12.31.2010

The Children's Hour, a play by Lillian Hellman

As a student in a performing arts magnet program in high school, my education was better than most people from Florida can claim for themselves. It wasn't perfect, but the structure of the academic program for the magnet was pretty excellent.

As juniors, our blocked-together Acting and English classes gave us the ability to start focusing on larger projects (which, I thought, was excellent preparation for college). The junior-year project was playwright-based. Everyone in our class either picked or was assigned (I think assigned, but I can't remember for sure) a playwright and then we had a multi-phase project involving a written paper (draft, then final paper), a presentation (I think? I could be mixing up some of this with the senior project which was the same concept, but revolved around other theatrical professions), and scenes that we each had to direct from plays by our playwright. The details are all a bit hazy, all except those I committed to memory - the details of playwright Lillian Hellman's life and works.

At that tender age of 16 I was an excellent reader, an excellent student and prided myself on this, but my understanding of Hellman and of her characters has grown over the years as my understanding of other literature and of psychology has grown. At 16 I was inspired by Hellman, but there were simple things that kept me from really appreciating her. I believe that's all gone, now, and her work continues to inspire and impress me with a sense of urgency that I think is more relevant today even than it has ever been.

At 26, Hellman's play The Children's Hour (maybe you've seen the 1961 film?) was produced for the first time. She was afraid that audiences might riot, or that the police might shut the show down. This was almost 30 years after New York police had interrupted a performance of Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession and arrested the cast and crew. That was merely for the frank discussion of prostitution. Hellman's fare on display was, at the time, considered much worse.

The innocent-sounding title (which comes from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- I've included the poem at the bottom of this post) belies the content: a problematic child takes out her anger on those who seek to help her - she tells a lie...a very big lie... and manages to convince a town that the two teachers who run her boarding school (who have been the best of friends for about 10 years) have in fact been living a lie, have been hiding their true sensibilities from the world, have been engaged in sapphic relations as the children slept down the hall.

Today, the concept is not so shocking, but the taboo placed on lesbianism, and homophobia remain. Conservative (and not just ultra-conservative) parents are still frightened of gay men and women influencing their children in schools, on television, and in books. The fairly recent spotlight on bullying is especially relevant considering the way the play progresses, and the righteous hatred that it portrays. Not only that, but in interviews Hellman made a point of saying that she didn't see characters as evil, but simply as their character...Mary Tilford (the fibbing child in question) may not have been evil in Hellman's eyes, but today we would consider her on route to being a sociopath.

And this is also very relevant--the way we treat children and their personalities is all different -- much different -- than it was in 1934. With the revolutionary diagnoses of attention deficit disorder and autism and asperger syndrome and early diagnoses of depression and manic depression and dyslexia and other learning disabilities...the world is so different now that Mary Tilford and the character of her grandmother are suddenly seen in an altogether different light. And in that change, society's own fears, biases, prejudices and hatreds are reflected. This play holds a mirror to today's society in a way that Hellman may have hoped for, but could not have possibly forseen.

Back at the end of September, I began to think of this play again - I hadn't read it probably in 8 years, but its relevance to the times struck me and I began to wonder why people were reviving Hellman's The Little Foxes when this play is not only more relevant but, I happen to think, a better play. A few weeks later, the announcement came that Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss would be dusting off its pages in 2011 in the West End. It was a moment of palpable lucidity. I could almost feel Lillian, that old grump, smirking a smile and raising a glass.

"The Children's Hour" a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day's occupations,
That is known as the Children's Hour.

I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.

From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.

A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.

A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!

They climb up into my turret
O'er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.

They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!

Do you think, o blue-eyed banditti,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!

I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.

And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!

12.19.2010

Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Like many people, I knew nothing about painter Johannes Vermeer until I saw the film Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2004. I saw it for Colin Firth, not for the painter. It's a stunningly beautiful film (even if Scarlett Johansson is boring) and, while the plot is mostly conjecture, the story is not improbable.

boring.
I've been meaning to read the book on which it was based since I saw the film. Six years later, I've finally had the chance to do so. And it doesn't disappoint. As with almost anything you could name, the book is better than the film. There's more emotion and subtlety than even the most magnificent and learned artistic directors can provide for a film. And it's beautiful. The text is rich without being overbearing - Ms. Chevalier has a real gift for metaphor, which is proved from the very first page. And it is those first metaphors that really call to the reader and beckon them onto the path of the novel.

this, however? delicious.
On top of this, Chevalier colors her story with a modern and realistic sense of honesty. This is not a story where everyone lives happily ever after, nor is it a story where the destitute rise up, put on a good show, and then crumble at the feet of the rich. The author has no time for such generalizations - she is so focused on the confirmation of each character's dues. It may be a novel she's written here, but it's also a history and therefore must be more realistic and end with more than a simple deserved comeuppance.

There's a lot of talent in this novel, and only some of it belongs to Johannes Vermeer. I definitely look forward to seeing what else Tracy Chevalier can do.

Review: The Lost Princess of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

I picked this book up on a whim - actually, the copy I got from the library has more of a green cover than the blue pictured here, and the green caught my eye on the shelf as I was walking towards the check-out. I saw the giant frog and knew I just had to see what it was. I've never read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or any of L. Frank Baum's works...and he was extremely prolific both in the land of Oz and outside of it.

The Lost Princess of Oz is the 11th of 14 books he wrote about the land of Oz, the penultimate Oz publication prior to his death in 1919. The plot revolves around the disappearance of Ozma, the fairy princess ruler of Oz (introduced several books earlier, it seems that when the Wizard came to Oz the first time, he had hidden Ozma, making himself the ruler of Oz). Also missing is Glinda's great book of records (like a ticker, has up to the minute updates on everything that happens in the land of Oz), the wizard's bag of tricks (the real source of his "powers", Ozma's magic picture (which acts much like the mirror in Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and, missing from another part of Oz altogether, a baking pan made of gold and decorated with diamonds (which not only is the only pan the owner seems to be able to use to make unburnt cookies, but is also magical in its abilities to transport someone, much like the use of a port key in Harry Potter.

Ozma's friends (among whom Dorothy (now a princess of Oz), the Wizard and the Cowardly Lion are counted) trek across the unknown wilds to find their fairy princess while, from the opposite direction, the owner of the cookie pan and her friend (a man-sized sentient frog) set off in search of the stolen item. The story is therefore told from two directions for the first 80% of it or so, until the two parties meet, finding that all that they are missing seems to be in the same place.

The story is told well. Baum was an excellent writer. But not having the previous 10 books in my mental archive worked against me a little bit. This is where Wikipedia came in. So I cheated a little. Don't care. It helped. Otherwise, I would have spent the entire read going "wait...why is Dorothy in Oz? And....who are all these people??" But doing so created one issue, and that was the actions of the Wizard. Without spoiling too much, in The Lost Princess of Oz the culprit is a magical being (they would have to be to steal Ozma and all of those things all in one night!) who acts out of greed.

As I mentioned before, Ozma has a history of going missing - the Wizard had hidden her as a baby when he came to Oz, removing her from the throne and essentially placing himself there. I knew this before I dug into the book. But when we get to the meat of it - when we discover who took her and how, etc. there is no sign of past remorse or any emotion really on the part of the Wizard who, now in the good graces of her majesty, should be reminded of his actions. According to wikipedia (and I read this part only after I'd finished the book) when the Wizard comes back to Oz in the fourth Oz book, he has no idea who Ozma is, and there is no mention of his actions even though, just two books beforehand, Baum explained it all. It's an issue of continuity and maybe an issue of literary license. Perhaps Baum just figured it would be easier to say that all was forgiven, etc.

But, as a reader, knowing what he had done, and then encountering the business of this book, it takes away any serious weight the book might have...it is simply cheery and good-natured, as if nothing bad could ever really happen in the land of Oz, which is a lie.

12.16.2010

Happy Birthday Jane Austen!


Today, among other things (like the fact that it's PAYDAY!) we celebrate Jane Austen's 235th Anniversary! In celebration, Sourcebooks is offering 10 of its most popular Jane Austen-related titles as FREE e-book downloads AND you can also get all 6 Austen novels (the full, unabridged, illustrated ones!) also for free, care of sourcebooks. Check out Austenprose's blog for details.

12.10.2010

Reveiw: Jaws, by Peter Benchley



In his 2005 introduction to Jaws (1974), author Peter Benchley makes a very valid point in saying that he could not possibly write Jaws today. His reasoning has much to do with the current global standpoint on conservation and appreciation. It's true - the world has a very different perspective on Sharks than it did in the early 70s. But Benchley and his novel had had a lot to do with that shift and, if he hadn't written it, someone else would have.

Perhaps that's why it doesn't seem as scary to me as it should. There are too many movies, documentaries, etc. on great whites and other sharks to make this novel very frightening. I've seen all four Jaws films...I own all four films in the franchise. I'm also a proud owner of the Italian rip-off of the original film (The Last Shark, aka L'ultimo Squalo). I've seen Shark Attack and its two sequels. I've even seen Debbie Gibson in the never should have been made Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. But what am I afraid of in the ocean? Not the big sharks, no. I never go out far enough to be scared by the big sharks. I'm afraid of stepping on jelly fish and anenomes, urchins and horseshoe crabs. I'm more afraid of having to have someone pee on my leg than I am of actually losing that leg. Although that's not wholly true -- I do find myself quite fearful of bull sharks and other sharks that, through the education of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, I know like shallow water, which is where I hang out.  

Jaws, as Benchley wrote it, just isn't quite so relevant anymore. Sure, big sharks are scary, but I'm much less afraid of sharks who, according to Ellen Brody in the final chapter, Jaws the Revenge, are...well...out for revenge, than I am of the people who go and hunt these beautiful creatures and cut off their fins for soup. Okay enough grandstanding, back to the book...

Benchley also goes on to say that of course the novel is not the film - the book he wrote was well-rounded, with a quiet understanding of the socio-economic undercurrents as well as a relatively solid grasp on female emotion, while the film (albeit BRILLIANT) was about a big shark. And while I already knew most of the changes made for the film, it was a treat to go back and see what the story was before it was the first summer blockbuster, and how those exclusions contributed to making it such a hit.

12.09.2010

Reveiw: Stardust, by Joseph Kanon

Joseph Kanon's Stardust is a delicious crime drama wrapped in the pure American mink coat of late 1940s Hollywood. While both the film and period terminology are excessively specific, making it a slightly difficult read for anyone unfamiliar with the backlots (or anyone trying to keep track of the real, historical figures and those of Kanon's imagining), the structure is a classic with a twist.

Our protagonist Ben Collier doesn't have too many layers and his drives seem pretty basic, but he's a cool head in a very hot place and time. Ironically, his army composure and quickness of mind keep him above many of the Hollywood snares, keeping (as it were) stardust from getting into his eyes. While investigating his estranged brother's death, Collier enlists the help of everyone from the head of the studio he's working for, to the local German community (rife with Communists and ex-Communists), to a sneaky columnist, to the FBI.

But some of Collier's best help comes in the form of the most developed of Kanon's characters, Bunny Jenkins - gay former-child-star, now assistant to studio head Sol Lasner. For Bunny, the industry and the studio are everything, and wherever a problem may arise to obstruct that beautiful truth--be it an ugly dress or Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunting predecessor--Bunny has a fix for it. Fortunately for Collier, Bunny ends up on his side.

Though it took me a while to get through, I did like this book. I only wish that I might have been more versed in the time period before I took it up.

11.16.2010

Review: The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke

Available at Amazon.com
Officially my fourth venture into the wonderful world of author Cornelia Funke's mind, The Thief Lord is, on the whole, a bit more grounded in reality than her other works -- a shaker of salt with a bit of fairy dust mixed in. She tells the story of two young brothers who've just lost their parents, and who run away to Venice rather than face separation at the hands of their Grimm-like stepmother, their aunt Esther, and her aloof business-minded husband, neither of whom care very much for children in any case.

Upon their arrival in Venice--alone, cold, and hungry--they're taken in by a band of child-thieves, led by a slightly older child who calls himself The Thief Lord. For some time, everything goes well for the group who are supplied by their daily wallet-snatching, as well as by larger robberies that the Thief Lord takes on by himself in the dark of night. But then the Lord and his crew are offered a break-in job they can't refuse, just as a bumbling detective appears hot on the trail of aunt Esther's runaway nephews.

And just as you think all will be lost -- the Thief Lord has been revealed as being a thief only of his own home, the detective has caught up to them and escaped the childrens' grasp, and they've now been caught breaking into a private home -- that is when the magic comes in. It's not an easily-explained magic which could be why the book feels somewhat lopsided.

On the one hand, you have the children who are perfectly content to remain as they are and grow up in due time, and on the other you have Scipio and the Conte and Barbarossa, whose desires to be what they are not amount to enough to refresh this old magic of either turning the clock backward or forward. For Scipio, it comes across as a kind of Peter Pan in reverse.

I liked the book, and I enjoyed Funke's attention to detail, which made Venice seem magical on its own. However, the late introduction of "real" magic and the general weakness of all of the antagonists made the novel itself kind of weak. I loved the merry band of thieving children à la Robin Hood or Peter Pan, but without a solid Sheriff of Nottingham or Captain Hook to pit them against, there just isn't much of a good story.

11.12.2010

Review: The Princetta, by Anne-Laure Bondoux

I am *in love* with this cover
Originally published in French as La Princetta et le Capitaine, Anne-Laure Bondoux’s 2004 novel is a children’s epic of adult proportions. Published in the U.S. by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, it has retained the basic aspects of a children’s novel – the high adventure, made up creatures and far-off places—but has also retained a mature perspective on the concept of the hero and of the epic journey.

Bondoux has managed to make adult emotions and situations playful by creating a whole new world out of the mixed origins of our real world. She’s taken known cultures – American, German, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Japanese and French (for example) and mixed them together, mixed their languages together, to make this new world with its new vocabulary.

Some terms and items retain their meanings (i.e. a harem is still a harem and a sword is still a sword) but others are composites of various languages. For instance, the robes worn inside the harem are called “sarimonos,” an obvious combination of the Indian sari and the Japanese kimono. (Yes, I feel like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.) . And then there are the slave-guardians of Gai’s harem, the preunuchs, a term which sounds like a mix of “prefect” (at least, by Harry Potter standards of the definition of prefect) and “eunuch.”

Bondoux not only combined languages, but created a tour de force of both cultural and literary pastiche. The structure of the story is basically reminiscent of French and German fairy tales but as the journey continues the palate broadens, dipping into shades of Greek tragedy, biblical parables and even venturing towards LeGuin’s Earthsea in the chapters on the archipelago. Even some of the character names draw on literature and myths—specifically Orpheus (related to the myth of Orpheus and Euridice), Zeph (best associated with Zephyrus who brought Psyche to Cupid’s palace) and—though perhaps the most obscure—Babilas (who is quite large and quite strong, whereas St. Babilas was the patron saint of those with rheumatism and arthritis.)

I imagine the novel was quite a task for translator Anthea Bell to take on. Taking words of mixed origins settled among the regular French text must have been slightly troublesome. However, she managed wonderfully. As beautiful as I’m sure the novel reads in its original French, Ms. Bell has managed to take Bondoux’s work and make English feel like the original. That being said, the real beauty lies in the imaginative world that Bondoux has created—a world where women are sometimes islands, fathers are not always kind, and dreams aren’t always what we’ve wished for.


A side note: this is one of those books that I came across kind of accidentally, and fell in love with. I'm sad that I have to give it back to the library, and I hope to someday own my own hardcover copy...when I can afford it!

11.09.2010

Review: Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, stories, by Maile Meloy

I seriously need to get out of short story land. I think part of my problem is that I LOVE covers. I'm constantly judging books by their covers because THAT'S WHAT THE COVERS ARE FOR! Thousands of artists, graphic artists and designers and editors go to school and study to create the most enticing covers. It's only right that I give them their due. I haunt the Book Cover Archive looking for new, interesting-looking books all the time. Does that mean that they ARE interesting? No. But what if they *are*?

11.07.2010

Review: American Eve - Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu

Anyone who knows E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, or the film or musical it spawned, will understand the terms of Uruburu's title. Before the musical, I'd never heard of Evelyn Nesbit or her reputation, or of the "crime of the century." I suppose the subsequent world wars, other wars, and the O. J. Simpson trial kind of usurped Harry Thaw's place in history.

11.04.2010

Review: Possession, by A. S. Byatt

It's very difficult for me to be objective about the books I really and truly love. My concise, spoiler-free commentary on Inkdeath realllly pushed me, and now I'm following up with Possession, which I have been in love with for seven years. It would be like me trying to be objective about Austen novels - I just can't do it. Rip-offs on Austen? Done. Casually tossed-in Austen reference? Done. But I can't, with any kind of scholarly respect or pride, present an objective review or account of an Austen novel unless I have something to compare it with say, in discussions with co-workers, etc. This book holds the same reigns to my heart.

10.30.2010

Review: Bound, by Antonya Nelson

Antonya Nelson's Bound is a frank look into the human condition, and into the ties that bind--some literally, some not. Her characters, while not wholly sympathetic, are realistic. Nelson has used her remarkable talents to make them multi-layered, three-dimensional, true to life. The broad message seems to be that we all suffer from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, and not every makes it out of that condition...for those who do, it can take years and still require a bit of additional shell-shock. But the deeper, more focused point Nelson seeks to make is that we need one another. The ties that bind may be painful. Obligations may sting. Requirements may hinder. But without those people and things to which we are bound, we can never get by. We can never be free.
____________________________________________________________________________

On a related note - my mother forwarded this email to me this week. I don't forward e-mails, and I ignore most of those that come my way because I have enough junk to read. But this one relates to Nelson's book so I find it appropriate to share with you all (also, as my sister and I get older, my mother's emails get saucier. It's kinda cute.) :


Have you ever seen a baby porcupine?


Fable of the porcupine

It was the coldest winter ever. - Many animals died because of the cold. The porcupines, realizing the situation, decided to group together. This way they covered and protected themselves; but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions even though they gave off heat to each other.

After awhile, they decided to distance themselves one from the other and they began to die, alone and frozen. So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the Earth.

Wisely, they decided to go back to being together. This way they learned to live with the little wounds that were caused by the close relationship with their companion, but the most important part of it, was the heat that came from the others. This way they were able to survive.

Moral of the story: The best relationship is not the one that brings together perfect people, but the best is when each individual learns to live with the imperfections of others and can admire the other person's good qualities



The Moral of the story..........LEARN TO LOVE THE PRICKS IN YOUR LIFE
(thanks, mom.)

10.29.2010

Inkdeath, by Cornelia Funke

"Hark, the footsteps of the night
Fade in silence long.
Quiet chirps my reading light
Like a cricket's song.


Books inviting us to read
On the bookshelves stand.
Piers for bridges that will lead
Into fairyland."

Rainer Maria Rilke, "Vigils III," from Sacrifice to the Lares

I was very wary of this book. As I said in my review of its predecessor, Inkspell, I felt that that chapter had relied too much on there being a third book to come. I was also wary of Funke's choice of focus and the possibility of the dead coming back to life. I was disappointed. But that's part of the reason that I didn't wait so long to read this one. (Yes, I waited over three months, but it took me twice as long to pick up the preceding book after I read Inkheart.)

10.23.2010

Review: If I loved you, I would tell you this - Stories, by Robin Black

Robin Black's If I loved you, I would tell you this is about the world of sadness we create inside our heads, and about how we keep it inside. We hide it from strangers--and who do we consider to be strangers? It's about the secret lives we lead, and who we let in on the secret, and who we don't. With whom do we share our personal lives, and who do we leave alone on the other side of the fence we call love?

In the story "If I Loved You", Black uses a literal fence to draw the line between who is in, and who is out. If the woman dying of cancer loved her neighbor--if she had any reason to include the--they would know her pain. And then maybe they would feel bad and would relent in their mission to make their lives impenetrable. But instead they go about their lives--we go about our lives--constantly judging those whose stories remain unshared.

In "Immortalizing John Parker" the title character's wife has barely even admitted to herself that her husband is dying. She, with her wealth and wealthy nature, has come to see even herself as a stranger, who cannot see the truth--will not be shown the truth--until the protagonist, a painter, breaks down that wall and provides a human compassion reminiscent of love, forcing Mrs. Parker to open up, and come to terms.

In "A Country Where You Once Lived" father and ex-husband, Jeremy, is exiled when disaster strikes. He came into the picture, a cardboard cut-out stand-in for family, but he's no longer truly part of the family unit. He now stands on the other side of the fence, and cannot really feel sympathy for the truth, nor gain access to it. He has lost his chance to be loved.

And finally, in "The History of the World" our female protagonist feels an undying guilt for her twin brother's birth defects--the one person she reveals these feelings to stops loving her, puts up a wall, and so she shells up. When that same brother dies in a car accident in which she was driving, the guilt piles up. She finds a kind of solace in helping a young woman who, though the elder has not opened up to her, shares her problems and her love. The young woman shares a beautiful thing - the flower festival - with the embittered woman, the latter finally understands how beautiful and fleeting the world is--and how open and sharing we must be, in order to survive and be loved.

9.18.2010

Review: before you suffocate your own fool self: stories, by Danielle Evans

If this debut is any indication, Danielle Evans has a very bright literary future ahead of her. Her stories express not only a young woman’s frustration with the problems of racial and social inequities, but also the honest way in which the void of adolescent insecurities often overpowers even the most serious of those adult-world inequities.

The transparent honesty of Evans’ writing is refreshing. So often the literary world is confronted with jaded authors who, amid their arguments for equality, have lost their sense of self. One also encounters the occasional indignant writer for whom the sorority of adolescence is a mere effect of racial and socioeconomic inequities. What we have here is an expression of the sadness often generated by youth, and what is born of that sadness…who it makes us as we become young adults, and what we bring with us to shape our future.

9.08.2010

Review: The Toy Collector, by James Gunn

As the screenwriter of films like Dawn of the Dead and Tromeo & Juliet, one would kind of expect James Gunn to be kind of a nut. His freshman novel, The Toy Collector (Bloomsbury, 2000) certainly seems to back up that assumption. I don’t want to lay too much blind credence in assumptions involving this trippy, grim, sexual foray into the effect of childhood trauma (after all, it is The Toy Collector, a novel not The Toy Collector, James Gunn’s all-inclusive autobiography) but I have often found that authors are often like serial killers—the first kill is usually someone the killer knows or, in the author’s case, it’s usually what they know, what they’re most comfortable with, that which is most easily accessible. And in this case at least, Mr. Gunn has named his narrator after himself—whether or not that makes him a reliable narrator is another thing.

9.02.2010

Posthumous Publishing

Since it came up in my review of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 I wanted to talk a little bit about posthumous publishing. Bolaño’s is a special case: he was racing against his death to get as much work done as possible, while also providing for his heirs. There was never really a question of whether or not his work would be published after his death, but more of a question of how it would be published.

As mentioned, Bolaño wanted to release 2666 in five installments, over a number of years; his heirs felt otherwise. They knew, as well as I suspect Bolaño himself knew, that it was a more impactful work as one whole unit. Their decision to publish as such is a decision best benefiting the art, rather than their pocketbooks. (As a side note – our friend Roberto’s corpse has 3 or 4 other planned pieces in the works, due out over the next few years).

8.30.2010

Review: 2666, by Roberto Bolaño

Perhaps the title of his 890-page behemoth comes (as suggested by Ignacio Echevarría in the Note to the First Edition) from a passage in one of late author Roberto Bolaño's earlier works, in which the protagonist describes Mexico City's Avenida Guerrero at night as

      more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery
      in 1974 or in 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the
      year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of
      a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassion-
      ate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up
      forgetting everything else.

                                                                                       (Bolaño, Amulet)

Or perhaps, as I've heard it suggested in other reviews, Bolaño is making use of his affinity for mirrors, affixing the future year 2,666 AD as an end point, a point of reconciliation, a point of forgiveness and exodus, just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt 2,666 years after God created the world.

8.11.2010

Review: Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan never fails to impress me. In all of his work that I've read to-date, he has been indefatigable in his pursuit of perfect, beautiful and dangerous metaphors. He dives into the depths of the human psyche and consistently resurfaces each time with these wonderful mysterious black pearls of truth. And it is with scientific accuracy that McEwan polishes these pearls.

8.07.2010

Review: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes


Every December, the New York Times compiles a list of what they consider the best 100 books of the year. The Age of Wonder appeared on that list this past year and, captivated by its subject and starry cover, I asserted that I wanted it. Unfortunately, it never got past my Christmas list, and I had to wait for the library to have a copy for me. And, finally, they did.

Review: Austenland, by Shannon Hale

What our American protagonist quaintly references as “Austenland” is in fact a Janeite’s wet-dream-like summer-camp for adults. Very wealthy women spend oodles of money (in our narrator Jane Hayes’ case she has been gifted this one-of-a-kind experience) to stay on what looks like a Regency-era estate, wearing Regency dress, living what feels like a Regency life for a few weeks, getting thrown together with actors as well as other paying customers, vying for the attentions of the Bingley/ Darcy/ Wentworth/ Brandon/ Knightley-like men (actors), all by the light that should be oil or gas-lit, but is instead plugged into a wall socket.

7.29.2010

Review: Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: the last man in the world, by Abigail Reynolds

I generally avoid chic-lit when I can. I find it too predictable, too idealistic and often flavorless. When I do pick up chic-lit, it's usually in the form of a Jane Austen "sequel" or a variation on the original novels. Pamela Aidan wrote my favorites of these - her Mr. Darcy, Gentleman trilogy which takes place over the course of Pride & Prejudice. Abigail Reynolds has penned a number of non-sequential Pride and Prejudice variations, each picking a spot in which the story could have changed, but inevitably bringing Elizabeth and Darcy together.

7.21.2010

Review: Murder at Mansfield Park, by Lynn Shepherd

Murder at Mansfield Park: A NovelI had anticipated this latest Austen adaptation to be a bit like The Matters at Mansfield, by Carrie Bebris. I expected quite a bit of pastiche, mixed with an Austenesque preservation of the characters, even amounting to reverently mounting them on a pedestal of Jane Austen's own personality. The fact is, the pastiche is there in full force - you get almost word-for-word passages from each of Austen's novels throughout the text, along with an undeniable nod at Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre towards the later chapters. But the character preservation is gone, tossed out the window - we've kept the old wooden chess board, but the original pieces have gone missing - we've got to make do with what plastic pieces we can find.

The characters are all present, but they have different pasts, different presents, entirely different characteristics and, to top it all off, our heroine is not Jane Austen's pale, sickly, first-cousin-loving weakling Fanny Price, but her incorrigible Mary Crawford (who, in Ms. Shepherd's hands, takes on a very odd amalgamation of characteristics, making her at once Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood!) It's a very strange feeling to have the characters alter as they do, here.

As its own novel (though there is a bit too much allusion for my taste) it stands pretty well. And though it bears the characters and even quotations of Jane Austen, it heavily relies on Charlotte Brontë's mood, structure, and even certain particular characters themselves. The end result, however, is not disappointing in the least. It's a pretty quick read, in part due to the inherent mystery of which character takes on which identity in the crosshairs of Ms. Shepherd's and Jane Austen's understanding.

Most interesting is Ms. Shepherd's take on Fanny Price. She sets the story up for us, almost in the reverse of the original characters' fortunes. Fanny's mother marries the best out of all the three sisters, instead of shaming her family by marrying an eventually-destitute sea captain. Fanny is an only child (instead of being the eldest girl out of 7 children...or 18 kids, whatever it was) who upon her parents' and grandparents' untimely demise (didn't happen in the original), is now an heiress, needing to be raised by her only living relatives, the Bertrams (and Mrs. Norris, of course).

Instead of being tossed about like a servant waif, she is exalted, afforded 2 ladies maids, given the best of everything, and - most importantly - put up with...desired, even. Ms. Shepherd's take on this new personality is haughty and really a mix of Maria Bertram, Emma Woodhouse and Caroline Bingley - not an attractive picture....like a very young Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but a picture, nonetheless, that allows us to buy into Ms. Shepherd's version of the plot.

I really enjoyed it. If only Jane Austen's Fanny Price had been more like Ms. Shepherd's version of Mary Crawford, perhaps then she would not be so ill-appreciated. Ah, well. Enjoy.

7.18.2010


“On Friday 18th inst. Died, in this city, Miss Jane Austen, youngest daughter of the late Rev. George Austen, rector of Steventon , in the county and authoress of Emma, Mansfield park, pride and prejudice and sense and Sensibility.”
                         
Salisbury and Winchester Journal,
July 1817

7.09.2010

Review: Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

" 'Isn't it odd how much fatter a book gets when you've read it several times?' Mo had said when, on Meggie's last birthday, they were looking at all her dear old books again. 'A if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells...and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower...both strange and familiar.'"    - Inkspell, Chapter 5

And, indeed, I left my heart in Inkspell. So wrapped up in this book, was I, that I stopped comparing it mentally with your Peter Pans and your Neverending Stories the way I did the last one. Even though, in retrospect, there's a certain hint of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Little Mermaid," but I didn't realize that one of the last 3 or 4 chapters where Elinor takes her signed copy of Anderson's fairy tales out of its glass case. And I weeped. Not then, but before then, when the ultimate sacrifice is made and I realized what it meant...then I wept (standing against the door of the subway car, halfway into the Bronx, because god forbid a girl should get a seat every now and then). 

This book was very different from its predecessor because so much of the world was yet to be discovered. In Inkheart, the action took place in the world we all know. The character who had stepped into it had done so unwillingly and, so, felt alien. But here, in Inkspell, the characters who should remain at home go abroad willingly (some more than others) and those with whom we associate best are now alien in this new country. 

Funke has a gift of imagination that I envy. I love the way her story unravels. But in gifting us this brand new world, she has made home feel strange. I felt like Elinor needn't be involved anymore. The flashes back to home were distracting more than anything. I also felt as if the plot proceeded with the knowledge that a third book was coming. Does that make sense? I wanted there to be more about Violante and I wanted the real Cosimo to reappear, having been lost somewhere in our own world. I wanted the explanation for the Bluejay's "existence" to be that Balbulus or the Prince of Sighs' minstrel was a silvertongue, bringing things into being. And I found Orpheus to be a glob of scum hacked onto the beautiful pages. I see that he's going to be potentially instrumental in Inkdeath. I get that. But I wish we hadn't had to meet him before all of this. 

As for he who gave up his life - I don't want them to bring him back! In this, his death is heroic and loving and beautiful. But the other characters want him back too much. I have a feeling we'll be seeing him again, but I don't think I'm going to like it. I'm going to take some time to digest for a while before picking up Inkdeath. I think I need some time away from the ferocious beauty of the Inkworld.

7.07.2010

Review: Skeleton Man, by Joseph Bruchac

Recommended for ages 10 and up, Bruchac’s story is quite chilling. The young female protagonist, Molly, wakes up one day to find that her parents are missing. When the police are finally notified, a man Molly has never seen, nor heard of, comes to take care of her. He claims to be an uncle of her father’s but Molly is suspicious.

She recalls a legend told by her father’s Native American tribe of a carnivorous man who so loved the taste of flesh that he roasted all of his own, becoming a “skeleton man” and then devoured the flesh of his relatives as well. Molly’s imagination goes wild at the thought and she believes this new relative to have a similar appetite. The legend Bruchac refers to is pretty creepy to begin with, but when the clues start to add up to something more human and more sinister, you start wondering what kind of kids’ book this is.

However, what could resemble something uncomfortably adult is downplayed by the presence of Molly’s dreams which echo the original legend and which, in the end, save her from the nightmare of reality and help her recover her parents. It’s a quick read, and the dramatic build-up is great. I loved having a female protagonist (I’m so used to 10-year-old boys getting into this mischief!) and I appreciated the lessons taught in bravery, ingenuity and autonomy. A great book for young readers who don’t mind the fearsome challenge of human monsters with human motives.

7.01.2010

Review: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

This is one of my favorite books of all time. It's rare for me to have that opinion when I've only read the book once...so I re-read it, just to make sure my claim wasn't unfounded. I first read it in 2001 as part of my summer reading.

When I picked up the text nine years later, I felt as if I had never put it down. The same moments stuck with me and, since my emotional maturity has evolved over the last nine years, they stuck hard.

I still hold that chapter three of this novel (which, for those of you who don't know it, details a land turtle's journey across the road) is the most brilliant, poignant, graphic, and wonderful naturalistic passage in all of twentieth-century literature. In less than two pages, it offers a shining parabolic metaphor for the entirety of the novel.

The other bit that sticks with me the strongest is the very end. I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't read it, but the end makes me cry. Not a sad cry, not even a happy cry. But a cathartic empathetic cry. So much is unresolved at the end, and yet in that final moment, there is completion. Steinbeck's secret, laced in the text, is finally brought to fruition.  

"The old humorous eyes looked ahead, and the horny beak opened a little. His yellow toe nails slipped a fraction in the dust."

6.23.2010

Review: The Alphabet of Desire, poems by Barbara Hamby

Barbara Hamby's The Alphabet of Desire is simply a bonanza of musicality, sexuality and honesty. It contains a myriad of allusions to everything from Jane Austen to Daffy Duck, but never hides behind false style or framework. The section actually titled "The Alphabet of Desire" has poems ordered by title alphabetically (one for each letter) and the lines of each are also structured alphabetically (though, somehow, I didn't notice this until I got to the poem for the letter O....way to be paying attention, Lauren. Wayyyy to go.) This structure feels a little forced (how many words can you really use that start with x and z?) but satisfying all the same.

But the last section of the collection was my favorite - her Italian Odes. Ripe with colloquialism, full of wit and bright with realism. These were the poems that seemed closest to her heart - those which were the most real to her and, therefore, the most real to me.

One more book of poetry, and then I get to re-read The Grapes of Wrath :)

6.18.2010

Review: Lester Higata's 20th Century, stories by Barbara Hamby

Imagine, if you can, this story being told as if one were reading spiraling sentences printed on what has now been folded into an origami lotus. The end of Mr. Higata’s life is on the outermost petals, the root of his life is deep in the heart of a paper flower so well-crafted, that it even gives off the head aromas of the text. It has a Merlinesque feel to it – living time backwards. It enables an odd kind of involved dramatic irony which only adds to the text’s complex taste.

Hamby has made an incredibly successful transition from poetry to fiction, a true credit to her mother (to whom the book is dedicated) whom, Hamby says, “has always tossed words around and made them spin and laugh and do cartwheels on the lawn.” The juxtaposition of Hamby’s love for her own mother with her characters is somewhat surprising. Here, you have an author who obviously has wonderful memories of growing up with her mother, writing about two mothers (Mrs. Higata – the title character’s mother, and Mrs. Thompson – his mother-in-law) who are domineering, murderous and racist sticks in the mud. Throw in Ruby Kaapuni, and you’ve got a boxed collector’s edition set of crappy mothers.

In the case of the former two, it serves to prove that the best people are sometimes formed from the worst parents (mothers, at least – both of the fathers are decidedly less evil). In the latter case of Ruby Kaapuni, it’s the opposite – her husband beats her and rapes their daughter, and is later killed by their son who goes mad like his sister. Happy family, no?

Lester Higata is a fictional character – a family man, a good man and, though fictional, very human. In Hamby’s acknowledgements for the volume she says that “[he] has been a part of [her] for so long that sometimes [she] forget[s] he is not a real person.” I can understand why. He’s in excellent company, joined in this story by a veritable rainbow of personalities, each as human as the next. And if her love for these characters was ever in question, the proof is in her words – as colorful, as fragrant and as juicy as Mr. Manago's mangos or Helen Nakamura’s papayas. 


The book won't be published until October, but when it does come out, I strongly recommend it - for the story, and for the inherent poetry. And if you enjoy history (and Hawaii's history, at that) it's even more layered and beautiful. 

Lester Higata’s 20th Century

Stories by Barbara Hamby
University of Iowa Press
October 2010
184 Pages
$16.00






5.28.2010

"The New Daughter" Film

Warning, there are spoilers ahead.
"The New Daughter"
I'm excited because APPARENTLY this one was made into a film starring Kevin Costner (which, with me, can only mean one thing) that had a limited release by Anchor Bay last month. Now I have to find it....


This story expands on a parent's fear of a child growing up. She leaves her toys behind, she rebels, she dabbles a bit on the edge. And what she goes through is something that parents can only understand on the surface. If they try to dig any deeper, they will hit a stone wall and their understanding will begin to crumble and fade. Connolly uses his gift for folklore to explain this change as related to the stories of faeries exchanging human children for changelings. This kind of abrupt change in a pre-teen girl must   be paranormal, right? Right? I appreciated the father seeing a "red flicker" in his daughter's eyes. On the surface, it appears to be merely visual, and symbolic of her changeling nature. I think it's more than that, though. It seems (in the least disgusting way possible) to refer to menstruation, something that her father would not only have trouble understanding, but of which he would (like most fathers) avoid any kind of contemplation.

It's the same as it's been since the dawn of time: girl tries to grow up. Father tries to stop her. Father blames other people when she grows up anyway. And she does, for all intents and purposes, become his new daughter. And she knows, better than anyone, that no matter how vigilant her father is, her brother will one day grow up as well. It expresses the futility of parenting. You wish to do right by your children and, because you are their parents, everything else in the world seems somewhat malicious.
                            - From my take on reading Nocturnes (pt. 2)

Available for purchase on Amazon.com
Let's just say the film is loosely based on Connolly's story. The main frame of the story is the same - a study on the futility of parenting. One of the first few scenes really captures this - shot so that we see the children in whole, but only see the father from the chest, down. Some of the specifics are a little different - the daughter seems a little older than in the story, the son seems a bit older too (I kind of pictured him as a short little tow-headed kid who still had chubby legs - not so here.

Whereas the story takes place in the British Isles where the faerie hill makes sense, the film takes place in rural South Carolina (but no one sounds like they're from South Carolina), leaving the mythology of the hill to be kind of fudged. They make the argument for some kind of Native American mythology related to the mounds (which they say in the film, link many civilizations across the globe) and apparently some gods (called mound walkers) who lived within the mounds. The entire concept is explained parallel to the lifeforce of an ant colony - many workers, one queen ant, and a replacement queen ant coming to power, etc. While obviously made up, and a little silly, the mythology lends itself to certain themes within the original story that have translated to the film.

For example, the opposing forces of light and dark. Dark seems to prey on the light - attack the light, even. Dark -haired Louisa pushes the blonde bully down the stairs and seems constantly at odds with her blonde father and tow-headed brother, and her brother's blonde teacher. Her doll Molly (later replaced with creepy spider-bearing straw-doll from hell) is also blonde. Blonde hair seems to represent an ideal or a promise of childhood that is targeted and disposed of by puberty.

The red eyes of the story are gone, but it's replaced with a very creepy vision of Louisa with darkened eyelids (as if she's wearing too much eye makeup - this is how dad Kevin Costner knows that his daughter is gone), and when Louisa comes home covered in mud and crouches in the tub, there's a swirl of scarlet within the brown run-off, indicating a wound? or menstruation? or that she was raped by the scary mound people. Unfortunately, the latter seems to make the most sense for the mythology and process of the film. Yuck.

Along with the interesting chest-level shot early in the film, there's a deliberate attempt to highlight the father's metaphorical near-sightedness....with actual near-sightedness. He wears a pair of specs around his neck at all times, and I really appreciated that bit of nonsense. 

Unlike the creepy pale-faced no-eyed faeries of Connolly's story, there's a human-sized threat in the film. I liken the revelation of their presence to a cross between "Lost"'s smoke monster, and the anticlimactic appearance of the green alien in the Brazilian videotape in M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs". The sound effects were boar-ish and wheezing at once. I was almost convinced that the real monster was the smoking man from the X-Files!

But then I heard it eat the nanny and grab Erik Palladino out of the police car, I realized that William B. Davis simply was not nimble enough to pull that off. And then Kevin finds himself in the kitchen with it, and I was pretty sure it was floating. It looked like something out of the Ninja turtles cartoon series. My exact stream of consciousness response was "Is it floating? Is it a giant ant? SHIT. SHIT. WHAT THE FUCK? SHIT. It looks like an ant with Walter Cronkite's head on it! WHAT THE FUCK!" (Yes, that's transcribed from what I wrote while watching the film).

Now, the story ends pretty eerily - the daughter has changed, the father lives in constant fear, he holds onto his son (until he inevitably grows up). But the film takes it a few steps further and past the realm of any kind of examination of parenting society. Kevin tells the son to stay in the house and wait for the police and tell them to call (divorced) Mommy. Kevin (who conveniently has dead cop Erik Palladino's car (and arsenal?) at his disposal runs to the mound and follows the tunnel and carries his daughter's body out, only to be chased by creepy golum-ant-walter-cronkite-kraken-looking things. Then his "daughter" begs him to stop but he sees the too-much-makeup look and knows it's not her, so he seals the hole and blows the mound up.

We see this through the eyes of the son who's left the house and now stands framed by the fence in the yard. He sees the explosion, and we watch as his eyes go from upset to hopeful. He obviously sees a figure in the distance. He says "dad?" and we hear a twig snap, a hint of a smoking man wheeze, and then we see a creepy golum kraken monster a few feet behind him AND THAT'S IT.

WHAT?!?! What happened to the very human study of puberty, the father and daughter always being at odds, a father's need to protect his son? Where did it go? GOLUM KRAKEN ANT WALTER CRONKITE!!

5.24.2010

Review: Salem Possessed - The Social Origins of Witchcraft, by Paul Boyer & Stephen Nissenbaum

I have to say, I feel like I was gypped in my high school education.

Okay, so that goes without saying, really, I mean...it was a Florida public school and the fact that I made out with any kind of basic knowledge of anything should be a credit to the individual teachers, as well as my own passion for learning (since, if either I or my teachers had gone by the recommended curriculum of the day, I would have never made it back out of Florida). But still, I feel like I was gypped.

In my high school (which was, and still is, an arts magnet school), the theatre kids had English and Theatre classes back to back so as to keep certain lessons and certain projects in tandem and consistent. As a result, sometimes the lines between fact and literary fiction would get a little blurred. And it's not as if our 11th grade American History teacher did anything to help that. I've said this before - some of those teachers didn't know anything outside of the basic curriculum, so we got screwed.

Anyway, in our theatre-oriented English class we read a ton of New England drama/poetry (in preparation for our annual trip) and we read The Crucible by Arthur Miller (which takes the facts of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, runs them through a rinse cycle, and lays them out flat to dry into a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings). (Prior to that, I had read Kathryn Lasky's Beyond the Burning Time which explores a lot of the themes that are historically established in Boyer and Nissenbaum's history, but I had read it as summer reading prior to freshman year of high school so there was a test on it, but it was never discussed). That same year, we took the annual bus ride up to the north east, visited Walden Pond, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and Salem, Mass.

Even modern day Salem seems to be in on the trickery. They have the name, so they have the fame - even though Salem Village (where the drama really took place) eventually became Danvers, Mass with just a little bit of overlap into Salem Town. And in the spirit of capitalizing on their witch-themed merchandise and ghost tours, they don't really tell you any different. They don't mention that most of the turmoil leading up to the accusations came from a split in the community - half wanting to maintain their membership in Salem Town and explore their commercial options, half wanting to segregate themselves and become independent of the very town that now hosts explosions of tourism every Halloween season.

Don't get me wrong - I love Salem. I've been back since that high school trip, and I've loved every second of it. I've done the ghost tours, I've shopped the mystical shops, I love the atmosphere that town has in October. But I feel like knowing what I SHOULD have known then, I'm disappointed. I'm excited to go again having all of this information and revisiting my experiential opinion of the place, but I wish I had had the real history, before.

Boyer and Nissenbaum have done their research. The book may be a few decades old, but with a topic that's now over 300 years old, a few decades doesn't make a lot of difference. Their exploration into the financial logistics of Salem Village's situation in the 17th century is a little boring at times, but their explanation of the divisions within the community between the Putnams and the Porters, on the side for or against Rev. Parris, and between Village and Town is remarkable. Sometimes I have to kick myself to remind me that people actually kept personal records in the 1600s and they had some of the same problems we have today (and not wholly plebeian, as I so often mistakenly think).

The facts are good, but on that same token, Boyer and Nissenbaum seem to lay aside any concerns from the religious standpoint. In the 17th century, with religion being the way it was, witchcraft was a scientific plausibility. Forget the social aspect of it - the idea of a witch/wizard/devil appearing in specter form to a victim was a rational concept! It wasn't JUST the socioeconomic situation that drove these trials to the head that they reached, it was the belief that such things could truly be.

Today, you need a video camera and a television or a projector with a screen to accomplish what the "afflicted" claimed they saw in 1692. Throw in the pinching and tormenting, and you just need to actually be present, screw technology. But that seems to be left out of Boyer and Nissenbaum's scope of understanding. They leave out half of the psychological impetus and that, to me, makes it an incomplete narrative. Seems to me, if you're going to lay a claim of understanding of the "social origins" of anything, it shouldn't just be the monetary end of that understanding.

5.14.2010

Review: Diary - a novel, by Chuck Palahniuk

If I am unsure of a book, if I want to like it but the first few pages make me want to gnaw my face off, I give it ten percent. Figure out how many pages it has, divide by ten, and that’s how many pages I’ll give it to convince me that continuing is in any way worth it. I used to agree with the old librarian rule of reading your age (i.e. I’m 25, so I’d read 25 pages) but on shorter books, that proved silly. In this case, the book is 260 pages, I read to page 26. And I still hated it. But I kept reading, probably out of some sadistic need to end up hating myself, Palahniuk, everyone in the novel, and viewers like you.

This epistolary novel revolves around art-school-dropout Misty Marie Kleinman Wilmot and her fated existence among the chipped paint facades of Waytansea Island, located somewhere, it seems, in New Jersey. Appropriate for a hellish existence, New Jersey. There, she has been baited and lured, and now she hangs on the line as her life, and her previous lives, flash before her/our eyes.

The novel is not without merit. It’s intelligent and colorful and, if nothing else, proves that someone’s done their painting homework. But anything written in (even semi-) second person (i.e. addressing the reader as a character) as this is, can be jarring, unnerving and uncomfortable. It was like having an anxiety attack for three days straight.

Somewhere around page 200 I decided that I didn’t completely hate it, that it wasn’t just some sadistic need to be reading that kept me doing so, that there was something of me in it relating to the art. But as I reached the last few chapters, that vicious self-serving need to just finish the damn book took the wheel again. By the end, I felt like Peter Wilmot, sitting alone, gas tank empty, engine exhausted, poisoned by prose-y sleeping pills and fumes.

But the real kicker came when the story seemed over. On the last page of the book, Palahniuk does exactly what I loathe, exactly what Porter Grand did with Little Women and Werewolves by including the fictionalized publisher’s letter and exhibiting the novel as a previous version by Alcott. It’s a cop-out. Palahniuk’s work is far too intelligent to sink to that kind of nonsense. Better to end on an anxious high than sink in the finale with that kind of kick in the head that makes the psychological and kind of horrifying tone of the novel feel trivial and dull like hard plastic.

5.10.2010

Review: Little Women and Werewolves, by Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand

It's been a while since I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I think my seeing the Broadway musical in 2005 was more recent than the last time I read the book. Fortunately, the entire work is available online, so anything I had to question was easily checked. I found that, as with Pride and Prejudice (and Zombies) and Sense and Sensibility (and Sea Monsters) most of the original text is in tact, and the additional material does in fact manage to enhance the work, not dumb it down (mostly).

Unlike those two Austen works (published by Quirk), Little Women and Werewolves comes to us from Del Rey (an imprint of Random House) and is co-written by new author Porter Grand. While the werewolf gimmick works well within the confines of the sometimes homely and blasé source material, I have the same complaint about it that I had for the two Austen mashups; there is an all-around serious lack of irony that seems necessary in horror films and yet does not appear in these novels. Amanda Grange's Mr. Darcy, Vampyre had ample irony, but it lacked a good enough story to make that irony worth the trouble.

In all three of these mashups, the gimmick is included in the main story within the first sentence. I get it. You need a hook. I accept that. But the title should do that. I would appreciate this book so much more if the characters didn't start off talking about their book's particular affliction as if they've never done so before. In Little Women and Werewolves, their full-moon-challenged canine friends have been around for quite some time. It seems almost lazy to bring it up on page one if page one has nothing to do with the horror.

Grand, in this case, has included a fictional letter prior the story's text from a publisher by the name of Mandrake Wells to Louisa May Alcott. It hints that the story we're going to read is in fact a "lost manuscript" of Alcott's, a version of Little Women before the final edit. I hate it when authors do that. I know it's in the spirit of fun, but I just think it's rude. Granted, history tells us that Alcott had an affinity for the gothic novel and for the more fantastical end of fiction. But the highly sexualized presence of the werewolves seems unlikely for Alcott. Example a) the scene where Jo spots Laurie through the window, example b) the scene were Laurie fulfills the condition that Amy made for their getting married, example c) Beth and Mr. Laurence's relationship.

The author here has set her book apart from the Quirk mashups in one other kind of a peculiar way. With Austen, we were talking about Zombies and Sea Monsters, both of which are just that; they are constantly that which horrifies. In these cases, they're an everyday problem, or at least it's made so by putting London in an underwater dome. *sigh* But with werewolves, they're only really a problem on the night of the full moon. Sure, the stigma continues to be there, but it's been made clear that the upper classes (and most of Europe) have accepted that anyone could be or become a werewolf, and that they're only dangerous for 12 (12.37) nights per year. And even then, most of them are overly conscious of their behavior and they will only kill when they absolutely must (or, apparently for some kind of revenge).

The real monsters in this book would appear to be "The Brigade," an army of leather- and metal-covered men whose goal is to discover and kill werewolves and their sympathizers. However, they are pretty consistently arresting and murdering non-werewolves and an array of persons who may or may not be sympathetic to the lycanthrope society. If they were truly doing their job correctly, then by the end of the book everyone would be dead. Unfortunately for them, their presence is mostly laughable and Alcott's characters both survive and thrive, as she meant them to.

Little Women and Werewolves
By Louisa May Alcott and Porter Grand
416 pages
Del Rey
(May 4, 2010)



Also published this month was Lynn Messina's Little Vampire Women. Judging by the cover, alone (yes, I totally judge some books by their covers), I think I'll stay from that one.

5.06.2010

Review: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi

I’m not really into memoirs or biographies/auto biographies. I find the majority of them to translate with a significant amount of conceit. Nor do I list graphic novels among the ranks of my trusted book army. I like words, and illustrations are often appreciated, but the comic-book-like format of graphic novels has always felt a bit juvenile for my tastes. When I graduated to words, I made a semi-conscious decision to avoid comic books and their older cousins, graphic novels. I recognize that my judgment of the format was without true cause and, for a large part, unfair.

While I still can’t get through quite a few of them, there are shining examples with more than passable literary merit that I’ve had the good fortune to stumble upon. One of these in particular, which I feel like I should have read some time ago, is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis which recounts her childhood from the years 1979-1983 in Iran during the revolution. Her cast of characters includes herself, her parents, her maid and her grandmother, and a carousel of political-prisoner-uncles and neighbors. It’s a story about socio-political structure, and about war, but most importantly it is about freedom.

When I was in school—in history classes—our education was limited to x number of years. “World History” in my high school ended in World War I. “American History” in the same school ended in the Korean War. My Western History class in college ended sometime during the Reagan administration. My college American History course ended somewhere around FDR. All of that being said, none of my classes were focused on what was happening in Persia once we got around about to Charlamagne in 1066. Iran was never mentioned as Iran, let alone the revolution happening there. Even the Iranian hostage crisis – the first time I heard of that was on one of the anniversaries of their release, on television.

My education thus far – especially my Florida education – was biased toward America every step of the way. Very few allowances were made for America being wrong in what they did. Thanks, FOX News. In similar fashion, young Marji witnesses the discrepancies between what is reported and what truly happens. In this way, her testimony is a reflection of both the Iranian experience as well as the universal experience. Her fiery response to being subjugated as a woman bears the same two-sided reflection. Her honesty is what makes the piece so unique, so superb.

It is this honesty that gives her narration its edge – she does not shy away from the pain and the death. She does not deny her reader the grim light of the true experience. The amusing and singularly “comic” aspect of the comic-book format allows her to balance the images in our mind with her somewhat humorous illustration of a body that has been cut into pieces. All this made even more approachable and comic by the presence of an illustrated Karl-Marx-like God who feeds young Marji’s conscious need for affirmation in her pursuit of feminine freedom and fame.

5.05.2010

Review: Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told, by Kenneth Turan (and Joseph Papp), OR In Memory of Lawrence Sacharow

I have a bad habit of writing a little too much. In high school and college, and in the real world when you’re writing for something, you’re given a limit, i.e. your paper must be between 18 and 23 pages long, double spaced, 1” margins, 12pt font and include both a works cited and a works consulted, an outline and a title page, each page after page one must contain the page number next to your last name, make sure you use MLA citation. I know why that is -- for one thing, they don't want you exhausting yourself when you have other work to do, and for another, and more importantly, they want you to focus on your subject and tighten the paper so that it is succinct and to the point, but still good. I mostly fail at this.

In 12th grade, we were assigned a long and tedious research project on a pair of persons as assigned by our English and Drama teachers. Some people had two actors, some two directors, some two something else. I was assigned two directors/producers, which means I couldn't have cared less.

At that moment in time (early Fall 2002) I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I was certain that theatre was where it was at. When I applied to college, I applied to a lot of generalized theatre programs. I thought that I was going to go into dramaturgy, but I didn’t have a lot of experience with it. I had stage managed one main stage production the previous year (and poorly), so I wasn’t even sure that was what I wanted to do. I knew I was not going into acting, and I knew I didn’t want to direct. I toyed with the idea of props or lighting, but once I had a blowout fight with the lighting designer I’d worked with for three years that very fall, I kind of let all of that go. And I hadn’t yet directed my student production, but once I did, I didn’t really know what I was doing.  

But I had directors. They had given me Joseph Papp and Peter Brook, two of the most complicated and formidable theatrical persons ever. But, as with anything, I threw myself into it. Overachiever that I was, I was determined to learn everything about them. (That paper was titled "Deadly Theatre: The Exuberant Impresario vs. The Invisible Man - The Opposing Artistic Visions of Joseph Papp and Peter Brook" ...I think I must have been going for shock value or something, because that title blows.) I associated more with Joe Papp and, as a result, delved a little more into his work than Brook’s but my project was pretty well balanced. By the final draft it was just barely within the limit for number of pages. Actually, in trying to squeeze the last few sentences in, I accidentally cut a sentence from the end of one page and, as a result, my final draft had a page that did not continue properly from the previous one. Go me. But prior to that, I had an insane number of cited works and even more consulted works. I wish I’d kept the list. I had something like 90 sources, a list that you rarely see outside of a full blown bibliography, or perhaps encyclopedia.

There are memories – facts, dates, places, images – from that project that have remained with me, even though they didn’t make it into the paper. Most of them are from Papp. That could be due to my re-using the paper in my freshman year of college. I don’t remember what exactly that project was, but I essentially rewrote and condensed the Papp half of the paper just one year later. (That paper was titled "Joseph Papp: Peanuts, Rock Music & Free Shakespeare" ... a duller title has never been seen.) Fortunately, I still had my notes and my research cards from the initial project, so that worked out.

Papp has just stuck in my head. It also didn’t help that once I got to college my first class and my first professor was Acting with Larry Sacharow. A long time ago, Larry said, he had worked with and done odd jobs for Joe Papp. He bore an odd resemblance to Papp, as well. Really not helping is the fact that Larry continues to kind of haunt me. We lost Larry in 2006. Leukemia. He was really sick for a long time, but he worked very hard not to show it. The last production he directed at Fordham was Tony Kushner’s Slavs! (Thinking about the longstanding problems of virtue and happiness); I was his stage manager.

I had never worked with anyone like Larry before. Anyone who knew him will tell you that even when he wasn’t in the room, his aura continued to pervade the air of the production. He was so brilliant and his sprituality allowed him to be so undeniably in-tune with the material as if he were himself giving birth to it. And he made every single person involved feel invaluable -- even when I was in freshman acting with Larry (and I am a godawful actor) he knew what I was there for and he knew how to draw the best things out of me. Larry gave the entire process a musicality that I’ve been striving to match in everything I’ve done since then. He's stuck with me in this way.

And I see him everywhere – perhaps not as often as I used to, in the first year after he died. But I still see him. Constantly. It's terrible to know that someone who mentored you so ardently is no longer there to do so, and yet you can see them wherever you go...and they ignore you because...it's not really them.

Perhaps that’s why I decided I wanted this book. Perhaps it didn't really have much to do with Joe Papp, after all. Maybe it was all about Larry. The dust jacket has a picture of Papp that is so reminiscent of this bemused, knowing and determined look that Larry used to get. The resemblance isn’t uncanny, they’re not twins or anything. But their look and the way they stood, emboldened by the bright passion in their eyes – this is where the similarities are.

I picked up this book hoping that it would enable some kind of mind blowing catharsis, that it would let me let go, both of Larry and of what I consider a silly attachment that I have to this thing called theatre. In a funny way, I think it's done its job. I was all set to write a real review of the book and talk about the way that it seems to peter out in the end, painted with huge primary-colored strokes as opposed to the 265-color detail of the first several chapters. And I was all set to comment on the use of collage - the way the interviews are textually collaged into the body of the book to create the history. And I was all set to harp on not having this book as a reference when I was writing my awful awful awful papers. But those things don't matter when I consider the real reasons for having it in my collection. Reading about Joe again has left me weeping - a little bit for the success of the NYSF, and a little bit for the memories, and a lot for the passion that reminds me so much of Larry. 

It's funny because this book has absolutely nothing to do with Larry Sacharow. After all, it was Peter Brook who believed in Jerzy Grotowski, and who did the epic Mahabharata (it was by Larry's insistence that Ratan Thiyam came to Fordham to direct The Blind Age which is similar in structure and story). And yet, it kind of has everything to do with Larry Sacharow. He was a revolutionary, a fighter, an inspiration. And having that idea come back to me by riding on Joe Papp's coat tails...it is cathartic. And, in a way, it brings a sort of peace.