Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lit Brick

I've recently come across an excellent webcomic by John S. Troutman called Lit Brick.  The premise, as stated in the first comic: "I'm gonna read the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature and draw comics about it."  It's a wonderful mix of archaic literature and modern pop culture.  For example, strip #2:

Included with each comic is a brief post about the source material.  The whole thing is pretty cool.  you should check it out.

Monday, October 27, 2014

1993: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Author:

Robert James Waller (1939-     ) was born in Rockford, Iowa.  He attended the University of Northern Iowa, and married Georgia Weidemeier in 1961, with whom he had a daughter.  He received his PhD in business from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1968.  He went on to teach business, management, and applied mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa, also serving as dean of the business school from 1979 to 1985.  His first two books were collections of travel essays: Just Beyond the Firelight (1988) and One Good Road Is Enough (1990).  With a grant, he left his job as a professor and wrote a scholarly work on the future of Iowa's economy, Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow (1991).  Not long after, he tried his hand at fiction, and wrote The Bridges of Madison County.  His subsequent books have been successful, but not to the extent of his first.  Since 1993, he has published seven novels, two works of non-fiction, and a book of photography.  He divorced Weidemeier in 1997.  In 2004, he married Linda Bow.  He currently lives in Texas.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover

Length: 171 pages
Subject/Genre: Romantic wish fulfillment/Romance

The Bridges of Madison County takes the form of a novelization of true events.  The introduction features Waller being brought the story by a friend of his, and discusses his attempts at accurately depicting what happened.  To be clear, it is entirely fictional.  The story itself focuses on a brief affair between Francesca Johnson, a stay-at-home farm wife in small town Iowa, and Robert Kincaid, a freelance photographer.  Kincaid has been hired by National Geographic to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County, and meets Francesca when asking for directions.  Francesca's husband and children are away at a state fair for the week.  We learn that Francesca grew up in Naples, Italy, and as a teenager left with and married Richard Johnson, an American soldier.  She and Kincaid fall in love and have a brief affair.  She decides not to leave with him for the sake of her family.  Sticking to the non-fiction structure, Waller ends the novel with a short essay by Kincaid, a letter by Francesca, and an interview with someone who knew Kincaid after he and Francesca parted ways.

First, let me say that this was a corny, overwrought romantic fantasy aimed at middle-aged women.  Francesca Johnson is the epitome of a Mary Sue.  We're told she's from Naples, but she might as well be from Paris, or London, or St. Louis, anywhere but a small rural town.  In fact, the only traits that consistently inform her actions are her dissatisfaction with her life as a stay at home mother, a dissatisfaction with her husband (personally and sexually), and a love for her children.  She is nothing but a vague mirror for the reader.    Robert, on the other hand, is given tons of backstory and personal traits.  He's sensitive and graceful (unlike Mr. Johnson), he was a combat photographer, which makes him brave, but he doesn't like war, which makes him humane, his body is frequently described as lithe and hard.  He's basically a safe fantasy, with enough history to be all things to all people.   As wish fulfillment goes, Waller had a good eye.  He created a fantasy about the stay at home wife's dream man coming to town.  The adulterous aspect of the story is offset by the wife's sacrifice of true love out of concern for her children.

The prose is overwrought.  I'll let the novel speak for itself:

    "'Oh, Michael, Michael, think of them all those years, wanting each other so desperately. She
     gave him up for us and for Dad.  And Robert Kincaid stayed away out of respect for her
     feelings about us.  Michael, I can hardly deal with the thought of it.  We treat our marriages so
     casually, and we were part of the reason that an incredible love affair ended the way it did.

    'They had four days together, just four.  Out of a lifetime.  It was when we went to that
     ridiculous state fair in Illinois.  Look at the picture of Mom.  I never saw her like that.  She's so
     beautiful, and it's not the photograph.  It's what he did for her.  Just look at her; she's wild and
     free.  Her hair's blowing in the wind, her face is alive.  She just looks wonderful.'"

Bridges is sappy wish-fulfillment that found a huge audience.  It led to a film version in 1995, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and for which Streep received her tenth Academy Award nomination.

The novel was adapted into a musical, which had its official premiere this past February.

The novel also inspired two sequels by Waller.  A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County was published in 2002 and follows Robert Kincaid after the events of the first novel.  High Plains Tango (2005) follows the story of the son Kincaid never knew he had.

The Bridges of Madison County has a reputation as a sappy romance novel, and that reputation is well earned.  I really can't see any reason to recommend it to people who aren't fans of the romance genre, and for those who are I can't see any reason to recommend this book particularly.  

Bestsellers of 1993:

1. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
2. The Client by John Grisham
3. Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend by Robert James Waller
4. Without Remorse by Tom Clancy
5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King
6. Vanished by Danielle Steel
7. Lasher by Anne Rice
8. Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
9. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
10. The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum

Also Published in 1993:

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Private Parts by Howard Stern
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh


"Robert James Waller." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature 
     Resource Center. Web.

Waller, Robert James. The Bridges of Madison County. New York: Warner Books, 1992. Print.

Friday, October 24, 2014

David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1989)

Hey, wouldn't it be weird if David Lynch directed a made-for-tv musical starring Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage?  Well, weird is what David Lynch does.  Enjoy.

(Note: some nudity, so don't watch this at work.  And don't try to hard to make sense of it (at work, or anywhere else).)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Drunk Shakespeare

On Monday's post, I included a highlight reel from the recent Dolores Claiborne opera.  But don't think that this is the only way modern theater is being strange and wonderful.  Just check out New York City's Drunk Shakespeare society:

Monday, October 20, 2014

1992: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

The Author:

Stephen King (1947-    ) was born in Portland, Maine.   His father abandoned the family when King was two, leaving his mother to raise King and his older brother.  King attended the University of Maine, earning a B.A. in English in 1970.  King and Tabitha Spruce had their first child in 1970, and married in 1971.  Their second child, Joseph Hillstrom King, was born in 1972.  (He, like his mother and father, is a writer.  He writes under the name Joe Hill.)  King taught high school and supplemented his wages by selling short stories to magazines. 

In 1973, he published his first novel, Carrie.  The first of his novels to make the annual top ten bestsellers list was The Dead Zone (1979).  Between 1980 and 2012, King appeared on the annual top ten list 34 times, in one case having three books on the same year's list. He has since written multiple non-fiction works, as well as serving as a columnist for entertainment weekly.  At current count, King has published twelve short story collections, two comic series, six books of non-fiction, fifty-six novels, seven novellas, ten screenplays, and a musical libretto.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover

Length: 372 pages
Subject/Genre: Personal revenge/Gothic suspense

Dolores Claiborne is about the eponymous woman, an sixty-five year old maid on Little Tall Island, a small, working class area of the coast of Maine.  The novel begins with her turning herself in to the local sheriff, denying responsibility for the recent death of her long-time employer, Vera Donovan, but finally admitting to murdering her own husband decades prior.  Thus Dolores begins to tell her story, a story of abuse, helplessness, and retaliation, starting in the middle and slowly circling in toward the deaths.

Dolores Claiborne is very unusual for a King novel.  The most immediate difference to his usual style is the narration:  The entire book is one monological confession (in dialect) with a small epilogue tacked on.  Further, there is almost no supernatural element to the story.  The only supernatural element, brief glimpses of a little girl in a far away town, are completely irrelevant to the novel, both in terms of plot and symbolism.  As explained in the brief preface, this little girl is Jessie Burlingame, the main character of Gerald's Game, released the same year as Dolores Claiborne.  Basically, these scenes are saying "If you want to find out what the deal was with this girl, buy Gerald's Game, now available wherever books are sold!"  

That said, Dolores Claiborne is a very strong novel.  It's less horror than it is gothic, in the sense that Flannery O'Connor or Shirely Jackson's works are gothic.  It does have a number of King tropes, the small town Maine setting, the attempt to make everyday objects terrifying, but it doesn't suffer from them as much as some of his other works.  The novel paints a vivid picture of a desperate woman, and sucks you into life on that that small island in Maine.

Dolores Claiborne is possibly the least well-known of the King novels on the list. This despite the fact that it had a film adaptation in 1995 starring Kathy Bates as Dolores, Jennifer Jason Leigh as her daughter Selena, and smaller parts played by John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, and playwright Eric Bogosian.

Strangely enough, Dolores Claiborne was adapted into an opera and premiered in San Francisco last year.  It looks kind of bizarre:

The trailer for the movie on the other hand, looks pretty fantastic.   

If you're not a fan of King, looking to get into his work, or if you enjoy the gothic or suspenseful, I'd really recommend Dolores Claiborne.  Most of the negative reviews I've seen have boiled down to not liking the monologue structure or finding it not exciting enough (though, as a suspense novel, tension is everything).  It's definitely worth checking out.

Bestsellers of 1992:

1. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
2. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
3. Gerald's Game by Stephen King
4. Mixed Blessings by Danielle Steel
5. Jewels by Danielle Steel
6. The Stars Shine Down by Sidney Sheldon
7. The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
8. Mexico by James Michener
9. Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
10. All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1992:

Children of Men by P. D. James
Jazz by Toni Morrison
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald


"Dolores Claiborne." IMDB. Amazon

King, Stephen. Dolores Claiborne. 1992. New York: Signet, 1993. Print.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Don DeLillo's BBC Documentary on the new meta-narrative

It's a bit longer than the videos I usually post, but here's an excellent documentary by Don DeLillo about the shift in the American meta-narrative, and the increasing role of television news and film in our identity.  It also includes dramatized scenes and discussions of the origins of some of his novels.

(Note: the documentary contains graphic archival footage of the Kennedy assassination, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the assassination attempts against George Wallace and Ronald Reagan)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Simpsons Guest Couches

The Simpsons couch gag has become a pop culture landmark. Although the show creators have kept coming up with original gags for a couple decades at this point, they've invited other writers and filmmakers and artists to take a stab at it, most recently with avant-garde animator Don Hertzfeldt.

The Simpsons couch gag has also played host to cartoonist Bill Plympton:

Graffiti artist Banksy:

And director Guillermo del Toro:

And just in case you didn't get every reference in the del Toro one, watch the next video and everything will be enumerated.