Monday, March 31, 2008

Reading List: March 2008

Back again with the most poplar feature on this blog, which to be honest isn't saying much b/c I don't really get any traffic here. Anyway, March saw me complete 18 books, graphic novels, or plays, and here is what they were:

1. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: Rarely have I read something so captivating and haunting, yet I think McDonagh ultimately opens more doors than he actually steps through in this play. There is the age old nature v. nurture issue as well as the question of author responsibility, but I never felt that either issue was adequately addressed. However, I will read more of his work in the future, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend you see a performance if you get the chance.

2. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: Hailed as a low culture manifesto, Klosterman amuses and at times his observations are truly
insightful. For example, 'I've spent the last fifteen years if my life railing against the game of soccer, an exercise that has been lauded as the "Sport of the Future" since 1977. Thankfully, that future dystopia has never come.' I also enjoyed the way he wrote intelligently about Saved by the Bell, and I think what saves this from being just another lousy Benbella Smart Pop anthology is that Klosterman is a very talented writer. However, several of the pieces focused heavily on music, and not caring about music much at all, I'm not sure if I'll read more his work any further.

3. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa: Star Trek authors take note--this is how to do fanwank. Rosa read through all of Carl Barks's stories and worked in a reference to all of them in a seemingly effortless way. But on top of all that, we get a wildly entertaining story detailing Scrooge's life from the age of six to the beginning of Barks's stories. As inane and crappy as I find modern Disney, there is real gold in these comics. I enjoyed them when I was a kid, and they stand up as entertaining twenty years later.

4. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James: Read my extended review here.

5. Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt: This is Offutt's first story collection, and it is easy to see why he is probably the best Appalachian writer around. He has a way of capturing the feeling of being trapped and stagnant on a hill in Kentucky and making it relevant to someone who has lived his entire life in a big city. I am finding that I pre
fer his fiction to his two memoirs, and he is worth a look.

6. The White Album by Joan Didion: The author has a way of inserting herself into the essays she writes, yet it never seems intrusive or out of place. As I read I learn, and I am moved. What more could we ask of an essayist?

7. The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman, et al.: Since the Sandman is in many ways an unlikeable character, it was hard to really get worked up over the conclusion to the saga. Everything was moving inevitably towards a climax, yet that inevitability didn't seem natural, and it didn't keep me from wanting to skip ahead. I'm also not a big fan of Marc Hempel's artwork which is a little too unrefined for my tastes. I suppose I could see it work in another comic, but it didn't hold together for me here.

8. Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard:
I decided to avoid the incest angle when reading this play, and instead focused on the starvation and the hoped for salvation of the working class that Shepard presents. The family lives on a deteriorating farm, impoverished, and is beset on all sides by amoral speculators, strife, and the cunning manipulation between the estranged parents and the disoriented children who seek their future between the shelter of an unfulfilling home and an alienating outside world. The characters seem to feel that this curse is intrinsic, as when Ella says, “Do you know what this is? It's a curse. I can feel it. It's invisible but it's here. It's always there. It comes onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming. Even when you try to change it. And it goes back. Deep.” Not only is the family literally starving, but they are starving from a dearth of opportunity. Shepard reflects the desolate frontier in a way that rings so true, yet is so different from most stories about the west. I'm not a huge fan og his, but I am starting to like him much more than I have in the past.

9. The Wake by Neil Gaiman, et al.: The title of this final volume gives away the whole saga now that I think about it. As I said about The Kindly Ones, my ambivalence about the Sandman made this volume less interesting as well, though I did feel the storyline with Matthew was quite well done. I also enjoyed seeing Shakespeare again, but what stood out for me was the story Exiles, drawn by Jon J. Muth. Like my friend Brendan Moody, I think that the Sandman is at its best when focusing on a solitary story.

10. The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender: What could have been a well researched scholarly thesis on the comic essentially was merely an extended interview of Gaiman by Bender. Much is said, but little is contextualized, leaving a great deal up to the reader to just already know or research independently.

11. The Plot
Against America by Philip Roth: Though the dynamics of the Roth family will be familiar to those who have read Patrimony, The Facts, or maybe even Operation Shylock, the success of this novel is the way Roth has reimagined what his family would have done had America gone anti-Semitic during WW2. As you probably know, Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 election and becomes an isolationist president, signing pacts with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But Roth never manages to make us believe that this alternate history is really happening; we never stop comparing it to actual history. There are several appendices at the novel's conclusion, but none of them seemed necessary for me. Do I really need short biographical entries on the major players when I could easily, were I actually interested, just go look up the same facts on the Internet? There are times that I am afraid that I've already read all the good Roth.

12. The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz: After reading Michaelis's biography of Schulz earlier this year, I knew I had to read through the Fantagraphics collections one day. The evolution of the strip, of course, was the most captivating thing about this volume. Charlie Brown was much meaner, Shermy is the first character to speak, and by the end of the second year he is all but gone. Snoopy starts as a regular dog and goes from there. However, it was interesting to see that Schulz often had his punchlines hit in panel three, with panel four being a direct address to the reader as the children chased each other. Perhaps this sense of timing made it easier for Schulz to make the shift in the strip's later years to only three panels. This will have to be something I watch for as i make my way through the collections.

13. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: After reading James M. Cain's novels a couple of years ago for a class, I become interested in the way that crime noir stories were presented in the literary fiction of their contemporaries. And seeing how highly people thought of Chandler, i finally got around to reading this classic. Maybe noir stories just aren't for me, or maybe I can't understand the book's innovative nature due to my own historical situation, but this just didn't really work for me. Cain's narrators were more effective because he wrote in the past tense rather than the present, so their is a sense of pain and loss in the retelling that isn't there as events unfold.

14. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard: While I'm not a fan of absurdist drama, this works for me even though it has no plot-the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet gives the reader enough background to make sense of what is going on. When the characters get farther and farther away from the action in Hamlet, the more absurd the drama gets. I couldn't help but think of Jasper Fforde as I read, seeing that they are unable to change the plot of Hamlet no matter what they do. They are looking for agency over their fates, yet like all absurdist drama, there is no agency to be found. And nothing is funnier than seeing the main characters looking into the wings at hamlet, asking each other, 'Is he talking to himself again?' I never really liked this play before, but now I might have to consider it a favorite.

15. Buried Child by Sam Shepard: Since I had read this play before, I focused on the most interesting and unresolved aspect, at least for me: the mystery of the buried child. Who was the father? I thought Tilden, but it could have been Ansel too. Dodge apparently killed it to protect the family, but maybe he killed it merely because it was a living reminder of his wife’s infidelity and incestuous relationship with one of their sons. But what really bugs me more than anything is why no one recognizes Vince whenever he arrives. Perhaps what Shepard is getting at is that the true mystery is how we happen to be born into the family we are born into, or how we turn out the way we do. These are unanswerable questions, for while they can be discussed at length, the way we turn out is subject to much stimuli and all of it can’t necessarily be reconciled. The only solution that seems somewhat likely is that Vince and the buried child are indeed the same person, each one a fantasy of what the other may have been under different circumstances.

16. The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter: Another absurdist romp, but I liked this one too. Pinter almost entirely rips off Beckett here, two characters waiting for someone to meet them. Again they are seeking some kind of
agency over their lives, yet they seem to be part of a huge corporation and are unable to see the big picture as to why they must do what they must. To me it was analagous to foot soldiers in the military, Ben being able to follow orders w/o question, while Sam continued to 'reason why.'

17. The Learners by Chip Kidd: Kidd is best known as the designer of book covers, so it's not surprising to see him have fun with the typography and design of his novels. Based around the Stanley Milgram experiments, Kidd interweaves advertising and graphic design with the story of a tortured soul named Happy. For me the most interesting aspect was the distinguishing of form and content in graphic design, and how that distinction carried through to other aspects of the novel. It got a little slow in the third act, but it still was a positive experience for me. However, Kidd has a way to go before he starts firing on all cylinders in his fiction, though I will be along for the ride.

18. Dutchman by Amiri Baraka: I used to see this as a study in binaries, but now I am seeing it more as a biblical tale dealing with the Fall of Man. Here is a real counterculture figure who has maintained his dedication long after the sixties have ended, and this play is him at his best. Perhaps I will have more to say about this in a few days.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

LeBron's Vogue Cover & Mikhail Bakhtin

When Vogue announced its April cover would feature basketball superstar LeBron James and supermodel Giselle Bundchen, the magazine noted with some fanfare that it would be the first time a black man had graced the cover.

But the image is stirring up controversy, with some commentators claiming that the picture reinforces racial stereotypes. People are saying that the image conjures up the idea of a dangerous black man. Magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it ‘screams King Kong.’ Prominent sportswriter Jason Whitlock says that the cover merely shows African American athletes as they really are; he asks, ‘When Johnson slaps in his gold teeth, dyes and cuts his hair into a blonde Mohawk, dances a jig in the end zone and makes life absolute hell on his black coach, that is fun and good for the game. But when King James apes King Kong it is a terrible blow to the perception of black men.’

Sports radio has been buzzing with varying interpretations of the cover, with most white men saying that they see James in the cover as merely an athlete who is celebrating the fact that he is rich and has a beautiful woman on his arm the way he would celebrate a spectacular slam-dunk on the court. However, many black men have stated the opposite: that someone should have recognized how these images would be seen by the greater public. (Not too many women call into sports radio.)

So what is the correct answer? How should we view this cover? Or rather, how can we reconcile all the different interpretations this cover has generated?

Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that criticism must recognize that the meaning of a literary work depends on the historical situation of the text, the social situation of the reader and the complex interaction that is generated by the act of reading. In his essay ‘The Problem of Speech Genres,’ he wants the idea of speech genres to honor both constraints and openness in communication, which Bizzell and Herzberg say allows us to view these genres as ‘rhetorical situations and to see Bakhtin’s argument as a way of extending rhetoric’s gaze to every act of speaking or writing’ (1208). Therefore, I believe it is possible to call the LeBron cover of
Vogue a literary text, and read it in the way Bakhtin describes.

The perception of LeBron’s image as King Kong-esque is a result of the historical situation of the African American community in this nation, and they way they have been classically depicted in the media, from lazy slaves to the racist crows in Dumbo. For viewers of this image to whom these depictions are insulting and the feelings still relatively raw, it isn’t too difficult to see how this pose, on the cover of a widely circulated magazine that proudly admitted that in 2008 it was putting its
first black man on that cover, could be easily read as racist in nature. However for readers to whom these depictions seem archaic and not part of their daily existence in a racially mixed community, it isn’t surprising that they only see the cover as an athlete with a beautiful woman. Of course, this view also stems from the social situation of the reader as well, another of Bakhtin’s criteria for good criticism.

No certain view is correct, but the rhetorical situation the image of LeBron James and Giselle Bundchen embodies is different for each reader of the text because each reader brings a different social situation with them. And the complex interaction that is generated by the act of reading is different for each reader for precisely these reasons. I’m not sure how Mikhail Bakhtin would react to the April cover of
Vogue, but I know that he wouldn’t see any of these interpretations as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ only credibly different.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

Who was the person that opened your eyes and helped you realize that there was so much more out there for you to know, so much that until then you never even knew existed?

Mine were opened in my third semester of college, listening to hour-long lectures twice a week in English Literature. Professor James Soderholm was the sort of intellect that up until that point I had never encountered before. He seemed to know everything about everything, and he was the standard that my roommate and I held ourselves to, aspiring to one day become professors ourselves.

Professor Soderholm discussed knowledge as an inverted pyramid: the more you learned and moved up the
pyramid, the more there was to know. However, I think this analogy is somewhat flawed, and I would offer another as a substitute. Personal knowledge is like a circle. Everything inside that circle is what you know, and as you learn the circle grows in area. However, what’s outside the circle is what you don’t know, and as the circumference of your knowledge grows, the greater the amount of unknown material is in contact with it.

The more you know, the more you are forced to realize you don’t. And in a corollary, the people who think they know just about everything only think that because their circle is s small; it doesn’t border all that much of the unknown.

Reading Clive James’s mammoth book of essays, Cultural Amnesia, I was again struck by how much knowledge I don’t have. He selected one hundred individuals that are deserving of our attention as students of the culture in which we live, and presented an essay (or sometimes two or three) on each. Why should we care? James cites Nirad C. Ch
audhuri, who says ‘civilization continues through the humane examination of its history.’

I consider myself a reasonably informed person, someone who might do quite well on Jeopardy one day, but I had only passing familiarity with maybe a third of the people James selected. I’d never heard of Egon Friedell, Miguel de Unamuno, or Alexandra Kollontai. And many of the ones I had heard of, like Raymond Aron, I knew nothing more than a name.

But these chapters aren’t biographies. They are essays that use their subjects as launching pads for greater issues and associations. The entry on Michael Mann discusses the difference between stage acting and acting for the screen, the necessity that narration work in a particular art form, and when movie stars become actors. The essay on Chaplin is really about Einstein.

It can be a bit of a mystery as to why James opted for the people he did. For example, why of all the Hollywood directors that have impacted the cinema and our greater art scene, does he only select Michael Mann? No John Ford
, or Orson Welles, or even David Lynch? But then one remembers the title: Cultural Amnesia. James is trying to insure that we don’t forget certain lessons that may be best exemplified by these people. There is little chance that we will forget Steven Spielberg, but I would imagine that we likely will forget Michael Mann.

James ends the book by saying, ‘What I tried to do was keep some [of what I’ve read] with me and draw lessons from it.’ And perhaps this is the most important reason to read a book that weighs in at just under 900 pages. There is no way for us to remember everything that we read, see, or hear, but we can try to keep with us what we can, learning all the while.

After finishing the book this evening, I sat down with a book of Joan Didion’s essays and read an account of a debate over the pro/anti-racist nature of The Confessions of Nat Turner between author William Styron and Ossie Davis. It took place at the house of Sammy Davis, Jr., and James Baldwin played the mediator role. How perfect a scene like this would be in James’s book, informing the reader of not just the careers of the people included, but getting a sense of who they were as people.

My circle is much bigger than it was ten months ago when I started this book. I hope it grows even bigger in the next ten.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hugh Blair & John Updike: Two Critics

In the late 1700s, Hugh Blair said that the basis of criticism is precisely the practice of carefully observing the sources of aesthetic pleasure and deriving rules of judgment from the best performances. For the first time in our studies this semester, we see a scholar advancing rhetoric not for the purpose of implementation first, but rather with the idea that it can be used to evaluate the quality of another person’s work.

A career as a professional critic has always had a certain appeal to me, and I have tried several times to practice the art of the book review. My guide for these attempts has always been John Updike, who among a lot of other things he has written, has produced four books of literary criticism and contributes regularly to The New Yorker. In his foreword to one of these collections, Picked-Up Pieces, he details of two of his personal rules for good critical opinion, and I was surprised when reading Blair at how well their two philosophies overlapped with each other.

Updike’s first rule: ‘Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.’ Blair has much the same opinion when he speaks about the different degrees of eloquence (971). According to him, the lowest form of eloquence is that which aims only at pleasing the hearers, and that this mere ornamentational design is not to be rejected for it may innocently and amusingly entertain the mind. Blair wouldn’t want us to criticize a speaker for failing to persuade his audience if that wasn’t his intention.

Updike also says that ‘if a book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere.’ Essentially, Updike is saying that not only does an example (or likely many) of effective style exist but can be called upon to justify why a certain work fails to achieve effective status. As Blair says in his lecture on the subject, Taste ‘is a faculty common in some degree to all men’ (955). Though he is quick to explain that taste differs between men based on environment and practice in the ability to discern good taste, he still suggests that there is a bar of taste that must be reached or exceeded to be conferred with the appellation of ‘good,’ and that for the most part, people agree on what this bar is. This is the idea of a ‘standard,’ what Blair defines as properly signifying ‘that which is of such undoubted authority as to be the test of other things of the same kind’ (959).

While the rest of Updike’s rules deal too specifically with the art of the book review to be easily reconciled with the scholarship of Blair, I think that where the men differ in their opinions on criticism, they only do in an insubstantial way. I suppose this is to be expected since Updike went to prep schools that were likely based on the pedagogy of Blair.

I think it would be interesting to look at how the more general art of literary criticism uses rhetoric in two opposite, but complementary, effects. Learning the art of rhetoric is a valuable way to assess the level of success others have at achieving it, but one must further apply that knowledge in a different way when writing their evaluations for the consumption of others.

The idea of critical ethics also arises when the supposed standard of good taste is shifted for reasons that are beyond the bounds of criticism. For example, one might review a romance novel positively because they employ Updike’s first rule: for what it attempts, it is successful. But were the book not considered in good taste but reviewed that way to gain favor, or for financial considerations, we would consider this an ethical lapse. The undoubted authority of works that bear the standard can shift as times and societies change, of course, but shifting in this instance is either disingenuous or fraudulent. I would be interested to see at what point in history such ideas are addressed, and by who.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Reading List: Februrary 2008

Last month I managed to finish 14 books, plays, or graphic novels, and here is what they were:

1. The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco: The whole play is an absurdist romp conflating sex and power in a mildly inventive way. Rhinoceros was better, but I guess this wasn't all that bad.

2. Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello: Fans of Jasper Fforde will want to look into Pirandello. However, rather than all the manipulations of characters v. real people, I find myself more taken with the theme of how one event in the past can define you and stick with you, limiting your freedom in the present.

3. The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith: You can read my terrible review here, or you can accept that like most anthologies, some of the stories were great and others awful. I bought it for Chris Ware, and that was about all I got.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde: Why is it that when a farce is produced today, you must check your intellect at the door and be ready to laugh at tit and fart jokes for an hour and a half? I really enjoye
d this play b/c it allowed me to enjoy it simultaneously on a sophomoric and intellectual level.

5. Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill: No other work of fiction that I have read so accurately portrays the family dynamics in a household of alcoholics. This is a truly great play.

6. In the Garden of Iden by Kage Baker: Brendan Moody has raved about The Company series for a couple of years, and I decided to give it a shot. Though I found it interesting, there wasn't the level of intrigue that I thought the overall situation justified, and I was underwhelmed. Though I've been assured that the series ramps upward w/r/t complicating the metastory, I'm not sure I'll be going back to the well.

7. Galileo by Bertolt Brecht: I'm planning n writing a substantial review of a portion of this play later, and I am also writing a aper analyzing the different versions Brecht produced, so I will only say here that I enjoy this play very much.

8. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett: Do Estragon and Vladimir live in a post-apocalyptic world? And if so, is it the same post-apocalyptic world from Endgame? What if Jon came up with an idea for a paper he didn't want to write?

9. Citizen Vince by Jess Walter: A period piece crime suspense story. Whats not to like? The novel isn't w/o its faults, like the narration shifting to Jimmy Carter's and Ronald Reagan's POV for no damn reason, but it was an exciting ride.

10. Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen: Supposedly a great play, Hedda being a Lady MacBeth type role, but I didn't see it. She's an unlikable, manic depressive. But Ibsen has the best sideburns in theater history.

11. Sandman: World's End by Neil Gaiman, et al: A nice collection of short stories, with the frame story portending some sort of horrific end for the Sandman. Gaiman is an accomplished author, but I've never found the Sandman comics to live up to some of his prose work, though perhaps that's b/c I'm reading all this in reverse chronological order.

12. Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet: Picked this up on a whim, but found it a nice little collection of essays, the best of which was "Radio Drama." Invoking the dirty joke principle, Mamet counsels young playwrights on what to leave out of a narrative b/c of its unimportance. For instance, in a dirty joke when a salesman's car b
reaks down in the country and the farmer's daughter opens the door when he knocks for help, it doesn't matter what state they are in, what the farmer grows, or what color the girl's hair is. The only thing that matters is what is moving us toward the punchline, and in drama the only thing that matters it what moves us towards the climax.

13. The Homecoming by Harold Pinter: I've read this play several times, so I think I may be done with it unless I get the chance to see it staged. The way Pinter uses pauses have them full of meaning, and the way he has so many characters spouting bullshit makes one wonder if all the meaning isn't in those silences, rather than the words the characters are speaking.

14. Some Girl(s) by Neil LaBute: This is the sort of play I would write, or at least try to, but I wouldn't have had the weak ending (or probably any ending). I've read most of LaBute's work and feel that he's losing his edge. On reaching the end, I thought 'Who cares?' Also, I may quit reading the opening cast lists at the front of plays b/c I couldn't read Guy's part w/o thinking of David Schwimmer, and that was unfortunate.