her--but it is also external to the novel. Margaret is what she is, and Waters has no interest in exploring the kind of person that makes her. She focuses instead on the effect that society's prohibitive attitude towards Margaret's sexual orientation has on her--which is, essentially, to drive her to her undoing. It is to Waters' credit that she never milks the tragedy of Maragaret's situation or even points an accusing finger at Victorian mores (the novel takes place so completely in Margaret's head that we never even stop to consider how those mores oppress her because she never considers herself to be oppressed), which would have buried the novel under a crushing burden of righteous indignation. However, the fact that Affinity isn't written as a tragedy actually makes its tragic ending all the more unbearable. The novel essentially amounts to a long, unrelenting description of an, admittedly foolish but also lonely and damaged, young woman's oblivious journey towards utter destruction--a destination that is perfectly obvious almost from the moment Margaret and Selina meet. Margaret isn't a particularly appealing character--people who are self-pitying and pathetic rarely are--but it is nevertheless a profoundly unpleasant experience to watch her get conned by an even less likable person.

    Still, at least Affinity has a plot. In Tipping the Velvet, it seems that Waters is still so entranced with the sauciness of her premise that she forgets the need for one. The novel follows Nancy as she bounces from lover to lover--a gallery of lesbian stereotypes in period dress--and takes us on a guided tour of the seamy underside of Victorian London. Nancy isn't a particularly likable character--she's not very smart, is capable of a breathtaking selfishness, and is often whiny, needy, and vain--but neither is she a particularly interesting unlikable character. She's just a boring, unpleasant human being who bounces back and forth between tragedy and triumph without doing much to earn either, and who doesn't actually deserve the happiness that Waters has in store for her. The book's ending, in which Nancy is saved by embracing socialism, is predictable, contrived, and insipid--it reads like a bad Harlequin romance ripoff, or the ending of a particularly dull romantic comedy. It seems impossible to believe, but the same woman who wrote one of my favorite reads from last year is also responsible for a very serious contender for this year's worst book.

  2. 1610: A Sundial in a Grave by Mary Gentle - Valentin Rochefort--duellist, spy, assassin, and disgraced nobleman--is forced to flee the court of Henri IV after, well, inadvertently bringing about the assassination of said monarch. Arriving in England, he finds himself at the beck and call of Robert Fludd, who claims to have the knowledge of a form of mathematics that allows him to predict the probability of specific futures. Fludd wants Rochefort to assassinate another monarch--James I--thus placing his son Henry on the throne, preventing the civil war and the execution of Charles I and, according to Fludd, putting humanity on a path that will allow it to destroy a comet that's going to be dropping by in about 500 years. Gentle's novel takes a while to get started--hardly a surprise given the weight of backstory necessary to get the plot in motion--but once it does it is a surprisingly elegant and swift-moving adventure, by turns funny and thrilling. Gentle is by no means a great writer--her prose is merely adequate, and she has an unfortunate tendency to write copious amounts of 'As you know, your father, the king' dialogue and draw such conversations out interminably--but for the most part she infuses 1610 with so much energy that these flaws are easily overlooked.

    Still, if it were nothing more than a swashbuckling adventure, 1610 might easily have been a forgettable read (and indeed, the adventure plot never truly builds to a climax). It is made truly excellent by the tangled, sophisticated and sexually frank romance that soon comes to drive the novel--the meeting of two peculiar, ornery, damaged individuals who take a very long to figure out that they are each other's match in every respect. Gentle walks a delicate tightrope--on the one hand, making sure her readers swoon at the right moments, and on the other, trying to avoid the more egregious clichés of romance writing--and quite often it seems that she is about to fall off (especially towards the beginning of the novel, when Rochefort's thoughts are essentially an endless stream of variations on 'why am I suddenly so concerned for this person? Could it be that my feelings run deeper than I thought?'). Always, however, she pulls back, and by the novel's end we are rooting whole-heartedly for these two crazy kid to make it work. Through the device of this romance, Gentle offers some interesting observations on the importance of strength and weakness, the fluidity of gender roles, and the importance of learning to be vulnerable. In spite of its flaws and, let's be honest, its general cheesiness, 1610: A Sundial in a Grave made for one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a long time.

  3. The Portrait by Iain Pears - Pears is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, An Instance of the Fingerpost, a taut, elegant historical mystery against which most other historical mysteries are judged and found wanting. He followed it, however, with an overwrought, self-important mess of a novel, The Dream of Scipio, and I had more or less written him off as a one-hit-wonder. A cousin passing through the country left me her copy of Pears' most recent novel, and it being a rather slim volume (barely 200 pages long) I thought I'd give it a try. The novel is written as a monologue spoken by an artist as he paints the portrait of an old friend, a famous and influential art critic. The artist has been in seclusion for several years, and in his monologue he reminisces about his career, his relationship with the critic, and his reasons for leaving the art scene. You can pretty much guess where the story is headed just from looking at the back-cover blurb, and even spoilerphobes who turn straight to the text will be able to work out the ending within half a dozen pages. Suspense, in other words, is not in the cards. What's left is a meditation on the roles of the artist and the critic--the way they build each other up and tear each other down, and the way in which each views the other as a means to achieving their own goals (it's probably no accident that the novel is set in 1914--at about the time when the role of the critic as an intercessor between the increasingly insular art world and the increasingly befuddled public was becoming vitally important). Pears makes some interesting observations, but even at 200 pages he ends up repeating himself and overstating the obvious. I can't help but wonder if instead of an unexceptional novel, The Portrait shouldn't have been a interesting short story.

  4. Promethea: Book 1 by Alan Moore - I've had limited success with Moore in the past--I thought Watchmen was brilliant but rather dated, and found The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen pleasant but unremarkable. Promethea is more enjoyable than either of these works, but it by no means convinces me that Moore and I are right for one another. Promethea starts off from a hoary old premise--normal kid discovers that they are a superhero. This time it's teenager Sophie Bangs, who becomes the latest incarnation of Promethea, a physical manifestation of imagination and the power of story. The artwork is absolutely stunning, moving back and forth from the psychedelic realm where Promethea rules and the futuristic, neon-and-chrome New York that is Sophie's home. There are also some adorably quirky details in the margins of Moore's imaginary universe--New York is patrolled by a band of science superheroes called Five Swell Guys (although one of them has been replaced by a woman) who flit back and forth on their hovercraft, fighting evil in pinstripe suits; the city is blanketed in billboards depicting the Weeping Gorilla, who expresses ennui with melancholy phrases ('Go on, ask me about my marriage') and a morose expression; in fantasy-land, Sophie-Promethea encounters a foul-mouthed Little Red Riding-Hood who greets the Big Bad Wolf with the AK-47 she has hidden in her basket of goodies. The neat details, however, invariably give way to the meat of the story, which is for the most part didactic and heavy-handed speechifying on the part of Sophie's predecessors about the importance of imagination and the immortality of stories.

    Promethea treads a lot of the same ground as Sandman, but whereas in that seminal work, Neil Gaiman was careful to acknowledge the dark and dangerous aspects of unbridled imagination, Moore doesn't seem to have even considered their existence. If imagination held sway, an early 20th century Promethea tells Sophie in one issue, there would be an end to war--a laughable notion, especially given that the issue focuses on WWI. If ever a flight of fancy was given leave to take over the minds of otherwise reasonable men, it was that debacle. At no point does Moore acknowledge that humanity's darkest and most horrific impulses also have their expression, and sometimes their origin, in the imagination. Gaiman's dreamland is dangerous--step off the path and there's no telling where you'll end up, what you'll create, and whether you'll ever make it back home. Moore's is a candy-colored educational experience, where any hint of trouble will be quickly swept away by friendly, maternal superheroine in a bronze bra. From plot summaries of the following volumes, I get the impression that the series delves deeper into didacticism, eventually becoming Moore's manifesto. I think I'll pass.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dammit, I Don't Need the Reissued Sandman!

But now that I've seen a sample of the recolored artwork, I want it.

I imagine that Preludes and Nocturnes makes a great deal more sense with a color palette that extends beyond green.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Mr. Darcy in the Fields of Bethlehem: A Shavuot Post

Last night we celebrated Shavuot, a much-repurposed harvest festival. Proving, yet again, that I should no longer be allowed anywhere near a synagogue, I found my mind wandering to strange places during the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Specifically, to the similarities between this ancient family drama and the novels of Jane Austen (waits to be struck by lightning. No? OK then). Like Austen's novels, the book of Ruth is a celebration of the way in which a careful adherence to social conventions and customs, when coupled with wisdom and generosity, safeguards both the happiness and security of individuals and the continuity of society as a whole. As expressed through the device of a romance between two incredibly sexy people.

The book of Ruth is short (barely four chapters) and worth reading. You can find an English translation here. The story in brief, however: having lost her husband and two sons in Moab, the Israelite Naomi returns to her clan with her two widowed Moabite daughters-in-law. The first, Orpah (whose name literally means "She who turns her back") returns to her own people. The second, Ruth, remains with Naomi. While gathering leftover grain in order to feed herself and Naomi, Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, the owner of the field, who is impressed by her devotion to Naomi and, presumably, by the fact that she is incredibly hot, and gives orders to his men to show her special consideration. Like a good Jewish mother--or a Biblical Mrs. Bennet--Naomi responds to the news of Boaz's generosity by making marriage plans. She sends Ruth, all dressed up, to lie at Boaz's feet in the manger at the end of the day's work. The text gracefully elides over whatever it is that happens after Boaz discovers Ruth, but the next thing we know, he's promising to marry her. The book ends with the birth of Boaz and Ruth's son, and with the revelation that he is the ancestor of David, and therefore the Solomonic dynasty.

Like Austen, the Biblical author sees marriage as the most desirable state for his female protagonist--it ensures both her financial and physical security and her dynastic continuity. In order for the marriage to be a good one, however--something beyond the mercenary or the expedient--it has to take place between two moral individuals. Nearly all of Austen's characters act in accordance with societal conventions and within the guidelines that manners and morality lay out for them. Only the best of them, however, act with a full understanding of the importance of manners. Whereas other characters act unthinkingly, accepting the customs of their society because to do so is easier than to buck the trend, and others still believe that the appearance of propriety is all that matters and ignore its substance, Austen's heros and heroines--her Darcys and Elinors--have a deeper understanding of the importance of morality to the preservation of the fabric of society. They therefore go beyond the requirements of convention--Darcy bribing Wickham to marry Lydia, Elinor securing a living for Edward Ferrars from Colonel Brandon--and are rewarded for their generosity by having that quality recognized by others who possess it, and by the privilege of teaching the importance of tradition and goodness to the next generation.

The book of Ruth seems to offer the same moral tale. Ruth and Orpah both discharge their duty towards Naomi by escorting her safely to her own clan's lands. Naomi sends the two women home because, as she says, she has no more sons to marry them to (which would fulfill her responsibility towards these two young women who have tied their fates with that of her family). Orpah's actions in returning to her family, who will find her another husband, are entirely correct. Ruth, however, goes beyond correctness, and remains with Naomi because of her love and concern for the older woman. In doing so she essentially seals her own fate--she has no property to tempt a new husband, no dowry, and no male relatives to protect her. In spite of the fact that they are not related by blood, Naomi takes on the responsibility of finding Ruth a husband. Ruth gathers grain in Boaz's field in accordance with the cutsom of gleaning, which states that stalks of grain dropped by the harvesters should be left on the ground for the poor to gather. Boaz goes further than custom requires when he orders his men to intentionally leave more grain on the ground for Ruth. Boaz promises to marry Ruth because he is related to Naomi's clan, and therefore has the responsibility of 'redeeming' the lands of Naomi's husband--buying them back from an outsider who has bought them and keeping them in the family. There exists, however, another relative with a greater claim to both the lands and Ruth, but he begs off. Boaz, therefore, steps up, and ensures both Ruth and Naomi's security. As the book's coda is careful to inform us, the union between these two excellent people is the source of a line of Israelite kings.

It occurred to me last night that Austen is almost alone in the history of the novel in writing about conformity as the path to happiness. Her contemporaries wrote about characters who defied convention and were heavily punished for it (with the possible exception of Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the main character acts shockingly by leaving her husband, and is rewarded with a better one). Modern novels frequently deal with conformity as a burden, crushing and stunting the individual. Their plots are often concerned with an individual's escape from the stifling bonds of tradition, or with a failure to escape which damns the individual to a lifetime of misery. The reason for this, of course, is that conformity does crush the individual--that's practically what it was intended to do. The laws that govern the lives of the Biblical characters in the book of Ruth, or the ones that rule the lives of Austen's characters, were never intended to safeguard the individual's happiness. Their purpose was to protect the community, the clan, and the family--for instance, the tradition of leaving the family's entire property to the eldest son, with the youngest sons forced to go into some sort of profession, which forms the foundation of so many of Austen's and her contemporaries' plots. It sounds cruel, and it is, but there is no other way to ensure that the family's lands aren't split up, and its power increasingly diminished.

The underlying fantasy of Austen's novels--and of the book of Ruth--is that the protagonists' happiness just happens to be secured by laws which, objectively, have no regard for it. Lucy Steele conveniently runs off with Robert Ferrars, thus removing the obstacle to Edward and Elinor's marriage without requiring that Edward act immorally. The relative with a greater claim to Ruth's hand declines to marry her, thus leaving the stage clear for Boaz (who, conveniently enough, is related to Naomi's husband's family) to make his move. Through these romances, Austen and the Biblical author make the strict adherence to tradition palatable even to readers who aren't accustomed to thinking of themselves as members of a group first and individuals second. The same laws, however, which in Biblical times were enacted to ensure, if not the individual's happiness than at least the security of the weaker members of society, have become, in modern times, a crippling burden. The tradition of yibum, for instance, in which a childless widow is married to her husband's brother in order to ensure both her security and her husband's continuity, has become a cruel joke.

Shavuot, as I said, is a much-repurposed holiday. It started out as a harvest festival, probably with pagan origins, in which farmers would make an offering of the first crops of the season. It was later folded into the tradition of ritual sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the second temple, the tradition arose that Shavuot was the date on which Moses brought the Torah to the Israelites, and the holiday was celebrated with a night-long study session. In the years that followed Israel's inception, the holiday came full circle and became a harvest festival again--agricultural settlements and kibbutzim appropriated it and transformed into a socialist- and communist-tinged celebration of their self-sufficiency, a demonstration of their success in rejecting the urban lifestyle of 19th century European Jewry and transforming themselves into tillers of the land. By the time I was growing up, the kibbutzim were mostly bankrupt, and the dream of an agrarian Israel, the home of the Hebrew worker, had given way to capitalism and a flourishing high-tech industry. Nevertheless, we'd grab a couple of cucumbers and a tomato out of the vegetable crisper, plop them in a wicker basket, dress in white and go to school to offer the first of our crops.

Last night I sat with bankers, human resource managers, and computer programmers, and read a tale about farmers living thousands of years ago, punctuated by 50-year-old songs about the joys of working the land and watching this nation bloom. A celebration of tradition embraced by middle-class individualists, because the former is intertwined with a love story and the latter have catchy tunes and evocative lyrics. It's a testament, I think, both to the skill of the Biblical author and to the human desire to belong to something greater than ourselves that this tale of tradition triumphant still resonates even with modern Israelis, who for decades have been forced to watch helpless as a thoughtless adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with venality and foolishness, have all but severed the ties between Israelis and their rich cultural heritage. When greedy, unthinking religious institutions force secular Israelis to jump through hoops in order to be granted to right to marry, divorce, adopt children, or even assert their Jewish identity, is it any wonder that ordinary Israelis recoil from the merest whiff of religion? Is it any wonder that the Jewish holidays dwindle into nothing more than an accumulation of tropes and empty gestures, with nothing to support them? I am gratified, therefore, that there still exist groups like the one I attended last night, whose members are willing to let themselves be conned by a story like the one in the book of Ruth, who are willing to consider the lesson that Jane Austen offers in her novels--that tradition, when tempered by generosity and by the understanding of the inevitability of change, can be a force for good, both for the community and the individual.