Sunday, 27 December 2009

Triangulation: Ishtar, Worms and Christmas Bounty

I still don't know why I celebrate Christmas. It's such a bloody hassle getting the dinner organized, strategically mobilizing the presents, and dealing with the madness of a West Coast family. Still, for all the trials and tribulations, it's great being with the family, and spending a bit of time to appreciate them. Unfortunately, it means I've been a bit light on the posting this week, but I'm sure you'll forgive me.

On Monday, I posted the long-delayed review of Dial P for Pulp!'s voyage into A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar. Merritt's an author that deserves far more exposure, and I was only too enthusiastic in echoing Deuce & company's sentiments. If only Frazetta got the gig, to see his Kenton, Gigi, Sigurd and especially Sharane...

Then for Saturday, I decided to put off some of my more crotchety stuff in favour of a more positive piece, even if I picked perhaps the least festive Howard tale I could imagine: Thomas, Smith & Conrad's "Worms of the Earth." My feelings on comic adaptations are ambivalent at best, but I feel Thomas did a good job. That said, I feel he's often lionized a bit too much, when there are some very disagreeable changes, especially in his Conan the Barbarian run. Truman, on the other hand... oy. Only one of the Truman adaptations was any good, and that was "The Tower of the Elephant" (which I consider superior to Thomas' for a few reasons): everything else either has a similar number of needless changes, or one or two really big ones that bother the heck out of me. Perhaps I should do a "Purist's Guide to the Conan Comic Adaptations" after I've done one for the film Conan the Barbarian, comparing and contrasting the Conan the Barbarian, Savage Sword of Conan and Dark Horse adaptations.

Anyway, some fun. I'm not really great at receiving presents (Catholic guilt), but I always enjoy giving presents. I'm getting better at it, though. I got a fairly good haul this year, not obscene, but more than just the usual selection boxes and gift cards:

American Museum of Natural History: The Dinosaur Hunters
Lowell Dingus
This is an absolute treasure. It's accessible enough to newcomers, but detailed enough to offer something to those more well-versed. This is a history of palaeontology, charting the utterly fascinating history of what is essentially digging up a bunch of old rocks. Who would imagine that a profession that gets a (completely undeserved) reputation of being boring and dull could have such a history of conflict, bloodshed, adventure and drama? The Bone Wars alone would make a great film, as would the Chapman expedition to Mongolia, Mantell's struggle with Owen, Hawkins' fight with dogmatic enemies. Half the figures in palaeontology are Indiana Jones incarnate.

Inside are a number of facsimiles of actual historical documents from the men who created the field of palaeontology: Mantell's original sketches of Iguanodon teeth, records of Marsh & Cope's competing discoveries, maps of Barnum Brown & Roy Chapman Andrews' perilous quests into the bandit-infested wastes of the Old West and Mongolia respectively. Perhaps my favourite is a copy of a six-year-old Edward Drinker Cope's letter to his grandmother, as precocious a future palaeontological legend could be.

Steve Brusatte
A seriously awesome book, and seriously huge: 44.2 x 36.2 x 3.6 cm! Some wonderful computer generated illustrations therein, not least the big Spinosaurus aegypticus on the cover. It's one of those books I would've utterly adored as a child, though since I've not really grown up, I still adore it. Glorious.

The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion & Guide: Chronology: 1
Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond
This is going to prove a most valuable resource for me: a dry, precise chronology of Tolkien's life. This is the important one, charting the creation of Arda, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as the early publishing history and family life of Tollers. Why hasn't his life been turned into a film yet?

The Great Dinosaur Discoveries
Darren Naish
A great companion to my other dinosaur tomes, this is not just about the dinosaurs or their discoverers, but the places of their discovery. The modern landscapes, reconstructions of the fossilized era, even political and anthropological history.

The Making of King Kong
Orville Goldner
Ah, King Kong. I still have a bit of a grudge for the remakes, but the original 1933 ape was just about the only one I could tolerate beating a dinosaur. I think it's because for all the audience's sympathy with him, he's still an undeniable savage, a beast that fights with every nerve and thew to prevail: I can at least respect a fellow monster. Plus, there's no guarantee that the T rex was slain (though he was clearly crippled), giving me a very slight hope that there's a new King of Skull Island not of the primate persuasion. I still want to do a big stop-motion "redux" of that great fight scene, but with the rex victorious instead.

Apart from injured saurian loyalties, I loved King Kong. It's just great: the atmosphere, the effects, the art direction, the themes. I'm sure to enjoy this.

Iona: A History of the Island
F. Marian McNeill
My great-aunts are pestering me to go with them to visit Iona sometime in the spring: I have a certain interest in seeing the place myself, being as some of my ancestors are from the isle. I'll be reading up on it all the same.

Stephen Fry
Big Steve is a favourite of mine, and I love how he's grown from an anarchic, wild young man into a national treasure as beloved as the Queen. Or Cilla Black. Paperweight is a collection of articles, essays, columns and other such morsels of wit, all doffed in the cornucopia of Fry's Gigantic Brain. He's one of those chaps I'd dearly like to meet.

Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra
Bill Bailey
No Christmas at my house would be complete without Bill Bailey! The man is a lyrical and musical genius, and his worldview so attuned to mine that I wonder if we're not somehow separated at birth. He's far funnier than I, and certainly a better musician, since my skills are limited to the bagpipes and trombone, never really mastering the piano.

However, I think this is one of my favourites of his DVDs. It's basically his version of Benjamin Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, filled with his own brand of surreal observation and cultural approximation. Naturally, many of his musical masterpieces are present: Beautiful Ladies in Danger, Hats Off to the Zebras, Docteur Qui, and his magnus opus, Insect Nation (with Leg of Time providing a most welcome encore). They are joined by new material, and after the disappointment of Tinselworm, I was desperate for a return to form: I needn't have worried! Bill's new work was magnificent. His early routine involving Cockney interludes in classical music was expanded, featuring a full-blown re-imagining of Rossini's William Tell overture, with the trombones sprinkling some mischievous slides and whoops straight out of a Dickens musical. There's a fantastic '70s Cop Drama suite, a fictitious horror film score, and some great fun with a high-tech Alpine Horn and tuned Swiss Cowbells.

The best are the movements designed as a counterpart to Saint-Saëns's The Carnival of the Animals, but featuring the lesser appreciated creatures: locusts, wasps and jellyfish are mentioned, in a suite titled The Cavalcade of the Unloved. It's of such high quality, I hope Bill releases it as a soundtrack, free from the whoops and laughter of the audience. "Jellyfish" is particularly haunting and melancholy, doing no injustice to Saint-Saëns' classic, a worthy accompaniment.

So, thar it is. Nollaig Chridhel, everyone!

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