We have to draw names for secret Decemberween gift exchange

I never win anything. Well, that's not completely true. Once, my 6th-grade teacher, Mrs Poppenhager, held a series of little competitions - spelling bees and trivia contests and stuff like that - and she gave away cool things for prizes, like books she didn't want in her class library anymore, and cookies she didn't want in her kitchen anymore. Most of the time I lost those contests. In fact, one of my most bitter memories is of a spelling bee in which I had managed to make it to the last round. Then it was Tita Janolo and I, alone in front of the rest of the class, who had been demolished and returned to their seats in shame. So the teacher said my word: "Marshmallow." But she pronounced it the way it's pronounced, so naturally I spelled it the way it's pronounced, which is not the way it's spelled, and I got it wrong.

Then, the teacher asked Tita to spell "marshmallow", and she spelled it slowly and correctly, and I lost. That prize, which had been practically in my pocket, was going to another. I stumbled back to my seat in shock, and life was ashes and dust.

But, as I say, there were other contests. I don't know what it was I finally did well at, but whatever it was, I won. For my prize, Mrs Poppenhager gave me a used record album of Ferrante & Teicher piano music with a scuffed up sleeve that she didn't want in her record collection anymore. (I don't remember what album it was - it may have been Broadway to Hollywood, because I do remember it had "Marriage Type Love" from Me and Juliet on it, which became one of my favorite songs.) I like Ferrante & Teicher all right; I even went and saw them in concert once. But when one is 11 years old and one has one's heart set on winning a book, and one ends up with a used recording of music from one's parents' era, one is bound to be somewhat disappointed. Anyway, that's the last time I ever won anything, not counting those silly gifts at wedding and baby showers because I could unscramble things like "ripade" faster than everyone else.

So. I've decided if I can't win anything, I might as well give others the chance to win something.

Here's the prize - a hardcover copy (with dj) of Toot & Puddle: Charming Opal, by Holly Hobbie.

For a chance at this book, respond to this post (or email me) and describe one of your favorite childhood books, telling why it was a favorite. Good luck!


I'm sorry I called you "Fat, fat, fat".

A couple of years ago, I read Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo for the RS reading group. What a chore that was! 1468 pages, or something like that—it was the unabridged version. Other people in my book group read the abridged version. I, of course, felt superior. On the other hand, I had to plow through a lot of dross. Prolix is the word for Dumas.

I was reminded of this grand reading chore a couple of days ago after watching an episode of Legend of the Seeker, which some people (fans of the books) are complaining about because it's not enough like the books. There are things in the book (the first one particularly) that I would like to see, but there are some interesting things they've done with the series that aren't in the books, so I'm okay with the series. Anyway, it reminded me that I prefer the most recent film version (2002) of The Count of Monte Cristo to the book. Not only did the film have an admirable succinctness to it, but there were other improvements. I've written about this before in another venue, but I want to include my thoughts here.

Reasons the 2002 film of The Count of Monte Cristo is better than the book:

1) In the film, Edmond ends up with Mercedes, which is right and just. In the book, Edmond ends up with his foster daughter/slave. Ew.

2) Fernand Mondego's reason for betraying Edmond made a lot more sense in the film than in the book. Also, Fernand's immense wealth made more sense in the film, too. Or maybe I, a product of the 20th century, just don't understand how a poor Spanish fisherman can somehow become a rich French nobleman. Even after 16 or 25 years.

3) Speaking of 16 or 25 years, the book was very confusing as to how long it took for Edmond to accomplish his revenge after escaping from prison. The film is much clearer on this point.

4) The film has just the right amount of angst. The book is dripping with melodrama: people blushing and gasping, people's hearts pounding and veins throbbing, their breath being taken away, themselves on the verge of fainting, their tears falling willy nilly, their faces turning deathly white one second and deep red the next. They tear their hair, they dig their nails into their faces, clasp their hands to their breast and fall weakly into chairs, they scream like sirens (okay, Dumas didn't actually say anyone screamed like a siren, since I don't even think there were sirens back then, I mean sirens like police or ambulance sirens, but he has them shrieking in a ghastly way), and they act in otherwise extremely over-emotional ways that would cause us nowadays to question their sanity.

5) In the book, Edmond is not a very nice person as the Count of Monte Cristo. He instigates (sometimes subtly, with nothing more than a conversation on a carefully chosen topic) his revenges but gives little heed to the "collateral damage" that ensues. The only thing he feels bad about, and which makes him question whether he really is God's instrument of vengeance, is that Valentine's life is threatened.

6) "Who's Valentine?" those of you who remember the film may be asking. She's not in the film, but in the book she's the daughter of Villefort and the girlfriend of Maximilian Morrel, who is also not in the film but who is the son of Monsieur Morrel, the owner of Edmond's ship at the beginning of the film. Which brings up another complaint I have about the book, and that is the multiplicity of characters. All right, it's an epic kind of book, and it's not the only book to have a cast of thousands, but the story could have been told so much more efficaciously without bringing in the dozens of minor characters and their insignificant relatives for paragraph upon paragraph.

7) Speaking of insignificance, there were a number of episodes that to me just didn't make sense. "Have I stumbled into another novel by mistake?" I asked myself while reading the chapters about Franz (Albert's friend, who doesn't really appear in the film unless he's one of those jokers that gets all excited when Albert tells his chums he gets to go to Rome for the Carnival) and the Count of Monte Cristo chewing hashish and downing opium pellets together in the Count's hidden grotto.

8) Albert was way nicer in the film, and his whole episode with the bandits in the catacombs of Rome was a lot more believably presented in the film than in the novel. And don't get me started on the murderous kidnapping bandit Vampa and Monte Cristo's entente cordial with him. Monte Cristo has a lot to answer for. A lot. Like Valentine's grandparents, Villefort's son (although blaming Monte Cristo for that one is a little iffy), and the diamond merchant. And there are others whom he really toyed with in matters of life and death, like Morrel and Morrel's son and others.

9) In the film, Edmond has Villefort arrested and taken away to prison. In the book, Villefort goes insane. Prison is a much more fitting punishment in the grand scheme of things than insanity.

10) In the film, Edmond tricks Danglars into exposing himself as a smuggler, and Danglars is arrested. In the book, Monte Cristo has Danglars kidnapped by Vampa's bandits, who charge him 50,000 francs or so for each meal he eats while in captivity (amounting to a number of cooked chickens and a few bottles of wine) until he has paid them the 5 million francs he stole from the hospital fund. Then Danglars tells Monte Cristo that he repents, so Monte Cristo lets him go free. Wrong wrong wrong.

11) In the film, Edmond decides to let Fernand Mondego go free, but then Fernand comes back to fight him, and Edmond kills him. That demonstrates a graceful balance in righting the wrongs in the world. In the book, Fernand's reputation is publicly destroyed, so he commits suicide. Wha--?! Where's the balance in that?

12) In the book, there is no Jacopo. Well, there's a Jacopo, but he's an extremely minor character, and he isn't Edmond's confidante/assistant like he is in the film. And he's cool in the film. That's one thing the book didn't have—any coolness.

Anyway, this is not to say that the film was perfect. I would have changed a few things if I'd been in charge. But overall, I find it superior to the book.

Usually, and I think most people would agree, the book is better than the film that is based upon it. There are a few instances where the film is so well done that it becomes a classic in and of itself, rivaling the book in perfection even though there are significant differences. For example, Gone with the Wind is one of those cases where both the book and the film are classics. Also The Wizard of Oz. And Random Harvest and Goodbye, Mr Chips. I'm sure there are others. Less often, though, a mediocre or downright lousy book is actually made into a film that improves on it vastly. Take The Black Stallion, for instance. Walter Farley had some good horse stories to tell, but he was not a very good writer. The Black Stallion is chock full of pedestrian prose and clumsy caricatures. But the film is a little gem.

Another film that I think outshines its source is Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton is a somewhat better writer than Walter Farley (who, I grant, may have improved over time, but I couldn't bring myself to read any more of his books after the first one). But his characters were all wrong in the book. The film version of Dr Grant was younger, thus giving the opportunity for the delightful and touching relationship between him and Dr Sattler. More importantly, as I recall, several of the wrong people died in the book: Dr Malcolm dies and the sleazy lawyer lives? Wrong wrong wrong. Yeah, so the film is better. (I think I'm in the minority, though.)

Another film that improves on the book is Not As a Stranger, which most people under the age of 40 will know nothing about. Anyway, the book is an overlong schlocky opus about a very dedicated—so dedicated that he is self-centered about it—medical student who becomes a dedicated, self-centered, selfish doctor who uses and verbally abuses his wife, who for some reason loves him. At least in the film he felt remorse at the end.

Patriot Games
is the only Tom Clancy book that I was able to read all the way through and I almost gave up a number of times. The film trims the technofat (and yes, I know there are some people who read Tom Clancy books precisely because of all the minutely detailed technogabble in them) and makes Jack Ryan a more likable character and at the same time less sappy. But most of all, it replaces the smarmily (and laughably) uxorious Prince Charles with a fictional royal. As an added bonus, Anne Archer plays a very cool Cathy Ryan. My only real complaint about the film is the R-rated sexual silliness at the beginning, but I avoid that easily enough by watching the edited version on tv.

Finally, the last film that is superior to the book it is based on that comes to my mind is The Last of the Mohicans. I read Cooper's book back in my teen years and remember enjoying it well enough, but it must be remembered that, when I was just a few years younger, I thought Scooby-Doo was one of the best things on television. Young folks just can't be relied on to show good taste. Anyhow, I enjoyed it well enough as an adventure story, but when I went back to read it again 15 or so years later, I found it to be stylistically terribly antiquated. I'm now of the opinion that the only reason Cooper's books continue to be studied in school is that they are important, not because they are well written, but because they are among the first American novels to be popular. In other words, we keep them around for historical reasons, not literary ones. So yeah, the film (which acknowledges its indebtedness to the 1936 screenplay, which also tried to improve on the original) changes a few of the character relationships around, adds a few minor characters that help bring out certain themes, and totally redoes the dialogue so that the characters sound like humans instead of stock figures.

I have to admit that part of what influenced me against the author of The Last of the Mohicans was Mark Twain's very funny essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". Twain exaggerates, of course, and, as the scholars say, "Generally, Twain's biting mockery of Cooper's characterization, plot, and setting is considered by contemporary critics as unnecessary and unfounded." But I still think it's hilarious and I can sometimes see Twain's point. If you have a chance to read that essay, do so. You don't necessarily have to be familiar with Cooper's Leatherstocking novels to appreciate what Twain was doing.

Anyhow, those are the books I can think of that don't measure up to the films' quality. There may be others, but they don't spring immediately to mind. If anyone can think of any others, I'd like to know what they are.


But the book, it will never close...

I mentioned that my kids have read Harry Potter so many times, they have parts of it memorized. I don't know if these photos count as proof (of the much reading, not of the memorizing), but I offer them as evidence anyhow:

Sad book

Really sad book

This state of affairs comes from publishers using a binding method called "perfect binding", which, as you can see, is less perfect than its name would lead one to believe. Well, to be fair, books that fall apart cannot be blamed completely on the publishers and their binding choices. After all, "a book breaks down when stress exceeds strength", as they say. And that's just one way that books are like people.

Other ways that books are like people:

1. They all have a story to tell.
2. Sometimes the story is boring.
3. Their covers don't always indicate what you'll find inside.
4. They can be captivating, or informative, or boring.
5. Sometimes they smell like stale cigarette smoke, which is very unpleasant.
6. The good ones improve with deeper acquaintance.
7. Some are easier to read than others.

Ways books are not like people:

1. Books with lots of pictures are more interesting than people with lots of pictures.
2. A leather-bound book is cool. A leather-bound person, not so much.
3. When you don't want to hear what they say, books are easier to shut up.
4. If someone wants to introduce you to a person, it's weird to say "I'll wait for the movie."


If you're gonna be a hero, you gotta learn how to drive a stick

I finally got a copy of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn: The Final Empire from the library just before Christmas and read it over the holidays.

I've been putting off writing about it, though, because it was so very good and I want to say why I think so, but it's easier for me to write a negative review than a positive one. I think that's because, in a negative review, it's so easy to be snarky and allow one's wit to flow in the service of cruelty - which isn't really writing a review; it's just seeing how clever one can be in one's meanness. Sometimes it's more difficult to be clever when one is heaping praise on something.

And I do want to heap praise, because I enjoyed the first Mistborn book a lot. I especially appreciated the character development of Vin, who starts out as a quiet, withdrawn young street thief; frequently physically abused by members of her gang, she tries to make herself invisible. Over the course of the story and under the tutelage of the master thief Kelsier, Vin develops into a more self-assured, more outgoing individual who gains confidence in her special abilities and ends up doing some rather extraordinary things. Not that I've read a lot of scifi/fantasy (yet), but I don't think I've ever read a fantasy or science fiction novel that had such a likeable character who showed so much growth. She really is a remarkable creation, and I thank Brandon Sanderson for her.

Aside from Vin, the other characters in the book are interesting as well, and their undertaking (overthrowing the evil Lord Ruler) and how they attempt to carry it out makes an intriguing story.

I liked the book so well, I was almost afraid to read the second book of the series, The Well of Ascension.

I thought I would be disappointed that Vin would be more mature, more self-assured, and she wouldn't experience the same growth that she did in the first book. But I read it anyway. I was right. The Well of Ascension kept my interest all the way through, but the focus was different. There was a lot of politics in it, and the focus seemed to be more on Elend (Vin's love interest) and how he attempts to lead the empire after the death of the Lord Ruler. He grew a lot in character, too, but I found it less compelling. That's just me, I suppose.

That's not to say that I didn't like the book, because I really did. And I recommend it. It has some good action scenes and some surprising plot twists.

As a writer, Brandon Sanderson impresses me. He really knows how to create interesting characters, his action scenes are very exciting, and his magic systems (Allomancy, Feruchemy, etc) are fascinating. (I'd love to see a really well made film of the first book; I can just picture some of those Allomancer moves....) He's adequate but not a whiz at descriptive passages, but then I know a lot of people who prefer not to spend too much time with descriptions. I've come across a few quirky, non-standard bits of writing from him, but I can forgive them. Except one. The one error that really bothered me was when he mentioned someone's "pale pallor". Pallor is defined as "unusual or extreme paleness", so saying "pale pallor" is redundant. The other things are relatively minor, though, and I don't think they should keep anyone, even an annoying perfectionist like me, from reading and enjoying the books.

I have begun the third book, The Hero of Ages, and look forward to spending more time with it.


Where did I take the wrong turning?

The other morning, Ian was late - well, he's always late, so I guess I should say later than usual - for seminary, so I yelled down the stairs at him, "Stop wasting time reading that book!"

Okay, there are certain things that need to be understood here lest you fear my next step is to start making bonfires out of literature.

a) He was really late
b) He was reading some Calvin and Hobbes anthology
c) I didn't really mean to say "stop wasting time reading that book"

What I meant to say was "You're in big trouble, buster!" I think.

Jim Trelease, in his excellent book The Read Aloud Handbook, said that you shouldn't make not reading a punishment. I've tried over the years to follow that advice, but sometimes it makes it hard when the child in question is in trouble precisely because they're reading a book instead of doing what they should be doing. But I wanted my children to grow up to be avid readers. So I bought them the books, the bedside light, and the bookcase; I had read-aloud time with them just about every evening; I gave them books at birthdays and Christmas; and I refused to refuse them reading time.

I'm happy to report that my children have all grown up to be avid readers. The problem - if it is a problem - is that they tend to read the same things over and over again. They've read the Harry Potter series and the Tintin books and Calvin and Hobbes so many times that they have much of them memorized. And then the texts become a sort of secret language. They say things like "Yeah, cool, because Venus is in the twelfth house" and "Hoity-toity, aren't we grand!" and then they laugh like they've just shared the biggest joke ever, while I stand around looking befuddled.

I have my own quotes, though. "That will do," I say to them when they've carried on for a while. "You have delighted us long enough."