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Books & Comic books 31 Jan 2015 01:29 am

An American original

Depending on whom you ask, America is the birthplace of only a small number of original art forms, anywhere from one to five.

Jazz is often at the forefront of a list that also includes the banjo, the mystery novel — and the lowly comic book. Regular readers of this column know I often wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to comics. I credit them with nurturing my love of reading and with keeping my imagination alive during my formative years.

I can say with all earnestness that if not for the Incredible Hulk, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Donald Duck, and dozens of others, I would not have majored in English or become a teacher. Moreover, if not for artists and writers such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Carl Barks and Frank Miller, I would not have been inspired to put my own thoughts on paper.

Like any art form, comics have grown and changed. Some of the earliest comic books were merely collections of newspaper comic strips. Later, when the concept had proven its profitability, companies began to commission original material. Decades later, publishers began to collect individual comic books into more permanent form — paperbacks and hardbacks. From this innovation came the modern graphic novel, a mixture of words and pictures designed to tell a longer story.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Harvey Pekar, whose autobiographical work with various artists stretched the boundaries of what comics could do. Pekar recognized that many Americans still viewed comics as essentially kids’ stuff, a judgment that was somewhat justified by the industry’s fixation with superheroes.

“Comics are as good an art form as any other,” Pekar told me. “You can use any word in the dictionary … you’ve got the same choices as Shakespeare.”

Perhaps a similar sentiment ran through Tom Batiuk’s head as he decided to steer his “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip in a more serious direction in 1999. By giving one of the characters cancer, he was announcing that comic strips, like comic books, need not be restricted to gag-a-day formats and juvenile subjects. This was even more apparent when the same character’s cancer returned with a vengeance in 2007.

That story line has been collected in “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe,” this year’s One Book One Community collection in Alliance. As my teaching colleagues Ron Hill and Jim Christine noted in a presentation at Rodman Public Library last week as part of the OBOC programming, “Lisa’s Story” is not technically a graphic novel, as it was not originally created to be published between two covers. Still, as a collection of strips that work together thematically to tell one long story, it fits the important part of the definition.

As a member of the OBOC committee, I have long hoped that we would one day select a graphic novel or compilation for the community to enjoy. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better representation of the power of words and pictures, each contributing to a story in a medium that is related to, but different from, movies and novels, than “Lisa’s Story.”

The main character’s journey — her reactions to her diagnosis, her relationship with her husband, her battles with insurance companies and her advocacy on behalf of additional research — is as poignant, and as appropriate, in comics format as it would be anywhere else.

Just as jazz, mystery novels, and even the twangy banjo evolved from their earliest conceptions, so too have comics. I hope readers will keep an open mind as they consider diving into this year’s OBOC selection and not dismiss it out of hand because it uses pictures to help carry its narrative weight.

Pekar was right: Comics creators have all the same choices as the Bard or any other literary luminary. The proof can be found in “Lisa’s Story.”

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Jan. 29, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Family life & Movies 19 Dec 2014 09:49 am

Anti Claus

I guess I’m playing Santa this year.

Some people say this whenever they hand out gifts, but I mean it literally. My mom has invested in a suit and beard and wants me to play the jolly old elf for my 2-year-old niece. That’s the upper age limit of anybody who will be fooled by my imitation, to be sure.

Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been preparing for the role all year. Over the past 12 months, I’ve packed on about 20 pounds. While I have a way to go before I’m truly in Santa’s weight class, I still should require fewer pillows to create Claus’ trademark plumpness.

In terms of Santa’s characterization, I’d like to say I’m from the Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis school of method acting. Those two gentlemen get into character and stay in character — past tense in the case of Brando, who died in 2004 — whether the cameras are rolling or not.

If I followed their lead between now and Christmas Eve, I’d be Santa full time, booming out a baritone “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to students on exam day, yelling encouragement to Rudolph when accelerating my Neon down the street and giving out candy canes to stray passers-by.

However, with only one suit, I’m afraid I might start to smell a little ripe before Christmas, like a fruitcake gone horribly bad. And playing Santa without a suit is like playing Tiny Tim without the crutch or Little Ralphie without a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with the compass in the stock. It can’t be done.

Instead, I’m steeping myself in the classics in hopes that the characterizations will rub off. Last weekend, I watched Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause,” a movie about a down-on-his-luck schlep who magically transforms into Santa after his marriage goes sour and he loses custody of his kid. A real upbeat holiday film, that.

Then there is “Miracle on 34th Street,” about a department store Santa who thinks he is the real thing. He ends up in court, trying to prove he’s not insane. Another heartwarming hit.

Maybe I’d have better luck sticking to Santa stories in print. L. Frank Baum, the creator of “The Wizard of Oz,” wrote a novel called “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus,” but I’ve never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Imagine Santa as delineated by J.R.R. Tolkien after a night of heavy drinking and you’ll get the general drift.

Then there’s Dr. Seuss’ classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” about another crazed character who gets his Santa fix by dressing up as Anti Claus and stealing an entire town’s Christmas. Yeah, sure, he gives it all back and the Whos even invite him to carve the roast beast, but I’m sure that on Dec. 26 they arrest him for multiple B&E’s and throw the book at him. Because they’re white and he’s green, he probably gets choked out for “resisting arrest” or spends the rest of his life as Charles Manson’s cell mate.

Hey, what is it with all these Santa stories and delusional, tragic characters? Is my mother trying to tell me something?

Maybe I should stick with Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” better known as “The Night Before Christmas.” It’s probably the most quoted poem in the English language, which doesn’t say too much for America’s taste in verse. But at least the Santa it presents is of the non-postmodernist, non-ironic, Victorian variety: He’s really St. Nick, and nobody carts him off to the asylum halfway through or threatens legal action when he slips down their chimneys and eats their cookies.

He’s also mostly silent, other than a few shouts to his reindeer. In many ways, this is good news. I don’t have to disguise my voice, learn any lines or, worst of all, offer any extemporaneous comments, like railing against crass consumerism (which Santa represents) or criticizing the military-industrial complex. When I go off script is when I get myself in trouble. Santa as the strong and silent type. That’s the ticket.

As long as I don’t get him confused with Brando and start screaming, “Hey, STELLA!,” halfway through handing out presents, I think I’ll get through this without permanently scarring any children.

Here’s hoping.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published on Dec. 18, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 31 Oct 2014 11:21 pm

Ebola entertainments


It wouldn’t surprise me to see a few more hazmat suits and protective-gear costumes among trick-or-treaters this year, and that’s a positive sign.

Some people find it crass to parley the Ebola virus into Halloween dress-ups, but I’m not one of them. It’s uniquely American to spit in the eye of death, so a little gallows humor in reaction to wall-to-wall Ebola coverage is not only natural, but healthy. Truth be told, your odds of being struck by a bus — or even a comet — are better than your chances of contracting Ebola, which isn’t airborne (not yet, some pundits proclaim) and is barely even in the United States, so the only thing holding Americans back from an orgy of Ebola-themed costuming is that the fear isn’t real enough.

Meanwhile, Americans should also be checking out the post-apocrypha landscape in stories and cinema. Here’s my pick of the best disease-driven entertainment for your Halloween pleasure.

“The Stand” (1978) — Some readers may find the scariest part of this novel is its size. A brick at more than 1,100 pages, Stephen King goes all Book of Revelation in the second half as survivors of a worldwide plague must decide to join the forces of good or evil. But the first half is all about Captain Trips, a flu-like disease that wipes out most of the world’s population after woebegone military and health care officials fail to contain it.

“Contagion” (2011) — A great ensemble film by Steven Soderbergh looks at another end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it (but I don’t feel fine) scenario involving a pandemic. Unlike King, Soderberg keeps the Devil at bay, but society’s flubs are scary enough. I watched this for the first time with my wife, who was nursing a wicked cold and sneezing constantly. It made the movie all the more unnerving.

“The Hot Zone” (1994) — Richard Preston made a name for himself with this nonfiction account of Ebola and several other deadly viruses. I read it on vacation in a copy that I’d bought secondhand; Preston’s description of how various virulences spread made me no longer want to touch the book or any public doorknobs, toilet seats, or restaurant tables. Creepy.

“I Am Legend” (1954) — Skip the so-so movie with Will Smith from a few years back and go straight to the source, Richard Matheson’s novella of the same name. Granted, the plague that’s being spread is vampirism, which isn’t exactly Ebola, but the results are the same: the crumbling of civilization. If you must see a filmed version, 1964’s “Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price is a winner, while 1971’s “Omega Man” adaptation is a hippie-dippie look at a funky future.

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) — Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers” is the basis for this McCarthy-era tale of paranoia. Whom can you trust when aliens that look just like your family and friends come a-knockin’? Answer: Nobody. These aliens are as invisible as Ebola and 10 times as deadly.

“Fever Dream” (1959) — This short story by Ray Bradbury is the quintessential infectious-disease tale. A sick little boy feels that his body is being calcified from the inside out, but the doctor finds nothing wrong except a slight fever. First his legs, then his arms, then his head are subsumed, leaving behind something that only looks human. I often read this aloud to my students on Halloween because it’s so effective and affecting.

I’m sure I’ve left out some good stories about bad viruses, including tons of zombie books, movies and TV shows, so send suggestions via one of the methods below. In the meantime, wash your hands frequently, keep them away from your eyes and nose, stay home if you’re feverish, and happy Halloween.

cschilllig on Twitter

Books & Commentary 12 Aug 2014 08:37 am

Everyone’s a critic, spouses included


Writers’ wives can be a curse or a blessing.

In the case of Robert Louis Stevenson, it was the former. The famed author of “Treasure Island” once woke from a nightmare with such a vivid idea that he rushed to put pen to paper, churning out a first draft in three days. When his wife, Fanny, read the manuscript, she was so appalled that she burned it.

Undaunted, Stevenson took three more days to write “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” all over again. History is silent on whether he showed it to his wife for a second time. One would hope he stored it in a locked, fireproof safe instead. The book went on to be a huge success for Stevenson, rescuing him and Fanny from bankruptcy.

But some writers’ wives can be a blessing, as evidenced by Stephen King’s spouse, Tabitha, who is Fanny Stevenson’s good twin in many respects. A writer herself, Tabitha likely knows the despair that sets in when a concept isn’t working.

So maybe she wasn’t surprised to find three pages of a new story by her husband in the trash can of the trailer where they lived during their salad days. At the time, King was teaching high school by day and writing by night. Tabitha retrieved and read the pages, liking what she saw enough to encourage her husband to expand his abandoned story into a full-length book.

After two weeks of writing on a typewriter that belonged to his wife, King submitted the manuscript of “Carrie,” which would become his first published novel. It went on to sell 4 million copies in paperback. King didn’t have to teach any longer.

Fanny, meet Tabitha. Tabitha, Fanny.

I’m not a patch on the behind of either Stevenson or King, but I do peck away at writing occasionally, mostly this column. By extension, my wife is closer to a Tabitha than a Fanny. She has never burned my manuscripts, which would be hard to do since I use a computer and store my work in the cloud. It’s hard to burn a cloud.

Thankfully, she has never been appalled by my work and has never censored me, although she once expressed concern, after the fact, that I had written about a fluffle of dust bunnies grazing beneath our couch. (”Fluffle,” by the way, is the correct term for a group of rabbits.) She was embarrassed that people would think she was a poor housekeeper. I told her to tell those people that she was an exceptionally good rabbit herder, instead.

About the worst thing she has ever done in terms of my writing is to tell me to stop fooling around on the Internet and go cut the lawn. Somehow, she has an unerring instinct for when I’ve stopped being productive. I also believe she possesses a silent alarm that tells her when the grass reaches a certain height. This last is only speculation, however. Personally, I have never heard the alarm, but maybe that’s because it’s only audible to people with a uterus.

I do wonder, in the case of Fanny Stevenson, if she ever apologized for burning that first manuscript, or if she claimed that her torching of it led to a better second draft. When one incinerates the evidence, all readers can do is speculate.

Whether I have a novel in me is open to similar speculation, but several factors weigh in my favor. One, I live in a city with a law against open burning. And two, I have a really small lawn.

Plus, if the writing thing doesn’t work out, I can always help my wife raise rabbits under the couch.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Aug. 7, 2014.

Books & Commentary & Media & Television 05 Dec 2013 10:06 pm

Will the Circle be unbroken?


If George Orwell had written “1984″ in the age of social media, it might look a lot like Dave Eggers’s “The Circle.”

Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece imagines a world where the government strips away citizens’ most basic rights, including the right to privacy. Life in Oceania is presided over by Big Brother and the Party, who rewrite history in the Ministry of Truth and punish the innocent along with the guilty in the Ministry of Love. Opinions that run counter to the official party line are labeled “thoughtcrime,” the worst sin committed against the government.

Orwell used his fertile and far-ranging imagination to good effect in “1984,” satirizing the tendency of power-mad bureaucrats to seize and hold office by any means necessary, including the modification of language. Newspeak, the language of the English Socialist Party in the novel, is a diabolical marvel, its creation predating such euphemisms as “economically distressed” to describe the poor, “downsizing” for firing, and “collateral damage” for civilian deaths in military operations.

Yet not even Orwell could imagine a society where citizens would give up their rights to privacy as we do so freely and regularly in the 21st century. That’s where Eggers and “The Circle” come in.

In this novel, the Circle is a Google-like monstrosity of a search-engine company that begins to make its presence felt in other aspects of society. Its California campus is a model of efficiency and modernity, with employees urged to stay after work to participate in “optional” enrichment activities, all of which are shared via social networking with the great unwashed beyond its walls.

The book’s protagonist is Mae Holland, a modern stand-in for Winston Smith of “1984″ fame. Unlike Winston, who hates his job in the Ministry of Truth, Mae is overjoyed to work at the Circle, where her job is to provide mostly prescripted answers to customer questions in exchange for positive feedback on satisfaction surveys. Her rise through the Circle is meteoric, especially after she agrees to become “transparent,” allowing every waking hour of her life to be streamed instantaneously on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Circle continues to better life for all of mankind by consolidating information and increasing surveillance. A program called TruYou requires proof of identify before posting online, eliminating trolls. Elected officials go transparent, curbing backdoor deals and lobbyist influence. Electronic bracelets record and transfer medical information in real time. A system is introduced to compel democratic participation, outsourcing voter registration to the Circle and locking up people’s keyboards until they cast ballots.

“Everyone should have a right to know everything and should have the tools to know everything,” a senior Circle official informs Mae, who becomes a willing acolyte.

This brusque dismissal of privacy may jar readers over a certain age, but will be all too familiar to those who live significant percentages of their lives in the digital domain. Anytime it appears Eggers exaggerates this aspect of the Circle’s influence, one need only ponder the direction of modern society.

We live in a world where people post pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner plates, blurt their most intimate business loudly into cellphones while in line, watch instant video of shoppers bludgeoning one another in Walmart, and Google the names of our children’s boyfriends or girlfriends.

Mae’s blurry-eyed attempts to increase her Circle rank by online participation will strike a chord with anybody who checks a cellphone in the middle of the night. We fret over the number of friends we’ve amassed or lost on Facebook and feel insignificant when co-workers have more Twitter followers. We ponder what it “means” when a friend ignores our email and happily give up personal information to spurious software designers who track our locations and buying habits and then sell this information to third parties who use it to clutter our inboxes with spam.

We are, in short, faced with the same quandaries as Mae, and we often reach the same conclusion: that small invasions of our private lives are more than balanced by the benefits of technology.

If “The Circle” has a flaw, it’s that Eggers doesn’t have characters argue passionately enough for the value of life offline or, at the very least, for moderation. The few characters who do attempt to live off the grid come to bad ends, just as those who rebel against the government are squashed by it in “1984.”

But in the latter, it’s still obvious that Orwell is taking a stand against totalitarianism. In “The Circle,” this stand is less obvious. Indeed, given our love of and reliance on various online tools, Eggers might have underestimated the persuasiveness of the Circle’s argument. I know any number of people who would embrace the sort of dystopia he envisions in the book, finding loss of individualism a small price to pay for “improving” the world, even when it costs a few lives.

Truth be told, the first thing I wanted to do when I finished the book was tweet about it. The Circle may be closing faster than we know.

cschillig at Twitter

Originally published Dec. 5, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 08 Nov 2013 01:31 pm

Disturbing fiction, disturbing fact

In every regard, “Ender’s Game,” which was number one at the box office last week, looks like a movie I would enjoy.

It’s based on a novel I admire, in a genre I like, with an actor, Harrison Ford, whose pop-culture credentials (Han Solo and Indiana Jones) are impeccable. Yet I doubt I will ever see it.

“Ender’s Game” tells the story about a future Earth, imperiled by a warlike, alien species. The government selects children to train for an anticipated attack by the enemy. One of humanity’s best and brightest is young Ender Wiggins, a gifted strategist who plays a key role in the coming battle. The book has smart things to say about giftedness in children and the atrocities of war.

When I first read the novel about 20 years ago, I liked it well enough to seek out a collection of Orson Scott Card’s short fiction, which includes the stories “Lost Boys,” with a great surprise ending, and “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory,” one of the most disturbing pieces I’ve ever read. (That’s a compliment.)

But since that time, equally disturbing information about Card has come to light. He is a homophobe in the worst sense of the word, one who loudly and proudly promotes an agenda rooted in a deeply conservative Mormonism., which has made a hobby of sorts writing about the author, notes some of his more egregious comments, including a belief that homosexuality is rooted in childhood molestation, that sodomy laws should remain on the books to punish gays for their crimes, and that it would be morally defensible for the public to rise up and overthrow a government that redefines marriage in any way other than between a man and a woman.

“Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down,” Card wrote in 2008.

It’s been somewhat amusing to watch the studio, director and actors put space between their work on the film and Card’s conservative views. They talk about how great the book is, and how a work shouldn’t be judged by a writer’s political statements.

Card himself has somewhat modified his stance, especially after the tide of public and political opinion turned against him; in July, he asked marriage-equality supporters to show him tolerance and not to boycott the film.

I’m not boycotting “Ender’s Game” or asking anybody else to do that either. Film is a collaborative medium, where hundreds of talented people in front of and behind the cameras labor to create a finished product. To tar all those folks with Card’s intolerant brush is foolish.

Nor am I naive enough to believe that my $9 (or whatever a ticket goes for these days) is going to make or break Card, who is not receiving a share in the box office gross, or anybody else associated with the movie.

No, I’m not going to the movie because I know that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience, that in the back of my mind I would be thinking of Card’s comments and how venomous I find them to be.

People sometimes ask why a straight male is so passionate about the issue of gay rights, sometimes insinuating that maybe I’m not so straight.

My answer is simple and a little corny: I believe people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means all people, regardless of race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and sexual orientation.

Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our era, I’m convinced. Decades from now, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will ask us where we were and what we believed during these tempestuous times. I’m comfortable with the answer I’ll provide.

But I also believe we have the right to speak our minds, out loud and on paper, and I defend Card’s right to do exactly that. He has the courage of his convictions.

When a person is an entertainer, it can be a liability to share opinions. Readers sometimes say that my humorous writing is not so humorous now that they know my leftist politics.

I understand that, because it would be challenging for me to read or re-read another Orson Scott Card book knowing his beliefs as I do now. More than any other art form, a novel is like climbing inside the head of the author and spending an extended amount of time in his company.

I don’t want to be in Card’s company anymore, and likely will never be able to square his brilliantly imagined fiction with his intolerance. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on Nov. 7, 2013

Books & Commentary & Family life & Movies 31 Oct 2013 07:02 am

Shaky traditions of Halloween


Halloween is one holiday where my traditions aren’t firmly established.

For previous Beggars’ Nights, I’ve decorated the house with pumpkins and with abandon, but not this year. The spirits are willing, but the flesh is weak. Or lazy, to be more exact.

Nor will I be hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the front yard, waiting to scare the bejesus out of passing princesses or cowboys. The last time I seriously contemplated this was the same year I herniated a disc in my neck, putting a literal crimp in my plans.

Since then, I’ve erred on the side of caution and left the scares to younger folks, like a family in the neighborhood who erected a mock graveyard, complete with a seated figure of Death that gave me a good jolt one dark morning when I saw it from the corner of my eye.

On Halloweens past, I’ve run marathons of classic Universal Studios horror movies (”Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein” and their ilk). Sadly, the monsters have to stay in cold storage this season, brought low by my poor time management.

The best I’ve done this year is a collection of “scary snippets,” excerpts from classic fright films that I show to my Advanced Placement class. They then analyze, in writing, the elements that make each clip effective. (Yeah, I know, an English teacher can drain fun from an assignment quicker than a vampire drains blood.)

Most years, my wife and I hand out candy on Halloween. But sometimes, like this year, our schedules won’t permit it.

When that’s happened in the past, I’ve put a bowl of candy on the front porch under the watchful gaze of a life-sized Creature from the Black Lagoon cardboard cutout, along with a sign that reads, “Honor System: Take One Piece.”

Like Montresor, the mad narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” I know enough about human nature to realize that a handful of hungry ghouls gets the biggest portion of the Schillig loot.

Montresor needs an empty house to commit murder, so he orders his servants not to leave the premises while he’s gone on business. It is an edict sufficient, he knows, “to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as (his) back was turned.”

My motives haven’t been as sinister, but the results are likely similar: People doing the exact opposite of what they’re asked.

This year, though, my wife is absconding with the candy for a kids’ party elsewhere, so the Creature will stay in the attic and no porch light will blaze. I guess I’ve become the Halloween grinch.

One tradition, however, is immutable: my annual reading of “The Hallo-Wiener” by Dav — no “e” — Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants series.

The story of Oscar, a wiener dog whose mom dresses him as a frankfurter for Halloween, eliciting howls of laughter from his canine pals, was a perpetual hit with my daughter when she was younger, so much so that we kept reading it together long after we’d both memorized all the words and long after most dads stop reading to their kids.

A few years ago, I recorded myself narrating it and mailed a CD and a copy of the book to her at college. Now that she’s in grad school and just as busy as her old man — cue “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin — we often enjoy the book asynchronously. This is a fancy word thrown around online education circles that means “not at the same time.”

This year, though, maybe I’ll surprise her by phone, and we can enjoy Oscar’s travails simultaneously, through the magic of Ma Bell. Or Ma iPhone.

Because any book that features lines like “Farewell, my little Vienna sausage!” and “Help! We’re being attacked by a giant frankfurter!” is too good to be left on the shelf.

Happy Halloween. May all your frights be pleasant ones.

Originally published Oct. 31, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Media & Movies 22 Aug 2013 06:12 pm

Big and tall, short and small


Size matters in pop culture. Or maybe it just matters to me.

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by stories that hinge on size differentials. People who shrink, monsters who dwarf skyscrapers, bugs the size of Cadillacs — give me any or all of the above and the odds that I will like the book, movie, poem, radio drama or synchronized swimming event where they appear, especially if the big things are juxtaposed against smaller ones.

Most kids like monsters, I think, but I always preferred the really tall ones. The Frankenstein monster is more appealing than Dracula because Boris Karloff, who plays the monster, is taller than Bela Lugosi, who plays the vampire. (Plus, Lugosi has that really thick accent and walks like he’s stuck in jelly. “I vaaaant to succck your bluuuud,” he says, inching along at the speed of your average tortoise, while toddlers crawl past and old men in wheelchairs lap him. Not much fear factor there.)

We all root for the underdog, which is why we all cheer for David and his slingshot against Goliath, and why “Rocky” kept spawning sequels until the sight of Sylvester Stallone without his shirt became too grotesque for even the most stalwart of moviegoers.

I just take the term “underdog” more literally than most, wanting to see the conflict reflected in extra inches, feet and yards. After all, who could be more underdog-like than people fighting giants, or characters shrinking to the size of dandelions and trying to avoid a size 10 shoe?

As a last hurrah to the carefree days of summer, when long afternoons afford time to ponder such trifles as the greatest stories about things that are bigger or smaller than normal, here are a few of my favorites:

Jack and the Beanstalk — The story that started it all for me. Little boy, magic beans, giant vegetation, big guys who live in the clouds, even — if memory serves — a singing harp. And you can’t top the suspense of Jack chopping down the beanstalk as the giant descends, screaming “Fee Fie Fo Fum!”

King Kong — Maybe my favorite movie — and movie monster — of all time. Big ape, big dinosaurs, little people running and screaming in terror. What’s not to like?

Godzilla — Everything from King Kong applies, but with the addition of nuclear weapons and radioactive breath. Plus, Godzilla has been better translated into other mediums than Kong. The 1970s Marvel Comics version is still my favorite comic-book series of all time. ‘Nuff said.

The Shrinking Man — Filmed as “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” this novel by the late, great Richard Matheson has the main character exposed to a mysterious mist that slowly reduces him in size, until he is living in his daughter’s dollhouse and fighting off a domesticated cat that is, proportionally, the size of a double-decker bus. If you’ve ever fantasized about shrinking to thimble size and dueling spiders in the basement (and who hasn’t?) this is the book/movie for you.

Jurassic Park — Again, you’ve got dinosaurs, plus the theme of humankind’s naïve belief that it can trump the natural order and Jeff Goldblum (in the movie) nattering on about chaos theory while an angry T. rex uses his colleagues as toothpicks. The sequels aren’t worth a tinker’s damn — or a tinker’s dam, depending on which etymological story you believe — but they do have big dinosaurs vs. little people, so they can’t be all bad.

(I really wanted to like Michael Crichton’s “Micro,” by the way, because he’s the author of “Jurassic Park” and it’s about shrinking people to microscopic size, but I couldn’t get into it. Too much pseudoscience, not enough screaming people. It’s no good if people don’t run around and scream.)

I could rattle off a whole slew of pop-culture references that fit the bill. Here are a few: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gorgo, Reptilicus, Ant-Man, the Atom, Tarantula! (a movie so exciting that the exclamation point is part of the title), Tom Thumb, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Johnny Socko, Ultraman, munchkins, Yoda, Tom and Jerry, and Fantastic Voyage.

Pacific Rim — the best movie almost nobody saw this summer. Giant creatures crawling from a hole ripped in the space-time continuum in the Pacific Ocean? Check. Global chaos as said monsters attack? Check. Humans piloting giant robots in a last-ditch effort to save the world? Check. One of the coolest sci-fi/fantasy films since the original Star Wars? Check and mate.

So there you have it — incontrovertible evidence that the bigger they are, they harder we fall for them. Or that I do, anyway.

Originally published Aug. 22, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary 25 Apr 2013 06:57 am

Revisiting Little House

Prevailing wisdom among people who study pre-teen reading habits is that girls will read books about boys, but boys are less likely to read books about girls.

Maybe this is changing because of the success of “The Hunger Games,” with a strong female lead whose exploits in three bestselling books are a hit with not only the YA crowd, but adults as well.

I’ve always been an exception to the boys-not-reading-about-girls rule, myself. One of my earliest literary adventures was “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” with spunky Dorothy traveling down “the road of yellow brick,” encountering eccentric companions and showing off her silver slippers to good effect. (Her route became “the yellow brick road” and her footwear turned ruby only in the MGM movie.) I’ve read the book more than a dozen times, and Judy Garland was one of my first big-screen crushes, even if she was too old to play Dorothy.

Recently, I had a chance to revisit another childhood favorite with a female protagonist: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, newly reprinted in two handsome hardbacks by the Library of America.

These books hold a special place in my heart. When I was a new student at Washington Elementary School in 1976, my second-grade teacher, Melva Jean Watson, read aloud from “Little House on the Prairie” almost every day. Something about the Ingalls family leaving Wisconsin and heading West in a covered wagon struck a chord with me, even if my own migration from Middlebranch to Washington Township in the backseat of a car wasn’t much by comparison.

I am still impressed by the family’s moxy. Laura’s father, referred to mostly as Pa, decides the woods of Wisconsin — immortalized in the first book of the series, “Little House in the Big Woods” — are becoming too crowded. “Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa’s ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun,” writes Wilder, who refers to herself in the third person. “The path that went by the little house had become a road.”

Those all sound like good reasons to stay in Wisconsin, not leave it, but nobody has ever accused me of having an overabundance of pioneer spirit.

In the books, little Laura and her sisters often take a backseat to the story of their parents, and Laura’s main occupation is to observe the ways of pioneer families. Not surprisingly for people who lived for — and by — the harvest, the books are filled with food, much more than I remember from age 8. (Maybe Mrs. Watson omitted some parts.)

The Ingalls’ attic in Wisconsin is a veritable produce stand: “The large, round, colored pumpkins made beautiful chairs and tables. The red peppers and the onions dangled overhead. The hams and the venison hung in their paper wrappings, and all the bunches of dried herbs, the spicy herbs for cooking and the bitter herbs for medicine, gave the place a dusty-spicy smell.”

In “Farmer Boy,” which tells the boyhood story of Ingall’s husband, Almanzo Wilder, in New York, mealtime is almost sensuous. “Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed …”

All that’s missing is a cigarette afterward.

Nearly every page of the Little House books is filled with industrious people planting, nurturing, harvesting, storing, slaughtering and building for winter. It’s impressive, especially to a reader whose winter preparations involve nothing more than covering the air-conditioning unit with a tarp and buying a new ice scraper for the car.

Wilder’s characters have fun too, going to the occasional dance and inviting extended family to visit at the holidays, but mostly they work.

One of my favorite sequences in the books, however, has nothing to do with harvests or dances. Later in “Farmer Boy,” Almanzo’s teacher drives a group of disruptive students out of his classroom using an ox-whip. Taking the biblical injunction to spare the rod and spoil the child almost literally, the teacher thrashes the students, jerking them off their feet, tearing their clothes and bloodying their bodies.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I always thought Mrs. Watson read that section with even more vim and vigor than the other chapters.

It’s always nice to revisit old friends, and even nicer to find out that they are more companionable than you remember. So it is with the Little House books. While these new editions omit the classic illustrations by Garth Williams, they are hardly missed. Laura Ingalls Wilder still holds me in thrall with stories of pioneer pluck and an almost-vanished lifestyle that appeal to either gender and all ages.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published April 25, 2013, in The Alliance Review.

Books & Commentary & Movies 12 Jul 2012 08:51 am

Fifty shades of embarrassment

A woman talked dirty to me the other night.

I woke out of a dead sleep and heard it: A sensuous female voice, saying things a true lady would never say, and saying them loudly. Passionately, even.

Then I realized that my wife had fallen asleep while listening to a book and that one of her earbuds had slipped out and landed on my pillow. The voice wasn’t talking to me, it was narrating a novel, one that sounded like a cross between “Deep Throat” (not the Watergate Deep Throat but the other one) and the restaurant scene in “When Harry Met Sally.”

The book is “Fifty Shades Darker,” the sequel to best-seller “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James, that’s about … that. By “that” I mean that, the indoor sport where most Americans earn a letter, the practice responsible for our very lives, the one used to sell us everything from soft drinks to sports cars, but the act we have trouble talking about with our kids and that we like to leave on the backburner of national dialogue unless it involves celebrities behaving badly.

It’s what Shakespeare calls the beast with two backs, and what “The Newlywed Game” calls making whoopie. Procreation.


I’ve not read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and I probably won’t, even though my spouse was so scarred by the first installment that she could hardly wait to start the second. I imagine if she’s sufficiently traumatized there, the only cure will be book three, “Fifty Leagues Under the Smutty Sea” or whatever it’s called.

I’m not staying away because I fear being scandalized. I’m a high school teacher, for heaven’s sake. After years of absorbing pieces of teenage gossip in the hallways, it takes the moral equivalent of an atomic bomb to shake my foundations.

No, I’m not reading because, based on what my wife tells me, the portion I heard summarizes the entire series so far, and I have better things to do than read the same scene over and over. There’s grass to watch grow, belly button lint to collect and too many other books to read.

I’m also not reading because I likely would spend the entire time pouting that somebody other than me capitalized on such a simple concept. James began her literary career as Snowqueens Icedragon, writing “Twilight” fan fiction online. At some point, she changed her lusty hero and heroine from vampires to regular, albeit kinky, folks and started marketing to the masses.

Now the author is like a McDonald’s sign: billions and billions served. What are the royalties on 18 bazillion copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” anyway? Her annual income probably dwarfs that of some smaller European nations.

But ultimately I won’t be reading because I’d hate for anybody to see me with the books. This country’s Puritanical streak, which condones violence (an unnatural act) while suppressing sex (a natural act), is alive and well, and I’m as affected as anybody.

While the U.S. gives lip service to negative effects of violence, we aren’t that upset by it. Violent video games, movies and television are a fact of life. Stick a parental advisory label on it and we’re good to go.

Sexual content is another matter, however. Most of us have sex.

We’re surrounded by it in advertising and marketing. But the act itself is still frowned upon and considered dirty, more so for women than for men.

This split-personality is alive and well in politics, too. Consider those brave, conservative men in elected office who support the continuation of the military-industrial complex and then vote to restrict women’s reproductive rights. How else but by a double-standard do you explain Michigan lawmakers, who last month barred Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking during debate over an anti-abortion bill after she had the temerity to use a medically approved term for part of her own anatomy?

By comparison, maybe it’s not so bad that I don’t want to be seen with a silly book. It’s a hang-up that runs deep in my family, apparently.

To wit: Last week, the movie my parents, my wife and I wanted to see was sold out. After my father and I dropped the women off at the door and parked the car, they conspired to buy tickets for “Magic Mike,” a racy comedy about male strippers that leaves little to the imagination.

After the final credits rolled, Mom was alarmed that I had already posted my thoughts on Twitter. “Maybe you could not mention that I was with you?” she asked, sounding a lot like a person who might enjoy listening to “Fifty Shades of Grey” anonymously through headphones in the dead of night.

Don’t worry, Mom. Your secret’s safe with me.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 12, 2012, in The Alliance Review.

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