28 December 2011

A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal (etc etc), by Daniel Defoe (maybe)

I downloaded the free version of this on amazon. Which was neat, because it included Walter Scott's Afterword, which turns out to be the best part of the book (book might be putting it generously - the whole thing can't be more than 20 pages). The story itself is pretty stock - Mrs Veal, who is dead, comes over to a friend's house and chats with her for awhile, in the process mentioning that Drelincourt's Book of Death is a very accurate characterization of the afterlife. The story itself is pretty stock, but becomes much more entertaining once Walter Scott tells you that the whole thing is meant to be a commercial for that Drelincourt book. What is also really interesting to me about the Walter Scott portion is that he sort of genially mocks the people of "back then" for being taken in by the hoax, but also says that the book is so well written that it's almost hard not to believe it, and that if something like that ever would happen, it would be described in exactly that way. De-lightful.

26 December 2011

The Ice Storm

I saw this when it came out in theatres back in the day and was none too impressed with it. I watched it again earlier this week when a friend of mine auditioned it for the role of "modern tragedy he shows to his class to try to make them care about the class."* It didn't make the cut**, but I appreciated the chance to watch it again, especially because my love for Ang Lee has only increased in the intervening years. But you know what? I still didn't like it. It's still a movie about moody, dysfunctional and listless people who are beset by various tragedies, some of their own making, some sheer accident. You can't quite bring yourself to feel bad, because it all seems so inevitable: there is no possible happy ending for this crowd, really. They're going to be miserable no matter what they do.

However, my friend pointed out to me that it's also a movie about a generation and what happened to it, namely, the free love crowd of the 60s who moved out to the suburbs and became disaffected fuck-ups and horrible parents. Ouch. And from that perspective, I guess it is a more interesting movie. And the movie does hint that it should be seen in those terms, I guess, but it still just doesn't really come across to me. I think it's because everyone is so unbelievably uncomfortable - nobody seems relaxed, ever. The dialogue is awkward, usually cutting across painful silences (the whole movie seems pervaded with silence, actually) and to be honest, a lot of it sounds like a pretentious version of the kind of prose you love in earlier 20th century American novels, Salinger, Yates, etc. It all has that kind of earnest urgency, where the most innocent moments are fraught with meaning, and generally overwhelmed with the anguish of being.

What is great though, is the cinematography. My god, it's beautiful. Especially the shots of ice. Just lovely. The way the story unfolds is also well done, in these brief vignettes, giving the whole thing a vaguely dream like air. It's definitely an Ang Lee movie, style wise. It's also fun, I have to say, to see all these various actors looking so young. Not just baby Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood (baby Frodo actually looks basically the same. Poor guy.), but Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver! All sweet and fresh-faced! It's kind of great. Overall though, though I respect the craft of it, this is just not a movie for me.

*One of my students emailed me yesterday and helpfully suggested that watching movies might make people care about the class more. Because, he explained, most of the books are very boring and nobody cares about them, though he did say that it's nice to know what famous books are about.

**That honor went to Chinatown, which is not only awesome, but it's an absolutely brilliant counterpoint to Oedipus. I didn't write a post about it, because all I really have to say is dude, that movie is so awesome, and wtf can someone please explain the plot to me. But it is perhaps worth mentioning that yeah, watching it while thinking about Oedipus is really fascinating. The hero on a relentless search that can only lead to harm, realizing his error too late, etc. Lots of fun.

24 December 2011


Roman Polanski's Carnage opened in a few select cities, and apparently - one of them was Ankara. Ha! IN YOUR FACE!
Once again, I knew absolutely nothing about it beforehand, so I went in with no expectations whatsoever (aside from a vague sense that it would probably be good - I just watched Chinatown a few days ago), and I was utterly charmed. Carnage is not the new Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the comparison invariably comes to mind. Both are movies that feature two couples in a room, a kind of drawing room comedy from hell with various arguments, unpleasant revelations, alliances broken and re-formed, etc. Both, I think, are very obviously plays that became movies, and honestly, both are arguably much more powerful in the theatre than on the screen. Carnage, fortunately, is not nearly as grim as WAOVW - it shares the wicked moments of humor, but doesn't follow it with a plunge into the abyss. It is also not paced as well - about 3/4 of the way through, there's a noticeable drag, where both the characters and the audience just want it to be over.

The New York Times review made some good points about aspects of the play that got lost in translation, or just weren't quite accurate. I wouldn't go so far as to say the movie "misses its mark badly" - perhaps you have to be a New Yorker to notice and get that upset over the movie's mis-steps. I do agree though, that the movie seems poised to be a scathing social critique, but it fumbles the catch. I almost want to watch it again to rethink that aspect. Because the first time around, you're so focused on the dynamics between the characters and what will happen next that you don't really think about what they're actually saying. I hadn't thought so much about the translation, but it's undeniably true. There are portions of dialogue that ring a bit off-key, and culturally speaking, the play is just obviously French, as are the people in it. The attempt to make them Americans (excuse me, New Yorkers - a kind of halfway between French and American) doesn't really work. I can't exactly put my finger on why, but there are various scenes that seem kind of clumsy until you imagine someone doing them in French, and then it clicks and seems totally natural. Then you realize why these characters seem stilted - it's not because they're in a movie that was actually a play, or because they're stuck in one room - it's because they're Frenchpeople disguised as Americans! Fish out of water! It seems somewhat telling, in this regard, that two of the actors (Christopher Waltz and Kate Winslet) aren't actual Americans - and perhaps that is why they come off as more believable?

The best thing about the movie is definitely the performances. Even though all of the characters are basically jerks, you also kind of like them all. Of course your sympathies ebb and flow throughout, but it's a testament to the skill of the actors that though occasionally lost, your good will towards them generally returns. Kate Winslet is good, though her character is a bit incoherent in some ways, Jodie Foster is wonderful, completely against her usual character (I think) and totally persuasive, John C Reilly is fantastic, initially playing his usual nice guy role before letting his true colors show, but the real prize is Christopher Waltz. The same guy who made Inglorious Basterds worth watching once again steals the show. I find Waltz completely hypnotic. In fact, there is something rattlesnake like about him, all smiles and friendliness but always tensed and ready to strike. And in this movie, most of the venom is for the sake of laughs, and they work. He is hilarious. Plenty of the other characters produce laughs too, but he is definitely the most consistent.

This, ultimately, is what makes the movie by all means worth watching: it's really funny. It's not a masterpiece (though you can see the potential for it to be - the basic scaffolding of it is brilliant), but it's an entertaining movie. And that's good enough for me.

23 December 2011

Henrietta, by Charlotte Lennox

De-lightful. It's rare to read a novel whose didacticism you actually find pleasure in. A key component is the wicked satire and wit of it - moralistic it may be, but humorless it is not. But it's also a rare case where a heroine's virtue is actually endearing. I think this is largely because, unlike so many 18th century female characters, she's got common sense, wit, and a healthy dose of moxy. She does burst into tears occasionally, but you can hardly blame her, given the frustrations and travails she's put through, and she is also perfectly capable of laying the smack down when the need arises, which is pretty awesome. She gets pale and her eyes flash and she speaks with lofty contempt - the kind of detail you will either find utterly insipid or totally awesome (I, having been taught by my father at a young age to idolize Edmund Dantes as a raging badass, fall in the latter camp, surprise surprise). Although she is an absolute paragon of virtue, she is neither heartless nor dull. Basically - she's actually someone you could see yourself wanting to be when you grow up. Why aren't all romance novels like this?

22 December 2011

Apocalypse Postponed, by Umberto Eco

I don't generally blog about the lit-crit that I read (though I really should), but I read this one purely for fun, and it was a bit of a disappointment, so I figured I'd warn you. The book is a somewhat scattered collection of essays and short pieces - I think the guiding principle was stuff that had not previously been translated into English. As it turns out, in most cases, there's a pretty understandable reason: it's about some very specific aspect of 1960s Italian culture that really isn't of much interest to an English-language audience. What is more, many of the pieces feel really dated - Eco spends a lot of time arguing for why studying tv is worthwhile, and how one ought to go about doing it. I think those arguments have been made elsewhere and better (though that's purely a hunch on my part); at very least, the way he represents his opposition makes them seem like dinosaurs. As with most of Eco's critical works, even when he's not that great, he's still pretty interesting, so it's not a bad read for the most part, and definitely has its thought-provoking moments. But I actually ended up not reading the whole thing - confronted with the final section, on Italian culture, I threw in the towel.

BUT! But. Before you dismiss this book altogether, I have to tell you something. There is an essay in this collection called "The World of Charlie Brown," and it is amazing. It is short and sweet and absolutely wonderful.  Less an analysis than a description, in academic terms, of Charlie Brown and his friends ("Aware of this vocation to the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of countless centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history." (43)), and the kinds of stories Schultz tells about them, it's just so wonderful. Everything you love about Charlie Brown plus everything you love about the humanities rolled into one. You should check this book out of the library just for the 5 minutes it will take you to read this short piece, because it will make your day.

20 December 2011

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975

I stumbled across this somewhat randomly in the New Arrivals section of Netflix instant. It's a fascinating movie. It's a documentary about the Black Power movement shot by Swedish filmmakers from 1967-1975, with voice overs from various people in the present (Talib Kweli, Melvin van Peebles, Erykah Badu, ?uestlove).

The best thing about it, really, is the footage itself. If you like Jamel Shabazz's photography, you'll love this too. Just gorgeous, gorgeous video of black life in the 60s and early 70s. The other thing that really intrigued me about it was the fact that a lot of the movie is basically told from a Swedish perspective, and you get glimpses (only glimpses, alas - I would have loved a more sustained reflection) on international perspectives on the civil rights movement, and the American response. Because they were outsiders, the Swedes, it seems, got a lot more access, and much more intimate interviews (there's a particularly wonderful segment of Stokely Carmichael with his mother). I would have loved to learn more about the Swedes who were involved, how this type of coverage was received in Sweden, etc. I imagine there must be a good book out there about international perspectives on, for example, the Black Power movement (I'm especially curious about the Eastern European one) - Ima have to track it down (feel free to leave recs in the comments). It's not all sunshine and cheer - there's one somewhat disturbing scene of a Swedish bus tour through Harlem, with the tour guide making some really disgusting comments.

Of course, the interviews, and the perspectives on that historical time, are also pretty interesting. There is a really powerful scene of Angela Davis in prison, being asked how she feels about violence - it's intense. But just as amazing are many of the 'man-on-the-street' scenes. It really hit me, just how many assassinations there were back then, really, how terrifying life in that movement was. I am regularly amazed by how little I know about the Civil Rights movement, and while this movie wasn't walking you through the history by any means, it does give you enough information to be able to keep up, and introduces you to a lot of the major players in very personal ways.

The voice overs from the present, I have to say, didn't do much for me. There's not much in the way of serious reflection on the legacies of the time and what they mean for the present - more just personal reflections like "Wow, this meant a lot to me." Ok Talib, that's nice, but... so what? You know? Actually, the movie was a nice companion piece to the Michael Eric Dyson book on Malcom X that I read recently, and made me appreciate it more. If anything, it actually made me think a bit about how the energy of radicalism of the Black Power movement sort of dissipated into a more introspective artistic one, where real political action got diluted into artistic representations. I love those artistic representations (I'm a big fan of Kweli, Erykah, and Questo, for example) but I don't know that they're organizing free meals and after school programs for poor kids. The movie glances over a critique of capitalism, mentioning its necessity, and also describing the Black Power is Green movement - the idea of supporting black business - but there isn't much examination of how the success of the latter kind of worked against the aims of the former, and left an entire segment of the population even worse off, in some ways. That's a very hard discussion to have though.

Overall, a really interesting movie, definitely worth watching.

19 December 2011

Baltasar and Blimunda, by Jose Saramago

It took me weeks to get through this book. The language is absolutely gorgeous, but it's the kind of beautiful where if you don't do it all at once, you get exhausted. Especially because there's not much in the way of plot.

I was utterly charmed by the style from the very beginning, especially when I got to this:

Inflamed with holy zeal and indignation, the friar turned on St Antony and rebuked him, as if he were a servant caught neglecting his duties, Some saint you are, to protect only your own silver while watching the rest get stolen, well, in return you'll be left without anything, and with these harsh words, the friar entered the chapel and began to strip it of all its contents, removing not only the silver but the altar cloths and other furnishings as well, and once the chapel was bare, he started stripping the statue of St Antony, who saw his removable halo vanish along with his cross, and would soon have found himself without the Child Jesus in his arms if several friars had not come to the rescue, who feeling the punishment was excessive, persuaded the enraged old man to leave at least the Child Jesus for the consolation of the disgraced saint. (14-15)

Lovely, right? Notice, however, that it's all one sentence. This is the kind of prose that you need to sink into and bask in for hours to get the proper effect. It really doesn't work in fits and starts. When you're reading in short bursts, you're looking for a story, not a three page sentence, even if it is a beautiful one.

There is a story, kind of, but it has no real suspense, momentum, or even point. There are Baltasar and Blimunda, who love each other. Blimunda has a spooky power that allows her to see inside people when she's fasting, and to collect their wills. This isn't in any way necessary to the plot, but nothing really is, so why not. They are friends with a priest who is building a flying machine. Meanwhile, there are also the King and Queen of Portugal, and their children. That's basically the story. Wait, you say, that's not a story, it's just a bunch of characters! Indeed.

But the writing really is quite beautiful.

18 December 2011

Zofloya, or The Moor, by Charlotte Dacre

I had high hopes for this one. The author apparently wanted to do something like The Monk, but with a female villain. So I was looking forward to a really, really evil woman. And definitely, the novel is somewhat shocking, I guess, in its portrayal of female villainy (though Vathek far outpaces it) - but actually, pretty much ALL the women in the text end up being at least a little evil, which somewhat weakens the overall effect. And the moralizing is so heavy handed and droning that you lose most of the campy entertainment of the evil, which is a serious drawback. I guess there's also the shock value of an interracial love affair, but there's so much else going on at that point that you honestly don't really notice it. Overall, I have to say, the book was a bit disappointing - not a must-read by any means.

Some spoilers ahead, so be forewarned. The novel start with the story of a young couple who love each other so much that they wrap themselves in a kind of cocoon of joy, selfishly delighting in happiness and spoiling their children rotten. By page 3, it's made very clear to us that those children WILL be rotten. Oh yes! They could have been good! But poor parenting will doom them! To make matters worse, a mysterious houseguest arrives, a man who is so evil that his greatest delight is to be a homewrecker. Sure enough, he manages to seduce the young mother. This, it turns out, will ruin the children far more than their pampered upbringing. A mother who is a poor role model basically dooms her children to a life of evil.

So right away, the children are set up as pretty villainous, even before they've done anything. Unlike Ambrosius in The Monk, who had some moments of humanity, the daughter in this novel, Victoria, is basically evil to the core. She is interesting, occasionally, in her strategical scheming (realizing she can't appear too bold) and in her awareness of her masculine character (she's definitely a woman who project masculine energy), but she seems remarkably stupid when it comes to making plans and getting what she wants, which is irritating. In the midst of her various evil machinations, Zofloya the Moor enters the scene, with offers to assist. He's a mysterious sort of guy - he appears whenever she thinks about him, and is regularly accompanied with sweet music. She half wonders about this, and the various foreboding things he says, but she's too busy with her own schemes to really care.

You also get the story of the son and the mother, but neither are all that compelling. They all manage to be reunited by the end, by pure coincidence, though there's a bit of fate in it too, because, as the author tells us, "Such are the retributions of a just Providence, which, though sometimes tardy, are generally sure, even in this world." (256). The text also, in the conclusion, rather bravely tackles the problem of evil, suggesting that it obviously can't come from God (who is good), therefore must be blamed on Satan.

One vaguely interesting aspect of the text that I might find myself thinking about more later is the problem of knowing another person - Victoria's husband initially suspects her of being perhaps a bit cold-hearted, then becomes a bit of a jerk himself, but then becomes an all-around good guy who is completely oblivious to his wife's monstrosity (and murderous impulses). This part of the text is heavily, heavily ironic. I mean, constant scenes of the husband thinking how wonderful his wife is as she's trying to kill him. This is of course echoed later in Zofloya's interactions with Victoria, kind of, in that the reader can't help but notice the foreboding nature of the things he says, and Victoria seems oblivious. There are various scenes throughout the novel of characters misunderstanding or misjudging each other, which seems like it could be an interesting aspect to think about...

Oh! By the way: if you DO decide to read this book, don't read the Oxford World Classic's version. Not only does it give away the entire ending on the back cover (which is really, really annoying), the endnotes, by Kim Ian Michasiw, are just dismal. I mean, I normally don't notice endnotes, but these were so awful that they stuck out. They fall into three categories: either they unnecessarily give away parts of the plot, or they seem to be there just to show you that the person who wrote them is super smart and has read other books too, or they're utterly inane.

16 December 2011


Pacing-wise, this is one of the strangest movies I've seen in awhile. Something about it felt totally haphazard. It couldn't seem to decide what aspect of the story it was most interested in, the A's, Billy Beane, his baseball past, his family life, his 'quest to change baseball,' the system behind it... It all became a bit of a hodge podge. The acting, for the most part, is excellent - however you feel about Brad Pitt, you can't help but admit that he's a pretty good actor. Though the movie did call for him kicking/punching things and being UPSET a lot, which got pretty old.

So, to my mind, the most interesting thing in the movie is the 'system.' The movie presents this as Billy Beane stumbling across a young guy* (played by Jonah Hill) who studied econ at Harvard, specifically, the theories of a guy named Bill James, that basically introduce a totally new way to think about how baseball works, and specifically, how to draft players. This is pretty fascinating stuff, and you can bet I'll be reading Michael Lewis' book to learn more about it**, because the movie didn't nerd out on it nearly enough to my satisfaction. Partly, I guess, because they figured readers would get bored. But I wonder if it's also because the kind of changes to the game that it brings about are the same ones that would make it rather un-cinematic. There are a few shining moments of sports heroism in the film, and what you realize later is that they basically go against the entire system. Of course, those moments are anomalous even in regular baseball - that's what makes them heroic. But at the same time, the argument against the system seems to be, to some extent, that it's changing the game, and if anything, it would seem that it's changing the game precisely to eliminate moments like that. I really hope this is something the book discusses.

The best part about the movie, actually, is some of the dialogue. It's kind of amazing. Lots of the movie is kind of meh and uninteresting, and then there are these occasional scenes that are just phenomenal, with fantastic, snappy dialogue. I suspect this is Aaron Sorkin's doing, because I think that's what he's good at. I also think he's not so good at telling stories well in a movie format (I really, really didn't like The Social Network). I want him to team up with someone who's good at crafting narratives and start making good, old-fashioned Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn type romantic comedies. Wouldn't that be awesome? Sorry, tangent. The point being - there are some really wonderful scenes.

Still though, I wouldn't say this is one you need to rush out and see in theatres. I think that if you're not into baseball, its appeal is pretty limited (and if you are into baseball, you'll quite possibly be frustrated by how little of it you get). The main flaws of the movie are the extensive amount of time it devotes to Beane's past (when it flashed the picture of him as a young player for the 8th time I was like OK I GET IT, HE USED TO PLAY) and to his relationship with his daughter. Yeah, she's a sweet kid, and she has a surprisingly good voice***. My friend Margaret pointed out that she's also the only female in the movie, really, which is totally true, and I hadn't even noticed. But she also has almost nothing to do with the story, so her presence on screen was basically dead time, narrative wise (doesn't Laura Mulvey or Teresa de Lauretis or one of those feminist film theorists say that whenever women appear on screen, the action generally grinds to a halt? Totally true, in this case.), and felt like a cheap trick, emotionally. Really, his whole family life seems pretty much beside the point, though his wife's new husband is kind of a fantastic character and makes for some entertaining moments. But they also feel like scenes from a different movie that accidentally got pasted in to this one. The problem is, all the stuff with his daughter is the main thing I remember about the movie, a few days later, which is really unfortunate.

Basically, I'd say this is one you can easily wait for video on, and you'll probably enjoy it more if you've read the book first.

*Wiki tells me this guy was Paul DePodesta, who did not approve of what the movie did with him, forcing them to create a kind of composite character instead.

**I'm really curious to see how much it resembles The Blind Side - which I really liked - does Lewis just have a basic formula, where he writes books about the way a few key people create major changes in the way various sports get played?

***She keeps singing this song through the entire movie, which turns out to be The Show, by Lenka. It sounded so familiar, it was driving me crazy - the internet tells me it was featured on Old Navy commercials, which I guess is where I know it from, though I could've sworn it was in some other twee indie movie, like Juno or something.

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson

I noticed this on the new arrivals shelf at the library (that shelf is like the chewing gum rack by the cash registers at the grocery store: it is not to be resisted) and a few days later a friend of mine mentioned having just read it and liked it, so I figured I'd give it a go. It's a very short novella - I read it in bed this morning with a cup of coffee (I love Fridays!). The internet tells me that there is an upsurge of interest in its author, who died in March of this year - two NyTimes articles (which are annoyingly packed with spoilers) describe him as one of the greatest authors of our times. To be honest, I don't really share that view. Comedy in a Minor Key is certainly an interesting read, but it's not going to make my all-time greats list, though it is a very interesting book.

The novella is the story of a young couple, Wim and Marie, who are hiding a Jewish man named Nico in their upstairs room during the Second World War. He gets sick and dies (that's not a spoiler, it happens on page 3) and they have to dispose of the body. To describe it that way makes it seem as if it's suspenseful - and it's not. Which is kind of an interesting aspect of the book: its strangely placid, unruffled nature (one is tempted to speculate that there is something very Dutch about it). It's a slight, subtle sort of text - this is not to disparage it, but rather, to say that it's not some kind of deep, anguished exploration into the tormented psyches of people living through a hellish war, but a calm, rather sparse story. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a comedy, or even light-hearted, but it's not a depressing read by any means, despite the subject matter. There are moments of humor, moments of insight, and moments of sadness. The narration has a kind of thoughtful quality, as though it were turning these events over in its mind, musing over them but without necessarily coming to any conclusions. It has that modernist feel that you get in authors like Conrad, of a somewhat hazy world, and language as this shining light trying to see its way through the mists and understand something about what's happening. Overall, it's definitely a book worth reading.

15 December 2011

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes

This book is so fucking wild. It's honestly one of the most shocking novels I've ever read, I think. To wit: "It would have surprised Mrs. Thornton very much to have been told that hitherto she had meant practically nothing to her children." Lines like this abound, calm announcements of rather astonishing claims that go against everything you thought you had believed about human beings and how they work and yet seem somehow true. It is, at moments, hilariously funny. It is also deeply chilling and seriously messed up. It's a great book.

 The novel is the story of a group of children, initially living in Jamaica (with all the racist portrayals of the "natives" that you might expect, sad to say) who get sent back to England and end up on a pirate ship. It is in many ways like the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jules Verne, except that it's told with this absolutely incredible - and utterly devastating - insight into human psychology. The prose, incidentally, is also quite lovely, in that somewhat laconic 1920s kind of way. For example:

 When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face. One never forgets it: one's respect, yet one's feeling of the hopelessness of any real intellectual sympathy. One is soon reduced to a mere physical admiration, like any silly painter, of the cow-like tenderness of the eye, of the beautiful and infinitesimal mobility of that large and toothless mouth, which accepts as a matter of course that very water against which you, for your life's sake, must be holding your breath. There he reposes in a fold of rock, apparently weightless in the clear green medium but very large, his long arms, suppler than silk, coiled in repose, or stirring in recognition of your presence. Far above, everything is bounded by the surface of the air, like a bright window of glass. Contact with a small baby can conjure at least an echo of that feeling in those who are not obscured by an uprush of maternity to the brain. (119)
A long time ago I wrote a post on a novel called Weiser Dawidek, by Pawel Huelle. Recently, someone left an angry comment on the post, telling me I was sooooo wrong. Interestingly, one of the things I hadn't liked about the book was that it seemed to me to be really fascinated with how children see the world, a topic I claimed to find totally uninteresting. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong. When done well, portrayals of childrens' perspectives are fucking riveting. I mean, one of the incredible aspects of High Wind in Jamaica is its depiction of how these kids process what's happening to them. And it is totally fascinating. It's a fairly non-sentimental account - the children aren't particularly valorized or held up as innocent little angels. Often as not, they're vicious, bothersome little shits, even when they are very cute and precious. In other words - you don't have to love kids to like this book. Not at all. In fact, people who have treacly adoring views of children would probably hate this novel.

The pirates, by the way, are also fantastically well done. Lovable but in no way idealized, and in fact, deeply problematic in many ways. They are sympathetic characters, but also occasionally monstrous. Basically, to read this book is to take on a seriously intense moral ambiguity that is cast in very human and persuasive terms. It's kind of devastating, in a way.

But yeah. This book is fantastic. Much recommended.

11 December 2011

Greek Street, by Peter Milligan and Davide Gianfelice

I was not at my best and brightest today, to put it delicately, and somehow, all I could seem to do was lie in bed and read this series. All of it. The whole things took maybe 3 hours? And despite the fact that I didn't think it was that well done, and didn't even especially enjoy it, it was somehow the exact right thing to be doing today. In other words, do I recommend it, not especially, there are much, much better graphic novels out there, but at the same time, this one makes for a strangely satisfying way to spend an afternoon if you are otherwise incapacitated.

The artwork, by Davide Gianfelice, is probably the best thing about the series. It's pretty nice looking. Unsurprisingly, there are lots of scantily clad and extremely voluptuous women, and they are really hot. The carnage is gory and super cool looking. Basically, it all just looks really awesome.

The plot, however, is a bit of a mess. Even leaving the whole greek angle aside, it's just a really convoluted story, and one that gets increasingly ridiculous. Maybe it was due to my reduced number of brain cells, but at moments, I honestly wasn't sure what was going on (thinking back on it, there are aspects of the story that still don't make sense). There are lots of various subplots, and they're stitched together pretty clumsily at times. The characters don't make much sense, nor is it clear who - if anyone - we're meant to be rooting for, which one could say is a sign of a nuanced moral compass, but to me seemed more like inconsistent character portrayal. And it annoyed me.

Then, of course, there's the greek angle. The series is supposed to be a modern retelling of greek myths/tragedies - I heard about it from one of my students, who brought it up when we were discussing Oedipus Rex. Some aspects of this are quite clever. But overall, it doesn't really work, partly because the author is trying to unite like 20 different stories, and makes a muck of everything in the process. And it's generally not clear what the relationship between these characters and the original Greek texts is. Some of the references don't really make sense - by the end, it seems like people are randomly being given names of Greek characters, despite not really being in any way references to them. It's really irritating. What is more, at various moments characters actually READ Greek tragedies, which makes it all a bit post-modern, I guess, but also gums it up even more.

The more I think about it (or try to), the plot is just badly done. It's kind of a disaster really. I might try re-reading it at some point, because it actually seems like a potentially informative example of a really badly done plot. It's a pity, because it seems like such a cool idea, and the artwork is really neat.

I totally wanna read more graphic novels now though. Maybe I'll finally read Sandman...

10 December 2011

The Monk, by Matthew Lewis

Like many Gothic novels, the supernatural is largely besides the point here. This is really the story of a bad, bad monk. It's actually a fairly clumsy novel, when you think about it - Lewis couldn't seem to make up his mind as to how bad the monk should really be, so he veers between delighting in his lascivious evil and tracing its roots to his earliest days to portraying him as actually not that bad a guy, on the inside, and really he was just corrupted by the evil Catholic church, and he feels really sorry for what he's done, and, and... One could be charitable and say that it's a character study of the effects of evil-doing, but that would be a stretch. Really, it's just an entertaining romp through melodramatic, heinous crimes, with a nice dose of "omg you guys Catholics are so messed up" on the side.

The book is actually tracking two stories, one the story of a young woman named Agnes who falls in love with a very nice young man, but due to a series of unfortunate events (one of them being a pesky ghosts that demands proper burial) is separated from him and placed in a convent. But her lover finds her there and impregnates her, which the Prioress, surprise surprise, does not like that ONE BIT. The Prioress being a monstrous creature, she sets up all kinds of vicious tortures for poor Agnes, as her lover tries to save her. Her lover, conveniently enough, is also her brother's best friend. Which matters, because it provides a link to the second story - these characters know each other!

The second story is of Ambrosius the evil monk and his passion for Antonia - who Agnes' brother is in love with. Ambrosius also matters to the first story, because he is a much respected monk, and part of the Prioress' motivation in punishing Agnes is that she wants to look good in front of Ambrosius. Agnes also pleas with Ambrosius for mercy at one point, and he denies her. She then curses him to seek a similar mercy and be denied, which of course comes true. Lewis reminds us of this a few times, to sort of reenforce the narrative weave - these stories aren't two novels stuck together! They are totally connected!
Anyhow, Ambrosius lusts after Antonia, and becomes an increasingly evil dude in the process. It should be mentioned that before that plot really gets off the ground, there's also a subplot about a young monk that he befriends who - spoiler alert! - turns out to be a woman, Rebecca. They become lovers (Ambrosius' initial fall from grace, though the book can't quite decide to play it that way, and also offers lots of hints that actually, Ambrosius was already too proud of his virtue, and thereby headed for sin), then he tires of her, and she becomes increasingly evil, but also remains loyal to him, which conveniently allows her to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of super evil acts. This matters, I think, because it shunts some of the moral weight onto someone else, leaving Ambrosius himself a bit more likable as a character.

Like I said at the outset, the supernatural is kind of peripheral to the text. Yes, there's an actual ghost - which is great, because she enters the text as a ghost story that all these silly superstitious people believe in, and then turns out to be real, and then it turns out that she has some basic demands (bury my body, say some prayers for me) that, once met, get rid of her altogether, and everybody goes back to business as usual. Doesn't seem to be an issue as far as questioning reality goes, despite the fact that the same characters who interact with the ghost are the ones who had earlier pooh-poohed the ignorance of the superstitious. The book also ends with a pretty dramatic otherworldly move (which I won't give away), also kind of a curious choice, in that you'd think the book could just as easily have done without it. But it does have a certain epic satisfaction to it, I have to admit.

But the real terror in the text is entirely human in provenance. It's the evil of Catholicism as an institution, mainly, but more specifically, the evil of a small cast of horrific people. This is an interesting aspect, in that it again calls forth the Gothic's power of social critique. These aren't really novels about ghosts. The supernatural is basically window dressing for this really appalling view of the world, where people are sick monsters who do utterly awful things. Some critics put a kind of rosy spin on this - in his Intro to the book, Howard Anderson writes that "At its best, as in The Monk, the Gothic novel acknowledges that useful warning [of dangers near at hand (as provided by Northanger Abbey)] by expanding our assumptions about where we live to include the dark and frightening regions within ourselves and beneath the familiar relationships to which we look for support."(xvii). Dude, you make it sound like that's a good thing...

Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, by Michael Eric Dyson

I tend to find Michael Eric Dyson's work incredibly frustrating, in that he writes about topics I find interesting, and I agree with a lot of what he says, and respect him as a scholar, and yet... he annoys the hell out of me. This book started out the same way. The Preface, a highly personal account of his experience teaching a seminar on Malcolm X and the problems he had with some of the students - particularly a group of young black men - that segued into a a blend of autobiography, diatribe, and self-promotion, was pretty off-putting, even though I absolutely acknowledge that the problems he was facing were thorny ones. When I realized that the book was published in 1996 (I had thought it was pretty recent), I understood why he felt he needed all that justification of his qualifications to speak on the subject. But it still annoyed me. Dyson somehow regularly fails to be compelling to me when he gets personal. I respect the guy, but I don't especially like him. Luckily, after the first chapter, the book moves into a more strictly academic mode, and in the process, it gets a lot better. Dyson is unbelievably well read (and he makes a point of letting you know that in the copious footnotes), and his analyses are generally extremely insightful and interesting. I suspect most readers will find the book overly dry and academic - it reads like a dissertation, for the most part (especially the second chapter, which is essentially a literature review of Malcolm X biography/criticism, and while it is impressively exhaustive, it's also quite dull) - despite its many moments of high flown rhetoric. It's not exactly an entertaining read, but it's a pretty good primer, not so much on Malcolm X as critical receptions of him, and his legacy.

Dyson occasionally veers into pretty explicitly political claims that come across as extremely prescient, given the current political climate. To wit:

Black progressive intellectuals and activists must view class, gender, and sex as crucial components of a complex and insightful explanation of the problems of black America. Such an approach provides a larger range of social and cultural variables from which to choose in depicting the vast array of forces that constrain black economic, political, and social progress. It acknowledges the radical diversity of experience within black communities, offering a more realistic possibility of addressing the particular needs of a wide range of blacks: the ghetto poor, gays and lesbians, single black females, working mothers, underemployed black men, and elderly blacks, for instance. 

Black progressives must also deepen Malcolm's and Martin's [Martin Luther King Jr.'s] criticisms of capitalism and their leanings toward radical democracy. The prevailing economic policies have contributed to the persistent poverty of the poorest Americans (including great numbers of blacks) and the relative inability of most Americans to reap the real rewards of political democracy and economic empowerment. A radical democratic perspective raises questions about the accountability of the disproportionately wealthy, providing a critical platform for criticizing black capitalist and business strategies that merely replicate unjust economic practices. (101-102)

Overall, the book is at its strongest when it discusses black masculinity, and traces Malcolm's legacy in various movies like Boyz N the Hood, Juice, and Straight Outta Brooklyn. He makes some really interesting points ("The reinvention of American popular culture by young African-American cultural artists is fueled by paradox: now that they have escaped the fiercely maintained artistic ghetto that once suffocated the greatest achievements of their predecessors, black artists have reinvented the urban ghetto through a nationalist aesthetic strategy that joins racial naturalism and romantic imagination." (109)) and the argument is compelling. Also admirable is his careful criticism of the gender politics of Malcolm X, the Civil Rights movement, and black social institutions in general. Overall, it's a nuanced book: Dyson admirably manages the balancing act of celebrating Malcolm X as an inspiring figure and a hero of sorts while also critiquing his shortcomings, and acknowledging that the last year of his life was characterized by utter turmoil (moral, intellectual, and emotional), making it next to impossible to make any grand claims about the direction he would have moved in had his life not been cut short.

Overall, it's a pretty good book. I wouldn't say it's a must-read, unless you're specifically interested in Malcolm X, in which case, by all means - not just for the argument, but also for the bibliography! For the general public, not so much, but it would definitely make the short-list for anyone working on (or invested in thinking about) African American culture.

08 December 2011

The Ides of March

I've been here long enough now that I'm edging into the territory of getting to see movies that have been released since I left the States, and actually not knowing anything about them. Which is nice. Most movies are vastly improved by having no foreknowledge of what's going to happen, and The Ides of March is one such movie. So I don't want to give away too much - even though you have quite possibly already seen it - but at the same time, it's hard to talk about my impressions without mentioning some of the major plot aspects (which are quite possibly only a surprise to me anyhow, but still). So I'll do my best, mmmkay?

The thing about this movie is that it's trying to tell two different and only slightly related stories. Now, the conjunction of those stories is actually a very interesting one, that could have made for a phenomenal film if handled more skillfully, but in this case, the movie really only managed to pull one of them off well. What makes the movie extra intriguing though, is that it perhaps unavoidably seems like it wants to make certain political statements, but its plot also serves to undercut those very ambitions.

The centerpiece of the movie is Ryan Gosling (so hot right now), who plays a guy working on George Clooney's presidential campaign.* George Clooney is every liberal's wet dream. This is where the movie clearly has certain political aspirations. It wants to imagine a Democrat running for president who can admit to being atheist, and say things like 'You might panic and call it Socialist or the redistribution of wealth, but I will not stand by and watch the wealth get distributed to the richest people,' etc. It's this kind of hope that if you hear someone in a movie say it, it will be a little closer to coming true. I think this is actually a good plan, and exactly what movies should do (I've said it before, I'll say it again: go read Herbert Marcuse's Aesthetic Dimension). So Ryan Gosling is a True Believer in what a wonderful president George Clooney is gonna be. There are clear echoes to Obama's campaign here, and actually, I could swear that Clooney adopts certain aspects of Obama's body language and mannerisms (and does it terrifyingly well). So at first, if you know nothing about the movie, you might think that this is going to be an inspiring political utopia type story. Seriously, about 30 minutes in I remarked to my friend that this was basically like watching the politics version of porn.

But if you thought that's what the movie was gonna be about, you - like me - should have realized that The Ides of March would not be an appropriate title for such a film. So, of course, the other shoe drops. Actually, two of them. The first sub-plot involves - surprise, surprise - a young female intern. D'oh! Cue the first story line, kinda - the crisis of faith**. This would probably be pretty predictable and uninteresting, but luckily, there's a second sub-plot - a series of dramatic turns which threaten to cost Ryan Gosling his job, and which lead to some serious machinations, revealing a rather uglier side of politics. This is the much more successful part of the film, and the one it devotes more of its energy towards. The first one, unfortunately, it doesn't quite pull off, because you're not entirely sold on Ryan Gosling's good faith in the beginning, and you're not entirely sure whether his crisis actually is one, and if so, whether it has more to do with the latter set of issues than the former. In other words, is Ryan Gosling in it for ideals, or is he looking out for number one first and foremost? Or do these two plots mutually inflect each other in some sort of causal fashion? This would be a fascinating set of issues to explore, but the movie doesn't pull it off. It's a great pity, because that would have made the difference between a generally entertaining and somewhat interesting film and a real masterpiece. I'm inclined to blame this on George Clooney's directing, because while Ryan Gosling may be the it boy of the moment***, as far as I'm concerned, he proved his worth in Half Nelson - he could pull off this role if he needed to.

But it's still a pretty good movie. Evan Racheal Wood****, in my opinion, gave a pretty unimpressive performance as the intern, but the script wasn't helping her much. The movie did succeed, however, in once again reminding us all that the number one rule of politics is "don't fuck the interns" - which of course makes you think man, why are politicians so dumb as to keep getting caught in these various sex scandals? - but what is more impressive, it also really highlights just how messed up the whole sleeping with interns scene really is, not to mention the appalling sexism behind it. I mean, I'm getting to be more and more of an embittered feminist these days, so maybe I just really noticed it, but I think there's something skillful about the film's portrayal of it. There's a long pan of a young intern carrying a tray of coffees at one point in the film that is pretty incredible as a subtle yet totally withering critique.

Overall, not a bad movie at all. Much better than the usual fare (in Ankara that is), but I'd say it's probably worth renting no matter where you live.

*Here's the deal: there are some actors, like Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, who will always be themselves to me. I don't care what role they're playing, I'm still gonna say things like "Look out Ryan Gosling! That girl is trouble!" as I'm watching. That isn't to say they're not good actors. It's just that they've reached that point. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, intriguingly, has not reached that point for me, but that also might be because his name takes too long to say.

**This actually made me think of a play I saw at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in early 2010, The Good Negro - I hadn't been that impressed with it at the time, but I find myself thinking of it occasionally. That was actually a really good play. Worth reading, or seeing, if you get the chance.

***I have been deluged with links to various Ryan Gosling tumblrs in the last few days. I'm mostly over it, and I kind of thought I was mostly over Ryan Gosling as a result - I was sort of edging that way after watching Blue Valentine and Crazy Stupid Love, not that he's bad in either of those movies, but I was getting somewhat weary of just how lovable he always seems to be, and I was worried I'd feel that way watching this. And I didn't. Partly because he's not the usual saintly character - though it has to be said, he is slightly less convincing when he isn't being lovable. On the other hand, now that he's become such a big deal, I'm more intrigued in watching him and trying to figure out why. One thing I noticed this time is that he has the faintest hint of a lazy eye. Which normally really, really creeps me out, but he manages to make it work. It gives him the vaguest suggestion of a vacant stare, but he pulls it off - it becomes a kind of dumb puppy quality. The other thing I noticed is he has this thing, when he's staring into someone's face, he's actually moving his eyes a lot, not gazing deep into their eyes, but trying, it seems, to look at as much of their face as he can, which makes it seem like he's obsessively, excuse me, lovingly, trying to memorize every detail. 
  Incidentally, yes, Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are also both in this movie, and their performances are pretty much totally forgettable. I really suspect it's a Clooney-as-director problem. Sorry George.

****Ok, this is not generally the kind of thing I really notice, but damn, she did not look like a 20 year old. There's actually a scene where Ryan Gosling is guessing her age, and I had her pegged at 26. The internet tells me she turned 25 in September. In the movie though, she says 22, and I thought to myself "With that skin? I don't think so." Which surprised me - that I had that thought, I mean - but I think it's more a testament to the fact that I'm noticing lately that my skin is aging and I'm not happy about it. Yes, I know, it's the cigarettes. But anyways, Evan Racheal Wood's skin is not looking so good in the movie, and all the foundation they slathered onto her does not help one bit.

05 December 2011

(Not that You Asked), by Steve Almond

It's been awhile since I loved a book as much as I loved this one. It touches on pretty much all the things I love and am interested in (literature, sports, food, sex, politics, self-discovery) in a thoughtful, and fantastically well-written way.

 The first piece, a series of letters to Oprah, is cute and pretty funny, if a little fluffy. Then comes the second, on Vonnegut, and just knocks your socks off. It starts off as a paean to Vonnegut, combined with an account of actually seeing him in person, and then it (bravely) moves into a description of "the Vonnegut apostasy." I don't think I've ever read anything that admitted to this. I wasn't even aware that it existed, until I read this piece and felt this deep sense of recognition. There are a number of maudlin, uninteresting things one could do with that epiphany, but instead, Almond turns it into a broader reflection on why Vonnegut hasn't been more influential, then returns to a kind of homage (based partly on some fascinating archival research), conveying a profound appreciation, one that contrasts subtly with the adoring fanboyism that the piece opens with. It's a really impressive piece.

 From there, he moves into sex, with a few amusing essays about various encounters and discoveries. They're clever and amusing, but they also make you aware of what a good writer Almond is: good sex scenes are not easy to write, and his are fantastic. Fittingly, the section ends with a short guide to writing sex, which is really insightful and interesting.

 Then there's a great essay on being an Oakland A's fan living in Boston - not the best piece of sports-fan writing I've ever read, but highly entertaining and definitely resonant. Then there's a wonderful section on "fame," a great description of reality tv - where you really appreciate Almond's honesty with both himself and his readers - and a really well done account of his interactions with a trash-talking blogger (am I secretly hoping that Steve Almond will read this post? Maybe!). Then two very brief but powerful essays on literature and being a writer:
  I'd sit there and read a sentence like "I'm going to die from love" and start crying. And what's strange is that it felt so good to cry, there was a kind of joy in it, because all feeling is joy, because the capacity for feeling is the great, unstated human achievement, and because somewhere, off in the distance, I could see that my capacity to feel wasn't going to mess me up forever, and that someday, if I kept at it, the writing thing, if I kept myself open to the lashings of the world, the true, brutal hurt of the place, I might start to get somewhere. (181)
 This is followed by a really touching homage to food and friendship, and one to heavy metal. I realize I'm basically summarizing the book here, but I feel like I can't not mention the parts I especially adored, and that turns out to be pretty much the whole thing. So I might as well continue now.

 The penultimate section, about politics, was probably my least favorite, and even that was really very good. But the section after it, on becoming a Baby Daddy, as he puts it, is phenomenal. "10 Ways I Killed My Daughter Within the First 72 Hours of Life" made me laugh so hard I cried. I mean, tears were streaming down my face I was laughing so hard. I can't even remember the last time I laughed that much, let alone when reading a book. It is touching and irreverent and one of the funniest pieces of writing I have ever encountered. It's a hard act to follow, but I appreciated that the publishers didn't conclude the book with it, because I think I would have felt somehow manipulated. Instead, the final piece is a piece about Judaism and holiday traditions. It's thoughtful and interesting, not exactly mind-blowing but worthwhile, and hits the right emotional notes.

 Not to be a dick or anything, but come to think of it, this is the book Michael Chabon wishes he had written, what I think he was trying to do in Manhood for Amateurs. Anyways, point being - it's a terrific book. I want to buy a copy for everyone I know.

Oedipus Mayor

Did you know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez co-wrote a 1996 film adaptation of Oedipus Rex? Me neither, but I just watched it. I am very sorry to report that it's not very good. You might even say it's bad. 

The movie is set in a war-torn Columbian village. Oedipus has come to help negotiate a peace agreement with the guerillas. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Laius - who was apparently a local leader, though his exact title is not totally clear - has been killed. He meets Laius' wife Jocasta (whom he jumps into bed with pretty much instantly, in some of the most unsexy scenes you could imagine) and her shady brother Creon. He meets a blind guy who keeps telling him he's doomed. And a priest. Not entirely sure what the priest's deal is, to be honest, but he seems important.

The end result is the same as the Oedipus story, but it packs very little emotional punch, partly because you already know what's coming, and partly because... it's just not a very good movie.

All the modern day stuff is basically padding. Nothing about the new context adds anything to the story, other than length and violence. I think it's partly meant to add some kind of credibility (this really could happen!) but it doesn't, at all. The bizarre parts are still bizarre, and what is more, you are very conscious of them as being the Oedipus story - they don't feel like an organic part of the setting. The guerilla conflict initially gives a sense of a seething underworld of political turmoil, which could be useful for the story, but it rapidly becomes arbitrary. A massive firefight kills a lot of the characters, which only highlights how unnecessary they were to the story in the first place. Maybe it's callous of me, or maybe I have a hard time getting emotionally hooked during movies with cheesy special effects, or maybe the fact that I have a terrible cold made me muddled and irritable. 

...but it wasn't a very good movie.

I just discovered that this post is in a weird darker font. Here's the thing - that Blogpress app that I was so into? It mysteriously stopped working. Crashes constantly. I emailed Support, they say they have a new update but the iTunes app store isn't releasing it for some reason. I dunno. The blogger mobile version is so-so - if you pause while writing and forget to hit save, you can kiss your entry goodbye (also, it doesn't acknowledge paragraph breaks, it just produces this massive block of text). I've submitted "feedback," maybe it will improve. In the meantime, if I want to compose my posts on iPad, from the comforts of my own bed, I do it in gmail, and send it to myself, then copy-paste it onto here when I next sit down at my computer (which is kind of annoying). Apparently, sometimes that leads to wonky color changes. Who knew?

03 December 2011

Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion

I had the whole day to myself yesterday, and I spent it reading. This book I picked up just as I was going to bed, and ended up reading the whole thing. Which is not to say that I loved it, but it does have a certain momentum, despite having very little plot.

I love Joan Didion's essays, so I was excited to try a novel. But this is not really my kind of book. If you like Bret Easton Ellis novels, you'll probably love this. If you like reading about rich people wandering aimlessly through their lives and shuddering through the death throes of their emotional lives, this is the book for you. It's one of those stories where a suicide attempt or other such self-destructive act serves to remind you that the character does have some kind of feelings. I'm not saying that to be snide - I think there is something impressive about novels like that, and they are often a really skillful portrayal of affect, or rather, its lack. You might argue that they are an investigation into what it means to be human, that takes a kind of extreme as its entry point, and I will totally grant you that there is something really interesting going on there. It's just that I just don't especially enjoy reading it, these days.

Didion is, however, an incredible writer. Like I said already, the book has momentum. The pacing is especially clever, with chapters ranging in length from a few pages to a paragraph. The language is unadorned but powerful. I was completely absorbed.

I guess the take away message here is, if you're going to read one 'emotionally-vacant-character-making-a-mess-of-herself' novel this year, it might as well be this one.

02 December 2011

Vathek, by William Beckford

I should have read this ages ago, but for some reason I always suspected it would be dry and dull. How wrong I was! It's a blast. Totally bizarre, and lots of fun. It's been described as a combination of Arabian Nights and Voltaire, which makes sense, but doesn't give enough credit to the fascinating interplay of literary forms in the novel - particularly its engagement with romance as a genre. What struck me were the echoes of medieval quest narratives, transported into an "eastern" setting, and actually curiously inverted into a quest for sin rather than redemption.

One curious aspect of the book is Vathek's mother, who is in some ways the unacknowledged star, way more evil and sadistic than her son, and also way more invested in this whole pathway to doom. But for some reason, it seems, she needs Vathek to get her in the door. I don't know why this aspect of the book particularly struck me, but there is something really interesting about the way she functions as a character.

The overall tenor of the novel, despite its occasional attempts at moralizing, is unabashed glee and a kind of delight in the sheer evil of it all. In the Introduction to the edition I read, Mario Praz mentions Marquis de Sade, and it's an apt reference. Although Beckford doesn't go into that kind of detail, the cheerful accounts of horror definitely have a merry sadism about them.

It's also interesting to read a European account of a Muslim straying from faith. The novel doesn't exactly inhabit the eastern world, it's clearly more of a tourist, which allows, I think, for some level of indifference about the fates of the characters, but it doesn't explicitly describe them as barbaric or deluded either, the way other such works do.

It's a short book - just over 100 pages - and it's great fun, if you're into weird 18th century type stuff. Maybe even if you're not.

The Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Apparently I have never explained my fascination with Zora Neale Hurston on this blog, because a search only turned up this post on Seraph on the Suwanee. This is weird, because I could have sworn I wrote a post on Mules and Men, but... I guess not. Anyhow. A few years back, Luke Gibbons gave a lecture at the Irish Seminar where he talked about Zora Neale Hurston as this incredible writer who presents an interesting comparison to J.M. Synge, both of them being ethnographer-artists of sorts who transform folk dialect into lyrical modernist prose. I was really intrigued by this idea, and have been (very) gradually working my way through Hurston's work ever since. And let me tell you - it's a rewarding thing to do. She is incredible.

So I had heard about this play, the only extant collaboration between Hurston and Langston Hughes, and was of course intrigued. To my great surprise, it was free to download on Amazon (along with quite a few other plays of Hurston's). So last night I decided to take a lil' break from Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda (a gorgeous book but it's like a sumptuous dessert: fabulous but almost too rich, it gets a little overwhelming) and see about these short plays. I read one called Poker! which was aight, extremely short and kind of amusing (the basic gist is: everybody cheats) but not especially satisfying, and then started this one, which I got totally sucked into... only to discover this morning that the amazon version is incomplete. Gah! Thankfully, it turned out the library here has it (and several other Hurston books, which I promptly loaded up on), so I was in fact able to finish it today. Actually, the print version has the added bonus of also having the original short story it's based on (I skipped it; it's in a short story collection of hers I'm planning on reading soon anyhow), an intro by Henry Louis Gates Jr (skimmed, meh), the story of the 'controversy' surrounding the play, and the complete correspondence associated with it. That last bit turned out to be really interesting, especially the correspondence. There's a lot to be said here about the vague misogyny Hurston was subjected to, which is entirely separate from the fact that she did seem to be a little bit, erm, "difficult." It's unfortunate, how things went down with this play (it basically ended Hurston and Hughes' friendship), and it's kind of fascinating to learn about all the crazy politics and drama that went into the situation (and gives you a really powerful look at the kinds of difficulties African American authors were dealing with at the time), but ultimately, the most interesting aspect of the book is the play itself.

Which is great. And really brings home the Synge comparison I mentioned before. This isn't Playboy of the Western World, but it practically begs to be compared to it. It's a similar kind of ethnography-turned-literature work, with a similar humor and beauty, and a similar set of problems in terms of how it presents its own people in ways that arguably compound harmful stereotypes, etc. Perhaps the most delightful example is this exchange in a scene in the courthouse:

HAMBO: (frowns across the aisle at MRS. LUCAS, who is standing)  Whut you doing standing up for a witness? I know you wuzn't there.

SISTER LUCAS: I got just as much right to testify as you is. I don't keer if I wasn't there. Any man that treats they wife bad as you can't tell nobody else they eye is black. You clean round yo' own door before you go sweeping round other folks. (pg 116)

The whole courthouse scene is riotously funny, and subtly brings up various questions about institutionalized justice versus local law. But it could also be seen as a negative stereotype, a bunch of lawless barbarians, etc - just like the characters in Synge. The fact that The Mule Bone was explicitly written as part of a project to develop African American theater, and especially comedy, makes the Synge question even more interesting, I think. I don't remember if Luke mentioned any explicit links/influence, I should ask him about that. Point being, there is an article to be written on the topic. Someday, perhaps, I will write it, if no one else (more qualified) has by then.

Anyhow! The play is really clever and entertaining. It's the story of 2 guys, Jim and Dave, best friends until a woman, Daisy, threatens to come between them. They get into a fight, Jim clocks Dave in the face with a mule bone, and the local townsfolk put Jim on trial. There's also an underlying tension in the story between the Baptists and Methodists in the town, which is milked for extra humor value. It's a simple story, but a highly satisfying one.

The real star of the play though, is the language. While Hughes was apparently responsible for plotting and structuring the play, Hurston's job was to craft the dialogue and give it that local flavor. And it's fantastic. The insults are especially wonderful, but the love language is pretty gorgeous too ("I'd buy you a great big ole ship... and then, baby, I'd buy you a ocean to sail yo' ship on." (145)). It takes the play from simple story to work of art, and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Definitely recommended.