Friday, May 22, 2015

Before and After Quiz #6

Time for round six.

1. A rich and notable boy wizard finds a potions book that allows him to trade lives with an anonymous peasant.

2. Viola disguises herself as a man in order to escape a rural farmhouse besieged by zombies.

3. Charlie is an introverted but intelligent high schooler, whose questions about friendship, sex, and substances only become more urgent as the effects of the experimental treatment to cure his mental retardation begin to fade.

4. In this classic beat novel, two drugged out twenty-somethings head out west in search of the lost city of gold.

5. After losing all his limbs in WWI, a soldier must solve a murder despite the wishes of crime lords, super-intelligent babies, and talking kangaroos.

Scroll down for the answers!

1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and the Pauper - from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005) and The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain (1881)

2. Twelfth Night of the Living Dead - from William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (1602) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflowers for Algernon - from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999) and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
4. On the Road to El Dorado - from On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957) and Disney's The Road to El Dorado (2000

5. Johnny Got His Gun, with Occasional Music - from Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (1939) and Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem (1994)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

You Never Forget Your First Time (Watching Eraserhead)

I first saw Eraserhead on Halloween night in an abandoned office building in Berlin.  That's not a joke.  It was the Halloween party for the Berlin Film Society, a film enthusiast club that specializes in pop-up cinema, screening interesting films in unexpected locations.  This was an empty office building in what was once East Berlin, one of those blocky grey concrete-and-glass structure, with a small table for the ticket takers in the bare lobby.  I had found out about the event while searching for something to do Halloween night (Halloween isn't as widely celebrated in Europe as it is in the U.S.).

 Nearly the entire second floor of the building was used for the event, with a full bar, a large selection of free donuts, and eerie lighting.

I was there on the early side, so I chatted with the bartenders a bit, one German and the other from SoCal.  (According to the German one, the absence of 40 oz. beers in the Germany is an untapped market.)  I should mention that not only was the screening and afterparty costume optional, the advertisements promised a free shot of vodka to all who came dressed as a David Lynch character.

David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), whether you love it or hate it, will stick in your memory forever.  The protagonist is especially memorable.  But how and when you see a movie has large impact on how you think of it.  As mentioned earlier, there was an afterparty, which was still going strong when I left sometime around four in the morning.  But more than watching Eraserhead in an abandoned German office building, or watching next to an exchange student dressed as Pikachu, or attending the subsequent afterparty dj'ed by a guy in a paper David Lynch mask:

"Ain't no party like a David Lynch party 'cuz a David Lynch party
 don't stop screaming, oh, god, why won't it stop screaming!?
No, more than any of that, it was one guy, one guy who came dressed as Henry, the film's protagonist, only taller, as if the movie were played with the wrong aspect ratio. Throughout the entire party, from the time it started to when I left, he was dancing, which would have been weird enough except for the fact that he seemed to have gotten all his moves from Saturday Night Fever.

photo from

This was the only image I was able to find online, and it's not a particularly good one. (I guess at some point he lost the suit jacket.)  While I certainly approve of showing people Eraserhead then offering to sell them alcohol as a business plan, the experience was certainly strange.  And now, whenever I think about the film, I remember blue-lit donuts, German pop music, overpriced whiskey, and this weird guy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Voices from Beyond

It's always interesting to find how things we've taken for granted were understood upon their inception.  Over the course of this blog, I've included video of Truman Capote, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle and others who were speaking from the other side.  Today, this would seem rather commonplace, but how were the first cases of such a post-mortem lectures received?  Well, the Paris Review is here to tell us.

It includes an unfortunately grainy recording of Robert Browning on an Edison Talking machine from less than a year before his death in 1889.

 A year later, on the first anniversary of his death, the cylinder was played.  According to the London Times report on the event:

"Today was the anniversary or Robert Browning's singular commemoration of it, an event unique in the history of science and of strange sympathetic significance took place at the Edison house.  The voice of the dead man was heard speaking.  This is the first time that Robert Browning's or any other voice has been heard from beyond the grave."

The first, but far from the last.  Of course voice recording soon picked up.  Although, the Edison talking doll couldn't have helped matters much.  What follows is the real recording of the Edison Talking Doll and holy shit is it horrifying.

Monday, May 18, 2015

2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

The Author:

Erika Mitchell (1963-    ) was born in London.  She was raised in Buckinghamshire where her father was a BBC cameraman.  She went on to study history at the University of Kent, and later became a television producer.  She married screenwriter Niall Leonard in 1987.  She became active on and in 2010 began publishing a series of erotic stories under the username Snowqueen's Icedragon, rewriting Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series with Edward as an S&M billionaire playboy.  She originally called it Master of the Universe in what I can only hope is the most bizarre Bonfire of the Vanities reference ever.  Mitchell rewrote the series enough to avoid an intellectual property lawsuit and published it under the title Fifty Shades of Grey.  The first two books in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, were originally published as an e-book or print on demand by Australian vanity publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop, and the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, was published in 2012.

The Book:

Length: 514 pages
Subject/Genre: Christian's unremitting gaze/erotica

Well, this was it.  From the very beginning, since that first post back in February 2013, this was my white whale. (And I realize I just passed up an opportunity for a 'grey' pun, but no.  I am better than that.) While I'd honestly rather have reread all the damn technical chapters from Moby Dick than any of the technical details about Christian Grey's dick, sacrifices must be made.  Here goes.

Think about a Twilight erotic fan fiction story where Edward is replaced by a billionaire who's into bondage.  Actually, don't think about it.  It's awful.  I know because I read the result.  And the fact is, a lot of the fanfic carried over.  Bella Anastasia, the narrator, is clumsy and describes herself as plain and uninteresting (the first and last any reader of 50 Shades can attest to).  Though she describes herself as such, for some reason, just like that vampire groupie who shall not be named (lest the Meyer estate sue), every one is in love with her. Seriously, every guy that gets more than five lines and isn't her stepdad wants to bone Anastasia, despite the fact that she is downright awful.  She has absolutely no personality.  She's an English major in Vancouver, Washington with a part-time job in a hardware store. She and her roommate/best friend plan to move to Seattle when they graduate.  So what does Anastasia want to do?  She plans to get a job in a publishing firm, but does she want to be a publisher? An editor?  What are her opinions on anything besides 19th century literature and Christian Grey's omnipresent gaze.

(And as for the gaze, how many hundreds of times is this specifically mentioned throughout the book?   It's like if the billboard of T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby were trying to mentally undress Daisy every other paragraph.)

And Christian isn't much better.  Despite what 50 Shades of Grey fans may think, 'well-hung' is not a character trait.  He and Anastasia are blank slates for readers to imprint their kinky fantasies on.  (On an unrelated note, the copy I picked up from a used bookstore has slight water damage.)

The obvious response is: well, it's porn.  To which my response is: Yeah, but it's terrible porn.  Anaïs Nin and Marguerite Duras and Henry Miller and, I assume, many others (I don't know much about erotica as a genre), have shown that libertine writing/erotica can still be (gasp!) well-written.  I literally just opened up to a random page and found these gems:

"Holy Moses, he's all mine to play with, and suddenly it's Christmas."

"'It's deep this way,' he murmurs."

"I thought I was in charge. My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream."

I don't mean to be hard on James, though.  She was never trying to write anything more than her sexual fantasy (which just happened to star the cast of a YA paranormal romance novel),  and when it got some popularity, she thought she'd make a bit of money off it.  That it became an international sensation (pun intended) was never anticipated.  And I'm not exaggerating when I say international.  Last November I was in Prague, and walking down a street I passed a sex shop.  I wouldn't have even noticed it were it not for a big poster advertising the author-approved Fifty Shades of Grey sex kit.  No, this wasn't some scuzzy central European Taken-esque trap, but an official, very real product.

"You've read the book, now insert it into an orifice!"

There was an attempt at making a porn parody of Fifty Shades of Grey (because apparently everything from the Adam West Batman series to 30 Rock has gotten porn parodies), but the lawyers got it shut down because they argued it was not transformative, i.e. the original was too close to porn anyway.  Also, the above links are SFW to youtube trailers, and, I shit you not, the advertisement that played before the latter was for the DVD of 50 Shades of Grey.  I can't make this up.  (I mean, I could, but I'm not.)

Speaking of the movie, the adaptation was released on Valentine's Day, 2015.  It stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan and was directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (her second film, her first being Nowhere Boy (2009)) and screenplay by Kelly Marcel (her second film, her first being Saving Mr. Banks (2013)), because apparently someone thought making a John Lennon biopic and a film about Tom Hanks being charming  asWalt Disney was good background for bondage porn.  While there may never have been a chance, I'd be remiss not to point out that Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero) publicly declared his desire to write the screenplay, but nothing ever came of that.

I'm not quite sure who is supposed to like this movie, besides the executives and their accountants, of course.  The whole point of the book is literally being porn, and even a good movie like Blue Valentine barely escaped an NC-17.  The whole selling point was, It's a porn book! but that doesn't really carry over to a movie (or, at least not to the type they screen at your local cineplex).  On the other hand, the characters range from fucking dull to just fucking, so when you eliminate the latter, you end up with boring characters.  From the get-go, there was no way this movie would satisfy any of it fans (pun intended).  

In conclusion:

Holy shit, is this bad, but holy hell, is it erotic.  I mean, is it erotic?  I tend to think there's a difference between graphically sexual and erotic.  To steal from Nin, writing to the mysterious benefactor who paid her a dollar a page to write erotica, but constantly demanded 'more sex, less poetry,':

"You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it.  Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional.  This is what gives sex its surprising textures, it's subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements."

So I guess, what I'm saying is, screw this book (and I think I need to point out that this is not a recommendation to literally screw this book).

But seriously, you can derive everything beneficial from the experience by watching the following (SFW, except for language) video.

Bestsellers of 2012:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
4. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
8. Fifty Shades Trilogy Box Set by E.L. James
9. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Also Published in 2012:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Railsea by China Miéville
Home by Toni Morrison


Boog, Jason. "The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey." GalleyCat. Adweek, Nov. 21, 2012. Web.

Brennan, Zoe. "E.L. James: The Shy Housewife Behind Fifty Shades of Grey." The Telegraph.
     Telegraph Media Group, July 07, 2012. Web.

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. 2011. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Before and After Quiz #6

Same rules as always and answers at the bottom!

1. A brilliant and hubristic meth cook seeks redemption by coaching a ragtag little league team.

2. A SPECTRE mad scientist hopes to single-handedly stop a drug-money murder spree in small town Texas.

3. An anthology of inspirational stories dealing with what it means to be African-American at the beginning of the twentieth century.

4. An excruciating psychological procedure renders a criminal harmless, allowing the criminal to be transferred to a minimum security women's prison.

5. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a teenager and his telepathic pet must rob a bank to pay for a sex change operation.

Answers below!

1. Breaking Bad News Bears - from Breaking Bad  (tv show 2008-2013) and The Bad News Bears (film 1976)

2. Dr. No Country for Old Men - from Dr. No (novel by Ian Fleming, 1958, film 1962) and No Country for Old Men (novel by Cormac McCarthy, 2005, film 2007 )

3. Chicken Soup for the Souls of Black Folk - from Chicken Soup for the Soul, (series 1993-present) and The Souls of Black Folk (Essays by W.E.B. DuBouis, 1903)

4. A Clockwork Orange is the New Black - from A Clockwork Orange (novel by Anthony Burgess, 1962 and film 1971) and Orange is the New Black (memoir by Piper Kerman, 2010, and tv series 2013-present)

5. A Boy and His Dog Day Afternoon- from A Boy and His Dog (novella by Harlan Ellison, 1969, film 1975) and Dog Day Afternoon (film, 1975)  

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

Gabriel García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping (1996).  It's a non-fiction account of the abduction of ten journalists and/or their relatives by Pablo Escobar in the early 1990's, tied in with the legal/political framework of the Colombian governments attempts to curb narcoterrorism.  I didn't know much about the subject before reading this book, and Márquez is writing to a Colombian audience, so there are some aspects of the social/political background that aren't immediately apparent to an American audience.  But overall it's a fascinating account of the captivity and political maneuvering surrounding these abductions.

I also read Charles Lee's The Hidden Public (1958) for research.  It's a history of the book-of-the-month club from its inception in 1926 up through 1958.  Lee is clearly a fan of the club, and at times the book reads like an internally produced 'history of our company', but it provides a lot of information clearly and Lee was given access to BOMC's records.

I've just begun Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975).  It's pretty hilarious so-far, and seems like a mix of Thomas Pynchon and Douglas Adams (think The Crying of Lot 49 meets The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul).  One of the main characters names happens to be Saul Goodman, which can be a bit distracting, kind of like Homer Simpson in Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust.  Shea and Wilson have Pynchon and Adams's taste for bizarre character names, like Hagbard Celine, Harry Coin, and, no shit, Sasparilla Godzilla (but honestly, is that really much weirder than names like Sauncho Smilax or Dirk Gently).  Even Saul Goodman is a silly name (S'all good, man).

I've also been watching some of the original Twilight Zone series on Netflix.  While there are a handful that get replayed frequently, the rest of the series holds up surprisingly well.  The tenth episode, Judgment Night, is worthy of being a classic.  The twist is expected, but the execution is superb.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Finally Get Around to Responding to Your Comments (and an announcement)

As those of you who have been kind enough to comment on my posts (and aren't spambots) probably know, I am absolutely terrible about responding.  The cases where I have responded are few and far between, and I apologize.  So, here and now, I'll respond to some.

On the post 100 Years, 94 books:

Julia Jones wrote (way back on February 22nd, 2013):

Hi Matt. I've just published Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory which is a study of a anonymous hack writer of best selling periodical fiction - all instalments, never published between covers. Therefore quite different from books on your list - different class of reader for one. The interest we share, however, is the correlation between mass popularity and social change / public obsessions. The PhD on which I based my book + all research materials are available free at or via my website 
One piece of advice which I'm sure you don't need, is don't sneer at your material or it's readers. So easy to be intellectual snobby about popular fic. So wrong.

I try to avoid sneering, but I'm not above calling out fault where I see it.  There's plenty of pop fic that I enjoy or at the very least is competently written (some early Clancy or Grisham or Ludlum).  I will and have called out people for lazy or lousy writing, and, at least in the case of Grisham's The Appeal, I called out fans, or at least a specific group of fans.

On February 26th, 2013, Mike wrote:

Glancing down this list, it's hard to miss the impact of Hollywood on the popularity of books. Or is it Hollywood's fascination with the most popular books? I think it's the former.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  

On August 28th, 2013, Emma Lavoie wrote:

Thank you so much for the wonderful book! I finished it a few days ago and cannot get it out of my head. It is pure magic. It was everything I hoped it would be and much more. Thank you so much. You are a great writer... EL James.

I think you have me confused with someone else.

On April 14, 2014, Munboy wrote:

Love the idea and look forward to reading your reviews... One thing, though. The background is horrible and makes your site extremely hard to read on my phone.

I am so sorry it took me forever to get around to fixing this.  

Jennifer R. Hubbard wrote:

I've read this twice and think of it as one of the "War is bad" books. But by now, that message has been said and shown so many times. I'm thinking now the real question for literature to address is not, "Is war bad?" or "How bad is war?" but, "Since we've all been saying that war is bad for so many years, how come we keep engaging in it? What's the attraction? Why do we keep sticking our hands in that fan blade even though we know it's going to be a gory mess?"

That's a great point.  I think Remarque does ask this question, which was especially relevant in a war without any clear moral or philosophical underpinnings.  The soldiers were all average folk who didn't particularly want to be there, but found that they had no choice.  I think another question that Remarque asks, and continues to be asked by other writers, is "what does war do to people and society?"  

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I recently read this novel. I think I expected a lot of noble, sentiment, but what I got was an incredibly vibrant book, full of life, action, and an almost cinematic realism. Yes, the book is anti-war, but it succeeds as an anti- war novel because it imbues it's characters with such life that you feel the tragic waste in every loss of life. I had never imagined that a novel this old--and a "classic" to boot--would be so filled with life!

There are plenty of classics that are incredibly vibrant, but the ones that are often touted in high schools and colleges are the ones that are far more formally structured and, for lack of a better term, crystallized.  Check out Henry  Miller's Tropic of Cancer or Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun.

spacepotatoes wrote:

It was interesting to see Capote's thoughts on friendship. I read a Vanity Fair article not too long ago about Capote losing several good friends just a few years before this interview because of the way he used them in his writing.

He certainly did.  For years he had been promising to present his magnum opus, but never produced anything.  Eventually, his agent convinced him to publish pieces of what later became Answered Prayers, most notably (and infamously) La Côte Basque 1965 which presented intimate details of high society figures.

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I'll bet that when you started this project, filled with youthful enthusiasm, you didn't anticipate that you would end up slogging your way through the swamp of Grisham, Dan Brown, and--worst of all--Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. A trip through the sewers of Paris would be more be a more pleasurable experience!

You're right, and possibly psychic.  You posted this three days before I flew from Porto to Paris.  (Which meant I arrived about 12 hours after the Charlie Hebdo massacre)

Paul Gottlieb wrote:

I am not a John Grisham fan, and I think your review of “The Appeal” is mostly spot on. But I have to take strenuous exception to one point you made: To anyone familiar with the real-life behavior and attitudes of the Walton Family, The Koch brothers, or West Virginia coal magnate Don Blankenship, the portrait of Carl Trudeau seems like an accurate, perhaps slightly flattering, depiction of a modern Oligarch. Compared to his real-life counterparts, Lex Luthor seems relatively harmless, perhaps even just misunderstood.

The problem is that Trudeau is constantly performing, even when he's completely alone, he acts like he's in a bad soap opera and is desperately trying to get the audience to understand that he's the bad guy.  Even the Koch brothers must have hobbies besides evil monologizing.

In response to 2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson:

yellojkt wrote:

The level of sexual violence and the authorial wish-fulfillment place on the main character can be a bit off-putting.

True.  I guess after reading Gravity's Rainbow and American Psycho, this series is less shocking to me, but you're right.  The wish-fulfillment is more forgivable, but yeah, this novel is an investigative journalist writing about a crime-solving investigative journalist.  

I'd like to thank, en masse, everyone who wished me well.   I'd also like to thank a few commenters specifically for consistently providing interesting and thought provoking posts (even if I've been too lazy to respond to them).

Capewood has been reading through the list, and posting his thoughts on the book's original review pages.  If you're reading this, there is a free (and legal) copy of So Big online at (this is the internet archive's library site).   The link is

Paul Gottlieb, Allen Knutson, Jennifer R. Hubbard, yellojkt, and Man of la book:  I'd like to thank you also for following me for so long and for your wonderful comments.

And my mom reads this and always mentions how she doesn't want to leave comments because she thinks it would be embarrassing for me.   It's not embarrassing, and you can make up a username if you want.  

Now, for the announcement.  

As you probably realize, I'm getting close to the end of my list.  And the question you're probably asking is: What next?   Well, here's the answer.

By the time I finish the last book in the bestseller review series, I'll have a weekly Monday-Friday post schedule.

Monday: Alternates between "From Page to Screen to Screen" and "Raiders of the Public Domain"

I'll explain what those are after the rest of the schedule

Tuesday:  Links from around the web

Wednesday: Mini-essay, anecdote, etc.

Thursday: What I'm Reading/Watching

Friday: Before and After Quiz.

Anyway, as for what those things on Monday are.  

As I've been doing this project, I found that not only were a lot of these novels given film adaptations, but many were given multiple film adaptations.  So this got me thinking about source material that had been adapted to the screen numerous times.  So, From Page to Screen to Screen will look at novels, stories, and plays that have multiple film adaptations, and will include reviews of the films and a decision on which is the best adaptation and which the best film.  The first installment will be on Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers," and the two film adaptation: the 1946 Lancaster/Gardner film noir and the 1964 John Cassavetes/Angie Dickinson film with Reagan as one of the villains.  

"Raiders of the Public Domain" will be an original piece of long fiction, published serially.  I won't give anything away now, so you'll just have to wait and see.