Monday, December 15, 2014

1996: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children.

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 28 novels, four children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.  

The Book:

1st edition cover

Length: 401 pages
Subject/Genre:litigation/legal thriller

In typical Grisham fashion, The Runaway Jury focuses on a trial in Mississippi, in this case, a product liability suit in Biloxi against the Pynex tobacco company.  Like his previous novel, The Rainmaker, this is a story of an unpopular, corrupt, and powerful organization being fought down in the courtroom.  As you might expect, the tobacco companies are in cahoots to prevent a plaintiff´s verdict, fearing future litigation, and they don't play by the rules.  The lavishly funded Rankin Fitch does all there dirty work outside the court.  But in this case, something else is afoot.  One juror, who goes by the name Nicholas Easter, isn't who he says he is.  And with outside help from the mysterious Marlee, it's clear he's setting himself up to swing the jury whichever way he wants.  But whether for profit or private motivation is unknown...

A little context.  I've frequently compared Grisham novels to episodes of Law & Order, and this included the ripped-from-the-headlines premises.  Tobacco litigation was reaching a peak in the 1990s, with not only individuals, but states suing the tobacco industry.  In 1994, Mississippi became the first of over 40 states to sue the manufacturers for health care costs incurred by the state.  And, as opposed to the individual cases, the states were having a good degree of success in the courts.  In an interesting sidenote, two years after The Runaway Jury  was published, the tobacco industry and the U.S. government entered the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.  In essence, the tobacco companies pay billions to the states and fund some anti-smoking non-profits, meanwhile the states don't sue and private lawsuits against the tobacco companies become more difficult.

I have trouble reviewing Grisham novels because they're always pretty much what they appear on the surface.  It's like reviewing an episode of CSI, where the only meaningful yardstick is other episodes of the same or similar shows.  Grisham is entertaining, easy and quick to read, and you know exactly what you´ll get going in.  Curled up on a bunk bed in Rome with a bad cold, Grisham was a good choice.  But I feel like I keep having to reiterate that he keeps approaching interesting questions and grand themes but always stops short and doesn't actually explore them at all.  The plot of The Runaway Jury would be great for discussions about things like the difference between legal justice and moral justice, and whether corruption can fight corruption.  But of course this is left to the reader as an exercise.  

The Runaway Jury was adapted for the screen in 2003.

"Drop the 'the.'  It's cleaner."

The films starred Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Rachel Weisz.  It also replaces the cigarette companies with gun manufacturers. 

Anyway, as I think I'll be repeating a lot in the upcoming reviews, if you want something light and entertaining, feel free to read a Grisham novel.  If not, don't.  Also, go watch Thank You for Smoking.

Bestsellers of 1996:

1. The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
2. Executive Orders by Tom Clancy
3. Desperation by Stephen King
4. Airframe by Michael Crichton
5. The Regulators by Stephen King
6. Malice by Danielle Steel
7. Silent Honor by Danielle Steel
8. Primary Colors by Anonymous
9. Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell
10. The Tenth Insight by James Redfield 

Also Published in 1996:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


Grisham, John. The Runaway Jury. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Print.

Monday, November 24, 2014

How to Visit a Museum as a Tourist

First, arrive early.  This won't help avoid the crowds, but at least you'll be out in time for happy hour.  I arrived at the British Museum about twenty minutes before the majority of its exhibits opened, declined buying a £5 map, a £3 bottle of water, a £12 Rosetta stone tea cozy, and the London Bridge and made my way towards the entrance to the Egyptian Treasures exhibit.  Just in time to join the ranks of an elementary school class and a tour group of elderly Frenchmen, along with the myriad others like myself.  And at last the docents withdrew, the doors swung wide, and we swept through the threshold and into a gallery of human achievement.  Before me, encased in a glass cube, stood the black mass of the Rosetta stone.  The Rosetta Stone.  That artifact which opened the dark crypt of Egyptian mystery, that cipher to all the sphinx's riddles, that great translator of the ancients...   
I stood in awe... and directly in front of someone's camera.  

This was a trend I became increasingly aware of throughout the day.  Crossing any open space meant dodging a grid of invisible line-of-sights, ducking and weaving from one hall to the another.  But this isn't going to be a screed against incessant amateur photography.  While preventing this behavior may seem like a good idea, it would be more trouble than it's worth. (Although attempts have been made by putting all paintings behind a thin sheet of glass, thus, no matter where you stand, some part of the picture will be in glare.)  Rather, we must ask why people are taking these photos.  The answer, obviously, is to share them, and prove to others that they were there.  Yet it won't be too long before they catch on and realize that nearly every item in the museum has been extensively photographed by professional photographers (books of these photographs available for £15 at the gift shop).  It is only a matter of time before the discerning museum goer will realize the futility of the picture-taking.  This is not good news, because for many people, this will eliminate the need to visit the museum at all!   

So what is the modern museum director to do?  How does one make a museum endlessly photogenic?  The answer lies in the question.  Make the museum itself worth photographing.  One could start by arranging the items not by region or epoch, but by complementary or shocking juxtapositions.  The Rosetta Stone next to an Enigma machine.  A sarcophagus in a room decorated by Warhol paintings.  The permutations are endless, and, with frequent changes in layout, would inspire repeat visits, and plenty of snapshots.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Brief Update

On October 15th, I left the U.S. to travel across Europe.  Posts from that date through last Friday were written in advance, and scheduled to post (this post is being written in a hostel in Krakow, which was only reached after accidentally ending up in Slovakia).  As such, the main blog project, that is, the reviews of the bestsellers, will be postponed.  I will, however, keep updating the blog, with travel essays as well as photos and video of weird and literary sights from around the continent.

I'll just leave you with these bizarre statues from Prague:

"Who's a cute little unrelenting horror?  You are!"

Friday, November 14, 2014

Some Kafka

A couple oool videos for you today.  The first is an illustrated reading of Kafka's parable "Before the Law," read by Orson Welles.

The second is a little stranger.  It's Christopher Plummer recreating one of Nabokov's lectures, in this case, his lecture on Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Five of the Best Author/Director Cameos

#5: Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall

Probably one of the most famous film cameos for a writer, Marshall McLuhan's appearance in Annie Hall is still one of the great moments of film comedy.

#4: Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now

Coppola's appears briefly as a tv director during a battle scene. 

#3: Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Johnny Depp, as Thompson alter-ego Raoul Duke, drops enough acid to break down the fourth wall and see the real Thompson.

#2: Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons

I was unfortunately unable to find any video of the appearance.  As far as cameos go, this is one of the most bizarre.  You have to remember that, until this point, there were no extant recordings of Pynchon.  Literally zero recordings of one of the most notable living American writers.  And then, in 2004, after nearly forty years of silence, he appears on the Simpsons.

#1: Kurt Vonnegut in Back to School

Back to School is a great 80s college movie starring Rodney Dangerfield and a before-he-was-famous Robert Downey Jr.  It also has one of the best used cameos I've ever seen.  (Also, I'm a huge Vonnegut fan, so I'm a little biased in my choice of #1.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

1995: The Rainmaker by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children.

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 28 novels, four children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.

The Book:

Length: 434 pages
Subject/Genre: Law/Courtroom thriller

The Rainmaker is the first person account of Rudy Baylor's last semester in law school, establishment of his career, and the giant case he lucked into.  Baylor is broke, working part time at a bar whose status as a front for illegal money is an open secret.  During his last semester, as part of a class Rudy helps advise some elderly retirees on legal matters.  He ends up renting a room from Mrs. Birdie Birdsong, an old woman whose will suggests a massive fortune, and he befriends, and later signs on, the Black family, whose son was wrongly denied a bone marrow transplant by their insurance company, Great Benefit.  After he graduates and multiple job possibilities fall through unexpectedly, he ends up working for "Bruiser" Stone, the crooked lawyer friend/accomplice of the bar owner.  It's here he befriends the bizarre Deck Shifflet, a would-be lawyer who can't pass the bar.  When Bruiser and the bar owner flee the country to avoid an FBI raid, Rudy and Deck start their own practice.

The insurance case turns out to be the loose thread in a major cover-up, and novice Rudy is sent up against a corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the best lawyers money can buy. In the meantime, Rudy falls in love with Kelly Riker, a beautiful young woman who's married to an abusive lunatic.  

I usually don't like spoiling the endings, but it's pretty relevant here.  This is a David vs. Goliath story, with the lower middle class family and their broke rookie lawyer taking down a massive heartless organization.  It's pretty much a revenge fantasy against insurance companies.  Rudy, through various, usually legal, means, acquires tons of incriminating evidence against Great Benefit.  We the readers know this information ahead of time, so we're anticipating him springing it on them in court, and I can't lie, it's pretty satisfying.  Like I said, this is as much revenge fantasy as legal thriller.
While the subject matter is dark at times, The Rainmaker has a lot more humor and sarcasm than The Chamber, and is what I'd describe as a fun book.  The film version was released in 1997.  The film was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and starred Matt Damon as Rudy Baylor, Danny DeVito as Deck Shifflet, Claire Danes as Kelly Riker, and John Voight as the opposing counsel, Leo F. Drummond.  

Like The Chamber, this is an entertaining read, but there's nothing here that a good tv law procedural doesn't have.  If you're looking for a fun time killer, try The Rainmaker.  If not, don't.

Bestsellers of 1995:

1. The Rainmaker by John Grisham
2. The Lost World by Michael Crichton
3. Five Days in Paris by Danielle Steel
4. The Christmas box by Richard Paul Evans
5. Lightning by Danielle Steel
6. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
7. Rose Madder by Stephen King
8. "L" is for Lawless by Sue Grafton
9. Politically Correct Holiday Stories by James Finn Garner
10. The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

Also Published in 1995:

The Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
Blindness by Josè Saramango
The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald


Grisham, John. The Rainmaker. New York: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Blade Runner: Aquarelle edition

I've already written a post about the complicated origins of Blade Runner. Swedish artist Anders Ramsell decided to take the movie as an inspiration.  His 35 minute paraphrasing of the original, is animated entirely with hand-made aquarelles, watercolor paintings 1.5 cm x 3 cm (0.6 x 1.2 inches). 12, 597 of them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ponies by Kij Johnson

One of my favorite contemporary short stories, and winner of the 2010 Nebula award for the short story, is "Ponies" by Kij Johnson.  You can read it here on or listen to a reading of it here.  (Sorry, audio player wouldn't embed.)

Monday, November 3, 2014

1994: The Chamber by John Grisham

The Author:

John Grisham (1955-    ) was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the son of a construction worker. At the age of twelve, his family moved to Southaven, Mississippi.  He graduated with a B.S. from Mississippi State University in 1979.  He passed the Mississippi Bar exam in 1981, and received his J.D. from the University of Mississippi.  In 1981, he married Renee Jones, with whom he had two children.  

Grisham began a successful law practice in 1981, starting in criminal law, and moving to more lucrative civil law.  In 1984, he was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives, a position he held in addition to running his law practice.  A case he witnessed while in the state legislature led him to write his first novel, A Time to Kill (1989).  He had trouble finding an agent and publisher.  He eventually found both, and a limited run of 5,000 copies was printed of his first novel.  In 1990, Grisham resigned from his position on state legislature and retired his practice.  In 1991, Doubleday published his second novel, The Firm.  It was a massive commercial success, as were his third and fourth novels, The Pelican Brief (1992) and The Client (1993).  His fourth book, The Chamber (1994) is the first of eleven novels to become the number one annual bestselling novel in the U.S.

Since 1989, Grisham has published a total of 28 novels, four children's books, and a work of non-fiction.  His family splits its time between homes in Oxford, Mississippi, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Grisham also serves as a board member on the Innocence Project.

The Book:

Length: 486 pages
Subject/Genre: Death Penalty Litigation/Legal Thriller

The Chamber begins in 1967 in rural Mississippi.  Sam Cayhall, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, assists in the bombing of a Jewish lawyer's office as part of the KKK's bombing campaign against civil rights activists. The bomb is set by another man, Rollie Wedge, and is put on a timer.  The bomb detonates later that morning, killing the lawyer's twin children, and crippling the lawyer.  Cayhall is caught by the police.  He is tried, but the jury is stacked in his favor and is deadlocked.  The same happens in a retrial.  Fourteen years pass, attitudes change, and a new D.A., looking to make a name for himself, brings Cayhall back on trial.  With testimony from the former imperial wizard of the KKK, Cayhall is convicted and given the death penalty.

In Chicago, young lawyer Adam Hall works for the major firm Kravitz & Bane, which had been representing Cayhall through his appeals as part of their pro bono program.  Hall admits that, after his father's suicide when Hall was seventeen, he learned that he was Sam Cayhall's grandson.  Hall goes on to say that he is against the death penalty in principle, and wants to represent his grandfather.  This he does, and heads out to Mississippi, connecting with his family's dark past and the legal vagaries of death penalty litigation.  

Grisham's novel strikes me as the equivalent of a strong episode of a tv courtroom drama.  There's a lot of investigation and legal maneuvering, and a lot of tension over whether or not Cayhall will be executed. The characters come up against a lot of serious, morally troublesome issues, not the least of which is the death penalty itself.  However, these issues are not dealt with to any depth.  While I don't expect a fifty page treatise debating the morality of capital punishment, the pro arguments are basically 'it's justice/it gives closure' and the con arguments are just 'killing is wrong/it doesn't help anyone.'  None of these points are argued beyond them being mentioned in conversation, and what could be a deep exploration of an incredibly contentious moral dilemma isn't really dealt with at all.  Grisham acknowledges that there is such a dilemma, his characters take one side or the other, but all he really does is have people ask if it's really good or bad (I mean, he literally has them ask, a lot).  It's easy for this novel to seem a lot deeper than it is, because it brings up serious topics, but it doesn't really have anything interesting to say about them.

The novel was adapted to film in 1996.  The Chamber starred Gene Hackman as Sam Cayhall, Faye Dunaway as Lee Cayhall, and Chris O'Donnell as Adam Hall.

The film was a critical catastrophe, with even Grisham himself describing it as "a train wreck."  It did, however, receive one award nomination: Faye Dunaway for worst supporting actress at the 1997 Razzies.

Make no mistake, though, the novel was entertaining.  It's like a good episode of Law & Order.  If you want something entertaining to read that will kill time, The Chamber is a good choice.

Bestsellers of 1994:

1. The Chamber by John Grisham
2. Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy
3. The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
4. The Gift by Danielle Steel
5. Insomnia by Stephen King
6. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner
7. Wings by Danielle Steel
8. Accident by Danielle Steel
9. Disclosure by Michael Crichton
10. Remember Me by Marry Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1994:

Closing Time by Joseph Heller
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem


Grisham, John. The Chamber. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Print.

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Lit Brick

I've recently come across an excellent webcomic by John S. Troutman called Lit Brick.  The premise, as stated in the first comic: "I'm gonna read the entire Norton Anthology of English Literature and draw comics about it."  It's a wonderful mix of archaic literature and modern pop culture.  For example, strip #2:

Included with each comic is a brief post about the source material.  The whole thing is pretty cool.  you should check it out.

Monday, October 27, 2014

1993: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Author:

Robert James Waller (1939-     ) was born in Rockford, Iowa.  He attended the University of Northern Iowa, and married Georgia Weidemeier in 1961, with whom he had a daughter.  He received his PhD in business from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1968.  He went on to teach business, management, and applied mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa, also serving as dean of the business school from 1979 to 1985.  His first two books were collections of travel essays: Just Beyond the Firelight (1988) and One Good Road Is Enough (1990).  With a grant, he left his job as a professor and wrote a scholarly work on the future of Iowa's economy, Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow (1991).  Not long after, he tried his hand at fiction, and wrote The Bridges of Madison County.  His subsequent books have been successful, but not to the extent of his first.  Since 1993, he has published seven novels, two works of non-fiction, and a book of photography.  He divorced Weidemeier in 1997.  In 2004, he married Linda Bow.  He currently lives in Texas.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover

Length: 171 pages
Subject/Genre: Romantic wish fulfillment/Romance

The Bridges of Madison County takes the form of a novelization of true events.  The introduction features Waller being brought the story by a friend of his, and discusses his attempts at accurately depicting what happened.  To be clear, it is entirely fictional.  The story itself focuses on a brief affair between Francesca Johnson, a stay-at-home farm wife in small town Iowa, and Robert Kincaid, a freelance photographer.  Kincaid has been hired by National Geographic to photograph the covered bridges of Madison County, and meets Francesca when asking for directions.  Francesca's husband and children are away at a state fair for the week.  We learn that Francesca grew up in Naples, Italy, and as a teenager left with and married Richard Johnson, an American soldier.  She and Kincaid fall in love and have a brief affair.  She decides not to leave with him for the sake of her family.  Sticking to the non-fiction structure, Waller ends the novel with a short essay by Kincaid, a letter by Francesca, and an interview with someone who knew Kincaid after he and Francesca parted ways.

First, let me say that this was a corny, overwrought romantic fantasy aimed at middle-aged women.  Francesca Johnson is the epitome of a Mary Sue.  We're told she's from Naples, but she might as well be from Paris, or London, or St. Louis, anywhere but a small rural town.  In fact, the only traits that consistently inform her actions are her dissatisfaction with her life as a stay at home mother, a dissatisfaction with her husband (personally and sexually), and a love for her children.  She is nothing but a vague mirror for the reader.    Robert, on the other hand, is given tons of backstory and personal traits.  He's sensitive and graceful (unlike Mr. Johnson), he was a combat photographer, which makes him brave, but he doesn't like war, which makes him humane, his body is frequently described as lithe and hard.  He's basically a safe fantasy, with enough history to be all things to all people.   As wish fulfillment goes, Waller had a good eye.  He created a fantasy about the stay at home wife's dream man coming to town.  The adulterous aspect of the story is offset by the wife's sacrifice of true love out of concern for her children.

The prose is overwrought.  I'll let the novel speak for itself:

    "'Oh, Michael, Michael, think of them all those years, wanting each other so desperately. She
     gave him up for us and for Dad.  And Robert Kincaid stayed away out of respect for her
     feelings about us.  Michael, I can hardly deal with the thought of it.  We treat our marriages so
     casually, and we were part of the reason that an incredible love affair ended the way it did.

    'They had four days together, just four.  Out of a lifetime.  It was when we went to that
     ridiculous state fair in Illinois.  Look at the picture of Mom.  I never saw her like that.  She's so
     beautiful, and it's not the photograph.  It's what he did for her.  Just look at her; she's wild and
     free.  Her hair's blowing in the wind, her face is alive.  She just looks wonderful.'"

Bridges is sappy wish-fulfillment that found a huge audience.  It led to a film version in 1995, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and for which Streep received her tenth Academy Award nomination.

The novel was adapted into a musical, which had its official premiere this past February.

The novel also inspired two sequels by Waller.  A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County was published in 2002 and follows Robert Kincaid after the events of the first novel.  High Plains Tango (2005) follows the story of the son Kincaid never knew he had.

The Bridges of Madison County has a reputation as a sappy romance novel, and that reputation is well earned.  I really can't see any reason to recommend it to people who aren't fans of the romance genre, and for those who are I can't see any reason to recommend this book particularly.  

Bestsellers of 1993:

1. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
2. The Client by John Grisham
3. Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend by Robert James Waller
4. Without Remorse by Tom Clancy
5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King
6. Vanished by Danielle Steel
7. Lasher by Anne Rice
8. Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow
9. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
10. The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum

Also Published in 1993:

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
Private Parts by Howard Stern
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh


"Robert James Waller." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature 
     Resource Center. Web.

Waller, Robert James. The Bridges of Madison County. New York: Warner Books, 1992. Print.

Friday, October 24, 2014

David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1989)

Hey, wouldn't it be weird if David Lynch directed a made-for-tv musical starring Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage?  Well, weird is what David Lynch does.  Enjoy.

(Note: some nudity, so don't watch this at work.  And don't try to hard to make sense of it (at work, or anywhere else).)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Drunk Shakespeare

On Monday's post, I included a highlight reel from the recent Dolores Claiborne opera.  But don't think that this is the only way modern theater is being strange and wonderful.  Just check out New York City's Drunk Shakespeare society:

Monday, October 20, 2014

1992: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

The Author:

Stephen King (1947-    ) was born in Portland, Maine.   His father abandoned the family when King was two, leaving his mother to raise King and his older brother.  King attended the University of Maine, earning a B.A. in English in 1970.  King and Tabitha Spruce had their first child in 1970, and married in 1971.  Their second child, Joseph Hillstrom King, was born in 1972.  (He, like his mother and father, is a writer.  He writes under the name Joe Hill.)  King taught high school and supplemented his wages by selling short stories to magazines. 

In 1973, he published his first novel, Carrie.  The first of his novels to make the annual top ten bestsellers list was The Dead Zone (1979).  Between 1980 and 2012, King appeared on the annual top ten list 34 times, in one case having three books on the same year's list. He has since written multiple non-fiction works, as well as serving as a columnist for entertainment weekly.  At current count, King has published twelve short story collections, two comic series, six books of non-fiction, fifty-six novels, seven novellas, ten screenplays, and a musical libretto.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover

Length: 372 pages
Subject/Genre: Personal revenge/Gothic suspense

Dolores Claiborne is about the eponymous woman, an sixty-five year old maid on Little Tall Island, a small, working class area of the coast of Maine.  The novel begins with her turning herself in to the local sheriff, denying responsibility for the recent death of her long-time employer, Vera Donovan, but finally admitting to murdering her own husband decades prior.  Thus Dolores begins to tell her story, a story of abuse, helplessness, and retaliation, starting in the middle and slowly circling in toward the deaths.

Dolores Claiborne is very unusual for a King novel.  The most immediate difference to his usual style is the narration:  The entire book is one monological confession (in dialect) with a small epilogue tacked on.  Further, there is almost no supernatural element to the story.  The only supernatural element, brief glimpses of a little girl in a far away town, are completely irrelevant to the novel, both in terms of plot and symbolism.  As explained in the brief preface, this little girl is Jessie Burlingame, the main character of Gerald's Game, released the same year as Dolores Claiborne.  Basically, these scenes are saying "If you want to find out what the deal was with this girl, buy Gerald's Game, now available wherever books are sold!"  

That said, Dolores Claiborne is a very strong novel.  It's less horror than it is gothic, in the sense that Flannery O'Connor or Shirely Jackson's works are gothic.  It does have a number of King tropes, the small town Maine setting, the attempt to make everyday objects terrifying, but it doesn't suffer from them as much as some of his other works.  The novel paints a vivid picture of a desperate woman, and sucks you into life on that that small island in Maine.

Dolores Claiborne is possibly the least well-known of the King novels on the list. This despite the fact that it had a film adaptation in 1995 starring Kathy Bates as Dolores, Jennifer Jason Leigh as her daughter Selena, and smaller parts played by John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, and playwright Eric Bogosian.

Strangely enough, Dolores Claiborne was adapted into an opera and premiered in San Francisco last year.  It looks kind of bizarre:

The trailer for the movie on the other hand, looks pretty fantastic.   

If you're not a fan of King, looking to get into his work, or if you enjoy the gothic or suspenseful, I'd really recommend Dolores Claiborne.  Most of the negative reviews I've seen have boiled down to not liking the monologue structure or finding it not exciting enough (though, as a suspense novel, tension is everything).  It's definitely worth checking out.

Bestsellers of 1992:

1. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
2. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
3. Gerald's Game by Stephen King
4. Mixed Blessings by Danielle Steel
5. Jewels by Danielle Steel
6. The Stars Shine Down by Sidney Sheldon
7. The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
8. Mexico by James Michener
9. Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillan
10. All Around the Town by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1992:

Children of Men by P. D. James
Jazz by Toni Morrison
The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald


"Dolores Claiborne." IMDB. Amazon

King, Stephen. Dolores Claiborne. 1992. New York: Signet, 1993. Print.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Don DeLillo's BBC Documentary on the new meta-narrative

It's a bit longer than the videos I usually post, but here's an excellent documentary by Don DeLillo about the shift in the American meta-narrative, and the increasing role of television news and film in our identity.  It also includes dramatized scenes and discussions of the origins of some of his novels.

(Note: the documentary contains graphic archival footage of the Kennedy assassination, the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, and the assassination attempts against George Wallace and Ronald Reagan)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Simpsons Guest Couches

The Simpsons couch gag has become a pop culture landmark. Although the show creators have kept coming up with original gags for a couple decades at this point, they've invited other writers and filmmakers and artists to take a stab at it, most recently with avant-garde animator Don Hertzfeldt.

The Simpsons couch gag has also played host to cartoonist Bill Plympton:

Graffiti artist Banksy:

And director Guillermo del Toro:

And just in case you didn't get every reference in the del Toro one, watch the next video and everything will be enumerated.

Monday, October 13, 2014

1991: Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley

The Author:

Alexandra Ripley (1934-2004) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as Alexandra Braid.  She describes her upbringing as that of a Southern belle, who, nonetheless, left the south to attend Vassar college, where she received her B.A. for studying Russian in 1955.  In 1958, she married Leonard Ripley, who she divorced in 1963.  Her first novel, Who's That Lady in the President's Bed? was published in 1972.  In 1981, she published her second novel, a work of historical fiction titled Charleston.  That year, she also married university professor John Graham, with whom she had two daughters.  She published three more historical fiction novels in the 1980s: On Leaving Charleston (1984), The Time Returns (1985), and New Orleans Legacy (1987).  The Mitchell estate tapped Ripley to write Scarlett, the sequel to the classic Gone with the Wind, which was published amid great publicity and controversy in 1991. 

After the publication of Scarlett, Ripley wrote two more novels: From Fields of Gold (1994) and A Love Divine (1996).  She died of natural causes at her home in Richmond, Virginia.

The Book:

Length: 823 pages
Subject/Genre: Gone with the Wind characters/historical fiction

Scarlett takes place soon after the ending of Gone with the Wind.  It opens at Melanie's funeral, where Scarlett finally comes to terms with her past infatuation with Ashley Wilkes and, in preventing Ashley from throwing himself into Melanie's grave, commits a major faux pas, further solidifying her status as a social outcast among Atlanta's elite.  She goes back to Tara for a bit, only to find Mammy dying.  Rhett shows up to see Mammy before she dies, then leaves, telling Scarlett that he'll help maintain the illusion of their marriage, but he doesn't want to see her again.  Scarlett, however, is determined to get him back.  This leads to the rest of the novel, detailing Scarlett's descent in Atlanta's social life, and from there to Rhett's family home in Charleston.  She gets knocked up by Rhett before he leaves again.  Scarlett then goes to live with her father's relatives in Ireland, which is on the verge of its own civil war.  Here she gives birth to a daughter and sets up a new home.

I usually try to avoid giving away the endings in the summaries, but it's important in this case.  Whereas in Gone with the Wind, Rhett and Scarlett's daughter dies, causing Rhett to flee, in Scarlett, they team up to save their second daughter, and then profess their love to each other. Ripley has, essentially, rewritten the close of the first novel, to give it a Hollywood happy ending.  This approach is evident throughout the novel.  Scarlett has become a whiny socialite who thrives on the attention of others.  While she was never a really generous person, in Gone with the Wind, Scarlett's self-centeredness is offset by personal boldness, by determination and ambition, and by the dire necessity of her circumstances, much like Sabra Cravat in Edna Ferber's Cimarron.  Here, all she really cares about is getting her man back.  She's become petulant, with everyone else's success or misfortune considered only in terms of how they affect Scarlett.  Mammy's death hurts Scarlett  most because, as she repeats incessantly, this is when she really needs Mammy's support.  She has no problem associating with nouveau-riche con-men scamming Southerners, until they start scamming "her type of people."   Scarlett has become a typical historical romance heroine, pining for her distant lover.  The word 'simpering' comes up a lot in reviews of this novel.

Basically, Scarlett is Gone with the Wind if Gone with the Wind were content with being a potboiler.  Although, it's not entirely fair to blame Ripley, who has herself admitted to taking the job for the money, arguing that after this, she'd be able to write whatever she wanted.

The fact is, Margaret Mitchell had been vocally against a sequel while alive.  So had her husband, who managed the rights after Mitchell's death in 1949, and her brother after that.  But soon enough, the estate was in the hands of more distant relatives.  An attempt at a film sequel in the mid 1970s got tangled in legal problems and never came to fruition.  Over a decade later, the publication rights to Scarlett were sold at auction, with Warner Bros. paying nearly $5 million. The sequel was the subject of considerable advertising, and the controversy merely fueled public interest upon release, leading a mediocre historical fiction novel by a little-known author to be an international bestseller.

Because the cash-grab that is Scarlett wasn't enough, a miniseries debuted in 1994, starring Joanne Whalley and Timothy Dalton as Scarlett and Rhett.

Of course, if one sequel is successful, why not try for another?  In 2007, Donald McCaig's Rhett Butler's People was released.  The novel tells of events before, during, and after Gone with the Wind from Rhett's perspective.  Oh, and McCaig doesn't consider Ripley's novel to be canonical, so he contradicts it whenever possible (which, to be fair, isn't necessarily a bad thing in terms of the quality of the novel, although what it says about the Mitchell estate is less than flattering).     

All in all, I can't recommend this book to anyone.  As I've said before, I like to look at the goodreads reviews from readers with an opposite opinion to my own.  Most of the positive reviews fall into the 'wanting closure/a happy ending' category.  If you loved Gone with the Wind, but hated the fact that everything wasn't tied up with a neat bow, if you can't sleep at night because Scarlett didn't get the man of her dreams, if the very idea that a story can live on past the final page gives you migraines, then read Scarlett.  Otherwise, save yourself the time, money, and disdain.

Bestsellers of 1991:

1. Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley
2. The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy
3. Needful Things by Stephen King
4. No Greater Love by Danielle Steel
5. Heartbeat by Danielle Steel
6. The Doomsday Conspiracy by Sidney Sheldon
7. The Firm by John Grisham
8. Night Over Water by Ken Follett
9. Remember by Barbara Taylor Bradford
10. Loves Music, Loves to Dance by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1991:

Possession by A. S. Byatt
Mao II by Don DeLillo
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Sex by Madonna


"Alexandra Ripley." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web.

Ripley, Alexandra. Scarlett: the sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. New York:
     Warner Books, 1991. Print.

Monday, October 6, 2014

1990: The Plains of Passage by Jean Auel

The Author:

Jean Auel (1936-    ) was born in Chicago as Jean Untinen .  In 1954, she married Ray Auel (pronounced 'owl'), with whom she had five children.  She attended the Portland State University (Oregon), and in 1976 received her M.B.A. from the University of Portland.  From the sixties through the seventies, she worked as a clerk in a tech company and later as a technical writer, before publishing her first novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), the first book of the six part Earth's Children series and a commercial success.  The second book of the series, The Valley of Horses (1982) sold well, ending up sixth on that year's annual bestseller list, and the third and fourth books take the #1 spot in their respective years.  The fifth book in the series, The Shelters of Stone (2002), appeared seventh on the annual bestseller list, and the series was finished in 2011 with the publication of The Land of Painted Caves.

The Book:

1st Edition Cover

Length: 760 pages
Subject/Genre: Prehistoric Society/Historical fiction.

The Plains of Passage is the fourth book in the Earth's Children series, following 1985's bestseller The Mammoth Hunters.  For a recap on the events of the first three books, refer to my review of The Mammoth Hunters.

The novel begins with Ayla and Jondalar, as well as the horses Whinney and Racer and the Wolf named Wolf, continuing on the long journey towards Jondalar's tribe, the Zelandonii.  The novel is largely just a sequence of loosely related events that occur to and around the characters during their travels, and these events mostly serve as excuses for Auel to talk about whatever she finds interesting, regardless of whether it is necessary to any other aspect of the story.  In fact, Auel's desire to inform supersedes all other aspects of the novel, from character to plot to tone to pacing.  This leads to another incredibly frustrating aspect of the novel, which is that most of what happens is characters explaining/talking/wondering about something around them.  And if they don't know, there's a good chance Auel will spend a few pages narrating the answer.  Whether it's the uses of particular shrubs or the mating habits of woolly mammoths, you're going to learn a lot about it, even at the expense of the novel as a coherent whole.  

The fact is, this was an incredibly frustrating read.  Much of the book could be summarized as such: The cavemen talked about the horses.  The cavemen talked about the wolf.  The cavemen talked about the other cavemen.  The cavemen talked about the other cavemen vis-à-vis the horses.  The cavemen looked at the river.  The cavemen talked about the river.  The cavemen talked about the river and the horses and the wolf.  The cavemen crossed the river.  The cavemen talked about the dirt.  The cavemen thought about the plants.  The cavemen thought about the plants vis-à-vis the wolf.  Etc. etc. etc.  

Add to this a fundamental paradox to the entire novel.  Auel's desire to demonstrate the typical world of prehistoric man depends on following a character who is entirely atypical of that time.  I pointed out in my previous review that Ayla has single-handedly made major medical discoveries, as well as being personally responsible for the domestication of animals.  This trend continues, as she here successfully develops the techniques of dog training.  Between Ayla and Jondalar, techniques and discoveries that occurred piecemeal over hundreds and thousands of years are condensed into less than a decade.  I don't plan on reading the fifth and sixth book, but it wouldn't surprise me if they ended up personally inventing the wheel, agriculture, and alphabet.    

All this is really a shame, because Auel clearly knows a heck of a lot about her area of expertise.  If she had written a non-fiction account of life in that time and region, it could have been quite good.  But instead we get a novel that is simply tedious.  I'm not a huge fan of the rule "show, don't tell," but I believe you need to do one or the other, not both, which Auel does consistently.  She shows us something then explains it, and vice-versa.    

Unless you are completely enrapt by the series up to this point, I can't really recommend it.

Bestsellers of 1990:

1. The Plains of Passage by Jean Auel
2. Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
3. The Burden of Proof by Scott Turow
4. Memories of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon
5. Message from Nam by Danielle Steel
6. The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum
7. The Stand by Stephen King
8. Lady Boss by Jackie Collins
9. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
10. September by Rosemunde Pilcher

Also Published in 1990:

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien


Auel, Jean. The Plains of Passage. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990. Print.

"Jean M. Auel." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource 
     Center. Web. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Reasons to Never Return: The Paper Plane Pilots Anthology (2014)

The Paper Plane Pilots is an online group of creative writers from across the world, with a large-ish cluster located in the Los Angeles area.  Predominantly poets, with a sizable batch of fiction nonetheless, they've recently released their first anthology, Reasons to Never Return.  

     In the interest of journalistic integrity, I should point out that I'm friends with one of the founders of the Paper Plane Pilots, who also appears in and edited this volume.  However, she knows well enough that if I didn't like it, I would say so.  Fortunately for both of us, I did like the anthology.    

    That's not to say there are no rough spots.  There are, and any anthology, especially one of up and coming young writers, will have them.  But they are more than offset by the high points, of which there are many.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm a terrible judge of poetry, largely falling into a mere 'I dis/like this, and I don't know why' approach. Overall, the anthology has a heavy Beat vibe, a reactionary pathos easy to get swept up in, which is a good thing, if that's your kind of thing.  

   The first piece, "Winter Tapes," is by far the most avant-garde, and I'm still honestly not sure what to make of it, to be quite honest.  The rest of the anthology is mostly poetry, the majority in verse, with some prose poems, and a handful of stories.  To get a better idea of the tone and variety of the anthology, check out their Best of 2013 page.      

   If you like poetry and want to check out some new writers, visit, and if you like what you see, consider buying their anthology.

Monday, September 29, 2014

1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy

The Author:

Tom Clancy (1947-2013) was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland.  He attended Loyola College.  While there, Clancy joined the ROTC, but was unable to serve due to poor eyesight.  He graduated in 1969, and married Wanda Thomas King, with whom he had four children.  Throughout the 1970s, he worked as an insurance agent, eventually buying a small firm from his wife's grandfather.  A military history buff, Clancy began writing a novel, The Hunt for Red October, which was published by the Naval Institute Press in 1984, to unexpected commercial success.  His second novel, Red Storm Rising (1986), and his third novel, Patriot Games (1987) were the second-bestselling novels of their years of release.  His fourth and fifth novels, The Cardinal of the Kremlin and Clear and Present Danger, respectively, took the number one spot.   

Since then, Clancy has written or co-written fourteen novels, ten of which have ended up on the annual top ten list.  He has also written or co-written thirteen books of non-fiction.  As well as creating series bearing his name, written by other authors. 

Clancy and his wife separated in 1996, divorcing in 1999.  Later in 1999, he married Alexandra Marie Llewellyn, whit whom he had one daughter. Clancy died at Johns Hopkins in 2013.

The Book:

Length: 656 pages
Subject/Genre: International Drug Trade/ Military Thriller

Clear and Present Danger details a covert war between the U.S. government and the Colombian drug cartels, who have enlisted the services of former Cuban spy Felix Cortez.  The plan is put into motion by the president amid reelection concerns and with pressure from the new national security advisor, James Cutter.  Jack Ryan is promoted to Deputy Director (Intelligence) after his superior/mentor is diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Much of the novel is split between the details of the campaign against the cartels, and Ryan's attempts to uncover evidence thereof.  

The campaign itself mostly follows Clancy staple John Clark, and a young light infantry soldier, Domingo Chavez.  Domingo is part of an elite crew air-lifted in to the Colombian mountains, at first only identifying drug planes (which are later shot down by the American fighter jets), but then moves to destroying drug production sites and everyone in them, and even later, full-on missile strikes against cartel strongholds.    

More so than The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger gets bogged down by its own attention to detail.  This can be annoying, but generally only lasts for short periods at a time.  It also gets didactic at points.  The novel ends with a character basically asking Jack Ryan to tell him the moral of the story.  As a military/political thriller, though, it's a fun read.

After the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, and the close of the Cold War in general, a new enemy was needed for a Clancy novel.  Rather than imagine a shadowy conspiracy a la Ludlum, Clancy looked to the U.S.  Clear and Present Danger was written near the end of what's become known as the crack epidemic, the period from 1984 until the early 90s

On the one hand, Clancy does a good job of explaining the difficulty in launching full scale military action against the cartels, on the other, he ignores U.S. involvement in the international drug trade.  The Kerry Committee Report, published in 1989, found strong evidence of U.S. intelligence agencies providing money to drug traffickers. In another case of historical irony, similar to that of the funding of the Mujaheddin in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, the US Army School of the Americas (now known as WHINSEC) trained two of the founders of the notorious Los Zetas cartel.  As with the previous Clancy novel on the list, he tends here to portray the U.S. government as being exclusively composed of well-intentioned individuals, who occasionally act in error.

In 1994, Clear and Present Danger became the third Clancy novel to receive a film adaptation.

 Harrison Ford plays Jack Ryan (reprising his role from 1992's Patriot Games.  Ryan was played by Alec Baldwin in 1990's The Hunt for Red October.  In 2002's The Sum of All Fears, he would be played by Ben Affleck, and is played by Chris Pine in 2014's Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).  John Clark is played by Willem Dafoe (and played by Liev Schreiber in The Sum of All Fears).  The film was directed by Phillip Noyce, best known for his action movies (most recently Salt (2010) and The Giver (which, I know, wasn't action-packed in the books, and probably shouldn't have been an action-ish movie at all).   The film was a major financial success.

Overall, Clear and Present Danger, like The Cardinal of the Kremlin, is a book for people who are already fans of the action/military thriller genre.  It's got its flaws, but remains an entertaining read.

Bestsellers of 1989:

1. Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
2. The Dark Half by Stephen King
3. Daddy by Danielle Steel
4. Star by Danielle Steel
5. Caribbean by James Michener
6. The Satanic Verse by Salman Rushdie
7. The Russia House by John le Carré
8. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
9. California Gold by John Jakes
10. While My Pretty One Sleeps by Mary Higgins Clark

Also Published in 1989:

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes
Geek Love by Katharine Dunn
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Hyperion by Dan Simmons
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan


Clancy, Tom. Clear and Present Danger. New York: Putnam, 1989. Print.

"Tom Clancy." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource
      Center. Web.