Category Archives: Reviews

Pottering at the Library

John and I went up to London again this past weekend, just for the day this time, to see the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at the British Library.

We had tickets for the evening but took the opportunity to spend the day kicking with Hogg before then. We met up at Fabrique, Swedish bakery next door to The Orc’s Nest which has delicious cardammon rolls. Then we did a tour of the local nerd spots; Orc’s Nest, Orbital Comics, and Forbidden Planet. At that last one they had Fred Gambino and John Harris art books on clearance for five pounds each, so we nabbed those and made our escape otherwise intact.

Hogg left us at the Library and we had just enough time to check our coats before it was our ticket time. The exhibition was a good size and explored the parallels and differences between the magic in the Potterverse and the history of magic in the real world, primarily but not exclusively in a European setting. It was divided roughly into sections focusing on objects, medicine, herbs, witches, and so on. The Potter and the other artifacts are intermingled in these sections for context, a good idea even if it was clear that for the most part the Potter parts were far more popular.

Some of the art and historical objects on display were world class; John William Waterhouse’s “The Magic Circle” for one, a favorite of mine and nice surprise. Also on display, an astonishing 16th century alchemical scroll describing the Philosopher’s Stone. The real-world artifacts range from purely fantastical to scientific, with a solid section belonging to both worlds in the form of alchemy and early science. One of my favorites there was an illustration by 18th Century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian of a bird eating spider, which was apparently dismissed as too fantastical by the established science community when she published originally.  A nice touch as well were a handful of objects from modern practitioners, mainly from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, which looks worth a visit.

The Potter artifacts were primarily in two categories; original notes and drawings by Rowling, and Jim Kay sketches and illustrations. The former were sometimes a little overblown (did HP “change the history of publishing forever”?) but generally quite interesting and occasionally very charming,  for instance the handwritten review by 8-year old Alice Newton, daughter of the head of Bloomsbury who convinced her father to publish the first book in the series. Also nice to see were Rowling’s illustrations, which are not bad at all and show how vivid the world and characters were from the get-go. Bu the Jim Kay illustrations were probably the best part, lovely pencil sketches for the most part, standouts included a simple portrait of young Harry, a wide view of the storefronts of Diagon Alley, and a big sketch of Hagrid, whom Kay describes as his favorite subject, a “mass of scribbles with eyes”.

 

Netflix-o-rama

There is so much genre television right now that it’s hard to remember how sparse the landscape once was not all that long ago. And how it seemed like you could only really have one subgenre at a time, horror or science fiction for example, but not usually both. Now there’s plenty to chose from, ranging in style, flavor, and quality. No longer do we have to sit through a craptastic hour of television just because it’s the only thing on the air with superheroes or vampires or whatever your favorite is.

Which is a roundabout was of saying I’ve been watching a fair bit of Netflix lately.

Person of Interest is my current obsession, basically taking the spot in my heart previously occupied by Fringe. The two series are very different in a lot of ways but both fill that action-thriller spot, have interesting explorations of ethics and morality, and manage to build a strong ensemble cast with excellent female characters. They also both share a clever approach to ideas that are not entirely novel but haven’t been explored quite so well previously on television. I do hope POI stays on target better than the latter seasons of Fringe did, though.

In superheroics Arrow has built from a workmanlike action hero series to a pretty decent comic book series, allowing itself to relax into the inherent absurdity of its genre. It’s still serious and angsty and often soapy as hell, but they seem to be having more fun with it and expanding into a shared universe both internally with more heroes and villains and externally with crossovers.

The Flash needed no long build up, maybe because of the groundwork already laid down by Arrow, and has more great comic book stuff per episode than you can count. The other thing it has going for it is a much lighter tone and a solid sense of humor, which is appropriate to the title anyway but has also always felt more like DC’s strength anyway. I loved the Mark Waid era of the comic back in the nineties and am enjoying the fuck out of the series so far.

Gotham is a bit more frustrating. I loved the first half dozen episodes; a little grotesque and a little weird but mainly focused on the story of the struggle to control Gotham by criminal syndicates, the corrosive effect of that struggle on the city’s public servants and citizenry, and the start of a crusade to clean it up by Gordon. It’s not quite in the superhero genre as we now know it more in that pulp era masked crime fighter sensibility of The Shadow or Dick Tracy. But towards the end the season there seemed to be a loss of focus, some clumsy writing in regards to several female characters, and just a general loss of focus. Hope they get back on track next season.

 

Netflix fix

Catching up on old shows seems to be the name of the game for me right now. I finally finished all of Fringe, which I had seen the first three or so seasons of a couple of years ago but decided to start from scratch. It was definitely worth the rewatch, although it’s also true that I found the final season underwhelming. The characters and humor kept my interest, but I found the central conceit of the first seasons much more compelling than the dystopian future element. Still, it felt satisfying to see everything wrapped up. I wish the show had gotten more attention when it was on the air, Olivia is a fantastic protagonist, John Noble deserved a boatload of Emmy’s, and the supporting cast was gold. Ah well.

Currently watching The West Wing, which I am having a bit of trouble with. The cast is great and the first season whizzed by alright… but as it goes on I find myself half enthralled and half irritated. The dialogue can be brilliant but is also distractingly loaded with authorial tics, particularly that cutesy repetition gag. And the fact that the same verbal style is shared by all the characters starts to wear after a bit, I like mannered dialogue fine but a Mamet movie only lasts 90 minutes and then you’re out. It doesn’t help that most of the female supporting cast is starting to really annoy me. Giving it till the end of season 2 to pull me back in.

And finally; Forever Knight, which I’m watching with my roommate. We just finished off season 2 and it’s still quite entertaining in a mid-90s vampire police procedural sort of way. It’s a relic from an era when genre television had smaller budgets and far less ambitious goals story-wise but its also fun to see how many things it actually did first which we’d later see in Angel and other vampire shows. Plus Nigel Bennet pops in regularly to keep things from ever getting to serious.

Next up, maybe some M*A*S*H?

Finished Moby Dick, and really enjoyed it.

Like most of the modern reviewers I’ve MalagaPhotos 116seen, I was surprised first of all by the humour, particularly in the first part of the book. And not just the humour, but also the easygoing and charming tone of the narrator. One of the other things I found charming is just how little the book cares about most of what we consider obvious rules of novel writing. Possibly some of that is the style of the time, I’m no expert, but you get the feeling that Melville doesn’t give a rat’s ass, he is writing exactly the book he wants to write and if that means switching viewpoints suddenly after hundreds of pages of a single narrator, or taking what is essentially a 200 page novella and inserting a 400 page book of mini-essays on whales and whaling in the middle, well so be it.

But the thing that surprised me the most is how sftnal it felt to me. Being steeped in genre makes me see it everywhere I suppose, but two thirds of this book is essentially HUGE infodumps. But they’re lovingly written, by an author who could probably write three more volumes on whaling and whales. I couldn’t help but think of a Neal Stephenson book, or the KSR Mars Trilogy. Melville gives you an outsider narrator in an essentially alien world who then describes it to an audience that he expects will know nothing about it. It is fascinating (for the most part, I admit I skimmed the last 50 pages or so of the middle) and sometimes just beautiful.