When I first read Eric James Stone's "They Do It with Robots," it convinced me that short-form fiction about super-heroes could have real emotional depth.
You can find the story here.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
Friday, October 28, 2011
"Horrid mockery of the equal rights of humanity! Vile lordlings! who would fain compromise the rights of fellow-beings to pamper pride! What think ye? Were ye born on other soil that that where Freedom was purchased at the point of the bayonet and the cannon's mouth, and the doctrine of "equal rights," sealed with blood, ye need not blush so deeply with shame! But here, shame on the vile being who would fain raise an aristocracy to curse the land! The wrongs of Factory Girls shall not always sleep forgotten, and the instrument of high handed monopoly go unchecked!"
--Ariel I. Cumming's The Factory Girl, 1847
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Somehow I ended up on the Internet Movie Database yesterday morning and learned the official trailer for The Raven has been released. I had heard rumors that this film was in production, but I knew very little about it aside from the fact that John Cusack had been cast as Edgar Allan Poe. Here's the trailer:
I didn't like the trailer as much as I wanted to. First of all, I'm disappointed that the film is going to be a Sherlock Holmes-style thriller (only, it seems, bloodier) rather than a strict bio pic. (NOTE: For the record, I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes immensely and I look forward to the sequel.) Second of all, I'm questioning why anyone would cast John Cusack as Poe since he looks nothing like any known picture of him. True, I'm glad they didn't cast Hollywood's token weirdo, Johnny Depp, to play the role. But I can't imagine that John Cusack was the first name that popped into their heads when they were thinking of how to cast the movie.
And why the goatee? Did Cusack not look enough like Poe with just mustache.
Of course, I can understand why the filmmakers made the film a thriller. Despite popular belief, Poe's life was not really that exciting--unless you consider the work of a literary journal editor exciting. So you'd have to vamp it up a little bit if you wanted to appeal to more than just the art house crowd.
And vamp it up they did, it seems, with The Raven. It even looks as if Poe gets a new love interest, which is also an understandable departure from fact since the details of his real-life love life make him sound like a pedophile.
I guess my problem with The Raven is not that the filmmakers bend the truth a lot and fictionalize Poe, which doesn't bother me at all, but rather that they do the same tired thing with Poe. I mean, whenever you see Poe represented in culture, especially pop culture, he is always made out to be like one of his characters. You never see him as he was--or even close to as he was. Instead, you get a character out of his imagination. Or the imagination of whoever it was who appropriated his image.
Incidentally, the same thing is happening with Shakespeare right now with the film Anonymous. Here's the trailer:
I'm trying not to get too bent out of shape about Anonymous as well. Again, I'm not opposed to freely adapting history and literature for film. I just want whoever is doing it to do so with a little bit of originality and insight. Do we really need someone else, particularly the director of such filmic gems as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, telling us one more time that Shakespeare didn't write his plays?
I can already imagine the decade-long headache this will give high school English teachers.
I can already imagine the decade-long headache this will give high school English teachers.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Literary historical fiction about the nineteenth century isn’t hard to come by when it’s about slavery or the Civil War. Nor is it hard to find fiction about the nineteenth-century American West (wild or otherwise) thanks to the enduring interest in the Western genre and its pioneers, gunslingers, outlaws, and cattle thieves.
Less common is the literary novel that tackles the Age of Jackson—or any age, that is, between the American Revolution and the 1850—when democracy was still a novelty and the new American nation could barely tie its shoes.
Peter Carey’s latest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf 2010), seeks to remedy this. Set in the early 1830, the novel follows the travels of Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a young French aristocrat, and his British servant Jack “Parrot” Larrit as they study the workings of American prisons for the French government. Olivier is a highly fictionalized version of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose similar journey to America in 1831 resulted in the classic two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840), which remains one of the best and most widely-quoted portraits of America’s early years.
Olivier is not Tocqueville, of course, any more than Tobias Oates, the Victorian writer in Carey’s Jack Maggs, is Charles Dickens, but the common blood between them gives Carey license enough to appropriate Tocqueville’s ideas and words freely—sometimes verbatim—for his character’s own tongue. Parrot, on the other hand, is more of his own man, having no readily identifiable historical counterpart aside from the European immigrants who flooded the streets of the young democracy and cast their lot with its destiny. Older, wiser, and more earthy than Olivier, he is the grounding element in the novel, the character with whom readers immediately identify. As his name suggests, Parrot is also the more likely of the two characters to mimic his surroundings, blend in, deceive, and adapt—all skills he developed in his long service to the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, a French spy who cared for him in—in a matter of speaking—after Parrot’s father was executed for his role in a counterfeiting scheme.
In short, Parrot is the novel's everyman with a colorful past.
On the surface, Parrot and Olivier in America seems evocative of Thomas Pynchon’s 1997 novel Mason & Dixon, another historical novel about two European men and their adventures in early America. But the novels are too dissimilar to draw any meaningful comparisons: While Pynchon’s is daunting both in length (773 pages) and style (its first sentence begins: “Snow-Ball have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,--the Sleds are brought in and the Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall…), Carey’s is more accessible and ingratiating to the reader. Chapters alternate between the points-of-view of Olivier and Parrot—the voices of innocence and experience respectively—without any of the Postmodern fireworks characteristic of Pynchon’s writing. Moreover, Parrot and Olivier in America is fairly traditional historical fiction. Neither anachronisms nor archaisms have space in the book, so readers who prefer their novels to abide by the laws of physics, or to contain sentences that only require one reading, aren’t likely to get frustrated with it.
For me, this is one of the drawbacks of Parrot and Olivier in America. When I read historical fiction, I want the book either to remove me altogether from modern times, or to overburden me with it. I want the fiction, in other words, to become lost in the foreignness of the past or to explode the artificiality of the history-making process. Parrot and Olivier in America does neither very well, although it occasionally makes a conservative effort to do the latter. Early in the novel, for instance, Olivier imagines his narrative as a célérifère, a kind of proto-bicycle with no steering mechanism, which carries his audience back in time to his childhood in Normandy, then forward through the tightly prescribed course of his aristocratic life. With the unsteerable célérifère, Carey makes a pointed statement about the way Olivier and his aristocracy are servants to history, bound by the modes and manners of a seemingly unchangeable past of their own making.
Sadly, narrative devices like the célérifère are far too few in Parrot and Olivier in America, which is an otherwise enjoyable and captivating novel. At its best, it is a wry reflection on contemporary America and Americans from an Australian author who has called New York home for the past twenty-some years. Observations from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America are evoked throughout the text and, certainly by design, they continue to apply to America today.
As one who is not too familiar with Tocqueville or his book, I can only guess at the legitimacy of Carey’s “take” on the man and his ideas. My impression, however, is that Carey—like Parrot to Olivier—holds them at an affectionate distance. Olivier, after all, is too wed to the past and aristocracy to seriously consider the ideological divorce he pines for. What is more, his experience in America leads him to expect—even hope for—the worst: that America will one day be led by “fur traders and woodmen” presidents who “will be barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press” (380).
Of course, as everyone who has access to the internet or cable news networks knows, echoes and variations of Olivier’s doomsday fears continue to sound today, whether they come from the mouth of Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, or Keith Olbermann. The less reactionary Parrot, on the other hand, is much more hopeful about America’s future. “The great ignoramus will not be elected,” he believes, because of democracy’s power to raise a servant to a friend, to produce art, and to alter the course of history heretofore unsteerable.
For a lot of readers in the Age of Bush and Obama, Parrot’s idealism will likely sound naïve, if not offensive. Parrot would have it that way. No doubt in their dread and pessimism about America’s future—indeed, in their determination to coast downhill in their wooden célérifère—he would recognize something of his friend Olivier’s myopia.
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
My baseball career lasted one whopping season in the summer of 1987, the only time in my life when I ever came close to eating, sleeping, and breathing baseball. I was seven years old, and I played for the Milford Blue Jays, a team sponsored by the now-defunct Purple Mushroom Pizza. My contributions to the Blue Jays were minimal. I played right field (badly), never hit the ball (except in practice), and only got on base when the pitcher walked me (accidentally). Basically, my skills were three steps below my team’s worst player.
Which is to say I was worse than my team’s worst player. What I did on the field did not count as “playing.” It was more like clueless improvisation.
My best memory from that summer is the look on my chain-smoking coach’s face as he gripped my scrawny shoulders and screamed at me for getting tagged out at second base. The out ended the inning and possibly my coach’s one hope for a one-win season. I don’t know. I never paid enough attention to know what was going on.
Since then, my relationship with baseball, like my relationship with most other team sports, has been casual. It’s not like I don’t like them, it’s just that I can get bored with them—especially when I’m watching them on TV, where the real drama of the game is muted by loud, clichéd commentary; unintelligible interviews with the athletes; a DaVinci code of stats; banal commercials for sport drinks and beer; and flashy CG animations that try like a jock strap to hold it all together.
Live games are infinitely better, especially when your seats are close to the action. Almost gone is the noise of commercialized sports—the talk of money and merchandise and ego. Replacing it is the visceral clamor of the fans—the cheering, the booing, the mass gasping and groaning—that is as much a part of the live experience as the game itself. And it doesn’t hurt that live announcers, like accountants, only talk when they need to.
Still, even at live games, you can’t escape the beast that sports have become in America. This is particularly true at the professional level, where admissions and concessions costs are enough to make your wallet wish it had stayed a cow. College sports at big universities aren’t much better. When you pay a lot of money to see something, you want it to be something worth seeing. That doesn’t always happen with live sports unless your favorite team is predictably good. More often, your favorite team sucks and you pay good dough for the chance to be a part of the collective humiliation.
No wonder sports fans have a reputation for being rude and grouchy.
Of course, not all sports experiences have to be like this. Some devotees of athleticism have learned to see past this blubber and get at the real nerve and sinew of sports. Such enthusiasts are the longsuffering sort, the kind who forgives player strikes, doping scandals, and unrestrained egotism in athletes because of an unwavering belief in the essential goodness of the game. Like loyal Star Wars fans in a post-Jar Jar age, they choose to take the good with the bad.
But what about those who don’t deal well with the blubber?
This past Saturday I came across a solution. Every year, practically every woman in my family—my wife, my mom, my grandma, my sister, etc.—attends a big craft convention. None of us men knows what they do there—and, to be honest, we don’t really want to—we just know that for the entire day we’ve got to entertain the kids. In years past we have gone to a local model airplane show or a museum. This year, though, neither of those was an option, so I took a look around the internet and found what looked to be a promising sustitute:
As a connoisseur of all thing nineteenth century, I had heard of this sort of thing before: teams of baseball amateurs meeting together every week or so in the summer, dressing up in period-style uniforms, and resurrecting a way of life long since consigned to the history books. When I told my wife about it, she said it sounded like Civil War reenacting with bats.
She wasn’t too far off the mark. According to the website for the Vintage Base Ball Association, vintage base ball teams, like regiments of Civil War reenactors, try to be as true to their source material as possible. That’s why they call their game “base ball” rather than “baseball.” It’s also why you’re likely to hear “batters” referred to as “strikers” and “pitchers” as “hurlers” or “throwers.” These players (or “ballists”) abide by nineteenth century rules and only use nineteenth century terminology and equipment. So you’re not likely to see anyone using a glove either—unless he’s wimped out and gone mid-1880s on you.
Cincinnati has two vintage base ball teams—the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Cincinnati Buckeyes—that face off regularly against other nearby teams in a field beside the Heritage Village in Sharon Woods Park in Sharonville, Ohio. Both teams are named for actual teams from Cincinnati history, one of which—the Red Stockings—became famous in 1869 as the first professional baseball team in America.
On the day we headed out to the base ball field at Sharon Woods, the Buckeyes were playing the Norwood Highlanders, a team from a large suburb just north of Cincinnati. The Highlanders were a lean looking crew with bright red shirts, white caps, white knickers, and knee-high socks. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, were a stockier lot. They wore long navy blue pants, white caps, and baggy cream-colored shirts. Both teams also had cloth shields pinned to the front of their shirts, which prominently displayed their team initial in near-illegible Gothic lettering.
The field they played on was nothing fancy. In fact, it was pretty much just a field. The bases were arranged in a neat diamond, without a dirt path or chalk line between them, and the pitcher’s mound—or hurler’s mound?—was an unassuming spot more or less in the middle. The outfield was spacious, uneven, and bordered by a steady tree-covered hill that presented real problems whenever the ball was struck that far. On both sides of the field, small stakes with white flags marked the bounds between fair and foul.
The Highlanders were the first team to strike, and before their half of the inning was up, they had tallied up some ten runs. Striker after striker stepped up to the plate—or whatever it was they called it—and smacked the ball into the outfield, where the Buckeye’s hapless ballists did their best to catch it with their bare hands. Of course, by today’s standards the hurlers made it easy for the strikers to do this; rather than pitching deceptive overhand pitches, they threw easy-going underhanded throws that floated nicely into the strike zone. No wonder there was hardly a single strike-out in the whole game.
While the Highlanders performed respectably during their first time at bat, real excitement came when a stout Buckeye stepped up to the plate and hit the game’s first home run with two men already on base. There wasn’t much of a crowd at this match—maybe three dozen fans at most—but it went wild all the same.
Of course, the real drama of vintage base ball happens not when the ball is struck into the outfield, but when it’s blasted into the infield. About halfway through the match, a Highlander striker hit a hard line drive to the Buckeye third basetender, whose hand got smacked hard when he tried to catch it. You could probably hear the sound of ball colliding with flesh all the way across the park. A collective full-body cringe was felt by ballists and spectators alike.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to go over all the nuances that make vintage base ball different from the modern game. The truth is, for average spectators like me, most of the differences are subtle and almost imperceptible. Aside from obvious exceptions like the strange uniforms and terminology, most differences—like the way the umpire rules on a strike or a foul ball—go unnoticed. If you’re not looking for them, you’re not going to see them.
But things can get confusing. It took us a few innings, for example, to figure that when the umpire called out “One hand!” or “Two hands!” he wasn’t referring to the number hands the ballists used to make a play, but rather the number of outs.
What wasn’t confusing, though, was the camaraderie between the two teams. At the end of the match—the Highlanders beat the Buckeyes 25 to 21—both teams lined up side-by-side while the team captains made good-natured speeches about the efforts of the other team. I don’t know if that was how games ended back in the day, but I thought it wrapped things up nicely. No obnoxious smack-talk. No egotistical posturing. No ad hominem attacks or Yo’ Mama-isms. I had never seen anything like it at a sporting event. And in a weird way it seemed natural. It made me wonder if my experience with baseball as a kid would have been better if my coach had focused more on camaraderie and less on screaming at a clueless seven-year-old.
I didn’t have a chance to talk to any of the ballists, each of whom went by a clever personalized nickname. If I had, I would’ve asked them why they’ve chosen to play the vintage game rather than the modern one. I mean, it’s not like amateur baseball and softball teams are rare in these parts: both Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have quality amateur leagues for adult players. And, really, how many men out there—barring Civil War reenactors—really want to dress-up in funny clothes and go out in public on the weekend?
Not many, I imagine.
My guess is they do it for the purity of the match—the opportunity to step up to the plate, look out across an uneven grassy field, and not see a single advertisement or JumboTron or overrated eight-figure salary superstars. Maybe they also do it for the period rush, or the thrill of acting or thinking or moving in a way lost to time. I can’t say. I imagine it’s a little of both—and then some. A thing you can only “get” by doing it yourself.
Which will probably not happen for me. As much as I’d like to put on vintage duds and strike a ball like a true amateur, my baseball skills—let alone my base ball skills—are still benched in the little leagues. So, I’ll settle for being a spectator.
I’d probably just break my hand, anyway, trying to catch a line drive without a glove.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Still, I should note that there’s more to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum than a bunch of displays aimed at kids. The boyhood home itself, along with the Huckleberry Finn House and most of the Interpretive Center, offers modern, well-designed exhibits with informative signage that draws broadly from Twain’s own writing. From them, visitors learn not only about Twain’s upbringing along the Mississippi—his parentage, his first loves, his family’s involvement with slavery—but also his later life as an author and performer. Everything is kept at an introductory level, though, so the information never gets overwhelming.
Not all of the historical site is in tip-top shape, however. The Becky Thatcher House and Grant’s Drug Store, for example, are currently closed for renovation. (The docent at the front desk encouraged us to peek inside the windows of these buildings. “That way you’ll be able to see everything you would have seen if the buildings were open to the public,” she explained. When we peeked inside the Becky Thatcher House, though, all we saw was a gutted first floor that looked as if it was being used as a storage shed.) Also, the J. M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, where Twain’s father held court, looks as if it hasn’t been touched—even for a quick cleaning—since the 1950s.
So, even the very young take something away from the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.
In addition to the Interpretive Center and the various homes on the site, the price of admission—a fairly reasonable $9 for adults, $5 for children 6-12, and $0 for everyone 5 and younger—also lets visitors into the Museum Gallery a few blocks south on Main Street. As its name suggests, this building houses both a museum (first floor) and an art gallery (second floor) of all things Twain. There’s also a gift shop in the entryway where visitors can buy Twain paraphernalia, including some classy planters shaped like his face.
The Museum Gallery, in my opinion, is the best part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum complex. The first floor features various interactive exhibits based on Twain’s most popular novels, short stories, and memoirs: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee, Innocents Abroad, etc. Here, children can walk through Tom Sawyer’s cave, grip an Arthurian baseball bat, dress up like pioneers, sit in a stage coach, and watch a movie from Huck Finn’s raft. On a landing in between the two floors, they can also pretend to steer a river boat and sound its whistle.
The second floor gallery is oriented more towards adults. It boasts two series of original Norman Rockwell paintings based on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It also displays various items of vintage Twain kitsch, two freakishly giant Twain busts, and various Twain relics, which range from the mundane (his top hat), to the predictable (one of his white suit jackets), to the bizarre (the plaster death mask of his 19 month old son Langdon).
All in all, I enjoyed it immensely.
And I never felt judged by the pink-haired docents, none of whom actually had pink hair. In fact, I’ve learned that when I travel with my three little girls, no one ever pays much attention to me—except to tell me how cute my daughters are. So, every time I had the opportunity to flex my knowledge of Twain trivia, I got upstaged by my daughters’ dimpled cheeks. I’m not complaining, of course. I’m sure it happened to Twain all the time. I mean, he did have three daughters of his own.
Ironically, the closest I came to having a conversation about Twain with one of the docents came when I was purchasing tickets for my daughters. When I told the docent that I needed tickets for two adults, I didn’t realize that I had to pay five bucks for my six year old as well. When I realized my mistake—after I had already paid and donated a dollar (I think) to their endowment fund—I told the docent that I owed her five more bucks.
“Well,” she said, “we’ll just pretend she’s five today.”
“Ah,” I said, knowingly, “a real Twain stretcher!”
She looked at me vaguely.
That was it.
We left Hannibal about two hours later having seen all we needed to see. On our way out, our borrowed GPS system steered us up a wrong road that carried us to a residential area on a hill overlooking the town. Once I finally realized we were not on the road to Branson—our final destination—I did an awkward three point turn while a local kid watched on without curiosity, her bored face contrasting with the excited faces I had seen on my own daughters’ faces as they had toured Hannibal’s premiere attraction.
For an instant—in the time it would take to swat a Mississippi River mosquito—I wondered if that girl realized she lived in the birthplace of the American childhood, the town that inspired the adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and every other kid who has ever wanted to witness a murder, get lost in a cave, find treasure, or raft the Mississippi.
Probably not. The dull look on her face said it all.
In fact, times like that remind me that places like the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum are worth braving soaring temperatures and out-of-the-way locales. They’re memorials to the childhood we all remember or wish we had had—when all we really needed for fun and adventure was a dead cat and a string to swing it by.