Monthly ArchiveOctober 2010
I had fun marking Halloween with my high school students this year. In my AP English Literature and Composition class, we finished our reading and study of Turn of the Screw, Henry James’s maybe/maybe-not Victorian ghost story. I also read the class Cherise the Niece, a weird, rhyming picture book about a little girl whose aunts tend to turn up dead.
In AP Language and Comp, I read the class one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, “Fever Dream,” about a boy who is convinced that his scarlet fever is taking over his body, one limb at a time. Creepy stuff, especially for a confirmed germaphobe.
Students in Film Studies continued their viewing of Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho, while my freshman classes, in the midst of studying Edgar Allan Poe, were treated to the very first “Treehouse of Horror” episode from The Simpsons, the one that culminates in James Earl Jones’s narration of “The Raven.”
Good stuff, all. Still, having Halloween fall on a Sunday is a bit of a downer. Halloween night should be all about reading and watching scary stuff, but the thought of a workday following fast on the holiday’s heels sucks the creepy vibe right out. Bummer.
Books 30 Oct 2010 08:04 am
The cover to the Penguin edition of The Turn of the Screw (shown above — the book also contains The Aspern Papers, a novella I have not read) perfectly captures what I imagine Miles and Flora to look like: mostly innocent, but with just a trace of hellion about them.
I read Henry James’s novella for the first time recently, and then immediately followed up with a second reading, along with my Advanced Placement English students. I can’t say the book was a crowd-pleaser; most students appeared confused and annoyed with both the flowery Victorian prose and the author’s reticence to commit to the events of the book being either supernatural or psychological.
Personally, I enjoy the element of doubt and the freedom James gives readers to make up their own minds. Are little Flora and Miles being victimized by the ghosts of their former governess and a valet? Or is their current governess figuratively (and, in the closing scene, perhaps literally) smothering them in her attempts to shield them from imaginary terrors?
According to comments James made after the fact, he considered this a straight ghost story, but too much textual information — and by this I mean material within Turn of the Screw itself — argues otherwise. I think the cagey Mr. James knew exactly what he was doing here, and the novella’s real strength lies in its ambiguity, in the readers’ freedom to decide for themselves just what may — or may not — be going on.
I can’t say this is the greatest book for an All Hallow’s Eve reading, but you could do far worse, too.
My latest column from The Alliance Review, dated Oct. 28, 2010:
To borrow an expression from Prince Hamlet, I’ve been hoist with my own petard.
Last week, I asked a class to read an essay by Francine Prose called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” an incendiary little piece that takes issue with many of the literary choices given to students in English classes. “The intense loyalty adults harbor for books first encountered in youth is one probable reason for the otherwise baffling longevity of vintage mediocre novels, books that teachers themselves may have read in adolescence,” Prose writes, before launching into an excoriation of novels such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (from which came Prose’s title), William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and almost anything by Ray Bradbury.
While I disagree with Prose regarding the literary worth of the above works, I concur that we tend to remember most fondly the things we encounter earliest — our first kiss, first car, first pet, first marriage. (Just kidding about that last one.) Why should books be any different?
As a follow-up, I asked each student to pick a favorite book and defend it. It could be anything from a picture book that they first encountered as a toddler, right up to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which I asked them to read over the summer. (Notice that I do a lot of asking; when you demand, you can’t control the outcome anyway, so why not be more diplomatic?)
Foolishly, I told them I’d write about my favorite book, too. Nothing like giving yourself homework, right?
As I sat down to pluck one title from the ether, I found all sorts of stories floating through my head, including the Mother Goose rhymes and Grimm’s fairy tales that are among my earliest loves, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventures of Tarzan in the moist jungles of Africa and John Carter in the dry canals of Mars, and a raven sitting on the bust of Pallas just above the speaker’s chamber door (and by bust I mean “sculpted head,” not whatever the gutter dwellers in the audience are thinking right now).
Trying to select a favorite book, I’ve found, is like trying to count cars on a busy street — they zip by too quickly. No sooner does “Treasure Island” come to mind than it is replaced by “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Lord of the Rings,” or a novel by Stephen King, one of which — and I won’t be any more specific — contains a scene so horrifying to my then 13-year-old psyche that I have never shaken it. It truly became the stuff of nightmares, deliciously enjoyable nightmares that only a great book can provide.
I remember Holden Caulfield’s winter of discontent, the Count of Monte Cristo’s hairbreadth escape from the Chateau D’If, hordes of slimy Martians laid low by the common cold, Fortunato’s mad revenge, a black-and-white cat in a red-and-white hat, and a little dog named Oscar who was forced to dress up as a hot dog on Halloween in a book that became a favorite for my daughter and me.
And since she and I can’t share Dav Pilkey’s “The Hallo-Wiener” with her in person this year, I recorded it onto a CD and mailed her a copy. Such is the communal power of great literature.
But pick a favorite? I can’t do it. It’s not that I don’t have a favorite book; it’s that I have too many. Hence, hoist on my own petard.
But just so I show up tomorrow with something to turn in, I decided to write this column. I hope the class gives me at least half-credit.
“Petard,” by the way, has an etymology that can be traced back through French, Latin and Greek, and means “to pass gas.” Today, somebody who is hoist with his own petard has been caught in a trap of his own devising, but the original sense is that he was blown up by his own bomb, maybe caused by that spicy dish he ate the night before. See what great fun literature can be, kids?
Comic books 26 Oct 2010 11:14 pm
Now that I’m receiving my comics approximately once a month through a mail-order service, I find myself reading in larger chunks. To wit:
A “lost” Bernie Wrightson Batman story from the ’90s is the centerpiece of this Batman: Hidden Treasures one shot, and while it’s fun, the art is too much inker Kevin Nowlan and not enough Wrightson. Ron Marz’s story is OK, but nothing special. The issue is rounded out by a reprint of the classic Swamp Thing #7 (original run), a meeting of Swampy and Batman by Len Wein and Wrightson. This is a truly great story, but the modern coloring – appropriate as it might be for something created today — clashes with the old-school feel.
It’s almost cliche for reviewers to comment that nothing much, by design, happens in the middle part of a multi-issue story. They can’t say that about American Vampire #7. Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque sell the goods month after month. This issue builds on the momentum of the previous issue with a stunning two-page spread of Boulder Dam, a new wrinkle in the backstory of two FBI agents assigned to investigate lawless Vegas, and several scenes with the villain we all love to hate, Skinner Sweet. Fantastic work.
You know those late-night bullshit dorm sessions, where everybody starts waxing philosophical? First Wave #4 is like that. The characters spend too much time examining their navels, and not enough time kicking ass. Come one, guys, these are pulp characters and classic golden age heroes we’re talking about here, not King Lear. Given the glacial pace of the story, Rags Morales’ use of widescreen panels throughout, and a very erratic publishing schedule, this mini-series has lost whatever heat it once had.
If you read comics regularly in the 1970s, chances are good you had a few issues of Star-Spangled War Stories in your collection. This one-shot by Billy Tucci, Justiniano and Tom Derenick (with a great cover from Brian Bolland) captures that classic retro feel, albeit a little sexed up for today’s audiences. Unfortunately, nothing about this story screams “special,” and Mademoiselle Marie has the personality of an antisocial dominatrix. Not my cup of tea.
Writer Jim Shooter lightly updates the classic Turok premise with the first issue of this series, wonderfully illustrated by Eduardo Francisco. Shooter appears to have done his homework regarding indigenous tribes, or at least to have faked it well enough to make it look as though he’s done his homework, which is pretty much the same thing. Native Americans, dinosaurs, a hidden land, and a reprint of the first appearance of Turok from 1954 all make this well worth the $3.50 price of admission.
The Unwritten is still enjoyable, but as the backstories of characters such as Lizie Hexam are revealed to be pretty much what I expected, I’m getting a palpable sense that the emperor has no clothes. This issue, #17, is designed like a which-way book, where readers select multiple paths through the story. Clever, but annoying. I didn’t play along, but instead read straight through, which I suspect is the way the issue reads best, despite instructions to the contrary.
I bought the first issue of Warlord of Mars on a whim, partly because of the $1 price tag and partly because I enjoyed Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of Mars when I was a teen. This issue hews close to the original, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t even get the titular hero to Barsoom, which is bad. Oddly, Burroughs doesn’t even rate his name on the cover. I’m good for a few more issues, mostly out of curiosity and nostalgia.
Commentary 21 Oct 2010 05:54 pm
People are primarily motivated in two ways: money and fear.
I first heard this back in my sales days from a customer extolling the virtue of paying people more to do what he wanted them to do, as opposed to threatening them with their jobs.
I didn’t disagree. For one thing, there is no percentage in arguing with a person to whom you are dependent for a sale. For another, I was in finance/fear mode myself; anybody who has ever worked on commission, where this year’s salary is dependent on improving last year’s numbers, knows all too intimately the dual devils of money and fear.
But it’s not true for everybody. People also are motivated by an internal sense of satisfaction, a desire to accomplish a goal that may or may not result in monetary rewards or an increased sense of security. We can call this being in one’s “element,” as author Ken Robinson does, or a state of “intrinsic motivation,” as psychologist Edward Deci phrases it, but the terminology doesn’t matter. What matters is that some people become so engrossed in a task for its own sake that time spent and money earned cease to become motivating factors. Or as Confucius is reputed to have said, “Pick a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
Deci has done repeated experiments indicating that people work harder, longer and with better results when they are intrinsically motivated. However, his research hasn’t led to an overwhelming replacement of carrot-and-stick business methods, largely because for decades the predominant forms of industry in this country were dull, boring and repetitive. It made more sense to motivate factory workers with money or fear because their jobs didn’t require much higher-level thinking.
Fast forward some 40 years since Deci’s groundbreaking experiments and much has changed in the American landscape. Unfortunately, many of the industrial jobs that once set America’s tables have either disappeared due to automation or headed overseas where labor is less expensive. The watchwords now are creativity, risk taking, and an ability to reinvent oneself every few years in the workplace — all of which dovetail nicely with Deci’s philosophy of intrinsic motivation.
Nevertheless, federal and state governments continue to champion and extend nanny-state policies that devalue internal motivation and encourage an unhealthy dependency on Big Brother, parasitic relationships that can last for generations and undercut both self-sufficiency and the much-vaunted sense of American pride.
My intrinsic motivation was instilled at a young age when I was taught that nobody owed me an education, a car, a house or a particular income, and if I wanted any of those things, I had to work for them. If one job wasn’t enough, I could always get a second one, and a third. Nobody is entitled to a 40-hour workweek, and sometimes deferred gratification — putting off until tomorrow the things one wants today — is the only way to advance.
Not that I believe we should cut off the needy. Preaching the gospel of intrinsic motivation to hungry people with sick kids is no good. Compassionate government entitlement programs are just as important to the fabric of America as a self-starting mindset.
But what if we kept tabs and demanded accountability? If I’m down on my luck, the government will offer me tax breaks and assistance, but when my situation improves, I agree to pay back a portion of the assistance I received.
That is fair, and would certainly put a stop to the sort of egregious behavior that makes my blood boil, such as people who say they will start looking for a job only after their unemployment benefits run out, or people who squat in their houses rent-free until the bank gets around to throwing them out or the government mandates an interest rate far better than the one I’ve earned by paying my mortgage in a timely manner.
The chances of collecting on this debt are slim, but acknowledging it as a debt, and not a handout, is at least a start. It might make people think twice about how much assistance they need.
This idea occurred to me a few years ago, when I was showing the movie “Cinderella Man” to a film class. Russell Crowe’s character, an aspiring boxer during the Great Depression, has swallowed his pride to go on the public dole when he can no longer feed his own family. Later, his fortunes change, and in a powerful scene, he uses a portion of his winnings to pay back the government.
I had to pause the film at this point because so many people in the class wanted to know why he would do this. “That’s his money,” one student said. “He was owed it for being poor.”
I could almost feel the cold fist closing over the heart of the American dream.
Comic books 19 Oct 2010 06:57 am
Fans of the classic Mars Attacks! trading cards have a lot to wave their tentacles in joy about with the latest annual installment of The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror from Bongo Comics.
In addition to the wicked cover parody seen above, the book features four Marge Attacks! cards inside, where artists Jason Ho and Nathan Kane (Kane also writes the text for the cards) deliver a pitch-perfect aping of Norm Saunders’ style. (Years ago, I had a chance to interview original Mars Attacks! writer Len Brown on the occasion of Tim Burton’s movie. You can read that interview by clicking here.)
Too bad the rest of the comic isn’t as cool as the cover and the cards. With the exception of Evan Dorkin’s opening send-up of old Atlas horror stories, “I Screwed Up Big-Time and Unleashed the Glavin on an Unsuspecting World,” the rest of the book is hit or miss. Dorkin crams his panels with multiple sight gags and details, making the story of a giant creature stomping Springfield a visual and verbal treat.
After that, readers are treated to an interpretation of the Simpsons by the great Kelly Jones in a story that doesn’t do him justice, “The Coff-Diddly-Offin,” giving Ned Flanders a starring turn. Peter Kuper of “Spy vs. Spy” fame delivers “Tell-Tale Bart,” which is weirdly amusing for a few pages before veering into yet another Edgar Allan Poe parody. (The standard by which all others are judged is the terrific “Cask of Amontilla-D’Oh” from a few years back.) The book is rounded out by the obligatory guest rock-and-roll writer, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, who offers “Homer Goes to Hell” along with scripter Tom Peyer and artist Tony Rodriguez. The art is beautiful, but the story is just another dreary riff on “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”
Overall, my $4.99 bought me enough entertainment to feel satisfied, even if this isn’t the most stellar entry in the series. Like a trick-or-treat bag the morning after Halloween, you can probably pick through the issue and find something to your taste.
Commentary 16 Oct 2010 07:52 am
This week’s column, Oct. 14, 2010:
A flick of the wrist, three pumps, and it’s done.
Resetting the “check oil” light on my wife’s car is as simple as turning on the ignition (without starting the car) and depressing the accelerator three times. I do it after every oil change because either the technicians don’t know how, forget, or — in the words of that immortal scoundrel, Rhett Butler — don’t give a damn.
It doesn’t bother me because resetting the oil light is one of just seven maintenance tasks I can perform on a car, and this is only if one stretches the definition of maintenance to include things like screwing on the gas cap or wiping off the dashboard after a messy sneeze.
I remember reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” many years ago and becoming a convert, right up to the point where the author chides readers who operate motor vehicles without knowing how they work. My newly found inner calm went right out the window at that, along with my copy of the book.
America’s fascination with the automobile completely baffles me, almost as much as the country’s obsession with organized team sports. I see a car only in its most practical terms, as a means of conveyance and a place to store all the stuff that my wife would accidentally-on-purpose throw out if I brought it into the house. This is why the backseat of my vehicle has become a mini filing cabinet, home to mountains of paper that fade and yellow from the sun before being transferred to a more permanent home — the trunk.
Because I’ve been denied the gene that extends an aura of mystique to a hunk of steel, chrome and rubber, I’m a difficult customer in a dealership. The salesperson can yammer endlessly about sleek chassis and clean lines, but all I care about is the mileage and the radio. I have developed a little dog-and-pony show that involves kicking the tires, feigning interest in what lies under the hood, and asking about the flux capacitor, because the ability to travel through time is one of the few add-ons I would pay extra to receive.
Otherwise, cars don’t interest me much. I once went almost four years without changing the oil in a Chevy Nova. Every few months, I would just feed it a new can. That car cost me less money than any automobile since, and on all the others I’ve followed a more-or-less routine maintenance schedule. Coincidence or something more? You decide.
Among my other modest abilities are changing windshield wipers and adding new washer fluid — in most cases. I say “most” because sometimes the maze of tubes, hoses, wires and such beneath the hood is nearly hypnotic, and I can lose my concentration staring into it, like little Rikki Tikki Tavi being mesmerized by the undulating cobra in the “Jungle Book” story by Kipling.
(Kipling always reminds me of an old cartoon where a nerdy guy holds a book of the author’s work while sitting next to a beautiful woman. The woman looks at him archly and says something like, “You naughty boy, I never kipple on the first date.”)
If I keep my wits, I can usually figure out where to put the fluid, just as I can usually decipher the arcane arrows on the arm of windshield wipers that show how to release the old blade and snap the new one into place.
Of course, I have a perfect track record of changing wiper blades in the middle of torrential downpours or snowstorms, an extra challenge that ups the ante on my stress level considerably.
That’s when I could really use a copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Maybe I should buy a new one and keep it in the trunk next to all my other important stuff.
I had planned to pass on the latest Alice Cooper DVD/CD combo, Theatre of Death: Live at Hammersmith 2009. After all, how many versions of “School’s Out” and “18″ does a guy need?
At least one more, as it turns out. Despite having two or three other video versions of Cooper shows in my home library, I added this latest set to my collection today, and I’m glad I did. Beautifully filmed, the recording captures a set list and theatrical show virtually identical to the one my wife and I saw just a few weeks back in Cleveland. Apparently, the Cooper tradition of only changing shows every other year still holds true.
Basically, this is Cooper doing what he does best: Serving as ringleader for a group of talented younger musicians and ripping through as many classic tunes from his repertoire as possible. Only a few songs from the last decade make the cut (”Dirty Diamonds,” “Wicked Young Man” and “Vengeance Is Mine”), with a few more obscure hits (”Guilty” and “Nurse Rosetta,” the last one of my favorite Cooper tracks from the criminally under-appreciated 1979 album, From the Inside) inserted for good measure.
This DVD is better than 2005’s Live at Montreux, largely because the theatrics are much stronger. The Hammersmith show offers super-sized syringes, a hanging, a guillotining, and a disturbing belt-sander-to-the-crotch sequence. Cooper’s is in fine voice here, and damn if it doesn’t get stronger past the halfway point when he serves up two ballads in a row — “Only Women Bleed” and “I Never Cry.”
Band members Damon Johnson and Keri Kelli (guitars), Chuck Garric (bass) and Jimmy DeGrasso (drums) offer a tight set. Garric is especially effective when he takes over lead vocal duties on “I Love the Dead,” giving Cooper a chance to prep for the one-two-three punch of the finale, “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “Under My Wheels” and “School’s Out.”
Weak points? Well, opening and closing with “School’s Out” is overkill, even for such a seminal anthem, and I would love to hear Cooper give some of the newer songs from his oeuvre a chance live. With so many classics to choose from, it’s a tough decision to scratch an old standby in favor of something newer, but I wish the ratio of old to new wasn’t so skewed.
I’m glad I dropped sixteen dollars on this DVD. Doubtless, I’ll give it at least one more play before Halloween. If you’re into vintage hard rock with a theatrical flair, this one is practically nirvana.
Given all the heat Scott Snyder is generating over at DC/Vertigo with American Vampire, fans should be devouring Iron Man Noir, the hardback collection of the four-issue limited series that, prior to AV, was the writer’s highest profile comics work, albeit for Marvel.
Put simply, this is a fun book. Snyder and artist Manuel Garcia have successfully re-imagined Tony Stark as a daredevil adventurer in 1939, a combination Indiana Jones and Doc Savage with a touch of Howard Hughes thrown in for good measure.
The Noir Tony Stark has a heart condition like the modern version, and he uses his globetrotting after magical apparatuses as a way to find a cure for his ailment. Among his associates are James Rhodes and Gialetta Nefaria, although the latter’s surname is a big hint that she won’t stay on the side of the angels for long. Pepper Potts is hired to chronicle Stark’s adventures for a pulpish men’s magazine after his original chronicler is killed on a sortie to recover a magical green mask. Stark also enlists the help of a crusty old sea captain named Namor to ferry him and his crew on their various adventures, which includes a deep-sea dive to the ruins of Atlantis.
Somewhere in all this, Snyder finds a way to get Stark into a 1939-version of the Iron Man suit — gray and clunky but still fanboy cool, in a retro sort of way. It all leads to the pulse-pounding, Saturday-morning serial climax that readers expect from such a story, and Snyder and Garcia milk it for all the action and suspense it’s worth, leaving the door wide open for further adventures.
This book captures the sort of edgy modernization of the pulp magazine aesthetic that DC has been struggling to achieve with its First Wave line. (If Snyder has room in his schedule, maybe he could shoehorn in an arc for Doc Savage.) It’s probably too much to hope that DC left a loophole in the writer’s recent exclusive contract that allows him to write a sequel to Iron Man Noir. This rich, pulpy world deserves an encore mini-series, at the very least, and probably its own monthly.
Commentary 07 Oct 2010 06:38 pm
I was involved in a strange situation a few weeks ago. There’s no delicate way to say this, so I’ll just lay it on the line: Somebody identified me by my butt.
I was jogging down the street, minding my own business — a euphemism panting so profusely that I sounded like a caller to a 1-900 line where customers talk to Puerto Rican honeys who are really 800-pound sumo wrestlers with voices like Marilyn Monroe serenading JFK on his birthday — when a cyclist passed me from behind and commented, “I like your columns. I can relate.”
At first, I wasn’t sure if she was relating to my panting or my writing, but I eventually settled on the latter. It’s always nice to hear from a fan, so I wheezed something in response, maybe a thank you that sounded vaguely like “please call an ambulance” as she rolled off.
It was only later that I wondered how she knew who I was. To be honest, these days I don’t look much like the disembodied head that’s floating somewhere to the right of these words. That photo is more than a few years old, and my hair has gone the way of the mastodon and the saber-toothed tiger.
I wasn’t wearing anything that openly identified me, and I had never laid eyes on the cyclist before. Seeing as how she identified me from behind, all that’s left is my gluteus maximus. (Oddly, the spell-check on Microsoft Word doesn’t like “maximus” and suggests a) “maximum us,” as in, “I don’t want to be alone anymore, baby, let’s have a relationship and make it about maximum us,” or b) “maximums,” as in “I’ve used all my credit cards to the maximums, dude.” Weird.)
Anyway, by my butt she knew me.
This is worrisome for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that I want to be known for my mind, not for something as shallow as how nice my rump looks as it bobs up and down inside sweat-soaked shorts, just below my middle-aged love handles and right above my spindly, hairy legs.
To make matters worse, more and more people have taken to commenting that they’ve seen me running. Granted, none of them has owned up to identifying me by my rump, but who would? Now that my anonymous cycling fan has planted the seed in my head, it’s sprouting weird butt roots in all my running conversations. In other words, I’m beginning to suspect that my behind is behind many of these public sightings.
I’ve become self-conscious as a result, and have taken to wearing sweatpants and longer hooded sweatshirts to cover up my defining feature.
Is this the hellish life of a supermodel, always known for one’s shapely curves and cute dimples? Oh, the toxicity of our modern, superficial society, when a pale, gangly guy like me is afraid to appear publicly in running shorts, exposing his natural endowments to a world set on exploiting him.
How many pictures have been snapped without my knowledge? How many websites are devoted to exploiting my fanny? If I knew, I’d likely be appalled.
On second thought, I shouldn’t feel compelled to bury my great, uh, asset beneath shapeless clothing. I’m not the one who should be embarrassed, forced to hide his light, such as it is, beneath a bushel basket. It’s everybody else who should be cowed by their unabashed staring, their reduction of my gifts to the lowest common denominator, their objectification of my masculinity, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since Tiny Tim last tiptoed through the tulips, ukulele in hand.
Maybe my new philosophy of dress should be the same as my advice to those who gawk at my derriere: butt out.
And for those who take this too seriously, remember that on this subject, especially, my tongue is firmly in cheek.