Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Spanish Earth

Fans of Hemingway (or anyone who's seen Hemingway and Gellhorn) will know that Hemingway, along with Gellhorn and Dos Passos, went to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War, in which the newly established Republic (the monarchy had recently abdicated control of the nation) was under siege by the general Franco, a fascist (I use this word in the technical, not hyperbolic, sense).  Franco received aid from Mussolini-led Italy and the Third Reich.  Hemingway and Dos Passos, with financial support from others (including authors Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman), went to Spain to film a documentary that would bring the plight of the Spanish Republic to the American people.  That film is The Spanish Earth.

If the sound seems strange, it's because they had no sound recording equipment with them in Spain.  All sounds were added in post-production.   Another point of interest: Ernest Hemingway himself reads the voice-over narration.  Orson Welles was originally hired to do it, but he and Hemingway had some issues:   

Monday, August 18, 2014

1983: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn

The Author:

James Kahn (1947-        ), no relation to yours truly, was born in Chicago.  Initially, Kahn pursued a career in medicine.  He received his M.D. from the University of Chicago in 1974 and worked as a trauma specialist.  In 1975 he married Jill Littlewood, an illustrator.  His first publications were a collection of poems written with Jerome McGann, titled Nerves with Patterns (1978) and a mystery novel, Diagnosis: Murder (1978).  After this, he published his best known original work, the New World Trilogy. The first book, World Enough and Time, was published in 1980. The other two were Time's Dark Laughter (1982) and Timefall (1987).  Kahn was briefly a consultant on the set of Spielberg's E.T. He introduced himself to Spielberg personally when he noticed the director had a copy of World Enough and Time. This led to Kahn's writing the novelization of Spielberg's Poltergeist (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), The Goonies (1985), and Poltergeist II (1986).  Since then, Kahn has mostly written for television, working on E/R, St. Elsewhere, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Xena, and soap operas like Melrose Place and All My Children.

The Book:

Length: 229 pages
Subject/Genre: Star Wars/Novelization

Whereas Kotzwinkle's E.T. filtered the movie through a different perspective, Kahn's Return of the Jedi is pretty much just a narrated version of the film.  Little bits of detail and character background are added in the book (e.g. a bit about Jabba the Hutt's past), but added details about Admiral Akbar don't really add much to the scene.  If nothing else, the novelization should allow for translation of non-English speaking characters, but this is only done to a limited extent.  Throughout the novel we get passages like the following:

"Boo-dEEp gaNOOng," whispered Artoo with concern.  

Likewise, Chewbacca is still only understood through Han's responses.  Jabba is given a bit more leeway with translation.  Also, there's a rousing speech by an Ewok convincing his people to fight.

Pictured: A being of dignity and grace

I'm having trouble reviewing this book because all it really is is a competent narration of the film.  The differences are negligible, generally taking the form of a paragraph or so of exposition on a character or location.  My advice is: watch the movie.  

But of course, in 1983, that wasn't necessarily an option.  In my review of the novelization of E.T., I discussed the high prices of VCR's and the limited film catalog.  Return of the Jedi was not released on VHS until 1986.  Short of going finding a theater that was stills showing it, the only option to re-experience the story was to buy the book.  Which, obviously, a lot of people did.  

Long story short, if I were to review the novel on the strength of its characters, plot, etc., I'd basically just be reviewing the film version.  There's nothing particularly noteworthy about Kahn's novelization, good or bad.  If you have a serious desire to watch Return of the Jedi, but for some reason are completely unable to, the novelization will fulfill said desire.  Otherwise, just watch the movie.

Bestselling novels of 1983:

1. Return of the Jedi by James Kahn
2. Poland by James Michener
3. Pet Sematary by Stephen King
4. The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré
5. Christine by Stephen King
6. Changes by Danielle Steele
7. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
8. White Gold Wielder by Stephen Donaldson
9. Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins
10. The Lonesome Gods by Louis L'Amour

Also published in 1983:

Shakespeare's Memory by Jorge Luis Borges
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (first of the Discworld series)
Shame by Salman Rushdie
Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon

"James Kahn." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web.

Kahn, James. Return of the Jedi. 1983. New York: Ballantine, 1995. Print.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Musical Collaborations of Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg is one of the central poets of the Beat movement, and of the post-war literary counter-culture in its entirety.  A friend of Kerouac, Kesey, and Hunter S. Thompson, Ginsberg was in some way present in most of the literature of his time.  It's not so surprising to discover, then, that he was involved with musicians as well as writers.    

Here's a video Kesey and Paul McCartney performing in 1995 at The Royal Albert Hall:

And a recording of him reciting Capitol Air with The Clash in Times Square:

And a recording of an early 70s collaboration between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan:

Dylan and Ginsberg collaborated on a couple albums worth of songs, including, oddly enough, some William Blake poems set to music:  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Paris Review Interviews

Paris Review has spent decades interviewing the greatest writers from across the world.  From the 1950s, when they interviewed Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, James Thurber, Hemingway, Capote, Faulkner, E.M. Forster, Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison and others, to the current decade where they interview Ray Bradbury, Bret Easton Ellis, Jeffrey Eugenides, R. Crumb, David Mitchell, and Ursula K. LeGuin.   

And guess what?  They're all available to read online, in their entirety, for free.

Monday, August 11, 2014

1982: E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle

The Author:

William Kotzwinkle (1938-      ) was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania.  He dropped out of Penn State in 1957 and headed to New York where he worked as a short-order cook and later as an editor before publishing his first piece, a children's story titled The Fireman (1969).  A prolific author, he published eleven children's books and eight adult novels in 1970s, winning the O. Henry Prize in 1975 and the World Fantasy Award for Doctor Rat (1976).  In 1982, Steven Spielberg, impressed by Kotwinkle's novel about the Greenwich Village art scene (The Fan Man, 1974), asked Kotzwinkle to write the novelization of Melissa Mathison's screenplay for his upcoming film, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  This prompted a sequel, E.T., the Book of the Green Planet: A New Novel (1985).  (He also wrote the novelization of Superman III, which we as a society should just collectively forget.)  Since then, Kotzwinkle has remained prolific and eclectic, writing everything from a novel about a fading Hollywood star who slips into the consciousness of a WWII German black-marketeer (The Exile, 1987) to a series of children's books with the self-explanatory title, Walter, the Farting Dog.

The Book:

Length: 265 pages
Subject/Genre: Aliens/Movie Novelization

While I think it's safe to assume everyone here has seen Steven Spielberg's E.T., a quick recap for anyone who's forgotten.  A spaceship lands in a forest and a bunch of aliens start collecting plant samples.  Government officials show up, causing the aliens to evacuate, except for one who gets left behind.  He finds his way into a suburb and befriends Elliott.  Elliott, along with his big brother and little sister, have to hide E.T. from their mom and the outside world while helping him build a device to send a signal to his shipmates.  E.T. and Elliott develop a somewhat telepathic connection, they both get sick, but recover.  The mom discovers E.T. as do the government agents.  But they escape and E.T.'s ship comes back for him and he flies off into the cosmos.  Roll credits.  

Kotzwinkle's novelization is actually highly-regarded as a stand-alone piece of Sci-fi. One thing that the novel does that the film couldn't do is tell much of the story through E.T.'s perspective.  In addition to learning a lot about E.T.'s background (he's 10 million years old, for example), we find out he can communicate with plants and animals (and cheese apparently).  This does lead to interesting questions about the ethics of eating a salad when all its components are sentient.  

The novel, like the film, starts with the ship's landing.  In this version, E.T., we discover, is a bit of a daredevil, who decides to sneak into the suburb, something none of his species had done before. This is why he, specifically, gets left behind.  The novel then cuts to Elliott's household, where Elliott and his friends are playing Dungeons & Dragons while his mother, Mary, sits in the other room doing her best Jewish Mother impression:

"Have I raised my babies to be Dungeon Masters? For that, I work eight hours a day?"  

While the mother may have been a bit uptight in the movies, in the novel she comes across as uptight and extremely paranoid. After the family dog, Harvey, barks at E.T.'s passing, Mary, upstairs notes that:

"The animal was ridiculously suspicious of things that passed in the dark; it made her feel the neighborhood was filled with sex fiends."    

Guess how many times the words "pervert" or "sex fiend" to show up in  a novelization of E.T.?  The answer is "a lot more than you'd expect."  After Elliott throws a ball into the toolshed, only to have something (i.e. E.T.) throw it back out at him, he comes back into the house, screaming about something hiding in the shed.

"She drew herself up, tossed her head bravely, and grabbed the flashlight.  If it was a sex fiend, she'd go out and, like a mother partridge, offer herself as a decoy.

She just hoped it was a halfway charming fiend."  

Putting aside any ornithological uncertainties I might have, what the heck?!  The mom consistently comes across as a twitching bundle of neuroses, insecurities, and delusions. The problem is, I keep expecting her to be a mom more in line with the movie, flawed, but not on the verge of a complete mental breakdown.  The other characters don't fare any better.  Here's our description of Elliott:

"All in all, a blossoming neurotic, a twerp. His path in life led nowhere, but if a place could be pointed to on a map of the soul, Elliott's destination was mediocrity, miserliness, and melancholy; the sort of person who falls under a train."    

It also recontextualizes some famous scenes.  One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Gertie (the little sister, played by a six-year-old Drew Barrymore) meets E.T. for the first time.  She screams which scares E.T. into screaming and slapstick. But what went through Mary's mind?

"'Oh, God...' She rose from the kitchen table.  What savage ritual was her family enacting now?  It sounded like they were pulling Gertie's pants down.  In twenty years, Gertie'd be trying to recollect it, on a psychiatrist's couch."  

SERIOUSLY?!  Why is this the first thing that comes into her mind?  She is pathologically determined to believe her kids are all drug-addled sexual deviants, and it's really freakin' weird.

But to be fair, she may have good reason to think this, considering Elliott's friends:

"He stared at Elliott, who, so far as he knew, had been like every other brother in the world, taking pleasure in playing with his sister only when the game was interesting--for example, tickling her until she nearly had a nervous breakdown, a game he often enjoyed with his own sister.  Or tying her to a tree and then tickling her.  Or crashing into the bathroom with four or five other guys while she was taking a bath, and then standing around laughing while she screamed.  Those were the right games.  But this?  Thoughtful drops of spittle ran of Greg's lower lip, onto his neon shirt."    

The tone of the novel is incredibly different from that of the movie.  As I mentioned earlier, the novel is largely through E.T.'s perspective, which, I think, kind of explains much of this tone shift.  The movie is about an average kid who finds an alien and has to help the alien get home.  The novel is a ten-million year old botanist from a technologically advanced society who finds himself stranded amidst a bunch of far inferior creatures (although, E.T. frequently comes across less as a genius and more as some kind of slapstick-savant).  The major conflict then becomes: How can E.T. get this fundamentally dysfunctional family to pull itself together and get him off this planet?  The tone is much less innocent and wondrous, although it frequently has moments of awe and depth.  

Strangely enough, I liked the novel because of it's relative darkness, that is, once I got past my initial confusion.  Once I stopped constantly comparing it to my memories of the film, I realized that it's a solid SF/F young adult novel.  

But how did a novelization, albeit of a very popular film, get to be the #1 bestseller of the year.  This is at least partially a case of technological limitations.  The first VCR's were released in 1970's, but were extremely expensive and very few had films were available on VHS.   Even into the beginning of the 1980s, the future of the VCR was unclear.  VCR was competing with the technologically superior Betamax, and the important Sony vs. Universal case didn't reach the supreme court until 1984.  The fact is, in 1982, if you wanted to rewatch a movie you either had to shell out a lot of cash for a VHS or Betamax (and for copy of the film) or wait for it to air on TV.  Or you could buy the novelization. Novelizations filled a niche that really doesn't exist anymore.  


While E.T. is still famous, Kotzwinkle's novelization had some notable consequences.  I personally believe (though can't prove), that the success and quality of his E.T. was responsible for Kahn's Return of the Jedi taking the top spot in 1983.  It also influenced the design of the (since replaced) E.T. ride at Universal Studios (this may seem like a useless tidbit, but anyone who grew up going to Universal Studios will have many fond memories of this).    

Kotzwinkle's E.T. is a strange and entertaining supplement to the film, with all the events filtered through a radically different perspective.

Bestsellers of 1982:

1. E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle
2. Space by James Michener
3. The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
4. Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon
5. Mistral's Daughter by Judith Krantz
6. The Valley of Horses by Jean Auel
7. Different Seasons by Stephen King
8. North and South by John Jakes
9. 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke
10. The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett

Also published in 1982:

The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
The BFG by Roald Dahl
Noises Off by Michael Frayn
Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally
Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
The Color Purple by Alice Walker


Kotzwinkle, William. E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial. 1982. New York: Scribner, 2002. Print.

"William Kotzwinkle." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Sudden Fiction International (1989)

    Is this guy reviewing an anthology?  People actually read these if they're not on a syllabus somewhere?  Why?    

    A good anthology is better than the sum of its parts, and Sudden Fiction International is a good anthology.  The anthology is the follow up to the 1983 anthology, Sudden Fiction: American Short-short Stories (which I haven't read.  I'm a denizen of used bookstores, so when something like the book reviewed here catches my eye, it's not necessarily because of any previous exposure). As the cover clearly states, the anthology contains sixty stories, by sixty different authors from around the world.  This includes big names: Margaret Atwood (Canadian), Donald Barthelme and Joyce Carol Oates (American), Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar (Argentine), Isak Dinesen (Dutch), Italo Calvino (Italian), and Heirich Böll (German), as well as other famous and lesser known authors from every continent (excluding Antarctica).    

   With any anthology, there will be stories suited to you own tastes, and some that just don't strike home.  In this anthology, those that fall into the latter category are still strong stories, and worth reading.  The variety of style and content allows the anthology to cover a wide variety of topics, everything from cursed diamonds (On Hope by Spencer Holst), race in the Eastern Bloc (An Insolvable Problem of Genetics by Josef Škvorecký), the end of childhood (Iguana Hunting by Hernán Lara Zavala), or the meta-fictional consequences of squashing cockroaches (The Fifth Story by Clarice Lispecter).    

   Anthologies are a great way to get introduced to new writers and styles, and you're practically guaranteed to find at least one story that you'd never have read otherwise that fascinates you (for me, this was Dino Buzzati's The Falling Girl and Peter Carey's The Last Days of a Famous Mime).   

  In addition to the stories, Sudden Fiction International has a section with brief biographies on all the authors, as well as solicited comments on the sudden fiction form (i.e. statements made specifically for this anthology).  Among the bios, there's everything from an additional short-short story, to a brief history of the short-short story in ancient China, to William Weaver explaining the process of translating Cosmicomics, all of which forms an unexpected bonus to an already strong anthology.

  If you like very short stories, or want to get introduced to the form, this would be a great choice.

Book info:    

Shapard, Robert, and Thomas, James, eds. Sudden Fiction International. New York: Norton, 

ISBN: 978-0393-30613-2



Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Robert Coover Discussing the Mainstream

Robert Coover is one of the great living American avant-garde writers.  His work frequently deals with the interplay between media and reality, in short stories like The Babysitter (collected in Pricksongs & Descants), collections like A Night at the Movies, as well as being a major part in his novels and novellas.  A contemporary of John Barth and Donald Barthelme, Coover is a major advocate of hypertext fiction and continuing to push literature into unexplored territories.