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Doctor Who, Season Six

Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
  • The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
  • The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
  • The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
  • A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
  • The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
  • Closing Time (Gareth Roberts)
  • Let’s Kill Hitler (Moffat)
  • The Curse of the Black Spot (Stephen Thompson)
  • The God Complex (Toby Whithouse)
  • Night Terrors (Mark Gatiss)

Spoilers ahoy! Read on, Macduff! »

Webcomics I Read (2011 edition)

It’s been over a year since my last webcomics round-up (you can find my first two such posts here and here), and I wanted to squeeze in a new such entry before the new year. As usual, I found a few I really liked, and there are a few that I don’t much like, but I’ve tried to give them a decent chance. Here are webcomics I’ve started reading in the past year, listed alphabetically:

  • All New Issues, by Bill Ellis & Dani O’Brien: A slice-of-life gag strip set in a comic book shop, I still giggle at the clever title from time to time. Unfortunately the strip otherwise is only so-so: The art is decent, the gags are pretty routine, and I find the characters to be flat. Probably not a strip I’ll follow for much longer.
  • Atomic Laundromat, by Armando Valenzuela: Another slice-of-life gag strip, this one drawn in a manga-like style and concerning a young man who runs a laundromat for superheroes and super-villains. However, I have the same problems with it that I have with All New Issues, in both art and writing. One recent arc involved the protagonist’s father, a major superhero, on trial because he has a tendency to indecently expose himself in public, which could have been amusing if it had been totally over-the-top, but just seemed creepy given the understated way it was written. Bad Guy High worked some similar territory, but was a more compelling strip, I think. Not to mention Evil, Inc.
  • The Bean, by Travis Hanson: I discovered Hanson at APE in 2010, and have three of his prints framed and hanging on the wall. The Bean is his ongoing strip, a fantasy adventure about a boy having a very bad day, a goblin invasion, and the various heroes and supernatural creatures involved in it all. Very nice artwork, and the story is moving right along, albeit with a number of side trips to follow all the characters. My one lament is that I wish it was in color.
  • Bucko, by Jeff Parker & Erika Moen: The title character is a down-and-outer who stumbles on a dead body and tries to solve the crime, a challenge since he ends up on the run from the police. I started reading this strip hoping for some real detective fiction with a side of whimsy, but the crime is an extremely small part of the strip, and it’s been more like a romp through some alternative subcultures (my interest in Juggalos: zero). Moen’s artwork is simple and features a lot of swoops and curves, but while it’s effective enough, the style isn’t my cup of tea. I’m just clearly not the target audience for this strip.
  • Destructor, by Sean T. Collins & Matt Wiegle: Now here’s one that I am the target audience for: Destructor is a powerful armored man rampaging across a fantastic world with the goal of… something. But he seems to be assembling allies for some goal not yet revealed. Each chapter is pretty nifty: Destructor invades a city of crocodile-men, Destructor stages a prison break, Destructor frees a powerful and mysterious woman. There’s more mystery than character so far, but the mystery (and the adventure) is quite a lot of fun. Wiegle’s artwork is inventive and effective. I haven’t seen this strip getting much buzz, but it’s a good one.
  • Doghouse Diaries, by Will, Ray, and Raf: Basically xckd for non-geeks: It’s got stick-figure artwork, popover second-punchlines, and a generally snarky attitude, but so it fills very much the same space. The humor leans to the crude side, but it’s still fairly funny. No, I’m not blown away, but it’s an okay gag-a-day strip.
  • Dresden Codak, by Aaron Diaz: “42 Essential Third-Act Twists” is the funniest thing I read all year. I ordered a print of it. Dresden Codak is partly an ongoing strip, and partly a gag-a-day strip (well, more like a gag-every-three-weeks – it takes Diaz a while to do each strip, but the art is often gorgeous). Either way, it’s entirely geeky. The first extended arc, “Hob”, involved time travel, the singularity, alternate universes, and all that good stuff. The main character, Kim, is a scientist almost of the Girl Genius variety. She’s not a very likable character (she shares a little of her egotism and inability to relate to others with Sheldon Cooper from the TV show Big Bang Theory), but the ride is quite enjoyable.

    Diaz passes time between the few major arcs with various one-off strips, and a few shorter arcs. Another good sample of the hardcore meekness of the strip is “Dungeons and Discourse” (“Abilities – Immune to metaphysics”), along with, of course, “Advanced Dungeons and Discourse”. If those don’t convince you that this is a great strip, well, then there’s no hope for you.

    I think I’m dreadfully late to the party in discovering Dresden Codak, but it did mean I got to spend an afternoon laughing my ass off as I caught up. Highly recommended.

  • Drive, by Dave Kellett: A science fiction humor strip, similar in that regard to Spacetrawler: The SF is serious, but the storytelling is light and funny. A tough mix to brew, yet here we have two different strips doing it well. Drive concerns a human empire built on FTL technology inherited from aliens, and controlled by a single family. A mysterious alien is discovered who can pilot one of the ships better than anyone else, but he doesn’t remember who he is or where he came from. The empire is interested in him because they’re about to go to war with the race that created the FTL drive, and they’re clearly going to lose if they can’t find an edge. An eccentric crew is given a ship to try to solve the mystery. Politics, adventure, and humor. Only drawback is that updates have been sporadic.
  • d20Something, by Mitz: His wonderful supervillain strip Plan B ended earlier this year, and this is his new one. Unfortunately, it’s not as good. It features a collection of Dungeons & Dragons type 20-somethings (each with their own character class) living in modern society and dealing with various monsters who also live there. I find that none of the characters are distinctly drawn (I couldn’t really tell you anything about any of them at this point), and the plot doesn’t yet seem to be going anywhere, problems that Plan B didn’t have. I still like his art, and some of the gags are amusing, but color me disappointed by this one so far.
  • Ectopiary, by Hans Rickheit: A serialized graphic novel, a girl and her mother come to live in an exotic house, with unfriendly hosts and strange things going on in the yard. The girl’s curiosity of course gets the better of her, and she’s getting caught up in whatever it is that’s happening. The story doesn’t move fast, but it’s making progress. The art is intricate and beautiful, especially the highly-detailed backgrounds. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m enjoying it. Hiatuses occur from time to time when life gets in the way of the artist.
  • Family Man, by Dylan Meconis: One of the most polished webcomics out there as far as the art and web site go, Family Man takes place in 18th century Germany, and is the story of Luther Levy, a half-Jewish young man (with a nose longer than Cyrano de Bergerac‘s) who was ejected from the school where he pursued a Theology degree. He ends up as a teacher at a rural university and falls in love with the rector’s daughter. Oh, and we’re promised that there will be werewolves at some point.

    Meconis’ art shifts between the slightly-cartoony and the dead-on realistic (favoring the former style for the figures, which makes the latter more striking when it’s employed). The story – now over 230 pages in – is not exactly galloping along, but it’s well-crafted and witty. At a page a week, I wonder how many long-time readers are getting over-eager for the shoe to drop.

    The first chunk of the story has been collected in a high-quality paperback edition, which you can order from Meconis.

  • Frankenstein Superstar, by John Hazard: The Frankenstein monster in modern times, having married and settled down. Hazard’s art is among the best out there, but the stories and jokes are not, as the humor often feels cheap if not gratuitous. There’s an ongoing mystery involving a friend of the couple which suggests something more serious in the future.
  • The Gutters, by Ryan Sohmer & various artists: Ryan Sohmer, writer of Least I Could Do, has been doing this several-times-weekly graphic editorial of the comic book industry for a year and a half. Think of it as The Joy of Tech for comic book fans rather than technology enthusiasts and you get the idea, with the difference that Sohmer uses swear words and R-rated imagery a lot more. Overall I think I’ve been numbed sufficiently by the comic book blogosphere’s snark about the industry that nothing here is fall-over funny to me (and honestly sniping at DC and Marvel these days seems not only too easy, but de rigueur), but some of his observations are still pretty good. If you’ve been looking for the comics blogosphere distilled into comic strip form, then this is the strip for you.
  • K and J, by Sara Park Sanford & John Sanford: The story of two sisters and their Korean mother, focusing on their growing up and the culture clash of Korean and American values. A bit wordy, but otherwise really good. While the art is on the sketchy side, it actually works quite well. Updates have been sporadic recently, but it’s worth catching up on.
  • Kukuburi, by Ramón Pérez: Delivery girl Nadia finds herself shunted into a surreal alternate dimension where she joins a variety of weird creatures in a struggle against a skeletal entity. The strip is just recently back from a long hiatus, so my memory of the storyline is pretty fuzzy; my general recollection is that it was a fun ride but hard to discern who all the characters were and what their motivations were. The art is outstanding.
  • Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, by Rick Burchett & Greg Rucka: Fairly new, this is a straight-up adventure strip by a couple of comic book pros (Rucka also writes novels). Wild west steampunk with a side dose of the supernatural. Too soon to know where it’s going – the characters have barely been introduced – but it’s enjoyable so far.
  • Let’s Be Friends Again, by Curt Franklin & Chris Haley: Irreverent pop culture satire, sort of The Gutters crossed with Penny Arcade – there’s not much continuity, and if you’re not familiar with the subject matter then it probably won’t make any sense to you. I don’t really understand the meaning of the title, but it’s enjoyable for what it is.
  • Living With Insanity, by David Herbert, Paul Salvi & Fer: I’m not sure what to make of this one. It often seems semi-autobiographical, concerning writer David Herbert’s struggles to make it in the comics (or other writing) biz, but there have been extended sequences involving zombies, aliens, and whatnot. Overall my brain has summed it up as “Whatever the writer feels like writing.” A recent arc involves one of the characters hiring a busty model to represent his super-heroine. It’s just earnest and irreverent enough to keep me reading (updates can be infrequent), even though I’m not sure what to make of it.

    Artist Salvi recently left, replaced by new artist Fer, whose style I like better, although neither is a very polished artist. Still, the webcomics landscape is littered with artists who started off unpolished and grew to be quite good. I don’t know if Herbert has greater aspirations for the strip (it feels like when it grows up it could be something like Least I Could Do), but if not, it’s enjoyable enough.

  • The Meek, by Der-shing Helmer: I discovered this strip at APE last year. I’m not sure how to describe it: It’s sort of a post-Renaissance, pre-industrial setting with a variety of characters at various levels of society, from thief to noble. The strip updates erratically and the story is slow, so it feels like it’s still in the prologue stage. Helmer’s art is absolutely gorgeous, though, from figures to layouts to coloring. She’s collected it into 2 comic book issues (so far), which look equally lovely. I’m hoping the direction of he overall story will soon be revealed.
  • Ph.D. Comics, by Jorge Cham: Gag-a-day strip about the dangers and humors in academic life, sometimes quite clever. Probably worth following for anyone who’s serious pursued a graduate degree, and probably not meaningful to anyone who hasn’t.
  • Power Nap, by Maritza Campos & Bachan: Science fiction adventure strip with a good dose of humor. In the future, drugs allow people to go without sleep – unless you’re allergic to the drugs, as our hero, Drew, is, in which case you try to sleep as little as possible so you can keep up with the competition for your job, and then you fall asleep at awkward times and/or experience strange hallucinations. Smart and funny, with very good art, and the first major twist to the story just occurred, so this is a good time to jump in and catch up.
  • Rigby the Barbarian, by Lee Leslie: Woman archaeologist is suddenly transported to a barbaric world where she takes on a Conan-esque role of sword-wielding savior. Overt gender politics in this one, as you might guess, but it’s pretty clever and well-illustrated, and the fact that Rigby doesn’t take any crap from people who want to put her in her proverbial place (and she has the big sword and prophecy to back her up) makes it an entertaining ride. It’s been on hiatus for a while (looks like the archives are not currently accessible, either), but promises to be back in 2012. I’m looking forward to it.
  • Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, by Dylan Horrocks: Cartoonist Sam Zabel struggles with depression, and then his characters come to life and start talking to him (or do they?), and he finds himself lost in their worlds (or does he?). Metaphysical angst, and good artwork, mimicking a variety of art styles as the story calls for it. Unfortunately another strip which goes into hiatus from time to time.
  • Savage Chickens, “cartoons on sticky notes” by Doug Savage: The only strip I’ve added in the last year that updates every weekday. Gag-a-day strips which are pure irreverence with a dash of geekism. Fun.
  • S.S. Myra, by “Tom Walker”: If you’re looking for a covertly pornographic science fiction strip, then you’ve found it. Newlyweds Bran and Tink are given a starship as a gift and head off on it on their honeymoon. The ship’s computer, however, has the personality of the previous owner, who was, uh, rather hedonistic. Played for broad humor – NSFW, but surprisingly not-very-raunchy and not much nudity.

    Tom Walker is definitely not also known as Christopher Baldwin of Spacetrawler (he even says so); the fact that their art style is nearly identical is just one of those weird coincidences.

  • Unsounded, by Ashley Cope: Serious medieval fantasy, somewhat similar to The Meek, and with similarly excellent artwork. The story focuses on Sette, the daughter of a man who I think is probably a mob boss, who’s been sent on a mission with an undead warlock, Duane Adelier. Duane is capable, focused and serious, while Sette is a capable thief, but lacks focus or seriousness, and gets out of tough scrapes more through luck than skill. She’s still a girl, and gets overwhelmed by some of what she sees along the way. The story meanders all over the place and it’s not clear where it’s going, but it’s still pretty fun, and the world is inventive. And as I said, the art is great. Hopefully the story will get better as it goes along. If you like The Meek then you’ll probably like this, and vice-versa.

I’ve stopped reading some strips I’ve previously listed: Last Call updated less and less frequently and was losing its cohesion anyway. Bad Guy High and FreakAngels both ended. And Something Positive just never grabbed me; the art was too stiff for my tastes, and the humor didn’t work for me either.

A few strips seem to be on indefinite hiatus, but if they ever come back I’ll keep reading them. These include Aardehn, Border Crossings (the artist departed), The Guns of Shadow Valley (too bad, this sort of strip really needs regular updates to work), Maya, Moon Town (supposedly returning in 2012), and Rocket Road Trip.

Merry Little Christmas

We got woken up around 4 am this morning by Newton doing his late-night meowing thing. Debbi wasn’t able to get back to sleep and came downstairs to read until she could sleep again. I came down later (I’d been sleeping fitfully all night) and found both Blackjack and Roulette snoozing while she read. Not the best start to the day, alas. But we both did get back to sleep.

Other than that the day went well, though. We opened presents in our living room with the fireplace on, and the cats mousing around at the pile of wrapping paper. Debbi baked cinnamon rolls which we ate after the presents. She talked to her family, and I talked to my parents. While talking to Dad, both Roulette and Blackjack climbed up on the couch and slept next to me.

We went out for a mid-day walk to the supermarket, just for some rolls to have with dinner, and I started cooking when we got back. I made bacon-wrapped meat loaf, and Debbi steamed asparagus and made mashed potatoes. All very yummy!

We discovered yesterday that we now get BBC America in our cable package, so we watched the Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! special last night; it was pretty funny, but they cut a lot of the best stuff to make room for commercials. Fortunately, all that best stuff made it into the radio broadcast. And shortly we’re going to watch this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, having watched last year’s just a couple of nights ago. The Christmas specials are okay, but not really “special”; the cheesy – often campy – fooling around with Christmas traditions is getting rather tiresome.

So that’s been our first Christmas in our new house. The first of many to come, I hope!

The First Day of the Rest of my Vacation

…by which I mean it’s actually the second day of my vacation. The company’s shut down for Christmas week, so I’ll be bumming around through January 2. Happily, Debbi has the week off too, to assist me in my slothfulness.

We’ve done all the grocery trips to have food for today and tomorrow. And last night we went to Sundance the Steakhouse for dinner. (We were a little bummed that they don’t give discounts for Passport cardholders anymore, but not nearly as bummed as the fact that we didn’t get seated until half an hour after our reservation time. At least the food and drinks were good as always.)

I also made a run to the comics shop yesterday to pick up some stuff, as Ryan was having a big sale this past week. (I picked up a few collections on Wednesday, too.) It occurs to me that I should have seen whether he had any old issues of Suicide Squad in stock, as I really enjoyed reading the From the Ashes collection and have a yen to read the original series (which I guess will never be completed since DC cancelled the second collection, much like they seem to have abandoned the Sandman Mystery Theatre collection series).

The NFL has shifted most of their games from tomorrow to today, so we’re sitting watching the Forty-Niners game, and I’ll probably bake cookies a little later on.

We don’t have much in the way of plans this week, though we’re thinking about one or two fun things we could go do while we’re lounging our week away. But mostly I expect we’ll just relax and keep the cats company.

The Defenders #1

The Defenders #1, by Matt Fraction, and Terry & Rachel Dodson, Marvel, December 2011

The Defenders #1 is a bad comic book.

From the cover, it has all the hallmarks of something that should be a pretty good comic book: Matt Fraction has a good reputation (I’m not a big fan of his Casanova series – just not my thing – but I quite liked his run on Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker; and I heard good things about The Order). The Dodsons are fine artists (though Terry’s pencils always remind me of Adam Hughes’ style; he’s moving gradually away from that, though). Also, I’ve always had a soft spot the the Defenders; I love Doctor Strange, and this particular combination of heroes (Doc combined with the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer, with a few others tacked on for good measure) usually leads to some quirky stories.

While the cover is a bit drab in its colors (why is everyone wearing some combination of red, white and blue-gray? What happened to Namor’s green swim trunks, or Iron Fists’s green costume, or Doc’s bright-blue outfit and bright-red cape with yellow trim?), it’s still promising.

But the story: Ugh!

“Breaker of Worlds” starts with mayhem in Bucharest as a giant black creature causes rampant destruction. Not exactly something we haven’t seen before – Kurt Busiek’s terrific run on Avengers featured something similar – but not the worst premise for a story.

But then we but to Doctor Strange waking up after casually sleeping with a student, and realizing it was a mistake (as does she). This feels utterly out of character for the good Doctor; certainly he’s slept with his student before (back when they were called “apprentices”) (unless he’s a university professor now, which wouldn’t make much sense for the character), but it was always in the form of a serious relationship. Indeed, Roger Stern’s great run on the title in the 80s was greatly concerned with his relationships with a couple of women in his life.

Then the Hulk shows up, and asks Doc for help – which is apparently hard for him, although the old, childlike Hulk felt that Strange was one of the few people in the world he actually trusted. The pair gather Namor and the Silver Surfer (who seems to have the new ability to transform himself into snow, which seems gratuitous), and the Hulk explains that his anger and power have taken on their own form, a creature called Nul, Breaker of Worlds, which is the black creature we saw earlier. He’s come to the Defenders for help, but he can’t help himself since he could be sucked back into becoming part of it again.

None of the Hulk/Nul stuff makes much sense, either. I’d assume that Fraction is going to explain it all (How can the Hulk’s rage and anger become personified? Who’s behind it? How did the Hulk break away from it? How could he be sucked in again? Why hasn’t this happened before in the Hulk’s years of existence?), but it’s presented as a fait accompli and I don’t have a lot of faith that it will be explained. (Indeed, some of it should probably have been explained by the Hulk, himself, in this issue.)

Since the Hulk can’t go along, he recommends the Red She-Hulk pitch in instead. Red is Betty Banner (well, I guess she’s back to being Betty Ross now) for reasons I neither know nor care about (having lost interest in the recent “Red Hulk” stories after about 4 issues), and she’s something of a nonentity of a character here – charitably, I’d say she’s Marvel’s answer to Power Girl. (I always thought Ms. Marvel was Marvel’s answer to Power Girl.) And wait, if the Hulk can have his rage and power extracted into a separate entity, why couldn’t any other of the Hulks not have the same thing happen to them?

The team also brings in Iron Fist to provide transportation, since his alter ego of Daniel Rand is rich and owns a super fast plane. I find Fist’s portrayal here to be immensely annoying, as he’s something of a weenie geek who just wants to read comic books when more important things are going on. This doesn’t feel like Iron Fist’s character at all – it’s too cutesy, and not serious enough (hmm, just like Doctor Strange).

Anyway, the plane gets shot down, and the team gets ambushed. End issue one on this cliffhanger (well, with a little more thrown in, but that’s the bulk of it).

The story here is pretty pedestrian, but that’s not a crime. It’s tough to write a superhero comic that really breaks new ground. But the characterizations are really annoying. Only Namor comes out of the issues not seeming like a substantially different character than the one I’m used to, and that’s just bad writing. Maybe Marvel’s trying to mix up all their characters (in which case, I really have no interest in following them), or else Fraction’s just getting too cute with the characters, writing them the way he wishes they were rather than how they actually are. That my two favorite characters in the book – Doctor Strange and Iron Fist – are the most changed just makes it worse.

The Dodsons’ art is fine, of course. Ironically (given my earlier Power Girl comment), it seems like their style is evolving to look a little more like Amanda Connors’. The colors often seem a bit washed out, though, making many of the pages seem a bit flat.

But that’s not enough to make me want to keep reading. If issue #2 isn’t significantly improved then I don’t see myself continuing with the series. Which is too bad because I had been looking forward to this series, and this issue was really disappointing.

Dinner Party

Two nice things about our new house: One, we have enough space to host a dinner party. Two, we have a neighborhood and we’ve been getting to know our neighbors. And that’s what we did Friday night.

Actually it was our neighbor Juan who wanted to have a get-together, and he finally pinned us down last month to set a date. We invited a couple from a couple of houses down whom we all knew, and the couple between their houses who moved in recently. Everyone brought something, but Juan’s wife Maria cooked most of the entrees: Roll-up lasagna, and chicken tortellini with sausages.

The sign of a good party, I think, is when you lose track of time, and after people started arriving around 7:15, it was 10:00 almost before we knew it. The food was delicious, and we had a great evening all of us chatting. Blackjack hung out with us most of the evening and even showed that he can still jump if sufficiently motivated (like piles of yummy food on top of the counter). Even Roulette came down to say hi later in the evening.

We also got to show off our Christmas lights: We have a new light show on the front of the house, and we have two Christmas trees up: Our main one in the living room, and a smaller one in the family room. All of our guests live across the street from us, so they all get the benefit of the front lights.

A great night.

Thanksgiving Week Off

Apple closed down its corporate offices for Thanksgiving week – which it does from time to time, but not every year – so I had the week off. Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Last Sunday, Debbi hosted a cookie exchange with some friends. So we had six guests over to exchange cookies. I tried baking peanut butter cookies on Saturday, and they came out good. Next time I want to figure out how to make them chewier, since I like them that way rather than flaky, which this recipe yielded. We had a good time having people over, and Blackjack enjoyed visiting with everyone, too. He surprised us by being able to jump up onto the counter by way of a bar stool, which was more than we thought he was capable of, in his current state.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of days Blackjack’s condition went downhill. Coincidentally, we had a scheduled check-up on Tuesday with the vet that’s been treating his cancer. By Tuesday morning he was very wobbly, having a lot of trouble staying balanced and getting up and down from things. He would jump down from the dining table and lose his footing and splat on the floor. Fortunately he didn’t hurt himself, but we were pretty worried.

The vet is pretty baffled, too. It could be that his cancer has spread to his hindquarters and is affecting his nerves. Or he could have an inner ear problem. Or he could have a problem with his brain. She noticed he had some unusual eye movements, which suggests one of the last two. But we can’t really know for sure without some expensive – and possibly invasive – tests, and even then we might not be sure, and even if we were we might not be able to treat it. So I’m not sure we’re going to do a lot more for him at this point, but try to keep him comfortable. He’s lost some more weight, so the vet put him back on the steroids he was on during his treatment to stimulate his appetite. Of course he loves being pilled.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Over the next few days his strength and stability came back, and this weekend he’s seemed almost back to his old self. Not jumping like he used to, but only a little wobbly, and there’s something in his eyes that seems to say that he’s feeling more his he ought to. We may be in for cycles of good days and bad days, but at least he’s having some good days, when he wants to get into trouble and isn’t spending all his time sleeping.

Monday and Tuesday I did some shopping, and hung out at home. I did a couple of Innistrad drafts on Magic Online. My draft Monday was a disaster and I got eliminated in the first round. My Tuesday draft was much better, with a pretty potent vampire deck, but I got eliminated in the second round by someone who had drafted a gimmicky milling deck. I came somewhat close to pulling it off even so, but it was frustrating, as my deck really had no way to deal with his tricks other than to kill him quickly.

Debbi took Wednesday off, so we’ve had a 5-day weekend together. We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, cooking a 12-pound turkey with the usual trimmings for dinner. Cooking a turkey is a good way to find out how well-calibrated an oven is, I find – I have a long history of overcooking turkeys. Our oven has a built-in probe thermometer which we used, and it works well! The turkey came out just about perfect, and it and all the other food was yummy. We got some pies from Marie Callender’s too.

This weekend we’ve been doing some work on the house. Well, maintenance. We have some accent lights around the yard which had stopped working, but it turned out that they were all just burned-out bulbs and easily replaced. I suspect one of the light units themselves will need replacing sometime soon, as I was having trouble getting the bulb’s leads to connect to it, but fortunately not quite yet. We also replaced one of the bulbs in the recessed lighting in our family room. We have a lot of light fixtures in this house, so I expect we’ll be replacing random bulbs with some frequency. (Though hopefully the fluorescent lights, at least, will last several years each.)

We also bought a Dyson DC25 vacuum cleaner since they’re on sale this weekend and we’ve been wanting to replace our existing vacuum. I tried it out today and it works quite well! We also ordered a new rug for the living room. Now we just need to find the right rug for the dining room…

We’d hoped to get together with our friends Joar and Karin for a meal this weekend, but they we feeling a bit under the weather, as I’ve been since Friday, so we decided to postpone it ’til sometime later. Actually, my under-the-weatherness has been pretty annoying this weekend: Congestion, general lack of energy, like I’m fighting something off. I wish I’d either get sick, or get better. This in-between stuff sucks.

Still and all, it’s been a pretty good vacation, especially because Blackjack’s feeling better.

Anne Rice: Interview With the Vampire

I think Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles” series didn’t become really big until the publication of The Vampire Lestat in 1985, but look at the copyright date on this book, the first in the series: 1976! Remember the controversy over whether Tom Cruise was an appropriate choice to play Lestat in the 1994 film adaptation – in its pre-World Wide Web way as big a casting brouhaha as anything involving the Twilight cast today – and now realize that this book was published 18 years earlier. Today it seems like you can’t throw a rock without hitting a couple of writers getting rich off a series of vampire novels, but all of these modern vampires owe their popularity – and arguably their very existence – to Anne Rice and Interview With the Vampire This is where it began.

And it’s actually a pretty good book. I first read it around the time of the film (though I never saw the film), and found it engaging and compelling. Which is more than I can say for the sequel, as I thought The Vampire Lestat was borderline-unreadable (and way too long), so I stopped there. But Interview stands on its own just fine.

The vampire of the title is Louis, who is being interviewed by a young reporter in present-day San Francisco (using a tape recorder, since the “present day” is the 1970s here). Relating his life story, Louis was a plantation owner in Louisiana in the late 18th century, when he is attacked and turned into a vampire by Lestat, who desires to use Louis to live a comfortable life of leisure. Lestat is a mercurial personality, filled with anger and ego, who lets Louis know only a little about being a vampire in order to keep Louis tied to him. When Louis shows signs of wanting to leave, Lestat tricks him into helping him turn a 5-year-old girl, Claudia, into a vampire. This ultimately proves to be Lestat’s undoing, as Claudia – who never ages – chafes after several decades at Lestat’s dominance of their triad and eventually schemes to free herself and Louis from Lestat. The pair leave the United States in the late 19th century and head to Europe.

After a period in eastern Europe learning the sad fate that befalls some vampires, they end up in Paris, where they meet a coven of vampires who have set themselves up as a high-class theater. They are nominally led by Armand, who believes himself to be the oldest vampire on Earth, and who wishes to anchor himself to Louis so that he can avoid the disorientation of living through the changing centuries which causes most vampires to ultimately kill themselves. He and Louis plan to allow Claudia to live on her own, but other forces within the theater troupe engineer a series of events leading to tragedy for our heroes and everyone around them.

There’s a lot to like about Interview. For the science fiction fan, there’s the fact that Rice pared down the mythological trappings of the vampire, discarding many elements which felt superfluous (the vulnerability to crosses and garlic, for instance), turning them into predatory creatures of the night. She outlined the mechanism through which humans are turned into vampires, thus explaining why the world isn’t overrun by the creatures (vampires need to deliberately act to transform someone), and even explained why vampires eventually die off. While obviously not everything about a vampire can “make sense”, getting down to the essentials – the blood thirst, the vulnerability to the sun, the strength, speed and heightened senses, and the immortality – makes them terrifying creatures while also tragic ones.

Rice of course also brought the sense of gothic romance which pervades the genre today. While homoeroticism pervades the scenes between Louis and Lestat, and later Lestat and Armand, in a broader sense it’s raw passion and the denial of consummation of that passion which characterizes Rice’s vampires: They react viscerally to the deaths of their victims, moved as much by the shared experience (or what they imagine is the victim’s experience) as the need for their blood. And they cling to each other fervently because there are so few of their kind, and after just a few decades they can no longer relate to mere mortal humans. They are sexless, and the homoerotic overtones of their relationships are I think largely driven by their strong passions towards whomever they connect with than by any homosexual tendencies. But because their motivations are different from humans, their expressions of their desires are natural to them but seem strange to us, inasmuch as they are inhuman entities in human form.

Louis is an awkward protagonist, as he’s what an acquaintance of mine would term a “wussbag”: He’s not a very active character, has trouble making decisions for himself and is easily overwhelmed by stronger personalities, of which there are many around him. Subservient to Lestat, he is repulsed by what he has to do as a vampire to live, and even more repelled by Lestat’s cavalier attitude toward the same. Enthralled by Claudia, he does her bidding despite her being even more alien than Lestat, having never been grounded in human morality before being turned. Armand is less reprehensible but no less domineering, just a softer touch.

But the story is still wholly Louis’; fundamentally, it’s about his eventual fall, though it takes more than a century. He initially resists embracing his vampiric nature, preferring to survive by killing animals, but he eventually gives in. He doesn’t have the courage to kill himself, especially once he has the responsibility to care for Claudia. Having thought he’s finally found a place where he belongs, with the theater troupe, the climax of the story sees him lose everything he cares about, and drives him to finally take charge and retaliate against the parties responsible. He destroys the last bits of his soul in the process, and becomes numb, wandering the world with Armand but no longer seeing or feeling the things around him. His downfall becomes complete in the final chapters as he wraps up his interview in the present day.

It’s hard to say that Louis – or anyone in the book – is an admirable character. Reading about these characters is more like seeing a slow-motion train wreck, played out over decades. While I usually can’t relate to books whose characters I can’t relate to, Rice makes the characters human enough, and the exploration of their world and lives chewy enough on an intellectual and emotional level to keep you reading. Inasmuch as the book is narrated by a vampire, the characters come off a little more sympathetically than they would otherwise, but Rice remains detached from the question of whether vampires are morally reprehensible and whether they can be judged by the same standards as ordinary humans. Of course they can be, but making those judgments is up to the reader, which I think is one of the book’s strengths.

A friend of mine thinks this is a terrible book, poorly structured and featuring loathsome characters, only mildly redeemed through some well-written passages. I think it’s much better than that, if not quite the pop classic it’s become in the last generation, but well worth reading, especially to provide some historical context for today’s vampire mania. Indeed, for me this is all the vampire fiction I feel the need to read.

Gratuitous Cat Pictures

Time for a few pictures of our cats as they enjoy our new home.

First, can you spot the two cats in the photo below?

Roulette & Newton have been enjoying the morning sun in the guest room, and Roulette has also turned into something of an “under-furry”.

Blackjack sometimes lies in the sun, but lately he’s discovered that the heating vent under our kitchen island blows a nice stream of hot air to warm his paws and shaved belly:

And one morning he decided he really needed the warmth:

Roulette has been getting more used to the downstairs, and the other morning she was enticing me to pet her on top of the kitchen island:

Blackjack and Roulette each like sleeping in the papasan, which now lives in the library upstairs (which holds my comic books, humor books, and mass-market paperback fiction). Sometimes, when there’s no sun elsewhere, they’ll sleep together:

But more likely we’ll find Newton and Roulette sleeping together, which is how I found them a few minutes ago when I came up to post this entry:

Back to the Gym

Now that daylight savings time has ended, so to has my biking to work regimen. Not because it gets cold, but because I don’t like biking home in the dark. While Silicon Valley is a pretty good place to bike (for an urban environment), it’s not so much the cars that worry me, as the crap on the road that I might run over and get a flat or damaged wheel – stuff I could see when it’s light out, but wouldn’t have much hope of seeing in the dark.

So instead I’m going to try to go to the gym twice a week to use the machine, and this morning was my first trip.

One thing that vexed me about the gym last year was that they’ve taken away the book holders they used to have which would keep your book open while you exercised. But now I have an iPad, and I realized I could read books on that. But which books to read? Most books I want I just buy when I find them, and I didn’t really want to buy them again digitally.

Then I realized that Iain M. Banks’ publisher has basically stopped printing his books in mass market paperback. I don’t enjoy Banks enough to buy his stuff in hardcover, and as I’ve said before, I dislike buying books in trade paperback. But this way I can turn a negative into a positive and read his newer works digitally at the gym. So I downloaded Surface Detail and started reading it this morning. Once I finish that, I can move on to Transition and Matter.

The experience of reading on the iPad was pretty good: Being able to adjust the text size is nice, and the contrast is fine. I didn’t have any problems reading for half an hour on an LCD screen (although, since I do that all day anyway, that didn’t surprise me). I haven’t tried any other e-readers (such as the Kindle), so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I didn’t have any complaints.

Well okay, my legs registered a few complaints after spending an hour on the elliptical machine for the first time in over half a year. Definitely not the same muscles that I use for bicycling.