Category Archives: Fiction

The Mark of Zorro

I picked up a couple DVDs of old silent movies this weekend, yielding me a total of five Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. films to get acquainted with. I started with The Mark of Zorro, the 1920 film in which Fairbanks established himself as Hollywood’s definitive action star. It was also the first Zorro movie ever made. Fairbanks picked out the obscure hero of a single pulp magazine story and turned him into an icon, to his own and the author’s great profit.

(Note to Hollywood: My books are still available. Better move now.)

Silent movies have to be taken on their own terms. Naturalism wasn’t what they were about. They were almost a form of interpretive dance, in which the actors used their faces, their eyes and their whole bodies to convey their “lines,” only sparsely supplemented by those black dialogue cards. The great D. W. Griffith did a lot of pioneering work using the camera to assist in his storytelling, but little of that kind of artistry is apparent in this film. Basically they set the camera in one spot and shot the scene in front of it.

Modern treatments of Zorro fall prey to Hollywood’s deep-seated need to be relevant and significant. Fairbanks had no such pretensions. He picked the vehicle because it offered lots of scope for the gymnastics at which he excelled, and that’s how he used it. There’s talk of “justice” and “oppression” (Zorro is described, among other things, as a defender of the “natives,” something I haven’t seen emphasized in the more recent adaptations, though I missed the second Banderas film), but that’s set dressing. It’s really a movie about a really agile guy running rings around the plodding villains, and laughing at them while he does it. It’s one notch of seriousness from being a full-fledged comedy.

And it’s a lot of fun, taken on its own terms. Continue reading The Mark of Zorro

Recommended Reading

Greybeard sends a link to a post on “what church leaders can learn from literature.” He says he has read only Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I have not read and I would say is not high on my list except I don’t have an actual list, so I can’t quite judge this title’s placement on it. I would like to read it some day. Maybe once I become rich and famous.

I have read Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. I read it for a modern literature class in college and had to give a type of oral report on it even though I hadn’t gotten beyond 100 pages. But in those pages, Asher Lev grabbed me. It’s a thickly tensioned story of a family that feels out of place in the world and a gifted boy who feels out of place in his family. I’d like to read it again before getting around to Dorian Gray. I mean, I like Oscar Wilde. I have enjoyed my frequent experience with The Importance of Being Earnest. But I want to read more of Chaim Potok. One is flash, the other heat.

Many more reading recommendations follow in the comments on that post.

In which I move from political to economic pronouncements

A while ago (because, of course, this is a book blog) I did a post about contemporary movie actors being commonly unable to generate a recognizably human expression—due to the ubiquity of Botox use in the Hollywood community.

Yesterday, James Lileks at the Bleat did a review of the movie Wall-E. In it he rhapsodized about the wonderful expressiveness of the main character, a computer-generated cartoon robot.

So it seems to me we’ve come to this—we’re getting more recognizably human performances from animated actors than from actual people actors.

Signs of the times. Chesterton would have had something scintillating to say about it. Me, I just note it in my pedestrian manner, and stroll on.

Nathaniel Peters at First Things linked to an earlier First Things appreciation of P. G. Wodehouse by Joseph Bottum. Well worth reading.

A light went on over my head today (unfortunately it was an incandescent light, so the authorities forced me to switch it off).

I took a moment to look at a news page on the web, and checked the stock market, which as we all know has been weak lately. And I found myself thinking, “My 401-K has lost a lot of value.”

And then I realized that this was ridiculous. I haven’t lost a cent in my 401-K. My loss or gain will only be known when the day comes (a long time from now, I hope) when I take the money out of it.

Since that day is not yet with us, I’m actually in a cycle where the money that goes from my paycheck into my pension plan is able to buy more stock for the buck. I’m getting’ a bargain here. There are many reasons to be unhappy about the economy, but for me personally, that ain’t one of ’em.

This is not to minimize the pain the downturn is causing to many people. The thought of being laid off (it’s happened to me) gives me a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I’m just saying, there are times (rare, perhaps) when looking at the dark side doesn’t make a lot of rational sense. Continue reading In which I move from political to economic pronouncements

Westerns and 3:10 to Yuma

I watched 3:10 to Yuma last week. Excellent. I didn’t know much about it, and I’m starting to think I prefer reading and watching things knowing very little of the story, which isn’t conducive to blogging about them. Anyway, I didn’t know going in (and was told early on) that the story dealt with what they later called the myth of the noble outlaw.

In a DVD documentary, the historians interviewed on film said the American Wild West was not as simple as some have explained it and that the myths far outweighed reality, but there were outlaws who robbed stagecoaches, banks, and railroads for reasons beyond criminal gain. And several famous men were rather civil about it.

For example, Black Bart robbed 28 stagecoaches at night, on foot, without a gun. He didn’t rob passengers, apparently, only the stagecoach company itself, and according to a man on the DVD, he carried a stick carved to look like a gun. At night, no one could tell it wasn’t a firearm and they could not follow him through the canyon in the dead of night because he knew the terrain far better than they did.

The movie didn’t have anything to do with Bart, but it was still good. What do you think of westerns in general? Actor Ben Foster, who played the right hand man to Russell Crowe’s character, said he thought the men in westerns were larger than life, like the men and gods in Greek myths. He said the Greeks had their myths about gods and godlike men, and Americans have their westerns with men who never give up their principles, shoot pistols out of other men’s hands, or draw and fire faster than sight. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?

Did They Read to Ender When He Was a Child?

Last weekend, I finished listening to a great audio edition of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. I wish I could link you to a sample. The voices were great, and in a commentary at the end of the book, Card says he prefers audiobook to other mediums of delivering story, particularly his stories. The listener can’t skip or skim through a story and miss things, diminishing his experience. In another recording I have through, Card says he is glad he listened to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, because he believes he would have skipped parts of it near the beginning and not enjoyed it as much as he did at the end. His family still reads books to each other, like people used to do before TV.

Ender’s Game was a great story. Because I loved it and knowing so many others loved it too, I wonder if one of the heartstrings of humanity is dedicated to stories of brilliant children who face great peril–or to put it more broadly, thinking of The Hobbit and LOTR, stories of the humble, the small or weak, facing insurmountable evil or overcoming persecution. Why do we love those stories? It’s David vs. Goliath in as many settings and circumstances as possible.

Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.

(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).

Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.

The book was clunky. Continue reading Heroic fiction: Building bridges

Koontz on stories

Today is Sissel Kyrkjebø’s birthday.

And no, I didn’t send her a present. She didn’t send me anything last year, and I do have some pride.

I’m currently reading Dean Koontz’ Mr. Murder, which I’m finding even more excruciatingly suspenseful than his usual stuff. Koontz has adopted the wise policy in recent books of making his heroes blue-collar workers, a tactic that’s both fresh and realistic, and I salute it. In this older book, though, he falls back on the conventional author’s timesaver of making the main character a fellow author (saves research). But it gives him the opportunity to make some dramatically appropriate comments on the idea of Story Itself. Here the hero, Martin Stillwater, talks about it with his wife:

He said, “You and I were passing the time with novels, so were some other people, not just to escape but because… because, at its best, fiction is medicine.”


“Life is so d*mned disorderly, things just happen, and there doesn’t seem any point to so much of what we go through. Sometimes it seems the world’s a madhouse. Storytelling condenses life, gives it order. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends. And when a story’s over, it meant something, by God, maybe not something complex, maybe what it had to say was simple, even naïve, but there was meaning. And that gives us hope, it’s a medicine.”

Twists and Metaphysical Turns

Sherry reviews The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesteron, but if you have not read the book, I don’t recommend read this post. She doesn’t reveal any of the story, except the final revelation which could take some of the wind out of its sails. Maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps those of you who have read the book can tell us what you think.

Also, Frank Wilson posts his review of All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams, which is more of a nightmare than Thursday, but one I’d like to explore in the future. More on Williams at Touchstone magazine.

Winston Churchill on Historical Fiction

In an article from April 12, 1902, reprinted in Popular Culture by David Manning White (found on Google Books), American novelist Winston Churchill comments on representing historical figures. The reporter asked him if he would present Daniel Webster, should he choose to, as he truly was, warts and all. Churchill replied, “I should consider it wrong to expose the weaknesses of a man like Webster because he is a historical ideal that should not be shattered. The same is true in regard to Hamilton; whereas, with a man like Aaron Burr, I should not hesitate to portray him exactly as he was as that would mean no loss to the historical ideal.” The editor who reprinted these comments was appalled and went on criticize public education.

What do you think of this view? Is there a historical ideal to maintain?

Television Killed the Literary Snob

A popular British TV couple started a book club four years ago, and now “the R&J Book Club accounts for 26% of the sales of the top 100 books in the UK, and Amanda Ross, the club’s creator and book selector, is the most powerful player in British publishing.” Anyone heard of this R&J pick for the summer? It looks interesting.

The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-Thompson (Headline Review). A multi-generational story based on the extraordinary true story of Errol Flynn‘s arrival in 1940s Jamaica. The Pirate’s Daughter follows Ida, a girl who falls for Flynn’s charms. Through the eyes of Ida and her daughter, May, it also tells the story of their home, Jamaica, before and after independence.

(By way of Books, Inq.)

History Being What One Makes It

Patrick Buchanan has written a historical argument on WWII. Adam Kirsh reviews it for the NY Sun, comparing it to Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke.”

When they look back to the 1930s, Mr. Baker’s role models are the Quakers and pacifists who believed it was better to lie down for Hitler than take up arms to fight him; Mr. Buchanan’s are the isolationists who believed that Nazi Germany was a necessary bulwark against the real menace, godless communism. But the net result of their lucubrations is the same. Both men have written books arguing that World War II, far from being “the good war” of myth, was an unnecessary folly that Britain and America should never have engaged in. And both have zeroed in on Winston Churchill as the war’s true villain — an immoral, hypocritical, bloodthirsty braggart whose fame is a hoax on posterity.

But where Mr. Baker’s book can be, and in most quarters has been, dismissed as the ignorant blundering of a novelist who wandered far out of his depth, Mr. Buchanan’s book is more dangerous.

By way of Frank Wilson, who comments on factory life.

What is this about Churchill being a villain? Here’s a bit of his argument for the war: Continue reading History Being What One Makes It