Thursday, December 30, 2010

STL #96: The Year in Reading (2010)

This was a disappointing year. What I most like to do is read and write, and as I look back, I see I didn't do much of either. A scant few posts to the blog after last year in reading post. In my reading log, pitiful few choices to winnow down for this year in reading. Oh, I write quite a bit. Comments on papers that are unread or ignored. A novel and a screenplay, both unfinished. I read a fair amount too. Horrible wretched prose by teenagers who likely will never improve. Distractions of modest length skimmed online. Even so, my list below is pretty decent, and shows that my mind isn't quite dead yet.


  1. Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies. This, despite my grousing above, is a pretty impressive mark. I finally got done with the most obvious hole in my reading, Romeo and Juliet along with the rest  of Shakespeare's ten tragedies and ten history plays. I'm not done with them, as I'm reading Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World and plan to go back to my play-by-play (heh) revisitation. The reading was sometimes frustrating and confusion, and sometimes illuminating. As I went along, I watched many of the film versions too. One of the worst movies I watched last year was O, based on "Othello." One of the best of the Russian King Lear, a black metal diadem of a film. 
  2. Salinger. Works. Salinger is one of the easiest writers to read the complete works of, barring any posthumous deluge. I reread and enjoyed all his books. The "Franny" story was probably my favorite, along with a few of the nine stories. "Seymour: An Introduction" was probably my least favorite because of it's too devoted reporting of the details of Seymour's life and death. 
  3. Scott Pilgrim. So lightweight it doesn't seem to belong here. But the thick books are delightful and quick. My favorite moment is the awkward shift about halfway through the first book where O'Malley finally figures out what kind of book he's writing and prepares for the first exhibition of Scott's heretofore unmentioned kung fu with a chorus line number.  
  4. I'll balance it out with the heavier Skim  by the Tamaki sister and Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. The graphic elements of these books are far more accomplished than the previous and more essential to the works than the following.
  5. While I'm at it, I'll throw in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel by Azarello and Bremejo. While I don't like the heavily rendered style of art, the writer Azarello absolutely won me over to Luthor's side of the conflict.
  6. Blackswan Green. David Mitchell. I listened to the audio book on my iPod. I was totally enveloped by the technique even so.
  7. Rabbit, Run. While theoretically I turn my nose up at and the pedestrian realism that Updike represents, it was well-written and a legitimate stab at the Great American Novel.
  8. Dancing in the Dark. Morris Dickstein's book could have been more comprehensive (why ignore comics, bub?), but tells the cultural story of the Great Depression in readable prose. 
  9. Hunger Games. Came across this shortly after watching the Japanese film Battle Royal (best movie I saw this year) that begins with the same premise more or less.  Read the rest of the trilogy, of course, though they couldn't live up to the first one.
  10. The Comics Journal 1987-2004. I scored a big stack of these for a dime apiece at the annual library sale. Watching the magazine change over the years was very interesting. It represented a critical industry without an object. Early issues would talk about issue of X-Men or Asterix and mostly complain about the medium's untapped potential. That general stance continued over the years, but at least a more respectable body of work grew up around them. I  also read a lot of New Yorkers which proved a more satisfying option to the Sunday paper. I work down a big stack every few months, and it's time to make another move on a building stack.
  11. Even as I complain that it was a bad year, I'm going to put in two extra slots. If you prefer, imagine 4-5-6 all packed into one slot. In any case, I realized after completing the ten that I overlooked Cory Doctorow's Makers. While I have some complaints about Doctorow as a stylist, he does represent an important ethos that this book attests too. Also, I selected it for my first ever winter reading group, so I'll be reading it again in order to discuss it with my students. 
  12. My records weren't the best this year, so I could be wrong about Makers and Skim.  I know that I read E.M. Forester's Aspects of the Novel, not for the first time, because I finished it yesterday. It formed the basis for a year of novel reading for the wife and I next year. We'll start big with Tom Jones (maybe Moll Flanders if there's time), then move on to Tristam Shandy (Sentimental Journey too), Mill on the Floss (maybe Silas Marner or Daniel Deronda), Sons and Lovers (and The Rainbow and Women in Love), and Ulysses (plus Portrait). We'll then read James Wood's How Fiction Works and make another list for then second half of the year, starting with Henry James. 
 Other books in my stack include a book on Highway 61 Revisited, Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, Elephantmen, and two volumes of Nick Hornby's Believer columns, which, in the way they chronicle one man's reading life, will be good inspiration for this blog in 2011.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

STL #95: How do you blog about Shakespeare?

So I've been reading my way through Shakespeare's plays in my spare time over the last year and a half. I started with the comedies, which took six months, then hopped to the end of my Riverside Shakespeare to read the romances (essentially his late, and less straightforwardly funny, comedies) over winter break. I began this year with a chronological reading of the histories (by time of the plot, not order of composition), and now am halfway through the tragedies. I haven't mentioned this reading here for two reasons: 1) I hardly write about anything here anymore; and 2) how do you blog about Shakespeare? The words "blog" and "Shakespeare" don't combine promisingly. One is ephemeral, imperfect and the other (rightly or wrongly) signifies the eternal and blotless. My posts are somewhat developed for an unaffiliated Internet poster (and I avoid the words blog and blogger), but it's hard to imagine myself writing anything that isn't cant and trite. Given my relative laziness (I'll read the plays and maybe the introduction in my edition, but have done no serious research) couple with a lack of training (by no means am I a Shakespearian scholar), what insight am I likely to bring? Instead, isn't it far more likely that I'll embarrass my anonymous self and mislead the legions of readers of this blog out there?

But my objections, that I'll embarrass myself or mislead my readers, are defeated in stating them: I do this anonymously, far from my professional life, and this forum remains in blessed obscurity. The reasons I keep returning to this space aren't entirely clear to me, but I think the following apply: it's a kind of r&d lab in which I might strike on something brilliant that I can develop and use elsewhere; it helps me figure out what I think about topics that matter to me; I remember things I write about much better than things I don't write about; it's fun, after a fashion.

Would writing about Shakespeare be so different than my adventures through Don Allen's "New American Poetry" anthology? You remember, dear reader, the epic run of STL #65-91, my dogged commentary on each poet included in that book. Half the time I was talking out of my ass, so why is it any different if the topic is Two Gentlemen of Verona rather than "A Supermarket in California"? Is it just because I don't need a footnote to explain what the setting is? My gigantic scholarly edition has those anyway. Using the lab framework, there isn't much difference, though I think I'm less likely to ever write anything formal about Shakespeare.

What would I gain by the writing? Primarily, the act of composition would help be regain what I've already started to lose-- a recall of the plays. Which one is Olivia? Is she in the one in Illyria? What was it Hamlet said to Osric (I just read that one, but I can't really remember) about his "bonnet"? Writing even a brief note on each play would help me reclaim it in my memory--and each note could be a gesture toward what I want to retain. But if I write as an aid to memory, what am I trying to reclaim? Or, to put this question another way, what did I hope to gain by the reading in the first place? That is not a question I can deal with here--the majority of my interior life is based on a reading regime which I continue on the faith that it enriches my life. But that remuneration can't continue if I forget the material, whatever its nature might be.

Two of my favorite modes of operare deliberation and codification. I love to decide in writing, and I love to establish rules for myself to follow. So having determined that I can proceed, the real question is how should I proceed? Since the reading project has encompassed the whole body of Shakespeare's drama, I'd like to touch on each play, if only briefly. Since I'm nearing the end, that suggests a retrospective: I'm late in the tragedies, but began early in the comedies. This might be a good opportunity to put the plays back together in a way different than I read them: in the (supposed) order of composition. I did begin reading with one Shakespeare's first plays, the "Comedy of Errors," but my reading order led to seeing how his comedy developed. What if I reconsidered the "Comedy" as the play between Richard III and Titus Andronicus? Not that I'm in any position to expansively synthesize themes--such things have been done before I'm sure. No, this reconsideration is simply to help me think about the plays again.

So I'll return through them in order of composition. To further the concept of this writing project as a reclamation for memory, each piece will focus on something I find worth remembering about the play in question--a scene, an insight, or some piece of language. I know that I want to commit some few lines to memory, so I'll start with Shakespeare's first words as a dramatist.

Henry VI, a three-part potboiler, starts with a series of speeches bemoaning the death of King Henry V, who Shakespeare will chronicle later in a far better play. Henry VI is a clunkly, obtuse play, but right from the beginning we can see the playwright's verbal gifts. The Duck of Bedford opens the play:

"Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry's death.
King Henry the Fift, too famous to live too long!
England ne'er lost a king of so much worth."

Notice the sound patterns at play here--interlocking aspirant h and b in the first line, which introduces the liquid l that manifests in the l and r's holding together the middle lines. The kr of crystal turns around in the form of "scourge" which takes the returning b and a sequence of l and r's as its object. The rhetoric of the passage is interesting itself--using a astronomical sign to punish the engines of the fate, the "bad revolting stars" who are blamed for taking Henry V, and the fine line of saying not that Henry was the best king (and therefore better than the current king) but the best they have lost.

I'll let this happy beginning stand in for the entire trilogy. So having begun, I'll try to continue at a fairly rapid pace. Next week, I'll do address at least "Richard III" and "The Comedy of Errors."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

STL #94: Evil or Divine

Ronnie James Dio died a little more than a month ago. He was 67, died of cancer, and is the first metal person to die from what is sort of old age. His passing was noted as expected in the media--the second singer Black Sabbath, he who introduced the devil horns into the metal world, fronting his own band in the 80's, etc. While to the casual follower of pop culture he was the guy who replaced Ozzy, to the metal world he was unto a god. (See Lars Ulrich's moving letter to Dio.)

Dio is an example of a the role of lead singers in the metal world. When Ritchie Blackmore hired him to be the lead singer in what was originally called "Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow," it clearly showed that the identity of a band was not necessarily derivative of the lead singer's personality. Tony Iommi must have been taking notes, because he hired Dio to replace the charismatic but unreliable Ozzy Osbourne a few years later. Band identities in metal are not linked to a line-up of players; in most bands, most of the players were replaceable. The singer, like any other member, was a hired gun, and could choose to leave or be fired in a corporate model. While this might seem to lead to a kind of facelessness or interchangeability, it also encourages competition and virtuosity--if you are good enough, you could rocket to the highest reaches. Dio was definitely good enough: nearly every fan debate on Dio vs Osbourne era Sabbath begins with the premise that Dio is one of the three or so best singers in metal. He might have felt miffed by lack of appreciation in his two previous bands, since he learned the key to job security after leaving Sabbath--if you name the band after yourself, they can never fire you. Both Rainbow and Black Sabbath carried on with other singers, though of course the band Dio never could.

As a sometime resident of the metal world, I knew him as a giant voiced, impassioned singer--he was what we call in that realm, "awesome". His voice was always what you would call "big" but not, as some recent commentators have said, "operatic." Unlike Rob Halford of Bruce Dickinson, he never used his pipes for sheer pyrotechnics. I've listened to a lot of his work lately, including his early band Elf and even some of his doo-wop stuff recorded as Ronnie and the Prophets, and he also had a sense of phrasing in service of the lyrics.His awesomeness can be demostrated in a relatively short playlist. I'd skip over his first 15 years and start it with "Man on the Silver Mountain" (1976) when he was the lead singer in Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. Then "Heaven and Hell" (1980) from his first Black Sabbath album and "Mob Rules" from the second, and round it off with three from his band Dio: "Holy Diver" (1983), "Rainbow in the Dark" (1983) and "The Last in Line" (1984). This last song in particular has been a longtime fascination of mine. Emerging from the contemplative first minute, it is an example of the chiaroscuro technique beloved by classic metal--to go from light to dark, light to heavy, at a moment's notice. The moment of transformation, of waking up, occurs with one of the greatest high intensity screams of eighties metal is at the 53 second mark of "The Last in Line," when he kicks it up to 11: "We are coming... HOME!"

The lyrics of "The Last in Line" meant a lot to when inscribing them on the inside of my Pee-Chee at the age of 14, but I'm still moved by them now. Dio's work has a penchant for repeated imagery of an elemental variety: "We are fire, we are stone" that creates a sameness when bingeing on his music, but summons an archetypal mood in the moment. Sometimes this elemental imagery muddles into non sense, like in "Mob Rules": "If you play with fire, you'll burn your fingers, and lose ahold of the flame." In "The Last in Line," though, there is nary a false step. He flirts with incoherence in the second verse: "We are all born upon the cross/We're the throw before the toss"--what does that mean? But that moment of bafflement is washed aside, everytime I hear it, by the dynamic fall at the end of the line "You can release yourself but the only way to go is down."

The grandeur his voice perfectly suits his major theme the problematic search for the truth. This is present in all of the songs I mentioned above, and is the primary topic of "The Last in Line." Truth is the ultimate goal ("We search for the Truth, We could die upon the Truth") but it is never clear--we will not know until the Final Reckoning is "We're Evil or Divine." In this case, the search for truth is bound up with his other great lyrical theme, loyalty. In the song, he forms a community of the cast out and abject in the chorus--"We're the last in line." Watching online videos of performances, I saw a communal aspect (in the sense both of community and communion) of this song in particular. The crowd would come alive, joining in singing and throwing the horns with the master himself.

Dio explained that the devil horns were taught to him as by his superstitious Italian grandmother. Pointing out with the fingers down is a method of giving the evil eye, that is, of cursing an enemy. Held up, in the ubiquitous heavy metal salute, is a means of blocking the evil eye. So what is commonly viewed as Satan worship is actually a spell of protection. The horns are a unifier--gathered together, his people, the last in line, were protected, and learned the occult means to protect themselves (forbidden knowledge to be sure). There is a sense of allegiance in throwing the horns--you gain the protection and fellowship of a community, but don't succumb to the fellowship of Christianity and 'upstanding society' that has travestied itself so many times over.

When a public figure dies, the rest of us strive to make sense of what his or her life meant. Newspaper obituaries and fan tributes both recap the major events of the deceased and in varying degrees, make an argument about why he or she was important to the culture and society he or she departed. Though Dio made his impact in less than a decade's time, his longevity is part of his legacy. Tenacious D helped RJD experience a kind of revival in the last few years, through a novelty song about how RJD was too old to rock anymore, and should pass the torch on to Tenacious D. This is intended as joke of course--Jack Black couldn't hold a torch if there was one to offer, but it's true that at this Dio's flame will keep burning in all the rites he originated.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Curio: Best Films of 2005

Jotted on a piece of paper I've had in my files for a while (since winter of 2006, I'd suppose).

  1. 2046
  2. Brokeback Mountain
  3. Crash (?)
  4. Sin City
  5. The Squid and the Whale
  6. King Kong (??)
  7. Broken Flowers
  8. Skeleton Key
  9. Aristocrats
  10. Match Point
The backlash against Crash has changed my mind about it, and I have no idea what I was thinking about King Kong. Probably just being contrary. I'm glad to see Skeleton Key, but I clearly remember seeing both that and Red Eye on the same night, and think I like Red Eye better.

Friday, January 8, 2010

STL #93: Films of the Decade.

Top 25 movies of the decade: The first ten are ranked; the rest are roughly ranked but with the combinations there's some obvious slippage. All told I mention 35 movies: 22 date from 2000-2004, 13 from the second half of the decade. The top four years are 2001 (6), 2000, 2003, and 2009. The number from 2009 is probably due to recency inflation, and only Rachel Getting Married is a top 25 film overall. So was the first part of the decade better, am I seeing fewer movies, or does the retrospective nature of such a list privilege the earlier material? Another option is that I wrote more regularly about movies in 2003-4, and perhaps those movies have an advantage.

  1. In the Mood for Love (2000). The most beautiful movie I ever saw, in depth and on surface.
  2. Kill Bill (2003-4). Part 1 reviewed previously in STL #16.
  3. Lost In Translation (2003). Reviewed in STL #14
  4. Royal Tenenbaums (2001). I would like, sooner or later, to take on Anderson's work. This to me is not only the best of the decade but better than Rushmore. At face value, it seems to be an ambitiosly art-directed adaptation of Salinger's Glass family, but every time I watch it I get a little bit more out of it.
  5. Almost Famous (2000). Pure charm.
  6. WALL-E (2008). Completely unexpected--I simply had not liked the big animated movies of the preceding 10 years. In retrospect, Ratatouille's solidity was the beginning of a now 3 movie streak for Pixar.
  7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Reviewed (poorly) in STL #38.
  8. Etre et Avoir (2002) In STL #35 , my top 10 films of 2003, I said of this and Spellbound "some of the best movies of the last 10 years have been documentaries, because real life has a way of bucking against cliche and histrionics. Note the vivid personalities in these movies are achieved without actors."
  9. Children of Men (2006). Has the gravity and composition comparable to any canonical classic. I would like to see this again.
  10. The Wrestler (2008). Just like I lauded Lost In Translation's use of music, the music here is heartbreaking for its faded glitzy fragility: "Round and Round" in the bar, and the final entrance to "Sweet Child O' Mine" as a valediction/elegy.

Volver (2006)/Talk to Her (2002). Two Almodovars linger like dreams.
Amelie (2001): Its cuteness, which draws you to it at first, might be a liability.
Team America World Police (2004)/Borat (2006). They bring the funny, and they question the whole notion of taste. Team America might want to be in the top 10, but I couldn't quite get it there. Borat is fine with the lower 20's.
Momento (2000)/JCVD (2008): Two action-movies with fascinating formal features. Both cause us to question what we're seeing: Momento through the structure, JCVD by enlisting our own capacity for illusion.
Rachel Getting Married (2009)/Monsoon Wedding (2001). Both have great ensembles. Both are smart enough to let the intricacies of the occasion generate the action.

Up (2009)/ Waking Life (2001): Up gets it for the first 10 minutes, while Waking Life unfolds over the length of the movie, and even beyond a bit.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)/Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003). Two Asian movies with "Dragon" in the title. One is beautiful and orchestrated and rapid, the other beautiful in its glacial slowness.
Ocean's 11 (2001): In terms of attitude alone it makes the list.
A Christmas Tale (2008) The last of these that I watched so I'm a little wary of it. Seems like it might want to gravitate up the list in time.


Honorable Mention: Lord of the Rings and Napoleon Dynamite. In there different ways, both are two "big" to be ignored. Certainly impressive in their own ways, but neither are standing up for themselves and making a pitch in the way that the listed movies are.

Sundry lists:

Top 5 comedies
Team America
Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
The Aristocrats
Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Action/Thriller
Kill Bill
Children of Men
Memento
Torque
Borne Identity

Documentaries
1.Etre et Avoir
2. Waltz with Bashir
3. Man on a Wire
4. Anvil:The Story of Anvil
5. Spellbound

Animated
1. WALL E
2. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Up
4. Triplets of Bellevue
5. Spirited Away
6. Waking Life
7. Millennium Actress?
8. Waltz with Bashir
9. Chicken Run
10. Kill Bill

Romance
1. In the Mood for Love (2000)***
2. Eternal Sunshine
3. WALL-E
4. Almost Famous
5. Before Sunset

Top 5 Performances of the Decade
1. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
2. Heath Ledger in Dark Knight and Broke Back
3. Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler
4. Anne Hathaway in Rachel and Brokeback
5. Sasha Baron-Cohen in Borat

STL #92: The Year in Reading, 2009

Alas, another extended gap. Again I resolved to post more in the new year... we'll see. If I adapt the adage of "The Good is the enemy of the Great" to "the Horrible is the enemy of the Not Horrible," I may be able to make good on the resolution. I think you'll see what I mean with the following Year in Reading, 2009 edition. This list is presented chronologically by roughly when I started the reading.

Shakespeare's Comedies and Romances.* The first thing I started is actually the last thing I finished. I hoped to tackle all 36 Shakespeare plays as my big reading for the year, but faltered and finished only the comedies by summer. December I read the late comedies/"romances." My favorites: Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale. This year I started with the histories and plan on moving on the the tragedies.

The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross. I was surprised to see this on the list for this year, because I thought I read it two years ago. Even so, most informative and the kind of book I would like to write (on a different topic of course).

Batman and Robin #1-3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely/Popeye dailies. It was a frustrating year for me and serial comics. I dropped most of the series I had been following.The Batman GM/FQ Batman was mixed-up at its core--by design, since it's the story of a Dick Grayson Batman and a new bratty Robin. But of course Quitely's art is time-consuming, so I dropped it after his three-issue story. Popeye's appeal is evident. The tightly controlled cartooning, the verbal exuberance. Unfortunately, it does wear on.

David Copperfield. Ah, Dickens. I take some big thick 19th century novel with me every plane trip I take. If I don't take another plane trip, will I ever read Nicholas Nickleby? It really makes you wonder.

Parker novels by Stark (not Spencer by Parker). The most entertaining discovery of the year. I read four of the later ones and fully enjoyed the entwining of characterization and heist-planning.

Runaways/Twilight. I couldn't not mention that I read the complete Twilight series. I found out a painless way to do it--read 100 pages, skip 300, and read to the end. You get to skip the awkward telegraphing and repetition that way. Far far better is the complete Brian K. Vaughan Runaways. I'd started on it years before, but picked up recent installments at the library. This triggered a one-day binge on volumes 1-5

Master of Reality/Music From the Big Pink. Apparently, I'm the type of guy who reads books inspired by classic albums. I never wanted to be that guy, but there you go.

Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray. I haven't read that many how-to-write books. This one is okay.

American Born Chinese/Maus. Two not dissimilar books about cultural identity. ABC is much fresher at this point, using three stories and three modes=autobio, outlandish stereotypes with a sitcom, and a magic realist fable that eventually encompasses all three.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Nothing like the occasional YA near-future sci-fi thriller. It introduces its audience to some privacy tactics for computer monitoring. A kind of Edward Abbey manual of resistence for the surveillance age.

*I originally intended a history of my "big reading" project to be the topic of this STL, but along the way I got sidetracked. I do at least want to record the list:

1995 Ulysses
1996 Swann's Way
1997 Poetry of William Carlos Williams
1998 In Search of Lost Time
1999 Don Quixote

2000 The Divine Comedy
2001 The Cantos
2002 Middlemarch
2003 Bleak House
2004 Paradise Lost
2005 The Recognitions
2006 The Odyssey
2007 "A"
2008 Anna Karenina
2009 Shakespeare's Comedies and Romances

On 1 Jan 2010, I began rereading King John to kick off the completion of Shakespeare's dramas. Assuming I finish all of Shakespeare's plays in 2010 (and I might as well through in the longer poems since I've read the sonnets), I will have read 14 works (not counting Swann's Way for both '96 an '98 counting the collected Shakespeare as one), including 7 novels, 6 works of poetry, and 1 impressive body of drama.

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