Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Rite of Passage is an easy book to pigeon-hole as a “coming of age” novel, but to do so would be a mistake and a disservice to this excellent little science fiction novel that steps beyond the genre.

The book is written first person past through the eyes of the central character, Mia Havero, looking back at herself from the ages of twelve through fourteen. She is the daughter of the elected leader of a group of scientists and engineers who live on a spaceship at the end of the twenty-second century.rite-of-passage

Through internal strife, Earth has essentially destroyed itself. The ships were created to ferry passengers from Earth to new worlds that they might colonize to continue the existence of humanity. But the ships’ leaders have made a conscious decision to separate themselves – and their knowledge and expertise – from the farmers who are actually carving out the new worlds. These elitists decided that the knowledge they possess would be useless on worlds barely hanging on for survival, that the knowledge would be lost if they joined in that fight for survival, so they stay on their ships and merely trade bits of knowledge to the farmers (“Mudeaters” they are called) for supplies.

Mia herself, after being separated from her parents for years, recently left the common dormitories to live with her father. She is a precarious character at the beginning, having suffered from her separation, nervous to a fault around others, and easily frightened. At the beginning of the novel, her father is moving them to a different part of the ship and she is losing her tenuous hold on security.

But she begins her new existence by being teamed with a boy named Jimmy Dermently, precocious and just a few months older. They are assigned a tutor who is very old and who has been an opponent of Mia’s father. He teaches them to think outside the box and they both jump at the chance. Their major line of study becomes ethics and that leads to the central crisis of the novel.

How nice it is to have an entire novel based around a major ethical crisis.

During the next two years Mia and Jimmy educate themselves and prepare for the Trial that they must endure when they turn fourteen years old. The Trial is a survival ordeal that all juveniles on the ship must undergo to reach adulthood. They are dropped individually onto a planet’s surface, supplied with a horse, a gun, a knife and a tent and they must survive for thirty days until they are picked up. Many do not survive the “savagery” of the Mudeaters.

As Mia gains confidence through her survival training, she also studies the great philosophies of Earth’s past, picking each one apart, finding things that she can relate to and ideas that she must outright reject. She is forced to think and to make a major decision that will separate her from her family permanently. It is this part of the novel that it seems many critics completely ignore. But Panshin had some big ideas when he wrote this book and I think it is important that I share at least some of Mia’s thoughts:

“I’ve always resented the word maturity, primarily, I think, because it is most often used as a club. If you do something that someone doesn’t like, you lack maturity, regardless of the actual merits of your action. Too, it seems to me that what is most often called maturity is nothing more than disengagement from life [my emphasis]. If you meet life squarely, you are likely to make mistakes, do things you wish you hadn’t, say things you wish you could retract or phrase more felicitously, and, in short, fumble your way along. Those “mature” people whose lives are even without a single sour note or a single mistake, who never fumble, manage only at the cost of original thought and original action.”

To readers more accustomed to slam-bang action (which is, I think, a major pitfall in the writing of science fiction), this book may appear slow and way too thoughtful for them. What is mature deliberation is mistaken for plodding and a reader can miss all of the salient points that the novel is meticulously honing.

When a novel wins the coveted Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, it usually means there is something very, very good about the book. I have now had the opportunity to read many reviews of this novel and most of them are frankly superficial and miss the point of the novel. But this is a fine little book, filled with the inner life of a fully realized character struggling to attain confidence and finding it at the point of a knife called ethics.

(As a side note, I read the Timscape paperback by Pocket Books, March 1982, with a terrific cover painting by acclaimed illustrator Rowena Morrill. It captures the absolute essence of Miva Havero, especially in the eyes and the wary set of her face. Great cover art can really help a book to come alive!)

As I said at the beginning of this review, it is a mistake to pigeon-hole this book. It is a much larger and more challenging novel. I strongly recommend Rite of Passage, not just to science fiction readers, but to the general reading audience.

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Adventureland

AdventurelandAdventureland is a funny and moving teen romance written and directed by Greg Mattola about a group of teens working at a summer carnival. The main character, James Brennan, is a student who has just graduated from a small college and is saving up his money to go to the Columbia School of Journalism so he can begin a career in travel writing. Played with both humor and angst by Jesse Eisenberg, James is trying to find romance, but his own geekiness stands in his way.

It doesn’t take long after meeting Em for him to start falling for her. Older and wiser, she is a student who lives and studies in New York (NYU) during the school year, but works as a carny in the summer. She’s also having an affair with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), a guitar player who also fills in there in the summer as a maintenance man. Married, his one claim to fame is that he is rumored to have jammed with Lou Reed, James’ hero.

The film is a period piece, set in the summer of 1987 and Mattola has gone to great lengths to make the film of its time. The park seems quite old by today’s standards and the costumes and hair styles all reflect the late 80’s very well. Although some of the humor is a bit juvenile, it generally works well. The supporting characters are sharply defined and quirky. Kristen Wiig as the park manager and Bill Hader as her husband and assistant are both quite funny and Martin Starr is quite good as James’ pal Joel.

Both Eisenberg and Stewart are very good and this is probably Stewart’s best performance. They are the only two characters in the movie who have serious scenes and they carry them off very well. It’s a fun movie and worth spending the time watching.

Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey

The following review contains spoilers, so if you’re looking for a surprise in the book, please read thisImage after you finish!  Thanks!

I first came onto Dragonsong after I had read The Dragonriders of Pern trilogy (which sets up the entire series of Pern books). I read the trilogy in a gulp, as the world of Pern and the life of the Weyr totally fascinated me. I immediately went looking for anything more about Pern and I encountered Dragonsong.

Menolly was a minor supporting character in the third volume of the Dragonriders trilogy, The White Dragon, and I was surprised to find a complete novel built around the character, but I jumped in with no preconceptions.

Menolly is the youngest daughter of Yanus, Holder of Half-Circle Sea Hold on the wild Eastern part of the northern continent on Pern and she is 15 years old at the beginning of the novel. Petiron, the Hold Harper, had found her to have an exceptional musical talent when she was very young. Even though girls were not allowed to be Harpers, he taught her how to play all of the instruments, to sing the traditional songs and eventually to write music. He even sent some of her music to Robinton, the Masterharper of Pern, for evaluation.

The novel begins with Petiron’s death and the subsequent abuse of Menolly by her family, who believe a musical daughter is disgraceful. Her father forbids her to write music and even beats her when she disobeys. When the replacement Harper arrives, Menolly is hidden from him, even though he is seeking the composer of the wonderful music sent to the Masterharper. After she badly cuts her hand, her mother intentionally mistreats the wound so that Menolly believes she will never play music again. Menolly falls into a deep depression.

Caught out during threadfall and stuck in a cave, Menolly witnesses the hatching of wild fire-lizards (miniature dragons). To prevent them from dying, she feeds the small creatures and bonds (or imprints with) nine of them, who will then be her friends for life, linked telepathically. Deciding that she will not return to the hold, Menolly makes a life for herself on the coast, living in the fire-lizard cave, spending most of her time just finding food for the ravenous creatures. She makes herself a set of pipes and the fire-lizards learn to sing with her. During a later threadfall, she is caught away from the cave and must run for cover in her worn boots, tearing her feet to ribbons in the process. Fortunately, she is rescued by a dragonrider, who brings her to Benden Weyr.

For the first time in her life, Menolly begins to understand what it is like to be treated with respect and affection. Her nurse is Mirrim, one of the most enigmatic characters throughout the saga. They are about the same age and quickly become friends. Afraid that she will be sent home, Menolly hides her fire-lizards until she is found out by Weyrwoman Lessa. Breaking down, she begs not to be returned home and is asked to stay in the weyr.  Once accepted, she becomes overwhelmed by all of the attention.

It is at this point that events from the novel Dragonquest become interwoven into Dragonsong, most notably, Brekke’s recovery from the death of her dragon and Jaxom’s impression of the little white dragon, Ruth. For those familiar with the earlier novel, it is really great to see the same events from a very different point of view.

The book ends with Masterharper Robinton’s discovery of Menolly as the composer of the songs that Petiron had sent him. Overjoyed, he asks her join the Harper Hall. At last, she will be able to pursue her love of music and to begin her new life as a musician.

McCaffrey tells the story of a hero overcoming adversity extremely well. It is completely believable that Menolly suffers unbearably in order to pursue her dream. Her suffering is even more poignant in that it is at the hands of her own family, those who should love and support her. McCaffrey takes the time to detail these familial characters, so that they do not feel two-dimensional and so that their mistreatment of Menolly is understandable, if not agreeable.

Menolly’s love of music is treated in such a way that the reader develops an amazing sympathy for her plight. Everyone should have such a love of something that it would be the whole purpose of his or her life. This is a terrific foundation for the rest of the novel and also for the sequel, Dragonsinger.

When she realizes that she has left her hold for good, there is a miraculous sense of freedom, which is punctuated by the miracle of the fire-lizard hatching. Menolly literally saves their lives, as she has saved her own, and both she and her fire lizards may live free. This freedom is referenced again several times in Dragonsinger when, under the pressures of life in the Harper Hall, she remembers the complete freedom of living in the cave.

After her rescue, Menolly can scarcely believe her luck – she almost always worries that what she is doing is wrong or that someone will come down on her for her actions. This is the result of her mistreatment at the hands of her family. She has been conditioned into believing that she is always in the wrong. Part of the poignancy of the story is that the weyrfolk and harpers have to convince her of her own worth. And when she realizes that she can both play and write music to her heart’s content and to the joy of others, she feels an amazement and gratitude that the reader can share in completely. It is cathartic.

For me, Dragonsong is a perfect little novel.

The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs of Distant Earth is a very thoughtful science fiction novel. It’s not chock full of chases and weird experiments or other derring-do, but it keeps the reader involved and more importantly it makes the reader think. It is a good example of what is known as “hard science fiction”. Written by Arthur C. Clarke, a man who is no stranger to science, the book deals more with real possibilities than with theories that have no apparent foundation in reality.

Songs of Distant Earth

The main portion of the book occurs somewhere during the 39th century, around 200 years after the Earth’s sun has gone nova. With the benefit of a thousand years’ warning, mankind has developed and sent seed ships to the stars with the most hospitable planets orbiting them. The ships contain the seeds to rebuild mankind, from humans to domestic animals to bacteria necessary for human survival, to be shepherded into life by robots. The ships cannot travel very fast so the great distances take hundreds to thousands of years. But humans keep making the ships better and by the time the solar system is incinerated, they have developed a quantum drive, which allows them to travel at close to 20% of the speed of light.

One of these advanced starships, among the last to leave Earth, the Magellan, is travelling toward a system with a planet that has been named Sagan Two. The planet is presently inhospitable to life, but is covered in massive amounts of ice. The Magellan aims to terraform the planet by melting the ice and using their quantum starship to maneuver the planet into a more biofriendly orbit.

Along the way, they travel very close to the planet Thalassa, which had been the destination of an earlier seed ship, which reported in upon colonization, but then had lost contact with Earth. The Magellan decides to investigate and to look into using the water on the planet to re-ice their deflector, which has become worn out from constant collision with space dust.

Thalassa is a beautiful planet, mostly covered in oceans, but with three large islands that support a functioning human society. But it is a society that has become complacent and happy in their idyllic existence. The Magellan upsets this becalmed life when it appears and sets up its ice factory. The crew from the Magellan mingle with the population and become involved with the people who live there.

Of course, the inevitable happens and several crew members want to stay on Thalassa. Others want to end the mission and stay permanently on Thalassa, using the volcanism of the planet to create new land masses for the colonists sleeping on the ship.

Ultimately, the novel deals with the question of whether humanity can thrive without the existence of challenge. Our history has been the story of struggle against the elements, survival against the wild beasts and survival against each other. Our literature is full of strife and most people would say that any good story depends on it. What happens when that gets bred out of the species? If you remove challenge and aggression, will we stagnate?

It is a well-written story that I highly recommend.

Catching Fire

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Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, is an excellent sequel. Like the first film, it’s based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Although Ms. Collins co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, she settles here for the role of Executive Producer. While that might have been a problem, I think that was really for the best.

For one thing, the novel Catching Fire has a few issues. Many times I felt kind of lost while reading it, mostly due to description. I couldn’t really see some of the action, especially in the Games arena. It felt rushed, as if the action was streaming by me, rather than keeping me actively engaged. The final problem in the novel is that the ending left me up in the air. I didn’t think it resolved–it seemed rather clear that it was only the first half of a book. The movie resolves all of these problems beautifully. Either that, or I was simply reconciled to the ending. It’s hard to tell.

At two hours and fifteen minutes from the opening to the final credits, there is plenty of time to see the action unfold. And while I generally don’t care for movies that long, some films are some noteworthy exceptions–where the action, story, and character all combine to keep me totally engaged for the entire length. Catching Fire meets all of those requirements.

A good example of how the movie took a generalization and graphically made it beautiful is in the look of the costumes. In fact, all of the visual flair of the movie makes the story come alive. The dress that Katniss wears to the President’s welcome party is stunning, interweaving the colored feathers of the mockingjay on her shoulders. The wedding dress that she wears for her interview with Caesar is beautiful. When she twirls and the fire engulfs the dress and turns it into a mockingjay, complete with wings, the effect is nothing less than astounding.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film, as she did with The Hunger Games. There is something really special in the way she carries herself, the use of her voice and her eyes, that makes her one of those rare acting personalities that seem to reach inside you. Some actors have “it” and she has “it” in spades. Her body of work is already very impressive, considering her youth. Her acting in Winter’s Bone is amazing, as is her Academy Award winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and I’m hoping that she chooses her scripts well and has one of those careers that is meteoric.

All of the supporting actors that were great in the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel–Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch are all perfect. The best performance of this group is given by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a moving character arc as Effie, bringing her full turn from giddy capital gadfly to broken realist. In addition, there are a couple of new characters here that really make the story go. First of all, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Evansby, the new Head Gamemaker, and secondly, Jena Malone is cast as Joanna, the misfit victor who joins the revolution along with Plutarch.. Both of them are really great.

All of the scenes inside the new Hunger Games arena are extremely well-done. They have visualized the arena from the book very precisely and it makes a terrific battleground. The clock dangers, especially the poisonous fog and the attack of the apes, are heart-pounding sequences and memorable filmmaking.

The final reason that the film is better than the novel is that the ending brought a feeling of resolution. I can’t stress enough how difficult this is, given that the ending is really (just like in the novel) a cliffhanger. I walked away from the movie looking forward to the final installment, but not feeling as if I had been left hanging. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence’s face is way plenty to keep me going until Mockingjay finishes filming and is released. I loved the final graphic of the mockingjay’s twisting around from a silhouette posture and turning into something resembling a phoenix surrounded by flames in the circle. Beautiful.

If you loved The Hunger Games, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find Catching Fire to be a marvelous film and well worth the investment of time. Highly recommend.

 

 

Capote

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Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.

 

 

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot is a spare and generalized biography that focuses on the films made by the iconic actor. While the films are examined in some detail, Eliot spends the rest of his time detailing McQueen’s life outside the set.

The actor was a troubled child who was moved around the country and dropped off with various relatives for extensive blocks of time. His father left them when he was still an infant and his mother could not maintain a steady relationship throughout his life. Steve spent a lot of time running with gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and spent stints in the boy’s reformatory in Chino, California and in the United States Marine Corps.

His last trip to New York City, saw him hooking with up an aspiring actress and following her into various acting studios. With his chiseled good looks, he was a natural to follow Marlon Brando and others into the Method school of acting.

From the time he was old enough, he went from one woman to another until he finally met Neile Adams, fell in love, and married her. He went quickly from off-Broadway plays into the live television scene that was hot in New York. When his wife got a job in Los Angeles, they relocated and he translated his career from television to film. Although they had two children, Neile had to put up with his constant infidelity. He also began using drugs, first pot, then coke and finally hallucinogenics. With his monster macho ego, he began spending his earnings on fast cars and motorcycles, even racing with professionals.

After sixteen years of marriage, he forced his wife to admit that she’d had an affair. Even though he had slept with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women, he was enraged and beat her up. He practically isolated his second wife, Ali McGraw, in their home and he hit her once before she filed for divorce. And he was married a third time, very briefly before his death of mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by excessive exposure to asbestos. (He was exposed while in the Marines, where he worked in the engine room, cleaning and repairing asbestos covered pipes and he was also exposed throughout his adult life to asbestos coating inside race cars.)

His filmography includes such classic films as The Blob (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

The book moves very quickly, an easy and engaging read. Even though Eliot presents a very unbiased narrative, I have to admit that I went into the book admiring McQueen’s acting and I left it absolutely hating him as a human being. Of course, he lived in a different era, but that is still no excuse for the way he treated other people. He was like a hurt child who never, ever grew up to take responsibility for his actions. And he died with no remorse at all for what he did to his first wife. In spite of the hefty list of good films and good performances he left behind, Steve McQueen was ultimately far less of a man than the “King of Cool” he presented

20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about all of the really great backup singers from the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, the people, especially black women, who broke the mold and changed the sound of pop music.

Darlene Love

The movie focusses in especially on Darlene Love, who sang lead on the recordings, “He’s A Rebel,” “Da Doo Ron Ron”, and “Uptown,” Merry Clayton, who has backed up everyone and is known primarily for her kick-ass solo on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, and Lisa Fischer, a remarkable singer who has now been with the Rolling Stones since 1980 singing a variety of stuff. She’s won a Grammy for her solo work and she has an amazing Jazz voice.

This movie also explores some of the more talented young singers working today, including Judith Hill, who started out with Michael Jackson. A wonderful film full of lots of really great music and interviews with Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Sting, and a whole bunch of others. This is a must see for anybody even remotely involved in music!

                                                                                                    
Lisa Fischer 


Merry Clayton

Juno

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I was really bowled away by Juno. What a great film!  The story of a teenage girl named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and decides to carry the baby and give it up for adoption to a needy couple, this movie really delivers great comedy and great drama.  Page is so natural and relaxed in her performance that she is completely believable and she literally carries the movie. The Academy Award-winning script by Diablo Cody is a wonder.  The dialogue is quick, witty, full of pithy phrases that separate Juno and her friends from the run-of-the-mill teenagers at her high school (“Desperately seeking spawn” LOL).  Directed by Jason Reitman, it hits every note spot-on and leaves you with just an amazingly good feeling.

It’s full of wonderful supporting performances, including: Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker, Juno’s dorky boyfriend and father of the child, J. K. Simmons (the wonderful pitchman at Farmer’s Insurance University) as her dad, Allison Janney as her step-mother, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the anticipated foster parents. They all work together brilliantly in an ensemble cast all clustered around the wonderful performance by Ellen Page at the center and heart of the movie.

So GOOD! I highly recommend this film to literally EVERYBODY!