Thursday, October 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 191: George Catlin, “There is no end to the amusements of Paris” (#124)

George Catlin, "'There is no end to the amusements of Paris'" (1848) from Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology:

Here's one of those stories from an LoA book where I'm really more interested in the story-behind-the-story: George Catlin was an American painter who specialized in Native American scenes--and who was going nowhere in America at the time. (Or at least not getting far enough.) So he went to Europe to show off his paintings; and in London, he connected with a group of Iowas who were doing a traveling show; and the whole group went to Paris, including a medicine Doctor and a black translator named Jeffrey Doraway.

So what we get is Catlin telling the story of how his group found Paris: how he had to deal with the bureaucracy and meet the royals. In other words, it comes off like another version of Barnum's story of going to France. But what I really want is the story of Jeffrey Doraway and of the Iowas who were exhibiting themselves.

We get a hint of that in Catlin's record of what the Iowas thought of Paris. So, they were curious about how dogs were kept as pets in France rather than as working dogs or as food. We get comments about how hot they were in their buffalo robes--but how their paint helped give them space in certain salons where people didn't want to get paint on them. I also love hearing how they went to a salon with Americans, "to whom they felt the peculiar attachment of countrymen, though of a different complexion, and anywhere else than across the Atlantic would have been strangers to."

But Catlin, for all his interest in carefully detailed portraiture, has an occasionally hilariously plain style. For instance, after going on at length about the fireworks given for the king--about their light, color, and sound--Catlin ends with the somewhat pedestrian, "This wonderful scene lasted for half an hour."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 190: John Muir, Hetch Hetchy Valley (#145)

John Muir, "Hetch Hetchy Valley" (1912) from John Muir: Nature Writings:

Sometimes the story of conservation reminds me of the joke about the father who is worried about his daughter having sex (it's an old joke and we should probably work on an update) and when it happens, he collapses--with relief. "Thank god the worst has happened," he thinks, "now I can get on with my life." Similarly when I hear that people rejected or fought off plans to dam a river and turn the Hetch Hetchy Valley into a reservoir lake in 1903, '06, '09, et al., I'm pretty much just waiting for them to dam the river. If you win the fight for conservation today, very often you're just going to have to fight it out again tomorrow. (Unless you can change enough people's minds or change the situation. Anti-poaching patrols are good; convincing people that ivory isn't cool is better.)

This piece by John Muir was published in book form in 1912, but some part of it was first published in Sierra Club newsletter form between 1906 and '09, and was part of Muir's (temporarily) successful campaign to prevent San Francisco from damming the valley and creating an artificial lake. And it still shows its newsletter roots, I think: along with a Muir-ish description of the valley's beauty, most of this piece is taken up with the argument against drowning the Hetch Hetchy.

Muir's argument for preserving HH Valley leans curiously on one major point: Hetch Hetchy is comparable to Yosemite. I understand part of the logic of that comparison--which he makes several times in this piece: You all know how great Yosemite is, but did you know there's this other great valley? Of course, the downside to this argument seems apparent to me: If we already got us one good valley-and-falls, what do we need another, smaller one? Sure, Muir and his friends don't see that downside--but with a piece like this, you're not trying to convince the conservationists, but the middle-of-the-road people. (Or you shouldn't be; but this narrow appeal might be explained again by this piece's earlier life in a Sierra Club newsletter.)

(Also, Mr. Muir, I'm not sure you're going to convince people to preserve HH by referring to its "airy-fairy beauty.")

But that to the side, Muir's case is wider than just that. Just as he bangs home the point that HH is a mini-Yosemite, he hammers home how "commercial" and limited this project's benefits would be, pushed by "despoiling gain-seekers and mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to Senators... with schemes disguised in smug-smiling philanthropy...". And that's even before he gets around to comparing them to the money-changers outside the Temple who raise up the Almighty Dollar at the expense of God.

Muir even makes the smart move of ending his piece with something of a refutation to frequently-made arguments for damming the HH. So if you read this, you can take it out with you and engage in debate with your pro-dam family, friends, and representatives.

But over all, the argument here is Muir's usual argument for the intangible: people need access to nature--peace, beauty, serenity. Even the urban poor try to keep some nature around them, says Muir, in their little windowsill gardens. And his final paragraph is a final outpouring of anger and love that should really go on t-shirts or bumper stickers:
Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 189: Mark Twain, Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn (#100)

Mark Twain, "Jim Baker’s Blue-Jay Yarn" (1880) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

As someone who really thinks that all culture is doing some symbolic work or can be mined for some meaning, nothing ruffles my feathers quicker than when someone says, "oh, it's just a joke--just a story--just a movie." That said, that's almost always just a flutter away when discussing Twain or any of the still-read funny-men of the 19th century--and I'm as vulnerable to that instinct as the next bird.

For instance, "Jim Baker's Blue-Jay Yarn" is a pleasant bit of folk comedy, pretty much like the stories you'll find in Kemp Battle's Great American Folklore. So there's a tall-tale frame, where Jim Baker is telling us how blue jays are the all-fire talkingest birds around. They're pretty much feathered people--they curse, laugh, moan, experiment, and flock together. And to illustrate that frame, Jim Baker tells a story about a jay who tried to hide some nuts in a hole--only he was hiding them in an abandoned house, where they disappeared. And then all the jays had a good laugh when they realized what he was doing; and they came from miles around to see this joke, which they all laughed at, except for an owl who was traveling through on his way from seeing Yosemite, who didn't think either this joke or Yosemite was much.

Now the LoA page tries to avoid the "ain't he funny?" reaction by telling us that this is a satire on human perseverance told cleverly in Aesopian beast fable style; and that the owl who didn't see much funny in it might be stand-in for the killjoys at John Greenleaf Whittier's birthday who didn't laugh at Twain's funny speech. But that seems like an awfully tight fit and in any case, this is Twain we're talking about: his life was so full of huge success and huge failure that it seems like we should be able to do better than a speech that didn't go off.

Regardless of all that, while this story may survive because we've all been in that blue jay's... shoes?--it also survives today because it's an authentic bit of frontier tall-tale-telling, constructed very carefully with thesis (blue jays are like people) and data (they do dumb stuff and then laugh).

Monday, October 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 188: Mark Twain, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee (#11)

Mark Twain, "Queen Victoria’s Jubilee" (1897) from Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, Other Travels:

Even when Twain is talking about a parade of American Civil War veterans and Queen Victoria's Jubilee, he can't resist a few jokes of varying quality. But unlike Twain's pure-humor "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey,"his two-part report on "Queen Victoria's Jubilee" (written for Hearst) mostly avoids "jokes" in order to focus on simple reportage--and an occasional dig at the social order.

The first part offers Twain's theory of parades: they should be either spectacle or symbol. Like this amazing parade of Civil War veterans--and the huge holes in their ranks where the fallen would have marched--the Jubilee procession is a symbol: not of loss, but of English growth and achievement.

Twain demonstrates this growth in the first report (a) by comparing London from its beginning, to its 1415 procession celebrating the Agincourt victory (with two pages of "eye-witness account"), to what he expects this procession will be like; and (b) by noting how much change Queen Victoria's reign includes. There's medical advances (anesthesia!) and legal advances (international copyright!).

And there's also a lot of areas that still need improvement. Sure, women are better off now than they were earlier, but there's still a long way to go. Here Twain deploys his acid humor (my favorite of his humors) by noting that woman can now earn degrees--even if, in many cases, they cannot actually gain those degrees; and the queen was even able to create a woman lord during her reign--out of 500 lordships she granted.

The second piece reports the actual Jubilee procession and is a slightly drier piece, for me. That is, it mostly consists of lists and reports of who is in the procession, which includes lots of people from the colonies. I can only imagine how a more bigoted writer would've either bemoaned the multi-racial procession or creepily admired the fine physiques of the Africans/Asians. Twain only does a little of that; and so this piece doesn't really make much of an impression. Imagine: take any news article in the paper today. Would that have any interest to you in a hundred years? Probably not--and that's mostly the case with Twain's piece.

The only time that Twain's report shifts from the expected report is at the end, when he notes how this procession was made up of the people who benefit from progress rather than create it. It's the useless royalty rather than the businessmen, scientists, and others who actually made the progress. If you're a Twain fan, you recognize some of this sentiment from Connecticut Yankee.

Movie Analysis: The Brass Teapot

The Brass Teapot had a fun trailer, so when it came up on Netflix, I used it as my exercise movie for a while. (Choosing an exercise movie is as important as choosing exercise music: you need something exciting and fun without being too distracting.) Unfortunately, the movie doesn't entirely live up to the promise of the trailer (and all the reviews I've seen agree); and it took me a few extra exercise sessions to finish up.

Here's the premise: a young couple, Alice (Juno Temple) and John (Michael Angarano) have money trouble. Though Alice was voted "most likely to succeed" in high school, now that she has a degree in Art History, she can't find a job; while John's job as a telemarketer is a succession of minor failures and irritants. Then they find a magical teapot that will give them money when they hurt themselves. (Well, Alice steals it from an old woman.)

This discovery leads to a huge--and dumb--change in lifestyle. They move to a giant mansion; become friendly with the shallow rich folk Alice knew in high school; drop relations with her real but poor friends. And since Alice wants more and John is worried, their perfect marriage starts to develop rifts.

On top of all that, the brass teapot's original owner's children--two Hasidic Jews--come for the money that John and Alice made by hurting themselves. There's a wise Chinese man from a theosophical institution who warns them that they need to give the teapot up so he can destroy it. Also, there's their original landlord who suspects something is up and tries to steal the teapot.

And on top of all that, the teapot stops paying out so well for physical pain inflicted on themselves, so John and Alice start experimenting with emotional pain and with hurting others.

That's a pretty fun set-up, with enough moving parts to generate a lot of conflict and tension. And while it has a magical/fun premise (magic teapot), the core is something serious: how relationships weather through conflicts and change.

But the film still somewhat disappoints. Why? Well, there are some small details that are misfires: when we hear that Hitler owned the teapot, the implication is that the Holocaust was just a money-getting scheme, which is... not good. (Some reviewers have reacted poorly to the money-stealing Hasidic Jews and the wise Chinese side character.)

But it's really the big issues with the leads that keeps this movie back for me. John and Alice are very cute at the beginning; but when the teapot gets between them--Alice pushing for more and more pain in order to get more and more money, while John basically wants out--the movie reaches for conflict, but it mostly just makes these two characters unlikable. And it doesn't entirely explain that conflict; there's some hints that the teapot corrupts people, but that's a pretty dissatisfying motivation for a main character. I can accept some dumb moves--like moving to a big house--but others seem out of character: why do John and Alice dump their good friends?

Lastly, many reviewers object to the happy ending as a betrayal of the story; and while I don't disagree with them in theory--a happy ending could work here--in practice the switch from fighting all the time to working together doesn't work for these main characters.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 187: Howard Zinn, Finishing School for Pickets (#31)

Howard Zinn, "Finishing School for Pickets" (1960) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1963:

Howard Zinn, history professor at Spelman College, reports on how the girls are becoming more political and less interested in simply being nice. Whereas Spelman girls were once known for their niceness--polite, graceful when serving tea, respectable--they are (says Zinn) getting a new reputation for joining the struggle on the frontlines: organizing demonstrations, being thrown in jail, riding in the front of the bus. "You can always tell a Spelman girl--she's under arrest." That's Zinn's idea of a joke and of progress.

Curiously, I never got the feeling that Zinn was attacking the conservative leadership of Spelman for being less active in protests in the past. So when one mother tells her daughter that she's got two strikes against her already--she's black and a woman--so she can't afford to act-up, there's no finger-waving at this mother's prudential advice. When, even in Zinn's day, one Spelman girl gets threatened with a knife for riding at the front of the bus, it's hard to tell someone from the less equitable past that they should've put themselves in harm's way more often.

And there's also no attempt to hold up these Spelman protestors as sui generis saints of progress. As Zinn notes, this is all part of a national and international current towards equality. For Zinn, protest here is part of the increased worldliness of the women that were formerly sheltered by the college. Now that these girls have seen (a) what the rest of Atlanta is like and (b) what the rest of the world could be like, there's no way to keep them from the pickets.

Finally, I love that the governor's response to a student-written protest was the usual defense of the status quo: these complaints are the un-American works of outside agitators! Seriously, we should add that as the central square of bigot bingo--it always turns up.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 186: John Dos Passos, Views of Washington (#140)

John Dos Passos, "Views of Washington" (1934) from John Dos Passos: Travel Books & Other Writings 1916–1941:

John Dos Passos really seems like a forerunner of Hunter S. Thompson and the New Journalism of the 60s and 70s. I say that confidently because I don't actually know all that much about New Journalism. But Dos Passos's reporting on the Bonus Army marching on Washington in 1931 has that literary, semi-impressionistic attitude I associate with Thompson, et al. (Again: from a position of massive ignorance. I'm coming up on the end of this Story of the Week daily read--I think we're close enough for me to admit my ignorance is so vast that it includes several climate regions.)

That said, what I do know a fair bit about is the 1890s march on Washington called, colloquially, Coxey's Army: a bunch of un- and under-employed people demanding that Washington help them through the depression by making work, such as building roads and making other infrastructure improvements. If you see Coxey's platform as a pre-cursor for Roosevelt's New Deal, congratulations--you have eyes.

So all through these reports on the 1931 march, I kept waiting for Dos Passos to make the connection to my special interest. He never does, though he does make a connection between this march and the idea of "direct action" that was pushed by the Wobblies in the Pacific Northwest.

But even without scratching my particular itch, Dos Passos shows off a lyricism and a passionate POV that makes reading about this history interesting. When he notes that "Even the cops are smiling," we get some foretaste of how this is going to go badly for Hoover. (Though, it should be noted, when Hoover called out the army to disperse this march, largely made of up veterans, it first went badly for the marchers.)

Given that this is a vision both of Washington (the city) and Washington (the people), one of Dos Passos favorite techniques is anthropomorphism and comparison: the Capitol is smug, the Washington Monument is a finger, and, in my favorite line,
The gentleman from Texas has a determined, mean mouth, set in a countenance strikingly devoid of warmth, generosity, intelligence, feeling, whatever it is that makes the human features better to look at than a paving stone.
Now, for all that Dos Passos invests in the humanness of the architecture of Washington, I'm a litle disappointed that he swings for the low-hanging fruit of "Real America" vs. Washington, which sounds pretty much like something you'd hear Senator Ted Cruz say (speaking of Texans who have no warmth, generosity, intelligence, or feeling). It's a simple us-vs.-them notion that isn't otherwise upheld by these views of Washington, where even the cops are friendly to the marchers.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 185: Celia Thaxter, A Memorable Murder (#13)

Celia Thaxter, "A Memorable Murder" (1875) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

Two years after the "Memorable Murder" of the title, poet Celia Thaxter records the story of this double (almost-triple) homicide that took place on the Isles of Shoals, off New Hampshire. As she says in the first paragraph,
The sickening details of the double murder are well known; the news papers teemed with them for months: but the pathos of the story is not realized...
Which is a pretty good sign that she's going to fill her 25-page account with pathos. Since today's readers don't usually agree with what the 19th-century considered acceptable levels of sentimentality, I thought this piece was going to be a painful slog, notable more for the story and for the historical tangents that come off this story.

In those regards, Thaxter does not disappoint. The story of the murder is very interesting, with Louis Wagner invading this island home when he knows the men will be away, but failing to kill the third woman, who escapes into the cold with her dog; though she at first has trouble getting the attention of workmen on another island. (Moral: don't live on islands.) Thaxter doesn't dwell on it, but it's chilling to read of Louis Wagner eating some food in the dead women's kitchen, all so he has energy to row back to the mainland.

The historical asides are also a lot of fun, with Thaxter praising Norwegians and Swedes; and even quoting a newspaper article noting that Louis Wagner seemed very calm, even for a German.

And Thaxter has a heavy hand when it comes to the sentimentality, giving a picture of this house's happiness before it was struck by the bolt of "ruin and desolation." The 19th-century style even allows Thaxter to name this quality, talking about the sentiment of this or the pathos of that ("Ah me, what pathos is in that longing look of women's eyes for far-off sails"). I just about reached my limit when I read that the light coming from a lighthouse was like arms reaching out to succor the travelers at sea.

And yet, for all that there's some (to our taste) overlarded sentimentality here, Thaxter keeps up the atmosphere of dread with the recurring mention of what is coming to this house. Sure, when she notes that nature itself seems to be on the murderer's side, this has a certain overdone quality... but it still effectively carries that notion of the unavoidable bad end that's coming. Thaxter's steady (and omniscient-like) recounting of every step of Louis Wagner's journey--of death!--is pretty riveting, even when that "of death!" sentimentality interrupts.

Thaxter's end to this long piece seems a fitting conclusion, a mix of sentimentality and horror, with her imagining--in that same omniscient voice--the ghosts of the dead women watching forever as the ghost of their killer searches the house for the third victim, whose evidence condemned him.

In it's way, this piece reminds me both of Jewett's Country of Pointed Firs and of Angela Carver's "The Fall River Axe Murders."

Movie Analysis: Pan's Labyrinth

In some ways, Pan's Labyrinth really is very close to The Devil's Backbone (as I noted when I talked about that movie). It shows all of the strengths of a Del Toro movie, particularly the multiple and interesting side characters, each of whom has their own story. After watching these two films, I want to go back and watch Pacific Rim and see how he sketches in the minor characters there: the heavy metal Russians walking slowly away from a potential explosion, the Chinese basketball triad's subtle blend of competition and cooperation, etc. This is one reason why I love Del Toro movies: no one acts like they know they're a minor character.

But that multi-character split focus doesn't lead Del Toro into a morass of subplots and loose, baggy structure. ("Loose baggy" here is a reference to Henry James, who similarly has an interest in both depicting minor characters as full characters; and keeping the structure tight, no matter how loose his sentences are. Admit it: Henry James could have written some awesome Cthulhu stories.) For all that Del Toro throws several characters into the mix--the semi-orphan Ofelia, the rebellious house-keeper Mercedes, the Good Doctor (a character type he used before in Devil's Backbone), the violent Captain Vidal--he keeps their stories intertwining and advancing.

He also always keeps the story going back to Ofelia, our tragic protagonist. (How tragic? Her name is Ofelia! Has anyone in literature/movies ever had a happy story with that name?) And we can trace her story through a pretty traditional Campbellian hero's journey (though again, I like the slightly more abstract Dan Harmon version that avoids the fiddly bits of "Refusal of the Call"):

  1. You: Ofelia's ordinary world, the last gasp: her mother and fairy tales. This ordinary world is already compromised since she's surrounded by Franco's fascist Falangists and on her way to the fascist stronghold in the mountains. 
    1. Note the weirdness here: the fairy world is both a trace of her past life--her childhood--and part of the weirdness to come.
    2. Note also that the story begins in three parts: the fairy tale of the lost princess; an image of the dead girl (Ofelia); and Ofelia on the way to her new life. Ofelia's story may be a Hero's Journey, but Del Toro doesn't have to tell that story so linearly.
  2. Need: We already see some of the problems in Ofelia's world: her mom telling her to grow up (i.e., I cannot be your protective mother anymore) and the Captain's ticking watch.
    1. We could also see this as what Orson Scott Card calls a "Milieu" story: it begins with Ofelia entering the strange world of the fascists and can end only with her exit from that world.
      1. But note: Del Toro will let Ofelia exit that world only by dying and blowing up the Fascist world.
  3. Go: Ofelia passes two thresholds into two different magic worlds/underworlds: 
    1. the fascist-run mill where the Captain is the king (as he says later, there is "no one above me" here); here, the mothers are subordinate to the cruel father, who gives commands to both Carmen (mom) and Mercedes (caretaker)--which also shows what Captain Vidal thinks of women's worth;
    2. and the faun's labyrinth, which similarly casts him as a strange parental figure: there may be a king above the faun (just as there is Franco above Captain Vidal), but here the faun is the gatekeeper and land owner--this is, after all, his labyrinth.
    3. Note: as in Devil's Backbone, the fantasy element is creepy, but seems like an escape from the more awful real world of tyrannical adults and their betrayals.
  4. Search: You could argue that Ofelia's "searching" leads her to the faun, that he represents a classic mentor and ally. That's fair. So we can see how hard it may be to draw distinct lines between some of these stages. ("You" and "need" often overlap.) What's important is just that one follows the other: she enters the strange world and THEN she searches for what she needs. Here, what she needs is to fulfill three fairy tasks; the first of which is to save the land by killing the poison toad with a cure.
    1. As I said before, one way that Del Toro keeps us interested in the different worlds is to intertwine them, either with certain stakes and dread: here, Ofelia gets her dress dirty by fulfilling the fairy task, which puts her on the outs with her mom and her mom's new world.
    2. There's also the thematic connections: while Ofelia is feeding the poison toad the cure to "clean" the land, Captain Vidal is discussing "cleaning the land" from rebels; stealing (back) antibiotic cure from the rebels; and preparing to hand out ration cards to the villager. And the idea behind the ration cards (you can only get your food here from the Fascists) gets inverted in Ofelia's next fairy task, where she can't eat from the Pale Man's feast (you can only NOT get your food here). Cure and food and obedience are central issues to this section.
  5. Find: Phase Five is usually a moment of respite and also a moment where death is flirted with (in some form). And here we get mom's pregnancy being problematic and Ofelia being exiled from her mother's room to a dark room elsewhere. But we also get that moment of respite where Ofelia's biological but unsuccessful mother (Carmen) gets replaced by the more successful and rebellious mother-figure Mercedes, who sings her a lullaby.
    1. Here also we get Death averted: Ofelia finds a magic cure to help her mom (the mandrake root) and the Good Doctor goes to help the rebels. Now, the rebel Frenchie may be saved, but he'll lose his leg, which is a foreshadowing of the price to be paid.
    2. Note: Del Toro may be good as a storyteller, but he seems most comfortable with filmmaking, where he can make connections with words, images, or sounds. So here, Mercedes's lullaby has already been and will remain an important through-line in the music.
  6. Take: In Five, we find some possible cure; in Six, we pay some price. So in the magical world, Ofelia accidentally sacrifices a few fairies to escape the Pale Man; and the faun abandons her. In the real world, while the rebels make a good showing, the Captain's fascists kill and capture them. 
    1. This will lead to the torture of the stuttering rebel; 
    2. the exposure of the doctor as a rebel and his subsequent sacrifice--he dies after helping the tortured rebel to die; 
    3. and Carmen's pregnancy killing her after refuses to believe in Ofelia's magic (and after the good doctor is no longer around to help her)--which is implicitly a sacrifice of her life for her son's, as the Captain wanted.
  7. Return: Just as Three was the descent into the underworld, Seven is often the "magic flight" attempt to flee the underworld. So Mercedes attempts to flee with Ofelia, but they are recaptured in a great little scare. But this moment is also finally the break with that underworld order: Mercedes is no longer the caretaker for the Captain, she's an explicit prisoner and then also an attempted murderer. Which allows Mercedes to escape into the woods; and Ofelia gets another chance to escape--if she brings her half-brother to the faun's labyrinth.
  8. Change: Traditionally, the final climax can include a few standard tropes: the last gasp of the enemy (the Alien crawling aboard the escape pod); the protagonist putting into play the skills they learned previously (especially from Stage Four); and the protagonist's final stand and decisions. So what do we have here?
    1. The Captain from the mill-world follows Ofelia into the faun's labyrinth, his one last gasp to take his son from the rebels.
    2. Having poisoned the poison toad in Stage Four, Ofelia now poisons the Captain with the doctor's medicine. (Medicine is deadly poison to the already poisonous.)
    3. Given the choice to give up her brother's blood in order to reach the fairy kingdom, Ofelia reconsiders her obedience: no obedience is worth the pain of the innocent.

That's one way I would map out Pan's Labyrinth onto the traditional hero's journey. But as we see, even with that map, there are lots of issues that aren't dictated by this archetypal story. Does the little girl have to die? Does the Captain have to signal his disordered mind with the order of the watch? Do we have to have intercuts between different scenes? 

So we need some more granular analysis, not just this big picture hero's journey stuff.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 184: Eugene O’Neill, The Long Voyage Home (#197)

Eugene O’Neill, "The Long Voyage Home" (1917) from Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1913–1920:

Another O'Neill play about seamen sailing merchant vessels, a lot like the first one I read, "In the Zone." As in that play, this play has some hilarious descriptions that I would not want to see in a casting call: Fat Joe is a "gross bulk" with piggy eyes, a "slovenly barmaid" with a "stupid face" mechanically wipes down the bar, etc.

The action of the play is set up pretty quickly in dialogue between the bar owner and an ex-sailor whose job it is to lure people here. This is probably usually about drinking, but they are also prepared to shanghai sailors for a price.

Into this spider's web comes four sailors, each with their own heavy accent: three of them are drunk and not all that interesting--one seems to remember that this bar is crooked, one wants to find some women, etc.; but the fourth is a teetotaler who is going to save his money and move home to Sweden, to see his mother and brother and live on a farm.

Guess which one gets shanghaied?

The play is pretty simple and has some sense of dread: we know there's a bad end coming for this one guy who has a way out of this terrible life. And yet, for all that we like the Swede Olson, there's not really enough on the page to make us care about his end. Because he's a nice guy, something bad happens to him, which is a shame, but doesn't really call much more out of me. Again, this would probably be a very interesting play to stage and see, but reading it is a cool experience.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 183: John Updike, The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd (#188)

John Updike, "The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd" (1981) from John Updike: Collected Later Stories:

Clueless destroyers are some of my favorite narrators. In some way, this story works as a mirror-companion to Cheever's "The Swimmer": in "The Swimmer," the protagonist/focal character was this delusional guy who discovers all of the failure that he's been repressing. So his family is all gone and his house is sold and his fortune has disappeared. In Updike's version, the narrator is clueless, but much of the harm that he's been part of has been other-directed: so the focus of the story isn't how he's been affected by his failures but how those failures impacted the daughters of his hard-drinking, swinging, divorcing social set.

So, the story opens and ends with questions about those daughters: "Why don't they get married? What are they afraid of?" Which are questions that only a clueless narrator could ask since the rest of his story is colored by the screwed-up marriages that these daughters were exposed to. While looking at these girls and their various deformities--the one who is only interested in antiques and the one who is interested in modern design and the one who tried to play guitar for a living--what the narrator really shows us is how "Our Old Crowd" pushed all these traumas onto them.

So, read one way, this is the story of someone who fails to realize how his generation's feckless behavior ruined their daughters.

But look again: these girls went to college and are in their 20s. Maybe one of them only likes antiques and another only likes modern Scandinavian design, but these aren't life-crippling traumas. These are pretty ordinary traumas that are part of generational shifting. Put that way, the question "Why don't they get married?" seems pretty blinkered--maybe they're not getting married because 20-year olds aren't getting married.

I mean, if you told this story from the POV of the girls, it would be something like, "Our parents really seemed screwy, telling us one thing--marriage is great--and showing us another--marriage is terrible. But my life isn't terrible because they were screwed-up. My life is just different."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 182: Ward McAllister, Success in Entertaining (#48)

Ward McAllister, "Success in Entertaining" (1890) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

"Hate-watching" has found its appropriate 19th-century corollary, the "hate-read." That is, just as today some people will watch some show primarily to be annoyed by it (and then usually to share that annoyance online), so the only way I could get through McAllister's piece is by holding it above my head so that I could read it as I continually rolled my eyes. Is there any other way to read sentences like this:
Success in entertaining is accomplished by magnetism and tact, which combined constitute social genius. It is the ladder to social success. If successfully done, it naturally creates jealousy.
Really? In McAllister's world, genius and success lead to jealousy--not as an unfortunate side-effect, but as the marker of triumph. Soon after this he quickly notes stories of people driven from America because they couldn't throw elaborate dinners and of friendships broken up over soup.

But McAllister doesn't really live in a world of friendship. The highest social genius is concealing your feelings; and when you arrange a dinner, you should think about who is desirable to invite. And even when dealing with your chef, you should--if you follow McAllister--found that relationship on manipulation and flattery.

McAllister lives in a world of affected manners and artificiality; but what really sinks this piece is how po-faced and serious the whole thing is. Even back in the day, William Dean Howells critiqued this failure:
It is always and everywhere amusing to see a plutocracy trying to turn into an aristocracy, and that is what Mr. McAllister shows us with no apparent sense of its comicality.
If there was some sense of joy in the listing of the best foods to serve at the best times, I could take this piece. But there's nothing here beyond the anxiety of trying to seem cultivated, the persistent problem of the nouveau, the arriviste, and the married-into-money--as Ward himself was. The overarching feeling for a reader today will probably be sadness and pity.

And doubly so since Ward McAllister got cut by the very society he attempted to codify: when he wrote the book that this piece was from, the high society of New York seemed to turn on him. You can use and manipulate people within the club--but once you expose their hollowness to the hoi polloi, you're dead to them.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 181: P. T. Barnum, In France (#15)

P. T. Barnum, "In France" (1869) from Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology:

In his autobiography Struggle and Triumphs, Barnum tells of his visit to Paris with "General" Tom Thumb, the dwarf performer. This part of Barnum's story clearly falls into the "triumph" category for him: they went to court and met important royalty; Barnum got a French official to accept a set amount of money instead of a percentage for his first two months of the show; and then he argued that he should pay the lower tax rate for dramatic entertainment rather than the higher rate for exhibiting natural curiosities and freaks; and he got people interested in Tom Thumb by exhibiting him in parade and by getting him mentioned in important papers.

But even Barnum knows that all this wasn't just due to his cleverness. As he says, the French are naturally prone to this sort of furor. So there were songs, journalism, parody, statuary (in both edible and non-edible forms), all centered on Tom Thumb. It's an interesting and short view of what culture was like and how certain ideas might jump from one medium to another; it's the 19th century version of an internet trend.

Now if only we had Tom Thumb's account; and a wider account of what else was going on in Paris at this time and how long this craze really lasted. For some reason, I don't entirely trust Barnum...

The Life and Death of a Trope: Quicksand

RadioLab recently covered an interesting database on quicksand scenes in movies. This database was compiled for that most human of reasons: sexual kink. But like all databases compiled for sex, we can analyze the data for non-sexual reasons, if we have a reason to. Or if someone just wants to and works for Slate; in fact, this analysis happened in 2010 by Dan Engber, who noted that there was a rise in cinematic quicksand until the 1960s and then a drop-off. He also noted that metaphoric quicksand had a peak in the 1960s too, with Vietnam being "quicksand" the US was stuck in, to worries about lunar quicksand faced by the Apollo. So the 1960s were a particularly anxious time for America, quicksandily-speaking.

Which seems like a good observation until he undermines his own thesis by noting how quicksand has had a long, pre-cinematic life during the Age of Discovery. He even notes (without graphs, unfortunately) that quicksand dotted the frontier of Manifest Destiny literature. So, from there, we move on to the theory that quicksand symbolizes something about unknown areas: about the way that explorers might get swallowed up by the wilderness they sought to explore. When you push the limits of the known world, sometimes the unknown world pushes back--by pulling you further in. That's a fun idea, a sort of exploration-judo, where the unknown uses our own pushing against us.

So really, the 1960s weren't "peak quicksand"; only that our worry about engulfment and quagmire shifted from African jungle to Vietnamese jungle and lunar wilderness; and that we had a particular visual medium that was very friendly to the slow sinking action of quicksand. (Quicksand in a movie--exciting and incremental and inexorable. Quicksand in a comic book--what is that, dirty water?)

But then we're back to the first question: why did we have so many adventurers in quicksand in the 1960s and why did it drop off? And, additionally, where did it go? Engber talks about the drop in sandboxes as part of our loss of the quicksand trope, but it seems to me that we need to think about generations as the only way to describe how a trope falls out of favor in a particular medium.

That is, in the same way that a serious use of a trope will precede its parody, so a trope that thrilled us as kids may well get more play when we're the ones making the movies; and so the trope that we're invested in may well seem dated to our kids. (The loss of sandboxes in NYC will only have some effect on what's being made out in LA.) We also have to take into account the way different media absorb and deform certain tropes.

In other words, the reason why quicksand had a bump in the 1960s probably has more to do with the adventure serials of the '30s and '40s. It's easy to fit a quicksand scene into an episodic narrative. "Did you see Episode 12, where they get caught in quicksand? It was amazing!" But try to put that quicksand into a film and it fades a little in importance: what's more frightening, the quicksand that couldn't move to get the hero at the 30-minute mark; or the cannibal tribe that chased him at the 32-minute mark?

So people who were entranced by serial quicksand in the '30s and '40s start putting it into movies in the '60s--it's still good for a cheap thrill. But the kids in the '60s aren't so worried about quicksand and so it filters down into the cartoons and tv of the 1980s, either as momentary problem or as comic relief.

And this is also why, I would guess, quicksand hasn't made a huge comeback in video games as a serious threat. There are moments of quicksand in some Mario games and others, but seriously: in a medium that prizes interactivity, how much use will creators get out of a trope that works to take agency away from the character?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 180: Moe Berg, Pitchers and Catchers (#66)

Moe Berg, "Pitchers and Catchers" (1941) from Baseball: A Literary Anthology:

"The catcher is the Cerberus of baseball."

That's how Moe Berg describes the position he played in this piece, which tells us a lot about him: he's clearly highly educated--though it's not clear that education is helping him much. I mean, sure, "Cerberus of baseball" is a fun phrase and adequately describes the gate-keeping the catcher has to do for people trying to make it to home plate. But this phrase comes after a long litany of all the skills a catcher has to have, which can't really be boiled down to "Cerberus"-style skills.

The rest of this piece likewise shows off Moe Berg's wide education and thought: in one moment, he gestures towards how World War I affected baseball by preventing foreign yarn from being used in the production of baseballs; and in another moment, he's going through a list of some of the greats and telling us why they were great. He'll go into the philosophy of baseball--moderation and balance; and he'll go into the psychology of baseball--how pitchers and batters are engaged in psychological warfare. No matter what the topic, Moe Berg can see it in baseball and has something to say about it.

Which all adds up to... well, what does it add up to? Though the thread of baseball ties this all together, this piece feels loose. The tone of edumucation prevents it from becoming chummy and conversational. For the baseball fan, it's probably an interesting though idiosyncratic inside view. For the non-baseball fan, there are moments of interest--but they remain disconnected moments.

But, thanks to this LoA piece, I know now that Moe Berg (a) went on to work for the OSS and CIA; and (b) he probably played up the erudition angle so as to brand himself since he wasn't particularly distinguished as a ball-player.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 179: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Wife of His Youth (#164)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Wife of His Youth" (1899) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays:

This is the very last Chesnutt story that is currently up at the Library of America's Story of the Week site, so this is my last chance to get you to read Chesnutt if you haven't before. (Maybe I should write in and suggest another Chesnutt story for this feature. Hmm...) Now, if you weren't interested by the cynical humor of "Baxter's Procrustes" or the problematic sentimentality of "The Bouquet," then you still might want to look at today's entry, which is a sweet and underplayed story about devotion and doing the right thing. Or, if you take the long view, it's a deeply affecting meditation on the intricacies of the color line in America.

"The color line" is so obviously a part of this story that the collection it's in mentions that: The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. The story doesn't pussyfoot around that issue, but jumps in to a discussion of Mr. Ryder and the Blue Vein club that he's a part of. "Blue Vein" is a comment about how white the members need to be: white enough to see the blue of their veins; and while the members will note that they don't have any requirements that necessitate their members be born free and white-looking, well, that's just the way it shakes out in the end. Mr. Ryder is especially telling on this in his description--
While he was not as white as some of the Blue Veins, his appearance was such as to confer distinction upon them. His features were of a refined type, his hair was almost straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion.
--which mixes the cultured/educational issues (manners, dress, morals) with the physical (refined feature, straight hair). Ryder also hilariously begins a monologue on race with the phrase, "I have no race prejudice"--which is always what people say when they are about to launch into really prejudiced remarks.

In Ryder's case, he sees two possible fates for the lighter-skinned blacks: they can continue to fight against white prejudice and be absorbed in the white world; or they can fall back into the black world, which is clearly a step back, according to him. (Though, let's remember: he has no race prejudice.) Ryder is about to cement his social status by marrying a young, light-skinned black woman when an old black woman comes in to say that she's looking for her husband from when she was a slave.

Now, the story is titled "The Wife of His Youth," so we know that Ryder is that husband who said he would be back for her and who she has been searching for now for 25 years. And yet, when this old woman comes and says that she would know her husband anywhere, we never get an explicit note about Ryder being that man--until the very end, when he is ready to admit his past to the whole community by bringing out the very, very black and uneducated wife of his youth.

We'll never know how the wife of his youth adapted to the world that Ryder made for himself; I can imagine the drama going on with this woman trying to fit herself into a social station that is new and bewildering to her. But that end is so sweet and understated, that after all those years of searching, this old woman has a home; that after all those years of denying his past--probably denying it so hard that he had to set up extra guards and prejudices--Ryder can now acknowledge both who he was (a free black man in the South who experienced some effects of slavery) and who he is now (a pillar of the community)--and can join those two not as a regress, but as a story of devotion and progress.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 178: Paul Bowles, All Parrots Speak (#50)

Paul Bowles, "All Parrots Speak" (1956) from Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings:

"I remember the day when I first became parrot-conscious" should be the opening line for a crazy, Ballardian science fiction story where a man downloads his mind--no, copies his mind--into a swarm of alien parrot-creatures. Instead, it's part of Paul Bowles's collection of parrot anecdotes. I like the current title: "All Parrots Speak" raises the question "What are they saying?" But when it was first published in Holiday magazine, this piece was called "Parrots I Have Known," which gives you a clearer sense of what it's going to be about.

Bowles goes through some of his history with parrots, starting off with the notion that, because parrots can speak, they are thought to be human-souled by primitive people, like Indians and Latin Americans. That sort of casual dehumanization sets a pretty bad tone--and precedent--for how Bowles considers  and treats the parrots he's known. There's the parrot they bought who seemed unruly, so they tried to leave him behind. There's a pretty casual buying and selling of parrots. There's some gentle scoffing at the Americans who keep their birds in cages--and then there's a long consideration of their waddling around after their wings get clipped. (Which raises another question: would you rather have your wings clipped or kept in a cage where you couldn't use your wings? Which is the crueler option?)

Mixed in with this casual disregard for others is some genuinely fine writing and observation: people who keep caged parrots tend to have hostile parrots--and a weird pride in that fact; parrots clearly have some dinosaur/lizard background; a particular parrot would go through the items on a table "like a snowplow" and people tend to respect an animal with a beak like hedge clippers; one of his parrots bit him only once, when he bought a new pair of squeaky shoes and didn't turn on the light when approaching the parrot, who seemed to pretend that it attacked him only because it was woken from a nap. (I have a soft spot for the times when people try to rationalize their pets' actions as somehow human.)

When Bowles comes around again to the idea that the parrot's speech endows it with some humanity, it almost seems like there's something within his casual demeanor trying to get out.

Movie Analysis: Drag Me to Hell

Sam Raimi wrote Drag Me to Hell (with his brother Ivan) before the Spider-Man movies took over his life, but made it later. And it seems a lot like a return to a simpler, more natural form for Raimi: it's horror, with some gross-out humor; but it also has a pretty simple storyline, with a woman getting a curse from a gypsy and trying to undo that curse. You can't get much simpler than that.

Right now I'm hip deep in thinking about the structure of horror movies; and one thing I noticed was how easily this movie fits into Dan Harmon's 8-point Campbellian story wheel (which you can read about here)--and how a few parts stick out.
  1. You: We are introduced to Christine Brown, a woman trying to shed her past and to move up in the world (and at her job as a loan officer) despite the bullshit she gets from her male colleagues.
  2. Need: Her serious boyfriend's mom reminds her that she still stinks of the farm--that past she's trying to get away from. To ensure that she gets the promotion to assistant manager, she takes a "hard" stand against a Gypsy woman named Ganush seeking a loan extension and Ganush reacts... poorly. This is our Act 1 decision/climax.
  3. Go (entering the underworld, the chaos, the subconscious): That night, in an underground-seeming parking garage of all places, Ganush attacks Christine and curses her. This is the transition from the above-ground, conscious world that makes sense--the world of money, the world of upward mobility--to the below-ground, magic world. Now that Christine is on Ganush's turf, symbolically speaking, she is drawn to magicians, like the seer Rham Jas, and also experiences several nightmarish attacks. If only she had someone to help her!
  4. Search (aka "the road of trials"): Now that the curse has almost entirely ruined her above-ground life--bleeding all over her boss and letting her rival at the bank steal her work--Christine searches for a way to break it. She tries to get Mrs. Ganush to remove it, but Ganush is already dead. So she goes back to Rham Jas who says that maybe a blood-sacrifice will help. Christine refuses that until she's attacked again and then makes the choice to sacrifice her kitten. It seems to work and she arrives at her boyfriend's parents house bearing a cake and ignoring the curse long enough to impress ...
  5. Find ("meeting the Goddess"): ... her boyfriend's disapproving mother by being honest about her own mother's failings. If 1 and 2 were about how Christine was trying and failing to get away from her past and attach herself to these future in-laws, 5 is that momentary respite where she's accomplished the goal. And all it took for her to find this happiness in this beautiful house was, symbolically, taking away Ganush's house. Which comes back to bite her here in the form of the curse, which ruins the nice dinner. (Notice that 5--the midpoint--is also a stakes-raised moment: Christine isn't just haunted by the curse--she's haunted by the curse in front of people she needs to impress.)
  6. Take: Having seen the life she could have, Christine is committed to paying the price, which sees her getting rid of all her stuff to pay the fee for a powerful medium, even when she knows that the medium is risking her life. She doesn't actually have enough money, but the skeptical boyfriend decides to pay it for her--which is a nice inversion of the loan that Christine refused to give in 2. Instead of a single medium (Ganush) being in the bank's territory, a single banker (Christine) is now on the spiritualist's territory. The ritual goes poorly, but it seems successful at the end, except for the medium's death--which is not unusual for the 6th step, which is all about paying the price for what you wanted/got in 5. But now Christine is left still in the magical world, without any way to get out, except...
  7. Return: ... if she passes on the curse to someone else, she'll be free. She tests the idea of giving the curse to her rival at the bank, but his pathetic blubbering makes her reconsider for some reason. (He blubbers about what will happen if his dad finds out, but it doesn't seem to justify his earlier actions--stealing her work--or her decision not to give him it.) Then she gets the idea of giving the curse back to Ganush, which requires some grave-robbing and comedy-horror fighting with the corpse. But she does it and, as the new day dawns, Christine crawls out of the grave. She's back in the above-ground world of logic, order, and money. She's ready to face her future. 
  8. Change: And that future looks bright: she's got the promotion, she's about to get proposed to, she even bought a new coat to replace the coat that was cursed. And, just as importantly, she's ready to face the truth that she was hiding: it wasn't her manager who refused the loan extension--it was all her decision. So she's learned her lesson about extending mercy to others and facing the truth? Well, sure, but it's still too late: she still has the cursed object, since what she actually gave to the corpse of Mrs. Ganush was a rare coin that she gave to her boyfriend. Oh, I like how the world of money/gifts gets confused with the world of magic/gifts; and theme is one of the ways that structure gets built and reinforced. And so Christine gets dragged to hell.
Pretty nice match, I'd say. But if you wanted a really simple map of this story, I'd say we could draw it as a single line: "Woman who tries to better herself keeps facing obstacles" and then we could list the obstacles and whether she gets out of them. Most of the obstacles follow the form of "yes, but" (she succeeds at some task, but it leads to further problems) or "no, and" (where she fails and some additional problem is presented). So, for instance, the "giving the cursed object to Ganush-corpse" is a series of trials, which can be summarized as:
  • Does she dig up the body? Yes, BUT the stiff corpse won't accept the gift easily.
  • Does she succeed in giving the gift to Ganush-corpse? Yes, BUT she has trouble crawling out of the grave.
Like I said, it's a linear story that pretty nicely breaks down into the eight-point story structure (descent into the underworld at 3, ascent into the over-world at 7, etc.).

Except I skipped the opening section: a prologue where we see the curse take a victim to Hell in the 1960s, despite the best effort of the powerful medium we meet again in 6. Although she fails to save the young boy (who stole something from Gypsies), the medium promises to face him again and dispel him then. Like many horror movies, this prologue serves to introduce us to the real danger of the curse. We see the same thing, more or less, in Ring and Scream and Jaws: someone we don't know or care about gets killed by the monster, proving that this monster means business.

I wonder now if horror movies are especially friendly to these sorts of prologues or if we see them as often in other genres?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 177: H. L. Mencken, Portrait of an Immortal Soul (#192)

H. L. Mencken, "Portrait of an Immortal Soul" (1919) from H. L. Mencken: Prejudices: The Complete Series:

Here's a curious piece, that starts off with some Mencken humor and ends with an almost talk-show-host-esque plea to look for this book in bookstores--a plea made years after the bookstores stopped selling this book. "Don't miss the story of it in the book," Mencken says, sounding like Jon Stewart or David Letterman or Charlie Rose.

The story behind this piece is that Mencken was sent a novel, saw something interesting in it, and helped the writer revise it. This book was published in 1915 as One Man--the title is Mencken's--by "Richard Steele." Today, that's a dick joke, but back then it was a pseudonym--and probably also a dick joke--to cover what Mencken describes as an autobiography where the author strips down naked to expose his weaknesses and the dangers of Puritanism. No wonder Mencken found something interesting in it.

However, One Man sank without making much noise; so four years later, Mencken publishes this appreciation of the book that he had a hand in editing. Which would be pretty rank collusion except (a) Mencken is up-front about his involvement and (b) is this book even for sale anywhere? There's also no analysis or commentary about why this book failed in the marketplace, only a long (five of seven pages) appreciation for how this book is naive and honest and personal.

It's interesting to read the famously acerbic Mencken not even attempt acerbity. Even when he's defending civil rights, he does so from the arch position of an apologist for police brutality. But there's no mask here--just Mencken's sincere interest in this personal story of a man who was ruined by someone else's moral order.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 176: Irvin S. Cobb, Cobb Fights It Over Again (#57)

Irvin S. Cobb, "Cobb Fights It Over Again" (1921) from At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing:

In my post-academic life, I still find myself referring to and thinking about a half-dozen essays or chapters, like Jane Tompkins's intro to Sensational Designs; the whole book is a great attempt to reconsider our aesthetic common-places and re-examine the 19th century from a 19th-century POV. Her introduction takes a close look at Nathaniel Hawthorne, who is today part of the high school canon for his ambiguities and historical view, but who was loved in his time for his sentimental sketches.

I was reminded of that essay while reading Irvin S. Cobb's account of this big boxing match between Dempsey and Carpentier: while Cobb was the highest paid journalist at the time, he's largely forgotten now--and today's piece may give some evidence as to why both of those are true. Cobb writes in a semi-clear style that occasionally goes for an oratorical effect by switching the order of words or by inserting some clause. The whole first paragraphs read, to me, like they would sound great coming over the radio. On paper, it's hard to recapture the rhythm of his speech, which was probably one reason why he was so read then.

Although he was sent to cover this fight--the first with a million-dollar-plus gate receipt--Cobb starts his report with an analogy to the Burr-Hamilton duel and a scene-setting that makes sure to get in some comments about all the people who were there: movie stars and politicians and business tycoons and, above all, the lovers of vicarious violence, who might be all of the people. (Also: bootleggers.) Cobb is a little bit of the cynical observer, though his gentle pokes never rise to the level of outright anger that marks Twain's best satires. (So it's understandable both why contemporaries considered him Twain's heir; and why we see that he's not.)

And when he gets to the fight, Cobb writes clearly and excitingly and openly about the mystery of it all. What was Dempsey thinking when the French Carpentier got more applause? What did he think when he waited for the count to be called? Why did Carpentier decide to go toe-to-toe with the heavier Dempsey? None of these questions can be answered and Cobb doesn't pretend to know. Contemporaries may have loved his analysis and commentary, but its his journalistic chops that might be remembered today.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 175: Fritz Leiber, Knight to Move (#153)

Fritz Leiber, "Knight to Move" (1965):

Here's a slice-of-life-during-wartime story that you could only really tell in the context of an on-going serial project. "Knight to Move" is a Change War story, which Fritz Leiber introduced in 1958, with The Big Time and several other stories (about 10 or 11) that introduced us to the time-traveling war between the Snakes and the Spiders. So by 1965, Leiber could be free to skip the epic war set-up and jump into a small story about a war that's almost more of an excuse for him to lay out some theory about games.

Here's the short version of this small story: a Spider agent and a Snake agent meet on a neutral planet, which is holding several game tournaments: a chess tournament, a backgammon-like game tournament, and a bridge tournament. The Snake agent survives an assassination attempt and then realizes the Spiders plan to take over this neutral planet--and so she warns the Spider agent that the Snakes have a similar plan. And we're back to perfect stalemate again.

As I said, it's a small story, with very little action--someone steps out of the way of a homing assassination missile--and a lot of explanatory dialogue. Except this dialogue isn't just clumsy world-building. Most of it is focused on the way that games can be divided into three categories: track games where there's no branching (backgammon, Monopoly, etc.); two dimensional games where the whole board is open (chess, checkers, etc.); and counter games like card games.

That dialogue leads us to the Snake agent's revelation that there's something very spider-like about chess and other board games: the board is set up like a web; and the most interesting figure--the knight--has a very spider-like set of eight possible moves... which means that chess is so widely known in the universe because it's part of the Spiders' plan. Which means that this big chess tournament on this neutral planet is actually prelude to an attack by the Spiders. Like I said, not a lot happens externally, and this internal revelation is probably the biggest moment of the story.

And it also sets up the Snake agent's counter-warning to the Spider agent: board games may be Spider's, but track games are Snake-like. So the backgammon tournament here is actually made up of Snake soldiers ready to take over the neutral planet or fight off a Spider take-over attempt. And so that perfect stalemate relies on the clever idea that there are only a few categories of games that mimic snakes and spiders.

If you know Leiber's bio, you know he was a big fan of chess, so this story can seem like an excuse for him to play with the idea of chess. (Though it does raise the question of what faction is represented by that third category of game.) But there's the usual Leiber wit and fun to make this light story go down easily, everything from the idea of the truce and game-state between two warring factions (whose real goals beyond war remain mysterious) to the fun Leiber has with names and language (the Snake agent's last name is Spider-like Weaver, while the German Spider agent slips into German occasionally).

Monday, October 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 174: Channing Pollock, Stage Struck (#19)

Channing Pollock, "Stage Struck" (1911) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

Channing Pollock was a playwright, critic, theatrical press agent--and not a great guy, judging from this piece about the dangers of being "Stage Struck." That is, this longish piece (with illustrations) is given over largely to the accumulation of anecdotes about people who wanted to become actors--and how hilarious and sad they are.

There are some good points that Pollock makes and some good observations that someone outside of the business might need to hear. It's the usual litany of the high-paying but high-risk professions: only one in a million ever really make it to the major leagues/stardom; there's a lot of hardship on the way, especially for the traveling actor; you can lose it as easily as you can get it.

Pollock also notes that there are some reasons that the stage is so alluring, chief among them, the instant gratification: if you do good at any other job, how nice for you, but if you do good on the stage, people will stand and clap every day and twice on Sundays. Can we really blame people who see acting as a way to really "be somebody"?

Well, ask Pollock and he'll answer, "Yes." Because, besides those few fair points about the business, most of this piece is made up of those afore-mentioned anecdotes that poke fun at those who can't hack it--the woman "whose pronunciation betrayed the baseness of her early environment," the stutterer, the woman dying of a lung disease, etc. And when he's not making fun of those who can't, he makes fun of those who really shouldn't, which is primarily the rich and well-to-do, who put themselves through hell when they could be enjoying their money.

For all that Pollock does a useful service by demystifying the theater, there's something faintly curdled about the wit of a man who pokes fun at a stutterer who wishes to go on stage--and particularly because the wit is overplayed. That is, Pollock has set up the scene after telling us several other similar stories; the man comes in to present his letter of introduction and proves to be a stutterer... and then Pollock notes that "He stuttered hopelessly."

So, Pollock's wit seems mean-spirited; but even worse, it's witless.

Movie Analysis: The Ring

I've been intermittently interested in ghost/horror and haunted house stories, so I recently rewatched The Ring. I originally watched that with some friends in Chicago, thinking it would be a silly film--a remake of a Japanese horror film has to overcome my prejudice against remakes. (Even good directors, like Christopher Nolan, don't always improve films by remaking them. Original Insomnia forever!)

This time, while I found the film as creepy and atmospheric, I also thought it felt a little slow; and has some plot holes and issues that can't be ignored. To wit: I got a little scared watching it at night at the gym by myself at the beginning, but as it went on, I found myself getting less sucked into it. Perhaps that's partly because the ghost story has the structure of a mystery--as many ghost stories do:
  • Something mysterious happens, possibly with a supernatural explanation--sometimes with some expendable secondary characters that can show that the ghost means business
    • Examples (with some elasticity to their representativeness): Jaws, Scream, Ghostbusters--all start with some prologue
  • Someone gets involved in the search for the answer to the mystery; since the rational response to a monster is to run the other way, this detective character should have some reason that they can't say no
    • In Jaws, it's his job to deal with this monster; in Ring, the detective herself might be the next victim... and then it's her ex-boyfriend and son who might be the victims after her
    • Often, the research portion of the ghost story involves calling in experts, whether that's shark-experts like in Jaws or ghost experts like in Poltergeist
    • Research also involves old microfiche or newspapers, often asylums or scary hospitals
  • The detective solves the mystery
Now, in many ways, The Ring is a pretty by-the-numbers ghost horror story:
  • In the prologue, we hear the legend of the tape from two teenage girls, one of whom gets brutally killed by the ghost; 
  • The detective has a family reason for solving the crime (the dead girl was her son's cousin and good friend) and a career reason (she's a reporter) and then a personal reason (she might be the next victim) and then a parenting reason (her son watched the cursed tape too); 
  • We get hints of weirdness--the strange photographs of the victims-to-be, the horse that commits suicide on the way to the island, the fly coming off the screen of the video, the weird bruise, coughing up hair, the mysterious father standing around with a hay hook, the mentally-off child Darby repeating the scary things that Rachel says, etc.;
  • There's lots of research--finding the tape, digging through old asylum records, going to talk to the dad, etc.
The Ring adds some nice touches to this formula, for instance, the thematics of bad parenting. So the detective is really more careerist than a mom, whereas the ghost's mom only ever wanted to be a mom--and neither of them does a really bang-up job. Sometimes, the film is a little broad in the way it brings this up, as in Naomi's kid always calling her by her first name. But at least there's a theme here and a warning, of sorts, which every horror film needs: listen to children... up to a point.

There's also some clever twists to the usual images of horror film; for instance, the crossed-out faces aren't just crossed-out faces, they're representations of evil Samara's long hair covering her face. Similarly, when the editor tries to fire reporter Rachel, she doesn't beg for her job or try to tempt him with this story--she just flat out says that she can't be fired because of this story. And while the film doesn't start with a countdown, once Rachel watches the video, we get a nice reminder of the ticking clock here by the days being announced as she runs out of time. Ring also nicely twists the usual ghost story that would end with the discovery of the solution; but here, after Samara's body is discovered and her story full told... she still kills because she's just an evil child. (Which is something that's pretty common in living child films, but comes as a twist to ghost child films.) There's also a real question about the mystery here: the basic facts of the story aren't clear until they're clear. Is Samara alive? Where is she? If she's dead, who killed her?

All that said, on re-watch there's a couple of plot issues that make re-watching a less enjoyable experience. Does that matter? I'm not so sure, since those issues only come up on rewatch. For instance, Rachel is haunted by memories of the film and by strange things happening to her... but if she's broken the curse by making a copy of the cursed tape, she shouldn't be experiencing these effects? Worst of all, Rachel's kid Aiden is a little psychic and knows that Samara is evil--so why doesn't he tell his mom that at some earlier time? I mean, you may be a kid who treats his mom like an equal, but you'd still maybe drop a hint about the evil child.

Also, while the cursed tape is suitably creepy and the distorted photographs are fun, the attempt to connect Samara to media seems forced.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 173: Benjamin Franklin, “It is impossible we should think of Submission” (#131)

Benjamin Franklin, "'It is impossible we should think of Submission'" (1776) from The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence:

Did I ever tell you that, when I was young, I wanted to fall in love with and marry a girl with the last name Franklin so that I could take her last name and be Benjamin Franklin? I'm not sure how much weight you should put on that--it was probably around the same time that I answered "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "Tyrannosaurus Rex." To which, today, I would add, "Duh."

And this letter nicely captures a lot of what I love about Franklin, that pragmatic son-of-a-bitch. It could only be bettered if he dropped in a line or two about his scientific interests and innovations. In this letter, Franklin explains to his friend, Lord Howe, why he thinks Britain has screwed the pooch with how they've treated the American colonies.

See, Franklin had met Howe through his sister while in London. (In fact, Franklin and Caroline Howe became friendly over chess, which seems like another reason to like Franklin: he's not going to be intimidated or turned off by a smart woman.) And Howe was sent over to make peace with the Americans, but since Britain didn't recognize the Continental Congress, he addressed a letter to Franklin. This day's entry is Franklin's response, which hits all the right notes:

  • Thanks for the "pardon" but no thanks;
  • So nice to offer a "pardon" to us when you're the ones who royally messed up our amity by burning our towns, bringing in mercenaries, etc.;
  • And if we did allow you to "pardon" us, how could you ever respect us?;
  • Now, you could do the right thing, by rebuilding our towns and otherwise making amends for how you messed up--but we both know that's not going to happen because Britain is too (a) warlike, (b) proud, (c) commercial, (d) ambitious, and (e) deficient in wisdom;
  • Have you learned nothing from the Crusades?;
  • Of course, no one is going to take my predictions seriously until I'm proven correct by history--as usual!;
  • The British Empire is like a China vase that is less valuable when broken but impossible to put together;
  • Hey, I tried to be nice and make peace but your guys didn't want it!;
  • We're still cool, though, right?;
  • And fighting a war for money is dumb and immoral and also just bad business--you'll always spend as much or more than you gain in profit;
  • History will have to judge us;
  • And since your job isn't going to work, you might as well just quit now and go home.
I almost wish I still taught composition and rhetoric just to diagram how Franklin does this: how he moves from accusatory to triumphant to pragmatic; how he uses metaphor and hints at history, both past and future; and how he sees fit to give advice to Howe and maintain some semblance of warmth and friendship.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 172: Louisa May Alcott, An Hour (#144)

Louisa May Alcott, "An Hour" (1864) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

First, a note: I generally think that abolitionism not only had better politics, but also better writers. That the Library of America puts out collections of Slave Narratives and this collection of Antislavery Writings is great. And yet, I almost wish we saw a similar collection of pro-slave writings. Wait, what--why?

Because reading Uncle Tom's Cabin is only part of the story; the other part is the anxious response of pro-slave "anti-Tom" books, like The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. In that book, a Northern woman comes to see that slavery is actually good for the blacks and that all the rebellion is stirred up by foreigners (at least, foreigners to the South). It's not a good book, either artistically or politically: it doesn't have any of the humor or humanity of Stowe and it too clearly shows off the corners that Hentz has to cut to make the book come out the pro-slave way she wants it to. And that's one reason why I want people to read it and other pro-slave writings more. Put it this way: there are lots of people who will cheerfully tell you that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery... even though many of the secessionists helpfully wrote declarations of secession citing slavery as their reason for seceding. That's why I sometimes wonder if a pro-slavery collection might be a good idea: to shine a light on our bigoted, asshole-rich past.

Which brings us to Alcott's piece, a rich stew of melodrama and action, with a strong abolitionist message, and a can't-call-it-subtext of interracial love. And I love it. Young Gabriel has returned from the North because his mean, slave-owning father is dying, leaving a step-mother and two half-sisters, which complicates Gabriel's plan to free all the slaves, since that would leave his family destitute. (Which is a big deal because they're all women of a certain class.) Gabriel is also in love with Milly, a beautiful slave that was bought for him to, basically, rape; but since he always treated her as a woman rather than as an object, Milly loves him too. Which complicates her plan to help a slave uprising to kill all the white folk on this island. So now Gabriel is conscious of his own guilt in not freeing the slaves earlier and wants to do something to protect his family (although, it should be said, that his step-mother fulfills the "awful slaveowning matriarch" character).

So he goes down to the sugar mill, where the mob has just finished killing the cruel overseer. And there his story pauses for a moment so that the old, blind, Christ-loving slave can tell the mob that killing isn't the right way to do this. And after a relatively long interlude of listening to this discussion/monologue, Gabriel busts in, blows his (metaphorical) horn and gives them all their freedom. No mention is made of the dead white oversser these slaves have tortured and killed.

Now, it's not a perfect story in its plotting, but Alcott throws so many pieces into the mix that there are moments where it's easier to imagine some terrible outcome than a successful one. There are so many conflicting desires among these characters that we expect someone to be disappointed. And there is something dream-like and set-apart in this story, so that we might wonder what will happen after this one "Hour" is up. Will someone come to inquire as to the death of this white overseer? Will Gabriel's step-mother recant her momentary, fear-motivated kind words to Milly and try to re-enslave the slaves? And while Milly and some of the other slaves might have some kind thoughts for the white people and some skills to help them, what of the rest?

So, as I said, it's not perfect, but that's almost part of the charm here: with so many pieces floating in this stew of revenge and sentimentality, the story is easy to sink into.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 171: John Burroughs, The Art of Seeing Things (#135)

John Burroughs, "The Art of Seeing Things" (1908) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

John Burroughs was a nature writer who was very popular in his day; according to the LoA headnote to his essay, "if John Muir was the craggy champion of the rugged West, John Burroughs is the lower-key bard of the lower-key, lower-elevation eastern mountains, the patron saint of the weekend cottage in the Berkshires." That last bit--"the weekend cottage in the Berkshires"--sure makes Burroughs sound like a dilettante or hand-maiden (spear-bearer?) of the wealthy amateur.

That said, the LoA page is a little more helpful when it puts Burroughs into the context of the 19th-century uncertainty about natural science: something for sentimentalist amateurs or something for scientists? It reminds me of Aldo Leopold's speech on that issues in the 1930s, which I guess just goes to show that Burroughs may have been popular, but wasn't the last word on the matter.

And I can't exactly blame the people who weren't totally convinced by him, if this essay is a fair representation. Not because it's uninteresting, but because Burroughs's essay on observation is a hodge-podge of ideas and notes. There's one real over-arching point here: "love" has to be an essential component of the naturalist, since "What we love to do, that we do well." Or as he puts it at the end of the essay, "You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush." I'll say this for Burroughs: there's lots of quotable moments here.

But that over-arching idea gets expressed in dozens of spokes radiating from that main idea. There's some usual tropes, like reference to reading "the book of nature"; and some Transcendentalist nods with his notion of "eye-beams." (OK, maybe that's not from them exclusively--but it comes right before a mention of Thoreau.) But then there's also talk about how students can be trained for observation, though some of them might be born geniuses. Then there's all the examples of how his love of nature helped him to see things that others missed. And there's comments about how manual training can be good for observations; and a question about whether the environment really affects the development of genius.

Which all kind of orbits around the central point; but don't necessarily reinforce it or build it up.

That said, if, by the end of this week, I don't have a t-shirt with a bird on it and the words, "You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush," then I will have to turn in my card as an owner of cute t-shirts. (Appropriately, the card for that club is also a cute t-shirt.)

Movie Analysis: Gravity

Having only seen Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity in 3D, I'm not sure I can recommend that version as a must-see--but I think the movie itself is. So you should go see it before I spoil the heck out of it for you.

First, the cinematography and all the special effects are pretty amazing. I had no problem believing that this was taking place in zero gravity; in fact, there was a significant portion of the film where I could only think, "The only way to make this would be to film it in space."

Second, the acting: since this film takes place between two people (at most), where we can almost only see their faces (in their space suits), there's a huge amount of weight placed on their dialogues--and monologues. And it's to the credit of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock that those interactions never feel strained or unbelievable. Bullock in particular has the thankless task of selling us on the character of a depressed woman who still has the will to fight for life.

Third, and most especially, the writing: the story here is pretty simple in plot terms, presenting a golden-age-style problem story: After their spaceship is hit by some dangerous debris, how can an astronaut and a doctor get to the space station that will help them survive? There's some typical "do we have enough fuel, what about our inertia" questions that come up in golden-age stories. I mean, it's pretty easy to imagine Isaac Asimov writing this story, with the astronauts figuring out some clever way to slingshot themselves around or otherwise save themselves... with Science!

But as the story goes on, this simple story of physics adds a character and emotional layer, in a pretty artless manner: just having one character tell the other about her secret and ever-living sadness over the death of her daughter. There's no real mystery or drawn-out period where Clooney gets Bullock to trust her. All we get is him coming to rescue her from the deep darkness of space and towing her towards the Russian space station.

But we buy all this because of the weird and intense situation: given that these people can't act physically in the same space, given that they are in imminent fear for their lives, given that all they can do is talk, given that they are relatively new colleagues, we accept learning this backstory in this way. No flashbacks take us out of the moment. No other actors get in our way of imagining Sandra Bullock's dead child. It's really a brilliant way to film something claustrophobic and make that claustrophobia work for our engagement.

I also think the action set-pieces are brilliant little moments of set-up and pay-off. We know the space debris will come back in approximately 90 minutes; we see the little bubbles of fire on the Russian space station; we see the parachute tangled up with the Russian station; etc. Because we feel connected with Sandra Bullock's character in the most basic ways--her voice, her face, seeing from her POV, her newness to space--we jump even further than we might otherwise.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 170: William H. Rankin, Free Fall (#147)

William H. Rankin, "Free Fall" from The Man Who Rode the Thunder (1960) reprinted in Into the Blue: American Writers on Aviation and Spaceflight:

After my girlfriend and I saw Gravity (comments coming), she noted that Sandra Bullock's character just couldn't catch a break. Which is kind of the way I feel reading William H. Rankin's record of his emergency ejection--without a pressure suit--far beyond what should've been the limits of human survival.

First his canopy doesn't open, so he gets ejected out through it; then he's got all the decompression pain and effects--memorably captured in his belly being swollen as if in pregnancy; then, on his way down, he gets caught in a storm that threatens him with lightning and terrifies him with thunder and pelts him with hail.

It's an incredible, crazy, wild ride... that would only be improved, in fiction, by giving us some sort of engagement with the character.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 169: Lydia Maria Francis Child, Slavery’s Pleasant Homes (#196)

Lydia Maria Francis Child, "Slavery’s Pleasant Homes" (1843) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Whenever I find myself discussing the culture and morals of dead people, I often hear the back-handed defense that so-and-so was no worse than the majority at that time. Yes, X said bad things about Indians, but he didn't really say anything out of the ordinary for that time; yes, Y was an anti-Semite, but he could've been much worse--he was really a middle-of-the-road anti-Semite for that time; etc.

While that might be true, it's always nice to find someone historical who is not only advanced for their time, but pretty advanced for our time too. So Lydia Maria Francis Child was an abolitionist; but she also supported interracial marriage and full citizenship for African Americans. Imagine that: at a time when many abolitionists start off their tracts by conceding that blacks aren't really ready now (or ever) for citizenship, Child in the 1820s takes a position more progressive than certain state governments of the 1960s.

The anti-slavery position finds its way into this story of Child's, which nicely lays out a bunch of terrible issues with slavery: the difficulty of slaves forming families; the weirdness of whites owning their black siblings; the effect of rape both on the slaves and on the white families who have to deal with that; the rivalries of slaves; and the untold stories of heroism and love that get elided by the newspapers that focus only on the white people.

It is, in other words, a microcosm of what Harriet Beecher Stowe will put in Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Well, it's a microcosm of many of the issues.) The main differences are that Child tells the story in summary, at a bit of a remove, whereas Stowe dramatizes her story (and adds more characters and plots); it's easy to imagine Child's story as an important example in an essay decrying slavery. Which in a sense it is: this story was published in an anti-slavery book, as one of the many examples of reasons to support abolition.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 168: Eugene O’Neill, In the Zone (#148)

Eugene O’Neill, "In the Zone" (1919) reprinted in Eugene O’Neill: Complete Plays 1913–1920:

A bunch of swabbies on a cargo ship suspect this one weird seaman might be a German spy or saboteur; so naturally they go through his stuff and read out his letters... which show that he's nothing more than a drunk who has lost the woman he loves through his drinking. (Which is somewhat reminiscent of his one published short story, "Tomorrow.")

Plays are curious things, existing both as literary objects (exemplified in the long tradition of the "closet drama," i.e., a play never meant to be performed but only read) and as blueprints for another medium. Reading this play, I see bits that would be difficult to get across naturalistically as given; for instance, we hear the date and time in the description rather than the dialogue. There are ways to loosely depict that--showing period items, putting in a calendar or a clock--but none of that is specified. So saying the time seems more like a message to the reader rather than the audience. (The time, in fact, is not all the important to the action, so it's not super important to get that info across.)

But "In the Zone" also has so many different accents that I think it would be played more easily than read: the reader has to keep in mind which one is Driscoll and which one is Scotty in a way that's done for you by actors. Though, as you may be able to tell from those names, O'Neill tries to make it easier by making everyone talk in very broad accents.

Somewhat like the classic Twilight Zone "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," the story here is of suspicion; but unlike that story, this story sticks with the relatively linear suspicion and never branches out into paranoia: the swabbies all suspect Smitty, they never veer from that suspicion, and that suspicion just sort of builds through them talking about it, rather than any ratcheting up of the plot. Perhaps that's why this is only a one-act play, because there's not much plot to keep it moving?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 167: O. Henry, The Duel (#89)

O. Henry, "The Duel" (1910) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

A quirky little story with a purposely overblown opening frame and an undercutting closer, this O. Henry story reminds me of the pieces Woody Allen occasionally writes for the New Yorker--with a heavy side-order of regret.

The story opens with almost two entire pages about how New York is different from other cities: when you go there, you either have to remain a stranger or totally give yourself to the city. But this frame opens up discussing the gods' eye view of cities and only eventually gets to that point. So when we get to the end of the frame and read, "And this dreary preamble is only to introduce to you the unimportant figures of William and Jack," we know that there's some comic misdirection going on. From gods to New York to William and Jack, the story seems to be narrowing down its vision to give us some story.

But no, the story here is pretty thin: William and Jack came to NYC, one for business, the other for art; they meet and discuss how William has given in to NYC and Jack still doesn't heart it. Then suddenly we're with William as he gazes out at the city and gets a telegram saying that the girl he (presumably) proposed to before will say yes now... if he comes back home. He deliberates and eventually refuses for now. Thus showing how the city really has conquered him: by replacing the object of his love. (And also by offering plenty of new opportunities, both business and leisure, that he couldn't get out west. As someone who lives in a small city in the west now, I feel for William.)

So what's the moral here? That New York City is a bad place that consumes people? Or that it offers exciting new opportunities? The narrator ends the story by saying that he asked a friend--who was too busy buying Christmas presents to deal with this. Which is a cute end-run around the problem here: sure, it seems like the subtext is "NYC is too busy" since the friend has no time for the narrator; but the friend is buying Christmas presents, which certainly connects the friend to his own friends and family. So: NYC is busy, but not destructive of friendship and family-feeling.

While the story seems to deal with heavy issues--the mass consumerism of the city, the way that career can dislocate personality or family--Henry holds it all off at arm's-length, giving everything a distant, god's eye view that prevents us from getting sucked into any one person's emotions. We can laugh because there's no threat of us breaking out into tears--though, for my money, that makes the laughs a little shallower.

The Austin Teen Book Festival

On Saturday, September 28th, I drove eight hours to get to Austin for the Austin Teen Book Festival, which was rather a surprise as I'd only been reminded about it the day before. This was perhaps for the best since it didn't give me an opportunity to get super anxious--or to go shopping for my usual 100 pounds of snacks for the ride. Also, when I say I drove eight hours, I should say, I was driven, which meant that I could focus all of my attention on breathing and keeping my heart beating, which is a full-time job at 4 a.m. (Or, put another way, I could focus all my attention on the GPS system and entertaining the driver to keep her awake.)

Unlike WorldCon, the ATBF is a one-day affair; focused largely on fans and readers rather than a mix of fans and writers; and most panels are repeated during the day so that you can catch any you miss. The map and schedule for the festival also does a neat thing by presenting each author through their most recent book and their twitter account, so it's easy to follow any that interest you. Also, the festival was free, which was pretty nice. (I did hear that the bookstore attached/co-sponsoring the fest sold over 2,700 books. So there's that.)

The panels were largely organized by some loose theme: "Truth and Consequences" was about serious issues in YA fiction, "Tales of Tomorrow" was about science fiction and the future, etc. There were two panels organized by publisher: HarperCollins and Macmillan. But all the panels basically had the same form: no moderator other than one of the authors, a nice Q&A section with the audience, and a general "getting to know you" vibe that was a pleasant introduction to the author and a soft sales pitch. Given how many books got sold, I'd say the soft pitch works in this context.

The major talks--Maggie Stiefvater's opening remarks; Rob Thomas and Sarah Dessen's lunch remarks; Holly Black's closing remarks--were good, if a little loose. That is, there may have been some point to them, but they weren't all that pointed. For instance Stiefvater told us several stories of her strange car-ownership, with the over-arching point (I think) that we have to delve deeply into our own dreams, both good and bad, in order to bring out anything worth reading. Black presented a "you can do it" sort of subtext with her reciting of some terrible 8th-grade vampire poetry ("Forgive me, let me drink you!"); and a discussion of how she re-vamped (ahem!) her fear of vampires into a love of them and used that to fuel her writing. Which is a pretty good message for a teenage audience: your fear can be your strength, your trouble can be your art.

Really, the major issue I had with the convention was the food at the convention center and the total lack of coffee.

(Also, I was told by a few people that last year's opening remarks by Libba Bray were epic; I have found, but not yet seen these youtubes of that event.)