Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A few numbers about books (read in 2015)

Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I wrote here; and yes, I have notes about various topics to post about in the future, with topics ranging from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to ... well, I can't find my other notes, so I'll just assume it's all Star Wars, all the way down.

But I had a few moments in a coffee shop the other day, after I wrote a quick book review on Goodreads, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do some small-scale data-mining of my reading trends for 2015, vis-a-vis 2014?”

To which the only reasonable answer is, “Yes.”
Year / Category 2015 2014
Total 58 54
Comic Books 32 14
Audio Books 7 18
Library Books 13 7
My Books 7 15
First impressions:

  • the totals are pretty close;
  • the numbers for library books vs. my own books are swapped, which makes some sense: 
    • in 2014, I was mostly in San Angelo, but already planning to head to Austin (prepping for code bootcamp started halfway through 2014), so I tried to read down my collection; 
    • in 2015, I was in Austin, 
      • (a) exploring the new library, 
      • (b) getting new books that I wouldn't have owned before (business, self-help), and 
      • (c) not carrying around all the books in my collection that I culled that past year;
  • the largest negative shift is in audio books:
    • there are so many podcasts to listen to in 2015, from new shows like Serial and old favorites like Planet Money;
    • I also am not spending as much time walking the dog or washing dishes, perfect listening activities;
  • the largest positive shift is towards comic books:
    • and 19 of those were Dungeons & Dragons books that I bought in a Humble Bundle and made a point of reading because I had bought several such bundles (mostly roleplaying books in Bundles of Holding) and not read them;
    • many of the others are first volumes that I read to see if I liked those series:
      • I mostly did not.
      • Except for Ms. Marvel, which really is amazing.

Here's to reading more in 2016!

Monday, June 29, 2015

Cull your darlings

Pretty much all my life--even now--I wouldn't pass a bookstore without walking in. When I was in grad school, surrounded by books, I sometimes chose to reward myself with a quick trip to the bookstore--just to look.

Well, maybe not just to look. Over the years, I'd collected quite a few books. Too many books, really, especially when I was about to move from Chicago to San Angelo, TX. It was hard, but I had to let some books go, selling what I could to used bookstores (Myopic and Powells) and giving the rest to the library's charity used bookstore.

Then, when I was moving from San Angelo to Austin, I decided to do the same thing. (And I wrote about it.) And again, preparing for my upcoming move in Austin, I did the same thing.

I've found some good general guidelines for culling a book collection:

  • what books are you actually going to read?
  • what books are you actually going to read again?
  • what books would be a pain to find again?

I also took some time this weekend to actually run the numbers. Unfortunately, I wasn't keeping track of my collection before leaving Chicago, so I only have numbers for the two recent cullings:

  • Culled before moving to Austin: 179
  • Culled while in Austin: 55
  • Current collection: 129
No conclusions or metaphors or theories; I just wanted to record those numbers somewhere.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 283: Caroline Henderson, Letter from the Dust Bowl (#283)

Caroline Henderson, "Letter from the Dust Bowl" (1936) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

A first-person account from the Dust Bowl, by a farmer who kept up a little side-line in column writing for a while. Caroline Henderson actually chose to be a farmer, it seems, after a near-death experience convinced her to follow her girlhood dream. Which is a fascinating bit of backstory for a rather short and uncompelling account of the Dust Bowl.

Not a lot going on here, though there are one or two details that are interesting, mostly about her tone when it comes to government aid programs and how those who believe in refusing government dictates are actually damaging everyone. (In this case, the aid program involves plowing the soil along the contour, so as to lessen erosion; and those who continue to plow straight are making the airborne dust worse.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

A very short note about a very long improv festival

For the past seven years, the Hideout Theater in Austin has been putting on an improv marathon and fund-raiser. The fund-raiser part is easy to understand: they're raising money for a youth training program scholarship. The marathon part is equally easy to understand in terms of what, but a little harder to understand in terms of why.

In the marathon, eight core performers improvise non-stop for 40+ hours. The first year it was 40, but it's been going up by an hour ever since; this year's show was 46 hours long. Each hour has a different theme or structure; so one hour might be improvised Shakespeare, another hour might be a musical. And each hour also can feature some guest performers. But those eight core performers are there for the whole ride.

"Why would anyone do that to themselves?" is the question you might be asking. Except you wouldn't be asking that question if you were there at the last hour. Instead of performing a lot of scenes, the cast talked about their struggles, both on and off stage, and what it meant to them to get up on the stage.

That last hour was not a great hour of improv, but it was a great hour about improv. It was incredibly moving to hear those eight people--stripped and raw after 46 hours--talk about fear, isolation, separation, self-doubt, anxiety.

And it was so moving precisely because that's what improv is about overcoming. You don't have to be afraid because you're not alone. You don't have to be crippled by self-doubt because if you stumble, you are surrounded by people who will help carry you. Together, the whole cast will cross the finish line; or if you don't make it to the finish line, well, screw it, it was an imaginary finish line anyway, and it might as well be here where you are.

This was very moving to me because I'd been feeling a little bad about my improv skills recently. Last week, I got a chance to play in the Maestro, the longest-running improv show in Austin. For the first time, I was playing on the main stage; and I was playing with a bunch of people who have years more experience than I have. And I didn't freeze, exactly, but I wasn't exactly warmed up. I couldn't really get out of my head. I had OK scenes and I got some good laughs. (When you're playing the Alphabet Game and you have to start a line with the letter X, audiences love it when you pull out "xenophobe.") But I never felt comfortable. I wondered if maybe I'd reached the end of my development as an improviser; or if I was actually backsliding.

Then I saw the last hour of the improv marathon and listened to these crazy, sleep-deprived performers, and I was moved by their openness and their rawness and their sincerity and commitment. That may not be where I am now, but it's an amazing goal.

So if anyone is starting to talk about the cast for next year's 47-hour improv marathon, I'd love to be on that list.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 282: Helen Keller, I Go Adventuring (#282)

Helen Keller, "I Go Adventuring" (1929) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

It's rare that I put one of these out on time; or at least, for the past few months, it seems like I'm playing catchup, reading and writing about two or three Stories in a weekend. Often I find myself saying, "I've got a lot to do and what am I even doing these for anymore?"

It's true that this project began partly to give me something to do (and partly to give me something to blog about regularly).

But I'm reminded why by today's piece (which I'm really writing about a week after it was released). That is, the Story of the Week is best when either (a) I have something interesting to say about it, probably because it's a story or on a topic I've read before; or (b) I have never read the piece and probably wouldn't have come across it outside of this project.

I remember studying Helen Keller a little bit in elementary school. (Did everyone have to read The Miracle Worker? Is there a little bit of "if she can learn, why can't you?" in teaching about Helen Keller to sighted, hearing students?) But I'd never read her before. It was interesting to read this piece about her thoughts on New York and what it meant to her.
Tremulously I stand in the subways, absorbed into the terrible reverberations of exploding energy. Fearful, I touch the forest of steel girders loud with the thunder of oncoming trains that shoot past me like projectiles. Inert I stand, riveted in my place. 
Which is a strange mix of metaphors with a lot of feeling behind it. Forest of steel--thunder of trains--shooting like projectiles. And of course, I love how she starts out tremulous and ends up inert, riveted, almost a piece of the machinery of the city. It's an intensely felt section--but I'm not sure it's a good feeling. Keller celebrates the city, but it's so easy to imagine this turned into a Thoreauvian denunciation, like:
We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man….

Monday, June 15, 2015

Super short review: Jurassic World

Super short review: A profound shrug.

Slightly longer review: Some fun dinosaur set-pieces, but bad human dialogue never sets up characters to care about.

Accurate tag line: Come see your favorite TV actors fight dinosaurs!

Most surprising cross-casting connection: Lauren Lapkus, formerly locking up humans in Orange is the New Black, is here locking up dinosaurs. In both, she has a boyfriend, thus stymying office romance.

Most retrograde gender politics: Oh my fucking god, women don't have to be mothers, jesus fucking christ. Seriously, most of the movie seems to be about punishing Bryce Dallas Howard until she gives up her job to take care of some kids who have very few redeeming qualities. Did you ever think you would miss Dr. Ian Malcolm hitting on Dr. Ellie Sattler?

Most baffling speech: B.D. Wong by a clear mile: in two successive lines he claims that this whole lab is only there because he's doing this work AND then he says that if he's not there, someone else will do this work instead. But that incoherence and muddiness of his character--that's not unique to him. All the characters are like that.

Most interesting coincidence (or not): a seven-year old came up with most of the best ideas in this movie many years ago! (Read this--and then subtract the Nazis part.)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 281: Ambrose Bierce, A Psychological Shipwreck (#281)

Ambrose Bierce, "A Psychological Shipwreck" (1879) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

Not my favorite Bierce, though maybe because I constantly talk and think of him. I don't remember a time before I knew of him, since I grew up with two Bierce books in the house. (Can Such Things Be? and In the Midst of Life.)

The headnote says that this is a favorite for anthologizing and that readers have loved to puzzle out the connections. I can't say I understand why, since it seems both clearly in line with Poe and other earlier writers who played with some idea of trances; and seems clearly related to the late 19th-century obsession with spiritual forces and physical connections.

(I can't remember who wrote it, but there's a story from around this time of a seance where the spirit that comes knocking leaves a number when asked its name--and it turns out to be the number for one of the seance-participant's amputated foot. The idea of spiritual forces behind or inherent in the physical is so big at the point that Bierce is writing.)

What we have here simply seems to be a case of a man's spirit communing with the spirit of a relative; and beyond that, the notion that there are other relatives communing in spirit. What's the mystery?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 280: Frederick Douglass, Letter to His Old Master (#280)

Frederick Douglass, "Letter to His Old Master" (1848) from Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies:

In grad school, I took a class in the History Department called "Important Primary Sources in American History"--or something to that effect. So in one week, I devoured something like 1000 pages of slave narratives (the Library of America collection, actually).

But it never gets any easier. This short, humorous, cutting letter from Douglass to his former owner doesn't dwell on the horrors of slavery at any length. It mentions them in general (being robbed of education, etc.) or names particular events (being dragged to market, etc.) only sparingly; most of this letter is taken up by the joys of freedom.

And yet, those joys are so obviously contrasted to the crushing pains of slavery that this letter can get me teary eyed. Douglass's great skill here might be in how quickly he can veer from cutting and acid humor to straightforward pathos.

Edit: If you read this letter, make sure to read the LoA headnote, which tells the story of some strange meetings between Douglass and the family that formerly owned him. It's a great reminder of how strange and intimate the institution of slavery really was.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Goonies, Godzilla

No great over-arching theme here, just two movies I saw recently and wanted to comment on:

Like a lot of 80s kids, I have fond memories of this film. Actually, one of my fondest memories involves some friends when we were in college, appropriating the "This is our time, down here" line to claim the kitchen from my brother and his friends. Which is one way of saying: maybe you had to be there.

But if you watch this movie today, even with that veneer of nostalgia (Cyndi Lauper had a music video featuring this movie), there are a couple of things that are hard to take. They are easier to take when you watch the movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, at their Master Pancake event, which involves several comedians giving the movie a Mystery Science Theater treatment: commenting on and occasional cutting into the movie.

For instance, the opening, which involves a prison break, works hilariously well as a Wes Anderson film if you layer some Paul Simon over it.

Otherwise, a not so polished film from a not so polished era. Heck, even as a kid I recognized the shoddiness of the dad throwing paper into the air, followed by more paper being thrown into the air from behind.

Godzilla (2014)
I read that it got good reviews, that it nicely balanced human-size stories against giant monster fighting. I didn't really feel that. There were some fun moments and scares, like the time when the kids are on a school bus, waiting for something monstrous to happen, and--bang!--a bird hits the window.

But the human figures are all so bland, the scale of destruction is so boringly big, that there's very little human connection. And it tends to hit all of the beats for this sort of film, with the military doing things their way and eventually--finally!--listening to the scientist who was of course right.

(Of course, I prefer the scientist being right to the 1950s movies where the scientist could be the bad guy and the military was right. The Thing, I'm looking at you.)

Meanwhile, all the nuclear stuff just doesn't feel important these days. I know that's an essential part of the Godzilla mythos, so they couldn't really leave it out. But then why even remake Godzilla?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 279: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Man of Adamant (#279)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Man of Adamant" (1837) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales & Sketches:

A classic sort of Hawthorne tale:

  1. It started from a line or two in his notebook. (His notebooks are full of ideas.)
  2. It features a fiercely and sternly religious person.
  3. There's an elaborate metaphor.
Or maybe not so elaborate: Richard Digby is a hard-hearted man who believes that he's got the true faith, so he leaves society, and finds a cave where the water seems to petrify everything. Oh, also, he's got a medical condition where his heart is hardening. 

So maybe we shouldn't call the metaphor here "elaborate"; it's more like "belabored." How many ways can you connect a guy to "hard" and "stone"? He's petrifying on the outside, while calcifying on the inside. Meanwhile, the petrifying quality of the cave isn't exactly hidden.

From that, you might consider this story a little obvious--and it is, but that's not necessarily a bad point. Back when Hawthorne was writing, this sort of sentimental and obvious tale might be pleasing to people; today, you can read it with a slight wink; and honestly, it's not clear that there wasn't a wink here this whole time.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland vs. The Gernsback Continuum vs. BioShock

It's hard to dislike Tomorrowland and its central message that imagination is a positive good--that thinking that some task is possible is better than thinking that all tasks are impossible.

It's hard to dislike that message and yet...

(Spoilers ahead.)

Getting out of the Gernsback Continuum

William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum" is a story that shadows Tomorrowland as a nightmare to a daydream: both focus on an alternate dimension where the 1950s dream of jetpacks and age-defying shakes is real. They're both rocket- or space-age dreams.

Gibson's genius in "The Gernsback Continuum" is to connect those rocket-dreams of what our future could've been both to the failures of that imagination (just about everyone is white and hetero in 1950s sf) and to the failures of our actual post-rocket time (where our rockets were pointed more at each other than at the moon).

Tomorrowland addresses this a bit, at least in the commercial for it, by presenting a multi-ethnic future; and by presenting our dreams of that Tomorrowland as an antidote to our obsession with our trending slide to dystopia and apocalypse.

But it doesn't all iron out, in the end. (Actually, the ethnic variations of the final recruiting scenes is pretty nicely done to remind us that Tomorrowland needs all kinds of people (even if all the lead actors that make it possible are white).)

The villain is appropriately named Nix, since nixing is the ultimate sin here, whether that's saying no to NASA funding or saying no to trying to change the world. He has one great monologue at the end where he points out that we enjoy apocalypse because it doesn't ask anything of us. (The fake movie billboard for "ToxiCosmos" bears the tagline "Nowhere to go," which lets us off the hook; it's almost like someone read Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster.") If nothing you do can help, than you can go on enjoying your rain forest-destroying burger and your conflict-mineral-related iPads.

(I would argue that the other great benefit of apocalypse is imagining a return to the Real: to that time when we're reduced to pure survival. I mean, in the apocalypse, I wouldn't be blogging and we can all get behind that.)

The heroes respond to this by saying, hey, let's try imagining progress rather than disaster. Which raises all sorts of questions that the movie can't ask: Whose progress? What sort of trade-offs are we willing to go through for this progress?

Let's have a utopia and invite everyone some people!

I also think BioShock might be instructive here (at least if you're interested in why I got some less-than-great vibes from this movie): BioShock is the great video game that showcased the art deco city of Rapture, a place where the elite could withdraw from the world to live out their Ayn Randian fantasy of self-fulfillment.

Which is kind of the end of Tomorrowland: they reopen the future and send out recruiters to find "dreamers." Among the dreamers are engineers, mathematicians, scientists, ballet dancers, street-artists--just a wide variety of people from the arts and sciences. (Notably missing: movie producers. Fuck those guys, am I right?)

And I'll admit, I got a little chill when I saw the last image of everyone, all together, standing up in the corn field and looking out at the city of tomorrow. All those people, all coming from their own particular places, all coming together to make something.

Except... there's like maybe a hundred people there. And that's the remit of Tomorrowland: it's not a place for everyone, but only for a small group who can work unencumbered by laws and social mores. (Hey, isn't Jurassic World about to come out? That's another story about people moving to a place to do something scientific.) Sure, maybe--maybe--the Tomorrowlanders will come back to Earth and share their great scientific advancements. Yeah, that's imaginable.

(What if they came back not as saviors but as technocratic rulers, with disintegration rays and robot armies and--but no, that's the bad imagination speaking.)

This is another aspect of the movie that leaves me wanting more answers; and it connects to the original question: if you limit your society to just the people who pass the test (not the Voight-Kampff, because that would prove empathy and that's not what Tomorrowland is about), then you can maybe all agree on what sort of progress you want.

Or put in question form: is progress compatible with democracy?

(You know who would say no to that? The 1930s Technocracy movement that seems to cast a long shadow over a lot of 1950s sf, where slide-rule-bearing engineers are clearly the right men for the job of making the rules.)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 278: Peggy Hull Deuell, Death of Carrier Described (#278)

Peggy Hull Deuell, "Death of Carrier Described" (1944) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946:

I know this is getting repetitious, but this is another example where I want to hear more about Peggy Hull Deuell: a war correspondent who started off by reporting on Pancho Villa, was rejected as correspondent during World War I because she was a woman, but who continued on.

Compared to her story, the story of the USS Princeton doesn't quite stand up. Or rather: we get to hear the story, both the objective what and the subjective POV of the captain telling the story of the day he lost his ship (with less than 10% loss of human life on his ship), along with Deuell's report on how the captain keeps almost being overwhelmed with emotion.

And what it leaves me with is a wish that she had interviewed everyone on that day, from the Japanese bomber whose single bomb started the fire, to the surgeon who had to amputate the scrap of a guy's leg with a sheath knife, to the guys who were just trying to put out the fire. That is, the death of a carrier sounds like a single event, with a single story; but we're so deeply in the POV of the captain that I can't help wondering what it looks like to everyone, all combined.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 277: Wong Chin Foo, Experience of a Chinese Journalist (#277)

Wong Chin Foo, "Experience of a Chinese Journalist" (1885) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

A short and humorous take, reminiscent of the old joke about Hollywood:
Do you know how to make a million dollars making movies? Start with ten million dollars.
Wong Chin Foo sounds like an interesting guy, a sort of Chinese American Mark Twain, making enemies all around the world. This short piece from Puck doesn't really showcase that directly, though he does talk about how he was denounced by white Americans and Chinese Americans; how he made enemies of gambling den owners; etc. But it's all mixed in with jokes about treasurers walking off with the treasury, which is fun, but doesn't really get to the heart of who this guy is.

Also, the fact that this is from the Writing New York anthology seems extra bizarre, as there's nothing particularly New York-y about it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Taming Taming of the Shrew

This last weekend, I went to see a production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, which I may not have ever seen before in person.

(Also new to me: the hillside theater at Zilker Park, which was very nice, especially with the addition of a little picnic basket.)

This version was set in 1890s Texas (more or less), with all the place names changed. So in the original, where a traveler says his trip will take him
...as far as Rome;
And so to Tripoli, if God lend me life
in this version, the traveler says that he's going to Dallas or Abilene or Fredericksburg. I can't remember which, which shows that that sort of info is easily swapped out. You could place this on a spaceship or in modern day New York and easily replace the place names without changing much about the play.

What you can't replace is the central plot, about Petruchio crushing Katherine's spirit by starving her, disrupting her sleep schedule, dressing her in his clothes, and teasing her with beautiful new clothes that he won't let her have. Or some combination of tactics that may remind you of standard cult activity. (Or standard activity at a military bootcamp, or Gitmo, or... Lots of organizations like to break people's spirit.)

(Well, teasing someone with clothes that they can't have is perhaps a little more specific; but in general, offering/teasing people with some reward is pretty standard.)

There's a lot of argument about the meaning of this plot. Is Shakespeare advocating it? Is he making fun of it? Is it about more than gender?

But however you take it, seeing a man torture a woman into submission is a little offputting.

(I remember going to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the University of Chicago Theater; and I remember the sound of the entire audience catching its breath when we remembered that this play was about a viciously unhappy couple in academia. I felt a similar moment at the theater when Petruchio starts starving his wife.)

Maybe it's just that I recently watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that has me thinking about things this way, but I'm wondering what's a way to play Taming of the Shrew and be smart about this plot? Perhaps you could rewrite it literally as the story of a cult...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 276: James Thurber, Lavender with a Difference (#276)

James Thurber, "Lavender with a Difference" (1951) from James Thurber: Writings & Drawings:

Maybe I oughtn't to call this "non-fiction" exactly. Or maybe I shouldn't call it "comedy": It's James Thurber's recollection of his funny mother and all the pranks she pulled. Well, judging from this piece, this is considerably less than "all" the pranks she pulled.

Mary Agnes (nee Fisher) Thurber was a frustrated actress, kept from the stage by her family's moral sentiments (in Thurber's telling); and that urge towards the dramatic and the outlandish and the fictional expressed itself in her pranks around town: throwing a carton of eggs (sans eggs) at a lady's luncheon; dressing up as an outlandish tycoon to buy a friend's house; cooping up all the neighborhood dogs in the cellar so that her dog-hating sister would face a tidal wave of them when she opened the cellar door, etc.

It's an incredibly warm and funny portrait of someone who wouldn't entirely let the social norms dictate her actions--even if she didn't follow her big dream of becoming an actress. It's a warm picture of the small rebellions of life, with no real trace of bitterness or tragedy.

Note: Yes, this is two week's late. No, I won't date it correctly, but use the scheduler to slip it in where it should've gone.

Monday, May 4, 2015

So I just finished Daredevil...

... and I didn't love it the same way that everyone else seems to. Or at the very least, NPR's Peter Sagal showered love on Daredevil on Twitter, while my nerd friends showered love on it on Facebook. I didn't check Pinterest or Instagram, but I'm sure there's love being showered on it there.

And there are things to love about Daredevil! I mean, I watched 13 episodes of my own free will--and very little of what kept me going was a sense of obligation. (Though there was that too.)

(Slight digression: Why is Drew Goddard credited as "creator"? There must be an agreement or a discussion that makes sense of that credit. Someone please explain that to me.)

Here's some of the things to love:

  • Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of a damaged Wilson Fisk, not yet the in-control Kingpin; 
  • the love of friends between Wesley/Fisk, Foggy/Matt;
  • some of the fight scenes.

And here's some of the things not to love:

  • repetitive and trite women and children in peril storylines; 
  • yet another Batman-ization of a character--the centralization of trauma;
  • most of the fight scenes;
  • so much empty talk.

To expand on trauma's central role in comic book characters: since the beginning of modern superheroes, creators have recognized that it takes a particular sort of person to put on a mask and hit people for justice. And often, that "particularity" takes the form of some trauma: the death of a loved one (Batman, Spiderman), exposure to some dangerous mutagen that might make normal life impossible (Fantastic Four, the Hulk).

Matt Murdoch, the Daredevil, gets a double dose of trauma in his origin story: blinded and granted heightened senses by exposure to some dangerous chemical, he also loses his father to gangsters. And yet, until Frank Miller took him over, Daredevil was something of a light-hearted character. (There was a running joke in the comics about how bad he was at keeping his secret identity, since he kept revealing himself to pretty women.)

And yes, Frank Miller did grim and gritty for Daredevil, which made a lot of sense: a street-level character dealing with police corruption and inner-city violence. (Hell's Kitchen also made a lot more sense back then. These days, every time someone in the tv show talked about how bad Hell's Kitchen was, I had to stop myself from laughing. It's the double-edged sword of Marvel using the real-world as a setting: they get the benefit and disadvantage of instant recognition.)

So the creators of the show could have pointed to Daredevil's history as a reason for either way they wanted to go: cartoony and fun or dark and heavy. No money for guessing what they did.

The problem with that, for me, isn't that I'm fatigued with grim-gritty superheroes. The problem for me is that, about half the time, they did grim-gritty in a predictable and boring way. For instance, in the opening scene Matt Murdoch talks to his priest:
"I'm not seeking penance for what I've done, Father. I'm asking for forgiveness... for what I'm about to do."
Not a bad line, unless you saw it coming from a mile away. And that sense of grimness such suffuses so much of the show, from the acting (so much heavy pauses in the speaking, as if the weight... of what you were saying... was exhausting), to the fight scenes (so many of which were muddily lit, robbing them of any excitement).

I could go on, but I want to end with just one comment on the role of women. Matt Murdoch is motivated, in part, by his father issues. (Get it--he starts the show by talking to a priest because he has father issues. Wah-wah.) Which would be fine change from being motivated by protecting women--except there's no hint of his mom at all. As if Matt sprung fully forth from Jack Murdoch's forehead.

Besides that glaring omission, we could go through the women in the show and their relation to the men, particularly Matt. The tally isn't so great. Sure, Karen Page (secretary) and Claire Temple (nurse) get at least one moment of revenge or beating someone up. (Heck, even Foggy gets one moment of beating someone up.) But most of the time, the women are objects of rescue: Karen, Claire, Vanessa (an object of rescue not for Matt, but for Fisk).

Oh god, and I didn't even get into the 80s-esque racial/crime components, particularly the inscrutable Asian gangs: the honorable Japanese ninjas (which are so Frank Miller), and the secretive Chinese drug-runners.

In short, I didn't hate the show, but it seems to have some really apparent problems and some missed opportunities.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 275: Anna Cora Mowatt, The Morning of the Débût (#275)

Anna Cora Mowatt, "The Morning of the Débût" (1856) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

Meh. Nothing much to say here. Anna Cora Mowatt was a writer and actor, who wrote both a biography and a fictional account of stage-life. This is from the fictional version, but clearly close to some actual experience: a young actress first going on stage in a major role. Rather long, didn't keep my interest.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 274: W. C. Heinz, Death of a Race Horse (#274)

W. C. Heinz, "Death of a Race Horse" (1949) from The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz:

W. C. Heinz writes movingly--and briefly--about a horse with great prospects who breaks his leg on his first run. Heinz gets an effect by keeping things simple and repetitive, so that we hear Air Lift's lineage and family several times: in the title, in the opening, at the end. Air Lift was the full brother of Assault, but that's not going to save him.

Which seems a little odd to me: sure, if he never gets a race, he'll never prove his mettle, but with so much proof of his bloodline, you'd think they might keep him around as breeding stock.

There's very little here about racing and an awful lot about the trappings of the race track and the race industry. When Air Lift is hurt, he's not immediately put down; they've got to get word from his owner about that. And when he is put down, the veterinarians take his broken bones--for insurance purposes.

All in all, it's a strange and alternate view of a sport, a glimpse into a world from an angle not often used.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 273: Arthur Miller, Mare Island and Back (#273)

Arthur Miller, "Mare Island and Back" (1945) published for the first time in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1987–2004, with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s:

I'm excited to see Arthur Miller's radio plays get some attention in the LoA, if only because they are radio plays: a large segment of our cultural heritage that we don't really pay attention to, except for one-off incidents (Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?", Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds") or properties that stretched beyond radio (The Lone Ranger).

That said, I find it odd to read a radio play. Sure, a big reason why we don't remember a lot of radio work is that it was literally ephemeral, floating in on the airwaves at a particular time and place. And, again, sure, the Library of America focuses on books and printed material.

But really, at least some of these radio experiences were recorded and aren't that hard to find. Perhaps it's time that the LoA starts thinking about the multimedia experience of some of its collections.

Because, really, without the radio show, it feels like we're only hearing half the story here.

(And yes, if you couldn't tell, I don't have much to say about this so-so radio play: a doctor deals with three wounded men during the war, two who want to give up, and a third who believes he can fly a plane despite his amputation. Of course, this being Arthur Miller, everyone has a happy ending. OK, so at least I can say that: whether pressured or natively optimistic, Miller's work here doesn't really read like his other plays.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One way of looking at common titles

Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld magazine put together a list of the most common story titles in their submissions. It's an interesting list for that reason alone: even the most popular title ("Dust") shows up only 18 times out of 50k. The tenth most popular titles--of which there are several--show up 8 times each.

But we could also break down the list into other groups, according to structural or semiotic lines. For instance, "The " + noun titles account for 139 of the top stories. Then there's also concrete noun titles, like "Dust" and "Hero"; more abstract nouns, like "Voices" and "Memories." There are clumps of home-related titles ("Going Home", "Home") and clumps of boundary-related titles ("The Wall," "The End"). There are adjectives and nouns and verbs.

Probably these titles are so simple because only a simple title could be so frequently reused. I mean, "Dust" is a title I could probably use for some of my stories. (And as some commenters noted, some great stories have been written with that name.) You're not going to find a lot of stories titled, '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman.'

But I'm especially interested in that "The " + noun form:

The Gift
The Box
The Hunt
The End
The Visit
The Collector
The Wall
The Prisoner
The Machine 
The Tower
The Dark
The Door
The Choice
The Fall

There's that "The" that makes a definite moment out of something wide open. This isn't the story of just any old visit--this is "The Visit." We're not just talking about "A" machine, but "The" machine--the machine that we've heard so much about or that plays such a bit role in our life.

It reminds me of something Ray Bradbury wrote about his own process, which involved lists just like this of nouns that somehow captured his attention. These weren't special, strange nouns, but everyday nouns, like "baby." (That story became "The Small Assassin.")

So what is it about nouns that seems to inspire some writers?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 272: Elizabeth Keckly, Lincoln’s Assassination (#272)

Elizabeth Keckly, "Lincoln’s Assassination" (1868) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another record of Lincoln's assassination, this time from freed slave and dressmaker to Washington, Elizabeth Keckly. (The LoA note on this says that she was born a slave, married a free man of color, bought her and her child's freedom, and eventually separated from her husband--which is all sorts of interesting, but not anywhere in this story.)

The end is what you'd expect it to be: Lincoln shot and people astounded and grief-stricken. What's more interesting to me is the beginning, which records Lincoln alive: rehearsing for a speech, talking about his beloved pet goats, using the goats as lead-in for a discussion of political/social issues.

But again, all Lincoln stories end up with the tragedy of his death. And I wonder what the cult of Lincoln would be like without that martyrdom. Mind you, I'm fully in the cult myself: his intelligence, humanity, grace, humor, kindness, firmness--all of it combines to make him a fascinating figure for study and emulation. But again: would he have become a fat Elvis joke or a terrible reactionary or would he have gone on and retained his aura of greatness?

Monday, April 6, 2015

Death rattles can still be annoying when you're trying to concentrate

This weekend saw the convergence of three totally unrelated events that I will relate through the magic of words. Also known as "lying."

In the first episode of Wolf Hall, Lord Norfolk (I think) yells at Cromwell about how France belongs to England; and he's willing to go to war to get what rightfully belongs to them.

In the Passover story, we remember how we were slaves, but now we're free to get drunk--and also how we can never be truly happy when remembering the death of our enemies.

In the science fiction community, the nominee slate for the Hugo Awards was announced; this year, the nominees largely--almost wholly--belong to a slate that was put forward for political purposes by some right-wing Americans.

What ties them all together? Well, in this scenario, the organizers of the right-wing voting block clearly see their position much like Norfolk sees his in Wolf Hall: science fiction belongs to us and we'll go to war to make sure that people recognize our right.

I believe more in the Passover story. (And also in history: Norfolk never conquered France, though he made a good show of it.) That is, we have a long way to go; and the rise of equality isn't a straight-line; but I really do believe that the arc of history is towards something like justice. Maybe we weren't anything as dramatic as slaves in our lifetimes; maybe we were just exploited labor; maybe we had our loving relationships overlooked and violated by state power; maybe we were considered the objects and minor characters in other people's stories; maybe we were told we couldn't do or be something because of who we were. But however bad things were (and are), it seems like things are getting better for justice and tolerance and fairness.

So when I see something like a right-wing movement attempting to "take back" the Hugo Awards, it doesn't seem like the spear's tip of a coming wave of bigotry and idiocy. (And, sorry not sorry, folks, but the argument that runs "this art is too political, let's read stories where there are no politics" is a pre-Copernican level of idiocy: it's idiocy all the way down.) This sweep seems like the death rattle of a movement that has really lost both the war and any understanding of what they were fighting for. (Uh, the Hugo Awards? That's your big goal this year?)

But still, a death rattle can still be annoying. For instance, right now, I'm sure there are good works that would've been nominated, but that got pushed off because of this political bloc voting. I'm so looking forward to the day after the awards ceremony, when that information becomes available.

Here again, Passover comes to my rescue: at the end of the seder, we recall we are free, but that we have more work to do when we say, "Next year in Jerusalem." So:

Next year, may we have good works on the awards lists, good works that have won by merit.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 271: Edith Wharton, The Fulness of Life (#271)

Edith Wharton, "The Fulness of Life" (1893) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910:

I doubted Edith Wharton for a long time in this story: a woman in an unhappy marriage dies, enters a spiritual realm, and meets the man who is her soulmate. That takes up about 2/3rds of the story, the part where I seriously doubted.

The writing here felt somewhat overheated and there was a lot of nothing going on in this section: a rather boring and confusing set-up of her death, a long description of how this woman felt seeing an old church, the "finishing the other's sentence" part of the soulmate meeting. And all seemingly in service of an off-putting message about finding the person who can fit you exactly.

(Don't take me wrong: finding someone who can finish your sentences is fantastic. But I'd hate for people to wait around to find someone who can finish all your sentences. Even worse, the person who knows and loves everything you know and love cannot teach you anything.)

But then Wharton pulls the rug out from under us: yes, this young, unhappy wife has found her soulmate, but... it wouldn't really be right to leave her husband alone and it wouldn't really be home without the little annoying things her well-meaning husband did. Which turns the story from a romantic fantasy about finding the one (after death) to something much weirder. Something worth a paper or a late-night talk with friends.

Like: Is she merely used to her vexing position? Is she somehow addicted or emotionally profiting from it? Or is it just a selfless act from a generous person to help another?

Monday, March 30, 2015

SXSW Interactive: I wouldn't pay for it

As with many topics where I thought I had a lot to say, it turns out I can sum up my feelings about SXSW pretty easily:

I wouldn't pay for it.

A badge gets you in to all the panels and the parties. (Not the films or the music events.)

Except a badge doesn't really guarantee entry to any panel because there are so many people. I got shut out of at least one panel every day because the room was at capacity; I could have arrived earlier--for some of those panels, people start lining up a half-hour to hour-plus beforehand--but that would mean missing out on the previous panel I wanted to see. In other words: You can't see all the things you want to see.

But that's not so bad because (a) you can always go to your second choice panel--assuming that isn't full up too and (b) there are plenty of interesting people to meet outside of the panels. Some of the best conversations I had were with random people I happened to be standing next to on line. That's how I met a guy working on IBM's Chef Watson project and a guy working in interactive film and a guy working for Google Play out of New York.

Then again, I also met a lot of recruiters and PR people and marketing people. And don't get me wrong, I had some really nice chats with them. But it made SXSW feel less like a playground and more like a networking/work event. I wanted to hear about exciting new things coming out of DARPA (I was shut out of that panel), but instead I heard about why I should move my company to Scotland. (There were a lot of booths and parties for national and city governments.)

Ultimately, I had a fine time, met a lot of nice people, but almost all my favorite things happened outside of--as a byproduct of--SXSW events. Maybe it's different when you've got an exciting new company or some capital in search of an exciting new company, but overall, I didn't get a good feeling from the event, which was so overpopulated (and too spread out over the city).

I'm not sure there's anything to do at this point; SXSW is so big that people will keep coming to it and spending money on it (and giving panels that are thinly veiled promos for their companies), all of which will keep even more people coming. But that also means there's room here for really cool anti-SXSW festival, a smaller convention really dedicated to the future of technology.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 270: Sallie Brock, The Fall of Richmond (#270)

Sallie Brock, "The Fall of Richmond" (1867) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another Civil War memorial, this time from a Southern women who witnessed the fall of Richmond. Which is one of those funny "falls" where the main damage was done by the departing Confederate army and panicked Southerners before the Union army attempted to stop the fires.

And yet Sallie Brock still describes the “Stars and Stripes” as "the ensign of our subjugation." I can't say I'm very sympathetic to Brock after that and some disparaging remarks on blacks and the Union army as "representing almost every nation on the continent of Europe."

The best part of this week's story then is LoA headnote with the unfortunately worded sentence about Brock and her husband's later life:
The couple lived and died in Brooklyn for over two decades, but both were buried in Richmond.
They died for over two decades? Like, over and over? Or is that a philosophical statement about how life is really death? Whoa, man, that's like deep.

Monday, March 23, 2015

"Like butter scraped over too much bread": Some rambly thoughts on feeling over-extended

I'm not the busiest person in the world and I don't take my privileges for granted, so maybe I should list all the ways I could be more over-extended: no kids, only one job, relatively healthy, etc.

While it's useful to remember--and have gratitude--for all these benefits, it's also fair to admit that I still feel over-extended.

Which isn't a complaint by itself, since many of the reasons I feel over-extended are voluntary and fun. When I'm rushing from work on Tuesday to make it to improv at the Hideout, I'm not thinking, "oh man, here's another thing I gotta do." Instead, I think, "oh boy, I get to improvise tonight and see my improv friends!" It's all good.

Not so fast there, buddy: did you notice that, even when I'm going to something I want to do, I'm still "rushing"?

And, of course, you can get that feeling of rushing even when you're sitting still, but feeling torn between moving towards one goal/activity and another.

That rushing, it's a bit like having lots of tabs open on your browser at once for me. Or it's a bit like trying to listen to two conversations at a party at once. It's a bit like--well, here I am again, rushing around to find more metaphors or analogies, instead of just sitting still with one.

Which has always been my problem, a mix of FOMO and curiosity: in school, I was interested in everything--which manifested itself in distraction and lack of discipline. (Writing papers, my favorite part was the footnotes where I could go off on tangents and make interesting observations, which were allowed to be tangential to the main thesis of the paper.)

In later life, well, it's still distraction and lack of discipline, only the tangents that used to be full of joy have begun to feel like burdens: I'd like to sit still and finish this story--but I've gotta go finish taking that course on Machine Learning. I'd like to finish that Machine Learning course, but I've got improv. I"ve got game night. I've got a study group to learn the language Go. I have a bunch of books from the library to read. I've got exercise. I've got food shopping. I've got SXSW. (And more on that soon.)

See what I mean about everything I'm doing being fun and voluntary. Only it doesn't always feel voluntary. And it sometimes feels like I'm getting less done by being so busy.

That, to me, is the too little butter/too much bread paradigm: things that should be fun turn out to feel attenuated, pale, thinned down in positive feeling. It's that sick feeling you get when you binge-watch a show beyond the point of fun, which is like the same feeling but from the opposite side.

I hate to state the obvious (note: untrue--I love to state the obvious), but fun things should be fun. Sometimes you gotta sit with them for a while and not be distracted; or sometimes you gotta standup and walk over to the next thing to do. But walk--don't rush.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 269: Stephen Crane, His New Mittens (#269)

Stephen Crane, "His New Mittens" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Not much happens here, plot-wise: a boy with new mittens is tempted to join in a snowball fight--and then he does, against the admonition of his mother; his mother punishes him, which results in him running away into a snowstorm--until he goes to the butcher, who brings him back home. Not really all that much. Perhaps if you've seen the movie Boyhood (I haven't), you could make the connection: a young boy and nothing really happening.

But rather than place us in the boy's head, and giving us the grand melodrama as the boy feels it, Crane gives us a close third with more omniscience and coolness than we might think appropriate. Crane's not exactly holding up Horace as a figure of humor. In fact, according to the LoA headnote, there's some reason to think that Crane--loner, exile, sufferer--saw himself in Horace, the picked-on kid. Yet we never really entirely inhabit Horace's POV and there is some grim humor at Horace's expense. When the little kid decides to run away and then reconsiders--why not start in the morning, after the storm?--there's a glimpse of the tiny self-important hypocrites that children can be.

So a blank plot allows Crane the chance to play some interesting game with tone and POV here, positioning the hero of the ordinary as ... actually very ordinary. Horace--loner, exile, sufferer--isn't so much a vision of Crane as he is a vision of all of us at some point.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 268: Moss Hart, Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow (#268)

Moss Hart, "Franklin D. Roosevelt Inaugurated Tomorrow": A sketch from As Thousands Cheer (1933) from American Musicals: The Complete Books and Lyrics of 16 Broadway Classics 1927–1969:

Usually I post LoA analyses on Sunday, but for very good reasons (SXSW), I didn't get to read this until today. I will soon post more about SXSW, but for now, I leave you in the capable hands of Moss Hart, playwright and guy with funny name.

And when I say I'm leaving you in his hands, I mean it. This week's selection is five quick pages of silliness, so you might as well go read it: on the eve of the Roosevelt inauguration, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover fight and make jokes about themselves. It's early Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And like the Daily Show at times, some of the jokes are so broad that it feels like Hart could've written "pause for laughter" pretty confidently. I mean, this exchange was sure to get a laugh after Mrs. Hoover is caught trying to steal a portrait of President Washington:
Mrs. hoover: All right, I’ll put it back. We’ll just go back to Palo Alto with nothing at all to show for your having been President of the United States.
Mr. hoover: Nobody else in the country has got anything to show for it either.
Maybe that exchange would only get a cold rueful laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.

Also, how funny to imagine the primary blockbusters on Broadway as sketch revues, with singing and dancing. Maybe it's time to bring that back? A revue of YouTube stars might not be the worst way to lose money on Broadway.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Robocop, How I Would Write It

The Brilliant Very Good Original

Robocop is not my favorite Verhoeven film, but it's a film I like a lot: you can watch it naively as a simple tale of man vs. machine, of the corrupting influence of capitalism, of--Wait, did I say that was the naive way to watch it? Let's start over.

Here's a classic, simple tale: a man falls into some pit, but then crawls his way back up. We cheer. That pit takes many forms, whether it's an internal character flaw (like greed or anger) or an external situation (like... a pit).

At its most basic, Verhoeven's Robocop is a pit story: a man falls into a pit--cop Murphy gets shot up and then re-made as a cyborg without a name, a cog in a corporate machine who can't even do his job (arrest criminals) because of corporate corruption; but by the end, that cyborg cop (OK, fine: robocop) crawls his way out of the pit, reclaiming his name and his humanity.

(Also, getting his vengeance, the classic American story of regeneration through revenge.)

(Also also: his revenge is entirely mediated by the corporate structure since he only takes revenge on the corporate criminal when that guy gets fired by someone even higher up on the corporate food-chain. But for a moment, pretend this paragraph doesn't exist.)

So, it's a fine story at the man-vs-pit level.

On top of that, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner build a story about unrestrained capitalism, which reaches its apotheosis in the owning of people, either in the form of addiction (the drug trade is the highest form of consumerism here) or in the literal owning of people's bodies (as with Murphy being property).

And then, on top of that, Verhoeven adds (or embraces) a certain tone of louche skepticism. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "louche skepticism," but I like it as a phrase. No, I do know what I mean: as friend Jason points out in his blog post, Verhoeven makes everything so gloriously over-the-top that it's hard to miss the satire here.

(Then again, when Starship Troopers came out, I said the same thing--and lots of people missed it.)

But really, when a drug-dealer comments on how drug-dealing is the highest form of capitalism, there's not a lot of subtext going on there. At that point, it's just text.

The Rather Hollow Remake

I just finished the remake and... I'm not really sure I could tell you what it's about. There's Alex Murphy, who, again, is a good cop turned into a product. There's the big corporation that makes robots/drones for war overseas and wants to start using them here. There's the blow-hard TV personality with a definite bias. There's the doctor with the heart of gold. There's the widow/wife and the partner of Alex-cum-RoboCop. There's some of the same goddamn lines, like "Dead or alive, you're coming with me."

And about that particular line: goddamn it, people, in the original that line was a way to show that RoboCop retained some of Murphy's personality, which was a little cowboyish (That line and the gun-twirling are both used as proof that RoboCop was Murphy; and as proof that Murphy is an old-style American, a no-nonsense frontier-tamer. That description comes with a big old wink by Verhoeven.) In the 2014 version, that line is repurposed--Murphy is now describing himself as "Dead or alive" as opposed to describing the criminal--which is cute, but has no real purpose other than to remind the audience that this is a reboot. It doesn't add up to anything.

That's the big problem with the remake: it's flashier than the original, but there's a certain sense of hollowness here.

Fix It, Felix Ben!

RoboCop in 1987 was science fiction satire, with deadly robots and private cops and corporate crime. In 2014, we call that reality.

So why remake RoboCop? How can the general frame of this story--man vs. corporate machine that he's become--help tell a good story, illuminate our moment, and, oh yeah, make a killing at the box office?

(RoboCop 2014 was made for 100-130$ and made 240$, which is respectable, around 200% return. RoboCop 1987 was made for 13$ and made 54$--a 400% return. Which would you rather have?)

First, screw all that ridiculousness about the political opponents of the robots having power. It generates some motivation for the corporation to use RoboCop as a mascot, but it waters down the real conflict. Ditto the media issue with Samuel L. Jackson's TV blowhard: it's not that interesting because it doesn't tell us anything we don't know about the world or take the story anywhere new.

Second, corrupt cops are boring; a broken policing system is interesting. (Did we learn nothing from The Wire?)

Third, what's interesting about this story to you (screenwriter, director, producer)? Verhoeven's RobcCop is clearly Verhoeven's work: the story may be pretty ordinary man-and-his-pit core, but there's all of Verhoeven's usual issues on top of it.

RoboCop 2014 could almost be the work of anyone because there's nothing that really distinguishes it; it's a little bloodless. If you're going to remake a movie, make it something you're interested in.

(Hollow, bloodless--thanks, filmmakers, for making a movie where the central metaphor maps perfectly onto the critique of the film.)

My RoboCop

I'm not going to write a reboot of RoboCop 1987 (and this post is already way too long), but here's some things I would want to think about going in to write or pitch on this project:

  1. corporations and patent-trolling; 
  2. intellectual property; 
  3. race-class inequality in policing; 
  4. drones and the psychological cost of distant war; 
  5. augmented reality and tech popularity; 
  6. corporate-political cooperation; 
  7. neverending war.

There's a couple different ways to go with this constellation of issues. (And you might disagree that these are, in fact, the useful issues to be discussing; in which case, please tell me about your version of RoboCop.) But at its heart, RoboCop is a man-vs-pit story, where that pit tends to be marked as corporate capitalist organizations, like drug cartels and corporations. It's about a man regaining a sense of self through fighting a conspiracy. It's an underdog story (with a massively armed and armored underdog).

So here's one version: I call it, A Boy and his RoboCop.

The military-industrial complex keeps pumping out drones for war overseas; and then needing to dump the older models so they can keep pumping out newer versions. As in our world, this ex-military gear finds its way into the hands of the police forces--and maybe the criminals. (Though as we've seen, arming the police is pretty terrifying all by itself.) A damaged police drone starts acting erratically, going AWOL to discover its original home, now occupied by a small homeless child who might or might not be the child of the drone's original brain. Ah, because (dun dun dun) these drones are built around dead veterans. Something something apathetic cop, good cop, damaged cop.

(Note: this wouldn't work as a RoboCop pitch since, going into RoboCop, the audience knows that he's man and machine. So we couldn't have that "human brain in a jar" as a revelation. Still, I'd rather watch this movie than the one I did watch.)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 267: Herman Melville, The Lightning-Rod Man (#267)

Herman Melville, "The Lightning-Rod Man" (1819–1891) from Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose:

I haven't read Moby Dick in years, so take that into account when I say that The Confidence-Man is my favorite novel of Melville's--largely because it's such a mess as a novel. Take all the things you usually find in a novel: a plot that runs for hundreds of pages; characters that continue or at least reappear; maybe a theme or two. Confidence-Man pretty much ditches the first two and leans hard on the third, but not in any way where you can say, as if writing a paper, "Melville shows us that..." Because what does he show us? There's something about faith and trust and confidence and how people relate to each other (along with a whole host of characters that are stand-ins for 19th-century contemporaries of Melville).

"The Lightning-Rod Man" is a lot like that; and as the LoA headnote says, there's a lot of different readings of this sort of ambiguous sketch. The plot, as such, involves a lightning-rod salesman coming to the narrator's house and making what we would consider a hard pitch for a sale, before the two get into a fight. The characters, as such, are both a little odd, as if they might be stand-ins themselves: the narrator is humorous, but a little cracked; the lightning-rod salesman is either pious or devilish. The theme or themes circle around piety, science, punishment, obedience.

And I don't have anything really cute or clever to say to wrap it up. Which is maybe why I like these stories and novels of Melville's that seem a little off. In a letter to Hawthorne, he noted that he couldn't really write what the market demanded, but he tried, and so "all my books are botches." He's talking about a different mechanism there, but I still tend to think of some of these stories as botches, both because they're a weird hash of stuff; and because they tend to revolve around people involved in botches of their own.

For more on this, I would recommend his stories "The Happy Failure" (crazy uncle has new invention to dry up swampland, which doesn't work, leaving him--remarkably happy) and "I and My Chimney" (no one respects character's relationship with his chimney, but he persists--all alone except for his chimney).

Monday, March 2, 2015

Expansion, Contraction, Expansion; Or, Keep Breathing; Or, Learn to Say No

Last Saturday, after doing some mind work (Machine Learning is hard, yo), I decided to go through all my physical books and make note of which ones survived the big move from San Angelo to Austin. 

My book collection had already been significantly reduced before this move to Austin. The 2011 move from Chicago to San Angelo included me selling books to used book stores, giving books to friends, and then finally donating a dozen or more shopping bags full of books to a literacy non-profit. More recently, while I was taking the course at MakerSquare, I brought several shopping bags full of books to Austin to sell at Half-Price Books, where I received something closer to one-twentieth their price.

(Also, do you notice that my preferred unit of book measuring is the shopping bag? I'd like to say it's a metaphor for books-as-food, necessary and nutritious, but it's just a lot easier to get shopping bags than boxes.)

And most recently, I cleared out all my books from San Angelo; true to form, this move included dropping off at least six shopping bags full of books to the library. This latest batch of giveaways included a lot of my critical theory--adieu, Adorno! Hasta luego, Lukacs!--and a lot of books I've collected that I wasn't sure I was going to read any time soon.

(This stack of books going back to the library for their book sale included--naturally--several books I picked up at the library book sale years ago.)

While I was in San Angelo, I started using LibraryThing to help catalogue my books, mostly to prevent me from accidentally buying something I already owned. Unfortunately, LibraryThing has doubled and tripled some of my entries, making my count less than precise; but I can now say, roughly speaking, that out of 460 physical books that I had in San Angelo, half survived this most recent contraction.

Naturally, I have thoughts about this. My first thought, while cataloguing my current books:

I probably could have gotten rid of more.

Which is probably shocking to hear for many people who know what I bibliophile--or bibliomaniac--I am. I've always had walls of shelves of books, from my childhood room to my dorm room to my apartments. I used to have Erasmus's quote up, the one about buying books when he had money, and then buying food if he had any left over. All my childhood allowance went towards books of one sort of another.

Yet, I don't feel terrible about getting rid of these books. I wish I could've had the time to read some of them and to find them interesting homes--or at least found them hands to reside in temporarily. (Maybe books, like money, are only really useful when they circulate.)

Saying that I don't feel terrible about getting rid of those books is a long way from saying it was easy to let go of them. A lot of it was hard in the way that self-reflection can be hard--in the way that self-acceptance can be hard. 

Giving away all of my critical theory books was perhaps the most concrete way I could admit to myself that I'm not going back to grad school to finish my degree. Letting go of all 19th-century literature books, with all my careful notes, was a way of letting go part of that old dream of teaching. (Did I ever show you the page at the back of Henry James's The Bostonians where I catalogued every use of the word "press" and words that included it? Since it's a book about impression, repression, oppression, and expression, it's a pretty long catalog.)

But like going to the gym, getting rid of half my library was both hard in the moment and still felt like the right thing to do after.

Or put another way: Letting go of those books that I might have read at some point gives me the mental space to focus on the books in front of me. The "books" in that sentence might be a metaphor. 

Because I've always been interested in a lot of things; I've always had trouble saying "no" to new things; and I've never been all that good about cutting ties and saying goodbye to things that I'm not really interested/involved in any more. So it's not surprising that I would end up with so many books that I needed a system to avoid re-buying the same books. And it's not surprising that I would end up with an Osprey book on British uniforms in World War I, alongside a book on Norwegian folk tales, next to my copy of Barthes S/Z, near...

Wait a minute, am I confessing or bragging? A little bit of both. I mean, it's nice to have lots of interests and be well-rounded, blah blah blah. But it's also good--at least, it feels good for me right now--to be able to let go of some things and be able to focus on the other things.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying y'all should throw out your books and not buy any new ones. (I am saying support your local library, though.) And I'm not saying that I'm not buying any new books now. Maybe some day I will have built-in shelves and I will dedicate myself to rebuilding all my library. After all, this contraction may be just a phase...

But I can't help seeing it like a form of breath exercise. Maybe books and money, are both like air: useful when circulating, useful when taken in, useful when pushed out. Which reminds me of a text conversation I had with a friend once:

Right: in, out, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 266: Elizabeth Hardwick, Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness (#266)

Elizabeth Hardwick, "Selma, Alabama: The Charms of Goodness" (1965) from Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism 1941–1973:

As the LoA headnote puts it, "Kentucky native and New York Review of Books cofounder Elizabeth Hardwick" participated in the third march on Selma, which I love--not the march, but the description--because you can see them trying hard to capture some essence of her, her very literate style, her politics, and her POV.

And there is something interesting to all three of those areas: her writing style has a sort of baroque thousand-yard stare--
How do they see themselves, we wonder, these posse-men, Sheriff Clark’s volunteers, with their guns and sticks and helmets, nearly always squat, fair-faced, middle-aged delinquents and psychopaths?
--while her politics are exhausted--
The intellectual life in New York and the radical life of the Thirties are the worst possible preparation for Alabama at this stage of the Civil Rights movement.
--and her POV gets to mix disgust with annoyance at the downright cliche nature of it all--
Just as they use the Confederate flag, so they use themselves in the old pageantry. The tableau (it might have been thought up decades ago by one of the Hollywood Ten): the early morning fog is lifting and a little band of demonstrators stand at their post at the end of the dusty street.
All of which gives this piece an odd feeling for me: less out-and-out anger and more rage-fatigue. (Hey, I guess rage-fatigue predates the internet. Thanks for the discovery, LoA!)

Yet, though there's something kind of annoying about this writer parachuting in--for all that she is form Kentucky, whatever that means to the LoA headnote writer--there's also something sincerely angry and hopeful and pointed and beautiful here. For once, Hardwick says, the cliches seem to be working towards freedom. It's not radical people who are leading this change, but clean-cut, everyday folks--this is what revolution looks like: just good people, in glasses, and reasonable shoes. You'd need reasonable shoes for a march.

Monday, February 23, 2015

#tbt photos--and feelings

For the past, oh, two weeks, I've been putting up a photo on Thursday, tagged with #tbt. Which, for my parents and future anthropologists, stands for "throw back Thursday," when people post some old thing, usually (only?) a photo. (Coincidentally, I've been putting up photos for precisely as long as I've had my photo albums here with me in Austin.)

And... I don't know if I'll continue. I can't speak for everyone who does this. There's something joyous and reflective about posting old photos of ourselves and of our lives. But there's something not entirely satisfying about the nostalgia trip that these photos set up. I mean, what's the upshot of posting these photos to social sites, like Facebook? (And there's no non-social site #tbt. No one is holding #tbt parties in real life or even just breaking that old album out.)

This isn't me asking a question I have an answer to. I'm genuinely curious: what's the upshot of this sort of nostalgia? What's the benefit of sharing these old photos?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 265: Virgil Thomson, Taste in Music (#265)

Virgil Thomson, "Taste in Music" (1945) from Virgil Thomson: Music Chronicles 1940–1954:

Thomson was (I'm told by the LoA page) a composer and somewhat controversial music critic at the New York Herald Tribune.

This short (4-page) piece gives a taste of his writing style, which is heady--by which I mean, he sure does love to load up on clauses. There's a point to that, I think: it slows the reading down and makes one take time to absorb. The other way he does that is by some tiny differences that he draws attention to: the difference between a taste for and a taste in music; or how life need freedom of thought and responsibility of action (or something like that), but how intelligent criticism and consumption needs freedom of action and responsibility of thought.

For a dash of Thomson, try this, one of my favorite lines
You can always sell to the world of learning acquaintance with that which it does not know.
If that feels fussy--or fuzzy--to you, congrats! You've got some taste of Virgil Thomson. He says some interesting things about the difference between liking and admiration; and between professionals and laypeople. But... this seems of interest to people interested in the history of criticism, not to many other people.

(Also, I'll note that his comment about the "world of learning" is both true and false: people who are paid for knowing things (professors, computer programmers) may be very interested in knowing more things; but very often, they need to have some connection between the new knowledge and the old knowledge.)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ethno-autobio-historico-social-music: the last mixtape, Jason Kohn's Brazil

Well, again, this mixtape is unnamed, so I could give it a name based on the cover that Jason made:

Or maybe I could name it after the music in it. After all "Chimp sex" doesn't really let you know what you're in for, but "Brazil" does capture some of this mixtape's strong Brazilian tilt.

Side A:

  1. Gal Costa e Caetano Veloso - Baby
  2. Flaming Lips - The Spark That Bled
  3. Gilberto Gil - Aquele Abraco
  4. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Raining in Darling
  5. Jim O'Rourke - Women of the World
  6. Jorge Ben Jor - Por Causa de Voce
  7. Jorge Ben Jor - Choue Chuva 
  8. Jorge Ben Jor - Mas Que Nada
  9. Outkast - Rosa Parks
  10. Palace Music - New Partner
  11. Os Mutantes - Adeus Maria Fulo
  12. Arto Lindsay - Simply Are
  13. Otto - Bob
  14. Archers of Loaf - Assassination on X-Mas Eve

Side B:

  1. Commercial - Untitled
  2. hollAnd - Turpentine
  3. Tom Ze - Gene (UI remix)
  4. Dirty Three - I Remember a Time When Once You Used to Love Me
  5. Brian Eno - Golden House
  6. Kraftwerk - Pocket Calculator
  7. Sam Prekop - So Shy
  8. Jorge Ben Jor - Take It Easy My Brother Charles
  9. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I See a Darkness
  10. Modest Mouse - Sleepwalking
  11. The Roots - You Got Me
  12. Brokeback - The Great Banks

Oh man, I just remembered that I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival in 2006 and saw Os Mutantes live. Or at least, I think I did. I'm reading the 2006 lineup and there are so many good bands on the list--Futureheads, Aesop Rock, Ted Leo, Art Brut, The National, Jens Lekman, Spoon, etc. I can't possibly have seen them all. Can I?

(I could just enjoy the mystery and unknowability, but who do you think I am, the Serial podcast? If you want to know all about my Pitchfork experience in 2006, I wrote up a report on my old blog.)

This is the last mixtape from my car; and, just like the first mixtape, there are some songs here that are carved into my skin, Kafka's "Penal Colony"-style, and some that never got in me, Kafka's "Before the Law"-style. Enough with the Kafka, already, let's talk about Modest Mouse and Kraftwerk and Archers of Loaf and Os Mutantes and the Flaming Lips and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben Jor...

Maybe we should talk about Jorge Ben Jor since he's most represented on this tape and I don't really remember his stuff. Though now, thanks to the magic of the internet, you can find songs like "Take It Easy My Brother Charles."

And it's still good. I haven't listened to these tapes in a long time; even before I sold my car, its tape deck wasn't consistently working. (And when was the last time you heard someone say "tape deck"?) And somewhere along the way, I guess I started listening to more books on tape and podcasts. But, guys, music can be really good. That's a dumb conclusion--vague and impersonal--to a very long, specific, and quasi-personal trip through my mixtapes, but that's what I got.

That and: I miss mixtapes.

Or how about this as a thought: Before the internet made us all curators--and apologies to my friends who are actually curators!--the mixtape was the primary form of curation. Before the internet made it easy to reach out your hand (or your, ahem, Napster) and for all the music you wanted to come to you, getting music like this was a more personal or at least more physical act. Sure, it was harder back then, but there's still something very ineternety about the mixtape.