Ashland 2014: 3 Bards, a President and a Tesseract

Back from our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — as usual, well-stuffed with (mostly) very good theater.

First up this year was Richard III, a solid traditional production on the Elizabethan outdoor stage, with the bonus that Richard was/is played by fellow Whitman College graduate Dan Donohue. Dan graciously appeared after the performance at our tour group’s discussion meeting to talk about the show.  I very much liked Dan’s Richard — played with a dry, self-assured charm and no prosthetics (the appearance of a withered, useless left arm was entirely physical trickery).  Others in the group correctly pointed out the strength of the female roles in this production — amusingly, it turns out that Richard III, at least in this staging, easily passes the Bechdel test.

Next we had The Tempest, staged in the Bowmer theater on a spare but ingenious set (we learned later that some of the players referred to it as “the Dorito chip”).  Everyone was very impressed with Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as with the rude comics and Caliban and with some of the clever special effects and props employed by Ariel. The major disagreement was over Prospero, played by Festival veteran Denis Arndt. I was greatly underwhelmed by what I saw as a weak imitation of Dumbledore or Gandalf, too much the kindly grandparent with no real gravitas, out of step with the rest of the production; our group’s faculty guide thought Arndt did a good job of making Prospero accessible.  (Judging purely by the audience murmurs I heard on the way out of the theater, the “underwhelmed” crowd was in the majority.)

The group’s third show was The Comedy of Errors in the Thomas theater (the newest, smallest performance space), which I am told may have been the strongest Shakespeare play of the weekend.  I skipped out on this, however, in favor of the Festival’s brand new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Excellent Shakespeare notwithstanding, I’m very glad I did. On one hand, I have a number of reservations about the structure and design of the script; OTOH, the execution was mostly very good indeed, with a number of excellent performances (including Tempest‘s Miranda as Meg Murry and Dan Donohue as her father).  I will likely have more to say about this eventually, but it is a fascinating if flawed adaptation, and worth the viewing.

Sunday brought The Great Society and Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The former is the direct sequel to the Tony-winning All the Way, chronicling President Lyndon Johnson’s second term in office, his struggles with Vietnam War policy, and his clashes with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  It’s a powerful show with many superb performances, and moves briskly through its 3+ hour running time; whatever one’s personal politics may be, this is a compelling drama and a thoughtful look at the history of that time.

By contrast, Two Gentlemen is mild-mannered and understated, perhaps this season’s most conservative Shakespeare…except that it’s presented by an all-female cast (well, almost all female; I believe that Picasso, the gorgeous and very patient St. Pyrenees dog playing Crab, may be a male).  Interestingly, the production makes no changes whatever to Shakespeare’s language; it’s simply that many of the women are playing male roles just as young men in Elizabethan times would have played the female roles — and the staging pretty much ignores this, just as an Elizabethan cast would have ignored the reverse anomaly originally.  This got mixed reactions from our group; many viewers wanted more overt nods to one or another feminist sensibility.  My feeling is that that’s a no-win scenario, and that the director’s choice to play the script as straight as possible is the best possible way to show how timeless Shakespeare’s stories really are — even in what’s regarded as one of his weakest plays.  I liked the production a great deal and thought it made a good conclusion to the weekend.

Why Bad Books Are Good For You

Counter-intuitive thought for the day: reading a bad book can be good for you.

Yes, really.  Let me explain:

From a craft standpoint, sometimes one way to figure out how good prose works can be to look at clunky prose. Looking at someone’s clunky Cinderella retelling side by side with someone else’s lyrical one may — if you take apart corresponding passages word by word — offer insights into why word choice matters and what makes certain dialogue or narration come alive rather than lying (and sounding) flat on the page.

Alternately, if you run into a page or two of text that annoys you sufficiently, it may be useful as a writing exercise to take that specific passage and recast it into stronger, more effective prose — and then look at the two versions to see where one goes right and the other wrong.  (That said, I do not advise using this approach as a means of creating a story you intend to market as your own.  Entirely apart from the potential legal issues, dealing with that much bad prose is likely to drive you insane long before you finish.)

But that’s only one dimension of the premise. Sometimes a book can be severely flawed but highly provocative in terms of the issues or ideas it develops.  There are works that one may not consider “good” in and of themselves, but which are important for the place they hold in the literary or genre canon. There are books that one might classify purely as “popcorn” — to be read for sheer escape or entertainment value, irrespective of any quality stamp.  I’ve recommended titles in all these categories for the SF book discussion group I co-moderate, and I’m happy to defend any of those choices.  This coming Tuesday we’re looking at David Weber’s first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station — which I’m sure some of our members will decry as a bad book. They may (or may not) be right…but I think it’s worthwhile for the group to read and discuss it regardless.

Personally, though, one reason I read — and even occasionally seek out — bad books is that it helps me maintain perspective.  If I only read stories I like, or stories that I expect to be “good”, I’m limiting my sample and narrowing my range.  I need a sampling of the negative outliers as counterpoint, so that I can better recognize and better appreciate the really good stuff on the upper end of the spectrum.

So feel free to read a bad book this week. And let me know what it was; I might just check it out myself.


“Russias” reviewed!

Reviews are beginning to come in for Spirit of All the Russias, and the response to this point has been decidedly positive.  From Long and Short Reviews:

“The exquisitely detailed passages in this story made me feel as if I were standing next to Baba Yaga as she surveys the ruined land that she once knew so well.”

And from Mary Patterson Thornburg (as posted to Facebook, Amazon, & B&N):

“It’s beautifully written, chilling, enchanting, and funny all at once. Like that little hut on chicken legs, it’s much larger on the inside than it seems to be from without.”

Needless to say, I am a happy author this afternoon….

A Kickstarter in Oz: Ryk Spoor’s Polychrome

The short version first: a Kickstarter has just opened up that I’d like to see succeed.  I’ve already signed on; now I hope some of you will, too.  Let me tell you the story….

A couple of years ago now, I unexpectedly had the opportunity to read the unpublished manuscript of a new novel set in the world of L. Frank Baum’s Oz.  In itself, this wasn’t unusual; Oz fans are almost as prolific as Sherlockians where pastiche and fanwork are concerned. What was unusual was that this particular novel — called Polychrome — didn’t find its way to me through any of my connections in the worlds of fandom and fanfiction.  Rather, it came from someone I first encountered during my long tenure as a professional reviewer of SF and fantasy.  Specifically, its author was Ryk Spoor, who’s published a number of popular novels with Baen.

That may sound like an odd background for someone writing an Oz novel. And I’m not an easy sell where Oz is concerned. Baum’s books were among the first long fiction I read as a toddler, and remain among my all-time favorites.  But Polychrome won me over, and I wrote Ryk back after I finished it with a strong thumbs-up and several specific endorsements written in hopes of persuading a major publishing house to acquire the book.

Regrettably, that hasn’t happened — and personally, I find that baffling. There’s a lot of commercial interest in Oz right now, and of all the Ozian follow-on material I’ve read and seen over the last decade or two, I think Polychrome is the single book-length work most likely to turn into a breakout hit. This is part of what I wrote two years back:

Polychrome is that rarity among homages to the classics, a novel that’s both wholly faithful to the spirit of its source material and striking in its willingness to look beyond that canon. The novel is neither satire, allegory, nor reboot; rather, it’s a freshly conceived extrapolation from Baum’s original series. Indeed, it’s a story I can imagine Baum himself writing if he were reincarnated into the 21st century.

Now Ryk has set up a Kickstarter in hopes of bringing the book out himself. I don’t intend to make a habit of promoting Kickstarter projects in my personal blogspaces; among other things, I still have at least a toehold in the reviewing community, where maintaining a degree of objectivity is an important consideration.

For this particular project, however, I’m making an exception. Polychrome deserves to see the light of day, and I encourage both lifelong Oz fans and casual Oz readers to go forth and contribute.  This one is special, folks.

“…All the Russias” is live!

The day has arrived!  My newest Uncial Press ebook, Spirit of All the Russias, is live. The title page calls it a “novel byte”; in practical terms, it’s a short story published in ebook format.  Which means (among other things) that it has extremely cool cover art (see below).  Currently, you’ll find it at Uncial’s Web site and over at ebook-retailer Untreed Reads; it should filter out to Amazon, B&N, and a host of other ebook sellers in the next couple of days.

(ETA2: As of late Friday night, it’s on both Amazon and B&N.  That said, one thing to keep in mind about ebooks published by smaller presses: when you buy directly from the publisher’s Web site, you’re showing extra support for that author and publisher, who then don’t have to share revenue with a third-party vendor.)

Spirit of All the Russias (cover art)

Baba Yaga has long been one of my favorite myth-figures, and I am very happy to see this story out in the world.

Adventures in Dreamland

I am not at all sure what the following experience proves, except possibly that my unconscious brain has a wicked sense of humor….

As with most people, my dreams tend to manifest recurring themes.  There’s the flying theme, the trying-to-get-somewhere theme, the naked-in-embarrassing circumstances theme, and so on.  And in my particular case, these themes often play themselves out at science fiction conventions.

So it wasn’t surprising last night to find that I’d dreamed myself into a convention, and that I had talked someone into letting me take a shower in one of the con’s luxury suites — in which, in the way of this sort of dream, the latch to the bathroom door emphatically Did Not Work.  However, a couple of concom folks had agreed to guard said door to avoid embarrassing circumstances…and then, in the way of this sort of dream, inexplicably vanished.

This, naturally, left me in the luxury suite partially dressed, trying to explain to a Famous Professional Writer what I was doing getting ready to take a shower.  (Curiously, the dream didn’t cast a specific Famous Professional Writer; this was a matronly lady I didn’t recognize at all, except that she was clearly an FPW.)

FPW: “I have a reservation in this hotel.”
Me: “As do I.”

Pause, freeze-frame, flashback: indeed, earlier in the dream, there had been a sequence in which I’d checked in and dropped off my luggage in my hotel room.

Me: “Wait a minute.”

My conscious brain, as opposed to my dream-brain, processes this, and draws the obvious conclusion.

Me, to the FPW: “I am a complete idiot.”

And I woke up — having, for the first and only time I can remember, gotten myself out of a naked-in-embarrassing-circumstances dream before the nudity actually kicked in.

Better Late Than Never: Disney’s Frozen

I know, I know, I’m one of the last three people in the whole world to have seen Frozen…but at least I caught it a few hours before it picked up its Oscars.  Some thoughts:

In general, it’s an impressive film, and it’s definitely in the upper tier of modern-era Disney animated features.  I don’t think it quite reaches the topmost tier alongside Beauty & the Beast, but it’s a solid companion piece to Tangled and Brave and more of a traditional musical than either of those.  One online comment I scanned earlier today referred to the movie as “Wicked Light” — which is both an apt characterization and a very good reason for Disney to be developing a stage version.

The opening setup sequences are troubling in a couple of respects.  First, I need a second look at the initial sequence between the sisters’ parents and the rock troll elder. While the trolls are ultimately portrayed as benign, the elder’s blocking of Anna’s memories is a key catalyst for the subsequent crisis — which is a trifle disconcerting when we eventually see the trolls again.  The second catalyst is the late King’s and Queen’s spectacular failure to follow up on the elder’s advice that Elsa must learn to control her powers; rather, they reinforce Elsa’s choice to try and suppress them instead.  The parents’ deaths are also peculiar. Their passing is decidedly convenient for the plot, and — amazingly — causes no political upheaval whatsoever in Arendelle.  It’s unclear how much time elapses between the deaths and Elsa’s coronation, but I had the definite sense that Elsa wasn’t old enough to take the crown immediately.  Yet we see nothing about a regency council or royal advisors, and no one objects when Anna puts a wholly foreign noble in charge of the kingdom while she goes after Elsa.  This is…odd at best.

The other scene I want to see again is Anna’s initial dockside meeting with Prince Hans. Despite having waited 15 weeks to see Frozen, I had managed to avoid being spoiled for Hans’ character arc, and I entirely failed to anticipate the twist he springs on newly  white-haired Anna on her return to the palace. One key reason for this involves the last few moments of that first meeting, in which Hans’ horse drops him into the fjord…and even though Anna is no longer there, the bit is played purely for its comic effect, with no change in the tenor of Hans’ reaction.  It’s a very sneaky fake-out, and I’m not sure whether to compliment the creative team for its deviousness or chastise them for essentially cheating viewers with regard to the scene’s true context.  In the end, Hans emerges as one of Disney animation’s creepiest villains (offhand, I’d rate only Frollo of the much-underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame as nastier), in which light it’s unnerving that he’s also one of the few who survives mostly unscathed by film’s end.

The preceding reservations notwithstanding, I enjoyed the movie very much. The animators do their usual brilliant work with the various sidekick characters, the deliberate winks at fairy-tale convention are clever — clearly, both sisters have seen Enchanted, the film that introduces the phrase “true love’s kiss” to the Disney canon — and the chemistry between Kristen Bell’s Anna and Idina Menzel’s Elsa is charming throughout.  (It may be just me, but I also find it amusing that both actresses were cast against type: the blonde is playing a brunette, while the brunette is playing a blonde.)

My overall grade: B+ (A for voice performances, A for visuals, B for music, C+ for script/story).  Not quite a classic, but a very respectable effort.

In Which I Get to Snark About Grammar

Wednesday night, I went to an Oscar prediction “party” sponsored by Portland’s major daily newspaper.  It was enjoyable and informative, but I put the word “party” in quotation marks because the event consisted almost entirely of an hour’s presentation by the paper’s movie critic, held in a small space that was sort of a cross between a collegiate lecture room (rows of theater-style seats on two levels, some tables in the back) and a theater lobby.

As I say, I enjoyed the event well enough.  However, I got home Thursday evening to find an emailed note asking me to fill out a feedback survey on the event.  And the survey included the following question:

5. How unique was the event?

Now remember, this was an event sponsored by a newspaper, with the survey link having been mailed by someone with “name-of-newspaper-dot-com” in their e-address.  It may be optimistic of me in the present day and age, but I retain the fond delusion that employees of newspapers ought to use words properly.

This, therefore, is part of the response I included in the survey question where one is asked “is there anything else you’d like to share?”

Also, a note regarding one of the survey questions above: the question misuses the word “unique”.  THERE ARE NO DEGREES OF UNIQUENESS.  Either something is unique or it is not.  The question therefore makes no sense, and the individual who drafted it should be required to carry a hardcover copy of The Chicago Manual of Style wherever he or she goes for at least the next two weeks, with Post-Its inserted to mark the relevant pages (170 and 231 in the 15th edition).

I don’t anticipate receiving a personal response to this, but perhaps they’ll surprise me….

E-Fiction News: Coming in 2014 (plus Cyber Monday deals)

Bonus thankfulness this week: I have the contract in hand for a new Uncial Press e-fiction release set for this coming March.  This is a short work entirely unconnected to my other Uncial Press titles:

Spirit of All the Russias

“This is not the Russia I remember.”

When Baba Yaga steps out of her ancient chicken-legged hut into a blasted, dead landscape nearly devoid of life, she is confronted with a mystery and a dilemma.  Her powers are stronger than they’ve ever been, but can she find a way to wield them that will restore her homeland rather than destroying it utterly?

Further details will be forthcoming; in the meantime, readers are welcome to check out my existing Uncial Press titles at any of the major e-fiction vendors.  That said, I should note that Untreed Reads will be featuring 50% discounts on all Uncial Press titles — mine included — for Cyber Monday (midnight to midnight Pacific time), with a variety of timed bonus promotions throughout the day.  That includes a wide range of mystery, romance, paranormal fiction, and other genre fare from a good many talented folks, so don’t hesitate to check out the sale.

Silver Or Gold (an Instafilk)

Well, semi-insta.  I was in a major mall yesterday, abruptly encountered a Major Line (very neatly organized, mind you, but a Major Line), and was trying to figure out what was going on when I realized that I was passing the Apple Store.

The filk trigger, however, didn’t hit till this morning, when I caught a snippet of a morning talk show in which the co-hosts were discussing this very issue…and proudly showing off their new toys, one in each color.  The first verse was automatic; the second took just a few minutes to settle.

Silver or Gold
words: ©2013 John C. Bunnell
music: “Silver & Gold”, Johnny Marks, from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Silver or gold, silver or gold,
Ev’ryone wishes for silver or gold;
Don’t you deny that it’s true,
You with your iPhones so shiny and new…

Silver or gold, silver or gold,
Doesn’t much matter to me;
When the time comes for my upgrade,
I’ll take the one that’s free!