Monday, June 30, 2008


A cheerful bit of unashamed fanwank affectionately dedicated to Simon and Rob Shearman (wherever he may be!). I suppose I should really dedicate it to Steven Moffat, too, but I’ve already done that with “The 1969 Diaries” and “A Hull of a Time.”

From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Thu, 9 September 2012 16:03:48 -0600
Subject: Genealogy

Hey Terry,

Sorry for the long silence. Things got really crazy at work—and then really crazy. But now I’m my own boss, no more PAing to some schmuck I can’t stand, much less respect. I’ve come into a bit of money, too, and that’s kinda why I’m writing. Last time I visited, I heard you talking about doing a little bit of family history, genealogy and family trees and stuff. I’ve been interested for years in the family, but I just haven’t had the time. So I was wondering if you could e-mail what you’ve found out or if I have to go all the way to England for it? ;-)


From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Fri, 10 September 2012 02:17:04 GMT
Subject: Re: Genealogy

So how are things really on the other side of the Pond, Di? I remember hearing something about your old boss—what’s his name? Van Statten. I thought he disappeared. What really happened? You’re not going to keep secrets, are you? If you’re not PAing, what are you doing?

More questions than answers! Yes, I’ve done a little bit of research into the family, and I’m happy to share it. Surely you’ve got the “big bucks” to hire a private jet and fly to Heathrow? What kind of money did you come into?


From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Fri, 10 September 2012 16:03:48 -0600
Subject: Re: Re: Genealogy


I don’t think it’s really fair for you to criticize bosses considering who you used to work for. Making mistakes is part of human nature, though, isn’t it?

Are you going to give me the family tree or not? By the way, Mom says hi.


From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Mon, 13 September 2012 06:12:38 GMT
Subject: CALM DOWN!

Okay, okay. I’ve got something that might interest you. The Goddard side of the family. A great-great-great-great grandfather (or something like that) was a doctor in the 17th century. In fact, he was Cromwell’s personal physician and followed him around on all his campaigns. He was at the Siege of Drogheda and wrote rather a curious account of it, I’ll try to get it for you. Anyway, he was one of the founding members of the Royal Geographical Society. People of my generation would say that’s “cool.”

From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Mon, 13 September 2012 11:04:17 -0600
Subject: stupid question ;-)

What’s the Siege of Drogheda?

From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Tues, 14 September 2012 09:10:12 GMT
Subject: Oh dear

I lament for you Yanks if your grasp of history is so poor. Yet you are not easily able to forget the unfortunate accident with President Winters. Honestly, when is your press going to stop griping about it? Bringing it up all the time isn’t going to make things any better!

Anyway, Siege of Drogheda. Sorry, you rile up a history teacher . . . Ireland, 1649. Brutal. English army starving the Irish out. Really starving them out. Something hard to envision in your age of touchscreens and plasmic interfaces or whatever you’re developing out there now. Do have a serious thought about coming to visit. Tell your mum as well.

From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Thu, 16 September 2012 16:47:48 -0600
Subject: Re: Oh dear

First of all, just because you’re my cousin doesn’t mean you can insult my intelligence, Terry. You didn’t even know where Utah was before you looked it up on Mapquest. Second of all, you have no right to criticize the American press. You worked for Harold Saxon, and he murdered President Winters! Yes, he was insane, but it is an old joke around here, how Britain could have elected a Prime Minister like that. And no, we are not just jealous because you had the Valiant first.

From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Mon, 20 September 2012 02:23:16 GMT
Subject: In Pace!

Shall I extend the olive branch? I admit it: I was on the campaign trail for Harold Saxon, but they discovered years ago it was a sophisticated brainwashing technique. No one can explain to me quite how it was done, but it all made perfect sense when they did an exposé on it. Actually, I’d never even met Harold Saxon: I spoke to his people on the phone, but really, I was doing the campaigning on the grass roots level.

As a peace offering, I’ve managed to get a copy of Dr. Goddard’s journal from 1649 faxed from some library in Ireland. I’ll attach the whole PDF but I just thought I’d highlight to you the most interesting bits. There was another doctor—our ancestor says he was “a small man, dark in coloring, with a most unusual piercing glance.” He had these friends, a rather Amazon-like woman named Elizabeth and a young man Cromwell almost had hung as a witch! It’s rather fascinating stuff, when you get down to the nitty gritty. Take a look if you’ve got time. I’ll do work on the other side of the family, too.

Your most obedient servant,
Cousin Terry

From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Mon, 20 September 2012 16:14:47 -0600
Subject: Re: In Pace

Hey, thanks for the PDF. You’re right, it’s pretty interesting stuff. Cromwell and the strangers. Is the name Hex really historical? It seems a bit out of place to me. There was this guy, when we had the really crazy days a few months ago—I can’t say too much and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But he was called the Doctor—just the Doctor—and even though he looked nothing like the one Dr. Goddard talked about . . . they sound the same. I wonder if they’re related?

Do you still have the photos of your grandmother? I’m also interested in researching that part of the family—such great stories.


From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Thu, 24 September 2012 07:16:22 GMT
Subject: Re: Re: In Pace

I can’t think in what way the doctor in 1649 resembles someone called the Doctor who, if I’ve got the story right, was involved in the disappearance of your EX BOSS (but we won’t go into that; I can understand you want to keep mum about it). Except that they’re both just known as the doctor. But if you say so, Diana, who am I to argue?

No, I’m afraid I don’t have the photos of Grandmother. You know she had some peculiar traits and quirks. No doubt your mum has told you some interesting stories . . . letting slip she knew there was going to be a world depression in 1929, warning a great-uncle not to go to London to visit a friend right before a German bomb dropped on the friend’s house, you know. Always seemed a bit uncanny to my dad, never quite got used to Nan, I don’t think. But we all thought she was lovely!

The long and short of it is, Diana, that Grandmother had one last request before she died, and she told me about it. Not Dad, not Mum, not your mum. I was small when she gave me the envelope, and though she made me promise to follow it to the letter, she told me not to read it until I came of age. Then it all made sense. Well, not really, it didn’t make sense at all. I was supposed to take the old photos you remember, of Grandmother and Grandfather and our parents as kids, plus some other things, to an address and deliver them to someone called Sally Sparrow. She’d given all these details. It was quite spooky, really.

An exact date, you understand, an exact time. Turned me quite off at first, I wanted nothing to do with it. But then I thought, what’s the harm in fulfilling a dead grandmother’s last request? Sally Sparrow didn’t believe me, didn’t understand. But I did what I promised Nan I would do. It gets a bit hazy after that because I was still campaigning for Saxon at that point.

Well, I’ve done and written you a novel. Sorry. The short answer is that I don’t have the photos anymore. But you’re welcome to see an engraving of our ancestor Dr. Goddard any time you like. I bought it on eBay.


From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Fri, 25 September 2012 16:16:06 -0600
Subject: Doctor Who?

I own eBay, Terry, I’d know if there was an engraving of our Dr. Goddard for sale! Really, you are the world’s greatest fibber sometimes. I don’t know whether to believe a word of what you’ve just said about Grandmother and someone named Sally Sparrow. I mean, who’s got a name like Sally Sparrow?

I got a hold of some of the CCTV footage of the Doctor—my Doctor, the one at the site in Utah. It’s classified, for reasons I can’t divulge—don’t look at me like that, Terry—but I was able to sift out a .jpeg of the Doctor. I’m going to attach it. I KNOW there’s probably no connection between him and the guy in Cromwell’s army, but just have a look and maybe you’ll understand. Dr. Goddard talks about his “unusual piercing glance,” and that’s totally what he had.

Years back, there used to be something called LINDA but it’s all gone off the Internet now.

From: “Terry Muffaletto”
Date: Sat, 26 September 2012 21:04:05 GMT
Subject: Re: Doctor Who?

Diana, I hope this Doctor thing isn’t going to become some kind of obsession. Believe me, I’ve done the obsession thing—trying to figure out how Nan knew the things she knew—and it just is unhealthy. I think it made me more susceptible to the Saxon brainwashing.

And I’m not lying about the engraving OR Sally Sparrow! She ran upstairs when I tried to give her the photos. I couldn’t stay any longer—nor did I want to, really—so I gathered them all up nicely (she’d thrown them all over the floor!) and left them on the banister for her. What she did with them, I’ve no idea. I think I saw her last year—at some kind of a book fair. But I wasn’t about to go up to her and say, “D’you remember me? My grandmother made me give you a bunch of photos at some derelict house a few years ago.” She’d think I was mad!

I think I figured it out. There was a coup. You said that 200 personnel died in the Utah compound? Well, there must have been a protest staged by some religious group—your EX BOSS offended a lot of people—and it just got out of hand. Yes? Am I right?


From: “Diana Goddard”
Date: Mon, 28 September 2012 10:20:47 -0600
Subject: Re: Re: Doctor Who?

Don’t quit your day job, Terry, you’re not the new Sherlock Holmes. See, I’m not as culturally deficient as you think.

Did you look at the .jpeg or what? I meant to tell you, I got a phone call from Nottingham—that’s your neck of the woods, isn’t it? It was actually a message—my PA took it down and played it back on the voice mail for me. It claimed to be this kid, Adam Mitchell, who was working on the Utah project before things went—what do you say over there? Pear-shaped? Anyway, he claimed he’s just been on an extraordinary journey with the Doctor and his girlfriend Rose and that he HAD to tell me about it, because I was the only one who’d believe him. I’ll see what he has to say, but he was raving like a lunatic.

Look, I’ve just booked my flight over Christmas to see you and your folks. I’ll only be able to get off for a few days—breakneck schedule, trying to develop ways of marketing environmentally-sounded carburetors after the ATMOS scandal—but, you see, I’m actually making good on a promise. I’ll see you at the airport!

x Diana

Friday, June 27, 2008

who i want to be when i grow up

Evan always says I should want to be myself when I grow up, and I agree with her. But having finished another O’Brian novel that just filled with me with joy, I decided I wanted to pay a tribute to the four (so far) people I most want to emulate in life and art. (I wanted to do a much longer entry about all the people through the history of the world who I admire—whether they deserve it or not—but someday when I’ve got more time I’ll do it.)

Patrick O’Brian, OBE (1914—2000)
Patrick O’Brian was born Richard Patrick Russ (changing his name in 1945) in Buckinghamshire to parents of Irish and German descent. He wrote his first book at age 12 (!) which was published in 1930 and a slew of young adult novels published through the 1950s. He moved in 1949 to the village of Colliuore in the Catalan region of Southern France with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, where he lived for the remainder of his life (and is buried there). There he met Pablo Picasso about whom he wrote a comprehensive biography (he also wrote the biography of Sir Joseph Banks). He was an accomplished translator, translating Simone de Beauvoir and a biography of Charles DeGaulle from the French.

O’Brian began writing the Aubrey/Maturin novels in 1970, beginning with Master and Commander; he was working on #21 at the time of his death. His wife Mary was his editor and typist (he handwrote all of his manuscripts). Her death in 1998 was a severe blow. His books have sold over 300 million copies in the US alone. He once said, “Obviously, I have lived very much out of the world: I know little of present-day Dublin or London or Paris, even less of post-modernity, post-structuralism, hard rock or rap, and I cannot write with much conviction about the contemporary scene.” Of the many interesting and instructive links I could give you about POB, here is the most charming: a species of weevil named after him (for the joke this refers to, see the Peter Weir film of Master and Commander).

I came to Patrick O’Brian through my mom, of course, who was already a fan, and I’m not ashamed to admit it was the Peter Weir film that inspired me to start reading. (And it’s a very good film and launched my desperate passion for Dr. Stephen Maturin.) I’ve absolutely adored every single thing I’ve read of his, now totaling four books, and savor every chapter in the Aubrey/Maturin saga as a treat once per year. I honestly think he is the best historical writer who has ever lived, and only in my wildest dreams could I come close to his unparalleled skill.

Verity Lambert, OBE (1935—2007)
Verity Lambert did very well in school but was told by her headmistress that she was “not university material.” Her parents sent her to the Sorbonne before she got a secretarial degree. She tried to break into television at Granada Studios before going to the ABC and the BBC and New York. In 1963 she became the successful producer of Doctor Who, which she produced for 19 stories. At 27, she was one of the youngest producers in the history of the BBC.

Further success followed, as through the ‘60s and ‘70s she produced Adam Adamant Lives!, W. Somerset Maugham, Rumpole of the Bailey, The Naked Civil Servant, (which won the Prix Italia and an Emmy) Quatermass, Danger UXB, and The Flame Trees of Thika. She launched the career of writer Linda LaPlante in Widows. Her marriage to Colin Buckley in 1976 had dissolved by 1984, and her years at Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment were frustrating. She started her own company, Verity Cinema, and recruited a largely female staff. She had great success with A Cry in the Dark, but ultimately abandoned film work for TV. The massive soap Eldorado flopped, but she produced four seasons of Jonathan Creek. She received an Alan Clarke Award before she died, at age 71, from cancer.

I must have first read Verity Lambert’s name as a producer for Doctor Who around 2001, and it excited and intrigued me, as I thought it was fantastic that a woman should have been the show’s producer in 1963. Women involved in the show in any capacity other than acting are rare indeed, and I did vaguely wonder what sort of woman she was. Sadly, I didn’t get the full picture on Verity until she died, but then I realized she was a person of boundless energy who didn’t let anyone get her down. As the only non-writer in this bunch, I recognize her superior skills in making things work. She also really believed in herself and kept working despite setbacks. She was a woman of remarkable courage whose legacy lives on in British TV to this day.

Bill Bryson, OBE (1951--)
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and pursued his degree at Drake University before dropping out in 1972 to go backpacking around Europe. He got a job at a sanatorium in England in 1973 and met his future wife, Cynthia. The couple returned to the US so Bryson could complete his degree in 1977, then settled in Yorkshire until 1985. He worked for The Times and The Independent until 1995, when his first child was three years old. He then moved the family back to the US, to Hanover, New Hampshire. As an independent writer he returned to Norfolk in the UK in 2003, where he continues to live.

His first major book was Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, followed by The Mother Tongue and English and How it Got That Way (on English etymology). He wrote further travel books such as Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, and In a Sunburned Country and authored a popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, (for which he won the Aventis Prize), as well as a memoir and a biography of Shakespeare in 2007. He was appointed Chancellor of Durham University and given honorary degrees from a host of universities. In 2003, Notes from a Small Island was voted by UK participants in World Book Day as the book that best sums up British identity.

Again, my mom was the fan. I read A Walk in the Woods right before I left for the UK and laughed all the way through it. I was surprised to hear Bryson delivering audio commentary at the Roman Baths in Bath. I thought it was the best audio commentary I’d heard! I recently read and utterly loved Notes from a Small Island, and A Short History of Nearly Everything was recommended to me by Simon Guerrier as one of his favorite books. Not only is he critically acclaimed, hugely successful, and consistently hilarious, he’s an American Anglophile who somehow manages to be funny and heartfelt to both nations. I’d like to be all of these things someday.

Jacqueline Rayner [future OBE recipient?] (1971?--)
There isn’t a lot of biographical information available on Jacqueline Rayner, though apparently she was married in 2002. She also seems to love chocolate cake, and I will reprint (unless the BBC or Ms. Rayner herself tells me not to) her quasi-Evelyn Smythe chocolate cake recipe. Her first Doctor Who work was an audio adaptation of Paul Cornell’s Oh No It Isn’t! featuring Benny Summerfield and Big Finish’s first play, in 2000. She went on to write two more Benny audio plays and two Benny novels. She wrote two novels for the BBC EDA (Eighth Doctor Adventure) range, EarthWorld and Wolfsbane.

As executive producer at Big Finish for a number of years, she also wrote two Doctor Who plays, The Marian Conspiracy and Doctor Who and the Pirates. She edited and contributed to several of Big Finish’s Short Trips anthologies before being tapped to write a Ninth Doctor book (Winner Takes All) and two Tenth Doctor books (The Stone Rose and The Last Dodo). She is also part of the Time Team for Doctor Who Magazine.

Jacqueline Rayner is probably my favorite Who writer of all time (yes, above Moffat, Holmes, and the rest) and, cor, she’s also a woman, so in some ways she’s my inspiration. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read of hers, including Wolfsbane (to date, my favorite EDA), Winner Takes All, The Stone Rose (which I’d have loved to have seen in place of “Fires of Pompeii,” no offense), several short stories, and The Last Dodo. Jamie’s the one who recommended The Marian Conspiracy as my first Big Finish play, and it was absolutely wonderful. Even better, and, tying with Southland by D.J. Britton as the best radio play of all time, is Doctor Who and the Pirates.

Sources: Blue at the Mizzen: W.W. Norton Mourns Patrick O’Brian, on their US website
Jacqueline Rayner interviewed on
Tise Vahimagi, “Verity Lambert.”
“Tough at the Top,” Doctor Who Magazine #391.
Wikipedia entries on Bill Bryson, Patrick O’Brian, and Jacqueline Rayner.

And the cake recipe:
6oz marg (melted) 6oz caster sugar 6oz self-raising flour
• 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
• 2 free range eggs
• 2 heaped tablespoons cocoa, mixed with 2 tablespoons hot water. Mix everything up together. Put in two tins and cook for 25-35 mins at 170 deg C. After they've cooled, sandwich together with vanilla or chocolate butter icing.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

cor blimey

I recently finished a book by Rafael Sabatini, one of my favorite writers, but it wasn’t his best effort. On the contrary, On the Road to Samarcand, one of Patrick O’Brian’s first books, was utterly enthralling and about the most reading fun I’ve had since I finished HMS Surprise. As it predates Aubrey and Maturin it concerns a different (but nonetheless beloved) set of characters and is similarly an adventure novel. Rather than the Napoleonic Wars, it concerns the 1930s (I think) and though there is one stirring scene at sea, it mostly takes place on land.

It’s the unlikely story of a young American boy whose missionary parents have died in China. He is in the care of his uncle Terry Sullivan, an Irishman by birth, an American citizen by choice, and captain of his own schooner. Sullivan and his compadre Ross—a Scottish engineer—determine the boy, Derrick, should be sent to school at the behest of his cousin, the English professor Ayrton. Joining their overland party on the road to Samarcand is Olaf, a Swedish sailor, and Li Han, a Chinese sea-cook with aspirations of a University degree. Derrick acquires an enormous dog named Chang, and in the company of three Mongols including Chingiz who is Derrick’s age, they find the road to Samarcand more and more elusive. But as Viggo Mortensen once said—and as Tolkien knew very well—the point isn’t the destination, but the journey.

The book begins with a typhoon, proving it does indeed have the O’Brian pedigree. At this stage you realize that its O’Brian’s confidence as a storyteller that may be responsible for his success. He writes about a typhoon as if he were accustomed to surviving them regularly. He writes about Chinese war lords, the Gobi Desert, the Himalayas, South Seas pirates, and ancient Han jade as if he had a degree in all these things. As a consequence, the reader follows him anywhere, without question, thirsting for the next plot twist.

O’Brian is also a master of humor. Most of the humor derives from Olaf’s literal response to situations, Li Han’s over-exaggerated dialect, or indeed the Professor. In my mind I had the voice of Nicholas Pegg, who played Captain Emanuel Swan in Doctor Who and the Pirates, as the Professor, but the truth is, the Professor was much braver and much more likeable than Swan. The Professor begins as an erudite, effeminate academic. To make Derrick “feel more at home,” he learns Americanisms and goes through the rest of the book calling people “swollen.” (He means that they’re swell.) “I am sure you are a very swollen guy, and we shall be great budlets.”

But, as I say, the Professor grows in sagacity and courage. You fear, like the rest of the crew, that he will be a total liability on the road (despite his fluent Chinese), when he cares more about pot sherds than heeding dead bodies on the ground. Turns out the “peaceful scientific expedition” runs afoul of the terrifying warlord Shun Li who captures Ross and Sullivan. It is astonishing to what lengths a human being can be pushed if the safety of his friends is on the line. The Professor effects a daring escape by posing as a Russian collaborator, Derrick as a simple Mongol boy, and Li Han as a seller of charms (which happen to cause the breakdown of all the warlord’s tanks and lorries, a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in Indiana Jones). When the Professor has the chance, in a rather stunning transformation, he turns the gun on Shun Li. “You know, I have half a mind to shoot this loathsome fellow before we leave.”
“You’re not going to, are you, sir? He’s unarmed.”
“No. I am not. But it would be a taste of his own medicine, and one so rarely has the opportunity of expressing one’s dislike so forcibly.”
Fortunately Shun Li gets his just desserts without the Professor having to take to violence. Such a thing might happen to someone the Doctor had spared!

The book takes a very interesting stance toward violence, despite the fact the characters practice it constantly. “Aggressive war is the great crime of the world.” This is consistent with remarks made upon religion: “It is always the same terribly sad story, over and over again. With us it is Catholic and Protestant—first one oppressing the other with horrible cruelty . . . With the Mohammedans you have the extreme, bloody-minded puritans and then on the other hand, the open-minded Sufi.” I have to say, the lamas of Tibet do not come off very well, with the Red-Hats being unbearable aggressors and the Great Silent Ones being incredibly arrogant.

But by comparison, the rogues in the book are heroes. Ross and Sullivan’s friend, the Tu chun Hsien Lu, is full of stories of derring-do; Sullivan’s escapades as a pirate after being shanghaied (and his Robin Hood/Little John meeting with Ross) fill pages. Olaf’s experiences with his Lapland grandmother are as interesting as the Professor’s long digression on jade. The only things missing, curiously, are Derrick’s reminisces about his parents. Much is made of education; Sullivan and the Professor are equally esteemed, as Jack and Stephen were in the Master and Commander books.

I was just reflecting that there were no women in the book when, after being cornered by two armies of Kazaks, the party found themselves in a Tibetan village. Not only were there women there, but it’s a matrilineal, polyandrous (“Polly Andrews!” exclaims Olaf) society that takes a shine to Olaf. This section of the book had me in fits of laughter for 10 pages. I won’t spoil it for you, but the lack of women in O’Brian’s books is a bit curious. To be sure, when Sophia Williams and Diana Villiers show up in Post Captain, they are so well-written, you can be certain it’s not lack of skill that keeps female characters out of O’Brian. I wonder if he shares Sullivan’s opinion: “I’ve had something to do with women, and they’re all the same: they always get you down in the end.”

I was quite delighted to see the expedition have a run in with the Abominable Snowmen, though O’Brian is—just as well—equivocal about it. In tone, it’s very similar to The Long Walk, which used to be my favorite book of all time. I also wonder if both books might not have inspired the Doctor Who story about the Yeti. The end of the book has the kind of astonishing send-off you’d expect as a climax to all this adventure, and I admit I cried.

The characters may not be as well-developed as Aubrey and Maturin, but I came to care for them very, very much, as they grow to care for each other. The scene of the Professor clasping Li Han and valuing him over the priceless jade given to them by Hsien Lu is awfully cinematic. So, too, is the expedition walking past the thousands of skulls at the Kazak Tomb. Why this (and The Long Walk) have not been long ago developed into films, I can only conjecture (probably due to the authors’ refusal). I wish they’d let me make a film out of it! (My mom and I have already decided on a cast list.) I was very happy when, everywhere they went, the expedition drank tea (green and in bowls) and had the yak-butter tea as described in The Empire of Tea. This is likely a region of the world I will never get to, but it is wonderful fun to read about.

Friday, June 20, 2008

No one reads this anyway, but maybe the authors will enjoy getting the plug.

I didn’t start reading DW fan fiction until April 2006, once I was well-established into the new series. There’s a lot of fan fic, of a sort, already, in the books [CDs, etc]. I don’t know if the fandom lends itself to great writing, there are a lot of great writers who write for DW, or if I’m just easily impressed . . . but this seems to be almost the largest category [in my favorite fan fic series].

Backwards Traveller by Lydia Hunter
(6)A great concept—the Sixth Doctor and Peri find Ian Chesterson has become a best-selling science fiction author (and he married Barbara, duh). Funny, well-written, and surprisingly sweet.

The New Doctor on the Block series by Margaret Price
(multi) This reduced me to fits of giggles. The Ninth Doctor joins the club, much to the Eighth’s agony (because he’s not canon anymore). The First, Second, and Third Doctors write naughty slash fan fiction, and Tegan has a rather interesting interaction with the Ninth. Lewd, a little rude, and very apt. I can’t wait for the Tenth Doctor to join the club.

Dinner for Two by warinbabylon
(9) Okay, silly, slushy fun, I admit. I’m way too susceptible to these fluffy Nine/Rose pieces. After "Father’s Day," the Doctor and Rose deal. This is remarkably well-written for its length and general lack of a plot.

Walking Away by Carmen Sandiego
(8) This was beautiful, and also extremely sad. The Eighth Doctor comes to see Dr. Grace Holloway just once a year—on New Year’s Eve. I love the not-oft-exploited pairing, and the amount of detail and characterizations are impressive.

Déjà vu? Possibly … by the Secretive Bus
(multi) This is good for a laugh. The Doctors try to diffuse a bomb.

April Showers by Carmen Sandiego
(9) Ooh, this is a killer. Angsty, hurtful, downright mean Doctor # 9. A bit uncanonical, but, still, worth reading.

Ghost in the Machine by Rain
(multi) Oh, I loved this. Technobabble causes Rose to get stuck in the TARDIS during different eras of different Doctors, and not only is it funny, it’s quite touching in parts. A memorable moment is when Rose spies the Fourth Doctor stepping out of the shower. There’s a lovely interlude where she has tea with the Eighth Doctor. Good stuff.

Percy Gets the Job by DIY Sheep
(multi) Someone could have used spell check and a better beta-reader on this, but the concept is quite funny. And it’s pleasant and short. The Sixth Doctor consumes fruit juice, the Fifth Doctor stares pointedly at a scone, the Master makes a cameo, and Percy James Kent-Smith chews his nails.

Mistress of Dread by Emery Board
(9) This one reminds me a bit of serialized Victorian novels, as the writer seems to write herself into corners that she barely gets out of . . . nevertheless, I really enjoy it. Jack, Rose, and the Doctor end up in ancient Egypt, where the Osirians from "Pyramids of Mars" are causing a ruckus. The writer knows the characters well, and while she’s definitely pressing the shippy relationship between the Doctor and Rose early on, I think her writing is good enough to earn it. Plus, it’s obvious she’s done her research into the period. And one likes to think of Jack dressed like an Egyptian. Heh.

The Sins of Adam by AND
(9) The Doctor and Jack dance. (Dance, not "dance." Get your mind out of the gutter.) Rose giggles. The Doctor tests Jack. Jack passes. Despite this simple formula, this is better written than most, and less shippy than you would think.

Blackadder and the Doctor by RapidEyeMovement
(multi) I’m not all that familiar with Blackadder, but I still found this enjoyable. I like the fact that not all the Doctors are involved, just a select few, and the author writes all of them quite well. It’s also, obviously, funny.

Dr Who the Internet and Fan Fiction by Margaret Price
(6) Really, really funny. "Literature is like wine, my dear Peri. But this! This is vinegar!"

Bed Rest by Gary Merchant
(4) Non-shippy amusing piece about the Fourth Doctor getting the flu and being nursed back to health by Romana II. The dialogue is bang-on.

Daytripping by Lilacfree
(5) I have to admit, I never thought of the Fifth Doctor shipping with anyone. This piece single-handedly made me at least accept the idea of Tegan/Doctor shipping. The reason is that it’s so low-key and soft, it’s only a hint, really, of anything beyond the platonic. Which is so rare, sometimes! Obviously, the two characters are written well. It’s a nice change in terms of mood.

One Thing We Always Suspected about Captain Jack by Red Scharlach
(9) Okay, if you’re looking for three-way Doctor/Rose/Jack sex . . . then you’re not going to find it in this fic. You will, however, find that discussed, on Freud’s couch, no less. If you ever wondered why the Doctor never started kissing people until recently, you can find the answer here. And laugh, a lot.

Dancing in the Dark by Kaethel & WMR
(9) Finally, I recommend this one only conditionally—it earns its R-rating. So if you’re offended by the thought of a semi-serious threesome between our favorite characters . . . then you’d better not read it. But don’t think it’s a PWP. It paints a darker picture of Jack than you’ll see other places, which is refreshing. And the writing is quite strong.


my country 'tis ofthee

I always say that nothing good ever came out of American TV, but then I have to remind myself of The 10th Kingdom. And Faerie Tale Theatre. And Firefly. And Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Rome, The Golden Girls, Ugly Betty, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Heroes. And now John Adams, the HBO mini-series based on the biography by David McCulloch. At seven hours long, it’s not for the uncommitted—but I dare you not to watch the first part and not be sucked into it.

Laura Linney is always dependable, but I was skeptical of Paul Giammatti. However, as Abigail and John Adams respectively, they are a force of nature. Portraying these two from 1770 through 1826 is a massive undertaking, and they are more than up to the task. In fact, the casting for the entire venture is superb. When I was fifteen or so, I read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Jefferson and learned of the concept of the satellite sons, the cult that sprang up around Washington, including Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton. They were a fascinating if incongruous bunch, and the one about whom I knew the least was Adams. This is true for almost everybody; even though he’s on the money like the rest of them, he’s not well-known. What the mini-series does is introduce both the facts of his life but also the characters surrounding him, showing everyone in a mostly balanced light.

Point in fact is Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin (who Paul Cornell thought was King of the United States, apparently). When we (and Adams) meet Franklin during the first Continental Congress, we find him a charming and educated character with the right thing to say at all times, though his approach to politics—maneuvering and diplomacy—differs to Adams’ (New England) forthrightness. When Adams becomes minister to France during the Revolution, he finds Franklin’s decadent, Frenchified ways about as difficult to work with as picking up mercury with a fork (to steal from Lloyd George there). To be fair, the French court is simply shown as a completely different entity than plainspoken New England—and Franklin understands how to get results while Adams has difficulties. Laugh-out-loud funny is when Franklin tells Adams, to fit in with the French court, he must get a mistress. "Mr. Franklin!"

George Washington is similarly superbly cast. He in every way looks the part, from towering over the heads of all his countrymen at 6", to his dentures in later life. I’ve been to Washington’s farm at Mount Vernon, so I can see from where his patient, plain-minded Virginia character comes from. The fact remains that he was undeniably brave, offering Adams his military support when the rest of the Congress was leery of getting involved, as well as his loyalty and pure intentions. The mini-series stays almost completely out of the fighting of the American Revolution, aside from what touched John Adams directly. Let Washington biographies tell that story. Adams correctly predicts that Franklin and Washington will get all the credit for establishing the new nation, and indeed Washington adoration has always prevailed.

Adams meeting Jefferson at the Congress was a magical moment. I did remember from the Jefferson biography that these two became good friends only to break during their presidencies and finally reconcile very late in life. My mom has always admired Jefferson, and I went to Jefferson Middle School, where the words from the Declaration of Independence were emblazoned on the walls: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." He was so perfectly shown here, it was like seeing Jefferson in the flesh. When Adams first met him he was shy, retiring, very educated country gentleman from Virginia whose moments of genius came from a somewhat dreamy and detached demeanor. By the time they were both in Paris, he was an idealistic, charismatic speaker who charmed Abigail Adams enough to make her husband jealous. The mini-series makes no bones about his being a slave owner and at the end of his life even shows Sally Hemmings at his bedside. It really succeeds in showing how the rift between Adams and Jefferson grew, and it’s completely believable in motivation and effect. Their reconciliation is similarly beautifully-handled, and the sequence in which they both die on the same day (July 4th, 1826) is haunting.

By the fifth episode I was wondering where Alexander Hamilton was, and when I saw the name Rufus Sewell in the credits, I thought, "He can’t be Hamilton!" But sure enough, he was. Modern Americans can thank Hamilton for our bank, our national debt, and the Continental Army, but the mini-series makes clear that Adams and Jefferson both despised him, if for different reasons. I’ll have to re-read my history books but I always thought Hamilton was illegitimate. The mini-series said nothing about this nor his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. But it did make him out to be a somewhat overzealous, detail-oriented man, creating another absolutely hilarious scene with John Adams. (What I DO remember about Hamilton from 7th grade was that in the late 18th century when all men wore hose, it was fashionable to wear rounded pieces of wood if your calves weren’t good enough. But Hamilton had such good calves he didn’t have to do that. I had no chance to check out Rufus Sewell’s calves because the costumes were a bit too Federalist.) Also making a surprise appearance was Tom Hollander as George III. It was a brief, one-scene part, but it was startling and memorable.

If the casting and acting is good, the writing by Kirk Ellis is practically flawless. As a student looking at how a winning script is made up, I was conscious of watching how scenes were written, were alternated, how events in Adams’ life were neatly broken up into seven parts. It does not begin until 1770, when he is 35, and already married. When we meet him, we immediately see three important things: a) a brutal Boston winter and Adams’ New England hardiness, a facet of character that will stay with him throughout his life; b) the Boston Massacre; c) and the fact that Abigail and John Adams may be the most perfect pair of lovers the world has ever seen. Their love, throughout their long and complex lives, is just amazingly enduring and heartfelt, through thick and thin, and all kinds of challenges. You can see that they are best friends as well as husband and wife and parents, partners, and lovers. (Reuniting in Paris after a separation of several years is a passionate sex scene between two "middle-aged" people that puts to rest any notions of frosty Puritanical New Englanders!) I was somewhat familiar with their letters to each other, but hadn’t understood the full extent of their partnership—until the end he called her, "my dear friend."

The first episode gives us an idea of the brilliance of Adams the lawyer as he defends the unpopular British soldiers embroiled in the Boston Massacre. (For those unfamiliar with the Boston Massacre, it happened in the winter that a Bostonian crowd provoked the British soldiers to fire upon them, killing several people.) It is to his credit that he manages to get them acquitted despite extreme public sentiment against them. It also establishes his extreme impartiality, and it’s amazing to consider our second President first thought his fiery cousin Sam Adams’ revolutionary notions excessive. An absolutely unforgettable image from the first episode is a poor British tea merchant who has the misfortune to land in Boston when George III (in order to make up for the huge debt from the French and Indian War/Seven Years’ War) taxed the colonists on tea and just about everything else. He is tarred and feathered, and it’s not pretty. It appalls Adams, but John Hancock (making a cameo) finds it fair play.

The first few episodes introduce us to the Adams family, the sons John Quincy, Charles, and Thomas, and the daughter, Abby. As evidence of good writing, Kirk Ellis shows us from the beginning that John Quincy (who will become the fifth President of the United States; alas, no vision of James Madison, "smaller than a bar of soap") is a Good Son, while Charles (who will eventually end in penury and disease) is a handful. Abigail is one of the first to inoculate her children and herself against small pox while John is away in France. Abby survives, to be played by Sarah Polley (lately seen in Beowulf & Grendel) who marries a Colonel Smith and unfortunately succumbs to breast cancer (and breaks her parents’ hearts). (Might I make a small digression here to say that while all the New Englanders in the story have proper Bostonian accents, all the Virginians seem to have absorbed a Somerset accent. I’m sure that’s proper, but it sounds very weird.)

And that is one of the few scores on which John Adams cannot be seen to be sympathetic: the high standard to which he holds himself, his wife and his children. He refuses to give his consent when John Quincy wishes to marry early in life. He holds disapprobation for Abby’s husband right up until after her death, when at last he apologizes for his unyielding ways. Instead of forgiving his prodigal son Charles, he disinherits him and lets him die without having reconciled. When he and Abigail leave their children to be tutored while they are being ambassadors, you wonder how much of their neglect caused Charles’ downfall. In France Adams also comes off as something of a buffoon, but overall he is portrayed immensely sympathetically. While in Amsterdam in an attempt to raise capital and credit for the Revolution, he gets extremely ill and with no one to care for him, is terrifyingly close to death.

In the second part, we see the slow transformation of Adams from a conservative subject of the Crown into a revolutionary. I didn’t think I ever realized how important the Declaration of Independence really was, how brave and foolhardy it must have seemed to declare sovereignty from Mother England. The funniest thing my friend Katie ever said to me was to refuse to come to Thanksgiving because "I don’t think I should celebrate your country breaking away from mine." (She was, of course, getting Thanksgiving confused with 4th of July. She did eventually come to Thanksgiving) However, does that mean there is still animosity between England and America? Because it was certainly unheard of to do what we did in 1776, and forgive me if I do end up feeling a bit patriotic about our sheer boldness and adherence to "no taxation without representation." We were there first! Before France, before anybody. (To be fair, Britons, you did have your Civil War . . . but you went back to your monarchy, from which you have never returned!) The mini-series portrays the naysayers very well and their case, that they had everything to lose, shows what a gamble the early revolutionaries pitched their lives and liberties on—all for the sake of ideals, really. It is most inspiring, and no wonder some of my overzealous countrymen today think that bringing democracy to certain parts of the world is our "national duty."

Despite his earliest shining successes, Adams encountered much difficulty. In France, in Holland, in England, and then when he returned as Washington’s vice-president, his path was riddled with difficulties that we seem to have forgotten in wake of Washington’s military successes and Jefferson’s acquiring of the Louisiana Purchase. His tenure as President was marred by the Alien and Sedition Acts (which were a severe blow to Freedom of Speech), which really embittered Jefferson against him. The fact remains that we were seriously on the brink of a war with France in 1799, which Adams was able to prevent. To be honest, I don’t think France was quite unjustified in expecting us to help them against the British once they had declared war on England—their help in sending troops and money during our Revolution not only bankrupted them and caused their Revolution, but probably won ours! (I was indeed disappointed not to see the Marquis de Lafayette. I hope someday there’s a mini-series on the French Revolution as good as this one is on the American Revolution.)

It is depressing to note that had Tom Hanks not put his money behind this as executive producer, the thing probably would not have gotten made. But we are glad he did, because in addition to everything else, the costumes, the sets, and the on location shooting is just spectacular. I can’t begin to imagine how expensive all of that was. I love seeing the costume move from the robe à l’anglaise of the 1770s to the big hats and French sacques of the 1790s to the high waists mimicking the Empire styles of the Federalist period. It’s funny to see the 35-year-old Adams with shaved head and russet wig in 1770 become almost Franklin-like when wigs are abandoned by 1800. (In some circles at least.)

In old age, Adams gets increasingly crotchedy. He spends his time at his farm in Peacefield, Massachusetts, writes his memoirs, and lives to the ripe old age of 91! He is devastated when Abigail precedes him in death; his last words are, "Abigail . . . Jefferson survives me." (In fact Jefferson had died a few hours before Adams did. Isn’t that spooky?) He has lived to see the White House built in the swamp that is Washington City (still a bad choice of a capitol, but I believe the Southerners wanted it moved from Philadelphia for obvious reasons). The end is not on a depressing note, however, but Adams’ exhortation to future generations of Americans to follow the ideals for which his generation fought so hard. I wonder what he would make of us today? I wonder if he would cast a kind eye to what I’m doing—though a down-to-earth New Englander at heart, he did enjoy Europe at least a little. So be assured, Mr. Adams, I will cast my ballot in 2008—for my right to do that, I raise my pen to you.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Beethoven's Hair

Beethoven’s Hair is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read. The style is very easy to read, and it’s well-organized. It tells both the biography of Beethoven—in a streamlined but not simplistic style—and the rather remarkable story of a lock of hair clipped from the dead composer’s head by a young student named Ferdinand Hiller. I had wanted to read this book for years but finally made myself read it because it’s good research for something I’m writing. Anyone will come out of it with a profound appreciation for Beethoven’s character even if s/he hadn’t been a big fan of his music. The reader will also come out of it with a sense of the magnitude of devotion of Beethoven’s fans. The 500 or so strands of hair acquire an almost saint-like quality. It occurred to me it’s almost fetishistic—but what relic would you rather have of your beloved role model? A score he’d handwritten or a piece of his hair? Despite the morbidity I think true fans would choose the latter.

If you’re like me, you knew the barest essentials about Beethoven’s life. The book splits his biography into 6 sections, from his birth in 1770 to his last days in 1827, inter-spliced with the lock of hair’s voyage—as close as they can chart it—from Hiller’s gift to his son in 1871 to it somehow ending up in the hands of a Danish physician in World War II. It’s a nice symmetry that the book actually begins at the end—when the hair, now in the joint possession of Beethoven enthusiasts Ira Brilliant and Dr. Alfredo “Che” Guevara, is “operated” upon. You have probably heard in the news by now about the pair’s findings toward chemical content in Beethoven’s hair. But that doesn’t take any of the excitement out of a) the hair’s journey through time; b) their findings. The one part I didn’t quite understand was the fact that we are explicitly told we will probably never know who gave Dr. Kay Fremming the hair in 1943, but then an entire chapter goes on and on, pretending that they will provide us with the answer when all we are left with is mere speculation.

The book is life-affirming in terms of Beethoven, who suffered a litany of debilitating illnesses throughout his life, not just confined to tintinitus and deafness, but produced his masterpieces anyway, and is also curiously uplifting in the fact that his hair played a small role in the successful, secret transport of hundreds of Jews from Denmark to Sweden, right under the Nazis’ noses. While the bravery and modesty of the Danish underground is inspirational, perhaps the most poignant moment is the Theresienstadt prison orchestra, minus its Danish members who have been extradited, playing for them Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the Ninth Symphony in 1945.

Get Yer Freak On

I hesitated to read Steve Almond’s memoir/essay Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America for more than 2 years. It sat on the shelf, its hardcover bound in chocolate-colored paper, because I knew it would make me crave candy. It does not, in fact, really resemble at all Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a much more academic study, less about the personal recollections than the history (to be fair, both authors possess humor, a much-needed additive in such a sugar-fest). (Sweets is also decidedly British. It was the first place I had ever heard about rock, which I could never quite figure out. What was the point? What did it even look like? It did describe to me jelly babies before I ever saw or tasted them, as well as a few things I did recognize like Cadbury. Why didn’t Sweets mention Kendal mint cake or Welsh toffee waffles?) Candyfreak is as American as Sweets is British.

Candy brings Almond back to a state of child-like bliss. He describes the smorgasbord of Halloween in a way that is totally resonant to me, sorting the haul, trading with siblings . . . and I stopped trick-or-treating at an even older age than Almond did (perhaps the one time in my life my youthful physique has come in handy). He also makes frequent allusions to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the movie of which had a similar effect on me as to crave chocolate). I loved this book as a child because I loved fantasizing about an entire factory of candy. I learned last year upon reading Roald Dahl’s autobiography Boy that he had been a sort of taste-tester in his youth in Cardiff for Cadbury or Rowntree or one of them. What Almond notes is that there is little exaggeration in the depiction of jealous candy-makers determined not to lose the secret formulae of their cash cows.

One of the most entertaining parts of the book is when Almond describes, with rapture, his favorite candy as well as Mistakes Were Made (including two of my sister’s favorites, Peeps and circus peanuts). He is a big fan of Kit Kat Darks as well as the Caravelle. Don’t ring any bells? Obviously you’re not his definition of a candyfreak. When Almond deigns to be factual and historical, he does well, too, describing the monopoly of the Big Three (Nestle, Hershey, and Mars) in America as well as Hershey’s momentous chocolate discovery in 1893 (lots of things happened in 1893). He describes the familiar story of chocolate’s beginning in Aztec culture (anyone who’s seen ‘60s Doctor Who knows this already) and repeats the oft-repeated story about Moctezuma fortifying himself with cocoa before he visited his harem. I wonder where this purported fact began. It could be true for all I know, but just because most of what we know about the Aztecs is from Cortez, who we know to have been a propagandist rather than a truthful historian, well . . .

(The French, according to a poll I saw in one of the British papers last year, are among the Europeans most likely to believe that chocolate has aphrodisiac properties. This was certainly exploited in Chocolat—the film. The book is, surprisingly, rubbish.) One thing that I did not know about the history of candy bars was that they really picked up in popularity in the Depression as they were portable, cheap, and sustaining. (I do recall reading in a costume book about War-Era British women fancying the American G.I.s because they had chocolate bars.)

Though Almond claims to teach creative writing, it was drilled in my creative writing classes that memoir writing was not supposed to be a therapy session (or, to use Almond’s term “oversharing”). His confessions that he uses chocolate as some sort of love substitute, plus toward the end of the book when he’s convinced he’s got cancer and reflects on his lack of meaningful romantic relationships, is both a bit cloying and genuinely sympathetic. (According to the book jacket, he is also an anthologized erotica author, so I can only imagine all the chocolate that goes into his porn.) To be fair, people exposing themselves and seeming like pathetic fools is, despite what they tell you in class, something of the point: in workshop, no one wanted to hear me analyze Phantom of the Opera and why I loved the Phantom so much: they preferred to hear about my crappy lack-of-a-love-life. So perhaps Almond’s statement to himself, You are unworthy of love. Candy will not save you is less worthy of my derision than my alcohol-soaked pat on the back. Rephrase it as You are unworthy of love. Just like the Phantom and you’ve got my version of Candyfreak, I guess.

Erm, enough about me. Candyfreak does make attempts to sound serious. He notes the hypocrisy of candy adoration when cocoa and sugar are harvested in Third World countries and suggests that candy is “crack” for kids. He thinks chocolate—and materialism in general—become surrogate child-rearing for children whose parents are too busy for them, which the candy companies know and try hard to exploit. He goes into an extended bitch-fest about the recent (2002) U.S. elections that installed Bush and then exclaims he doesn’t have any right to complain since he didn’t vote . I guess he’d better stick to describing candy rather than trying to validate it.

Speaking of which, you can’t read a book about candy and not consider the candy experiences in your own life. My best chocolate? Well, I love Lindt, their 70% cocoa chocolate is great (though go to 85% and even the likes of me is sick to the tummy). Of the American brands, I prefer Ghirardelli. I’m an unabashed fan of chocolate and peanut butter combinations, so Reese’s Pieces, Butterfinger, and Reese’s peanut butter cups are high on my list. In the UK I’ve found that the Cadbury Crispy bar (I think that’s what it’s called) is excellent. I also like all Ritter Sports, especially the marzipan variety, and also Kinder Bueno. Of the non-chocolate variety, I like black licorice (the strongly-flavored anise variety) and gummi bears. And thank God for companies like the Vermont Country Store, who have revived or found the small factories making some of the regional sweets, and who introduced me to the wonders of Valomilk!

Defending Beowulf & Grendel

I didn’t see the CGI Beowulf last year, partly because I was waiting for a chance to see the live-action film, Beowulf & Grendel. Now that I’ve finally seen the latter, I can try to look for the former, though I doubt that I’ll like it more.

I first heard about Beowulf & Grendel when I was paying close attention to the career of Gerard Butler (like David Tennant, a Hot Scot, and the highlights of whose career has included Dracula 2000 and Dear Frankie and of course, Phantom of the Opera). The film never played in Albuquerque. It takes, as far as I can tell, a wholly different tone from its computer counterpart. The title brings the monster Grendel to the fore, which is a wholly significant fact. The film actually begins from Grendel’s point of view and looks sympathetically at him. At first I thought it was a mistake to make both hero and anti-hero (Beowulf & Grendel) sympathetic, as from a dramatic standpoint, wouldn’t it muddle everything up? To the contrary, I found it worked. The film is unfortunately uneven, but when it works, it works sublimely.

One of my favorite professors is a medieval expert, and though I never studied Beowulf the poem with her (I’ve never quite understood why we read it in core English literature courses, as it’s not English) I know that her classes looked at Grendel as, perhaps, less a bona fide monster, than someone in that Danish society who was different—a disabled person, perhaps. B &G takes its tone somewhere in that direction, with Grendel as a human-like “troll,” a super-human, rather than Siegfried’s Fafnir. No one ever answers Beowulf’s question, “What is a troll?”, so it’s unclear to me, but perhaps, with the setting in 500 A.D., the filmmakers are positing the Grendel troll-family is Neanderthal, or some primate-pre-human. It may sound absurd, but haven’t anthropologists been batting around the idea of different species of humanoids living at the same time? Interestingly, a disabled person is represented as one of the Danes—Beowulf saves him from cruel children’s blows, encouraging an even more ironic reading of the hero.

The film is entirely on location in Iceland, and not only will it rivet you, it will make you want to visit Iceland. Some of the shots are just breathtaking. And the costumes—well, visiting the National Museum in Dublin made me want to work on ancient/medieval Irish paper dolls, and I’m inspired much the same way here. There are some very clever moments of dialogue. Our first sighting of Beowulf is having been wrecked up on a Geatland beach after hunting walrus and discussing a warrior’s lot in life with a fisherman. This scene is surprisingly erudite for its simplicity. However, the decision was made to allow all the actors to keep their own accents, resulting in Scottish, English, Icelandic, and Swedish accents running rampant with the particularly grating, undisguised North American tones of Sarah Polley. A lot of the time, I just couldn’t understand what was being said. Astonishingly, for the generally strong quality of the writing, Hrothgar spends half the time just saying “f*ck.” Rome suffered occasionally from this problem of making gritty, realistic characters somewhat unbelievable potty-mouths. Plus the sheep-shagging jokes were a bit too much.

Beowulf in the original poem is a perfect Norse superman. He fights men and beasts without breaking out a sweat. This, unfortunately, made him somewhat dull to a post-modern audience. Consequently he’s been nuanced, and I must say, Gerry does much better with the moments of doubt and brooding than with the boastful hero. Physically, he’s utterly believable as Beowulf. It seemed to me that throwing in Sarah Polley’s character, the witch Selma, was entirely to concede to the fact that every film must have romance in it, even if it wasn’t written that way. However, her character is actually integral to the plot. It is interesting that Beowulf immediately zones in on her instead of all the pleasant widows left behind from the Mead Hall slayings. I can’t say too much else about her without giving the plot twists away, but I will say it would suck, suck, suck to be an unmarried Danish woman.

I’m a fan of Stellan Skarsgård. Unfortunately, by seeing the deleted scenes included on the DVD, it becomes apparent that King Hrothgar’s best scenes were cut! Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting part as per the new prologue inserted at the beginning. In the film’s universe, trolls don’t attack out of sheer spite—the Wuthering Heights-like generations of woe are actually begun by Hrothgar’s cruelty. This is a burden he must bear, especially when he lies to Beowulf about it, as well as the fact his life is spared and those of the men in his Mead Hall are savagely butchered. His queen has a small but important function as well. Of Beowulf’s band of Geats, my favorite was certainly the Bard, played by another favorite actor of mine, Ronan Vibert. This is a role full of satire and knowing nods to those who’ve read the original poem, as it wouldn’t exist without the likes of the Bard. It’s quickly established that the Bard embellishes on the truth, to the point that even Beowulf can’t stand to hear his own vainglorious tale.

Another really interesting inclusion is the Christian priest, Father Brendan. He has an Irish accent and is referred to as “the Celt.” Some of the cleverest lines of the film are in relation to him. For example, he assures Beowulf that Christ is always walking the Earth in order to bring salvation. “That’s all we need: a god who’s gone mad from lack of sleep.” Anyone who’s read the original poem sees its somewhat uneasy or schizophrenic relationship to Christianity: one minute it thanks the Norse gods, the next it thanks the Christian god. The priest character neatly explains this, as he spends most of his time in Daneland baptizing—including Beowulf’s Bard.

I began watching 300 because I quite fancied seeing Gerard Butler half-naked, but despite that, and all the special effects, I couldn’t finish it. Its glorification of violence and monotonously stark shades of black and white completely turned me off. Normally I’m all for movies made out of graphic novels, but this rather disillusioned me. Anyway, that movie espouses a completely different message than this one does. As Gerry himself points out, Grendel is a bit like the Phantom of the Opera—the representation of the Other. The fate of the Other in Phantom (at least in the 2004 film) is imprisonment, scorn, humiliation, torture, ostracization, and complete lack of love. Actually, the Phantom and Grendel react very similarly to their respective shutting-out from society: first with self-isolation, then with violence.

What Sturla Gunnarsson and Andrew Berzins’ Beowulf adds to our collective consciousness is a pause, to examine our motives for acting as the aggressor. It’s a fine line between defending yourself and loved ones and ruthlessly destroying others. As producer Douglas Hansen noted, it offers “reassessment.” Beowulf’s Geat buds are as macho as the Knights of Sarmatia in King Arthur. Beowulf is no less violent than another historical character Gerard Butler played, Attila the Hun. The carnage in the Mead Hall, so vividly described in the poem, is reproduced in all its gory detail to the letter. But it’s no more gruesome than Grendel’s arm nailed to the Mead Hall interior, or the violence enacted systematically against Selma. You couldn’t call Beowulf & Grendel an anti-war variation on a manly, doom-laden Norse theme. But it does open the channels of communication, which I really like.