Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why read...

When I could just play this game all day and warp my fragile little mind.

I'm not sure what female sensibilities are. I don't think I've ever had them.

Btw, MK9 has some of the worst dialogue ever written. I think Tommy Wiseau wrote the script. "You're tearing me apart, Sheeva! Literally!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jane Eyre 2011, and Wide Sargasso Sea 20/100

picture via xsignalfirex

Finally got to see the latest Jane Eyre adaptation. Period pieces are kinda my thing, and when it just happens to be based on my favorite novel, well, it's a special occasion. But is it ever possible to be completely satisfied with an adaptation? Probably not. Unless you're the one directing it.

The only other adaptations I've seen are the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli one, the 2006 BBC one, and half of the 1983 Timothy Dalton one. I own the Orson Welles one, and I honestly don't have a good excuse for not watching it. Besides the fact that it's Orson Welles in the role of Rochester, which is just weird and creepy. ORSON WELLES.

I've read a lot of reviews of Fukunaga's version, and I pretty much agree with everything they've said, so I won't bother being long-winded about it. Basically, gorgeous cinematography and costumes, Fassbender and Wasikowska are excellent in their roles, as is the always wonderful Judi Dench, unfortunately no chemistry at all between Jane and Rochester, the flashback format was confusing and not really needed, the Lowood School scenes were cut too short, as was the revelation/explanation of the madwoman in the attic (more on this later).

Also, there were several..."awkward" moments. As someone who is herself very awkward, I have a keen eye and ear when it comes to such. And it's never more painful than when it happens on screen.

Times when I noticed it:

- The extra long scene of Adele singing in French for no apparent reason. Except perhaps for comedic effect, which never came. I smiled at Judi Dench's following line, but that's because it was Judi Dench.

- When Jane returns from visiting Mrs. Reed and meets Rochester on the bridge. He makes some funny, flirty comment. She smiles, passes him, then says still smiling "Thank you Mr. Rochester, for your kindness," or something similar and entirely too formal. Just...just a weird thing to say after the flirty informality that just occurred. Especially since she was flirty and informal previously. It was either a dialogue issue or a delivery issue. Am I insane or did anyone else notice it?

- Rochester's floaty voice when Jane is with Rivers. Destined to be awkward in any film adaptation. Floaty, whispery voices don't do well in film since it's more of a third person, omniscient medium. Works better when you're directly in the mind of the character hearing it, as in the novel. Or if it's a horror film and scary Asian cat boy is behind you whispering stuff, or something.

Despite my griping, I was happy with the outcome. A little drearier than most period dramas, and I'm glad for it. Not just a pretty film of frilly dresses and incessant British giggling (but I love those too), and no final happy wedding (or double wedding) to end it. Which is one of my favorite features of the story -- that it doesn't end with a wedding. Or begin with one. The wedding (although incomplete) is in the middle. When the novel ends, it's the future, post-marriage ("reader, I married him"). The film ends without showing even this. Just a shot of Jane and Rochester, equals as they are. (And bearded). Oh how refreshing. A grown up love story.

But back to my complaint of the short madwoman revelation. She's the most distinctive feature of the novel. The most unique, the most scandalous. Dare we forget how daring and provocative the book was when first published. The madwoman had a lot to do with that. The feminist and humanist themes, race issues, post-colonialism, class debates...they all come back to her. Yet she is usually treated as an obstacle, a metaphor -- Jane's doppelganger, a representation of her passion and anger that was locked inside while at Lowood, the desire and scourge of Rochester. But we're only given a dirty, messy-haired glimpse of her before she's thrust back into the attic. Who is/was she? Who would she be as a character in her own right?

In 1966 novelist Jean Rhys set out to answer that question, writing the Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to the events in Jane Eyre. I read this a few weeks back, and I've been waiting to write on it, formulating my thoughts. Really, I feel I need to read it again. It's a gorgeously-written book. There are so many themes going on, so many allusions, that even though it's a short read, it's and intense one.

In Rhys' novel, the explanation for Antoinette (Bertha) Cosway's madness is her loss of power. Marrying Rochester deprives her of her property, and the fortune she inherited. She loses her name (loses Antoinette and Cosway, gains Bertha, Mason, and Rochester) and her identity. She becomes metaphorically, and eventually literally, imprisoned in her marriage.

There are so many themes and issues -- colonialism, sexual politics, race, "otherness", allusions to the original novel -- that it would take much more than a blog post to cover it. It's amazing what she packed into such a tiny book.

So check it out, since I'm apparently speechless over here.

I will manage to include a passage though. Not completely useless today.

Everything was brightness, or dark. The walls, the blazing colours of the flowers in the garden, the nuns' habits were bright, but their veils, the Crucifix hanging from their waists, the shadow of the trees, were black. That was how it was, light and dark, sun and shadow, Heaven and Hell, for one of the nuns knew all about Hell and who does not? But another one knew about Heaven and the attributes of the blessed, of which the least is transcendent beauty. The very least. I could hardly wait for all this ecstasy and once I prayed for a long time to be dead. Then remembered that this was a sin. It's presumption or despair, I forget which, but a mortal sin. So I prayed for a long time about that too, but the thought came, so many things are sins, why? Another sin, to think that. However, happily, Sister Marie Augustine says thoughts are not sins, if they are driven away at once. You say Lord save me, I perish. I find it very comforting to know exactly what must be done. All the same, I did not pray so often after that and soon, hardly at all. I felt bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Time Enough at Last

Linda Holmes over at NPR has a really great article on what it means to be "well-read" in the information age. Basically, those words don't mean the same as they did 100 years ago. Or even 10 years ago. It's not until you have easy, if not instant, access to any piece of literature ever written (or film, song, artwork, etc.), that you realize the impossibility of experiencing it all within a human lifespan.

well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you'd have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

I used to marvel at how well-read the privileged seemed to be in the 19th century. But looking back, what did they have to read but just what came before them? Which is an enormous amount, to be sure. But that amount has surely doubled since that point. And accessing a piece of literature now doesn't require writing letters of inquiry, ordering said book from the bookseller, who orders it from the publisher, where said book bounces along in a horse-drawn carriage for 100 miles, and is brought to your doorstep by some English guy named Pip wearing a chimney sweep outfit (this is my fantasy don't ruin it). In 2011 my biggest complaint is that if I purchase something from Google's ebook store, I have to pay with Visa instead of PayPal.

What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash." You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you've thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don't talk about rap; it's not important. Don't talk about anyone famous; it isn't important. And by the way, don't tell me it is important, because that would mean I'm ignoring something important, and that's ... uncomfortable. That's surrender.

I try to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to books/films/music, etc. But you have to cut corners somewhere. It doesn't bother me as much when someone dismisses a certain genre as it does when someone sticks only to ONE genre and ignores all the rest. I've tried so far to make my 100 books list somewhat diverse, weaving in-and-out of genres at will. And yes, I'm obscenely behind schedule. Next year I'm doing a 100 films challenge or something. 100 sudoku puzzles. 100 times I will actually make up my bed.

So since we aren't immortal, yes, we will miss out on some stuff. But it's okay.

It's sad, but it's also ... great, really. Imagine if you'd seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you're "supposed to see." Imagine you got through everybody's list, until everything you hadn't read didn't really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If you haven't read it, don't worry, someone else has. Call me a socialist Muslim Kenyan, but I've always seen humanity as a collective being, not just a group made up of individuals. Haven't seen the Grand Canyon, or sky dived, read Henry James, or experienced life as an Tibetan monk? Well, someone else has. Is. Will. So you don't have to. It isn't really the literature/art/music itself that will endure into the ages (or at least until 2012), it's the effect it has on those who experience it. What new perceptions on life it has given them, how it changes them for better or worse, and how they pass that on to everyone they come in contact with.

The entire fabric of society could be upheld by some unwritten poem recited 10,000 years ago that no one's even heard of.

Even Snooki's book will impact someone, somewhere. God help us all.

So don't try to become a vampire, or wait to be the last person on Earth so you have all the time you need to read everything in existence. Because then you'll just drop your glasses, and where will you be.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Internet Lovelies

On the future of books:
2040: Authors Will
Become Like Tamagotchi.

Having determined that what readers want is a "sense of connection," publishers will organize adopt-an-author promotions, repackaging writers along the lines of Webkinz and other imaginary pets. "Feeding" your favorite authors by buying their books will make their online avatars grow less pale and grouchy. If they starve to death on your watch you will lose social networking points. Book clubs will cultivate with their favorite writers the warm, fuzzy, organic bond a trainer develops with his or her Pokémon, a process that will culminate in staged fights-to-the-death between your author and the author sponsored by another book club. These fights will occur offline, since there will be one or two bookstores left and something has to happen there.
James Warner, Link

There are only about 10 American poets most anyone has ever heard of, and they're kinda so-so. I mean, Robert Frost? Having white hair doesn't make you a poet.

That we must either be supportive cheerleaders of the yeah yeah community kind (I find this to be the falsest. The Children of the Corn Glazed Look that comes over the faces of people who live in this place or that place when talking about the place, as if the good poems just come right up through your legs for merely walking in an American place that isn't the Grand Canyon or among the Sequoias.
Jim Behrle, Link

She claims to have no tale of woe when asked what hardships she has had to suffer through and her determination to carry on despite everything she’s known is certainly commendable. However, as strong a woman as she is, she cannot escape unscathed, forcing her to learn that love for one’s self is a challenge that is always ongoing. As for allowing one’s self to be loved by another, that takes a strength we may not even know we have and this is what JANE EYRE embodies.
Black Sheep, Link

when I walked into the venue, all I saw were people in little clumps, talking amongst themselves. I did not know how to join one of those little clumps so I sat to the side, alone, looking like the biggest freak in the universe. I wanted to die or disappear or both. I brought my iPad as a social crutch to pretend I was deeply involved with very important work. I sent an e-mail to a friend. Then I just stared at the screen and tried to figure out what to do, like if I should stay in my freak corner until it was time for my panel while everyone else was in a group or if I should awkwardly try to join a clump of people and then have to endure feeling like no one wants to talk to me and that I’m intruding. It was stressful. I almost left but there was no invisible way to manage that. This is what it’s like in my head, all the time. People think I’m aloof but no I’m literally just spending all my mental energy trying to figure out the least embarrassing way to be around other humans.
Roxane Gay, Link

In general, if a pastime is not classy, those who love it are “addicted.” Opera and poetry buffs are “passionate.”

Virtually all non-work activities have, at one time or another, been represented as craven and diseased...

Novels themselves, now the signature pursuit of the sound and literate mind, have also been considered toxic, as in the 1797 analysis, “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity.” The 18th-century worry about female literacy is not unlike the contemporary anxiety that Web use above all makes girls vulnerable to “predators”: “Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.” Taken together, these warnings against the very stuff that makes life worth living often seem either like veiled boasts (“I’m addicted to the symphony!”) or just absurd.
Virginia Heffernan, Link

I’ve always thought of the internet, then, as this other universe where fantasy is possible. And it’s true, as the old people say, that its fantasies are not like living. Better. They make it possible to live. How you feel about things that are not really happening to you on the internet is no less real than how you feel about things that are not really happening to you in Gus van Sant movies, or Band of Horses songs, or Raymond Carver stories, or Carmen, the opera, or Carmen, the ballet.

And so the feelings of internet children are less believed-in, but no less true than the feelings of everyone who preferred art and fantasy to reality in every time before.
Sarah Nicole Prickett, Link

I start to imagine, what if a writer could see, experience, feel, at the moment of writing, the lives of every single person he would ever influence with his work? What if she could know the twisted path the work would take? It's the afterlife that makes work dangerous, like a golem or a poltergeist, like the creatures a nymph turns into after she can't be a nymph anymore.
Elizabeth Bachner, Link

On watching Toy Story 3:
How do the toys deal with immortality? Does it cause them to think about time differently? After all, the only possible end to their lives would be profound mutilation like in a garbage compactor or a fire or by an abusive owner. Presumably the toys will see the last moments of our bloated red sun before it goes supernova. If they somehow get aboard an evacuating interstellar spaceship full of humans, they could be around for the heat-death of the universe. In that case, they’ll be the last living beings, floating through a cold empty void, thoughts disintegrating slowly over the millennia into utter madness.
Brad Pike, Link

Comment in response to above essay:
...We thought we were safe but we weren't. Bonnie's mother, spurred on by trendy narratives of material simplicity took it upon herself to just chuck us all in the trash. The effect upon the little girl is unknown. Still, we found ourselves back in the dump again, this time buried inescapably. Separated, unable even to converse, there was nothing we could do to retain our sanity. Buzz probably had it easiest; his finite battery life was his saving grace. I on the other hand, powered by pullstring, have no such easy way to escape consciousness.
Under the refuse of generations, I have been doomed to smolder.

I have no batteries, and I must scr-THERE'S A SNAKE IN MY BOOT
Craig Messner, Link

When I watched Toy Story 3, I kept thinking about immortality and the end of A.I. Artifical Intelligence, with little robot Haley Joel Osment and the teddy bear "living" for eternity.

Also that short story by Ray Bradbury, "There Will Come Soft Rains", with the robots doing things after a nuclear holocaust.

I like when magazines end their articles with some sign, so you know it's over, and the cat still isn't fed, or that cancer is like grossing inside a stranger as we speak, and ignorance/beer is our only mercy.
Jimmy Chen, Link

Shoplifting from American Apparel, 19/100

If someone came up to me and asked, "What author do you feel best represents the generation of people* born between 1983 and 1988?", I would answer, "Tao Lin."

*also suburban and/or middle class

Shoplifting from American Apparel has a loose plot, although it's not really important. Instead, the novella focuses on themes of alienation, boredom, and ineffective communication -- whether it's face-to-face or through g-mail chat.

Oh yes, the g-mail chats. Lin's work wouldn't be the same without them. In fact, his writing is saturated with social technology. Beyond just name-dropping Facebook, Myspace (this novella was published in 2009, but just this reference has already dated it), and Flickr, it's also feels electronic in other ways -- the short, Twitter-like descriptions, or showing emotion through "facial expressions", like emoticons.

But for the most part it's just funny. Hilarious. The kind of humor that anyone who has ever laughed watching "Two-and-a-Half Men" probably wouldn't find humorous. Which if you have, that's fine. To each his/her own. Just don't buy this book.

"You know those people that get up every day, and do things," said Luis.
"I'm going to eat cereal even though I'm not hungry," said Sam.
"And are real proactive," said Luis. "And like getting things done, and never quit their jobs. Those people suck."

"My face is going to float away from my skull," said Sam. "To emo music."

"Luis, what are we."
"Fucked," said Luis. "Was that like a cheer. What are we! Fucked. Our shit can be studied by an anthropologist 1,000 years from now to know what we ate."
"Indian food," said Sam.
"They will say 'Sam had a vegan diet of good food and wine and Indian food. Luis ingested Waffle House.'"

He lay on his mattress and thought about writing a novel about working hard and becoming rich and living alone in a giant house in Florida. Loneliness and depression would be defeated with a king-size bed, an expensive stereo system, a drum set, a bike, an unlimited supply of organic produce and coconuts, maybe calmly playing an online role-playing game. Each day the person in the novel would lay in sunlight on the living room carpet listening to music in "surround-sound" while drinking iced-coffee. At night the person would ride a bike around the neighborhood or drink smoothies while taking very long baths.

Someone on the street messed up a trick on their skateboard.
"You can't skate," should Audrey.
"What," said the person skating away.
Audrey shouted "Obama" at the person.
"That was good," said Sam. "You dominated him a lot."

Also, it turns out SFAA is being adapted into a film!

Brad Warner will be playing the part of Sam. I've read two of Warner's books: Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth about Reality, and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma (thank you, CTRL+C, CTRL+V). If those sound interesting, you should check out his blog:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes, 18/100

If I had to pick one Bible verse that students of American history should know, it is Acts 16:9: "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, come over into Macedonia and help us." ...

For Americans, Act 16:9 is the high-fructose corn syrup of Bible verses -- an all-purpose ingredient we'll stir into everything from the ink on the Marshall Plan to canisters of Agent Orange. Our greatest goodness and our worst impulses come out of this missionary zeal, contributing to our overbearing (yet not entirely unwarranted) sense of our country as an inherently helpful force in the world. And, as with the apostle Paul, the notion that strangers want our help is sometimes a delusion.

In The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell covered the settlement of white Christians on America's native shore. In Unfamiliar Fishes she skips forward about 200 years and shows the descendants of that same group arriving on the distant shores of Hawaii. Tourists! Jeez.

Vowell's newest book is a brief study of the Americanization of Hawaii and the events that led to its annexation in 1898 -- the same year America also acquired Cuba, the Phillipines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, turning it into a super power overnight, in what she refers to as "an orgy of imperialism."

Hawaii's annexation is really one of those forgotten periods of U.S. history, delegated to maybe a half-page in one of those ungodly 15lb high school textbooks. Hey, let's talk about whether Jefferson had relations with Sally Hemmings for 10 pages (scandal!), but don't worry about that one time we unlawfully overthrew a monarchy that the governed people actually WANTED to keep. Most Americans know the history of Hawaii as something something hula dancing and Elvis, something something the Brady Bunch.

And I was no exception. I came to this book not really knowing diddly about Hawaii's history, beyond what was probably covered in a 3 minute lecture by our high school history teacher/football coach. So it was really tailor-made for me, since it was brief, humorous, and written by a smartass. Most reviews of the book I've read have said the smart-alecky comments and personal narratives are too distracting. I actually thought it needed a little more. By the end of the book Vowell started to get a little too "this happened, then this, then that." The decreasing amount of her always fun personal stories was probably due to how well-researched the material was. The majority of her time seemed to have been spent digging through the archives.

But she's still hilarious. Like so:

Yale was founded by finicky Protestants who worried that the Puritans at Harvard weren't puritanical enough. But the Revolutionary War brought the Age or Reason to New Haven, and Dwight inherited a student body full of deist beatniks on the Enlightenment highway to hell, which is to say, France. This generation did not just read Voltaire; they literally addressed each other as "Voltaire" the way kids today call one another dude. Like, "Voltaire, I'm so high right now."

Expecting capitalists to refrain from gobbling up the earth is like blaming Pac-Man for gulping down pac-dots -- to them, that's what land is for.

I can no longer read any faith's Napoleonic saber rattling without picturing smoking rubble on cable news. I guess if I had to pick a spiritual figurehead to possess the deed to the entirety of Earth, I'd go with Buddha, but only because he wouldn't want it.

While covering the actual annexation of the islands by the U.S., Vowell cites a speech that Henry Cabot Lodge made before the Senate in 1900, in response to the cry that the take-over of Hawaii (and the Phillipines) was in opposition to the ideals behind America's foundation. I found a fuller version of the speech online, and it's quite disturbing. Or as Vowell put it, "evil genius":

It has been stated over and over again that we have done great wrong in taking these islands without the consent of the governed, from which, according to American principles, all just government derives its powers. The consent of the governed! It is a fair phrase and runs trippingly upon the tongue, but I have observed a great lack of definite meaning in those who use it most ... What do we mean by the "consent of the governed?" We quote it from the Declaration of Independence. What did Jefferson mean by the phrase? ... The Declaration of Independence was the announcement of the existence of a new revolutionary government upon American soil. Upon whose consent did it rest? Was it upon that of all the people of the colonies duly expressed. Most assuredly not. In the first place we must throw out all negroes and persons of African descent, who formed about one quarter of the population, and who were not consulted at all as to the proposed change of government .... Were women included in the word "governed?" They certainly were not permitted by voice or vote to express an opinion on this momentous question. They must, therefore, be excluded.... Did the revolutionary government rest on the consent of all the white males in the colonies? Most assuredly not. There was the usual age limitation ... Everywhere the suffrage was limited, generally by property qualifications, sometimes by other restrictions...

He goes on to mention the cessions of land in the Louisiana Purchase and treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, wherein a new government was forced upon the unsuspecting inhabitants. And it all makes an eerie sense. Of course he's just making these points to promote America's imperialist ventures and soothe the consciences of congressmen (although saying "this isn't NEARLY as bad as the shit we used to do!" is hardly comforting), but it nags at a larger question: can any government really be considered to be run with the consent of its citizens?

I remember being freaked out as kid when I discovered you couldn't choose whether or not you wanted to take part in being a citizen of a country. I suppose I had some wildly romantic idea of just running free in the forest, living in a tree house, and not paying taxes -- but not driving or anything either so it was okay. Now I realize just how tea party-ish that sounds. But it still freaks me out that you're born into a government. There's no consent. It's not like religion, where you can go through that freshman-year-in-college phase, renouncing every belief from the first 18 years of your life (it's just like Santa Claus, man...). Unless you live in a theocracy, in which you're just shit outta luck.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as Vowell's past work, but I still recommend it to anyone interested in learning those hush-hush back alleys of American history (but what isn't hush-hush in our history, really? Yikes).

Now please enjoy the author's deadpan voice accompanied by unappetizing food art depicting Hawaii's history: