Monday, November 16, 2015

The Dangers of Entertainment

Around the time the David Foster Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, came out, heated discussion of its representation of Wallace's views on irony and entertainment led me to reread his long essay "E Unibus Pluram."  The majority of the essay focuses on the effect of mass media on literature and the prevailing literary mode of irony for irony's sake, and how this mode is becoming inadequate.  It also makes some observations about how we interact with television, the first being rather self-evident, that we emotionally invest ourselves in the characters, which provides a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, and that this vicarious version of these emotions comes at the cost of real interpersonal relationships.  The second point, one that Wallace doesn't follow up on, is the idea that television flatters the audience.  Referring to a Pepsi ad making fun of mass consumerism, Wallace writes that "[the ad] invites Joe into an in-joke the Audience is the butt of.  It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him." I would argue that this method of flattery is endemic in the majority of television programs, both scripted and 'reality.'

Flattery, simply put, is telling someone something nice about themselves, with the connotation that what's being told is exaggerated, effusive, undeserved, and/or simply false.  It's also lovely to be on the receiving end, especially if you think the flatterer is sincere.  Beyond the vicarious relationships mentioned in the first paragraph, I think most television programs, and a large portion of all entertainment, falls into one of two categories, positive flattery and negative flattery.  Positive and negative here referring not to a moral or practical good/bad judgement, but rather a statement about a quality the consumer possesses (e.g. "You're smart, just like the detectives on this show") or a statement about a quality the consumer lacks (e.g. "you're not narcissistic like these real housewives").  What both of these forms of flattery do is provide the consumer with a sense of accomplishment, of being a good person, of figuring out a mystery, all by doing nothing more than staring at a screen for thirty minutes to an hour.  And the concerning thing is that we are naturally inclined to like accomplishing things.  Solving puzzles, finishing a task of any kind, it gives us a nice little mental boost of happiness and contentment.  And much television is produced with this goal in mind.

The best example of positive flattery in television I can think of comes from the crime procedural.  Anyone who has watched a handful of episodes will likely be able to figure out who the bad guy is before the show is even half-finished.  That is, you figure it out before the detectives, or the scientists, or the math genius, or whatever gimmick the particular procedural has, regardless, before the successful and brilliant protagonist figures out what's going on, you've already figured it out.  So, first you get that little burst of happy brain chemicals for solving a puzzle, then you get the satisfaction of watching the brilliant people trying to figure out what you already know.  What feels to me to be particularly disingenuous about the whole thing is that these shows are edited and filmed in such a way as give the viewer clues early and often, but this is done in a way that tries to hide itself.  Unlike Columbo, which started by explicitly telling the audience who the bad guy was, most modern crime procedurals do essentially the same thing, but more subtly.  The most common method is one I call Chekhov's Shoehorn.  Whereas Chekhov's gun is an admonition to remove any details that won't be important later, producers of crime procedurals work backwards and shoehorn in long dramatic shots of objects or people in the background precisely because they'll be important later.  When paying attention to this, there might as well be bright yellow subtitles flashing the words "IMPORTANT!" throughout the scene.  This information is in reality handed to the consumer on a platter, but is presented disingenuously, with a false nonchalance, as if the camera just happened to linger on the fireplace grating or the special guest star lurking in the shadows.  This is far from the only means by which the crime procedural quietly gives the solution to the consumer.  Timing and formula are important; the bad guy isn't going to get caught before the first commercial break, the detectives' first theory is always wrong, etc. etc. There are rules built into the genre, and these rules are picked up intuitively by the consumer, creating a framework in which they can know more than the brilliant detectives, solve crimes faster, and feel a sense of accomplishment.  But these rules are only valid within this framework.  All that is accomplished, all that can be accomplished, is a better ability to navigate and use this framework and its rules. Thus watching it gives you a sense of achievement, but what you've achieved is only useful for watching more procedurals.

Negative flattery tends to be primarily in the realm of "reality" television.  People talk about watching television ironically, or of watching it for the same reason people slow down to see a gory car wreck. The Jerry Springer Show, Jersey Shore, any of the Real Housewives franchises, while there are those that fully identify with the casts, many watch to ridicule.  There are more blatant examples, series of essentially clipshows titled "World's Dumbest..." where the ellipses is filled with everything from criminals to holidays to tourists, all of whom are mocked by C-list comedians. In my view, these shows can be broken into two categories: those that inspire mockery, and those that inspire righteous indignation.  World's Dumbest... is a good example of the former, because the whole point is to mock, to laugh at how stupid other people are.  But of course the consumer isn't stupid, not like these guys.  The show promises that there are a whole lot of morons out there, so join us in laughing at them, because after all we aren't stupid.  The other category, righteous indignation, can be seen with something like the Real Housewives, Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jerry Springer, or The Simple Life.  This last is a the epitome of a pretty major reality tv subgenre: Terrible Rich People.  The whole point is that they lead a life of extreme wealth and privilege, yet are shallow, callous, and condescending to those they consider beneath them.  With Jerry Springer or Maury we can be disgusted with people who cheat, or we could just look at Cheaters.  Toddlers in Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo are as geared to an audience looking to jeer the child beauty pageant industry as it is to the industry's devotees.  The dangerous thing about righteous indignation is that it lets us feel righteous when all we really are is indignant.  That merely finding something awful can be transmuted into a feeling of personal goodness is a powerful tool when used to inspire action, but here it is used only to get you to watch the next episode.

I mentioned earlier that these trends are not exclusive to television, which is true.  The internet is rife with this, but with a major bias towards negative flattery.  Countless blogs, "news" sites, special interest forums, etc., are dedicated to deriding those of opposing opinions, and they operate in the same fashion. The message: Look at how stupid, disgusting, or evil these other guys are. We see this on every side of every spectrum.  Like tv shows, websites live and die based on the number of consumers.  

I don't mean to imply that all television is flattering entertainment, or even that entertainment is necessarily bad.  To bring this back to The End of the Tour, Wallace compares watching television to masturbating:
"I’m not saying TV is bad or a waste of your time. Any more than, you know, masturbation is bad or a waste of your time. It's a pleasurable way to spend a few minutes. But if you're doing it twenty times a day, if your primary sexual relationship is with your own hand, then there's something wrong."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Digital Humanities and the 2016 Election

I've previously mentioned the advent of digital humanities, especially in regards to measuring ebb and flow of positive and negative words.  The New York Times has done something similar, but with the presidential candidates on a scale of positive/negative and simple/complex, while also including the books closest to them on this matrix.  That Trump's language is the simplest, by a significant margin, is not surprising.  In fact, his placement is directly above The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (a novel narrated by an uneducated thirteen year old) and slightly below the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson.  To be fair, this is a man whose most lasting contribution to English letters was a two-word catchphrase.  The positive/negative spectrum is more interesting, especially when you look within a party.  The democratic candidates are interesting in that they form almost a mirror image, with O'Malley just a hair from the center line, and Sanders and Clinton equidistant from the origin on the negative and positive sides, respectively.  It's not difficult to see how this corresponds to their rhetorical style, with Sanders spending more time focusing on what's wrong and why we need to fix it, while Clinton is more focused on saying how things will improve.  

It's an interesting article, and provides a neat visualization of political rhetoric.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christopher Walken's "The Raven"

Just in time for Halloween, here's a reading of Poe's classic poem "The Raven," read by none other than Christopher Walken:



Monday, October 26, 2015

Review: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

I wrote briefly about an aspect of Winchester's popular history book last week, but I wanted to do a fuller review.



Despite the book's subtitle, The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, comparatively little is about the eruption itself.  Winchester, who was a geologist before he became a journalist, goes into depth on the geological, ecological, and political history of the region surrounding Krakatoa, which lies in the Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java (or rather lied, until the eponymous date when it blew itself up and crumbled into the sea).  Most complaints I've seen about the book have been in regards to Winchester's digressive narration, but this is in keeping with one of the major themes in the book, which is Krakatoa's position as one of the first truly global modern events.  Global here being used in the McCluhan "global village" sense, as news of the eruption spread worldwide in hours via underseas telegraphy.  The effects of the eruption are as important to the story as the eruption itself.

More than just emphasizing the global nature of the event, Winchester's digressions tend to focus on the tangential but necessary results of the circumstances that made the eruption possible in the first place, from the strange biodiversity of the Malay archipelago (to the west of the Wallace line the islands are exclusively inhabited by Asian flora and fauna, while to the east is exclusively Australian. At their closest, these islands are only a handful of miles apart.  This odd ecosystem is the result of one tectonic plate moving west from Australia and another moving east from India) to the mythology of the native Indonesians.  But Winchester also likes to point out the neat coincidence, the way things affect or merely reflect each other.  Krakatoa wasn't just a volcano that erupted one day.  The eruption, what led up to it, why it was so well recorded, our attempts to understand it, one of these stories cannot be told without the others.  Winchester's approach to history is not one of discrete events occurring in sequence, but of thousands of events, happening simultaneously, all, to some degree, affecting each other.  Digression, then, is not a foible to be forgiven, but a necessary trait of this kind of history.  

Of course, those turning to Krakatoa primarily for descriptions of the eruption itself and its immediate aftermath will be disappointed.  The book is more accurately about the total history of the island of Krakatoa, not just "the day the world exploded."  As such, everything from movements of the lithosphere to Dutch colonialism need to be addressed.  Nevertheless, Winchester manages to consistently bring the story back to the titular volcano as it geared up for its big day.

If you're the type of person who likes to hop from idea to idea, and discover connections between disparate subjects (even if the connections are merely semantic), this is the type of history book that will be right up your alley.



Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A book by any other title

Some titles are easy to translate.  Austen's Emma or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina can just be transliterated from one alphabet to another.  Some cases are a little more difficult, but still pretty simple.  Just go for a literal translation.  But other times, whether for marketing or artistic reasons I can't be sure, the changes are a bit more interesting. While trying to improve my Spanish on duolingo, I was on the Spanish language Wikipedia page for William Golding, a page which included his bibliography, including his novel Close Quarters which, in Spanish, is titled Cuerpo a cuerpo ("Body to Body").  This was a pretty neat translation, and reminded me of something I'd been meaning to look up.  At a panel at the Festival of Books, Jonathan Lethem remarked on the strange titles his Italian publishers gave his books.  For example, his sci-fi/noir pastiche, Gun, with Occasional Music is known as Concerto per Archi e Kanguro (Concerto for Strings and Kangaroo), As She Climbed Across the Table is Oggetto Amoroso non Identificato (Unidentified Love Object) and, most perplexing, Men and Cartoons is given the title A Ovest dell'Inferno (West of Hell).

It seems like loose translations of titles may be a trend in Italian publishing.  While the Spanish translation of The Grapes of Wrath is pretty literal (Las Uvas de la Ira), the Italians pared it down to just Furore.



Furore is basically Rage or Fury (at least that's what the internet tells me), so I went to see if the Italian edition of Stephen King's early pseudonymous novel Rage shared this title on Roman bookshelves.  It doesn't.  For some reason, the translated title is the Ossessione (Obsession (obviously)).

This led me to look at another King title, The Stand, which is admittedly a rather subdued title for a novel about a civilization ending disease and ensuing holy war.  The Spanish translation at least makes sense in this regard.

But, though it's been a while since I've read this, I think the Italian title, L'ombra dello Scorpione (The Shadow of the Scorpion) is a complete non-sequitur:



Here's a fun game, I'll give you a few foreign titles (and their English translations) and you guess what notable English language work they refer to:

1. Un Mundo Feliz (A Happy World)

2. Schiavo d'amore (Slave of Love)  

3. La Senda del Perdedor (Loser's Lane)

4. Pânico (Panic)




Answers:

1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

3. Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

4. Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on what I'm reading

I'm currently reading Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (Harper, 2003) by Simon Winchester.  It's great, but something struck me as I was reading it, that speaks back to some issues I'd had with others and my own writing, specifically, how to deal with an audience with varying levels of knowledge in the subject you're discussing.  Winchester, originally trained as a geologist before becoming a journalist in the late 1960s, has to deal with this here.  Discussing the biodiversity and geology of Krakatoa necessitate a discussion of natural selection and plate tectonics.  The problem is that much of his audience will be well-versed in these subjects (i.e. the type of people who will actively seek out a book about Krakatoa) while many others will know little to nothing of the matter. So what do you do?  If you elide this information, you confuse the latter group, but if you go into detail, you bore the former.  Winchester manages to have his cake and eat it too.  What he does is couch the theory in anecdote, for example, explaining natural selection through the life and career of Alfred Russel Wallace.  While some points are necessarily dry (there's no other way to explain how a transform-fault functions than to just dive in) Winchester essentially manages to give the people who are already aware of the underlying theory something else to focus on while presenting the theory itself to those who don't know it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Masquerade and the Treasure Hunt That Drove Readers Insane

If you spend any amount of time online, you'll have run into numerous conspiracy theorists.  They'll point from bystanders in the background of news footage, to arcane symbolism on currency, to scenes from blockbuster movies, and explain just how all these things fit together to prove that the government is secretly behind every natural and man-made disaster, ever.   But it isn't just world events that can spur this apophenic obsession.  In 1979, artist Kit Williams published Masquerade, which became a bestseller, not just on the strength of its artwork, but because the artwork contained clues to an actual buried treasure: a golden hare wrought by Williams.  Hazlitt has a great retrospective article on the lengths people went to to find the treasure, and the details of some particularly obsessed seekers.  "Afterwards, on the way to the pub, he checked the names written on the sides of the vans, looking for the author's response... He had finally realized that the author possessed a listening device that could detect vibrations from his typewriter keyboard."


Monday, September 28, 2015

#96: Suttree by Cormac McCarthy


I'd previously read The Road (2006) and Blood Meridian (1985), and had never even heard of Suttree (1979).  While some of his more popular novels like The Road and No Country for Old Men (2005) were published after the list was compiled, I do find it surprising that Suttree made it on the list, as opposed to All the Pretty Horses.  (Blood Meridian made it on the readers' list at #54.)  

One of the frequent opinions I've found about Suttree, including one voiced on the back cover of the Vintage trade paperback edition, is that this is McCarthy's funniest novel.  From my limited knowledge of his oeuvre, this is true.  The story primarily focuses on a man named Cornelius Suttree, from a good family but now residing in a delapidated houseboat on the river in the poor part of Knoxville in the early 1950s.  While some of the situations he gets involved in are darkly or poignantly humorous, the main source of comedy is one Gene Harrogate, who befriends Suttree at the workhouse early on in the novel.  Harrogate, a diminutive eighteen year old, is in jail for an unusual crime.  As the man who pressed charges remarked to a friend, "Somebody has been fuckin my watermelons."  This is not obscure Southern slang.  Harrogate, our "moonlit melonmounter," is a weird fellow, always cooking up kooky schemes and paying the price.  But this is a McCarthy novel, so it's never too lighthearted.  His idea of slapstick, for instance, includes being bitten by a legless beggar.  

But the main focus is on Suttree, friend to the outcast and destitute of Knoxville.  The novel is episodic, emphasizing the somewhat monotonous recurrence of events in the type of life Suttree leads, which only adds strength the the inevitable changes that do occur.  I think one of the reasons that this novel is so popular is that it's easy to be enamored of Suttree's life, despite its hardships.  The amount of freedom in the beatnik sense, the lack of obligations, these are all enticing, often enticing enough to overlook the squalor, the frequent violent altercations and arrests, the starving children always showing up on the periphery of the scenes.   There's discussion of the semi-autobiographical nature of this novel, as there are many similarities between Suttree and McCarthy, who lived in Knoxville at the time the novel takes place, which may account for some of the sense of nostalgia that pervades the atmosphere.

Suttree seemed a bit of a slog at times, and I had to refer to a dictionary far more often than I usually do, but overall I'd recommend it if you like McCarthy's style.


Just the stats:

Published: 1979, Random House
Pages: 471 (first edition)





Monday, September 21, 2015

Mark Twain Live (on film)

Here's the only known video footage of Mark Twain, taken in 1909 by Thomas Edison:


Twain had already been adapted to film at this point, with Tom Sawyer premiering in 1907.  The film is now lost, and there doesn't seem to be any record of Twain's thoughts about the film.  

Twain was a big fan of technological innovation, and a friend of both Edison and Tesla.

Monday, September 14, 2015

#97: Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

Mythago Wood, by the British novelist Robert Holdstock (1948-2009), first appeared in short form in 1981 (for which it received the British Science Fiction Association award for best short story), before being expanded and published as a novel in 1984, which won the 1985 World Fantasy Award.  Going over Holdstock's oeuvre is intimidating due to its sheer size. Under his own name, Holdstock published sixteen novels, two short story collections, two film novelizations, and co-wrote/edited ten anthologies and non-fiction works.  Under various pseudonyms he wrote fourteen novels and seventeen novelizations.

The novel in question is the first in a series of seven novels, dealing with Ryhope Wood, a place of great power in Herefordshire.  Viewed from afar, Ryhope Wood is a small area of ancient growth, one of the few wild forests left in England.  The novel's protagonist, Stephen Huxley, grew up near this wood with his father, mother and brother, Christian.  His father had an intense interest in the woods, often disappearing for weeks at a time, an interest which clearly took precedence over his wife and children, breeding a lifetime of resentment.  Stephen enlists in World War II, and retires to France when hostilities end, only to return home after his father's death.  Now it's infodump time.  Ryhope Wood is a place of great psychic resonance, in which Mythagos (from "myth imagos") are created.  A prominent example of a Mythago is Robin Hood, who is described as a Jack-in-the-Woods type Mythago.  These mythagos come into being as a result of the ancestral memory of within mankind's subconscious, yet they are physically real, though they cannot travel outside the forest for very long.  These mythagos, not only of creatures but of architecture, go back as far as human history on the British Isles (there are similar woods elsewhere in the world).  The main plot of the story, beyond the exploration of the major concept, is as follows:  Stephen's father was obsessed with finding or bringing about the first mythago, at the root of human subconscious.  While doing so, the mythago Guiwenneth came into being.  Both Stephen's father and his brother Christian were obsessed by her, with Christian claiming her affection after his father died.  Guiwenneth died soon after as well, and Christian blames this on the fact that this version of Guiwenneth was created by his father, not himself.  So he journeys into the forest, which expands the deeper you penetrate, to find a new version of her.  He disappears for months upon months.  In the meantime, a version of Guiwenneth appears at the house, and she and Stephen fall in love.  All is well until Christian returns, taking Guiwenneth.  This battle between brothers provides the framework for what remains of the novel.

I left out quite a bit in that summary, a lot of it things that fans of the novel would, rightly, consider important.

To me, Mythago Wood seemed an incredibly British novel, not only in the sense that it dealt with British history, folklore, and geography.  Perhaps "Old world" would be a good term for it.  Because it is based on a continuity, of a single location gradually changing over thousands of years of habitation and changing rule.  In the New World, much of the older myths were lost with the large scaled destruction of the indigenous people, and the new myths were primarily transplants from Europe and Africa.  The characters in Mythago Wood are connected to this mythic world through blood and soil.  In this sense, it seems to speak to a culture that is much more connected to a local, ancient history, both real and fictive, than we generally find in the U.S.


Just the stats:

Pages: 215 (Hardcover, Arbor House edition)
Published: 1984, Gollancz
Awards: 1984 British Science Fiction Award for best novel; 1985 World Fantasy Award for best novel


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cormac McCarthy, Mike Tyson, and Cartoon Network

Cartoon Network's Adult Swim is a bastion of insanity and brilliance (or, when they're out of those, Family Guy reruns).  Here's a scene from the premiere of their series "Mike Tyson Mysteries"





Sometime I'll tell you about when I met Mike Tyson.  He seemed nice, though I don't know why someone left him at a supermarket with luggage and no cell phone.*










*This is actually true.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It's not what you argue, it's how well you argue it (and why that's bs)

There's a phrase anyone pursuing a degree in the English will hear again and again:  "It's not what you argue, it's how well you argue it."  There are two very different interpretations of that statement, and in my experience far too many students and professors follow the poorer.  Ideally, it will be taken to mean that the position the student takes will be considered on its own merits, rather than what the professor personally feels is correct or what the received wisdom may be.  Too often, however, it's taken to mean that the student should provide the best argument for his/her position, regardless of what the position may be, or how strong the best argument is.  To demonstrate the difference, I want to share what was likely the single most frustrating moment of my undergraduate career.  It was the first day of American Literature 1865-1912.  The class was for junior and seniors in the English department, so it should be assumed that everyone there should know what they're doing.  The class had been split up into groups and given a packet of Emily Dickinson poems, and each group had to analyze an assigned poem from the packet.  One of the poems was "I taste a liquor never brewed":

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

If I were to ask you what this poem is about, you'd probably answer, pretty quickly.  Nature.  In the most immediate, prevalent sense, this poem is about the great joys and beauty of nature.  So, when the spokesperson for the group assigned "I taste a liquor never brewed" answered that question with "the oppression of women," we were all a bit confused.  The professor asked for an explanation, which he got.  "Well, bees are feminine and landlords are masculine, and the landlords are forcing the bees out."  The professor then asked what it was about on  a surface level.  The answer:  "I don't know."

Simply put, the group, or at least one of its members, went into the poem convinced that it would be about the oppression of women.  So they came up with the best argument they could.  The problem is, sometimes the best argument for a position is still incredibly weak.  Unfortunately, this professor (and at least one other I had) encourages this type of thought and method.  Start with a conclusion, and find the best evidence for the conclusion.  There's a term for this: sophistry.  

The simple fact is, what you argue is important.  Because some positions are indefensible, or rely entirely on ignoring all contradicting information.  This falls into the broader trend of people believing that their opinions are as valid as any other, regardless of how well-informed or supported it is.  The problem is that, in my experience, these people seem to never, or very rarely, get challenged.  So instead of changing their ways or leaving the English department, we get bloated with people who can't actually think critically, and who's only skill is to cherry-pick information and string it into an persuasive essay (persuasive only if you haven't actually read the text yourself, because if you have, the problems with these essays become immediately apparent).
 



Thursday, September 3, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

David Simon (creator of The Wire) had a six-episode miniseries that finished last Sunday.  Show Me  a Hero is about the city of Yonkers' response to the court mandated low income housing and the underlying racial tensions this brings to the surface.  It stars Oscar Isaac as councilman/mayor Nick Wasicsko, and has a great cast including Catherine Keener and Alfred Molina.

I also picked up a copy of Harlan Ellison's screenplay for I, Robot.  Those of you only familiar with the 2004 SF/Action/Converse Commercial may not know that Harlan Ellison wrote the original screenplay, which is itself highly regarded as a SF work.  Ellison got into a fight with a studio exec who was giving him notes despite not having read the script and Ellison claims to have "laid hands on" the exec.  Anyway, Ellison was kicked of the project. Later, Irvin Kershner (director of The Empire Strikes Back) was tapped to direct it, and agreed on the condition that Ellison be brought back to the project.  Anyway, the original script is pretty darn great.  It's a bit dated, but only in the sense that it reflects being written in the late 1970s.  


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hunter S Thompson on Outlaws: PBS Video

In case you haven't seen these, PBS has a great webseries devoted to animating interviews from its archives.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

From K-12 to Trigger Warnings

Like anyone, I'm concerned about the growing trend on college campuses of demanding trigger warnings and the removal of books from the curriculum due to their perceived unpleasantness.  But most of the articles I see on the subject boil it down to a "these darned millennials!" argument.  After all, they point out, don't people go to college to be challenged?  The answer to this oft-posed rhetorical question is actually 'no.'  For decades, the number of high school graduates who attend college has increased, hitting 70% in 2009.  

A couple weeks ago, I heard a story on NPR about special ed in some Southern public schools.  The mother of a sixth grade special ed student was interviewed throughout the piece, and she expressed her concerns about the inadequacy of her child's education, including the claim that he wasn't being prepared for college like the other students.  This child is in sixth grade; he is closer to kindergarten than college.  The entire K-12 system is designed to feed students into the college system, and everything from the testing to the rhetoric has this goal.  College is portrayed as the only path to success, from the moment you enter to the moment you graduate.  But while the K-12 system may strive to prepare students for college academically, they are actively prohibited from encouraging the type of intellectually/socially challenging material we see being protested.  I did a quick google news search for teachers being fired, and, putting aside sexually inappropriate conduct, and I found a teacher who was fired for participating in a burlesque show (in a different state from where she taught), a teacher who was fired for appearing in a rap video that included some drug imagery, a teacher fired for drinking alcohol on an extended field trip to New Orleans (two and a half glasses over five days, hardly a bender).   On top of that there are the consistent challenges to books from all quarters, and this is not from the students.  This is from the parents, who don't want their precious children being exposed to things that challenge their (i.e., the parents') views.  This of course ignores dress codes, which often preclude anything with a message that others may deem offensive (e.g. political/(a)religious/etc t-shirts/symbols).

So what do we expect to happen?!  We have a system where teachers who are challenging or unorthodox risk their jobs by being so, where books that are seen as "offensive" (by conservative religious groups as much or more than any other group) are routinely pressured out of the schools, where any activity or dress that's seen as challenging the authority and uniformity of the school culture is condemned.  What do we think these kids are going to be like after twelve years of this?  As long as we have a K-12 system (and, perhaps more importantly, the community around that system) that makes innovation and controversial subject matter taboo, we're going to have this problem with college students.

Monday, August 31, 2015

#98: Illusions by Richard Bach



Richard Bach is a pop-philosophy sponge who soaked up the 1970s and wrung it out into a bucket of platitudes.  If Ayn Rand, the Dalai Lama, Plato, and Billy Graham went to Philip K. Dick's house, took all his drugs, and wrote a book together, that... would actually be pretty awesome.  But if that book were then rewritten for people who have never come into contact with any aspect of philosophy, theology, or metaphysics besides a high school civics class, you'd end up with Illusions (1977).  

The protagonist is a fictionalized version of Bach himself, who's now making a living traveling from town to town on his biplane, giving people rides for a few dollars a head.  In a field, he comes across another man doing the same thing, one Daniel Shimoda, who it turns out is the Messiah, but, as the full title (Illusions: The Adventure of a Reluctant Messiah) suggests, he's none too happy with the gig.  Nevertheless, he teaches Bach what he knows.  Basically, the universe is all an illusion, and we exist in some other truer reality (like Plato's theory of the forms), although there is an monotheistic god in this cosmology, and we tend to be reincarnated into many different lives, and also we can control 'reality' if we accept that it's an illusion (like the spoon-bending scene in the Matrix), oh, and you're only duty is to be true to yourself and seek your own peace and happiness, even if that means hurting other people.  Yeah, when Bach tries to argue that you should pursue your own happiness as long as you don't hurt others, Shimoda conjures up an illusion of a vampire who needs Bach's blood to survive in order to prove Bach's point wrong while simultaneously dodging the serious implications of this philosophy.  

This isn't my first exposure to Bach's brand of "philosophy."  His previous novel, Jonathon Livingston Seagull was published in 1970 and became the bestselling novel in the US for the years of 1972-3. While that was an excruciatingly didactic fable, Illusions is more or less a string of excruciatingly didactic lectures, interspersed with excerpts from the Messiah's Handbook: Reminders for the Advanced Soul.  This handbook is a collection of aphorisms that are equal parts pithy, inspirational, and vague, balanced in such a way that they appear profound if you don't actually think about them.

"Learning is finding out what you already know.  Doing is demonstrating that you know it."

"You teach best what you most need to learn."

"The best way to avoid responsibility is to say, 'I've got responsibilities.'"

Bach got himself a reputation as a spiritual guru with a massive fanbase for Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and he followed it up with Illusions.  It's popular for the same reason inspirational posters and feel good sitcoms where everything always works out in the end are popular. Most of the positive reviews I see for it follow the formula of "I was in a tough place, then I read Illusions, and [insert particular aphorism her] really spoke to me!"  If you throw enough affirmations at the wall, eventually one of them will stick.

 I try not to begrudge others their happiness, and nothing in this post is meant to challenge the sincerity of people's reactions towards or attachment to the novel.  If its sole purpose is to inspire people, it seems to have accomplished that.  That doesn't mean it's a good book, though, any more than an inspirational poster is good photography.  


Just the stats:

Published: 1977

Nationality: American

Pages: 143 (Delacorte Press Hardcover edition)

Sales:  #3 bestselling novel in the US of 1977; #7 bestselling novel in 1978



Monday, July 27, 2015

#99: The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) is one of those names I've always heard mentioned but never got around to reading.  A prolific popular/literary writer from Canada, The Cunning Man (1994)is the last finished work of a career spanning five decades.  It takes the form of a case-book turned memoir of the elderly Doctor Jonathan Hullah, a Toronto transplant originally from the small town of Sioux Lookout, as he is spurred to recollection by a journalist doing a series on the Toronto of yesteryear.  The main event, the event that spurs the journalist's questions and is returned to again and again throughout the novel, is the death of Ninian Hobbes, the beloved Anglican priest who died in the middle of service, just after taking communion.

Hobbes's rector was Charlie Iredale, one of Dr. Hullah's two best friends growing up.  Their childhood friendship makes up a big part of the novel, as does the peculiarities of Dr. Hullah's practice, in which he typically treats the patients that other doctors just can't stand anymore. Davies uses both of these to illustrate the growth of Canadian identity and Toronto particularly.  Of seeing how Charlie's parents interacted with them, Hullah remarks "I assumed that this was the English manner of upbringing.  Maturity and individual judgement were expected and encouraged.  It was not the Canadian way.  Certainly not as I knew it." (120).  And of the cold practicality of the medical students, he notices that "The genteel tradition was on its last legs in Canada; its legs had never been particularly strong..." (140)  The issue of faith is dealt with frequently, Hullah finding his equal and opposite in Charlie, as well as lengthy discussions of art and philosophy with other characters.  Davies manages not to let this be boring, which is a very real danger when you have characters sitting around and expostulating.

The novel spans about seventy years, from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.  Hullah serves as an army doctor in WWII, mainly treating victims of friendly fire.  Always interested in the literary (Hullah frequently quotes poetry throughout the novel), he involves himself in the art community when he returns to Toronto to set up his practice, although the city isn't always interested in art.  "The imperceptive, unselfconscious city prospered under its soggy blanket of shallow middle-class morality and accepted prosperity as evidence of God's approval." (143)

I really liked The Cunning Man, although the continuity seemed a bit off, but that may be due to the form.  It's often hard to accept that Davies was writing this in the 1990s, because his diction seems to come straight from the 1920s, though it works with the character. As a pseudo-memoir, there are some avenues that should have been delved deeper into, and I think the non-chronological formation of the text (e.g. parts being written at different times) ends up getting convoluted.  But despite these issues, the novel works, the characters are complex and interesting, the story is usually captivating.

Just the stats:

Published: 1994
Nationality: Canadian
469 Pages (Penguin Trade Paperback Edition)
Other Appearances on ML list: Davies' Fifth Business is #40 on the readers' choice list.



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: The Call of Cthulhu

The Text:

H.P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the Weird Tales magazine in 1928.  It is one of his best known stories, and a central part of the Cthulhu mythos, the grouping of stories by Lovecraft (and others) dealing with the old ones generally and often Cthulhu particularly.  The story is told by Francis Thurston, whose grand-uncle's papers have led him to a horrifying discovery.  Between the disturbing dreams of a decadent Bostonian artist, the investigation of a Louisiana detective, and the memoir of a Norwegian sailor, Thurston has gained knowledge of an ancient cult and their dread elder gods. And while "dead Cthulhu waits dreaming," it must be remembered that "That is not dead which can eternal lie/ And with strange aeons even death may die."

The story may have lost a bit of its punch over the last 90 years, but only because Lovecraft's influence on the horror genre has been so widespread as to make his style, as well as the cosmic horror subgenre, seem almost commonplace.  Yet it remains a classic for a reason.

The Movies:

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

Director: Andrew Leman
Runtime: 45 minutes




The Call of Cthulhu (2005) is the lovechild of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, a fan/research/live-action-roleplay group based in Glendale, California.  Living up to the "Historic" in their name, they created a silent film, with set design, makeup, and music done in the style of 1920s cinema, and it works pretty well.  There are some cases where the background is clearly more modern, but the budget was presumably quite small, but often impressive.


I'm still not sure how well the movie would work for someone who hasn't already read the story, though.

The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009)

Director: Henry Saine
Runtime: 78 minutes



Jeff (Kyle Davis) and Charlie (Devin McGinn, who also wrote the script) are two best friends working an unexciting desk job, when one day an old man shows up at their apartment to give Jeff a relic of Cthulhu.  It turns out that Jeff is the last blood relative of H. P. Lovecraft, and this may give him some resistance to the maddening effects of the elder gods and their ilk.  But Star Spawn and other worshippers of Cthulhu are quick on their heels, so they turn to Paul (Barak Hardley), a weird nerd who lives with his grandma that Jeff was mean to in high school.  Together, they must go on a quest to stop the rise of Cthulhu and the end of life on earth as we know it!

This movie actually had a couple cameos worth mentioning.  Martin Starr (Freaks & Geeks, Party Down, Silicon Valley) appears as Paul's nerdy friend, and Richard Riehle, who has had small parts in everything from Office Space, to Glory, to Casino, to Free Willy, to The Man from Earth to Bridesmaids, to the upcoming masterpiece Helen Keller vs. the Nightwolves.

This guy

The monster make-up is also pretty good, though sometimes very B-movie-ish.


The humor is too often aimed at the 12-15 crowd, and the Jeff, the protagonist, can't ever seem to give a single shit about what's going on.  Even when he's screaming, he does so with remarkable apathy.

Call Girl of Cthulhu (2014)

Director: Chris LaMartina
Runtime: 92 minutes



This is a sexploitation horror/comedy film following an young twenty something artist named Carter Wilcox (David Carollo) who falls in love with a call girl named Riley (Melissa O'Brien).

Carter and Riley

His friend and roommate Erica is an avant-garde musician (which is a nice way of saying she mixes grating industrial noises together), who's dating a jerk dj named Rick "The Dick" Pickman. Meanwhile, Professor Curwen and a few grad students are trying to track down the cult of Cthulhu, only to luck out and capture a copy of the Necronomicon.  It seems the cult is looking for a prostitute with a very particular bookmark (spoiler: It's Riley).  Curwen tasks Carter with making a copy of the Necronomicon, while trying to hunt down Riley herself,  But it's too late, Riley has started her transformation into something obscene and grotesque, and has begun to infect others.

This is actually unrelated to the last sentence


Whereas a lot of the budget for The Last Lovecraft went to monster design, Call Girl put a lot into a large cast scantily clad women (cf. sexploitation).

The Best Adaptation:

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)

This is a no-brainer.  It's as literal an adaptation as could be had, accounting for the change in media.  This is the work of the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, after all; historical accuracy is kind of their thing.

The Best Film:

Call Girl of Cthulhu (2014)

There is a big caveat to this, and I'll get to it in a moment.

But first I want to point out something I noticed about these three films, and that' that they represent three different aspects of Lovecraft's legacy.  The first looks at Lovecraft as a historical/literary figure.  The second considers Lovecraft's influence on science-fiction and horror comics, and therefore on nerd culture.  The third is the result his influence on horror (think something like the Reanimator (1985)) and counter-culture.

I'd be more likely to recommend the first movie to people, because it has a much broader appeal.  Honestly, much of Call Girl of Cthulhu didn't appeal to me at all.  The reason I chose this as the best is because of one scene that I think stands out above the rest, one scene that I will remember, not for being bloody or gross, but simply very good.  Carter and Riley are on a date at a restaurant, and the waiter turns out to be one of Riley's clients, a sad late middle aged man who we know left his family and lost his career because he's in love with Riley.  This bit part is given a lot of power, and the entire restaurant scene, including a series of funny and weird glimpses of Riley's other clients, is a scene I'm going to remember, even after the rest of this film sinks into the miasma of pop culture floating in my subconscious.  As for the rest of the movie, if you don't mind B-Horror sexploitation flicks, it's pretty solid.

Things are going to stay spooky, as next time we'll be looking at Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" (1845) and three films:

The Raven (1935): A Universal Studios horror film starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

The Raven (1963): A Roger Corman film starring Karloff (again) and Vincent Price

The Raven (2012): A mystery/thriller starring Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe


Monday, July 13, 2015

#100: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie



I knew of The Satanic Verses by reputation only.  I knew nothing about the characters, the plot, the genre, just that this was the book that led the Ayatollah to issue a fatwa against (and place a bounty on) Salman Rushdie.  Rushdie spent years in hiding under an assumed name, his book was (and I believe is still) banned in many parts of the world, and some translator's of the book have been the victims of not always unsuccessful assassination attempts.  How offensive could is this book?

Not very.

The novel starts with the two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, falling from a plane that exploded over the English channel.  We get into the magical realism and metafiction right away, as the narrator breaks the fourth wall and the two men access some greater power to survive the fall.  But this is not without its consequences.  Gibreel is a Bollywood superstar, a big budget hero who can do no wrong, and has bridged national tensions by playing deities across religions.  From a poor upbringing amid the streets of urban India, he became a symbol of Indian culture.  Saladin Chamcha, the son of a wealthy Indian businessman, left for London as soon as he could and made a concerted effort to become part of proper London society.  Saladin changes into a manifestation of shaitan (i.e. Satan), horned, hoofed, furry and large, while Gibreel becomes angelic, with a literal halo (think renaissance art of a circle of light emanating behind the head, not a ring floating above the crown).  Gibreel also finds himself becoming, in his dreams at least, the archangel Gibreel. In Muslim traditional lore (I think apocrypha, it's hard to find unbiased information; in any regard, this is not int he Quran itself), Muhammad included a set of verses allowing for prayers to three Meccan goddesses, later redacting the verses with a claim that they were not given him by Gibreel but by Shaitan.   Within the context of the novel, Muhammad received both the verses and their repudiation from Gibreel.  However Gibreel discovers that the information that he passes on to those who seek his intercession comes not from him, but largely from the person who believes he/she is receiving the information.

While faith is a big part of the novel (and I'll get back to it), the main story is about the relationship of Indians and Great Britain.  If we must dive into taxonomy, we're looking at a great work of post-colonial literature, one that dives into the what it means to be an Indian and a Brit.  Much of Saladin's character is rooted in this identity crisis, his constant attempts to become proper English, his resentment of Gibreel's acceptance in England, etc.  Even moreso than his metamorphosis, Saladin Chamcha's major concern is his personal status and cultural identity.  As much of the book deals with the role of British residents from across the empire as with the religious faith of the protagonists.

But to get back to the faith issue, Rushdie actually provides a complex and often ambiguous approach to the religion of his birth.  At different times, religious faith is condemned or vindicated; miracles occur, of the malevolent and beneficent kind.  Perhaps the only religious attitude that is universally admonished is violent extremism.  But what of blasphemy?  There are characters that would certainly be considered blasphemous, most notably the characters who were directly opposed to Muhammad himself, and the brothel whose whores took the names of the Muhammad's wives to draw up custom.  But, of course, what constitutes blasphemy in Iran or other fundamentalist societies is very wide-reaching.

The Satanic Verses has been brought into the battle of freedom of expression as the flag carried the standard-bearer.  It's a great book that investigates ambiguous and contentious social issues in a manner that is, well, ambiguous and contentious (but in a good way).

Speaking of ambiguous, I'm trying to figure out exactly what this review series will really be about.  With the previous series, I went into each post asking how and why that book became the bestseller of a particular year.  Now?  I'm not sure yet.  Maybe I'll get a bit more free-form, see where my thoughts take me with each entry.

Just the Stats:

Published: 1988
Page Count: 547 (Viking Hardcover US Edition)
Awards: Booker Finalist; Whitbread (now called Costa) Book Award winner
Other appearances on ML list: Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) appears as #90 on Modern Library's official top 100 list.



Friday, July 10, 2015

Before and After Quiz #9

Sorry for the hiatus!  As always, answers at the bottom:




#1. An account of the lives of numerous residents of the English Midlands in the early-mid 19th century as they deal with a changing society and the plight of migratory Antarctic birds.  (Narrated by Morgan Freeman)



#2.  John Grimes, a young black boy from Harlem, disenchanted with the role of family and religion in his community, sets off to Antarctica only to find the horrifying remnants of an alien society.



#3.  A friendly talking mouse finds a not-so-friendly talking flytrap.



#4.  All is well in Eden, until the serpent tricks Adam and Eve into eating the apple of knowledge, making them aware of good, evil, and the inherent falsity of fiction (all of which is summed up in a carnival metaphor).



#5. After a successful and convoluted casino heist, the gang has to beat the world's greatest thief on a race through time to secure a sample of the virus that will decimate human civilization.



Answers below!




1. Middlemarch of the Penguins

2. Go Tell It on the Mountains of Madness

3. Stuart Little Shop of Horrors

4. Paradise Lost in the Funhouse

5. Ocean's 12 Monkeys

Thursday, July 9, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

Besides finishing Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988), of which I'll write on Monday:

I've been getting through Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791), which is excellent but slow-going.  

My cousin, visiting from Arkansas, dumped a ton of comics onto my hard drive, including Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2007-2011).  Yeah, apparently Whedon and Dark Horse Comics revived the show in comic form, and it's now on Season 10.  I'm ambivalent about some of the story choices, but there's clearly a lot that the comic was able to do that the tv show couldn't, due to special effects budgets if nothing else.

Between family visiting, a weekend in Vegas, and moving house, these last couple weeks have been very busy, leaving little time for this whole 'literary pursuit' thing.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Tuesday Links

I think, from now on, if I don't have any specific link/video/comic I want to show you, I'll do something more along the lines of the Paris Reviews blog, and briefly synopsize some interesting links.

While I think it overstates it's case in a couple places, The Guardian's look at the social and historical background for Frank Herbert's Dune is worth checking out.  "[The Fremen] are the moral centre of the book, not an ignorant mass to be civilised. Paul does not transform them in his image, but participates in their culture and is himself transformed into the prophet Muad’Dib."


The film adaptation of David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself hits theaters on July 31st.  The movie is called The End of the Tour and you can watch the trailer here.  It stars Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace.  While the film has been getting good reviews, the Vulture has an good article about what this means for how we think of Wallace now.  "But before his suicide he compared his own fame only to that of a high-profile classical musician. It’s just since the Kenyon speech became the sort of chain email your dotty uncle forwards you that Wallace has been transformed into an idol of quasi-moral veneration, the bard of ironic self-loathing transformed into a beacon of earnest self-help. "

Not exactly lit-related, but The Paris Review has a brief travel/photo essay on the opening of Cuba to American tourists.


Winston Rowntree's Subnormality is probably the best webcomic around.  If you go through the archives, it takes a while for him to find his voice, but it's worth it.  If you want to read a stand-alone post, try Message 652.

And finally, in the realm of self-promotion, I have a poem published in the Paper Plane Pilots 4th Issue of their in-flight magazine.

Monday, July 6, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: The Razor's Edge

The Book:








The Razor's Edge is a 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  The first chapter is like that of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), where the author explains his purpose in writing the novel, and in this case declares it a roman a clef.  Maugham himself makes frequent appearances in the book, as he pops in and out of the lives of Larry Darrel and those who know him.  Larry has just returned to Chicago from serving as a fighter pilot in WWI, and decides not to go into business with his friend Gray Maturin at Gray's father's investment house.  His fiancée, Isabel, decides to give him some time find himself, and her uncle, a good-hearted snob par-excellence named Elliott Templeton.  Meanwhile, their lower-middle class friends Sophie and Bob are madly in love, get married, and have a kid.

Well, after spending some time in Paris, Larry decides that he still doesn't want to be a stockbroker, and Isabel leaves him, eventually marrying Gray and having his children, despite still being in love with Larry.  Sophie's husband and child die in a car crash, sending her into pattern of self-destructive behavior meanwhile Larry has gone to India and finds a path towards enlightenment there.  He comes back only to find that Sophie and Gray are living with Uncle Elliott in Paris, after the stock market crash of 1929 ruined Gray's family's firm.  Here they run into Sophie, who has become an alcoholic opium-addict and likely possibly prostitute  Larry makes it his mission to help Sophie, and she achieves sobriety.  Larry eventually decides to marry her, which devastates Isabel.  Isabel tempts Sophie into drinking again, which leads to her reentering the low-life and her eventual murder.  Larry decides to head back to the US, to share what he has learned with the salt of the earth.  According to Maugham at the novel's close:  "...I had written nothing more or less than a success story.  For all the persons with whom I have been concerned got what they wanted.  Elliott social eminence; Isabel an assured position backed by a substantial fortune in an active and cultured community; Gray a steady and lucrative job with an office to go to from nine till six every day; ...Sophie death; and Larry happiness."


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Bernard Shaw's (Bizarre) Theory of Evolution

George Bernard Shaw is a fantastic playwright and social critic, but he is not a scientist.  This fact did not, however, stop him from writing a 60+ page manifesto refuting both natural selection and intelligent design, positing what he defined as a neo-Lamarckian approach, called "Creative Evolution," as the preface to his cycle of plays, Back to Methuselah (1921).  Of eyeless cave fish, intelligent design would say "god made them like this because the caves are dark," natural selection would say, "eyes require more energy than no-eyes, and are more subject to disease and injury than the lack of eyes, therefore those with a mutation for no eyes were better adapted to live in an environment where sight offered no advantage," while Lamarck's theory of use and disuse would say, "they don't use the eyes, so they lose them."  What Shaw does is take Lamarck's theory and give it a method of action.  So while natural selection operates through genetics, creative evolution operates through the will to change.  If this sounds very silly, don't worry.  It's much sillier.

    "If you like eating the tender tops of trees enough to make you concentrate all your energies on the stretching of your neck, you will finally get a long neck, like the giraffe." (19)*

And it just gets weirder from there.  In response to Weismann's experiments in the heredity of acquired traits, in which Weismann cut off the tails of several generations of mice to prove that this would not result in a lack of tails in the offspring, Shaw provides an alternate method of experiment:  

"First, he should have secured a colony of mice highly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion  He should then have hypnotized them into an urgent conviction that the fate of the musque world depended on the disappearance of its tail...  Having thus made the mice desire to lose their tails with a life-or-death intensity, he would very soon have seen a few mice born with little or no tail.  These would be recognized by the other mice as superior beings, and privileged in the division of food and sexual selection." (41)

Don't worry, it gets weirder.

According to Shaw, evolving is a lot like riding a bicycle.  No, seriously, he uses learning to ride a bicycle (and painting, and playing chess, etc) as an example.  When you start to learn something, you make a gain in each lesson, but by the time your next lesson comes around, you've backslid.  Eventually, though, you'll learn it so well that it will become an automatic process.  Whether it's riding a bike, painting, or something as simple as walking, this holds true.  Shaw then argues that, in this applies on an expanded scale between generations. He then argues that, all of evolution is the result of this, and that human gestation is literally the condensation of all the evolution that led up to mankind.  This is one of the central tenets of Creative Evolution.   That, over the course of countless generations, if it is willed enough, the time which it takes for a trait will be condensed drastically.  After all, it took millions of years to learn to walk upright and develop language, and now most people can walk and talk before they're two years old.  "The time may come when the same force that compressed the development of millions of years into nine months may pack many more millions into even a shorter space; so that Raphaels may be born painters as they are now born breathers and blood circulators." (21)    

But the great discovery and claim of Creative Evolution lies in the fact that all traits are a matter of will, and will alone.  To Shaw, there is no difference between the development of language, the possession of two legs, and immortality.  That's right, if we just want it enough, we can live forever!  This aspect of Creative Evolution, which forms the basis for the plays that make up Back to Methuselah, is explained thus:  

"Among other matters apparently changeable at will is the duration of individual life... Weismann, a very clever and suggestive biologist... pointed out that death is not an eternal condition of life, but an expedient introduced to provide for continual renewal without overcrowding.  Now Circumstantial Selection [Shaw's term for Natural Selection] does not account for natural death:  it accounts only for the survival of species in which the individuals have sense enough to decay and die on purpose... If on opportunist grounds Man now fixes the term of his llife at three score and ten years, he can equally fix it at three hundred, or three thousand, or even at the genuine Circumstantial Selection limit, which would be until a sooner-or-later-inevitable fatal accident makes an end of the individual." (15)

Shaw's Creative Evolution did not catch on, in science, pedagogy, religion, or much of anywhere else really.  The root cause of his theory seems lie in the fact that Shaw could not conceive of an existential universe that is not nihilistic, which says more about Shaw than the validity of natural selection.  As Shaw Natural Selection:  
"There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration, to such casually picturesque changes as an avalanche may make in a mountain landscape, or a railway accident in a human figure.  To call this Natural Selection is a blasphemy, possible to many for whom Nature is nothing but a casual aggregation of inert and dead matter..." (33)   

It is against this perceived "hideous fatalism" that Shaw is reacting, and is the root of the convoluted logic fundamental to this treatise.  Despite his wishes, the universe will not conform to no man's will, not even Shaw's.



* Penguin Books, 1961


Monday, June 29, 2015

Modern Library's Top 100, Readers' Choice

Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century is respectable and well-regarded for its distinction, if not its originality.  Commendably, they decided to see what the average reader thought the best books of the century were.  This resulted in a strange combination of modern classics, pulp writers with big fanbases, and a top ten overrun by Scientologists and Objectivists (the top ten contains three by L. Ron Hubbard and four by Ayn Rand).  So, in much the same spirit as my original project, I am embarking on another reading journey.  The difference here is that I will be updating every other Monday, alternating with my adaptation review series.  The list is as follows, starting with #100:


100. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
99. The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies
98. Illusions by Richard Bach
97. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
96. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
95. Mulengro by Charles de Lint
94. My Antonia by Willa Cather
93. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
92. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
91. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
90. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
89. Light in August by William Faulkner
88. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
87. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein
86. Double Star by Robert Heinlein
85. V. by Thomas Pynchon
84. It by Stephen King
83. The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein
82. Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton
81. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
80. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
79. Watership Down by Richard Adams
78. Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
77. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
76. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
75. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
74. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
73. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
72. The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein
71. The Magus by John Fowles
70. The Wood Wife y Terri Windling
69. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
68. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
67. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
66. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
65. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
64. The World According to Garp by John Irving
63. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
62. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
61. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
60. The Little Country by Charles de Lint
59. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
58. Greenmantle by Charles de Lint
57. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
56. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
55. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
54. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
53. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
52. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
51. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
50. Trader by Charles de Lint
49. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
48. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
47. Memory and Dream by Charles de Lint
46. One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane
45. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft
44. Yarrow by Charles de Lint
43. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
42. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
41. Someplace to Be Flying by Charles de Lint
40. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
39. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
38. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
37. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
36. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
35. Moonheart by Charles de Lint
34. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
33. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
32. The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison
31. Beloved by Toni Morrison
30. The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles
29. The Stand by Stephen King
28. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
27. Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute
26. Shane by Jack Schaefer
25. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
24. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
23. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
22. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
21. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
20. Animal Farm by George Orwell
19. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
18. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
17. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
16. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
15. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
14. Dune by Frank Herbert
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
12. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
11. Ulysses by James Joyce
10. Fear by L. Ron Hubbard
9. Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
8. We the Living by Ayn Rand
7. Anthem by Ayn Rand
6. 1984 by George Orwell
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
3. Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
2. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A couple comics from SMBC

I've linked to some stuff from Zach Weiner the guys at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal before (here, here, and here).  Click on the images to go to the comic page on their website, featuring alt text and a bonus panel (click the red button to the lower right of the image).  







Monday, June 22, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not"

THE NOVEL:




To Have and Have Not was Hemingway's third novel, released in 1937, between two of his major works (A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls).   It's main character is Harry Morgan, a captain of a small boat in the Florida Keys and Cuba who makes a living chartering the wealthy for fishing trips.  Short on cash after being stiffed his payment by a client, Morgan agrees to smuggle some Chinese immigrants from Cuba to the US.  He tries to prevent Eddie, a rummy and his first mate, from going with him, but he sneaks on to the ship anyway.  Thinking he'll be double-crossed after loading the immigrants on his boat, Morgan kills the man who hired him and then leaves the Chinese on the shores in Cuba.

Times being tough, Morgan takes to running rum from Cuba to the US, and on one trip he and another mate, Wesley, are shot by the Cuban patrol.  Harry loses his arm and his boat is confiscated.  The novels shifts at this point, Harry's relationship with his wife is delved into, his troubled relations with the wealthy inhabitants of the Florida keys, a few of whom temporarily become main the focus of the book.  Hemingway swaps narrators and focuses on the Haves instead of the Have Nots for quite a while, before going back to Harry Morgan, who's agreed to steal back his boat and run some Cuban bank robbers back to Havana, but things don't go as planned.  The robbers kill Morgan's friend Albert and in the ensuing drama, a shootout leaves all the boat's occupants dead, including Morgan.

This is one of Hemingway's more marginal novels, along the lines of Across the River and into the Trees, and is in fact better known for the first of it's film adaptations.  The novels changing narrators and roving focus is a questionable choice, and has garnered divisive reviews.


THE FILMS:

To Have and Have Not (1944)




Length: 100 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks

To Have and Have Not is a classic of the Hollywood golden age.  Humphrey Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a captain of a charter ship in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean now under Nazi rule.  Morgan is no fan of the Nazis, but he remains staunchly apolitical.  Morgan and Eddie, played here as pure comic relief by Walter Brennan, turn down a job smuggling French resistance fighters into Martinique.  At the hotel bar, Morgan notices a young woman pick-pocket his charter's wallet (said charter owed him a little under a thousand dollars, and claimed he'd need to cash a check the next morning).  Morgan confronts the girl, and discovers that the charter had nearly two grand in cash and traveler's checks, as well as a plane ticket out of Martinique for the next morning.  The woman introduces herself as Marie Browning (Lauren Bacall, in her first film role), and together they confront the charter.  But the revolutionaries are attacked in the hotel bar, and the charter catches a stray bullet.  Morgan is questioned by the Gestapo and has his money confiscated.  In need of cash, he agrees to help the French resistance fighters.  As the film goes on, his relationship with Browning and desire to help the resistance grows.  The film also has an affable bar singer/pianist.

If the plot sounds a bit like Casablanca, that's because it is.  Casablanca was a big hit, and the studios wanted to strike while the iron was hot.  What's especially interesting is that one of the screenwriters was William Faulkner, who was not Hemingway's biggest fan.  I can't imagine it caused him much heartache to cut a lot of the Hemingway from To Have and Have Not.


The Breaking Point (1950)




Length: 97minutes
Director: Michael Curtiz

The Breaking Point stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, a charter boat captain who ferries between Newport, California and Mexico.  His charter has them take him and a young, beautiful woman to Mexico.  The woman, Leona Charles (Patrice Neal), attempts to seduce Morgan, but is rebuffed.  After the charter strands Morgan, Leona, and Morgan's mate Wesley in Mexico, Morgan agrees to smuggle some Chinese immigrants aboard his ship.  When the man who hired him tries to double cross him, Morgan kills him and dumps his body in the ocean before releasing the immigrants on the Mexican coast.  When he gets back to California, he finds that one of the immigrants identified his boat, and it's being confiscated by the coast guard.

Morgan's relationship with his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters is a major part of the novel, and the relationship is fantastically complex.  Not melodramatic, mind you, but they clearly love each other very much but have their own issues and insecurities, and his continuing friendship with Leona Charles throws a small wrinkle into things.

Morgan finds out that the boat was released due to the efforts of the crooked lawyer that facilitated the deal with the Chinese.  The lawyer blackmails Morgan with the knowledge of the murder, and gets him to ferry some robbers to Mexico.  Morgan decides to double cross the robbers and turn them in for the reward.  Unfortunately, Wesley is on the boat when the robbers arrive, and they kill him.  Some time later, there's a shootout, on the boat, and Morgan is the only survivor, but he'll need his arm amputated.


The Gun Runners (1958)




Length: 83 minutes
Director: Don Siegel

The Gun Runners stars Audie Murphy as Sam Martin, captain of a charter boat that runs between Cuba and the Florida keys.  He works with an alcoholic first mate named Harvey (Everett Sloane).  A combination of a crooked charter and a gambling problem land Martin in money troubles.  He takes on a man named Hanagan (Eddie Albert) and his beautiful girlfriend Eva (Gita Hall) to Havana for what Martin believes is an affair, but is really a meeting for an arms deal with the Cuban revolutionaries which ends up with Hanagan shooting a Cuban military officer.   When they get back to the keys, Martin tells his wife what happened.  Lucy Martin, played by Patricia Owens, is the perfect wife.  Beautiful, supportive, trusting, their relationship is completely without trouble, despite the obvious troubles in their lives.

Anyway, Hanagan buys the papers on Martin's boat, and forces Martin to smuggle the guns and a revolutionary into Cuba.  When the revolutionary realizes that most of the boxes of guns are empty, Hanagan kills him.  They discover that Harvey had been hiding on the ship, and he jumps overboard when Martin gets them close to a shoreline.  Martin takes a bullet, but kills all the bad guys (which is completely believable; Murphy received the medal of honor for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German infantry).  He picks up Harvey, and the two head home.

Murphy did a lot of Westerns and war movies, and the director is best known for crime/action movies, most notably Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz (although those were after The Gun Runners.  Siegel directed the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as a bunch of crime thrillers with titles like Riot in Cell Block 11, Crime in the Streets, Private Hell 36).  The Gun Runners tries to keep some of this aesthetic, but it's hit or miss.



THE BEST ADAPTATION:

The Breaking Point (1950)




While none of the films go into the rich/poor issue as Hemingway does, The Breaking Point at least attempts to with Leona Charles, the beautiful socialite.  There is much more similarity with the plot of the novel in general, as Garfield is a bit darker than Murphy's Sam Martin, and less of a smooth talking maverick than Bogart's Morgan.  The relationship between Morgan and his wife is complex and sincere, whereas this relationship is absent in To Have and Have Not and drastically simplified in The Gun Runners.



THE BEST FILM:

Tie-
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Breaking Point (1950)


"You know how to whistle, don't you?"


I know, declaring a tie is a bit of a cop out.  But these movies are both fantastic and I honestly can't choose.  I've already discussed the relationship in The Breaking Point, but I haven't mentioned the incredible chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (who ended up getting married).  To Have and Have Not also has some great music, and fantastic acting.  While The Gun Runners is a solid film, it's not on the level of the other two.  Audie Murphy may have been one of the greatest soldiers of the twentieth century, but Bogart and Garfield are better actors.  These are two very different movies, the former lighter in tone with a strong romantic core, while the latter is darker and morally ambiguous.  Both films had excellent directors, and in an ironic twist, the film that wasn't trying to repeat Casablanca was directed by Michael Curtiz, who directed Casablanca in 1942.


Anyway, check back next week when I'll look at W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (1944), and it's two adaptations.

The Razor's Edge (1946) starring Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1984) starring Bill Murray (which is a pretty weird casting decision.  I'm interested to see how it pans out.)