22 October 2010

Post 236

It's been more than two years since my review of Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, so I feel like it's probably okay that I just read another modern work of fiction. I mean, certainly lots and lots of young men have served honorable, full-time missions in the time it took me to get around to it, so the overall good that's been add to the world since August 2008 will hopefully counteract whatever badness I'll bring into it by reviewing another novel.

Anyway. Enough pretending that reading fiction is a sin. On with the review!

Hugh Laurie. I know him mostly because of his role as the titular character in House. I remember one of my roommates went on a House kick, so I saw it from time to time. Honestly, hospitals make me queasy, so I didn't watch much, but I occasionally got a lot of enjoyment out of Laurie's performance and the character he portrayed. I really did. And then I remember one time when one of my roommates was channel surfing and I was riding his wave and we came across Stuart Little 2, and we saw Hugh Laurie playing a caring family man. It was jarring. We sat in a stupor for a while, watching this man talking sans gravel sans scruff sans sarcasm sans bitterness and doing it so well. And then, ya know, we realized we were watching drivel and changed the channel, but it was a magical moment for me.

The biggest surprise was when he won an award for his performance as House and got up to give a speech.

He's British! He's totally British!

I was shocked, and my roommates laughed at my ignorance.

And then just a week or so ago, I looked Hugh Laurie up on Wikipedia and was again shocked: the article started by calling him "an English actor, voice artist, comedian, writer, musician and director."

Wait, what?? English--check. Actor--check. Musician--check (he occasionally played piano on House; he's very good). Writer, director, voice artist--didn't know that, but no surprises. These are all things I can swallow. But comedian? Hugh Laurie is a comedian? House! Is a comedian? Unthinkable.

But I YouTubed Hugh Laurie comedy and, yes, he's a comedian. In fact, I think he's hilarious. In fact, if you care to take a three-minute-and-two-second detour and laugh a whole bunch, I beg you to click here.

Did you watch it? Did you laugh? Perhaps British humor isn't your thing; that's okay, I guess.

Anyway, after discovering that Hugh Laurie is funny, I learned that he is the author of one novel: The Gun Seller. So I had to give it a try. I looked it up on the Provo library website, saw that they had it and that it was not checked out, so I picked it up.

The first chapter was a brilliant mix of action and hilarity, and I giggled audibly throughout it (if you don't believe me, just ask my wife, who was trying to study at the time). I liked the second chapter even more because it was more funny and less action packed than the first.

At first, my feelings about the gun seller were very much the same as my feelings about Alcatraz, to wit:

The novel is in 1st person, and [very often], Alcatraz stops telling the story and goes off on random tangents. I, being the sort of person who would rather read a well-written essay than any book-length fiction, enjoyed these so thoroughly that, rather than seeming to get in the way of the story, I felt the story detracted from the tangents! I mentioned above that I occasionally found myself suffering through the story at times, but that was only because I wished Al would stop telling me his stupid story and go back to the good stuff.

Tom Lang (the main character and narrator in The Gun Seller) did the same sort of thing, but I enjoyed his tangents far more than Al's because the tangents are about real life things. I learned about guns and aerial tactics and diplomats--and lots of things not related to war. For example (though I'm a bit embarrassed to say this outright), one of my favorite parts was the book's one illicit sex scene ('cuz what's a Bond-genre book without a sex scene, right?). The scene itself was, I dunno, two or three three sentences that were nothing like explicit (Jack Weyland wrote a more explicit sex scene in his book-length-punch-for-LDS-family-services-masquerading-as-a-novel Megan, which I read in high school because it was a Christmas present). The reason I liked that part of The Gun Seller was that it caused Tom Lang to fill a double-page spread with some really down-to-earth thoughts about sex, which I really enjoyed (not least of all because of their stark contrast with the typical action hero's I'm-here, you're-here, we-may-as-well attitude on the subject).

So it's hard for me to recommend this novel as a novel. This is the first military-intrigue novel I've ever read, and I must say that I won't be picking up any Tom Clancy anytime soon because I really didn't enjoy it that much. Frankly, the ending came and I was like, "What? That's it? We defeated the bad guy, so now that story's over?" And also, in the second half of the book (it's divided into parts 1 and 2) Hugh Lorrie started cheating a bit by leaving out details to heighten the suspense (e.g. "'What do you want?' [I say, and then] I turn back to the window and listen to Barnes for a while, and when he's finished I take a deep breath, hoping desperately and not caring at all, both at the same time. 'When?' I say." pg 315-6). Maybe that's a convention in thrillers, but I don't like feeling left out of the loop. So I don't like the genre, and most of Part 2 is straight-up thriller with humorous descriptions and metaphors and sidenotes tossed in for flavor.

Another difficulty was the dialect. Mostly, I kept pace with the Britishisms okay, but sometimes they threw me. Usually just little things--like it took me almost a full chapter to figure out that "braces" means "suspenders"--so that wasn't too bad, but occasionally he'd say something that was totally incomprehensible to me, like this beaut from page 278:

'Twelve years in a sherry cask,' I said cheerfully, 'stuck out on a Highland hillside, waiting for its big moment - and then bang, doesn't even get to touch the sides. Who'd be a single malt whiskey?'

I had to read that one twice silently and then twice aloud to my wife before I could make any sense of it. Now, it seems glitteringly clear to me and I'm half afraid you'll laugh at me for not getting it. There were others that stymied me, but this one was easiest to find just now.

I suppose that, in regards to the British dialect, I should warn you that the F-bomb (such a terror here in the US that was have a name for it) is not used sparingly in this book. It flits around in GunSeller dialog like "Oh my heck" at a Spanish Fork young women's camp in the 90s. So, yeah--now you know.

I can't recommend Hugh Laurie's style enough; this book really was a joy to read. He's clever and fun almost all of the time (e.g. "When he got there, he sat down very slowly. Either because he was haemorrhoidal, or because there was a chance that I might do something dangerous. I smiled, to show him that he was haemorrhoidal." pg 266) and surprisingly poignant and touching here and there (right up there with the sex scene was one part where he talked about life's hard times, which was so good that I typed myself up a copy). For those reasons, I can't recommend this book highly enough. But the story itself is--I dunno--really, really interesting and exciting and fun and clever and smart, so if that's what you look for in a book, this is a good one, but I'da much rather just read a collection of essays by Hugh Laurie than this.

I guess I'm just boring.

The plot really was very good. There was action and there was romantic interest and there were several times when I inhaled sharply at the end of the chapter and turned my wide eyes to my wife and said, "The plot thickens!" (Unfortunately, I read the book silently to myself, so she didn't really understand what I meant. Cruel of me, really.) For that reason, I really did enjoy Part 1 a good deal more than Part 2 because Part 1 was more lighthearted and less military than Part 2.

The end of part one was where the action really started. Most of Part 1 was just witty writing diluted by all too much plot and character development (for me, I mean; you'd probably like it, if you're into that sort of thing), but then page 171 came around and turned me on my head.

"What?" I said aloud (my wife was at work at that moment, so I said this to an empty living room). "Wait, what?" and I had to get up and walk around, even though I was in the middle of the chapter. After the surprise had worn away, I sat back down to continue reading.

Little did I know that page 171 was nothing compared to page 172!

It really is a good book. I've tried to sprinkle some quotes in here and there to give you a taste, but I've left out my favorite parts so that, if you do decide to read the book, you won't have the best quips ruined. If you'd like, you can read a sample chapter online here. It's the first chapter, so it's a reasonable place to start; just remember that I said that I liked the first chapter, but "I liked the second chapter even more because it was more funny and less action packed than the first."

So in conclusion, let me just say that, if you like military-intrigue novels, this is a pretty good one, I think; if you like British humor, this is an excellent choice; if you like clever, thoughtful, witty, insightful writing, this is really top notch. It isn't my favorite novel, but I don't know that I've ever enjoyed reading a book more than I enjoyed this one--not since becoming an adult, at least (it really is hard for any book to compete with the thrill I got out of reading Marvin K Mooney Will You Please Go Now? as a child).

17 October 2010

Post 235

In response to what's going on over in Thutopia right now:

My relationship with money has always been a bad one. Not to say that I'm a hoarder or a gambler or a thief or a con artist or anything like that; me and money, we just don't get along so well. It's never been a reality for me. Even as a kid, it was just too theoretical a construct for me to grasp.

I was a strange kid (and still am, I suppose, in many ways). I can remember being no more than 5 or 6 years old (judging by the house we were living in) and trying to wrap my head around the relativity of money because the older of my two sisters had tried to explain to me that, though $100 seemed like a lot of money to us kids, it wasn't a lot of money for our parents, who had to pay on a mortgage and pay bills and buy food for a family of 8. This notion of relativity really got to me and the realness of money started to fade. Consequently, I can remember being 8 or 9 or 10 and getting in an argument with my nearest-aged sibling because I maintained that money was nothing more than paper, that it had no value, that it wasn't real. I can also remember being about the same age and pressing my parents for answers about what money was for, why we had it, who made it up, how it worked, and isn't there a better way? I remember in my early and middle teens getting in arguments with my mom because (get this:) she wanted to give me an allowance! She had set up a merit system in which we kids would do our daily and weekly chores and mark a calendar to say which days we had done them, and then she would pay us at the end of every month according to how much we had done. The first few months, I refused the money, telling her that she needed it more than I did and that I was confident that she could put it to more productive use than I could, but she insisted that I take it. Finally, I got wise and did my chores but simply neglected to mark the calendar. I can distinctly remember her being irritated and telling me that she knew I did my chores and then giving me an allowance anyway. (Meanwhile, the other two kids at home were constantly saying things like, "I really did do my chores; I just forgot to mark the calendar!" to which my mom would respond, "Do you think I'd get paid if I forgot to fill out my time card?")

What a strange kid I was--what a strange man I've been! I just glanced over the posts on this blog under my "money" label, and my my my how quickly I've forgotten how passionately I bashed money less than three years ago. As a kid, I just didn't understand it; as a young adult, I actually hated it. Now, as I near my quarter-century mark, I feel something entirely different, which strangely enough hearkens back to something that predates the money-bashing posts of this blog.

The final few months of my mission sent me home thinking about money a lot. In my penultimate interview with my mission president, he told me to be a millionaire. That really caught me off guard. He was telling me how much potential he saw in me, how great he thought I could become, and then he said, "You could do anything--be anything. Be a millionaire, Elder Jepson. There's nothing wrong with financial success. Be a millionaire and give it all to the Church."

A few weeks before that, my companion and I had been teaching a lesson to a man named Mickey Traylor. He was telling us about the circumstances that caused him to move from Texas to a suburb of Boise, and it mostly had to do with the fact that he had been getting so caught up in his financial success that his relationship with his wife had started to suffer, so he called it quits and took her far away to a place where they could just relax and enjoy each other.

"Money'll change you," he said.

"Money wouldn't change me," my companion assured him.

"Only people who've never had money say that," Mickey said. "I used to say that, but then I got money, and it changed me."

At the time, I thought that conversation was the final nail in the coffin of my estimation of money, but then I had that interview with my mission president, and I got confused.

Then came the very last day of my mission. My zone leader arranged for a member to give me and a few other home-bound missionaries a ride to the mission office. This member was a very wealthy man, and his advice to me as a returning missionary was to go home and make as much money as possible. "The Lord can't use you if you're poor," he said.

That naturally offended me, but the rest of his conversation was even worse. He spent the drive telling us the way he had amassed his wealth, and it was unethical and perhaps illegal. I really didn't understand, but I'll try to explain: he said that right after he got married, he bought a little house. Before buying it, he got it appraised at well more than it was worth, and then got a loan for the amount of the appraisal. He then talked the seller into selling it for much less than the advertised price, used his enormous loan to buy the house, and used what was left from the loan to invest enough money that the interest paid for (or at least helped to pay for) his monthly mortgage payment. Once that house had paid itself off, he sold it and bought a bigger house in the same way, which he sold and bought an even bigger house. He finished by saying, "I now live in a two-million-dollar house that pays me to live in it."

This man, for whatever reason, could not go all the way to the mission office, so he dropped me and the other missionaries off at another man's house. Some other home-bound missionaries met us there, and then that man gave us a ride to the office. When I asked this second man what he did for a living, he said, "As little as possible," which did not impress me. When I asked him for more details (because he had a nice living situation for someone who was at home in his PJs halfway through a Wednesday morning), he said something like, "Basically, I convince people who have a lot of money that they should have meetings with other people who make a lot of money so that they can learn from each other how to make even more money, and then I convince them to pay me a lot of money to set the meeting up."

And thus my conflict began. My mission president had exhorted me to become a millionaire, yet the wealthy people I met didn't make me want to join them. Very early on in my mission, I had had dinner with an anesthesiologist and his family. They lived in an enormous brick house with lots of land, but the kids of the family didn't think they had anything. From their conversation, I gathered that each child (I think there were four of them) had their own private room and bathroom and that for Christmas they had each gotten their own ATV, yet they were completely dissatisfied and asked their parents over and over, "When are we going to move into that big house we looked at?" I had at the time an awful sort of lurking pride regarding my middle-class (arguably lower middle-class) upbringing, and I was disgusted by those children.

When I first moved to Provo, I quickly became overly fond of this quote by Brigham Young:

The worst fear that I have about this people is that they will get rich in this country, forget God and his people, wax fat, and kick themselves out of the Church and go to hell. This people will stand mobbing, robbing, poverty and all manner of persecution, and be true. My greater fear for them is that they cannot stand wealth; and yet they have to be tried with riches, for they will become the richest people on this earth.

I guess I mostly lacked faith in myself. I assumed that if I ever became wealthy I would subsequently become petty, greedy, snobbish, and unaffectionate.

I've changed now. I've recently come out of a phase in which I was seriously considering pursuing a career in law. I think my highest desire right now--and this is certainly resultant from my recent wedding--is to become an excellent breadwinner. I still don't aspire to wealth, but I do hope for some material comforts. I never hope to have an expensive car or a mansion on a hill or a private jet, and I hope that if I'm ever in a financial situation to see such things as viable options that I'll find a better use for my money.

After that interview with my mission president, I decided that perhaps the most admirable thing to be is a middle-class millionaire, and in the past couple years I've discovered that our nation has quite a few of those--in fact, all the best financial advice these days is to live poor so you can retire well. I struggle with that idea because my immediate response to such advice is always, "What's the point of having all that money if you don't do anything with it?" I don't hope to have a Ferrari, but I do hope to have good, reliable transportation. I don't hope for a mansion, but I want a house that holds out the rain. I'm quite fixed on the idea that my kids will share bedrooms and bathrooms, but I don't want to shove them into bed-sized closets when I tell them good-night.

I guess what I'm saying is that I do want money, but I want happiness more. If I ever have money, I hope to use it well.

Be a millionaire, Elder Jepson--just don't be stupid about it.

08 October 2010

Post 234

Go me! I feel so validated! It's great!

I'm going to graduate in April, which means I only get one more semester after this one to milk my undergraduate career for all it's worth. One thing I've kinda been regretting recently is that, despite earning an English minor, I have yet to take a single creative writing course. It's just one of those things that I always wanted to do but never made a priority, and now I'm pretty well out of time.

There are two levels of creative writing courses here at BYU: a 200-level survey course that introduces students to methods of writing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and then there are three different 300-level courses that specialize--one for fiction, one for nonfiction, one for poetry. It's the 300-level nonfiction course that I've always been interested in, but the 200-level introductory course always stood in my way, and there were always other classes that I felt were more important.

Well, registration is approaching once again--the last time it will for undergraduate Schmetterling. About a week ago, I was looking at classes, trying to figure out my final semester's schedule, and I whimsically pulled up the nonfiction class. It has two sections, one of which is taught by a teacher I've heard very good things about--especially in regards to this class. An English-major friend of mine, upon hearing that I was interested in creative nonfiction, told me that this professor "is the king, queen, and prince of creative nonfiction." I really want to take this class.

I glanced at the prerequisites just to make sure that it was impossible when I found a loophole: "ENGL 218R or instructor's consent." So I decided to try my luck by sending the professor an email asking him whether there was any chance I could get his consent.

His response:

Thanks for your interest in the class. I rarely make exceptions, but I'd gladly take a look at a sample of your writing to determine whether you can take the class without the prerequisite. Send me something?

The juxtaposition of 'rarely' and 'but' made me feel less than confident, but I had to try it--especially since he was willing to give me a chance. I dug through my computer files, looking for something worth banking on. I found nothing. And then I thought of my other blog, so I grabbed a story off of it, gave it a quick brush up, and sent it off to him.

Four days went by--which, really, that's pretty impressively prompt for a professor to read a 6 pages of stuff written by a student trying to work the system--but it was still nerve wracking. Frankly, I'd already resigned myself to never being able to take that class.


Today I got this email, which made me feel oh so very good about myself:

That's a fun piece to read. I like it. You have my permission to sign up for English 317R. I look forward to meeting you next semester...

Yay me!

07 October 2010

Post 233

Without a doubt, my absolutely least favorite word in the whole English language (at least as far as my vocabulary extends) is twelfth. L, F, and TH in rapid succession? Seriously gross. Who thought that was a good idea?

05 October 2010

Post 232

A few weeks back, my wife and I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. I was really interested to see what a movie with no cuts would look like. As it turns out, Rope isn't exactly that: aside from the cuts that Hitch did his best to hide, there are deliberate cuts about every 20 minutes for when (according to Wikipedia) the projectionist had to change reels in the theater. Regardless, it was the closest thing to a single-shot film that I had ever seen, and I enjoyed it.

As I watched the film, I came to a very interesting realization: I didn't really notice the lack of cuts. More interesting still was that I noticed the hidden cuts more than I noticed the deliberate ones, and it occurred to me that a far greater miracle than a single-shot film is the fact that normal, multi-shot films don't disorient moviegoers. Because you think about it, there's nothing in real life that remotely resembles a movie. In real life, we can only ever have one perspective. So a single-shot film (or a play, for that matter) is much more analogous to real life than any movie, yet we here in modern society generally take cuts in stride. It makes me wonder whether the audiences watching the first multi-shot films were caught off guard by them.

It's hard to judge the success of Hitchcock's effect. I was shocked that it was so unobtrusive: I was almost as blissfully unaware of the camera work in Rope as I am in any other movie. But that's what we American moviegoers generally value, right--an unobtrusive cameraman? So perhaps the affect was perfectly well wrought. But if there comes a point that an affect can be so well done that it goes unnoticed, really, what's the point? It's like this blasted a cappella craze that's been slowly building in the past decade, culminating (and hopefully ending) with Glee. Yasee, I don't understand the point of getting a bunch of talented singers together, tossing in a beatboxer, and having them do their best to sound like they've got a band--why don't you just get a band? I remember the good ole days when the only a cappella I knew was Rockappella doing the theme song for Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?--which I liked because they sounded like an a cappella group. Now a group of people get on stage and try to sound exactly like Journey and I'm like, "BOO! Get off the stage!" because if I wanna listen to Journey, I'm gonna grab one of my Journey CDs, not go see a cover band that doesn't have a single guitar, keyboard, or drum set in sight.

But I digress. The point is that it's hard to judge the success of an effect whose epitome is invisibility, and that's what the carefully choreographed camerawork in Rope was. I watched some stuff about the making of it, and I was blown away by the enormously complicated set--the whole thing certainly was a cinematic tour de force--but in the end, what have we gained? Absolutely nothing. So really, as awesome as the undertaking was, what's the point?

On the other hand, my wife and I recently saw The Russian Ark courtesy of BYU's International Cinema. It actually was a single-shot, and the effect was inescapable because the main character was in first-person. It drove me crazy, but I'm not sure that was the film's fault. For one thing, we arrived about five minutes into it, and without cuts or scenes to reorient me, I was never able to get my feet on the ground. Also, for whatever reason, it was in really low resolution--like watching a low-res YouTube video in full-screen mode. I at first believed that that was a sacrifice that the director had made to be able to do 90-some-odd minutes of film in a single shot, but the Wikipedia article tells me that it was shot in high definition, so I don't know what happened there. Also, the subtitles were buggy: there were times when people were talking but there were no subtitles, and there were times when large crowds would just be hubbubbing and subtitles would come up that couldn't be clearly attributed to any one speaker. So it's really hard for me to give the movie a fair shake overall, but I think this affect was probably a lot better than Hitchcock's because it played a role in the film itself, and I think that's important. I'm all for artistic and experimental film making, but I feel like it has to be done to some end, and I don't consider "Let's see if anybody notices" or "Just because I can" are very good ends to work toward.