29 December 2009

Book Review: Sword Woman (1977 Collection)

Sword Woman
By Robert E. Howard (1977)

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

It’s strange that Robert E. Howard’s most famous female character is one he didn’t actually create: Red Sonja, the work of comic book writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith, based on the historic adventuress Red Sonya from the story “The Shadow of the Vulture.” Red Sonja has been erroneously credited to Howard for years; even the movie Red Sonja lists him as the creator on the main credits.

This accidental attribution might explain the scant attention given to a fierce, red-haired, sword-swinging woman that Howard did create: Dark Agnes of Chastillon, sometimes called Agnes de le Fere. She appears in two stories and a fragment, and if Howard had sold the stories during his lifetime he might have written far more about her. She’s much-neglected in discussions of the author, and none of her stories have been in print since Ace’s 1986 printing of Sword Woman, which was first published by Zebra in 1977 and then re-printed by Berkley in 1979.

Another reason for the general obscurity of the abbreviated Dark Agnes cycle is that the stories are lesser pieces that feel rough alongside Howard’s classics. But their content is worth examining to see the author exploring the first-person female point of view. Detractors who consider Robert E. Howard—and sword-and-sorcery in general—misogynistic will discover a genuine surprise in Dark Agnes.

27 December 2009

Day 11: Munich

As I mentioned yesterday, Munich offers a great deal on its museums on Sunday: entrance for 1 Euro. I could have seen quite a few museums on that price in a short time (and most of the museums are in the same district, centered around the Propyläen Gate off of Königsplatz), but the whole family had a late start . . . again, the consequences of traveling with so many people, some with special needs. Our groups diverged at Hauptbahnhof, Munich Central Station, and I headed north on the U-bahn toward the museums.

I only managed to go to two, but they’re such enormous exhibits that it took most of five hours to go through them. The first museum, Glyptothek, is the oldest museum in Berlin; the second, Pinakothek der Moderne, is one of Munich’s newest and most contemporary museums.

Glyptothek is housed in a classical-style building resembleming the front of the Parthenon, opened in 1930 to house King Ludwig’s collection of art from ancient Greece and Rome. It’s one of the most famous in Europe, and more than once I found myself looking into a stone work familiar to me from many art and history books. Many of the works in the early rooms are the Greek originals, while the later rooms usually feature Roman copies of the Greeks. The most elaborate display is a recontruction of friezes from the Temple of Aegina, using as much of the sculpture that survives to establish what the setting of warriors around Athena in scenes from the Trojan War would have looked like.
The room that most impressed me houses Roman portraiture, with each bust or face standing on a stone post. The large room is like a forest maze of amazing sculpture portraits, moving through the history of the Empire from one end of the room to the other. It was fascinating watching the style of portrait change from realistic and unflattering to the stolid and idealized.

Out from the ancient and into the glistening and ultra-modern . . . Pinakothek der Moderne is the third of the Pinakothek’s, following upon the Alte Pinakothek and Neue Pinakothek. It opened in 2002, and houses three separate exhibitis: Architecture/Graphics, Modern Art (20th–21st centuries), and Design. The building itself is a magnificent postmodernist white rotunda reminiscent of the Guggenheim in New York. The modern art galleries contain works from legendary artists, with a significant number of Pablo Picassos—although none of his most famous works. There are also paintings by Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst. The Ernst paintings take up an entire room, and impressed me the most of all the artwork housed in the museum. This is one of the Ernst paintings on exhibit, “Birds Fish Snake”:
But it was the Design exhibit, housed in the museum’s basement, that really captured my attention. Here I found strange radios, chairs, desks, typewriters, coffe percalators, and other interior design artifacts from the turn of the century through the 1960s. A few protoype cars of bizarre design sit alongside the most beautiful but uncomfortable chairs you could imagine. One room houses old computers . . . including three that I once owned: an early Macintosh, an Apple //c, and a Macintosh LC. It makes me feel weird to see my old computers housed in a museum in Munich.

So closes my last full day here in Germany. I’m flying out tomorrow evening. I’ve had a pleasant time on this trip, being with the family and seeing my nephew, but I am quite prepared to returned to the warmth and familiarity of Los Angeles.

26 December 2009

Day 10: Tutzing

There was not much to report during the last two days, which is why you may have noticed a sudden two-day leap in my numbering. Most of Germany shuts down for the holidays. The families stayed around the apartments, drank Glühwein and other specialties, and watched my nephew open his presents. His favorite gift is a wooden pull-toy of an alligator that undulates on uneven wheels as it moves along. He loves having my brother, my father, or me pursue him around the table with the clatter ‘gator racing behind—but he won’t accept his mother pulling the gator. If she tries to drag the alligator, Diego will take the toy’s string and give it to the nearest uncle or grandfather and demand “more” with his hand signals.

And there isn’t much to report today either. There was still very little open in Munich or Starnberg on the 26th. Tomorrow the museums are all open for only 1 Euro admission, so that’s where I’ll be headed.

Most of today we spent in the town of Tutzing, which lies on the south end of Lake Starnberg and is more quaint with its Bavarian architecture than the more modern suburb of Starnberg. Many restaurants were closed, and the few that were open had large crowds. We ended up at a pizzeria, and as I’ve said on my previous visits, Bavaria benefits from its proximity to Italy and had terrific pizza. The whole logistics of this trip only a few miles away were insanely difficult, a side-effect of traveling with an eighty-six year old and a sixteen-month-old.

See you tomorrow with more museum reports. It’s also my last full day in Munich; I’m flying out on the evening of the 28th, and arriving back in Los Angeles on the . . . night of the 28th. Nice how that works when you’re heading back to North America.

24 December 2009

Book review: Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory

Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory
D. C. Fontana (1989)

I will have little to say about the Germany trip today. December 24th is the major celebration day of the season, instead of the 25th, and everything is shut down. No tourist tales for you, only family ones, and this blog isn’t the place for such information.

However, I can present you with a book review. I associate epic fantasy and especially The Lord of the Rings with the Solstice season, but for some reason I also think of Star Trek as well.

I’ve never read a Star Trek franchise novel, until now. Despite my love of Star Trek (although I am not considered a Trekker by actual Trekkers), I had never seriously considered picking up one of the tie-in books. This is not an intellectual bias; I read plenty of media tie-in works and consider it part of my training as a writer to understand the reverse-engineering that goes into making prose from a visual medium. I simply never saw any need to read Star Trek stories considering the copious amounts of broadcast and cinematic Trek already available. I had plenty of Trek already.

But then I found out that D. C. Fontana had written one of the novels in the Pocket Books series. And it was about the Enterprise under Christopher Pike, the captain from the famous rejected pilot for the original Star Trek, “The Cage.” That was an adventure I had to read, and pronto.

Dorothy Catherine Fontana wrote some of the best episodes of the classic ‘60s Trek: “Charlie X,” “Journey to Babel,” “This Side of Paradise,” and two of my personal favorites, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “The Enterprise Incident.” As she says in her Afterword for the 2006 re-print of Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory for Trek’s Fortieth Anniversary, she was present at the birth of the show: she typed up Gene Roddenberry’s final draft of “The Cage” before it went in front of the cameras.

It is “The Cage” that serves as the inspiration for Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, since it takes the reader back to that earlier crew of the Enterprise that viewers only had a chance to see in “The Cage” and the segments of it that Roddenberry and the show writers used in the two-part episode “The Menagerie,” originally meant as a bit salvage in the crunch-time of the first season’s production schedule. We see Captain Christopher Pike, First Officer Number One, Doctor Phillip Boyce, and a young Vulcan Ensign named Spock boldly go where no man or one has gone before. There’s also a bonus bold-goer: Montgomery Scott did not appear in “The Cage,” but Fontana brings him on the crew as a junior grade engineer.

23 December 2009

Day 8: Munich

Today is the last shopping day before the holiday for the Germans, since December 24th is traditionally the day of celebration and actual gift opening. Therefore, when my brother and I headed into the downtown to get a few more gifts for our nephew Diego, we ran into packed masses of Germans. (You find them everywhere around here.) Trying to negotiate a Gummi Bear store required battle plans and dexterous feet.

I found out something remarkable today: even though Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten is a classic German language novel, no German bookstore employ seems to have heard of it. I was hoping to purchase the novel for my sister, but the major bookstores don’t carry it, and when we asked about it, people thought we either wanted a DVD of the movie, or a children’s book with illustrations from the movie. How in the world did this happen? Crap, another thing for which Walt Disney must answer. And I like that movie, too.

It seems every time we go into Munich, we run into a new Christmas market we haven’t seen previously. This time, it was a market where Rosenstaße turns into Sendlinger Straße that specializes in - and sky-high priced wooden nativity figures. In the center of the market is an enormous rotating heliotrope, a giant version of the ones that spin from the rising heat of candles. Reed and I had Feuerzangenbowle and the half meter red sausage in the square, then walked down Sendlinger Straße to see the Asam Kirche, which I’ve previously discussed.

We stopped to have beer at the Alte Hackerhaus, which serves the Pschorr brand beer and dates from 1825 (although the company claims the beer originates in 1417). The décor of this small beer hall is one of intense Bavarian coziness—and considering the bustle of the streets, it felt calm and soothing.

Back in Starnberg, the family went to drink at Konigwasser, where I got to sample the best Riesling I’ve had in Germany so far. Close to the source. . . .

Day 7: Regensburg

I got up early in the morning to take the S-Bahn to Munich Grand Central Station (Hauptbanhof), and then transfer to a regional train to the city of Regensburg in eastern Bavaria, near to the border with the Czech Republic. Regensburg is one of the great historic cities in Bavaria, and one of the best preserved. It is far older than Munich, and the age seeps through in the narrow, uneven streets and close clustering of buildings untouched with modern renovations . . . except in the stores built into their foundations.
The city entered a deep economic decline after the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in the early nineteenth century. It was because of its economic unimportance that the city was mostly spared from bombing during World War II. Regensburg is extremely proud of the perseverance of its medieval architecture.

A short history of the city: Regensburg has been settled since the Stone Age, and sits on the meeting place of the Danube and the Regen Rivers—the northernmost bend of the Danube. During the second century C.E. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius placed a fortification here (Castra Regina) that is the basis for the modern city. Regensburg was the seat of an early Bavarian dynasty, the Agilolfings, who ruled with permission from the Merovingian kings. From the sixth century until the fourteenth, Regensburg was the capital of Bavaria. It served as an important center of the Holy Roman Empire because the Reichstag met here from the seventeenth century until Napoleon abolished the empire in 1803. As an Imperial Free City, Regensburg was not under the control of any local prince, duke, or elector, but answered to the direct suzerainty of the emperor. Unusual for a Bavarian city, Regensburg converted to Protestantism in 1542. It is therefore an important part of Czech history as the base from which much of that country converted to Protestantism.

The richest family in Regensburg was (and remains) the Thurn & Taxis, who raised their money through a monopoly on the postal service. The family lives in Fürstlisches Schloß Thurn & Taxis, a large palace with extensive gardens.

Because of its historic importance and the survival of medieval buildings, Regensburg is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, putting it on the same level as the Great Wall of China and the pyramids of Giza.

At Munich Grand Central Station, we met up with two other riders who shared our Bayern ticket (access all day on any public transportation in Bavaria). It’s common for travelers to wait at the station to find other riders with whom to share tickets, since five people can ride on one ticket for €30. For my father, brother, and I to ride the hour and a half train to and from Regensburg ended up only costing €20 when we shared the fare. The train was a sleek, modern one with a beautiful upper dome car that provided a pleasant view of the eastern Bavarian countryside under a light blanket of snow.

After we arrived at the train station, we moved into the center of town, the Domplatz, where we took a forty-five minute tram ride around the city with an audio-visual tour in English. The weather was warm compared to last week (not that this stopped my father and brother from complaining; they are new arrivals in the German winter) but this also meant sporadic rain.

The video tour’s narration did an extreme hard sell on the importance of Regensburg, prompting my brother to remark: “This city is really impressed with this city.”

After the end of the tour, we went into the second famous landmark of Regensberg: St. Peter’s Cathedral, which was built in the French Gothic style after the first cathedral burnt down in the 12th century. The tops of the towers were not added until the nineteenth century, when King Ludwig I of Bavaria sponsored their completion.

We went to the main public Christmas market, located in Neupfarrplatz near the Dom. Aside from drinking Glühwein, we also consumed the enormous half meter Feuerwurst, a specialty sausage of Regensburg. Yes, a half meter.
I mentioned that the cathedral is the second famous landmark of Regensburg. The first is the medieval stone bridge crossing the Danube, the Steinerne Brücke. Legend tells that the builder of the bridge was competing with the construction of the cathedral to see who would finish his project first. The bridge builder, afraid of losing the wager, made a deal with the Devil to help him finish his project first. The Devil demanded the souls of the first three people to cross the bridge as the price for his aid. The bridge builder tried to trick the Devil by sending three barnyard animals across the bridge first, and in anger the Devil tried to break the bridge—but only managed to create a bulge in the center. This is a fine way to explain a stone-working defect. At the center of the bridge stands a statue of a gnome, facing toward St. Peter’s Cathedral and covering his eyes—apparently a reference to the legend.

We moved along Ludwigstraße, a “wide street” where the wealthiest people of medieval and early modern Regensburg lived. (“Wide” compared to the tiny streets of a medieval city; tight compared to Wilshire Blvd.) We passed the Altes Rathaus and entered Arnulfsplatz. A man who knows Regensburg from visiting his parents here directed us to the oldest traditional restaurant and beer hall in the city, Brauerei Kneitinger, founded in 1530. Its special beer, Bock, is an excellent Dunkel (dark), and I usually don’t like Dunkel.
After this stop at a beer hall, we went to the principle attraction in Regensburg during the holiday season: The Romantic Christmas Market at the Thurn & Taxis Castle, converted from the thirteenth-century Abbey of St. Emmerman (the oldest cloisters of the abbey are still preserved). This is the first Christmas Market I’ve encountered that charged an entrance fee, but it is worth the €4. It lies around and inside the courtyard of the castle, and is especially beautiful at night with its torches and fire pits. The three of us agreed that this was the finest Christmas market (of many) that we’ve seen in Germany. With enough Glühwein in our bellies and outdoor fires to warm us, we found it easy to forget the cold winter weather.

After some slight confusion about direction (I blame four mugs of Glühwein for this) we returned to the central station at Regensburg to go back to Munich. So far, this has been the most enjoyable day on the trip; but I’m also a lover of history, and therefore biased. (Just between you, me, and the rest of the world that has Internet connections, I really dislike spending a day in a place like Starnberg, a modern suburb with nothing to show for itself but contemporary stores. I need my Holy Roman Empire!)

21 December 2009

Day 6: Munich

The most important event of today will appear on Black Gate as my regular Tuesday post. I hadn’t thought I would have a post up today for the website, but going to a Medieval-themed seasonal market seems appropriate to discuss on a fantasy website.

As to the part before getting to Mittelaltermarkt München, it was a lot of logistics getting to Munich with a sixteen-month-old. We couldn’t set out for the Christmas Markets until my brother arrived from his flight from the U.S., which was around 10 a.m. He’s already crashed for the evening at 7:30, which was exactly what happened to me on my first full day here.

However, I’m happy to report that today was the warmest day we’ve had in Germany so far. Snow had fallen during the night, piling up a fluffy three inches along fences and rails (and jamming up Frankfurt Airport), and the fall lasted until the late morning. Although this means massive amounts of black and brown sludge on the ground, it also means higher temperatures. This was the first time on the trip that I’ve felt completely comfortable walking outside without thinking about how much I want to go inside.

Once we arrived in Munich, I ended up for the third time in the Kaiserhof Christmas Market. The rest of the family wanted to see it. It was the first time I experienced a stronger holiday wine than Glühwein, the fiery Feuerzangenbowle, made from an Austrian 80% rum and set on fire before served.

We then went to the medieval market . . . and please see the Black Gate post for the rest of the info.

20 December 2009

Day 5: Starnberg–Pecha

Sorry to keep repeating myself, but I’ve found that holiday-themed vacations turn mostly into family time, even in a place like Bavaria, so there isn’t much else to tell to the general audience of a blog. You don’t care much about the general doings of my family, and I don’t blame you.

Anyway . . .

After catching up on some much-needed sleep (I think I’m finally on schedule), I headed out with the rest of the family—which now totals eleven people—to one of the resort towns on Starberg Lake, Pecha. We ate in a private dining room on the top floor of Seestuben, one one the best restaurants here, which looks out over the lake. The lake only freezes along the edges during the winter, and during the summer the grass in front of the beach fills up with people. The empty floor of the upper room gave Diego plenty of room to play while the family ate. He loved watching out the window to catch sight of dogs (“wau wau” as he calls them) and flights of birds (“ga ga,” his imitation of their cawing).

Now we’re back in Starnberg, and Diego is running around the house with an early present from his grandmother (my mom), a roller device on a post that bounces balls around as he runs with it. He loves it—and I have an idea that soon his parents will hate it.

19 December 2009

Day 4: Starnberg

Nothing much to report today. I was originally supposed to go to Regensberg for a day trip, but the informal tour group meeting at Munich Central Station either wasn’t there or somehow hid itself very well from my searching up and down the platforms.

So instead, I spent the day with Colleen and Armin doing the preparations for the rest of the family to arrive in the evening: shopping and then cleaning the house. Actually, my prominent duty was watching over Diego so he wouldn’t find clever new ways to injure himself while Colleen and Armin were arranging the house. This, therefore, was the most tiring day on the trip so far, since Diego possesses insane amounts of energy, even for a sixteenth-month-old, and I spent most of the day running after him, hunched over to catch him or stop him from slamming into walls or the dog. I imagine most new parents have extremely rotten posture because of running around in the hunched-over pose.

The family arrived late due to the extreme confusion of renting a car at the Munich airport. Because all of us won’t fit in Colleen and Armin’s house, we’ve re-located to a rented vacation apartment a few blocks away. It’s pleasant in the white-walled and Spartan style of contemporary German interior design, although somebody forgot to install a phone.

18 December 2009

Day 3: Munich

Museum trip, as I braved the coldest day of the year so far to venture into downtown Munich and its labyrinthine web of museums. I have previously visited two of its three major art museums, the Alte Pinakothek and the Neue Pinakothek, but decided against the Pinakothek der Moderne for this visit.

The first stop was the Münchner Stadtmuseum, the “State Museum,” housed in an old armory and which opened in 1888 to display the history of the city. The ground floor has exhibits from the medieval city, of which the most valuable objects are the “Morris Dancers,” figurines of Moorish-appearing performers that were sculpted by Erasmus Grassner in 1480 to adorn a newly constructed ballroom. The upper floors of the museum move through to modern Munich history (both the Beatles’ visit to Munich and Wagner’s connection to the city are covered with visual and audio displays). One of the new exhibits traces social changed in Munich through the 1920s until the Nazi takeover using the 1930 book Success (Erfolg) by Lion Feuchtwanger as the guide. This was a fascinating exhibit, which makes me wish I had read Feuchtwanger’s novel to see how it reflects Munich of the time. (The novel apparently has the same connection to Munich as Berlin Alexanderplatz has to Berlin.) Included in the exhibit was a copy of the first printing of Mein Kampf and a laser display over a map of Munich that allows you to trace to path of the Beer Hall Putsch and the murder of Kurt Eisner, the first prime minister after the end of the Wittelsbach Dynasty in 1918. Eisner’s murder by a right-wing extremist in February 1919 led to the culmination of the revolutionary movements in Munich post-World War I and the brief establishment of a communist government in the city—Räterepublik. None of the signs in the Stadtmuseum are in English, but the front desk gave me a booklet with translations of all the major plaques—and this certainly was a help understanding the Success “Revue.” I’ll have to see if I can find an English translation of this novel and read it.

After leaving the Stadtmuseum, I moved back to Marienplatz, had a mug of Gühlwein (which just gets better and better the colder the weather gets), then walked to the Augustiner Bierhalle, my favorite of the old beer halls in the city, to drink Radler and have the best Rote Reisenbratwurst (red sausage) I’ve ever tasted. Plus a big pretzel with honey mustard, but that almost goes without saying in Bavaria.

I then went to Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst München, the museum of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. The contents of the museum originate with the Antiquarium in the Residenz (indeed, the museum is housed in a section of the Residenz along the Hofgarten side) and the collections that Duke Albrecht V displayed there. King Ludwig I (died 1848) gathered many of the objects now on display, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that all the Ancient Egyptian artifacts were gathered into this single state museum. The objects range from the Old Kingdom to the Roman period. The collection of artifacts from the famous 18th Dynasty (that of Akhenaten and Tutankhamen) is extensive and fills a large chamber. The most impressive object for me is an enormous papyrus of the Book of the Dead from the Ptolemaic Period, containing almost a hundred chapters. The papyrus stretches along nearly twenty feet of wall.

I emerged from the Egyptian museum from the back door and right into the same Christmas Market I was in on the first day, located in the Kaiserhof. I grabbed some more Glühwein and watched the current entertainment in the square: a traditional German hand puppet show for the children, resembling the British “Punch-n-Judy” performances. I couldn’t understand the story, except that there was a good puppet trying to catch a bad puppet, and both elicited advice from the crowd of cheering children. The kids were loving it.

I ambled out of the Kaiserhof and dropped briefly into the Theatinekirche, the Italian-style cathedral located on Odeonsplatz. When I came out, I walked up a street that put me in front of the major English-language bookstore in Munich, so I stepped in to see if they had an English translation of Success. Nope. When I next came upon an actual German-language bookstore, I found that Herr Feuchtwanger has quite a few books packed into the “Classics” section, and that Erfolg is a hefty-sized volume. I wonder how many Munich residents actually read this classic about their city.

And here is a mind-blowing fact I found out later in the day: Lion Feuchtwanger emigrated to the U.S. during World War II and from 1943 until his death in 1958 lived in . . . Pacific Palisades! Where I grew up, and where my parents still live. Weird. The most internationally famous of all Munich novelists lived in my Los Angeles suburb.

I also discovered that the Cornell Woolrich short story “Momentum”/“Murder Always Gathers Momentum” is called “Montreal Express” in the German translation. That must be some bit of German slang that I don’t understand.

I returned to Starnberg, and as I write this I am sitting in the restaurant Absofort, which is right beside where Colleen and Armin live. The Sauvignon Blanc is excellent.

17 December 2009

Day 2: Starnberg

This will be a short entry, since this wasn’t a sight seeing day, but a family day. I won’t be able to regale you with historical anecdotes, or really much of anything that would interest my regular blog readers. I spent all of today with my sister during her daily life in Starnberg, the suburb of Munich where she lives. Today was a bit more hectic for her than normal because Diego was in a fitful and cranky mood most of the morning, and then a sudden burst of fury later in the afternoon.

The first stop was at the TVS, a gymnasium which has a toddler playgroup hour in the massive main gym, filled with equipment for the kids to unleash themselves. In the U.S., this sort of free-for-all would never occur because it practically begs for litigation. Laurent, Colleen’s brother-in-law, had told me previously that watching the kids play at this gym was similar to seeing a ninja-training camp in some B-movie. However, today was a more subdued group than usually, so I didn’t get the SPECTRE training camp experience I was hoping to witness . . . although the group “Troll Dance” at the end was a bizarre experience. (Sometimes, not understanding the language makes it more interesting.) Of course, watching my nephew play around with balls, plastic riding horses, trampolines, and giant sliding felt turtles (you read that correctly) is a great joy.
Later, I went with Colleen and Diego to the hospital where they attend a mother-and-infant sign language class. I picked up a few German words from their songs and singing phrases like “Das ist langsam, das ist schnell.”

Tomorrow I’ll be going back into Munich to hit some of the remaining four hundred museums I haven’t seen yet.

16 December 2009

Day 1: Munich

Yesterday was actually two days . . . the eternity of the long European flight. Thank Odin I was riding First Class, the first time I’ve ever gotten the premium treatment. (I can thank my mother’s company for racking up the frequent flier miles to allow this.) The biggest benefit was actually off the plane, where I got to bypass the nightmare lines at passport control and go straight to the elegant lounge complete with immediate passport check-through, free beverages, and a cellist and violinist entertaining the guests. I did not want to go down to get my luggage and then struggle onto the S-Bahn, I just wanted to relax here and fall asleep.

Its snowed earlier today, but the Germans deny that it did. Just flakes floating around in the air, not snow. For the morning, I went with my sister and Diego to his doctor’s appointment in the suburb of Gauting. Last week, poor Diego tripped while running with a toothbrush (message here, kids) and punctured the back of his soft palate. Although it seems to be healing well, Colleen brought him to the doctor today to check on the healing, and the news was good.

We then headed into Munich proper, emerging from the S-bahn station into Marienplatz, the center of the city and a place I’ve come to know very well—except this time, it was in full Christmas Market mode. Immediately upon coming up from the S-bahn, I was overwhelmed with the aroma of the roasted chestnuts that are one of the specialties of these markets.
Christmas markets are ubiquitous in Germany during the Solstice season: every town square is filled with booths selling toys, hats, dolls, bratwurst, curios, and hot drinks. The Marienplatz market is one of the largest in Munich, although the largest in all of Germany is in Nürnberg (Nuremberg). We moved out of the market and went to one of the popular beer halls, Schneider Weisse, built in 1878 and which is famous for its Weiss beer. I had a Helles beer instead, since I’m not fond of Weiss beer. After this, we went to another of the Christmas markets: one inside the Kaiserhof courtyard of the Residenz, and heavily Alpine themed, with some creepy animated dioramas. I got a cup of the traditional hot spiced wine concoction, Gühlwein, which challenges the taste buds with a swarm of different flavors. The center of the market had a live performance by a famous local choir of sailors, who broke into an English-language performance of “Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main.”

After Colleen went back home with Diego (who wouldn’t have much tolerance for museums), I went into the Residenz itself. I’ve visited this palace of the Wittelsbach dynasty before, but was eager to see it again. The Bavarian royal family lived here for four hundred years—although re-loacting to the Nymphenburg Palace during summer. Most of the expansion of the Residenz happened under Duke, later Elector (a reward the Emperor gave him for his loyalty during the Thirty Years War) Maximilian I (1597–1651) in the early seventeenth century.
I took the longer tour of the palace this time, and saw most of the 130 rooms on public display. Tragically, many of the rooms had to undergo extensive reconstruction after bombing during World War II, and a recurring theme of many of the rooms is the lost artwork on the ceilings. This tour of the Residenz had an eerie feeling to it . . . the darkness outside from winter leaving the rooms in dim shadows with the indirect lighting, and the drifting sound of holiday music from the Christmas Market floating muffled through the walls.

The most impressive sight of the Residenz is the Antiquarum. Duke Albrecht V (1550–1579) had this room built to house his collection of—what else—antiquities. It’s a massive baroque domed hallway that is one of the most stunning sights in Munich. As I write this now, I’m sitting in the echoing hall, looking at the busts of Roman emperor seated along the wall and reading the many Latin incriptions on the arches. The one in front of me reads: IVSTITIA ETIAM HOSTIBVS DEBETVR, “Justice is owed even to enemies of the state.” I love that knowledge of Latin comes in handy even in a Germanic country.

My other favorite room in the Residenz is the Ancestral Hall, a narrow corridor with both walls filled with portraits of members of the Wittelsbach Dyntasy and their consorts.

I’m back now at Colleen and Armin’s home, having fun with jet lag and watching Diego open his Advent Calendar.

15 December 2009

Book review: Conan the Unconquered

I’m a bit late getting this link up—because I’ve been on a plane for twelve hours—but the second of my two reviews of Robert Jordan’s Conan novels is now up over at Black Gate.

This time, it’s Conan the Unconquered, the third of Jordan’s novels, originally published in 1983 from Tor.

Pop on over to the review here.

And, oh yeah, I’m in Munich at the moment, and I’ll start the regular blogging about it tomorrow, as there isn’t much to say right now . . . I arrived here at 5:10 p.m., got to my sister’s house about 7:00 p.m. or so, and I’m going to fold-up here pretty soon. Yes, it’s snowing. And cold, but not like a Minnesota winter. I went through four of those, so I should survive a Bavarian one.

12 December 2009

Heading to Germany again

Hi folks . . . sorry if the blog has looked a touch sparse lately, but I’ve had a busy run of late that has cut into my movie- and book-reviewing time. Some positive reasons, some negative, but one of the positive reasons is that I’ve been prepping for my trip to Germany for the end of the year. I’m leaving Los Angeles on the 14th of this month and returning from Munich on the 28th. I’ll be spending the Solstice Season with my sister, her husband, and my nephew, who live in Starnberg, a suburb of Munich. I’m not exactly looking forward to the weather over there, but if I managed four years of college in Minnesota, I think I can handle two weeks of Alpine conditions.

The blog will get busy during the trip, since I’ll keep a running account of it as I did with my last two trips to Europe. I’ll probably have to miss a week of Black Gate posting, although I already finished the one for this coming Tuesday, and have it ready for auto-posting while I’m on the plane. Yes, another Conan pastiche novel review. I have plans to do some critiques of actual Robert E. Howard work when I get back—specifically, a close look at my favorite of his unfinished stories, “Wolves Beyond the Border”—and this insane idea of reviewing all the Star Trek feature films in order, one a week, excepting the recent one, which I’ve already gone over three times. I’ve watched all the James Bond films in order, one per week, but I’ve never done this for Trek . . . and it’s only ten films, much less than Bond.

However, this leads me to a profound conundrum: I own all the Trek films on DVD, but my copies of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek Generations are the first DVD releases, and neither are enhanced for widescreen TVs. Should I actually go purchase the newer discs? Should I spend another dime on Star Trek V? I don’t think I’m spoiling anything about future reviews if I say that this is the worst movie in the series. And Star Trek Generations doesn’t excite me in the least. Getting the new DVD for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to replace the non-anamorphic one I bought originally was a no-brainer: I love that movie. But for these two minor-leaguers? I don’t know.

Anyway, expect to hear from me next coming to you from Bavaria, surrounded by too much Carl Orff music. Tempus est iocundum!

07 December 2009

Book review: Conan the Defender

I have had some requests from people who have read my reviews of Conan pastiche novels (wow, people actually read these things!) to do write-ups on the Robert Jordan novels. Okay, your wish is my blog entry. Actually, two blog entries, since I’ll have another Robert Jordan review up next week, the same day I fly off to Germany for two weeks.

So . . . this week’s Robert Jordan Conan novel is his second, Conan the Defender. It’s not as enjoyably pulpy as his first, Conan the Invincible, but as far as the Tor series of pastiches go, it’s high quality.

The review is now up over at Black Gate.

02 December 2009

Movie review: The Hidden

The Hidden (1987)
Directed by Jack Sholder. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Nouri, Claudia Christian, Clarence Felder, Clu Gulager, Ed O’Ross, William Boyett.

The high-concept behind The Hidden of a body-hopping killer entity wasn’t new in 1987 (Hal Clement’s 1950 novel The Needle; the Star Trek episode “The Wolf in the Fold”; John Carpenter’s re-make of The Thing), and it has gotten enormous mileage since (The First Power, Fallen, the agents in The Matrix). This overplay may explain the movie’s relatively low-profile today. You simply don’t hear much about it. This is a shame, since The Hidden is a real gem of both ‘80s low-tech science-fiction and cop thrillers.

The Hidden feels like a Michael Mann ‘80s production with a science-fiction slant, sort of To Live and Die in L.A. goes Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The police procedural action crackles with realistic energy, and the SF tale of slug-spider alien parasite that seizes bodies across L.A. so it can cause bloody mayhem remains at a level of believability that simmers below the detective work of homicide cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his uncanny partner from the FBI, Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan). It’s Gallagher’s sudden appearance in the L.A. police department that alerts Beck to the connections in a series of killings that formerly law-abiding citizens are committing in a weird chain reaction.

Gallagher remains purposely obfuscatory about what he knows about the links between the murderers, causing Beck to eventually turn on him as events just get stranger and stranger, with perps who seem not to go down despite the massive number of bullets plugged into them. MacLachlan’s performance, which begins as distant and cold—what a police officer might expect from a FBI agent—turns increasingly bizarre and similar to the flat-affect antics of the various psychos. Gallagher explains that he’s tracking a single killer, one responsible for the murder of his partner, his wife, and his child.
The alien-hopper isn’t a secret from the audience, however, which gets to see the grisly body-switch early in the movie. The balance of tension comes from watching how Gallagher has to eventually let Beck in on a secret that he simply will never believe . . . until it stares him in the face with a gun.

Produced on a mid-budget that wouldn’t allow much in the way of large SF effects (the actual creature only shows up on screen twice), the film relies on shoot-outs and car chases, but executes all of them with punch. Director Sholder composes a few flair scenes, such as the gripping and often imitated opening credits viewed through a security camera at a bank, where a man calmly enters and suddenly open fires with a shotgun before turning to the camera and placidly blasting it away. The night chase and shootout with the stripper-host is moodily shot and frankly bizarre, tinged with a real ‘80s noir sensibility.

The Hidden has many bonus pleasures along with the excellent story and stylish filmmaking. The real “hiddens” are the 1980s spices like the synth-score that belts out staccatto percussion effects, the cheesy pop songs, and the “greed decade” subtext of the alien’s rampages. Essentially, the alien had come to Earth not to conquer it (although it mentions that should its people choose to do so, it would be a cinch), but to act like a yuppie prick with homicial tendencies. It likes Porches and Ferraris, Rodeo Drive girls, expensive strippers, and taking anything that it likes. It also kills anything that gets in its way. It’s an appealing villain because it has nothing more on its mind aside from doing all the crazy things the many humans would secretly like to get away with. Here’s an extraterrestrial “conqueror” who most of us can understand.
Nouri and MacLachlan play their strange “buddy cop” partnership with ideal chemistry. But the most impressive performances come from the actors taking the roles of the alien parasite’s hosts: Chris Mulkey, William Boyett, Claudia Christian, Clarence Felder, Ed O’Ross, John McCann, and Roy the Dog. Each performer brings a special touch to the oddness of an entity feeling its way through the human body. Boyett gets the most screen time and gives a crunchy off-kilter performance as a middle-aged white collar drone who pulls a casual hold-up and massacre at a Ferrari dealership. (We know the guys deserve to die, however, because the movie shows them snorting blow in their office. See also Die Hard for an example of cocaine-related ‘80s movie fatalities.) Christian, who would later have a long-running science-fiction association with her role on Babylon 5, is also a kick to watch as a stripper who suddenly gets very interested not only in heavy artillery but also her own curves; the parasite must not have possessed a woman before—or at least, not one this hot. Christian’s line, “You think it’s over now. You’re wrong,” is my strongest memory from the film’s trailer back in 1987, and still gives me a chill when she delivers it.

The Hidden concludes in a rush of police action suspense and a twist on audience expectations about the sort of people who are supposed to live through these movies. Once again, I was reminded of 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A., which pulls a similar shock stunt. The film manages a sharp punch to the gut, then turns around with a fade out both eerie and touching. There’s a wonderful subtext about a life left unseen, only given through hints in MacLachlan’s performance.

Director Jack Sholder, who helmed two early films for New Line Cinema (Alone in the Dark and the second Nightmare on Elm Street movie), should have gone onto some finer A-list pictures based on what he did here, but unfortunately he’s had to kick around in TV and low-budget movies. He was responsible for the fix-up job, uncredited, on the disaster-ridden Supernova—a film I think isn’t as bad as its reputation would make it. I’d love to see some producer who’s a fan of The Hidden pull Sholder away from his teaching job at Western Carolina University and give the guy a shot in today’s crowded science-fiction market . . . maybe he can pull out some old tricks that will seem new again.

The current DVD has a wonderful 1.85:1 picture, but the optional re-mix in 5.1 Surround is disappointing. Although people like to get the most out of their sound systems, in this case stick with the crisp, sharp original mono soundtrack.