American Elephants

Book notes: What do you read over and over? by The Elephant's Child
April 8, 2009, 8:48 pm
Filed under: Entertainment, Freedom, History, Humor, Literature | Tags: , ,

How could I resist a picture that combines a yellow lab with a book?  I want to talk about books and reading.  In particular, about the kind of book that you get lost in; and the kind of book that you want to read and re-read, over and over.  Those are fairly rare.

There are, of course, thrillers that you cannot put down, speeding through the pages to learn how it turns out.  They can be absorbing and fun, but once you have found out what happens, it is spoiled for a second reading, for the suspense is all that was there. Thrillers often are inflicted with wooden characters, improbable situations and are acceptable only because the author manages his plot and suspense well.

What have you ever read that has it all?  Fully developed characters, fascinating detail, believable situations, and you want to read them over and over.

There are the books that are “should” books, those that conventional wisdom says you should have read.  Many of them you probably read in high school: The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet, Macbeth, Red Badge of Courage and 1984, for example.  And there are lots that you should read to appreciate milestones in literature and the influence that literature has had on people through the ages. But, assuming you went on to become an adult reader, are those books the ones that gave you the most pleasure?

My favorites are Patrick O’Brien’s series of the Royal Navy adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.  There are 20 books in the series, and I have read them all over and over.  The characters are clearly defined in the first chapter of the first book, and you are hooked. The books are dense with science and action right out of the pages of  the real captain’s logs of the Royal Navy in the early 19th century. I have read them all at least 7 or 8 times.  I loved the movie of Master adn Commander as well, though the movie combines episodes from several books.

Then there is Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, a story of a classical hero in the age of the Renissance, a series of 5 books, beginning with  The Game of Kings. I also like Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle, and The Last Convertible, which each stand alone.  And currently, I am enjoying Alan Furst’s atmospheric stories of Europe as the shadow of World War II descends.

There are many books that I admire, that I would recommend to anyone; but not so many that I read over and over.  Do you have any that you return to again and again?

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same by The Elephant's Child
February 12, 2008, 9:10 pm
Filed under: History, Humor, Pop Culture | Tags: , , ,

Winslow Homer

Like most Americans today, Civil War soldiers had a kind of love-hate relationship with the media, which in their case consisted of newspapers and illustrated weeklies like Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s and the Southern Illustrated News.  Soldiers often denounced the biases or inacuracies of these journals but could not stop reading them….Even more than the editorials or political news, soldiers read newspapers for war news, especially stories about their own units or accounts of battles in which they had fought.  But they were by no means uncritical readers — quite the contrary.  The notoriously exaggerated, distorted, partisan, romanticized, and in some cases fictionalized accounts of battles provoked increasing cynicism among soldiers. 

James M. McPherson, the great historian of the Civil War, is describing the military of 143 years ago, but as much as things change, some things stay the same.  He goes on to describe the drawings for the illustrated weeklies — the visuals that portrayed the battle descriptions in the newspapers.

Some of the woodcuts were superb, such as Winslow Homer’s drawings of life in camp, several of which became the basis for his earliest oil paintings.  But the depictions of combat by many of the illustrators, especially in the war’s early years, were so stylized and sentimentalized that soldiers ridiculed them.  Next to Homer, one of the best illustrators was Alfred Waud.  By the latter part of the war, Waud had learned how to draw realistic pictures of the chaotic, brutal, confusing reality of combat.  But earlier, for example, in a drawing of a Union charge at the battle of Fair Oaks, Waud depicted nearly five hundred men in a perfect line, every man running with the same leg forward, every bayonet leveled at the same angle and height.  When this issue of Harper’s Weekly reached camp, veterans of the battle howled with derision.  Cavalrymen alternately laughed and groaned at illustrations showing them riding straight at the enemy in perfect order at a gallop on fierce-looking horses while firing their carbines with one hand and waving their sabers with the other.

Not all members of the media today have much understanding of warfighting. The military has attempted to remedy that situation by embedding reporters with military units.  An understanding of history, however, would put a greater sense of balance in media reporting.  Some reading in history would benefit all of us who are too ready to condemn mistakes and attach blame.  Things are always far more complicated than they seem to non-participants and the terminally naive anti-war crowd.

The above quotations come from McPherson’s This Mighty Scourge, which I recommend heartily.  But consider also the Pulitzer prize winner, Battle Cry of Freedom, and Crossroads of Freedom.

There and Back Again? by Emerald City Elephant
February 2, 2008, 1:36 pm
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: , , , ,

Looks like I will have to rent Pan’s Labyrinth:

Guillermo del Toro has officially signed up to direct The Hobbit, according to reports leaking out from a film premiere in France. The Pan’s Labyrinth creator will oversee a double-bill of films based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy adventure, which paved the way for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, director of the Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, will serve as executive producer. [read more]

I am not familiar with del Toro. Hopefully he won’t screw up as much as Peter Jackson did. Yes, there were things that Jackson did very well — but it may take years before I can reread the Lord of the Rings without picturing that insufferable wimp, Viggo Mortenson, as Aragorn, or Rivendell as a bad collector’s plate by Thomas Kincade, the “painter of light!” Ugh!

Nonetheless, I look forward to the Hobbit very much. As of now, it’s scheduled to come out in 2010. Now that the director has been signed, pre-production will begin right away.

Great news for movie lovers… by American Elephant
August 13, 2007, 3:20 am
Filed under: Literature, Movies, Pop Culture | Tags: , ,

Is it just me, or have there been an unusual number of good movies this year? Perhaps its just me, since—while I enjoy many genres—I like good fantasy/sci-fi, family and adventure films the most. All the better when I get all three in one film.

The most encouraging consequence of the success of the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Narnia movies, is that Hollywood seems to have discovered books.

Hollywood is horribly afraid of anything new. It only makes sense; if I were the one putting up my millions to finance a film, I would want some assurance that I would get a return on my investment. Hence the regrettable practice of filming the same films over and over—whether it be the third remake of King Kong or the 27th Rocky sequel—Hollywood wants a sure thing.

But that practice has resulted in stale fare and declining box office.

Enter Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. Someone finally explained to Hollywood execs what a “book” is, that there are millions of them, that they all contain stories (some of which are very good, in many cases beloved by millions)—and most of which have never been made into movies.


The result is there are good movies again. Movies that we havent all seen a hundred times in one incarnation or another. And thats what I’ve been experiencing lately. I must say, so far, so good. But the one big drawback, is that a bad adaptation can destroy a good book. But on the other hand, when one is well-made, it makes going to the movies fun again.

And I had a fun time at the movies tonight. I saw Stardust—which I’ve never read—and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was truly new.

I also saw previews for several more movies based on books that I love. The Golden Compass looks well-made and exciting; The Dark is Rising (a favortie), however, looks more questionable. Still, I look forward to both. The Spiderwyck Chronicles I have not read, but will have to look into, as it looks right up my alley. And finally, there’s Beowulf (not a book I loved, mind you, rather a book I was forced to plod through in high school) looks positively frightening—and not in the good way.

At any rate, anything that enfuses new life into the Hollywood line-up is great by me. (Click on the pictures to view the trailers)

Stardust The Golden Compass The Dark is Rising The Spiderwick Chronicles Beowulf Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

So now what? by American Elephant
August 8, 2007, 8:10 pm
Filed under: Literature, Pop Culture | Tags: ,

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I’ve just finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the second time. Finished reading it the first time within 18 hours of receiving it on release day, and now I’ve just finished the second, more leisurely reading.

So now what?

I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book for years—counting down the days like a child waiting for Christmas—and now it’s over. I know what happens to Harry, Ron, Hermione, the Weasleys, the Dursleys, Hagrid, Neville, Luna, Snape and Professor McGonnagal. And it was wonderful! I loved it! It was everything I hoped it would be. But now the story is finished and there will be no more.

So now I need something new to read. (fiction, I have plenty of nonfiction piled up.) Anyone have any recommendations?

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