Monday, May 08, 2006 

Play it as it lays

21/50 Play it as it lays by Joan Didion

In the movie The Cat's Meow, Elinor Glyn likens Hollywood to an evil wizard, and it's inhabitants to parasites, claiming that each of inherits the California Curse the minute they set foot in the city. "The curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following," says Glyn. "You see yourself as the most important person in any room, you accept money as the strongest force in nature, and finally, your morality vanishes... without a trace."

Didion's novel is set on the back of this evil wizard and each of the characters have already succumbed to the curse. In a meaningless world of booze and power, Maria Wyeth is merely going through the motions of her life. The prose of the novel is sparse, reflecting the story's bleak emotional landscape. Maria and the cast of characters feel nothing and are driven by nothing. It's the ultimate example of nihilism, to understate it drastically.

A week later, I can't decide whether or not I liked this novel or not. It went by quickly, comprised of short, sparse chapters. The characters were sympathetic, but they are not exactly likeable. The ellipitical narrative that the book is known was a little disconcerting to me. The only thing I really loved about it was the tightness of the prose, but even that didn't particularly stand out to me. So I'm finding myself a little freaked out that I don't have an opinion on a novel that many critics already consider a classic and that has been listed on Time's top-100 all-time novels list.

I feel like I don't really have the right tools for which to dissect this book. I've read through review after review and I'm not sure I quite grasp the importance of the novel. Not yet, anyway. I get the bleakness, the nihilism, the sparseness, but I don't know yet why any of it works. It just does. More Didion will definitely be added to the "to read list."

Thursday, May 04, 2006 

V for Vendetta

20/50 V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Yes, I jumped on the post-movie bandwagon and borrowed my friend's copy of V for Vendetta. I saw the movie in early March with friends who were, to varying degrees, Alan Moore and/or graphic novel fans. As one might expect, dinner afterwards was a conversational swirl of comparisons between the book and the movie, leaving me with a vague sense that I was missing something.

Now, before I launch into the part of the entry wherein I pretend to know what I'm talking about, let me assure you that when it comes to graphic novels, I have no idea what it is I am talking about. I can count the number of graphic novels I have read on one hand. With that disclaimer made...

Overall, I enjoyed the novel. For those who have also been living under a rock with me, the story is that of V and his quest to restore freedom to a post-nuclear-war England. The story is also about Evey, a young girl who is rescued by V and eventually comes to see the injustice in the world. V and Evey are certainly the central characters in the novel, but Moore plots the narrative with a handful of other characters, all with varying degrees of corruptions. And this is where I have my naive criticism of the novel. I had a hard time keeping up with it's many storylines. This may have been in part due to my limited experience with the genre. For instance, I mixed up many of the images of characters. But even when I got them set straight, I found the subplots of the secondary characters more complex than I'm willing to invest in.

Which leads me to naive criticism number two. With so many subplots to be resolved, I found myself pretty much unsatisfied by the resolution in nearly all of them. Of course, V and Evey's was the strongest, and most emotionally resonating, but I left many of the secondary characters feeling unclear on what their emotional temperature was at the end of the novel. Or even what their motivation was. This could have been excusable for some of the more minor characters, but for Finch and Rose Almond, I expected more resolution. That which was provided was a little to anti-climactic.

Of course, there is an obvious political message associated with V for Vendetta and I expect that anyone reading the book in today's political climate can't help but feel a little uncomfortable. While V is clearly a terrorist, he's standing up to a government that has stripped its people of their most basic civil liberties. The moral of the story is that you absolutely must question your government or lose your voice altogether. The message is haunting and nearly timeless, encouraging one and all to "Remember, remember, the 5th of November..."

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 

This looks like fun...

The Morning News has announced what is likely to be the first-ever plagarism contest. The contest, affectionately called "Sloppy Seconds with Opal Metha," encourages writers to plagarize from a minimum of five sources to form a coherent and original 750-word work of fiction.

My head is spinning with possibilites. Bridget-Jones-meets-As-I-Lay-Dying? A Hemingwayesque Alice in Wonderland? Or Brokeback Mountain with the magical realism of Winter's Tale? Or I wonder what would happen if I put Mary Gaitskill with Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Too. Much. Fun.

Friday, April 28, 2006 

April Reading

Surely all of April didn't just go by with my only reading two books? I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately. I struggled through about four different books this month, only completing two of them. This does not bode well for the 50-book goal.

17. Seascape with Sharks and a Dancer by Don Nigro
I mentioned elsewhere that finding this play in New York's Drama Book Shop ended a nearly fifteen-year quest. Seriously. It started in high school when I heard a monologue from it at a UIL competition. I found the monologue in an anthology, but could never locate the play. I looked in every college library I happened across. I searched every bookstore. Even the Internet (when it finally came into being) was of no help to me. But at the Drama Bookstore on 40th, I simply walked in and picked up my very own copy for just $6.95.

Kind of an underwhelming ending to the story, actually. And sadly, as anything with a 15-year build-up can be, the play left me a little underwhelmed as well. Seascape with Sharks and a Dancer is a boy-meets-girl story. Of course the boy meets the girl by pulling her, naked, out of the ocean after an apparent suicide attempt. And the girl is nasty and abrasive and damn near abusive to him. But other than that, it's pretty much your usual tale of old-fashioned romance.

I liked the story, but I didn't love it. I still (and will forever and always) love Tracy's monologue recounting the pets her parents bombarded her with that always prematurely ended up smashed on the side of the road. And the story is sweet and endearing, but I still never had the sense that I knew the characters in the play. Or even understood them. Still, I'd go see the play if I could. It may just be something that's lost in the reading.

18. Superstud: Or, How I Became a 24-Year-Old-Virgin by Paul Feig
There are the usual words to describe anyone's recollections of their adolescent sex life: bold, daring, honest, etc. Now let's add uncomfortable, painful and even disturbing to the mix. Feig paints a rather unflattering portrait of himself in his adolescence and early twenties. Feig's memoir is the laugh-out-loud kind of funny that I've come to expect from the creator of Freaks and Geeks.

Sadly, this is all I've managed to read for this month. I'm hoping for better luck in May.

Monday, April 17, 2006 

Pondering Academia

Via Bookninja:

It's time to end 'physics for poets'

The expectations for student ability in the humanities are much higher than in the sciences. If a student announced that he or she was not comfortable with reading and analyzing literary texts, we would question whether that student belonged in college at all (and rightly so). We take the existence of "Physics for Poets"” for granted, but nobody would consider advocating a "“Poetry for Physicists"” class for science majors who are uncomfortable with reading and analyzing literature.

I have to wonder if the author of this piece even teaches at a university. At the two state universities I taught at, all disciplines offered survey courses, often cataloged as "introduction" courses. All students were expected to sample from these courses, regardless of their major. At both schools, those not pursuing a liberal arts degree were required to take merely six hours of English rhetoric classes - one year of either 100-level or 200-level courses, depending on their standardized test scores and preferences. Students could "test out" of writing composition [1] and go straight to a survey of American literature that whisked them through more than 250 years of American fiction, poetry and theater in one semester. This simply goes to show that the idea of "trying to cover an entire field in one semester" is not limited to the put-upon science professors as the author claims.

Obviously, I have no problem with survey or introductory courses. I do, however, have a problem with referring to them by the derrogatory nicknames like "Physics for Poets" that imply that poets and artists are of lesser intellect than those in the sciences. The article suggests that "Physics for Poets" courses exist because liberal arts students' distaste for math and science is catered to by Academia's Powers That Be. The article makes the liberal arts students out to be the redheaded stepchildren of the University and assumes that those in the math and sciences are more than willing to expand their horizons into humanities and the arts. Right. I've never once heard a student of any outside discipline grumble about how they will never use their writing skills once they graduate. As long as there are survey courses there will be those outside the discipline who bitch about how useless they are.

And finally, I have a personal bias against the article. As a holder of two Master's degrees and with a GPA that ranged from 3.6 to 4.0, it's a little embarrassing to admit this but... I had to take a remedial math course. I also took college algebra at three separate institutions before finally taking the "Math for Poets" course that sampled everything from probability to beginning calculus. I got through the course with the help of an incredibly patient math tutor and professor who sent me to be tested for a learning disorder. Having the opportunity to take this class probably not only saved my GPA, but also my self-confidence.

It saddens me that there are educators out there that see introductory courses as evidence of "dumbing down" college courses when these courses should be looked at as an opportunity. Taught correctly, introductory courses can not only survey the material but encourage deeper exploration of the subject.

[1] Insert non-sequitur rant about how standardized test scores rarely show any indication of a student's writing skills. Rant will be supported by anecdotal evidence about how I saw more 200-level papers without even a hint of a thesis or argument... or maybe save for another time. :-)

Monday, April 10, 2006 

March reading

I know, I know... late. I'm going to skip on the commentary and just list the reading. You can blame Blogger for crashing mid-way through some profound thoughts on The Laramie Project.

12. Circling the Drain by Amanda Davis
13. Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis
14. Rose of No Man's Land by Michelle Tea
15. Ladies' Night at the Arctic Club and Other Stories by Thomas Hopkins
16. The Laramie Project by Moses Kaufman

Short Stories
"Risk Management" by Paul Graham, published in issue 2 of Orchid: A Literary Review
"Consuela Throws Her TV Away" by Samuel Snoek-Brown, published in issue 2 of Orchid.
"Pregnancy Diary" by Yoko Ogawa, published in Jan. 2 issue of The New Yorker
"Going To or Leaving a Woman" by Andrew Bomback, published in Hobart #5

Tuesday, April 04, 2006 

Where was this in 1999?

(Via San Serif)

I wish Tom Kealey's book or blog had been around when I was going through the MFA application process. There's a lot of great information about what to look for in Creative Writing programs and how to apply.



"In my room, I looked up Poland in my encyclopedia. There were some maps, indicating major cites and waterways. There was a sidebar about the German invasion. There were a couple of pictures of towns that seemed interesting and exotic, but I saw nothing that gave me a hint about what Adrian would to this evening or what girls he would like..."

The short story I submitted last week was workshopped last night. The discussion was more positive than I expected. The usual problem was there: how the heck to do you end a story?