Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tween lit parodied by 'The Simpsons'

     I work most Sunday evenings, so I've fallen out of the habit of watching "The Simpsons" when it first airs. I don't often bother to DVR it for later viewing either because the quality has declined a bit over the years and there's so much else to watch. But last night I watched an episode that aired a few weeks ago, via AT&T U-verse On Demand, because my kind-hearted wife noticed it featured the voice of author Neil Gaiman. As it happens, the episode also touched upon a few other subjects I've mentioned in these posts.

Twitter photo of animated Neil Gaiman on "The Simpsons."

     The main plot of the episode was a satire of tween lit: that it is formulaic, written by committee, and overly dependent on marketing the authors and their personal stories. And about vampires.
     A chain bookstore with a cafe is also prominently featured: Bookaccino's.
    Neil Gaiman pops up when several of the Simpsons characters, including Homer, decide to write their own tween bestseller and assemble a team as in caper films such as "Ocean's Eleven." They decide an actual best-selling young adult author might be handy, so they bring Gaiman in ... to fetch sandwiches.
     The subsequent book fits a formula that is obviously based on the Harry Potter books ~ an orphan who discovers he is magical and needs to fulfill some sort of quest/scavenger search while going to a special school that is also magical and where they play an incomprehensible magical sport ~ but which they allege applies to all tween fantasy series.
     Further Bitsoli's Biblio-Files connection: Homer says something like, "I hope we put in enough steampunk, whatever that is."
    They sell "The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy" for $1 million after setting up Homer's daughter, Lisa, as the fake author, complete with hard-luck bio, but are then dismayed when it is rewritten to be about vampires instead of trolls.
     There then follows their attempt to restore the original text, a double cross or two, the twist ending ("I got the idea from every movie ever made," Lisa says) and a denouement out of the film "Wild Things."
     Earlier in the episode, Lisa attempts to write her own individual book, but keeps getting distracted by making a music selection, straightening up, playing online video games, moving with her laptop to a cafe and other self-dodges familiar to all writers with writer's block.
     There might have been an Ayn Rand joke in there too; I don't remember.
     It was a fun half-hour. If you have AT&T U-verse, look for it. Otherwise, watch for the inevitable reruns.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Children's book series before Harry Potter

     In my last post, I mentioned "The Three Investigators," which was the name of a series of books I read as a teen. The full name was "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" because it was the conceit of the books that the famous director met the boys and agreed to introduce their exploits in book form.
     The Three Investigators were akin to the Hardy Boys, I guess, but I preferred the Investigators. The author of the first 10 books or so was Robert Arthur, though by the time new authors took over, I had mostly outgrown them.
     Preparatory to writing that post, I was curious to see if the books were still available, or even listed, on It turns out that though the original books were published in the 1960s and '70s, they were reprinted in the 1990s, with Alfred Hitchcock written out for some reason (probably having to do with licensing, i.e. money). Even those reprints now appear to be only available secondhand. That's a shame.
     The Three Investigators weren't rich and they weren't "cool." Their leader, Jupiter Jones, was brainy but "stocky." Kind of like a 13-year-old Nero Wolfe. One of the other members had recently had a leg brace removed, so he wasn't exactly athletic either. They worked from a hidden clubhouse in Jupiter's uncle's junk yard. Some of  their cases seemed to have a supernatural component, which was always debunked by the end of the story ("The Secret of Terror Castle" turned out to revolve around a Lon Chaney type actor  ~ the "Man of a Million Faces," as opposed to Chaney's Man of a Thousand Faces ~  whose career had been ruined by the  talkies) or a puzzle ("The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot" featured a parrot that said "To-to-to be or not to-to-to be, that is the question," which raised the REAL question of why would someone teach a parrot to stutter Shakespeare).
     If you're curious, try a library or used book store, and try to find the original versions if you can.
     Did you have a favorite series as a child? Have you checked to see if it's still in print?  Let me know.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My books, my shelves

     In "The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot," one of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators mystery novels for young people by Robert Arthur, The young detectives are given a series of clues to figure out. One was, "It sits on a shelf like a well-fed elf." The solution? A book.
     Digital reader fans can store all of their books on one slim device, or on a laptop or desktop computer. Since I don't have one, I need not a shelf for a single fat elf, but more like an entire shire for my village of hobbits.
Ikea's Billy bookshelves "corner combination."

     My wife and I were considering  built-in bookshelves, but the time and expense were prohibitive. A colleague said Ikea had some kit furniture bookcases that looked almost built-in. After a trip to Canton, we purchased four six-foot-high "Billy" bookcases. (Extensions can be placed atop them, bringing them almost to the ceiling. They even sell a library-style ladder).
     I installed them in an "L" formation in one corner of a room that I now think of as "the library," giving us shelf space for about 500 books. That's more than enough space for most collections, but only about a fourth of my wife's and mine, so we're still using other, older shelves scattered throughout the house as well.
     My goal is to place every fiction book in alphabetical order by author, with other sections divided by category, and the tallest, heaviest books on the bottom shelves. My wife jokes (at least I think she's joking) that we should arrange them by color. Since I'm willing, even eager, to do the work of arranging them, I will probably prevail.

    How do you display your books? Let me know.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fall and Rise of 'Atlas Shrugged,' the Motion Picture

     When Strike Productions released "Atlas Shrugged: Part One" earlier this year, it was clearly a labor of love, but it was not a hit. The film, based on Ayn Rand's philosophical thriller, arrived like a thief in the night, with no advance reviews through the Associated Press, and no television commercials that I saw. With an estimated budget of $6.5 million (according to, it grossed even less ~ $4.5 million ~ before disappearing from theaters within a month or so.
     Rand's fans saw conspiracy: The film failed because the establishment, left-wing critics hated the film's message. Actually, the film was poorly reviewed, but when did that ever stop a movie from succeeding? The problem was that the producers didn't budget for an advertising campaign. Many, perhaps most, of the film's potential audience never even knew it had been released. The producers apparently hoped for a "Passion of the Christ" word-of-mouth campaign that would fill the seats with true believers without their having to spend a dime. Yes, but that film was 2,000 years in the making, not 50, and it was an emotional story for most of the world's population, both believers and nonbelievers. While Rand is popular among many conservatives and libertarians, some members of these groups shun her because of her atheism. Some selling was necessary.
     Also hurting was that the film is not exactly action-packed. "Atlas Shrugged" is a long novel, and the film is only the first of three proposed parts. The "action" is confined mostly to the final third.
     Finally, because of its small budget, the film has no real stars to attract non-Rand film fans.
     After the film finished its theatrical run, the producer was alternately quoted as saying he wasn't sure if he would make parts two and three at all, and that he would make them just to spite the critics.
     Now the producer said he will make the sequels, and "Atlas Shrugged: Part One" is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download (although, embarrassingly, the initial batch mistakenly describe the film as being about "self-sacrifice," a very unRandian concept).
     On, the reviews are all over the place, from the Randians who give it 5 stars and say anyone who doesn't like it is a second-hander (read the book if that deprecation makes no sense to you), to the equally strident Randites who rate it 1 star, say the film fails completely to express the novel's brilliance and urge you to read the book instead. Still, it gets an average of 4 stars overall.
     Incidentally, the cover features a blonde woman in a miniskirted business suit, carrying a briefcase, walking beneath a railroad bridge with the title built into the metal work. The film's theatrical poster was a sexless Atlas holding the Earth upon his shoulders. Both images ~ aside from the miniskirt ~ are appropriate images for the story, though the DVD image is sexier and more involving. It looks like the producers are learning how to market a film.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

     The U.S. film version of Stieg Larsson's phenomenally popular novel "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is coming to a screen near you on Dec. 21. The Swedish film versions of all three of Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy are already out on DVD. Some people are dreading the release.
     When a film is announced of a popular book, fans of the book worry about what indignities will be done to it. And fans of foreign films also worry about how bad an American version will be.This film has both camps worried.
     Hollywood's track record has been pretty bad. While recent films such as "Let Me In" (based on the book and film, previously translated as "Let the Right One In") and "The Ring" were acclaimed as  good and popular adaptations of their book and film sources, there are many others that blew it big time.
     The book's original title was "Man Som Hatar Kvinnor," which translates to "Men who Hate Women," and that is an accurate description of the book. The new title is more likely, I think, to inspire readers to pick it up, and it also places the character of Lisbeth Salander front and center. The actress who played Salander in the Swedish film was excellent, and some fans of the book were distraught at the thought of an American remake with some popular, big-name actress playing the part, despite being all wrong for it. Perhaps for that reason, or for artistic reasons, the filmmakers decided to go with a relative unknown who wouldn't have such baggage.
     The story does feature violence towards women by men who seem to hate women for just being women, and it's not really possible to eliminate it from the film. Fans of the book and previous film, even those who found it hard to read or watch, worry that the new version will tone it down too much to try to make it palatable to a larger audience.
     When Ayn Rand's novel "The Fountainhead" was adapted for film, one character's divorces were eliminated ~ one by her husband's suicide ~ because it was thought she would be less sympathetic otherwise. In the novel "Forrest Gump" ~ yes, it was also a book before it was a movie ~ Gump's girlfriend never marries him, though they do have a child. In the film, not only does she marry him, but she dies after having his child. Why? I presume to atone for her many "sins," at least as the filmmakers or focus groups saw them.
     I hope and expect that the filmmakers will leave ""Dragon Tattoo" relatively unmolested.
Do you have any book-to-film horror stories? Let me know..

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Steampunk for children

     I've previously written about "steampunk,"the branch of science fiction-fantasy that features Victorian-influenced technology and fashion, lots of black velvet and brass, often with Jules Vernes-type inventions and Babbage-inspired steam-powered computers.
     (Jeff Vandermeer's books "Steampunk," "Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded" and "The Steampunk Bible" are good introductions.)
     Magazines have adopted the imagery of steampunk for fashion shoots.  There are original online comics with steampunk elements, most notably the recently completed "Freakangels" and the ongoing "Girl Genius." The recent "Three Musketeers" film adds some steampunky elements, including airships. is full of original e-books in the genre, often combined with romance fiction and/or erotica.
     Now steampunk is coming for your children. Casssandra Clare has included steampunk elements in her "Mortal Instruments" and "Infernal Devices" series, but the recent "Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Stories," edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, is, I think, the first to make its steampunk connection explicit. And Edgar Allan Poe is getting a steampunk makeover, for ages 12 and older, with "Steampunk: Poe," illustrated by Zdenko Basic. The text of the selected stories is unchanged, but several steampunkish illustrations have been added. I've seen some of them on, and they look marvelous. I'm not sure if they will inspire me to buy the volume  (I already have several Poe collections, including a few illustrated ones), but a steampunk "Frankenstein" is also scheduled, and I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

e-Book Wars

     Two factors affecting the future of reading are the demise of Borders and the advent of digital books and reading devices. Now Barnes and Noble is in a digital dispute with one of the largest publishers of graphic novels, DC Entertainment, and the largest online book distributor, Amazon, and a digital reading device is at the heart of the matter.
     While e-book sales are rising, and may have surpassed physical books in sales, it’s hard to read a magazine on a Kindle or Nook. The Apple iPad is better however, with its larger screen and color monitor.
Now Amazon has launched a tablet to compete with the iPad, the Kindle Fire, and as part of its promotion of the new device, it has entered into an exclusive agreement with DCE to publish digital versions of “Watchmen” and 99 other graphic novels/collections, including “The Sandman” series.
     Barnes and Noble is also releasing an iPad rival, the Nook Tablet, and is upset that they won’t be able to sell these same 100 novels  in digital form. (One report says this exclusive deal is only good for four months.) So Barnes and Noble has retaliated by removing those 100 graphic novels from its brick-and-mortar stores (although you can still get them online if they are shipped to your home address). Books-a-Million, which bought some of the closed Borders stores, also removed the books.
     This may be a tempest in a teapot. The online community seems to be siding with DCE and Amazon for the most part, with Barnes and Noble described, in a derogatory fashion, as being in a snit. Others reasonably wonder why they need a Kindle Fire or Kindle app to view digital versions of graphic novels if they already have or prefer a Nook Tablet.
     I doubt this will turn into a VHS or Beta debate. After four months, DCE will probably allow a Nook compatible version, and may reconsider similar exclusive offers in the future. Possibly they just wanted to be included in the initial Amazon Kindle Fire publicity blitz and didn’t intend this is as a long-term business strategy (the publisher can sell more copies if customers can read it on a Nook, too, right?).
     Stay tuned.