Monday, March 30, 2015


I'm bingeing on Bard-related books this month. First, I finished The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore's fabulous follow-up to Fool (pardon me while I alliterate), which gleefully mashes up plots and characters from King Lear, Othello and The Merchant Of Venice.

And now I've segued into Kate Danley's Queen Mab, a fairy fantasy woven in and out of Romeo and Juliet. Danley had me at the first hint of turning Mercutio—one of the most lamented of all the Bard's untimely deaths—into the hero of her story.

In tales of the Fae, death need never be final if an author has the chutzpah and imagination to rewrite a story we think we already know. Fortunately, Danley has both.

Queen Mab is a figure from ancient Celtic folklore, the Fairy Queen known as the Bringer of Dreams. In Danley's story, three generations after the Roman demi-god, Faunus, tricks beautiful Mab and breaks her heart, the two immortals enter into a wager for sport—a chess game in which two mighty houses of Verona are pitted against each other: the Capulets and the Montagues.
Mab brings dreams to sleeping mortals.

But the game has scarcely begun when Mab finds herself bewitched by Mercutio. A witty, compassionate mortal man allied with neither house, he sees beyond Mab's magical aspect to the complex and beautiful soul beneath. She and Mercutio become lovers, but the stakes of the game rise fearfully as Faunus secretly plots to steal Mab's power and banish her from the world.

In Danley's view, all the events in Shakepeare's play—sudden brawls, reversals of fortune, changes of heart—are chalked up to fairy interference. This allows Danley to use large sections of dialogue from the play (not scary: written as prose) in the unfolding of her story.

In one clever invention, Mercutio's show-stopping "Queen Mab speech" becomes his desperate attempt to hold onto her memory, fading like a dream, after she charms him into forgetting her for his own safety.
An untimely end, but only in the Bard's version

Using so much of Shakespeare's text might feel like cheating. But the original material that Danley's weaves in—the love story of Mab and Mercutio, appearances by Faunus, and the Old Gods—is such a great idea, and so well-integrated into the plot of the play, that it draws us in. (Mab and Mercutio even get their own balcony scene!)

The formatting of this self-published book can be a bit wonky from page to page, with the expected typos sprinkled in here and there. Of more concern to me was overuse of the word "upon"—sometimes twice in the same sentence—when "on" would serve just as well.

But this is a pet peeve of mine; so many authors seem to believe that "upon" makes their prose sound more historical.

It also feels as if the book were written very fast. A little more time spent on building resonance, particularly in the closing chapters, to appreciate the plot twists, would have been nice. But Queen Mab is also a fast read (due in part to its enormous print), and the sheer audacity of Danley's premise kept me happily engaged.
Another guest appearance by Mab.

Rewriting the fates of classic literary characters has become its own sub-genre in recent fiction. (Hey, I did it in Alias Hook!) Moore and Danley cheerfully rewrite Shakespearean plays the way we wish they had all turned out. Still, one of my favorites of the bunch reimagines the lives of the playwrights themselves, not the plays.

In Elizabeth Bear's outstanding Ink and Steel, Christopher Marlowe (Kit Marly) is resurrected in the Court of the Fairy Queen after that unfortunate incident at Deptford. There, he becomes the innamorato of several important fairies while helping to train his successor, Will Shakespeare, in the art of weaving magical fairy spells into the gorgeous texts of his plays to protect the mortal realm of Elizabeth.

Every idea on every page of this two-book tale (including the sequel, Hell and Earth) is rich, complex, and literally beguiling.

Gee, I think I'll go read it again...

(Above: Queen Mab by Gustav Dore.)
(Above: The Death of Mercutio by Edwin Austin Abbey)

Monday, March 16, 2015


Charming cast, lush production, but no surprises in Cinderella

With Once Upon A Time still knocking 'em dead on TV, the folks at Disney now realize what profits can be made from repackaging their old cartoon fairy tale classics into new live-action formats. Last year, they tested the cinematic waters with Maleficent, which was bold enough to re-tell the story of Sleeping Beauty from the viewpoint of its "evil" fairy villainess.

Flawed it may have been, but it was such a radical retelling of the familiar story that it earned its own place in the Disney canon.

The latest Disney live-action reboot, Cinderella, sticks much closer to the original story (the Disney version, anyway), and so doesn't feel quite as fresh. Yes, the production values are absolutely luscious, and Kenneth Branagh's skilled direction imbues the story with humor, tension, and emotional complexity.
Diversity in the realm, just not in the starring roles

He's even mindful enough to populate his canvas with many visible people of color, although mostly as extras (except for the always impressive Nonso Anozie as the captain of the Royal Guard).

But the difference is in the writing. Scriptwriter Linda Woolverton, who wrote Maleficent (also Disney's Beauty and the Beast and Alice in Wonderland) comes from a generation of women who grew up chafing against the passivity of Disney cartoon heroines.

Chris Weitz, who wrote Cinderella, does his best to provide more of a personality for both his heroine, and her Prince, than they had in the cartoon version, and he succeeds pretty well.

But he doesn't have the same feminist fire. He's content to stick to the same bare bones of the plot—complete with friendly, live-action mice (although at least in this version, they don't actually talk)—and tell the same old story in much the same old way.
Irredeemable: Stepmom, sisters don't get much sympathy

Still, what the story lacks in innovation, the film makes up for in sheer loveliness, performed by a thoroughly engaging cast. It's great to see Ben Chaplin back on the big screen in the prologue as little Ella's charming merchant father.

He and his beloved wife (a blonde Hayley Atwell, TV's Agent Carter) raise their daughter in an idyllic country cottage surrounded by animals, beauty, and love. Her mother teaches Ella to "Have courage and be kind," advice she clings to when her beloved mother dies.

Years later, when Ella is a young woman (now played by Lily James, Lady Rose from Downton Abbey), her father remarries. No sooner does Ella's new Stepmother (a ferociously red-haired Cate Blanchett) move in with her two petulant grown daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), than Ella's father also dies, leaving her at the mercy of her cruel, resentful new step-family. She becomes their kitchen drudge, her quarters removed to the drafty attic, her only friends those sympathetic mice.
Madden, James: hope they're not planning a red wedding

Why does she put up with it? Weitz invents a promise made to her parents to look after the house where they were all so happy once. Well, okay...

He's more successful with a scene in the woods where Ella meets a handsome young stranger calling himself Kit (Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) whom she doesn't realize is the Prince.

It's because Kit is so beguiled by the girl's beauty and kindness (she talks him and his hunting party out of pursuing a deer, which must be some kind of Disney penance for Bambi), that he orchestrates the whole royal ball ploy, open to all the marriageable ladies in the kingdom, just to find her again.

A coach to flip your gourd for
Some sections are a bit slow: Ella bravely facing oppression from her step-family, or the overly-lengthy ball sequence. Yes, it establishes Ella and Kit's connection, but that first dance goes on forever. With her blonde hair and dark brows, James so resembles Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon girl in Game of Thrones, you might find yourself wishing for a flying dragon to come along and jolt things back to life.

But Helena Bonham Carter is loopy fun as the fairy godmother. The first transformation scene is well done, and the gold filigree coach conjured from a pumpkin is outstanding! But Branagh's piece de resistance is the coach's mad dash away from the palace as the clock strikes midnight, footmen morphing back into lizards, the driver becoming a goose again, snow-white steeds sprouting mouse ears and devolving down into rodent form, all while on the run.

It's a brilliant sequence that makes up for the unadventurous familiarity of the story.
Identity theft: mouse-eared steeds devolve before our eyes
Due next year: a live-action Beauty and the Beast, written by Woolverton. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Here's why I love Christopher Moore.

His latest comic novel is The Serpent of Venice, an entertaining pastiche of Othello, and The Merchant of Venice, with a soupcon of Poe tossed in, and a guest appearance by Marco Polo.

There's a moment late in the story when the lady Emilia has cause to be even more horrified than usual by the schemes of her devious husband, Iago.

"Thou mendacious fuckweasel!" she spits at him.

Talk about le mot juste!

Having gleefully played havoc with King Lear in a previous novel, Fool, which brings that  character front and center to tell the story his way, Moore has another go at Shakespeare in this sequel. This time, the wily and resourceful Pocket, fool to a king and consort to a queen, is on a diplomatic mission to Venice that turns into a crusade for revenge.
Moore sets his tale in a recognizable historical period, although not the one Shakespeare envisioned. He moves the action of the two Venetian plays back in time by about 300 years (to 13th Century Venice), so they sync up with the more medieval setting of Fool.

But, like Shakespeare, Moore manipulates the historical setting to grapple with issues familiar in his (and our) world. 

With the irrepressible Pocket as his protagonist, Moore's tone is unfailingly comic throughout—witty, profane, brash, and scatalogical. But the issues he tilts against with such vigor are serious, from excoriating the idea of religious warfare as a twisted kind of patriotism, to the notion of a corrupt merchant class that's "too big to fail."

As this series progresses (oh, please, let there be more Pocket stories!), Moore turns some of the Bard's most timeless tragedies on their ears, and restores justice—for good and ill—to some of Shakespeare's most deserving characters.

Most satisfying of all, Moore demonstrates how a few smart women (most of whom were only minor characters to Shakespeare), and an honest fool can subvert even the most mendacious political fuckery.

Christopher Moore, posing as his alter ego!

Friday, March 6, 2015


Immerse me, Baby!
Confessions of a logomaniac
It's like saying goodbye to an illicit lover. You knew going in that it couldn't last forever, knew you'd have exactly so much time together, and no more. You try to draw it out, postpone the inevitable, but sooner or later, you need that climax more than anything. And then it's all over.

Yeah, reading a great book is like that.

When I read, I want the full monty—to touch the paper, smell the ink, hear the rustle of pages, in all ways savor the strangeness and exotica of the world I'm holding in my hands. Logomania, they call it: a sensual obsession with books.

And it looks like I'm not alone. According to a popularly-shared recent study in the Washington Post, the new generation of millennials—particularly those in the 18-29 age range—prefer reading for pleasure on real, old-fashioned paper-and-ink books. Who knew? They claim reading is a more immersive experience while holding a real book in their hands. They also say they're much less distracted by the urge to multitask—check their email or Twitter feed—than when they are reading something digitally.

Hear, hear! I suppose a hand-held reading device is more convenient than lugging a sackful of books around, especially when traveling. But it's not for me. I tend to read slowly, which I wish I could say was a careful habit acquired during my years as a book critic for the SF Chronicle.
 I need pages to tell Lannisters from Starks.

But the truth is, I'm just a plodder, going back frequently through stuff I've already read to make sure I've understood something correctly, or to re-read a previous scene in light of new developments in the plot.

How can I scroll backwards through pages or chapters of text on a monitor and still keep my place? What if I have to keep referring to a cast of characters at the front of the book, or footnotes, or a glossary at the end?

Yes, the paper-free society of the future will be ecologically correct, a boon for the planet, the trees, and the rain forests. And any gadget that gets written matter into the hands of at-risk (of not reading) youth is a good thing, although I can't understand why digital is superior in that respect; a book already is a hand-held device.

As a writer, of course, if anyone wants to read my books via Kindle, braille, Morse-code, or an old View-Master, I couldn't be more thrilled. But as a reader, all I ask is the right to one simple, tactile pleasure that doesn't have to be recharged, connected, or booted up for me to enjoy.

Sure, they probably used to say the same sort of thing about Guttenberg and the printing press, back in the day: how can you claim to have savored the total reading experience in all its privilege and majesty if some monk didn't go blind transcribing every precious one-of-a-kind page for your pleasure?

And I know the technoids charge that we logomaniacs are making a fetish out of an inanimate object with no intrinsic value of its own beyond the story it conveys. But it's not that I idolize the sacred idea of the book; it's the thing itself I treasure, a comforting presence, like an old friend.

Paper breathes, ink bleeds, a book bends and folds and whispers to the hand in a way a piece of plastic never can. Even after I finish reading a wonderful book, I still occasionally touch the cover or fondly riffle through the pages. It's over between us, yet it's a great comfort to me to keep this tangible relic of all we shared so close at hand.

Parting could never be such sweet sorrow from a hunk of cold plastic.

(Top: Photo by Robbert van der Steeg)

Monday, March 2, 2015


JMW Turner, Fisherman on the Lagoon, Midnight, 1840
Hey kids, loyal reader Judi G. just tipped me off to a couple of fabulous-sounding San Francisco art exhibits.

What makes this news blog-worthy? Each of these shows celebrates art and/or artists featured in two of my favorite recent movies!

Fans of the Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner will rejoice to hear about the show J. M. W. Turner: Painting Set Free, coming this summer to the de Young. Organized by Tate Britain, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, it claims to be the first major exhibition to focus on the last 15 years of Turner's life (roughly, 1835-1850), when his technique was at its most experimental and his work most expressive.

Organizers promise more than sixty oil paintings and watercolors culled from collections around the world. Including—surprise!—a suite of figurative paintings depicting Dido and Aeneas. (Well, at least, figures can be spotted playing out their dramas amid the roiling landscapes.) These were the last of Turner's works to be shown in his lifetime.
Production still from Song of the Sea

The Turner exhibit will run from June 20 to September 20, 2015, so mark your datebook now.

Meanwhile, over at the Cartoon Art Museum, an exhibit just opened that couldn't be more timely. It's devoted to the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, the brain trust behind the eye-poppingly gorgeous animated feature Song of the Sea, as well as The Secret of Kells.

The show is called The Art of Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, and features original and digital concept art from both Oscar-nominated films—revealing how a movie's design evolves from concept sketches to finished artwork.

Me, I'm looking forward to gazing into some of those complex still images to drink in all the details!

This show went up on February 21 and continues to June 21, 2015.  Maybe I'll see you there!