Friday Reviews: The Count of Monte Cristo By Alexander Dumas

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO
Alexander Dumas

This is the classic revenge novel. Edmond Dantes has it all. At 19, he is about to marry his sweetheart, a beautiful Catalan named Mercedes, and he has just been named captain of his ship by the owner, Monsieur Morrell. However, a man named Danglars wants his job, and another named Fernan wants his woman. So on the day of his betrothal, they frame him for treason. Unfortunately, the sympathetic prosecutor discovers that freeing Dantes would expose him as the son of a notorious Bonapartist. So under the bus Edmond goes.

In prison, Edmond meets an old priest who expects to die in the dungeon and urges his young charge to escape to the remote island of Monte Cristo. After fourteen years of imprisonment, Edmond does just that and discovers the hidden fortune of a Roman family wiped out by the Borgias.

Fast forward another decade. Monsieur Morrell is on the verge of bankruptcy when a mysterious Englishman appears and literally saves the company from doom, walking in on Morrell as he is about to commit suicide. He promises to locate Morrell’s last ship, which has gone missing, and to extend credit on behalf of an Italian firm. On the appointed date, Morrell goes from the brink of ruin to a rich man once more.

This is the first appearance of the Count, even though he has not used his title yet.

Years later, the Count of Monte Cristo appears in Paris and insinuates himself into the lives of Danglars, Fernan (now the Count of Mocerf), and Villiers. They are all wealthy and politically powerful. Yet Monte Cristo has vast wealth and a long memory. He has watched and planned for years. With a few words here and there, the former Edmond Dantes charms his way into Parisian society and sets in motion a chain of murder, exposed secrets, and financial ruin. One by one, the Count’s machinations destroy each of his enemies, as well as avenging a friend wronged by one of his enemies later.

This story is a classic for both its revenge theme and its political intrigue. Edmond is imprisoned during Napoleon’s brief return to power, then forgotten. But his enemies, he discovers as he plots his revenge, need no frontal assault to be destroyed. Their success by less-than-noble means makes them vulnerable. The Count doesn’t attack them directly. He manipulates the families and turns them on their enemies. As for allies, he enlists many among his enemies, even prosecutor Villier’s paralyzed and mute father.

Like Mary Shelly, Dumas’s prose is not as heavy and dense as that of Dickens and Melville. Part of this might have been the translation I read, but the same can be said of Jules Verne’s work.  It is a bit episodic, but then Dumas wrote this as a serial, making the large cast of characters a challenge to keep straight. Obviously, Dumas realized this as he put a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel.

Still, it holds up well, and its fingerprints are all over later novels, most notably, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

Favorite Musicians: Johnny Cash

I’ll be honest. I got burned out on the Man in Black before I was 12. My mother played Johnny Cash, Eddie Arnold, and Tammy Wynette over and over and over… For many years, I said Hee Haw was the only form of child abuse I ever endured. And then something happened. A coworker dumped a few folders from his vast music collection on my hard drive one day. One of them was American IV: The Man Comes Around.

I was not prepared to be blown away by a frail, elderly Johnny Cash taking an already powerful Nine Inch Nails tune and making it go past eleven with an even more minimalist version than Trent Reznor’s.

And then came John Carter Cash’s film tribute to his parents, Walk the Line. Yes, it’s hard to take Joaquin Phoenix seriously sometimes, and his antics following the film sort of hurts the movie’s image. Still, I saw Walk the Line the night it premiered. So I could easily buy Phoenix as Johnny Cash. And what I saw was the early history of rock and roll, especially when Elvis and Johnny are watching Jerry Lee Lewis being Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis comments, “He’s going to be doing this twenty years from now. No one’s going to remember us.” Oh, Elvis, you had no clue, did you?

Johnny CashBut Johnny Cash was the movie’s focus. And suddenly, all those afternoons when I was a kid hearing Johnny Cash warble from mom’s huge console stereo came flooding. I spent summer afternoons with “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Walk the Line,” and “Boy Named Sue” as the soundtrack. I started snapping up whatever I could find. There were the Sun Records recordings, Live from Folsom Prison, and of course, those American recordings.

The Johnny Cash song that sticks with most people and the one that encapsulates his music best is “Folsom Prison Blues.” His whole sound prior to the 1990’s was based on an early version of the power trio with a broken bass making that clacking sound on the original recording. Cash reached out to a whole culture of convicts and ex-cons with the line “Well, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” A kick in the gut, really. Johnny Cash, like Tom Waits later on, was right at home on the wrong side of the tracks. Not bad for a failed appliance salesman from Nashville.

Then there’s “Ring of Fire,” a song written by his lover, and later his wife, June Carter. The song was originally written for her to sing, but Johnny put some Mexican horns behind it and made it his own. And why shouldn’t he? He’d written “Walk the Line” as a promise to his first wife not to stray. Such is life on the road.

I really like the Folsom Prison album, which has one of my favorite Cash tunes on it. “Cocaine Blues” is sort of a “Fuck you” to the prison administration, letting the convict audience blow off some much needed steam. I used it for a rather tasteless bit of schadenfreude at Sadaam Hussein’s expense a few years ago. It’s very much the essence of the best noir fiction.

And then there are those American Recordings. Long after the public had written Johnny Cash off as a relic, he teamed up with Rick Rubin to produce some truly unique work. It’s all quintessentially Johnny Cash, but it’s different. Much of it is cover work, yet many of the songs are better than the original versions. “One” (U2’s, not Metallica’s), “Won’t Back Down,” “Personal Jesus,” and “Hurt” are all impressive work for a man who is supposed to be past his prime. I especially like his version of “Personal Jesus,” which has just the right balance of belief and mischief to really grab you. How powerful is it?

Listen to that Jeep commercial with the lone acoustic guitar playing over the brutal percussion. Did you ever think they’d hawk trucks and SUV’s with a song called “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”?

I went away from Johnny Cash for a while. In fact, I refused to listen to country having had to listen to so much of it as a kid. But Johnny Cash never went away. Even after his death, he was sitting there with his acoustic guitar waiting for me.

What’s Wrong With America: Political Discourse

If you’re on the right, you probably won’t like this post. Then again, I heap equal amounts of scorn on a couple of lefties. Why?

Let’s put it this way: Sean Hannity = Michael Moore. They are the left and right hands of the devil. Different dogma. Same bullshit. If the target of your scorn doesn’t do enough bad things to make your point, lie about them.

This, my friends, is political discourse in the twenty-first century. Where else can you get reasonable people to tell you with a straight face that Obama is a socialist. (If you don’t believe how monumentally stupid that belief is, go ask an actual socialist. The comment makes them giggle and look at you like the poor stupid bourgieosie* pigs you and I are.)

But why is it like that? And were there ever good ol’ days when people were more civil to each other?

Nope.

And before you whip out that old chestnut of what the Founding Fathers would think, let’s look at the dawn of the republic, shall we? The only two presidents to run uncontested are George Washington, who probably won the election of 1788 back in 1775, and James Monroe, who was reelected during a brief, shining moment in American history when we had no political parties worth mentioning.

Starting in 1796, things got nasty. John Adams was accused of wanting to rejoin England or elevate himself to king. Then we come the the election of 1800, when not only was the man who screamed the loudest for independence called a monarchist and an Anglophile, but the author of the Declaration of Independence also found himself slandered, eventually his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings brought to light by opponents. The things these men’s surrogates said in the name of politics would get you fired from any of the twenty-four hour news networks before they could get the first sentence out. And it only got worse. If you read the partisan newspapers of the Antebellum Era, you’d swear the Civil War started fifteen years earlier.

There was a period of time in the twentieth century when the FCC was more concerned with keeping private companies from curtailing free speech in this country and less concerned that your kid might see boobs or hear words you pretend they haven’t already heard on the playground, there was the Fairness Doctrine. If you stated an opinion on television or the radio, you needed to give the opposing side equal time. This is why William F. Buckley thrived. On his show, he used to pummel his liberal opponents intellectually, but he also would not tolerate a whack job who held the same conservative views he did. Buckley, his stoner fellow conservative PJ O’Rourke, and most liberals of the era got that it was about the debate, not demonizing all who didn’t agree with you. Besides, segregationists and red baiters did a bang up job demonizing themselves.

Then the Fairness Doctrine went away, and along came Rush Limbaugh. At first, he was funny. After all, there came a point where the New Deal coalition running the country got a bit full of themselves and forgot what, exactly, FDR and Truman were trying to do. Frankly, they needed someone to poke a few holes in them to let out the hot air.

But…

Somehow, Rush’s formula merged with that of Morton Downey, Jr., the chain-smoking loudmouth who was the Jerry Springer of his day. And then Rush began believing he was somehow a rebel of PJ O’Rourke’s caliber (Um… No. O’Rourke wrote for Rolling Stone and National Lampoon, saying, “No, establishment, some of us on the right think you suck, too!”) and a pundit of Buckley’s towering intellect (Buckley would have kicked your ass for saying “feminazi.”) And then he multiplied. Suddenly, it was better to be angry and blame the other side for all of society’s ills and defend some of the worst human traits as “rugged individualism.” Not that the left was left out of the fun. West Coast wine aficionado Tom Leykis doubled as sort of a liberal Rush Limbaugh up until 2009. (Sadly, as we’re rid of Glenn Beck, they’re bringing back Leykis this year. So you get callouses in your other ear now.)

We all know about the right’s collection of whack-jobs-for-hire – Limbaugh, Hannity… I still seethe with rage whenever I walk into a bookstore that’s giving shelf space to Ann Coulter that might go for someone more deserving who admits they write fiction. Let’s start with James Patterson and work our way from there. But the left, as I’ve already pointed out, has no shortage of self-righteous asses who get paid to tell you someone else is a bad person. Recently, I watched the movie Game Change, about John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. McCain couldn’t help himself. He kept watching the opinion shows, and the director used actual clips from Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. Keith Olbermann came on and said something really pithy and stupid about McCain that he would not say about Barack Obama even if it was true. I couldn’t help shouting at the TV “Keith, shut the fuck up!” (And then my wife looked me like I was insane, and I said, “Now you know why I quit listening to AM radio.”)

Or let’s take Michael Moore, who, when the facts don’t fit the point he’s trying to make, will outright lie about it even when contradicted in his own movies. My personal favorite was when he was promoting Sick-O and responded to any criticism of the movie with, “Well, your sponsors are pharmaceutical companies.” Still, like the office wingnut who tells you the British and Canadian healthcare systems are little better than those of Third World nations, Mike didn’t really care for Brits and Canadians pointing out that, while they preferred their systems over ours, they were anything but the utopias Moore portrayed them as in his movie. In fact, more than a couple of people from the UK and Canada said their systems would not work in America, nor could the UK and Canada swap systems. Mike’s been silent on that point. Like Glenn Beck, he doesn’t like those pesky facts.

It goes back to my earlier post about left vs. right. We do have an annoying tendency to be tribal and binary about things. Everything is us vs. them, which is a concept I’ve long since rejected out of hand. Moreover, there has never been a shortage of people who want to turn honest differences of opinion into war because it profits them. Some, like Glenn Beck, really don’t believe a word they’re saying. They just say it because the outrage helps them sell books or foot powder or gold-buying schemes. Most people see anxiety as something to deal with, sometimes something to medicate if it gets out of hand. Most of these jerks see it as a revenue stream. Fear, my friends, sells better than sex. But I don’t pay for sex. And since I have a perfectly functioning pair of amygdala, I reserve fear for when the car skids on ice, when that pain in my back starts in my chest, or that someone, somewhere is secretly plotting to kidnap me and force me to watch Showgirls over and over until my eyes bleed. Beyond that, my most irrational fear is heights – stupid, but useful when you consider gravity can be painful at the end of a fall, especially those longer than two stories. So if I want fear, I can think about pancreatic cancer or a remake of Showgirls, all for free. Beyond that, I try to filter fear from my politics, from my financial decisions, and from pretty much the rest of my life.

Many people don’t, but many people don’t realize it. Because we all worry about our kids, about illness, about money. Where the merchants of fear come in – and let’s be honest. They’re selling fear – is when find ways to exaggerate normal fears. Remember the swine flu scare? Glenn Beck should have had his ass tossed in jail for outright lying about the vaccine on his show. Why didn’t he just run into a movie theater and scream “Fire?” It’s the same goddamned thing. But that’s the formula they use.

“So, Jim, what do we do about it? And why so wordy?”

I’m wordy because I’ve developed a seething hatred of pundits. Most of them are gutless jackals sucking up shelfspace and airtime and bandwidth. As to what we do…

  • For starters, quit buying their books. Quit going to their web sites. Quit watching their shows. Quit listening to them on the radio.
  • Stop confusing the news shows with the opinion shows. Sean Hannity is not a news correspondent. He’s an asshole with a microphone. There’s a reason Cronkite was only on half an hour a night. Walter was all about that’s the way it is, not the way things oughta be.
  • Whenever someone uses the phrase “politically challenged” or advocates assassination or talks about vast conspiracies, write that person off. They’re not telling you anything worth repeating.
  • And when their response to criticism is “They’re out to get me!”, it’s probably a sign you didn’t need to take them all that seriously to begin with.

Sure, there are people in this world who need to sound the alarm and be shrill about their politics. But keep in mind that, if you live east of Beijing or west of Damascus, it’s not likely someone’s going to shoot you for it. You are overmortgaged, overworked (or unemployed), but not exactly living in a war zone. (Sorry, but even our worst ghettos are slightly less scary than your brakes failing. You might die. Odds are, you’ll just go home and watch Idol.) So the demonization that’s being fed to us by the media serves no legitimate purpose. None.

Unless you’re a gold broker or own a foot powder company. But I’ve bought Gold Bond without any prompting from Rush Limbaugh, so thanks, guys, but it was itchy feet that sold me on the product, not black helicopters.

*Yes. I had to look that up. And people wonder why socialism never really caught in America.

Reunited

We just had a confusing message from the organizer of our class reunion. It was supposed to be for four classes, since these things get more sparsely attended the further out we get from 1984. Originally, the classes of 1982-1985 would attend. Only ours used to be a three-year high school. We went to junior high. Now some of us send our kids to middle school. But that happened in the 90’s. The classes of 1982 and 1985 were never in high school together. So the organizer canceled and created a new event on Facebook, which really confused one guy who now lives in Australia. It’s a little bit of a stretch to fly across two continents (He lives in Perth, on the far side of Australia) and the Pacific Ocean.

But all is well, and this summer, I get to show off my wife to my classmates, many of whom were convinced I’d be single, living in my mother’s basement, drinking Mountain Dew and watching reruns of Star Trek. (Wrong! I left home over two decades ago and now watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Bazinga!) But what’s different between now and then?

1984:  Cell phones were bricks that cost $1000 a month and even most rich people didn’t have one yet.
2012:  I’m waiting for Verizon to ship my new Android.

1984:  I owned a lot of vinyl and a lot of cassettes.
2012:  I have an iPod.

1984:  Queen sang “Radio Ga Ga”
2012:  Lady Gaga

1984:  AT&T is broken up.
2012:  AT&T is no longer broken up

1984:  DOS and Macintosh
2012:  iPad and Android

1984:  Soviet Leader Yuri Andropov dies and is replaced by another ancient Bolshevik on life support
2012:  The outgoing president of Russia is younger than me.

1984:  Walter Mondale tries to elect the first woman vice president.
2012:  We have a black president

1984:  Two Stooges (Joe Besser, “Curly Joe” DeRita) are still alive.
2012:  Three new Stooges based on Larry, Curly, and Moe.

1984:  Johnny Carson
2012:  Jon Stewart

1984: Three networks
2012: 1500 channels and pay-per-view

1984:  Space Shuttle Discovery
2012:  Virgin Galactic

1984: Crack
2012: Meth

1984: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
2012:  John Carter

1984:  Real People, That’s Incredible
2012:  Every show on Discovery, The Food Network, The Travel Channel, and  A&E

1984:  What the hell is rap?
2012:  What the hell happened to rap?

1984:  Gas prices are outrageous
2012:  OK, now they’re outrageous

1984:  Record high deficits and government spending
2012:  Um… Yeah. I see a pattern here.

1984:  Van Halen!
2012:  Foo Fighters!

Happy Hunger Games

Nita and I saw The Hunger Games this weekend. Standing in line, we had a few reservations. A couple people told us on the way in that the movie did not quite live up to the books. On the other hand, we haven’t read the books. (Book 1 is now on the TBR list.) If they did their job well, we wouldn’t notice.

They did their job. The Hunger Games was, in fact, an excellent movie. A surreal mix of American Idol, Survivor, and a seventies blood sport movie (Death Race 2000, Rollerball, The Running Man*) For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games takes place in a future North America now occupied by country called Panem, which has twelve districts and a Capitol, a rather lovely city somewhere in what used to be Colorado. Almost a century before the story begins, the districts rebelled against the Capitol. Under terms of the treaty that ended the war, each district would provide one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games. The games are a blood sport as the contestants fight each other to the death while trying to survive. In the lead up to the games, the teens are trained in combat and showed off like contestants on American Idol. During this time, bets are laid on individual “tributes” and the tributes try to win sponsors who will send food and medicine into the forest during the game.

Naturally, the games are a distraction to keep the districts from realizing that the Capitol is sucking them dry. And President Snow wants to keep it that way. Imagine Donald Sutherland playing Palpatine from the Star Wars movies, only with less cackling and less charm. That is Panem’s scheming president. And he’s the perfect president for the Capitol. The citizens eat to excess and dress like rejects from pre-Revolution France. Meanwhile, Katniss and Peeta, the story’s protagonists, grow up in District 12, which is apparently coal mining country in the Appalachians, having to shoot game for food. So how did they get chosen?

Sometimes children will ask the government’s peace keepers for food. Each time that happens, their name is entered into the lottery. Katniss volunteers when, on her first lottery, her sister Prim is selected. Katniss volunteers as a tribute to protect her sister. Peeta, a local boy, is selected as the male tribute. They are given a mentor, Haymitch, a former winner of the games. Haymitch is clearly damaged by the experience, spending most of his time drunk. However, Haymitch takes a shine to Peeta and Katniss, who is a crack archer. Following the advice of Haymitch and Cinna, who is the stylist to the tributes, Katniss overcomes her resentment toward the games and unwillingness to kiss up to her hosts to become the favorite in this year’s Games.

The Games themselves take place in a forest wired for sight and sound, as well as a few tricks the game masters can use to prod the game along. As the game progresses, Katniss is seen as a symbol of hope. President Snow ain’t having that and tells the game master to “fix it.”

The movie has a lot of touchstones in current popular culture. The shows surrounding the games are glitzy, glamorous affairs that resemble the musical competition shows like X-Factor and American Idol closely enough to make you squirm. Once into the game, players – the ones who survive the opening gambit – form alliances that hunt the other players. It’s almost like Survivor as blood sport. Katniss even forms an alliance with a young player named Rue.

Jennifer Lawrence is great as the main character, Katniss. She brings a great deal of gravitas to the role of a teenage girl who’s already had to grow up fast. Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, is equally angsty without straying into Twilight territory. After all, he spends time scheming and conniving, falling in with the trained killers from Districts 1 and 2 to steer them where he wants them to go.

The Capitol is a terrific centerpiece to this movie, a glitzy oasis of decadence in what’s become a Third World nation in the post-American, post-Canadian era. Yet from a distance, while beautiful and peaceful in appearance, the Capitol lacks the grandeur of New York or Chicago, Toronto or San Francisco. This is a shadow of what came before, and the best it can hope for is a parasitic existence off the twelve districts it rules.

In supporting roles, Woody Harrellson is somewhat understated in his role as Haymitch, the sad, drunken former champion who finds his mojo in turning Katniss into the star of the Games. Early on, he works with a surprisingly good Lenny Kravitz. In the meantime, there is Sutherland as President Snow, who lacks only a white cat to fondle and Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan making his life miserable. He and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane do a great job personifying the self-centered, brutal politics of Panem. But if you’re looking for the absurdity of a society that views a blood sport designed to kill twenty-three teenagers annually as a national holiday, look no further than Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. Banks is Effie Trinket, Katniss and Peeta’s prissy, manners and fashion-obsessed escort to the Capitol. She has an accent reminiscent of Glenda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz and looks eerily like Marie Antionette. Tucci gives oily Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman an gleeful, effeminate aura and plays Flickerman’s attention whore tendencies to the hilt.

What makes this movie truly unsettling is the naturalistic setting. Like the most recent version of Battlestar Galactica and its prequel, Caprica, director Gary Ross creates a Panem that looks much like present day America or Europe, with District 12 a dead on replica of today’s West Virginia coal mining country. Thankfully, directors these days are getting away from making the future look so… so…

Futury? No sliding doors. The 200-mph train looks like every passenger train built since 1950. The clothes are different without being unfamiliar. Contrast that with the 1970’s dystopic standard, Logan’s Run, which posits that, in the future, we will dress in spandex and live in shopping malls. No wonder everyone was okay with dying at 30 in that one.

If  you read the books, please keep in mind this is a 2 1/2 hour movie. They manage to convey the essence of the books, and the biggest complaint I heard is what I normally hear about such adaptations, in that some material was left out. For those who haven’t seen it, the movie stands on its own and is well worth the first run ticket. And it’s a great advertisement for Susan Collins’ novels. I consider it the long-overdue successor to the Harry Potter series.

*Yes, I know The Running Man was from 1987. Work with me here.

The YA Conundrum

I have a few questions for the Peanut Gallery if you’d all like to chime in.

There is the possibility my first SF novel will be a YA novel. Reworking one of the shorts gave me an idea how to start out with all four of the main characters I’m creating, and YA is the best way to tell their story. The question is, “Do I have to stay in the YA vein?”

Or to put it in terms of a YA series most of us have gotten behind already, could you handle Harry Potter getting all James Bond on dark wizards? Or the characters from The Hunger Games? (I’ll skip Twilight. I sort of want the vampires from True Blood to wait in ambush, ready to truss up Edward and Jacob in yards and yards of silver.) Can they make the leap to more adult-oriented tales, or are they to be geared toward teen and preteen readers, even as those readers get older.

I suppose I could make the leap.  Heinlein did it. Starship Troopers was actually a YA novel, but Stranger in a Strange Land and some of his later works take place in the same universe, all of which are very adult stories. John Scalzi actually went the other route. There’s no mistaking that Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony are adult novels. Zoe’s Tale, however, a parallel story to The Last Colony, is very much a YA novel, even if it wasn’t intended to be.

So can you go from YA to adult? Or can you only go in the other direction?

Talk to me.