Monday, November 24, 2014

How to Visit a Museum as a Tourist

First, arrive early.  This won't help avoid the crowds, but at least you'll be out in time for happy hour.  I arrived at the British Museum about twenty minutes before the majority of its exhibits opened, declined buying a £5 map, a £3 bottle of water, a £12 Rosetta stone tea cozy, and the London Bridge and made my way towards the entrance to the Egyptian Treasures exhibit.  Just in time to join the ranks of an elementary school class and a tour group of elderly Frenchmen, along with the myriad others like myself.  And at last the docents withdrew, the doors swung wide, and we swept through the threshold and into a gallery of human achievement.  Before me, encased in a glass cube, stood the black mass of the Rosetta stone.  The Rosetta Stone.  That artifact which opened the dark crypt of Egyptian mystery, that cipher to all the sphinx's riddles, that great translator of the ancients...   
I stood in awe... and directly in front of someone's camera.  

This was a trend I became increasingly aware of throughout the day.  Crossing any open space meant dodging a grid of invisible line-of-sights, ducking and weaving from one hall to the another.  But this isn't going to be a screed against incessant amateur photography.  While preventing this behavior may seem like a good idea, it would be more trouble than it's worth. (Although attempts have been made by putting all paintings behind a thin sheet of glass, thus, no matter where you stand, some part of the picture will be in glare.)  Rather, we must ask why people are taking these photos.  The answer, obviously, is to share them, and prove to others that they were there.  Yet it won't be too long before they catch on and realize that nearly every item in the museum has been extensively photographed by professional photographers (books of these photographs available for £15 at the gift shop).  It is only a matter of time before the discerning museum goer will realize the futility of the picture-taking.  This is not good news, because for many people, this will eliminate the need to visit the museum at all!   

So what is the modern museum director to do?  How does one make a museum endlessly photogenic?  The answer lies in the question.  Make the museum itself worth photographing.  One could start by arranging the items not by region or epoch, but by complementary or shocking juxtapositions.  The Rosetta Stone next to an Enigma machine.  A sarcophagus in a room decorated by Warhol paintings.  The permutations are endless, and, with frequent changes in layout, would inspire repeat visits, and plenty of snapshots.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Brief Update

On October 15th, I left the U.S. to travel across Europe.  Posts from that date through last Friday were written in advance, and scheduled to post (this post is being written in a hostel in Krakow, which was only reached after accidentally ending up in Slovakia).  As such, the main blog project, that is, the reviews of the bestsellers, will be postponed.  I will, however, keep updating the blog, with travel essays as well as photos and video of weird and literary sights from around the continent.

I'll just leave you with these bizarre statues from Prague:

"Who's a cute little unrelenting horror?  You are!"

Friday, November 14, 2014

Some Kafka

A couple oool videos for you today.  The first is an illustrated reading of Kafka's parable "Before the Law," read by Orson Welles.

The second is a little stranger.  It's Christopher Plummer recreating one of Nabokov's lectures, in this case, his lecture on Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Five of the Best Author/Director Cameos

#5: Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall

Probably one of the most famous film cameos for a writer, Marshall McLuhan's appearance in Annie Hall is still one of the great moments of film comedy.

#4: Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now

Coppola's appears briefly as a tv director during a battle scene. 

#3: Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Johnny Depp, as Thompson alter-ego Raoul Duke, drops enough acid to break down the fourth wall and see the real Thompson.

#2: Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

I was unfortunately unable to find any video of the appearance.  As far as cameos go, this is one of the most bizarre.  You have to remember that, until this point, there were no extant recordings of Pynchon.  Literally zero recordings of one of the most notable living American writers.  And then, in 2004, after nearly forty years of silence, he appears on the Simpsons.

#1: Kurt Vonnegut in Back to School

Back to School is a great 80s college movie starring Rodney Dangerfield and a before-he-was-famous Robert Downey Jr.  It also has one of the best used cameos I've ever seen.  (Also, I'm a huge Vonnegut fan, so I'm a little biased in my choice of #1.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

1995: The Rainmaker by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children.

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 28 novels, four children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.

The Book:

Length: 434 pages
Subject/Genre: Law/Courtroom thriller

The Rainmaker is the first person account of Rudy Baylor's last semester in law school, establishment of his career, and the giant case he lucked into.  Baylor is broke, working part time at a bar whose status as a front for illegal money is an open secret.  During his last semester, as part of a class Rudy helps advise some elderly retirees on legal matters.  He ends up renting a room from Mrs. Birdie Birdsong, an old woman whose will suggests a massive fortune, and he befriends, and later signs on, the Black family, whose son was wrongly denied a bone marrow transplant by their insurance company, Great Benefit.  After he graduates and multiple job possibilities fall through unexpectedly, he ends up working for "Bruiser" Stone, the crooked lawyer friend/accomplice of the bar owner.  It's here he befriends the bizarre Deck Shifflet, a would-be lawyer who can't pass the bar.  When Bruiser and the bar owner flee the country to avoid an FBI raid, Rudy and Deck start their own practice.  

The insurance case turns out to be the loose thread in a major cover-up, and novice Rudy is sent up against a corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the best lawyers money can buy. In the meantime, Rudy falls in love with Kelly Riker, a beautiful young woman who's married to an abusive lunatic.  

I usually don't like spoiling the endings, but it's pretty relevant here.  This is a David vs. Goliath story, with the lower middle class family and their broke rookie lawyer taking down a massive heartless organization.  It's pretty much a revenge fantasy against insurance companies.  Rudy, through various, usually legal, means, acquires tons of incriminating evidence against Great Benefit.  We the readers know this information ahead of time, so we're anticipating him springing it on them in court, and I can't lie, it's pretty satisfying.  Like I said, this is as much revenge fantasy as legal thriller.  
While the subject matter is dark at times, The Rainmaker has a lot more humor and sarcasm than The Chamber, and is what I'd describe as a fun book.  The film version was released in 1997.  The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starred Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, Danny DeVito as Deck Shifflet, Claire Danes as Kelly Riker, and John Voight as the opposing counsel, Leo F. Drummond.    

Like The Chamber, this is an entertaining read, but there's nothing here that a good tv law procedural doesn't have.  If you're looking for a fun time killer, try The Rainmaker.  If not, don't.

Bestsellers of 1995:

1. The Rainmaker by John Grisham
2. The Lost World by Michael Crichton
3. Five Days in Paris by Danielle Steel
4. The Christmas box by Richard Paul Evans
5. Lightning by Danielle Steel
6. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
7. Rose Madder by Stephen King
8. "L" is for Lawless by Sue Grafton
9. Politically Correct Holiday Stories by James Finn Garner
10. The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

Also Published in 1995:

The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
Blindness by Josè Saramango
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald


Grisham, John. The Rainmaker. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

"John Grisham." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Blade Runner: Aquarelle edition

I've already written a post about the complicated origins of Blade Runner. Swedish artist Anders Ramsell decided to take the movie as an inspiration.  His 35 minute paraphrasing of the original, is animated entirely with hand-made aquarelles, watercolor paintings 1.5 cm x 3 cm (0.6 x 1.2 inches). 12, 597 of them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ponies by Kij Johnson

One of my favorite contemporary short stories, and winner of the 2010 Nebula award for the short story, is "Ponies" by Kij Johnson.  You can read it here on or listen to a reading of it here.  (Sorry, audio player wouldn't embed.)