October 25, 2007

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino, 1972

[Editorial note: Ah, feels nice to have huge horrible life-changes out of the way and to be back here blogging again!]

My first Calvino was Cosmicomics, which I essayed for the first time in high school, on my parents' recommendation. I definitely grasped the whimsy and greatness of it, but it wasn't until reading it again for a class in college, and starting to branch out into his other books, that I came to see it as genius-level stuff. It's difficult for me to pick favorites among his works, but Invisible Cities speaks to me in a more personal way, so I often turn to it first when I'm on a Calvino kick.

In a lot of ways, the fact that I could enjoy and appreciate this stuff at fifteen goes to the heart of what makes Calvino so great. His plain but considered prose (well, as far as I can tell in translation), his sense of the fantastic and the absurd, his ecstasy at the power of language and narrative. It's akin to the sense I get from reading fanfiction, or stories written by junior-high students: giddiness over the power and possibility of authorship.

Of course, unlike fanfic authors, Calvino has subtlety in addition to enormity, generosity in addition to sympathy. He has myriad narrative tools at his disposal, and he has a deeply ironic sense of human history and the human condition. Postmodern and playful, but to a purpose.

Narrative doesn't really exist in this book, or not in the usual sense anyway. There are certainly hints of it that tend to spiral back on themselves, and there's a framing conceit of Marco Polo in conversation with Kublai Khan, which does have a momentum and forward-drive to it, but that's a small thing to hang a whole book on. The meat of the work is somewhere around a hundred descriptions of cities, each one or two pages long.

Of course, being astute readers, we know that cities are never just cities. They are maps of the human mind, they are histories of civilizations, and - in Calvino's elegantly reflexive way - they are works of literature. I have a particular attraction to fiction about cities, whether real or imagined, and this may be the best set of observations on urbanity I've read (I'll have to bring this book up again when I get around to writing about China Mieville's novels). Crazily, there's an actual hotel in Spain, the guest rooms of which are modelled after some of the cities described in the book.

The book is put together with the author's usual mania about structural detail - sets of five city-descriptions, with sub-topics in a set rotating order, interspersed with conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The focus on mechanics seems especially apt here, since a book about cities should involve a certain amount of architecture, no?

But the real draw is the imagistic language, the effortless sweeping prose, the way small moments that are rarely more than brief descriptions of setting build into something stirring, sweeping, and fascinating:

"All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine explaining or be imagined explaining or succeed finally in explaining to himself that what he sought was always something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced on his journey, because the traveler's past changes according to the route he has followed: not the immediate past, that is, to which each day that goes by adds a day, but the more remote past. Arriving at each new city the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places."

What can you do but nod your head and breathe deeply when you read that?

July 28, 2007

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve
directed by Preston Sturges, 1941

I should say up front that this is the best screwball comedy I've ever seen, and among the top few romances as well. I should also say up front that I have had a crush on Barbara Stanwyck for years, so that may color my opinion somewhat.

I almost don't want to talk too much about this movie, because it's hard to do it justice in words. But yeah like I'd ever shut my mouth about something I liked...

First of all, you've got Henry Fonda who's got the dorky rich boy shtick down, but isn't satisfied to do just that. His character has quirks and depth and realness, and also all the qualities you want in a romantic leading man. (It's amazing how many so-called romances will have lead characters who are pretty despicable and unlovable.) And Stanwyck is just a marvel really - I don't think I could say enough positive things about her. She's absolutely radiant and full of life and like Fonda she seems like such a real person. Well, of course "real" within the ludicrous context posited by a screwball comedy.

As in Sullivan's Travels (reviewed a couple weeks ago here), it's the tone that makes it all work. Unlike in that other movie, the director isn't "playing tricks" with tone here, but keeping us engaged as viewers, sucked into the story. The genius is a matter of making us feel that the people on the screen are reflections of ourselves, that there's a human commonality that connects us.

So in this context, the plot is beautifully wrought, with actual developments that alter the relationships among the characters and further the drama. (Again, how often have you seen films wherein the plot twists are nothing but that - a little obstacle to make sure it doesn't peak too soon?) A great second act and third act, each one stretching the bounds of credulity further, adding new possibilities for dramatic irony, characters study, and just hilarious dialogue.

And anyone could fall in love with Ms. Stanwyck just by watching.

July 24, 2007


I'm feeling rather open, expansive, and generous tonight for some reason. Just in a nice mood I guess, and you know what that means .... yep, some more Whitman (never let it be said that I am full of surprises)

This is the meal quickly set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp'd slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

The is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair,
This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning,
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.

Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have, for the fourth-month showers have, and the mica on the side of a rock has.

Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.

by the way, it took me a minute, and then I double-checked. "venerealee" does mean what you think it should mean.

July 14, 2007

The Grifters

The Grifters
directed by Steven Frears, 1990

This movie combines a lot of my favorite genre tropes and mixes them up into a great pulpy psychodrama. You got your Jim Thompson story cataloging the dark side of the American Dream as usual. You got your Frears eye for colorful mise-en-scene that makes you feel somehow boxed in and wide-open vulnerable at the same time. And of course you got the kind of acting that just knocks your socks off.

I don't think John Cusack's ever been better - brilliantly cast. Annette Bening is pitch-perfect throughout. And man that Angelica Huston... she is just such a good film actress it's insane. The highest compliment I can pay the other actors in this movie is that they manage to hold their own in the same room as her - her character here has got layers and twists and depths and just wow.

Think I may have to do a little 90s-noir festival for myself ... Red Rock West, Last Seduction, etc. Got any suggestions?

July 10, 2007

Sullivan's Travels

Sullivan's Travels
directed by Preston Sturges, 1941

For some reason I had never seen this movie before, and wow. What a lovely piece of work it is, enjoyable on so many levels. I think that the most amazing achievement is the fine control of tone throughout ... really I should watch it again, because it seems impossible that it was all handled so masterfully. The movie manages to be all post-modernly self-referential, but without using our current technique of snarky "look at me" humor to cover up its anxiety.

This is definitely a movie that's nervous about itself, refreshingly so. And just so entertaining. I laughed so hard over and over. It even manages to have to have African American characters two steps above the expected uber-cringey brain-freezing stereotypes. Great performances from Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, and a huge cast of spot-on character actors. I'd really like to watch this one a second time right away, and preferably on the big screen.

[Side Note: the Pynchon reading continues apace. Loving it so far!]

June 30, 2007

Warriors, come out to play-ay!

The Warriors
directed by Walter Hill, 1979

Watching this movie was a long-delayed fulfillment of an adolescent desire. When I was in junior high and high school, the movie played on late-night tv constantly. All the cool kids were allowed to stay up to watch it, and it was a sort of generational touchstone - catch phrases and worldviews came out of it which I absorbed somehow not ever having experienced the film myself. I'm happy to say that I watched it for the first time the other day, and it was pretty much what I expected it to be a couple decades ago.

This is an exploitation movie, plain and simple. It shows a New York City overrun by multicultural teenage gangs, the sort of representation that sank so deeply into the public consciousness that it got Giuliani elected mayor years later. Of course, most voters didn't envision the sartorial splendor of these hoodlums...

Yes, one of the most memorable parts of the movie is the costume department's conceit of having each of the many rival gangs dress up in different matching outfits. Each more ludicrous and more impractical than the last. It reaches a dizzying apex with the group of thugs who where Yankees uniforms and clown make-up.

Then again, there's no particular desire to remain grounded in realism here. Ibsen this ain't. What this is: male teenage anxieties writ unwieldly large. No wonder everyone in high school couldn't stop talking about it. I'm actually kind of glad I saw it as a (slightly) mature adult - for one thing I can see the misogyny for the cartoonish fear-exploitation that it is.

The most entertaining aspect of the film for me was the decision to show a New York in which adults don't exist. The gang members in the movie roam freely over a landscape nearly devoid of grown-ups. Those that do show up are shown in very brief glimpses, often faceless. They are obstacles to be avoided like subway turnstiles. At no time is there a sense that these kids are part of the community around them - that there's a human being driving the subway train that they wreck, that the driver might be the uncle of one of them. There are no obvious reasons why these kids would be in gangs in the first place, even. It's taken for granted that if you are in the right age bracket and live in the five boroughs, you will join the local gang.

This feeds on the paranoia of us older adults (that youth are on a rampage, and worse: that we are irrelevant). And it feeds on the paranoia of teenagers (that the world is dauntingly big, and worse: that they have power within it) at the same time. On that level, it's quite an achievement. Of course, none of that really amounts to anything in the end, except a general mood of fear and anxiety.

Fun piece of film, when you're feeling like something silly.


Hundred-Dollar Baby
Robert B. Parker, 2006

So as a pause in the middle of the Pynchon, I buzzed through this recent installation of the Spenser mystery series. I was hooked on these books for a little while when living in Japan - the writing style is so breezy you can finish a 250-page book in a couple hours standing up in the English-language section of the bookstore, and thereby avoid paying the price they'd charge for foreign books.

These novels follow in the pulp tradition in that the prose snaps, the structures are formulaic, there's a cast of recurring characters, there are just enough twists to keep each novel fresh, and you pretty much always know what you're getting into when you plunk down your $6.99. Spenser is a relatively likeable character, and you can always count on some witty dialogue (as well as some precious dialogue and some forced dialogue).

Parker seems interested in infusing the hardboiled detective novel form with a social conscience, and he seems to have found a formula that manages to get his points across with a minimum of clunkiness. In the earliest books, the prose style was dense, the plotting often intricate, and the big social/psychological ideas sometimes tackled obliquely. But he hit a stride at some point - the writing is loose and bright, the plots zip through their required turns, and the "issues" are spoken about bluntly when they need to be, and folded into the drama when they can be.

I'd say that Hundred-Dollar Baby is a middling entry in the series of books. A fun easy read that engages your higher faculties just enough so you don't feel like you wasted your time. It's a puff pastry, but with some tasty summer fruits on top. Definitely worth some of your attention.

June 21, 2007

Duck Soup

Duck Soup
directed by Leo McCary, 1933

I think I may make my way through a few of my favorite Marx Brothers movies, and I started with this one, which has to be one of the best political films ever. And I don't think I can do better than to just type out a few of my favorite lines here (excuse my poor memory if these aren't exact - I know there's no excuse in the internet age, but part of this blogging deal is that I want to write about things as I remember them). It's good to have a nice bracing dose of wordplay and semi-absurdity now and then.

- I suggest we sentence him to ten years at Leavenworth or eleven years at Twelveworth
- How about I take five to ten at Woolworth's?

- Why weren't the indictment papers placed in my portfolio?
- Well, I didn't think them important at this time, your excellency
- Not important? Do you realize I had my dessert wrapped in those papers?

- I am willing to do anything to prevent going to war
- Too late, I already put down a month's deposit on the battlefield

- What's a matter with you? Do you want to be a public nuisance?
- Sure! How much does the job pay?

- Here's the report sir. I hope you'll find it clear.
- Clear? Why, a four-year old child could understand this report. [aside] Quick, find me a four-year-old child. I can't make heads or tails of it.

- I'll have you know I danced before Napoleon! No, Napoleon danced before me. About 200 years before me, as a matter of fact.

June 15, 2007

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
directed by Howard Hawks, 1946

[Side note: I've recently started the new Pynchon, Against the Day, which weighs in at close to 1100 pages. Most of my posts while I make my way through this behemoth will be of movies or the kinds of short things I read when I need a break from a long dense work]

I do enjoy this movie a lot. Probably not the very best Bogart-Bacall pairing, but definitely a good one. You've got your Faulkner-enhanced dialogue, your Hawks mis-en-scene and pacing, and you've got really excellent performances throughout. The changes made from the book used to bug me a little, but watching it this time, I found the injection of hollywood romance and other stuff more charming than distracting.

I've never been a fan of the odd and adolescent practice of having every woman who shares a sidewalk with the sleuthing protagonist throw herself at him. For the most part, it just makes me snort and roll my eyes. (That said, I wouldn't have minded if Dorothy Malone had wanted to close up her bookshop to share a drink with me on a rainy day ... and I wouldn't have asked her to remove her glasses either, but that's just me.)

It struck me on this viewing that Lauren Bacall is really the heart of the movie, and that she brings a depth and steely power to the role that it probably doesn't deserve. The character as scripted ranges wildly, is largely self-contradictory, and yet in the whole mess somehow seems real. And more than that, seems like an archetype of human experience. Well, maybe "archetype" is too big a word - how about she is a model of a certain way of living, personal and specific in time, place, and class, but somehow in the larger-than-life film she's just one more person trying to keep the frayed and tangled ends of her life in order. And like all of us, she deludes herself and others, finds both prosaic and creative methods of making sense of things, gets lost in the snarl of power relationships, and forges both smart and stupid human bonds.

Oh, and she sings too.

June 10, 2007

More on Huck Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1885

Finally finished this wonderful book, and I'm so glad I took the time to read it again. I'm more than a little bit in awe of it, to tell you the truth - there's a greatness in it that I never really touched before. I suppose it's testament to the novel's depth that I could read it in high school, enjoy it, get a lot out of it, understand its "classic" status, but never see what makes it a singular work of literary art. You never read the same book twice, I guess.

Twain really swings for the fences here, trying to encompass as much of American society (and Western civilization generally) as he can possibly fit into a picaresque boy's-adventure book of less than 300 pages. It seems somehow essential that the smallish, personal story, told in what's more-or-less a popular style, is what's brought to bear on these huge issues of politics, philosophy, and morality. There's a hopefulness implicit in it.

The thing that strikes me hard this time through the novel is that Twain just never lets you off easy. That's not to say that the book isnt' easy to read - it rolls along quite breezily, and is damn funny to boot. No the "ease" I'm talking about is a moral ease. Time and again, the author sets up a moral quandary in story form that seems it should be a parable, then layers of complexity get heaped on, and multiple veiwpoints onto the issue are opened. Soon the plot has moved along, before a resolution is reached, and the situation has morphed into something new, with a newly updated problems. Sympathetic characters become monsters and vice-versa. This is "democratic" fiction, wherein everyone gets a say and everyone is capable of both brilliance and folly.

In this light, Huck is a genuine hero. He navigates this moral landscape like he navigates the river: relying on experience, taking stock of changes, having self-confidence, learning from mistakes. If it's been more than a few years since you've read it, go grab a copy and read it again. It's really quite intimidatingly great.

June 04, 2007

fun youtube mashup

So I enjoy youtube as much as the next person, but I'm not an addict or anything. And I surely wouldn't post this link unless it was stunningly awesome and spoke to me in a deep way:

Sesame Street/Do the Right Thing

Iconic Spike Lee movie - check
Slammin PE soundtrack - check
Muppets! - check
Animation geekery - check
Wonderfully dorky sense of humor - double check

I swear that while watching it, I kept thinking "didn't I just dream this?"

June 02, 2007

New York State of Mind

Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman, 1892

I was in New York a few weeks ago, and I didn't realize how much I've missed the teeming hugeness of it, and the way there are always 100 different scales of interaction happening in parallel. Good ol' Walt understood that too (of course):

City of orgies, walks and joys,
City whom that I have lived and snug in your midst will one day make you illustrious,
Not the pageants of you, not your shifting tableaus, your spectacles, repay me,
Not the interminable rows of your houses, nor the ships at the wharves,
Nor the processions in the streets, nor the bright windows with goods in them,
Nor to converse with learn'd persons, or bear my share in the soiree or feast;
Not those, but as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering response to my own -- these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.

May 31, 2007

Some Huck Finn reflections

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, 1885

I'm about halfway through Huck Finn, and it's far more wonderful than I remember. Probably just because I'm older and have more appreciation for its beauty and vigor that I did when I was 17 or when I was 25. I used to take for granted that everyone was right when they said it was such a great novel, and of course it's an easy book to enjoy, but until now I don't think I really understood its genius. And I've read a lot more literature from the rest of the world now, so I get what makes it so richly American too.

- Those rapturous lyrical passages about the riverscape that just make me want to weep sometimes.

- The ten thousand layers of conflict, basically an attempt to encompass human civilization, so deftly tucked into a personal narrative.

- The loose, base, unfettered spoken language, jangling off the page.

- Characters that can be cartoons when they need to be, and yet never lose their resonance as breathing fellow human beings.

- That ironic humor that cuts so deep and makes you laugh so hard:

"Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin', exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin' rightful King of France."

Say it out loud to really enjoy the poetry of it. At this moment, I can't think of anything funnier or more affecting than that. I'll write more when I finish the book, but man am I glad I'm reading this right now.

May 24, 2007


Paul Auster, 1986

I have quite enjoyed everything I've read by Paul Auster, which I'm ashamed to say doesn't amount to much. This short (under 100 pages) novel is the middle installment of a set called the New York Trilogy, and probably my favorite of the three.

There's a lot of great stuff going on in this piece, including a beautiful deconstruction of the postwar ennui-filled private eye genre, a love letter to Brooklyn Heights, and a meditation on 19th century American literature. It's put across in a flat, declarative style, not a single quotation mark, with sentences often in the passive voice, full of odd textural details of setting and state of mind. At points, it reads like it should be an allegory or roman a clef, but if it is, it's one that subverts itself at every turn.

Some of my favorite parts use the detective-story framework to contemplate what literature is in the world, the relationship between author and audience, the reflexive nature of narrative, the dual consciousness required in storytelling, and other highfalutin stuff like that. I don't generally have anything against the contemporary popular novel style, wherein any big themes are talked about openly in the prose itself, but it's nice to have something slightly opaque once in a while - good brain exercise, you know.

There's this nice passage, wherein one detective is talking to another about a surveillance job:

Does he know you're watching him or not?

Black turns away, unable to look at Blue anymore, and says with a sudden trembling of voice: Of course he knows. That's the whole point, isn't it? He's got to know, or else nothing makes sense.


Because he needs me, says Black, still looking away. He needs my eyes looking at him. He needs me to prove he's alive.

There's a certain kind of tragic pithiness in that kind of writing which is far from ordinary. It's as if the psychology and emotion are small, plain things to be pushed around and played with like words on a page. There's treachery, double-crossing, and self-doubt through the book, but on a higher level, there's just a sense of futility about even those elements, which evokes the late-40s milieu better than anything else. Thoreau, Hawthorne, and especially (hilariously) Whitman are presented as models for a human optimism and spirit of connectedness that seems almost farcical in the context of the world the characters inhabit.

I don't want to make it sound like a depressing book either. If anything, it's magical in the way it shows a path from being a ghost to being fully human. All crammed into 90-odd pages with time for costume changes, pulp-culture ruminations, and Jackie Robinson. This is one to read over and over.

May 20, 2007

Invisible Monsters

Invisible Monsters
Chuck Palahniuk, 1999

So this was an interesting read, by turns frustrating and insightful. It's my first exposure to Palahniuk (best known for having written Fight Club), and there were enough interesting ideas and well-written passages to get me to try another book another day.

At first I thought he was leaning too heavily on the "shock value" of body modification as a metaphor, but that smoothed out after a while. What didn't ever get easier to take were the couple of verbal/rhetorical devices that pervade the novel from start to finish. One of these - the use of the phrase "Jump to" at every change of setting - would have been mildly annoying but forgivable in a shorter novel, but in a 300-pager it's just tedious. Yes, I get that it fits with the overarching themes of the book, but come on.

On another dynamic level, Palahniuk quite effortlessly sets up a very unreliable narrator, whom I trusted less and less as the story progressed. It was really quite masterfully done, until the last 30-40 pages, when the whole thing explodes, all doubts are removed, and it felt like I was getting an authorial pie in the face. Again, I get it, but it comes across as trickery for the sake of trickery.

There are a few other gimmicks and structures like this, and their use reminds me of the aesthetic of some of the so-called minimalist composers. There's a certain ideal of obviousness - a feeling that the audience should always be in on the artist's tricks. Nothing wrong with this at all of course, but I have a harder time adjusting to the idea in a novel than in music, for some reason.

Of course this is also part of the point, I think. As readers, we're supposed to feel uncomfortable and know precisely why. Within the world of the text, personalities are disconnected things, made up of isolated cells which can be shuffled and reshuffled. Any sense of richness, unity, or complexity of mind is an illusion. A depressing concept to be sure, and one that rings just true enough to be highly disconcerting.

So there's quite a lot to like about the book, a lot of risks were taken, and it certainly got me thinking (which is more than a lot of books do for me). Maybe rough around the edges, but certainly a worthwhile read.

May 01, 2007


The Streets of San Francisco
A Quinn Martin Production, 1972-1979

Well I've been slowly making my way through the discs of Streets of San Francisco TV show that they just brought out on DVD. Before I get started on talking about it, I first want to say that I really enjoy the whole concept of renting TV shows a few episodes at a time like this, and even owning a boxed set of a show that you really like. I don't watch that much television because I don't find much to my liking on most of the time, so getting discs of a show I know I enjoy every time can come in handy when I want to be audiovisually anaesthetized for a while. Sometimes I'm just in the mood for a certain kind of entertainment, and these DVD sets are a great way to get a quick fix. Yes I know I should want to read Paradise Lost, but sometimes I'd rather enjoy some Alias.

Anyhow, Streets is definitely one of those shows I can nearly always get into the mood for. I grew up on the reruns in the late 70s and early 80s, and being born and raised in the town of the title, it always had a special resonance. I love the cop-buddy stuff between the costars, the exploitation of counterculture, the outrageous 70s clothes and hair, the drool-worthy glam shots of the city itself, the pretentiousness of its division into acts and usually an epilog (no "epilogue" for this hard-hitting cop show, no sir! we ain't Shakespeare! We're, like, maybe Eugene O'Neill or something). Despite itself, perhaps due to the straightforwardly generous Karlmaldentastic acting, there's a genuinely positive "healing the wounds of the 60s" vibe that's pretty addictive at times.

And the theme song.... in a class by itself. So perfect it almost makes my teeth hurt.

One of the best games to play, if you know the layout of SF pretty well, is to watch the car chases, and see how they turn a corner and end up five miles away in the next shot. Always fun to wait for the moment when Michael Douglas has to jump too - I swear he jumps over something or onto someone in every episode. There's definitely a good drinking game in there.

And if the plot ever starts to flag, there's always listening to the incidental music, which is enjoyable all by itself. What an entertaining show - enjoy it some evening instead of "When Gray's Desperate Apprentices Attack" or whatever.

April 27, 2007


The Red and the Black
Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), 1830

So I had to give up on Stendhal about 200 pages in. Shame, because I was really enjoying it too, but I was reading too slowly and someone recalled it to the library - the bastards! Not an easy book to read when you're tired like I've been lately, but it's rewarding. Or at least the first 200 pages are. Full of wry wit and surprising psychological insight. I'll finish it one day when my attention span is a little longer. Meanwhile, I've got some Chuck Palahniuk lined up (an author I haven't read before - so far it's fast-paced enough for my sugar-and-caffeine-addled mind at least) and I'm considering a run at Huck Finn for the first time in close to a decade. Whatever I read, it'll be posted here.

April 23, 2007

The Human Chair

"The Human Chair"
Edogawa Rampo (Hirai Taro), 1925

So I think this is the best horror story I've ever read. I should mention that I really dislike horror fiction in general, so I've hardly read any. But this is just a fabulous piece of work regardless of genre.

It's written by the Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (if you pronounce that pseudonym with a Japanese accent, it sounds like "Edgar Allan Poe" - cute), who doesn't have a whole lot of work available in English translation, sadly. This one's surely my favorite. There's a clever frame story, but the meat of it is the psychological changes in a man who, yep you guessed it, turns into a chair. Completely ludicrous and chillingly scary at the same time - I'm not sure how much the translation is a factor, but the balancing act of tone is just masterful.

The big idea is Kafka-esque without a doubt, but there are these great added layers: the fetishization of luxury objects (in particular Western-associated ones), the porous boundary between craftsman and object, the creeping hidden eroticism of the everyday. It's just a really nicely-formed story too, the pacing pulling you along and ending just at the right moment.

I'll probably write about some of his other stories here in the future, but I guarantee if you read this one story, you'll want to devour the rest of the collection post haste.

April 17, 2007

Wacky Wordsworth Pandering

Please watch this and tell me that you cringe in utter horror the way I do:

Squirrel Rapping Wordsworth

I think pretty much anyone seeing this believes that it's just wrong wrong wrong wrong. Yes, I understand that it's a publicity stunt more than anything else (and it seems like there's been quite a bit of press, so guess it worked), but what the hell were these people thinking?

The most amazing part of it is imagining that there were multiple minds involved in the planning and execution of this sad project. Or maybe it's the multiple minds that were the problem...

TOURIST BUREAU GUY: We need more visitors to the Lake Country

CONSULTING LIT PROF: Well we've been using Wordsworth as a draw for years, no need to change that. If only we could get the younger (under-75) generation interested in Romantic poetry!

MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: I've noticed that this "youtube" is very popular among the kids today.

TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Yes! We'll become an internet overnight success! Brilliant!

CONSULTING LIT PROF: We could upload a video of me reading "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" as I gaze reflectively over the local landscape.

MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: We could do that, but you need some kind of "hook" to get noticed on youtube.

TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Hey you know what'd be crazy? Just throwing this out there -- what if while you were reading the poem, you were attacked by giant squirrels? It would be funny and draw attention to our unique squirrel population. We'd have to include a disclaimer that our squirrels aren't actually humongous man-eating monsters, but still I think it would get noticed! Brilliant!

CONSULTING LIT PROF: I don't know if that fits the tone of the poem very well.

MULTIMEDIEA EXPERT: You know what else the kids today like, aside from youtube? rap music. And a lot of people say it's sort of like poetry.

CONSULTING LIT PROF: Oh wouldn't it be just so precious - we could be the first people ever in history to think of someone "rapping" a classic poem! We are just so clever!

MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: I'll start watching BET 24 hours a day to get ideas for filming a rap video. We can replace the scantily-clad women with daffodils or something.

TOURIST BUREAU GUY: I love this idea! We are on the cutting edge here, men! I only see one possible drawback


TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Well, rappers ... they're usually ... you know ...


TROUIST BUREAU GUY: Um ... well ... of African descent. And there's nothing wrong with that of course, but it's not exactly the image we want tourists to have of the Lake Country, is it?


MULTIMEDIA EXPERT: Good point. How can we solve this?

TOURIST BUREAU GUY: Maybe there's a way to work in the giant squirrel idea somehow...

April 14, 2007

My Name is Red

My Name is Red
Orhan Pamuk, 1998

Well this is a tough book. First and foremost, it's a philisophical novel, and those are always easy to talk about but hard to say anything meaningful about. In addition, the branch philosophy dealt with here is (for the most part) aesthetics, and that's just a really tricky one to make into a narrative. The overall structure puts me in mind of Calvino - though that may just be my limited knowledge talking. Anyhow, getting down to the nitty-gritty, there are quite a few frustratingly dull stretches, and on the other hand there are passages of such pristine beauty that you have to catch your breath and re-read before exhaling seems an option.

The story unfolds from the individual perspectives of a dozen or more characters. This conceit really drives things along beautifully, and it's hard to imagine the big themes (the ways aesthetic concerns influence the way we live our lives and vice-versa) could be explored as deeply without the perspective-shifts. There's a mystery(very Chan is Missing), a romance or two, a courtly intrigue, several artist rivalries, a clan feud, a ghost story, teenage angst, historical adventure, divine wrath unleashed. Pretty much everything you'd want from a story set in 16th-century Istanbul, I guess. They all dovetail together quite neatly, without giving short shrift to things like characterization and narrative description. Leitmotifs of various kinds connect distant and diverse parts of the book. On top of all that, I have to say that it's not easy to write prose that really evokes the practice of the visual arts, but Pamuk accomplishes that very successfully. No mean feat.

There are quite a number places where the writing seems to drag, usually recountings of history or the minutiae of painting styles. I tried really hard to take the novel on its own terms, and just take what I could from those sections, but I found it difficult to adjust to the plodding pace for a chapter, then ramp up to the more free-flowing tempo. Still, it's hard to be too unhappy about that when you get to read stuff like this, about a group of artists sitting around reminiscing about artworks they've seen:

"As if they were our own unforgetable and unattainable memories, we wistfully discussed our favorite scenes of love and war, recalling their most magnificent wonders and tear-inducing subtleties. Isolated and mysterious gardens where lovers met on starry nights passed before our eyes: spring trees, fantastic birds, frozen time ... We imagined bloody battles as immediate and alarming as our own nightmares, bodies torn in two, chargers with blood-spattered armor, beautiful men stabbing each other with daggers, the small-mouthed, small-handed, slanted-eye, bowed women watching events from barely open windows ... We recalled pretty boys who were haughty and conceited, and handsome shahs and khans, their power and palaces long lost to history. Just like the women who wept together in the harems of those shahs, we now knew we were passing from life into memory, but were we passing from history into legend as they had?"

There are lots of big ideas here, and all handled with grace and subtlety. Definitely rewarding.

April 12, 2007

greatest EVAH

This has got to be the single greatest piece of science fiction I have ever read online, and one of thebest bits of satire too. It's got everything you could ever want in a good story. Just wonderful - go read it now!

The Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel

April 09, 2007


Zhuangzi: Basic Writings
Zhuangzi, 4th century B.C.E.

So I've been reading through some philosophical texts lately, and rediscovered the Zhuangzi (also transliterated as Chuang-tzu). For me, this is the definitive Taoist text, much more earthbound than the etherial Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), but still with all the wonderfully dizzying questions of authorship and the deep, continually unlocking mysteries.

One of my favorite things about the book is the way I can't read it without constantly changing my "distance" from the text. It draws you in close and pushes you back, and sometimes seems to do both at once, so that you experience several layers of meaning at a time. Or at least that's how it seems to me.

My favorite bit is one of the more famous ones - the Linkparable of Cook Ting. It's a story that finds the Tao in, of all things, the process of butchering an ox. Cook Ting says:

"I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint. ... However, when I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety until - flop! the whole things comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground."

Now that's real philosophy, dude - you just don't find that sort of thing in "Men Are from Neptune" or whatever.

April 06, 2007

blogger credo

"What Am I After All"
from Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman, 1892

One of the untold millions of things that makes Whitman wonderful: you can pretty much always find a quote that reflects what you are thinking about at the time.

What am I after all but a child, pleas'd with the sound of my own name? repeating it over and over;
I stand apart to hear - it never tires me.

Almost makes it sound important and poetic to indulge one's ego with a blog, don't it?

April 05, 2007

Hammett in Fine Form

"The House in Turk Street"
collected in The Continental Op
Dashiell Hammett, 1924

Anybody who knows me, knows that I am a huge fan of Dashiell Hammett. My favorite pulp writer to read again and again. I won't get into everything I like about his work, because some of it will become obvious as I talk about this one story.

"The House in Turk Street" is typical Hammett: the prose is terse and rhythmic (though a bit more sensationalistic than in later work), the pace of the story's unfolding is tightly managed, the characters and bright and economically drawn (i.e. exploitative). The detective in this story is one of the great pulp characters of all time, the nameless operative for the Continental Detective Agency. Really, I can't think of a recurring mystery character who's more enjoyable on so many levels.

This particular story takes place all in a single house, over the course of just a few hours, and the hero spends a lot of it gagged and tied to a chair. There's a real understanding of drama in the way it unfolds - drama as opposed to plot, that is (though there's plenty of plot too). It's about the interactions among characters, the shifting power relationships, more than it's about the linear motion of a protagonist through situations. What's amazing is that Hammett manages to achieve this in a first-person narration, in a paid-by-the-word story for a 1920s pulp magazine.

It's hard to forgive the gender and (especially) ethnic stereotypes here, but if you can set them aside, it's a hell of a lot of fun to read. For me, it's always been easier to grimace and get past that kind of derogation when it's in popular genre fiction (though there are limits of course) than when it's in literature that makes claims to psychological depth.

I'm sure I'll talk about other Hammett work here in time, but this story contains so many of my favorite elements, figured it was a good place to start. The whole Continental Op collection is pretty marvellous, actually. Definitely worth reading, especially if you've never read any so-called "hardboiled" detective fiction.

March 28, 2007

Lone Star

Lone Star
directed by John Sayles, 1996

This is just a lovely movie, in case you didn't know. It's by a director whom I admire a lot, and it's got one of those Altmanesque interweaving plotlines deals going.

It takes place, tellingly, in a Texas border town along the Rio Grande, loosely centered around the sheriff there investigating an old crime that his father may or may not have been involved in. But that's only a hook to frame the real themes on. This movie is really all about crossing borders.

National borders, borders between races, borders between generations, borders between truth and lies, the borders we put up between ourselves and the ones we love. I don't find many movies inspirational in the Disney sense, but this movie makes me feel hope in all its dangerous beautiful messiness. Full of so many moments of quiet bravery (sometimes misguided, sometimes not) that are so easy to connect with.

In a lot of ways, it's the acting that makes this movie work. Every once in a while, when the dialogue threatens to spill over into something preachy, it's the stellar performances that draw you back in and make it all so human. Even the minor side-characters who are only on the screen for five minutes are real textured human beings.

It's a movie worth renting and watching twice back to back, if you have a long rainy afternoon sometime.

March 25, 2007

Hardboiled Wonderland

The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami, 1985

Well this novel is one of my all-time favorites. Just finished re-reading it again last night. It was the first of many Murakamis for me (grabbed it off a bookshelf in Japan, actually), and has a special personal resonance for me right now as well.

I don't think I could do this book justice in a full-on review - not that I've written a real review here yet for anything else either - so instead I'm going to talk about a couple of aspects of it that are rolling through my head at the moment.

The first issue is that this book seems to have something of a bad rap in the criticism, and I've been trying to figure out why. I happen to think it's the very best of Murakami's novels, so the lack of respect sticks in my craw a bit. I'm sure some of the reason is the more in-your-face sci-fi/adventure trappings. I bet the two parallel story lines might strike some people as too precious. More to the point, I think readers of his more recent work would find this one long on Jungian concepts and short on the deliriously elliptical storytelling that's become his trademark. So perhaps looking back to this (slightly) more straightforward paired narrative, it's easy for readers to dismiss the book as simplistic or the work of a journeyman. Perhaps some people are just too scared to be the first to laud the book, worried that they'll be shown up by someone who understands it better?

That's one thing that makes this book different from some of the later ones. While I think it happens to be just as "unknowable" and fever-dream-derived as more recent work, it doesn't wear its unknowability on its sleeve. It has a structure and tone that give an impression of well worked-out tropes and dynamics, which we could all understand and articulate fully if we just spent some more time with it, and maybe worked out a few charts and graphs. Now I don't have a PhD in literature or anything, but I think I know this book well enough to state positively that it's as much of a beautiful transcendent mess as ones that followed. So don't be scared, people! Trust me, nobody "gets it" any more than you do.

One particular thing I noticed this time through: one gloss on the novel is to read it as an extrapolation on the workings of the mind of a detective. (Please note I am saying that this is merely a gloss, not some kind of key for understanding the whole shebang.)

If you haven't read the book, I hope I'm not ruining much by telling you that there are two parallel stories, and it emerges partway through that one of the narratives is taking place fully inside the subconscious of the narrator of the other. The professor who performed a special surgery to seal off the narrator's subconscious, says at one point that the narrator's subconscious was "well-plotted, even perfect. It could have passed for a novel or a movie." In other words, the narrator has an inner core which is simple, well-formed, and complete. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for the moral/behavioral center that the most famous hardboiled detective characters have (thinking of Chandler's Philip Marlowe here in particular, naturally). Mostly incorruptible, single-minded in his pursuits, and clinging to a morality that seems timeless to him, this archetype hardboiled detective keeps that core sealed off from day-to-day rigors and trials, both mental and physical. Like we see in many pulp heros, it's that core which is supposed to give a detective like Marlowe his strength. It's separated from everything else (like Murakami's narrator's subconsious), prized (ditto), frozen in time (ditto again).

I like the idea that one can interpret a lot of the novel as a big old extrapolation of this metaphor, but spun out in a thousand unexpected directions.

The other thing that struck me this time through in a more powerful way than on previous readings, was the whole "perhaps the dream is dreaming us" deal. Certainly, there's a good bit of doubt all the way through as to whether the End of the World narrative is actually the subconscious one. There's enough weirdness in both of the parallel stories to make either of them a likely candidate, if you ask me. It's never fully resolved in a pat way (thank goodness!)

So I'll stop there, or maybe write some more another day. It's a gorgeous book, this one, worth reading again and again. Maybe the most majestically gloriously sad ending I've ever experienced.

Go read it.

March 23, 2007


Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel
Rebecca Goldstein (2005)

Let me be succinct with this one: I really did not enjoy this book. The author is apparently a MacArthur fellow, but I guess even geniuses (genii?) are allowed a clunker now and then.

I hardly know where to begin, and in a way it feels like I shouldn't dig in so deep to make criticisms. The book is an attempt to interweave biography and philosophy, and seems to me it fails at both. I've never been much of a lover of the biography form in general, but the best ones do give you a sense of a stretch of history and one person's place in it. Not so much of that here. The author is very interested in talking about the Vienna Circle, the positivists, and especially a long side-track into Wittgenstien, but not in giving their philosophies and place in history more than the most cursory description.

The worst sin is that Goedel's mathematics, which is nothing short of revolutionary, is rendered boring here. I think it takes a serious effort to lose one's wonder about it, and to describe what it all means in such arid disinterested prose. It's disconcerting to read a book like this one and wonder if the author even really understands the implications of Goedel's work. On the flip side, I feel like she over-explains easier concepts like what theoretical mathematics is and how it fits into the contemporary academy.

There are the seeds of a few good books here. I suppose a pure biography could be illuminating (though as I mentioned, that wouldn't be my favorite option). Definitely a real exploration of how philosophy was forever changed by Goedel's mathematics would be exciting. The story of turn-of-the-century Vienna, with Goedel as a key character, or perhaps a side-by-side contrast of Goedel and Wittgenstien, would make for compelling reading.

As the text stands, it makes small forays into all these areas without making any of them interesting. Disappointing.

March 21, 2007

podcast adulation

In Our Time
BBC radio 4

This is not so much a real review as just a marvelling at how wonderful this radio show is. I am just a huge fan, and never miss an episode. If you've never heard it, go get the podcast (that's how I listen to it) and I guarantee you'll be converted instantly.

Each week the host and three selected panelists take up a certain topic and look at it from various historical perspectives, tracing the impact of a person or idea or movement through time. Some recent favorites that stand out in my mind: Indian Mathematics, Karl Popper, Microbiology, and last week's on English Epistolary Literature. But really every single episode is full of gems of information and concepts, floated through time the way only good historians can make interesting.

The host, Melvin Bragg, is sharp himself, and brilliant at keeping the guest historians focused but still having a good time. The invited guests are nearly always from universities in the British Isles, experts in their fields. Some take to the radio-panel format easily, and some don't, but they all bring a passion and enthusiasm that's infectious.

I feel so informed and tuned into the broad sweeps of history each time I listen. Go get this show so you can feel the same.

March 20, 2007

Casablanca and its music

directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942

I watched this movie on video for about the hundredth time recently - it's been a favorite for most of my life, as it is for many people. It's a nice cultural touchstone, almost like some 18th-century moral instruction treatise, but with more action and much cooler dialogue.

So you all know the basic plot, which is about the sacrifice of love for the greater good of humanity. It certainly plays out every psychological outgrowth from that core in beautiful ways, helped along by some nice acting. I've always enjoyed the side-stories of the smaller characters, like the Bulgarian couple hoping to escape, the machinations of Sidney Greenstreet's rival bar-owner, the Free French underground meetings of the business manager Carl, etc. They drive home the (Capra-esque) point that everyone has a story, all intertwine to some degree or another, and the Bogart/Bergman story is in a way just one story picked at random. This has the effect of drawing me in as a viewer. The stories are larger-than-life, yes, but not so out of scale that I can't relate (how much moreso for a viewer in 1942, I'm sure).

Anyhow, if the main idea is one of self-sacrifice (i.e., that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"), nowhere is that borne out better than in the music.

Ah, Max Steiner, Max Steiner. So many great film scores, so much to enjoy. There's a lot more subtlety to this particular score than one might notice at first blush. Sure, there's the "battle of the anthems" scene, which works really well (the German patriotic song being drowned out by "La Marseillaise"), but to me that mostly serves as a hint that we should be listening to music to tell us other things in the movie as well.

For one thing, there's a fluidity between the diegetic and nondiegetic (within the world of the movie and without) music, most promenently the switch from Sam playing "As Time Goes By" on the bar piano for Rick right there in the frame, to the flashback it triggers, which is underscored with a full orchestra out of the frame. The "As Time Goes By" melody comes back in various forms through the rest of the picture, beyond the flashback scene, often distended in rhythm or re-harmonized, but always as a fragment of something bigger. It's as if the melody can't be pure any more, is struggling to find a new way to exist in the altered landscape.

And of course it all culminates with the final music cue as Bogart and Claude Rains walk off into the fog. The "As Time Goes By" theme starts, then elides with the opening bars of the Marseillaise. The energy and generosity of love, transformed and transfigured to political action.

How awesome.

March 16, 2007

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes WereWatching God
Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

This is one of those novels that I always wanted to read, but never got around to till recently. I admit that it took me a while to get drawn into its world, which is basically an emotional journey. It has the varied trappings of a coming-of-age story, a picaresque slice of life, a fable, and a social critique, but what makes it special is the emotional depth and resonance of the main character Janie. The story is told with great reliance on "big fat symbols," but draws life from them rather than suffering under their weight. Focused down tightly on Janie and the events over a few decades of her life, the narrative actually gains strength from its narrow tracking of her developing mental landscape. It's a character study drawn out over time, and it's the inner life of the mind, with its special rhythms and contours, which is the author's prime target.

The real grace of the book for me is in its language, which manages blend the earthy and the sublime in ways that I haven't experienced in other literature. For example:

"…love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore"

That's really good writing, focusing on inner emotional truth. Chick lit? spare me. Oprah seal of approval or not, this is a singular achievement.

March 15, 2007

Harry Potter and Goetterdammerung

Heh yep I'm not the hugest Harry Potter fan in the world, but I've started to follow the fandom a little recently, and I've read most of the books. Today I'm going to jump on the HP bandwagon, because really it's not a force to be ignored.

I'm very intrigued by the impending final book in the series (it was announced recently that it will be coming out this summer) for a few reasons. The main one is that there's a really delicious kind of tension in the overarching plot of the series, which I think is a very rare thing in genre literature that's aimed at children. I can summarize it with two statements: the character of Harry absolutely must die in the last book, and he absolutely cannot die in the last book. In some ways, it's a tension between form and content.

Everything in the poetics of the series, everything in it's fictional cosmology, points Harry towards death: self-sacrifice in the name of love, balancing of the scales, fulfilling destiny, your usual hero's journey stuff. But then you have to take a step back and realize that all that takes place within the framework of a fantasy adventure novel for children, and that genre demands that the hero vanquish adversity and live on.

So I think the author has set herself up with a great challenge there. I'm sure she's had the ultimate resolution planned out from early days, but the genius of it is that she's played these two sides against each other so nicely that it's a complete mystery (to me, at least) how it will resolve in the end. I tend to think that there won't be a gimmicky ending relying too much on magic as a deus ex machina, and I also tend to think that it won't be something cheap and unsatisfying. Hopefully I'm not being overly optimistic on those two counts.

One way for it all to unfold would be to follow a Jesus narrative, having Harry die and be reborn somehow, a transfiguration through love. I could see this working, but on its face it seems too easy, almost to the point of being a cop-out, getting a twofer in order to satisfy both sets of contraints.

Since intergenerational relationships play such a strong role in the later books of the series (yes that's why book 5 was my favorite), I'm thinking it could be something more along the lines of the Ring cycle. A cataclysmic reckoning that erases the old and ushers in the new. Then again, perhaps that's too grand for books which have basically been human-scale all along.

In any case, I have to say I'm looking forward to reading it, just to see how the tensions get resolved. I also admit that there's something special about feeling part of a monumentally huge group of readers who'll all be reacting basically simultaneously to the same printed words. That doesn't happen too often, so you have to savor it when the opportunity arises.

bloggity blog blog

So the plan here is to post little reviews and thoughts provoked by literature, film, music, and probably a bunch of other stuff too. I am overeducated, I have opinions, and I think typing stuff out here will help me organize my ideas a bit better. It's all about ME ME ME, in other words. Really, ain't all criticism like that? For the most part, I'm gonna try and throw my own ego into the mix along with everything else and see how the spices blend.