Thursday, August 18, 2011

30 Day Book Challenge - Day 7

Post 7 - Most Underrated Book

(Why yes, I did change the in-post header from "day" to "post".)

In the interests of making timely (ha!) and relevant posts, I'm going to interpret this category, and the next, as being books that I, prior to reading, either under-rated or over-rated, respectively.

When I first encountered Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, it was by stumbling across the film version of the book - a 1986 production starring Sean Connery, who, it must be admitted, was the reason I gave the film a second glance (Hey, look, Sean Connery in a monk habit!). I was preoccupied with something else at the time, and so didn't give the film my full attention, but I was intrigued enough to look up more information about it, and the book it was based on.

As I did so, the impression I got was that this would be a very difficult book to read, one that buried the story under oblique historical allusions. Thankfully, nothing could be farther from the truth - the book was very readable, despite being steeped in the culture of a 14th century monastery.

Being a 14th century monastery, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on literature and learning. In fact, one could say that this is the main theme of the book, or one of them at any rate (it's certainly the theme that was most relevant for me).

In the story, one of the biggest mysteries (besides "who's killing off all these monks?") is that of the monastery's library, which is forbidden to all but the librarians who bring the monks their requested texts. As the characters investigate, they find out that this library, and the knowledge it holds, is the key to the entire mystery, and there is plenty of discussion - even with the final villain - about literature, and especially whether preservation should be combined with distribution. To say more would be to give away too much of the ending, but as a nascent librarian I took especial interest in the issues being discussed as well as the skillful portrayal of an . . . outdated viewpoint.

There are also some clever literary references written into the book - for example, one of the monks, long gone blind and closely associated with the monastery's literally labyrinthine library, is named Jorge of Burgos, a clear allusion to the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was also blind a wrote a famous short story about a similar, though much expanded, library.

The most obvious literary reference, of course, comes from Brother William of Baskerville. While his pupil Adso of Malk is the narrator, Brother William is definitely the hero of the book. As can be inferred from his name, he is intended to be a reference the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes. The similarities continue with his appearance - taller and thinner than average, "his eyes . . . sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose" - all of these bring Holmes to mind*. Even in their vices, the two characters resemble each other - one amusing scene has Adso describing William's habit of picking and chewing certain un-named herbs, about which he is uncharacteristically reticent. The comparison between Holmes and Brother William is furthered even more by his use of amazingly developed deductive powers, especially one particular scene where he describes and names a missing horse, which he was never seen.

Actually, this last is an excellent example of how skillful Eco is at writing from a 14th-century viewpoint. After sending the befuddled monastery workers on their way, William explains that the detailed description of the missing horse was deduced not only from physical signs (footprints in the snow, tail-hairs left in the brush, etc.), but also from writings about horses: he quotes one authority's description of the "ideal horse", asserting that because the abbey thinks it's a good horse that they see it as conforming to that description; and notes that one famous logician uses a particular horse-name in his arguments, and therefore assumes that is the most likely name for any given real horse.

This use of scholarly writing as an unimpeachable authority serves several purposes - it illustrates the five-to-seven century difference in world-views, sets up part of the motivation of the final villain, and supports the general theme of the influence of books, both on human actions and on each other. That all of these threads were woven together, and in such a way as to make even 14th-century theological arguments at least mildly interesting**, was unexpected and contributed to my initial under-rate of the book. I am quite glad, however, that I went ahead and read it anyway.

*The blond hair and plot-significant, slightly anachronistic eyeglasses, however . . . don't.

** Although I freely admit that fictionalized arguments about outdated  doctrinal points might not be everyone's cup of tea, so to speak.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Avengers Assembled

The past couple of weeks have been good ones for period genre movies. Not only was the extra- terrestrial- invasion- Western Cowboys & Aliens released last weekend (look for that post some- time next week), but it's also been the debut week for the superhero- World War II film Captain America: The First Avenger.

Which was, in my estimation, an excellent movie. In the inevitable competition between Cap and Thor, I believe I prefer the former - though this is largely on account of a general preference for pulpy to cosmic action.

Luckily, Captain America has some fairly substantial pulp roots, being directed by Joe Johnson, who also directed The Rocketeer and won an Oscar for effects work on Raiders of the Lost Ark - the latter, in fact, gets a shout-out from the Red Skull, who criticizes Adolph Hitler's search for "trinkets in the desert" while he has harnessed the power of Asgard.

Yeah, Asgard. One of the numerous things the film did well was tying in the previous films, in a much more overt manner than the blink-and-miss references of previous films. As mentioned, the power source for Red Skull's weird war machines is an artifact from Thor's Asgard - the 'chapel' scene where he first acquires it makes this patently obvious - and his last scene strongly implies that he got swept up into the Bifrost. On the allied side, one of the SSR's scientists is none other than Howard Stark, future father of Tony, and apparently the inventor of a mid-20th-century hovercar.

Indeed, I was greatly impressed with the film's the pulpy super-tech, and the general look of the film - it's probably the first time I have walked out of the theater and thought "Hmm, I wonder if there's an Art of book available yet?" (There is.)

But it takes more than good art direction to make a decent film. Fortunately, Captain America pays as much attention to story and character as it does to spectacle. The focus, of course, is on Steve Rogers - I thought the film did an excellent job of showing how, even pre-serum, he displayed the qualities of bravery (his beating in the alley), intelligence (the flagpole incident), and selflessness (the grenade episode), and how the serum merely allowed him to give full expression to his already noble character, less the relatively short time he spends in the USO (which, though objectively it may have actually been an important contribution to the war effort, was certainly portrayed as Cap not living up to his potential).

Previously, I had mentioned that I thought the preview of the Tesseract at the end of Thor was an odd choice, telegraphing as it did the ending of this film. As it happens, this turned out not to be a big deal, as we see - or at least infer - what happens to Cap at the end of the war, at the beginning of the film. Knowing what's coming, the fate of the Cube isn't nearly as important (and we do see its final acquisition by the proto-S.H.I.E.L.D, in a nice scene that builds both Cap's and Howard Stark's characters, without Cap even being present).

The film proper ends with Cap's introduction to the modern world, in a scene which cunningly mirrors the first few moments after he took the serum. Showing up to explain things is Nick Fury (of course), leading into next spring's Avengers film - which, now that all the principals have been shown, was previewed in a teaser trailer after the credits. Is it May 2012 yet?

Anyway, despite that buildup I think that Captain America works equally well as a stand-alone movie. It's not without its flaws - I was particular bothered by a few scenes in the "battles montage" that screamed "obviously supposed to be in 3-D!!" - but the good parts of the movie more than make up for it.