Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bill Murray Reads Huck Finn

As the video explains, the section being read was not in the novel originally, but was added in some a critical edition in the 1990s.  If you're wondering why you've never heard of this, it's probably because it aired on CSPAN-2 in 1996.  Murray's reading ends about 14 minutes into the video.  It is followed with a panel discussion including William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice), and authors Shelby Foote, Roy Blount, and Twain biographer Justin Kaplan.


Monday, September 15, 2014

1987: The Tommyknockers 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:



Length: 747 pages
Subject/Genre:  Alien invasion/sci-fi-horror

The Tommyknockers is one of the few books on the list that I'd already read.  Widely regarded as one of King's worst, The Tommykockers takes place in Haven, Maine, where Western novelist Bobbi Anderson discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the woods.  As she begins to excavate the wreck, the people in the town start changing, becoming more and more like the alien species that visited long ago.  They develop an amazing technical ingenuity, but don't necessarily understand the concepts behind their inventions.  As Bobbi says "As I say, we've never been very good understanders. We're not a race of super-Einsteins.  Thomas Edison in space would be closer, I think."  However, the townspeople become increasingly psychotic and dangerous.  Bobbi's friend, poet James Gardener (Gard), is immune to the the effects of the change because of a metal plate in his head, and it's up to him to stop the people of Haven, and the alien technology, from wreaking havoc on the Earth.

While complaining about a Stephen King book being long is like complaining about it being set in Maine, The Tommyknockers has the major problem of spending hundreds of pages shifting around minor characters, which gets very repetitive, very fast.  King's tendency to take common-place items and recontextualize them as terrifying consistently fails here.  For example:

"The Coke machine banked back.  It hung in the air for a moment, its front turning back and forth in small arcs that reminded Leandro of the sweeps of a radar dish.  The sun flashed off its glass door.  Leandro could see bottles of Coke and Fanta inside.

Suddenly it pointed at him -- and accelerated toward him.

Found me, Christ---

He got up and tried to hop to the car on his left foot.  The soda machine bore down on him, coin return hooting dismally."  

'coin return hooting dismally' is probably the least scary description I've ever read in a horror novel. The success of The Tommyknockers is a bit surprising considering it competed against two other King books, including Misery.

King's cocaine addiction and alcoholism throughout the 1980s is frequently brought up in discussions of The Tommyknockers.  King himself admits to barely remembering having written Cujo.  There is much to be said for The Tommyknockers as an allegory for King's addiction (this article from The Guardian is worth a look), but that doesn't make up for the overall shortcomings of the novel.   Nevertheless, The Tommyknockers was adapted into a truly awful two part miniseries starring Jimmy Smits (The West Wing, NYPD Blue) and Marg Helgenberger (CSI):



It's pretty much just three hours of all the worst aspects of a made-for-tv sci-fi B-movie.   

I can't really recommend this book for anybody.  If you're a Stephen King fan or looking to get into his books, this is not a good choice.  It's one of his longest and worst books.  





Bestsellers of 1987:

1. The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
2. Patriot Games by Tom Clancy
3. Kaleidoscope by Danielle Steel
4. Misery by Stephen King
5. Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor
6. Windmills of the Gods by Sidney Sheldon
7. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
8. Fine Things by Danielle Steel
9. Heaven and Hell by John Jakes
10. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Also Published in 1987:

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Sources:

King, Stephen. The Tommyknockers. 1987. New York: Signet, 1988. Print.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Calvino's "The False Grandmother"

A story from Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales (1956; which, as the title suggests, is a collection of Italian folktales), The False Grandmother has obvious ties to the medieval French folktale, Little Red Riding Hood, and illustrates many of the classic tropes of folktales (e.g. pathetic fallacy, the rule of three, etc).  Embedded here is the story as read by John Turturro (Barton Fink) and illustrated by Kevin Ruelle.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What You've Missed When Reading Shakespeare

Poetry often relies nearly as much on the sounds of the words themselves as it does their meaning.  It is easy to forget that common pronunciation has changed drastically over the course of centuries.  Shakespeare wrote near the end of what is known as the Great Vowel Shift, a centuries-long process during which the English language evolved in a peculiar way, the pronunciation of vowels shifting away from French roots and thus, farther from the rest of the Romance languages.  One side-effect of this change is some nuance that gets lost when the writing of the time is read with current pronunciation.



Monday, September 8, 2014

1986: It 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.  But you might know him better for his bit part as 'hoagie man' in George Romero's motocross/sword-fighting classic, Knightriders.


The Book:

1st edition cover


Length: 1090 pages
Subject/Genre: Supernatural horror/Horror

It is easily one of King's most famous novels (along with others like The Shining, The Green Mile, The StandMisery, The Dead Zone, and Carrie).  It's probably the only one of the King novels I'm reviewing that an audience who had never read a King novel would know the plot of offhand.  But I'll summarize anyway.

The story takes place in the town of Derry, Maine, switching back and forth between 1958 and 1985.  Seven preteen misfits of the underdog-sports-movie variety, become friends.  Bill has a stutter, Ben is a fat nerd, Richie is a smart-ass with glasses, Eddie is a coddled hypochondriac, Beverly is a girl from the poor side of town, Mike is black, and Stan is Jewish, and they all live in a particularly violent town.   The novel starts when "Stuttering" Bill Denbrough's little brother is murdered, the first in a long chain of child murders/disappearances.  The 1958 discovery of the true nature of It, is split up with long sections from the friends in 1985.  They had made a pact that, should It, ever return, so would they, to kill It once and for all.  

While It takes many shapes, the one it most frequently assumes is that of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  As Beverly notes near the end of the novel: "[A] small child will sometimes laugh and cry at the same time when a capering circus clown approaches, knowing it is supposed to be funny... but it is also unknown, full of the unknown's eternal power." (ellipses part of the original quotation)  Like the clown, many of the forms It are either bizarre or come from the roster of classic horror movie monsters (e.g. werewolf, mummy, and at one point, Frankenstein's monster itself).  The effectiveness of this is largely dependent on your absorption in the novel.  If you're reading it as a horror novel, with the intent of enjoying the scares and identifying with the characters, it's effective.  If you're taking a step back, and analyzing everything, it's less so.    

But for all of It's horrors, a lot of the story is not about It so much as it is about these characters coming-of-age in the 1958 frame, and coming to terms with traumatic pasts in the 1985 frame.  It is one of King's strongest novels, and the characters' growth is one of, if not the, largest factors in this.  After all, King did write The Body, which is better known for its film adaptation, Stand By Me. Which leads to its own issues.  Too often the childhood segments get drowned in sentimentality, and take on the feel of a heart-warming period piece.  Not that this is inherently bad, it just doesn't really work in the context of the rest of the book.  Likewise, with certain plot aspects (e.g. the value of belief as a weapon against It or the introduction of the turtle) that, although logically consistent with the story, sometimes come across as too goofy or bizarre in a silly way. But then, in a book as long as It, something like that's bound to happen occasionally.

One reason It is the best-known of the King books I'm reviewing is it's popular film adaptation.  The 1990 two-part made-for-tv movie with Tim Curry as Pennywise has remained popular (or at least has maintained a cult following) since its release.



In a lot of ways, the book is darker than the film.   A lot of things that the film necessarily leaves off-screen (e.g. abuse, sex, etc) are explicit in the novel.  It's a solid horror novel.  It's also a good place to start for those looking to get into King's work, because it contains a number of tropes that appear often across his body of work (e.g., set in a mid-size town to mid-size city in Maine; child protagonists; a transcendent reality; a fascination with 1950's and earlier horror and sci-fi, etc).  That said, if you don't like horror novels, you won't like It.

Bestsellers of 1986:

1. It by Stephen King
2. Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy
3. Whirlwind by James Clavell
4. The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum
5. Hollywood Husbands by Jackie Collins
6. Wanderlust by Danielle Steel
7. I'll Take Manhattan by Judith Krantz
8. The Last of the Breed by Louis L'Amour
9. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
10. A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

Also Published in 1986:

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sources:

King, Stephen. It. 1986. New York: Signet, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Heart of Darkness: the Orson Welles Radio Adaptation










Welles bought the film rights to Heart of Darkness, and generated a script that was, sadly, never filmed.  Years later, though, Coppola made his masterpiece adaptation, Apocalypse Now.

Monday, September 1, 2014

1985: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean Auel

The Author:




Jean Auel (1936-    ) was born Jean Untinen and was born in Chicago.  In 1954, she married Ray Auel (pronounced 'owl'), with whom she had five children.  She attended the Portland State University (Oregon), and in 1976 received her M.B.A. from the University of Portland.  From the sixties through the seventies, she worked as a clerk in a tech company and later as a technical writer, before publishing her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the first book of the six part Earth's Children series and a commercial success.  The second book of the series, The Valley of Horses (1982) sold well, ending up sixth on that year's annual bestseller list, and the third and fourth books take the #1 spot in their respective years.  The fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone (2002), appeared seventh on the annual bestseller list, and the series was finished in 2011 with the publication of The Land of Painted Caves.




The Book:


1st Edition Cover


Length: 645 pages
Subject/Genre: Prehistoric Society/Historical Fiction

The Mammoth Hunters is the third novel in the Earth's Children series, so if you're dutifully warned of spoilers for the first two books.  The story takes place in prehistoric Europe, during the last ice age.  In the first book, Ayla, a young cro-magnon child, is orphaned and later adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals who refer to themselves as the clan.  Ayla deals with fundamental differences between herself and the Neanderthals.  The Neanderthals cannot communicate vocally and have access to racial memory, that is to say, the collective memory of the Neanderthal peoples.  Ayla is trained as a medicine woman but, due to the actions of a Neanderthal man who hates her, is exiled from the tribe.   In the second novel, Ayla sets up home in a cave, where she befriends and trains a cave lion cub and a horse.  Meanwhile, an eighteen year-old cro-magnon man, Jondalar, and his brother set out from their camp for a years-long journey.  The two men visit numerous societies.  Ayla's cave lion, when grown, leaves her and later ends up attacking Jondalar and his brother, injuring the former and killing the latter.  Ayla saves Jondalar and nurses him back to health, and for the first time is introduced to Cro-Magnon society. The two fall in love.    

In The Mammoth Hunters, Ayla, Jondalar, and Ayla's horse and it's foal, start the trek back to Jondalar's tribe.  Jondalar has explained to Ayla that there is a prevalent belief among the cro-magnons that the Neanderthals are no more than animals, incapable of complex thought, ritual, etc.  Dealing with anti-Neanderthal sentiment is common occurrence throughout the novel.   The two come across a camp of the Mamutoi, a jovial tribe of hunters.  Over the course of the novel, Ayla learns about Cro-Magnon society, continues to develop animal domestication and tools, and has her relationship with Jondalar put to the test.  This book largely focuses on Ayla's growing independence and understanding.  

That said, there are a couple things that really bother me, the first is the Forrest Gump approach to history, where one unassuming individual is responsible for multiple major innovations.  Ayla develops animal domestication, the sling, the harness, the travois, among other technologies and techniques.  All this is made more problematic by certain incongruities.  Contrary to the beliefs of everyone she meets, Ayla believes that sex leads to childbirth.  Yet, when she refers to the heart as a 'thing that pumps blood,' everyone knows what she means, despite the fact that even the early Greek physicians didn't know that.  Auel's desire to explore and explain early societies often supercedes what would make sense for her characters to do.    

The Mammoth Hunters seems to be equal parts domestic drama and infotainment.  

I like to look at the goodreads reviews to get contradictory opinions and to see if any impressions I get are common among those who read the book, and why the book is so popular.  Among the most positive reviews, the historical backing is what gets mentioned the most, and the steamy love triangle comes second. A common criticism that I wholeheartedly concur with is that Auel repeats herself far too much.  

In regards to the steamy love triangle mentioned in the above paragraph:  Auel's novels have been noted for their very frank and erotic sex scenes.  However, it comes across as something I'd expect to find in a harlequin romance novel as opposed to something like an Aimee Bender story. (And no, I'm not complaining that it's not written like a sex scene by Aimee Bender (or Toni Morrison, or Bret Easton Ellis, or Zora Neale Hurston, etc.), but rather trying to illustrate by comparison that a sex scene in a novel shouldn't suddenly change tone and be written in a gushy, wish-fulfillment, candlelight-and-mood-music kind of way.)    

Unless you're a huge fan of historical fiction and are interested in prehistoric societies, you probably shouldn't take on the Earth's Children series.



Bestsellers of 1985:

1. The Mammoth Hunters by Jean Auel
2. Texas by James Michener
3. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
4. If Tomorrow Comes by Sidney Sheldon
5. Skeleton Crew by Stephen King
6. Secrets by Danielle Steel
7. Contact by Carl Sagan
8. Lucky by Jackie Collins
9. Family Album by Danielle Steel
10. The Class by Erich Segal

Also Published in 1985:

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
White Noise by Don DeLillo
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a  Hat by Oliver Sacks
Gálapagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Sources:

Auel, Jane. The Mammoth Hunters. New York: Crown Publishers, 1985. Print.

"Jean M. Auel." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web.