Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Speaking of Ulysses...

Well, speak of the devil! Did any of the rest of you see the article from NewScientist about how Ulysses is to be "taken off life support"? (And by Ulysses, I mean the solar probe they launched in 1992 to explore the sun's poles, of course.)

I'm sure Tennyson would agree with me that "Death closes all; but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done, / Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods."

(I know this really doesn't have anything to do with literature, so in an effort to tie up the loose ends, I'll quote Byron when I say that it is "'A strange coincidence,' to use a phrase, / By which such things are settled nowadays." (Don Juan, Canto VI.))

A Dose of Culture: Alfred, Lord, Tennyson

"It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

--"Ulysses"

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged

Huzzah! I've finally found videos of The Reduced Shakespeare Company's The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: Abridged on youtube! One more thing I (and you) can watch at work when I'm (you're) bored.

(For those of you who don't know, The Complete Works of Shakespeare: Abridged is a three-man performance of all of the plays of the Bard. Probably my favorites are Titus Andronicus as a cooking show and Othello as a rap... although Hamlet is funny, too.)

You're welcome.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The False Promises of The Internet

Here's an official message from Blogspot (via me to you):

"Scheduled posting is currently unreliable for some users. We're looking into this and will post and update when we have more to share."

I blame any issues with my blog on this. (Basically all it means is that any day I'm not at work or the library, there will be no posts on Not-So-Gentle Reader, no matter how far ahead I plan.)

Thank you for your patience.

A Dose of Culture: T.S. Eliot

"And indeed there will be time
To wonder, 'Do I dare?' and, 'Do I dare?'
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!']
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!']
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

"For I have known them all already, known them all:—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?"

--"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

When Does "Borrowing" Become "Stealing"?

pas*tiche (according to the ever-reliable wikipedia): a literary technique employing a generally light-hearted tongue-in-cheek imitation of another's style; although jocular, it is usually respectful.

I am of two minds on this subject. While, as you know, I object to J.K. Rowling suing a fan who dared to write a lexicon about her world, I also object to Fredrik Colting writing a book called 60 Years Later, based on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. (I'm assuming everyone knows what I'm talking about, but if you don't, check out the New York Times article about the lawsuit Salinger filed against Colting.)

In my mind (and not in the law, by the way), there are two different aspects of this issue to take into consideration: (1) Whether the author of the novel is alive, regardless of who holds the rights to that author's work; and (2) The nature of the "borrowing." For example, the great "J.K. Rowling vs. Raging Fan" debate irritated me because the Harry Potter Lexicon is clearly a tribute to Rowling. The very nature of the book prohibits degrading Rowling's work at all, because it is written by fans for fans. Vander Ark was not writing a book about Harry Potter's children or the relationship between Hermione and Ron. Instead, he was writing about what happened in the Harry Potter series. 60 Years Later, however, is a horse of a slightly shady color: instead of honoring Salinger (although it could be argued to be a tribute, I suppose), Colting was simply trying to ride Salinger's coattails to success, which I absolutely cannot condone.

Of course, others might see it differently. Cathy Young of Real Clear Politics, writes:

"Borrowing is an essential part of the creation of culture. If we eliminated all derivative works, we would lose, among other things, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (based on a story by an Italian writer), and Jean Rhys's acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the story of Mr. Rochester's mad wife from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Of course, classics have also inspired mediocre sequels or reimaginings, such as third-rate novels that continue the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. But that's for readers to decide."
The difference, in my mind, is this: Salernitano, the Italian writer whose work Shakespeare "borrowed" (through various other editions and translations), wrote his Novellino in 1476--a good century before Shakespeare even conceived of writing Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, Charlotte Bronte was not around to be irritated by the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, and while Jane Austen may be rolling in her grave due to the various rip-offs of her work, she's dead and doesn't get a vote. J.D. Salinger, however, does get a vote--and a successful case in the U.S. justice system, unfortunately for the author of 60 Years Later.
Maybe next time, Mr. Colting, you'll pick your victim more wisely. If I were you, I'd go for Hemingway--The Old Man and the Nursing Home.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Dose of Culture: Dante Alighieri

Welcome to what I hope will become an almost-daily feature, "A Dose of Culture." Really, I'm just trying to prove to myself I haven't "lost it," as it were.

"[...] By that hidden way
My guide and I did enter, to return
To the fair world: and heedless of repose
We climb’d, he first, I following his steps,
Till on our view the beautiful lights of Heaven
Dawn’d through a circular opening in the cave:
Thence issuing we again beheld the stars."

--The Inferno, Canto XXXIV

Review: Home by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson's Home accompanies her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. I suppose that some would say term it a sequel, but it is, in fact, the same story told from a different character's point of view. While Gilead follows Rev. John Ames, Home is told from the point of view of Glory Boughton, the daughter of Ames' best friend.

The most interesting character in the novel is, by far, "Jack" Boughton, Glory's brother. Jack is the typical prodigal son, the best-loved of his father's children. Jack struggles under this distinction, however, feeling it is both undeserved and unwanted, and he cannot live up to the expectations that accompany such a position in the family.

What stands out the most for me about Home is the theme of failure. Gilead was bittersweet in that the most valuable things in Ames' life (his wife and son) came too late for him to enjoy as a young man. Still, Ames seemed to have nothing to regret as he had always done what was right, leading some to term him in Gilead as unrealistically perfect. All of the characters in Home, however, struggle with their individual failures and disappointments--Jack's unsavory past, it is revealed led him to lose his wife and child, Glory's fiance turned out to be a fraud who had been using her for money, and their father knows that he has failed to save Jack, both in a spiritual and a material sense.

There is, of course, an ambiguous ending that leaves the possibility of future happiness open, but the theme of sorrow and loss is emphasized by Glory's reflection on her dreams and willingness to sacrifice them for others. There is something beautiful in her commitment to her family, but it is a kind of haunting beauty that ultimately left me saddened.

I would highly recommend this book and it may actually be, in my opinion, better than Gilead.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: Gothic (1986)

If you are interested in the backstory behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the time that the Shelleys spent with Lord George Byron in Switzerland), in the name of all that is holy, do not watch Ken Russell's Gothic. This is the worst movie I have ever seen, and the only thing that allowed me to finish it was the "Mystery Science Theatre"-type commentary that the movie inspires.

The whole thing is hysterical and overwrought. If this weren't bad enough, the plot makes absolutely no sense as the characters wander from scene to scene with what seems to be no over-arching storyline other than "boogedie boogedie boogedie" and "sex, drugs, and bloooood." It is poorly written and poorly acted.

You have been warned.

Instead, if you are interested, here is the Mary Shelley's introduction to the 1831 text of Frankenstein, in which she discusses the summer in Switzerland that inspired her novel of reanimating the dead.

If you really want to watch a Frankenstein rip-off, let it be Young Frankenstein, instead.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Would You Like Some Cheese With That Whine?

Did anyone else get a chance to see the New York Times Article "Get a Life, Holden Caulfield"? It looks at how today's students see Holden Caulfield (protagonist of the "find yourself" J.D. Salinger novel, The Catcher in the Rye) and compares their disinterest with the fervent enthusiasm of the youth of fifty years ago. Apparently high school students today don't give a crap about Holden's weekend in New York.

For example, one expert cited argues that, "'Compared to the early 1950s, there is not as much room for the adolescent search, for intuition, for empathy, for the mystery of the unconscious and the deliverance made possible through talking to another person.'" While I might not be the best barometer for "the youth" of today, I would say that this is true--the youth of today do want to read about kids who are "different," but those kids need to ultimately come out as winners, not losers who reject the world as it is.

When I read The Catcher in the Rye (something like six or seven years ago, which makes me feel incredibly old), I just couldn't get over how Caulfield seemed like a big whiner. He had money, he had a free weekend, he had every opportunity to do something, but I wasn't entirely sure where he thought he was going. I wanted to read about someone who does something, whatever that something might be. (For example, I loved Jack Kerouac's books when I was in college. I adored The Dharma Bums with its escapist mentality, but the characters in Kerouac's books do things, write things, see things. Holden Caulfield, from what I remember, pouted about things.)

Anyone else have an opinion on the matter?

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: The Magus (1968)

Having read The Magus by John Fowles a couple of weeks ago, I decided to pick up the film version from the library, despite the negative reviews. Just about the only good thing I can say about the experience is that I didn't pay for the privilege.

To be honest, the movie starts off fairly strongly, though it was odd for me to see a young Michael Caine and Candace Bergen on screen. While much of the novel is about how "life is like a book," the transition to film went fairly smoothly and became instead "life is a stage." What didn't translate well on film were Nicholas Urfe's motivations--his emotional responses to the strange occurrences on the Greek island are internal, not external, and so don't come across well on screen.

As is the case for most film adaptations, the book was condensed and simplified, characters deleted and scenes shortened. While I understand the necessity of the cuts, they resulted in a loss of some of the most important themes of the book: racial tensions disappeared (which were so prevalent in the 60s), the mythos of the island abandoned, the interest in psychoanalysis dropped, and Julie/Lily's role on Phraxos never fully explained.

In addition, the climax (the "trial" scene) of the movie illicited a strong WTF? response and would have been completely confusing for someone who had not read the book. (As someone who has read the book, I couldn't help but wonder if they just ran out of funding.) Conchis' interest in psychoanalysis is never fully explained in the film, and so the final scene seems random. In addition, the ending of the film does not show Nicholas' emotional growth and so the whole thing seems like just a strange hazing experiment. I guess I would have to agree with Woody Allen's analysis of the film: "If I had to live my life again, I'd do everything the same, except I wouldn't see The Magus."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"When You're a English Major...

... you're an English major all the way / From your first sonnet / To your last dying day."

I know, the rhythm is completely thrown off by the extra syllables but I couldn't come up with anything better. (I've never claimed to be a poet.)

Anyway, I have a (very mildly) amusing anecdote that brought this up. I was having a conversation this weekend with a hydro-geologist who kept saying that his wife didn't enjoy geology because "she's an English Major, very artsy."

The (very mildly) amusing part? This man had to be at least in his seventies, meaning (theoretically) that his wife has been out of school for decades. However, he still refers to her as "being" an English major, rather than saying she "was" an English major, which means that, in his mind (and in mine, too, actually) "English" is much more a state of mind than merely a four-year course of study.

So being an English major is almost like being a Jet... only without the dance routines and rumbles.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

I've never considered myself a particular fan of Mark Twain: while I loved A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, I despised The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was therefore of mixed feelings when I heard about the 1985 claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain.

While I generally enjoy claymation films (such as Next or The Nightmare Before Christmas), the style of this film is distinctly disturbing, though I find it difficult to pinpoint why it bothers me. Of the short stories covered by Mr. Twain in the film, I find the most interesting to be "The Diaries of Adam and Eve", which I've written about before. While I feel that the screenplay did a pretty accurate job of capturing the feeling of the story, the medium is, again, distracting as the director seems to make almost a cartoon out of the clay figures.

Despite all of this, however, what I find lacking in the movie overall is the "so what" factor. I didn't feel drawn in and, in fact, didn't bother to finish watching the film. Movies should be either interesting or entertaining, and this movie is (D) none of the above.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Not-So-Gentle Viewer: Next (1989)


Ladies and gents, take my advice and take a look at Next by Barry Purves. It is a brilliant short film in which, according to Purves' website, "William Shakespeare, alone on stage, auditions for his life, in front of a rather unimpressed Peter Hall." It includes (apparently) gags from all of Shakespeare's plays in just over five minutes.

While I didn't "get" all of them (all the histories start to blend in my memory), I did catch references to the following: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew (maybe), The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, and A Winter's Tale. Obviously I missed some, but that's not bad, right? Right?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sex in Literature

"Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life is the other way round." --David Lodge

It has occured to me that Mr. Lodge is quite correct--of the two books I've read most recently (The Magus by John Fowles and The World According to Garp by John Irving), sex plays an extremely prominent role in both plot and characterization, to the point that I don't feel comfortable using any direct quotations without risking the wrath of corporate IT.

For example, sex and sexuality permeate the pages of The World According to Garp, beginning with the different forms of sexuality that each character portrays throughout the story--there is an asexual (Jenny Fields), multipleheterosexual characters, two (at least) transsexuals. There are swingers, cheaters, rapists, Garp himself has a babysitter fetish, and each of these play an integral part in the story as a whole. Nicholas Urfe, the main character of The Magus, holds obsessively to his Madonna-whore complex, almost to the very last page of the book.

What does this add to the value of the story, however? The Magus dwells quite explicitly on what is "real," arguing that fiction can be real, if it inspires real thoughts and feelings. But is there a line? How many of us, for example, would look at the entire history of our lives purely from a sexual standpoint, as The World According to Garp does? Yes, of course sex can be a metaphor for something else, but in some cases, can't it just be an excuse to write something titillating? Where's the line between metaphor and smut?

In addition, are there people who read The Magus purely because Playboy named it one of the "25 Sexiest Novels of All Time"? (This should be deeply disturbing, by the way, to anyone who read the book with anything approaching a critical air.) Perhaps that aspect of the novel attracts more people, but are they people who simply read the sex scenes and get tingly rather than wondering where the hell Fowles is going with all this? In my opinion, many of the sex scenes were designed to show Nicholas in a negative light (in particular in his mysoginistic treatment of women), and getting turned on by such scenes defeats the purpose of them in the first place.

(Note: I am not arguing that either The Magus or The World According to Garp is smut, but I have to wonder where the line between being artistic and catering to the masses lies. I guess we'll have to see how many page hits I get just from having the word SEX! in the title before I pass judgment.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Review: The Magus by John Fowles

Having read The French Lieutenant's Woman last year, I have since been interested in reading more books by John Fowles, which is why I picked up The Magus several weeks ago. When I finally sat down to read it, it was very different that I expected it to be, but it sucked me in and I read all 500+ pages in less than one week. It is an intense, engrossing novel, each chapter providing a new "twist" on the storyline.

The Magus is a story of a young unhappy man who considers himself a poet and a philosopher. Nicholas is blessed with, as one character puts it, a "charm with women," but he uses sex in place of any kind of meaningful relationships. When a young woman with whom he is involved falls in love with him, he takes a job at an English boarding school on a Greek island to escape what could become a more complicated situation.

On this Greek island, he meets a millionaire named "Conchis" who tells Nicholas stories of his life. To Nicholas' surprise, the characters in the stories begin to appear on the estate in what Fowles (in the prologue to the revised edition) describes as a kind of magical realism. While the novel seems to explore the ideas of conflict in mythology and philosophy, it rapidly turns into a kind of psychological mystery as Nicholas becomes more and more enmeshed in Conchis' mind games and it becomes more difficult for him--and the reader--to tell the difference between reality and fiction.

While, in my opinion, the novel's So What? factor seems to be about the idea of "freedom" in a 20th-Century, post-WWII world, it also explores the definition of meaningful experiences, both inter-personal and intra-personal. The book ends unresolved with two possible endings, leaving it up to the reader to determine the ultimate conclusion, both in terms of story arc and meaning.

While the book explores ideas that are, arguably, important to think about, it was the twisting plot and ever-evolving storyline that hooked me in and would not let me go. I would highly recommend this book, if only because reading it is an experience I won't soon forget.

Previous post on John Fowles: A Victorian in Vegas

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Survival of the Fittest

A mildly amusing but otherwise completely useless graphic from The New York Times about the logos used by various publishing houses.


Nonfiction on Writing Fiction

I have recently begun perusing the shelves of my local bookstores and library looking for books that give writers advice on how to write books. In general, it seems that there are two opinions about these "nonfiction on writing fiction" books: (a) They remove most of the romance and creativity from the writing process, rendering the final product lame, and (b) They can't hurt.

I generally swing back-and-forth between these two thoughts, although my final conclusion is this: reading books about writing books may help, but reading books that you want your book to be like is infinitely better. In fact, most of the "help" offered by these books seems to be pretty general and obvious to an avid reader: point of view (POV), tense, showing vs. telling, etc. These are not ideas that are new to anyone who reads more than one book a year.

Some books, however, offer a new way of looking at these ideas, or explore alternate routes to what constitutes a "finished" book. Some are aimed towards stimulating creativity, and some promise to help the would-be writer find an agent.

Anyway, below are some of the books that I have found most useful, as well as several that have been less than helpful:

I would say that 45 Master Characters, by Victoria Schmidt, is helpful in nailing down a character with which one might be having problems. While I firmly believe that the archetypes do serve a purpose, however, I would recommend against leaning on them too hard--there is a thin line between "archetype" and "cliche." If, however, you are having problems finding a particular character's motivations, I would say this book could help you to figure out at the very least what that characters values might be (success, family, money).

If you consider picking up this book, however, I would caution against basing a character entirely on what you find here. Instead, use it to flesh out characters with whom you already have at least a basic understanding.

Another book by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Story Structure Architect offers archetypal situations, this book can help a writer look more critically at what a scene is actually doing in her story. While I would say, again, that using this as a resource to actually outline your story might be a bad idea, I also think it helps nail down whether or not a particular type of scene is necessary, depending on what its potential outcome will be.

Less helpful, in my opinion, were the beginning chapters on genres and the "11 Master Structures." Anyone who has a story in mind but doesn't know the fundamental characteristics of the story's genre needs to slow down and think about what she's doing, rather than turning to the genres and saying, "Hmm, how does the basic plot of a romance novel work?"

On the other hand, this approach may help if you're like me and you're not quite sure which aspect of your novel you want to emphasize. This section, then, would help you make your book more publishable, though it may not improve the actual quality of the work.

Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon gave me many "ah-hah!" moments. Though she does go over the apparently-obligatory point of view and genre discussions, she also provides excellent examples from literature (vs. the examples from film and cinema that seem to abound in other books of the field.)

Lyon does a very successful job of suggesting creative ways to improve potentially-weak passages without the novel becoming completely overwhelmed by "What if?" exercises. I read the book from cover to cover and felt that I really did learn quite a bit.

Finally, a book that I feel is a waste of paper: Fiction is Folks: How to Create Unforgettable Characters. Robert Newton Peck seems to view the entire work as an opportunity to show how funny he thinks he is. The whole thing reeks of narcissm and, though his advice may be well-intentioned, it generally falls flat.

My biggest problem, however, is that Peck really seems to revel in his ignorance. While I don't mind the "ol' boy" routine, I don't necessarily think that someone who purposely displays it has much to offer someone who wants to write an articulate, thoughtful book. I am absolutely astounded that this book has a rating of 4.5 stars on Amazon, but I feel this shows how much credence one should put in an on-line review. (Except for this one, of course. This one is awesome.)
Anyway, in the first chapter (actually on the first page), Peck argues that Socrates didn't play football and therefore isn't interesting, which is why no one reads Socrates (whom he refers to as "Soc") any more.

First of all, while Peck is correct that no one "reads" Socrates, this is not because he is boring--it is because there are no existing documents written by him. Instead, we have the works of Plato, which feature Socrates as the main character. In addition, I think that plenty of people read Plato (which is about Socrates) as he is, ostensibly, the father of western philosophical thought. (Later in the book, Peck argues that Plato was an ass because he was classist and elitist and would have wanted to keep a "middle class guy like me" away from money and power. Um, duh. He thought the best person to run a kingdom was a "philosopher king" and he despised democracy.)

I guess the one thing I learned from Folks is Fiction is this: research is vital if you want to avoid looking like an ass.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Denver Public Library Central Branch...

... is the loudest damn library I've ever been to. In the past ten minutes, I've heard the following:
  • A man suffering from what might be tuberculosis coughing up what might have been a lung. He then spit into a Kleenex. (Why did I forget to bring my hand sanitizer?)
  • Three men standing around complaining about the long wait for computers... since I only had to wait around 20 minutes, I assume they were looking for "unfiltered" internet access. (Again, why did I forget to bring my hand sanitizer?)
  • A woman yelling at her male companion, "Shh! You're supposed to be quiet in the li-berry!"
  • A baby crying like it's being filmed for a shaken baby syndrome advert.

Am I the only one who thinks that "li-berries" should actually be quiet?

Short Review: The World According to Garp, by John Irving

(Ed. note: I finished this book with the half-puzzled feeling that generally indicates there is a revelation right around the corner. I'll probably write more about this book when the revelation arrives.

Also, I'd like to thank my cousin Liese, who loved this book so much that she bought me my own copy, knowing that I would want to scribble in the margins. I did.)

The World According to Garp is one of those books that I couldn't quite put down once I was fully immersed. It is the story of Jenny Fields, an unwilling feminist icon, and her writer son, T.S. Garp. It is a story of life, sex, and energy, but it does not skim over the dark sides of these themes--death, rape, and the apathy that accompanies lack of energy.

The book is chock-full of metaliterature, as both Jenny and Garp are successful writers and Garp's wife Helen is professor of literature. (Perhaps my only complaint about this book is that none of the characters hold down "ordinary" jobs, but for Jenny, who works as a nurse before she gains her literary success.)

While the entire book is engaging, the final quarter of the novel gains an almost-feverish pace, so that the reader can't quite turn the pages quickly enough to finish it. I would recommend this book and most definitely rate it an A.
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