Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Friday, May 28, 2010

Finally, the Truth About Honest Abe

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
by Seth Grahame-Smith

Four score and seven days ago,1 Seth Grahame-Smith brought forth on this continent a new notion, conceived in literary form, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, although some then become horrible blood-sucking creatures of the night that Abraham Lincoln believed should have their heads emancipated from their bodies.

I hadn’t read Grahame-Smithe’s earlier Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but for some reason Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter intrigued me.2 He handles the material well, weaving vampiric lore and American history together, sometimes in unexpected ways, while maintaining a serious, somber tone. The book contains little horror or gore, and is told in a straight-forward manner with selections from Lincoln’s alleged secret journals inserted throughout.

I’ll admit I was kind of hoping to find something like my first paragraph in there—Lincoln alluding to vampires in one of his seminal speeches, perhaps explained away by newspaper censorship.3 But Grahame-Smith stays pretty true to the established public accounts of both our country’s history and that of our president. Perhaps this is why the book provides little in the way of action once Lincoln assumes political office; indeed, three of the most dramatic situations in the book’s latter half all turn out to be dreams. I can forgive one dream sequence — especially if it provides insight into a character’s motivations or portends future events (these don’t) — but three? That just seems like hack writing.

What hurts the book the most, in my opinion, is its introduction, which is far too long, prattles on about the author rather than his subject, and pretends that this is Grahame-Smith’s first book, which we know it isn’t. But its biggest problem is that it causes more issues later on:

If we are to believe the introduction, Grahame-Smith pieced this manuscript together solely from Lincoln’s secret journals and information culled from historical documents. Yet, at one point we get the thoughts of a vampire who does not survive the encounter. Later on, John Wilkes Booth’s thoughts and plans are on full display. Given the sources Grahame-Smith purportedly used, this should be impossible. Yes, yes, I know it’s fiction, but it’s pretending not to be. Had he simply told the tale as narrative non-fiction, he could have gotten away with such gaffes, but he had to go and name his sources and screw everything up.

Speaking of screwing things up, lets get back to John Wilkes Booth. After the imaginative way in which Grahame-Smith worked vampires into the annals of American history, I was sure he had some great surprise planned to explain how Lincoln’s assassin fit into the whole equation. Unfortunately, the surprise was that there was no surprise: Booth was a vampire. It’s as though Grahame-Smith stopped drinking his creativity juice as soon as he got to the good part. Boo, hiss.

Overall, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was an interesting contradiction: better than expected, yet disappointing at the same time, with an ending that fell flat. Kind of like the series finale of Lost.


1 That’s March 2, 2010, if you’re counting. (It’s almost as if I planned it.)
2 It may have been the title.
3 Which would also help to explain why scholars have never agreed on the exact wording of the Gettysburg address, an absolutely true fact I learned about on Wikipedia.

Monday, May 24, 2010

I Never Saw It Coming

No, I’m not talking about the last of Lost. Sure, I may have been caught completely off-guard when Walt turned up with his army of fire-breathing polar bears to take back the island, or when Rose pointed to Not-Locke’s ruby slippers and told him that he’d had the power to leave all along. But there’s already enough Lost conjecture clogging the internets, and I don’t want any part of that.

Besides, I’m still harping about ninja haiku.

Not only have none of the three winners contacted me to claim their free Japanese dinner, but I still don’t even know who one of them (Billypete) is. My father, in his haste to print out his Dishonorable Mention, didn’t even see that his own daughter had won. And, of the many people I called out for not submitting a haiku at all, only one took the time to mollify me with an excuse...

It turns out that she did submit a haiku. However, it wasn’t a ninja-related haiku; the haiku itself was a ninja. That’s why I hadn’t seen it.

Upon learning this, I involuntarily shivered. How many other ninja haiku had skulked across the rooftops of the blogosphere, climbed surreptitiously in through an open-source window, and perhaps sliced the throats of other, innocent haiku with small daggers before stealing away into the night with unclaimed Japanese dinners I didn’t even know were missing? How many? Five? Seven?*

I felt sick, thinking about the horrors I had unleashed upon the literary world. I knew in that moment that I would never again hold a ninja haiku contest. And I’m a man of my word: Next time, I’ll be sure to choose a kinder, gentler haiku subject. You know, like babies. Or puppies. Or smoke monsters.

Or other cutting-edge technology.
* Five, probably.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Quick and Dirty Dozen

I’ve been known to write the occasional book review, but I don’t have time to review every book I read. Besides, peoples’ attention spans are getting shorter by the day,1 and no one wants to slog through an entire review any more. That’d be almost as bad as reading the book itself.

Thus, I present to you the 12-pack: One dozen short reviews, covering a handful of my most recent conquests.

1 Officially 1.26 microseconds shorter, after that earthquake in Chile.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Pretend, for a moment, that I’m a guy. Guys don’t read 500+ page love stories. Yet, right from the opening scene (I don’t count the unnecessary prologue as the opening scene), I was hooked. With time travel involved, Clare can first meet Henry when he’s 35, and he can first meet her 14 years later when he’s 28, and it all makes perfect sense. It’s a very clever premise, and Niffenegger handles it deftly; my only complaint is that the book feels incomplete. Since the focus is primarily on their relationship, we learn of Henry’s time-traveling exploits involving Clare, but get little more than hints of such visits to other friends and family. I wanted to explore all the time-traveling possibilities, but alas, I was stuck in a love story. A pretty damn good one, but still.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

The book jacket hypes her as the next David Sedaris, the next Sarah Vowell, the next Dorothy Parker. Even if, like me, you think Sedaris is overrated,2 those are some lofty comparisons for a first-time author. So, does my former college classmate measure up?

No, not quite. I Was Told There’d Be Cake has touches of brilliance, but overall the writing is uneven, and it’s rarely as funny as it’s trying to be. Surprisingly, my favorite essay employed two tactics that usually repulse me (2nd person narrative and scatalogical humor), while the promising “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day” — about the computer game Oregon Trail — failed to hold my interest. Nevertheless, with her sardonic wit, perhaps Sloane will begin to fulfill what the book jacket promised when her sophomore effort comes out this summer.

2 He is, you know. Unless he’s reading his own material, in which case the rating is spot on.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Although this pseudo-travelogue, originally published in 1889, may begin to physically shed its pages halfway through your reading — as it did for me — its sense of humor remains intact even today. Yes, Jerome might go off on a boring tangent once in a while, but since tangents had only just been discovered earlier that decade, I’ll forgive him such missteps. Had I known more about boating, or been more familiar with the fascinations of the day, I might have enjoyed the book even more. But, I didn’t.

The Invisible Kingdom: From the Tips of Our Fingers to the Tops of Our Trash, Inside the Curious World of Microbes by Idan Ben-Barak

Invisible Kingdom’s introduction promised fascinating tales of microscopic entities, accompanied by copious humor and footnotes.3 The latter were indeed plentiful, though Ben-Barak’s humor never really lived up to my expectations: a chuckle here and there, but really only one laugh-out-loud moment. And while microbes are indeed interesting little buggers – four instance, I had no idea E. coli was doing such good in the world – the book as a whole felt disjointed, because Ben-Barak often chose to cover each microbe separately, without any real segues, rather than create a flowing narrative within each chapter. I was hoping to find another non-fiction treat along the lines of A Short History of Nearly Everything, or perhaps another Stiff, but sadly, it was not to be.

3 Woooo! Footnotes!

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

If you love the written word, and grammar-related humor in particular, then you should read the Thursday Next series, where books are policed by literary detectives. Start with the The Eyre Affair, though; this third installment (of five) isn’t as strong as its forerunners. This is partly because the plot thickens, by which I mean it congeals and doesn’t really go anywhere, and partly because the story is entirely fictional, by which I mean it takes place wholly in the BookWorld, rather than in the “real world” (a.k.a. an alternate 1980s England). Nevertheless, this book does boast one of the best literary exchanges ever in regard to grammar: the “had had” and “that that” problem. Check it out.

Coronado by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane: Fantastic mystery/thriller novelist. Crappy short story writer.

The six stories (technically, five stories and one play) probably would’ve been better if he’d stuck to what he knows: mysteries that take place in and around Boston. That, or he could’ve added monkeys. Everything’s better with monkeys.4

4 Even monkeys.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

Take it from me: Never revisit your childhood favorites. The Neverending Story (the movie) was blah. The Phantom Tollbooth dragged. And M.C. Hammer was a load of crap. Yet, because I’d enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a kid, I thought I’d relive the magic by reading the entire seven-book set.

Once I got past the nostalgia of the first book, the series was chock-full of inconsistent narration (mostly 3rd person, sometimes 1st), odd morals (Never eat a talking animal...oh, it’s dumb? Then dig in!), and a new set of child protagonists every time (whose personalities are all pretty much interchangeable). The stories were dull and the ending unappealing. I should have left my memories of Narnia locked up safe in the wardrobe of my brain.

Some people never learn.

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The personification of Dream is imprisoned for seventy years, then escapes and goes about reacquiring the instruments of his office. Though this collection, containing the first eight comics in the Sandman series, isn’t Gaiman’s best work, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s bad. Calling it good doesn’t do it justice, either.

It’s better than good. It’s Gaiman.TM

Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell

Nine out of ten doctors agree: Cannoli are healthier than guns. If you get shot with a cannoli, it won’t end your life; it just ends the life of the designer blouse that you’re wearing.5

Of course, all of this has little to do with Vowell’s book. She has this flair for weaving historical details into her own experiences, and vice versa. Take the Cannoli may not be as polished as some of her later works, but you can read about such divergent topics as her very first goth makeover, the suffering of the Cherokee along the Trail of Tears, and the time she helped her father fire off a cannoli. Er, cannon.

5 No, I’m not wearing a blouse. You are.

Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a Phobic Life by Allen Shawn

What’s that? Wallace Shawn’s brother wrote a book? And he has something like ten different phobias? That’s got to be an extremely insightful, engaging, and enjoyable read, right?

Yes, no, and no. While Allen Shawn delves deep into his own psyche to try to understand his many fears, he does so with few personal stories or anecdotes about his family. Indeed, much of the book reads like a scientific text. I’m sure it’s a fine book, but Shawn’s quest for knowledge didn’t quite jell with my selfish wish to be entertained, and thus, I gave up halfway through. Without reading the whole thing, I can’t fairly assign a rating... which might be for the best, considering Shawn probably has an irrational fear of flaming wheels.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is back, and sleuthier than ever. The opening scene may not pack quite the same punch as that of its predecessor, and it does take a bit longer to get to the meat of the story, but with Flavia once again giving the locals a run for their money as she tracks down a murderer, it sure doesn’t lack for entertainment.

Twelve Red Herrings by Jeffrey Archer

When a book comes right out and tells you that each of its stories has a red herring in it, that sort of defeats the purpose. Overall, the twelve tales were fun and well-written, but because I read each story looking for the twist or the misdirection, I caught it almost every time.

My biggest complaint, however, is with the last one in the collection. It’s a guy-meets-girl type of story, and Archer decided to provide four different endings. I usually enjoy that sort of thing, since we get to see how a small change in dialogue, manner, or timing can effect an enormous change on the full story line. Yet Archer goes about it all wrong. The main character is supposed to be the constant in such stories, with the world changing around him. But instead, in two of the four endings, the character’s back story is completely different. That threw me off, and made the tales less enjoyable.

Or maybe that was the point: those were the red herrings. Damn it, Archer! You tricked me!6

6 You'd have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling kids (to say nothing of their dog).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ninja Haiku Contest Winners

First of all, a sincere thank you to everyone who helped make the Ninja Haiku Contest a success. To Denise and Sarah, who did whatever it is that people do on twitter with bite-size URLs and #marijuana-tags. And to my cousin Dan, who spread the word on Facebook by presenting his official entry (which wasn’t officially official, since he only posted it on Facebook).1 And of course, to all of you who participated by submitting such fantastic ninja haiku.

As for my creative friends out there who didn’t post any haiku — you know who you are — know that I am deeply saddened by your lack of submission. I was looking forward to seeing what you could come up with, and to having even more trouble choosing the winners. Yeah, I’m talking about you, my-many-friends-with-MLS-degrees.2 You, too, fellow-writer-who-recently-ran-off-to-another-company. And most of all, you, person-I-haven’t-mentioned-yet. To regain my trust and respect, I suggest you write me an email telling me why you failed to submit a haiku — the more outlandish the excuse, the better.3

Before I get to the winners, I must first share with you a special award which I had not intended to give out: the Dishonorable Mention. This goes to my father (BCFN), for managing to insult both haiku and Japanese cuisine in under seventeen syllables. Such a deed cannot go unpunished, and thus, I have changed the menu at my upcoming wedding reception to be nothing but Japanese food.4

Okay, enough of my rambling. On to the winners...

1 Leftover cake gone. / A ferret? A ninja? No. / My daughters. Again.
2 Depending on the institute of higher learning, MLS could be one of three things: Masters of Library Science, Major League Soccer, or the Megalomaniacal Librettist Society.
3 I realize two of you had a flooded basement. But that excuse isn’t outlandish enough. You’ll need to embellish: Perhaps the damage was caused by saintly sinner with psoriasis, or a pair of pink hippopotami.
4 That’s not actually true, but I’m hoping my dad doesn’t read footnotes.

And the Winners Are...

If you haven’t already, I suggest you go read all of the entries, especially since you won’t find any entries submitted by anonymous ninjas (such as this limerick!) among the winners. Plus, there are references to turtles, vampires, and zombies.

My judging was non-scientific, completely and utterly biased, and audited by the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Honorable Mention

I didn’t even realize this entry from xonmus was a haiku until the day after I first read it, since it was written all in one line. Were it actually ninja-related, it might have won, but technically it’s only ninja-haiku-contest-related (see rule #7). Still, you can’t get much more honorable than seppuku...
God damn – seppuku?
I’d have given it a shot,
but now I don’t know...
Tandyman scores runner-up to the Traditional prize with this entry...
Black clad assassins
wrapped in secrets and shadows.
Silent and unseen.
And Kyle is certainly right; ninjas are awesome:
Ninjas are awesome.
They throw shurikens at me.
Now I am dead. Ow.

First Place – Humorous

I was feeling extra-generous (read: indecisive), so I broke my own contest rules. Thus, there will be three (3) first place winners, instead of only two.

I almost knocked this entry down to Honorable Mention because it was written by my sister Naomi, whom I sometimes buy dinner anyway. But in the end, the punchline won me over:
Ninja and Pirate
Meet in a moldy dungeon.
Their love: forbidden.
I almost knocked this entry down to Honorable Mention because I prefer a haiku’s phrasing to be natural, with an implied pause at the end of each line. Yet, despite its less-than-ideal phrasing, it gave me the biggest laugh. And the kicker? Even without the Select-Start, typing this code into Google Reader will, in fact, make ninjas appear. Courtesy of Tandyman:
Up, Up, Down, Down, Left,
Right, Left, Right, B, A, Select,
Start. Code of Ninjas.

First Place – Traditional

And, in what seemed to be the tougher category, first-time commenter billypete takes home the prize for Traditional Haiku:
you hear no footfalls
from the enclosing darkness,
just your heart’s last beat.

Billypete, you can email me at theothernate[at] to discuss how we’ll handle your prize. Naomi and Tandyman, let me know when you’d like me to take you out for Japanese. (I’ll be busy that day.)

Also, as an added bonus, winners can print out their very own hastily thrown-together certificates to show co-workers and friends just how awesome they are.

First Place certificate (PDF)
Honorable Mention certificate (PDF)

Here’s what they look like:

(click images to embiggen)

Update: My haiku-hating father whined about not getting a certificate of his own, so, dutiful son that I am, I made one just for him. Here's his Dishonorable Mention. (PDF)

Congratulations again to all the winners!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

5 Top 5s for 5/5 (Film Edition)

Last year, after I posted 10 Top 10s for 10/10 to critical yet fictional acclaim, I got to thinking. Lists of 10 are good and all, I thought, but 5 is a nice round number, too.1 How about I do another set of lists in May, only without putting in nearly as much effort?

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have done. Behold: Five brand-spanking new Top 5s, for your reading pleasure.2

There are two main types of time travel movies: Those in which you can change the past; and those in which you can’t. As you may be able to tell from the list below, I tend to favor the latter approach.
  1. 12 Monkeys (1995)
    Some people may prefer the film it was based on, La Jetée (1962), but since I’ve never seen it, I can only say this: they’re wrong.
  2. Back to the Future (1985)
    1.21 gigawatts of excitement!
  3. Los Cronocrímines (2007)
    A Spanish film with a cast of 5 and the same 1-hour span repeated over and over. Certainly better than its translated-into-English title of Time Crimes would have you believe.
  4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1995)
    I haven’t seen this in ages, so the special effects may no longer be able to hold a candle to those in today’s films, but who needs candles when you’re from the future?
  5. Primer (2004)
    A holy mindfuck of a movie. People have mapped out the 9 parallel timelines, but I still feel this one is the most accurate.
If you don’t agree with my choices, travel back in time and force me to change them. If you do agree with my choices, maybe you’ve already done that...

  1. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
    Bloody brilliant.
  2. 28 Days Later... (2002)
    Technically, this isn’t a zombie movie, since technically, they’re not zombies. But it’s my list, and I don’t care.
  3. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
    Yes, the remake of a sequel beats out Romero’s original. So sue me. (On second thought, don’t.)
  4. Zombieland (2009)
    Killer intro sequence.
  5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
    Nothing beats a classic. Except four films from the past eight years...

  1. Footnote #1 in Paging Doctor Acula(Let the Right One In)
    Combined with a crack at Twilight? Bonus.
  2. All of Doing Religious Right(The Evil Dead trilogy)
  3. Last line/footnote #3 of And Then She Said Those Three Little Words...(Real Genius)
  4. The last line of Give That Man a Medal(The Hudsucker Proxy)
  5. Paul Giamatti impersonators in Day Twelve(Big Fat Liar)

As the all-powerful list czar, I decree that hyphenated names are acceptable, but names with little bits like “van” and “del” (which basically translate to “of”) are ineligible.3 Each actor is listed with three of his/her finest roles.
  1. Daniel Day-Lewis
    My Left Foot (1989), Gangs of New York (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007)
  2. Philip Seymour Hoffman
    Synechdoche, New York (2008), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Flawless (1999)
  3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
    Brick (2005), Mysterious Skin (2004), The Lookout (2007)
  4. Tommy Lee Jones
    The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), In the Valley of Elah (2007), JFK (1991)
  5. Helena Bonham Carter
    Fight Club (1999), The Wings of the Dove (1997), Conversations with Other Women (2005)
If you were expecting to see Neil Patrick Harris on this list, I’m sorry, but as awesome as he is, Starship Troopers, two Harold & Kumars, and an Undercover Brother do not a film star make.

  1. A 2007 remake of Casablanca with an all-penguin cast
    What happened: The director was trying to feed off penguins’ recent rise in popularity, but test audiences didn’t buy the relationship between Rick and Ilsa. Also, the penguin actors kept mysteriously disappearing one by one; only after production ceased did they discover that the penguin playing Sam was, in fact, a polar bear.

  2. The Bible: A Jerry Bruckheimer Production
    What happened: With Charlton Heston reprising his role as Moses, and Michael Bay directing, this eight-hour epic was well on its way to becoming the most exciting, expensive, explosive, and excessive rendition of the good book ever... until one fateful day in June 2007, when the entire cast of thousands was eaten by a swarm of locusts.

  3. Scabies!
    What happened: This 1998 dramatization of the 1880s scabies outbreak had myriad troubles right from the start. Jude Law arrived on set every morning too doped up on horse tranquilizers to deliver his lines. Dame Judi Dench complained incessantly about the foam rubber scabie suit, saying it made her look like a giant lobster and was pretty sure it had actually given her scabies. Two weeks into shooting, Sir Ian McKellen was caught in a hotel room with three prostitutes, two nuclear warheads, and an expired jar of mayonnaise. When Marlee Matlin was found taking a flamethrower to the set for the second time in as many days, the producers pulled all funding.

  4. A 1960 remake of Citizen Kane, with Marlon Brando as Charles Foster Kane and Marilyn Monroe as Rosebud
    What happened: Monroe’s contract stipulated that she appear in every scene, which kind of gave away the mystery right from scene one. And an irate Orson Welles showed up on set on numerous occasions, threatening the cast with a knife and asking, “Are you pondering what I’m pondering?” But the main culprit was a typo in the script: they had to scrap the entire film when it turned out that Kane was not supposed to be a newspaper magnet.

  5. Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2
    What happened: It got made into a movie.

1 Well, except for those two pointy bits.
2 Spanking not included.
3 “Ivory” is also out.