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

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.