Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas to All

The Wiltz family
Christmas tree, 2012
Is everyone's Christmas shopping finally finished up?

As of last night, mine is. I took the one-stop-shop approach this year, and if you know me, you can probably guess where that one stop was made.  Let's say there's gonna be a lot of glass clinking in the car on the way to Gram's house tomorrow.

I have to say, I'm looking forward to some pickled herring tomorrow night. My dad's side of the family is Swedish, so we celebrate on Christmas Eve.  Dinner usually consists of Swedish sausage and mashed potatoes.  Last year, we had some pickled herring out as an appetizer, and it was pretty tasty.  I'm really hoping to see that jar on the counter again.

Yes, that is a stuffed
Napoleon Bonaparte I use
as a tree topper.
On Christmas day, we celebrate with my mom's side of the family.  It usually consists of a couple of games of Aggravation, which is pretty much our family game.  If you've never played this game, it's a great excuse to metaphorically kick the crap out of your friends and relatives.  We wail on each other, knocking marbles off the board with reckless abandon.  It's a little known fact that I sold my soul to be able to roll a 6-6-1 at will.  I'm working on a post that will map out some metaphors that use Aggravation as a way to get better at writing, all part of the lineup I'm getting ready for 2013.

But that's work talk, and this is a time to relax.  Writers need a few days off, too!  So enjoy Christmas, enjoy the great food and company, and eat as many servings of dessert as you possibly can before you throw up.  There will be plenty of time for discipline and exercise in the new year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Glowing Album Review: Ellie Goulding, Halcyon

Cover photo from
Ellie Goulding's album, Halcyon
In case you haven't noticed, the past few posts I've made have been of the Scrooge variety:  stuff sucks.  So I wanted to be sure and post something that's not negative just to show you guys that I don't hate everything.

I am absolutely LOVING Ellie Goulding's new album Halcyon.

It is awesome writing music, driving music, singing music, everything music.  I put it on when I'm alone, I put it on when the hubby and I are typing away, I put it on anytime I want to hear music, actually.  I'm addicted.  I have tried to listen to other things, but always end up switching back to Halcyon.  It's crack, apparently.

Prior to being blown up on the radio and played every two seconds, I kind of liked "Lights."  I kind of liked her first album.  It was all right, decent background music, but didn't have any standout tracks that I would put on a mix tape, for example.

Halcyon is different.  I read that it's a breakup album--and it shows.  This is a good thing.  The lyrics are deeper, and some of them are the kind that reach inside you to stab you in the heart and steal your breath.  The melodies are haunting and catchy at the same time.  The mood is melancholy but somehow triumphant.

It's a weird place to be...acknowledging despair and sadness, but also the fact that things will get better.  That's what makes this album so much fun to listen to.  The rhythms and melodies lift you up, but then when you listen to the lyrics, you realize, holy crap, this girl is in despair.    

Track 2, "My Blood," is a standout.  It has a thumping, rhythmic background with chanting that sounds almost Native American.  The chorus takes flight out of the low, bass rhythms of the chorus.  This is where her silvery, elfin voice creates a beautiful contrast with the beating drums.  Her lyrics bring it all together:  "The waves will break every chain on me / my bones will bleach / my flesh will flee / So help my lifeless frame to breathe."  The metaphor of the song is that the breakup of a relationship results in blood lost.  She sings about "all the blood I lost with you," and seeing the color of her blood on walls and rocks.  If you've ever been through a bad breakup, you know that's exactly what it feels like...a slow murder.

I'm also a sucker for a depressing ballad, and there are two killer ballads back-to-back toward the end of he album.  Track 9, "Explosions," and Track 10, "I Know You Care," made me stop what I was doing and remember to breathe.

"I Know You Care" is probably going to be one of my desert island songs.  It's just Goulding and a piano as she sings about the turning point in a relationship where you know it's going wrong.  She sings, "You were like home to me / I don't recognize this street" to explain the way her lover has changed toward her.  Then, she follows up with, "Outside the cars speed by / I'd never heard them until now."  It's one of those writerly details that amaze me on this album.  She's pinpointed that moment, that very moment when the world around you changes and suddenly you see and hear things you didn't before...and it's not a good thing.

Late in the song, as she describes the nuclear fallout of this relationship gone wrong, she sings, "I know it wasn't always wrong / but I've never known a winter so cold / now I don't warm my hands in your coat / but I still hope..."  Her voice tilts up on "hope," and you know there's a whole world contained in the phrasing of that one word.  It's so beautiful and it breaks your heart.  Four lines later, she ends the verse with, "Why can't I dream? / Why can't I dream?"  It's the bleakness of a soul-shattering breakup without the strained, treacly, sickly sweet voicing that ruins many pop and R&B ballads.

The Brits are really kicking ass in terms of albums I'm loving right now.  The last album I had in heavy rotation was Emeli Sande's Our Version of Events.  These smart women are writing songs that feel true, without the dance-pop bluster that American radio hits seem to rely on.

If you haven't heard it, try to find a quiet place to listen via YouTube.  I can't recommend it enough.  Plus, I read in an interview that she loves to run (me too!) and her writing idol is Haruki Murakami.  This may be a full-on girl crush.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Movie Review: Anna Karenina

I've been waiting patiently for a couple of weeks now to see the new Anna Karenina adaptation.  The early signs were good:  Keira Knightly as Anna, a merchandise tie-in with Banana Republic, and a storyline created by, oh, only one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century.  All signs were go.

So yesterday, with a bribed husband in tow and a whiskey flask in my purse (source of his bribe), I plunked down my $20 and sat down in a dark, smelly theater to see what Joe Wright had managed to put together.

I now wish I had spent that $20 on more whiskey.

This movie was sort of like the Russian version of Sofia Coppola's failed Marie Antoinette movie from a few years ago.  Pretty, but without a soul and largely miscast.

Here's the basic plot (no spoilers here):  A married woman, Anna Karenina, begins a flirtation with an attractive young cavalry officer named Vronsky.  The two engage in an affair, and complications ensue with Anna's niece Kitty (who wanted Vronsky for herself), Anna's husband Karenin, Anna's young son Seriozha, and society in general, who frowns on Anna's behavior.

Now, this pains me to say, because I love Keira Knightley and no one's smoky-eye makeup ever looks better on the red carpet.  However, something was off about her in this role from minute one.  Something was off about the entire movie, too.  Let me see if I can explain this a bit better.

Weird Thing about this Movie #1: The Staging
The movie has a strange staging effect.  It takes place on a strange rotating stage, as if the director wanted us to have the feel of a stage play.  Curtains rise and fall, painted set pieces drop into the background, and people walk out one door only to walk in another door right beside the first, in order to indicate a change of scene, place, and time.  It feels contrived rather than interesting.  It does not add to the intimacy of the story, nor does it advance any of the characters.  It's basically a wasted gesture that just ends up being confusing.  Plus, not all of the movie is done this way.  The scenes with Levin, a character who lives in the country, are actually shot in the country, not on the revolving stage.  So what's the point?  Why do this for part of the movie, if you're not going to do it for the whole thing?

Weird Thing about this Movie #2: The Dramatic Pauses
If you can get past that, there are a few more artsy-for-the-sake-of-being-artsy touches that also have that contrived feel.  Characters pause like statues at particular points so we can see Anna and/or Vronsky moving around in the scene.  Like the ornate theater-style sets, though, it's unnecessary.  This plot and these characters happened in a society thick with togetherness.  Separation like this only destroys the intimate, everyone-knows-everyone-else's-business effect that the plot needs for the ending to be believable.  Wright captures this feel once, when he flashes onto the faces of disapproving Russian society matrons as they grimace and smirk at the misbehaving Anna.  I kept thinking, "I know there's a movie that did all this better.  Oh, that's right--Dangerous Liaisons."  Pretty much everything Anna Karenina wants to be was already done...and done Dangerous Liaisons.

Weird Thing about this Movie #3: No Development/Reason for Love Story
The whole point of this story is to create sympathy for Anna, a woman who does something wrong.  She has an affair, but we're meant to sympathize with her impetuousness, her willingness to risk everything for love, her ability to go after what she wants and flout society's stuffiness to do it.  None of that actually happens here because the director didn't take the time to make the love story believable.

Anna and Vronsky basically fall in love during one strange ballroom dance scene.  They've exchanged a few words and glances prior to this, but it's not anything beyond a mild flirtation.  But somehow, once dance, and we're supposed to believe mad passion has been inspired.  The actors can't quite pull this scene off (director's fault?  not really sure here), and the screenwriter really needed to have another scene or two where we see Anna struggling with this.  As it is, she seems to smile at Vronsky, dance with him, breathe heavily for a minute, and declare herself in love.  There's very little struggle, and very little reason why Anna would fall for Vronsky.  His hairdo is horrific, and he's kind of stuck on himself.

The problem here is that if we don't believe these two are madly in love, we won't believe what comes afterward--Anna's mad struggle to free herself from her husband and set up shop with Vronsky, despite Petersburg's social ostracism.  It seems weird that she would do this for this man.  In the book, all of this is given time to simmer and develop (the benefits of a nearly thousand-page book, I guess).  But in the movie, we have to buy life-altering mind-numbing passion in one scene.  It's not enough, at least not the way it's written, staged, and directed here.

Weird Thing about this Movie #4: Keira Knightley Seems Off as Anna
I thought this would be a slam dunk.  I mean, Keira Knightley is born to play tormented historical heroines, right?  Of course.  So why is this different?  I think it has to do with this being a Russian book.  There is something deep and dark and churning in the Russian soul that I think this movie missed entirely.  Keira Knightley played Anna as happy and playful before her affair with Vronsky.  I could have been okay with this, if that playfulness were shown as part of some deep emotional tide running within her.  Instead, it seemed like she was an overgrown child, having more fun at the kids' table than with adults.

Once she hooked up with Vronsky, she became a total stage-5 clinger, to make a nifty Wedding Crashers reference.  She was shrill and shrewish, instead of fatalistic and soul-consumed.  I now want to see Vivien Leigh in the role, because I'm thinking she might have been better at the whole soul-consumed thing (what with her depression and bipolar issues and all).

Basically, this Anna seemed like a silly girl instead of woman who let her sense of fatalism control her destiny.  It made the character silly and the movie silly.  I'm trying to think of who else might have been able to play this role

Weird Thing about this Movie #5: Vronsky's Hair
Oh my God, Vronsky's hair.  I don't care if Russian dudes in the 1880s actually looked like this.  Now, it just looks silly, like the Masterpiece Theater version of Gene Wilder's hair.  Give the guy some regular hair, please.

Overall, I feel like this was a wasted opportunity.  It was pretty, for the most part, but wrong.  Just wrong.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ridiculously Comprehensive Book Review: The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade

Grand Duchess Anastasia,
or, as Meade calls her,
"Princess Anastasia."
By Bain News Service,
public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.

We all love a good thriller, right?  We love it even more when it combines history, mystery, and exotic settings.  That's what The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade promises on the jacket copy.  Does it deliver?  Let's find out.

Full disclosure mode: I’ve also written a Romanov-based thriller, so I’m slightly biased, not to mention hyper-sensitive to the treatment of the subject.  So instead of addressing the plot, I’m going to focus on the elements themselves: the characters, the writing, the pacing, etc.      

Let’s start with the good:

1.  I was turning the pages pretty quickly in the first quarter to third of the book, thanks to the interesting characters Meade gives us, particularly two men named Andrev and Yakov.  They're from opposite sides of the tracks, one a Tsarist soldier and the other a die-hard Red.  Their paths cross as children and then again as adults.  Another interesting character, named Sorg, is an American spy in Russia who interacts with the Tsar's family in good times and bad.  Each of these men are intriguing and given enough personal background and motivation so that you start to feel for them.  A murdered younger brother, a murdered father, an unrequited childhood love carried into adulthood…there’s some good stuff here.  Their emotions feel real, and I got sucked in.     

Now let’s address the bad:

1.  This book is too damn long.  It’s almost all set up and very little payoff.  The extremely long, drawn-out scenes work well in the beginning of the book since you’re just getting to know the characters.  But once you look at the page number and realize you’re on page 300 and the rescue of the Romanovs has barely begun, it gets frustrating.  This is where an editor comes in handy.  Maybe Howard Books can’t afford one, or they can and that person was busy with other things while this book was in production.  All I know is there is no reason for this book to be 515 pages.  It could have been 300, easy.

2.  The frame is lame and nowhere near as present as the jacket copy makes it out to be.  If you read the jacket copy, you’ll think most of the book is about Dr. Laura Pavlov, a forensic anthropologist working in Russia who stumbles on clues as to what really happened to Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the Romanov family, supposedly murdered in 1918.  The story starts and ends with Dr. Pavlov, but she’s present about as much as the main title and end credits are present in a movie.  This book takes place in 1918 for 98% of the page total. I still would have read it knowing this, but it would have been nice to have an honest representation on the jacket copy. 

The epigraph also promises that the book is going to connect Anna Anderson to this conspiracy/rescue attempt.  That was really all that kept me reading once the plot bogged down in the 200-400 page range.  Unfortunately, the only mention of Anna Anderson in relation to the titular conspiracy comes at the very end of the book, tossed away in less than a page, with a vague mention of a secret brotherhood being behind her seemingly uncanny knowledge of royal life at the Russian court.  

Really?  No one called B.S. on this?  

SPOILER ALERT.  Also, the book purports that Anastasia escaped the slaughter of Ekaterinburg, that Anna Anderson was a decoy sent into the world and trained by a secret brotherhood that tried and mostly failed to rescue the Romanovs.  Who these secret brotherhood members are is unclear.  But the book also never explains who it was that was found in the earth near the rest of the Romanov family.  It’s one thing to claim the body isn’t Anastasia because of unreliable DNA testing.  It’s another to say it wasn’t her because the real Anastasia survived, without offering a plausible explanation as to how a person who shared DNA with the rest of the family ended up in the exact same spot as Alexei yet we’re not supposed to believe it’s Anastasia.  That’s quite a coinky-dink, isn’t it?

And we’ll finish with the just-plain-ugly:

1.  The writing.  It’s bad.  Like, bad.  It’s clumsy and badly in need of editing.  There are lots of adjectives.  Lots of brand names, as if that suffices for a description of a thing.  The verbs are trying a little too hard in places like this:  “….I snapped open the leather briefcase on my lap and plucked out a file”.   "Snapped" and "plucked" in the same sentence just feel overwraught.

In other places, the storytelling is heavy and ponderous, like Andre the Giant trying to tiptoe:  
  • “I still recall the peaty wood smell when as a child I would leaf through the family album, filled with the faded images from another world.”
  • “Some events in our lives are so huge in their impact upon us that they are almost impossible to take in.” 
  • “It felt intensely cold.”  
I read sentences like this in my freshman year of college, in the intro to creative writing.  To be fair, I wrote some of them, but I also learned to realize I was wrong. 

A lot of the dialogue is unnatural and stilted, like the following line spoken by an old woman remembering the past:  “Of all the royal family, Anastasia was the  most rebellious, the most sparkling.”  Does anyone…would anyone…ever speak this sentence out loud?  Who says “the most sparkling”?

2.  George V refers to Nicholas II as Nikki.  It’s not the nickname I disagree with, but the spelling.  Why use “Nikki” as a nickname and not spell Nicholas with a “k”:  Nikolas?  It makes no sense.  There is no consistency, and it drives me bonkers.  

The same thing happens with Russian royal titles.  Meade calls Nicholas “tsar,” which is the Russian equivalent of “emperor.”  Yet instead of using the Russian title of “Grand Duchess,” Anastasia is referred to as a “princess.”  No one even halfway interested in Russian or Romanov studies would ever refer to her as Princess Anastasia.  Even the kiddie cartoon Anastasia gets it right and calls her Grand Duchess.       

Overall, I really wonder how the author’s previous novels earned “rave reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post.”  The craft just isn’t there, and I would have expected that to be recognized by the Times, if not the Post.  

Maybe that’s the real conspiracy.