Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ford Torino Squire 1969

Edit: My brother informs me that we had a Chevy, not a Ford. I got the wrong car! They were so similar in the picture. Take this as a lesson in what your memory does to you. 

My family had a wagon as I was growing up, but I am not exactly sure which type. To get close enough, I picked a 1969 Ford Country Squire wagon because of its popularity at its the best match to my memory. Like the car that you see below, our wagon had fake wood trim, a roof rack, louver windows, and a front end that went on for half a mile. I'm told that wagons of this era were like the SUV's of today: they had big-ass engines in them to haul campers and trailers, meaning that they also had big grills and radiators to dump all the heat.

Like most cars of the day, it had bench seats where we never used the seat belts in both front and back. One of the kids always sat up front, between the parents, in order to fit everyone, and these cars were wide enough to accommodate that. In fact, three friendly adults could sit up front with little issue. The far back had some additional seating, but the far back also folded flat into an expansive area that a kid could easily lay in. I remember playing back there on a long trip to Chicago. Again, no seat belts.

Louvre windows aren't around much these days, but back in the 70's when air conditioning was a luxury, you needed some way to push air into the cabin, and that's what the louver windows did. The window twisted open, turning the window into an air catcher, pushing in air as you drove. 

Our roof rack was essential. Stuff got put there on a trip as we didn't have room for both kids and luggage. I think that we even used a trailer once on vacation, but that's a fuzzy memory. 

This is a pretty typical interior. First off, you have ashtrays everywhere in these cars, for both the front and the back. You can't see them well, but they are there. Those straps for pulling the door closed were also typical. With no center console, you see the drive shaft going through the cabin. Contrary to what I said before, we did wear seat belts, these days called lap belts. They connected in with a great metal CLICK and unbuckled with an equally great but different metal CLICK.

The driver had a pretty plain wheel, a left foot parking brake, and an automatic transmission connected to that big lever on the steering wheel. You pulled the lever, changed driving selections, then pulled it again to change back. To park, pull in and up, and you were in park. Each selection had a great little thump as haptic feedback. The radio had big selection buttons with equally great haptic feedback. Even the cigarette lighter had great feedback. We had great fun as kids pushing that thing in only to see it pop back out.

Here's an image from the 1982 Country Squire which shows the seats that folded exceedingly flat. They pretty much worked that way back in 1970.

That was the only wagon that I remember from our family. When we replaced it, most likely because at 5-6 years old it was getting too expensive to fix, we went back to sedans and mom bought a second car.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Spell for Chameleon (1976)

Next up in our Top Fantasy Novels of the 1976's is A Spell For Chameleon by Piers Anthony. This was the second Xanth novel that I read, the first being The Source of Magic. (Yes, I read them out of order.) I must confess, on rereading this particular novel, I was incessantly charmed by the whole work. Not only is it fantastically light and popcorny fair, but the overall pacing stays as light as well. I won't be rereading Castle Roogna as that novel did not star Bink, and as far as I'm concerned, the proper Xanth novels are about Bink and his adventures, while all the others are posers.

From here on out, I will assume that you've read the book. There are spoilers. (The work is over thirty years old now. Do I really need to warn you about spoilers?)

FYI, if you want to talk about Piers Anthony and misogyny, please do a search on those terms and go elsewhere. I do not want to discuss that subject. Please go elsewhere. Thank you.

"A Spell for Chameleon" is book is about sex. I would go so far as to call it a medieval morality comedy about sex. You have Bink, our hero, who has no magic (sex) but wants to find his magic (sex). On his travels to find his own magic, he meets many chesty women who take an interest in him for various reasons, some sexual, some not, with great awkwardness ensuing. In the end, his magic power turns out to be "getting lucky", which is about the most super-sexual power that you can get. He learns about his mysterous power in the same chapter that he finally gets laid. Coincidence? I think not. Naturally, everyone winds up paired off in the end like any good romantic comedy.

The book follows all the best rules about comedy. Sex isn't funny, but frustration, frustratin is funny. Bink has no lack of frustration, partly because he just wants the wrong girl, but mostly because he's so dense and thick headed that he doesn't need any roadblocks at all. He puts up sufficient roadblocks to make his own life miserable. So Bink winds up in any number of awkward sexual situations, many described, and many implied, doing his best to keep himself true to his girl back home.

Piers really worked hard to keep the book PG, which I appreciate. Her really could have gone down the road of down and dirty, but used enough innuendo and circumlocution to communicate with the adults and still leave lots of room for the not-so-adults. Bravo to him.

The characters of this work are flat but colorful. By that, I mean that the characters represent aspects of ideas rather than fully fleshed out characters. These characters are purposefully over-simplified, adding to the general cartoony feel of the work. Like a Scooby Doo character, their job is to say all their right lines at all the right times, but never to develop over time. This flatness helps keep the work light and fluffy. If these had been fully developed characters, the book would have bogged down under its own weight, so the flatness is the narrator's choice.

I found the work far less pun-filled than I feared, instead finding the book more silly-filled. Instead, the book was filled with lexicolic literalisms. (I don't know if that's a real term, but now it is.) Lexicolic literallism is when you take the component parts of a word and accept them as the literal definition of the word. For example, an egg is a small, hard container for growing new creatures. A plant is something that grows. And eggplant is therefore something that grows eggs, rather than a plant that grows large, purple vegetables.

The book is also filled with magical ways of producing ordinary items. Candy trees and oil barrel trees are mentioned. There no pun behind them or literalism. They are merely the way that Xanth produces materials differently than the mundane world.

Trent proved interesting for me. As I read him, Liam Neeson's voice kept speaking in my ear.

Given the passage of time, I must say that the book stands up very well. A new generation of boys is always going through the whole "girls are plushies/girls are real people" problem all the time. As I read through this book, those awkwardnesses and those desires stood front and center. I remember some of those emotions myself. You might think that boys just learn and know this stuff, but that's not the way that it works. Boys only pretend to know this stuff, then get blindsided by all the consequences. 

So all-in-all, I had a grand time reading the book and I look forward to The Source of Magic, which was among the most favorite of all my tween-year books.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Sword of Shanarra (Book Review)(Top Fantasy Novels of the 1970s)

I know that I said that I would go back and read (or reread) fantasy books from the 70s, but I just can't bring myself to reread the Sword of Shanarra. After forty years of lying fallow, I must confess that I am still tired of the Shanarra books and I have no desire to slog through them again. Mind you, I formed this opinion when I was young and impressionable and liked everything that I read, so if I was less than that generous back then, I rather suspect that I will be even more ill-generous now. Perhaps, if I find a cheap or free copy, I may read some of it. Maybe. Or maybe I'm still pining to get all those hours of my life back from 1978.

The main selling point of this books seemed to be that it was long. What it gives you, it gives to you generously and without reservation, although I am not sure that you want everything that it gives you. I suspect that this book is partly responsible for the miserable tendency of fantasy these days to continue oozing out impossibly long and complicated sagas that ceased to have a point within fifty pages of their first books.

Rather than read this book next, I'll table it and come back to it later. If I am fortunate and God is with me, then my resolve will never be tested.


The Sword of Shannara (1977) by Terry Brooks was a best seller of its time. I read this book back in middle school, maybe 9th grade, and to be honest, I didn't remember a word of it, other than a vague notion that I had thoroughly wasted my time. When the time came to reread this novel, I avoided it for two years, loath to wade through this a second time. On rereading it, I came to learn why I didn't remember a word of it and why I avoided it. There was nothing worth remembering.

This novel ought to be more memorable. It's a boy's adventure novel in every way, where the lead character is a chosen one who can defeat a terrible baddie. The prose's tone, the characters, the simplistic interactions, and character high-fives (all virtual) all contribute to the juvenile positioning of the work. If you don't like boy's adventure novels, with all their cliches and gee-wizziness and convenient happenstances, then you certainly won't like this. If you can accept the conceits of the genre, then the only thing really working against the novel is its own sheer length.

This novel is long. It's 700 pages long, but it tells a story that should only have take 250 to 300 pages, at most. Vast tracks of the prose can easily be skipped without hampering any understanding of plot, character, or world lore. Often, the characters stop and rethink their situations, re-explaining their actions for pages at a time. I made no attempt to read every word in this book, which made the work infinitely less annoying.

Skimming saved my sanity.

I'm not against long books, but I am against long books that don't need to be long. Those sorts of books irk me as a waste my time.

The prose itself is readable and practical. The writing is not a work of poetic genius, but it tells the story adequately, what there is of it, which is what really matters.

You'll find the plot familiar because Terry used The Lord of the Rings as his model for structure, character, and themes. Although many people dislike that resemblance, I don't begrudge Terry one iota for doing so. If you're going to steal, steal from the best. Terry's decision to model his novel after one of the most successful fantasy novels ever written sold him many, many books, and wound up paying his mortgage for many years. Smart man.

The first female character shows up on page 547, 3/4th of the way through the novel. While it may be sexist, boy's novels are written to appeal to boys. Gender favoritism just comes with the territory. Gendering stories sells books.

Now that I'm done rereading this Shannara book, I have no plans to reread any other books in this series. No more for a long time.

Tales of Earthsea (2002)

Just when you thought it was safe to mock Ursula LeGuin, laughing at her for being a has-been or an over-touted never-was, she walks gently in with this book, throws you down to the mat with a gently push, and tells you to shut up. The grandmaster has entered the room and all will attend. That's how I feel about Tales From Earthsea (2002).

This books fully retconns her Earthsea universe into one that is more equatable and fair in a way that her earlier books failed at. This books makes it clear that the opinion of wizards, and their view of the world, in no way encompasses the whole world. In many way, the earlier Earthsea books become a sort of propaganda, technically true, yet playing up one group of people and pushing down or marginalizing others. Sorcers and witches, old powers and strange lore, had always been part of Earthsea. In many ways, they were far more powerful as they made a material difference in the everyday lives of people. In contrast, wizards are few and far between, with many people never meeting a wizard at all. They may do grand things, but their lore often lends them to doing nothing at all.

The book opens with a long story about Otter that goes on and on, past where you think that it will end, winding itself around several other places, and landing nicely at its end, telling us a tale of a time before there was a school on Roke, when being a wizard was far more like being a cheap paperback wizard. Roke did not ascend through violence in its defeat of that unjust non-system, but through patience and cooperation, for in these stories, violence is not the axis on which these stories turn.

A handful more stories follow, all elsewhere and elsewhen in Earthsea, giving us a wider view of this place where heroes are not so important, and great things don't necessarily happen. A wizard winds up in the wrong place. A girl want to know her name. A boy falls in love with a girl. All simple stories, in their right, and all warm in their telling.

This book pleased me.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thor: The Dark World (Film Review)

Last night's film was "Thor: The Dark World." In this fairly turnkey film, Darcy the intern gets her own bumbling intern, and through the course of their adventures to save the world, fall in love. The B-Story of this film involved featured Tom Hiddleston as Loki. It wasn't really important what Tom did as Loki. He could have fried bacon and gone to the store for milk with such flair and charisma that you would walk away from his performance satisfied. The remainder of the film was padded out with backstory and a rather lackluster story about Thor and Jane, which could have easily been Tarzan and Jane but for the fact that Johnny Weissmuller's acting eclipses that of Chris Hemsworth. Ferchristsake, Heimdall had more emotional expression than Thor and did more bad-assery in one scene than Thor did the whole film.

The story opens with a prologue because the director didn't have the confidence that his film would properly tell the story, which is a big red warning flag right there. We learn that the Dark Elves had a McGuffin and that they want it back in order to, [spoiler ahead] END THE WORLD. Were you surprised? I wasn't. About five minutes into the film, I felt bored. Although the film went on to amuse me, it never truly entertained me except as indicated above.

In this film, I learned that super-future worlds can't save people from gut wounds. Future weapons can't hit huge flying objects the size of buildings, nor can they coordinate. Nor can they think of anything better to do with prisoners than keep them in the capital, inside a vital military target. And when it comes to stories of the past, can't do much better than vague references in illustrated books rather than extensive treatises detailing one of the universe's most dangerous weapons just in case it should be used again, because, you know, obscure super-powerful weapons never get developed twice.

However, Thor: The Dark World does sufficiently succeed on the popcorn-o-meter that I can't wholey condemn it. As B-films go, and this was a B-film despite its budget, I found it sufficiently dorky and full of dorkness and it scratched all the appropriate itches, if imperfectly.