Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Review: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a memoir, a story of the author's life focusing on her childhood in a quiet Midwest town, living in a large, ornately-decorated Gothic revival house with her high school teacher parents and a pair (?) of brothers... Just add Bechdel to the long list of modern authors whose last names I can't pronounce. I guess I can just call her Alison, or "Al," or "Butch".

To me this book was little more than a long line of overly ornate descriptions, a bit of oddly-misplaced literary stuffiness, and, above all else, excruciatingly dragged out and overdone self analysis. Why must everything, I asked myself, from Al's childhood be analyzed through the lens of her thirty-something college-educated dykedom? That she is gay and that her father turned out to be gay as well does not strike me as the perfect opportunity for garish overstretched comparisons. And that she has read so much does not give her an excuse for stretching those comparisons really thin, to relate her life to many books of our posterity.

At some point, Alison and her brothers are taken to some construction site and given a tour. On the wall of one of the temporary huts she sees some pornography, and, feeling uncomfortable, whispers to her brother to call her Albert and treat her like a boy. What follows is an honest to goodness line from the story: "My brother ignored me, but looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition -- not to mention a tidy melding of Proust's real Albert and his fictional Albertine." I doubled over laughing like the bitch that I am.

The story is dominated by her father, closeted of course, an OCD-type, detached and disinterested. He had a love for the ornate -- and he loved his house, he could "spin trash into gold" (and of course he gets compared to Daedalus more than once). Alison stresses how she developed a liking for the utilitarian as a result, as a kind of youth in rebellion -- unfortunately, the OCD rubbed off completely intact, and if anything, this love for the utilitarian just makes things worse.

Alison reminds me of someone: this woman who lives at the end of my street, who has sharp features, glasses, and a never-ending scowl on her face. She and her significant other, a soggy old man who seems almost friendly next to her, have spent probably thousands of hours tending to their pride and joy, their little postage stamp of a lawn. They have probably spent good money on it, too: they have had the grass professionally replaced three times (and it still looks like shit, patchy and brown). Recently (the middle of winter, I remind you) while walking the dogs, my sister had the great misfortune of walking across their tree lawn while crossing the street. The curtain snapped open and that woman, as if alerted by some sort of "neurotic Spidey Senses," snarled out at us. Luckily, I called my sister back and she stepped back into the street just in time. Flushed with triumph, I had the cheek to smile and wave. She closed the curtain shortly after. People around here have called the police for less.

Not to count out the entire legion of short-haired, glasses-wearing women out there. Some of the best people I've known have had almost no hair, and making fun of four-eyes is not polite. But Alison... to me, her mind is too narrowly fixed, and her ideas, while occasionally encouragingly relevant and on the mark (google "The Bechdel Test"), are too heavily painted by her imperfect use of words. For me they are also masked, concealed behind their creator's body and mind, which I simply cannot traverse, or even... ahem, penetrate. And so, for once it seems best to me to simply "agree to disagree" with this Alison Bechdel character (assuming she can swallow the cliche, of course :D).

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Friday, December 10, 2010

War Loses Its Romance

I'm sure it was worth it to carve every last letter into that block of stone, sitting in the Veterans Memorial outside the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is a quotation from Colonel John S. Mosby, famed Confederate cavalry commander, and it tells, in some way, the same sad story I've already been over in this blog when I took a look at "Dulce et Decorum Est", a poem by the British poet Wilfred Owen. But Mosby, in his way as I said, his coarse and bumbling American way, drives home the same ideals. The inscription is apparently called "War Loses Its Romance" and if all future diggers had to go on for a picture of the American Civil War was this inscription... well, they'd have a warped, insanely simplified view, as usual.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happys Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (And PS... do you have any idea how long it took for me to make this costume?)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Being There

Everything has a deep significance to me now - allegorical insight. Probably because I've been reading Being There, a short little novel by, uh, Jerzy Kosinski on which the film was based (pretty closely). I always liked the movie, at least as long as I've seen it. And the book makes me write in short, expressive sentences.

And, before you ask, no! "Chauncey Gardiner" is not a genius. He's not anything at all, except a blank piece of paper. I have had to constantly remind myself of that - it's very enticing - and I have the luxury of dramatic irony. Others, I suppose, have to be careful not to read too into it - the book, I mean. But the book itself, to me, is... well, it's not a blank piece of paper - I check and keep on checking, just to be sure - but it is also not some big monstrous allegory who only shows its tip above the waterline. It is a fun, quirky little story with just about as much depth and meaning as a blank piece of paper.

I mean, sure, it was written by somebody, and that somebody had some idea of how he wanted things to go, what he thought of the tale as a whole. And I suppose some "meaning" does peak through. For example, I have placed the name "Chauncey Gardiner" in quotation marks, because that's just what some people call him, not his real name. His real name, according to the narrator, is Chancy - because, the narrator says, his whole existence, even birth, was a matter of chance. But something strikes me as allegorical about the name - I mean, he was struck by a limousine a few minutes after leaving his garden for the first time. He was taken in by a wealthy couple and widely lauded, and had "every man's fantasy" thrown at him (not bad for a swollen calf).

Yeah, yeah... it's all blind chance, but something still scares me about him. He gardened and watched TV, and later tapped into that, the only experiences he had, to figure a place for himself in his world. When EE wants to get frisky he'd rather watch TV (therefore he is not human).

And the "Old Man"... the nearly anonymous wealthy gentleman who raised "Chancy" from an early age... I kinda hate him too. Why did he create this monster, this scarily innocent, entirely dependent creature and then release it onto the world? Why, if I didn't know better, I'd call the Old Man the modern Frankenstein, and "Chance" the Post-modern Prometheus.

The book is very similar to the movie, at least in content, but where I was inclined to laugh at the movie, at the characters' over valuing of "Chauncey's" simple phrases and the Forrest Gump-like "being there" coincidences, somehow for me the book is much more somber. Maybe it is for the simple reason of past acquaintance - I already know the setup and the punch line. Maybe it's literary pretensions, or its sparse writing - maybe it's all the essays I know exist about it. At any rate, people have found an awful lot to believe in here, apparently - even high-end scholars who say they know what they're talking about.

Well, now, I never went too far in my schooling, and so far, have resisted as best I could the temptation to look too deeply, into life and this book. We humans probe everything - many of us have a tendency to over think things. Take, for example, my dachshund Tobey - my family and I have invented an entire mythology around his past life, and his current trials in preschool. We all sometimes speak in his voice - high squeaky, maybe innocent voice - in which "he" cusses and swears and details his homosexual relations with our other dog, a chow chow named Sparky. He's the only of our pets with a real, set in stone personality and voice, and we all have strong attachment to him. He means so much to us, yet he is just a dog! He has never done any of those things.

I leave you now with a picture of Sarah, a woman who, like Chancy, was once seriously considered as a candidate for Vice President. In this painting she has a stack of pancakes on her head.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I return and tame the shrew

After nearly a month without a posting, I'm back with one new post and plenty of ideas...

I have been jolted from my word-sleep by a middle-of-the-road community college production of The Taming of the Shrew. I first read the play, by Mr. R. Shakespeare a couple of months ago, in September. Then, I didn't have none too high opinions of it all. It struck me as the same old Battle of the Sexes - *yawn* - only with a strong misogynistic twist, courtesy of the times or Shakespeare himself, or whatever. I only read it so I could have something to disagree with when a feminist came calling with her obviously correct ideas about the inherent sexism of the play. My figuring was: "She may be right, but I'll be damned if she ever knows."

It's the same kind of thinking, I think, that runs through Petruchio's mind every time he picks up Kate and hauls her off to his house. (The audition fliers of every production of Taming of the Shrew ought to always say "Petruchio: All candidates must be able to fireman's carry a 150 pound woman for at least 300 yards.") In our production it was the typical fiery and diminutive Kate vs the typically tall and timber Petruchio. In the "Battle of the Sexes" here Kate puts up one hell of a fight, but ends with her hands underneath her husband's boot - willingly! of all things...

Truth be told it was this awful breaking of Kate's spirit, implied so well by the title, that initially gave an unpleasant rumbling in my tummy. And the unpleasantness comes to a head right at the end, when Kate gives her infamous speech. For a long time, naturally, the speech was given in total honesty (by a man); then, somewhere along the line, someone decided to deliver it with a wink and a nod. "She's only joking, everyone," says the director -- and Mr. Shakespeare is far too dead to say otherwise. In our production, however, the vitriolic speech is merely glazed over and the whole darn controversy along with it.

This production had nothing of the political or contentious about it. It featured instead lots of pelvic thrusting and silly sound effects. There was this girl who spent most of her time at the back of the stage, behind a cart with a variety of noise-makers sitting on it. It was her job to hit a drum every time an actor pretended to strike another actor, to honk a horn every time an actor sensually squeezed at the air in front of him. The one set of lines she had she delivered in an unsurprising Frankenstein fashion.

The performance may have overused the sound effects, especially the comic horn. Even seemingly innocuous phrases are knocked down to the level of groundling humor by the likes of the comic horn. "The reward is in the doing." (honk honk) and "The Universe is very, very big." (honk honk). I am not, nor will I ever be, inherently against the naughty sound effect or pelvic thrusting. Even a professional performance of Othello I saw fairly recently made ample use of the latter. And it makes sense: many, these days are inclined to call every Shakespeare play a "mouldy tale" as Ben Jonson did to Pericles, and sound effects act as a cheap way of spicing up the moldier bits.

Really, how much chocolate can you eat before your teeth begin to rot? Still, our group was rolling, most of the time. It only makes sense: we are all long-time casual fans of Monty Python, our teeth are yellow and crooked, and we still thoroughly subscribe to the idea that anything said in a British accent is just that much funnier. I'm sure if the Globe was still around today we'd be packed into the ground floor, throwing wisecracks and vegetables at the stage. As it is, the seating arrangements were "anywhere but the front row," and as for the vegetables... my girlfriend snuck in some hummus from the charity refreshment table.

There the atmosphere was soft and humorous, a gentle no-excuses take on William Shakespeare, and a great way to spend $10 and an evening. And, although what we took in that evening was hardly William Shakespeare, setting aside for now discussion of the play itself, this performance has so impressed itself upon me that "Taming of the Shrew" now has a pretty gold star resting next to it in the dictionary of my mind...

Now here's to another long ride on the saddle -- or at least another month!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Jacob the Baker, by Noah benShea

The Jacob in the title is a Jewish man (we know little else about him) and his title, "the baker," is apparently a sign of his low station in life. You are sad already, I can see, but don't be. Jacob is the kind with a body down low but a head up high, way in the clouds with his hopes for what's to come. He is the kind of man who revels in his low station, the sort of baker who doesn't wipe the flour off his clothes after a long day of work.

In other words, Jacob is wise. Accordingly he often has wise thoughts and writes them down on little sheets of paper, snippets of wisdom, proverbs mostly -- things like "It is the silence between the notes that makes the music" and "Each of us is the source of the other's river." The subtitle was right... "Gentle Wisdom For a Complicated World." . Yes, he labors along well in peaceful anonymity until one day... One of his slips of paper finds its way into a loaf of bread, and the woman who buys the loaf finds the note and comes back to the shop, asking for more. So Jacob, accidentally and reluctantly of course, becomes a kind of tzadik for his town, a wise and holy man who is sought after by those who have questions.

And, by God, does he have answers! He speaks almost exclusively in proverbs and has an answer for everything, even as he professes that he does not. He has an answer, I say, but of course it's not the one anyone wants to hear. It is something much more tangled and obscure. I wonder if any of his "wisdom" ever did any of the characters any good... I can't tell, of course, since every one of the dozens of little stories in this slim volume goes the same way: a person comes to Jacob with a problem or a question, and then Jacob answers it in his way, always putting in the last words, often ending with the apparent moral of the story. I hope they got their answer, but I have my doubts and my doubts say they may well have been better off with a fortune cookie.

benShea's website
proclaims, "Noah benShea is one of North America’s most respected and popular poet-philosophers, and International Best-Selling author." A Wikipedia search returned only, "Did you mean Noah Bennet?" On his website you can buy "Noah Bears," teddy bears with a twist -- bears that wear t-shirts which say things like “Handmade by God.”(©) and "Prayer is a path where there is none." (©) And they have another little surprise: squeeze the button on their hand and then sit back to listen to about twenty seconds of wisdom, rendered in benShea's own low, gravelly voice. There are ten designs, $30.95 each. And please, "Remember, you make a difference and sometimes a bear does too!"

On benShea's Facebook "wall" a person calling himself Young Lee wrote...
I read Jacob the baker after i woke up from nightmare that I got sentenced from gods angel that I will be goin to hell And randomly pickd up the Jacob the baker in den which Was belong to my mother. Your book made me look my life again thanks.
Ps. I have question to Jacob the baker "will god listen to our every prayer we give?"
I wonder if there's special place for wisdom peddlers in Heaven -- a large room, I imagine, where thousands of smooth-talkers in snappy outfits speak only in proverbs, where they could talk about the "meaning of life" till eternity... maybe there is such a place, and maybe its name is Hell.

Friday, October 15, 2010

"Love's Young Dream" by Roddy Lumsden

In the past few months I've been tumbling through a lot of poetry, both on my own and with the guidance of online readers, but this poem is the first and only to knock me down -- to bring me back three times to listen to it again. It was love. It still is. Young love is the best, I hear, and though I still hold out for 65-year-old love too, I have no choice at this point but to agree with the common sentiment.

The poem is called "Love's Young Dream" and it is here read by a man who calls himself simply SpokenVerse, a prolific and fairly popular Youtuber. The poet is Roddy Lumsden, a modernday Scotsman who... well, one gets the feeling he may have knocked on fame's door at one point -- been featured in a few "Up and Coming" lists in the eighties and nineties -- but has since then taken a misturn into that vilest of purgatories, relative obscurity. I don't know the reason, of course -- fame is fickle, etc., etc. -- but from where I stand I can say this: That's a damn shame. From what little I know, he is a man capable of crafting clever and well-constructed poetry. Many of his best poems seem to have a solid, even high-born concept behind them, which Lumsden manages to pull off with what I humbly call decent poetic mechanics.

In "Love's Young Dream" the theme is cliches, those "trite or overused expressions," those ever-scorned foundation stones of the English and perhaps every language. The narrator is in love with -- or, in our callously modern tongue, has a thing for -- a girl. A girl about whom we know very little, except that she is a "snow ball's chance in hell," a long shot, way out of his league. For all we know she could be Debbie Harry, but the important thing is he asks her out and she shows up... "And there with her giving me the wink,/The Jewish pope, the constipated bear." Throughout the narrator speaks almost exclusively in cliches -- and he is acutely conscious of it. So he ends the poem with that cute little number just above... Always people are asking "Is the pope Catholic?" and "Does a bear shit in the woods?" and in this case anyways, the answer is "No! Absolutely not."

In the comments section of the video (click on the video up there to visit its Youtube page and then scroll down to see the comments) a person calling himself Roddy Lumsden had this to say: "Nice to know some like this poem - I barely (bearly?) recall writing it - it came fast and was written in Edinburgh, probably in 1996. Not a poem I still have any attachment too, though witty in its way." He also corrects a mistake by the reader: "Also, it's six-one-fives, not six-fifteens - which is needed for the rhyme scheme." So that clears that up, though what "six-one-fives" -- and "gio" for that matter -- are I can't even imagine. Suffice to say, I guess, that one usually creases the first and splashes on the second.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est... part 2

Today I have for you, friends, only a video, a clip from a BBC documentary on Wilfred Owen. Mr. Gray-haired Announcer Guy says a few words and then gets to reciting the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," which I wrote about on Monday... I was very surprised indeed to learn that Owen is "the most studied poet in England -- after Shakespeare (after all)." He's one of those writers, I guess, who gets shoved down the throats of high school kids, generation after generation. We have those too, here in America. To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World... I take a kind of foolish pride from the fact that I was assigned all of these books and never read any of them to completion. (Holden Caulfield don't got nothing on me.)

But now Wilfred Owen is a writer I feel I can get behind. A little dark and gloomy "War is Hell" poetry can do wonders for army recruitment -- in the correct direction, of course. Poetry, in this case, may very well have made a difference -- pounded some good sense into the heads of at least a handful of kids. It's great, but most of the people in the comments section of this Youtube video seem hung up on nothing more than Owen's homosexuality...

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est...

I have recently been taken in by this poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" by the WWI English poet Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

It is apparently one of Owen's most famous, one of the most famous poems of the war. It is the story of a group of soldiers who are headed back to camp after a day of fighting when, suddenly... "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!" There is "an ecstasy of fumbling" as Owen and the other soldiers hurry to put their gas masks on, but at least one man is too slow and Owen has to watch the entire horrific death unfold. In the last stanza the poet addresses the reader directly, stating in a sense, "O, if only you knew..." In an effort to describe what the death must of have been like, the poet gives the sense of both drowning and burning, and it is a simple leap to put those two together. Imagine drowning in a lake of fire and you are well on your way to a typical conception of Hell, leading in this poem to the "cliche": Hell on Earth.

The last bit of the poem, "Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori" is Latin and comes from ode 3.2 (that is, Book 3, Poem 2) of the Imperial Roman poet Horace. Translated into fairly smooth and natural English, the line is rendered as, "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country." The line is so well-flowing and so deeply patriotic that it had prospered and found its way into fairly common use by the early twentieth century. (The rest of the poem, although it puts forth a fairly stirring depiction of the Roman-Parthian battlefield, is more dense and not quite so well remembered.)

The line, although used satirically in this poem, was primarily spoken with grim and earnest disposition. Owen Seaman, for example, (whose disposition, incidentally, may well have inspired A.A. Milne to create Eeyore, the gloomy donkey from Winnie the Pooh) stood whole-heartedly behind the phrase when he wrote his poem "Pro Patria." I am not sure of the exact date of this poem, or whether it came before or after "Dulce et Decorum Est," but clearly it was written during the war, by a man who was then too old to serve. This then brings an element of generational tension and brings to mind the old maxim -- something to the effect of "Old men make make the wars and young men have to fight in them."

To this day there are proud "military families" -- in England, in my own United States, everywhere -- who have history stretching to World War One and beyond, a long line of men (and now women) who imagine themselves marching cheerfully off to battle. "Pro patria mori" -- to die for one's country. The phrase does have a ring to it, but if we translate the Latin more literally... "Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland." Suddenly, with more "foreign-sounding" syntax and the original meaning of the word patria, "fatherland," the phrase seems at least slightly more sinister; and, although I hate to say it, more like Nazi propaganda. Sure, this poem, on the surface, does not advance much beyond the single impression "War is Hell" but with my modern eye I see another aspect. I know that no major war has been fought using the principals of democracy, that "in order to preserve their freedom" young men and women must surrender their personal will at the boot camp doors. In short I see that War, in some sense at least, is fascism.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

On the RoadMy rating: 2 of 5 stars
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
I know, it's so overused but for me, the above quote epitomizes On the Road; in a sense, it's the entire book. And it comes in Part 1 Section 1, so it's a great barometer. If you like it, boy are you in for a ride. (Why not get a tattoo?) Otherwise... "Oh boy... here we go..." That's what I said when I started this book; now, on the other side, my opinion still hasn't changed.

To read this book, one has to suffer through countless run-on sentences like the one above -- sentences that I'm sure many grade school English teachers would just love to mark up with red pen... And then there's the, uh, majesty of it all, a word I simply cannot apply to this book without a wink and a smile. Please, see William Shatner's dramatic reading of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" for similar laugh-inducing "wonder"... And then the reader will have to slog through the self importance, the dead seriousness that sits underneath the light-hearted frolicking of this book, a strong glimpse at the literary pretensions of its author... Most of all, get ready for absolutely no plot -- just driving, drinking and fucking.

Please, meet Jack Kerouac. Jack is a part of a little group, a nice gang of fellas who have a major hard-on for life. They like to "get their kicks," they're "mad," "wild" -- "beat," even. This group likes to gallivant about the US, subsisting primarily on alcohol and male-on-male romance -- despite repeated insisting to the contrary. "Sal" (Jack's in-book pseudonym, to my estimation an inexplicable, entirely useless addition)is always trying to get in with women, women who are principally described by the color of their hair. And he's always eating pie... real pie, the kind that apparently represents "the idealized comforts of a certain middle-class American domesticity." But to me, it's all a conspiracy: the women and the pie are there, sure, but they're squished in beside endless drinking, and endless all-night, all-male talking sessions.

Jack and his friends bounce around, off the walls and off the coasts of the country. They're all antsy motherfuckers; they can't sit still, as if some part of them, *ahem*, "burns, burns, burns." So they move -- by hitchhiking, bus, or private car -- from city to city, often spending just a few days in a city they traveled thousands of miles to get to. On the Road is apparently famed for its descriptions of certain towns and cities -- Lord knows why, since they are usually so brief and incomplete. Jack is the kind of guy who could form a bad opinion of a place just because it happened to be cold and rainy during the two days he visited. And the people... well, just about everyone who is not within Jack's little circle gets ignored.

Most everyone in the group is a delinquent of some kind or another. They steal, con girls into bed, abandon wives and children, and often descend on a family situation like a swarm of locusts. They can clean out a cupboard and a hot water tank in nothing flat, with hardly a thank you. And what gets me the most: they get away with every bit of it.

Yes, everyone in Jack's group is a pain in the ass, but my real wrath is pointed directly at "Dean Moriarty." I can't believe I've gone this long without mentioning him. In some ways, Dean is the book -- Jack spends all his time following Dean around, Dean begins the book and Dean ends the book. Perhaps he's God, in Jack's imagination (an obvious idol in mine); perhaps he's just an "Angel of Death." Or! perhaps he's just a man, a "mad" man with a ton of other issues besides.

I did not like this book; therefore, I did not like Dean. Everything I've said to describe the group as a whole works just fine on Dean. I can add a few, as well... he's so very wise, yet he never makes much sense; he alienates all those around him, who generally only want to be close to him; he messes recklessly with other people's lives, his "Taoist philosophy" not withstanding; and, most of all he can't sit still. Dean is the kind of guy who talks incessantly throughout a TV show -- he's so antsy and self-important, and it's almost like he can't help it. Maybe that's it: he simply can't sit down and shut up. He can't help being an asshole... in the end, he may be fun to follow around for awhile, but he's not a lifelong friend. He's not anything. Listening to his odd ravings will not make you smarter, he has nothing to offer.

Now for a bit of apologizing... I feel almost bashful about hating this book, a little scared. In a way I feel like the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier when he was so disgusted by a book of Whitman's poetry that he tossed it into the fire, a low point in his career and my estimation of him. Perhaps Whittier was too set in his ways, I think, to feel the magic and rhythm of a new kind of poetry. Perhaps I am too square to find a comfortable place among the Beats. I don't, can't, and won't get IT... Sometimes I ask myself, "Am I missing something?"

Only sometimes, mind you. The rest of the time... well, you already know. You know where I'm coming from at least. This book seemingly urges the reader to "burn, burn, burn" -- but, please, don't forget to spend five to ten hours reading it. Don't live vicariously through others, unless that "other" happens to be Jack Kerouac and his friends. Thankfully, this kind of self-indulgent literature will never have much of an audience because everybody wants to tell their story, nobody wants to listen. Regretfully, this book will always be known as the book that "turned on a generation...."

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Blacksad, a graphic novel

BlacksadMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Note: A review of a graphic novel always benefits from a few examples of artwork, and since I was unable to scan any from my copy of the book I have added a link here to a nice selection, courtesy of Google Images.)

This is the kind of graphic novel that tends to find its way onto Top 10 lists, and in this case the chorus of adulation seems predominantly justified. It's a collection, really, of three graphic stories, about sixty pages each, that were originally published on a "when-it's-done" schedule throughout this past decade. The stories are the stuff of classic noir, heavily inspired by the world set down by old pulp fiction and 40s-and-50s-era black-and-white American B-movies; except here the roles are played by animals that look like people, or as the authors prefer to see it, "people who look like animals."

So, Reader, meet John Blacksad, a big black cat, with a bit of white on his chin and an unfortunate name. He's a detective, and a fairly typical one at that, who has to deal with, in succession 1) unraveling and revenging the murder of an old flame, 2) immersing himself in a neighborhood race-war in order to find a missing child, and 3) investigating the murders of a circle of leftward-leaning scientists. The stories, although perhaps a bit typical, a bit too form-fitting to their genre, are still valiant, commendable efforts in their own little time and place... but the art... the art is for all time.

This collection was illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido, a former Disney animator. Now, these days the term "Disney animator" still packs a wallop, and if the quality of Disney's traditionally animated productions have degraded in recent years it is certainly not for a lack of talent. Nevertheless today the term "former Disney animator" may carry with it even more punch, since it indicates the person to whom it's attached has talent enough to be picked up by Disney, and freedom enough to create their own vision, free from under the still somewhat tyrannical eyes of the Disney crew.

Well, now... I suppose it's more than just a matter of DISNEY IS EVIL. The comics medium has been through a lot, spending most of its formative years in a production-oriented, highly profit-based world. And then, when comics went "underground," this new breed of artist had neither the money nor the inclination to make finely intricate comics. But now... now, I'm convinced we are in a golden age of comics art, when comics have moved off the assembly line, into galleries and museums, and many of the genre's top illustrators have the inclination, time, and financial freedom to create absolutely jaw-dropping stuff. And not just a panel or two, but throughout the whole book.

With Blacksad the artist has done just that. Just about every panel can stand on its own, as an individual piece of artwork, a testament to the artist's mastery -- and bane of millions of students who can only wish they had those skills. For proof just look at the faces: those bulky, awkward animal faces come to life and express a full range of human emotion (The Dreamworks people should take a few notes.) And mind you, the faces are just an example. The backgrounds, clothing, props -- even the atmosphere, a word as difficult and somehow intangible as the thing it describes -- all come to life in each panel.

When combined, the panels only enhance their effects; the narratives are always fast paced and the art sticks with them every step of the way. It never wallows upon itself, a common foible amongst the upper crust of comics art. Sometimes, I suspect, an artist of that caliber gets a little too full of himself. But not here... Here, almost child-like passion and enthusiasm positively drip from every page. And even if the stories don't appeal to you or the premise seems too cliche, I hope you will at least crack this book to enjoy the art. If nothing else, why not take Emerson's advice on Shakespeare? Read it backwards, from finish to start, and avoid all that messy plot nonsense that just confuses and obfuscates, and drags your attention away from the poetry in motion on the page.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Shakespeare After All

The title refers both to a 2005 book by popular Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber and an accompanying class given by Garber at Harvard University in 2007 whose sessions were recorded and are now freely available online. The book is a hefty one-thousand pages, devoting a chapter each to the thirty-eight plays now considered to have been written by Shakespeare. The course, obviously more stretched for time, looks at only eleven works of his later career, addressing them in the order in which they were (probably) written, starting at Troilus and Cressida, working through his classic tragedies and romances, and ending with The Tempest.

Small guess, then, as to what I've been up to lately... I had a mission, as far back as August 2009, to read all of the Bard's plays, and by September of this year I had read eleven. Now... not to make the greatest author of all time sound like a chore, but I was having some trouble keeping a schedule, knocking the plays down like so many carnival-midway targets. I was reading haphazardly, if not quite randomly. I started with Hamlet, almost a year ago, simply because Hamlet is all the rage these days. And why did I read The Taming of the Shrew about a month ago? I wanted to watch Kiss Me, Kate and felt no self-respecting self-proclaimed "Shakespearean" could watch that jaunty 50s-era musical without first suffering through its source material.

But now I'm all business: in about half a month I've gone through Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure... Othello is next. I have settled into a routine: I read the play (in my big crappy one-volume complete works collection), then read the accompanying chapter in Shakespeare After All (which I borrowed from the library, but you can read most of it on Google Books or, ya know, buy it), and then finally download the appropriate lecture.

The scheme has worked out just fine. In fact, I recommend it. It's perfect for those who, like me, are working through the Shakespearean canon for the first time, hopefully laying a foundation for years of rereadings, related reading, and viewing of stage productions: a lifetime of Shakespeare... Or a week... or a month...or a year... In any case, it's very likely you'll walk away with something -- it is Shakespeare, after all, and any time you devote to it is time well spent. But if you're floundering a bit, or you're having trouble just jumping in, I can't think of anyone better to assist you than Marjorie Garber.

Garber has already devoted much of her life to these works so she's fitting, not to mention willing, to help others on their way. She has packed her book with sharp, close-to-the-text analyses of each work, ideas so solid that some might be tempted to commandeer them for their own, a crime called plagiarism that's ironically frowned upon in most academic (yes, even Shakespearean) circles. A bit of reading Shakespeare After All and then you can knick a few lines like these, to impress your friends into boredom: "The outer world of Hamlet, the play, mirrors the state of mind of Hamlet, the character," or "In Twelfth Night the complacent, passive natives of Illyria are stirred into action by the arrival of the very active foreigners" (principally Viola, who disguises herself as "Cesario," and Sebastian, her twin brother)...

As if being a thief were not crime enough, I've gone and committed the crime of enthusiasm. "I can't help it, your Honor!" (That's how I'll plead my case in court.) Garber's enthusiasm is as infectious as her ideas. And, besides, it hardly feels like theft at all since most of her assertions are so sound, so close to the text itself that they feel like common sense. Yes, common sense: perhaps the highest compliment a piece of literary criticism or analysis can receive. Such nonsense doesn't hold punch with other critics -- no, they need something wacky and dense to pull apart with tweezers -- but surely the common crowd has sense enough to pay some attention to this book.

And while you're at it don't forget the accompanying course, either! the course that compliments the book so well. Part lecture, part discussion, the course allows Garber to fill in and flesh out some of the gaps she left in her book, and creates a forum where various forms of tongue-tied stuttering students can ask questions of Garber, and unconsciously fawn before her greatness. The teacher/writer herself, however, takes it all in stride and generally answers their questions well, with charming alacrity...

Friday, October 1, 2010

One-year anniversary

Abe's Book Blog is now one year old. In fact, its "birthday" was September 29, but I missed it. I was busy taking a trip with my mom to southern Ohio to check on "Papa," my misnomer-toting former-Nazi grandfather who's gone a bit loopy since his first stroke a few years ago. He took a nasty tumble on Tuesday, though whether it was the result of a "mini-stroke" or the half empty bottle of Black Velvet next to his bed we can't be sure. The plan is to put him in a home within thirty minutes of here. Barrels of monkeys will surely ensue...

But now to something much more near and dear. When I started this blog over a year ago I had no high expectations. "If I write a hundred posts in a year I'll be happy" is what I said. "And if I learn a few things about writing, and improve my styling a bit, well that's all the better," I added. Well, I have just barely reached my desired posting count and I don't know that I've learned too much, but I have enjoyed myself and I do plan to keep at it long into an indeterminate future.

Of course I have plenty of plans for the future, year #2 -- not least of which is the maintaining of a stricter posting schedule, probably weekly, Monday-Wednesday-Friday -- but for now I wish to reminisce. Here, then, are five of my posts that I think stand out. They are not necessarily my best or the most representative, but they all for one reason or another seem remarkable to me. Why? Well, while I ponder this, you have your own opinions and if you feel so inclined please do shout them out. Much as I love the sound of my own voice, it's always nice to receive comment here.

My choices are:
  1. Review: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - "Sure, Meditations is often, as George Long put it, 'obscure,' and [Aurelius'] language is often unnecessarily lofty and learned. Sure, his work suffers from the same inconsistencies of all the ancient works of ethics that our modern eyes have recently 'discovered.' Yet I respect this man and feel everyone can learn something from his writings. If nothing else, he tried." I tried, too. I took a swing at condensing and critiquing this classic but difficult ancient philosophy text in under a thousand words -- and I didn't fall on my face.
  2. Harvey Pekar: a great man is dead - Back in July of this year Harvey Pekar, the man who wrote the long-running autobiographical comic American Splendor, fell over and died. The next day I gave him the best sendoff I could think of. The last line: "...hopefully someone can be conjured up to say: 'This is our guy! I'm immensely proud of him.' Oh, hell -- it's already done."
  3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead - My likening of the title characters of this classic absurdest play to a potted plant was, to me, spot on. And when I had nailed down that little bit the rest of the post seemed to naturally fall into place.
  4. "Atlas is [Hugging]" - The title came as an afterthought, I swear. But the rest of the post is solid, giving the queen of mean, Ayn Rand, and her fans a good lashing, straying into humor occasionally without ever straying too far from the point. This is a very recent post, so I was and still am reading a collected edition of Heywood Broun, a 30s-and-40s era Socialist newspaperman and a big part of the Algonquin Round Table. The man's style inspired my post, and hopefully the solid technique employed by this classically trained newspaper columnist will continue to rub off.
  5. What's going on here? (Part 2) - In this case, for once, the action in this post transcends the post itself. In essence, I spent one whole day in early April talking (almost) only in questions, then laid it out on paper (as the say) the next day. And why did I do this? Well... "If you want to get really philosophical about it, I don't know. Do I really have to answer this question? There was no grand scheme and there still isn't. It is not terribly useful, like curing Cancer, nor is it particularly breathtaking, like rock climbing or sky diving. But, but, but -- why does my life suddenly feel more complete?"
I do so hate these "digest posts" that simply recycle old content and create little to nothing new, and I'm sure you, the reader, do too. In television they call it "The Dreaded Clip Show." Since I don't like it when Everybody Loves Raymond does it of course I don't like to perpetuate the problem too much, anniversary reminisces excluded of course. But new content is coming soon, I promise -- next Monday if all goes well -- so hold tight, everybody, and get ready for an even more exciting year of Abe's Book Blog.

And please, remember to help control the pet population and have your pet spayed or neutered. (I watched too much TV down at "Papa's" house.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida

Troilus and CressidaWhy have they stopped making silent film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays? Surely it was a terrific idea... And it's what Shakespeare would have wanted -- as Troilus put it*: "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart." Who needs words? Allow me, please, to remake Shakespeare's splendid Troilus and Cressida in silent movie fashion. I wouldn't need any "mere words" and I wouldn't need but thirty seconds and this is how it would go:

A parade, with all the noble combatants of the Trojan War marching along, the Trojans in one column, the Greeks in another. The scene is "Noble", "Resplendent," "Honorable" -- read the Illiad, in other words. From there, however, the imagination of Shakespeare and his times takes over. Next in the parade comes Patrocolus, doing shoddy but apparently hilarious impressions of the warriors in front of him. Then comes Cressida, running away from Troilus (She's not really huffing it mind you -- more like a light jog. What a slut!). Then Pandarus comes, cheering the couple on and making lude gestures all the while. And then...well, I may have to throw the rest in there somewhere or other -- where is Helen in all this, for example? and Cassandra, the Trojan "prophetess"? and Paris? surely he can't march with the men... But certainly the finishing touch, the man to bring up the rear, as they say, would be Thersites, "a deformed and scurrilous Grecian,"** who is marching along with an awful smile, shouting victoriously (albeit silently) things like "all the argument is a cuckold and a whore" and "Lechery, lechery! Still, wars and lechery: nothing else holds fashion."

Certainly it was a gutsy move to use the Trojan War, often called the founding event of Western civilization and covered by no less than three epic poems, several ancient plays, and plenty of modern derivative works besides, as a backdrop for a sort of comedy, a trivial love story, a kind of political "problem play" that makes definite statements on the eternal folly of war. But the man who ventures the most risks will, if successful, reap the most rewards, and certainly some more audacious than I have come to call Mr. Shakespeare one of the most talented avant garde theatre artists of our time.

* "as Troilus put it..." in an entirely different context -- just one more reason not to trust words or the people that bandy them about!

** "a deformed and scurrilous Grecian," as described in the Dramatis Personae added by the eighteenth-century editor Nicholas Rowe.

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Atlas is [Hugging]"

Recently my mother's 21-year-old fellow Family Dollar employee came into the knowledge, from obvious sources, that I have some interest in Russian literature. Thus he promptly suggested, in my mother's words, a "Russian female poet of the first half of the twentieth century." My mother could not remember the "poet's" name of course, but said that he had an edition of her work that he was willing to let us borrow. A few weeks later she finally brought the book home... It was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. My life is an anticlimax.

And of course now she, my mother, has had her interest piqued and is well along on reading it -- even while many of my regular and, I think, appropriate suggestions languish on the bedside table for months at a time. Life is... ah, but no more truisms for today. After listening to my whining on the subject for a little while, she issued this compromise: "Okay, recommend me a book and I'll read it."

I chose Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, a graphic novel memoir written by both Malice himself and American Splendor author Harvey Pekar, illustrated by Gary Dumm. Malice is a perfect libertarian: a train wreck of selfishness, pride, and an overbearing need to see others suffer -- in other words, ego, hubris, and yes, even malice. And a big admirer of Ayn Rand, naturally. As if Howard Roark didn't paint an ugly enough picture by himself -- in an admittedly idealized, even propagandistic self portrait -- I had to go and enlist a real-life counterpart. "Michael Malice is a real piece of work" says Harvey Pekar on the graphic novel's cover, and Pekar was never a man for understatement.

I, of course, absolutely refuse to read anything by Ayn Rand, while at the same time having very strong opinions about all of it. I know her story, I say to myself... I don't know everything, but I know enough! She was the one who called herself "the most creative thinker alive," riding high on the completion of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged -- then fell into a deep depression shortly thereafter when the novel was poorly received by several critics. She was the one who regularly flew into a rage when one of her admiring minions disagreed with her -- minions who were so smitten with her, I might add, that many of them dressed like her, generally obeying her opinions religiously, even on things as incidental as fashion.

Her latter-day supporters are no less embarrassing. As Mr. Malice has shown us above, the modern Ayn Rand supporter is invariably a conservative, a libertarian perhaps -- a Ron Paul supporter in Malice's day; a goof ball marching down the street, waving a "Don't tread on me!" flag, in ours.

Somehow, however, Ron Paul and his supporters have never scared me. Essentially opposite to my own political tendencies -- but not Nazis, nor the KKK, nor something considerably more obscure and therefore ominous. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is a group riding high on overt racism and xenophobia, vague statements and empty promises. I ask myself, "What kind of world do we live in where most conservatives see Sarah Palin as a better candidate for the White House than Ron Paul?" (And I must answer, "Essentially the one we always have.")

And there, I think, is the crux of my fear: libertarians, in general, might have the capacity to strike fear into my heart, if only they were more influential. As it is, however, they are not the conservative group who currently have six candidates for the senate, thirty-four for the house. No, it is the "tea baggers" behind this sudden surge. As wise man says, amongst ignorant cave men it is the one with the fire you oughta look out for. The others we can all laugh at, on account of their silly antics and outrageous claims.

I'd say Ayn Rand's defining and shining moment was a 90s-era Modern Library reader poll -- it's probably one of the most embarrassing things I have ever seen. The end of the twentieth century naturally brought with it no small amount of "top 100" lists -- and the Modern Library did not sit quietly by. They went and polled experts to create a ranked list of the top one hundred English-language novels of the century. Certainly plenty can be said about this list -- for example, in a list of one hundred spots does Joseph Conrad absolutely need to fill five of them? and shouldn't the criteria of the list exclude Ulysses automatically? But the real joke came with the list compiled based on an online reader poll. On that list seven of the top ten spots are occupied by books from either Ayn Rand or Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard. Hey, it was the nineties, when the Internet was young, and statistics and common sense hadn't been invented yet.

No excuse has been dreamed up, however, that can explain away modern supporters of Rand -- nor supporters of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh for that matter.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Medicus, by Ruth Downie

Medicus: A Novel of the Roman Empire (Gaius Petreius Ruso, #1)My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun fast read: I like a good mystery now and then, and of course it doesn't hurt if the book in question happens to be set in Ancient Roman times. Roman Britain, in fact, during the relatively pleasant and peaceful reign of Hadrian. But enough history:

The main attraction here is Gaius Petreius Ruso, divorcée, army medical doctor (medicus, medical... I think I get it!) and reluctant protagonist of this here tale. He is such a stick in the mud! A nice guy at heart but, trouble is, everything seems to be going wrong... his wife left him a few years ago but he still hasn't gotten over it, he's overworked and still lives in squalor... he lives in Britain... and worst of all, he somehow manages to get himself wrapped up in the murders of two prostitutes from a nearby brothel.

Ruso is the classic put-upon patriarch, an old and well-worn character trope which has been a staple of comedies at least as far back as the Romans themselves, and which found success long into the twentieth century (I can name three perfect examples: George Banks from Mary Poppins, Mr. Alonzo Smith from Meet Me in St. Louis, and "father" from E.L. Doctorow's 20s-set historical novel Ragtime). Secure in his faith of his de jure position of authority as a man -- over women, children, slaves, and anything else that moves -- the impotent patriarch is at the same time quite shocked when his de facto influence falls way, way short of his expectations, usually to comic effect. The modern approach of this kind of character is ambivalence at best: glad to see a few cracks in the patriarchal stranglehold, yet full of sad feelings regarding the mere existence, past and present, of that stranglehold. For my part, I say it's good to be back in the days when men were men, slaves were slaves, and cataract surgery was scary as all get out.

Ruso's the main attraction, of course, but a decent supporting cast surrounds him. There's Tilla, the dying native girl Ruso reluctantly buys off some random guy dragging her home -- a real fixer upper. She turns out to be a looker, though, so I guess that counterbalances the whole "sorry I got you wrapped in a ridiculous mystery" thing. Then there's Valens, the handsome, funny, socially at ease fellow doctor and roommate. And Priscus, the balding, bureaucratic administrator of the hospital -- who can really handle himself with a kitchen knife. There are others of course, but they're all women and/or slaves, so you can understand my silence.

This book, it is Roman enough for my tastes -- and modern enough too. "This book could be set at any time period, any place." Well yeah, granted, jokes about British cuisine never go out of style, but surely the Romans have a character all their own! Surely... lead water pipes, slaves, and a life expectancy of thirty-five -- isn't that enough? Ruth Downie, she does a pretty good job. Yeah, yeah, she's not Robert Graves, but then she's not Robert Fagles either (impressed yet? okay, how about Robert Redford? Robbie Williams? Robin Williams? Okay, I better stop...) Like I said, the book is Roman enough -- enough to get me in the mood without tugging and tearing at my poor little overworked brain cells. This delicate balance saw me through to the end of the book, allowing me to overlook the slow start, the just average writing style, and the really rather average mystery tale itself; to shrug my shoulders and go along for the ride. My little local library, for some reason, has every book in this series so maybe I'll go back for a double or even triple dip. *shrug* "When in Deva..." as they say.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Richard III (and Peter Sellers too)

The above clip is from the 1965 TV special "The Music of Lennon&McCartney" -- and yes, your eyes did not deceive you: it is indeed a dramatic reading of "Hard Days Night" by the now-legendary comedian Peter Sellers in full parody of Sir Laurence Olivier's turn as Richard III. I laugh when he says "alright" every single time, in spite of myself.

Youtube naturally has a variety of Richard III (and Peter Sellers) -themed clips:
By now it must be obvious what I've been reading lately... I finished my first reading of the play only Yesterday and now have nothing but good things to say about it. I love the spread of the body count; that the most important people (ie Richard's two brothers) are the first to go, and early too, in the first few acts. And I like Richard -- a pure villain, with little to nothing of the sympathetic about him. And the other characters are all fine by me -- a bunch of murderous, power-grubbing inbreds. Their bickering amongst themselves comes to the effect of: "Fiend! You did kill my brother!" "Yeah, well, you killed my father and my cousin!" Seeing all this, in history and in this play, one may be driven to think that there was not an innocent one among them -- though the two "Boys in the Tower" are obvious exceptions.

In a sense, all the characters share in the role of villain -- and no doubt tear down the reputation of those who ruled England just before the Tudors, that glorious dynasty that still ruled in Shakespeare's day, some one hundred years after the events of this play, in the form of Queen Elizabeth.

I liked the "ghost pageant" at the end, wherein the lost souls of all the slain men -- with the soul of two boys and a woman in their mix -- glide across the stage, then a still-sleeping battlefield, cursing Richard. tossing and turning in his tent, and blessing his competitor, Richmond (Henry VII), blissfully asleep in his. Though the ghosts have only as yet drifted across my imagination, still I can imagine this scene as one of the best, most dramatic climaxes in all of Shakespeare.

Peter Sellers thinks so too.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review: Parade (with fireworks), by Michael Cavallaro

Parade (With Fireworks)My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll start with a quote from the author's acknowledgements page:
"In the 60s my parents and grandparents moved to the U.S. from southern Italy. They brought a lot of stories with them about what it was like growing up there in the first half of the century. These were vivid and revealing tales, and seemed to hint at a rich and ancient world that had been lost somehow between two World Wars. At some point I decided to start writing them down."

The story of this book is "a strange little vignette," as the author put it, "hovering between fact and fiction, a quick fade-in and fade-out of a small puzzle piece of [his] own history." It is the story of one day in 1923 when Cavallaro's paternal grandfather, "Paolo" in this rendition, wrecked his life irrevocably. A band walks home after a festival. A group of fascist sympathizers "escorts" them on one side, and a group of Socialists, spurred on by the chance of a confrontation, walks along the other.

The page I have placed here to the right is perhaps the book's most understated; it is also one of my favorites. It is a short study of a typical day in the life of Paolo (the guy on the right) and his friend, the "Professor," just before havoc hits. We learn from this page that "Vincenzo has brought a whole parade with him." And the nature of the fireworks can easily be guessed at.

Dragged into the fray by matters of family loyalty, mixed in with the crazed clannish idealism of the time and place, Paolo commits murder and is tried for it. He only gets six months, but things are vastly different when he gets out: the burden of his legal defense has ruined his family financially, and the stress has led to the death of both his parents.

Raw passion is replaced by raw ruin.

However, the fiery passion of the Italian radical spirit, it seems, was not to be subdued. But he doesn't dwell long on his pain, as is apparent from the last page.

The artwork in this book is fantastic, and perfectly mirrors the intense mood, laced with sadness that this story epitomizes. It has big bold colors, with sharply defined shadows, and what I can only see as great pencil work, obviously done by a person with a strong background in animation. All of which made me audibly take notice when taking my first flip through, and elevate this book greatly in my imagination.

The comic, as I found out after a little digging, was originally published online, one page at a time, for free on a "webcomix collective" called Act-I-Vate. Web comics are a dime a dozen these days, but in this case "eyes popped" and publishers took notice. The story was published in a two-part miniseries by Image and later packaged into one trade paperback. The whole thing can still be read online, for free (though I am of the opinion that the colors, a big draw for me, lose of their impact when viewed on a monitor.)

And the story is apparently only the beginning of a planned larger arc, tentatively titled "Seven Years Without the Sun" -- though, as far as I know, no additions to the series have materialized. It seems Cavallaro has moved on to other things, but hopefully he never forgets his past -- and even remembers to write and illustrate some more of it, so the rest of us who have nothing but drunks and heart failure to fill up our family histories have some more great personal history to read.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

(And, hey, you heard it here first, folks.)

Yesterday, on a wild impulse which I am at an utter loss to explain, I watched the 1990 film adaptation of Tom Stoppard's breakout play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It is the story of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet and their bewildered, humorous wanderings through the tragic happenings of the great play. And how was it? Well, didn't I once write "impulse has become a magical word with me"? And although impulse with me does not mean an "I *heart* so-and-so" tattoo or even a new shade of hair, still I am satisfied that R&G* is a great movie and may well be an even better play.

As I told a companion, amid a profusion of other less successful words, the play is rather like the last thoughts of a potted plant before it gets smashed against the wall. She seemed to connect to that analogy, to think it made a lot of sense. I stole it, I guess -- though not without justification, I know -- from the novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. In the novel a starship equipped with an "improbability drive" spontaneously creates two things, a whale and a bowl of petunias, miles above a planet. As it comes plummeting to the ground, the whale does what we can only assume every sentient being would do: asks important questions like "Who am I?" "What am I?" "Where am I?" "And what is that large hard-looking thing rushing towards me?" etc. -- while the only thing the bowl of petunias thinks is "Oh no, not again!"**

Both this play and that novel perfectly corroborate my image of classic British absurdism.. "How ridiculously absurd!!" cries the man with top hat and bubble pipe as he jumps on his pink kangaroo and hops away to Wonderland.

It was a fitting analogy, now that I look back after spitting it out. Absurdism is the key word here: these are men that are really no better than potted plants. They aren't supposed to have any thoughts, to wonder at the nature of their existence; nor, in turn of course, of their demise. Originally they were little better than a plot device, and also perhaps another set of walls for Hamlet to bounce his wit off of. And, oh my, they are entirely interchangeable! a fact that causes them much confusion in this play.

But while the Hitchhiker's Guide series is all about laughs and is little inclined to the philosophical, this play has much more to brood about. Perhaps it was simply the nature of the play on which it was based or maybe the dark cloud of an ending we all know is coming for our two heroes -- but I always had a difficult time laughing carelessly, carefree, at this play. How can I laugh when pondering the nature of existence? (Honestly, don't you wonder what Socrates was like when squeezing out a turd?)

Certainly, the humor is not perfectly to my liking: I have long had a great disdain for this kind of nonsensical humor, the sort of thing an audience member might respond to with "That's not funny!" only to be shot down by the wild irreverent response of the performer: "Exactly!" Much of the humor in this play revolves around the "inadequacy of language," which as you can imagine, tried my patience. "Yes, yes, we get it," I thought over and over again: language is not the perfect philosophical medium you thought it would be. Sorry for your loss, of course, but that entire thread of thought weakened my overall impression of the play: when one of the boys shouts out something like "Oh, what's the point?" I see little use in the other promptly responding, "The point of what?"

One last point before I go: the concept of metatheatre -- ie, a play about plays. No doubt inspired by Hamlet's play-within-a-play, R&G Are Dead several times has its main characters watch the on-stage players perform. At one point, in the movie at least, the on-screen players themselves are watching a puppet show. And since R&G could be considered a metaplay my final count is five levels. Inception eat your heart out.

Though I was overall impressed, pleased even, with this movie, I wonder about what the original play is like. Occasionally movies are little more than taped stage performances, but based on the thing as I saw it with my own eyes, and on the few reviews of others I have read, I expect a stage performance would be wildly different, better even, than this particular movie. I would jump at the chance to see this play live.

* honest to goodness, I almost wrote "R&R"!

** Adams finishes this passage with a decided turn towards the philosophical: "Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now." You can read the whole of the passage at Goodreads.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Imperfections of David Copperfield

The below passage is from Chapter 52 ("I Assist at an Explosion") of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Note: italics added.

...Mr. Micawber had a relish in this formal piling up of words, which, however ludicrously displayed in his case, was, I must say, not at all peculiar to him. I have observed it, in the course of my life, in numbers of men. It seems to me to be a general rule. In the taking of legal oaths, for instance, deponents seem to enjoy themselves mightily when they come to several good words in succession, for the expression of one idea; as, that they utterly detest, abominate, and abjure, or so forth; and the old anathemas were made relishing on the same principle. We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannize over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.
The passage comes right in the middle of a long speech by Mr. Micawber, the amiable but financially unsound "fallen gentleman" David has known and liked since he was young. It's a tirade, really, and its target is Uriah Heep, the scheming, lying, cheating bastard of a clerk who has slithered his way to the top (or writhed his way, as Dickens put it) through obviously unsavory means. But Mr. Micawber, who in his eternal lack of money seemed the perfect candidate for a clerk that Mr. Heep could keep under his thumb, has spent months gathering evidence and now, in this chapter, unleashes the full angry wrath of a Vesuvius.

I loved that chapter (and it could be worth reading it by itself, in its entirety) but the above-quoted paragraph made me laugh on its own account. That the one man so many high schoolers have wanted to resurrect and beat over the head for writing novels instead of haikus should interrupt his already tall narrative with a tirade against useless words... It seems gently ironic, and you know we hipster are all about the i, big or little.

I finished David Copperfield just a few days ago (how much it feels like a millennium has gone by!) and I now feel I have a clear view of Charles Dickens: not the most inspired man, by nature, but earnest always and eloquent in his plainness. You always know what he's about; and he's very British -- two ambivalent statements that I choose to interpret positively. Even when he made mistakes -- interrupted his narrative, for example, with the kind of chafe quoted above; or else took his good old time getting to the target even when he stayed on course -- I am inclined to forgive him. I see these imperfections as the idiosyncrasies of a harmless old grandpa -- a cast of character I am very sympathetic towards -- rather than the tiresome ego-soaked digressions of a blowhard at a podium in front of a captive audience.

Dickens comforts me, not only in the contents of his writing, but in his manner of writing it, too. What one calls rushed another calls produced on a deadline. Either way, Dickens' work seems always imperfect, smushed or squeezed, not polished to a shine. We are not all Joyce and some of us prefer it that way. Though I will never call Dickens rough-hewn -- on the order of bred-from-the-soil writer/farmers, whose many names escape me at the moment -- I still believe that it was what, not how he wrote that was the main compelling force for Dickens and in turn the chief concern for his readers. For my part, despite the imperfections, David Copperfield is one of the most charming books I've ever read... Yes, charming -- that's the perfect word.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gimpel the Fool Animation

Note: Don't be concerned that the first words you hear are Yiddish: the English dialogue starts at around two minutes and 23 seconds in. Also, Youtube had a strict ten minute limit when this video was uploaded, so here's a link to part 2.

Today I have for you a wonderful follow up and compliment to my review of the short story collection Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is a cartoon adaptation of the first and eponymous story, a low tech hand-drawn piece, done in the early nineties by a man named Ezra Schwartz. Schwartz used, in his words, "about 10,000 paper frames" to create the movie. Each frame, in turn was composed of several layers of typing paper; Schwartz says he used about 80,000 sheets in all. The animation is accompanied by a beautiful original soundtrack and occasional Yiddish dialogue mingles with English, the main language of this adaptation. The movie took eight months for Schwartz to draw, and has since been screened at well over a dozen film festivals, between 1994 and 2006.

One can read more about the animation, including full credits, a list of screenings, and a few thoughts from the creator's own mind, here, at the page he obviously set up for the purpose.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Gimpel the Fool, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Gimpel the Fool: And Other StoriesMy rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was able to read only the first two stories of this collection before I lost my copy. But a few months past and I found another, cheaper and in better condition. Naturally, I took it for a sign -- how could I not?

In the world of this book everything is a sign, and things still have magic to them. It's a beautiful simple world, Eastern Europe like most of us have never seen -- a lost world, a farming world, and, what's more, a Jewish world. This book, it speaks of a time when Yiddish thrived as a language of literature as well as daily life, and the Jews who spoke it... well, they lived. Today we live in a world where some Jews regard Yiddish as unclean, corrupt. What a shame! Today, the world in these stories has greatly shrunk and we may someday lose it all together. Well, at least we have the stories... some crystallized remnant of that dead world, a testament to how beautiful it was.

In a sense, the eleven stories in this collection are fairy tales -- but not the kind Disney pushed out, nor even those written down by the Brothers Grimm. In the world of these stories, even while towns and cities are industrializing, demons walk the countryside -- they are all around you, ready to cause mischief. In this world happy endings are merely those that are not sad. Happiness here comes from leading a simple and virtuous life within the narrow confines of The Law. You may get tricked by a demon; you may be forced to spend an eternity or more in The Place No One Wants to Go. But, all in all, it is a place in which a person can live or even thrive.

Now, as I say, there are eleven stories in Gimpel the Fool but let's just look at some of my favorites:

"Gimpel the Fool" starts it off, and is probably the most high profile story in the collection -- also, the only one translated by Saul Bellow -- and it sets the tone too. It retells a story at least as old as Judaism itself: the "fool" who is mocked and tricked by all around him, but who is really more wise and virtuous than them all. The story was dampened a bit in my eyes, however, because of my then-recent reading of "Ivan the Fool" by Tolstoy, a story similar in title, style, subject, and mood.

"The Gentleman from Cracow" tells of the same poor little Jewish village seen throughout -- or it might as well be -- and the great prosperity and success that comes to the village when a rich man from Cracow decides to live there. Of course, things are rarely what they seem, especially when rich men are involved; men who really aren't men at all. In a climactic scene only a Jew -- or perhaps also a masochistic Christian -- could think up, a party the man throws to choose a wife amongst the town girls dissolves into a fiery lake ringed by cackling demons.

A few of these stories -- "The Mirror," about a woman who is in the habit of watching herself, naked, in a mirror; "The Unseen," about a married man who lusts after his servant; and "From the Diary of One Not Born," about a woman who is tricked into public disgrace by a doppelgänger husband -- are told from the perspective of a demon. And what does a demon do but try to trick mortals into a fiery doom? These three stories are ones of sin -- vanity, in the case of the first; lust in the second; and sheer bad luck in the third. The little devils seem to drop down on anyone and ruin their lives for no good reason. A harsh fate indeed, but I suppose temptation can strike us all -- it is the truly virtuous, then, who successfully resist.

The stories of the virtuous of this collection are "The Old Man," "Joy," and "The Little Shoemakers." The eponymous "Old Man" walks across a country torn apart by WW2 to reach his native town. And in "Joy"... well, I do not remember "Joy." (I could reread it, but why? with a sentence like that?) And "The Little Shoemakers"? That's my favorite of the entire collection: about the latest in a very long line of small-town shoemakers, who is greatly befuddled by losing his seven sons to the call of the New World. But never mind: he finds his way to them again, escorted out of war-torn Europe by their new-found money to find himself on the shore of a lake, around which the seven prosperous brothers have built a house each, a thriving family each. Curtain falls on seven brothers dutifully helping their father in the little hut they made for him on their property, mending shoes the old-fashioned way, and singing that old song they used to sing when they were boys.

Maybe you don't like this kind of story. Maybe it has no place in the modern world, amid touch screens, feminism, toned down Christianity -- but I love it. Suffice to say, in a business-like tone, "It appeals to my sensibilities" -- though we all know there is much more to it than that.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Graphic Witness: Wordless Woodcut Novels of the Early 20th Century

The arrival of the latest Library of America catalog in this home is always an exciting event, indeed: a reminder that, yes, some poor misguided souls do still send catalogs through the "snail mail"; a harbinger of the same old dead men as we can normally buy for $3.99 at any old grocery store (though this time with archival ink and acid-free paper!); and, at least in the case of the most recent catalog, the revealing of a little subgenre of books hitherto unnoticed by me.

The Library of America has decided to reprint a set of woodcut novels -- that is, novels told solely through a series of woodcuts, generally without words. The six featured in the collection were created in the 1920s or 30s by an American artist named Lynd Ward.

I had never heard of the man, nor the handful of other artists who joined him in creating wood cut (or wood engraving, or linocut, or even lead cut) novels during the first half of the twentieth century -- but they are a bunch worth knowing. Though the novels they created probably never mounted beyond fifty titles, still they have an important role in history -- some call them the "original graphic novels." And the art... to be frank, I'm no great purveyor nor observer of the visual arts, and, as description of the beauty of a mare is really best left to a stallion, I will say only that the art is "worth a look" -- or even two. So I went and I took a look.

Well, the lovely two-volume box set above shown and described is a mere $55.00 online, $70.00 otherwise, but in my case mere is more like more , as in more than I can afford. I took neither route, opting instead to search for the book on my local library's database... No luck, exactly -- but I did find the slightly older (2007), yet still lovely book pictured to the left here. Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde (deep breath) is a collection, I'm convinced, well worth reading (or observing, or looking at, or staring open-mouthed at) -- largely because of the rarity and intrinsic value of the four wordless "novels" it contains. Frankly, the introduction by George A. Walker stinks, and the afterword by Seth is too short and even then just okay. It is the novels themselves, which are rarely reprinted and of course very expensive and hard to find in the originals, that naturally make the book.

Graphic Witness offers a nice variety too: from the vigorous, though imperfect technique of Frans Masereel, whom many consider the father of the subgenre; to the German-like style of Lynd Ward, already mentioned. All four books in the collection have distinct styles -- I'm sure I could match individual images with their appropriate books -- yet they share much. All the images in the book are dark, strict -- stern. And, while I suppose it is possible to soften the sharp lines of wood cuts and other forms of relief printing, as Masereel toyed with, all depicted objects are naturally hard-edged and very well formed. Now, I might say more on the artistic aspects of these four novels and their ilk, if only I were not a mule but a stallion. Perhaps, to mix my metaphors, though appropriately, I will one day find myself out to be truly a swan, but for now I will move on to more solid ground:

Narrative art: telling a picture merely through images. Seems challenging enough to me, without adding political subtexts. I don't know that all of the artists in the collection were "hardcore socialists" as I have heard tell, but I must confess that all were politically motivated and -- as I have come to expect from all politically motivated artists, not just Russians -- were remarkably fervent in their beliefs of social injustice and inequality. Frankly, I regard as within the realm of common sense that the more fortunate should aid in the rise of the less fortunate; that an ideal society is one in which all citizens are above a certain financial line; and that equality is more than just an ideal, to be looked for only in the words of misty-eyed professors and their students. So these artists believed, so they used the tools that came most at hand. How laborious the process of creating some one hundred wood cuts must have been! Even then, telling a complete, coherent, well done story in under one images is... well, to me even a wall of text seems much less intimidating.

To communicate information through images -- pure ideas, with little room for individual interpretation -- is a task I would certainly never want to get stuck with. Impossible, even, because as soon as someone tries, they create symbols, visual objects that a group of people associate with the same idea or group of ideas. Christianity, for example, has a very large catalog of symbols, many manifesting in or even being created for, narrative art. Beyond symbols, on that path, lay letters, words -- in a word, language, a collection of arbitrary symbols whose meaning a group of people agree upon.

History of narrative art is long and full of holes, but these days it seems the health of this particular art couldn't be better. While, in the days these woodcut novels were made comic books were sorely looked down upon -- leading the woodcut artists to distance themselves by avoiding comics mainstays like word balloons and multiple panels per page -- these days comics have reached literary pretensions all their own, in the guise of the New Yorker-acceptable graphic novel. For a bridge that connects these two acceptable media, I would advice the reading of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels by David A. Beronä, a book that no doubt has much to add to (or even correct :) all of what I have said here. Read it and let me know -- or perhaps I'll have to read it myself!