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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else


Entries by tag: reviews

Books Completed in July
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1. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
2. A Good Indian Wife, by Anne Cherian
3. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying: Lessons from a Life in Comedy, by Carol Leifer
4. TEN (chapbook), by Val Dering Rojas

Still in progress at the end of the month: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Echo and We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s the Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human by Dawn Keetley — these two books are the reason why it’s been such a slow reading month for me.

REVIEWS:

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Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


New-to-me movies watched in June
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1. Maleficent (2014)
2. Joe (2013)
3. The Purge (2013)
4. Evil Dead (2013)

REVIEWS:

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Review: Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder
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Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder provides a guide to screenwriting from an industry perspective, focusing on what a writer needs to do to prep for the act of writing. These techniques include creating a logline (or one-line), watching and analyzing movies in your chosen genre, creating a beat sheet, and building a board to layout scenes as a form of outlining. Skipping over actually writing process, he then reveals some screenplay "rules" and somethings to look for during edits if the finished draft isn't working.

The Importance of Structure

I've heard a lot of praise for this book, both from screenwriters and from novelists, and a lot of this praise is in regards to Snyder's discussion of structure. As both a novelist and a screenwriter, I found this valuable. Understanding the beat points of a story helps a lot in the actual writing process. The beats* let the writer know where important points of action should fall within the story, such as the catalyst that leads the heroine into adventure. (The Save the Cat! website includes a breakdown of the beats in a variety of popular movies, along with other valuable tools, which is awesome.)

Structure is especially vital to screenwriting, where space (i.e. movie length) is limited. Snyder talks about specific page numbers where certain plot points should fall (midpoint on page 55, for example). In the movie industry, these specific plot points are the kinds of things executives and decision makers are looking for, especially from new writers.

For the novelist, this strict structure seems less relevant, but there's oodles of more leeway. Though it can help create a framework around which to build the giant story that is a novel.

Simple Tools

Another great piece of advice Snyder gives for both kinds of writing is being able to sum up the story in a single sentence or two, called a logline. The logline should state the heroine's objective, highlight obstacles, and have a hook. For example:

Legally BlondeWhen a blonde sorority queen is dumped by her boyfriend, she decides to follow him to law school to get him back and, once there, learns she has more legal savvy than she ever imagined. (from IMDB)


The simple summary helps the writer (screenwriter or novelist) get clear on their story before writing, provides an anchor as they work through actually writing, and gives them an easy, simply summary to use if they get the chance to pitch to an agent. Kristen Lamb has a great discussion of this bit of advice on her blog.

The book is full of simple to follow advice like this (if not always easy to execute).

What Drove Me Bananas

Save the Cat! is written in a snappy, conversational tone, which is great because it makes it an easy read. But it also came off sounding pompous, like I could see his smug smile reverberating through the text, and sometimes grated on my nerves. It's clear Snyder had a preference, he wrote and mostly enjoyed family and romantic comedies. So, it's when he talks about the genres he's not into and is less comfortable with that I found myself wanting to rage and beat him over the head with his own book.

Clearly, this was a bias on Snyder's part. He doesn't get these kinds of flicks and seems to not be hot on ind flicks. That's fine, but it annoys the frack out of me that he's including this bias as part of his "rules" and it distracted me from focusing on the valuable tools he was teaching.

Ranty Bit #1 - One of Snyder's "rules" is the Double Mumbo Jumbo rule, which states that only one type of magic is aloud in a single storyline. Essentially, don't confuse the viewer/reader by throwing in many different kinds of magic — decide on the rules for your world and stick to them. Makes sense.

But the example he used, Spider-Man, made steam come out of my ears. He basically wrote, here's a guy, bit by a radioactive spider and gains spider-like abilities, then you have the Green Goblin begin to gain his own superpowers using a completely different method, and it's mixing different kinds of magic!

At which point, I began to mentally shout at the book. It's a COMIC BOOK universe, I told the book. Both superhero and super villain are changed by the SAME kind of "magic", both are changed by a kind of mad-science, which is logical given the rules of the universe! Who would you have be the villain of Spiderman?? Joe Schmoe robber? By you're own rules, Snyder, you demand that he bad guy be BIGGER AND BADDER than the hero! ... and it went on from there.

Ranty Bit #2 - In his discussion about structure, knowing that young screenwriters will bring it up as a non-structured movie that worked, Snyder mentions Memento. He calls the movie existential and boring. "Fuck Memento," he writes. "I know how much it earned."

This pissed me off on two levels.

One, both Snyder and the young screenwriters are wrong. Even though it presents its story in reverse chronology, Memento is highly structured. It has to be. The movie wouldn't work without structure. I took a screenwriting class once and watched a teacher lay the structure out, following the same beats that Snyder recommends screenwriters use. (I may even break down the structure on my blog at some point, if I get a chance to rewatch the movie.)

Two, Snyder seems to take the assumption that box office earnings equals a successful movie. In his dismissal of Memento, he skips over to discuss a movie he's more comfortable with, Miss Congeniality, which follows a clear traditional structure and earned $106 million at the U.S. box offices. His comparison is absurd, since Memento was an indy flick and never intended to be a blockbuster movie.

Besides, box office earnings don't mean a movie was profitable. As CNBC writes in their article on the 15 Most Profitable Movies of All Time, "A profitable movie doesn’t just do well at the box office. Toy Story 3, for example, is the highest-grossing movie of 2010 so far, with a worldwide take of over $600 million. However, its budget was $200 million, meaning that it has only made three times its investment. Even the mighty Titanic, the second highest grossing film of all time, could only realize a 900% return on its budget."

Let's take a look at Memento and Miss Congeniality. As noted, Miss Congeniality made over $100 million, while Memento made only around $25 million at the box office. From that point of view, there's a clear winner.

However, Memento only cost around $9 million to make and Miss Congeniality cost $45 million.

If I do my math right, this means Memento had a return on investment of around 278%.

Miss Congeniality meanwhile had a slightly lower return of around 236%

It's all WAY more complicated than that of course, but if you look at the real profitability of the movies, it's clear that Memento is a far more financially successful movie than Snyder made it sound to be.

Taking Action

Ultimately, none of these annoyances detract from the core tools and the value of any writing or advice book is whether it inspires the reader to actually take action and get to work. After reading Save the Cat!, I immediately jumped to work. I started creating loglines for all the novel ideas I've been working on and planning and I bought a board to lay out the scenes and acts in a tactile manner (I've been needed a new way to approach my current novel). The book also has me thinking about all the screenplay ideas I have on hold. I've learned oodles of valuable tools and my creative juices are flowing, so this book is a win.

If you've read Save the Cat!, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments. Did you find the tools in the book useful?

Poetry Review: Hum by Jamaal May
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Hum by Jamaal May

Hum by Jamaal May Publisher: Alice James Books Date Published: November 2013

Description: "In May’s debut collection, poems buzz and purr like a well-oiled chassis. Grit, trial, and song thrum through tight syntax and deft prosody. From the resilient pulse of an abandoned machine to the sinuous lament of origami animals, here is the ever-changing hum that vibrates through us all, connecting one mind to the next."

I admit to being drawn to this collection because of the gorgeous cover and its steampunk robot with a birdcage head, which immediately sparked my imagination. The physical book itself is also beautiful, with a lovely typeset. A smattering of dark pages, each for a "phobia" poem (such as Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored"), appear throughout the book, starting out black at first then lightening toward softer grays. It's an interesting way to highlight a set of associated poems and there's a subtle effect to reading words with white text on a dark page that suits the "phobia" poems. For example, reading "Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored" on one of the rare black pages in the books creates an interesting contrast between text and the physical page.

Hum is dedicated to "to the inner lives of Detroiters." When I think of Detroit these days, I picture photo essays that show the city in seemingly apocalyptic states of decay. May's poems reflect this state of everyday apocalypse. "Still Life" presents a "Boy with roof shingles / duct taped to shins and forearms / threading barbed wire through pant loops" as well as other trash can armor in the face of what seems to be a wasteland. While in "The Girl Who Builds Rockets from Bricks," a girl wanders in "the caverns of deserted houses," performing "her excavation for spare parts: // shards of whiskey bottle, matches, / anthills erupting from concrete // seams, the discarded husk / of a beetle."

{C}

These poems thrum with rhythm, and sound plays a vital role, natural sounds mix with manufactured sounds mix with inner soul sounds. They are full of texture, bringing Detroit imagined and real into vibrant life.

"A humming bird draws nectar in my thoughts, wings beating 80-something times per second but there aren't many flowers here; it's been many summers since I stopped even listening for bees." — from "A Detroit Hum Ending with Bones"
"Neat" is a disorderly pantoum, in which the repeated lines are almost but not quite repeated. there is enough variation that the new lines slip by almost unnoticed as repetitions. It describes a bar scene and a man sitting alone, drinking. "No one is above being invisible / not even me, with my shirt tidily pressed, // another man who's seen the bottom of a tumbler." The feeling is despondent and mundane. The pantoum form works perfectly here, the almost-repetition of lines reflecting the slipshod redundancy of everyday life and looping thoughts and questions that never seem to lead anywhere.

"You are a quarter ghost on your mother's side. Your heart is a flayed peach in a bone box." — from "How to Disapper Completely"

In "Macrophobia: Fear of Waiting," he writes, "I was fascinated / that every time I tried to type love, / I missed the o and hit the i instead. / I live you is a mistake I make so often. / I wonder if it's not / what I've really been meaning to say." I make the same mistake quite often, and I have found myself thinking the same thing (I am only a little jealous that he put it into a poem first). There are so many passages, phrases, poems I love in this book that I find it hard to know which ones to focus on.

"Is the sun a flash grenade? This heat is so heavy the fruit stands buckle and ripple like mirages, but your brother shivers" — from "Chionophpbia: Fear of Snow"

This book is amazing (another I need to own) and is one of the best collections of poetry collections I've read this year.

For a more expanded look at this collect, there's a great interview with Jamaal May up at The Normal School.

You can also watch a video of May reading "I Do Have a Seam" from this collection.


New-to-me movies watched in May
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1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
2. This is the End (2013)
3. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
4. Godzilla (2014)
5. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

REVIEWS:

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Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


Poetry Review: Hum by Jamaal May
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Hum by Jamaal May

Hum by Jamaal May
Publisher: Alice James Books
Date Published: November 2013

Description: “In May’s debut collection, poems buzz and purr like a well-oiled chassis. Grit, trial, and song thrum through tight syntax and deft prosody. From the resilient pulse of an abandoned machine to the sinuous lament of origami animals, here is the ever-changing hum that vibrates through us all, connecting one mind to the next.”

I admit to being drawn to this collection because of the gorgeous cover and its steampunk robot with a birdcage head, which immediately sparked my imagination. The physical book itself is also beautiful, with a lovely typeset. A smattering of dark pages, each for a “phobia” poem (such as Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored”), appear throughout the book, starting out black at first then lightening toward softer grays. It’s an interesting way to highlight a set of associated poems and there’s a subtle effect to reading words with white text on a dark page that suits the “phobia” poems. For example, reading “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” on one of the rare black pages in the books creates an interesting contrast between text and the physical page.

Hum is dedicated to “to the inner lives of Detroiters.” When I think of Detroit these days, I picture photo essays that show the city in seemingly apocalyptic states of decay. May’s poems reflect this state of everyday apocalypse. “Still Life” presents a “Boy with roof shingles / duct taped to shins and forearms / threading barbed wire through pant loops” as well as other trash can armor in the face of what seems to be a wasteland. While in “The Girl Who Builds Rockets from Bricks,” a girl wanders in “the caverns of deserted houses,” performing “her excavation for spare parts: // shards of whiskey bottle, matches, / anthills erupting from concrete // seams, the discarded husk / of a beetle.”

{C}

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Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


Poetry Review: Practicing Disaster by Jessie Carty
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Practicing Disaster by Jessie Carty

Practicing Disaster by Jessie Carty
Publisher: Aldrich Books
Date Published: April 2014

“You wish you had coined the word zaftig;
that you were OK with abdomens
that hung over bikini bottoms.”
— from “Zaftig Profiling”

Practicing Disaster is collection of narrative poetry presenting  an exploration of ordinary lives. These are people you could meet on the street, from the a sixteen-year-old hotel maid to a short order cook to any number of strangers you might meet on the street. For example, in “Eating at Work,” an employee travels further and further afield in search of lunchtime solitude. While in “Some Basic Consumer Math,” the owners of a Chinese restaurant tailor their food for their most loyal customers, all from the retirement home nearby, making their Sa-Cha chicken “about as mild as the contents / of a store bought spaghetti sauce.”

Some of the prose poems, in which thought condenses into thought, are among my favorites. They allow a free flow feel of the poem, different from the lined sister poems. In “I was 36″, the narrator describes her first experience getting a pedicure, remembering the same sloughing off of her grandmother’s feet. In that youthful remembering is the memory of childhood discovery and the “lesson in not going through other people’s personal affects”, and just as one can “flake off the dead skin” there is the feeling of flaking off the past.

“The Patient” also explores time passing, like the dropping of green beans into a bucket or the beeping of machines: “The doctor uses the word / aphasia / I focus on the center— / a phase / a moment.” The disjointed, jigsaw pattern of the words on the page (which I couldn’t possibly replicate here) matched the disjointed experience of a patient in the hospital, as well as the way the past jumps forward and seems to collide and become a part of the present.

In the titular poem, a women plays with the idea of disaster on her commute, imagining “overpasses from her car could spill like ink in blotchy slow motion,” and how she might shape catastrophe to set herself free. Knowing the trapped feeling of the commute, I can sympathize with the narrator, have even practiced a few of my own disasters.

Many of these poems reflect similar kinds of personal experience, even if they are outside us (as though we are people watching at a corner cafe). As a reader, there a sense of Yes, me, too; I’ve felt the same. Reading “Zaftig Profiling” (quoted at the top), I also wished I had coined the word zaftig, that I could, as mentioned later in the poem, laugh loudly in mixed company.

At first glance, what’s revealed in these poems could be described as mundane, bits of ordinary lives normally passed over or cast away as unimportant. The narrative voice of these poems, likewise, is straightforward, seemingly plain. However, this initial impression is deceiving. I’ve read through this collection twice now and have made new discoveries on each read, subtleties of voice and thought I hadn’t noticed the first go around. There are layers of humor, breaths of poignancy, beautiful discoveries.

Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


Books Read in March
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1. 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson (***1/2)
2. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (DNF)
3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (audio book), by Michael Chabon, read by Peter Riegert (*****)
4. The Missing by Sarah Langan (***)
5. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (****)
6. March by Geraldine Brooks (****)
7. Kira-Kira (audiobook) by Cynthia Kadohata (****)
8. The Worm by Elise Gravel (****)
9. Scarecrow Gods by Weston Ochse (*)
10. Colaterales/Collateral by Dianapiera Di Dontao (****)

REVIEWS (behind the cut):

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Five Books or Magazines I Have Read Lately
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1. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

The Yiddish Policeman"s Union CoverWell, it was more like “listened” since this was the audio book, read by Peter Riegert, who was fantastic. Riegert has the perfect gravelly voice for a hard broiled detective novel and it adds to the mood of the book beautifully.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is first a detective novel, playing off the traditional noir genre with sarcastic, mouthy homicide detective Meyer Landsman looking into the shooting of a former chess prodigy and heroine addict. The investigation leads him through the various seedy realms of Yiddish Sitka, Alaska* and it unfolds like a great chess game in which he finds himself “contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.” Like most hard broiled detectives, Landsman finds himself seeking his own salvation as he tries to uncover truths.

The book is also a fascinating alternate history, because Yiddish Sitka never existed. Chabon unfolds a fully realized, multi-layered imagining of what this island and its inhabitants would look like if it did, full of worldwide politics and local eccentricities. The details are rich and I could feel both the cold of Alaska and visualize the inner workings of this Jewish community.

On top of a fantastic, complicated plot and an fascinating litany of character, there’s Chabon’s writing style — poetic and rich and beautiful. When he describes a grimy hotel, you can feel the dirt getting underneath your fingernails. When he speaks of breathing in the cold, your teeth ache in sympathy. Chabon is just so, so good.

When the audio book ended and the last word was read, I sat back with a happy sigh and thought to myself, Well. That was just about perfect.

The audio book also includes an interview with Chabon following the book, in which he provides insight into how he came to write the story and how he approached the writing. I love that kind of thing.

*Yay, Alaska! Including Alaska in a story immediately grabs my attention.

2. Goblin Fruit – Winter 2014

I always mean to read more lit journals, both online and in print, but never seem to get around to actually doing so. Managed it this time, and the experience made it clear why I need to do so more often.

Kristina McDonald’s “Dear Prince“, in particular, gave me chills. The poem is from Cinderella’s point of view and I love how the image of the glass slipper is used and where it’s taken. She does a wonderful audio reading of the poem, too.

Each poem in this edition of Goblin Fruit is fascinating and expansive and compelling in its own unique way. This is a must read for poetry lovers.

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Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


Movie Review: The World’s End
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Being a HUGE fan of Shaun of the Dead (the hilarious spoof of the zombie classic Dawn of the Dead), I was über-excited to learn about Edgar Wright and Simon Peg’s most recent foray in to genre, The World’s End. Reality being reality and life being lifelike, I wasn’t able to see The World’s End in theaters and only managed to finally watch it this past weekend.

Short analysis: I loved it.

Longer analysis: This story of five friends meeting up in their hometown to perform the epic pubcrawl they failed to complete as younger men, only to find the town they knew invaded by replicant-style robots, hit all the right notes for me.

Like with Shaun of the Dead, this movie plays manages to lovingly spoof the genre while offering up characters to care about and just a bit of heart. It maybe didn’t pull off the relationships between the characters as well as Shaun of the Dead did, but it was still a fun movie, with lots of action and humor.

Plus booze — there was lots of beer drinking and drunkenness.*

One of the most impressive things, in terms of acting, was how well each of the characters portrayed being drunk. It’s apparently one of the hardest things to do in acting and each of them pulled it off just about perfectly. Watching the characters do the Slow Blink at about level 7 on the drunkeness scale reminded me of my

For those interested, here’s the video of Simon Peg showing Conan O’Brian the twelve stages of drunkenness:

*Actually, I wasn’t clear on how these drunken, untrained gents managed to fight as skillfully as they do in this movie — at some points it was almost too slick — but that didn’t stop from the entertainment value for one second.

Great movie.

Originally published at Andrea Blythe. You can comment here or there.


New-to-me Movies in January
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My movie watching habits have changed significantly over the past several months. It used to be that I would go to the theaters about 2-4 times a month to see new movies. Now I’m lucky if I go once a month, mostly due to financial reasons. Also, when I get access to Netflix (while housesitting), I tend to not want to watch new-to-me movies and go for TV shows instead.

For example, last month I watched significant amounts of Doctor Who (season three and most of four) and The X-Files (rewatched all of season one). So I’m thinking I might start posting my TV watching thoughts more often, though I’m not how I want to approach that yet. In the meantime…,

January Movies:

1. 2 Guns (2013)
2. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)

REVIEWS (behind the cut):

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Books completed in January
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1. Redshirts, by John Scalzi
2. Among Others, Jo Walton
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (audio book), by Junot Diaz
4. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
5. The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate

Interesting Reading Fact: All three of my first three reads heavily referenced science fiction and fantasy literature, which was expected with Redshirts, but was more of a surprise with Among Others and Oscar Wao. I always find it interesting when the books I read are thematically connected in some unexpected way.

Books Still in Progress at the End of the Month: Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King (riveting!) and The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 1 (wonderful, readable stories).

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REVIEWS (behind the cut):

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