Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Films Written by Famous Novelists

The relationship between cinema and literature is a complex give and take.  One thing I've learned from my project is that the two forms of media are inextricably linked.  So it comes as no surprise that novelists will sometimes write film scripts.  What does come as a surprise are the specific examples I've dug up.

#1 The Big Sleep                                                          

The Big Sleep is one of the most famous film noir movies ever made.  Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the 1946 film is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler.  Set in Los Angeles, California, The Big Sleep (the book and movie) is largely responsible for defining the the hard-boiled crime novel.  So, who did the studios get to write it?  Chandler?  Dashiell Hammett? James Cain?

                                                   ...Written by William Faulkner

William Faulkner, known and acclaimed for his novels about the post-Civil War South.  While the subject matter may seem a surprising departure from Faulkner's usual area of interest, the complex (perhaps even convoluted) manner of storytelling is right up Faulkner's alley

#2 Pride and Prejudice                                               

The 1940 version of Jane Austen's 1813 novel of the same name, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier is considered a masterpiece.  At the same time a love story and a criticism of the society she lived in, Austen's novel could draw any number of screenwriters.

                                                  ...Written by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley, best known for Brave New World, seems an unlikely, if appropriate, choice for screenwriter.  The exaggeration stylistically inherent in romantic era literature leads people to forget that, like Huxley, Austen was a satirist.  And while people think of Huxley in terms of futurism, other novels of his (like Crome Yellow), are contemporary critiques on British society.  Huxley also wrote the screenplay for the 1943 version of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine.

#3 Moby Dick                                              

There have only been a couple film versions of Melville's 1851 novel.  In fact, putting aside the Made-for-TV movies, only three film version have been theatrically released: the 1926 silent film, The Sea Beast, a 1930 version that is only very loosely connected to the novel, and the 1956 version starring Gregory Peck as Ahab.  Who would you get to write something like this?  Hemingway, maybe?  

                                                       ...Written by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, best known as a science fiction/fantasy writer, and author of works including Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes, is not what anyone would expect for a project like this.  But hey, you can't argue with results.

#4 Sex and the Single Girl                                 

In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown published the non-fiction advice book, Sex and the Single Girl, advocating sexual freedom for women.  The 1964 film is a farce centering around Dr. Helen Gurley Brown (the fictional version having apparently earned a PhD.) played by Natalie Wood, also starring Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda, and Lauren Bacall.  So, a raunchy sex comedy (by 1960's standards).  Maybe Jacqueline Susann?  Sidney Sheldon won an Oscar for this kind of thing (1947's The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer).

                                                         ...Written by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller!?  The man is famous for his gallows humor!  He wrote Catch-22, one of the finest novels of his generation.  That said, he didn't seem to get the same critical respect for the films he worked on.  Sex and the Single Girl was a financially successful critical failure.  As was 1967's Peter Seller's spy spoof, Casino Royale (for which Heller remained uncredited).  His only other screenplay, 1970's Dirty Dingus Magee, seems to have not really gained any traction.

#5 You Only Live Twice                              

Ninjas! Space Kidnappings! Evil Cat-Guy!  It's got the crazy over the top action of a Roger Moore Bond Movie, but the suavity of Sean Connery!  While a pretty serious departure from Ian Fleming's novel, it must have been written by some action/espionage writer, right?

                                                                  ...Written by Roald Dahl

The man who brought the world Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, and James and the Giant Peach, also brought us an awesome spy/action/adventure movie.  This isn't only time Dahl adapted one of Fleming's novels.  Ian Fleming wrote a novel titled Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car.  Roald Dahl added the Child Catcher, a villain who kidnaps the protagonists.  Just to reiterate, Ian Fleming wrote a novel about a magical flying car, and Roald Dahl added a diabolical villain.  Something seems backwards here.

#6 Superman and Superman 2                 

The two best Superman movies. Ah, Superman.  A character so morally unambiguous that a gritty reboot just can't cut it.  These two films have action, adventure, romance, and are a lot of fun.

                                                                 ...Written by Mario Puzo

Really? That Mario Puzo?  Someone, at some point actually said, "Hey, you know who would be great to right this light-hearted superhero movie?  The guy who wrote The Godfather."  I'm not arguing with the results, I'm just a bit surprised at how random this seems.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Public TV Interview with Ray Bradbury

Monday, July 29, 2013

1940: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

The Author:

            Richard Daffyd Vivian Llewellyn Lloyd (1906-1983) was born in London, England to Welsh parents, a fact only discovered after his death.  Throughout his life, he claimed that he had been born in Pembrokeshire, Wales.  He was, for much of his life, considered one of the preeminent literary figures of Welsh culture.

            At the age of sixteen, he “was sent to Italy to learn hotel management” and “studied painting and sculpture in [his] spare time.”  While there, he worked with Italian filmmakers and was first introduced to the cinema.  After spending several years in the army, he got a job playing film extras, and was first introduced to professional writing as “a reporter on a penny film paper.”  In 1938, his first play (Poison Pen) was produced.  In 1939, he published his first novel, How Green Was My Valley, which became an international bestseller (and the subject of this post). 

            Llewellyn served with the Welsh Guards in World War Two.  He proceeded to have a long career in the arts, writing many novels, as well as several plays and screenplays.  He passed away in 1983. 

The Book: 
1st edition cover

         How Green Was My Valley tells the life story of Huw Morgan as he prepares to leave the Welsh valley where he'd lived much of his life.  Coming from a family of coal miners, Huw's family deals with the ramifications of a changing economy and way of life, as disaster, politics, and relationships slowly dismantle the Morgan family.

       As sad as that last paragraph sounded, the story is generally nostalgic, as Huw pines for a lost time when the world was simpler, or as the case may be, when the Welsh coal miners could go about their life without interference from the outside world.  The story is told through the lens of Huw's nostalgia, which gives it a tone of sadness and warmth throughout.

      There are certain peculiarities in style due to the Welsh background of the story.  There is a list of name pronunciations on the last page of the edition I used, explaining names like Meirddyn (Mire-rr-thin) and Cynlais (Kunn-lice).  Likewise, there are certain turns-of-phrase that I haven't seen elsewhere, e.g., "There is good were those nights..."  ("There is [adjective] is/were the [noun]" appears frequently throughout the novel.)

      Even with the foreign setting, How Green Was My Valley was an immediate success in the U.S.  Like The Grapes of Wrath, The Yearling, Gone with the Wind, and The Good Earth, How Green Was My Valley focuses on an idyllic vision of rural life, a vision that was shattered by the changing industry in America. But like Gone with the Wind, the 1941 movie (directed by Grapes of Wrath director John Ford), is largely responsible for most of the notoriety the books still maintains.

     How Green Was My Valley is an emotionally compelling story, and while it does deal with important social and political issues, those issues are less to the forefront than they are in Grapes of Wrath.  (e.g., unionization is important to the story primarily in how it causes a schism between members of the Morgan family).  It's a good read, but if you don't like heavy nostalgia, you might be better off with something else.

Also published in 1940:

Ernest Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls
Carson McCullers - The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Richard Wright - Native Son

Kunitz, Stanley. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1942. Print.

Llewellyn, Richard. How Green Was My Valley. New York: Macmillan Company. 1940. Print.

BBC Website

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Back to the Future Theory

What!?  Two movie posts in one week!  Yes, well, so be it.  This is a fan theory of mine that not only explains things like what the flux capacitor does, but answers some continuity 'problems' in the films and introduces (and solves) a couple more.  It is inexcusably complicated.  

Note: 1. Whenever someone travels backwards through time, they create a new timeline.  Timelines will be named in the order they are created (e.g., when Marty first travels through time and arrives in 1955, he creates Timeline B.  Everyone indigenous to that timeline will be surnamed B, e.g., Doc B.)    2. Each timeline will be identical to the one that preceded it, with the exception of events altered as a result of the time travelers whose arrival created the new timeline.  

Part 1:
It’s been pointed out many times before that the Marty that gets sent back at the end of BttF Part 1 is not the same Marty we know and love.  This Marty was born in Timeline B, had cool parents, etc.  The popular fan theory about this is that Doc Brown made Marty B disappear.  The implications are more complex than that.  If Marty B did not go back to 1955, then why don’t we have the same paradox that we’d have had if Marty had never been born?  This led me to understand the flux capacitor.  When Marty A goes back in time and creates Timeline B, the flux capacitor stops working.  When Marty prevents his parents from meeting, he starts to disappear.  This is because Timeline A and Timeline B are still causally connected.  The flux capacitor allows multiple Timelines to exist, without being causally connected, therefore preventing paradoxes.  Part 1 is the easiest to deal with.  Marty skips to the future of Timeline B.  Then Doc B tells him to get in the Delorean, right now!  

Part 2:       
In 2015, Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer sees future Marty.  This is impossible.  Marty A disappeared in 1985 and skipped straight to 2015.  So who has been living Marty A’s life for the last 30 years?  Marty B.  Doc B isn’t cold-hearted enough to make the guy disappear forever, he just sent him a bit ahead, which is why he needed to get Marty out of the way as soon as possible (NOTE: In regards to the Rolls Royce accident that we see at the end of Part 3 and is mentioned in this sequence, it’s plausible that the accident would have occurred to Marty B, considering the chronology of the final scenes in Part 3.  This poses no problem to the theory.)    While there, Biff B steals the Delorean and travels back to 1985, creating Timeline C.  One of the big questions people have is “Why didn’t Biff travel to the future of the timeline he just created, i.e. Timeline C?”  Not only is the flux capacitor is keeping the timelines separate, 2015 B can’t collapse the same way 1985 A did because there are non-indigenous entities in 2015 B, namely, Marty A.  So, Old Biff B gets back to 2015 B, and Marty A and Doc B go to 1985, only to discover that it’s 1985 C, (their arrival changing it to Timeline D).  Marty A and Doc B go back to 1955 (creating Timeline E).  In 1955 E, we see another instance of Marty A and the events from Part 1 play out as they already had (justifying point 2 of my intro notes).  So, all seems well, then Doc B gets sent back to 1885 (creating Timeline F).  Marty A then gets a letter from Doc B, saying he’s in 1885.  Marty then finds indigenous Doc Brown (i.e., Doc E).  You may ask, how did Doc B send a letter from Timeline F to timeline E?  The flux capacitor is no longer working! Timeline E and F are still causally linked!

Part 3:   

Doc E helps Marty A go back in time, creating Timeline G.  Wild West stuff happens.  The photos change because Timelines F and G are still causally linked.  The good guys win and Marty goes to 1985 G.  He goes to pick up his girlfriend (leaving the indigenous Marty w/o a car and no idea where his girlfriend is) and almost gets into an accident with a Rolls Royce. She takes the fax from 2015 B out of her pocket and sees it disappear.  This is significant.  Marty A and Doc B left Jennifer B (and the letter) on her porch in Timeline D.  How’d she get here?  My conclusion is that, without the flux capacitor, entities existing outside their native timeline will phase into new timelines, so long as the new timeline does not preclude the person from existing. Since there is no longer a flux capacitor, the letter is causally connected to Timeline F (i.e. the one after Marty retrieved the Sports Almanac and events could be assumed to be otherwise similar to Timeline B). Then time traveling trains, roll credits, and, assumably, Marty A and his doppleganger.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Film Review: Dogtooth (2009)

This is a bit of a special post.  As the banner above (oh so subtly) indicates, this is part of movie-review blog Cinematic Katzenjammer's Not-So-Secret Review Swap.  Whereby a number of bloggers pick a title they want others to review, and are themselves assigned one.  So, without further ado, this is Dogtooth.

   Dogtooth focuses on a family living in a gated compound.  The parents have convinced their young adult children that the world outside the compound is extremely dangerous, and can only be entered safely if you are in a car.  As such, only the father ever leaves the compound, keeping his son and two daughters completely ignorant of the outside world, with the exception of paying Christina, a young woman who works as a security guard at the same factory as the father, to have sex with his son. She brings little bits of the outside world in with her, and this spurs on the plot. 
   The entire story is permeated by a sense of surrealism.  The house and garden seem almost overexposed, making it seem bright and bleak at the same time, almost sterile. Hermetic, even.

The cinematography is excellent at creating this feeling, making you feel like a voyeur, an intruder from the world outside the gate.  You are put in a world where the rules are different, where words have different meanings and the only reality is what you can see with your own eyes.  Perhaps what's so deeply unsettling about this story is that it makes us realize how much of what we think we know about the world, how much we are absolutely, undoubtedly, completely and utterly certain of, we haven't proven for ourselves, is, in fact, just something we've been told, just as the children in Dogtooth have no reason not to believe that fish just appear in their swimming pool. How many things we take for granted are, in fact, given?  With the exception of Christina, none of the characters in the movie have names; they are just Father, Mother, Eldest Daughter, Son, and Youngest Daughter.  They live in a world that is like a claustrophobic version of Wonderland.  If the emotion is predominately one of surrealism, the story and characters inhabit a world of hysterical realism, one that behaves by its own rigid logic, but a logic that is largely inaccessible to you or me.  But the characters accept that airplanes are only several inches long as readily as you or I would accept that the moon is huge.  

Perhaps the greatest force for the discomfiting unreality is how the characters straddle the line between children, adults, and automata.   This mix of childlike credulity and dependence, an occasionally adult willfulness (not to mention the sex, which I'll talk about later), and an almost military obedience to the father, is unsettling.  Add to that an almost guileless sincerity to their emotions, and the frequent lack thereof. The acting requires treading a very thin line, being strange and dissociated enough to seem alien, while being vulnerable enough to relate to, and the actors walk this tightrope with great skill.  

If you watched the trailer, you may have noticed a quick shot of the Younger Sister licking the Eldest Sister's shoulder.  Incest plays a large role in the story, thematically and literally and occurs with the same ingenuousness and apathy as the rest of the performance.  This goes back to the question of knowledge. The characters' entire understanding of the world comes from what their parents tell them and their own (extremely regulated) experience.  Besides being much more explicit than you'd find in an American film (Dogtooth is unrated in the US, but I'd expect it would get an NC-17), the sex scenes in Dogtooth carry forward the disturbing nature of the story to its climax (pun regretfully intended):  It not only breaks the most deeply ingrained taboo we have, but the act itself is done with an almost stoic reserve by both involved.  It's not portrayed as a result of passion, or lust, or love, or pleasure, etc. etc.  Like most everything in this movie, it takes something we understand (or think we understand) on a very fundamental level, and presents it to us in a strange way, leading to a feeling of alienation that is increased by the voyeuristic cinematography.    
In 2011, Dogtooth was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar (losing to Denmark's In a Better World).  It won prizes at many film festivals, including Cannes.  This is significant, because Greek cinema has had little international appeal for decades.  While many people (i.e. me and many people I know) find the Academy Awards to be (just a smidge) self-indulgent, the importance of the nomination to the Greek film industry is significant.  In fact, no Greek film had been nominated for an Academy Award since 1977's Iphigenia and has never won the award.  
Succinctly, Dogtooth is an impressive film.  The reason I don't say it's "a good movie" is because I don't feel that the terms "good" or "bad" can accurately convey how I feel about a movie that is so different from what we usually see.  The acting was excellent, the story was compelling.  The cinematography and set design were remarkably effective at creating a surreal and unsettling tone.  In those regards, this is a good film.  (I would have liked to see a little more about how this way of life affected the father and mother, but that's a minor point.)   But those are really means to an end.  The end, in this case, is to challenge your understanding of the world, both emotionally and intellectually.  It's an understandably uncomfortable process.  It succeeds in that goal, but whether or not that is good or bad somehow seems to be an invalid question.   I'd recommend the film, with the caveat that some people may find it upsetting.  Not just because of the subject matter of the explicit sex scenes (if you can't handle that, there's no way you'd benefit from watching this film), but because it does so in a way that causes a very uncomfortable emotional contradiction, creates a sense of alienation from and intimate connection to the characters.  It pulls you halfway into a world where the morality is largely incompatible with our own.  It's an experience that can either be beneficial if honestly acknowledged and considered, or just incredibly unpleasant. 
 (Because I fell obligated to include a lit reference, you should really read David Foster Wallace's essay David Lynch Keeps His Head from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which deals with much of what I discussed in the last paragraph, only w/r/t David Lynch films.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

1982 Round Table Discussion with Isaac Asimov, Gene Wolfe, and Harlan Ellison

A half-hour syndicated talk program, covering the nature and marketing of science-fiction (or speculative-fiction) works.   The hosts are named Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin (which are not, in fact, porn pseudonyms).

A bit of interesting background to the interview can be found in the archives of Harlan Ellison's website. (Check the post for November 1, 2008 11:13:15)

Monday, July 22, 2013

1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Author:

            John Steinbeck, Jr. (1902-1968) was born in Salinas, California, a then-rural area in Northern California, to John Ernst Steinbeck Sr., Treasurer for Monterey County, and Olive Hamilton, a former schoolteacher.  He lived in Salinas until he attended Stanford in 1920, but left in 1925 without receiving a degree.  He then moved to New York to start his writing career, but returned to California in 1928.  He published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929, and married Carol Henning in 1930.  He published a few more works before his first popular success in 1935, Tortilla Flat.  In 1936, he published In Dubious Battle, a labor novel that presaged his next two major works, Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). 

            The social and political fallout from The Grapes of Wrath was as enormous as the public demand for the novel.  The book was widely banned, and in some cases publicly burned.  His marriage fell apart in 1941, and he remarried a year later to Gwyndolyn Conger, with whom he had two sons, Thomas Steinbeck and John Steinbeck IV (the latter of which was a war correspondent in Vietnam who, partnered with Sean Flynn, son of silent film star Errol Flynn, were among the first to bring the My Lai Massacre to the American public’s attention).

            Steinbeck served as a war correspondent in World War Two, and continued writing and publishing both fiction and non-fiction.  In 1948, he and Gwyndolyn divorced.  He married Elaine Scott in 1950.  In 1952, he published East of Eden, often considered his last great novel.  In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In 1967, he visited the warfront in Vietnam as a journalist.  He passed away in 1968 of congestive heart failure. 

The Book:     
1st edition cover

            It’s The Grapes of Wrath.  What can I say about this book that hasn’t been said and said better than I could possibly say it?  For those of you that have forgotten or haven’t read it (a oversight which I recommend be immediately corrected), The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family,  a family of farmer’s from Oklahoma, displaced by the economic crash of the Great Depression coupled with the agricultural devastation of the Dust Bowl.  Having lost everything, they head to California where work is rumored to abound.  Subject to unexpected kindness and cruelty, the Joads attempt to create a new life for themselves, as do the hundreds of thousands of other displaced workers and farmers who have sought refuge in California.  While I think a lot of us roll our eyes at the phrase “testament to the human spirit,” I am nothing but sincere when I say that The Grapes of Wrath is a testament to the human spirit and one of the truly great novels of the twentieth century. 

            Steinbeck managed not just to capture the specific plights and hopes and culture of the time and people he writes about, but he uses these details to connect to a deeper, timeless truth about the human condition and American identity.  The characters are incredibly realistic, the story is absorbing and meaningful, the prose is colloquial and poetic.  This book is a portrait of the time in which Steinbeck wrote it, and is a protest book as much as anything else: a protest against the denigration of the poor, the hypocrisy of the powerful, the denial of the desire for basic human dignity.   The response was to either embrace the book, as many Americans did, or burn it.

            There was an immense negative response from forces in agribusiness, as well as many California localities who resented the way the state and its businesses were depicted.  The above is a publicity photo of farm worker Clell Pruett flanked by two members of the Associated Farmers, an organization of large landowners, as Pruett is about to burn the book.  Understandably, the forces of industry were unhappy with the book, and photos like the one above were used as part of a not-unsuccessful attempt to convince the public that the novel was insulting to the migrant workers. 

            The fact that The Grapes of Wrath is widely taught in high schools and recognized as one of the definitive “Great American Novels” shows who won in the arena of public opinion.  Zanuck and Ford almost immediately made the now classic film version starring Henry Fonda:

Although it lost the Best Picture Oscar to Hitchcock’s film version of du Maurier’s Rebecca, there’s no question that this remains one of the greatest films, period.

            The Grapes of Wrath has a major thematic similarity to many of the other books on this list so far: a glorification of rural and small town life.  Wang Lung’s farm in The Good Earth, Tara in Gone with the Wind, the farm community in So Big.  Even the novels for which this isn’t the primary focus tend to address a prevailing attitude of reverence towards small towns.  Perhaps because this was a dying way of life.  As industrialization loomed, as small farmers became obsolete, as we entered the age where cars replaced horses, and manufacturing replaced farm work, people needed a connection to a world that was rapidly being replaced, who, like the Joads, had to leave their way of life behind and start again in a new world.  

Also published in 1939:  
Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep
Ernest Hemingway - The Snows of Kilimanjaro
James Joyce - Finnegans Wake
Nathaniel West - The Day of the Locust

Friday, July 19, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Man in the Shabby Coat

            Why would I steal?  Because when you take something from someone else, you take a little bit of their personality, a little bit of what makes them unique.  Some people, most people I guess, steal because they want food or money or another hit.  They either steal or starve.  I stole because it was a way to take a bit of someone else.  I don’t know, sometimes it feels like everyone else is just chipping away little bits and pieces of me, and I guess I’m just trying to get back what they took.  I’m telling you this because I’ve decided to stop, and a confession is supposed to be a good a way to start the healing process, at least that’s what addicts say.  I don’t know if what I had was technically an addiction, but I know I hit rock bottom.  For me, it wasn’t jail or a near-death experience.  Like I said, I take little bits of people.  Yesterday, I met a man on an elevator, and I took all that was left of him.

            You don’t need to know my name.  I don’t mean to be rude, but you can understand my desire for anonymity.  Call me John.  John the data enterer.  I work on the tenth floor of a thirty floor building, my cubicle is the fifth in a row of twenty, my row of cubicles is second in a series of five.  The digits of my employee number add up to thirty-six, which is close enough to my age to seem portentous.  I work with numbers all day, but I have no idea what they mean.  I’m paid by people who don’t know me to input information for the benefit of people I’ve never met, all towards a purpose I can’t understand.  Everyone hear either has a vice or has taken up numerology.  They study the numbers as if, if they can just find the pattern that must course through it all, they can escape onto the other side of, become the ones that the numbers are about.  To the best of my knowledge, no one’s ever succeeded.

            If you looked at me, you probably wouldn’t look a second time.  I’m not ugly, but I’m not handsome either.  The best description I’ve heard is “unremarkable.”  I couldn’t be more invisible even if I were actually transparent.  People notice when chairs and coffee cups and cigarette butts move of their own volition.  I’m seen more as a piece of scenery, like a cloud.  No one notices clouds unless they’re threatening rain. 

            I work in a building in a nice part of the city.  Everyone above the twelfth floor wears a suit.  We have a doorman.  He also wears a suit.  I can get away with khaki slacks and a long sleeve button-up shirt.  I’m supposed to wear a tie, but I never do.  Everyone who works here has a public way of showing how much they wish they didn’t.  We’re not supposed to wear lapel pins of any kind.  Our shoes are supposed to be shined.  Our sideburns are supposed to end half an inch above the earlobe.  They’re kind enough to give us little rules to break, so we won’t get into trouble breaking the big ones.  We break the big ones on our own time.

            The first time I stole was about a year ago.  My physician has a mug on his desk filled with personalized pencils.  They’ve got his name and business info on them, promotional stuff.  I noticed them when he was in the other room, poring over charts.  If I had asked, I’m sure he would have given me one, but what I felt then and have since proven to myself, is that it’s the taking that’s important.  Something that was someone else’s has become mine, and that person had no part in the process, so a little bit of them is left in what’s taken.  But I didn’t know that then.  When I took the pencil, I thought I was breaking a little rule.  If I had said to the doctor, “Hey, I took one of your pencils when you were out of the room,” he probably would have said, “Okay.  So what?”  Just like if one of my coworkers went to a manager and said, “I’m wearing a flag lapel pin.”  So what? 

            But when I walked out of the doctor’s office, I felt a wave of relief wash over me.  I hadn’t even realized how tense the whole ordeal had made me, how hard and fast my heart pounded, how white my knuckles got.  That’s how I knew that this was a big rule. 

            I hope you weren’t expecting me to be an international art thief, or a cat burglar or something extraordinary like that.  I’m unremarkable.  I break a big rule in the littlest way possible.  Pens, spare change, sticks of gum.  It’s the act of taking that’s important, not what’s taken.  It became a habit.  Once a week, I just had to take something or I’d get restless.  Six days since the last time I’d stolen anything, I was getting itchy fingers as I walked past our suited doorman and into the marble and chrome lobby of my office building.  I joined the small crowd waiting in front of the elevator door, trying to tune out the sound of business chatter and the squeak and scrape of shoes across the waxed floor and the thump of dropped suitcases and the rustling crackle of whipped open newspapers.  Usually this quiet cacophony didn’t bug me so much, but I was restless.  The elevator door dinged and whooshed open and the crowd flowed in.

            I was pressed in near the back, a fat man in a nice suit and bad toupee was squeezed in on my right, a janitor on my left.  Directly in front of me was a  man in a slightly frayed and seriously wrinkled coat and slacks that looked like they’d been  through the laundry a few thousand times.  The janitor’s uniform was nicer than this guy’s attire.  I could only see the back of his head; his oily grey-black hair was uncombed.  He didn’t look like someone who would be employed in this building.  The elevator slowly lurched from floor to floor. 

            I noticed a folded sheet of paper sticking out of the man’s coat pocket.   My right hand started to clench.  I looked to either side of me.  The fat man was tapping out something on his phone, the janitor staring into space.  The man in front of me seemed to be staring at the digital readout above the door, announcing that we were now on the seventh floor.  I waited another few seconds and reached out.  Quickly but gently, I took the paper from his pocket.

            Suddenly everything seemed quiet.  I glanced quickly left and right and made sure that no one was watching me, had seen what I’d done.  Everyone was in their own little worlds, and the doors glided open on the tenth floor.  I squeezed past the others in the elevator, keeping my eyes set downward, not looking at anyone, especially the man in the shabby coat.  Once in the hallway and the elevator out of sight, I relaxed and contentedly strolled to my desk, the pilfered paper still hidden in my closed fist. 

            I dropped the crumpled and folded sheet onto my desk next to the keyboard, cracked my knuckles, and logged in to the system.  I kept looking over at the paper.  It wasn’t a receipt; it seemed to be a piece of eight and a half by eleven printer paper.  I unfolded it and read.  In meticulously neat handwriting:

            To whom it may concern,

                        There’s nothing left.  I’m sorry.  I just want to feel the wind in my hair one more   time.  I don’t want to be a burden.

            It was unsigned.  By my estimation, a full ten minutes had passed since I left the elevator.  Too late.  I folded the paper into a small square and put it in my pants pocket, left my desk, went to the elevator bank and rode to the lobby.  As I exited the front of the building, I noticed several people running through the alley, towards the executive parking lot in the back.  It would be mostly deserted at this time of day.

            “I don’t want to be a burden.”

            Did he know that the note was missing when he jumped?  If he did, did he care?  Either he knew that it was gone or he didn’t and in either case, this last message of his, the last piece of himself that he had was in my pocket.  I took that from him. 

            I didn’t go back to work the next day.  I haven’t been there for a few weeks now.  One of my managers called me a few days ago and asked if I was sick.  He called me “John.”  That’s not my name.  I guess you could say I’m in a transitional period.  What I’m transitioning towards is still up in the air, but I’m glad to be moving away from where I was, and I think to really do that I need to get everything out in the open. 


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Interview with Joseph Heller

An interview from the late 70s with from the Bill Boggs show, where he talks about Catch-22, Good as Gold, and the writing process.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Famous Books You Didn't Know Had Sequels

A brief list of famous books with obscure sequels.  Oh, and, you know, SPOILERS and such.

1. CATCH-22/CLOSING TIME by Joseph Heller

The Original:

Joseph Heller's famous World War Two satire, Catch-22 follows Captain Yossarian and a large cast of characters through the horrors and absurdities of the war and each other's personalities and ambitions.  A scathing criticism of bureaucratic and military hypocrisy set in a time and place of loss and tragedy, Catch-22 is loaded with dark humor.

The Sequel:  

Closing Time is about the darkness at the end of the tunnel.  Taking place 50 years after the end of Catch-22, the characters are all in their late 60s or older, and, as opposed to dealing with the possibility of an untimely death, they have to deal with the inevitability of a timely one.

2. Huckleberry Finn/Tom Sawyer Detective/Tom Sawyer Abroad by Mark Twain

The Original:

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the greatest pieces of American literature, and the sequel his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  It tells the story of a young boy running from home with an escaped slave and discovering his own sense of morality and identity.

The Sequels:

As the title of Tom Sawyer, Detective suggests, Tom and Huck are parodying the detective genre in an attempt to solve a murder.  In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom, Huck, and Jim are kidnapped by a mad scientist and brought to Africa.  These novels have largely been overlooked because they have nowhere near the depth of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn.

3. The Three Musketeers/Twenty Years After/The Vicomte of Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

The Original:

Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers is a historical novel, recounting the brave deeds and adventures of d'Artagnan as he joins the a unit of musketeers and becomes close friends with the mysterious Porthos, Athos and Aramis.  Together, they foil plots by the evil cardinal and others.

The Sequels:  

Twenty Years After takes place twenty years after the events in the first novel.  D'Artagnan is still employed as a musketeer, and must, in the course of political intrigue, recruit the help of his friends, who had retaken their lives of nobility since the end of the first book.  About ten years after that, d'Artagnan becomes Captain of the King's Musketeer's and once again, he and his friends are caught in the middle of political intrigue, surrounding the rise of Louis XIV and the mysterious man in the iron mask.

4. The Witches of Eastwick/The Widows of Eastwick by John Updike

The Original:      

John Updike's novel is about three small town women who, as a result of being left by their husbands, become adept at witchcraft.  Things go well until a devil-like figure appears and seduces them.

The Sequel:

In the three decades since the end of The Witches of Eastwick, the main characters had all moved from the town and gotten married.  But as they are widowed one after the other, they move back to Eastwick and reconnect.

5. All Quiet on the Western Front/The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque

The Orginal:

All Quiet on the Western Front is a novel about the horrors of war and the alienation it causes, told from the perspective of a young German soldier fighting in World War One.

The Sequel:

The Road Back tells the story of soldiers coming back from the war, only to find a world that they cannot connect with.  Only one major character, Tjaden, appears in both novels.

6. Trainspotting/Porno by Irvine Welsh

The Original:

Trainspotting is about a group of heroin addicts and their friends in late '80s Scotland.  A portrait of drug and punk subcultures, in a variety of local dialects, Trainspotting was longlisted for the Booker prize.

The Sequel:  

Ten years after the events in Trainspotting, the characters' lives cross paths again, connected not by heroin addiction but by involvement in the porn industry.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hunter S. Thompson and Conan O'Brien Drink Hard Liquor and Shoot Big Guns

As the over-long title of this post suggests, the following video includes Hunter S. Thompson in full-on over-the-top guns blazing insanity.

Monday, July 15, 2013

1938: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Author: 

            Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953) was born Marjorie Kinnan in Washington D.C.  where her father worked in the U.S. Patent Office.  She began writing at a young age, winning a $2.00 prize from the Washington Post at the age of eleven.  After her father’s death in 1913, Rawlings and her mother and brother moved to Madison, Wisconsin.  She attended the University of Wisconsin as an English Major in 1914.  Upon graduating in 1918, she moved to New York City to work as an editor with the YWCA.  She married Charles Rawlings, whom she had known in Wisconsin, in 1919, and moved to Charles Rawlings’ hometown of Rochester, New York.

            From 1920 until 1928, she wrote as a columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Rochester Journal-American.  Despite her attempts, Rawlings was unable to get any fiction published at that time.  Professional stress for bother her and her husband, combined with increasing tension within the marriage, prompted them to buy a farm in Cross Creek, Florida in 1928.
            She sold her first story in 1930, and published several more before her first novel, South Moon Under, was published in 1933.  It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and selected for the Book-of-the-Month club.  Her marriage ended later that year. 

            She published The Yearling in 1938, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and establishing her literary career.  In 1941, she married hotelier Norton Baskin and moved from Cross Creek to his home in St. Augustine Florida.  Her novel, Cross Creek, was published in 1942.  Zelma Cason, a friend from Cross Creek, sued her for $100,000 for libel (the suit was later changed to ‘invasion of privacy’).  The case was not settled until 1947, after a very publicized trial in 1946 found in favor of Rawlings, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the decision 3-4, requiring Rawlings to pay a token settlement of $1 to Cason, and to cover Cason’s legal fees of over $1,000.

            She published a couple more novels before her death in 1953.

The Book:

            The Yearling takes place over the course of a year in the life of a family living in the wilderness in Florida.  The family consists of twelve year old Jody Baxter, and his parents, usually referred to as Ma and Pa Baxter.  Over the course of a year (a year sometime in the late 19th century), Jody faces the challenges of life in the wild and of his own impending adulthood.  This is a coming-of-age story that really gets you into the mind of the protagonist as his role in the world changes. 

            The setting and life style that the Baxters lead is at times appealing or appalling.  The majesty of nature as Jody and Pa hike through the practically undisturbed forest is offset by the gore and terror of the hunting dogs ripping into a bear, all of which is rendered in vivid language. 
            As much a portrait of the setting as it is a tale about people, The Yearling makes the two inseparable.  The deep connection the characters have with the land and their way of life permeates all the events in the story.  Perhaps that’s why a book describing a way of life so alien to most of us can still connect with us emotionally.  In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows.  It’s a story about youth and innocence, and about adulthood and experience.  It’s a story about people, and it’s a story about a specific time and place in America.

            The Yearling well-received by audiences and critics, winning the Pulitzer for fiction in 1939.  A film version was released in 1946, with Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck as Ma and Pa Baxter. 

The film won two Oscars and was nominated for several more and, though it maintains a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, has faded from popularity.  Maybe Where the Red Fern Grows has cornered the market for wilderness-family coming-of-age stories.   

            If youthful-boy-moving-towards-adulthood stories aren’t something you can enjoy, this wouldn’t be the right book for you.  Otherwise, it’s a nice story with a strong emotional current.

Also published in 1938:  

Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca
Lawrence Durrell - The Black Book 
Ayn Rand - Anthem
Thornton Wilder - Our Town

Bigelow, Gordon. Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
         Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press. 1966. Print.    

Rawlings, Marjorie. The Yearling. 1938. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1967. Print.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Flash Fiction Friday: The Hangar

The Hangar

            Harvey was insane, but he wasn’t hurting anybody.  He took up a lot of space, but it was space no one wanted and they were happy that someone found a use for it, even if that use was crazy.  It was a derelict hangar half a mile from an abandoned army base, an empty cracked concrete block with weeds thick as cockroaches and cockroaches sprouting up like weeds.  Say what you will about Harvey, but he cleaned her up.  His first week there, he pulled all the weeds and stomped all the cockroaches under his old cracked leather army boots.  He used a hoe and a hose to mix cement in a wheelbarrow and filled in all the cracks.  He filled in the windows, too, and any openings, except the big hangar door that the planes used to taxi through before the base closed. 

            I only met him a couple of times.  No one in town has spent much time with Harvey, or even visited him in his hangar more than a handful of times, with exception of Ike, who volunteers with the V.A. in his spare time.  No one knows if Harvey was a vet, not even Ike knows for sure, but Ike says that he can tell, deep down in his gut, that even if Harvey never served, he’d definitely seen something like a war.  He told me that when we were on our way to the hangar.  Harvey had been living there for five years by that point, and hadn’t stepped out of that building once.  Every week, someone would bring him food, usually Ike.  I was fifteen, that first trip. I think every teenager was brought out at least once, like some rite of passage.  Some people see a shaman, some see a rabbi, some go on a hunt or a vision quest; we saw Harvey.

            The hangar was five minutes from the highway, out over the hard-packed light brown dirt.  Ike parked his SUV off to the side of the hangar, and we got out.  He opened the trunk and we grabbed a bunch of grocery bags and walked towards the gaping entry to the hangar.  Harvey never closed that door, left it open night and day, in good weather and storm.  The concrete near the door was coated in a layer of dirt.  Dried leaves lay scattered throughout the structure, piled in corners, skittering and clattering whenever a gust of hot wind blew in.  A small campsite was set against the wall farthest from the entrance.  A patched gray one-man tent and a little propane stove.  Harvey crawled out of the tent as we approached, a man at least sixty years old with ghost-white hair and sand textured skin.  His clothes were worn and threadbare, a light shirt that was once blue or black but now seemed a dull gray and jeans sun bleached almost as white as his hair. 

            Ike and I walked to the tent and put the food down.  I noticed several empty grocery bags scattered around the place, some half mulched.  I didn’t say anything, and wasn’t going to until Ike nudged me in the ribs with his elbow and said, “You can ask him.  He won’t be offended.”   Harvey waited patiently as I put the words together.    

            “Why do you live out here?”   

            Harvey told me.  He said he was waiting.  The universe works according to certain principles, certain laws of physics.  Diffusion.  Particles tend to move from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration.  If he waits long enough, the area inside the hangar will become a microcosm of the world in its entirety.  “Who wouldn’t want their own world?” he concluded.    

            I only saw him twice since then.  Once, a few years later, when I dropped off some groceries because Ike was sick.  And a couple years after that I saw his picture in the local paper, with a brief passage about how his heart gave out and he probably didn’t suffer.  Since then, the hangar’s been torn down.  You can still tell where it was by remnants of the concrete foundation, but even that’s fading now.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Judging More Books by Their Covers

Several months ago, I made a post about the particularly bizarre and awful book covers of Tutis Publishing.  If you thought that was the limit of the company's hilarious ineptitude, well, you know as little about Tutis as Tutis knows about literature.    
But literature isn't the only area in which Tutis Publishing is fantastically unknowledgeable.  They also have no understanding of history.  For example, Theodore Roosevelt's book about his experiences in the Spanish American War, The Rough Riders:

Fun Fact: Cuba used to be populated primarily by dwarves

Here, we see Teddy Roosevelt depicted as a pantsless Viking.  If you think that's anachronistic, you may be interested in how they depict Stephen Crane's Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage:   

Sparta was only fighting for City-State rights!  

I guess they got the "red" part right.  Still, it's surprising how many American history novels don't have anything on the cover relating to American history.  How would Europe feel if this happened to them?    

The Renaissance generally refers to a period between the 14th and 17th centuries in Europe.  I have a feeling that Tutis's cover design department (i.e. a hungover intern who speaks only in riddles) simply confused the words "renaissance" and "revolution."  But really, three down, and they haven't even managed to get on the right continent once.  Could it get any worse?

Holy crap!  Did anyone else know cyborgs fought in World War One!?!?   Based on the coloration, I think this actually takes place on Mars.  Not only did Tutis choose a random anachronistic image, but they set it on the wrong planet!  This makes sense, I guess.  If there's one thing they are as clueless about as literature and history, it's geography.  I'd like to introduce Tutis's new travel program, why not visit the marvelous deserts?

When you're done basking in the hot Illinois sun, why not visit New England's House of Parliament?

But now it's time to play our favorite game!  Tutis word-association!  Let's try to follow the reasoning behind each of these covers:     

A Stradivarius is a kind of violin. Violins and guitars have strings.  Sting sounds like green. A guitar with a green filter!

Airplanes!  Explosions!  Texas!!!!

I'm not sure if there's enough clarity of purpose for this to be racist.

Scarlet is red!

The real treasure is magic bicycles that can ride on water.

A hound is a dog.  Dogs are nice.

I can't really blame them for that last one though, because if there's one thing Tutis is as clueless about as literature and history and geography, it's animals.  There's nothing I can say about these next two:   

Goddamnit Tutis!  That's not a horse; that's a stack of poorly photoshopped books on a poorly photoshopped desk next to one of John Tenniel's illustrations from Alice in Wonderland on an entirely separate background.  That looks nothing like a horse!