Just Who Is Dave Hoing, Anyway?

Dave Hoing lives in Waterloo, Iowa, with his wife Joni, a dog named Tree and a cat named Toro.  In real life he’s a Library Associate at the University of Northern Iowa, where he has worked in one capacity or another since 1978.  In his artistic life Dave is primarily a short story writer.  He’s a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but now he concentrates mostly on literary, historical, and mystery fiction.  His historical novel Hammon Falls, co-written with Roger Hileman, is his first published full-length work, although he has written (or, ahem, started to write) five others.

When not toiling in the library or sitting at the word processor, Dave likes to travel, compose music, collect antiquarian books, and read.  His interests include virtually everything except internal combustion engines, with which he has a hate/hate relationship.

His short story experience came in handy when writing Hammon Falls.  Short fiction deals in nuances and succinctness.  At its best it observes and describes human behavior in few words, finding depth in brevity.  That technique serves well in a novel with short chapters and a large cast of characters.

Dave’s love of history and travelling was also useful for the sections of Hammon Falls set in Paris, Dublin, and Buffalo, because it allowed him to write from experience and memory.  Oddly, though, while he grew up in Iowa, where the bulk of the novel takes place, he’d never cared much about his own hometown’s past until Roger got him involved in the research for Hammon Falls.  Rather like the prophet who is honored everywhere but his own home, Dave was interested in the history of every city but his own.  After having done the research, though, he learned a valuable lesson: if a book has great characters and the story is well told, every place is interesting, be it Paris, Dublin, Buffalo, or, yes, even Waterloo, Iowa.  It’s people who make the history, and the story, and people, wherever they are, are fascinating creatures indeed.

So why should anyone buy Hammon Falls?  Quite simply, it’s got a lot of the stuff readers like—deep characterizations, interesting locations, and universal themes.  It’s got war.  It’s got crime.  It’s got spirituality, betrayal, and redemption.  Above all, it’s got a strong plot with explosive family relationships and a sweet, if tragic, love story.  Add to that an innovative structure, and you have a book that’s both fun and challenging to read.  Finally, it was written by two guys who love to write.  They are not tortured artists. They are not driven to create.  They don’t write as therapy.  They don’t write to exorcise demons.  They write for the sheer joy of it—and it shows.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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Elvis Costello and the Imposters in Indianapolis, or Elvis, please don’t leave the building.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters turned in another stunning performance on their “Revolver Tour” last night at Indianapolis’ Murat Theater. For those poor slobs out of the loop, this is the tour’s schtick: There’s a big wheel up on the stage. On the wheel are song titles, “jackpot” squares, and squares with themes, or the combinations of two album titles. Periodically, people are invited up on stage to spin the wheel. (Typically, a youngish, attractive female likely to dance in the go-go cage set up on stage right. This seems really unfair, since this 46 year old dude would totally dance in the go-go cage.) Elvis and the band then play whatever comes up on the wheel. Elvis had a similar device for encores for one tour in the 90’s. This extended version of the schtick allows the show to become part rock concert, part lounge act. Once the wheel spinning of the show commences, Elvis introduces himself as Napoleon Dynamite (yes, the writers of that movie stole the name) and dons a top hat and cane to mc the proceedings. It’s a wonderful way to not only create spontaneity, but to allow Elvis to dive deep into the embarrassment of riches that is his repertoire. I’ve never sat down to figure out how many songs the man has written and recorded, but there are a shit-load of them, and after 35 years they’re still coming. In my humble opinion he is the best pop song writer out there, perhaps the only one worthy of inclusion in the league of Dylan, Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. He’s such a great writer of pop songs, in fact, he is too great to ever be that popular. That’s a bonus for serious fans like me, since we get to see him in the intimate confines of the Murat.
Back to the show. Before the wheel started spinning, Elvis plowed through a set five songs, including staples “Radio, Radio” and “Mystery Dance.” Then a girl right in front of me got to spin the wheel, lucky-duck. Up came “Stella Hurt,” from Momofuku. Sporadic applause for the spin’s choice. Certainly the jagoffs who kept screaming “Allison!” before every single song weren’t happy. Luckily, there were real fans in the audience. Elvis and the boys played the frack out of it, especially the extended jam at the end. Same went for the next spin, “You Bowed Down,” from the seriously underrated album, All This Useless Beauty. With the closing notes of the tune, Nadia or Tatiana, whatever the Slavic name of the scantily-clad blonde—probably a rocket scientist—serving has helper started bringing up the next contestant. To her surprise, and to the rest of the band, Elvis went straight into “Shabby Doll.” It’s not on the wheel. Apparently he just felt like playing it, and oh, what an absolutely exquisite take it was! Elvis uses the wheel as a device, but doesn’t always stick to the rules, lucky for us.
Other spins: “Happy,” for the album Get Happy! That spin gave us three songs from the album plus “Watch Your Step.” There was also “King’s Ransom,” featuring songs from alt-country albums National Ransom and King of America. And during the encore, Elvis cheated by spinning the wheel himself, and then guiding it to the space marked “Time.”
All in all, an awesome show, and very different from the Chicago Theater show my fiancé and I saw in May. The Indy show was more music, and less lounge act. Maybe Elvis is tiring a bit of the lounge act, or last night was just how it all played out. Highlights for me: “American Without Tears,” “Secondary Modern/Watch Your Step,” “Shabby Doll,” “Stella Hurt, and the beautiful ending ballad, “I Hope.” Here’s the full set list:
I Hope You’re Happy Now
Heart of the City (Nick Lowe cover)
Mystery Dance
Uncomplicated
Radio, Radio
Spin 1:
Stella Hurt
Spin 2:
You Bowed Down
Shabby Doll
Spin 3 (Happy):
I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down
High Fidelity
Secondary Modern
Watch Your Step
Spin 4 (King’s Ransom):
Brilliant Mistake
Stations of the Cross
American Without Tears
National Ransom
Spin 5:
Peace, Love and Understanding (Nick Lowe cover)
Encore:
Slow Drag with Josephine (solo acoustic)
Veronica (solo acoustic)
The Hammer of Songs:
Red Shoes/Purple Rain
Pump it Up
Spin 6 (Time):
Strict Time
Man out of Time
Out of Time (Stones’ cover)
Quiet About It (Solo acoustic—Jesse Winchester cover)
Alison
I Hope

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Star Wars on Bluray, or Darth Vader says what?

In early summer 1999 my girlfriend and I went to a wedding in Seattle. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had been out for some time by then, and some clown somewhere decided to stage a “Phantom Menace Day.” The point was to encourage people to either see the movie for the first time, or to see it again. Soon after leaving our downtown hotel, Kathy and I were accosted by a frumpled, 30-something dude.
“Excuse, me,” he said. “Have you seen The Phantom Menace?”
“Why, yes, we have.”
“Would you consider seeing it again today? We want to make it the highest grossing film ever!”
“Sorry,” I said. “We have a wedding to go to.”
I was totally polite, which is really unlike me. Even know, twelve years later, I wish I could have my response back. This happens to everyone, doesn’t it? Even moments after an incident occurs, you think up the perfect comeback. By then, it’s too late. This is what I wished I had said:
“Excuse me? You’re out here canvassing pedestrians on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, trying to get them to go see that piece of crap movie again? Of all the problems facing the world today—unrest in the Middle East, mass starvation in the Horn of Africa, violence against women and children, decaying public schools, the AIDS epidemic, etc.—this is the cause that inspires you to take up the torch and man the barricades? To make George Lucas even richer than he is? You’re a loser! By the way, this is Kathy, my girlfriend. She’s a real-life woman. She lets me see her naked. One of the ways we express feelings for each other is by having sex. This is what adults do. Believe it or not, jacking it to a hermetically sealed poster of Princess Leia while sprawled out on a lumpy futon in your parents’ basement isn’t really sex. Now get away from me before I punch you in the neck. You’re a loser!”
I was thinking about this incident last week while I perused the reviews on Amazon of the Star Wars movies on Bluray, because despite the fact that people in the Horn of Africa are still starving, and that the Middle East is still a cluster fuck, and that men still abuse women and children, and that our schools still suck, and that people still get AIDS, I had every intention of giving George Lucas more money, and not only that, but I would blog about the movies and tell other people they should buy them, too. While reading the Amazon reviews I realized I was meeting yet again that frumpled (I know; it’s not a real word, but it should be) dude from Seattle, or at least someone much like him. He was giving the original Star Wars trilogy One Star, and was now telling people not to give George Lucas anymore money.
Why? Because the Blurays do not contain the original releases. There’s stuff added to them. Go ahead. Scan the reviews. There are tons of One Star reviews. Most appeared weeks before the Bluray release. The one addition that really seems to piss people off is that Darth Vader know yells a Steven Cobert “Nooooooo!” as he chucks the Emperor down into the shaft of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi. Pretty inconsequential, if you ask me. There are a few other additions, like the bit with Jabba the Hut in Star Wars. If those minor additions really keep you from buying the Blurays, you are an idiot and deserved to be punched in the neck.
Is that extreme? No. I went out and bought the original trilogy last Friday, and watched one film a day over the weekend. And they are awesome. The first 40 minutes of The Empire Strikes Back alone makes it worth it. I’m old enough that I saw Star Wars in its initial run at a drive-in in 1977. The picture was completely washed out, and the sound (if you can call it that) came out of one those speakers you hooked to your window. It looked (and sounded like) a 1950s era kitchen utensil. Maybe the purists trashing the Bluerays are nostalgic for those speakers as well. Now you can watch Star Wars in high definition and 6.1 surround sound. Who would’ve imagined back then, or even in the early 80s when movies started being released on VHS. Remember those days? A new release cost 80 fracking dollars! The Star Wars Trilogy on awesome Bluray will set you back half that. That means one movie costs about the same as one ticket for the latest Hollywoodextravaganza3Dsuckfest.
So that covers the original trilogy. What about the second one? You know, those three poorly written, poorly directed, poorly acted abominations that make even Indiana Jones and the Wankdom of the Crystal Skullfuck seem like a masterpiece? Should you go out and buy that? Get serious. If you really need to see the deleted scenes and other stuff that comes with the two-trilogy box set, catch it on YouTube. George Lucas has enough money.

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Wilco in Indianapolis

I was formally introduced to Wilco in 1999 in Lithuania. An odd place to get to know this very American band, but then again, Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, boasts the world’s only state-funded memorial to Frank Zappa, and at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, The Grateful Dead sponsored the Lithuanian basketball team (hence the tie-dyed uniforms). The album was the 1st volume of “Mermaid Avenue,” the Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration that interprets unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. Blake, a Peace Corps Volunteer, pretty much spun it nonstop. I liked it well enough, but it took a few years of my friend Courtney (“Wilcogal”) berating me about what I was missing before I broke down and borrowed Kicking Television from the library. That’s not bad, I thought. Then Jack and Darla talked me into seeing them in Bloomington. A good show, I thought. I still wasn’t there, and wouldn’t be until the release of Sky Blue Sky. I played it every single day for a month. Even after collecting the rest of Wilco’s catalogue, I still think it’s their best album, bursting with great pop songs and compelling jams.
Now I’m a pretty serious fan, so it was with much anticipation that I awaited the beginning of The Whole Love tour. How convenient that I live only an hour from Indianapolis. (Starting a tour in Indianapolis? Let’s remember that Jeff Tweedy lives just up the interstate.) And what a way to start a tour. Nick Lowe opened, looking more like a retired metalworker than a rock icon. Like most people, I usually, at best, tolerate opening bands. But you couldn’t ask for more than Nick Lowe, just him on the acoustic guitar ripping through old classics like “Cruel to be Kind,” Ragin’ Eyes,” and (What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song covered famously by Elvis Costello, as well as a great new song already dear to my heart, “I Read A Lot.” Lowe has been around since the 60’s, but you’d never know it by his voice. It sounded just as good since I’d since him last, opening for Costello in the mid-80’s. His performance was rewarded with something I’d never seen for an opening act: a full house standing ovation. Good stuff.
And then Wilco. Yeah, it was good, perhaps just too reliant on their concert staples. For me the highlight was the very first song, “Art of Almost,” the opening cut from The Whole Love. One guy near me summed it up best: “Wow, that was really out there. We’re talking Pluto!” It’s a very different song, closer to Syd Barrett Pink Floyd than anything else I’ve heard from Jeff Tweedy. The rest of the show was typical, high octane live Wilco, but again, a little reliant on staples. More than half the set list was identical to their show at White River a few years back. We got some great jams, though, in “Impossible Germany” and “At Least that’s What You Said.” The other new songs sounded great as well, though surprisingly, they only played five altogether. They did throw in a few not so staplish songs, like Summerteeth’s “In a Future Age” and “I’m Always in Love.” At under two hours, I was left with wanting more. I wonder if there are still tickets available for tonight’s gig…
Set List:
Art of Almost
I Might
Misunderstood
At Least That’s What You Said
Bull Black Nova
In a Future Age
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Handshake Drugs
War on War
Born Alone
You Are My Face
Impossible Germany
Via Chicago
Dawned on Me
I’m Always in Love
A Shot in the Arm
Encore:
Hummingbird
Whole Love
Jesus Etc.
Walkin’
I’m the Man Who Loves You

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Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings in Bloomington, or Why People Who Talk at Concerts Need to Die.

I caught these guys in Bloomington last, and wow, what a stupendous show. Their harmonies were dead on, and Dave whipped out one great solo after another. I am amazed that a show featuring two people on acoustic guitars (with the occasional banjo) can produce so much raucous energy. The set list included new material, as well as killer versions of “Red Clay Halo,” “Pocahontas,” “I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll,” “Elvis Presley Blues…” To top it off, Mr. Rawlings took the lead on “Ruby” and “Sweet Tooth.” At the beginning of the second set, Welch announced that they had totally “trashed the set list.” Any serious music fan loves that kind of spontaneity.
But this isn’t about the serious music fan. Alas. No, it’s about the despicable person that haunts every musical event: The Talker. You know, the shitbag who carries on full blown conversations in the middle of songs, destroying everybody else’s experience. They’re even worse than losers that determine the quality of any event they attend by how much they drink. Very often, Talkers only stop the flow of verbal diarrhea between songs so they can clap politely. I put these sub-humans on the same level as suicide bombers and the guys who ask you “How’s it hanging?” in public urinals. Last night was no different. Gillian Welch played the Bluebird Theater, one of those no chair clubs. I found myself a nice metal pole to lean against. Half way through the opening number I was thinking, Boy, these two are like angels. Such beauty! Such grace! But sure enough, by the second song some middle aged woman next to me started yapping. I remember thinking, you know, if there truly was a God, He/She/It would enter me right know, fill me with love and grace, and then command me to slam this woman’s head into the metal pole. When the townspeople of Gomorrah started to binge, King Lot offered them his daughters so they wouldn’t rape some angels. God seemed okay with that. It/She/He wouldn’t put up with some fucktard with dyed red hair while Heavenly Creatures tried to fill the Creation with Truth and Beauty.
When I was younger and more reckless, I’d just tell these cretins to shut up. I still remember telling a girl to shut her trap during the quietest bits of “And You and I” at a Yes show back in 1983. She was shocked and dismayed, but complaining to her date didn’t help. He was more interested in Jon Anderson’s voice than defending her honor. Then a few years later, I told some joker to shut it while the Grateful Dead ripped into “Tennessee Jed.” The guy started in with me: “Dude, this is the Dead, you know, dude? It’s about, like, you know, just doin’ your own thing. Just hittin’ your groove, Man, like, you know, what makes you happy. Like, you know, dude?”
I simply glared back. He looked to his friends for support, but now that he was no longer yapping at them, they had turned their attention, certainly relieved, back to Jerry Garcia.
Once, at a Neville Brothers concert, I had to threaten a waitress with a report to her manager if she didn’t cease making time with a “cute” patron during “Amazing Grace.” “Amazing Grace,” for godssake!
The Talker. Jesus. A few years ago I saw Lucinda Williams at a club in Chicago. The crowd was pretty good. I had no problems…until the encore. A couple grooved in front of me. They seemed to be totally enjoying themselves. Then, four seconds into “Lake Charles,” the guy started talking about, I shit you not, his love for macaroni and cheese. “Lake Charles.” Macaroni and Cheese. Now maybe not everyone out there is familiar with Lucinda’s “Lake Charles.” Allow me to draw an analogy: one weekend some clown flies to Paris. He immediately hits a shady, tourist-only café and fills up on “Tureen of Turned Horse Meat.” He then goes to the Louvre where, like every other idiot, makes a bee line for the “Mona Lisa.” He fights his way through the crowd, rips the painting from the wall, throws it to the ground, and then does a doggy ass drag across Mona Lisa’s face.
That’s the same as talking about anything, let alone macaroni and cheese, while Lucinda Williams (just a few feet away, mind you) is playing “Lake Charles.” Clearly, no angel whispered in this horsefucker’s ear. I wished upon him a fiery, painful death. Hopefully, he died in a car crash that night. If so, this is the conversation he had with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates:
St. Peter: You? You’ve got to be kidding me.
Horsefucker: What do you mean? I went to church every Sunday.
St. Peter: You talked during “Lake Charles.”
Horsefucker: I honored my mother and father. I never even cheated on my wife!
St. Peter: You talked during “Lake Charles.”
Horsefucker: I gave half my money away to the poor!
St. Peter: You talked during “Lake Charles”
Horsefucker: I saved a baby from a burning building!
St. Peter: YOU TALKED DURING “LAKE CHARLES!” NOW INTO THE PIT, HORSEFUCKER!

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Doctor Who Returns

This is an exciting day for us geeks. Tonight Doctor Who returns after a three month break. (The BBC has this annoying habit of splitting their shows seasons into two, perhaps so they can sell two sets of dvds…) Granted, this has been my least favorite season of the new Doctor Who series. While I like Matt Smith well enough, he tends to mumble, making the increasingly more incomprehensible adventures even harder to follow. All in all the new series of Doctor Who has been quite good, but like other fans of the old series I’m often irritated by all the tales about his companions, as well as the number of episodes that take place in contemporary London. Given the bigger budget the show now enjoys, it would be nice to see more adventures on other planets.
Should you watch tonight’s episode, despite the mumbling? Sure! For my money, Doctor Who still offers the greatest fantasy imaginable. We’re not talking sexual fantasies, despite the ongoing flow of hot young companions. ((Back in the day, I fixated on the 4th and 5th Doctors’ Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), but after plowing through the Jon Pertwee’s Doctor on dvd, one can’t help but admire Jo Grant (Katy Manning), for my money the most compelling of all Doctor Who’s companions.)) The attractive companions are a bit of an enigma, considering the asexual atmosphere of the TARDIS. The origins of this asexuality can certainly be attributed to the fact that Doctor Who at least started out as a children’s show. Plus, the first Doctor, William Hartnell (Arguably the worst Doctor ever. He’s fun to watch just to count the number of lines he flubs. Not surprising, since he once said learning the dialogue was like learning King Lear…) was a crepuscular old man. Then again, this asexuality is quite logical, since the Doctor can regenerate, rendering him nearly immortal. Any sex drive at all would be pretty pointless.
No, it’s not a sex fantasy, it’s the idea of going anywhere in time and space. Even as a kid watching the original series, I never really dreamt about being Doctor Who (likely because of the no sex thing); I just wanted to fly off with him. Who wouldn’t? You could be gone for years exploring other planets and time periods and he could still drop you off a second after you left. You’d never miss a Super Bowl. I haven’t been to a science fiction convention in years, but I bet when the freaks and geeks start discussing Doctor Who, the inevitable question comes up: given all of time, where would you go? When I first started watching Doctor Who 30 years ago, I wondered about that. The signing of the Declaration of Independence, the premier of a Shakespeare play, the Last Supper…I don’t remember. A few weeks ago I posed the question to Katie, my fiancée. While she pondered it, I said that I’d like to go to my grandparents’ weddings. Every big event I could think of either never really happened (like pretty much any story involving Jesus), or would be totally disappointing. How exciting would it be to watch a bunch of guys sign their names? Plus, pre 20th century, everyone you ran into would really, really smell.

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The Return of the King: Extended Edition

At nearly an hour of extra footage, the extended version of The Return of the King is a serious time commitment. No biggie for those serious fans of Jackson’s film. But is it worth it to sit in the theater for 4 plus hours this Tuesday?
Probably. Unlike the extended versions of the first two films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, ROTK is hit and miss. I wouldn’t say that the original theatrical version is superior, but there are a number of new and extended scenes that simply do not work. Here is a rundown of the major new and extended scenes, starting with some that work:
Death of Saruman: Christopher Lee was pissed when Jackson cut this from the theatrical version. For good reason. It’s a great scene. Sure, he’s not killed in the Shire (as he is in the novel), but his final impalement on a spikey waterwheel is very apropos. We also see another layer of Theoden when he offers pardon to Grima.
The Mouth of Sauron: Originally, Jackson had Sauron appearing at the Black Gate to lead his army. Luckily, he changed his mind. In this scene the Mouth of Sauron produces Frodo’s mithril shirt, “proof” that he’s been captured. The scene is set up in the tower when we see two orcs fighting over the shirt. Not sure why Jackson cut it.
Gandalf vs. the Lord of the Nazgul: This is another scene that is set up in the theatrical version, but strangely enough, finally cut. An orc asks the Nazgul about the White Wizard, who then replies: “I will break him.” In the theatrical version, we don’t see him break Gandalf’s staff. If you only see the shorter version, you might wonder why he’s not carrying it when he saves Faramir from the pyre.
Avalanche of Skulls: This scene in the Paths of the Dead isn’t in the novel, but it’s cool nonetheless!
Pelennor Fields: The best new bits include additional scenes of Eowyn and Merry kicking ass, as well as Gothmog calling for Grond after failing to bring down the gates of Minas Tirith.
Houses of the Healing: We get more than a subtle hint about the future marriage of Eowyn and Faramir when they meet in the hospital. Faramir looks a little too healthy to be not marching to the Black Gate, but I can live with it.
Frodo and Sam captured by orcs: In Mordor, Frodo and Sam wear Orc clothes. In this new scene they are mistaken for orcs and are impressed into the army. They manage to escape in a way more realistic than in the novel.
Now here are some of the scenes that don’t work:
Eowyn and Merry riding to Minas Tirith: Eowyn is supposed to be in disguise, since her king ordered her to stay behind. In the book, she and Merry ride behind the army. In the movie, she walks around in the middle of the army without her helmet. Stupid misstep.
Drinking game: This scene is kinda funny, but doesn’t really strike the right tone. And again, when I think of the scenes from the novel not included in the film, I’m extra critical about the ones Jackson adds.
Paths of the Dead: The skulls scene is cool, but when the three companions first enter the cave, we see Gimli walking gingerly while bones crack beneath his feet. The scene should be scary. Instead, it’s humorous and screws up the tone of the sequence.
Corsair ships: The Peter Jackson cameo is fine, but this is supposed to be a massive army, a serious threat to the defenders of Minas Tirith. But what does Aragorn see when he gets out of the Paths of the Dead? About ten little river boats. How many troops could be on them? 500? Given the hordes already on the Pelennor, this army would be less than a drop in a bucket. A little simple CGI could have easily fixed it.
Pelennor Fields: the added sequences before the death of the Witchking are great, but after? We see Eowyn crawling away from Gothmog. Right before he gets to her, Aragorn and Gimli slay him. Eowyn’s killing of the Witchking is one of the film’s greatest scenes. It’s been set up since the first time we see her in The Two Towers. Her desire for honor, her bravery, her resourcefulness all come to fruition. Jackson kills the significance of her role as an empowered female by having Aragorn come to her rescue. Tolkien knew better.
Aragorn and the Palintir: In this scene, Aragorn announces his presence to Sauron. It’s meant to distract Sauron, to keep his eye fixed on Aragorn, and away from Frodo and Sam in Mordor. In Jackson’s scene, Sauron turns the table and shows Aragorn a dying Arwen. So much for Aragorn’s revelation. Now he’s the one likely distracted.

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The Two Towers: Extended Edition

Never before did I have such high expectations for a film than the second in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. I was nervous before seeing The Fellowship of the Ring, but after discovering its greatness, its clarity of vision, my hopes for the second in the trilogy soared.
The first scene in The Two Towers doesn’t disappoint. Gandalf’s pursuit of the Balrog down into the depths of the Misty Mountains is one of the greatest opening scenes of any movie I know. I was mesmerized that first time, and still am. By the beginning of the closing credits, however, had I my Faramir action figure I would have whipped it at the screen. The film contains too much Arwen, and too many seemingly nonsensical changes to Tolkien’s text, which often create holes in logic. (The elves fighting at Helm’s Deep? Where’d they go after? Are we to believe that every single one of them died??? And if they were free to fight there, why don’t they join the battles at Pelennor Fields and the Black Gate? The silly “telepathic” conversation between Galadriel and Elrond leading to the decision to send the Elvish army is overly expository, and nearly kills the tension of the middle act of the film. And Faramir? Tolkien’s character is a philosopher/warrior. Jackson’s is a bit of a weasel-dick. And even though the second film is a bit longer than the first, it covers about half the text. Many of Jackson’s scenes don’t appear in the novel. Instead of being disappointed of what was left out, many fans of the novel were disappointed in what was added.
But I was willing to give the film another chance, and I’ve learned to appreciate more with each viewing. Of three films The Two Towers benefits the most from the new and extended scenes in the cut playing in theaters this Tuesday. Flashbacks help to broaden Faramir’s character. While he’s still not the spiritual being he is in the novel, his treatment of Frodo and Sam now at least makes sense.
The most memorable new bits involve Merry, Pippen, and the Ents. Jackson pays homage to Tom Bombadil and Old Man Willow in a new scene when a Huorn (a wild tree without the consciousness of Ents) tries to ingest the two hobbits. In order to free them, Treebeard invokes the same command Bombadil uses in the Old Forest in the novel. The Huorns don’t appear in the initial cut of the film at all, even though they finish off Saruman’s army after the battle at Helm’s Deep. The extended cut contains that scene. (On Leno, Elijah Wood admitted that he didn’t understand why Jackson cut the scene. It’s really short, and really, really cool.) We also get to see Merry and Pippen discover all kinds of goodies in the ruins of Isengard.
So should you see the extended cut in the theaters? Absolutely! Sure, it’s the weakest of the three films. (Not all agree with this. In fact, for many of my friends who haven’t read the book, The Two Towers is their favorite of the three films.) But it still captures Middle Earth to the letter. It has a very different look than The Fellowship of the Ring. The plains of Rohan seem so much brighter than the Shire and Lothlorien. While there are weak bits, the hunt for Merry and Pippen is really well done, and our first real experience of Gollum is unforgettable. Sure, the siege of Isengard is way too short, but at least we get some of it. And the battle of Helm’s Deep? That alone is worth the price of admission.

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The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition

The Lord of the Rings will be hitting theaters again, one film over the next three Tuesdays. If you’ve seen the films already, should you go? Absolutely! These are the extended editions of each film, meaning each contain finely incorporated additional and extended scenes. Plus, the films will be introduced by director and co-writer Peter Jackson.
I’m going, despite the fact I’ve seen the extended trilogy dozens of times. Sure I have surround sound at home, a large flat screen television and all that, but nothing compares to seeing these films really big.

Tonight is The Fellowship of the Ring. This extended version includes about 25 more minutes than the original theatrical version. Arguably, of the three theatrically released versions, FOTR has the fewest flaws. The changes and most of the omissions from the novel Jackson made were logical. Many Tolkien fans were disappointed that there’s no Tom Bombadil, no Old Man Willow, no Barrow-Wights. But had Jackson dramatized those sequences the film would’ve been twice as long. (I wouldn’t have minded that…) You won’t see those sequences tonight, either. But the new and extended scenes you do get, by and large, are lifted straight from the novel, most notably at the beginning of the film, and during the Fellowship’s stay in Lothlorien. After the same brief history of the One Ring, we get a new start: Bilbo writing the chapter of his book, “Concerning Hobbits.” Much of this scene comes from the Prologue to The Lord of the Rings. It is a welcome addition for fans of the novel.

The other major extension deals with Lothlorien, an elf-realm, home to Galadrial, one of the oldest beings in Middle-Earth. When I first saw the theatrical release, I was disappointed that there was no gift-giving scene; the elves give the Fellowship some really cool stuff. The extended version restores the sequence. We find out about lembas, the elven rope, and the cloaks, all of which play important parts in the 2nd and 3rd films.

Many other cool little tidbits are sprinkled throughout the film, including Sam’s first sight of elves, the trolls turned to stone from The Hobbit, and Aragorn’s singing of the Lay of Beren and Luthien. The additions make a great film even better.

Be there! But please, no costumes…

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May is Short Story Month, Part 2

I know. May is over. When I wrote out the first list a couple weeks ago, my heat was on. Now it’s hot as hell out. Supposedly, summer is the season for long, crappy novels you read on the beach. No way, I say! Read these stories instead:

“Hands,” Sherwood Anderson. The opening story of arguably the greatest American short story collection.

“Roman Fever,” Edith Wharton. Written in the mid-30’s, this story harkens back to the European Grand Tour often dramatized by both Wharton and Henry James. Beware of secrets…

“Big Two-Hearted River, parts 1&2,” Ernest Hemingway. A simple story about a guy fishing a stream, but there’s so much below the surface of the water.

“The Chrysanthemums,” John Steinbeck. One of my favorite stories to teach, mainly because the more puritanical students totally freak when they discover the sexual imagery. The resolution is heart-breaking.

“A Rose for Emily,” William Faulkner. His most famous short story, for good reason. The collective first person viewpoint has never been used more effectively.

“The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson. Despite the “trick” ending, this story deserves multiple readings. No story better deals with the dangers of slavish obedience to tradition.

“Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor. Just one story? Stupid rules…In my opinion, O’Connor is the greatest short story writer to have ever lived. She died way, way too young. Goddamn lupus. Favorite part of this classic? When the college student whips the book at Mrs. Turpin’s head.

“The Conversion of the Jews,” Philip Roth. Still no Nobel Prize for this guy? The award has become a joke. But don’t get me wrong: I’d still take one…

“’Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman,” Harlan Ellison. A well-known story, but not typically recognized for the metafictional, post-modern masterpiece that it is. Manages to skewer every short story convention, from its overly long epigraph to the three-word climax.

“The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin. This story has no plot and no characters, but a story it is. The end never fails to give me chills. Every white, middle class fatcat who complains about his lot in life should have this story tattooed on his forehead.

“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates. If you ever meet a man in black who hobbles and sports a bad toupee, run…

“A Poetics for Bullies,” Stanley Elkin. One of our greatest comic voices. Sadly, not many people know it. Not many writers can so easily capture the personality of his protagonists through diction and syntax.

“A Father’s Story,” Andre Dubus. His son has garnered more fame, which is pity. Andre Sr. wrote mainly short stories, not bestselling novels. This story shows how far a father will go to protect his child.

“Everyday Use,” Alice Walker. In the 60’s, many African-Americans looked toward East Africa for cultural identity. This satire rips the movement to shreds.

“Cathedral,” Raymond Carver. There’s drinking and dope smoking and lots of strawberry pie. By the end, a blind man shows the protagonist how to “see” a cathedral. Like all of Carver’s best stories, deceptively simple.

“The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien. No greater short story about war. Period.

“Shiloh,” Bobbie Ann Mason. Poor Leroy. He hasn’t a clue as to why his marriage is falling apart. Typical dude?

“The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” Andrea Barrett. Historical novels are one thing, but historical short stories? Not an easy thing to do, unless you’re as brilliant as Andrea Barrett. This story mines the life and work of Gregor Mendel for metaphor. If you like reading about science and history, you will love the fictions of Barrett.

“Orientation,” Daniel Orozco. I usually hate 2nd person viewpoint, but I’ll make an exception for this masterpiece about an unknown, unnamed character that goes through the nuttiest of job orientations. When I first read it, I thought, why didn’t I think of this?

“Ysrael,” Junot Diaz. I guess the author uses a form of “Spanglish.” He incorporates Spanish words and phrases, and even though I don’t typically know the exact English counterparts, I still know exactly what he’s talking about. I have no idea how Diaz does it.

Enough. I know…what about Updike, Alexie, Bradbury…Another time. Add some of your own faves if you like!

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