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"


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.


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 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.


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.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

On Dream Logic

Writing dreams is tricky, especially if you're trying to capture 'dream logic.'  But what exactly is dream logic anyway?  I was trying to figure this out, when I remembered part of a quote (whose source I don't remember) stating that dreams are completely logical while you're dreaming them and only become illogical when you apply the logic of waking life.  So, if I thought I'd flip that around, and figure out what dream logic was by applying it to waking life.  And that's when I realized that there is no such thing as dream logic, that the entire concept is a misnomer.  'Logic' is rooted in consistency.  Logic doesn't just dictate that 2 + 2 = 4, but that 2 + 2 will always equal 4.  This is not so in dreams.  It's easy to forget that the logic of the waking world is a result of that world.  That is to say, it is consistent because our experiences of it are consistent, and from those experiences we derive logic.  There is no consistency in dreams.   A single dream can contain contradictions, not to mention the contradictions between different dreams.  So what, then is dream logic?   

I think it's first and foremost a sense of credulity.  Within a dream, we may question why or how something is happening, but that it's happening at all, is never questioned.  Perhaps the greatest piece of dream-writing is Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.  Alice questions why and how things happen to her, her changes in size, for example, but she never doubts its possibility.  One incident from the novel that comes to mind is the baby that she rescues from the duchess.  The duchess is filling the house with pepper, and this baby won't stop sneezing.  Alice takes the baby from the house, only to discover that, a ways down the road, it has turned into a pig.  She is surprised that the baby turns into a pig, but she takes it in stride whereas you or I would freak out.  And we'd freak out because it's impossible, because it runs contradictory to everything we know about the universe.  It is, in the simplest sense, illogical.  But, as I mentioned, we derive logic from experience, and we enter each dream, for lack of a less loaded word, in a state of pure innocence, which is to say, zero experience. We derive dream logic from the contents of the dream, and each dream starts from scratch.  Which is all to say that there is no dream logic outside the dream.

Monday, June 15, 2015

An Update

I previously announced that I'd have a serialized work of long fiction that would update on alternating Mondays, but I am very unhappy with how it's been turning out and don't wish to subject you to it as it is.  I have something else planned, so stay tuned.  Sorry for any disappointment.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson:  A collection mostly of his journalism, but with some interviews and other writings as well.

Mission Impossible (1996): I'd actually never seen it before, and I'm honestly pretty ambivalent about  it. 

I've also been listening to the Superego podcast, which is an improv sketch comedy series.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Some Clickhole

If you don't know already, is the Onion's response to Buzzfeed.  And, every now and then, they have some great lit-themed posts.  Specifically their advice from eight famous authors and the absolutely hilarious series of letters between Hemingway and Fitzgerald discussing early drafts of The Great Gatsby

Monday, June 8, 2015

From Page to Screen to Screen: Hemingway's "The Killers"


"The Killers" is a short story by Ernest Hemingway first published in 1927 and is part of his series of Nick Adams stories.  Two men in trenchcoats walk into a lunch counter in Summit, Illinois, cynical, condescending men who talk circles around the owner.  They make Nick, who's eating at the counter, go into the kitchen, where he and the cook are tied up while the owner turns away any customers that come in.  They say they're there to kill a Swede named Ole Anderson.  It's nothing personal, mind you. There killing him for a friend.  When it becomes clear that Anderson isn't going to show, the killers leave.  George unties Nick who runs off to warn Anderson.  Anderson, a former boxer, clearly knows that the killers are on their way, but refuses to do anything about it.  Nick returns to the cafe and declares his determination to get out of this town.    

Like the other Nick Adams stories, the theme of disillusionment is major.  There's the cowardice of the cook and owner, the former advising Nick to not get involved at all.  The final lines of the story:  

[Nick Adams says]"I can't stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he's going to get it.  It's too damned awful."
"Well," said George, "you better not think about it."

The story also relies on Hemingway's iceberg theory.  It's mentioned late in the story that Anderson "must have got mixed up in something in Chicago."  In the 1920s, the mob was a big deal in Chicago.  When law enforcement started cracking down, many relocated to Summit.  

Overall, this is an excellent piece of minimalist literature.



Director: Robert Siodmak
Runtime: 97 Minutes
The movie starts with a fantastic, nearly blow-for-blow adaptation of the original story.  The killers, played by noir character actors William Conrad (the fat man in "Jake and the Fat Man") and Charles McGraw, are sinister and distant in equal amounts.

Nick Adams (Phil Brown aka Uncle Owen from Star Wars) runs off to tell the Swede (Burt Lancaster in his first film role) that two men are out to kill him, but the Swede is resigned to his fate.  

Conrad and McGraw as the Killers

Enter Jim Reardon, played by Edmond O'Brien (The Wild Bunch, Oscar win for The Barefoot Contessa), an insurance investigator.  Nick Adams and the Swede were both employed by the same service station, which gives its employees a small life insurance policy.  While Reardon is going through the Swede's belongings, he finds a green handkerchief with a gold harp embroidered on it. This reminds him of something, but he can't quite put his finger on it.  At the morgue, he sees that the Swede's right hand is busted up, so he figures the guy must have been a boxer.  Thus begins his investigation.  

He discovers that the Swede's name was Ole Anderson, a boxer who turned to a life of crime.  The detective who arrested Anderson was once his good friend, and agrees to help Reardon figure out what happened.  Anderson fell in love with femme fatale Kitty Collins, played perfectly by Ava Gardner (Showboat, On the Beach) and took the fall for her when she was caught with stolen jewelry.  When he got out, he found that she'd gone back to her ex, crime lord Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker).  Along with two other established crooks, Colfax and Collins invite Anderson in on the score of a lifetime: A $250,000 daylight robbery. (That's over $3 million adjusting for inflation.)   

For reasons that will become clear later, I have to give away the rest of the plot.  If you'd rather watch the movie before finding out the ending (which I highly recommend), stop reading now, watch the movie, and come back.

Lancaster and Gardner

Reardon recognizes the handkerchief as the mask worn by one of the robbers at the Prentice Hat Robbery.  It turns out that Anderson, believing that the others were going to double-cross him, stole the entire score and, unbeknownst to the rest of the gang, ran off with Kitty, who then ran off with the money.  Reardon has a violent altercation with one of the other criminals, Dum-Dum Dugan (noir character actor Jim Lambert) who is trying to find where the money is and gets Reardon to admit Kitty ran off with it.

Reardon gets in contact with Jim Colfax, who's gone legitimate, and tells him what's happened.  He soon gets in contact with Kitty, who sets him up to be killed, but Reardon manages to get a drop on the killers (who we haven't seen since the opening) and escape.  Reardon goes to Colfax's house where Dugan and Colfax have just shot each other, and we get the final twist:  Kitty was working with Colfax the entire time.  She convinced Anderson to take all the money, so she and Colfax could have it without giving out shares.  

This is a fantastic noir film, with a great plot, solid pacing, and fantastic acting.  It was nominated for four academy awards, including directing and screenplay, but lost out to The Best Years of Our Lives on both.  


Director: Don Siegel
Runtime: 93 Minutes

We start with two mysterious men walking into a school for the blind, looking for a man named Jimmy North.  Someone gets word to North that two guys are after him and they mean to kill him, but North refuses to run.  The two men find North, who offers no resistance when they shoot him.  Or rather, they shake their guns at him, because apparently silencers mean there's no muzzle flash, shells, or any other thing one normally associates with a gun going bang.

We next see the men on a train out of town.  Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) plays Charlie Strom, a grizzled veteran hitman with great screen presence, while Western character actor Clu Galager plays his partner, Lee, a living cartoon character.  

Clu Galager and Lee Marvin

Strom realizes three things.  1. He was paid $25,000 for this hit, when he'd never been paid more than $10,000 2. Jimmy North had been involved in a million dollar robbery and ran off with the money.  3. If North had the money, they would have been asked to lean on him, not kill him.  Therefore, whoever hired him has the money.  And maybe they just oughta get that money for themselves.   

It turns out that Jimmy North (Oscar nominated actor/writer/director John Cassavetes) used to be a racecar driver, so they go to his old mechanic for information.  Fourteen minutes into the movie, we get our first flashback.  The flashback lasts thirty goddamn minutes, and about half of that is driving footage with terrible greenscreen.

Yes, there's a go-kart scene.  No, it never makes sense.

Jimmy North falls for Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson).  His mechanic keeps claiming that Farr is bad for him, and she'll ruin his focus.  Well, North has a blowout and crashes, leading to a period of hospitalization.  He finds out that Farr is a kept woman, her benefactor being crime big shot Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan).  Now, at the 45 minute mark, we cut back to Strom and Lee, who we haven't seen for two-thirds of the screentime so far.  They find Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell), Browning's right hand man, who tells them what happened next.  This flashback takes another twenty. goddamned. minutes.  Basically, North is washed up, Farr gets him involved as a driver on a big score that Browning is organizing, and North double-crosses the group and makes off with the money.  Now, over an hour and ten minutes into an hour and a half movie, we finally see Strom and Lee again.  They confront Browning, and demand to see Farr.  They go to Farr's apartment, threaten her, and she has a flashback (a mercifully brief five minute one this time) about how she convinced North that the gang was going to double cross him, and how she and Browning took the money and shot him.  The killers leave the apartment building and are shot at. Lee is killed and Strom is hit.  Strom makes his way to Browning's house, where he shoots Farr and Browning before bleeding out.

My god, the pacing in this movie is a wreck.  The inexcusably long flashbacks destroy the pacing for the investigation storyline, and the constant driving scenes destroy the pacing for the rest.  Look, car chases can be fun and exciting to watch.  Driving, on the other hand, is not exciting at all.

There's only one good thing about this movie and his name is Lee Marvin.

Unfortunately, he gets practically no screen time.



In addition to a spot on direct adaptation of the story, Burt Lancaster is a solid Hemingway protagonist, the honorable tough man with big feelings.  While in the 1964 version, the sum total of the similarity is two hitmen kill a guy who doesn't resist.  



It's strange that the movie from the '40s has aged wonderfully while the movie from the '60s is so outdated.  The 1946 version is fantastic.  Pacing, acting, plot, aesthetics.  It's a great film.  The 1964 version?  It's plagued by terrible decisions.  Besides the aforementioned flashbacks and boring driving sequences, perhaps the most unforgivable is Angie Dickinson's character.  In the 1946 version, Ava Gardner is tough, she steals every scene she's in, and you never know where her loyalties lie, or if she even has any.  In both versions, there's a scene when the robbery is being planned.  The femme fatale and the future murder victim flirt, much to the chagrin of the fatale's current beau.  In the 1946 version, Big Jim Colfax threatens to slap Gardner.  Lancaster makes a move but Gardner tells him she can take care of herself.

In the 1964 version, this happens.

Angie Dickinson spends half of her screentime flirting with the male characters, and the other half getting beaten up.  All this does is make her a far less compelling character.  In fact, every character in this version is worse than the 1946 one.


It's a Hemingway double-header!

We'll look at the 1937 novel To Have and Have Not, and it's three film adaptations:

The Bogart/Bacall vehicle To Have and Have Not (1944)

The John Garfield crime thriller The Breaking Point (1950)

And the Audie Murphy action flick The Gun Runners (1958)

Friday, June 5, 2015

Before and After Quiz #8

Here we go again!

1. A glamorous American couple rent a villa in the South of France, while their lives unravel due to the accidental kidnapping of 'Sandy Claws.'

2. Two noble friends get caught up in a tragic royal murder-revenge plot, end up being executed, and now free the souls of the soon-to-be-deceased as 'reapers.'

3. Marco Polo regales Kubla Khan with many different stories about the same location: the Texas-Mexico border in the 1950s.

4. After their cruise ship is capsized by a rogue wave, a boy and his aunt's slave escape on a raft and float towards freedom.

5. After the evil queen tries to have her killed, a beautiful princess runs into the woods, only to discover herself trapped in the middle of an airborne toxic event.

Scroll down for solutions!

1. Tender Is the Nightmare before Christmas (From F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night 1934, and Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas 1993)

2. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Like Me (from Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 1966, and Bryan Fuller's tv show Dead Like Me 2003-4)

3. Invisible Cities of the Plain (from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities 1972, and Cormac McCarthy's Cities of the Plain 1998)

4. The Poseidon Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (from the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884)

5. Snow White Noise (from the European fairy tale Snow White, and Don DeLillo's White Noise 1985)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

What I'm Reading/Watching

The Signet Classic paperback on Voltaire:  I had already read Candide, but this collection includes a couple novellas (Zadig and Ingenuous) and thirteen short stories.  Some were very topical, dealing with specific Jesuits and Jansenists and their feuds, while others were more broadly philosophical and always witty and insightful.

The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics by John Pollack:  Pollack, winner of the 1995 world pun championships, has a brief (154 pages, not counting bibliography, acknowledgments, etc.) account of the history, popularity, and neurolinguistics behind puns.  Very accessible, but at times a bit disorganized, it's a fun read on the subject.  Its original research is limited to asking questions of comedians, writers, linguists, and and neuroscientists, so it's really more of a summation of existing research.

Ended up seeing Lucy (2014) on DVD.  Holy crap was that movie stupid.  The whole 10% of the brain thing would be okay if Besson didn't try to make the movie seem profound by having characters ponder the meaning of being human his liberal use of nature footage.  Then there's the problem of having an action movie where the main character can manipulate matter and no one else can.  There's never any sense of real danger for Lucy.  That said, I can see this having a cult following.  It has a couple big names (Scarlett Johannson and Morgan Freeman), the plot is laughably stupid, and it has some pretty cool visual effects.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vonnegut's Novels: A Personal Ranking

I'm a pretty big Vonnegut fan, and I felt I might as well get around to ranking all 14 of his novels.  So here goes.


No surprise here.  Slaughterhouse-Five combines Vonnegut's direct style, unconventional techniques, and personal tragedy into a masterpiece.


Despite Vonnegut himself giving this novel a C grade (in Palm Sunday), it is here that Vonnegut takes his technical experimentation to its greatest heights.

3. MOTHER NIGHT (1961)

The memoir of Howard Campbell Jr., an American dramatist in Germany during the outbreak of WWII, he is asked  by the Nazis to be a propagandist, and U.S. asks him to take the position so he could transmit encoded messages.  The novel deals with Campbell's guilt and his attempts to justify personal neutrality in a morally disastrous world.

4. CAT'S CRADLE (1963)

A parable for the Mutually Assured Destruction, Cat's Cradle lampoons mankind's self-destructive nature, as well as inventing Bokononism.  Is it any surprise this novel was accepted as a Master's thesis in Anthropology?


Part space opera, part investigation into the nature of free will, The Sirens of Titan is one of the great works of the Golden Age of sci-fi.


Eliot Rosewater is the rich heir of a rich and politically connected family.  But the town that bears his family's name is a slum.  This novel asks a question that's only becoming more and more relevant as our economy becomes more and more automated and digitized:  What do we do with people our economy doesn't need?

7. TIMEQUAKE (1997)

Vonnegut's last novel describes a timequake: time jumps backwards and everyone, though conscious of the future, is forced to relive the past on autopilot.  Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut is writing Timequake.

8. GALÁPAGOS (1985)

A disease has wiped out mankind's ability to reproduce.  The only people who aren't affected are a group of tourists stranded in the Galápagos Islands.  But, as natural selection takes it course, what exactly constitutes 'human' is about to change.

9. PLAYER PIANO (1952)

Vonnegut's first novel, briefly published under the title Utopia-14, Player Piano presents a dystopian future where almost all jobs are handled by machines.  Similar to God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, it asks just what our society will do to those it no longer needs, and what, exactly, is the end goal of capitalism?

10. BLUEBEARD (1987)

The autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, avant-garde abstract painter first seen in Breakfast of Champions.  While I know it's almost counter-intuitive to complain about lack of agency in a Vonnegut protagonist, the protagonists in this and the last four novels on this list seem to be almost completely apathetic to their own lives.  Even Billy Pilgrim, who believed everything he did was predetermined, spent time trying to convince people of that fact.

11. HOCUS POCUS (1990)

Eugene Debs Hartke is a teacher and Vietnam vet at a private school for wealthy but educationally challenged youngsters.  The novel takes the form of hundreds of scraps of paper written on while Hartke awaits trial for helping perpetrate a jailbreak at the nearby penitentiary. 

12. SLAPSTICK (1976)

Slapstick seems like Vonnegut took every SF premise that was floating around in his mind and tied them all together in one novel.  There are plenty of individual passages and ideas I like, but the novel as a whole seemed aimless.

13. DEADEYE DICK (1982)

Rudy Waltz accidentally shoots a neighbor as a kid, leading to a lifelong trauma.  The entire novel is Rudy flashing back and forth from his present to scenes throughout his life (or, rather, the lives of people around him.  Waltz seems more of a documentarian than a character) and hinting at the complete destruction of Midland City.

14. JAILBIRD (1979)

To me, Jailbird's protagonist, Walter Starbuck, was a ghost.  After serving many years as a minor accessory in the Watergate scandal and released from minimum security prison, and finds himself in the middle of a mega-corporation conspiracy.  The parts of this novel that deal with the Red Scare are good, but come few and far between.  Overall, I just couldn't get myself to care about what was going on when the protagonist clearly didn't.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

2015 Commencement Speeches

I was fortunate enough to see Robert De Niro's commencement speech for NYU Tisch's graduating class, and it's worth a watch:

I also ran across John Waters' commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design:

Monday, June 1, 2015

2014: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Author:

John Green (1977-    ) was born in Indianapolis, Indiana but grew up in Orlando, Florida and Birmingham, Alabama.  He double-majored in English and Religious Studies at Kenyon College, graduating in 2000.  After graduating, he worked as a chaplain at a children's hospital, then began working for Booklist and was a frequent contributor to NPR's All Things Considered.  In 2005, Green published his first novel, Looking for Alaska.  In 2006 he married Sarah Urist and published his second novel, An Abundance of Katherines.  In 2007, John and his brother Hank Green started vlogging under the name Vlogbrothers.  They now have over two million subscribers on youtube.  He wrote Paper Towns (2008) and co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2009) with David Levithan.  His most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was published in 2012 and was adapted to film in 2014.  John Green lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two children.

The Book:

Length: 313 pages
Subject/Genre: Teen issues/YA Romance

The Fault in Our Stars is narrated by Hazel, a 16 year old girl with thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs.  At a youth cancer support group, she meets Augustus Waters, a 17 year old boy who lost a leg to osteosarcoma, but will probably remain healthy.  Hazel has a terminal diagnosis, though an experimental medication has bought her some (but no one knows how much) time. Their budding (and inherently doomed) relationship is the focus of the novel.

Green uses the protagonists' cancer to amplify the typical teenage experience: angst over the future, the feeling that no one really understands you, obsession with mortality, etc.  He avoids being overly cloying or preachy, which he could have easily resorted to.

I rarely read YA.  This isn't meant as a condemnation of the genre, just a general lack of interest.  So while this novel wasn't my cup of tea, I'm happy to say it wasn't an unpleasant experience.  Before now, my limited experience with YA has mostly been of the shitty variety, where the author, either due to lack of talent or disregard for his/her audience, publishes what looks like a rough first draft.  I'm happy to say that Green doesn't do this.  While I don't find the novel particularly profound, I'm happy to say that its well-written, not only moreso than other YA I've read, but moreso than some of the adult fiction previously reviewed here (cough Valley of the Dolls cough The Da Vinci Code cough).

Despite being published in 2012, The Fault in Our Stars didn't become the #1 annual bestseller until 2014, which is when the movie adaptation was released.

The movie was a financial success, with a $48 million opening weekend.  Oddly enough, Fox's Bollywood studios have announced their plans to produce a Hindi remake.

I just realized that this is my last recommendation after over two years of doing this (and the post goes live on my birthday, no less).  Anyway, if you like YA and/or Romance, you'll most likely enjoy The Fault in Our Stars. If you're not into either of those genres, it's still an okay read, though you'll likely remain ambivalent.

Bestsellers of 2014:

1. The Fault in Our Stars (trade paperback) by John Green
2. The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney
3. Divergent by Veronica Roth
4. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
5. Killing Patton by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard (non-fiction)
6. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
8. The Fault in Our Stars (movie tie-in) by John Green
9. The Fault in Our Stars (hardcover) by John Green
10. Frozen by Victoria Saxon

1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
3. Divergent by Veronica Roth
4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
5. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
6. Allegiant by Veronica Roth
7. The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
8. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
9. Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
10. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (non-fiction)

Also Published in 2014:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore
What If? by Randall Munroe
The Martian by Andy Weir


"Biographical Questions." JohnGreenBooks. John Green Books, n.d. Web.

Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York: Dutton Books, 2012. Print.

"John Green." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web.