Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Few authors are as prolific and successful as Stephen King. In 2000, he published this book, part autobiography and part writing advice. The memoir covers his early years, from childhood until he broke his addictions to booze and drugs. King does not give a thorough or strictly chronological biography but "snapshots" of moments influential in his writing. The details of his dirt poor childhood, his school life, and his marriage are interesting. Always his writing and struggles with publishing are present, giving unity to an otherwise non-linear narrative.

The second larger section of the book is devoted to the act of writing. He uses the metaphor of a toolbox to describe the various things a writer needs to be successful. He discusses the nuts and bolts like those found in Strunk and White's Elements of Style (basic grammar and style choices). He shows the importance of crafting good dialogue and building good characters. Plot is not his greatest concern in writing; he often lets the story flow naturally from the characters he's created and the interesting situations they struggle through. He's a great advocate of writing a first draft and then letting it sit for several weeks if not months. After a while, he comes back to the work fresh, probably with a better idea of the themes (which can suggest scenes or details to add) and with a better likelihood of cutting what doesn't work (after a couple of months the work is less your baby and more a work in progress that needs some trimming to make it better). King also discusses his workspace and work plan, showing how they contribute to his productivity as a writer.

The book is an easy, interesting read and very inspiring for writers. It is aimed at fiction writers, but even a blogger can find the advice and stories useful and motivational.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

Super 8 (2011) written and directed by J. J. Abrams

During the summer of 1979, a group of boys led by Charles want to make a Super 8 short film for a competition. On the last day of school they recruit Alice to play the detective's wife in their film. They all sneak out at night to film a scene by the railway station. During the shoot, a train comes by. The train is derailed by a pickup truck and everything goes flying everywhere. After running around in a panic, the kids see their science teacher in the truck. He warns them about the dangerous cargo and starts waving a gun around, which is enough to scare them off. But not before gathering all their equipment, including the camera that's been running the whole time.

The kids try to resume a normal life but it turns out the train was a special Air Force train and the military has moved in to clean up the incident. But as people and dogs and mechanical equipment start disappearing, questions start mounting. What was really on the train? What's on the film they took? Will the kids finish their movie in time? What about the other big secret?

What other big secret? The movie opens with a shot of a local factor where their "No Accidents in X Days" sign is changed back to "1." Deputy Jackson Lamb's wife died there leaving him and son Joe alone. Joe is the sensitive one of the film makers--he does the make-up and makes miniatures too. He's excited when Charles recruits Alice and they have a growing interest in each other. Alice's dad doesn't want Joe around his daughter and Joe's dad has similar feelings about Alice though it is not really clear why. For me, the Joe/Alice plot line is the most interesting part of the movie.

The monster part of the movie is much less interesting. All the exposition about the monster is saved till the end but when it comes the information doesn't explain its actions earlier in the movie. Why is it stealing only certain specific items? Other than creating a spooky atmosphere, why does the monster's presence cause lights and other electrical and mechanical things to go crazy? The action sequences are exciting but they don't add together to make a coherent story. The military is depicted as a bunch of generic cartoonish baddies which makes them less compelling as villains.

The movie is clearly a homage to 1980s science fiction movies, especially the work of Steven Spielberg (who is a producer on the film). Viewers see bits taken from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T. The monster's face reminded me of Predator and its lair was reminiscent of Aliens. Viewers don't really see the monster till the end of the film as in Jaws. Things like that are fun to spot but they are also reminders of much better films.

I wish the film maker's had made the Joe/Alice story the main focus of the film and just used the train wreck and monster running around as background rather than a competing narrative. What could have been a great film is just a mediocre genre piece.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: Bone Vol. 5 Rock Jaw Master of the Eastern Border by Jeff Smith

Bone Volume 5 Rock Jaw, Master of the Eastern Border by Jeff Smith

Fone Bone and Smiley Bone are on a mission to return a rat creature cub to its mountain home. Smiley has developed a lot of affection for the cub, even naming him Bartleby. Fone is more serious about the task--the rat creatures are the enemy and they need to get rid of the cub. They take him to the mountains on the eastern border of the valley where they run into a giant mountain lion who calls himself "Roque Ja." The Bones pronounce it "Rock Jaw," which is a bit annoying to the lion. Rock Jaw tells them they need to choose sides--either the old cow woman (Gran'ma Ben) with the dragons or the rat creatures who serve the "Hooded One," a mysterious figure who really works for the Lord of Locusts. The Bones are unclear which side the lion is on, since he disdains both the dragons and the rat creatures. Rock Jaw claims there is neither good nor evil in the world, only power, which is the only thing worth having. His actions put him on the side of the rats (which to the Bones is the same as being on the side of evil), so they come into conflict pretty quickly. Luckily, the three baby possums from the second issue of Bone come to the rescue. I know that sounds ridiculous but it works amazingly well. Unluckily, Kingdok, leader of the rat creatures, comes to the not-rescue. His fate doesn't work out so well.

This issue has a surprising depth to it. In addition to the theme of whether the rat cub is evil or not just based on being a rat cub, a whole new theme of moral relativity is opened by Rock Jaw. The Bones aren't interested in his position and claim they are on the side of the valley-dwelling humans, a position that Rock Jaw scoffs at. Since the author named this volume "Rock Jaw" and not "Roque Ja," I imagine he definitely sides with the Bones. I enjoyed engaging with deeper issues in this volume.

This is another great book in a great series. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

More Roman Bits of York, England

2000 years ago the current town of York was an immense Roman fort called Eboracum. It was founded in AD 71 and continued to be expanded and maintained for 340 years. Amazingly, some bits of the fort still exist today as well as other examples of the town's Roman heritage.

Map of the Roman fort

Bootham Bar is a medieval wall gate that stands right over the ruins of the northwestern gate of the Roman fort. The foundations are just below ground level. The road from here led north to Hadrian's Wall and Scotland beyond.

Bootham Bar/Northwest Gate

One extant wall dates back to AD 300 and was built by Emperor Constantius Chlorus who died in York in 306.

Ancient wall

Constantius was the father of Constantine the Great, who has a statue just outside York Minster. Constantine was crowned emperor in York so naturally he is remembered fondly.

Constantine the Great

Front view

Check out the cool shoes!

Nearby is a column that dates back to Roman times as well.

Roman column

On the wall walk I saw the foundations of the eastern corner tower of the Roman fort. The towers originally stood 8 meters high (just over 26 feet).

Eastern corner tower foundations

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Barley Hall, York

Hidden down an alleyway off Stonegate is Barley Hall, a medieval house recently rediscovered and refurbished. The hall has passed through many private hands through the centuries and is now owned by the York Archeological Trust. They received the property in 1987 and began archeological excavations. By 1993 the hall reopened to the public with the name Barley after the noted archeologist and Trust's first chairman, Maurice Barley. The restoration work puts the hall back to 1483 when Richard III was king of England and William Snawsell lived in the hall. Snawsell was a prominent citizen who was Lord Mayor of York and an alderman.

The courtyard of Barley Hall shows the two buildings that were put together to make the hall. Interestingly a small alleyway or "snicket" gives right of way to pedestrians walking from Stonegate to Swinegate.

Barley Hall

Two houses put together (snicket is just off to the right)

I'm not sure what message this is supposed to send

The first two rooms visitors see are the Store Room and the Steward's Room. The Store Room is now the shop and admissions, so it is quite unhistorically decorated. The Steward's Room was probably an additional store room back in the 1480s.

Steward's Room

A spinning wheel

A vestibule between the store rooms and the Great Hall has some archeological displays, including the skeleton of a 13th century monk with a bad knee. A ligament was probably damaged and two metal plates were found next to the joint in the grave.

Medieval monk

Bad knee

The Great Hall was built in 1430 and was the main entertaining area of the house. The head table is slightly raised and two flanking tables were for "lesser folk." The main table is also recessed into the wall of the other building, a risky process since it cut through wall supports. A steel beam was installed to keep things from coming down. The tiles on the floor are an imitation of what the archeologists found on site and the central hearth has a hole over it to let smoke out.

Great Hall and head table

One of the side tables

Tile floor and hearth stones

Wooden roof

Upstairs has two chambers that were used as bedrooms back in the day but when I visited they had been taken over by a medieval medical exhibit. It was grim but not too grim since they borrowed the style of Horrible Histories for the displays.

Bummer of a video introduction

Barbers were also surgeons back in the day

Not the most fun quiz to take

Medicine included using herbs and folk remedies for common ailments.

Apothecary corner

Mixing and mending equipment

Various cures for toothache

More tools and other finds from Barley Hall

Plague was a big fear in the 1400s. People caring for others wore special clothes when visiting victims in the hope that they would not spread the disease or catch it themselves. I leave it to the readers to determine whether the old "haz-mat" suits are scarier than modern-day versions.

Medieval disease-proofing

Displays on syphilis and tuberculosis...charming

Medical practices weren't as precise back then as now, which can be seen from these two leg bones that were set but did not heal evenly.

Not quite straight bones

Life wasn't all death and disease in the middle ages. Visitors are invited to try games from back in the day.

Medieval dice game "raffle"

Rats and ladders

The upstairs includes the Parlour, the room where William Snawsell had his office. The desk is situated by the window to take advantage of natural light. It has two ink wells, one for black and one for red. Any especially important items or details were written in red. Medieval scribes wrote down important feast days in red ink, hence we have "red letter days."


Writing desk

The room has a replica of a red chest from a church near Ripon. York Minster's library contains the last will and testament of Alice Snawsell, William's grandmother, who bequeathed a red chest to him. Often these ornate chests were used to store valuables like linens. The replica is hand carved and includes intricate Gothic detailing.

Red Chest

Dragon and bearded lion!

Downstairs from the Parlour are the Buttery and the Pantry. The Buttery was overseen by the butler, who prepared the drinks during meals. Wine and ale were stored in here in butts or barrels. The wine was given to family members and honored guests; ale was given to the rest of the household (remember drinking water was still rarely clean enough to drink--the alcohol would kill the bad germs).

The Buttery

 The Pantry was run by the pantler, who prepared the bread for meals. Bread was stored here. The more expensive white bread was served to the family while the rest of the house ate wholemeal bread. The pantry was also the spot where dishes from the kitchen (which was probably in a separate building for fire safety) were plated for good presentation in the Great Hall.


Across the way is a room made up as a Tudor school room (dating from much later than 1480s). I was fascinated by the small Barley Hall puzzle. If I'd seen one in the gift shop I probably would have bought it!

Tudor school room

Reverse angle of the Tudor school room

Build your own Barley Hall!

Monday, October 20, 2014

York Railway Station, England

The current York Railway Station opened in 1877 and was at that time the largest railway station in the world. It had thirteen platforms and has since been expanded. The station still has a classic look outside.

York Railway Station

More of the exterior

The inside has some historic decorations, including this old-style signal which has some Tour de France bicycles beneath it.

Railway signal

The York station was the zero point for ten different lines, including the rails to Beverley, Harrogate, Newcastle, and Scarborough. A commemorative post is displayed in the station.

York Zero Post

The interior of the station is open-air and retains the classy Victorian style.

Ironworks hold up a clock!

Footbridge view

Detail of the post top

View of some rails from the footbridge

The station is busy (it's the halfway point between London and Edinburgh) so the foot traffic is efficiently directed.

Advice for travelers

We've taken the train to and from York many times. On our way home is the charming town of Knaresborough which has a much smaller station but is still picturesque.

Knaresborough Railway Station

Knaresborough seen from the train